“Trick or Treat.” Sidney repeated the words, then pointed to Meikare. Teaching the Amawaka boy bits of English helped pass the time. Even the Brazilian rainforest got tedious after a month of daylong marches.
Meikare grinned but said nothing.
“Come on, kid. You’re going to like this.” Sidney pulled a fun-sized Snickers bar from the pocket of his cargo shorts.
Meikare reached for the candy, but Sidney closed his hand.
“Trick or treat,” he repeated.
The ten-year-old’s grin straightened into a hard line. His hand blurred, drawing the machete that hung at his waist.
“Whoa.” Sidney stepped back, dropping the candy into the grass.
The boy shoved against him. Sidney, already unbalanced, fell to the ground. Meikare brought the machete around in a vicious arc, neatly beheading a long, striped snake. The snake’s fangs bit convulsively at the empty air.
Meikare knelt and picked up the fallen Snickers bar, handing it back to Sidney. “Trickertreat?”
“I’m going to give your grandson a Snickers bar,” Sidney said. “It has nuts in it.” Were nut allergies even a thing down here?
Oket regarded Sidney with disinterest.
“And he killed a snake.”
The guide nodded and turned his attention back to the supplies.
“Okay then.” Sidney handed over the treat, smiling as Meikare shoved the chocolate into his mouth. “Happy Halloween, kid.” He stood and stretched. Sweat rolling down his skin. October 31st should not be this damned hot. Sidney wished he were back in Pittsburgh.
Truth be told, he wished he’d never come. This was supposed to be an adventure.
“You go in under the radar. You and one guide,” the company rep had said. “You verify the mineral deposits, do some sightseeing, and there’s a big fat paycheck waiting when you get back. A lot more than you make teaching geology.”
Sure, the whole thing was a bit hinky. The indigenous zone was off limits to mining. But Sidney wasn’t mining. Just scouting and taking samples where Nav-Corp was already sure the rare earth deposits would be. Besides, weren’t adventures supposed to be a bit hinky?
It turned out Sidney didn’t much like adventure. The rainforest was mostly mosquitoes and humidity. And the mineral deposits were not such sure things after all. To top it off, they were a week and a half behind schedule, and he was missing his favorite holiday, Halloween.
Oket drew his own machete “We go,” he said. The guide spoke English but was so taciturn it hardly mattered. This strong-silent act had been why Sidney hired the man. The other guides had bragged. Oket simply said, “This is my world. You listen. I keep you alive.”
They had a system. Oket walked ahead to scout the best route and get rid of any immediate dangers. A few minutes later, Meikare would follow, babysitting the soft American. Sidney had to admit he liked the arrangement. Despite his early misgivings about Oket’s grandson coming along, he soon realized he preferred the boy’s company to the old man’s.
Meikare spoke almost no English but had the decency to smile and nod a lot. “Trickertreat?” the boy asked.
“Maybe later, kid.”
“Okay.” Okay was the first word Meikare had learned, and he used it often.
Sidney figured they would hike a few hours before Oket doubled back and called out “We sleep” or “We eat.” So, to pass the time, he talked about home. “Back in my world, it’s cold in October. The leaves turn colors, and you rake them up into piles and jump in them.”
Meikare nodded and smiled.
“On Halloween, people give out candy by the pound. As long as you’re dressed up and know the magic words.”
They reached the top of a rise and paused for breath. A narrow valley spread out below them. Within the green expanse, Sidney spotted a burst of red and gold. He blinked, waiting for the colors to resolve into some flowering tree or maybe a flock of exotic birds. “That’s an oak tree,” he finally said. “And the leaves are changing.” Sidney really couldn’t be sure. The tree was pretty far away. But the shape and color seemed right. “That’s impossible.” Or maybe not. Sidney was no botany expert. He only knew it looked like home.
He tapped Meikare on the shoulder and pointed toward the colored leaves.
“Okay,” the boy said.
“We go,” said Sidney, pointing again.
Sidney could see the boy wanted to run ahead and ask his grandfather. Oket would scowl and turn back to his chosen route. If Sidney argued, Oket would simply answer, “I keep you alive.”
This is ridiculous, Sidney thought. I paid good money for a guide; shouldn’t he take me where I want to go? Then inspiration struck. “Trick or treat?” he asked, and patted his pocket.
“Trickertreat okay,” said Meikare.
Sidney pointed toward the tree again. “We go there, then trick or treat.” Suddenly, going to that tree was all Sidney wanted. To stand under branches full of fall leaves and perform the ancient ritual of Trick-or-Treat with his last two snickers. A little taste of home.
Meikare hesitated, but the lure of chocolate proved too much.
The forest thickened as they moved downhill, swinging their machetes. Sidney expected Oket’s harsh voice at any moment, but it never came. Abruptly, there was nothing left to cut. They stepped into a clearing. It wasn’t large, only twenty yards or so. In the center stood Sidney’s tree. It was perfect. Pure Norman Rockwell. Red-gold leaves hung from the tree limbs, practically glowing in the afternoon sunlight. More formed a circular carpet beneath the spreading branches.
Sidney stared, a dopey grin on his face.
Meikare pulled on his sleeve hard enough to make Sidney take a step back. The boy pointed up the hill and tugged again. He looked unhappy. “We Go.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll tell Oket I made you come. I wanted you to see this. It’s what I was talking about. Halloween.” He said the word again, pointing at the tree. “Halloween.”
“Trick or Treat?” asked Meikare.
They ate the last candy bars while looking at the tree that shouldn’t be there. Meikare licked chocolate from his fingers and turned back to the path.
Sidney knew he should follow, but he was not quite finished with his little miracle. With a whoop, he ran to the carpet of leaves, kicking them high in the air. Surrounding himself in a shower of red and gold. Leaves swooped and twirled. But they did not fall.
More leaves rose from the ground, arching themselves through the air. Beneath them lay a second carpet. This one of bones. A leaf landed on top of Sidney’s hand. He felt a pinch, like a doctor’s needle. He grabbed the leaf, crushing it. The thing was leathery. Its body cracked as Sidney squeezed. He tossed it to the ground. The top of his hand welled blood. Two more of the leathery things dove onto the wound. Another landed on his cheek, biting.
Sidney flailed, scraping the creatures off as fast as he could. More bites stung his arms and legs.
Meikare stood frozen at the forest’s edge, his eyes wide, mouth still rimmed with chocolate. Sidney moved toward the boy. He had made a mistake, that’s all. He had forgotten this wasn’t his world. This was Oket’s world and Meikare’s. If he could get back to them, they would know what to do. They would save him.
He stumbled forward one-step, two. Shrill cries rent the air like a children’s choir gone mad. Sidney looked up at the thousands of reddish-gold shapes hanging from the branches above him. No. Not hanging, Sidney realized. The things above him crouched, waiting for prey. Waiting for me. They burst from the branches then, filling the air. Shrieking as they came. Red and gold shapes poured over Sidney. Tiny needle-sharp teeth tearing flesh, draining away his life sip by sip.
Meikare ran. Tears half-blinding him as he stumbled through the forest. He found his grandfather, grim-faced with anger at the top of the hill. The boy dragged the old man down to the clearing, but they were too late. All was quiet now. The leaf things once again hung unmoving in the branches. Where Sidney had last stood lay a mound of leaves, more red than gold, rising from the forest floor as if raked up and ready to be jumped in.
Meikare knew his forest home could kill. His grandfather had taught him to avoid a thousand dangers. And more importantly, that there were always more to learn. Now, it was Meikare’s turn to teach his grandfather about this new threat. He even had a name for it. The one his American friend had taught him. He pointed to the beautiful tree whose leaves bit and killed and pronounced the word with slow precision. “Halloween.”
Frank Oreto writes in deepest darkest Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His stories have appeared or are upcoming at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Pseudopod, and the Corpus Press anthology series In Darkness Delight amongst many others. When not telling lies and writing them down, Frank spends his time creating elaborate meals for his wife and ever-hungering children. You can follow his exploits, both culinary and literally, on Twitter and at his Facebook page.
Erika Fisher swore she could still smell fire somewhere nearby. Fire, and charred flesh. In the parking lot of Smith County High, police lights flashed red and blue, making the night look strange and otherworldly. The night of her junior prom needed no help being either. She was seated on a concrete bench, next to the bike rack. A pudgy, baldheaded officer whose badge said his name was Kurtz stood over her, frowning at his notepad and pinching a pen he’d gotten from Greener Pastures Baptist Church. Radio chatter hissed and crackled on his CB.
“And you’ve never seen this guy before?” he asked again. “You’re sure about this?”
“No, I’ve never seen him before.” She let out a grim sigh. “And yes, I’m sure.”
“And he just … what? Waltzed into the auditorium, started dancing with your friend, and then they just … what? Vanished?”
She chewed her lip and stared at her glittery shoes. The police strobes gave the illusion they were burning.
“Vanished is the wrong word,” she said. “It wasn’t … into thin air or anything.”
The corner of his mouth twitched up.
“Right, it was like what? Their feet started a fire and it just consumed them.”
“Look, I know how it sounds. You don’t have to tell me it sounds crazy.”
“You’re sure she and this boy didn’t just run off together and…”
“And now I’m covering for them?”
“You said it, not me.”
“I guess that’s why I’m so upset. Right, Officer?”
“Don’t get smart with me, girl. If I had half a mind, I’d put you away for obstruction of justice.”
She blew out another breath. She tried not to think of Danielle’s face in those final moments. It was contorted in some awful marriage of fear and pain. And that boy, that gorgeous, dark-eyed boy had been grinning so wide, she thought his cheeks might split open and reveal all his teeth.
“Now, is there anything else you can think of? Anything at all you think might help us find your friend and this mystery boy?”
“I’ve told you all I know.” She put her head in her hands but did not close her eyes. She feared if she did, that boy would be standing there when she opened them instead of this cop. Or even Danielle, which would be somehow worse. “Not like you’d believe me anyway.”
“It’s not my job to believe or not believe,” he said, as if he hadn’t been condescending to her the entire time. “I just have to turn in my reports and bust scumbags. Now, are you sure there’s nothing else?”
“There’s nothing else. Does this mean I can go home?”
He pressed his lips together. She thought he meant to admonish her again. Instead, he handed her a business card.
“You think of anything else, you call me. I or a detective may call you if we have additional questions. Your parents picking you up tonight?” Erika nodded. “You better give them a call. Let them know the prom ended early.”
He smirked again walked to a cluster of officers standing in a semicircle.
And he says I’m the smartass.
Erika dug her phone out of her clutch and called her mother.
On the way back, Erika told her mother everything. The woman who hadn’t birthed her but had raised her just the same said nothing, only listened. Dark as it was inside the car, Erika could see her getting paler after every sentence. Erika finished the story and asked what her mother thought. She took so long to answer, Erika thought she might not have heard the question. Before she could repeat it, her mother began to speak.
“That’s almost word-for-word an old Texas folktale,” she said. “Supposedly, in the 1950s or so, a girl about your age was forbidden from going to a dance because a preacher told her mama it was for the devil. Of course, she snuck out anyway and at the dance, she met this gorgeous stranger. He danced with her, spinning her round and round until the earth opened up and sucked her down to Hell. The stranger was the devil.”
“Yeah, but mine really happened,” she said.
Her mother looked at her. Exhaustion had darkened the skin beneath her eyes.
“But you agree the stories are very similar, yes?”
“So, maybe you heard it before and…”
“And what? Imagined the whole thing? Other people were there, Mom. Other people saw it.”
Her mother pressed her lips together. A muscle worked in her jaw.
“I love you, Erika Marie. I just want you to be honest with me. You can tell me anything. I promise.”
“Yeah, Mom,” Erika said and rested her head against the cool window.
She watched the trees go by along the dark country road. She wondered if it was dark where Danielle was.
That night, when she came home, she got undressed and turned off the light. Though she harbored no delusions that she’d be able to sleep, she decided to at least try. She lay down on her bed. Moonlight shone through her window. On most nights, she thought the silver-blue illumination was pretty and comforting. This was not most nights. With her curtains parted, it was all too easy to imagine the mysterious boy levitating up the side of her house and peering through her window with those obsidian eyes of his. Smiling that smile that looked like it’d split open his cheeks.
Erika closed the curtains. The moonlight backlit them. The shadows of the still somewhat bare tree branches danced like skeletons under some bizarre resurrection spell. She expected the shadow of the boy to rise up and join them. To reach through her window and its curtains. To take her dancing, like he’d taken Danielle. She turned onto her side and faced the wall. Her Luke Bryan poster was unrecognizable in the dimness. She felt no safer.
As she lay in bed not sleeping, she remembered meeting Danielle for the first time.
Back in freshman year, Danielle had transferred in after her parents joined the ever-growing ranks of mass shooting victims. Danielle had almost joined those ranks herself. One afternoon, her family had gone to a Sonic for frozen cherry lemonades. While they waited, a man opened fire on every car in the lot. Danielle had managed to escape into the nearby woods with a boy from another vehicle.
He’d lost his parents in the massacre too. Danielle told Erika that she developed an intense attraction to the boy, not like a crush or anything, just an intense need to be around him as much as possible. They’d been through this terrible thing together. They were the only survivors, other than a couple of fry-cooks and a car hop who’d all hidden inside when the killer opened fire. This shared experience had created an intense, psychic bond between them. Danielle worried she would never fully heal from the experience without him. Unfortunately for her, the death of her parents put her in the care of her aunt and uncle who lived in Tyler. She didn’t know where the boy was sent.
“But you seem sweet,” she’d said to Erika.
Erika gave her a hug then, said she was sorry all that horrible stuff had happened.
Even at her young age, Erika found it a little weird for someone to give away such an intense, personal story to a total stranger. More than that though, she felt a responsibility to show love and compassion to the new girl. At that time, she’d already started to question, and in some cases outright reject, the religiosity her mother had attempted to instill. Heaven and Hell, angels, Jonah getting swallowed by a whale and living to talk about it, men rising from the dead; it all felt like fairy tale stuff to her. Metaphors in the best cases. Propaganda in the worst.
What stuck were the tenets of loving strangers and caring for those who suffered.
When she’d given Danielle that hug and expressed regret for the new girl’s family tragedy, she still thought of these behaviors as Christian love in action. Looking back now, it just seemed like basic human decency. Whether divinely-inspired love or secular humanism at its finest, it hadn’t been enough to save Danielle Prescott. That girl had a shadow over her. Maybe the shooting deaths of her parents had brought it. Maybe it was older than that. Whatever its origin, whatever its age, it’d finally caught up to her.
“You believe they’re calling this a regular kidnapping?” Bobby Kirsch said the Monday after.
They were standing behind the same auditorium where it’d happened. School was in session but they’d gone around the side of the building so he could vape while they talked. She was usually careful about not putting herself in situations which could land her in trouble. Today, she didn’t care about suspension or fines. She just needed to share her grief with someone who’d also loved Danielle.
For Erika, the weekend had been weirdly normal. Shopping trips with Mom. Morning jogs. Homework. A lot of denial. She slept probably more than was healthy, but she didn’t care, and Mom let her do it.
Bobby sucked furiously on his vape pen. His face tightened and went red. To Erika, it looked like he just couldn’t get enough of a hit to take him away from whatever he was feeling. He’d dated Danielle a little bit, back in the fall. It hadn’t worked out, but he’d tried more than once to get her back. He’d even threatened to knock out the gorgeous stranger in a jealous rage earlier that night, but Erika had stopped him. She bet he wished he hadn’t listened to her. She sure wished she’d just let him do it. Maybe things would have gone differently.
“They’re acting like that shit we all fucking saw was some kind of mass hysteria.” He took another drag and shook his head as he coughed out a plume of cherry-scented smoke. “That was some devil shit.”
Bobby was still pretty religious, but it didn’t stop him from vaping or talking like a sailor. Erika nodded here and there throughout his tirade. He was saying everything she was feeling. In spite of this, she couldn’t help but tune him out. She couldn’t help feeling like his tough talk was some effort on his part to make this all about him. Maybe she wasn’t being fair. Her mother had offered to let her stay home for a few days. Ultimately, Erika decided it’d be better to be with friends. She probably should’ve taken her mother up on the offer.
School turned out to be every bit the nightmare she’d feared it might be.
During every class, her gaze drifted to the seats where Danielle usually sat. She daydreamed about the strange way her friend had been taken. The awful expression on her face. The grinning stranger who’d made her go up in flames with him. Danielle’s story about the massacre she’d survived with some strange boy. At lunch, she couldn’t eat. Between classes, she tried not to hear the other kids talk about what happened, spinning ridiculous theories, and telling outright lies about what kind of person Danielle had been. They said she was into drugs, sex with older men, and had even known the shooter who’d killed her parents and all those people at the Sonic. None of it was true. All of it pissed Erika off.
When she came home to an empty house, she rushed upstairs and collapsed on her bed. She tried to cry but no tears came. She seldom cried anymore. Some days, she thought she’d run out of tears. Other days, she thought she was saving them for a time she’d really need them. If the latter was true, she couldn’t imagine something that could make her feel worse than how she felt now.
She went to visit Danielle’s Aunt and Uncle after she tried and failed to do her homework. On her way there, she remembered Bobby’s words. Mass hysteria. No wonder that pissed him off. It was an insulting suggestion and unfortunately all too typical when it came to how the locals viewed the young: like lost sheep susceptible to all manner of deception, satanic or otherwise.
She parked her bike in the patchy lawn and walked to the door. As if he’d been watching for her, Danielle’s Uncle Horatio answered before she even had the chance to knock. His steely gaze kept her from coming in. Not only was it intimidating, it caught her off-guard. He’d always been kind to her in the past. Danielle had even said he liked her, so why the cold stare now?
“H-hi, Mr. Prescott,” she said. “I wanted to check in with y’all. Can I come in?”
He narrowed his eyes, and it made his expression even less welcoming.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, let the poor girl come in,” Danielle’s Aunt Stella called from further back in the house. “Winter’s not over and she rode all the way over here.”
It was only a mile, but Erika appreciated the sentiment.
Horatio opened the door wider and stepped aside. The house smelled like cinnamon. It made her nostalgic for happier times, even if happy was sometimes a weird way to describe any time spent with Danielle. She did have a light side, of course. Everybody did. For Danielle, it shone most prominently when she and Erika were riding bikes together. Or when she was dancing to X Ambassadors or Walk the Moon. She often looked so radiant when dancing, her end seemed all the more bitter.
Though Horatio didn’t slam the door, it sounded overwhelmingly loud as it closed behind Erika. Stella came out to meet her. Her eyes were dry but red. She wore periwinkle pajamas and her hair was unkempt.
“Erika,” she said, holding out her arms. They felt frail and brittle around Erika. She smelled stuffy and dry, like she’d just gotten out of bed.
They sat down in the living room and Stella put on water for tea. Horatio sat alone on a dusty recliner, scowling at Erika. She and Stella sat on opposite ends of a worn, leather sofa. For almost a minute and a half, no one said anything. Erika licked her lips.
“Um, have you heard anything from the police?” she asked.
“No,” Stella said. “Not a word.”
“Of course not,” Horatio said. “She vanished into thin air.”
He said it with bitter disdain. His scowl deepened.
“That’s not what I said. I said…”
He coughed out a dry laugh. “She went up in flames.”
“Honey…” Stella said.
“I know you’re covering for her. Her and that boy ran off together.”
“I’m not, Mr. Prescott. I’ve never seen that boy in my life. If she planned to run away with a boy, I’d know who he was. We were close.”
“Maybe you two weren’t as close as you think.” He focused his attention on his wife. “Everyone has secrets.”
Stella looked down and away.
“Maybe I should go,” Erika said.
“Maybe you should.”
The tea kettle whistled and broke the tension. Stella bolted up and walked quickly to the kitchen. While she grabbed mugs and saucers, Erika tried to look anywhere but at Horatio. Family photos, a dark TV screen, a painting of Jesus, a framed Texas flag and a shelf of porcelain clowns.
Everyone has secrets. The statement played on repeat in her mind. She knew Danielle had secrets. Those secrets were part of what had made her so intriguing. Every day with her was a revelation.
Stella came back with a tray full of steaming teacups.
“That boy,” she said. “What did he look like?”
Horatio’s cheeks flushed pink.
“He had thick, dark hair, purplish-black, like a raven’s. Dark eyes. He was tall and well-built and very pale. His skin reminded me of the moon.”
“Did he have a scar?” Stella pointed to her left eyebrow.
Erika tried to remember. The lighting hadn’t been great in the auditorium. She closed her eyes and pictured the boy’s face. All she could see was that awful, cheek-splitting smile. She made herself remember his eyes. Above the left one, sure enough, he’d had an X-shaped scar. She nodded.
Stella looked at Horatio. Her eyes were wide and soft.
“It’s him,” she said.
“Who?” Erika asked, though she had a feeling she knew.
“The boy she wouldn’t stop talking about after…”
“The one who escaped with her.”
Stella slowly shook her head. Horatio pressed his fingers to his temples like he had a mean migraine coming on.
“Erika,” Stella said. “No one but Danielle survived that day.”
Erika rode home, her entire body knotted with tension. Stella’s revelation repeated in her head like a hypnotist’s mantra. When she got back to her room, she called Bobby.
“Erika?” he said.
She understood his uncertainty. Though she’d texted him a couple of times when he and Danielle were dating, she never called him, back then or any other time before now.
“We need to talk,” she said. “Can I come over?”
He didn’t live as far as Danielle had, so she walked. When he answered the door, he was holding two bottles of Miller High Life. His parents let him drink, so long as he did so in their house and not out where he could get into trouble. Erika imagined he’d taken full advantage of this freedom over the past few days. He offered a bottle to her. She shook her head. They went inside and sat in the kitchen.
“So, what’s up?” he asked.
She told him. With every sentence, his eyes grew wider. He chugged the first beer and started on the second. When she finished, he shook his head.
“Like I said, some devil shit, man.”
“Maybe. Whoever he is, do you know why he came back to her?”
He took another long pull of beer. Finished nearly half the second bottle in one swallow. Then he got up and went into the other room. He returned with an envelope and tossed it at her. She unsealed it and pulled out its contents. It was a photo. A gray image, the shape of an enlarged lima bean, sat against an all-black background. It was an ultrasound image. She could feel her eyes stretch wide. She met Bobby’s gaze. His bottom lip trembled.
“She couldn’t get an abortion.”
“The baby was yours?”
His face darkened and he nodded.
“You were okay with her getting one?”
He chewed his lip and looked away.
“I mean, not really,” he said. “But … Well, she and I weren’t ready to be parents. We’re just kids. I think … I hope God would understand.”
She thought for a second.
“Is that why you were so aggressive the other night? She was carrying your kid and here was this gorgeous stranger, sweeping her off her feet.”
“Well, yeah. I was feeling … protective. Then you stopped me, and I went to go sulk in the corner, wishing the punch was spiked with something that could make me forget.”
“The police probably think it was.” She shook her head. “Mass hysteria. Pigs.”
“Ah, you don’t have to be like that.”
“Maybe not. I guess I’m still mad about how the one condescended to me.”
“Well, some of them can be pigs. That’s for sure.”
“Especially in this town.”
“Amen, girl.” He finished his second beer. Went to the fridge for a third. “Anyway, no doctor in town would help her. I thought about taking her out of state but neither of us had a license yet. I could’ve borrowed dad’s truck, but honestly, he’d kill me if he found out I knocked up a girl. Especially Danielle. He never liked her.”
“Did her aunt and uncle know? About the baby, I mean.”
“No. She didn’t want them to know. Didn’t think they’d be any help.”
Erika remembered Horatio’s scowl earlier that afternoon. No, she didn’t suppose they would’ve been any help.
“So, what does all this mean?” she asked.
“Like I said, devil shit. He helped her survive that shooting. I bet she asked him to help her out again. Not sure whatever she could’ve offered him though if he already had dibs on her soul.”
“You really believe that.” She didn’t pose it as a question.
“How could I not? They hardwire that shit into you from birth in this town.”
“Doesn’t mean it’s true though.”
“I guess not. Hard to rewire it. Hard as hell.”
“So, the devil took her. That’s that?”
He laughed then but it lacked humor. It was almost a sob. She didn’t think she could handle it if he started crying. Not that she expected to cry herself but still. It’d be too much to see. If she had lost all her tears or was storing them for something that was somehow worse than watching her friend go up in flames, how could he still cry?
“I guess…” He drifted off and tightened his expression. “I guess I like to think he took her somewhere she could free herself. Not just of our child but of this town, even of me. I like to think wherever she is, she’s happy. That she’s somehow made peace with all she’s been through. Most of all, I hope she’s alive and I hope she repents. Maybe if she prays hard enough, her soul…”
He sounded uncertain of himself. She didn’t know if he doubted what he hoped for the mother of his unborn child or if he doubted everything he thought he knew, all the things his parents and preachers and teachers had programmed into his brain since birth.
Erika took Bobby’s hand, gave it a squeeze, and left him to cry into his beer.
She didn’t even bother trying to start her homework. Instead, she sat in her room, staring out the window at the tree. A few more leaves had begun to bud on its branches. Occasionally, she checked Instagram and absently LIKED photos of dogs and good-looking girls. She thought about recording an Insta-story, some kind of tribute to Danielle. But if she did that, she feared it would confirm, once and for all, that her friend was lost forever. Dead, dragged to hell, or simply gone, without a trace, never to return. She wasn’t ready to accept that. Didn’t think she ever would be, even if they found Danielle’s charred remains tomorrow, and had a funeral sometime in the middle of the week. Danielle would live on somehow, someway. Erika was too young for people her age to start dying.
On that note, she realized just how tired she actually was. She texted her mother to say she’d be skipping dinner, and willed herself to dream of Danielle, somewhere else in the country, but safe and happy. At first, she imagined the mystery boy at her friend’s side but then she decided he was best relegated to being no more than a bad dream.
She imagined her friend deciding to keep the baby, but wandering the highways like some cowgirl samurai, drifting town to town and finding odd jobs to keep her and the baby fed and sheltered. It was nice to think about and it helped her sleep, peacefully this time.
Erika got her driver’s license that summer. She went driving a lot, mostly alone. Though Tyler itself was some bizarre marriage of a working-class suburbia and some kind of skyscraperless inner-city, many winding country roads cut through the surrounding rural areas. It was easy to get lost, even with the best GPS technology. She liked to drive aimlessly and while she physically seldom got lost, she often wandered the remote acres of her mind.
She’d finally allowed herself to accept that whether Danielle was dead or alive, she’d likely never see her again. Sometimes, it still made her sad. She often felt a sickening emptiness, but she never cried. She just drove.
She drove these country roads, blasting country music and letting her thoughts run free. She thought of Danielle the wanderer, Danielle the dead girl, Danielle the damned. She thought of Bobby sobbing into a Miller High Life. She thought of the way Horatio Prescott scowled at her. How Stella Prescott smelled stuffy and dry. The condescending smirk of Officer Kurtz. The way everything smelled like fire that night. How she sometimes smelled fire when she walked outside. Or when she was trying to sleep. Or when she was driving.
Like now. At night. Not intoxicated. She never drove drunk. She was one of the few kids in her class on which the fear-mongering, if well-intended, PSAs had worked. Instead, she downed mug after mug of black coffee. She liked to feel it surge through her veins as she rounded sharp curves. As lights from homes appeared scattered far and wide and the stars seemed so multitudinous and close together, they were like seams in a silvery, glowing blanket across the blackness overhead.
She wasn’t drunk, nor was she driving all that much higher than the speed limit, but the unpredictability of the road played no favorites.
The deer jumped out at her just as she rounded a sharp, sloping curve. It leapt into the road with timing so expert, it was as if it had hoped to strike her car. The thumping impact scared Erika so bad, she lost her grip on the wheel. Her tires lost their grip on the road. Her car tumbled down a steep embankment, striking stone and clay and stumps. As the car flipped, an image of Danielle spinning on the dance floor broke through her overwhelming panic and confusion.
Then the car lay still, and she smelled fire and it was there for real this time, all around her, it seemed. Adrenaline blocked out the pain from the rough ride off the road, but it could not dampen her terror, nor would it hold off the agony for long.
She frantically tried to unbuckle her seatbelt, succeeded, but the door wouldn’t open. She screamed and tried to scramble to the passenger side, but she came face to face with the deer. The animal was still alive but mortally wounded. Shards of glass from the windshield had lodged in its throat. Blood had matted his fur. Terror blazed in its eyes. Terror, and the fire’s reflection. It made an awful, wet mewing sound and kicked its hooves against the hood.
Everything was hot, so goddamn impossibly hot.
Erika glanced back to the driver’s window.
The gorgeous stranger from her junior prom crouched there, behind the glass. His dark eyes blazed. He smiled, but it was subdued, a subtle curving of the lips, not the cheek-splitting horror he’d flashed while spinning Danielle to her fiery death. His X-shaped scar looked red and irritated.
He reached for the window with spidery fingers. The glass bent inward and parted. It looked like slow-motion footage of stones thrown into an unmuddied pool. His hand came all the way inside the car. Up to his elbow now, his fingers curled and uncurled, beckoning to Erika.
As her hair began to sizzle and her flesh began to bubble and pain broke through the adrenaline, she remembered how this boy devil had saved Danielle from a gunman in a Sonic parking lot. How he’d spun her into oblivion when, in a fit of desperation, she could find help nowhere else. Would taking his hand damn her soul? Did she care?
Even as her skin burned, even with damnation certain, Erika reached for the boy devil’s hand and let him pull her from the flames of premature death into a life under his Damoclean sword, and she cried while they danced.
The Final Gate – Something is terrifying the residents of St. Luke’s Orphanage. Gurgling moans echo through the hallways. Hulking shapes lurk in the surrounding woods. And those who wake in the morning will find one less child under their roof…
Brandon and his girlfriend, Jillian, believe his younger brother is in serious danger. Even though the caretakers at St. Luke’s told them that he’s been adopted, Brandon has his doubts. With the help of a friend and a mysterious guide, they will do whatever it takes to find out just what is happening inside the orphanage walls…and at the bottom of the basement steps…
From Splatterpunk Award-Winning author Wesley Southard and Splatterpunk Award-Nominated author Lucas Mangum comes The Final Gate, the ultimate tribute to Italian horror master Lucio Fulci. With blood, guts, and all the nightmarish madness you’d expect from the Godfather of Gore himself, Southard and Mangum present a loving homage to spaghetti splatter and the glory of 1980’s Euro horror.
Pandemonium – A stranger in a mask walks through Philadelphia, handing out tickets to an underground wrestling show promising a level of violence unlike anything fans have seen before. The card features a mix of legends and hot up-and-comers. Most intriguing, it will mark the debut of the enigmatic, hammer-wielding Crimson Executioner, a monster of a man whose promo videos look like something out of Saw or Hostel.
The crowd enters past masked guards who don’t speak. Even the talent doesn’t know who funded the show or why; they’re happy just so long as the checks clear. None of them know the diabolical plot behind it all. When the Executioner murders his opponent in the ring, it soon becomes clear the show is a ritual to open the gates of Hell and unleash PANDEMONIUM.
Demons rise throughout the venue, using the bodies of the dead as vessels to wreak all manner of brutal carnage. Audience members and performers alike must now fight for survival as the contagion spreads all around them, inside the arena and out into the city.
In the tradition of Dario Argento’s Demons franchise and set in the world of hardcore wrestling, PANDEMONIUM is a hyper-violent tale of demonic possession, ancient evil gods, and bleeding the hard way.
American Garbage – A young adult tries to hold his band of burnouts together while navigating his own mental illness and tumultuous intimate relationships during the early years of the War on Terror.
Gather round everyone because the story I am about to tell you is a strange one indeed.
I was introduced to it by an old man who lived on the edge of our village. His name was Robert Clements, but everyone called him Bobby Clem.
Bobby Clem lived in a tumbledown cottage atop a small hill. If you passed by during the day you would swear it was derelict and long abandoned, but at night, a candle burned in every window.
I first met Bobby Clem when I was a small boy. Indeed, I was small in every way. At nine years old, I was shorter than the seven-year-olds — a shy, only child whose mother had died when I was a baby. Dad and I lived together, and my father would work all hours trying to keep food on the table and clothes on my back.
On school holidays and weekends, I was left to my own devices while Dad was at work and I took to wandering off on my own, exploring the many country lanes and shady pine woods.
One day I came across a man with a shock of white hair. He was bending over a trap, releasing a dead rabbit. Job done and prize retrieved, he stood, and towered over me but I was used to craning my neck. The man’s unkempt beard covered his face and neck, leaving only piercing blue eyes and a kindly smile. Dirty, old corduroy trousers were tied at his waist with frayed string, while a threadbare overcoat and grimy shirt completed his appearance.
“What’s your name, lad?” His voice sounded gruff but not unkind. Despite having been repeatedly instructed never to speak to strangers, maybe it was something about his eyes — an innate benevolence. Suffice it to say, I made an exception in his case.
“Brian,” I said.
“Well, Brian. Do you want to come and share some rabbit stew with me?”
I had nothing else to do, and rabbit stew was one of my favorites. Like any boy of my age, anytime was dinner time.
On the short walk to his home, he questioned me about my life and I told him everything, from losing my mother to being bullied at school, taunted because of my height and poverty. All the other kids seemed to have so much more than I did. I told him everything, but all I learned about him was his name. Bobby Clem. And I kind of knew that anyway. He was spoken of in hushed whispers by grown-ups. Robert Clements who used to be a professor at the university. Now reduced to the local down and out. “Stay away from Bobby Clem,” we children were told. “Or no good will come to you.” But I didn’t have any friends. No one wanted to play with me. Bobby Clem was the first person who had taken an interest in me, and I so wanted a friend of my own.
I had passed his cottage many times but never paid it much heed. Now, Bobby pushed open the door and it groaned, swinging wildly on broken hinges, revealing a sparsely furnished room, its rickety table sporting a leg supported by ancient, moldy books. Galvanized buckets stood like sentries awaiting the next heavy rainfall which otherwise — judging by the gaping holes in the roof of the one-story building — would cascade down, flooding the place.
Bobby Clem led me through the room into the kitchen, such as it was. My new friend slapped the rabbit down on a none-too-clean pine table. From the sink he selected two of the least dirty plates and a vicious looking knife. He then proceeded to skin and butcher the rabbit. I looked around in vain for a cooker, but only a fire burned in a small range. A cooking pot, like a witch’s cauldron, hung suspended over it. That’s where our meal would be cooked.
I thought there was no electricity but a sudden, clanking buzzing told me otherwise. In the corner of the room, an ancient, massive fridge stood, plugged into a single socket. Bobby saw me looking.
“Ah, there’s a story behind that fridge,” he said as he carried on preparing our meal. “One Halloween, years ago, a man knocked on my door. It was a raw night, a blizzard blew, and this stranger stood on my doorstep, dripping from head to toe and shivering. I brought him in, sat him by the fire, gave him dry clothes, a blanket and something hot to eat and drink. In the morning, the storm had blown over and the sun was shining. The man was so grateful for my hospitality, he wanted to repay me. I refused to take payment and he made to leave. He called me outside, saying he needed some help with his van. It was a big old cranky thing, and it wouldn’t start. I used to tinker a bit with cars when I was younger, so I checked his engine. Sure enough, there was a loose cable. Once I reconnected it the engine turned over fine and the man was away. I went back inside and there it was.” He pointed his bloodied knife at the fridge. “How he got it in here… Let’s put it down to one of life’s mysteries because it got here somehow, didn’t it? I opened it and it was piled high with everything you could want for a delicious Halloween feast. Turkey, all the trimmings, even pumpkin pie and I’d never eaten that before. Have you eaten that, Brian?”
I shook my head.
He smacked his lips. “Delicious. Hey, it’s Halloween in a few days, maybe your father will let you come and eat pumpkin pie with me.”
I doubted that but, as Halloween was on Friday and Dad was working nights all over the weekend, he wouldn’t have to know, would he?
Bobby chopped up the meat, added carrots, potatoes, herbs and onion and dumped the whole lot into the cooking pot, along with fresh water he drew from a hand-pump by the sink. “There, we’ll let that stew for an hour or so. Are you hungry, Brian?”
My stomach gave a growl. Bobby laughed and I liked the sound. It was tinkly and sincere.
“Now let’s have a look in that fridge. Is there anything in there, I wonder?”
He opened the door wide. I stared at the empty shelves. It was certainly the cleanest thing in that house, except… “What is that?” I pointed to a large black blob that looked a bit like a jelly fish, stuck to the back wall.
“Oh, that’s my friend. The Curiosity, I call him. As it’s so close to Halloween, I thought he might come out. But no.” He slammed the door shut. “Must leave him to his privacy. He doesn’t like to be disturbed.”
Bobby put a finger to his lips. “No questions, Brian. You’ll meet him right enough. At the proper time. But it must be on his terms, do you understand?”
Of course I didn’t, but I nodded and hoped that would suffice. It seemed to.
Whatever else Bobby Clem was, he cooked a delicious stew and, a couple of hours later, stuffed to the gills, I made my way home with promises to return on Halloween.
October 31st. It rained. All day, torrents of it poured down. A river ran down the road at the end of our path. Small children cried as their Trick or Treat costumes were ruined or parents decided it was too wet to venture out. I didn’t care. They never included me anyway and for once, unlike them, I had plans I could keep.
I arrived at Bobby Clem’s cottage and the aroma of a delicious meal set my taste buds tingling and my mouth watering even before he opened the door.
“Welcome, Brian,” he said. “We’re all ready for you. Look what a feast we have.”
I stared. Bobby had moved the kitchen table into the living room. It was heaving with a roasted turkey — its skin golden brown — little chipolatas wrapped in bacon, dishes of roast potatoes, vegetables. There was gravy, and the promised pumpkin pie. I never questioned how he managed to create all that in one cooking pot. No questions, remember? Never.
Bobby Clem had cleaned the room so that it shone. Even the floor revealed polished floorboards. The only evidence to the dilapidated state of his cottage was provided by the buckets into which rainwater dripped.
“Some people spring clean. I do mine on Halloween. It’s my ‘thank you’.”
I pondered that while I took my place at the table. “Oh, you mean a ‘thank you’ to the man who gave you the fridge?”
It was then I noticed a third place setting.
“Is someone joining us?” I was a little disappointed. I suppose I wanted to keep my new friend to myself.
“Our benefactor,” Bobby said. “Now you can meet the Curiosity.”
I blinked. There was no one there, but a slithering noise came from behind me, moving closer.
“Don’t be alarmed by his appearance, young Brian. He can’t help that any more than we can help being quite hideous to him.”
I swallowed and dared to look down as the Curiosity slipped past me. It moved on pseudopodia — I had recently learned that word at school where we had studied the life cycle of an amoeba. It thrust out its jelly-like protrusions and made its slow way round to its place at the head of the table. A few seconds later, its head — if you could call the blob a head — emerged. Bobby sat down and proceeded to load the Curiosity’s plate with pumpkin pie.
“He doesn’t like turkey,” Bobby said, setting the plate down in front of his friend. “He has other…tastes. But he adores pumpkin pie. Now, Brian. help yourself. Tuck in and eat. The Curiosity has provided all this fine food for us. Don’t ask me how. It’s enough that he does it. Every year. But only at Halloween. The rest of the year he keeps himself to himself and I…look after him.”
I tried to work it all out in my nine-year-old head. “So, the fridge is his?”
“That’s right. The stranger — I never did learn his name — looked after him. For some reason, the Curiosity prefers to live in there. I suppose the temperature suits him, and he is left alone, which is what he likes. He can turn very nasty if you disturb his slumber.”
Bobby Clem rubbed his hand, and I noticed a scar where his little finger should have been. Odd that I hadn’t noticed it before.
“He sleeps for most of the year. And before you ask, I don’t know what type of creature he is, where he came from, how old he is, or any of the usual things. I know that he exists. That he is. And that’s all you need to know too, Brian.”
From that day on, every year at Halloween, I joined Bobby and the Curiosity for a sumptuous feast. I grew up. Dad died, and I moved into the cottage. Years passed and the place was falling down piece by piece, so I built us this nice new home, with our own generator. We took care of our friend and benefactor together until Bobby Clem passed away last year. He’s buried out in the woods. So now, it’s just me and the Curiosity. He continues to provide me with a Halloween feast and asks so little in return. Merely that I provide him with food for the rest of the year.
She lives by the sea in Southport, England with her long-suffering husband, and a black cat called Serafina who has never forgotten that her species used to be worshipped in ancient Egypt. She sees no reason why that practice should not continue.
In Darkness, Shadows Breathe – Carol and Nessa are strangers but not for much longer. In a luxury apartment and in the walls of a modern hospital, the evil that was done continues to thrive. They are in the hands of an entity that knows no boundaries and crosses dimensions – bending and twisting time itself – and where danger waits in every shadow. The battle is on for their bodies and souls and the line between reality and nightmare is hard to define.
Through it all, the words of Lydia Warren Carmody haunt them. But who was she? And why have Carol and Nessa been chosen?
The answer lies deep in the darkness…
The Malan Witch – “Naught remained of their bodies to be buried, for the crows took back what was theirs.”
An idyllic coastal cottage near a sleepy village. What could be more perfect? For Robyn Crowe, borrowing her sister’s recently renovated holiday home for the summer seems just what she needs to deal with the grief of losing her beloved husband.
But behind those pretty walls lie many secrets, and legends of a malevolent sisterhood—two witches burned for their evil centuries earlier. Once, both their vile spirits were trapped there. Now, one has been released. One who is determined to find her sister. Only Robyn stands in her way.
The stockings hung by the chimney with care. Tinsel glistened, glowing in the white lights on a small tree in the corner. Bobby worked on it for hours while his mommy slept. The nice lady at the Salvation Army gave him the supplies, along with warm cookies. He only hoped it would make mommy happy. She lay on the couch, an empty liquor bottle beside her. Her pipe still smoldering on the nightstand. If she’d known he went out today, she would yell at him, like she always did.
Bobby popped up when he heard the noise of mail falling through the shoot by the door. He’d sent a letter to Santa a month ago and was waiting for a reply. He shuffled through the envelopes until he found it, a gold one, addressed to him personally, from the North Pole! He ran down the hall to the living room.
“It came! It came!” he shouted. His mommy rolled off the couch.
“What the fuck is all this racket?!” she hissed. She raised her head and blinked her blood shot eyes at the shining lights on the little plastic tree. “Where the hell did that come from?”
“Do you like it, mommy? The lady down at the Army gave it to me. I put it up for you. It’s Christmas Eve!”
“What?! You ain’t supposed to go out when I’m sleeping! And you ain’t supposed to talk to strangers, especially those self-righteous assholes! Now, throw that shit away!”
“Don’t but me, mister. Go to fucking bed!” she said, kicking the box the tree came in across the room. She stumbled into the kitchen, returned with a fresh bottle of vodka, took a swig, and plopped back on the couch. She reached for her pipe and took a drag. She blew the smoke in the air. Smiling with a mouth full of black teeth, she said, “You know, Santa’s not real. Now, go to your room!”
He turned, sulking away. “Is too,” he said under his breath.
He opened the bedroom door, hesitated, looked at his mommy, and sighed. Bobby jumped onto his bed, laying on his stomach. He opened the letter. It was gold and embossed with black letters; the print large and fancy. His fingers touched the lettering as he looked it over. There was one line printed in bold type:
Hi, Bobby. Have you been a good boy this year?
Bobby raised up, blinking his eyes. He considered the question. There was the time he hid his mom’s liquor from her. Bobby still felt the sting of the slap. He only tried to help. After she found it, she drank the whole bottle, and slept for a day. So, in a way he did make things better. She didn’t scream at him next morning. “Yes,” he said. Then, words began to appear on the letter.
Good to hear. I’ll be visiting soon. Think of something very special you want this year and write it here.
He thought about it. What would he like best? The possibilities are endless. But as he opened the bedroom door and saw mommy on the couch, her outstretched arm clutching the vodka bottle, he knew what he wanted more than anything.
Bobby’s mommy woke from her drunken stupor. Her head pounding, she reached for her pipe. Not there. He did it again.
“Bobby?! Give me my fucking pipe, or I’ll slap you into next week!” she said, her back cracking as she rose. She stumbled through the kitchen, pulled open a cabinet and grabbed a fresh bottle. Turning for the couch, she stopped, noticing a plate of cookies on the table. One or two had bites from them.
“The fuck?” she said. Did she buy cookies at the liquor store? As fucked up as she was yesterday, she wouldn’t have known. She shrugged, then saw a piece of gold paper near the cookie plate. She snatched it and started reading. It looked like a letter to Santa. What the hell was the little shit up to? The words, written at the bottom in Bobby’s handwriting, gave her pause.
I want a new mommy, it said. She snarled, crumpling the paper.
“Bobby?! Get out here now!” she bellowed. She’d had enough. He’d pay for this shit.
She started towards his room when she heard a knock on the door.
“Who is it?!”
“I’m here for the boy. You said come over Christmas morning,” a muffled voice came from outside the door.
She flung it open. A man stood there with a wad of cash in his hand. He considered her for a moment, then handed her the money.
“This is the right apartment? You told me to come for the boy. The deal is still on?”
She looked him up and down. His greasy hair was slicked back so tight, you would need a spatula to flip it to the side. His face was full of pock marks, and he had a gold tooth which gleamed from the light above the hall.
“Yeah, come in,” she said, stuffing the money into her dirty bra.
“Where is the boy?” he said.
“I don’t know, couldn’t find him, probably in his room.”
“Nice tree,” he said looking at the tinsel covered twig in the corner.
“Yeah, I’m trying to get into the Christmas spirit,” she said, plopping on the couch. “Go get your business done. If he screams, duct tape his fucking mouth shut. I don’t want the neighbors calling the cops.”
The man gave her a tepid smile and started for the bedroom. He returned a moment later.
“That was fast. You get your rocks off already?”
“No. There’s nobody in the room,” he said, his shoulders turned in.
“What? Bobby?! Where the fuck you hiding?!” she screamed, making the man wince.
Suddenly, they heard a noise coming from the chimney. Bobby’s mother smiled. She crept toward the fireplace opening, the man close behind. Pieces of soot fell onto the fireless hearth. She reached into the chimney, her arm buried to the shoulder. Feeling nothing, she sat on her bottom to extend her reach. She fished her arm around inside, trying to grasp Bobby’s feet.
“Bobby, you little shit! You’re gonna be sorry when I get a hold of you!”
She pulled her soot covered arm out and shook it. Her back turned to the fireplace, she couldn’t help but notice the expression on the greasy man’s face. His mouth open and eyes wide, looking just above her head. She gave him an indignant expression.
“What?” she said, then turned to the fireplace. What she saw made her want to scream, but in her shock, she was unable to breath. A creature stood there, slime dripping from its large fangs onto a forked tongue. Its face resembled a hideous elf with an elongated chin and pointed ears. The thing had disjointed arms. They were long and nearly touched the floor. Its fingers snaked down with jagged nails at the tip. It wore an old ragged Santa suit with a red toboggin hat. The tongue protruded from its mouth like an appendage and wrapped around her throat. In the split of the tongue, small needle-like protrusions dug into her flesh. It squeezed, and she began to make gurgling sounds as her hands went immediately to her throat
The greasy man found the voice she couldn’t. A low sound, between a grunt and a squeal, came from him, as he began to back pedal for the door. He turned but before he could move, an arm shot out from the creature, grasping him on his collar and jerking him backward. He screamed, as he landed on his back, the air released from his lungs. The jagged fingernails of the creature’s hand found purchase and dug into his nostrils. He tried to yell but couldn’t find the breath. The elfin-thing raked the man’s nose from his face. He made gurgling sounds, as blood filled his throat.
Bobby’s mother coughed blood from her mouth. The veins protruded from her neck, as the forked tongue continued to squeeze. Her eyes bulged, the ocular vessels burst, and blood mixed with clear fluids ran down her cheeks. She lost her grip on the piece of gold paper in her hand. The creature considered the letter and smiled. The tongue pulled her closer. Its mouth widened, and the fangs chomped into her face.
Bobby opened the door humming the hymns sung by the carolers at the Army. The aroma of eggs and bacon met his nose, wafting from the kitchen.
“Yes, dear?” a female voice answered from the other room.
Bobby stepped into the kitchen. A lady stood there, young and beautiful, smiling ear to ear.
“Good Christmas morning, Bobby! I made your favorite.”
Bobby shook his head, trying to take this in. He noticed the gold Santa letter lying on the table. He picked it up and read.
Merry Christmas, Bobby.
Edmund Stone is a writer and poet of horror and fantasy living in a quaint river town in the Ohio Valley. He writes at night, spinning tales of strange worlds and horrifying encounters with the unknown. He lives with his wife, a son, four dogs and a group of mischievous cats. He also has two wonderful daughters, and three granddaughters, who he likes to tell scary stories, then send them home to their parents.
Santa pulled the gift from the sack and sighed. The thing looked complicated and expensive. He had little experience or interest where money was concerned, just a vague notion of its stranglehold on the lives of the living. It was clear to him that this mortal child was near the top of the food chain, his parents either predators or the children of such. These things, however, were largely obscure to him, the symbols of wealth almost invisible to his inhuman gaze. Of course the sack knew all about the ways of the world, and produced the present that it deemed appropriate for the moment. It was one of the ways in which fulfilling the terms of his curse was possible, and for that he hated it.
The things that the sack produced had changed over the years, but their meaningless remained the same. Small human figurines, wheeled models, building bricks and, more recently, intricate boxes that hummed with some kind of innate energy.
It mattered nothing to him what came forth, he knew well enough that these things bought joy to the children that he visited, and that this was a part of his punishment. The gifts were perfectly chosen to maximize their pleasure, and therefore his disgust. That he was the enabler of this joy filled him with such darkness that he had to force back the urge to strike the little sleepers, to tear their soft bodies to shreds. As great as the pleasure might be if he allowed himself to surrender to such urges, it would certainly be extremely short lived, and the end of him.
Once back in the sledge, sweating and gasping for breath, he threw the hated cloth aside. The reindeer growled and pawed, looking back at him to convey their eternal contempt with yellowed gazes. Like him they had once been creatures of the inferno, what the transient called demons. Like him they had undergone the most foul of transmutations. By blade and the application of both banal and magical ministrations, they had been twisted and squeezed into their present forms. The pain had been both exquisite and practically unbearable.
Did he not hate his tormentors so intensely, he might have admired their skills. For supposed creatures of the light they were remarkably sadistic. At least he didn’t have to endure four spindly legs and the stink of the stable, but it was a small mercy. He did, however, have to force himself to clamber up and down narrow chimneys as he entered people’s homes. The lard-ridden body that he had been given was not designed for such acrobatics, nor were the thick red clothes that had been stitched to his pasty flesh. Jagged edges and hot bricks scraped the skin from his face and tore through the material to get to his body. Sometimes the fires were still burning, and the soles of his feet were blackened scar tissue.
The sledge itself had also undergone change in its time. Once it had been part of a mighty weapon, a studded war club that had been a legend for the fear it inspired. Millions had fallen to its blows over the centuries, dousing it in a rarified essence of death and pain. To see it sliced up and reformed as this gaudy vehicle was a constant reminder of his fall. Its screams as they hacked it apart had been pitiful.
A razor wind cut across them as they rose into the sky, accompanied by a cacophony of clanking chains and groaning boards. Santa frowned as they roared over the monochrome city, wishing that he could lose himself in the shadows below, rather than remain a prisoner above.
“I was once a great warrior,” he screamed to nobody but himself.
As if in answer his nose filled with the smell of Christmas. The stench of pine, the reek of cooked bird, and the abominable stink of fig pudding. His ears filled with the screech of hymns, sickly sweet and nauseating in their insincerity. Snow began to gently fall. Santa looked up into the heavens, entirely sure that he could hear the echoes of angelic laughter from above.
“Oh, how I hate you all.”
When the great armies of Hell had marched forth into battle with the angelic hordes he had pictured several possible outcomes, both of which had been perfectly acceptable to him.
The first, obviously, was that they would stand laughing over the decimated corpses of their enemies, weapons held high in the ruins of heaven. Rivers of blood would have run all around them. His master would have taken the head of the creator and thrown it into the abyss to rot.
The second was that he would have died with his bloodied weapon in hand, a glorious death in the heat of war. He had never considered this third possibility, but then he was not in possession of a twisted imagination equal to the bloody Nazarene and his followers. No martyr’s death for him, no dark heroes end. Instead, this bizarre eternity, this timeless reality, locked into pathetic servitude and humiliation at the hands of those for whom his hatred knew no bounds. Still, nothing infuriated him more than the accursed sack and its infinite gifts.
At the end of every cycle there came a shadow of respite as he visited the last name on his list. It was a mere drip of satisfaction in an ocean of discontent but it was something at least, a beacon in the darkness.
Standing alone in the barren wastes of a dying moor stood a large grey house. A high stone wall blocked it from the outside world, not that there was anyone to see it apart from a few scrawny blackbirds and a couple of emaciated sheep. The sledge landed on its slate roof, perching there in that unnatural manner that it had.
“Here we are again.”
Santa rubbed his tattered gloves together as he climbed out. His reindeer snorted and regarded him with sullen expressions. At some point over the years the chimney had collapsed internally, but he was still able to reach an attic room with a small fireplace. He squeezed himself out over the rusting grate and onto the dusty floor. Breathing hard he stood up and listened.
This was a peculiar house. It wasn’t a family home; it was a place of evil doings and misery. Now, Santa wasn’t unfamiliar with the stench of despair; the human world had grief aplenty, but this place though, this place, it was something different. He sensed that there was an oddity about its inhabitants, an otherness that he couldn’t quite categorize. They were neither angels nor demons, but they carried with them a stench of other that he couldn’t quite place. Faint screams and groans reached him, along with the creaking and moaning of the building itself. Someone shouted, another howled. It was all most unusual.
Creeping down the stairs in the dim light, he kept his wits about him. Here there was always someone or something awake. He moved carefully in the gloom, retracing his steps and concealing himself if he suspected that he might be discovered. As he passed he couldn’t resist peering through the keyholes or gaps left by any door that wasn’t closed properly.
In the first room two naked men were suspended from the ceiling by chains attached to their ankles. A woman clad head to toe in black rubber shouted abuse as she whipped them with a riding crop. Gags that had been stuffed into their mouths muffled their cries. Santa smirked and moved on.
The second room contained two twirling unfortunates, joined at the tops of their heads. Judging by the patchwork of raw squares on their torsos, skin had been grafted across their skulls in order to bond them together. Occasionally their spinning would stop and they would simply pull and shove at each other, seemingly desperate to be separated again. Santa tugged his beard and wondered once more what the reasoning behind it could be. It could have been some kind of ritual or dance, he supposed, but it seemed more likely that it was a punishment. They had been in that room for the last twenty-eight years. Once or twice he had looked in and they had been fast asleep, forming a right angle on the floor.
Santa looked down over the balcony to the entrance hall at the bottom of the stairs. There was a very dead looking Christmas tree, with half a dozen cracked baubles and tinsel that was little more than string. A gas lamp flickered. Nobody was about.
With trepidation he crept down the threadbare stair carpet, glancing from side to side. When cursed with his task, by the bloody seraphs, they had promised a hefty consequence should mortals ever see him. A drunken father had caught him coming out of the fireplace early in his present delivering career, and his keepers had more than kept their promise. He was extraordinarily careful never to allow it to happen again.
The flagstones in the foyer seemed to make an incredible noise, his footsteps echoing around the empty space. The kitchen was to his left and he rushed towards the double doors. They began to open as he approached. Quickly he flung himself behind them, pressing his burly frame to the wall. A crow-faced man in a butler’s uniform emerged, carrying a silver tray with a red tinged drink on it. The servant crossed to the other side and pushed it open, releasing wafts of conversation and music. As he went in, and the door closed behind him, it faded away again leaving Santa alone, apart from the thundering of his panicked heart.
“I’ll soon be there”, he whispered, “It’ll be my moment again soon.”
The kitchen was a large open space with several rows of ovens and grills. Sticking his head around the door, Santa Claus could see a Chef in the far corner. He was stirring a huge pot with one hand and swigging from a bottle with the other. A tiny transistor radio was blasting out hymns, the melodies straining to be heard amidst the static. The cook hummed along to them, swaying as he did so.
Dropping to all fours, Santa crawled into the room. The smell hit him like a tidal wave, swamping his senses and leaving him drooling. He licked his lips. One didn’t serve for centuries in hell without becoming very familiar with that particular aroma. There were always bodies burning, roasting corpses that filled the air with their essence. That stink and the reek of sulphur and fetid decay had been his everyday companions. The craving to taste that forbidden flesh was so strong that he had to bite his lip. Even if his current feeble body could have digested it, he doubted that it would have gone without a hefty price.
He edged along the kitchen units, hidden from sight. Fragrances continued to torment him. His expertise was far enough advanced that he could pick out the perfume of a smoldering liver or a steaming heart. He could tell the age of the meat and even whether it had come from a man or a woman. How he missed its flavor and its texture.
Shaking his head and pushing his desires aside, he focused instead on the prize to come., how he would get one over on that accursed sack, just even for a moment. A few seconds was enough to sustain him for another year. A sudden clatter gave him pause, but it was just the Chef dropping his spoon. He carried on.
At the end of the row was an archway that led to some narrow steps. Swiftly passing through it, Santa tiptoed down them. At the bottom was a metal door. Slowly he pushed it open and entered the room.
A filthy faced little boy lay twitching and unconscious on a low bed, a dirty blanket pulled up to his chin. His face was pale and sunken, and his breath rattled and shook. Occasionally he muttered something incomprehensible or simply groaned in pain. Santa Claus had to resist applauding and instead simply grinned.
For fifty years or more he had visited this place. The boy had always been here in his bed, always with the same pallid near to death appearance. He had never aged and showed no sign of doing so in the future. He was someone’s prisoner, someone’s experiment. He was the boy who never died.
“So… once more it’s time.”
Santa pulled the sack from a deep pocket and placed it on the floor in front of him and cackled.
“So sack… fail for me once more.”
He glanced at the piled up presents in each corner of the room. They were unopened, untouched, of no use or interest to this unnatural child. He was busy in his suffering, unable to escape from his unnaturally long stay on this mortal coil. The sack produced more and more intricate offerings year-by-year, desperate in its attempts to impress. It was hopeless and beautiful.
He leant down to reach into the sack but froze halfway there.
At first the green fumes were gaseous and loosely formed, rising up from the hessian in a mushroom plume. Then they began to tighten, wrapping themselves into an intricately knotted chain. They curved from side to side like a snake rising from a basket. Santa could almost hear it hiss.
It extended, making its way up and forwards toward the sleeping boy. It slithered over the surface of the blanket up towards his face.
It glided up over his lips, and into his nostrils. Eventually it disappeared from sight. The adolescent blinked and his eyes sprang open. They were a bright blue. He smiled and then his eyes closed again slowly. He took one deep breath, exhaled, and then his chest was still. He was at peace.
Santa looked down at the unmoving sack then at the child, then back at the sack again. His jaw fell open in disbelief as he realized that there were no victories left in his life. The damn bag had finally succeeded. A stab of pain burst across his chest. He clutched at himself and gasped for air. After a while the discomfort passed and he was able to snatch the sack back up from the ground.
“Merry Christmas”, he muttered, “Merry bloody Christmas.”
Andrew Freudenberg is an English author with a German name. He was born in France.
Despite always having a strong love for the written word, he spent a large part of his 20’s dabbling in the global techno scene. He loves heavy metal.