Category Archives: Prelude to the Underlayers

The Midnight Bargain

On the top floor of one of the tallest buildings in New York City is a restaurant called Parva Mortes.  You haven’t heard of it.

Don’t feel bad about that, though.  Very few people in the world have.  It’s a place where only the wealthy can aspire to, and only those with power can obtain.  There are only five tables in the entirety of the restaurant, and they are arranged in such a way as to ensure total privacy.  The Parva Mortes is where those at the top of the food chain come to indulge themselves while deciding how everything you know will operate.

Presidents, prime ministers, and dictators are turned away at the door.  No one who has appeared in Forbes or Bloomberg is allowed to book a reservation.  The manager has turned down the Pope’s request to dine on more than one occasion.

I have my own table.

I’m not telling you this to brag about my wealth, or my status, or that I’ve acquired both of these things in such great amounts in such a way as to avoid the public’s gaze.  It’s quite the opposite, actually.  I’m telling you this so that you’ll understand just how serious I’m being when I say that the woman sitting at my table frightens me.

It seems absurd on the face of it.  Lydia is tall but thin.  Her blonde hair was cropped short the last time that I saw her, but she has allowed it to grow long.  She is wearing a black dress that is fashionable and exudes sexuality.  She is a strikingly beautiful woman.

That beauty hides her true nature and the true threat that she represents to anyone in her presence.

I start to walk towards the table before she sees that I’ve arrived.  I don’t want her to know that I’m hesitant.  She probably already knows that, but I don’t want to give any outward indication of my unease.  Every meeting with her is a veiled back-and-forth struggle.  Showing weakness at the onset would dictate how the entirety of this encounter would go, and it wouldn’t be in my favor.

She turns and smiles as I sit down in the chair across from hers.  I don’t return the smile, but I do nod politely.  She has taken the seat directly in front of the large floor-to-ceiling window, and her form is framed by the New York night skyline.

“Well well, Mr. Morwood,” she says, her voice smooth as silk.  “Has it really been a year already?”

“Indeed it has been,” I reply, keeping my own voice even and steady.  “Nice of you to choose this particular restaurant for us to meet at.”

“Nothing but the best for you, Trevor.”

“Especially since I’m the one paying for it?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.

She smiles again.  “In the interest of full disclosure, that did happen to cross my mind as I was selecting the location.  I see that you brought along your most recent purchase.”

I set the black box that I’m carrying down on the table next to me.  “It’s never far from me.”

We both fall silent as a waiter comes up to the table.  He stands some distance away from us until I nod at him.  The staff at Parva Mortes is the best of the best, and they will never approach unless they are invited to.

“Good evening, sir,” the waiter says with just the right mixture of pleasantness and respect.

“To you as well, Charles,” I tell him.  “How are your wife and daughter?”

“A handful, sir, just like always.”  He places his hands behind his back.  “Would you care to start with a bottle of wine to share with your lovely companion?”

“His lovely companion would certainly like that,” Lydia interjects sardonically.

I ignore her.  “Ask Maurice to open a bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc and have it brought to the table.  No need for a test or tasting, I trust his judgment.”

“Ah, this must be a special night beyond simply being New Year’s Eve,” Charles says with a nod.  “I’ll ask him to retrieve it from his private stores immediately.”

He heads towards the kitchen, but instead of going through the doors he turns right and goes down a side passage.  It leads to the wine cellar.  Somewhere inside of it is Maurice Laurent, the top sommelier in the world.

“I have to admit that I don’t know much about wine,” Lydia says.  “Did you order a good one?”

“It’d better be,” I answer.  “A single bottle of it has sold for over $300,000.”

“Oh, my, what a big spender.”

I shrug.  “This might be my last day alive.  If it is, I want to finish it out right.”

“I have to admit that’s a good philosophy to have.  Especially since you may very well be dead in less than thirty minutes.  Tell me, Trevor, are you feeling lucky tonight?”

“No more and no less than the previous times.”

“Hmm.  I would have thought that it would be harder for you this time around, with you being closer to what you want than you ever have been.  The fact that the pieces are finally falling into place doesn’t make you want to cling to life ever so tighter?”

“As I recall, the terms of our deal don’t include you becoming my personal therapist.”

“Ah, down to business, then.”  Lydia leans back in her chair and drapes one arm over the back of it.  “Let’s get the formalities out of the way so that we can get right down to the fun part.”

I know what’s coming.  It’s the same thing that’s happened every New Year’s Eve for the past four years.  I still listen intently just in case she has made any seemingly minor tweaks to the arrangement that she hopes I won’t catch.

“Trevor Milton Morwood,” she begins.  “Here is the deal that I’m offering you.  It is non-negotiable, and if you accept it the contract will be binding.  You will be given the opportunity to ask me any questions that you have until the stroke of midnight.  I will answer those questions truthfully and accurately without purposely withholding or attempting to conceal information.”

She holds out her hand and a small gold coin appears in her palm.  This isn’t some sleight of hand parlor trick.  That would be beneath her.  It is instead the tiniest of tastes of what she is able to do.

“In return for answering your questions,” she continues, “I will flip this coin the moment that the ball touches down in Times Square.  At that point your time will be at an end, and the coin flip will determine your fate.  Heads, you walk out of here and continue on with your life as you see fit.  Tails, and both your life and soul are forfeit.  There will be no interference with the flip or the result from either myself or you.  Do you accept this deal and the conditions that have been presented?”

“Yes, I accept,” I reply immediately.

“Excellent.  The bargain is struck.”  She smiles.  “You’ve been lucky four times already, Trevor.  That can’t hold out forever.”

I allow myself the faintest of smiles at the edge of my lips.  “I only need my luck to hold out for one more flip.  This is the last time that I’ll be making this deal.”

“Oh, now that is interesting.  Well, go on.  What do you want to know?”

I tilt my head slightly.  “Tell me about the Underlayers.”

Lydia is silent for a moment.  Her expression has changed.  It is usually playful with a slight hint of malice.  Now it is unreadable.

“That’s what you want to know?” she asks in a voice just as guarded as her expression.

“Yes,” I confirm.  “Let me remind you that the terms of our deal require you to do so.”

She considers me for another minute before nodding once.

“In just a moment, I’m going to state a truth,” she begins.  “You are going to scoff at it, dismiss it as simple fiction and call me a liar.  You’ll do this internally instead of speaking those thoughts to me so that you continue to adhere to the usual social niceties, but the end result will be the same.  You will not believe me.

She leans forward.  “Most of you won’t, anyway.  There will be a small part of you that will question your own disbelief.  Something about what I tell you will ring true, and it will stick with you long after our conversation.  Somewhere deep down you will know that what I have said to you is the truth.  This is because you have subconsciously felt it for a long time now.  Maybe you’ve always felt it.  All that I’m doing is putting into words what your species has instinctively known all this time.”

“And what’s this great revelation of yours?” I prompt.

“This is a dying reality.”

I furrow my brow, but Lydia continues before I can say anything.

“This reality is a decaying carcass that hasn’t yet realized that its time has come and gone.  Tell me, Trevor, do you believe in God?”

“What…” I start to say.

“Not necessarily the Christian God, or the Muslim God, or any being that other religions base themselves around.  I’m asking if you believe in a higher power that has a hand in the shaping of everything around you.”

“I don’t know,” I answer honestly.

“There is a Creator.  I know this for a fact, as I am one of the few that has stood in the presence of the Creator and has seen the Creator’s work.  The Creator is not God.  The Creator is so far beyond the concept of God that it’s laughable.”

I stare at her silently.

“This is where the limits of human languages, as well as the limits of human understanding, come into play.  It’s awkward to speak of the Creator without being able to use pronouns.  The Creator is not a he, or a she, or a they.  The Creator is simply the Creator.  You’ll have to excuse the repetition involved in talking about the Creator, as I’m going for accuracy over grammatic fluidity.”

“I don’t understand what this has to do with my question.”

We’re interrupted as the waiter steps into view.  Once again, he remains still and out of hearing range until I beckon him over.  He walks over to the table and silently uncorks the wine bottle I had ordered before filling our glasses.  He knows exactly how full of a glass I prefer, and he stops at precisely the right moment.  He finishes his task and places the bottle within my reach.  With a courteous nod, he leaves once again.

“Think of reality as a painting,” Lydia says, absently running one finger around the rim of her glass.  “The painting is the result of the Creator’s brush strokes.  Every single drop of paint has been painstakingly chosen to take its exact place as part of the entirety of the piece.  Nothing exists outside of the Creator’s design.  Are you with me so far?”

I nod.

“When I say ‘reality’, I don’t just mean this universe.  The painting includes the vastness of the multiverse as well, not to mention offshoots and spaces that can’t be comprehended by anyone but the Creator.  For the sake of putting a name to it, let’s refer to this collective reality as a Work.  I’d say that fits nicely into the painting metaphor.  The Creator has ensured that there’s a place for everything and that everything is in its place.”

“This is sounding like the typical creation story that a number of different cultures have,” I point out.

Lydia raises an eyebrow.  “Well, here’s the part where things get interesting.  As I said, this Work is laid out exactly how the Creator intended.  The Work, however, is flawed.”

I blink.  “How is that possible?”

“It’s because nothing can ever be perfect.  That’s something that has vexed the Creator since the beginning.  The Creator believes that the Creator can achieve perfection, but it has yet to happen.  The Creator will believe that a Work has finally been perfected, but inevitably some particle making up a larger particle will be an imperceptible distance away from where it should be and the illusion of flawlessness shatters.”

“But how-”

“The Work will never be perfect because the Creator is imperfect.  That should scare the piss out of you.  It certainly frightens me.”

The thought of the being that had brought forth everything fucking up certainly wasn’t a comforting one.

“When the creator finds a flaw in a Work, the Creator does not simply fix it.  That would be the equivalent of plugging a small hole in a dam with your thumb while the entire structure is collapsing.  Instead, the Creator begins work on a new painting.”

“How many times has that happened?” I ask.

“There isn’t a number that could possibly begin to give you an answer to that.  In the end it doesn’t matter.  Here’s what does.  When the Creator creates a new Work, the Creator doesn’t use a new canvas.  It’s painted right on top of the previous one.  This has been done countless times in the past and will continue to be done countless times in the future.  Much like the original painting is merely covered up by a new one when an artist paints over it, the Works the Creator has deemed failures still exist.  They are left under the surface to slowly rot away.  These abandoned Works are what we call the Underlayers.”

It’s a lot to take in.  I’m silent for a long moment as I analyze what she’s told me.

“You said that this is a dying reality,” I say slowly.  “That would imply that this reality is an Underlayer.”

“Very good,” Lydia says approvingly.  “This Work has been deemed a failure by the Creator, and it has been buried under newer and equally-flawed Works.  As abandoned Works go, this is one of the more pleasant ones.  I know it doesn’t seem like that sometimes, but it is.  It’s much closer to the top than most other Underlayers.  That’s relatively speaking, of course.  There are still a whole lot of layers above us.”

“Nicer in what way?”

“You have to understand that some of these Underlayers have been rotting away since long before the creation of this one.  They’re nothing but darkness and nightmares now.  Very, very unpleasant, and that’s coming from me of all people.”

I look at her closely.  “Tell me, is it possible to travel between these layers?”

She returns my look.  “You already know that it is.  That’s why you purchased that.”

Lydia points at the box on the table.

“You also know that the Fatum Machina can only open doors to places on this layer,” she continues on.  “That means that you believe you’ve found a way around that limitation, a way for it to force open gates across the Underlayers.”

“We believe that we have,” I say, knowing that there’s no point in lying about it.

“We…,” she repeats.  “Ah, yes, your associate Mr. Gangly.  I’ll never understand why he uses that silly name.”

“From what I understand, it started with other people calling him that when they thought he wasn’t listening.  He kept it because he found it amusing.  Besides, his real name would bring a lot more attention if it got out.  We’re getting off-topic here.  I still have some time.”

She shrugs.  “True, although not much.  Just like you’re aware of the existence of the Underlayers, many of them are aware of our layer.  Some of them even attempt to come through the barrier separating layers, and a small number of those succeed.  I call those breaches Bleeds.  You know, like paint bleeding through a covering.”

I roll my eyes.  “Clever.  Tell me about the successes.”

“They’ve been small in nature so far.  Ancient shadows that turn children’s performers into killers to amuse themselves.  Monsters that lurk in the brief moment between awake and asleep.  An unknown force that drives people to take their own lives.  A constant whisper that convinces a woman to open the gateway to madness with the promise, the lie, of eternal life.  Those sorts of things.  Nothing on the scale of what you’re planning.”

“I want the locations of where these… Bleeds originally happened.”

“Your wish is my command,” she replies sarcastically.

I reach into my suit coat and remove a pen and small pad of paper.  I hand them to Lydia and watch as she opens the pad and begins to write down the information that I requested.  There are more than I expected.

“I put the more severe Bleeds at the top,” she tells me as she finishes and slides the pad back over to me.  “You’ll want to start with those if you’re going to attempt what I think you are.  And with that, my dear, your time is up.”

She’s right.  I can see the ball in Times Square lowering through the window behind her.  It strikes the bottom, and lights begin to flash all around it.  Another year gone, another year come.

I stand up and collect the box containing the Fatum Machina.  Reaching down to pick up my glass, I raise it to my lips and slowly sip at the wine.  The 1947 Cheval Blanc is considered one of the finest vintages ever produced, and it’s easy to see why.  It is thicker than I would have thought, but the flavors are bold and varied in ways that complement perfectly rather than distract from the overall presentation.  If this is to be my final drink, I can die assured that the last taste on my lips is the best.

I put down the glass and turn away from the table.  I have no interest in watching Lydia flip the coin.  What will be, will be.  I begin walking towards the hallway leading to the elevator.  From behind me I hear the sound of the coin spinning in the air just before it thumps onto the table.

I reach the elevator.  This is the fifth year in a row that the coin has come up my way.  I quickly do the math in my head.  There’s only about a three percent chance of that happening.

Some would call that luck.  Some might call it fate, or maybe divine providence.  I simply call it what was required.  I don’t take chances that I don’t have to.  I didn’t get to where I am by being reckless.  Each of these five gambles were necessary to get vital information.

The elevator doors open.  Now I have everything that I need, and it’s time to get to work.

The Christmas Bear

When I was a young kid, there was nothing bigger than Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza.

I grew up in the Cleveland area during the ‘80s.  While some of the larger television markets were featuring national children’s programming in the afternoons, we didn’t have more than one or two of those types of shows during the weekdays.  The weekends had Saturday morning cartoons, and that was where we got our regular dose of commercials masquerading as entertainment, but the weekday afternoons were still filled with local programming.

Only a few of those shows were distinct enough that I still remember them.  I can recall sitting in my father’s recliner watching Barnaby, a show hosted by an older gentleman that would perform skits and introduce short cartoons featuring Casper and Popeye.  There was another show that I can’t remember the name of, but it consisted of a group of alien puppets that explored the galaxy and learned lessons while they did so.  That one I found a bit boring.

Every weekday at 4:30pm, though, there might as well have been nothing else on television because that was when Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza aired.  I can’t overstate how popular the show was.  It was headlined by a dog puppet named Bingo who acted as the circus’ ringmaster, and it featured a wide variety of recurring characters like Bango the Clown, Poe the Fortune Teller, and Leo Lion.

In the area that it was broadcast in, Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza was huge.  All of the kids watched it, including myself.

Whenever a new character was introduced, it was treated as a big deal.  Teasers would be shown for at least a week before the reveal, and us children would have long and intense conversations about who or what the new character would be.

One of these teasers aired the first week of December when I was six.  That was already enough to get me excited, but when it was announced that there would be two new characters, well, that absolutely blew my mind.  I waited in anticipation as the days slowly ticked by.  It wasn’t until the middle of the next week that the reveal would take place.  To a child, having to wait nine days is roughly equivalent to wanting something to happen for nine years in adult time.

Finally the big day came, and at Bingo’s command a large purple curtain was opened.  Standing on a stage were two bear puppets, one a boy and the other a girl.  Bingo introduced them as Billy and Betty Bear, and he informed everyone that they were world-famous gymnasts.  They started to perform a number of rolls and tumbles and flips.  I was instantly a fan.

The reveal of Billy and Betty wasn’t the only surprise that the show had in store for us, though.  At the end of the episode, an advertisement for stuffed bears based on the pair was shown.  These weren’t just any old stuffed bears, though.  They were able to talk and say a number of phrases, including their catchphrase, “Oopsie doopsie!”  Their eyes moved, and their heads could turn from side to side.  Best of all, they could even perform forward rolls just like on the show.

The advertisement ended by stating that Billy and Betty would be available in select areas starting that weekend.  I moved closer to the television as a short list of stores and the towns they were located in came up on the screen.  To my delight, there was my little suburb’s name at the bottom of the list.

The begging began instantly.

I started with my mother, mostly because she was the one in the house at the time.  After I had sufficiently annoyed her enough with my asking for the toys for Christmas, my father arrived home from work and I started in on him.  I went a bit easier on the begging in his case.  While my mother had the patience of Job, my father was more prone to becoming annoyed if I kept saying the same thing over and over again.

I knew that I had been successful when I saw my parents share a particular look.  I was too young to understand the look at the time, but now I know that it was a combination of amusement and defeat.  Even though I didn’t know its exact meaning, I did know that it usually meant that my efforts had been successful.  Now all there was to do was wait until Christmas.

That was easier said than done.  Two weeks was even longer than nine days, after all.  I had to keep reminding myself that it was going to be worth the wait when I got to open up the present containing those bears.

I learned later that finding Billy and Betty Bear, especially with such a limited availability at only select stores, was very difficult for my parents.  Those of you that are old enough to remember the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle crazy will understand how difficult it can be to get your hands on whatever the big Christmas toy is.  With the popularity of Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza in the area and the newness of these particular characters, it took until almost Christmas for my parents to find them, and when they did they were only able to get one of them.

The year before there had been an incident in school that ended up dispelling my illusions about the existence of Santa Claus.  Because of this, my parents decided to take a different approach for this year.  Instead of waiting to put out the gifts after I went to bed, they stacked the boxes under the tree early in the evening on Christmas Eve.  It was a lot less stressful for them, and if anything it built even more anticipation for me.

Maybe a bit too much anticipation.  I found myself unable to sleep that night even though I absolutely wanted to.  Falling asleep was the fastest way to get to the morning, after all, or at least that’s how my six-year-old mind reasoned it.  No matter how hard I tried, though, I just couldn’t drift off.

Deciding that a change of scenery was in order, I got out of bed, grabbed my pillow and blanket, and went down to the living room.  I had heard my parents go into their bedroom over an hour earlier, so I had the room to myself.  The Christmas tree lights were still plugged in.  They cast red, blue, green, and yellow spheres onto the walls and ceiling.  I smiled as I climbed up onto the couch and settled in.  Everything seemed so warm and pleasant.

I eventually drifted off to sleep.

When I awoke sometime later, it took me a few seconds to remember where I was.  I blinked the sleep out of my eyes and turned my head to try to see the time on the clock that sat on the fireplace mantle, but the room was too dark for me to be able to make out where the hands were pointing.  I frowned.  Something about that didn’t seem right.

A moment later I recalled that the Christmas tree lights had been plugged in when I had come downstairs.  They were off now, and the tree itself was just a large black shape in the corner.  I wondered if one of my parents had come downstairs and unplugged the cord.  That didn’t seem right, though.  If one of them had come downstairs, they would have taken me back up to bed.  The couch was plainly visible from the stairs.

I sat up and slid off the couch.  I expected my feet to touch soft carpet, but instead they pressed down on something dry that crunched under my weight.  Looking down, I found that I was standing on torn and discarded wrapping paper.  Nearby was a large present that had been ripped open right down the middle of the box.

Curious, I went over to the present and picked it up.  Even in the dim light I could make out the circus-themed pattern on the inside of the box and the picture of the fuzzy-faced bear.  I felt a smile spread across my face.  My parents had gotten me a Billy Bear for Christmas.  I had suspected that they would, of course, but here was the actual proof.

The smile slipped from my lips.  This was the packaging for it, but where was the bear itself?  It wasn’t inside the box.

I’m not sure if I heard a sound or caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye, but something drew my attention to the stairs.  By the time that I turned my head there was nothing to see.  Nothing that I could make out in the darkness, anyway.  I felt a growing sense of unease.  I wasn’t wholly comfortable with the dark at the age of six to begin with, and the unnatural situation that I had woken up to was compounding that discomfort.

I didn’t consciously start walking towards the stairs.  One moment I was standing still in front of the couch, and the next my legs were moving.  I reached the bottom and went up the two steps that led to the bottom landing.  I turned and looked up.

Something was moving on the steps.  It was small, maybe half my height, and it was moving awkwardly as it ascended.  When it reached the middle landing, the light that penetrated the gloom from outside through the thin curtains of the nearby window gave me a better look at the figure.  Standing on the carpeted landing, its head tilted to stare up at the second floor, was Billy Bear.

Before I could fully process what I was seeing, he disappeared behind the wall as it made the turn and continued up the stairs.  Just before he went out of view, however, I saw how unnatural his movements were.  Instead of being smooth and fluid, they were stilted and twitchy.  My young mind went back to an old black-and-white movie that my father had watched with me during the summer.  There had been a robot that had attacked a group of astronauts, and the robot had moved with those same jerky motions.  The movie had scared me; my mother had scolded my father when she had found out that he had allowed me to watch it.

Not knowing what else to do, I slowly went up the stairs after the bear.  I should have yelled out for my parents, or scrambled back down into the living room and buried myself under my blanket, but for some reason I didn’t.  I don’t know why.  Again, I was only six, and I had just woken up.

I could hear Billy Bear above me now.  He made an odd sound as he moved, like a combination of clicking and the tinkling of small bells.  It was very quiet, but I could still make it out in the stillness of the house.

I stopped on the middle landing and listened intently.  The jingling of Billy Bear’s movements was getting further away now that he was moving across the second floor.  Staying as low as possible, I crawled up the steps and halted just before my head would have peeked out over the top step.  I waited for a pair of heartbeats before I lifted my head and looked around.

There was nothing there.  My parents left a nightlight on in the hallway at night for me just in case I needed to use the bathroom, and the glow it gave off was enough for me to determine that Billy Bear was gone.  I had no idea where he had gone, but he wasn’t in the hallway.

The door to my bedroom was open.  I was certain that I had closed it before I had gone downstairs; I hadn’t wanted my parents to wake up in the middle of the night and notice that I wasn’t in bed.  The only explanation was that Billy Bear had gone inside.

I hurried over to the door and closed it.  I didn’t know what was going on, but something was and at least this way Billy Bear would be trapped while I got my parents.

Going over to their door, I slowly turned the doorknob but only opened it a few inches before stopping.  Even though I knew that I needed to get them, I was still oddly hesitant to wake them up.

I had just started to go into the bedroom when something grabbed me and pulled me backwards.  I tried to scream, but a soft object was shoved into my mouth to prevent me from doing so.  Losing my footing, I fell to the floor with a thud.  Almost as soon as I had landed, Billy Bear emerged into view and hopped up onto my chest, his left paw still pushed down into my mouth.  He hadn’t been in my bedroom after all, but had been hiding inside the hallway closet instead.

The bear’s normally pleasant expression was twisted back in a vicious grin.  The mechanical eyes were vibrating in their sockets, and his teeth kept clacking together as it raised its free arm.  There was a quiet hissing sound as a long thin needle extended out from the center of its paw.

I tried to struggle, but the bear moved too quickly.  Before I could react, Billy Bear pushed the needle down into my neck.  I felt a burning sensation as something was injected into my body.  Tears began to stream down my cheeks.  Billy Bear removed his paw from my mouth and stood up straight, the needle retracting back out of sight.

My first instinct was to throw the bear off of me and scream as loud as I could.  No matter how hard I tried to do just that, though, I couldn’t move.  Every muscle in my body was locked in place.  While I could still breathe, it took real effort to do so.  I know now that he had injected me with a strong paralytic, but at the time I had no idea what was happening to me and the panic threatened to overtake me.

Billy Bear leaned in closer until his face was mere inches from mine.  The insane look that it was contorted into was more than enough to frighten me, but there was something else that I couldn’t immediately point to that added to it.  He tilted his head back and forth, and as he did so that odd jingling sound filled my ears.

The bear’s eyes moved slightly to one side.  They shifted just enough for me to see that there was something behind them.  I couldn’t make out what that something was.  Whatever it was, though, it was also moving around at the back of the mouth.  Before I could get a better look at it, he slid off of my stomach.

I felt like I wasn’t connected to the rest of my body.  The paralytic Billy Bear had used on me had not only shut off my muscle control, but it had made it so that I couldn’t even feel anything.  I had randomly fallen into a position where I was sitting up against the wall.  Looking back on it now, this was extremely fortunate.  With the state I was in, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t have swallowed my own tongue if I had landed differently.

Billy Bear considered me for a long moment before turning towards my parents’ bedroom door.  He walked over and pressed on it.  The door swung open slowly as the bear applied pressure to it.  He opened it all the way and stared into the room.

From the angle I was sitting at, I could just make out my father’s body on top of the bed.  He was laying on his side with his back to the now-open door.  I tried to call out to him, but I couldn’t move my mouth or force out any noise.

The bear turned and took one last glance at me before going into the bedroom.  He walked to the edge of the bed and examined it for a moment before grabbing onto the side with his paws and trying to pull himself up.  He slipped off of the sheets and fell back down to the floor.  He tried again, but it was met with the same result.

I felt a momentary relief.  No matter how hard he tried, Billy Bear just could not get up the side of the bed.  Eventually his efforts would wake my father up, and once that happened he would surely be able to help me.

Billy Bear took a step back and considered things.  Seeming to come to a conclusion, he sat down on the carpet and reached up to grip his ears with his paws.

There was a ripping sound as he pulled on the ears.  His head began to split down the middle as the cloth tore, exposing the white fluff inside.  He continued pulling until half of his body was ruined.  The stuffing shifted and fell to the floor as the creature inside emerged.

I would have screamed in horror if I had been able to.  From the remains of the stuffed bear came something pulled straight from a nightmare.  Its head resembled a human skull, but instead of white or gray it was a dark crimson.  The jaw worked up and down slowly as it came into view.

The head was attached to a spine-like appendage, and from that appendage sprouted two arms that were jointed the opposite of human arms.  Each of the hands’ four fingers were thin almost to the point of being delicate, and each of them ended in curved points that resembled scalpels.  The creature pulled itself all the way free from the bear’s remains, revealing that the spine terminated in a long fine spike.  It was the needle that had paralyzed me.  A series of ribs were also attached to the spine, but they were able to bend and flex in ways that weren’t possible for a human.  It operated them like a human moves their fingers.

It raised its head slightly, and it started to float upward off the floor.  The spine curled under the head and gave it the appearance of being in an odd sitting position.  Its movements were slow and deliberate, each accompanied by the same jingling sound that I had been hearing.  When it reached the level of the top of the bed it stopped its ascent and extended its spike towards my father.

It lashed out so quickly that I almost didn’t see it move.  The spike pushed into the back of my father’s neck with seemingly no effort.  He yelped and tried to sit up as he woke up, but he was unable to do so before the paralytic took effect.

His sudden activity woke my mother, and she quickly sat up as she tried to simultaneously figure out what was happening and regain full consciousness.  The creature’s spike whipped forward again and struck her in the chest just above her left breast.  She almost immediately froze and fell back onto the mattress.

It was at that moment that I knew that I was going to die.  Can you even imagine what that type of realization is like to a six-year-old child?  I barely understood what death was, and yet I knew that it was a certainty for my family.  I didn’t have the mental capacity or the world experience at that age to come to terms with that knowledge.  There was only a great fear that completely consumed me.

The creature reached out with its short arms and gently pulled down the sheets to uncover my parents.  It then floated into position above my father and used its razor-sharp fingertips to slash the buttons off of his pajama shirt so that his chest was laid bare.  The jingling grew louder as it bobbed its head up and down.

With the steadiness and precision of a surgeon, it reached down with one finger and slowly sliced open my father’s chest.

It was a minor mercy that I couldn’t see the operation that was performed on my father.  I wasn’t sitting at quite the right angle for that.  I could hear it, though, and in some ways that was worse.  I’ve never been able to forget the sounds of blood spurting out of the open cavity, or the noise of the creature jingling as it continued cutting.

When it was finally finished, the fountain of gore had stopped, and I knew that my father was gone.

The creature reached into the opening and removed a misshapen object.  It was my father’s heart.  Being careful not to damage the organ with its claws, it wrapped its flexible ribs around it and held it firmly between them.  Its jaw opening and closing in excitement, it floated over to my mother and began to perform the same procedure on her.

I was going to be next.  There was no doubt about that in my mind.  As the creature went about its work, I did everything that I could to regain control of my body.  I was starting to feel it again, but I still wasn’t able to move anything.

I found that wasn’t exactly correct.  While most of my body remained immobile, I was able to flex my big toes.  It wasn’t much.  It meant that I wasn’t permanently paralyzed, though, and if the creature ignored me for long enough I might be able to run away or fight it off by the time it returned its attention to me.  All that I could do was hope.

My hopes were shattered when it finished with my mother, removing her heart and gently placing it next to my father’s inside of its ribs.  It was poetic, in a way, but that was lost on the young boy that was now orphaned and alone in the world.

The creature rotated towards me and floated over to hover above me.  It considered me for a long moment, the eyeless sockets of the skull staring down at me as its fingers flexed and jingled.  I was helpless and at its mercy, and there was no mercy in its empty gaze.

Without warning, it turned away and moved out of my sight.  For a long while I laid there knowing that it would be back at any moment to cut me open the way that it had my parents, but that moment never came.  Eventually the fear gave way to confusion.  What had just happened?

I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the creature didn’t spare me out of pity or kindness.  I’m sure that it was simply because it wouldn’t have been able to carry my heart alongside the two that it had already collected.  I was saved by sheer luck.

I don’t feel lucky.  Quite the opposite, actually.

Over the next few minutes I regained the ability to move my body.  It started with the lower extremities and worked its way up.  I had never been so grateful to be able to blink in my life.

As I got to my feet, I noticed how warm I was.  There was also an odd smell in the air, one that smelled a lot like when my father would accidentally burn bacon when he attempted to make breakfast on the weekends.

It didn’t matter, though.  All that mattered was that I needed to get help.  While I knew logically that my parents were dead, I still had some crazy notion in my head that if I got them help fast enough, they would be able to be saved.  I rushed into my room and put on my shoes and coat before hurrying downstairs.

The entire living room was on fire.  A wall of heat struck me as I reached the bottom landing, and I held a hand up over my face to shield my eyes from the bright light.  I watched the flames dance between the floor and walls for what seemed like an eternity before I roused myself and ran into the kitchen.  There was a door leading into the backyard there, and I flung it open before hurrying out into the cold night.

I went around the side of the house to the front lawn and stopped.  Other houses in my neighborhood were burning as well, and there were screams coming from inside some of them.  It wasn’t the fires that held my attention, however.  It was the procession moving down the street in front of me.

There were dozens of the creatures heading south on the road.  Some of them were still disguised inside of Billy Bears and Betty Bears, while others floated above the concrete.  All of them carried freshly harvested hearts.  The air was filled with the sound of jingling bells as they moved towards some unknown destination.  They ignored me and the few neighbors that were also standing in their lawns staring at them.  They had gotten everything that they had wanted, and they no longer had use for us.

Reaching the end of the road, the macabre parade disappeared into the shadows.

As I said earlier, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what happened.  In all that time, though, I haven’t been able to piece much together.  I have some guesses, but nothing that is rooted in fact.

I think the fires were started to hide what the creatures did.  They were set in such a way that the wind quickly spread the flames to other nearby homes, and by the time the sun was coming up the entire neighborhood had burned.  It happened in other nearby towns as well, all of which just happened to have been listed as towns receiving Billy and Betty Bear toys on Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza.

The fires were all officially listed as having been caused by faulty wiring or started by dangerous Christmas light hookups.  The deaths were attributed to smoke inhalation and being burned to death.  There was no mention of missing organs or mutilated bodies.

The survivors were informed by law enforcement that the official story about the fires was what had really happened.  It was implied that anyone that spoke out against that story would be promptly dealt with.  No one came right out and said it, but everyone understood what that implication meant.  I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut, and I didn’t even tell my grandmother about what had happened when she arrived to pick me up from the hospital I was taken to.  It’s not like she would have believed me anyway.

I don’t know why there was a cover-up.  Maybe there was money involved, or maybe the people in power had something to do with the creatures.  Maybe it’s due to reasons that I’ll never know or understand.  It’s been so many years now that most people that would know the truth are dead and buried.

I’ve tried to forget about it.  I really have.  I’ve paid a lot of shrinks a lot of money to help me with doing just that, but so far nothing has worked.  The memories are always rattling around in the back of my mind, ready to surface again when I least suspect it.

Two nights ago, in the early morning of Christmas, there were a series of fires in three nearby towns.  All of them occurred in neighborhoods, and all of them were a part of a test market for a new collection of lifelike robotic stuffed animals.  The news reported that the fires were due to faulty wiring in old homes and from outlets overloaded with Christmas lights.

That’s not what happened.  I know that if someone was able to examine the bodies they would find each of them was missing a very specific internal organ.  The harvest had come back to Ohio this year.

I’m just going to try to pretend that I don’t know any of this and that I believe the news reports.  Doing anything else would be dangerous, and I’ve been through enough to last a lifetime.  I’ve lost enough to the harvest already.

Like I said, I’ve had a lot of time to think over things.

The Destiny Machine

When my mother was buried, I watched as every single shovel of dirt was tossed into her grave.  Once the two groundskeepers had finished, I stepped onto the soft soil and spit on her headstone.

I was glad that she was dead.  The whole reason that I had attended her funeral was to see with my own eyes that she really was.

I don’t give a shit if that makes me sound like a bad son, or spiteful, or maybe simply petty.  My mother deserves every ounce of venom that is in me.

It’s because of her that I grew up without my father.  Unlike her, he was a good person, the kind that seems to be missing in today’s world.  In the spring he would take me to see baseball games, and in the fall it was football.  He didn’t do it out of any love of sports.  He did it because he knew that I was obsessed with them in a way that only children can be, and he wanted to spend time with me while encouraging my interests.  Nothing came before his family.  Not his work, not his own desires, nothing.  To this day I’ve never met his equal.

It’s because of my mother that my twin sister is gone.  If you’re not a twin yourself you won’t understand this, not fully, but losing one is like having part of yourself ripped away.  It creates this… this hole that’s never filled.  More than that, though, she was incredible.  Smarter than me, and more talented at most things.  Although she surpassed me in so many ways, I was never jealous of her.  It wasn’t her and me.  It was us.  I lost the best part of me when she died.

I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to…  I just need a moment.

My mother had everything she could ever have wanted.  Wealth.  Power.  A husband that placed her on a pedestal above all others, and children that wanted nothing more than to please her.  And yet she wanted more.  More and more and more.  If nothing else, my mother was a woman of excess.

Having everything worldly, she instead turned her attention towards the otherworldly.  I’m sure that it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone here that there are items and objects that defy our limited understanding of science and the world around us.  Some people call these things magical, and others call them haunted.  Some even say that they’re cursed.  No matter what you believe them to be, we all know that they’re out there.

The greatest of these objects is the Fatum Machina.

In Latin, it means the Destiny Machine.  From the front, it just looks like an old human skull that is missing the jawbone.  The bone is brown from age, and carved along the surface are hundreds of small symbols that join together to form a whole that looks like a map drawn by a madman.  Legend has it that the skull belonged to Adam, the first of God’s human creations as well as the first man to have sinned.  I don’t know if that’s true or not.

It’s the back of the skull where things get strange.  Instead of being solid bone, it’s constructed of a highly intricate clockwork-like metal device.  Tiny gears can be manipulated using a series of dials and levers, which in turn cause plates and rods to change positions.  There are millions, if not billions, of possible combinations.  I’m sure someone can work out the exact number, but it really doesn’t matter.

What matters is that the Fatum Machina is a key that unlocks reality.  It creates openings between places in our world, and gateways leading to others.  Imagine being able to stand up from your chair and simply take a step forward to be in the middle of Nepal.  You could take an instantaneous trip to Bermuda, or if colder weather is more to your preference, visit an outpost in Antarctica.

How about stepping foot on a world countless lightyears away from this speck of dust we call Earth?  Maybe journey to an alternate reality where up is down and down is up?  If you could appear before whatever creator you believe in and speak to them, would you?

That’s what the Fatum Machina does.  It presents you with endless possibilities.

There’s a catch, of course.  It seems like there always is.  To open a doorway, you have to find the right combination.  You have to adjust the various dials and levers to the correct positions.  Each door has a different combination.  There’s no way to know what combination unlocks what door except for trial and error.

There aren’t many stories about the Fatum Machina, as it’s been a closely guarded secret by everyone that has possessed it.  Everyone that has heard about the device knows one particular legend, though, and I suspect that the reason that you’re here is because of that legend.

The Fatum Machina is supposed to be the only key in existence that can open the way to the Garden of Eden.  If you’re not caught up on your basic Sunday School, the Garden of Eden is, according to the Bible, the place where all life on Earth began.  It is home to many wonders, with two in particular standing out from the rest.  Two trees grow in the Garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life.

Eating the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil bestows you with the collected wisdom of the world.  You essentially gain the knowledge and understanding of everything that has, will, and can happen.  It’s as close to omniscience as a mortal being can come.

The Tree of Life… that’s the real prize, isn’t it?  One bite of its fruit grants you everlasting life.  Not just immortality, either.  It gives you eternal youth at your absolute best.  You’re immune to poisons and toxins and every affliction.  You will live a perfect unending life until our universe is a distant memory.

If you ate from both trees, is there really a difference between what you would become and a god?

It was the legend of the Tree of Life that drove my mother’s obsession with the Fatum Machina.  All of her wealth and possessions would mean nothing if she died just like everybody else.  She refused to believe that there was an obstacle that even she couldn’t overcome.

I’m not surprised that she managed to obtain it.  When my mother wanted something, there was nothing that could stand in her way.  She was a force of nature.  I don’t know exactly how she came to possess it, but I wouldn’t put anything past her.  I imagine that there’s at least one body buried in an unmarked grave somewhere due to her actions.

From the moment her assistant put the black box containing the Fatum Machina in her hands, nothing else mattered to her.  She locked herself in her study for days at a time as she tried combination after combination, carefully logging each attempt in a leatherbound journal.  The only time that anyone saw her was when she emerged to eat or, on rare occasions, go to sleep for short periods of time.

My father tried his best to coax her out of her obsession.  I’ve never understood why, but he really did love her.  My sister and I said that we did, and I think that there was some kind of connection there, but he actually felt that way about her.  He was concerned for her well-being and did everything that he could to distract her from her work.  Ultimately his efforts were in vain.

I don’t know how many successful configurations my mother discovered during this time.  The vast majority of combinations don’t do anything; only specific ones will unlock doorways.  She might have failed to open any, or maybe did find some and simply didn’t share them with us.  For five months she worked in solitude while the rest of us had no idea what she was doing.

On a cold fall night in late October, however, there’s no doubt that she successfully unlocked a doorway to another world.

I had no way of knowing most of what I’ve told you up to this point when it was actually happening.  I was only twelve, and I had never even heard of the Fatum Machina.  I’ve learned most of this from reading her journals and through putting together pieces myself.  All that I knew on that particular night was that I was suddenly sitting up awake in my bed in the middle of the night in a pitch-black bedroom.

My room had never been that dark before.  There was always at least some light that managed to make it through my curtains during the night.  Sometimes it wasn’t very much, but there was still something.  On this particular evening, though, I was surrounded by pure blackness.

I’m not sure how long I sat there staring into nothingness before I noticed the voices.  They were extremely faint, barely qualifying as whispers, and there seemed to be dozens of them.  I strained my ears in an attempt to figure out what they were saying.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make out the words.  Or maybe I could and I just didn’t understand what they meant.  Even though I didn’t comprehend the words themselves, somehow the messages they were conveying were clear.  I’m not sure how to explain it.  On some level I just knew what the voices were telling me to do.  They put thoughts into my head that never would have come to me under normal circumstances.

I felt a powerful urge to listen to those whispers and do as they instructed.  What they were saying made so much sense.  Life was hard, and lonely, and full of disappointments.  Trying to continue on with it was pointless.  The only thing that made sense was to not play along with such a bad cosmic joke, to tie my bedsheet around my neck in the way that the voices were directing me to and put a stop to the endless cycle of pain and disappointment.

I think that if I was any older I would have done just that.  At my age, though, some of the concepts the voices were communicating to me were things that I couldn’t fully comprehend yet, and it was that confusion that kept me from totally accepting what I was being told to do.  The whispers changed their tone as they became frustrated with my disobedience.

The sounds suddenly stopped, filling the darkness with silence.  For the first time since I had woken up and probably for the first time in my entire life, I felt fear.  Real, palpable fear.  There was something in the room with me.  I couldn’t see it or hear it, but it was there.  It was this kind of… this kind of pressure that was coming from behind me.  It loomed over me and gave off this sense of total malice.  It was angry, and it was going to take that anger out on me.

Without even realizing what I was doing, I jumped out of bed and blindly ran in the direction I thought that my bedroom door was in.  I was fully in the grip of panic, and that panic continued to rise as I kept running.  And running.  I ran much farther than I should have been able to in the small bedroom.  Long after I should have reached a wall, I slammed hard into something solid.  I had finally gotten to the door.  I twisted the knob and flung it open, hurrying into the hallway before closing it behind me.

Before I even had a chance to turn away from the door, I noticed that the hallway was much colder than my bedroom had been.  The change was a shock, and my skin immediately began to prickle.  There was an odd burning sensation in my feet.  I looked down and found that it wasn’t being caused by something hot.  Instead, I was standing in at least an inch of snow.

I turned around and looked up towards the hallway ceiling.  Thick white flakes of snow were falling from it.  Forgetting my fear for a moment, I stared up at the indoor snowstorm in wonder.

Eventually I shivered as the cold snapped me out of it.  I looked around the hallway.  All of the lights were turned on, but instead of their normal warm white, they glowed a dim blue.  The walls were covered in sheets of ice.  Jutting out of the walls near the top were long thick protrusions that tapered out to sharp points towards the middle of the walkway.  They were nearly as white as the falling snow.

My eyes fell on a section of wall near me.  There was something behind the ice, something that unnerved me even though I couldn’t immediately identify it.  I stepped closer to get a better look.  It was a growth that spread across the majority of the wood, a pinkish flesh-like mass that resembled raw flesh.  I looked back up at the protrusions.  I was standing inside of a giant frozen ribcage.

I hurried down the hallway with my arms wrapped around my chest in a futile attempt to stay warm.  My bedroom was in a different section of the house than the others.  When my sister and I had turned eight, we had been given a choice as to which unused bedrooms we wanted.  We had chosen ones on opposite sides of the house, with hers being located near my parents’ room.  We had always been close, but we had both agreed that we needed some space between us or we would drive each other crazy.

The hall led into the entry.  This section of the house was in a completely different state than the frozen hallway.  It was much warmer, and there was no snow or ice.  The lights were also their usual color.  There were, however, more bone growths.  They weren’t ribs, but were instead four-foot-tall teeth.  They were cracked in many places, and many were covered in brownish stains.  They stuck out of both the floor and ceiling at random intervals.

The floor itself felt soft as I slowly walked across it.  It didn’t look any different than it usually did, but the texture had the consistency of a firm yet wet sponge.  Each step was disgusting.  I started to get a bit queasy.

I saw movement out of the corner of my eye.  I turned my head towards the tall staircase leading up to the second floor.  A scream welled up in me, the pressure of it so strong that I thought it would make my chest burst, but it remained trapped inside of me.  At the top of the stairs, surrounded by the same pink growth that I had seen in the hallway, was a giant eye.

It was so large that it took up the entirety of the second floor landing.  Its iris was black, and blood-red veins stretched across its milky surface.  It rolled around wildly as if it was in the throws of madness.

I involuntarily took a step back.  As I did so, the eye swung downward in its fleshy socket so that it was staring directly at me.  Its gaze was so intense that it locked me in place.  I felt so small, so weak as it examined me intently.

Something began to drip from the eye’s iris.  At first I thought that it was some sort of fluid.  When one of the drops pushed itself up off the floor on thin spindly legs, however, I knew that wasn’t the case.  Small creatures were falling from inside the eye.  Each looked vaguely like a centipede with wispy tentacle-like appendages extending from their black-shelled bodies.  They swarmed down the stairs towards me.

The eye’s spell was broken.  I hurried towards the long corridor that contained my sister and parents’ bedrooms.  The creatures began to make chittering noises as they reached the bottom of the stairs and skittered after me.  I made it into the hallway and struggled to close the heavy wooden door that separated it from the entryway.  I barely managed to get it shut in time.  The creatures continued to make odd sounds on the other side of the door, but they made no attempt to break through.

Everything that I had been through collapsed in on me, and I started to cry.  I was still a kid, after all, and no kid is prepared to go through something so horrific.  Hell, most adults aren’t, either.  I slumped down to the floor and held myself as my sobs robbed me of my breath.

It took some time, but I eventually got control of myself.  I wiped the tears from my eyes and stood back up, feeling more exhausted than I ever had.  I still needed to find my family.

This hallway looked the same as it always did.  I wondered if whatever had taken over the rest of the house hadn’t reached here yet.  Whatever the case, I was just glad that I was safe for the moment.  My parents’ room was the closest, so I hurried over to the door and opened it.

There are two images that will always be burned into my memory.  No matter how many years pass, I can always see them in perfect clarity.  They’ll be with me until I die.  This was the first of those images.

The bedroom was bleeding.  Thick blood was running down the walls and pouring off the ceiling like crimson waterfalls.  The floor of the room was submerged in it, and it washed through the open door and out into the hallway as it covered my feet up to my ankles.

In the center of the room, sitting on his knees with the blood flowing down around him, was my father.  He was dressed in his pajamas and robe.  His hands were stretched out to his sides with the palms upward like he was holding two invisible objects.  He was moaning, and his eyes were wide with fear.

Standing behind him was a figure in a black robe.  Its body was completely covered, and a ragged hood made it impossible to see its face.  Paying no attention to me, the figure reached out its right arm.  The robe slid away from the fingers slightly, and I saw that they weren’t fingers at all and were instead three delicate needles.  

Slowly, the needles pushed into and through the skin of my father’s neck.  My father gasped but remained still.  The figure tugged the needles back, and a small sliver of skin peeled away from the neck while still remaining attached by a tiny flap.  Using both hands, it pulled on the sliver over and over again.

The skin began to unravel from my father’s body.  I don’t know of a better way to put it.  It came off like a pulled string unwinding a ball of yarn.  My father didn’t move, but the look in his eyes and the few sounds that escaped from his open mouth conveyed the immense pain that he was feeling.  

When roughly half the skin had been removed from his face, he finally saw me standing in the doorway.  He tried to speak, but no sound came out.  I got the message, though.  I could see it in his eyes just as much as I could read it on his lips.


I did as I was told.  I slammed the door shut and quickly backed away from it.  I was a scared child.  What could I have possibly done to save him?

Logically, I know the answer to that is nothing.  That thing that was killing him ever-so-slowly couldn’t be stopped by a mere twelve-year-old boy.

That’s the logical answer.  Logic isn’t much comfort on the nights that I lie awake in bed remembering how I left him to die alone.

Directly across the hallway was the door to my sister’s bedroom.  I stared at it without making a move towards it, my shirt and sweatpants soaked with water, sweat, and blood.  I didn’t want to go inside.  Something bad was waiting for me in her bedroom.  I was sure of it.  It was something that I had been feeling since I left my own room but hadn’t been able to focus on because of everything that had happened.

I don’t know if I believe the stories about twins having some sort of psychic connection.  As one myself, I was never able to finish my sister’s sentences or know what she was thinking.  I didn’t know when she was in distress or hurt when I wasn’t around.  Maybe some twins have that kind of connection.  We didn’t.

What I do know is that there’s a kind of bond that I’ve never had with another person.  I didn’t even realize that bond existed, not consciously, until that night.  The only reason I noticed it then was because it was gone.

My sister was dead.  I couldn’t explain how I knew that, but I did.

I refused to believe what I knew, however.  I felt this deep need to prove myself wrong, to show myself that she was alive and well.  Putting aside all my other feelings, I clung to that stubborn need to not accept the truth and marched over to her bedroom door.  I hesitated for just a heartbeat before I opened it.

I couldn’t enter the room.  A few feet inside of the doorway was a translucent red substance that filled the entire chamber from floor to ceiling.  My first thought was that the room had been filled with some sort of liquid, but it didn’t drain out through the now-open door.  It instead remained still.

While it wasn’t completely transparent, it was clear enough that I could see my sister suspended inside of the substance.  She was floating just above her bed, her arms and legs stretched out to the sides.  Her eyes were open and staring off into nothingness.

That is the second image that I will never forget.

I couldn’t look away.  I tried, but my eyes remained locked on her.  Even when her limbs began to slowly separate from her body and move off in opposite directions, I just kept watching.  It wasn’t until after the pieces had broken apart and completely dissolved that I closed the door and stepped away from it in a daze.

There was one more door in this part of the house.  It was at the far end of the hallway.  I turned my head towards it.  It led to my mother’s study.

I started to walk towards it.  It wasn’t a conscious decision that I made.  I think I put one foot in front of the other out of a need to put some distance between me and the bedrooms.  I didn’t want to be anywhere near them, and it would be some time before I was willing to really examine what I had lost.

I had reached the halfway point when I heard a noise behind me.  I turned and found that the door leading into the entryway had been opened.  Stepping into the hallway was something that I couldn’t comprehend.

I need you to understand what I mean by that.  When I say that I couldn’t comprehend it, I’m not saying that it was frightening or that I wasn’t sure what I was looking at.  I mean that it was impossible for my mind, or the human mind in general, to process and understand the being that was in front of me.

It was large enough to fill the world, but at the same time small enough to interact with the tiniest of particles.  It had both presence and the absence of existence.  The entirety of the being was a contradiction that somehow created harmony.

Out of everything that I had seen that night or ever would in my life, this being terrified me the most.  It was like I had known on a primal level that it existed my entire life.  This was Death, and I was nothing before it.

It didn’t make a move towards me.  I couldn’t even be sure that it was paying attention to me.  Why would it?  A single mortal life wasn’t worth the attention of the end of all things.

Not sure what else to do, I continued towards my mother’s study.  After every few steps I would look back over my shoulder, but the cosmic entity remained still.  I reached the door and hurried inside.

The study was large, one of the largest rooms in the house.  Bookcases lined the walls, and display cases containing rare items were scattered throughout.  In the center of the room was a wide oak desk.

Sitting in a tall leather chair behind the desk was my mother.  Her long hair was disheveled, and she looked older than I had ever seen her.  She didn’t look up as I approached.  Instead, her eyes remained locked on the object she was holding.

The Fatum Machina.

It was operating.  There was a white glow coming from inside of the skull’s eye sockets, and I could hear the whirring of gears inside of the machinery.  I could feel a pulsating pressure emanating from it.

My mother looked up at me and our eyes locked.  It was in that moment that I understood that she had done this.  It was her fault that my father and sister were dead.  I also knew that, while she hadn’t wanted them to die, she also didn’t regret the decisions that she had made to bring us to this point.

The manifestation of Death entered the study behind me.  I didn’t turn around to look.  It wasn’t there for me.

It went around the desk and seemed to regard my mother closely.  She hadn’t moved an inch, and she didn’t even flinch when it reached out and touched her on the forehead.  She gasped but otherwise didn’t respond.

It could have ended her right there.  There would have been no effort needed to snuff out a single candle when it was used to extinguishing entire stars.  It chose not to, however.  It simply tapped her lightly on the head.

With that done, it turned and flipped a lever on the Fatum Machina.  The glow faded from the device’s eyes and the whirring of the machine stopped.  The Death manifestation disappeared, and the world inside of the house returned to normal.  The night of horrors was over, and all that was left for me was a lifetime of unforgotten trauma.

The bodies of my father and sister were never recovered.  They disappeared along with everything else.  They are still officially declared missing by the authorities.  Most people believe that my father simply took my sister and left with her.

Until recently, my mother had been living in a mental hospital.  Death’s touch hadn’t killed her, but the touch of such a being isn’t meant to be experienced by a human.  It drove her mad.  She spent the remainder of her days ranting and raving in a private room, locked away from the rest of the world.  It was a strangely fitting fate given that she caused everything because she searched for something to set her apart from everyone else.

I haven’t been able to forget what happened.  God knows that I’ve tried.  No matter how many bottles of alcohol I drink or syringes of questionable drugs I inject into myself, the memories remain.  I lost everything that mattered in a single night in the worst way imaginable.  There’s nothing that can comfort someone when they’ve witnessed something like that.

A month ago, my mother died.  It wasn’t peaceful.  The doctors told me that she choked on her own tongue during one of her fits.  I can’t pretend that I was upset about it.

Everything that she had and owned became mine.  The house that’s fallen into a state of disrepair, the various properties that she had purchased over the years, stacks of boxes filled with trinkets and heirlooms… everything.  Those boxes include a small black one containing an old skull with clockwork-like machinery attached to it.

So, that’s what you folks are bidding on this evening.  The Fatum Machina, the key to unlocking universes beyond imagination and realms pulled straight from the depths of nightmares.  I can’t say for sure which you’ll unlock, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that, one way or another, it will change your life.  Just be prepared for the possibility that something may come through to you instead of you going to it.

I also have a second item available to the person who wins this item.  Sealed inside of this envelope is the exact configuration that my mother used the night that she unknowingly sentenced my family to death.  It is for sale to the auction winner for five million dollars.

I know that’s a steep price.  I also know what you’re thinking to yourself right now.  Given the staggeringly high number of possible configurations, it’s almost impossible that you’ll stumble across the same combination that my mother did.  Why pay so much money when you can take such a microscopic risk instead?

That’s not the right question to be asking yourself, though.  What you should be asking yourself instead  is what you would give to keep Hell off your doorstep.  Answer that question, and then we’ll talk.

Let’s get the auction started.  I’m going to pass things back to Mr. Pembrook, your auctioneer this evening.  Good luck to you all, and you can’t say that I didn’t warn you.

All the Stars in the Sky

When my daughter Violet was born, I didn’t have much to offer her.

My wife and I both worked, but housing was expensive where we lived and much of our income went towards renting our cramped two bedroom apartment.  Owning our own home was still just a dream then.  All of the baby clothes and other items we had gotten to prepare for Violet’s birth had been purchased secondhand, and I had taken on a second job to make sure that we’d be able afford formula and other necessities.

The first time that I held Violet, I looked down at that little wrinkled face and I just knew that any struggles in the coming days would be worth it.  She was perfect, and she deserved a perfect life.  I looked over at my wife Tara and smiled.

“Someday,” I told her, “I’m going to make sure this child has all the stars in the sky.”

When Violet was five, she caught chickenpox from another child at her preschool.  Because of this, she was required to stay home for two weeks while the infection ran its course.  This was extremely hard on her.  She was a very social child, and being apart from her friends for that long quickly began to take its toll.

In an effort to raise her spirits, I stopped by a thrift store on the way home from work and purchased a telescope that I had seen a few days earlier.  I set it up in her bedroom window and turned off the lights.  She stared up into the clear night for hours, fascinated by the heavens and the things that filled it.  When she finally went to bed, she snuggled into her pillow and asked me if someday she could go to space.

“I’m sure you will,” I said to her.  “You’ll fly right up to space and become the princess of all the stars in the sky.”

Two years later, when Violet was lying in a bed in a pediatric cancer ward, I would visit her each evening after work and all day on the weekends.  I would have spent every single moment with her if it had been at all possible, but I had to remain employed to be able to continue to afford our health insurance.  Tara never left her side, though, so I was comforted that she was never alone.

The cancer was aggressive, and while the doctors tried everything that they could, the disease continued to progress towards its inevitable conclusion.

There’s no preparing for the death of a child.  My wife and I did our best to brace ourselves for what we knew was coming, but with each passing day we started to break down more and more.  There were no more words of encouragement between us, no more promises that things were going to take a turn for the better.  There was only silence as we sat next to Violet’s bed, each of us holding one of her small hands as we watched the heart rate monitor.

One day, the most terrible day that I have ever known, the lead doctor assigned to Violet’s case told us that she had less than twenty-four hours.  Something broke inside of me as he spoke, something that had been cracking apart the entire time that she had been in the hospital.  Knowing that I couldn’t go back into her room while I was in such a state, I went into the restroom at the far end of the ward hallway and locked myself inside one of the stalls.  The pain and frustration and fear and a thousand other emotions crashed down on me like a tidal wave, and I wept so hard that I was left gasping for air.

After I finally got control of myself, I took several deep breaths before cleaning myself up with toilet paper.  I left the stall and splashed cold water over my face at the sink.  I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I did so.  The face that stared back at me looked old and tired, almost unrecognizable.

A voice called my name from the bathroom entrance.  I turned to find a well-groomed man dressed in a suit and tie standing there, a briefcase clutched in both hands.  He was older than I was, although it was difficult to determine exactly how much older.

He introduced himself as Silas Pembrook.  He said that represented a private scientist that had been working on radical treatments for terminal illnesses.  His employer had heard of Violet’s condition, and he believed that she was a perfect candidate for his program.  The cost for the treatment would be high, Pembrook warned me, and if Violet were to receive it I couldn’t speak of it to anyone except my wife.  It was cutting edge, but also not approved by the government.

“Tell me,” Pembrook said as he raised his left eyebrow, “what would you give for your daughter to live?”

“Anything,” I replied immediately.  “I’d give all the stars in the sky.”

That seemed to satisfy him, and he told me that the scientist’s assistant would be in touch shortly before he left the restroom.  I didn’t know exactly what I had agreed to, but it really didn’t matter.  All that mattered was that there was one last chance for my daughter.  There was no price too high for that.

I told Tara about my encounter with the odd man, and while she agreed that I had done the right thing, she seemed doubtful that anything would come from it.  Normally I would have shared that sentiment, but there was something about Pembrook that made me believe that what he offered was legitimate.  I knew that there was a very real possibility that I only believed that because I wanted it to be true, but false hope was better than no hope.

An hour after the sun had set, a different man entered Violet’s room.  He was wearing a white lab coat, and he had a clipboard tucked under one arm.  Despite how he was dressed, however, I could tell immediately that he wasn’t a doctor.  He greeted Tara and me with a smile and told us that his name was Peter Lewis.  He was the assistant to the person that would be performing Violet’s procedure.

He told us that the scientist wished for his name to remain anonymous, and that one of the conditions of the procedure would be that we would not be allowed to be present for it.  Neither would the hospital staff, and that had already been cleared with them.  He didn’t come right out and say it, but I got the impression that some strings had been pulled and the staff agreeing hadn’t been voluntary.

The subject then turned to payment.  Lewis informed us that, while no monetary compensation was required, one or both of us would be asked to perform a number of tasks to assist with the scientist’s research.  Those tasks would be assigned whenever they were needed.  When I asked what would happen if we weren’t able to do what was asked of us, he bluntly informed me that what was being done to help Violet could easily be reversed.

Although we weren’t comfortable with the deal, we made it anyway.  What other choice did we have?

Lewis ushered us both out of the room and towards a waiting area.  As he did so, the overhead lights in the hallway began to turn off one by one.  At first I thought there was a power outage, but after a moment I realized that the backup security lights weren’t coming on.  All of the lights were being shut off deliberately.  I asked Lewis to explain what was going on.

“It’s necessary,” Lewis said.  He smiled a strange smile and his eyes grew distant, like he was recalling a long-forgotten memory.  “Monsieur Gangly marche dans les couloirs.”

I didn’t recognize the language that he spoke in, but before I could ask about it he instructed us to sit in the waiting room and he would let us know when the procedure was over.  Again, not having much of a choice, we did as we were told.  The last of the lights on the floor went out, and the only illumination was the dim glow of computer monitors and various pieces of equipment in the hallway.  Lewis was gone.

I glanced up and noticed that the red light on a nearby security camera was off.  I forced myself to look away.  Tara and I had made our decision, and we were just going to have to stand by it no matter what happened.

A door somewhere down the hallway from us slammed shut.  Moments later I heard the sounds of footsteps approaching.  Lewis appeared in the waiting room doorway.

“Your assistance is required earlier than expected,” he said, handing me a slip of paper before going back down the hall.

Using the light from my cellphone, I examined the folded paper.  It was made of parchment, and it was quite a bit thicker than a standard piece of paper.  Tara watched silently as I unfolded it.  The message inside was written in exquisite calligraphy.

Please be so kind as to travel down to the morgue and retrieve the lungs of one Ms. Caroline Tafford.

I read the sentence over and over again.  While the message was simple enough to understand, my brain just couldn’t seem to process what it was instructing me to do.  Just the thought of it was enough to make my skin crawl and my blood run cold.

It was Tara that brought things back into focus.  She had always been the practical one in our relationship, and that practicality was on full display now.  Rather than concentrating on the task detailed in the note, she instead reminded me that, mere hours earlier, we had agreed to do whatever was required of us to give Violet one last chance to be able to grow up.  Unless we were willing to let her go, to let our baby girl die, we needed to stick to that agreement.  She took a deep breath before volunteering to be the one to do it.

I couldn’t let her.  Despite my own misgivings, I wasn’t about to allow her to take the risk.  What the note was asking was disgusting, yes, but it was also highly illegal.  If she got caught trying to steal body parts from a corpse she would go to jail.  It was better if I was the one to do it.

She tried to argue, saying that we were in our marriage together and Violet was our child.  If anything, it would be safer for us to do it together.  We could watch out for each other.  I just shook my head and pointed out that if we both got in trouble there would be no one there for Violet if she survived the procedure.  She had no answer to that, and she had to give in.

Deciding that I needed to get going before I talked myself out of what needed to be done, I left the waiting room and went out into the dark hallway.  As I was crossing over to the door leading to the stairwell, I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye.  It was gone by the time that I turned towards it.  I frowned.  The deep shadows made it difficult to be sure, but I would have sworn that I had seen a thin and tall figure, so tall that it almost touched the ceiling.  Nothing else happened while I watched, however, so I dismissed it as my eyes playing tricks on me.

I went into the stairwell and started descending the stairs towards the ground level.  There was a map of the hospital near the main desk in the lobby, and I hoped that it showed where the morgue was.  That was the extent of the plan that I had formed.  I had no idea what I was doing.

It turned out that I didn’t even need to go into the lobby.  When I reached the ground floor, there was a floor listing attached to the wall next to the door. The morgue was listed as being located on the first sublevel.  I continued down the stairs to my destination.

The hallway was quiet when I exited the stairwell.  I stood still for a long time, straining my ears in an effort to determine if anyone was nearby.  There was only silence.  It seemed strange that there wasn’t anyone around, but then I remembered what time it was.  Most of the staff had left for the day, leaving just the people assigned to the night shift.

The first door that I passed had a sign stating that it was a locker room.  The beginnings of an idea began to form in my mind.  I opened the door slightly and peered in.  It looked empty.  With one last glance over my shoulder, I went inside.

I went over to the bank of lockers and started trying to open them one by one.  Most of them were locked, and the few that weren’t didn’t have anything inside.  There was a second group on the other side of the room, and I hurried over and tried those as well.

I was almost out of lockers when I found what I was looking for: one that opened and contained a set of scrubs.  I quickly changed into them, putting my own clothes into the locker.  They were large on me, but not so much that someone would immediately notice.  I closed the locker door and made sure that the lock didn’t engage.

Leaving the locker room, I continued down the hallway until I reached a supply closet.  I opened it and rummaged around inside until I produced a mask, a surgeon cap, gloves, and shoe coverings.  I put them all on and shut the closet door.

As I did so, I saw the security camera at the end of the hall and froze.  Even if I didn’t run into anyone during the task that had been given to me, there would be footage of me in the sublevel halls.  There was no way that I’d be able to get away with this.  I felt panic beginning to rise in me.

That panic subsided slightly when I noticed that the light on this security camera was off, just like the one back up on the third floor had been.  I frowned and looked around me.  There was another camera above and to my left.  It was shut off as well.  No chance that this was just a coincidence.

Still, there wasn’t time to think about it.  I walked down the hall and followed a series of signs towards the hospital morgue.  I didn’t pass anyone, and I started to feel a bit more confident that I would be able to do what I needed to without getting caught.  I eventually reached the door I was looking for and, after a quick check to make sure that there was no one inside, I entered and slowly closed the door behind me.

The room was larger than I was thinking it would be.  A line of four gurneys were neatly arranged in the center of a gray tiled floor.  A series of silver sinks were attached to the wall to my right, and above those were large light boxes that glowed white.  Three metal tables were bolted to the ground.  Various pieces of equipment were attached to these tables, and lights hooked to moveable arms hung from the ceiling above them.  A tray with small medical instruments was positioned next to each one.

It was the wall on the far side of the room that held my attention, however.  Square cabinets, stacked three high and ten across, were inserted into the wall.  The doors were all closed.  Each of them was numbered, and there were identification tags posted on a number of them.  I had seen enough medical dramas on television to know that this was where the dead bodies were stored..

I looked back at the door that I had entered through.  This was likely my last chance to turn back.  I returned my attention to the cabinets and set my jaw.  That wasn’t an option.  Violet deserved her chance to live.

I crossed over to the drawers and took the note out of my pocket to verify the name of the person that I was looking for.  Caroline Tafford.  I slowly examined each of the identification tags in turn, making my way down the wall as I searched for the correct one.  When I reached the end, though, I still hadn’t found it.  I went through the tags two more times just to be sure.  There wasn’t anyone with either the same first or last name as the body I needed to find.

“Can I help you?” a voice said from behind me.

I had been so engrossed in my search that I hadn’t heard the door open.  Reminding myself that my face was hidden behind the mask, I turned around towards the speaker.  A woman in her early to mid-twenties was standing in the doorway.  She was dressed in the same type of blue scrubs that I was, but she was wearing a lab coat over them.  Her blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail.  She was regarding me with a curious expression on her face.

Thinking fast, I told her that I had been sent down to retrieve a blood sample from one of the bodies in storage.  I surprised myself with how easy the lie came to me.  I was even more surprised that the woman smiled and nodded.

“Let me give you a hand,” she said as she walked over to me.  “Dr. Gooding’s filing and cataloging system can be a bit of a nightmare.  Who are you looking for?”

I answered her with a name that I had seen on one of the identification tags.  As I did so, my eyes were drawn to the nametag that was pinned to the front pocket of her lab coat.  I had to restrain myself from reacting.  Written in blue letters was the name Carly Tafford.

I hadn’t been sent to retrieve the organs of a dead person.  I was there to collect the lungs of someone that was still very much alive.

I knew immediately that I couldn’t do this.  I was being asked to commit murder.  That was going way too far.  I mentally began to try to work out how to get out of the morgue without raising any suspicions.

An image of Violet sleeping in her hospital bed with tubes sticking out of her came unbidden into my head.  I bit my bottom lip as I watched the woman open one of the doors on the wall.  One thought kept repeating itself over and over: either she died, or my little girl did.

As she turned her back to me to start to roll out the body on its metal tray, I reached over to one of the instrument tables and grabbed a scalpel.  I quickly closed the distance between us, clamped my hand over her mouth, and pierced her neck with the blade.  I pulled hard, and it slid across her throat with surprising ease.

She tried to struggle against me, but it was much too late.  Blood poured out of the long incision.  I closed my eyes and kept my arms wrapped around her until the last of the fight was gone.  Her body leaned up against me, and I slowly lowered it down onto the floor.  She looked up at me in fear and confusion as the light faded from her eyes.

I had done it.  I had actually killed someone.  I stared down at the woman’s body for a long moment before rushing over to a sink, ripping off my mask, and heaving up the contents of my stomach.

I knew that I wasn’t done.  Killing her had only been the first step.

I used the sprayer attached to the sink to wash my vomit down the drain.  Putting the mask back on, I went over to the body and somehow managed to hoist it up onto the nearest table.  It wasn’t easy.  She couldn’t have weighed much more than a hundred pounds, but trying to maneuver even that little dead weight was extremely difficult.

The next hour was the worst of my life.  I had no medical training, and I certainly didn’t know anything about harvesting organs.  While the tools that were needed to remove the lungs were all there, I didn’t know the proper way to use them.  The result was a horrifically mutilated body.  It made me sick to think about what I had done to this poor woman that hadn’t deserved this… this desecration.

I kept expecting the morgue door to open as I worked, but it never did.  Apparently the woman had been the only one assigned to that shift, or at least the only one actively working in this section of the hospital.

That’s how I forced myself to think of her: the woman.  I couldn’t afford to refer to her by name, not even in my own thoughts.  That would only serve to remind me that she had been a living person, someone with feelings and desires and a family.  It was better to dehumanize her in my mind.  It was the only way that I managed to get through my grisly task.

When I had finally cut the lungs out of the woman’s chest, I looked around the room for something to put them in.  I spotted a portable cooler in one corner of the room and retrieved it.  It was marked for use to carry organs for transplanting.  It would have been funny if I hadn’t been so shaken and disgusted at the horrible act I had just performed.  I placed the lungs inside.  They were surprisingly heavy.

There was no way to hide what I had done.  Gore was everywhere.  I went over to the door and at the last second stopped myself from opening it.  Just like the room, I was covered in blood.  If I went out in the hallway dressed in those clothes I was going to leave a trail.  I stripped off the scrubs and balled them up along with the mask, cap, and shoe coverings.  With the bundle under one arm and the cooler under the other, I went out into the hallway barely clothed and hurried back to the locker room.

I quickly used one of the showers to rinse off my body before getting dressed.  The entire process had only taken about five minutes, but every second that passed was one moment closer to when the woman’s body would be discovered.

I finished dressing and looked at the ball of clothing sitting on the floor in front of the locker.  I didn’t know what to do with it.  When the police were inevitably called, they would do a thorough search of the hospital.  That meant that just throwing the scrubs into the trash wouldn’t work.  I couldn’t think of anywhere to hide them where they wouldn’t be discovered.

The locker room door opened, and I felt my heart skip a beat.  To my surprise, the man from upstairs, Lewis, entered the room.  He nodded once as he looked me up and down.

“Are the… items in that cooler?” he asked.

“Yes,” I told him, my voice sounding weak in my own ears.

“Good.  You should head back upstairs to be with your wife and daughter.  I’ll take care of those.”  He motioned at the scrubs with his chin.  “Leave the cooler here, too.”


He smiled slightly.  “She’s going to be just fine.  The procedure is finished, and it was a complete success.  As long as you keep up your end of the bargain, she’ll live a long and happy life.”

Violet did indeed make a full recovery.  To this day there has been no further sign of cancer, and if anything she’s healthier than she’s ever been.  Her doctors are at a loss to explain it.  The term ‘miracle’ has been thrown around a lot, but Tara and I know better.  It wasn’t any divine intervention that saved her.  It was a dark deal made with a dark devil.

I was never so much as questioned about the death of Caroline ‘Carly’ Tafford.

During the past two years, we’ve received three more of the finely written notes on parchment.  Each of them has been hand-delivered to us by Pembrook, the man who had first approached me in the restroom.  I don’t know for sure why it’s always him, but from what I’ve been able to piece together I think he handles certain types of business for the anonymous scientist.  Apparently that includes messenger duty.

Each of the tasks has been as bad as, if not worse, than the one that I had to perform in the hospital.  Despite Tara’s objections I have done them all myself.  I don’t want her hands to be dirtied like mine are.  I love her too much for that.

The worst part about the tasks, the part that really keeps me up at night, is that they’re getting easier.  Not the acts themselves, but convincing myself to perform them.  I’m becoming accustomed to the killing.  I’m not enjoying them.  I’m not some kind of psychopath.  It’s just…  I don’t have that voice in the back of my head acting as my conscience anymore.  I’ve changed in some fundamental way that I can’t quite explain.

Even if I still had any internal crisis about what I’m doing, I would just have to look at Violet going about her life to silence it.  Being able to watch her grow up instead of dying scared in that hospital bed makes everything worth it.  Some people may say that one child’s life isn’t worth the taking of many others.  Those people have never faced the certainty of losing their child before.

No matter what Violet’s mystery benefactor requests of me, I’ll do it.  I’ll be the butcher that he requires me to be.

For my daughter, I’ll keep killing until blood stains all the stars in the sky.

Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza

Paul Wallace wasn’t sure that he believed his eyes.

Being as careful as he could, he took the object that had caught his gaze off of the shelf and held it up to get a better look at it.  He felt a stir of excitement.  It was exactly what he had thought it was.

He was holding a small statue, roughly the size of a shoebox.  It depicted a small carnival.  In the center was a red and white circus tent.  Its flaps were open, and standing just inside of it was a smiling clown holding three balloons.  To the right of the tent was a platform with a dog dressed in a black suit and tophat, and to the left was a fortune teller booth with a woman seated inside.  The entire statue was in superb condition.

He looked up as he saw a man approaching him from the corner of his eye.  It was the person that had been hired by the estate to sell off the remaining property for the deceased.  The man smiled and nodded once.

“Good afternoon, sir,” the man said in a pleasantly deep voice.  “My name is Silas Pembrook.  I’m the manager of the estate.”

“Oh, yeah, hi, I’m Paul,” he replied.

“So good to meet you, Paul.  I see that you’ve found something of interest.”

“Yes, I think so.  Do you know if this is an original or a replica?”

The estate manager smiled slightly.  “Oh, it’s an original, sir.  The gentleman who owned this home was something of a collector.  What you are holding is an authentic Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza statuette.  It was produced in 1974, and it is one of only ten made.  Do you know the story behind it?”

Paul nodded.  “I’ve read that it was because of a mistake.”

“Indeed.  As you can see, the statue depicts the three original characters in the show: Bingo the Dog, Bango the Clown, and Poe the Fortune Teller.  However, it was also supposed to feature a recently introduced fourth character, Leo Lion.  Less than a dozen were produced before the mistake was caught.  The ones before the correction are extremely rare, not to mention expensive.”

“That’s what I’ve heard, yeah.”

Paul felt his excitement fading.  He had hoped that the man wouldn’t know what the statue was worth so that he could get it for a bargain price, but that obviously wasn’t the case.  Its actual value was well outside of what he could afford.

“Were you a fan of the show?” Pembrook asked.

“A big fan,” Paul answered.  “I used to watch it every morning with my father before I went to school and he went to work.  They’re some of my earliest memories.”

“I see.  I have to say, it’s rare to find a fan these days.  It wasn’t nationally televised for most of its run, and half hour cartoons were already starting to replace the children’s variety shows when it finally was.  Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza sadly never reached the same heights as, say, Bozo or The Muppets.  A number of television historians believe it was superior to both of those shows.”

Paul blinked in surprise at how well the man knew the history of the program.  “It really was a great show.”

“Indeed.”  Pembrook smiled again.  “Well then, down to business.  If you’re interested in purchasing the statue, I have it priced at $6500.  I’m sure you agree that is a fair price.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right.”  Paul sighed and placed the statue back on the shelf.  “Maybe some other time.”

“I understand.  It is a high price, but it’s also below market value and I do need to consider both the sellers and my firm’s percentage.”

“Yeah, of course, I get it.”

Pembrook regarded him for a moment.  “Tell me, Paul, would you be interested in the same statuette but in a lesser condition?”

“You’re serious?  There’s a second one of these here?”

“There is.  I found it as I was going through a number of boxes in storage.  I haven’t put it out due to the condition, but I’d be happy to retrieve it for you to take a look at.  I’m sure that we could come to some sort of arrangement on the price if you like it.”

Paul felt his previous excitement returning.  “I’d be very interested.”

“Then please excuse me for just a moment.”

Pembrook went through a door leading into the garage and closed it behind him.  While he waited, Paul slowly wandered around the house.  He was a collector of sorts, mostly things from his childhood that had some sort of meaning to him, and because of that he had attended many estate sales looking for bargains.  This one was somehow different.  Usually these sales were a bit cluttered or simply not organized, but everything here was neat and separated into categories.  He appreciated the effort that had gone into the setup.

Pembrook came back in from the garage with a cardboard box in his hands.  He set it down on the kitchen counter and motioned for Paul to come over.  He carefully opened the box and lifted the statue out of it.

Paul leaned down and looked it over.  While it was the same statue as the one he had originally looked at, this one was definitely in worse condition.  The colors were faded, and there were a number of small dents and chips.  There was also a large brown stain on the base.  Still, it wasn’t missing any pieces, and overall it was in fine shape for its age.

“As I said, it’s not in the superb condition that the one I have displayed is,” Pembrook told him.  “I apologize if you don’t find it acceptable.”

“No, it’s still great,” Paul assured him.  “Even with the issues, it’s much better than the ones that I’ve seen online.  How much are you asking for it?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it?”  The store manager considered it.  “I don’t have any particular instructions from the family when it comes to selling the damaged items.  Why don’t we say, oh, fifty dollars?”

“What, seriously?”

“I’m quite serious.  Obviously I could sell it for far more than that online, probably in the thousands even in the condition it is in, but between you and me I would rather that it end up with someone that will truly appreciate it.  What do you say, Paul?  Do we have a deal?”

“Yes, absolutely.  Thank you so much, Mr. Pembrook.”

“Please, it’s Silas.  Let’s fill out some paperwork.”

After leaving the estate sale, Paul put the box containing his purchase in the trunk of his car and headed over to the local hardware store.  He bought a wooden shelf and the brackets needed to hang it.  With that done, he headed home.

An hour later he was making the final adjustments to the shelf.  It was larger than the others that he used to display the pieces of his collection, but he had been worried that the weight of the statue would have been too much for those smaller floating shelves.  When he was finished, it occupied a spot right in the center of the wall.  He carefully took the statue out of the box and placed it onto the shelf.  He took a step back to get a better look and nodded to himself in satisfaction.

Something caught his eye.  He stepped back up to the shelf and took a closer look at the statue.  Just to the right of Bingo’s platform was a black post with a clock hanging from it.  He hadn’t noticed it back at the estate sale, and he didn’t remember it being in the pictures he had seen of the statue online.  He distinctly remembered it being on the show itself, however, so he must have simply overlooked that particular detail of the statue.  That, or he was in possession of an even rarer item than he had thought.

Paul sat down on the couch and sighed as he closed his eyes.  It had been a long day.  Before he had gone to the estate sale on a whim, he had worked for hours on a client account at his small accounting office.  A tiny mistake on the client’s part had caused an avalanche of document requests from the IRS, and he had spent the day preparing and sending them to help the client avoid a full audit.  Originally he had intended to work a short day, but that obviously hadn’t been the case.

Hours later, Paul woke up with a start.  He hadn’t realized that he was nodding off, and it took him a moment to gather his thoughts.  Wiping the crust out of the corner of his eyes, he looked out the window and found that it was dark outside.  He took his cell phone out of his pocket to check the time, but the phone was dead.  He frowned.  He would have sworn that he had fully charged it the previous night.

He reached over and turned on the small lamp next to the couch.  Now that he could see better in the gloom he was able to locate the television remote.  He used it to turn on the television, and the time that was displayed at the top of the screen told him that it was just past ten.  He had been asleep longer than he thought.

“Are you ready to have some fun?”

The sudden exclamation from the television drew his attention to the show that was playing.  An overhead camera shot was showing a large carnival down below.  As he watched, the shot changed to one at the ground level.  A striped circus tent was in the middle of the frame, with a blue platform directly in front of it.

From behind the platform, a puppet popped up into view.  It was a black and white dog with blue eyes, likely a Siberian Husky, wearing a suit with a bowtie and tophat.  Children cheered from off camera as the dog bobbed around excitedly.

“Hello, boys and girls!” the fuzzy puppet said.  “Welcome to Bingo’s Circus!  I’m Bingo, your master of ceremonies!”

Paul couldn’t believe what he was seeing.  It was Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza.  He hadn’t seen an episode of it in decades, and yet here was one being broadcast the very same day he had bought a piece of memorabilia from the show.  The odds of that were astronomical.

“Today we’re going to play a really fun game, kiddos!” Bingo was saying, calliope music playing in the background.  “We’re going to play tag!  Won’t that be fun?”

The children cheered again.

“Great!  We have a very special guest today to play the game with us.  Let’s give a big circus welcome to Paul Wallace!”

Horns blared on the show as Paul stared at the screen in confusion.  Had Bingo actually said his name?  He shook his head slowly.  He must have misheard.

“Oh, you heard right, Pauly Boy,” Bingo said as the camera moved in closer to the dog’s face.  “You’re the lucky boy that gets to take part in our little game.  Would you like to hear the rules?”

“No fucking way is this really happening,” Paul said to himself.

The puppet sighed.  “It’s going to be one of those days, isn’t it?  Look over at your new shiny statue, Pauly.  Go on, take a peak.”

Still not believing what was happening, he turned his eyes towards his collection wall.  At first it appeared that the statue was the same as when he had last looked at it, but something wasn’t quite right.  His eyes widened as it clicked.  The Bingo figure was missing from his platform.

“That’s right,” the Bingo on the television said.  “I decided to go out for a little stroll so that you and I can get to know each other better.  Don’t worry, Bango and Poe will be along soon enough to give you their regards as well.”

“How is this possible?” Paul asked.

“Doesn’t really matter at the moment, Pauly.  What does matter is the rules of the game we’re all about to play.  Like I said before, we’re going to be playing tag.  It’s a very special kind of tag, though.  If we catch ya, instead of it being your turn, you die a horrible death!”

He felt a chill run through him.  “Wait, what?”

“Don’t worry, we’ll make it fair.  Only one of us is coming after you at a time, and we each get, oh, I dunno, let’s say half an hour each.  We’ll even give you little breathers in between.  That’s a pretty sweet deal there.  The clock on the statue will chime to start the round, and it’ll chime a second time when it’s over.  What do you say, ready to get this show on the road?”

“I’m not playing your game,” Paul said firmly.

“Kiddo, we’re not giving you a choice.”

The television turned itself off.

Paul stared at the black screen as he tried to process what he had just experienced.  He was so stunned that he barely registered the loud ringing that filled the room.  Still trying to collect himself, he turned his head towards the noise.  The clock on the statue had chimed.

As the chime faded, there was a different sound from the kitchen.  Something or someone was rattling around in the drawers.  Fear pierced through the haze in his head, and Paul instantly decided that he wasn’t going to stick around to find out what happened next.  He gave one last glance towards the archway leading into the kitchen before bolting for the front door and pulling it open.

He had made it onto the porch before he realized what he was seeing.  The house and yard were surrounded by some kind of cloth.  It was red and white striped, just like the circus tent on the television show.  He looked up and found that he could just make out the top of the tent high above the roof of the house.

Swearing loudly, he ran down the walkway to the sidewalk and pressed his hand up against the tent.  It didn’t budge.  Whatever it was, it wasn’t made of cloth.  He tried pushing harder and it had the same result.  He was trapped.

“Pretty neat, isn’t it?” a voice called from the house.

Paul turned back around.  Standing on the porch was the Bingo puppet from the show.  There was no puppeteer, but the dog was still able to move around freely.  The white and black fur was covered in dark brown stains.  His right paw was wrapped around the handle of one of the knives that had been stored in a block on the kitchen counter.  He tilted his head slightly as he stared back at Paul.

“What the fuck is happening?” Paul yelled at the dog.

“I already told you,” Bingo replied, the puppet’s mouth moving perfectly with the words.  “We’re playing a game of tag.  Let’s get this show on the road, big guy.  I’ve got twenty-four minutes left, and I plan on making the most of them.”

With surprising speed, Bingo sprinted towards him with the knife extended outward.  Paul swore violently and went to run in the opposite direction, forgetting for a moment about the impenetrable tent wall that separated the property from the rest of the world.  He ran along the edge of the grass instead as he tried to put as much distance between himself and the puppet as he could.

Paul heard Bingo laugh gleefully as he ran around the side of the house.  He wasn’t really thinking about what to do or where to go.  Panic had fully gripped him, and in that moment he wasn’t capable of rational thinking.  Too much had happened too soon.

He reached the backyard and risked a glance over his shoulder.  Bingo was no longer behind him.  He slowed his pace for a few seconds before coming to a complete stop.  Breathing heavily, he tried to figure out where the dog had gone.

There wasn’t much light in the yard, with the only illumination coming from a single security light mounted on the roof.  Large sections were dark, making it impossible to see what they contained.  He was just barely able to make out that the back door of the house was open.  His eyes widened.  While he had been blindly running in a wide track around the yard, Bingo must have simply returned to the house and gone out the back.  That meant he was definitely somewhere nearby.

The grass was brown and dying, a casualty of the late fall season.  It was still long, however, as Paul had never gotten around to doing one last mow.  With Bingo being only about a foot tall, he could easily crawl through it without being seen.

He felt a sharp pain in the side of his leg.  He gasped and looked down.  Bingo was standing next to him, the sharp knife clutched in both paws as he pushed the blade into Paul’s leg.  It was caught in his jeans, and just the tip had managed to penetrate the material.

Paul spun around and kicked the puppet, sending the dog flying across the yard.  The knife pulled free of both his leg and Bingo’s grasp, and it struck the ground with a clang.  The puppet laughed from where he had landed.

“Oh boy, Pauly, now this is a good time!” Bingo shouted.  “I haven’t had this much fun in ages!”

Kneeling down, Paul felt around in the dark grass, trying to find where the knife was.  He heard a rustling sound nearby as he searched.  There was a flash of pain from his hand, followed closely by the warm sensation of blood.  Bingo had returned and located the knife before he could.  Paul scrambled backwards and nearly fell as he hurried back to his feet.  He managed to regain his balance at the last second.

His footfalls were strangely loud in his ears as he hurried across the yard.  There was no wind under the tent, and no sounds from the outside world managed to penetrate it.  All that he could hear were his feet stomping through the grass, his heavy breathing, and his heart pounding in his ears.

When he reached the front of the property he had to stop.  He was out of shape, and his lungs were screaming for oxygen.  He leaned against the mailbox and gulped in air, his eyes constantly moving as he searched for any sign of Bingo.

“We’re in the home stretch now, buddy boy!” the puppet called out.  “Let’s turn things up a notch.”

Because of the strange acoustics, Paul wasn’t able to tell what direction the voice was coming from.  It definitely sounded close.  Ignoring the pain in his leg and hand, he hurried up onto the porch and closed the front door.  If Bingo was going to attack him, he wasn’t going to be able to sneak up on him to do it.

There was a laugh from up above.  Paul was barely able to move out of the way as Bingo leaped at him from his hiding spot in the corner of the porch roof.  The knife came so close to his face that he felt the air shift against his skin as it passed by.  The puppet hit the wooden planks and thrust the knife at his leg.

Paul had shaken off the momentary surprise, however, and this time instead of panicking he got mad.  Moving out of the way of the attack, he knocked the knife out of Bingo’s hands and off of the porch with his foot.  He reached down before the puppet could recover and scooped it up by the neck.  Bingo struggled against his grip, but Paul ignored him and pushed him onto an old nail that was sticking out of one of the porch pillars.  He had been meaning to hammer it back into place for quite a while.  For once his procrastination was coming in handy.  The nail pierced into the dog’s cloth skin and deep into the fluff within it.

“Oh ho!” Bingo said as he flailed about in a desperate attempt to free himself.  “Aren’t you Mr. Smartypants.”

“Fuck you,” Paul spit out.

“No thanks.  I have a certain type, and you’re not it.  You understand.”

“Tell me what’s going on right the fuck now.”

“I would, kid, but I’m afraid our time is up.”

From inside the house came a loud chime.

“I gotta tell ya, I didn’t think that you had it in you,” Bingo told him.  “It’s not very often someone goes the full thirty minutes with me.  My hat’s off to you.  Well, it would be if it wasn’t sewn on.  So we’ll just say that my metaphorical hat is off to you.”

Paul didn’t know what to say.  This was all so messed up.  He paced back and forth on the porch, making sure to keep his eye on the trapped puppet the entire time.

“I would save your energy,” Bingo advised.  “Remember what I said when I was giving you the rules?  You’ve got a little bit of time before the next round.  Rest your legs, maybe get a glass of water.  Smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.”

“You just tried to murder me, and now you’re giving me advice?” Paul asked.

“Yeah, you know what?  That’s fair.  I’ll shut the ol’ yapper now.”

Paul opened his mouth to respond, but he was cut off by a loud screeching.  He covered his ears as the high pitched squeal dug into them.  It was the same noise that rusty gears made when they ground together, but at the volume that was assaulting him they would have had to have been huge.  The porch began to shake beneath his feet.

The tent wall started moving inward.  At first Paul thought that his eyes were playing tricks on him, but he could see it tearing up the lawn and concrete as it slowly pressed in towards the house.  As it drew closer he feared that it was going to crush everything in its path.  It stopped moving when it reached the front steps of the porch, however, and the deafening noise ceased.

There was a long moment of silence, followed by another chime from inside the house.

After checking to make sure that Bingo was still stuck on the nail, Paul opened the front door and went into the entryway.  He paused and listened intently.  When he didn’t hear anything, he went into the living room and looked at the statue on the shelf.  While Poe was still seated at her fortune teller booth, Bango was no longer standing behind the open circus tent flaps.

He caught a whiff of a foul stench.  He turned and found that the room was still empty.  There was, however, a faint trail of gray smoke leading out of the room and into the back hallway.  After a brief hesitation he followed it through the archway and flipped on the light.

Standing at the end of the hall was a mountain of a man.  He was at least seven feet tall, extremely overweight with a balding head.  The few hairs that remained were dyed a bright green.  His face was painted white except for the area around his lips, which was instead a bright red.  The man was dressed in blue overalls that covered a yellow shirt with a white frilly collar and a red bowtie.  A flower was pinned to one of the straps.  He was chewing on a large cigar.

“Evening,” Bango said in a low gravelly voice.

He took a step forward, and Paul could feel the hallway floor vibrate as he moved.

“Been a while since I’ve been out.  Feeling… hungry.”

The clown smiled, revealing yellowed teeth behind his painted lips.  He took a second step forward, and then a third.  As he drew closer Paul could see that there were brownish stains around his mouth and on the front of his shirt, the same kind of stains that were on Bingo’s fur.  He couldn’t be sure, but he thought that it looked a lot like dried blood.

With the tent pressed up against the house, there was no way that Paul would be able to run out the timer the way that he had with Bingo.  He had to figure out how to stay away from the clown’s reach.  As he backed up into the living room, he realized that the archway was going to be too small for the massive man.  As long as he didn’t go into the hallway, he would be safe.

Bango grunted as he came to the archway, but he didn’t stop moving.  Instead, he pressed forward without breaking stride.  The wood and plaster creaked for a split second before breaking away and creating a wider opening.  The clown laughed as Paul moved further away.

“Nice try,” Bango taunted.

Thinking quickly, Paul grabbed the wooden chair from his nearby desk and swung it as hard as he could.  It collided with the clown’s chest loudly before shattering.  He picked up the desk lamp and hurled it into the man’s face.  It broke and fell to the floor.  Neither improvised weapon had any effect.

“Makin’ me hungrier,” Bango said.  “Might have to eat you raw.”

“You know that tartare plays havoc with your digestion,” Bingo called from the porch.


“You’re no fun when you’re like this.”

“Shut it.”

“Okay, okay, fine.”

Paul’s initial thought was to make a break for the stairs and get up to the second floor.  The stairs weren’t wide enough for Bango to get up them.  The clown seemed to anticipate this, however, and he moved his bulk in such a way as to put himself between Paul and the stairs.  He wouldn’t be able to get around him.

His eyes fell on a door to his right.  It led down into the basement.  If Bango could follow him down there he would be trapped, but the doorway wasn’t large enough for the clown and the walls of the stairwell were heavy concrete instead of wood.  It would be able to take much more abuse than the archway had.  It was his best bet, and he would just have to hope that he would be safe.

The problem was that the path to it was also blocked.  Unlike the stairs, however, it was near the front door.  If he could figure out a way to get out onto the porch, he could run back into the house and hurry down into the basement.

Bango lunged forward just as he turned to run.  The tips of the clown’s fingers caught him in the shoulder for just a moment before he managed to pull away and get into the kitchen.  The window in the room looked out onto the front porch.  He hurried over to it and disengaged the lock before trying to open it.

It was stuck.  No matter how hard he tried to push it up, the window just would not slide on its track.  It was an old house, and this type of thing was a constant issue.  Giving up, he opened a cupboard and took out an iron skillet.  He swung it as hard as he could and shattered the glass.

He heard Bango smash through the kitchen doorway but didn’t turn around.  Knowing that he didn’t have time to clear away all the pieces of glass still in the frame, Paul gritted his teeth and shoved himself out of the window.  Shards dug into his right arm and both sides of his body, tearing clothes and skin alike as he slid out onto the porch.  The clown’s arm followed him through and attempted to grab him, but he managed to barely keep out of its reach.

The arm retracted back into the kitchen, but not all the way.  Instead, the fat fingers plucked a few shards of glass from the window frame before retreating back out of sight.  There was an odd crunching noise followed by a satisfied grunt.

“Nothing like fresh blood,” Bango said from inside.  “Bits of skin, too.”

Paul got back to his feet and went to the still open front door.  As he did so, he saw that Bingo was no longer on the exposed nail.  The puppet must have torn itself free.  He didn’t have time to worry about it.  He needed to hurry.

He went through the doorway and into the living room.  Bango emerged through the ruined kitchen arch just as his hand wrapped around the knob on the basement door.  He flung it open and rushed down the stairs.  He had only gotten a few feet down when his arm was grabbed and he came to a halt.  The clown had caught him.

Bango grinned down at him, licking his lips as he did so.

Paul attempted to pull away, and to his surprise his arm slipped out of the clown’s grip.  The blood from his cuts had made his skin slick.  He fell backwards down the stairs, landing hard at the bottom and slamming his head on the concrete floor.  The air whooshed out of his lungs as stars filled his vision.

He wasn’t sure how long he laid there before he started breathing regularly again.  Sitting up on his elbows, he blinked a few times as his head slowly cleared.  He could see Bango at the top of the stairs as he attempted to force his way into the basement.  The door had been ripped off of its hinges and the walls just inside were heavily damaged, but the enormous clown couldn’t push past the concrete to descend any further.

Paul moved further into the basement and hid beside the washing machine, praying that the walls would hold.

After what seemed like an eternity, he heard the chime come from the statue clock.  He waited for a few seconds before standing up, winching in pain as he did so.  He hobbled over to the stairwell, wondering when he had hurt his leg.  Looking up, he saw a small shape standing at the very top.

“You can come up now, Pauly,” Bingo called down through the open door.  “You heard the chime.  You’ve got yourself a few minutes before the final round of our little game.  Come get yourself a drink.  You’ve earned it.”

Paul stared up at the doorway, but he didn’t move or answer.

“Use your noodle, kiddo.  If we were going to break the rules, I would have just come down and gutted ya when you outsmarted Bango.”

“Watch it,” the clown’s voice came from the living room.

“Just calling a spade a spade here.  He got you pretty good.  Hell, he got me, too.  Come on, Pauly.  Let’s talk.”

Not really sure what else to do, Paul did as he was told and slowly ascended the stairs.  His multiple cuts and lacerations burned as he moved.  He reached the top just in time to see Bingo sit down in one of the chairs.  Bango was seated on the long couch, his body filling the majority of it as he took a long drag on his cigar.  The murderous hunger was gone from his eyes, and he nodded once to Paul.

“You want to pour yourself something stiff?” Bingo asked.

“Uh, no,” Paul replied, keeping his distance.

“You don’t have to stand all the way over there.  We don’t bite.”

“Liar,” Bango said with a deep chuckle.

“You know what I mean.”  The puppet motioned towards the shelf with the statue on it.  “Poe will be along in a few minutes.  You might have gotten past the two of us, but I’m sorry to say that your good luck is about to run out, kid.  I mean that, too.  Both parts, the part where you’re going to be finito and the part where I’m sorry.”

Bingo fell silent.  He seemed to stare off into the distance blankly, but it was hard to tell if he was thinking about something or if it was just because the puppet’s eyes couldn’t close.  Bango was looking around the room curiously, as if he was seeing it for the first time.

“All we wanted was our big break,” Bingo said suddenly.  “We worked long and hard to make Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza the best show on television, and dammit, we succeeded.  After all that work, though, the only thing kids wanted to watch was unoriginal cartoon trash shoveled out by toy companies.  We would offer them fresh and new entertainment, and they picked the glorified commercials every single time.  Well, what can I say, kids are morons.”

“Amen,” Bango grunted.

“You’re obviously a fan of the show, Pauly.  Do you know about anything that happened after it ended?”

“Um, no, I don’t,” Paul said, still not quite believing that this conversation was happening.

“It wasn’t pretty.”  Bingo shook his head slowly.  “We showed up on set on a Tuesday morning and were told that our services were no longer needed.  The production company had pulled the plug on the whole show.  We knew the ratings weren’t what everyone had hoped for, but we hadn’t known that things were that bad.  It was like getting slapped in the face with a brick.  Everything was just suddenly… over.  Gone in a puff of smoke.  You sure you don’t want a drink?”

“I’m good.”

“I would kill for a scotch.  Doesn’t work well with the whole puppet thing, though.  No digestive system.  Anyway, I knew that I was screwed.  There wasn’t a lot of work for a puppeteer.  The big studios that used them for stuff like Star Wars and The Muppets weren’t even taking applications.  They were all about who you knew, if you catch my meaning.”

Bango made an indelicate sound.

“As bad as things were for me, they were even worse for old Bango here.  Clowns were already losing popularity, but then Stephen fucking King decided to write that damn book.”

It,” Bango supplied.

“Yeah, that’s right, fucking It.  Suddenly everyone and their mother’s afraid of clowns.  I’m here to tell you that Bango is the best clown show business has ever seen.  Incredible comedic timing, and that goes for both jokes and physical comedy.  Fuck Bozo.  This guy right here is the top of the damn mountain.”

“Thank you for that.”  The massive man seemed genuinely moved by the compliment.

“It’s just how I feel.  It was and still is an honor working with you.  And then there’s Poe.”

The puppet fell silent again.  Paul looked back over at the statue, afraid that Poe would be gone from her booth, but the figure was still present.  He noticed that both Bingo and Bango were staring at the same place.

“I found Poe working at Coney Island in a sideshow,” Bingo continued, his voice a bit quieter.  “Telling fortunes, reading palms, that sort of thing.  I had her read tarot cards for me on a lark.  I’ll be damned if every single prediction she made didn’t come true by the end of the week.  None of that vague stuff, either.  She gave me specifics that couldn’t be misinterpreted.  I had just started putting together the show, and I knew that I wanted her on it.”

He sighed.  “I think the show being canceled hit her the hardest out of all of us.  At Coney Island she had been seen as some kind of freak, but on Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza, she was loved by thousands and thousands of children.  More than her fair share of parents, too.  For the first time in her life she was happy.  Being told that she wasn’t going to have that happiness and acceptance anymore…  I can’t imagine what that felt like.  It was a lot more than just a silly television show to her.  It was a lot more to all of us.”

“Dark days,” Bango put in.

“You ain’t whistlin’ Dixie.”  Bingo looked up at the ceiling.  “Dark enough that we made a deal we never would have considered otherwise.  Poe isn’t just a bunch of parlor tricks, you see.  She’s got a real connection with, well, something.  Call them spirits, or demons, or gods.  I don’t know exactly what they are, but when she called on them to help, they heard that call and came.  They offered to make it so that Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza lived on forever with us as the star players, all for one low low price.”

“Our souls.”

“Can you believe we jumped at the chance, Pauly?  Said yes without even thinking about it.  Turns out we should have read the fine print.  We got put into that statue so that we could live on forever.  It would be a pretty funny punchline if it hadn’t happened to us.  The only time we get to come out is when there’s someone new to kill.  Those shadowy friends of Poe’s enjoy that sort of thing.  They get off on these kinds of games.  We don’t get to say no, either.  Turns out owning someone’s soul gives you a whole lot of control over that someone.”

“There she goes,” Bango said.

Paul returned his attention to the statue.  The small figure of Poe was indeed gone from the fortune teller booth.  His heart began to beat harder in his chest as he looked around for any sign of her.  The clock chimed again, but it was oddly muted, like it was underwater.

“Looks like our time’s up,” Bingo told him.  “It was good talking with you, Pauly.  It’s been nice.  If I can give you one bit of advice, it’s this: enjoy your last moments as much as you can.  At the end of the day I’m just a talking dog puppet, and Bango’s just a big clown.  Poe’s so much more than that now.”

“What?” Paul demanded.  “What is she?”

The puppet looked up at him.  “She’s one of them now.”

A loud chime sounded throughout the house, and Paul felt the room grow cold as the lights went out.

Both Bingo and Bango turned their heads towards the stairs leading to the second floor.  It took a moment for Paul to process that he could see them in the darkness.  With the tent surrounding the house and no lights on it should have been impossible.  There was a faint, almost unnoticeable glow coming from upstairs, and just enough of it was making it downstairs for him to see their silhouettes.

“It’ll be worse if she has to come to you,” Bingo informed him in a voice barely above a whisper.

Paul knew that he was right.  Some instinct that he didn’t know that he possessed was telling him that the only course of action was to go confront whatever was waiting for him upstairs.  This wasn’t a threat that he could run or hide from.

He took a moment to retrieve a knife from the kitchen.  As he did so, he noticed the empty spot on the block where Bingo had removed one of them.  He figured that he should be worried that the puppet might have retrieved it, but he was sure that it didn’t matter.  Bingo’s turn had come and gone.  The dog was no longer a threat.

All that he had to do was get through the final turn.  Poe’s turn.  If he did that, there was no one else left on the statue, and he would win.  He had to assume that meant that he would be free of this horrible trap.  There was no way to know for sure that was the case.  It was the best guess that he had, however, and he’d take a faint hope over no hope any day.

Now armed, he went back out into the living room and walked up to the foot of the stairs.  From this position he could see more of the light emanating from the second floor.  It was a pale, almost sickly white, and instead of being steady it pulsed like a heartbeat.  He gripped the banister with his free hand as he squeezed the knife’s handle tightly.  Before he could talk himself out of it, he began to climb the stairs.

She was standing at the far end of the hallway when he reached the top.  Poe was wearing a long black dress, with a matching veil hanging in front of her face.  Her hands were cupped in front of her.  They were holding a small crystal ball, the same one that she had used to read fortunes on the old television show.  The light was coming from the orb.  There seemed to be movements inside the ball, like fog churning in the wind.

Paul could just barely see her face through the veil.  Her skin was nearly translucent.  It was both beautiful and terrifying.

He jerked his head to the side when someone whispered in his right ear.  There was no one there.  The same thing happened to his left, and once again when he looked in that direction there was no source.  As he turned his attention back to Poe, more and more of the whispers became audible.  Within moments he was surrounded by them.  They made it hard to think, and even though he hadn’t thought it was possible he felt his fear growing even more.  Confronting Poe had been a mistake.  He needed to run.

When he spun around to go back down the stairs, however, he found that they were no longer there.  No, he corrected himself.  They were there, but they were covered in blackness.  It was like a solid shadow was laying across them.  He tentatively put a foot out towards where he knew the top step should be.  As he did so, the darkness shifted and extended a tendril out towards him.  He quickly pulled his foot back, and the tendril retracted back into the black mass.

The whispering became louder.  He was almost able to make out individual voices in the strange chorus, but the sounds weren’t quite clear enough for him to do so.  The tones the unseen speakers murmured in were simultaneously inviting and sinister.

Paul took a deep breath and turned back to face Poe.  She was still standing where she had been when he had taken his eyes off of her, regarding him silently through her veil.  The temperature in the hallway dropped further, and he began to shiver.

He glanced at the two doors, one on each side of the hall.  One led into the bathroom, and the other into his bedroom.  Before he could take a step towards either of them, the same blackness that blocked the stairs crept over them.  She was systematically taking away all of his escape routes.

There was only one option left.  Turning his attention to the ceiling, he located the short string hanging down from it and jumped up to grab it.  As he pulled it down, the hatch it was attached to opened and an old wooden ladder lowered to the ground.  He expected Poe to try to stop him, but instead she continued to remain still.  With one last glance at her, he hurried up the ladder and into the attic, pulling the steps back up and closing the hatch behind him.

Feeling around with his hands in the dark, he crawled over to the wall and sat back against it.  He took a number of deep breaths and tried to calm himself.  All that he needed to do was stay in the attic until time ran out.  He had won.

A pale white light flared in the far corner of the attic.  Paul jumped and started hastily scurrying away from it as Poe stepped out of the shadows, the crystal ball still held in her hands.  She began to slowly advance.  She glided along the wooden boards like a spirit, her dress trailing behind her.  He kept backing away until he reached the end of the wall.  There was nowhere else to go.

She raised the orb and extended her arms towards him.  He screamed, the knife forgotten as it slipped out of his fingers.

Moments later the house was still.  In the living room, on a shelf in the middle of one wall, was the statue Paul had purchased earlier that day at the estate sale.  Bingo stood on his platform as if to welcome guests to the festivities.  Bango was just behind the open flaps of the tent, a grin on his face as he readied himself to make both children and adults laugh.  In her fortune teller booth, Poe sat in front of her crystal ball with an enigmatic smile at the edges of her lips.  There was no black pole with a clock attached to it.

From the television came the sound of a calliope, and a man’s voice excitedly announced, “Welcome to Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza!  Are you ready to have some fun?”

Nighty Night

For the past five years, it’s just been Ian and me.

My wife’s pregnancy with him wasn’t easy.  There were a number of scares and close calls due to health issues that she had experienced all her life.  Every doctor she had ever been to had told her that she would never be able to get pregnant in the first place.  She put on a brave face and joked that she would just get an entire litter of puppies instead, but when she was thinking about it and didn’t know I was watching her real feelings were etched all over her face.  She loved kids, and the thought of not being able to have one herself was heartbreaking for her.

We discussed other options, of course.  Adoption, fostering, you name it and we looked into it.  We even had a meeting scheduled with an adoption agency when a miracle happened.

That miracle was Ian.  Against all the odds, Ellen became pregnant.  Her doctors were at a complete loss.  It should have been impossible, but suddenly there we were, talking about converting our second bedroom into a nursery and planning out how to shuffle around our work schedules to make sure that one of us was always home with the baby.

The complications began about four months into the pregnancy.  It seemed like every few weeks we were at the hospital while the staff ran tests or performed procedures.  Ellen was amazing during all of it.  I was acting like a complete lunatic, worried out of my mind about every little thing, but she would just lay there in the uncomfortable hospital bed stroking her increasingly large belly and smiling to herself.  She would tell me that she just knew that everything would work out in the end, and that all of the issues were just bumps in the road.

She went into labor early, just a few days after the thirty-one week mark.  She waddled into the kitchen and told me in a very calm and very matter-of-fact tone that the baby was coming.  I had been getting ready for bed, so in that same collected manner she retrieved the bag we had packed weeks earlier and the car keys while I frantically got dressed and grabbed the few necessary items that hadn’t gone into the bag yet.

Six hours later, Ian was born.  He was so small, and I could feel my heart sink as he emerged.  The doctor immediately took him over to a radiant warmer table where he and a nurse began working with him.  A second nurse kept me from getting too close to ensure that I didn’t get in the way.  The activity suddenly stopped, and the most wonderful sound filled the room: our son started to cry.  The doctor informed me that due to Ian’s size he would need to spend a couple of weeks in the newborn intensive care unit, but that from what he could see the child would be fine.  I remember feeling so relieved that I had to put a hand on the bed’s footboard to steady myself.

My fingers had just touched the plastic when the alarm on Ellen’s monitor went off.

Ian and I lost her in less than an hour.

It wasn’t anything that the hospital staff did wrong, and it wasn’t anything that could have been prevented.  The stress of the labor and birth had been too much for her, and she had suffered massive hemorrhaging.  The staff did their absolute best to save her.  It just wasn’t possible.  She never even got to hold Ian before she was gone.

I never got a chance to mourn her.  I was now a single parent, and all that mattered was that tiny little baby in the NICU.  The next few weeks were spent going to work, getting through my shift, and immediately returning to the hospital to sit with Ian all night before doing it all over again.  Shortly before he was released, I secured a position with a new company.  It paid less, but it allowed me to work from home.  Without much of a family support system I needed to be there for him at all times.  After all, it was just me and him now.

I wish so much that Ellen could see this incredible child that we made together.  He’s loving, energetic, frustrating, confounding, and so much more.  He’s everything that we could have hoped for and so much more.

He also has a very vivid imagination for his age, which is partly why I didn’t believe him when he first told me that he was being visited by something during the night.

It took a while to get to this point, but we’ve settled into a routine each evening.  We have dinner together, spend about an hour running around outside if the weather is nice or playing inside if it isn’t, Ian gets his bath, and then he lays down to sleep for the night.  This routine is supposed to be finished around eight o’clock each night, but if you have kids you know that no routine is foolproof.  On the first night that he was visited I didn’t manage to get him wrangled into bed until almost nine.

I was catching up on work at my desk when I heard Ian yell for me.  I’m ashamed to admit that my first reaction was to feel irritated.  Normally when he called out like that it was to try to get one last drink of water or to tell me that he isn’t tired and can’t go to sleep.  That would happen at least twice a week.  I said that I have an incredible child, not one that wasn’t prone to the usual four year old tendencies.

When he immediately cried out a second time, though, I stood up and pushed my chair back so hard that it tipped over.  There was panic in his voice.  I hurried up the short flight of stairs to the second floor and flung his door open, my hand immediately going for the light switch.

Ian was sitting in his bed with tears streaming down his face.  The left leg of his pajama pants was pulled up, and his hands were pressed down on the skin.  The sheets and comforter from his bed were laying on the floor.  His pillow was hanging halfway off the mattress.

I hurried over to him and knelt down next to this bed, putting down the safety rail as I did so.  He immediately flung his arms around my neck and started crying harder.  The sobbing was so intense that he started to cough uncontrollably.  I pried him off of me and held him in my lap to allow him to catch his breath.  We sat there for a long time, him crying and sniffing loudly with me gently stroking his hair and telling him that everything was all right.

When he finally calmed down, I sat him on the edge of his bed and took his hands away from his leg.  There were three long scratches running down it.  They weren’t deep, but there were a few tiny beads of blood.  I gently asked him what had happened.  He remained silent.  I asked him again, and this time he lifted his head to look me in the eyes.

“Nighty Night hurt me,” he told me in a tiny voice.

I looked back at him in confusion.  I don’t know what I had expected him to say, but it certainly hadn’t been that.

“Nighty night?” I asked softly.  “Like what I tell you at night before you go to sleep?”

“Nighty Night,” Ian repeated, more forcefully this time.  “He scratched me.  Like the bad cat did.”

Just after his third birthday, he had been scratched by a neighbor’s kitten while trying to play with it.  The claws had even punctured the skin, but the incident had stuck with him.

“I’m sorry, big guy, I don’t understand.  Are you saying that Nighty Night is a cat?”

“No cat.  Nighty Night is a monster, Daddy.  He hurt me.”

I looked back down at the scratches.  They were obviously real, but just as obviously they hadn’t been caused by any monster.  Something else had happened.

I want to make it clear that I never thought for a second that Ian was lying to me.  Sure, he was prone to the occasional fib just like any young child was, but he never lied to me about important things.  Besides, he was too scared to be making up a story.

Scooping Ian into my arms, I carried him into the bathroom and got the first aid kit out of the cabinet.  As I sat down on the toilet and maneuvered him into my lap, I mentally slapped my forehead.  The past few nights I had forgotten to trim his fingernails when I had given him his bath.  He must have scratched himself in his sleep.  It had woken him up, and his still half-asleep mind must have interpreted the whole thing as a monster attacking him.

I quickly bandaged the scratches before trimming his nails with a small silver clipper.  He had calmed down by that point, and I gave him a hug before carrying him back to his room.  When I went to put him down in bed, however, he held onto me so tightly that I nearly tipped forward.  He absolutely refused to sleep in his bedroom that night.  We ended up falling asleep together on the couch downstairs, and by the time the sun was up he was back to his usual self.  The events of the previous night seemed to be forgotten.

It was Saturday, and because I didn’t have to work on the weekends I took Ian to a local state park.  We spent the entire day playing on the playground and splashing around in the lake.  By the time we left the park and headed home we were both exhausted.  He fell asleep in his car seat just a few minutes away from the house.  I carried him inside and up to his bed.  He remained passed out through the entire process.

I planned to let him sleep for an hour or so.  He still needed to eat dinner, and I knew that if he napped for too long it would be almost impossible to get him down that night.  I kicked off my shoes and flopped down in a chair to enjoy the momentary silence.

That silence didn’t last long.  It was shattered by Ian screaming.  It wasn’t a yelp or crying out like it had been the previous night.  This was a full scream, one filled with pain and terror.  I yelled his name as I leaped up the stairs and burst into his room.

Ian was seated on the floor, his thumb in his mouth and his eyes watery.  He was rocking back and forth slowly.  He looked up at me with a blank expression, as if he knew that I was there but my presence didn’t mean anything to him.

I picked him up, and as I did so I felt something warm and wet on my hand.  I pulled it away from his back and saw that there was blood on my fingers.  Just as I had the night before, I carried him into the bathroom and turned on the light.  I immediately saw his back reflecting off the mirror over the sink, and I felt like ice was poured into my veins.

Pieces of his shirt were torn away, and the shreds that remained were red with blood.  I set Ian on the counter and lifted the shirt up over his head.  He was unresponsive during the entire process, and the part of me that was still thinking clearly wondered if he was in shock.

On his back were three cuts, each of them spaced roughly the same distance as the scratches on his leg.  These were much deeper than those, though, and they were bleeding freely.  I bandaged them as fast I could before taking him downstairs and back out to the car.  The cuts were too much for my basic first aid skills.  He needed a doctor.

The drive to the hospital was torture.  I padded his carseat as much as I could with a blanket to try to take pressure off of his back, but he started screaming in pain before we got very far.  Knowing full well that it was illegal, I pulled over, unstrapped him, and set him down in the passenger seat with him sitting sideways before getting back in and continuing to drive.  Maybe that was the wrong call.  I honestly don’t know.  All that I know is that I couldn’t stand for him to be in agony like that.

The nurse behind the emergency room desk immediately waved us through the door when she saw Ian’s back through the window.  She ran off to get a doctor while I carefully set him down on a nearby gurney.  I hugged him as best as I could without touching his back and told him that everything was going to be okay.

“I know it hurts, little man, but I have to ask you something,” I told him, giving him a reassuring smile.  “What happened?”

“Nighty Night,” he replied immediately in a matter-of-fact voice.  “Nighty Night hurt me.”

I didn’t have time to question him further.  The doctor arrived, and she took one look at Ian’s back before telling a nurse to wheel him into a nearby examination room.  I went to follow, but the doctor told me that she thought it was best if I waited outside.  Her eyes were looking past me as she spoke, and when I glanced over my shoulder I saw that she was looking at a security guard standing at the far end of the hallway.

If I had been thinking straight I would have understood what was happening, but at the time I was too worried about Ian to figure out what that look meant.

The doctor went into the examination room as the nurse came back out.  She put her hand on my arm and gently led me away from the door.  I protested, of course, but she made it clear that I had to come with her and answer some questions before I would be able to see Ian.

She started by asking me if there were any pets or animals in the house, to which I replied that there weren’t.  She then asked if we had been with anyone else when his injuries had occurred.  When I told her that we hadn’t, she followed up by inquiring if I had been drinking that day.  That was the moment that I started catching on.  The hospital staff was trying to determine if I had been the one that hurt my son.

At some point during the conversation a man in a gray suit entered the hallway and came to a stop next to us.  He introduced himself as a social worker, and he stated that it was his job to make sure that Ian was safe and got the best care possible.  He asked his own set of questions and I answered them as best as I could, but I was sure that he wasn’t really believing me.  It didn’t help that I couldn’t tell him what had happened because I had no idea myself.

Some time later the doctor came back out of the room and informed me that while one of the cuts had been shallow enough to bandage, the other two had required stitches.  To say that I was irate was an understatement.  I wasn’t upset that she had done what was medically necessary.  I was angry that I had been kept out of the room the entire time instead of being in there to comfort him during the process.  She stood there calmly as I yelled, and once I had said my peace and was winding down she told me that she was recommending that Ian stay at the hospital overnight for observation.  After taking a deep breath, I asked as calmly as I could if I would be able to stay with him.

She didn’t answer, but the social worker did.  He told me in a clearly practiced tone that due to the nature of the injuries, he was going to take Ian into his custody for the night while he worked to determine the nature of the injuries.  His tone might have been pleasant and measured, but the implication behind his words was very clear.

“You think that I hurt Ian,” I said, fighting back a second wave of anger.  “I would never hurt my son.  If you think for one second that I’m going to let you-”

“That’s enough,” the social worker snapped, cutting me off.  “You need to stop right there.  I haven’t made a determination one way or another on if I think you did this.  I will say that I’ve met a lot of abusive fathers in my time, and you don’t strike me as one of them.  I have policies and protocols that I have to follow, though.  What’s best for everyone involved is if you go home for the night, get some sleep, and let me do my job so that we can get this put behind us.”

He had caught me off guard.  I stared at him for a long moment before nodding once.  Anything I did other than what he told me to would only jeopardize my situation, and even though the thought of being apart from Ian for a night made me sick, the thought of him being taken away permanently was much worse.  I nodded again and he patted me on the arm.  He told me to come back in the morning and to ask for him at the desk before turning to go into the examination room.  As he opened the door, I clearly heard Ian call out for me.

I left the hospital feeling as if my entire world was burning before my eyes.

I went home and immediately marched up to Ian’s room.  I was determined to figure out what had happened to him.  The scratches on his leg could have been explained away by him causing them in his sleep, but the cuts on his back were another matter.  He couldn’t have reached that area of his body.  Even if he could have, there was no way that he could have made markings that deep.  Something else had happened.

I tore apart his room looking for answers.  A loose screw or nail that he had leaned up against, a broken piece of bed that I hadn’t noticed, a toy with something protruding, anything.  I examined every inch of the room from top to bottom.  I came up empty.  There was nothing that I could find that could have caused his injuries.

Defeated, I leaned up against the wall and slid down the floor.  Something caught my eye, and I reached over to pick up a small stuffed duck.  Its yellow cloth had faded, and overall it looked a bit worse for wear, but I could still easily identify it as the first toy that Ellen had bought for Ian.  It had been right after we had found out that she was pregnant.  She had named it Mr. Quackers.  An absurd name for an absurd-looking duck.

The events of the day caught up with me, and I started to nod off.  I felt my eyelids growing heavier with each heartbeat.  This was good, I reasoned.  I would get some sleep, then be at the hospital the moment the sun began to rise.

That was when I saw the creature standing in the corner of the room.  One moment there was nothing there, and the next there it was, its extremely tall gray body bent over as it pushed up against the ceiling.  Its limbs were extremely long and thin for the creature’s size.  The two arms ended in three needle-like fingers that had to have extended at least three feet from the hands.

Stretched out on its elongated neck was its face.  Its lips, dry and cracked and missing entire chunks in some places, were pulled back in an eternal grin that exposed its oversized white teeth.  The lidless eyes were black in the center, and the areas that on a person would have been white were the dried yellow collar of old parchment.  Dark ichor that had pooled in its jaws slowly dripped onto the floor as it watched me.

“Nighty night,” the creature rasped out.

My entire body jumped as I snapped back to full consciousness.  The creature was gone again, with no trace that it had even been there in the first place.  The spots where the ichor had splattered onto the floor had vanished.  I sat there on the floor, alone in the room with my pulse racing and my breath coming in short gasps.

I could have attempted to rationalize what I had seen.  It probably would have been easy enough to convince myself that I had imagined it, that it was a trick of the light that my nearly unconscious mind had twisted into a horrifying vision.  That was a perfectly rational explanation.

The problem was that I had seen it.  I knew that it had been real.  There was no question about it in my mind.  It was impossible, but I was sure that it had been occupying the corner of the room across from me seconds earlier.

My breathing slowed, and my panic was slowly replaced by nausea as a realization came to me.  Ian had also seen this creature.  It had stood over my four year old son with that nightmarish face.  It had then proceeded to hurt him not once, but twice.  If I was this scared, I couldn’t fathom how frightened he had been.

Nighty Night.  Ian had called it Nighty Night.  It must have said the same thing to him that it had said to me.

I got up off of the floor and left the bedroom, closing the door behind me.  I stood in the hall for a moment before rushing into the bathroom and throwing up in the toilet.  It went on for quite some time, so long that I started to wonder if it would ever stop.  When it finally did, I collapsed against the bathtub, light-headed and close to passing out.

There was a thud from inside of Ian’s room.  I lifted my head as best as I could and looked out through the bathroom doorway.  I managed to focus my eyes just in time to see the knob on the bedroom door start to turn.  There was an audible click, and the door slowly swung open.

Nighty Night’s face took up much of the bedroom doorway as it grinned at me.  I tried to stand up, but I was too weak from throwing up to manage it.  I could only watch as Nighty Night pressed its head against the wood frame.  It was too large to make it through the opening.

My feeling of relief was only momentary.  Nighty Night started to push its head harder.  Its face stretched back as the head slowly began to force its way through.  It was like watching rubber being forced through a hole.

“Nighty night,” it rasped, the coming out distorted through the stretched lips.

I had to leave, and I had to do so quickly.  More of the monster’s head was making it through the doorway every second, and it wouldn’t be long before it was free of the room’s confines.  Ignoring my aches and pains, I forced myself into a standing position.  My head swam and once again I was sure that I was going to pass out, but somehow I was able to  barely remain conscious.  Nighty Night’s face was almost all the way through the doorway now.  I stumbled into the hallway and pressed myself up against the wall opposite from the creature.  Being as careful as I could, I moved past it, feeling its hot breath on me as I did so.  Its teeth were mere inches away from my body.  I made it through the thin opening and hurried down the stairs.

My foot caught on the last step.  It wasn’t enough to make me lose my balance entirely, but it did trip me up and I stumbled forward before falling over the side of the couch.  My head struck one of the armrests.

I must have blacked out.  I don’t remember doing so, but the next thing I knew I was being awoken by the sound of knocking.  I sat up on the couch and immediately regretted doing so as the worst headache I’d ever had greeted me.  The knocking continued.  It took me a few seconds to figure out that someone was banging on the front door.

I stood up and took two steps towards the door before I remembered what had happened.  I looked up the stairs expecting to see Nighty Night squeezing its way down the hallway towards me, but the creature was gone.  Still a bit dazed and not sure what else to do, I continued over to the front door and opened it.

Standing on the other side was a large man in a police uniform.  He was holding a clipboard under his arm and a pen in one hand.  He nodded at me but didn’t smile.

He asked me my name and I gave it to him.  He informed me that he was here at the request of the social worker from the hospital, and that he would like to inspect my son’s room.  I moved aside and let him into the house.  I closed the door behind him and led him up the stairs.  I didn’t want to go anywhere near the second floor after what I had experienced, but if I didn’t comply with his request it would undoubtedly impact my chances of getting Ian back as soon as possible.  I took him to the still open bedroom door and we went inside.

Night Night wasn’t there, of course.  The officer took the clipboard out from under his arm and asked me a few questions, and I answered them as best as I could.  He scribbled some notes on the paper as I spoke.  Seemingly satisfied with my responses, he then got down on one knee and examined the safety rail that ran along the sides of Ian’s bed.

“Have you done anything in this room since you brought your son into the hospital?” the officer asked.

“I looked around to try to figure out what happened,” I told him.

“Okay, but did you change the bedsheets or anything like that?”

“What?  No.  I just moved things around and put them back.  I didn’t change the sheets.”

The office nodded.  “Well, it looks like Mr. Eaton was right.”

“Mr. Eaton?”

“The social worker assigned to your son.  See here?  There’s no blood on the sheets, but there are three streaks along the safety rail.  They match up to where the poles are on the rail.  Mr. Eaton thinks that your son tried to get out of bed while he was still out of it and slid over the rail.  He must have caught the poles just right through the fabric and they dug into him.  Cute kid, by the way.  He said that he was going nighty night and that his back started feeling ouchy when he got out of bed.  Eaton put things together from there.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  The theory was wrong, and Ian’s words had been completely misinterpreted.  The blood trails and the spacing of the rail poles were pure coincidence.  It was all working completely in my favor, though.

“Good thing, too,” he continued.  “If he hadn’t figured it out or if I had found anything to prove him wrong here, we’d be having a very different conversation right now.”

Seemingly satisfied with everything, the officer left and went back to his car.  I watched him through the window as he pulled out and headed down the street.  The sun was starting to come up over the trees, and I could hear the family of robins in the front yard tree chirping.  I decided that it was close enough to morning to go to the hospital and get my son back.

It went smoother than I had expected.  The social worker had me fill out some quick paperwork so that they had my statements for the record, and after that he led me to a patient room on the opposite side of the hospital.  He had barely opened the door for me when Ian came running up to me barefooted with his little hospital gown waving behind him and practically jumped into my arms.  He hugged me tightly and, being careful to avoid the white bandages covering his stitched cuts, I hugged him back.  We stood there for what seemed like an eternity, me crying and him telling me all about his stay in the hospital.

That was two months ago.  The house that I raised Ian in is currently for sale, and my realtor tells me that there are a number of people interested even though it hasn’t been listed very long.  A seller’s market, she calls it.  I’ve only been back twice since that night, once to pick up our clothes and other necessary items, and once to pack the remainder of our belongings and put them into storage.  Both times were during the middle of the day, and each time I made arrangements for Ian to stay with someone instead of accompanying me.

We’ve been living at a hotel on the other side of town.  My long term plan is for us to move far away, possibly all the way to the coast.  I want to put as much distance between us and this place as possible.

Last week, I read a newspaper article in the local paper about an officer that killed his wife.  According to the report, he had said that he had just started to doze off one night when a giant monster appeared in his room.  He had grabbed the gun that he kept in his nightstand and fired off five shots at it.  The monster disappeared, but his wife had been walking into the room at the time and two of the bullets struck her, killing her almost instantly.

No one believed him, of course.  How could they possibly have?  It was a ludicrous story.  He seemed so convinced that he was telling the truth that a psychological evaluation was ordered before formal charges were filed.

Three days later he was found dead in his cell.  Not just dead, but damn near decapitated.  The police are baffled.  He was alone in his cell, and there was nothing he could have used to do that to himself.  The guards think that one of the other prisoners got in and did the job.  Former cops don’t have a lot of friends in jail, after all.  They’re at a loss to explain just how a prisoner could have gotten into the cell and caused so much damage without alerting anyone.

This was the same officer that had come to my house.  

I know what happened to him.  It was the same thing that almost happened to both myself and my son.  It was Nighty Night.

I think that I’ve got the creature’s appearing and disappearing act figured out.  I was on the verge of becoming unconscious both times that I saw it.  The first time I was almost asleep, and the second time I was trying not to pass out.  When I actually did black out it didn’t harm me.  The officer said in his statement that he was falling asleep when he saw the monster in his room.

I think Nighty Night exists in that ever so brief moment between awake and asleep.  When you enter into that moment, you can see it… and it can look right back at you.  Or maybe I’m wrong and it’s always there, watching and waiting until it can come for you in that short time where your world and its are connected.  I don’t know.  I don’t have all the answers.  I doubt that I ever will.  

Knowing exactly what Ian had gone through might provide more insight, but it doesn’t matter.  I refuse to ask him about it.  He’s sleeping through the night now that his wounds have mostly healed, and I’m not going to dredge up bad memories that could only hurt him.  He deserves to be safe and protected from things both natural and unnatural.  He’s been through enough already.

I’m afraid that he’s going to be through more before this is all over.  Last night, as I watched him sleeping on the bed in our hotel room, I started to drift off in the uncomfortable chair in the corner of the room.  I was just about out when I heard something through the glass window to my right.  It was faint, as if coming from quite a distance away, but I recognized it immediately.

“Nighty night,” the raspy voice called out in the darkness.

I jerked awake and immediately stood up to start packing our things, being careful not to wake Ian up as I did so.  He needed his rest.  We were going to be on the road for a long, long time.

Mr. Gangly Walks the Halls

Dearest Margaret,

I hope that this letter finds you well.  I’ve missed you greatly during the entire time away from you, but these past weeks have been especially difficult.  While we were busy pushing from Normandy it was easier to keep my mind occupied on other things.  Now that the Germans have left France, however, I’ve had a lot more time to myself and, as always, my thoughts have turned to you.

I have good news or bad news, depending on how you look at things.  As you’re an optimist by nature, a very glass half full kind of woman, I’ll give you the positive spin first.  You and I are going to be reunited sooner that we thought.  I’ll be shipping off to the good ol’ US of A within the next few weeks.

No matter how optimistic you are, however, you’re also a realist, so here’s the bad news.  The reason that I’ll be coming home to you so early is because I have been injured.

Now, there’s no need for worry, as I’m going to be fine.  Once the bullets stopped flying in France, my unit had been assigned to deliver cargo to Évian-les-Bains.  You’ve always been more of a scholar than I am, so you may be familiar with the town.  I had never heard of it before.

There were only three large crates, so Mark Johnston and I volunteered to make the delivery.  I’ve written to you about him before.  He’s the soldier in my platoon that has a wife and young son in Kansas.  All of my fellow soldiers are brothers, but he’s one of the few that I can honestly say is a friend.  

The round trip between Paris and Évian-les-Bains would take a few days, and we figured that the fresh mountain air would do us some good.  We never spoke about it, but I think we both were feeling that we needed to get out of Paris, even if only for a little while.  

When you see pictures of Paris in books, it looks like this grand place.  You can practically feel the magic in the air right through the page.  It conjures up images of long walks along the Seine River, or maybe ascending to the top of the Eiffel Tower to look out on the lights of the city.  You and I even talked about visiting it someday after we’re married.

I think that’s how the city once was, and maybe it will be like that again.  In the here and now, though, the magic is gone.  The Nazis did all that they could to stomp out the spirits of the people that live there.  They never fully could, but you can tell that the occupation left its mark in more ways than just those damn red and black banners hanging from buildings.  The enchantment and wonder of the city is gone for now, replaced with an iron resolve and a righteous fury.  The longer I stayed there, the more that I could feel the violation Paris had suffered through, if that makes any sense.

Is it any wonder that Johnston and I jumped on the opportunity to run a shipment through the countryside?  It was supposed to be a simple delivery.  As everyone in the world knows, though, there’s nothing simple about this war.

I don’t remember the moment that the truck’s rear tire struck the mine.  It must have been left over from the German retreat, or maybe it had been planted by the French resistance when the Nazis were using that particular road.  Whatever the case, the explosion flipped the truck completely over and sent us off the road.

I only know this because it was told to me later.  I remember sitting in the passenger seat while Johnston drove, idly flipping through a Captain Marvel comic book that I had traded a small bottle of half-drunk whiskey to a private for.  I’m not much for comic books, but there was something about it that made me feel like…  I don’t know.  It made me feel like I was holding a piece of home in my hands, I suppose.

After that, my next memory is slowly waking up.  I was lying on something soft, and my body felt oddly cold.  Instinctively I tried to sit up, but the worst pain I’ve ever felt went through my body like electricity.  It felt like someone was forcefully pushing down on me while trying to set me ablaze.

I shook my head in an effort to clear it.  I hadn’t even opened my eyes yet and I was already feeling dizzy.

I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a woman’s voice politely but firmly told me to calm down.  As I managed to get my eyes open and squinted against the bright light, she went on to explain that I had been in a mine explosion and to assure me that I was going to be okay.

My vision returned to normal after a few minutes and I was able to look up at the speaker.  She was dressed in the white uniform of a nurse, with red curls peeking out from under her hat and freckles dotting her nose.  She smiled down at me kindly and told me that her name was Ruth.

I tried sitting up again, but it had the same result as before.  Ruth informed me that I had suffered a fractured sternum when my chest had impacted with the front portion of the transport truck.  It sounded serious, but she told me that I just needed rest and it would heal naturally.  Normally ice would have been put on my chest to help with the swelling and lessen the pain.  There wasn’t any access to ice, however, so she was using rags soaked in cool water instead.

Along with the fractured sternum, I had suffered a painful bump on the head and a sprained ankle.  I had managed to escape in surprisingly good condition, all things considered.

Johnston hadn’t been so lucky.  He was lying in the bed next to me, unconscious and his body wrapped in bandages.  Every so often I could hear a gasp as he sucked in air.  The gasps sounded wet, like they were filled with water.  The nurse told me that they hoped that he would recover soon, but I could tell by the tone of her voice that she wasn’t hopeful.

Over the next few hours, Ruth sat and talked with me.  Well, she did most of the talking.  Even getting a few words out made my chest hurt, so I mostly just sat there and listened.

She told me that we were in an old château known by the local people as Château des Espirits.  It had been the home of a wealthy but eccentric landowner who had died at the beginning of the war.  He hadn’t had any children or family, so the mansion was converted into a temporary hospital.  Most of the doctors and nurses were French, but Ruth was a volunteer with the Red Cross that had been sent to assist due to the place being woefully understaffed.

She eventually left my side to tend to other patients.  As I stared up at the ceiling, a stray thought entered my head, and despite my condition I found myself smiling.  It was a crooked sort of smile.  Can you imagine, Margaret?  Here I was, relaxing in a fancy château in the French Alps, and I couldn’t even get out of bed to enjoy a moment of it.

I have to admit that I tried not to look at Johnston.  Every time I glanced in his direction I felt an awful stab of guilt.  I had survived the explosion and would be back on my feet soon.  Meanwhile, he was fighting for his life.  It wasn’t fair.  Even though I kept my eyes off of him, I could still hear him wheezing and drawing in those wet breaths.

Evening came, and Ruth returned to help me eat my dinner.  It wasn’t much of a meal, just broth and small bits of potato, but I was so hungry that it felt like a banquet.  When I had finished, she changed out the rags with freshly soaked ones and put the used ones in a small bucket.

Have you ever experienced the kind of moment where it feels like the very air in the room has changed, Margaret?  That was what I experienced once Ruth finished her tasks.  Her entire demeanor went from warm and friendly to something much more serious.  The smile was gone from her face, and her eyes were uncertain.

What wasn’t uncertain was her firm instructions that, even if I found myself able to get up, I must not leave the room during the night.  I pressed her as to why, of course, but she simply shook her head and turned to leave.  Ignoring the pain, I grabbed her wrist and asked once more.  She hesitated before gently removing her hand from my weak grip.

“Monsieur Gangly marche dans les couloirs,” she said quietly in French before leaving the room and firmly closing the two large doors behind her.

Mr. Gangly walks the halls.

I stared after her for quite a while.  To say that I was confused would be an understatement.  I was fairly sure that I had understood her correctly, but as you’re well aware I’ve never had much of a head for languages.  It wasn’t hard to convince myself that my poor French simply wasn’t up to the task of properly translating her statement.  With that settled in my mind, I quickly drifted off to sleep.

My hand just started shaking so badly that I needed to take a few seconds to steady it.  You and I have known each other since we were small children.  We started school together.  You know me better than anyone else, and I’m still afraid of what you’re going to think of me when I tell you what came next.

You’re going to think I’ve lost my mind.  I don’t see how anyone could think otherwise.  I swear to you, Margaret, I’m not mad, and what I’m about to tell you in the honest to God truth.  I need you to believe me.  No one else ever will, but you’re the one person that has to.


I don’t know what time it was when I woke up.  The room was dark and still.  I knew immediately that something was wrong.  I had the same feeling in my stomach that I had gotten during lulls in battles throughout the war.  Sometimes the guns would go silent, and an eerie silence would fall over everything.  Instead of being happy for the reprieve, you start to feel sick to your stomach because you know that something even worse than what you just went through is about to happen.

That was the same feeling I was having as I laid in the darkness.  Something was about to happen.  I was so sure of it that I ignored the pain and forced myself up onto my elbows in an attempt to look around.

I couldn’t stay in the position for more than a few seconds before I collapsed back down onto the bed.  Less than a heartbeat after I had done so, I heard a soft click as the room’s doors began to swing open.  I craned my neck as best as I could and turned my eyes towards the sound.

There was just enough light coming in through the windows for me to see the figure enter the room, but not enough that I was able to make out many details.  It was well over eight feet tall, and it had to duck under the top of the doorway to enter the room.  It was wearing a black flowing robe that covered most of its features.  As it came forward it stayed hunched over.  It moved with an odd gait, swaying slighting back and forth as it walked.  Even though it was the largest creature I had ever seen, it made barely any noise as it moved across the wood floor towards the beds, like it had very little weight to it.

I knew immediately that this giant wasn’t human.  I know how that sounds, Margaret.  This is why I’m afraid that you’re going to think that I’ve been driven mad by the war.  If you do indeed love me as you say that you do, though, I need you to take what I’m saying at face value and put aside your skepticism until you finish my story.

Because of the creature’s size, it only took a few steps for it to reach the foot of Johnston’s bed.  It was starting to lean over him when I closed my eyes as tightly as I could.  As I write this I can feel the shame rising in me.  This… thing was going to do God knows what to a man that was closer to me than my own family, and there I was, keeping my eyes clenched shut like a frightened child trying to hide from a shadow on his bedroom wall.  What kind of a friend, what kind of a man, does that make me?

I laid as still as I could for what seemed like hours, but all that I heard was silence.  Curiosity started to win out over the fear.  I slowly opened my eyes.

The creature was still looming over Johnston, but it was completely motionless.  Its arms were extended towards his face.  The robe’s sleeves were pulled back enough that I could see the limbs.  In the dim moonlight they looked almost white, so white that it was like a single drop of blood had never run through their veins.  They were also extremely thin.  No, that’s not the right word for it.  They looked emaciated.

Its hands were attached to the arms at a slightly odd angle.  I had seen something similar before, when a private had dislocated his hand from his wrist in a bad fall.  Its fingers were long and boney, and they reached out towards Johnston’s face.

The hood of the robe was up over its head, and at the angle I was seeing the creature from its face was completely blocked off from view.  It was hard to tell in the dark, but I got the impression that the head was too large for the body.  The width wasn’t proportionate with the arms and legs.  Everything about the creature was wrong, and I felt a sense of revulsion as I watched it.

Johnston coughed once.  The creature pulled back slightly, but when he didn’t make another sound it drew closer once again.  It reached out with one finger and touched him lightly on the forehead.  He made a soft choking noise but remained unconscious.

The finger moved down his face, tracing down the nose, across the lips, and over the chin.  It stopped when its tip was touching Johnston’s neck.  The man’s entire body had stiffened as if the creature was sending a live current through him.

I wanted to yell out to him, to warn him about what was happening.  My mouth remained closed.  I was already trying to justify my lack of action to myself.  There was no pointing in letting the creature know that I was watching when Johnston was too injured to hear me anyway.  That was what I told myself over and over again.

The truth is that I was paralyzed by fear.  In the moment that my friend needed me most, I proved myself to be a coward.

The creature’s hand opened, and it wrapped its fingers around Johnston’s neck.  He whimpered quietly.  The whimpering soon turned into gagging as the fingers closed tightly.  I tried to will myself to somehow intervene, fear and fractured sternum be damned.  Instead, I just laid there watching.

The figure held up one finger on its other hand and placed its point between Johnston’s clavicles.  It lingered there for a moment before pushing down harder.  The finger sank into and through the skin.  He started to thrash, but the creature simply held him by the throat as if it was no effort at all.

The finger slowly started to make its way down his chest.  Skin, muscle, and bone all parted as if it was being cut with the sharpest of surgeon instruments.  When it reached the top of his stomach area it withdrew.  Blood covered it, and droplets dripped down onto the man’s body.

What came next has played over and over in my head ever since.  The creature reached into the hole in Johnston’s chest and pulled the opening wider.  The snapping of bone filled the air as his ribs were easily separated.  The arm jerked slightly to one side, and a moment later the hand rose out of the open chest cavity holding a misshapen lump.

Johnston stopped thrashing.

I must have made a sound, because the creature turned its head towards me.  The hood still covered its face, but I knew that it was watching me closely.  Instead of closing my eyes, however, I looked right back at it.  It wasn’t some act of bravery or defiance.  I was just too scared to think of anything else to do.

It moved to the side of my bed.  The gory mass it had taken from Johnston’s chest was still clutched in its right hand.  I couldn’t see exactly what the object was.  I was and still am thankful for that.

The creature regarded me for a long moment before reaching up with its free hand and slowly pulling back the hood.  I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came out.  I was stricken voiceless by fear.  It was all that I could do to simply keep breathing.

Instead of being rounded, its head was elongated, with malformed protrusions sticking out of the back.  It was hairless, and like its arms the flesh was pale to the point of nearly being translucent.  It looked at me with lidless eyes, the pupils locked on me so intently that they appeared to be vibrating.

The creature’s face was vaguely human.  The best way that I can describe it is that it looked like a person whose skin had been pulled back so tightly that it had begun to tear off of the skull.  The large teeth and gums were exposed in a hideous grin, one so large that it ran past the mouth towards the back of the elongated head to show the bone beyond.

It tilted its head slightly.  I wasn’t looking at just some hideous monster.  Its eyes stared at me with intelligence.

It opened its mouth slightly as it regarded me.  Just beyond the first row of human-like but oversized teeth was a second row of them.  These were smaller and spaced wider apart.  Its thick black tongue sloshed around back and forth in its thick saliva.

“Gute nacht, Herr Lewis,” the creature said in a raspy voice, the words coming out as if it was exhaling them rather than speaking them.

With that, the creature turned and left the room the same way it had come in, closing the doors behind it.

I must have passed out.  The next thing I knew, I was regaining consciousness in a  room filled with sunlight.  I quickly looked over to my right at Johnston’s bed.  The spot that the bed had once occupied was empty.

Ruth came in a few minutes later.  I demanded to know what had happened to Johnston, and she told me that he had died from his wounds a few hours earlier.  I knew that she was lying, of course.  I had seen the creature tear him open and end his life.  I continued to press her, and as I did so I so she grew more and more uncomfortable.  She repeatedly tried to tell me that I must have dreamed the entire thing.

I became more and more agitated, and finally she relented.  She leaned in as if she was telling me something that needed to stay between the two of us even though we were the only ones in the otherwise empty room.  Every so often she would glance over her shoulder at the doors as she spoke.

She told me that Johnston’s body had been taken down to the makeshift morgue to be disposed of.  When I started to object, she shook her head firmly and told me to remain quiet.  The official record would say that the body was incinerated due to concerns of a possible disease.  That way no one would know about the damage the creature had caused to his body.

No one but me.

She warned me not to let anyone else know that I had seen the creature, which she again referred to as Mr. Gangly.  The few outside the hospital staff that had tried to tell others what they had seen had all died under mysterious circumstances.  I needed to remain silent for my own safety.

At first I refused, but something in the way that she was looking at me made me stop.  I got the feeling that she wasn’t just looking out for my safety, but also her own.  I began to understand that her current position at the château wasn’t entirely voluntary.

Still trying to wrap my mind around everything that I had seen and that she was telling me, I questioned her about Mr. Gangly.  What was it?  How long had it been at the château?  Why had it killed Johnston?  The questions spilled out of me as if they would never end.

Ruth didn’t have any solid answers to give me.  All of the doctors and nurses at the hospital seemed to have a different theory.  Some said that Mr. Gangly was an experiment that had been conducted by German scientists during the occupation.  Others said it was actually a German scientist itself, one that had done things to himself for some unknown reason and was still conducting experiments on the patients in this new grotesque form.  She had been told by one doctor that he believed it was a demon that had been summoned by Nazi occultists.

I mulled it over.  Mr. Gangly had spoken to me in German.  Hesitantly, not sure that I really wanted to know the answer, I asked how it had known my name.

Ruth looked surprised and regarded me curiously.  As she opened her mouth to speak, the doors opened and a pair of soldiers entered the room.  They told me that I was being transferred to a hospital in Paris immediately.

And that’s where I’m writing to you from now, Margaret.  I’m sitting at a small table in a private room of one of the dozens of medical facilities in Paris.  It’s been dark for some time, but I can still hear the sounds of talking and laughing coming up from the streets through my open window.  

Medically I’m doing much better.  My fractured sternum is almost fully healed, and I only have slight discomfort from it when I move around.

Mentally, I’m not really sure how I’m doing.  I have trouble sleeping at night, and during the day I feel like I’m walking through a dream.  Sometimes I think about how I failed Johnston and feel a mixture of remorse and anger, and other times I realize that I haven’t thought about him in a while and for some reason that makes me even more angry.

There are times that I debate with myself whether I should write Johnston’s wife and tell her what really happened to her husband.  Each time I decide not to.  Even if I could figure out how to begin to describe Mr. Gangly and what it had done to him, how could her knowing the truth be of any comfort to her?

I’m scheduled to ship out for the United States two weeks from Tuesday.  As I come to the end of this letter, however, I realize that I can’t come back home to you yet.  Even if you somehow found a way to forgive my cowardice, I would never be able to.

God help me, I have to go back to Château des Espirits, where Mr. Gangly walks the halls.

I love you, Margaret, and I’m sorry.

Always yours,
Corporal Peter Lewis, United States Army
October 14, 1944