Tag Archives: Short Story

The Wolf Below and Above

I don’t need to watch to know where the woman has decided to hide.  It’s always one of three places, and out of those three it’s usually one specific spot.  It’s all so… predictable.

I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t absolutely need to.  If I could avoid it, I would.  That’s always the case.  The problem is that I can’t.  Not when my condition reaches this point.

I really thought that I was going to make it this time.  That happens more often than you might think.  I managed to get through the past two cycles without having to resort to this.  I was so damn close to making it this time as well.  Yesterday my hands started shaking, though, and that was soon followed by the sensation of itching in the back of my skull.  I knew then that I was out of time.

There’s no point in lamenting what isn’t to be.  I retrieve the pair of knives from the table.  The blades bob up and down in the air due to my shaking hands, but I will just have to make them work.  I slowly walk down the stairs leading into the main warehouse storage area.

This would not be my choice of hunting grounds.  Much of the space is taken up by crates and storage containers, and all the doors and windows are chained shut.  It creates a claustrophobic environment that offers no chance for escape, which in turn takes away any potential thrill and makes for a tedious experience.  Unfortunately, it can’t be avoided.  I can’t take any unnecessary risks, even if that means that everything has become repetitive and dull.

There was a time that I would have tried to drag this out for as long as possible.  That was back when I still believed that I could make all of this mean more than simply fulfilling an unavoidable physical need.  I thought that I could force satisfaction from it through ritual.  Maybe there was a time when that did work, or at least when I could make myself believe that it did.  Now, though, there’s no point.  I just want it to be over with.

I make my way over to the large stack of crates with the opening between the bottom ones.  This is where the majority of people choose to hide once they realize that escape isn’t an option.  If she isn’t here I’ll move onto the storage container with the broken door, and from there to the small office near the large metal doors.  Those are the only three places in the warehouse where hiding makes sense, so inevitably one of them is chosen.  All so damn predictable.

I don’t have to check the other two hiding spots, because I can see the woman crouched down in the shadows between the crates.  I sigh.  Of course she is.

This isn’t some random woman.  She is the chef and owner of one of the best restaurants in town.  I stopped in to dine there earlier in the evening, and the pork I had eaten had been exquisitely prepared.  The meal had been the highlight of my evening.  I had hoped that I would be able to spare her.  She had sent her staff home when she had closed the restaurant for the night, though, and she had stayed late alone to do the final bits of cleaning.  With no time to find someone else, my hands had been tied.

She looks up at me with wide-eyed terror as I approach.  It doesn’t have to take long or be overly painful.  I’ll finish this quickly.  I owe her that much for the pleasant meal.

Television shows and movies would have you believe that people start screaming at the top of their lungs or try to fight back when their would-be killer approaches.  I’ve found that’s not typically the case.  Oh, it does happen from time to time, but usually they behave the way that this woman is.  She is frozen in fear, her mouth moving but no sound coming out.  I suppose that this kind of reaction should make me feel powerful, maybe dominant.  It does nothing for me.

I hunch over slightly to enter into the small opening.  She’s whimpering now, but I ignore it as I raise the knives.  The shaking in my hands is worse now, and it’s all I can do to keep my fingers wrapped around the wooden handles.  I need to get this done quickly.

The knives plunge into her body, and for the first time she screams.  I swear loudly as blood leaks out onto my hands.  The blades haven’t gone into the points that I intended them to.  I had tried to make the stabbing lethal so that she wouldn’t have to suffer.  Now I have to do things the messy way.

I pull the knives free.  I’ve waited too long, and my hands are shaking uncontrollably now.  I have to forget the original plan and improvise.  Tossing one of the knives back behind me, I wrap both hands around the handle of the one that I’m still holding.  This is a bit better.  I definitely have more control over the weapon even if I can’t hold it perfectly steady.

The woman is still stunned from the initial attack.  I don’t think it’s registered through the shock that she’s been stabbed.  She stares at me blankly as her hands press against the pair of wounds.  Before she can recover, I thrust the knife forward and this time my aim is true.  The metal slides into her chest and I feel it pierce through her heart.  I make sure to remove it instead of leaving it in.  That way the bleeding will increase and death will come faster.

I sigh again as I back out of the space between the crates and walk away.  She’s not dead yet, but she will be in just a few moments.  I’ve been doing this long enough to know when a wound is fatal.  There’s no point in standing around and watching the inevitable.

I hold out my hands in front of me.  They’re still shaking, but the tremors are smaller and easily managed.  The itching is gone from the back of my head.  It’s an improvement, albeit a minor one.

It’s just so fucking unsatisfying.  It never feels the same way that it does during that incredible final night of the cycle.  My dissatisfaction is quickly being replaced by anger.  Why the fuck can’t it ever feel the fucking same?  One night of an incredible indescribable unmatched high, and nearly a month of rock bottom and just trying to exist until the next one.  How in the fuck is that fair?

I force myself to calm down.  The answer is that it’s not fair, but there’s nothing that I can do about it, either.  Besides, the end of the cycle is almost here.  I just have to make it until tomorrow night.

The smart thing to do would be to clean up the mess that I have just made and go home to get some rest.  I know from experience that I won’t be able to sleep, though, and I’m not in the right headspace to make sure that I take care of my crime scene properly.  Both those things will just have to wait.

Pulling a set of keys out of my pocket, I remove the locks from one of the doors and pull the chains free.  I toss them off to the side in a small pile and go outside.  The cold winter wind immediately assaults me, and I grit my teeth as I wish that I hadn’t left my coat inside.

Before I leave, I go around the side of the warehouse until I reach a spigot.  I turn the valve and freezing water starts pouring out of it.  As quickly as I can, I wash the blood off of my hands and dry them on the legs of my jeans.  I let the water run long enough to allow the ichor to flow into a nearby storm drain, then close the valve once again.

A light drizzle begins to fall as I walk towards town.  The warehouse that I use is located at an old dockyard that hasn’t been in service for years.  I don’t own it, and the various cargo items inside of it aren’t mine, but somewhere along the way the actual owner stopped caring about it and left it to rot.  I look around at the other buildings that I’m walking past.  They’re all in various states of decay.  I often wonder what happened here to make so many people walk away at the same time and leave so much merchandise behind.

Having such a large area to myself, especially one that includes more contained sections throughout the site, has been extremely useful.  No one is around to hear any noises from either myself or my guests, and there’s no security that might accidentally stumble on my activities.  It’s basically the perfect environment.

I grit my teeth.  Except it isn’t perfect, is it?  If it was, maybe I wouldn’t feel so hollow when I treat my condition.  Maybe I need a challenge, and this place is making everything all too easy.

I shake my head firmly.  That isn’t it.  I know that it isn’t.  The abandoned dockyard gives me safety when I otherwise wouldn’t have it.  I’m just irritable and lashing out.  Another wonderful side effect of my condition.

My car is parked at the edge of the dockyard.  I ignore it and continue on foot.  I’ve found that the best way to prolong the effects of a treatment is to remain active.  The physical activity helps to distract from the return of my symptoms, at least for a short while.  I check my watch.  About twenty hours left.  Fuck.

The road leading away from the docks is empty.  That’s no surprise, as there’s nothing else out this way.  There’s no reason for anyone else but myself to be here.  I walk down the middle of the road instead of off to one side.  In a very real sense, this is my own personal domain.

I walk for over two miles before I reach an intersection.  I continue forward without so much as a glance to either side.  Both the left and right paths lead to highways.  The direction I’m headed in goes into town.  Before it does that, though, it leads right past a smaller diner that’s open all night.  That’s where I’m going.

After another mile I arrive at the diner.  I’m pleased to see that there are only two cars in the parking lot.  I go inside and sit down at a booth in the corner.  I’m alone in the eating area.  The cars must belong to employees.

Speak of the devil.  A woman comes out of the kitchen and gives me a smile.  I see the smile slip a bit.  It wasn’t by much, but I definitely saw it.  Do I still have some blood on me that I missed?

“Looks like you got caught outside in this lovely weather,” she says to me.  “Did your car break down or something?”

“Truck, actually,” I lie easily, my worries dissipating.  “Just down at the 219 ramp.  I called it in, but I can’t get anyone out until morning.  I had to walk here.”

I wasn’t born a good liar.  Quite the opposite, actually.  I was terrible at it as a child, and every time that I attempted lying I would be caught.  I’ve developed the skill over the years.  It’s been a necessity that I do so.  Now I do it as needed without even thinking about it.

I order a cup of coffee to start before asking to see a menu.  I smell a fresh pot brewing somewhere nearby, and my walk through the cold and rainy night has chilled me to the bone.  I avoid caffeine most of the time, but I’m willing to make an exception on this particular occasion.

When the waitress returns with my drink, I order something off the menu.  It’s some sort of sandwich, but I’m not sure which one.  I just point at a line and she nods before going back to the kitchen.  I’m not actually hungry.  I know that I need to eat, though.  My body needs as many calories as possible during the final phase of the cycle.

The coffee helps get the chill out of my body.  That, combined with time having passed since the kill, makes me feel more like myself than I have in days.  It won’t last, it never does, but for the moment I don’t want to focus on that.

I sit in the uncomfortable booth for a little over an hour, slowly eating my rather mediocre chicken sandwich and drinking progressively worse cups of coffee.  Eventually it’s time for me to go.  The diner is only a few miles from the dockyard, and I don’t want to leave too much of an impression on the waitress just in case something happens down the line.

The waitress brings me the check, and as she does she offers to give me a ride back to my non-existent truck.  I give her a smile and politely decline, telling her that I’ve been stuck inside it all day and it feels good to be able to walk around and stretch.  She glances out at the still-falling rain and asks if I’m sure.  I assure her that I am.

As she’s walking back towards the kitchen, I feel the familiar itching in the back of my head.

No.  This is too soon.  I’ve never had the itching come back just hours after making a kill.  It’s always a few days at the very least before I start to notice it.

I sit still in the booth, the pin-like pricks working their way up and down my skull.

Something is very wrong.  Usually the itching starts out so faintly that it’s barely noticeable.  Over the course of two or three days it gradually increases in intensity until it’s so strong that it pushes me to the point of insanity.

That isn’t happening now.  The sensation is already intense, and I can feel it growing steadily as each second ticks by.  I don’t understand.  This doesn’t make any fucking sense.


Did I do something wrong, change something about the kill?  I shake my head.  That doesn’t make sense.  There’s no ritual or anything like that.  Make the kill, satisfy the need.  That’s all there fucking is to it.  It’s not goddamn rocket science.

Calm down.  Breathe.

Maybe there was something different about the woman that I had chosen.  All that had mattered before was the killing, but I guess that it’s possible.  There’s no way to know for sure.

Focus.  Fucking focus.  None of this matters.  What matters is what I do now.  There’s no way that I’m going to make it until the end of the day.  I look at the clock hanging on the wall.  The sun won’t even be up for another hour.

At the rate it’s going, the itching will reach its peak soon.  When that happens, the pain will begin.  It will feel like spikes being hammered into every inch of my body.  I’ll be so blinded by the agony that I will no longer be capable of rational thought.

The last and only time that it got to that point, I regained my wits in the family room of a house that I didn’t know.  The remains of three people, torn apart and barely recognizable as being human, surrounded me.  Every inch of me was covered in hot blood.  All my symptoms were gone, but I had no idea what had happened and where I was.

It had solved one problem and created a multitude of others.  I can’t risk that sort of thing happening again.

There’s an odd thumping noise.  I dismiss it as noise coming from the diner’s ancient-looking heating ducts.  It continues, however, and it doesn’t seem to be coming from above me.  I look down and find that my hands are shaking so violently that they’re banging against the top of the table.  I stare at them for a long moment.  I hadn’t even noticed that they were trembling.  I wrap my fingers around the edge of the table and grip it as tightly as I can in an effort to stop them.

I’ve come to a decision.  I don’t know when I started working my way towards one, or how I had arrived at this particular conclusion, but I know what needs to be done.

Taking my wallet out of my back pocket, I pull a few bills out and place them on top of the check the waitress had left me.  I know that she’s watching me through the small window that looks out from the kitchen into the dining area.  After all, I’m the only customer.  I’m not going to be ordering anything else, and she’s already earned whatever tip that I decide to leave.  At this point she’ll just want me gone so that I’m out of her hair and she can go back to doing nothing.

I allow myself a small imperceivable smile as she immediately comes out of the kitchen.  Some people are just too easy to read.

I don’t have a plan.  It doesn’t matter.  I don’t need one.  I’ve taken so many lives over the years that it’s instinctive at this point.

She reaches the table and puts her hand out to pick up the check and money.  As she does so, my arm lashes out like a snake and my fingers dig into her brown hair.  Before she can react, I’m slamming her face into the edge of the table.  Her scream is silenced almost as soon as it begins.  She slides to the tile floor, unconscious.

I know that she’s not dead.  Instead of tending to that, I slide out of the booth and immediately head towards the kitchen.  The waitress isn’t going anywhere, and even if she wakes up she won’t be in any condition to leave or present a threat to me.  There’s one more person in the diner, though, and I can’t take the chance that they heard her short cry.

The door to the kitchen begins to open just before I reach it.  I grab a steak knife out of a basket of silverware behind the counter before kicking the door back towards the person emerging from the other room.  There’s a loud grunt as it smashes hard into someone.

Pressing my momentary advantage, I throw open the door and thrust the blade at the large man standing behind it.  The knife isn’t nearly as sharp as the ones I keep at the dockyard, and the slightly serrated blade is designed for cutting rather than stabbing.  I wasn’t expecting the person to be quite so tall, either.  The knife digs into his flesh, but it’s not much more than a flesh wound.

Ducking my shoulder, I ram it into his chest to knock the wind out of him.  He really is big.  He’s got at least six inches and fifty pounds on me.  This is the danger of not planning things out before killing.  I find myself in situations like this where I can’t fully control what’s happening.  At the end of the cycle this wouldn’t matter, but until then these kinds of risks are extremely dangerous.

He’s temporarily winded now, though, and he’s been wounded.  Judging from the expression on his face, he’s also unsure of what’s happening.  I can work with that.

I take a quick glance around me and my eyes fall on a skillet on the stove to my right.  Its contents are sizzling from the heat underneath it.  I pick it up by the handle and swing it like a tennis racket at the man’s head.  

It impacts hard with his forehead.  There’s a sickening crunch of bone, followed by a crackling noise as the hot metal burns his flesh.  His mouth opens, but he doesn’t scream.  Instead, he makes a gurgling sound as bloody foam spills out over his lower lip.  Thick red fluid also starts to drip from his ears and the corners of his eyes.

The skillet makes a sucking sound as I pull it free from his face.  It tears skin off as I do so.  It sticks to the pan like burned leather.  I swing the skillet for a second time, and he immediately slumps over onto his side.  His right eye has come free from its socket, and it lays across the bridge of his nose with the optic nerve trailing back into the gap.

He’s almost done.  I have to give him credit for surviving the two blows with the skillet, even if he did so with quite a bit of brain damage.

I allow the skillet to fall to the floor as I step over the man to reach a microwave sitting on a shelf.  Unplugging it from the wall, I carry it over to him and take one last look at him as he twitches and convulses.  I raise the heavy appliance up over my head before bringing it down as hard as I can.  His damaged skull provides little resistance, and his body goes still.

There’s a sound from out in the dining area.  I hurry out through the kitchen door, worried that a customer has walked into my kill zone.  Instead, I find the waitress struggling to get up.  She’s leaning up against the side of the booth’s seat, the salt shaker she had knocked over with her hand lying shattered on the floor next to her.

I get another knife from the silverware basket and cross the distance between us.  She looks up at me with glazed-over eyes, and I doubt that she can even see me.  I adjust my grip on the knife and cut her throat.  Blood bursts out from the gash.  The small piles of spilled salt on the ground become sticky and clumpy as it covers them.

The itching has stopped.  My hands are as steady as rocks.  I sit down on a stool at the counter and sigh in relief.  For the first time since the symptoms started this cycle I feel human.

With the relief comes a familiar bitterness.  No matter how satisfying a kill is, it never has the same pleasure and overwhelming satisfaction that one does during the final night of the cycle.  It’s infuriating.  It’s like some higher power has decreed that I’m only allowed to be happy one night each month.  Twice a month every two and a half years or so.

I allow myself a minute to sulk in my anger and disappointment before I force myself to put it aside.  There’s a pressing matter to attend to.  I’ve got two dead bodies and all the mess they created to deal with.  It won’t be long before people start to arrive for breakfast.  I have to figure out what I’m going to do before that happens.

It doesn’t take me long to realize that I’ve made a hell of a mistake.  No matter what I do, this place is going to end up being a crime scene.  Since it’s only a few miles from the dockyard, the police are bound to search it.  When they do, they’ll find the woman that I killed earlier, likely along with evidence of previous kills as well.  I don’t have any choice but to abandon the dockyard and move on to somewhere else.  Probably another state entirely.  I look up at the ceiling.  Definitely another state.

Fine.  If that’s what I have to do, it’s what I have to do.  Going back around the counter, I open the cash register and take the small amount of money that it contains.  I also go into the kitchen and take the money from the cook’s wallet, as well as a set of car keys from his other pocket.  It doesn’t end up being much in total, but it’s better than nothing.

I just have to make it through the day.  If I can do that, I can end the cycle tonight in a different place before continuing on my way in the morning.  I just…  I just have to make it through the day.

The kitchen provides me with the answer I need for covering my tracks.  There is an exposed gas line that runs through the kitchen.  Covering my mouth, I break a section of the line before quickly making sure that the pilot light in the stove is still burning.  Good.  I’ve broken a secondary line, not the main line.

I leave the diner through the front door.  There’s still no one in the parking lot, and there isn’t any traffic on the road, either.  I try the key that I took from the cook in the small white car first, but it doesn’t fit the lock.  It slides easily into the driver’s side door of the red pickup, though, so I get in and start the engine.

The rain has stopped, and the first hints of the rising sun can be seen in the distance as I turn out onto the road and head away from town.  After less than a minute of driving, I see what appears to be the light of a second sunrise in the rearview mirror.  I nod to myself.  It won’t be long before the fire at the diner is completely out of control, if it isn’t already.  At the very least it will take the authorities a couple of days to dig through the rubble and ashes.  Even if they somehow manage to find enough evidence to piece together what happened, I’ll be long gone before then.

The only thing working against me is the truck that I’m driving.  It won’t take the police long to figure out that it’s missing.  If they do that fast enough, they’ll be able to get word out across the state with the make, model, and license plate number.  That could lead to disaster.

Luckily, I don’t have to stay in this pickup for long.  I drive back towards the dockyard, going as fast as I dare on the slick pavement.  I reach my destination without incident and pull the truck up to the edge of one of the concrete docks before putting it into neutral and getting out.

I try to push the pickup off the edge of the dock, but I’m barely able to get it to budge.  I get down lower and press my back up against the tailgate as I push as hard as I can.  It eventually starts rolling forward.  There’s a crash of metal as the front wheels go over the edge.  I nearly fall as the weight of the front end does the rest of the work for me.  The truck slides into the dark water and sinks below the surface.

I give myself a few moments to rest before dusting myself off and hurrying over to the car that I had parked at the dockyard earlier.  It’s a black four-door sedan, the kind that countless people drive in every city in the country.  I check to make sure that my backpack is still in the passenger seat before opening the trunk and retrieving a duffel bag.  I change out of my bloodstained clothes and into fresh ones before getting into the car and leaving the dockyard.

This time, I turn right at the four-way intersection instead of continuing towards town.  My plan is to put as many miles between here and me that I can by mid-afternoon, then find a place where I can complete the cycle.  I fish my cellphone out from the car’s glove box and bring up the Map app.  The phone is a pre-paid one, of course, and I purchased it under a fake name.  There are half a dozen other ones in the car trunk and one in the backpack, all of which are still in their packages and are listed under different names.

The map confirms what I already thought.  If I stay on the highways and don’t make any stops, I can be out of Minnesota and into North Dakota by one o’clock.  That should give me more than enough time to get myself oriented and figure out where I would spend the night.

So that’s what I do.  Ignoring the fatigue that creeps in, I drive towards the state border, making sure to keep my speed at or under the limit to avoid the possibility of being pulled over.  I have to resist the urge to go faster.  While I know sticking to the speed limit is the smart play, I’m anxious to reach my destination.

I almost nod off twice during the drive.  Now that the symptoms of my condition are gone, at least for now, my body is more relaxed than it has been in quite a while.  It isn’t helping that the roads in this part of Minnesota are mostly just trees and open land with nothing to break up the monotony.

It’s with more than a little relief that I reach the state border.  There is a sign for a rest stop a few miles past the line, and I gratefully follow it into the parking lot.  I need to get out and stretch for a bit, get some fresh air.

I’ve never been to this part of the country before, and I’m surprised to see that the rest stop isn’t one of the standard ones with just a few bathrooms and vending machines.  This one is quite a bit larger, with a cafeteria-like section housing five or six chain fast food restaurants.  There’s also a small arcade, as well as a side room with a dozen leather massage chairs.

I’m mostly interested in a kiosk just inside the doorway.  It contains racks of maps and brochures, both for specific landmarks and for North Dakota in general.  I take a few of them and tuck them under my arm before I buy some lunch.  Once I have my burgers and drink, I pick a table in the corner away from the other people and open one of the maps.

I’m looking for a town to use for the night.  It has to fit some specific criteria, though.  It needs to have a large enough population to be worthwhile, but also not so large that it has a major police presence.  The police aren’t a concern during the final night of the cycle.  I’m worried about what could happen the next day.

I also prefer towns that are isolated.  The more that things are contained, the better.

There don’t seem to be many options that meet my needs.  I’m starting to think that I’m going to have to go with something less than ideal.  I’ve had to do that in the past.  Never on this short of notice, though.  I don’t like going into something blind.  It’s not looking like there’s a choice, though.

Wait.  There.  A small town about a hundred miles from where I’m at, with enough clustered streets on the map to imply at least a decent-sized population.  I pull the town up on my phone and confirm this is indeed the case.

Broken Bend, North Dakota.

Finishing my food, I toss the wrappers and maps into a trash can.  I make sure that I have directions to my new destination before I leave.  As I hold the door open for an elderly man, I notice a newspaper rack off to one side.  The story on the front page of the newspaper on top had the title ‘The Planets Align’.

I fish fifty cents out of my pocket and buy the newspaper.  I return to my car and open it.  According to the article, over a roughly eighteen hour period the Earth will be going in and out of alignment with multiple planets.  It’s extremely rare for this to happen; normally three or more planets align for a short period of time, then move along their orbits until they’re no longer in a line with one another.

This is different.  Because of where the planets are at in their orbits around the sun currently, the Earth has been and will be moving in and out of different alignments with different planets.  Two of these events will involve the moon as well.

That has to be it.  That has to be why my symptoms returned so quickly.  I’ve always known that the lunar cycle is tied in with my own.  Something about these planetary alignments must be throwing things off.

There’s nothing that I can do about it.  I toss the newspaper into the backseat before getting back out on the road.  It doesn’t really change anything anyway.  I still need to reach Broken Bend and get myself situated before dark.

The path to the town that I’ve chosen takes me off the main highways and onto smaller state routes.  The roads are in much worse condition on these, and I have to slow down to make sure that the car doesn’t bottom out in some of the larger potholes.

The forests are much thicker along these roads as well.  The trees are taller and closer together, and their tops reach out over the road like a canopy.  Even though it’s the afternoon on a sunny day, I have to turn on the car lights to see where I’m going.  It’s like I’m driving through a tunnel.

Two hours after I leave the rest stop, I pass a sign with the words ‘Welcome to Broken Bend’ painted on it.  Just beyond it is a wooden bridge that spans over a river.  The car bounces uncomfortably as it passes over the boards.

A few minutes after leaving the bridge behind, the trees thin out and I arrive in town.  I’ve found that most towns this size tend to look the same, and Broken Bend is no exception.  The downtown area is comprised of local businesses, a couple of churches, a few government buildings, and a gas station on both sides.  As I drive beyond that, I find that most of the older homes are on fairly large properties, but there are also some newer-looking developments with the houses much closer together.  Past the residential areas are parks and nature preserves.

I smile slightly.  This is perfect.

I begin to make plans.  There’s a closed construction site just outside of downtown that I can hide my car in overnight.  It’s in both walking distance to the various shops and businesses, as well as at least two of the housing developments.  I can park the car, go into town until dusk, come back to the car to get ready, and head for the housing developments as night falls.

I pull the car into the construction site and maneuver it around the equipment to park it behind a long trailer.  I take a moment to make sure that I have everything that I’ll need.  It isn’t much.  Since I’m going to be coming back to the car before nightfall, I only really need my wallet.  I get out of the car and feel the cold air against my skin.  Correction.  My wallet and a coat.

I open the trunk and retrieve my heavy coat.  While I do so, I also take out a large pocket knife.  Typically I don’t carry a weapon with me.  As strange as it sounds, it’s safer that way.  I don’t have to worry about metal detectors or, as has happened a few times in the past, being frisked.  Besides, it’s not like I really need it.  I can be quite creative when it comes to figuring out ways to hurt people.

This is a new town that I’m not familiar with, though.  It doesn’t hurt to take extra precautions.

My short trip into downtown Broken Bend is uneventful.  Only a few cars pass by as I walk along the side of the road, and none of the drivers pay much attention to me.  I’m not in any particular hurry.  At this point I’m just looking to waste time until sundown.

When I reach downtown, I slowly walk past the various businesses and shops.  A number of pedestrians greet me as I move down the sidewalk.  I nod and smile at them in turn.  These people have no idea what is coming for them tonight.  That thought causes my smiles to become even wider.

It’s been a long day, so it’s a relief when I come to a bar.  The painted window proclaims it as The Rockcreek Tavern.  I open the door and head inside.

That’s where I spend the next couple of hours.  The food is surprisingly good, the beer is pleasantly cold, and the patrons leave me alone.  I’ve had worse afternoons.

I’m struck by the need to go to the bathroom.  As I stand up to head to the restroom, I check the time on my phone.  It’s just past five.  That’s plenty of time to do my business, have one last beer, and start back towards the car.

It’s a single toilet bathroom.  I lock the door before I relieve myself.  Once I’m finished, I wash my hands and look at myself in the mirror.  I’m feeling a bit warm.  I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise.  It’s been a long day, and I’ve been on the road for most of it.  It’s either from the stress or the beers.

I look at myself closely in the mirror.  I definitely look tired.  My eyes are a bit bloodshot, and there are dark circles under them.  I’m also looking a bit pale.  Sighing, I run a hand over my face.

I stop.  My hand is shaking.

I force myself to stay calm.  The shaking doesn’t matter.  I’m only a few hours away from the end of the cycle.  I can make it until then.  There isn’t even any itching at the back of my neck.

Sweat begins to drip from my forehead.  I’m getting warmer.  Gripping the sink with both hands, I lean in towards the mirror and take a closer look at my eyes.  The black of the pupil is no longer circular.  Instead, it resembles a blot of ink that has run out across the blue iris.

It’s happening.  The end of the cycle has arrived.  The change is beginning.

This shouldn’t be possible.  The change shouldn’t happen until the moon begins to rise.  The sun isn’t even all the way down yet.

I remember the newspaper story about the strange planetary alignments.  There must be something about them that’s not just causing my symptoms to return faster, but also forcing the change to happen earlier.

I need to leave the bar.  If I hurry, I might be able to get to the car before-

There’s an audible snap as my right cheekbone breaks in half.

I gasp at the sudden blossom of pain.  It’s too late.  It’s happening now.

As quickly as I can, I strip off the clothes that I’m wearing.  I normally have time to pack away any clothing so that I can come back for it after the night is over, but I doubt I’ll be able to retrieve them this time.  It’s still best to take them off.  The less restrained my body is during the change, the better.

I feel pressure in my upper back.  This signals that one of the worst parts of the change is coming.  I sit down on the bathroom floor and slide my belt out of my pants.  Putting it in my mouth, I bite down on the soft leather.  Mere seconds later, my arms slide forward in their sockets before dislocating completely.  It’s terribly painful, but not as bad as what comes next.  I lean back against the wall and close my eyes.  My jaw presses into the belt so hard that my gums hurt as my leg bones jerk out of place.

I nearly black out as my spine pops and cracks, creating a steep curve near the top.  Saliva and dark blood are leaking out around the belt from my mouth.  More of it comes pouring out as the front of my skull starts breaking into pieces and my ribs pull apart further.  I feel like I’m on fire, but I know that the worst is almost here.

During this part of the change, my pain is doubled.  This is because I have twice the amount of nerves in my body, the ones running to my current shell, and the ones attached to what’s emerging.  All of them are screaming in agony as they’re stretched and mangled and torn.  There is no thought or reason.  There is only the torture, deep and infinite.

I’m so lost in this void of torment that I can no longer register the individual changes that are happening.  Everything is merely a part of the overall torment.  I float in the agony as it engulfs me.  Moments pass.  Years, maybe.  It’s impossible to tell.  Time has no meaning now.  Only pain exists.

Suddenly, mercifully, there is relief.  My outer skin tears open as my new body emerges from underneath it.  The belt falls from my mouth as I pant heavily.  It’s like an unbearable pressure has been released.  There are small stabs of discomfort as the change is completed, but it’s barely noticeable when compared to what I’ve just gone through.

The last of my bones lock into place.  I can feel my rational mind beginning to slip.  In moments it will be secondary to instinct.  I never lose my mind completely.  I’m fully conscious of what I’m doing.  It just doesn’t matter.

I get to my feet.  Everything feels so different now.  Powerful.  I can’t believe that I ever managed to stand on my weak human legs.

I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror.  The face of a wolf stares back at me.  It is thin and gaunt, the skin stretched tight against the face and muzzle.  The black fur is matted down with blood.  I pull a loose strip of ruined flesh off of the bottom of my jaw.

Movies.  Television.  Books.  Legends.  They’re all wrong about werewolves.  There’s a resemblance to wolves after the change, yes, especially in the face, but that resemblance only goes so far.  My body is far more skeletal and thin than the popular interpretations.  Certain parts of me like my clawed fingers appear almost delicate.  I don’t have a tail, and my long muzzle contains multiple rows of teeth.

It’s my eyes that tell the true story.  They are completely black, with pinpricks of red light barely visible in their depths.  To look into them is to know fear.  It’s to know death.

I hear movement out in the bar, and I turn away from the mirror.  My senses are heightened far beyond what a human is capable of.  I hear a stool pulling away from the bar.  I can smell the scent of beer wafting in from under the door.  I can see every crack and imperfection on the tiled bathroom wall.  I feel alive in a way that I never do except when the wolf comes out to play.

I take one last look around the bathroom.  There is blood everywhere, and pieces of my human skin cover the floor.  Even though it’s my own blood, the smell of it excites me.  I bare my teeth as I turn back to the bathroom door.  Finally.  After all this time, the hunt is finally here.

The door explodes into a shower of splinters as I burst through it.  There’s a man standing nearby in the short hallway, a half-filled glass in his hand.  His eyes grow wide with shock.  Before he can say or do anything, my right arm is swinging towards him.  The claws slide through skin, muscle, and bone as though they offer no resistance at all.  His body splits into two pieces and falls to the ground in a heap.

Oh fuck yes.  My heightened senses enhance every moment of the kill.  It’s a pleasure that goes beyond the effects of any drug.  More.  I need more.

There are screams coming from the main room.  Bar patrons are staring at me in surprise and horror, and some are fleeing towards the door.  I take two strides forward before leaping over their heads and landing between them and the exit.  No one leaves.  This is my moment.

One of the customers swings a clumsy punch at me.  I open my jaws to expose my rows of teeth and bite down into the flesh of his arm.  The razor-sharp fangs sink in deep.  With a twist of my head, I tear off the arm and fling it up against the far wall.  The blood running down my throat tastes incredible.

I’m a flurry of suffering and death.  Throats are torn, limbs are severed, lives are ended.  Each kill increases my need for more.  I revel as I rip apart the bar patrons.  I am the god of the hunt, and it is my purpose to reap the prey.

The man behind the bar has a gun.  He brings it up and fires once, twice, a third time.  All his shots are true.  I feel the impact of the bullets as they strike my skin.  The metal is hot, and it singes the tips of my fur.  My mouth opens slightly as a grin spreads across my face.  The sheep believes it can harm the wolf.

I jump onto the bar and snap my mouth around the sides of his head.  For a moment I let him struggle, my teeth piercing his skin as he tries to free himself.  Now he understands his place in the order of things.  His struggling ends as I clamp my jaws closed.

Music plays from the jukebox in the corner of the bar as I survey the room.  The Rockcreek Tavern is now a monument to carnage.  The scent of death fills my nostrils as I bask in the pleasures of the kill.  I raise my head towards the ceiling and howl triumphantly.

A werewolf’s howl is not like a wolf’s.  It is an inhuman sound, a deep guttural call that spreads fear to all that hear it.  It is the sound of Hell’s gates being opened.

I need more.  The hunt has just begun, and I intend to make the most out of every second.

I go out the front door and into the streets.  People immediately begin to scream, but I ignore them for the moment.  The sun is just beginning to set in the distance.  The sky is filled with splashes of red and thick purples.  I’m momentarily frozen in place.  I’ve never seen the sunset before, not with these eyes.  The charge has always happened after nightfall.  Even through my frenzy the beauty of the scene before me is striking.

The spell is broken as I smell the blood on my fur.  It’s time to continue what I’ve only just started.

A car is beginning to pull out of the parking space in front of me.  Baring my teeth, I jump through the passenger side window and into the vehicle.  In one motion I wrap my claws around the driver’s neck and throw both him and myself through his door.  We land hard on the concrete.  I crush his throat before looking over my shoulder to watch the car crash into an oncoming truck.

A man and a woman are running down the sidewalk away from me.  I race after them and catch up to them before they even realize that I’m following.  The woman falls as my claws and arm push through her back and out of her chest.  Grabbing the man, I lift him up over my head and rip him in half, his blood and entrails pouring out of him.

I drop the body and narrow my eyes.  The wind has brought a scent to me, one that isn’t the sweet coppery smell of blood or one of the common smells associated with a small town.  This scent is much different.  For the first time, not just during this change but for the first time ever in this form, I feel uneasy.

I don’t recognize the smell, but I do understand what it means.  Someone else, something else, has already marked this town as its own.  I’m in claimed territory.

It doesn’t matter.  I only get this opportunity once per cycle.  If another creature has claimed Broken Bend, it’s more than welcome to come try to defend its territory.

Most of the people have abandoned the street.  They hope to hide from me, or at least put some distance between them and me.  It’s a futile hope, and I suspect that some part of them knows that.  I’ll hunt out those in the small downtown area, then move onto the housing developments.  Before the night is over, I’ll slaughter as much of this town as possible.

I hear sirens begin to blare from less than a mile away.  It isn’t often that I encounter the police while under the influence of the full moon.  Normally I make sure that I’m in less public places than this when the change takes place to avoid that.  The changes to my cycle from the planetary alignments is making this night far more complicated than it usually is.  I bare my teeth, unable to contain my excitement.  It’s been so long since my prey has tried to resist its slaughter.  I’ve missed the thrill of it this so damn much.

The first of the police cars comes around the corner.  I grab a nearby mailbox and tear it free from the heavy bolts attaching it to the sidewalk.  With one arm, I fling it into the approaching car’s windshield.  It shatters the glass and smashes into the upper body of the driver.  The car veers wildly to the right and crashes into the side of a store.

The sun has set now, and the sky is growing darker.  A second police car comes into view, its red and blue lights flashing and its siren shrieking.  It stops a block away from me and two officers get out, using their car doors as shields as they pull their guns free from their holsters.  I begin running towards them, my jaws gnashing and my claws flexing eagerly.

I get about halfway before I stop.  The air is full of the smell of the other creature.  It’s stronger now, no longer the lingering scent of something that had previously passed through but instead the fresh odor of something approaching.  I ignore the officers and inhale deeply.  It’s coming from upwind.  Either this creature doesn’t know that I’m here, or it doesn’t care that it’s announcing its presence to me.

There’s something about the scent that makes me feel unsettled.  Even though I don’t recognize it, it’s like some primal part of me, some past memory buried in my werewolf biology, knows that it means danger is near.

I know that there are other unnatural beings out in the world.  I’ve encountered a few over the years, but none of them had triggered this sort of response in me.  I was the alpha predator.  Nothing was above me in the food chain.

The hairs along my back stand up as the smell continues to grow stronger.  I try to tell myself that these feelings are only a result of the unusual circumstances surrounding tonight’s change.  My instincts know that this isn’t true.

The officers begin to fire their guns.  I barely noticed as some of the shots strike me.  I concentrate on the smell, trying to decipher what I can from it.

Thoughts begin to flash through my head.  No, not thoughts.  More like… impressions.  The scent makes me think of the dark cold waters of the deepest oceans, the still and silent darkness down far below the surface.  At the same time, I am reminded of the vast night sky, of the black emptiness between stars.  The images flash through my mind quickly like single frames of movie film in a projector.  There is madness in them.

Fog is starting to fill the streets.  It is cool and thick, and it makes my skin feel greasy.  It has come out of nowhere and is rapidly becoming too dense to see through.  It smells the same as the approaching creature.

The police officers have stopped shooting at me.  I turn my head towards them and find that they are no longer pointing their guns at me.  Instead, they are standing perfectly still, their faces blank as they each point the index finger of their left hands towards me.  I’ve never seen anything like it before.

People that had been hiding from me inside of the businesses are now coming back outside.  Each of them has the same blank look on their faces as the officers, and they’re all pointing at me in the same way.  I growl at them in warning.  All of them no longer smell human, and instead reek of the scent of the fog.

My instincts scream at me that I need to abandon my hunt and escape.  Whatever is coming for me isn’t just unnatural.  It’s not of this world.

I shake my head in frustration.  This is my night.  This is my hunt.  It is my right to spill blood and feast on flesh.

I hear the creature coming.  It’s close; if it wasn’t for the fog, I would be able to see it already.  It sounds…  I don’t know how to describe it.  The closest word I can think of is wet.

I look around at the gathered people as a realization comes to me.  This isn’t just some other creature’s territory.  The territory is part of the creature.  I’ve come to a long-conquered town.  All of the citizens are extensions of its will.

My bloodlust melts away.  If I remain, it will take me as well.

I run, moving on all fours to get away as fast as I possibly can.  The scent of the creature rapidly fades into the distance; it’s not following me, at least not at any significant speed.  Its smell is still around me, though, and it’s closing in from both the sides and in front of me.  The fog is expanding outward, and more people are coming out of their shops and homes.

The otherworldly creature doesn’t believe that it needs to personally come for me.  It thinks that it can tighten a noose around me with its followers.

If I was human, I could get back to my car and drive out of town.  In this form I don’t have that option.  Instead, I plunge into the woods at the edge of downtown.

There are people waiting for me just inside of the treeline.  These aren’t just standing and pointing, however.  Each of them is armed, most of them with knives and the rest with various tools.  They swarm towards me in a semicircle, looking to cut off my escape.

I howl as I charge directly into the middle of the crowd.  Their master may make me afraid, but these are just humans.  With teeth and claws I tear into their bodies.  There are no screams or wails of pain.  They are completely silent as they stab at me with their knives before being torn apart.  As the last one falls I pause to catch my breath.

The creature’s scent is closer.  While the people weren’t able to stop me, they were successful in delaying me.  I continue on.

Something slams into my side hard, and I lose my footing.  I strike a tree before sliding to a stop.  I reach down with one clawed hand and touch where I was hit.  I’m bleeding.

A man steps out of the brush and into view.  He is soon followed by one woman, and then another.  They are all holding heavy-looking rifles.  Bullets don’t typically hurt me, but these are large caliber weapons and pack far more of a punch.

I regain my footing and keep running.  Shots are fired, but none of them manage to hit me.  I’m moving slower than I was just moments earlier.  The round that pierced me must have hit something important.  I’m having a harder time breathing, and my right leg is slightly numb.  I ignore these things and push on.

I don’t stop until I reach the river marking the edge of town. Without pausing, I plunge into the water. It is freezing, and the cold causes my wound to hurt more. More gunshots sound from behind me. I hear some of them slap the water, but nothing comes close to me.

I reach the other side of the river and pull myself up onto the bank. I hurry into the cover of the nearby trees before stopping to look back the way I’ve come. There’s no sign of either the townsfolk or the fog, and I can no longer smell the creature’s scent on the air. I’ve made it out of its territory.

I look down at the blood dripping from my wound. It will soon heal. I raise my head to look back at the other side of the river, feeling shame as I do so. Something unholy has claimed Broken Bend, and it is the true alpha.

The Night I Met Santa Claus

It has been said that you should never meet your idols. It was the Christmas of 2005 that I came face to face with mine; someone the majority of people don’t believe in, after a certain age, of course. I was ten years old at the time and still held on to my beliefs, regardless of the inherent mocking it would earn.

Joanna, my older sister; Jo, or Jo-Jo to her friends and family, outright laughed at my insistence the man in the hat was real, but she was always a logical thinker. Even when she was much younger, while I was only three or four, she rolled her eyes at my excitement about the arrival of Jolly Old Saint Nick, having never bought into it even when she was just a little girl, according to our dad.

‘That’s fine,’ I thought, ‘don’t matter if you believe in him, ’cause he believes in you.’ Not the most well-thought-out inner argument, but it was good enough for an imaginative kid who couldn’t stand the thought of his sister ending up with a stocking full of coal, even if she was being a jerk about the whole thing.

When that December dragged by at a snail’s pace, or so it felt to a kid eagerly anticipating whatever new goodies may be awaiting him on the morning of the 25th, I forged together my plan to prove her wrong, once and for all. Sure, I can’t deny that the satisfaction of having a well-deserved ‘I told you so’ to greet Jo on Christmas morning wasn’t at least a little bit behind my motivations, but I also couldn’t resist the opportunity to meet the fabled jolly man in the red suit.

My dad chuckled at my insistence that I would be camping out in the living room that night of the 24th, while my mom only shrugged with a smile.

“Just be sure to get some sleep, kiddo,” dad said, still laughing at my eagerness mixed with exhausted yawns.

I held the small camera I’d received a Christmas or two back clutched in my hand beneath the blanket, prepared to take a few shots as soon as St. Nick made his appearance, but as the house fell still, I found it far more difficult to keep my eyes open. While the couch wasn’t nearly as comfortable as my bed on the second floor, the excitement of the season, along with a good deal of playing out in the snow, left my eyelids far too heavy to battle against.

I can’t be certain how long I was out for, with only the lights from the tree illuminating the living room around me, but when the creaking of the floor and jingling of the decorations hanging from the tree caused me to stir back to awareness, I instantly felt my fingers tingle with anticipation. For my plan to prove fruitful, I would have to keep up the act of a sleeping child; one fully unaware of the visitor I could vaguely see through my half-shut eyes.

From the angle I was laying in, I could only make out from the waist down of the man who fished goodies from his hefty bag, laying them gently beneath the tree, but I had no doubt I was witnessing the actions of the very man I hoped to see. With his back to me, I softly, but hastily searched my fingertips around for the camera which had fallen from their grip, after I knocked out, but I attempted to keep my actions unnoticed.

I slightly gasped aloud when my hand wrapped around the plastic shell, causing the man by the tree to spin in place, almost catching me red-handed. I snapped my eyes back shut, rolling them from side to side beneath their lids to imitate the rapid eye movement I had read about online. Whether or not I was overdoing it, acting as though I were erratically scanning them in every direction while still firmly closed, I had no way of knowing, but when I felt the air shift as the man drew closer to where I lay, I found it more difficult to hide my excitement.

I breathed in the scent of freshly baked cookies and peppermint, convincing me that I truly was in the presence of the fabled gift-giver himself. There was something else beneath the more inviting smells; something musty and aged, but I assumed the big guy had worked up quite a sweat, given his laborious profession. After a few moments, I felt the oxygen around me regulate as the light footsteps sounded as though they moved away from me again, so I took a chance on cracking open my eyelids.

Sure enough, the man in the red suit was hunched over by the tree again. I knew I had to make it quick, or I would lose this small window of providing evidence to my sister. In one swift, but silent motion, I pulled the camera free from my blanket, aimed it at the man who still faced the tree and snapped three pictures, back-to-back, moving my finger so quickly I didn’t have time to register the bright flash.

I felt my breath catch in my throat as he spun to face me; something I could barely make out through the lingering effects of the blinking bright lights on my eyes, which had grown accustomed to an otherwise darkened room.

“That’s against the rules, little boy,” his deep voice said with his posture unchanged, from what I could tell.

“I-I’m so sorry,” I stuttered, feeling my eyes well up, “I j-just wanted to prove….prove to my sister that you’re real!”

“You’re not the first…unlikely to be the last, but it is still forbidden, I’m afraid.”

I could see the silhouette rising back to his feet, with the blotches of lingering light still blocking most of my view. He moved closer to where I lay, only slightly raised with the camera clenched between my trembling fingers.

It wasn’t fear that caused my extremities to shiver, but that sensation of guilt and embarrassment from being caught doing something I shouldn’t have. Were this any other man, I would likely be so scared that I couldn’t even form the stuttered words I managed to utter, but I was comfortable in the fact that Father Christmas would never harm a child, regardless of how naughty they were acting.

“Give it to me,” he said, holding his padded mitt just beneath my face.

I gently raised the camera, placing it in his waiting hand, keeping my guilt-ridden gaze fixed on my wrinkled blanket.

“There’s nothing to feel bad about, my boy,” he said, sliding the camera into his pocket with one hand and tousling my hair with the other, “go back to sleep now.”

“B-but…will I…I mean, does this make me naughty?”

“No, young mister Cobb, you have graced my nice list exclusively for years,” he said with a hearty chuckle, “I was a curious child myself once, so very long ago.”

Finally feeling comfortable enough to raise my eyes to meet those of the man who stood beside the couch, I found my voice silenced when I met his smiling face. While things were still somewhat out of focus from the lingering effects of the camera flash, what I saw through the haze was far from what I expected.

Whether it was the fact that the skin tone of the left side of the face was not the same as the right, the green and red threads holding the mismatched flaps of skin together, or the two different colors and sizes of the eyes were what caught me more off guard, I didn’t know. Whatever aspect of this crudely priced together thing, for lack of a better term, I was certain that this could not truly be who I had expected a visit from this snowy Christmas morning.

As my jaw fell open; a scream caught in my throat as the creature in the red suit swiftly and firmly placed a hand over my mouth.

“Now, now,” he said, smiling so widely that a few stitches popped where his mouth was hemmed on the left side, “there’s no sense in allowing your curiosity to wake everyone else in the house.”

I was frozen when the sight of this patchwork man caused my guilt to be replaced with a fear I had never known. My whole body trembled as the one green and one hazel eye glared into mine. Tears were streaming down my face and over the padded glove that rested over my mouth while my mind fought to wrap around what I was looking at.

“There’s nothing to fear, my boy,” he said, winking the brown eye; his words now accompanied by a whistle through the gap on the side of his mouth, “I may not look as you imagined, but I assure you I am who you sought to meet this night.”

“Wh-what are you?” I asked, pulling the hand from my mouth with my shivering fingers.

“You know who I am, Edward.”

“No…you can’t be…” I shook my head almost violently as I pushed my shoulder blades against the back of the couch, as though this would somehow grant me freedom from this hideous thing.

The smile faded from the patchy bearded face as those opposing eyes glared down at me. While he hung his head, turning away from me, he strolled to my father’s recliner, which sat diagonally across from where I lay. When he spun again to face me, lowering himself into my dad’s favorite chair, we just glared at one another; my eyes still filled with terror and his with something resembling shame.

“I have been doing this for a long time, Edward,” he said in a strangely compassionate voice, “immortality, I can assure you, does not come without cost.”

“You can’t be him…I won’t believe it,” I said, still shaking my head in denial.

“I am, young Mr. Cobb. I am so sorry that I am not what you expected, but I assure you there is no need to be afraid…I would never hurt a child.”

“N-not even the n-naughty ones?”

“Not even…not when they’re still young enough to change, anyway.”

“Even if…if they’re really bad?”

“No. Not ever. Never a child; not if I can help it. Besides, that’s what the train is for.”

“Th-the train?”

“Nothing to concern yourself with, my boy; I can promise you that much.”

Again, we gazed at one another for so long that my eyes began to burn from my refusal to blink. Not only was I still so horrified by what sat across from me, but I dreaded to think what he might have done if I took my eyes off him for a second.

My whole body continued to tremble while I still forced my back against the plush cushions of the couch, with my blanket pulled up to my quivering lower lip. Every fiber of my being was in complete denial of what I was looking at, regardless of the fact he clearly had no ill intentions at the time; a fact I grew steadily more uncertain of after what came next.

“Stop looking at me like that,” he said, barely louder than a whisper, both sides of his uneven brow pinching tightly on his upper eyelids.

I didn’t stop; I couldn’t. I had no control over it at the time. He may as well have asked me to levitate three feet above the cozy sofa with how much I was able to manage what my body and mind were going through at the time.

“Stop it!” he repeated, leaning forward to lean his elbows on his knees, “Do you have any idea what I have endured over the centuries!? Do you have the slightest semblance of appreciation for what I put myself through to continue to give you ungrateful children a happy Christmas!?”

I shook my near-spasming head; not in response to his question, but in further denial of what I was witnessing.

“I turned myself into an abomination, for you! You and all of the other kids out there! Is that not good enough!?”

I turned away from him, finally allowing my gaze to drift from his.

“LOOK AT ME!” he shouted, reclaiming my unyielding attention, as he practically leapt to his feet, whipping the hat from his scalp and tearing open his coat.

The scars and stitched together, mismatched shades of flesh across his emaciated chest almost caused me to scream out so loudly, I may just wake the dead, as well as my sleeping family. The stringy and matted, patchwork hair and mangled scalp looked as though the thread holding it together would pop apart any second, unzipping the seams to reveal little more than the skull beneath.

“This is what I had to become to continue on my chosen path,” he said in a cracking voice, pulling his coat back shut, “I became this…monstrosity…for you; for all of the children of the world.”

He paced closer to me again, inspiring me to attempt to force myself deeper into the cushions. As he crouched down to look directly into my eyes, my tears let loose, transforming from the trickling stream to a veritable hurricane.


He gripped his fingers around my shoulders so tightly, I thought he planned to claim my arms; to stash them away for a rainy day. While I became aware of the fact that one of the hands felt so much larger than the other; far stronger as well, that only drove the madness of it all so much deeper into my brain.

“Look at the wonders I brought you,” he said, removing one hand to gesture to the pile of neatly wrapped presents, “is it too much to expect a little gratitude?”

The mismatched scowl softened to reveal his own glassy eyes, glistening in the soft illumination of the festive lights upon the tree. In that moment, even through my horror-stricken vision at the time, I could finally make out the melancholy and hurt-filled expression of the kind face, hidden away behind the grotesque patchwork flesh.

“Th-thank you,” I said, my tears finally dissipating, “and I’m sorry…sorry I got scared. It’s just…”

“No,” he said, his grip softening on my shoulder, “it is I who should apologize, my dear young man.”

His hands fell limp to his sides, tracing his padded gloves across the carpeted floor. As he hung his head, shying his eyes away from mine, I let the blanket slip from my fingers, raising my hand to his cold and wrinkled cheek.

“It actually feels kinda neat,” I said, running my no longer shivering digits across the seam holding the upper flap of his face to the lower, “does it hurt?”

He just shook his head, still seemingly studying the floor beneath his knees.

“Only at first…goes numb after a time…”

“I bet that’s a good thing when it’s really cold out,” I said sincerely, shifting myself closer to him, “I played in the snow today, and my skin felt like it was on fire after a while.”

“Is that right?” he said with a chuckle, raising his eyes back to meet mine, “it has been a long time since I felt anything like that.”

“It really sucked, ’cause I wanted to stay out there, but I couldn’t even make my fingers move, they were so cold! When I came back inside, I got crazy pins and needles!”

Though the smile he returned seemed to lighten up his face, a few more stitches popped loose on the side of his mouth, almost reawakening the fear I had begun to bury away. When he raised a gloved hand to the loose thread, I could see that shame returning as he turned his gaze from mine once more.

“Want me to help you fix it? My mom showed me how to sow a bit when I kept tearing up the knees of my pants.”

“No,” he said, with a half-smile on the side of his mouth that wasn’t affixed with thread, “but I certainly do appreciate the offer, young Edward.”

With that, he got back to his feet, smiled back down at me once more, and walked back to where his bag lay beside the tree.

“I’m afraid I must be going, my young friend. Many more children on my list, before the sun rises.”

I pulled back my blanket, jumped to my feet, and approached the man in the red suit, no longer afraid of what he had in store for me.

“I really am sorry, Santa,” I said, feeling my back tense again from my guilt.

“No, my boy,” he said, turning to face me, “it is I who owes you an apology. It has been many years since I have allowed…this,” he held his hands to his face, “to be seen by anyone, aside from those I work alongside. I almost forgot how jarring it can be to the unsuspecting.”

I reached up to wrap my fingers around the puffy mitten of his left hand. He winced at first, as though shocked by this act, but when I tightened my grip to reassure him, I felt my heart skip a little when my hand closed around the empty section of padding.

I looked up at him, as though wordlessly asking if it was alright before I slipped the glove from his hand. I felt my jaw fall loose when my eyes met the sight of the three missing fingers, leaving only a forefinger and thumb in their stead.

“W-what happened?” I stuttered; not from fear this time, but from the sadness awakening within me.

“A small accident some weeks back,” he said, almost dismissively, “nothing to worry about, young lad.”

“Can you get new ones?”

“Soon enough, my boy…I just need the right donor,” he replied with a warm smile.

“But…you said you wouldn’t hurt nobody…” I said, feeling my heartbeat quicken again.

“I would never hurt a child, dear Edward,” he said, pulling the mitten back over his hand, “but a few lumps of coal are not quite as effective to a naughty adult.”

With that, he gave me a wink, tousled my hair again with his fully fingered right hand, and picked the large bag back up again.

“You had better get some sleep now.”

While I was still pretty freaked out by everything that night had presented me with, I no longer felt afraid of the patchwork man in the red and white suit. Before I walked back to the couch, I wrapped my arms around him, apologizing one last time for acting like such a jerk. He just laughed, gently returning my hug.

“Merry Christmas, Edward Cobb,” he said with a slight crack in his voice.

“Merry Christmas, Santa,” I replied, finally releasing my grip to head back to my warm blanket.

When I climbed back under the covers, I glanced back to the tree to see no trace of jolly old Saint Nick, but I think I expected that. I heard no hooves stomping across the roof, high above, no jovial chuckles as he rode out of earshot, only the silence of the house at rest.

By the time I awoke the following morning, greeted by my loving parents, excited sister, and a good many presents to open up, I had already convinced myself that I had eaten far too much junk food the night before. That was always a safe enough explanation for my more bizarre and far-out dreams. I even found my camera hidden away beneath the blanket, with not even one picture having been taken.

After Christmas morning proceeded like normal; well, normal from what I had experienced over my handful of years by that point, my father received a phone call. He looked almost puzzled when he glanced at the caller ID before answering, but the confused expression on his face quickly turned to something more concerned and uneasy.

He whispered to my mother words I could not make out, causing her face to mimic his at the time, but he turned down her offer to accompany him as he threw on some warmer clothing, almost sprinting out the front door.

“Where’s dad going?” Jo asked, turning her attention away from her new iPod for the first time in hours.

“He has to go meet your Uncle Bob,” mom replied, appearing uneasy about this rendezvous.

I had only met my father’s brother once, some four or five years before that Christmas day, if memory serves. Even back then, I could tell that my mom didn’t think too highly of the man, but he was only at the house for maybe ten to twenty minutes at most.

I overheard my parents arguing that night, with my mother insisting that dad’s brother was not welcome in our home. While dad seemed pretty agitated by her words, he didn’t put up as much of a fight as I expected, but the more they talked, after the yelling calmed down, the more I understood.

I would find out some time later that Robert Cobb, who was two years older than my dad, cared more about the bottle than his brother’s family. He prioritized his addiction over his own wife and kids as well, for that matter. Having only met him that one time, I had no idea I had three cousins: a boy around my age and two daughters, three and five years my senior.

With those facts in mind, when my dad showed back up two hours later, accompanied by Uncle Bob, I could understand why my mom looked fit to burst. As my father looked back at her with his eyes quivering with burgeoning tears, she looked completely lost for words when Robert threw his arms around her, apologizing for being such a terrible brother-in-law.

It was at that point, while I was completely distracted from all of the goodies I had unwrapped that morning, gazing up at the adults who were acting so strangely to my youthful eyes, that I noticed something that caused my breath to catch in my throat again.

Some minutes later, Bob would explain the bandages wrapped around his left hand; how he had awakened that morning with a wide red ribbon where the gauze now sat. Being still hungover from the binge drinking of the previous night; the same way he had ended just about every day since his wife left him, taking their children with her, he had no memory of how he had lost those three fingers, nor why he had encased the bloodied stumps in a festive ribbon.

Seeing this as a much-needed wake-up call to finally put in the work to attempt to get his life back on track, he headed straight to the hospital, placing the call to my father when he arrived. When my parents escorted him into the kitchen, pretty much ordering my sister and me to stay put, we couldn’t help but listen from the other side of the door.

Though I was still far too young to truly understand a lot of what was being said, what Uncle Bob was confessing to, Jo attempted to explain it to me later in more child-friendly terms. Essentially, Robert admitted to the abuse he had inflicted on his wife and children. While he had only gotten physical with his spouse, he was just as ashamed of that as the years of verbal abuse.

Over the following months, my father stood by his brother’s side while he fought to get clean, with the full support of my mom. Sometime down the line, his estranged wife gave him a second chance. Ultimately, they could not save their relationship, but remained friends, even when she remarried. He would; however, become far more involved in the lives of his children, as well as his niece and nephew.

To this day, Uncle Bob keeps in touch. I don’t see him as much as I used to; him or my cousins, but that’s just part of getting older, I suppose. We all still get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas; the latter being more important to my uncle than any other holiday, as that is the anniversary of when he realized the monster he had become.

Oftentimes, I allow myself to believe that the memories I still hold of the man I met that early Christmas morning are nothing more than an especially vivid dream that sticks with me to this day. The fact that the patchwork individual in the red suit was missing the same fingers my uncle lost track of some hours after that bizarre dream, I just chalked up to that unexplainable coincidence of a strangely prophetic flight of fancy of the sleeping mind.

Of course, there are those other times when I fully and truly believe that I did uncover the truth behind the mythical saint of the season; the extreme measures he took to be able to continue his mission through the centuries. Not only that, but I think it is very likely he had a fully fingered left hand by the time the sun set on that Christmas day.

Though I never saw him again after that night, I believe it was that experience that drove me to at least attempt to grow up to be a good man; that, as well as the lessons my parents taught me. Yes, there have been hard times that almost inspired me to stray from that path, as life does tend to toss a few curve balls at even the most prepared for the worst, but I have always been able to find my way back.

Perhaps it’s not the most honorable motivation; the fear of having bits and pieces of myself cut and stripped away to fix up a broken fender or two on Santa’s sleigh, so to speak, but it’s something at least.

Believe my story or not; it’s pretty far-fetched; I can’t deny that. All I ask, when all is said and done: just try to be good, for goodness’ sake.

And to All a Good Nighty Night

This year, I made an egregious mistake.  It was one of those decisions that I knew was bad at the time I was making it, and part of me was screaming at me that I was being an idiot, but I still went ahead with it anyway.  I don’t make those kinds of mistakes often.  When I do, though, damn, they come back to bite me every single time.

At the beginning of December, a friend of mine came to me with a request.  He’s the manager of the only local mall within thirty miles that is still operating.  While there aren’t many stores that remain open there, the one time that things get even slightly busy is around Christmas.  There’s something about the holiday season that makes people want to walk into a big open building so that they can rummage around in small claustrophobic stores, I guess.  It’s the only time of year that the various retailers that lease store space manage to make more than a minuscule profit.

To help get everyone into the holiday spirit, the mall is decorated with all the usual holiday cheer.  As much as I just kind of crap over malls in my last paragraph, I have to say that there really is something magical about them during the holiday season.  I have found memories as a kid walking under giant wreaths and ornaments that hung from the ceiling.  Christmas music would play gently through the building and lights would twinkle in seemingly every corner.  Both the shoppers and the store employees seemed nicer at that time of year.

The big centerpiece to every mall at Christmas time was, of course, Santa Claus.  There would be a spot in the center of the building that would be decorated to look like a workshop or a winter wonderland, and that would be where Santa would be located.  It seems silly to think back on it as an adult, but it really was a big deal as a kid.  There was the big guy himself, ready to take a picture with you and to get your present list right from the horse’s mouth.

It wasn’t really Santa, of course.  It was some guy that had been hired to play the part.  I think all kids know that, or at least suspect it.  It weirdly doesn’t matter, though, does it?  It was still one of the highlights of the Christmas season.

That brings me back to the favor my friend asked of me.  The Santa actor that he had hired had needed to back out due to a family emergency, and he hadn’t been able to find a replacement.  He had happened to bump into my wife Anne at the grocery store, though, and while they had caught up she had happened to mention that I had most of December off thanks to accumulated vacation time that I had needed to use before the new year.

I’m guessing that you can see the answer that he came up with when he put two and two together.

I politely turned him down.  Putting aside the fact that the pay that was offered was awful, I just didn’t want to do it.  My idea of vacation was relaxing and doing the absolute bare minimum, not sitting in an uncomfortable chair all day while children coughed and sneezed all over me.  Maybe I’m just old-fashioned.

It was Anne that convinced me to agree.  At first she was completely onboard with my position, but when she found out that the job also came with a significant discount at all the stores in the mall she flipped to the other side of the argument.  We needed new furniture now that our Great Dane was out of that annoying puppy phase where they chew everything within reach.  With the discount we would be able to afford that immediately rather than needing to wait for our tax return the following February.

That was how my much-anticipated and much-needed vacation turned into an endless procession of greedy children and stressed parents.

Somehow, I managed to make it through the three weeks with my sanity intact.  I was close to stepping off that cliff a few times, but each time I talked myself out of it at the last minute.  The last hour of my final shift on Christmas Eve felt like it lasted years.

It didn’t help that I had been forced to take some medication to help me get through it.  One of the hundreds of children with runny noses had passed their cold onto me, and I was determined not to have more than the sniffles by Christmas morning.  To accomplish this, I drank a grove’s worth of orange juice and took cold medication at regular intervals.

On my final break of the day, I had gone to take a dose of the medication and found that the packet was empty.  I had hurried over to the pharmacy next to the mall and bought more.  They didn’t have the brand that I typically used, so I had been forced to buy a different one.

Apparently I should have taken a moment to read the package a bit closer, because it turned out that I had grabbed the nighttime version instead of the non-drowsy pills.  I found this out immediately after I had taken them.  I had stared at the label for a few moments before coming to the conclusion that it would be fine.  How bad could it be, right?

During that last hour, I nearly fell asleep on multiple occasions.  One minute I would be listening to a kid’s wish list of toys, and the next my head would be snapping back after drifting off for a few seconds.  The further into the hour I got, the more often it happened.

Even when I wasn’t falling asleep, I was completely zoned out.  I felt like I was existing in a fog.  Everything became automatic: wait for the kid to rattle of their list, hand them a candy cane, and send them on their way with a quick “Merry Christmas”.

WIth about ten minutes left in my shift, I started seeing things.  More accurately, I started seeing something.  Sometimes when I looked out beyond the small Santa’s Village set, I would see an odd figure off in the distance.  I couldn’t make it out very well, but it was tall, gray, and it seemed to have quite a long neck.  It moved in and out of the crowd of shoppers, stopping every so often to examine someone closer before moving on.

Each time I saw it, the sight of it would cause me to jerk slightly and my mind would temporarily cut through the fog.  I would blink a few times, and when I focused my eyes again the figure would be gone.  After the first few times of this I swore to never spend a dime on cold medication again.  Obviously it had quite the effect on me.

Finally, mercifully, my shift was over.  At that point I knew that it wasn’t safe for me to drive home.  I didn’t want to risk the medication knocking me out while I was on the road.  As I watched the last of the shoppers filing out of the mall doors, I called Anne and explained what was going on.  She immediately volunteered to come pick me up, telling me that we could come back and get my car the next day.

It was going to take her a while to get me, however.  The snow was really coming down outside, and the roads weren’t in great condition.  I told her to take her time and hung up.

My next call was to the friend that managed the mall.  He wasn’t actually at the mall, of course.  Only a madman would be working at a mall on Christmas Eve, after all.

When he picked up, I told him what was happening.  He told me that, while all the mall staff including the two security guards were leaving, I was welcome to stay inside until Anne got there to pick me up.  He had an extra key in his office, and I would just need to use it to unlock the front door and re-lock it behind me when I left.  That way I wouldn’t have to stand out in the freezing cold while I waited.  I gladly took him up on his offer.

I went behind the chair that I sat on when I was meeting children and retrieved my backpack.  As I did so, one of the guards came up to me and told me that the manager had let him know what was going on.  He asked if I wanted him to wait with me, but I told him that wasn’t necessary.  There was no point in him missing time with his family.

Instead of immediately going to the hallway housing the mall staff offices, I went into one of the bathrooms and took off my Santa beard and hat.  I hadn’t bothered to bring a full change of clothes because I obviously hadn’t known that I was going to be stuck in the mall after closing, but I certainly wasn’t going to wear more of the costume than I needed to while I waited.  When I finished, I went back out of the bathroom with a yawn.

I hadn’t been in there for more than a few minutes, but by the time I emerged the mall was empty.  All the stores were closed, the music was no longer playing over the speakers, and the overhead lights were dimmed.  I looked around uneasily.  If I was being honest with myself, it was a little creepy.

Unease quickly reverted to exhaustion, however.  The medication was really kicking in now, and I yawned again as I shook my head in an effort to clear it.  That effort was in vain.  It had been too long of a day and I had taken too much of the medicine for something as simple as a head shake to work.

I slung my backpack over my shoulders and started towards the manager’s office.  The best course of action was to retrieve the keys, sit down on one of the benches near the mall entrance, and wait for Anne.  Fighting off sleep until she arrived would be tricky, but maybe I could set an alarm on my phone just in case.

Through my mental haze I heard a sound.  At least I thought that I did.  It was so quiet that I wasn’t sure if I really did.  I frowned.  I wasn’t even sure what it had sounded like.  I ignored it and continued on.

I heard the sound again but kept going.  I was bound to hear odd sounds that I normally wouldn’t now that the mall was closed.  After all, there were the noises of people shopping to cover up the sounds that all older buildings made.  It was just some pipe moving warm air through it for the heaters or something settling as the night grew colder outside.  Nothing to worry about.  Besides, I was too tired to worry about such things.

I passed by the mall’s movie theater.  It was only a few stores down from the office hallway.  I glanced at the posters displaying the current films being played.  I made a face.  The entire lineup was surprisingly bad with the exception of a special screening of Scrooged.  That one got a pass.

I turned my attention forward just in time to see long fingers begin to curl around the edge of the office hallway.  I was so tired that it took me almost double the time it normally would to react.  Stopping in my tracks, I watched as a second set did the same thing just above the first three.  All of the fingers ended in points that extended two to three feet.

As I stood there uncomprehendingly, a hideous face stretched out from behind the wall.  Its eyes had no lids, and the yellowish orbs with black centers seemed to strain out from the sockets.  Its mouth was pulled back in a smile, its lips cracked and broken.  A disgusting black liquid flowed out of its mouth and poured onto the floor.

“Merry Christmas,” the monster said in a scratchy voice.

I cried out in surprise as fear gripped me.  I stumbled backwards and fell to the ground, landing on my bottom with a thud.  All feelings of being tired were suddenly gone.

So was the creature.  I stopped in mid-shout as it disappeared.  It didn’t pull back into the hallway or otherwise move out of view.  One moment it was there, and the next it wasn’t.

I sat on the ground for a few moments, looking around in confusion while waiting for my heartrate to return to something resembling normal.  I had no idea what had just happened.

I thought back to the medication that I had taken.  It had to have been some sort of hallucination brought on by the drug.  Maybe I was allergic to it.  I nodded to myself.  That made sense.  In fact, I thought that I had read on the box that hallucinations were a known side effect if too much was taken in a single dose.  I didn’t think that I had taken too many of the pills, but it was certainly possible.

I got back to my feet and ran a hand over my face.  As the adrenaline faded, I began to feel even more tired than I had been just minutes earlier.  I sighed as I took a step towards the hallway.

The creature was back, and this time its entire body had emerged from the hallway.  It was extremely tall and towered over me, and its arms and legs were thin to the point of being emaciated.  It looked down at me with that same grin as it extended its needle-like fingers towards me.

“Merry Christmas,” it repeated in that same raspy voice.

It didn’t disappear when I screamed this time.  It seemed to waver slightly as my fear spiked, appearing for a moment like a heat mirage coming off of hot asphalt, but that only lasted for a less than a second as it resolidified.  I noticed that my head didn’t clear the way that it had when I had first seen the creature.  The medication was really taking hold now.

It started to move forward.  It moved slowly and methodically, but I got the feeling that it would be capable of going faster if it needed to.  Not knowing what else to do, I turned and ran.

I didn’t know where I was running to.  I didn’t have a plan in mind.  All that I knew was that I needed to put some distance between myself and this… this thing.  I could hear it pursuing, but I didn’t look back.

I came to the doors at the front of the mall.  Grabbing one of the handles, I pulled as hard as I could.  The door refused to budge.  I mentally kicked myself as I belatedly remembered that I’d have to unlock them before I could leave.

Swearing loudly, I turned back around.  The key was somewhere in the mall manager office.  That office was, in turn, back the way that I had come.  Between me and it was the monster that was chasing me.

Before I had time to form any kind of plan, even a bad one, the creature came into the entryway.  Black liquid sloshed out of both sides of its mouth as its head moved from side to side.

A part of me didn’t want to keep running.  There was a tiny voice inside of my head that said to just give up, that I was too tired to keep going.  There was no way that this was real anyway.  It was just some horrible hallucination brought on by a bad reaction to cold medication.

The rest of me told that part to shut the fuck up.  This was definitely happening, and while I was indeed hazy from the medication, I knew that my head was clear enough that I wasn’t just making this up.  This was real.

“Merry Christmas,” it rasped.

It seemed to be the only thing that the creature could say.  I wondered if that was because it had heard the shoppers repeat the phrase so often during the time it has spent in the mall.  I reminded myself that the words the evil killer monster was saying didn’t matter nearly as much as getting away from the evil killer monster.

It was coming towards me along the right side of the entryway.  I moved in the opposite direction and started running back into the mall.  I had only taken a few steps when my legs began to ache.  I wasn’t exactly in the best shape of my life to begin with, and both the initial running I had done and the medication I was on weren’t helping matters.  I continued on as best as I could.

I had crossed about a dozen yards when my boot slipped on a wet spot on the floor.  Maybe it was from a spilled drink, or maybe it was snow brought in by a shopper that had melted.  Whatever the case, my heel skidded across the surface and my weight came down on the leg awkwardly.  Pain immediately flared from it, and once again I found myself colliding with the tile.

I managed to get back to my feet, but I wasn’t able to put much weight onto the injured leg.  I looked over my shoulder and found that the creature was closing the distance between us.  Gritting my teeth, I stumped ahead as quickly as I could.  I knew that it wasn’t fast enough, though, and I wasn’t going to make it back to the office hallway before it caught up to me.  I rounded the corner and for a brief period of time I was out of the creature’s sight.

All of the stores were closed and had metal gates pulled down in front of them.  They weren’t going to offer any safety.  I looked around in a panic, and finally my eyes fell on Santa’s Village.  It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.

I half-walked, half-dragged myself past the archway and white picket fence.  Following the fake path, I went around the side of the stage to a small wooden house that had been constructed.  It had a working door with a lock, but the windows were just painted on as opposed to being real.  In theory it was there to offer a quiet sitting area during scheduled breaks.  In practice, the working locks and no windows had made it a favorite makeout spot for one of the elves and her boyfriend.  I hurried inside and shut the door behind me, sliding the lock into place.

It was a flimsy lock, and an even flimsier structure.  There was no way that it would stop the creature from getting to me.  The only hope that I had was that it didn’t find me.

I heard it approaching Santa’s Village.  I was breathing heavily, so I placed a hand over my mouth to hopefully muffle the sound.  Forcing myself to stay still, I listened as best I could through the beating of my own pulse in my ears.

“Merry Christmas,” the creature called out from some distance away in an almost confused tone.

I felt a momentary hope.  It didn’t know where I was.  Maybe it would just move on.

That hope was dashed as I heard it collide with the archway at the start of the path.  That was followed by the sound of wood splitting and splintering.  The creature might not know exactly where I was, but it had decided to investigate Santa’s Village.  I thought back to the times when I had seen it off the distance towards the end of my shift.  I had thought that those sightings were just my tired mind playing tricks on me at the time.  That obviously wasn’t the case.  I wondered if it had seen me during those flashes as well.

There were other noises as the creature continued its way towards me, most of which sounded like it was carving a path of destruction through the various Christmas decorations.  It was drawing closer to where I was hiding.  I was starting to panic, but I just barely managed to keep control of myself and stay silent.

I felt the creature reach the house.  I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I could feel its large body hulking over the flimsy structure.  When it didn’t move away, I knew that I was caught.  Somehow it had worked out where I was.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when there was a light knocking at the door.

“Merry Christmas,” the creature said.

I looked around for anything that I could use as a weapon, but the only thing that I saw was a condom wrapper.  Despite the danger I was in, I shuddered at the thought that the elf had been stuffing her boyfriend’s stocking just mere feet from where I was sitting.

I was brought back to the here and now when one of the creature’s fingers punctured the door.  It slid through easily, as if the wood offered no resistance whatsoever.  It slid down and sliced through the lock, cutting it in two and causing the door to swing open.  I pressed my body as far as it would go against the back wall as the creature’s nightmarish face came into view.

It stared at me for a long moment before casually flipping the entire structure over on its side.  Completely exposed, I screamed as one of its hands wrapped around me and lifted me off of my feet.  I struggled, of course, but I was no match for the creature’s overwhelming strength.  It was going to kill me, and there was nothing that I could do about it.

To my surprise, the monster didn’t end me right then and there.  Instead, it carried me over to the stage and set me down on it.  It then proceeded to point at the chair with one of its claws.

It wanted me to sit down.

Completely clueless as to what was happening, I did as it instructed.  Once I was seated, the creature stepped up onto the stage next to me and examined me closely.  It bobbed its head up and down a few times; it was apparently satisfied at what it was seeing.

“Merry Christmas,” it rasped.

“What…” I attempted to say, my voice breaking.  I cleared my throat and tried again.  “What do you want?”

It leaned in closer to me.  “Merry Christmas.”

It used the point of one finger to tap the red coat I was wearing.  I stared at it in confusion for a pair of heartbeats before I realized what it wanted.

“You want me to be Santa?” I asked.

The big head nodded before it pointed to its own chest.

“And you…”  I thought it through.  “You want to tell me what you want for Christmas?”

Again the creature nodded, and the hideous smile grew broader.  This was completely surreal, and I started to consider the hallucination theory once again despite the pain in my leg and the smell of its horrid breath filling my nostrils.

“Yeah, okay,” I stammered out.  “What…  What do you want for Christmas?”

The creature didn’t reply.  Instead, it straightened up and pointed at the small house I had been hiding in that was now residing on top of three reindeer statues.  It once again pointed at itself before again indicating the house.  I furrowed my brow as I worked my way through what it was trying to tell me.

“Home,” I said as I suddenly got it.  “You want to go home?”

The creature nodded for a third time.  This time, though, it was a much slower motion, and although it continued to smile there seemed to be something melancholy about it.

I thought that I understood what was happening.  It had indeed been watching me as I spoke with the children throughout the day.  It must have thought that I was capable of making their wishes come true.  Now it was asking me for something in hopes that I could make it happen.  I felt a pang of sympathy as I stared up at the creature.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I told it, feeling strangely guilty as I lied.  “It will take some time, but I’ll get you home.”

The creature’s whole demeanor changed.  The grin became happy, and it let out an oddly hollow sound that I took to be its version of a laugh.  It turned away and walked in the opposite direction of the office hallway towards the food court.

“Merry Christmas,” it called out before moving out of sight.

Half an hour later, I was sitting in Anne’s car in the parking lot of the pharmacy next to the mall as she went inside to get an ice pack for my leg.  She had immediately asked what happened when she saw me, and I had told her the truth.  I had slipped on a wet patch of floor.  Sure, I left out the part about the tall monster, but it was still technically the truth.

I turned my head towards the mall, attempting to process what had happened.  I had thought that I was going to die in there, and that wasn’t a feeling that I was going to forget any time soon.  More than that, though, I wondered about the monster.  Where had it come from?  Why had I only been able to see it when I was tired?  And the question that ran through my head more than any of the others: why couldn’t it go home?

There was a movement at one of the mall doors.  I could barely see it through the falling snow, but I had definitely seen it.  I turned my head to look directly at it.  Standing behind one of the doors, its body hunched over so that it could see through the glass, was the creature.  I was no longer afraid of it, and I truly hoped that one day it found the way home that it seemed so desperate to find.

“Merry Christmas,” I whispered.

The Corpse Machine

It was well after midnight when the knock came at my door.  I had been told that it would happen hours earlier, but I had known that it wouldn’t be that early.  Nothing about this project ever seemed to stay on schedule.

I opened my eyes and pushed my chair out from the desk.  I probably could have gotten some sleep while I was waiting.  That likely would have been the smart thing to do.  My body was used to only resting for short periods of time, though, and I wouldn’t have been able to drift off even if I had wanted to.

Opening the door, I found Peter Lewis standing on the other side.  I had expected as much.  He had been acting as a go-between for myself and his employer since the beginning.  No, I mentally corrected myself.  ‘Employer’ wasn’t really the right term.  I wasn’t sure what actually was, but it definitely wasn’t employer.

“Good evening, Mr. Morwood,” Lewis said politely.  “We’re ready to begin.”

I nodded at him without answering and began to step through the doorway.

“You’ll want to bring your… protection with you,” Lewis pointed out before I could do so.

I silently cursed.  I hadn’t been staying at the Alden Hall for very long, and I wasn’t yet accustomed to the rules that came with doing so.  Going back around my desk, I opened the top right drawer and took out a small silver amulet.  I put the chain around my neck and slipped the amulet under my shirt.  Certain protections had been set up inside of my office to keep it safe, but because of the nature of the project it wasn’t possible to do so for the rest of the house.

With that done, I followed Lewis out of the office and into the hallway.  The sounds of moaning and screaming immediately assaulted my ears.  I gritted my teeth as I tried to ignore it.  The noise was a constant presence in Alden Hall.  There was a reason why I paid all of my staff over double their standard salaries for the time they spent in the building.

We passed a pair of security guards before descending the stairs leading down to the first floor.  Both of the men were wearing earpieces designed to cut down on the level of sound that entered their ears.  Normally I frowned on anything that reduced the effectiveness of my security staff.  They were the best available, and since I compensated them as such I expected them to live up to their reputations.  I made an exception here, though.  No matter how long someone stayed at Alden Hall, they didn’t get used to the screaming.  It was too unnatural to adapt to it.

“Remind me,” Lewis asked as we reached the bottom of the stairs.  “Have you been down to see the machine yet?”

“No,” I told him, raising my voice to be heard over a particularly loud shriek.  “I’ve been given updates, but I’ve never actually seen it.”

“I see.  Would you like me to give you a general overview of it?”

“That won’t be necessary.  I’d rather see it for myself and hear about it from the horse’s mouth.”

“Of course.”

Directly in front of us was the front door.  We turned left to go down a side hallway, then made a second turn to go deeper into the mansion.  At the end of the hall was a stone staircase that led down into a large chamber.  It had once been the wine cellar, but during the heavy modifications to the structure and grounds it had been emptied out.  On one wall now stood a bank of elevators.  We crossed over to one and Lewis swiped a keycard through a reader next to it.  The door slid open and we stepped inside.

The elevator shook slightly as it began to descend.  It continued down for quite some time; even though I had seen and approved the plans, I don’t think that I had realized just how far down below ground level the construction had gone.  I had suffered from mild claustrophobia in my youth, and although I hadn’t been affected by it in years I felt the first pangs of it creeping in.

I began to notice an odd sound the further that we went.  It was steady and rhythmic, and at first I mistook it for my own pulse.  As it grew louder, however, I realized that it was coming from outside of the elevator.  I thought about asking Lewis about it, but I kept the question to myself as I reminded myself that my questions were best saved for the person I was going to meet.

After what seemed like an eternity, the elevator stopped and the door opened.  We stepped out into another hallway.  This one was different from the ones on the upper levels, however.  Instead of being made of exquisitely-shaped wood, it was instead constructed of metal.  Iron, according to the blueprints.  Long fluorescent lights lined the ceiling.  The thumping noise was even louder here.

Lewis didn’t seem to notice as he led us through the tunnel.  He had spent the majority of his time in the lower levels, of course, so it was only natural that he was unphased by the surroundings.  He effortlessly led us through a series of twists and turns, not pausing when we passed guards but still nodding at them politely.

We came to a four-way intersection and stopped.

“I can either take you to see the machine first, or I can take you to his office,” Lewis told me.  “Which would you prefer?”

“Take me to him,” I answered immediately.  “I want him to walk me through everything step-by-step.”

Without another word, Lewis turned down the left corridor and continued on.  There were no guards down this passage, and the overhead lights were dimmed to the point that it was difficult to see.  In addition to the constant pounding, I began to detect a new sound.  This one I recognized: high amounts of electricity running through power lines.  The humming was unmistakable.

We came to a door that simply didn’t belong in the metal hallway.  It was large and wooden, carved from thick oak and adorned with dozens of symbols that I didn’t recognize.  Lewis stepped aside to allow me to pass by him.  We had arrived at our destination, and it was clear that he wouldn’t be joining me inside.

I turned the silver doorknob and entered.  The room inside was dark, and even after passing through the dim corridor it took my eyes a few moments to adjust.  The only source of light was a series of computer monitors on the far side of the room.  At first I thought that there had been some sort of mistake, and that I was alone.

I sensed more than heard the movement near the computers.  I wasn’t alone.  There was someone, or something, in the darkness.  The large presence felt like it was both in front of me and looming over me at the same time.  I stared in the direction of the room’s occupant, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t see him.

That had always been the case.  Although we had worked together for years, I had never been able to get a good look at him.  Even during the early stages of our partnership, he had remained covered or spoken through an intermediary.

He leaned in towards the computer monitors, and I was able to make out a small part of his face.  It was a wide grin, one so impossibly wide that it spread back into the darkness.  His large teeth were on full display, as were the blood-red gums that housed them.  Bandages were wrapped around the flesh above the lips; because of the shadows I couldn’t tell how far up his face they went.

“Guten tag, Herr Morwood,” the creature that was once a man said with a German accent, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Good evening, Mr. Gangly,” I answered politely as I tried to hide the sudden fear I was feeling.  “I was told that we’re ready to get this show on the road.”

“We are indeed.  It has been… challenging, but the preparations are finally complete and I am ready to begin.”

“Excellent.  I have to admit, I’ve been curious about what you’ve been doing down here.”

His grin grew wider, if that was even possible.  “Perhaps you have been wondering if all the money you’ve been spending has been put to good use.”

I heard a warning bell go off in the back of my head.  “No, I haven’t been worried about that.  I’m confident that you’ve been upholding our agreement.  I just haven’t been privy to the building of this machine of yours, so I’m naturally curious about it.”

“Ah, I see.”  Gangly was silent for a moment.  “Well, then, please allow me to show you the fruits of my labor and your finances, Herr Morwood.”

There was a soft click, and the wall to my right began to rise up.  I turned just in time to see it disappear completely into the ceiling.  It was actually a window looking down on a huge chamber a few stories below the office.  With one glance back towards the scientist, I moved closer to the window and peered out.

I nearly threw up, only managing to keep my composure at the last possible moment.  The entire chamber was covered in what could only be raw flesh that had been stretched out over the walls, floor, and ceiling.  Patterns of blue veins were everywhere, and they pulsed as fluid flowed through them.

Human bodies were trapped in the flesh.  The skin grew over their arms and legs, and parts of their faces and chests were covered as well.  None of them appeared to be alive.

In the center of the room was a rounded object.  The same veins that grew in the skin ran from the flesh and into the sides of the object, and a series of black cables stretched out of the back and out of view below where I was standing.  It was the Fatum Machina, and Gangly had managed to make it into even more of an abomination than it already was.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Gangly said from behind me, an odd note in his voice.  “I call it the Cadaver Machina.”

“The Cadaver Machina,” I repeated slowly.  “The Corpse Machine.”

“Indeed.  Would you like to know how it works?”

“No,” I replied, swallowing hard.  “Tell me anyway.”

“As you know,” he began, “when you first acquired the Fatum Machina, I had great difficulty working out how to get it to do what we need it to.  It is designed to open doorways to places throughout this universe and the connecting multiverse, but we needed it to do more than that.  We needed it to be able to pierce through reality itself, to create a gateway into the Underlayers.”

I nodded slowly.  The Underlayers were realities that had existed long before our own, but had been abandoned by the being that had created them when they had been deemed imperfect.  Figuring out how to gain access to them was… complex, to say the least.

“I was convinced that the Fatum Machina was still the key to doing this despite its limitations,” Gangly continued.  “I knew that if I could just make adjustments, essentially reprogram it, I would be able to open that gateway.  No matter what I tried, however, I was unsuccessful.  The machinery of the Fatum Machina refused to be reconfigured.”

“Refused?” I asked.  “You’re talking like it’s alive.”

“It is, in a sense.  Not only is it mechanical, but there is an organic component to it as well.”

“You’re referring to the skull the machinery is attached to.  The one that supposedly belonged to Adam, the first man.”

Gangly let out a hiss that I recognized as his way of laughing.  “It’s a good story, but I doubt that the donor of that skull was someone from a myth.  It is, however, from someone with tremendous power.  When I realized that the Fatum Machina operates as both a mechanical and a biological machine, I knew what was needed.”

“And that was?”

“It was biological.  It simply needed more… biology.”

I looked out at the grotesque flesh-covered surfaces and shuddered.

“I had already researched the repurposing of human organs for other uses,” he told me.  “Specifically the heart.  It is quite the machine, controlling the flow of blood throughout the body as it works to provide the other organs with what they need.  I was able to use my findings from those old studies here.”

“In what way?” I asked, not really wanting to know the answer.

“The full answer to that is quite technical, but the end result is that I have constructed a highly advanced computer system using biological parts.”

I turned away from the window and looked towards him.  “Biological parts.  You mean parts from human bodies.”

Another hissing laugh.  “Indeed.  All harvested from the living to ensure they are in working order.  Do you… disapprove?”

“As long as it works, I don’t care where you get your materials from.”

“That is good, because I will require more as this project continues.  That is the downside of working with organic parts.  In this case, however, it is an unavoidable cost of business.”

I stop myself from shuddering.  When I had engaged Gangly’s services, I had known the type of person that I was getting into bed with.  I might not have known the specifics, but I hadn’t been under any illusions that his methods wouldn’t have consequences.

“Miles upon miles of veins act as wires,” he said.  “Hundreds of hearts stand in for circuits.  You must have heard them beating on your way here.  Lungs, kidneys, intestines… they’ve all been repurposed.  The system is then converted into digital information through a large bank of heavily modified human brains.  Once converted, it is filtered into the computers in my office.”

“It seems impossible,” I admitted.

“And yet here it is, being presented to you.  I assure you, Herr Morwood, this is quite real.  Once I understood the workings of the Fatum Machine, everything else fell into place.  Although I will admit that the power source for such a machine eluded me for some time.”

“What do you mean?”

“What we are requiring the device to do is far beyond the limits of what its power is capable of.  Think of the Fatum Machina as, say, a drill.  Small, precise, and capable of doing one thing very well.  What we need is for it to be more like a jackhammer.  It has to have the power to break through all of reality.  Nothing of this world produces that much energy.”

Something in my mind clicked into place.  “That’s what you’re using the mansion for.”

There was a brief pause, and I knew that I had surprised him.  I allowed myself a small smile.  It was good to remind him not to underestimate me from time to time.

“Impressive, Herr Morwood,” Gangly said, the ghastly grin never slipping.  “That is indeed the case.  I assume that means you’ve worked out how Alden Manor provides this needed power supply?”

The smile on my face disappeared.  I wasn’t the only one reminding the other of their place.  He had known that I wouldn’t have an answer to his question before he asked it.  I remained silent.

“Ah, I see,” he said.  “Well then, I shall explain it to you.  While there is no power source in this world strong enough to provide the energy required by the Cadaver Machina, we luckily have access to a second world of sorts.  Spirits exude large amounts of psychokinetic energy when they manifest.  Past experimentation has shown me how to harness this energy.”

“How?” I asked grudgingly.

“While I appreciate your scientific curiosity, I’m afraid that you wouldn’t understand the process even if I explained it.  I believe it’s enough to say that I have the required knowledge and to leave it at that.”

His statement was meant to be bait, but I refused to take it.  As he often did, he was testing me.

“You’re right, of course,” I said, deciding to stroke his ego this time.  “I assume that process is why you had me purchase so many haunted objects.”

“Exactly,” Gangly confirmed.  “Each of those objects is tied to a restless spirit.  By bringing them under the same roof and stimulating them with a strong electromagnetic field, it causes high amounts of psychokinetic energy to build up so that it can be collected.  In essence it’s trading electricity, a power source incompatible with the Cadaver Machina, for psychokinetic energy, one that is compatible.”

“And everything, the machine, the modifications, the power source… it’s all ready?”

“It is.”  His grin somehow grew even broader.  “Shall I show you?”

I took a deep breath.  “Do it.”

I heard him type on a keyboard.  The typing was rapid and yet light, as if he was pressing each key as delicately as possible.

As I watched through the window, the room below began to move.  The skin covering all the surfaces started to slowly pulse.  I had a mental image of lungs expanding and contracting, which probably wasn’t too far from the truth.

The lights in the chamber dimmed as the floor started to shake.  I glanced over at Gangly, but he had pulled away from the monitors and I couldn’t see him anymore.  I returned my attention to the lower chamber just in time to see the Fatum Machina begin to glow.

I had seen the device used a number of times before this.  Whenever it was operating, the eyes of the skull would glow with an unnatural light while the gears in the mechanical components turned.  That wasn’t what was happening now.  Instead, the light was coming from every part of the device.  It was so bright that I wasn’t able to look directly at it for more than a few seconds.

“The Cadaver Machina will open a gateway in ten seconds,” Gangly said from the shadows.  “Five seconds.  One.”

The light coming from the Fatum Machina was extinguished.  For a moment I wondered what had gone wrong, but then I felt it.  The best way that I can describe it is if a large invisible weight had been pressed down on me.  A massive headache spiked behind my right eye, and my ears popped.

“Successful breach,” Gangly said in a satisfied tone.

A large black rectangle appeared in front of the Fatum Machina.  Normally when it opened a doorway the location it led to could be seen through the tear in space.  This time, though, there was only darkness.

“It appears that visual contact isn’t possible,” Gangly said.  “No matter.  I shall send through a probe to gather data.”

A door in the chamber opened, and a small robot rolled in on treads.  It looked like one of the remote-controlled machines used by bomb disposal units.  This one had a series of instruments attached to the sides and top.  Without stopping, it headed towards the black portal and went through it.

“The probe works completely independently,” Gangly told me.  “While communication through the gateway is not possible, it will gather as much information as possible within ten minutes and return on its own.”

“How deep in the Underlayers does this gateway lead?” I asked.

“I do not know.  That is part of what the probe is seeking to determine.  If it is able to, I can use that information to open more precise gateways to specific locations within the Underlayers with the Cadaver Machina.  This initial breach was forced to be much more random.”

I blinked.  “Wait, so you don’t know where this gateway goes to?”

“No.”  He hiss-laughed.  “Exciting, is it not?”

Before I could reply, there was a flurry of motion in the lower chamber.  Something came rocketing out of the portal and smashed hard into one of the skin-covered walls.  It was the probe that had been sent through, or more accurately what was left of it.

Faster than I could process what was happening, a child stepped through the gateway and into the chamber.  It was a girl of maybe fourteen or fifteen, dressed in a simple black dress and matching shoes.  Her brown hair was shoulder-length.  Her skin was extremely pale.  She looked around the room emotionlessly.

“How fascinating,” Gangly said quietly.  “Our first contact with a being from another reality.”

“Maybe you should get security in there,” I said slowly.  “She’s probably the one that did that to the probe.”

“A wise precaution.”

The door in the chamber opened, and a group of heavily-armed guards in body armor entered.  They pointed their weapons at the girl and waited.  She turned her attention to them and simply stared back.

“Tell them to make contact, Herr Lewis,” Gangly instructed into a hidden microphone.

A few seconds later the guard in the middle of the group took a few steps forward.  He lowered his rifle so that it wasn’t pointing directly at the girl, but he kept it in position to immediately use it if necessary.  Although he was facing away from me, I could tell that he was speaking to her.

When he had finished, a long moment passed where nothing happened.  Something felt off about this entire interaction, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.  The girl ended up answering that question for me.

With no warning, her head split open down the middle.  There was no blood as the two flaps fell to the side, but a thick brown substance dripped down out the floor.

From inside the girl’s neck emerged a black tree.  That’s the best way that I can describe it.  It looked like a leafless tree with black bark and crooked limbs.  It quickly grew to roughly two feet tall before stopping and twisting from side to side.

The guards seemed stunned by what they were seeing.  None of them opened fire, which was either due to fear or was a testament to their training.

Suddenly, a number of the tree limbs lashed out, quickly growing longer as they approached the guard that had spoken to the girl.  Before he could react, the limbs punched right through his body armor and into his body.  He convulsed violently before falling lifelessly to the floor.

The other guards opened fire.  Their bullets tore into the girl’s body, shredding clothing and skin.  More bark was exposed.  The weapons didn’t seem to harm the tree itself, though, and each time it struck back another of the guards was impaled on its limbs.

As I watched, the first guard got back to his feet awkwardly.  He reached up and removed his helmet.  I gasped.  Black twigs were growing out of his eyes and mouth.  He stumbled forward and grabbed one of the remaining guards before throwing him to the floor.

“Fascinating,” Gangly whispered.  “The creature appears to plant new versions of itself in its victims.  The growth rate is incredible.”

“We have to stop that thing,” I snapped.  “Now.  If it gets out into the world…”

“I see your point.  Do not worry, Herr Morwood, I have certain contingencies in place.”

While the fight continued, the gateway closed as the Cadaver Machina was shut down.  The platform holding the Fatum Machina lowered down into the floor and disappeared from sight as a metal plate slid into place over it.  The two guards that hadn’t yet been killed or infested rushed out of the chamber, and the door slammed shut behind them.

The panel that had been covering the window when I had first come into the office slid back down into place.

“What’s happening?” I demanded.

“I have initiated an incineration sequence,” Gangly explained.  “Everything living in that chamber will be reduced to ash.”

“The Fatum Machina-”

“It will not be damaged.  The room that it is stored in when not in use is perhaps the most secure room in the world.  The flames and heat will not reach it.  Ah, there, it is finished.”

The panel raised back up.  The flesh on the floor and walls was charred black and burned off in most places.  Both the guards and the visitor from the Underlayers were nothing more than dark outlines on the ground.

“I believe that I can salvage the information collected by the probe,” Gangly said.  “It is designed to withstand highly dangerous conditions.  The organic components of the Cadaver Machina can be replaced.  After all, there are always more humans to harvest.”

I stared at that hideous grin, the teeth once again illuminated by the computer monitors, as I noticed the joy in his whispery voice.

“All in all, I’d say this test was a complete success,” he declared.  “Wouldn’t you agree?”

Going Down

Check out the exclusive audio narration on Septic Theory!

The elevator shuddered violently, and the soft white lights flickered out for a moment before being replaced by faint red ones.

I swore under my breath as I realized that the elevator had broken down.  I waited for a few minutes, but when nothing happened I began to become impatient.  Going over to the panel, I bent down to examine the buttons.  None of them were lit up, but I tried the Door Open button anyway.  The metal doors remained shut.

I repeated the colorful language I had spat out moments before.

Being stuck in the apartment building was the absolute last thing that I needed that day.  At the same time, it wasn’t much of a surprise.  Things had been going so badly since the moment that I had woken up that it was a bigger surprise that the elevator cable hadn’t snapped so that I had plunged to my death.

With a sigh, I set down the box that I was carrying onto the floor.  There was no point in just standing there holding it and letting my arms get tired.

I immediately went back over to the panel as a thought occurred to me.  I hadn’t even considered that there might be an emergency phone.  I had seen them in hotel and office building elevators.  Less than a second of searching confirmed that I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.

I took out my cellphone and looked at the screen.  The words ‘No Signal’ were plastered in the center of the screen.  Of course there wasn’t any signal.  I was standing in the middle of a metal box inside of a metal shaft.  Just another indicator of how… wonderful my day was turning out.

There was a faint thud from outside the elevator doors.  It sounded like a door being closed somewhere in the distance.  It came from an oddly high angle, and it took me a second to work out that the elevator car must be stuck in between floors.  I listened for a bit, but when there wasn’t any followup noise I went back to my sulking.

I shouldn’t have even been in the apartment building in the first place.  It wasn’t like I lived there.  I had just been there to visit my wife…

Ex-wife, I mentally corrected myself.  Isabel had made that very clear when she had ambushed me with the divorce papers the moment of my arrival.  To say that I hadn’t been happy about that would be an understatement.

We had been married for over a decade, and together as a couple since junior high.  Sure, we had gone through our ups and downs, and our marriage hadn’t been where either one of us had wanted it to be, but we had agreed that we both wanted it to work.  Even when we decided on a trial separation it had come with the stipulation that we would get marriage counseling.

Trial separation.  What a fucking joke, right?  Hey, let’s find out if we like being apart since we clearly don’t like being together!  That’s not a trial.  It’s an admission.

I think I knew that, too.  That’s the part that was so damn frustrating.  I should have known better, but I got my hopes up anyway that Isabel was asking me to come over to, I don’t know, talk things through or something.  Maybe to say that we needed to try something else.  I’m not sure what I thought.  Anything but what actually happened.

I started to pace in the elevator, angrily wiping at the sudden moisture in my eyes with my shirt sleeve.  I refused to cry like a lovesick child.

I had showed up at the apartment expecting something good, but instead she had taken me into the kitchen and sat me down at the table before putting a stack of papers in front of me.  She had told me that she had spoken to a lawyer, and that because we didn’t have any kids the divorce could be quick and painless.  All that we had to do was agree on how to split our assets.

She had been so matter-of-fact about it.  It was like everything that we had been through together didn’t matter anymore.  She had just wanted to be done with the marriage, be done with me, and she had figured out the most direct way to get what she wanted.

In that moment, I think that I hated her.  It had been like I was seeing her with this… this clarity that I never had before.  Either she thought that I wanted the same thing that she did, in which case she had never really known me, or she was a spiteful person that didn’t care how her actions affected me.  It would have been one thing if she had discussed things with me before going to a lawyer.  At least then there would have been some kind of warning.  I would have known where her mind was at.  This was different.  This was cold and calculating and without remorse.  It was all about her.

I had started yelling.  I had told her exactly how she was making me feel.  I don’t think that I made a lot of sense.  Most of it was probably incoherent rambling.  I didn’t care, though.  If she was going to act like this towards me, she wasn’t going to get to do it with no consequences.

After I was done screaming, I grabbed my things that she had in her apartment.  She was yelling back at me at that point.  I had lost my shit, and now it was her turn to lose her head.  By the time I left the apartment my ears were ringing and she was no longer speaking to me.

I stopped pacing and leaned up against one of the elevator walls.  I closed my eyes.  There was obviously no point in going over things again and again in my head, but the wound was too fresh.

I’m not sure how long I stood there waiting for the elevator to decide it was time to start moving again.  The momentary flare of anger that I had experienced when thinking back on what had happened was gone.  The only thing left was exhaustion.  I wanted nothing more than to crawl back to my small one bedroom apartment in a bad part of town and go to sleep.

I briefly considered trying to get the elevator doors open, but I quickly dismissed the idea.  If the car really was trapped between floors, it would be dangerous to try to leave.  Even if there was room for me to crawl out through an opening, what if the car started moving again when I was halfway out?  That wasn’t something I wanted to think about.

I looked up as I heard a man’s voice outside of the elevator.  My first thought was that a maintenance worker had come to get me out.  That was proven to be incorrect when a second voice, a woman’s, became audible.  I opened my mouth to call out to them, but I closed it again when they began yelling at each other.  I wasn’t the only one having a bad day, it seemed.

A door slammed shut, and once again there was silence.

No, that wasn’t quite right.  There was a series of quiet noises that I could barely hear over the faint humming of the elevator emergency lights.  They were footsteps walking across the cheap carpet in the hallway.  They came closer before veering off to the left.  A loud metal clang echoed off of the walls, and it was soon followed by the sounds of someone walking down the stairwell that ran down the inside of the building to one side of the elevator shaft.

I tried calling out to get the person’s attention now that they were closer, but there was no answer.  The footsteps faded away as they descended further down the stairwell.  I sighed and sat down on the cold floor.  It had been worth a shot.  My hip bumped against the box as I settled in, so I slid it a bit further away from me.

It wasn’t long before I heard someone coming back up the stairs.  It was the woman that had been arguing in the hallway; I recognized her voice as she talked to herself as she climbed the steps.  I yelled again, and after a moment I followed it with a second yell.  There was still no answer.  Either she couldn’t hear me, which would be strange given how I had no problem hearing her, or she was so lost in her own thoughts that she didn’t realize someone was screaming.

The stairwell door opened and shut.  As her footsteps passed by the elevator I detected a new sound.  I wasn’t sure what was making it, but it sounded like liquid sloshing around inside of a container.  A water bottle, maybe, or fluid in a plastic container.

If enough sound was getting into the elevator for me to hear something like that, there was no way that the woman would hear me now.  I quickly stood up and moved close to the doors before calling out for help.  There was no answer once again, but this time I was determined to make my presence known.  I cleared my throat and shouted at the top of my lungs.  When I paused to listen, though, all that I heard was her muttering as she continued further down the hall.

I couldn’t believe it.  Either she was hard of hearing, or she was purposely ignoring me.  I turned away from the elevator doors with no clue of what to think of what had just transpired.

I spun back around when a shrill shriek pierced the elevator doors.  It was coming from some distance away, but there was no mistaking it as anything other than a cry of fear.  Not sure of what to do, or even if there was anything that I could, I placed my ear up against the crack between the elevator doors and listened intently.

Something was definitely happening down the hallway from the elevator.  The scream was followed by a series of others, both male and female.  I could just make out a series of rhythmic pounding noises that I couldn’t identify.

Over all of the clamor was a high-pitched laugh that made my blood run cold.  It was the woman.  She was taking joy in the suffering of the other people I was hearing.  The laugh momentarily turned into a cough before it returned.  It increased in volume as the woman drew closer to the elevator.

I backed away from the doors and up against the far wall.  Her tone was that of someone that had come completely unglued.  There was nothing resembling sanity in her laugh.  Something had caused her to snap.  I had never heard someone in that state before, and I fervently wished that she would just go away.

I felt like a frightened child, and I cowered against the metal wall.  I’m not sure how long I huddled in that state before I became aware of an odd smell.  Forcing myself to take control of my own body once again, I raised my head and sniffed the air.  The scent was acridic and heavy.

It smelled like smoke.

The laughing stopped when the woman was less than a dozen feet from me.  I expected to hear her use the door to the stairs again, but instead there was a thump followed by a sigh.  It was impossible to know for sure, but I thought that she was leaning up against the wall next to the elevator.

She coughed again as thin wisps of smoke began to drift into the car through the crack between the doors.  I covered my mouth and knelt down.  That was what we were always told as kids, right?  Smoke rises, so get down close to the floor.

I was starting to sweat.  The temperature inside of the elevator had risen noticeably, and the heat was reaching uncomfortable levels.  There was a new sound as well, one that I recognized as the same sound a burning bonfire makes as it pops and crackles.

The part of my mind that was still thinking rationally instead of simply panicking started to piece things together.  The woman had gotten into an argument with a man.  She had gone downstairs and had come back up a few minutes later, and that was when I had heard that odd liquidy sound.  I had thought it was water, but now I was pretty sure that it had been gasoline splashing around inside of a gas can.

The woman had used the fuel to start a fire.  From the sounds of the screams that were still reverberating off the walls, the blaze had trapped at least two people, and unless something changed they would burn to death.

I’m not necessarily proud of it, but I decided that I couldn’t worry about the people that were trapped.  There likely wasn’t anything that I could do for them, and I needed to look out for myself.  I looked around the elevator.  There wasn’t a hatch on the ceiling or floor, and if there was an emergency panel anywhere I couldn’t see it.

That just left the elevator doors.  I had dismissed the idea of forcing them open before, but I didn’t have any other choice.  I would have to do whatever I could to open them, and once that was done I had to hope that the car was far enough between floors that I could escape onto the lower one.

The downside to this plan, of course, was that by opening the doors I would be exposing myself to both the fire and the insane woman that had started it.  I might be trading a slow death for a quick one.

I had to take the risk, though.  Taking a deep breath, I went over to the doors and put my fingers into the small gap between them to try to pry them apart.

I gasped in pain and quickly yanked my hands away.  The metal was extremely hot, and it had burned my fingertips.  Thinking quickly, I put my hands into the arms of my shirt and used the material to protect them from the heat.  While I was now able to get a better grip on the doors without scorching my skin, it ended up not mattering.  No matter how hard I pulled on the doors, I couldn’t make them budge.

I tried to come up with another plan as the elevator grew hotter.  The air world around me started to move and swirl in front of my eyes.  At first I thought that I was becoming delirious from either the heat or fear, or more likely a combination of both.  It wasn’t until I felt sweat dripping off the end of my nose that I grasped that I was seeing the same effect that happened when intense heat radiated off of a sidewalk.

The woman in the hallway started coughing loudly.  Within moments she was making choking noises.  More smoke was filling the elevator.  It rose up to the ceiling and built up like a dark storm cloud as it slowly pressed down towards me.

The blaze had reached the outside of the elevator.  I had never heard a large fire up close before, and as I pressed myself against the floor I couldn’t help but compare the sound to water rushing up against rocks.

The pain of the hot metal against my skin was almost unbearable, but I couldn’t stand back up.  If I did, smoke inhalation would kill me before the fire could.  I ground my teeth together and shook violently in agony as a moan escaped my throat.

The woman only screamed once.  Somehow that made it worse.  The scream was thick and barely human.  It ended with a repulsive gurgle.

The metal on the elevator doors started to glow crimson.  I tried to lie to myself and say that it was just from the emergency lights.  It wasn’t, though, and it was no use telling myself otherwise.  The flames were heating the doors.  I could actually see them flexing ever so slightly.  Thermal expansion, it was called.

I barked out an involuntary laugh.  With everything that was happening, how in the fuck had I remembered thermal fucking expansion?

The laugh became a cough.  There wasn’t much time left.  I idly wondered what was going to get me first, the constantly lowering ceiling of smoke, the burning metal, or the flames outside the doors.  I hoped it would be the smoke.  It would make me pass out quickly, maybe within a minute or two, and from there I simply wouldn’t wake up.  There were worse ways to go, right?

The burning metal floor had become too much for me to continue to bear.  Coming to a decision, one that I was sure would be my last, I pushed myself up off the floor and into the cloud of smoke.

I was nearly thrown from my feet as the elevator lurched.  The red lights turned off, and the soft white overhead lights replaced them.  There was a loud hum as the car began to descend down the shaft.

The smoke was gone.  The temperature inside the car was the same as it had been when I had first gotten in.  There were no signs of anything that had happened.

The car reached the ground floor and the doors slid open.  It was a surreal moment; it didn’t feel real, and I was convinced that it couldn’t possibly be happening.  Not sure what else to do, I picked up my box and stepped out into the lobby in a stunned daze.

A voice from my left asked if I was all right.  I turned towards it and found myself looking at a short older man in a security guard uniform.  He was staring at me with an expression that was a mixture of both concern and suspicion.  For some reason that I still don’t understand, his gaze shook me out of my stupor.

I hurriedly told him that there was a fire up on one of the higher floors.  I wasn’t a hundred percent sure where the elevator had stopped, but I thought that it was between the fourth and third floors.  When I had finished, he frowned at me for a moment before telling me to follow him over to a small desk in the corner of the lobby.

Above the desk was a bank of monitors attached to the wall.  He carefully examined them all before shaking his head and waving a hand towards them.  I gaped at them stupidly.  They were showing live feeds of all the hallways in the apartment complex, and there was no fire on any of them.

That couldn’t be right.  I looked over each of them again and again.  No matter how hard I tried, though, I couldn’t find a single piece of evidence of the fire that I knew was raging upstairs.

The guard seemed to take sympathy on me, and when he spoke it was in a sympathetic voice.  He said that he was going to tell me something that he shouldn’t, and that I probably wouldn’t believe it.

Six years earlier, there had been a fire on the fourth floor.  A woman named Bethany Taylor had come home from work to find her boyfriend cheating on her with another woman.  She had broken her key off in the lock of the apartment’s front door to jam it closed, gone down to her car, and retrieved a half full gas can from the trunk.  Returning to the apartment door, she had poured gasoline all around the area and set fire to it.  It had quickly gotten completely out of control, and the entire floor was devastated by the flames before the fire department had arrived and managed to get the blaze under control.

Eight people had died as a result of her actions, including herself.  Her body had been found sitting up against the wall next to the elevator, burned beyond all recognition.  It had only been able to be identified through dental records.

The guard lowered his voice further before continuing.  He told me that ever since the fire, weird things had happened on the fourth floor.  Residents had reported hearing strange noises or seen glowing lights.  He himself had been helping an elderly resident to her apartment when he had smelled smoke coming from the hallway.  When he had investigated, he had seen a figure sitting by the elevator.  It had disappeared when he tried to approach it.

He silently pulled up video footage on the monitors.  I watched myself step into the elevator on the sixth floor, the doors closing behind me.  They opened again in the lobby shortly after, and I exited the elevator.  I looked at the time stamps.  Less than a minute had passed between the two videos.

I thought about what the guard had told me as I left the building and walked to my car.  I had no explanation for what I had experienced.  Taking one last look at the building, I raised my head and stared up at the fourth floor.  The windows were dark, and there was no indication of anything strange going on.

A part of me wanted to go back inside.  I felt a need to verify that I had really gone through what I thought that I had.  Another part of me wanted to put as much distance as possible between me and there.

I opened the passenger door and slid the box inside.  I winced as I felt a stab of pain.  Examining my hands, I found that the tips of my fingers were red, like they had been recently burned.  I didn’t have to go up to the fourth floor to know that it had all been real.  The proof was right there in front of me.

There was something wet on my fingers as well.  I rubbed them together curiously.  The substance was warm and sticky.  I retrieved the box and held it up so that I could see the bottom of it.  The cardboard was dark and soaked with liquid.

If I had known that Isabel’s head was going to leak so much, I would have left it up in her apartment.  I smiled crookedly as I closed the trunk.  Who would have thought that dismembering my ex-wife would have been the second strangest event of the day?

Of Wolf and Owl

When Nathan Meyer’s mother passed away, it wasn’t much of a shock.

She and his father had been in their early forties when they had him, and he was pushing the same age now.  In other words, she hadn’t been young anymore.  Like everyone her age she had had a number of health issues, although she had been surprisingly mobile and active until the end.  The signs were there that the end was near, though, even if he hadn’t wanted to see them.

He supposed what made her passing so difficult to process was that it had happened almost instantly.  His father had suffered from Alzheimer’s for years before he had died.  Day after day, the man had deteriorated until there hadn’t been anything left of the man that had helped raise him.

It hadn’t been like that for his mother.  She had gone to bed one night and simply hadn’t woken up the next morning.  Nathan was grateful that she hadn’t suffered, of course, but a more selfish part of him wished that there had been time to properly say goodbye.

Putting aside personal sentiment, the one thing that no one is really prepared for when it comes to the passing of a parent is the amount of work that needs to be done by the surviving family.  Nathan was an only child, so all of that work fell on his shoulders.  His mother’s lawyer had been able to handle a good portion of it, but there was still a lot of paperwork that needed to be taken care of, not to mention the necessary labor of packing up a person’s entire life into boxes.

He and his wife Bethany discussed things the day after they received the news, and they decided that the easiest way to handle things would be for him to take a week off of work so that they could concentrate on getting things taken care of.  He was grateful that she would be with him during the process, but he hadn’t expected her to offer.  Their relationship had been on the rocks for quite some time.  Neither of them had done anything to harm the relationship, at least not intentionally.  It was one of those things where people just start to drift apart.  He wasn’t sure why, and he couldn’t point to an exact moment when everything had changed.  It had just sort of happened.

They still cared about each other, though, and she knew how much his mother had meant to him.  On a rather appropriately cold and rainy Saturday morning, they packed their suitcases into the trunk of their car and began the ten hour drive from their home to his parents’ old farmhouse.

Most of the trip was spent in silence.  It wasn’t an uncomfortable silence, or if it was it wasn’t enough that Nathan noticed.  They just didn’t have anything to say to one another.

Despite them traveling through three different states, the rain didn’t stop.  If anything it came down harder the longer that they drove.  The downpour caused some delays, and between that and stopping for meals the sun had set and night had fallen by the time they arrived at the long gravel driveway leading to the farmhouse.

They had decided to stay at the house while they were in town.  Not only would it save them the cost of a hotel, it also made packing more convenient.  He used the spare key his mother had given him decades earlier and they went inside.  Since it was late, they called it a night and went to bed.  Bethany took the spare bedroom while he slept in the same room that he had almost every night until he was eighteen.

Nathan woke up early the next morning, over an hour before the sun would rise.  That hadn’t been the plan.  In fact, with as long as the previous day’s drive had been, he would have preferred to sleep in.  Unfortunately that wasn’t how his body worked.  He was so programmed to get up at a certain time during the work week that he automatically woke up around that time even without an alarm.  He’d learned that it was best to just get up rather than to try in vain to fall back asleep.  Being careful not to wake up Bethany, he left his old room and went downstairs to the kitchen.

It was a surreal feeling being back in his childhood home.  His parents had purchased the farmhouse years before he had been born, so he had never known another home until he had gone off to college.  Almost everything was exactly as it had been back then.  There were a few new pictures on the wall, but beyond that, things were the same as he remembered them.

He glanced over his shoulder at the closed door to his mother’s room as he descended the wooden stairs.  It shouldn’t have been a surprise that so little had changed.  During his father’s mental decline, she hadn’t had time for anything except for taking care of him.  Something of her went with him when he had died, and she hadn’t had a desire to change things after he had gone.

Nathan realized that there was one big difference between when he had been a kid and now.  The feeling of the house had changed.  It felt empty.  All of the furniture and possessions were there, but his parents weren’t.  It was like he was walking through a hollow shell of a memory.

He spent the early hours of the morning going through boxes of files that his mother’s lawyer had gathered together.  These were records from the past year, everything from grocery receipts to stock records.  His parents had never been rich, but they had been smart with their savings and investments so that they could be comfortable in their retirement.  The side effect of that was that it left a long papertrail to go through to make sure that all their business was concluded.

In the final box was an invoice from a local pest control company.  According to the notes, there had been a wasp nest inside the wall connecting the backyard to the kitchen.  He smiled slightly.  His mother had hated hiring contractors to take care of things around the house.  Over the years she had learned everything from basic plumbing to repairing concrete from a series of home improvement books she had purchased.  They had been the ones advertised on the old Bob Vila commercials that had aired constantly on television during his childhood.

He heard a noise from the guest bedroom upstairs.  Bethany was awake.  He put the lid back on the box and tried to mentally ready himself for the long day ahead of him.

It ended up being harder than he thought it would be.  Nathan managed to get through most of the morning, but he broke down a bit at the funeral home as they were making arrangements for his mother’s service.  One minute he was giving the funeral director a list of notes they had prepared, and the next tears were running down his face as he struggled to speak.  Intellectually he knew that it wasn’t a big deal and that no one thought less of him.  He still left the building feeling embarrassed, looking down at the pavement as the continuing rain pattered against his umbrella.

The next stop was at the lawyer’s office, where he signed a small stack of papers that was put in front of him.  He wasn’t sure exactly what he was signing, but Bethany was a paralegal and after reading through them she assured him that they were all standard documents.  From there they went to the florist to place an order for the funeral service, and since the local newspaper was just a few doors down they took care of submitting the obituary.

They ran several more errands.  Everything started to blur together for Nathan.  He just wanted to be done with things for the day.  He was physically and mentally exhausted.

He was relieved when they finally arrived back at the farmhouse that evening.  Bethany retrieved the mail from the mailbox while he went inside and sat down on the couch.  Pulling off his soaked shoes, he closed his eyes and leaned back against the soft cushions.  He was vaguely aware of her coming inside and heading up the stairs to her room, but he was too tired to say anything.

Despite how tired he was, he felt like he had gotten through the worst of it.  The next day would be more physically taxing as they began the packing process, but he preferred that to the mental toll the current day had taken.  He sighed as he started drifting off.

Bethany called his name from up in the bedroom.  He opened his eyes and frowned.  Something had to be wrong.  Most of their evenings over the past three to four months had been spent in different rooms in the same house, quietly going about their own lives while interacting as little as possible.

Nathan forced himself to get off the couch and went up the stairs to see what was going on.  Bethany was sitting on the bed, her legs crossed under her and an open brown package in her lap.  A few unopened letters were piled neatly off to one side.

“Take a look at these,” she said before he could ask her why she had called for him.

She opened the flaps of the box further.  He moved closer and sat down on the bed beside her.  Inside the box were two similar but distinct objects.  They appeared to be some kind of masks, not plastic but instead carved from wood.  He reached in and took one of them out to examine it more closely.

The mask he was holding did weight much, and the dark wood was rough to the touch.  It was roughly triangular, with the top being the widest and the rest growing more narrow as it drew closer to the bottom.  Two pointed ears adorned the crown, and a pair of long teeth protruded from the base.  Two eye holes had been cut into it, their teardrop shapes giving the face a sense of anger and intensity.  It was the stylized face of a wolf.

He turned the mask over and examined the back.  Two leather straps were attached to it.  Each had a buckle that would allow the wearer to attach it tightly to their head so it wouldn’t slip off.

Bethany held up the second mask.  It was carved in the shape of an owl’s face.  The wood was much lighter in color than the wolf mask, and the long beak and high brow had obviously been carved with great care.

“This was in today’s mail,” she told him.  “The return address is just a name. S. Pembrook.”

“S. Pembrook,” I repeated.  “I don’t recognize the name.  It’s probably the person who sold them to Mom.”

“Your mother must have ordered them before she…”  Bethany broke off the sentence.  “Um, sorry, that was…”

“No, it’s okay.  I know you wouldn’t…”  He took a deep breath.  “Was there a packing slip or something?”

“No, nothing.”  There was a long moment of silence before she spoke again.  “I think the rain finally stopped.”

Nathan looked out the nearby window.  She was right; the seemingly endless downpour had finally ceased.  He turned his attention back to her and found that she was looking away from him and chewing on her bottom lip.  She only did that when she was feeling uncomfortable.

He turned his eyes towards the floor.  They had been madly in love with each other since the first night that they had met in college.  How had they gotten to the point where they didn’t feel comfortable just being in the same room with one another?

“Hey, would you do me a favor?” he asked as an idea came to him.  “Would you come downstairs with me?”

“What?” Bethany asked as she blinked in confusion.  “Why?”

“There’s something that I want to show you.  Please?”

“Um, yeah, sure.”

She followed him down the stairs and into the kitchen.  He slid the large glass down open and led her out onto the brick patio in the backyard.  It was growing dark, but the clouds had parted and the last remaining rays of the setting sun colored the sky a deep purple.  The nearest neighbors were over a mile away, and the property was surrounded on three sides by woods.  He led her over to the middle of the backyard and stopped.

“What are we doing, Nathan?” Bethany asked, folding her arms against her chest.  “I’m tired, and tomorrow’s going to be another long day.”

“I know, but this is worth it,” he assured her.  “Close your eyes.”

“I don’t think-”

“Just trust me.  Close your eyes and take a deep breath.”

She hesitated, but she did as he asked.  Her expression immediately changed.  She had been born and raised in New York City, and she hadn’t spent much time outside of cities in general.  This was the first time she had ever experienced the fresh scent of pine trees and ozone after a heavy rain.  He watched as she inhaled the clean air deep into her lungs.

“Oh,” she said in a voice barely above a whisper.  “Oh my.  That’s fantastic.”

“Isn’t it?” he agreed.  “I’ve always loved that smell.  I used to sit on this old porch swing we had for hours after it rained, just breathing the air and listening to the crickets.”

“Well, you’re right, this is definitely worth it.”

She opened her eyes and looked at him, and for the briefest of moments it was like they were how they used to be.  That moment was quickly over, however, and the smile slid from her face.  They stood there awkwardly for a couple of minutes.

“You brought the mask with you,” Nathan said, more to end the silence than out of any real need to say it.

She lifted the owl mask she was carrying and looked at it in confusion.

“I didn’t even realize I was still holding it,” she admitted.  “You brought yours, too.”

It was his turn to be surprised.  Clenched in his hand was the wooden wolf mask.  In his hurry to bring her outside he must have forgotten to put it back in the box.

“They’re… odd, aren’t they?” she asked as she carefully examined every inch of her mask.

“They certainly look strange,” he agreed.

“No.  I mean, yes, they do, but that’s not what I meant.  What I meant was…  I don’t know how to put this into words.  You don’t feel it?”

Nathan watched her as she fell silent.  Her eyes never left the mask, and he got the distinct feeling that she hadn’t stopped talking because she had fully finished conveying her thoughts.  It was more like she had forgotten that he was standing there and that they had been conversing.  Her full attention was on the owl mask in her hands.

He looked down at the mask he was holding.  He didn’t say anything, but he thought that he knew what she had meant.  The mask felt strange in his grip.  He ran his fingers over the wood.  It was unblemished.  It had been lovingly worked and sanded until it was completely smooth to the touch.

There was something else there, though.  He couldn’t see it.  He couldn’t feel it, either.  Not exactly.  It was more like he sensed it, or that he instinctively knew that something unseen was present.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, there was no doubt in his mind that the wooden mask was covered in coarse fur.

He didn’t know that he was putting the mask up to his face until the wood was already pressing against his skin.  The leather straps slid over the back of his head and fit him perfectly, like they had been set just for him.  His hands fell to his side, and he looked over at Bethany just in time to see her own mask being put into place.

He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again everything had changed.

The world around him was no longer dim with the coming night.  Everything was vibrant and sharp despite the shadows.  He felt as if he was seeing the world for the first time.

HIs nostrils were filled with the smells of the yard and woods.  The pine scent that he remembered so well from his childhood was heightened, intense but welcoming as it seemed to beckon him towards the trees.  He could smell the wet grass under his feet, and he could tell by the odor on the wind that more rain would fall soon.

There was another smell, one that was stronger than all others.  It pulled at him and demanded his attention.  He returned his gaze to Bethany.  She stared back at him in silence, her head tilted to one side and her eyes unreadable through the holes in the mask.  He could see every pour in the wood, every tiny imperfection in the grain.  He could smell the unseen feathers covering her.

She was Owl, and she was glorious.

Owl turned her head towards the woods.  Yes, she was right, of course.  Now was the time for the hunt.  They had done this hundreds, thousands of times before.  It was ritual as much as it was survival.  As one, they turned and raced off across the yard.  His steps were loud in his ears as his feet pounded against the turf.  Owl’s movements, as always, were silent as she glided through the air like a spirit moving through the darkness.

They broke through the treeline and continued into the woods.  There were no paths to follow, but they didn’t need any.  Wolf quickly picked up the scent of another animal, and he turned to pursue it.  He felt the soft change in the air as Owl adjusted to stay with him.  He plunged through the brush eagerly, using both his arms and his legs to propel himself forward.  Within moments they came to a small clearing, and in the middle of it was the animal they had been seeking.

The young deer didn’t realize they were there until it was too late.  Wolf lifted it off of its feet and slammed it down hard on the dirt.  It let out a high pitched squeal.  The noise was cut off abruptly as he bit into its throat.  Hot blood spilled into his mouth as his teeth dug in deep.  The taste was intoxicating and made him want to prolong the kill as much as possible to savor it.

Wolf was merciful, however.  It was in his nature to hunt, but he was a predator, not a simple killer driven by disgusting needs.  He twisted his head to one side sharply and tore out the deer’s throat.  It thrashed around for a few moments before lying still.

Owl descended from the thick tree branch she had been perched on and was once again at his side.  She did not usually participate in the kill.  She was perfectly capable of bringing down prey when she needed to, but Wolf with his teeth and claws was better equipped to end the hunt most of the time.  It was a role he took seriously.

Together they feasted on the kill.  Wolf watched Owl as she gracefully tore bits from the carcass and devoured them.  He could be stealthy and fast, but her movements flowed like water from a silent stream.  They were the perfect compliment to each other, his power and viciousness on the ground matching with her intellect and stealth in the air.

She finished eating and turned to him.  Her demeanor had changed.  With her hunger satisfied, she was now looking to him to fulfill a different kind of desire.  Wolf felt a burning sensation within himself.  They came together in the clearing, the scent of the kill still fresh in the air as the man and wolf met the woman and owl.

Hours later, in the darkest and quietest part of the night, they began their short journey back to their den.  They moved at a leisurely pace rather than the frenzied rush they had been in during the hunt.  Wolf looked up at his mate and felt at peace.  When she looked down to return his gaze he saw the happiness and contentment in her own eyes.

The look suddenly changed, and she set down on a nearby branch.  He came to a stop and watched her carefully, his ears listening carefully for any sound.  She had detected something that he had not, something that she had deemed to be a possible threat.  After a few moments her eyes narrowed and she stared into the darkness downwind from their position.  He slowly backed into a nearby patch of thick foliage and waited.

A minute passed, then two.  Wolf still couldn’t tell what had made Owl nervous, but he had no doubt that something was out there.  She was never wrong about such things.

A twig snapped somewhere in the distance.  He bared his teeth but remained silent.  The wind was blowing in the wrong direction, and he wasn’t able to pick up the scent of the interloper.  There was another sound, this time one that repeated and drew closer to them.  It was the sound of dry leaves being crushed under foot.  There was something wrong with the sound.  Whatever was approaching didn’t walk with the gait of any animal he knew.

The rustling in the brush stopped, and there was only silence.

Wolf was uneasy.  He wasn’t able to smell the animal’s scent, but it was possible that it could detect his.

His thoughts were interrupted when the intruder stepped into view.  It was unlike anything he had ever seen.  It was vaguely shaped like a cow, but its head was more like an anteater’s and a pair of bone protrusions ran from its neck all the way to the tip of its long thick tail.  Its flesh was black and scaley.

They had two options.  They could withdraw and leave the creature to its business.  It was unnatural, and its mere presence caused Wolf’s skin to crawl.  Perhaps it was best to simply leave it alone and wait for it to leave their territory.

Even before he felt Owl’s change in temperament, Wolf knew that they would instead be going with the other option.  This… thing should not be here.  They did not know that it would leave, and they would not be safe unless it did.  It was better to confront it here and now instead of risking it finding their den.

Owl had not participated in the killing of the deer.  This was a different situation, however.  This territory belonged to both of them, and it was both of their duties to protect it.  She silently glided down from the tree and, before the strange animal knew what was happening to it, sank her talon-like fingers into the creature’s eyes.

It screamed in pain and surprise.  In some ways it reminded Wolf of the young deer.  He emerged from the brush and slowly circled the intruder.  As Owl raked her fingers down the face, Wolf focused on the lower body and tore into the flesh just behind the front legs.  He then ripped open the left flank, followed by cutting the tendon in the back of the left rear leg.  Each slash was surgical, designed to cause the maximum amount of agony and damage while trying to hobble the creature.

It stumbled back, and Wolf saw his opening.  Owl pushed away from the beast as he leapt forward and sank his teeth into its throat.  The animal thrashed and tried to throw him off, but his jaws were locked in place.  Digging his claws into the turf, he pulled back and twisted his head hard to the side.  The creature collapsed to the ground as its throat was torn out.

He had no time to bask in the kill, however, as a second of the creatures emerged from behind the trees.  Wolf took a step back and bared his teeth, the first animal’s oddly dark and thick blood dripping from his jowls.  They didn’t have the advantage of surprise this time.  This would be much more dangerous.

The creature made a noise that Wolf had never heard before, an angry cry that sounded almost metallic as it rang out.  He winced and lowered his head.  The sound was incredibly painful to his strong hearing.

With him pinned in place, the creature took another step towards him.  As it did so, its head began to split open down the middle.  It was unlike anything Wolf had ever seen.  Each of the two halves had rows of teeth that were covered in small spines.  It was like a terrible mouth that opened vertically instead of horizontally.

Wolf’s instincts were screaming at him.  The cry the creature was making was affecting him, making him unable to fight or run.  It had to be a hunting technique to make it easier for it to kill prey.  Knowing what was happening didn’t mean that he could do anything about it, however.  It reached him and towered over him as its mouth opened even wider.

It was Owl, beautiful and cunning Owl, that came to his rescue.  With a shriek filled with rage, she swooped in and dug her claws into one of the mouth flaps.  The creature growled and moved its head back and forth in an effort to force her away.

As it did so, the noise it was emitting stopped.  Wolf had control of his body once more.  Snarling, he followed Owl’s lead and sank his fangs into the other side of the mouth.  Caught between the two of them, the strange animal didn’t seem to know what to do.  It bucked around and rapidly shook its head, but they were relentless.

Wolf finally heard the sound he had been waiting for: an almost imperceptible tearing coming from the back of the creature’s throat.  With all of his strength, he flung his body backwards with his teeth still gripping the flesh.  There was a moment of silence before the creature’s body lost the fight and the mouth split further than it was supposed to, ripping the fullness of its head in half.  It thrashed for a moment before falling still and crumpling onto the turf.

For a long time Wolf stood on the cool dirt with his eyes closed, panting in exhaustion as he waited for his heartbeat to return to normal.  His breathing finally slowed and he opened his eyes again.  Owl was closely examining the corpse of the second creature they had killed, her head tilting from one side to the other.  Sensing that he was watching her, she turned away from it and came over to him, lovingly placing her cheek against his. 

Caring, protective Owl.

Leaving the bodies of the intruders behind, they continued towards the den.  They would leave the bodies for the animals and insects in the woods.  As they shriveled and decayed it would serve as a warning to others that would seek to enter their territory.  Any that would do so without their approval would meet the same fate.

They reached the treeline and returned to the farmhouse’s backyard.  Without a word they removed their masks as they walked across the soft grass.  Nathan immediately noticed the change in his senses: the night was darker, the scents were less intense, and it was so quiet that it felt like the world had been muted.  Even without the heightened awareness he could still smell the combination of sweat and blood coming from his clothes.

“I’m not sure what happened,” he said.

“What’s happening,” Bethany corrected him.  “You feel it, don’t you?  It’s still happening.”

“Yes.  What do you think it is?”

She shook her head.  “I don’t know.  I don’t care.  All that matters is that we were apart, and now we are one.  You are my Wolf.”

He looked at her intently.  “And you are my Owl.  You’re right. That’s all that matters.”

“Tomorrow we’ll pack up your mother’s belongings, and the day after we’ll celebrate her life and return her to the earth.  We’ll need to make arrangements for our things to be brought here as well.  I feel like this is where we belong.”

“It is.  This is our den and our territory.”  Nathan’s thoughts went to the creatures’ bodies in the woods.  “It’s ours.”

“This place will never be yours,” a voice said from behind them.

They turned in surprise towards the speaker.  There hadn’t been anyone there moments earlier, but now there was a man standing a few yards away.  He was dressed in a black suit, and his hands were in his pockets.  Somehow he managed to appear both out of place and as if he belonged there.

“Those creatures will continue to invade your property,” the man continued.  “They’ll only stop when things much worse than them start to arrive.  That’s the nature of Bleeds; unless they’re closed, they start to fester as the rot grows.”

“Who are you?” Bethany demanded as she slowly raised her mask towards her face.

“There’s no need for that, madam.  You’re in no danger from me.  My name is Silas Pembrook.”

“Pembrook…” Nathan said slowly.  “You’re the one that sent these masks.

“Very good, Mr. Meyer.  Why don’t we all step inside and I’ll make us some tea?  It will take some time for me to explain why I’m here, so we might as well get comfortable.  After all, you’re very much going to want to hear what I have to say.”

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.

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?”

The Writer

Note: This story references many stories in Season One. I recommend reading the reason of Season One before this one.

My right hand shakes slightly as I take the bottle of aspirin out of the medicine cabinet.  I stare at it for a long moment as the tremor causes the pills to clink against one another inside of the plastic casing.  This is the worst that it’s been so far, and I have no doubt that it will continue to become more pronounced.

I sigh and open the bottle.  I tap two of the white tablets out into my palm before quickly swallowing them and chasing them down with a drink of water.  Experience has taught me that the aspirin won’t do much, but every little bit helps.

Closing the medicine cabinet, I hold up my hands and examine them closely.  I try not to look at them very often these days.  They’re extremely pale, and the fingers are gnarled.  I can no longer fully open them or curl them into fists without a struggle.  I have the hands of a person thirty years my senior.

I’m inspecting them now because the shaking has me worried.  I don’t know what will happen if they become unusable.  If I can’t physically continue to write, will that break the deal?

I sigh and shake my head.  There’s no point in dwelling on it now.  Being careful not to touch the tips of my fingers as much as possible, I slowly begin to unwrap the bandages.  They cover the space between the knuckle and the edge of the nail on each finger, and undoing them with my hands being so damaged is more difficult than it normally would be.  I finish the task and toss the bandages into the wastebasket.

I rub my palms together in an effort to warm up my hands.  Because of how tightly I need to wind up the bandages each time I apply them, my hands now have very poor circulation.  That leaves them constantly cold.  Just one more, shall we say, perk of my situation.

From downstairs comes the sound of a knock at the front door.  I jump at the noise before loudly cursing myself for doing so.  I hate that I’ve become so skittish.  Leaving the bathroom, I go into the bedroom and retrieve a pair of soft black gloves from the dresser.  I slip them on and head down the stairs.

As I descend the steps, I notice the sound of rain clanking off of the house’s tin roof.  A stray memory of Amanda and I sitting on the porch together during a storm comes to mind.  I allow it to linger for a few seconds before forcing it out.  There will be time to dwell on the things I’ve lost later.

Reaching the entryway, I unlock the front door and open it.  The visitor barges into the house the moment that I do, not bothering to observe any of the usual pleasantries before doing so.  She is tall and thin, with her blonde hair cut short.  Her face is angular, almost as if it was chiseled out of stone.  She is wearing a black suit with the matching tie undone and top button of her shirt open.  She smiles at me as I close the door behind her.

“Good evening, Timmy my boy,” she says merrily.  “How are you this fine evening?”

I don’t answer her.  I want to tell her to get the hell out of my house, to go back out into the rain and never step foot near me again.  I know better than to act on that impulse.

Seeming not to notice my disdain for her, she smoothly slips out of her overcoat and tosses it to me.  I catch it out of the air instinctively.  Although the rain continues to pour down outside, the coat is completely dry.  I hang it up inside the entryway closet while continuing my silence.

“How are the wife and kids?” she asks as she looks around.  “Still staying with her sister out west?  That’s a shame, Timmy.  You really should work things out with the old ball and chain.  You two make such a cute couple.”

I bristle but still manage to choke down a retort.  She knows that I hate being called Timmy, and she is very much aware that my separation from my family is a sore spot.  That’s exactly why she’s saying what she is.  I might not be able to be free of her, but I can at least take away any satisfaction she might get from my reaction to this particular game she likes to play.

“Enough of the small talk,” she says, clapping her hands together.  “Let’s go take a look at what you’ve been working on.”

Without waiting for an invitation, she turns on her heel and heads towards my office.  I follow reluctantly.  She isn’t really here to inspect my work like a grade school teacher reading a student’s book report.  She already knows exactly what I’ve written.  These little visits are to keep me intimidated and to make sure that I’m towing the line.  I know that, and she absolutely knows that I know.  Yet another game.

I don’t know much about her.  When she first introduced herself to me, she had used the name Lydia.  No last name.  Just Lydia.  I highly doubt that’s her real name, but there’s no way for me to know for certain.  At the time I hadn’t had any reason to doubt the authenticity of her name, but even if I had it wouldn’t have mattered.  She had been promising me the world at the time, and in my hubris I had thought that was all that mattered.

My office is barely large enough to qualify as one.  It was originally a small sunroom that my wife and I had converted into a combination office and craft room.  The crafting portion is currently boxed up in the garage and waiting to be picked up next week.  Amanda wants the supplies for the children.

Lydia walks around the side of the desk and runs her fingers over the large black typewriter sitting on it.  She smiles and closes her eyes as she does so.  I try not to let anything show on my face or in my body language, but the moment is profoundly disturbing to me in a way that I can’t quite explain.

“I see that you’ve been keeping it well fed,” she says as she raises one finger, displaying a smear of red on the tip.  “Good, good.  We wouldn’t want a repeat of what happened the last time that you didn’t.”

I look away.  I had tried to break the cycle a few months prior by refusing to write.  Everything had been fine until the nausea had started around the twelve hour mark.  Within eighteen hours it had felt like every nerve in my body was on fire.  I had finally had to accept defeat and do as I was supposed to, and the pain had gone away almost immediately.  I have no doubt that I would have been driven mad if I had let things go on much longer.

“So what is it that you’ve been working on, exactly?” she asks as she turns her attention to the stack of papers on the desk.  “Where the Light Fades Away.  The caligodemon, I take it?”

I don’t reply.  Instead of simply moving on this time, though, she stands up straight and looks directly at me.  As much as I try to avoid her gaze, my eyes lock with hers.  The look she is giving me is no longer one of amusement.

“This is the part where you answer me,” she says, her voice hard and cold.

“It is,” I reply immediately, my own voice betraying the fear that’s running through me.  “The caligodemon, yes.  Asguzol.”

“I’ve always liked his style.”  She’s back to her light and mocking tone again.  “He’s like a trapdoor spider.  He moves the door to that house of his whenever he believes he’ll catch a victim, then when they enter he makes the person wait until it’s dark and he comes out of his dormant state to feed on them.  You have to respect that kind of cruelty.  Which victim is it about?”

“Hayley Ferris.”

“Huh, never heard of her.  Must not be anyone important.”

“She was a-”

“Do I look like I care?  I assume not, because I really don’t.  You… things are all interchangeable.”  She smiles at me.  “Well, almost all of you.  Some of you manage to get a bit further up the Who Gives a Shit scale.  A bit.”

Lydia looks over my shoulder at the far corner of the room.  I don’t bother to turn to see what she’s looking at.  I know exactly what has her attention, and I don’t want to look at it any more than I have to.

“That is not Asguzol,” she points out.

“No,” I confirm.  “I finished that story two nights ago.”

“So this is a new one.  Interesting.  Have you done your writing for tonight yet?”

I hesitate.  “Not yet.  I was getting ready to start when you knocked.”

“Well then, don’t let me keep you.  Go to it.”

I go over to my desk and sit down in the chair.  As carefully as I can, I slip off the gloves and place them on the corner of the desktop.  I open a fresh ream of paper and flex my fingers for a few moments to get them working as much as I can.  Now isn’t the time to show any weakness, not with Lydia watching.

“Something on your mind?” she asks as I glance over at her.

“No,” I answer quickly.  “Well, um, actually, I was wondering if I could ask a question about our… deal.”

“Our deal.  What about it?”

“I was wondering…  How much longer do I have to do this?”

She doesn’t answer right away.  Instead, she sits down in the chair on the other side of the desk and folders her arms over her chest.  She watches me silently with an expression that conveys no hint of what she’s thinking.

I start to worry that I might have angered her.  The torture that I had gone through when I had refused to ‘feed’ the typewriter was nothing compared to what she can do to me if she wants to.  I have no doubt about that.

“You remember the agreement we made, correct?” Lydia asks.

“I do,” I reassure her.

“What is it?”

“I don’t-”

“Tell me the agreement.  Now.”

I nod.  “Yeah, of course.  You told me that you would open doors for me.  You’d make it so that I could support my family with my writing, make it so that I could provide them with a better life.”

“You wouldn’t have to work that asinine job that you were stuck in anymore,” she interjected.  “Instead of being a nobody in a sea of nobodies, you would be somebody.  You’d have the recognition that you craved so badly.”

I look down at the floor as I feel a twinge of shame.  “Yes.”

“And have I done that, Timmy?”

I sigh.  “Yes, you have, but-”

“But what?”  Lydia waves her hand dismissively.  “Everything didn’t work out the way you thought it would?  I did everything that I said that I would.  Nothing more and nothing less.  It’s not on me that the sudden recognition and financial benefits went to your head.  You’re the one that let your ego puff up.  You’re the one that let his family slip through his fingers when he wasn’t watching.  None of that is on me.”

I close my eyes.  “I know that.  I blamed you for a long time, but I know now that my mistakes were my own.  I’m just wondering when our deal will be completed so that I can try to clean up the pile of shit I’ve created.”

“You’ve only stated half the bargain,” she points out.  “My half.  What was your part of the deal?”

I open my eyes and turn my attention to the typewriter.  “Fine.  My part of the bargain was that I agreed to write stories for you.  I would start to get these…  You called them visions, but they feel more like waking nightmares.  I have to write the story that I’m seeing play out in my head, and I have to do it on this.”

I wave my hand over the typewriter.  When it had first been presented to me, I had thought that I was looking at a beautiful relic of a time long ago.  I had even been excited about using it.  It hadn’t been long before I had come to hate it, and even now I fear it.

“Very good,” Lydia says sarcastically.  “Now then, tell me, at any time did we discuss a termination date for the bargain?”

Deep down I had known that this was going to be the answer that she gave me.  I’m going to be held to our agreement until she sees fit to release me, and I don’t see her ever doing that.  I had allowed myself to feel hope.  That just makes it feel more hopeless now.

“Breaking our deal wouldn’t just take away what you’ve been given,” she continues.  “There would have to be other consequences for such a violation of my trust.”

“I understand,” I assure her.

“I’m glad to hear you say that.  I would hate to have to give you a real life example of what I’m talking about.  Something like, say, a few hundred malignant tumors instantly spawning in the brain stem of that little boy of yours.”

A shiver runs down my spine.  “I won’t break our deal.  I promise.”

“Good.  I believe you were about to start writing?”

I turn my attention back to the typewriter, grateful that the conversation is over.  It’s a fleeting feeling.  As it always does, the mere sight of the typewriter causes my stomach to tighten and my temples to throb.

On a very surface level, there’s nothing all that different about this typewriter than any other.  It’s definitely older than most, its design harkening back to at least the late 1800s, but it can easily be mistaken as a normal machine found at a thrift shop or flea market.  It stands on four metal posts, its keys extending outward on a slanted tray.  The metal type bars are exposed above them in a half circle.  The paper feeds in behind them so that they can strike it as the attached keys are pushed.  Everything is constructed of the same black metal that seems to absorb rather than reflect light.

It’s not a machine, though.  It’s a monster.  Or maybe it’s both, a combination of iron and animalistic hunger.

I feed a piece of paper into the roller and take a moment to compose myself.  There’s nothing that I want more than to stand up and walk out the front door, leaving both Lydia and this damned typewriter behind forever.  Placing my fingers lightly on the keys, I begin to type.

The pain comes immediately.  Each time a key is pressed, the circular top is pushed inward slightly and a razor-sharp needle in the center is exposed.  It pierces into my finger, causing tiny drops of blood to spill out over the metal.

The first page is always the most difficult to write.  That’s when I feel the pain of the needles the most.  Over time that pain goes from a stabbing sensation to a less pronounced throbbing as my fingers go partially numb.  It never goes away entirely, but it becomes more bearable.

I notice that it isn’t as uncomfortable this time as it has been in the past.  This lack of sensation worries me rather than comforts me.  My fingers have become more damaged from the constant bloodletting than I had thought.

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the thing in the corner moving.  I purposely avoid looking directly at it.  I already know what it looks like because it’s what they all look like in the beginning.  They start off as a shapeless mass of black oil, only it isn’t oil.  I don’t know how to describe it exactly.  It’s like smoke made solid, which I realize doesn’t make any sense.

That’s how they start off.  How they end up is different for each one.  That’s completely determined by the story.

I don’t just write horror stories.  I create them.  My words give them form, and this unholy machine masquerading as a typewriter gives them life.  Together, we birth nightmares.

“There’s a little more to it than that,” Lydia says in a voice barely above a whisper, seemingly reading my thoughts.

She watches me type for a few moments longer before she continues.

“You give them form.  The typewriter gives that form life.  The part that you don’t know is that the people reading the stories give them power.”

“I don’t understand,” I admit as I continue writing.

“It isn’t enough just to be alive.  Babies are living beings, but they are fragile and weak.  When you bring these creatures into the world, they are weak and without purpose.  They lack a certain spark.  You might call it a soul.”

She taps the pile of papers on the desk.  “When someone reads the story, however, something happens.  The person begins to consider it.  The person begins to mentally create images of the events being described.  The person begins to believe, maybe not in the story itself but in the themes behind it.  Belief gives power to the subject.”

I stop typing and look over at her.  “How is that possible?”

Lydia shakes her head in annoyance.  “You humans have such a limited concept of what is possible.  There’s a very thin line between the mental and physical realms.  They aren’t these completely different concepts like humans seem to think.  Under the right conditions, that barrier can be pierced and torn.  Belief can become reality.  Conditions such as, say, hundreds or thousands of people reading the same scary story.”

I start to ask another question, but she cuts me off.

“People are always going on and on about how the world is becoming worse.  They ramble on about how things were safer and brighter and all sunshine and rainbows when they were kids.  It’s these younger generations that are fucking everything up.  Guess what, though?  You’re all making it worse without even realizing it.  All this technology that allows you to connect with everyone else around the world is spreading terrible things at a rate that no one could have dreamed of even thirty years ago.  New evils are being spawned every second of every day.  Everyone in this entire fucking is not only connected, but also complicit.”

I don’t know what to say to that.  I don’t know that there is anything that is an adequate response to what I’ve just been told.

“I think you’ve done enough writing for tonight,” she says as she suddenly stands up.  “You have yourself a good evening, Timmy.  I’ll see myself out.”

She’s changed the subject so quickly that it takes me a few seconds to catch up.  Sitting on the desk next to the typewriter is a small pile of papers that weren’t there when I started writing.  I can’t remember writing that much, but apparently I did.  An extremely quick glance at the creature in the corner confirms that it is much farther along.  I shudder and look away.

“I’ve left you a gift in the kitchen,” Lydia says as she passes through the doorway.  “Think of it as a reminder of your own small part in the ruination of your species.  Take good care of it.”

A moment later I hear the front door open and shut.  I close my eyes and force myself to breathe slowly to bring my rapidly beating heart under control.  This happens every time she visits.  Every single fucking time.

I stand up and leave the office.  Across the entryway is the doorway leading into the kitchen.  After a brief hesitation, I go through it and look around.

Sitting on the counter is a black metal cage.  Inside of the cage is a wheel, and standing inside of that wheel and staring back at me with large brown eyes is a small white mouse.  We simply look at each other for what seems like minutes before I notice the envelope in front of the cage.  I pick it up and struggle to open it with my poorly working fingers.  I finally manage to pull out the slip of paper inside.

I couldn’t fit the Rotten Man inside of the cage, the note reads.

The Rotten Man…

“I guess that means you’re Randy,” I say to the mouse.

It chitters back at me as it bobs up and down inside of the wheel.