The Horseman

The horseman’s shadowed eyes stared forward beneath the rim of a tattered Stetson. His steed blazed through the night. Isolated by the vast prairie, things which hide in the dark watched his every move. But his guns held firm to his belt, fully loaded. His quick hands, both ready and able.

Although he could not see the path, he knew it well. Not by a painted memory or a tale told over a hard drink, but by a map of dreams scrawled within his heart. He was drawn to that place by a pounding desire to hunt, but his prey remained a blur behind inner vision. He knew not its form or purpose, only its dangers.

One too many folk had been ravaged, and as a traveler, he knew his presence in the nearby town would be more than suspect. His grim expression could not go unnoticed among a people quiet with fear and mourning. He was to make haste in dispatching whatever hungry thing lay sly in the wilderness.

A sudden moment, both quick as lightning and long as eternity, threw him off his horse with the cries of his mount in terror. By the time he hit the ground and drew his guns, nothing more than dust in the air remained where his companion had fallen. But its screams of agony, the pain of being eaten alive—a foul thing for any man, woman, or child to hear—trained his sights through the dark with precision. When vision failed, he shot by ear.

A low grunt confirmed a hit. The sound of tearing flesh stopped. Raspy breath of something not human, the only thing which kept silence at bay.

The horseman held both guns steady, fingers ready to squeeze.

Hard pounding against the earth readied his shot, two bullets fired straight, no hit.

A thump landed behind him; foul breath huffed against his neck. He cocked both arms back and fired two more shots. A guttural howl sounded, something wet and hot splattered his backside. The horseman rolled forward and turned toward his enemy.

Despite its grotesque appearance, its extremity of difference from man or animal, the horseman didn’t flinch. To him the bleeding thing was just another beast to be slain. It huffed heavy breath, visible in the cold air. The waving motion of a multitude of spiked tentacles quickened and slowed. Its maw opened and shut, black liquid dripped from its teeth. Its bottom, nothing more than a blob of raw flesh, pulsated as it stretched and wrinkled.

The horseman stared at its face with no eyes, waited for it to move. If it fled, he’d chase; if it attacked, he’d retaliate. He could navigate a fight with evil like a swindler at a game of cards.

It came toward him. He waited until its spiked tentacles raised in a poise to kill from above with their sharp ends. The horseman rolled to the side and fired two more shots. One into the side of its head, one into the pulsating flesh of its lower end. Both injuries spit blood, the one and only thing he and the creature had in common.

The horseman reloaded his guns while the creature sung agony into the night. It twitched and swung its loose appendages in the air before falling on its side. It breathed still, but slow, labored. The horseman approached without guilt and fired another shot into its head.

The horseman then removed his duster and threw his hat onto the grass. The rest of his clothes ripped and fell away from the expansion of his flesh. His entire body enlarged until it became nothing like man or animal. Somewhere along his middle, a gaping circle of teeth opened and gorged on its prey.

© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.

 

Telling Stories

I’ve started dreading bedtime.

It’s Emily. Oh, it’s not her fault, for God’s sake, she’s only three, but lately every time I come to tuck her in she’s dragged out that book, and always with the same demand.

Story time.

I don’t know where she found it. I certainly didn’t buy it, and it wasn’t in the house when we moved in. Trying to ask the neighbors about it has only gotten me evil looks and muttered curses and a lot of disinvitations, and I can’t say I blame them—the damned thing just looks so odd, bound in patchwork leather with some kind of crude embroidery that I guess is meant to look like stitches. And the pictures are awful: all fangs and teeth and multiplicities of limbs, sometimes blurry and seeming to slide off the page, sometimes so detailed I wake up screaming.

But Emily always sleeps soundly, and I can never find the same picture twice.

The words, though. The words are worst. Some of the text is black and some is red, like an old Bible, but none of it is in English. I’m not even sure the words are actually words. They’re crooked, wriggling shapes, shifting and writhing on the page; the first time Emily asked me to read something, I decided to play along, make something up as I went, but the shapes turned to words as I struggled over them. Not in front of my eyes, but out of my mouth. English words. Suddenly I was telling my daughter monstrous stories, stories of slaughter and gore, of dead gods rising from the sea, rising to blot out the sun.

And Emily laughed and laughed.

I said the words were worst. No. That’s not true. The changes are worst. Tuesday morning when I mowed the yard, the grass twisted and bled. That night I walked out onto the porch for a smoke and the moon looked down at me, huge and red, pockmarked with yellow eyes. Last night while I was reading, something slammed into the bedroom window, something far too large to be any kind of bird, and Emily clapped and laughed while I shrieked.

This morning there was nothing on the window but a scorch mark that stretched down the wall.

I’ve tried throwing the book away. Tried giving it to the library. Every time, it was back on Emily’s bedroom shelf that night, and now the disapproving note I got from the librarian is a soot-edged bookmark.

And Emily knows something’s happening. She knows, and she’s changing too. Sometimes I catch her watching me like she’s sizing me up, waiting; sometimes her eyes seem a little yellow, and her mouth full of too many teeth.

I should burn the book. Tear out the pages. But it makes her so happy, I can never quite bring myself to tell her no when she says, Story time.

Still, just once, I wish she’d ask for Where the Wild Things Are.

~ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.
Where the Wild Things Are © copyright Maurice Sendak, 1963

 

 

Shadows

The blast stripped his skin away, charring the flesh underneath and turning his bones to dust. His eyelids were sealed by the heat, the fluid orbs boiling and bursting in their sockets. He felt a brief moment of pain, then nothing, as his limbs were ripped from his body, his guts torn open and his head shattered. After the explosion, there was nothing left except for a few misshapen lumps of gristle and burnt meat.

He woke. He was in the boiler room as usual. He stood, dusting himself down. He quickly realised the room had changed. There was a hole in the roof and the room was full of smoke and debris. The furnace was ripped open, sheared metal hanging from the frame. He looked down and saw the charred, rendered remains of his body. He remembered the explosion. He was dead.

He’d often thought about death, not morbidly, but in a detached way. What did it feel like, what did you see, experience? Now he could find out.

There were sirens in the distance, but they didn’t concern him. He was well past the point of being saved. No defibrillator was going to bring him back; they’d have to take his body out in a bucket.

He walked upstairs to the factory floor, amused to see the panic and fear on his colleagues’ faces. They had practised drills for this type of occurrence, but none of them seemed to remember. They ran for the doors in a panicked mob. No-one was checking for colleagues, no-one was counting heads, no-one was grabbing fire extinguishers. He laughed to see them, but reflected he would probably be doing the same. He wondered how long it would be before his absence was noticed, who would discover him, the memory of the sight no doubt being burned into their memory forever.

He walked out the factory, intrigued to find he wasn’t floating or drifting. His body felt as solid as always. Nobody noticed him, so it was clear he was invisible. He walked towards a stack of pallets with the intention of seeing if he could walk through objects. The bump on his nose suggested he couldn’t.

He wandered away from the site, keen to get home. He had a sense that his time was limited, and he wanted to see his family for the last time. He wanted to say goodbye.

His car wasn’t an option, so he decided to walk.

The factory was situated in the working-class part of town. It was a Victorian red-brick edifice, originally a flour mill, but converted into a small timber yard in the late 1970s. He walked down streets full of red brick terraced houses, originally built to house the flour mill workers and their families. The homes were modest, two-up and two-down, with a front door that opened straight onto the street and a small yard behind. An alleyway at the back allowed access to the yards.

As he walked down the quiet street he became aware of curtains being twitched in almost every house. Was he visible? Could they see his injuries? It didn’t take him long to realise he was being watched by the dead. Pale faces with sunken black eyes started at him from behind glass. These were the dead of past ages, condemned to the house where they died, condemned to move unseen amongst the living. He saw the sadness in their faces, the despair.

As he walked, getting closer to his home and family with every step, the world around him changed. The real world, the one he had occupied until twenty minutes ago, was starting to change, starting to become unfocused and misty. The figures in the houses were becoming more distinct, more solid, while the bricks and mortar became more and more transparent. His feet started to sink into the tarmac of the pavement. The world darkened. The street, the one that belonged to the real world, faded away. He realised the houses, the pavement, the entire mortal realm had passed from his view.

He found himself on a wide open plain, full of darkness and shadows. The dead were all around him.  Most were heading to an unseen point in the distance, some were simply wandering around, lost. He joined the throng, walking to the unknown destination.

An endless time later, travelling through this dark, shadowed land, he arrived at his destination. Standing there, with countless others, he looked across the river into the darkness. Boats arrived on the bank every few minutes, the dead boarded and the boats headed back out into the darkness. Some of his new companions shuffled around, unsure, but he knew he had to make a decision. To go across the river meant the end. He wouldn’t see his family again.  To stay on this side was to become a wraith, a spirit that haunted the mortal world, being able to see but not being seen. The sadness was overwhelming.

He stood on the river bank and made his decision. He remembered the misery and despair on the faces staring out at him from the houses in the street. He didn’t want to suffer that fate. Instead, he would move on. He stepped onto the next boat.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

 

Breathless

His wide eyes shadow my every move, veins throb in his neck. A look I’ve seen numerous times. Lying stomach-down, each limb bound to the table I bolted in place. He shakes, sweat plastering cropped hair to his skull. The acrid smell of urine and sweat fills my soundproofed basement. An odor I’ve learned to ignore. Can he? I’ve never asked them, not even the ones who lasted a while.

He struggled at first, like they all do, but the bonds are too tight. Any background noise will ruin what I need. The ball gag is slick with saliva but muffles the sounds. Situations like this remind me that humans are animals—base, instinctual creatures. We’ve grown arrogant because we have thumbs and big brains.

He started with questions. Like a dentist talking to a patient, I understood every word—and ignored him. Then he begged, pleaded. Cried. Screamed.

They’re all the same. Except for one thing. Everyone’s sound is unique. Pitch and timbre, guttural groan and rasping breath, final gasp and last exhalation.

I caress his salty hair. His body slouches. “Almost over,” I say. “I’m going to make you famous. Promise. I know talent when I hear it.”

With two more steps, I’m hunched over my laptop. It’s a simple workstation, but it does the job. A few keystrokes later, and I’m ready. I hit the record button. My thumb taps the mic mounted to the short boom base and levels jump to yellow. I set it on the ground, tilt the mic toward his face. I unstrap the ball gag and pull it free. A strand of spittle connects his lips to the ball in my fist, then falls. The carpeted floor darkens under each drop.

He chokes. Levels jump on my screen. They touch red. There will be some distortion, but I’m fine with that.

“Please.” It’s between a whisper and a rasp, his throat long ago rubbed raw. “Please.”  He’s said it countless times, at first a plea for freedom. Now that he’s accepted his fate, this solitary word is still a plea for freedom—just a different kind.

I glance at the mic. Still in position. I climb onto the table, planting one knee on either side of his rib cage. His shortened breaths register on the screen, levels in the yellow, dropping closer to green where they need to be.

I’ve taken almost everything I can from him These final moments are ones I can never go back and capture again. I let out a long breath. I wrap my hands around his neck. My fingers search, finding their targets. My muscles tense, all my attention on the screen. My grip tightens, squeezing. Little bursts of color in the levels mirror the sounds under me. My languid breaths contradict the staccato rhythm of his gasps. My body stills, except my fingers.

A meter on the screen measures time. Approaching one minute. Not long now. I hold my breath as he lets out his last exhalation.

Perfect.

I slide to the floor and return to the computer. I press the space bar to stop recording. I transfer the file to my flash drive. A smile twists my lips as I head upstairs, drive in hand.

In my studio, I make quick work of loading the files, manipulating them so they’re ready for use. I swivel and face my keyboard. Pressing the key, his last breath spills from the speakers. I hold the note, bending the pitch up then down, layering it into the nearly finished song.

Almost there. A few more tries and I have it.

To my left, three phonograph statues proclaim “Best New Age Album.”

This will give me number four.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

 

Mental Anesthetic

Smoke swirling overhead, I lay on the cool filth covered ground, ashing in front of my face. A particularly crisp piece of dried wallpaper lights from the dropping embers. The night is nearing, the shadows cast upon the walls aren’t dancing nearly as much; I won’t be alone when the sun drops beneath the horizon. They are coming, as they always do.

I flick the butt of my cigarette and allow more pieces of detritus to smolder and pull my limbs in tighter to a fetal position. It’s easier this way, to just rest on the ground and wait rather than try with futility to hide; the past few weeks have taught me that.

The wind howls as thin branches scrape against the weakened glass, I shiver and light up another. Within minutes, the cherry of my cigarette is the only light left. A door opens a few floors below and hurried footsteps rush the stairs. I count each foot fall, there are more this time. Facing the wall and finishing my nicotine delight, the door behind me slowly slides open. My heart doesn’t quicken; the nerves I used to feel have all but been replaced by a mental anesthetic.

“Miss us?” One of the creatures questions; I don’t reply.

“Of course he did,” says the other, tapping my shoulder with its toe. My body rocks back and forth as they get into position.

I close my eyes as their teeth sink beneath the surface of my flesh. They lap from my open wounds, savoring the taste of a metallic iron liquid. The grotesque slurping and gargles wrap my stomach in knots but I know better than to fight back.

“What a shame, looks like this one’s tamed.” I hear, my head becoming fuzzy.

“Perhaps another? His daughter?” They’re taunting me, covered in my blood and snickering. My pulse quickens, not from fear but anger. “Definitely his daughter, his adrenaline is starting to rev.” These wicked beasts cackle and I stay silent, nothing I do will help me now.

“D-D-Daddy? I’m scared.” A faint cry from the hallway. It’s her.

“There we go!” Blood pressure springing through the roof, my lesions gushing while the freaks continue their feast.

I try to get up, to fight them off, but all I can do is mumble, “Youuu-bazztir…” As the silence and darkness consumes me.

∼ Lydia Prime

© Copyright Lydia Prime. All Rights Reserved.

Sleep Tight

You wake beneath the glow of a urine-yellow nightlight shaped like a crescent moon. From the hall outside your bedroom comes a susurration of sound, a crippled shuffle, like rotted feet dragging themselves to bone on a sandpaper carpet.

Your heartbeat speeds. Sticky mouth dries. You sit up in vomit-clotted sheets. You’ve been sick, but you’re better now. Much, much better. Thanks to Momma.

But that sound. It’s almost midnight, the dregs of the day. Who is coming? Who is coming to your room in the hollow of the dark?

Something wet slaps against the old porcelain doorknob. It turns, scritches open on hinges that are more rust than iron. A bulk leans its head within, dressed in a pale wrapper of cloth under which odd shapes pulse and squirm. You’re reminded of a grubworm you once dug up in the garden—when there was still a garden. It’s just Momma.

A sigh possesses you as, from the doorway, your mother says, “Sorry I’m late tonight, Sweety. I fell asleep. Are you OK? Do you need anything?”

You’d begun to think she wasn’t coming this night. That maybe…. But you don’t complete that thought. It’s not a kind one and Momma does not like unkind thoughts. You only say, as mother’s clothes twitch and rustle, “I’m fine, Momma. Just fine. Thank you.”

She smiles. Her mouth is black because she’s forgotten her teeth again. But that’s all right. Her teeth are big and broad and so white they sometimes make you uncomfortable. She whispers that she loves you and turns to go.

You wait. She’ll turn back again. As she always does. She has one last piece of sweet advice to offer her only son. She gives it with a catch of emotion in her throat: “Good night. Sleep tight. Let the bed bugs bite.”

“I will, Momma,” you hear yourself say.

The door snicks shut. Momma’s feet move away. She sounds light as a thistle now. As if she’s able to dance on limbs shed of heavy flesh.

Quickly, you lie back on your bed again and let the wet pillow fold up around your face. You press it down tight over your eyes and mouth. From the door where Momma was standing, a swift flow of movement passes like a ripple over the floor. It climbs the bed posts, the trailing sheets. Like a wave of goosebumps it flows onto the bed to nestle all around you. They, nestle all around you.

You bite your teeth together and pull the pillow more tightly across your face. It’s not the right thing to do to deny them a part of your body. But you hate the way they slip beneath your lids and scrape at your eyes. And if they crawl up your nose and down your throat, you know the vomit will come again. It’s so unpleasant to lie in when it’s still liquid and hot.

The bedbugs—that’s what Momma calls them anyway—have tiny mandibles that catch at flesh and hold. It feels like ten thousand staples being tucked into your skin as they begin to suckle. But it’s a good thing. Momma has told you: they draw the illness out of you with your fluids. That’s why you’re feeling so much better, why you’ll soon be able to leave your room again. She has promised.

In the morning, of course, the bugs will return to Momma and clothe her anew. They’ll give her all the sickness they’ve drawn out of you. It’s a powerful display of the mother-child bond. How she takes your disease unto herself. You know she loves you very, very much.

“I love you, too,” you whimper into the pillow. As the bugs burrow in and the pain becomes like fireworks exploding through your body. “I love you, Momma. Love you, Momma! MOMMA!”

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

 

Snuff Film Relic

“Sweetie, I’ve been into film production since I was a boy,” he said. Julian was his name and I was crazy about him. I couldn’t believe such a man of his looks and caliber would ever speak to me, much less invite me into his spacious home. But here I was, sitting in his living room.

He lit my cigarette and kissed my fingers. While I was taking it all in, he placed a snifter of brandy in my hand, his silky baritone like a lullaby. He showed me his father’s Kodak. “This model was made in 1965. Just look at this my dear!” Unrolling some film, he held it up to the light so I could see how each frame had clearly captured a part of the action. Then he loaded the projector and started it.

By that time, I was getting a weird buzz from the brandy. I say ‘weird’ because I was feeling very odd. It was like everything was slowing down. When I looked at the filmstrip, it seemed a great distance away. And I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

A lovely woman was sitting in the same chair as mine in the film. Julian held her in his arms. He began kissing her from her breasts down to her toes. A close-up of her eyelids fluttering. A line of drool escaped her lips. In the next set of frames, he was stabbing her with a screwdriver. He’d even added sound somehow — McCartney’s “Let It Be” full volume in the background.

Then he started in on me with a warm embrace, his lips on mine, sweet as that tainted brandy. Oh, yes, I was very much there, eyes wide open, unable to move, watching him remove the used film. He reloaded the Kodak, mounted it on a tripod, and aimed the lens straight at me.

∼ Marge Simon

© Copyright Marge Simon. All Rights Reserved.

Countdown

Harry wakes to heat, and to silence.

He opens his eyes to a leak-stained ceiling, but everything feels too bright and he closes them again, trying to push past the cotton-wool thickness in his head to sort out exactly why the quiet is wrong. There’s a small stinging ache at the back of his neck and a sour iron taste in his throat, like he’s held a mouthful of old coins.

There’s no background noise.

That’s it. Harry opens his eyes another fraction. He’s lying on a bed in an unfamiliar room—in the Bonneheure Hotel, if the fleurs-du-lys stamped on the center ceiling tiles are any indication—but there’s no hotel ambiance, no voices or footsteps or air-conditioning hum. No air’s circulating at all: the room has a stifling musty smell that makes his nostrils burn. There’s just the rasp of his own breathing, and the corner of his smartphone digging into his hip inside his pocket.

And the weight of another body on the bed.

Harry turns his head, dizzy, frowning. The woman lying beside him, covered by a sheet pulled above her breasts, is bottle blonde, immaculately made up, her mouth a candyfloss shade of red and her eyelashes crisp with mascara.

Is she a hooker? He’s never seen her before.

Harry doesn’t remember coming here. Or bringing a woman, or anything that can tell him why he’s lying in his clothes on a bed in a silent hotel room with someone he doesn’t recognize; his last memory is of standing in front of his boss’ office door and feeling a sudden cold sting in his neck.

So that’s the pain above his collar; it’s starting to itch. He’s been…drugged? Kidnapped? But why—

This place closed last year, he thinks, and belated understanding brings him fully awake. Harry sits up and his right shoulder is jerked painfully: there’s a cable tie snugged around his wrist, attached to another, and another, a chain of cable ties that leads somewhere under the bed. He shifts on the mattress, heart picking up, sweat breaking out hot on his face; something shifts with him and rolls against his thigh.

The woman hasn’t stirred. Harry glances at her, then at the object, and pulls it into his lap with his left hand. It’s a roll of leather, and he fumbles it open to find a set of steak knives, gleaming blades of various widths, their serrated edges like broken sharks’ smiles.

“I don’t understand,” he says hoarsely. Harry looks back to the woman—his sitting up should have woken her, but she still hasn’t moved. Has she been drugged too? He reaches out with his free hand to shake her, clumsily.

She’s cold.

She’s not breathing.

His phone rings.

Harry shrieks, almost voiceless, and starts to his feet. His cable-tie tether jerks him down, and his knees bang painfully on the worn gray carpet, his head just missing the edge of the bedside table. He shuts his eyes again and exhales a ragged breath, heart stumbling against his ribs, sweat pouring beneath his shirt. The smartphone trills again, breaking a tiny sob from his parched lips, and with effort he wrests enough slack in his plastic restraint to pull the phone loose and thumb the screen. “H-hello.”

“Harry.” He knows the voice. It’s Conrad from work; Conrad, right hand of their boss, Kurtz, though Harry can never remember what the man actually does for the company. “I take it you found our present.”

“Conrad, God, Conrad, you have to help me—” Harry has almost no saliva, and when the words register, even that dries up. “…Present?”

“Do you like her, Harry?” Conrad is smiling, Harry can hear it in his voice. Can picture it, in fact: the perfect teeth, perfect tan, perfectly parted hair. “Lola. You wouldn’t have known her, she was down in HR,” Conrad purrs. “Shame, really, she’s a hell of a looker, but she was convenient.”

He sounds like a cat licking cream from its whiskers. Harry swallows, looking back over his shoulder at…Lola. “Conrad. What’s going on? Why’s this happening?”

“Oh, Harry, honey. You know.”

There’s a hint of laughter in Conrad’s voice, one that becomes more than a hint when Harry whimpers. “Look. Okay, look. If this is about the money, I—”

“Of course it’s about the money.” Conrad’s friendliness gives abrupt way to a hard edge. “You don’t skim off the top, Harry, not with Kurtz. You knew better. You may be swimming in the accounting pool, but you’re not one of the sharks yet.” The laugh comes out, a short sharp bark. “It’s the assumption that hurts, you know? Mr. Kurtz doesn’t appreciate people thinking he’s stupid.”

“I—” Harry’s heart is tapping painful double-time against his sternum. He’d assumed just that thing, had assumed his wide-bodied, pig-eyed boss was the idiot he resembled; it had been a correct assumption before, with some of the others. He works his jaws, trying to think fast as whatever he’d been doped with burns off. “So what happens now? The cops show up, they find me, they find…Lola”—he chokes on her name—”and they assume the worst?”

“That’s a neat convenient package,” Conrad muses. “And Mr. Kurtz wants to make an example of you. Only…not like that.” He sucks his teeth audibly. “Nobody’s going to look for you there, Harry. That hotel’s been closed fifteen months. It’s scheduled for demolition tomorrow.”

Harry’s chest constricts.

“And there’s Lola.” Conrad must be grinning. “Isn’t she a beauty? Kurtz got a clever idea. There’s a bomb in her.”

The blood drains from Harry’s face with a palpable loss of heat. “…What.”

“A bomb, Harry. Goes boom? One of the IT guys rigged it.” Conrad’s friendliness is back. “That’s why you have the knives, Harry. Nice knives. Japanese carbon steel. Got ’em at Sears. You cut her open and find it, you might have a chance. Kurtz believes in fairness, Harry, even if you don’t.”

The façade drops again. “You have five minutes. Goodbye, Harry.”

The call disconnects. Harry stares at his phone, aghast, but slowly gets to his feet, sits on the bed.

Stiffly, he pulls the sheet from Lola’s cold body.

She’s naked, flawless. Aside from a tiny blue pinprick wound on her throat, there’s not a mark on her. How many times had he passed this woman in the hallway and never picked her out from the others?

It’s a joke, right? It’s a sick joke, it has to be, he can’t—

Within the dead woman’s abdomen, something begins to beep.

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

The Veil

“As the moon rose high over the world, creatures scattered to find shadows for shelter. This was the night, and everything in existence could feel what was coming. The night ‘The Veil’ would be raised between the living, and the dead.” Phil said while sprinkling some sparkly dust over the fire. The other four children sat around in a semi-circle, hanging on his every word. “Tradition dictates that we must go into the cemetery and sit until morning lest we be known as cowards!” He enforced. “Now comes the time to end the ‘Trick-or Treating’ and start figuring out what’s real, and what’s make-believe!”

“Dude, you’re ridiculous.” Ethan said while lifting his monster mask.

“Shut up man! Are we men, or are we meese?!” Phil quipped.

“Meese!” Came a chime from the quartet surrounding him.

“Fine! I’ll do it alone then, and I’ll tell everyone you guys punked out.” Phil retorted with his nose high in the air – not that it could get much higher with that plague doctor mask on. He spun on his heel and took off toward the cemetery.

“Aw c’mon bro, you know we’re kidding.” Liam called after him, but he’d already covered too much ground to hear him. The four boys shrugged and let him go off on his own, figuring he would probably chicken out and come find them with an incredibly bogus story to tell.

“More candy for us!” Alex yelled, and three of the boys took off on their bikes in the opposite direction.

***

Phil was panting by the time he reached the cemetery, forget them. If I’m the only one man enough to do this, then so be it. He leaned his bike against the gate and began his trek into the place of rest. Once he reached a particularly damaged looking tree, he sat and waited. For years he’d heard the older boys talk of the ghosts and ghouls that crept out of the crypt on Halloween night, now it was his turn to see the dead rise again! He’d always had a sort of strange fascination with the dead, undead, sorta-almost-kind-of-dead; anything dark and creepy to be honest – he firmly believed all he’d heard.

A rustling came from the far left of the cemetery. “W-h-ho’s there?” He stuttered. The silence was deafening; there were no giggling trick or treaters, no crickets singing their sad song, and no more rustling. “Alex? Alex is that you? I bet it is, you jerk, I’m not scared!” At that moment a figure came into focus, emerging from the bushes near the entrance gates. “Say something, you asshole!” Whatever it was, it moved with such grace that Phil’s heart felt as if it was going to explode at any moment. He looked around and grabbed a rock, the nearest weapon he could find.

The fourth child from the fire appeared before him, dressed as a ghost he was covered in a plain white bed sheet with eye holes cut through. Phil gulped and got a tighter grip on his trusty rock. “Jay?” He asked. He looked the ghost up and down and noticed its feet, or well, lack thereof. “W-w-who – what are you?” He managed to get out, now shaking.

“I’m who you’ve been waiting for, no?” It replied curtly.

“I-I-I- uhh…” Phil trailed off, unsure of how to respond.

“RISE!” It called and the ground began to rumble. Phil tried to stand, but his legs betrayed him and turned to jelly. He looked around and saw hands reaching from beneath the earth toward the dark sky. The moon illuminated his fear-struck face. “Hahahaha, mortals. Were you not ready for this? Are you a man, or are you a ‘meese’?” It mused.

“P-p-please, d-don’t…” Phil tried to beg for mercy.

“Watch.” It told him and turned towards its armada of corpses. “Enjoy your night my ghouls!” He called to them and off they went. Some ran, some walked, others seemed to simply disappear. “It is our night. The veil has lifted, as you so arrogantly proclaimed earlier!”

Phil began to regain feeling in his legs, I have to know. He reached up and grabbed the sheet from the creature before him. His eyes wide with disbelief, he opened his mouth to scream but nothing came out.

“Some things should never be seen, Phillip.” It said before it sliced through his neck with razor-sharp teeth. Phil’s blood trickled down the monster’s cheeks and onto the ground before the dead tree. “You were fun, meese.”

∼ Lydia Prime

© Copyright Lydia Prime. All Rights Reserved.

To Owe the Devil

Uncle Henry looked at me from his deathbed. Not much in his face was alive. Maybe the tip of his tongue behind his teeth when he told me a story of his youth.

“Growing up in Montana in the 1930s,” he said, “I had a friend named Jacob Hart. The winter we were eighteen, we were hunting in the mountains when the snows came. Couldn’t get out. Built ourselves a snug little cabin. We had food but barely enough. Figured we’d eat our burros if we had to. We never got the chance. Jacob, he got sick. Down with fever. Wanting to get him some fresh meat, I set a few traps. Caught a rabbit. Something got it first. Tore it to shreds. Tore up all the traps. There were no tracks in the snow. None except the rabbit’s. You understand?”

“An owl, maybe,” I said.

Henry nodded. “What I thought. At first. Then something came sniffing around the cabin that night. Something big. I figured it was a bear. Jacob was sound asleep in his fever. Next morning, I found tracks. But they were…wrong. I’d seen bear sign. This wasn’t it. And there was a dead rabbit with a broken neck lying right on our doorstep. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I dressed the rabbit, cooked it in a stew, fed Jacob on it. He ate heartily. Ate almost the whole thing. Started feeling better immediately.

“Two days later Jacob was up and around. I told him about the traps I’d set, about the bear that didn’t leave bear tracks, about finding the rabbit like a gift. Jacob turned ashen. He began to shake. I thought his fever was returning but he told me I’d accepted a gift from the Devil and would have to give something back or the Devil would come take whatever he wanted. And since he’d eaten most of the gift, even without realizing it, his payment would have to be the larger. I laughed at him.”

I shivered. Maybe the bleak January sky outside the hospital had chilled me. Or maybe it was the strangeness of Henry’s story, a kind of tale I’d never heard him recite before. “So?” I asked finally. “Most people would laugh at something like that.”

“Could be,” Henry agreed, then continued. “Jacob told me I needed to leave out a gift for the Devil. Some salt or coffee. My timepiece. He did; I didn’t. One morning when it was still dark, we heard a monstrous racket. We’d built a shed for our burros, backed up against the cabin. The noise came from there. I ran outside with my gun. Jacob too. The shed was smashed in, the burros torn open, their innards spread around like jelly. Their heads were gone. There were the same odd tracks again. I followed ‘em. Jacob refused to. I trailed ‘em for miles. Came to a cave.…”

“And?” I prompted.

“Nothing. The tracks led to the cave’s mouth. But inside, it was empty. No bones of anything that might have been eaten there. No sticks dragged in for a nest. It looked like nothing living had ever touched that place.”

“And no Devil?” I said.

“No,” Henry said. “No Devil.”

“You must have felt pretty foolish.”

“A little. At the time,” Henry said. “Then I went home.”

“What did Jacob say?”

“Nothing. The cabin door hung open. There was a horrible stench. I ran inside to find one of the burros’ heads in the fireplace. The singed hair smelled like…nothing I can describe.”

“What about Jacob?”

“Hanging upside down from the ceiling. So naked that even his skin had been taken off.”

I winced, though by now I doubted the whole story. I figured it was made up, though why Henry would do such a thing on his deathbed, I couldn’t imagine. Maybe he was just losing his mind. “A horrible way to die,” I managed.

“Oh, he wasn’t dead. He lived several more days. Screaming most of the time.”

I wasn’t sure what was expected of me. Humor the dying man, I guessed. I squeezed his wrist gently. The skin was paper thin and felt cold and unreal. “I’m sorry.”

“No reason to be. I put Jacob’s body in the snow. Left him until spring thaw. Then I burned him in the cabin until nothing was left.”

“What about the…whatever it was that had attacked your burros and killed Jacob?”

“It left me alone the rest of the winter.”

“Any idea why?”

A humorless smile twisted Henry’s lips. “I left it an offering. Like Jacob told me too.”

A chill goosebumped my arms despite my disbelief. “What offering?”

“Blood for one,” Henry said. “I cut my arm deep.”

I remembered the scar on my uncle’s forearm. From a motorcycle accident, I’d heard.

“For one?” I asked. “What else?”

“My soul, of course. What does one use to buy off the Devil?”

I shook my head. “Heckuva story, Uncle Henry. But you know I don’t believe a bit of it.”

Henry smiled and patted my arm with long pale fingers. “Didn’t figure you would, Charlie. Never figured you would.”

I checked my phone. “I gotta go, Uncle Henry. Anything I can get you?”

“No,” he said, “but I have something for you.”

“What?”

“Open the drawer on the bedside table there.”

I did so, drew out a small present in pretty wrapping paper.

“What’s this?” I asked.

Henry smiled again, and a little sliver of pink tongue protruded from behind his teeth. “Just a gift, Charlie boy. Just a little gift for you.”

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.