Helping Hands Retreat

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Red Lagoe


Photo Credit: Antony Theobald/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Clouds of dust lifted from the concrete and swirled in the red glow of Sarah’s tail lights as her car crept down the broken pavement leading to the retreat. After an entire day on the road, with a watchful eye on her rearview mirror, she was still not confident that Wade was not following her. Trees and thick shrubbery lined the narrowing road, and a deep ditch on each side made it too difficult to turn around to go back.

As her stomach grumbled and fear of being lost began to creep in, her headlights revealed a chain link fence stretched across the road. The gate was wide open for her to drive through, but she let the car roll to a stop. An aged plank board sign sat off the side of the road with white block letters that read: “Helping Hands Recovery Retreat.”

She released her breath in relief and drove through. The road became gravel and the trees and shrubbery cleared into an open field of weeds, so far as her headlights could see.

A clopping sound came from behind and Sarah pressed on the brake to come to an abrupt stop. It was the sound of galloping hooves. She twisted around in her seat and spotted the silhouette of a large man on horseback. He climbed off his steed and hurried to the gate to close it behind her.

Her heart sped up. She couldn’t see his face, but could feel the icy glare coming from the dark outline of the man as she pulled her car away from him toward the welcoming light of two houses.

As Sarah bounced her focus from the man behind her to the houses in front of her, a paunchy woman in a purple winter coat came from one of the rustic structures and walked up to her car. Sarah rolled down the window.

“Welcome to the Helping Hands Retreat, dear.” She oozed with kindness and gentility.

“I don’t know if I’m in the right place—”

“Of course you are.” Her voice was sugar-sweet and comforting.

“I had a brochure for Helping Hands Retreat, but this doesn’t look like—”

“You need help,” the round-faced woman said. “A chance to get back on your feet. To start over, right?”

“Something like that—” Sarah was on guard and reluctant to trust this woman. She was reluctant to trust anyone.

“That’s what we do, dear. You’re in the right place. Come in. You just missed dinner, but we can get you a room for the night if that might help.” She interlaced her white-gloved fingers and held her hands near her heart.

Sarah, exhausted from an entire day on the road, and needing shelter from Wade for the evening, brushed her skepticism away and accepted the woman’s offer, whether she was in the right place or not. “That would be wonderful,” Sarah said.

“I’m Mary,” the woman smiled.

The premises were not as upscale as they appeared in the brochure, but Sarah didn’t care. Perhaps it looked better in the daylight. She followed the small waddling woman to the steps on a simple rectangular house. Each of the three steps crepitated beneath her feet as she climbed to the entrance.

There was no time to pack a bag when she left home that afternoon, so Sarah arrived at the retreat empty-handed. The cool mid-November air chilled her skin, and reminded her of the bruises that Wade left on her arms. He would find her soon. He always had a way of finding out where she was.

*

Mary left Sarah in room number four, gave her a key to the room, and a welcome package complete with a fresh towel, toothbrush, toiletries, and a set of hat and gloves to keep warm. The package gave her a feeling of indignity—like a homeless person—but that’s what she was now. Eight rooms stretched along one side of the hallway inside, similar to a hotel. On the opposite side of the hall was a shared bathroom and a common room, but all of the guests had retired for the evening. Strange to Sarah, considering it was only seven o’clock, but she was so thankful to be away, that she washed up and retreated to her room for the evening without any questions.

The room was drafty and cold, and the gentle sobbing of a woman could be heard through the wall.

The soft blue glow of moonlight seeped in from behind the curtain of her private room, exposing shadowy lines—bars on the windows. A further peer into the darkness outside the window revealed a large open field fully illuminated by the moon. It was at least thirty acres to the edge of the property where the fence laid. Plenty of room for the horseback riding that she had seen on the brochure.

As she dreamed about her potential new life, she felt it again—an icy stare. Eyes watching her. She tried to shrug it off as paranoia about Wade following her, but it persisted. She closed her curtains and walked barefoot across the creaking wooden floors and froze in the middle of the room. The feeling was still there. From under her right foot, she could feel a gentle upward pressure from underneath the floorboard, then a swift sound of scuffing below. Sarah gasped and jumped to her bed, staring down at the floorboards as the clunking, slithery sound from under her room waned. Her blood pumped through her veins so hard, she felt sick to her stomach.

“Hey!” Sarah said toward the floor then leapt from the safety of her bed to run to the window. A shadow, consistent with the shape of a person, darted out of view around the side of the house.

“Did anyone see that?” Sarah said through the walls, but there was no reply.

Screaming began only a moment later. The deep, throaty voice of a man that sounded like it belonged to a giant, was crackling and crying out from somewhere outside the house.

Sarah shoved her feet into her shoes and left her room, then crept down the empty hallway to the outside door, and gripped the knob. It wouldn’t turn.

“Hello?” She spoke with a firm voice, while she held the door knob within her shaking palm. She shook it harder, but it was locked from the outside.

Sarah backed away from the door as the realization of the surrounding danger kicked in. It was a familiar feeling. It was the feeling she got before Wade would go into a rampage. Her vision would tunnel, her heart would throb harder, and she would become still as she awaited his outburst. But nothing came.

She went back to her room, trembling with fear, and then climbed into the bed awaiting her fate.

*

In the morning, sideways light from the rising sun glared through her window and through the lattice woodwork on the crawlspace beneath the house. She peeked through the cracks of the floorboards to see the dusty brown earth below, and enough room down there for a grown man to crawl underneath.

“Coyotes,” Mary said when Sarah asked her about it, standing in the doorway of her room.

“I didn’t see any paw prints,” Sarah cut herself off from the argument, and jumped to her next concern, hoping to inquire without setting off any red flags. “Mary, is everyone here okay? I thought I heard someone screaming last night.”

“Honey,” she leaned in closer. “I’m not gonna lie. The people that come here have problems. They got demons to work out, and sometimes those demons get the best of them. That’s why we have bars on the windows and such.”

“So there are dangerous people here?” Sarah watched as those people passed by her to exit the house. Most kept their heads down and didn’t look, but one gray-haired woman peeked from under her silvery strands to give her a glance.

Mary continued. “Everyone that’s here has got their sins they gotta atone for.”

“I’m not here because I sinned.”

“You don’t sin?” Mary smiled.

“I…” Sarah was careful with her choice of words. “I’m here because I’m escaping an abusive relationship. I thought that’s what this place was.”

“I see.” Mary shifted her weight and tilted her head. “You poor dear.”

“Am I in the wrong place?”

“Of course not. You see… you escaped a horrible man, didn’t you? But to do that, what did you have to do? You cleaned out the bank account maybe? Took his car?”

“But there was no other way. How did you know—?”

“It’s my job to know. Come now.” Mary guided Sarah outside into the cold dry air. Her tiny gloved hand pressed between Sarah’s shoulder blades to direct her to the next building.

“Where’s my car?” Sarah asked, crossing her bare arms to keep warm.

“Well that wasn’t your car, was it?” Mary smiled. “It was Wade’s car.”

Sarah’s blood turned cold at the sound of his name and her survival instincts kicked in with the new looming threat. Though she wasn’t sure what was going on, she knew how to protect herself from unpredictable people. Until she could figure out what to do, she would keep her head down and be compliant, like she had done with Wade for all those years.

She entered a cafeteria space with a wood stove in the corner that did not generate enough heat to keep the drafty old building warm. Five guests were already seated and eating at the two round tables. They were still wearing winter hats and mittens while they shoveled the food into their mouths without exchanging words. Sarah, with Mary still perched beside her, approached the breakfast bar and was scooped a meager pile of scrambled eggs by the gray-haired woman. She was wearing green latex-free gloves and a hair net. She looked to Mary, then back to Sarah.

“This is all part of it,” Mary said. “We all do our part to be helpful in our community. Helping hands…”

“Are clean hands,” the gray-haired woman muttered the words in a reflexive way.

“Thank you,” Sarah said and sat at a table with three others.

A man with spiky black hair poking out from under his hat and weeks’ worth of beard growth rocked in his seat across from her. He kept his hands tucked between his knees and his eyes on the pile of rubbery yellow eggs before him. His gaze broke from the eggs when Sarah sat down, and he stared at her pale and bruised hands.

“Sh-sh-she didn’t wash her hands!” He backed away from the table with his hands tucked into his armpits. He stood up, looking around the room in a panic, “She didn’t wash her hands!”

“I washed them,” Sarah insisted.

“Now, Jacob,” Mary approached him from behind.

“It’s not fair!” He yelled with spit strung between his lips.

Sarah looked around the room as the other guests stared at her. “I washed them—”

“Jacob!” Mary raised her voice and lowered it as soon as he took his seat. “Don’t worry about when she washes her hands. They’ll get washed after we do our chores for the day, because helping hands—”

“—are clean hands.” Six voices from around the room said it in consonance.

*

After breakfast, Sarah was given a thick flannel work shirt and a pair of heavy duty work gloves. “Come on, dear,” Mary said, and led her outside where the other six other guests of the retreat were pulling weeds along the entrance road.

A large man on the back of a brown-and-white horse sat near the entrance with his arms crossed and a shotgun slung over his shoulder. All of the guests were wearing the same black-and-red flannel that Sarah had on. She pulled weeds and piled them neatly into a wheelbarrow, and caught the gray-haired woman staring at her. Her large round eyes were backlit with urgency. Some warning hid in the intense glare, but her lips remained shut.

Sarah continued to keep her head down, pulling weeds with the others, hour after hour, wondering what was going on, and how she was going to get out of this place without incident.

Her nose turned pink, and her fingers numbed from the icy air, so Sarah removed her work gloves and rubbed her hands together. The motion caught the attention of the woman with gray hair, and she watched as Sarah blew warm, moist air onto her skin.

Mary was burying tulip bulbs into the earth near the buildings, when she broke the silence to cry out, “Tom!”

The man on the horse looked in her direction, squinting to see her pointing to the westward wall of perimeter fencing. A coyote was pacing at the fence line.

Tom nudged the horse with his heel and trotted off the gravel road, away from the open gate, and took aim at the coyote in the distance. It was too far, so he edged closer, and took aim again.

As he did, the man with the black spiky hair shifted his twitchy eyes back and forth, then darted toward the gate. Dust kicked up behind his boots as he sprinted along the gravel, unnoticed by Tom and Mary. They were both focused on the coyote, but the guests and Sarah swung their attention back and forth between the running black-haired man and the man with the gun. It seemed like a smart idea—to run—but Sarah knew better. There was nowhere to run to, not with a man on horseback and a gun nearby. She knelt down and went back to picking weeds, waiting for her opportunity, while the black-haired man escaped the open gate.

The shot gun fired, blasting up a chunk of dirt at the coyote’s feet, scaring the critter away.

“Damn,” Tom shouted, disappointed with his miss.

“Tom!” Mary yelled again, this time pointing toward the runner, and Tom spun his horse around to chase him down.

Everyone was staring as that horse closed in on his pursuit, but Mary redirected them.

“Come on folks,” Mary said, “I think that’s enough of that for today. Let’s go back to your rooms for a while.” She gestured for them to follow her as Tom chased the black-haired man into the woods outside the gates.

Sarah got in line with everyone else and walked back to her room, concealing the terror within. The gray-haired woman went into room three, next door, still with grave warning in her eyes.

Sarah paced her room until the sound of a gunshot in the distance, and a bullet cutting through the air, made her freeze mid-step. Her feet were heavy on the floor, like gravity could yank her through the wooden planks.

Sarah dropped to the floor to inspect the wood and the cracks between. They were old boards that bowed under the weight of her feet, and the rusty nails that held them in place were eroding in their holes. She pried on a board where it appeared to be weakest, and the edge lifted up.

Her fingers would not fit between the spaces to get enough torque on it, so Sarah dug into her welcome basket of supplies and used her toothbrush for some leverage. She wedged the board upward, and the nail came with it, wiggling out of place with minimal effort. She got to work on the second board—three would be enough for her frame to squeeze through. The boards came loose and she stuck her head into the space beneath the house. It was still too light outside to make a run for it. She needed to run under the cloak of nightfall.

She was sick to her stomach and her instincts told her to run—to get out, but she had to be smarter. It had to be the right time. She placed the boards back into position and waited impatiently on her bed as the daylight lingered. There was a knock at her door.

“Sarah, dear?” The soft voice was absorbed by the old wooden door of her room.

“Yes?” she asked, as casual as possible.

Mary opened her door and Sarah stood to greet her.

“What a day, huh?” Mary smiled and stepped one foot inside her door. “I want you to know that Mr. Lewis is alright now. Tom caught up with him and he’s resting in his room now.”

“I thought I heard—”

“The gunshot, right?” Mary rolled her eyes. “Coyote. There’s been some with rabies reported in these parts. Tom saw another one and took a shot. Poor Mr. Lewis could have been seriously hurt out there.”

“Mary, may I ask—” Sarah kept a kind, respectful voice.

She unclasped her white-gloved fingers and spread her arms apart as if she were an open book.

“Why wasn’t he allowed to go?”

“Mr. Lewis was a violent sex offender before he came here. We can’t let people wander off. They are in our care.”

“So, what about me?”

Mary took a step back and folded her hands back together. “You?”

“I’m not violent. I’m not a danger—”

“But you’re not perfect.” Mary’s voice lowered and her face dropped with an earnest message. “Everyone thinks they don’t sin.”

“I don’t think that,” Sarah argued, “but I don’t deserve to be imprisoned.”

“You don’t deserve…” she laughed. “It’s not about what you deserve. It’s about cleansing our hands of our sins and becoming a better community in the process, because helping hands…” She paused and waited for Sarah to reply.

Sarah hesitated, but did as expected. “Are clean hands?”

“That’s right. Dinner is at six o’clock. Tom and I will stop by for hand-washing just before that.”

“Hand-washing?”

“Hush now. It’s been a long day.” Mary left.

The sun set at five o’clock and Sarah sat against the wall on her bed and waited for the sky to darken.

“Don’t worry,” a voice made its way through the wall from the adjoining room number three. It was the gray-haired woman.

Sarah got to her knees, palms and ear to the wall to listen.

“It hurts bad the first time, but you get used to it,” she said.

“What?”

“It hurts. It still hurts. Just don’t run and don’t fight.”

Don’t run. Don’t fight. Sarah had spent too many years enduring attacks from Wade. Fight or flight should be a natural instinct, but instead she cowered and stayed, for far too long. She couldn’t do it anymore. She was determined to run this time—or to fight if she had to.

“He watches us from under the house.” The gray-haired woman was solemn and desperate.

“Who?”

“Tom.” Her nervous breathing could be heard through the wall. “He comes after dinner and tries to watch us undress. When he gets caught, he gets his hands washed.”

While the gray-haired woman talked, Sarah knelt down to remove the loose planks from the floor. Twilight was darkening and the moon was rising in the east above the tree line. Heavy feet clomped on the stairs out front—two sets of feet—and Sarah lowered her body into the crawlspace with her only chance to run. She returned the planks to their position, haphazardly, and crawled toward the open latticed board at the edge of the house. The front door opened and Tom and Mary could be heard walking down the hall.

Sarah crawled out from under the house and crouched down to be sure to stay out of sight, but curiosity and the light from room number one, drew her to investigate. The curtains were almost shut, leaving a two-inch gap that allowed a strip of light to escape from the window and onto the ground. Sarah peeked inside, adjusting her position with precision over the gap to see part of Tom’s body standing in the room. A five-gallon bucket was placed on the floor and the guest in room one removed his work gloves to expose a set of raw, burned hands. They were pink and shriveled.

He trembled, with tears escaping his eyes, as Tom held his forearms and Mary placed a cloth in his mouth. He chomped down on the fabric as Tom forced his hands in. The bucket sizzled and bubbled while the man in room one screamed through the cloth between his teeth. The acid ripped through his flesh and splattered onto the floor, hissing. Sarah backed away from the window, and for a brief moment, she considered performing a heroic rescue—rushing inside and fighting them off, or perhaps she could find Tom’s gun and…

Instead, she ran. She sprinted across the blue moonlit field toward the entrance gate that was wide open. She would come back with help. The cold air sliced through her lungs as she made her way off the property and down the beaten old road. It was at least two miles to the next road, if she remembered correctly. Get help—she chanted under her breath, and with each step, she pushed harder and faster.

In the distance, there was a set of headlights, but the ephemeral beacon of hope vanished when Sarah considered that the driver of that vehicle may someone that couldn’t be trusted. She darted off the road, into the ditch, and took cover in the thorny brush, as a pickup truck blasted by, music thumping, heading toward the retreat.

Sarah had never been so terrified, not even when she was with Wade. Not even when he had held her by the throat, threatening her life. Sarah pressed forward, and after several minutes, her run slowed to a jog, and she wondered at what point she’d hear the sound of hooves galloping up behind her. But she never heard them.

 

The man in the pickup truck left his music blasting as he pulled through the gate of the Helping Hands Retreat.

“What the hell?” He said as a little woman shuffled out of the house toward his vehicle. Tom stood in the doorway, holding the five-gallon bucket, as moaning sounds of pain poured out behind him.

“Welcome!” she said.

“I’m looking for my wife.” The man scowled.

“Are you now? You must mean Sarah.” Mary smiled. “She’s inside. We’ve been taking good care of her.”

“Have you now?” His arrogance and belligerence was transparent. “Did you know she took off with my car?” Wade got out of the truck and put his hands in his pockets while Mary guided him toward the house.

“Come. You’re just in time for dinner. Let’s wash your hands.”

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Red Lagoe graduated from Cazenovia College in 2001, but did not pursue her passion for writing until a decade later. In 2011, she gave up the nine-to-five life, and pursued her passion for writing by creating her first children’s book, Drips. Since then, her non-fiction article has appeared in the astronomy publication Reflector. When Red is not entertaining her kids, she can be found stargazing or writing. She is exploring a variety of genres including speculative fiction, horror, thriller—and even some romance—by writing novels and short stories. Email: redlagoe[at]gmail.com

The Dead of Winter

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Catherine J. Link


Photo Credit: 一帆 尹/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

William Savage rode ahead of the covered wagon on his favorite stallion. He liked the way he looked on the back of the shiny black horse. Part Friesian, part Arabian, the horse was strong and tall. He had named him Destrier, and felt like one of the knights of old as he blazed trail. His fantasies kept him from getting bored and from getting discouraged.

He’d had a massive covered wagon built for his family. It had two stories. A lower section for storage of food, clothing, and valuables. An upper berth for sleeping, and a back porch where the servant could churn butter and prepare food on a sheet iron stove. The wagon was so heavy, it had to be pulled by four yoke of oxen.

The man who’d built the wagon for him had a reputation for being hot tempered and dangerous. His mother had come from the depths of the woods along the Rappahannock river. She was a witch, people said. The morning they left, she had come to cast a protective spell over the wagon. The sight of the hag frightened Savage’s wife, Mildred.

“You’re gonna need this magic,” she’d said to him. She was ancient, nearly bald, wrinkled, with no teeth, and she smelled of some kind of strange herbs. “You’re a fool. No one takes his family west this time of year. You’re gonna need protection more than most.”

Savage shoved her away from the wagon, causing her to fall in the dirt. “I’d be a fool if I believed in your hocus pocus. Get the hell away from here.”

Her son charged at Savage, ready to kill him, but his mother pushed him along down the street. “Never you mind, boy,” she said. “I’ll handle this.” She gave the wagon the evil eye and spit on it.

“We won’t be seeing them no more.” Then she cackled, sounding completely insane.

Savage didn’t want to go west. He had to. He’d gambled his fortune away, and part of his wife’s, and now he was running from unpaid debts. After paying the wagon builder, nearly all the money was gone. He had to leave town before someone killed him, and before his wife found out what he had done.

Keeping the over-burdened wagon in sight behind him, Savage blazed the trail in front. It was hard going, and the weather had thwarted him every step of the way. He often lost sight of the trail, especially when parts of it were obscured by blankets of snow. He had studied the map so often, he should have memorized it by now, but he didn’t and so edges of the map were starting to tear, even dissolve, in his hands.

There had been too many delays. He wanted to be in California before the dead of winter, but it did not happen. They were moving slowly, plagued by one disaster after another. Broken wheels, collapsed springs, sick animals, and then Millie had the baby early. She nearly died, and needed a doctor’s care for several weeks.

At least we’re moving now, he thought, but when he looked behind him again, the wagon was at a standstill once more.

“Damn it all, Ben. What the hell is wrong now?”

Ben FitzJarrell was his hired hand. He sat next to William’s young wife. She looked miserable in the wind driven snow. Mildred was embarrassed by her husband’s habitual rudeness.

“Don’t shout at Ben. It’s not his fault we’re lost,” she said.

“I never said we was lost, Mr. Savage. It’s the oxen. They don’t pull together,” Ben said. “Who ever trained these here animals for ya’ll didn’t know what they was doing.”

“Mr. Parker and I trained these animals,” he said smugly. “What, in your illustrious opinion, is wrong with them?”

“They don’t seem to understand commands, and they don’t pull together. A couple of ’em wanna go their own way instead of following behind.”

“It’s not them, it’s you,” William said. “You need to shout so they hear you. Let them know you’re the boss. Lay into the goad if you have to.”

“Being mean ain’t the same thing as being boss,” Ben muttered under his breath.

“We’ll be coming to a small town up ahead. Copper Ridge,” William told his driver. “We can spend the night there, and continue on in the morning.”

“Good,” Mildred said, sounding hopeful. “You can ask if we’re going in the right direction.”

The snow got worse before evening. By the time they made it to the shabby mining town, Mildred’s hands and face were nearly frozen. She wept silently, clutching their month-old son to her breasts, trying to keep him warm. Ben’s wife, Lollie, was hunkered down in the back under a layer of blankets, weak from a miscarriage. Mildred’s father, Quilla Parker, was staring off into space, hardly breathing.

“Are you all right, Papa?” Mildred asked him. He grunted once, letting her know he was still alive. Since his stroke a few weeks back, all he could do was grunt.

They pulled up to a building that looked like a stiff wind could knock over. It had a sign in one small filthy window, barely visible behind grime and ice. “Boarding House.”

William ran up to the door, and knocked. A wrinkled old woman smoking a pipe answered. They chatted for a moment and he came back with a smile. “Hot food and a warm bed for the night,” he said. “Mildred, you and Lollie go in. Papa, Ben, and I will take care of the team.”

When they entered the drab house, warmth enveloped them like a hot westerly wind. It was wonderful, but it hurt all the same. It stung nerves that had been frozen into numbness. Lollie was barely able to stand.

“Let’s get this young ‘un to a bed,” the old woman said. She looked at the infant in Mildred’s arms. “That her baby?”

“This is my son, Sampson,” Mildred said. “She lost hers. How did you know?”

“I wasn’t always this old,” the woman replied sharply. “I had some babies in my time. Lost a few, too. I know what it looks like, having seen it on my own face.”

Mildred took Lollie into a sparsely furnished room and made her get into bed. She laid Sampson in the bed with her. She went into the bedroom she would share with her husband and laid out some night clothes. She looked around at the crude furniture, the whitewashed walls, the uncarpeted floor, wondering where the baby would sleep.

“No fancy cradles this town,” the old woman said in what seemed like a rebuke. She was carrying hot soup and sandwiches on a tray. “You’ll have to tuck him in a dresser drawer like everyone else in Copper Ridge does. We’re not very refined in these here parts.”

“A drawer will be fine,” Mildred said.

She crawled into bed and waited for her husband. A few minutes later Savage entered the room, dripping melted snow.

“We found a livery stable just down the road. Papa’s staying there with the team.”

“He should have a bed, and some warm food,” Mildred said angrily. “You shouldn’t have left him there.”

“Someone has to stay with the animals and our belongings,” he said to her, defensive. “I’ve been in the saddle all day. Besides, he wanted to do it. His way of paying for the free ride.”

“He’s my father,” Mildred said sharply, “He does not not have to pay for anything. Remember that, William. I brought a fortune and a respected family name into this marriage.”

“Of course my dear. I simply meant that you dote on him too much, Millie,” Savage said. “He’s old, and he won’t be around much longer. I don’t want to see you hurt when that happens.”

He bent to kiss her lips. She turned away from him.

“Get Sampson out of that thing,” Savage said, venting his anger elsewhere. “No son of mine sleeps in a drawer.”

The morning came and they were on the road again. Mildred was furious with her husband.

“Ask for directions,” she’d told him while they were still at the boarding house. “I don’t think we’re going the right way.”

“See this,” he’d held the slowly melting map directly in her face, nearly hitting her nose with it. “This is a map made by Hastings himself. I watched him draw it. It goes from the Midwest to California. I don’t need to ask for directions.”

“Ask for directions,” she said insistently, knocking the map away from her. “The next time you shove that in my face, I’ll rip it to shreds.”

Lollie came out of the house carrying Sampson.

“I’ll take him,” Mildred said.

“I’d like to hold him a while,” Lollie said weakly. “It feels good to hold him.”

“Of course, dear,” Mildred said. “You can sit up on the seat with Ben and me. There’s plenty of room for three.”

The snow had stopped. There was a bright sun out this morning. The wind was cold, but the sun brought a much needed cheerfulness to their trip.

Nearly four miles from town, Mildred noticed Savage looking confused. He studied the map drawn by Lansford Hastings, then rode his black horse away from the trail to the left. Then he rode to the right. He looked at the sun, scanned a small book, The Emigrant’s Guide to California, also written by Hastings, then he looked at the map again.

He rode back to the wagon.

“We are going to turn here,” he said. “Hastings wrote that this road is an acceptable detour during winter. The snow is minimal along this part of the state and the Indians don’t bother emigrants.”

Ben had a doubting look on his face. “I don’t know, Mr. Savage…”

“I do know, and we are turning here,” he said stubbornly.

“Did you ask for directions?” Mildred asked him.

“See this map, this book?”

“Just answer my question,” Mildred said. “Did you ask for directions?”

“No, I did not. I’ve never gotten us lost before, and I won’t this time,” he replied. “Would you please learn to trust me.”

Savage rode up ahead, leading the way.

“Don’t fret, Mrs. Savage. It don’t matter much which way we go,” Lollie said.

“It matters very much,” Mildred said. “A wrong turn and we’ll be lost.”

“It don’t matter,” Lollie said, holding little Sampson on her lap, staring at his small face and balled up fists. She played with his fingers.

“Why do you say that?”

“We’re in the hands of fate. Your baby is alive, mine is dead. Who knows what tomorrow will bring, or who will still be alive to see it. We all have our fates to suffer.”

Weeks later they found themselves in the mountains. One day seemed very much like the next.

They lost the sun about midday. The clouds darkened and rain began to fall. Soon the rain turned to snow and wind made the snow dance in flurries. Savage was in a panic. He could no longer find the trail; landmarks on Hastings’ map were no where to be seen. The mountains were getting steeper and it was getting colder by the minute. He rode back to the wagon.

“Are we lost?” Mildred called to him.

“We’re stuck in a snow storm,” he said. “We should wait it out. Let’s make camp.”

“Where we gonna camp, Mr. Savage?” Ben asked, shouting to be heard over the wind. “Ain’t no good shelter around here.”

“True,” he said, looking around at the terrain. “Let’s go on till we find a good campsite.”

The snow fell in a thick sheet of white. It was almost impossible to see where they were going. William Savage tied his stallion to the wagon, and he rode now on the seat next to Ben. He had his wife take the baby in the back and crawl beneath the blankets, sharing body heat with her father and Lollie.

“I think we’re lost, Mr. Savage,” Ben said.

“We are not lost, goddamn it!” Savage yelled.

Suddenly, something charged the wagon. Obscured by the heavy snowfall, and the gloom of dusk, it was hard to see. It stood on its hind legs, taking a swipe at the lead oxen. The injured animal groaned with pain and fought the yoke, trying to flee. Ben shouted for the team to turn, “Haw! Haw!”

Then the creature attacked the wagon, roaring loudly and taking swipes at Ben with one huge paw. Claws raked down the man’s leg, opening him from knee to ankle. He screamed in agony. Savage shot at the creature with his pistol. It was so close, he could not have missed. It ran off toward the tree line.

“What was that?” Ben asked.

“It must have been a grizzly bear,” Savage replied. “You’re bleeding badly.”

“That was no bear like I ever saw before,” Ben said. “Did you see its eyes? They glowed like hot coals.”

Savage did not answer. He turned the wagon and headed for some boulders. It was a windbreak, and would have to do for the night. They made a fire in the small stove in the back of the wagon. Savage made Ben lay down as he examined the leg. It was sliced open down to the bone.

“He needs a doctor, Mr. Savage,” Lollie said.

“Papa can sew him up,” Mildred said. “He’s done it before.”

“We can wrap some bandages around it to slow the bleeding, then we can head out again at first light,” Savage added.

It was impossible to sleep. Cold tortured them mercilessly. Ben shivered with pain and chills, while the women huddled around the wailing babe, trying in vain to keep him warm. The old man stared at his son-in-law with hatred in his eyes. Savage stared back at him, knowing that the old man knew why he’d needed to run, and that he was to blame for them being here, lost in the mountains.

Savage had managed to doze off sometime in the night, but then a roar filled his ears. Something was right outside the wagon, only a thickness of the canvas away from his head. He grabbed his rifle and opened the front flap.

The bear had returned. Was it a bear? He wondered at what he saw. It stood on its hind legs, walking like a man. Its eyes glowed red in the night; its sharp teeth flashed like a demon smiling and it screamed in fury as it attacked the oxen. It clawed at one, relentlessly hacking at its hind quarters. It ripped off a leg and a haunch, and stood up in a victorious pose, holding the meat above its head. Then it ran off, leaving a trail of gore on the ground.

“Shut up!” he yelled at the screaming women, and when they hushed, he could hear a roar from somewhere in the darkness.

Ben bled to death in the night. The ground was too hard to dig, so they made a cairn for him out of stones, using the sheets he had bled in for his shroud.

“I wish we could do more, Lollie,” Mildred said.

“He’d still be dead, so what good would it do?” Lollie replied.

Savage and Parker rearranged the oxen in the yoke, replacing the lead animal. When they went to cut meat from the mutilated carcass, they found almost nothing of the animal left. It had been taken in the night.

They traveled west for a few hours, and, finding an area where the oxen could graze, they decided to stop. The under-fed animals needed rest and food.

“This is a pretty spot,” Mildred said. “Where are we?”

Savage studied the map, trying to make sense out of the landmarks, but the truth was he had no idea where they were. This river wasn’t even on Hastings’ map.

“Looking at these mountains, we must be in California, and probably have been for a long time,” he said.

“Are we going over more mountains, Mr. Savage?” Lollie asked.

“Yes, we just follow the map,” he said with confidence that he did not feel. “And if we don’t get snow tonight, then we should have an easy day tomorrow.”

Lollie awoke just before sun up and crawled out of the wagon.

Her screams cut through the silence, jolting Savage awake. He grabbed his rifle and leaped from the wagon.

“What is it?” he asked, “What do you see?”

All Lollie could do was scream and point. There on a large rock was the head of her dead husband. It had been torn from his body. Strewn around the boulder was shredded clothing and bones. His bones. The meat had been gnawed away and the larger bones had been cracked and sucked dry of marrow.

The women cried in horror and his father-in-law stared in terrified silence.

“The bear did this,” Savage said, knowing that was a lie. He looked at Parker, who was slowly shaking his head. “Yes, the bear did this. Let’s get him re-buried.”

“Leave him where he lay,” Lollie said. “They’d just do it again.”

“They?” Mildred asked. “Who do you think did this?”

“Demons,” Lollie answered, almost matter-of-factly. “The old witch gave us the evil eye. That’s an invitation for demons to come.”

They headed away from the river, traveling as fast as the oxen could go. They put in a full day of travel, and camped in a canyon, out of the winter wind. The sky threatened rain, but so far they remained dry and able to enjoy an enormous campfire.

“This should keep animals away from us,” Savage said.

He saw Parker scratching in the dirt and went to look.

Traveling in circle. Passed this same canyon before. Savage kicked the message with his boots, not wanting Mildred to see it. “Don’t be absurd,” he said to the old man. He wondered if the Parker was right.

Morning came and two of the oxen were gone. Gigantic footprints told a story of more than one creature having entered camp. Almost like a challenge, a large bone was tethered to one of the yokes. It looked like it might have been a human bone. Savage wondered if it had been another piece of Ben.

“Nnn brrrrs.” A strange sound came out of Parker’s mouth. “Nnnnn brrrrs!”

“Now is not a good time for you to start talking, old man,” Savage said heartlessly, “I know it’s not a bear, but should we scare the women? It’s probably Indians toying with us.”

“No!” Parker said clearly, shaking his head.

“What do you think? Evil spirits, or some other crap?” he asked angrily. “Only men do this kind of thing. So be on your guard. If you see what looks like man or beast, kill it before it kills us.”

The mountains were steeper and the snow more relentless. Day after day went by when they could not find a trail. They suffered from the cold, a lack of sleep, and only the meager fires they made out of damp green wood gave them any relief at all. They kept moving, but at a terrible price.

Lollie did not wake one morning. Two weeks after the death of her husband, she lay dead in the same bed. We’re in the hands of fate, Mildred heard her say. We all have our fates to suffer.

Again, they built a cairn of stone, unable to cut into the earth. Mildred wondered if Lollie would be left to her rest, or would she, too, suffer desecration.

She had her answer the next day when they came out of the wagon in the morning to find Lollie’s head laying among the ashes of the campfire. Huge foot prints circled the camp and bones that had been gnawed and cracked were tossed around carelessly.

“Cover it up, please,” Mildred begged.

“There’s no time,” Savage said. “We’ve got to move as quickly as we can. Get in the wagon.”

Leaving Lollie’s bones strewn around the campsite, they headed west. Savage yelled at the oxen, goaded them, and even took a whip to them to get them pulling as hard and fast as they could. Weak from little food, the animals struggled in the deep snow.

The oxen finally stopped, unable to go any farther. Snow came down heavily. The family gathered in the back of the wagon. There was a small fire in the stove, but not enough to fight the freezing temperatures. Morning found the group passed out in a deep slumber, the kind you don’t wake up from.

Before midday, the child died. The old man died. Mildred was nearly gone. Savage alone was in and out of consciousness. He opened his eyes but saw nothing but white. He felt hands on him, carrying him out of the wagon.

“Praise God,” he said.

He awoke to a cup at his lips. Something warm was being poured into his mouth. He started to gulp greedily.

“Take it easy, son,” a man’s voice said. “You’re gonna be alright.”

He opened his eyes and saw that he was in a small dirty cabin. It seemed to be filled with people. There was a warm fire blazing in the hearth, and a pot of something that smelled wonderful was being stirred.

“Who are you?” Savage asked.

“That’s what I was just about to ask you,” a man said. The man looked very thin and weak. “Are you from Sutter’s Fort?”

“No,” he said. I was taking my family to California, from the east,” he replied.

“Hastings’ map, again,” someone else in the room said. “Another mouth to feed.”

“Why did you even bring him in here?” a woman asked. “Now you know what’s gotta be done. Makes it that much harder to do.”

“We had to know for sure,” a male voice said. “Besides there’s no real hurry. We’ve got the cattle and the others.”

Savage sat up and looked around. He saw children with swollen bellies and sunken eyes sitting on a rug in front of the fire. It was a bear skin rug, complete with head and claws. Its dead eyes glowed red in the firelight. He saw enormous hand woven snowshoes hanging from pegs on the wall. Knives and machetes hung from hooks over the hearth, still dripping blood.

Old people as thin as skeletons, and adults looking half-starved all stared at the black cast iron caldron, watching it boil, sniffing the air as a woman stirred the contents. The woman was Mildred, and she had her back to Savage.

“Millie,” he called to her, and the woman turned. It was not Mildred. It was another woman, wearing her dress.

“Who are you people?” he asked, starting to panic. “Where are my wife and son?”

“You are the last alive,” a man said to him, patting him gently on the shoulder. “Don’t you worry. We’re gonna take real good care of you. I’m Lewis Keseberg,” the man replied. “And we’re what’s left of the Donner Party.”

*

“That was a terrible story for you to tell the kids,” Katie said as they went into their tent. “How are they supposed to get to sleep now?”

“We’re on vacation. They’re not supposed to sleep after a good campfire story,” Joel said. “It’s tradition.”

Katie crawled into their sleeping bag fully clothed. She was freezing. “Is it also tradition to go camping in the dead of winter in Colorado?”

“No, but we can make it one,” he replied, crawling into the bag next to her, naked. “Why are you still dressed?”

“Never mind that, just tell me that you asked for directions at the Ranger’s Station. I want us to be able to find our way out of here in the morning.”

“I did not, but I’ve never gotten us lost before. Trust me.”

pencil

Catherine J. Link is an artist: painting, sketching, photography and writing. She teaches art out of her studio at home, and mentors students, judging during the Visual Art Scholastic Events every spring. She has loved writing since she was a kid, and has written poems, short stories, and a couple of books, but she has never attempted to have anything published. She does it for fun. Email: kajalink[at]embarqmail.com

The Hands of Fate

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Ellis Sinclair


Photo Credit: Maigh/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

A black Volkswagen Jetta sped along Country Road 47, an isolated two-lane road that ran parallel to the interstate, after two hours wasted on the highway. Devin and Jenna were traveling from Athens to spend Christmas week at a cabin he rented in the country. Devin drove with furious glee since taking the ignored exit and Jenna, with a book in her lap, watched the barren pines pass like rows of gray frozen skeletons.

“This is so much nicer than the highway,” she said.

Devin laughed. “Yeah, I’m doing sixty on an open road. Suckers!”

“Be safe. I don’t want to crash on some backwoods road where a family of deranged hillbillies will rape and eat our corpses.”

“What the hell kind of book are you reading?”

“It’s hard to read when everything’s so beautiful.”

Pine trees transformed into apple orchards stretched across a clear and ice-covered landscape. Sunlight reflected through the snow in a kaleidoscope of shimmering colors: blues, yellows, reds, oranges. An aged wooden sign covered in frost caught Jenna’s attention.

Welcome to Arcadia

They passed an abandoned chapel with a cemetery at the base of a hill. The tops of random headstones littered graveyard, peering above the snow cover. The town was an island surrounded by an ancient wood.

“Talk about an antique,” Devin said. “This place is set in amber.”

Jenna pressed her nose against her window. She watched a house rise above the woods and homes around it.

“Drive slower,” she said.

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

They stopped at the intersection of Main and Polk Street.

“Turn this way.”

“We need to get to the cabin. I don’t want to lose our deposit.”

“We have until six and it’s not even one yet. Turn here. I want to see something.”

Devin huffed but knew he had to satisfy her curiosity or the rest of the trip would degrade into a bitter fight. “Fine, but after this we hit the road.”

Jenna became more excited as they coasted toward the large house. “I don’t believe it,” she said. “Stop, stop, stop.”

Devin parked in front of the aging home.

“I can’t fucking believe it!”

Jenna grabbed the book from her lap and opened the cover. The inner-fold of the dust jacket had the author’s bio, but instead of the author’s photo was the picture of the home.

“This is it!” she said. “This is the house!

“Yeah?”

“It’s the house,” she said.

“So?”

“Abraham Grabowski is a complete hermit. He doesn’t do book signings or anything. He never leaves. There aren’t even pictures of him. His publisher doesn’t even know what he looks like.”

“That’s stupid.”

Jenna shook her head and grabbed her phone. “I need this for my blog.”

She jumped out of the car into the snow.

“Where the hell are you going?”

“This is obviously a sign I was meant to come here.”

“We can do this on the way home!”

“I’m not risking it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

She shot a video with the home behind her. She meant to post it to Snapchat, but she didn’t have any service. She recorded anyway and figured she’d upload it at the cabin.

“Hey, horror bookworms. If you’ve been paying attention to my blog at all, you should recognize the house behind me. That’s right my nerdy little nasties—it’s the home of the one and only Abraham Grabowski. I’m going to see if anyone’s home. Hopefully, I’ll have some more footage to come. Your Ghastly Girly signing out!”

Devin turned the car off and trudged up the lawn. “This might be the house, but it doesn’t mean he lives here. Hell, the guy might not even exist.”

“It’s worth a shot. Look around, everything in his books is here. This is the town he writes about. This is where all his stories come from. This is the epicenter.”

“This is crazy.”

The front door to the home opened and a young woman stepped out. “Excuse me,” Wendy said.

“Sorry, if she disturbed you,” Devin said. “We’re leaving.”

However, Jenna bolted up the stairs.

Devin followed.

“This is it, isn’t it?” she said.

“Jenna!”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Yes, you do. Don’t say that. This is it. This is the house. You know who lives here. Who are you?”

“Jen, you’re acting crazy.”

“You shouldn’t be here. You should be going.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Devin said. He took Jenna’s arm.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. We can go in a minute. Just tell me I’m right. I know I’m right.” Jenna noticed the sound of a door closing inside. She hopped to look over Wendy’s head and saw an older woman standing beside a staircase.

“Wendy, who’s at the door?”

“Nobody, Miss Catherine.”

“Nonsense. Nobody’s nobody at Christmastime. Let them in.”

Jenna glanced to Devin with her eyes wide open and a grin stretched across her face. Catherine greeted them in the foyer. The hypnotic rhythm of typewriter keys tapped through the floorboards.

“I apologize for our assistant,” Catherine said. “We like our privacy and Wendy does a good job.”

Jenna couldn’t speak. Her senses were choked—soaking in the details of the home. “This is it,” she muttered. “It’s all here. Everything from every book!”

“I can see you’re a fan,” Catherine said.

“More than that,” she said. “I actually write book reviews and Mr. Grabowski’s books are one of my favorite topics.”

“Oh, a journalist.”

“So, this is the place she thinks it is?” Devin asked.

“That and so much more.”

Catherine asked Wendy to make some tea and returned her attention to her guests.

“We can sit in the study. I do enjoy company.”

Bookshelves lined the walls, filled with leather-bound manuscripts and wooden boxes. Devin and Jenna shared a loveseat while Catherine sat in the armchair.

“Do you help Abraham with his books?” Jenna asked.

“Abraham’s the writer, as you can hear.”

The clack of the typewriter hadn’t stopped since they entered. Catherine held her bony and withered hands up.

“And, these hands create the death scenes,” she explained.

“Death scenes?”

Wendy returned to the study with a tea service.

“Wendy, my dear. Bring one of the displays to show our guests.”

“Certainly, Miss Catherine.”

She brought one of the boxes to Catherine. She opened the lid to reveal an intricate diorama.

“Oh, my God,” Jenna said. “That’s Marlon from A Cry in the Night. That’s amazing.”

“Very good,” Catherine said.

“She’s read every book,” Devin added.

“I’m actually finishing Babylon right now. How long have you two been working together?”

Wendy returned the diorama to the shelf.

“Since the beginning. I’m convinced that fate brought us together.”

“Is it possible for me to meet him?”

“Anything’s possible if Abraham ever comes out of that basement. These winter months are when he’s most productive. Once you hear the typewriter going, it rarely stops.”

Catherine sipped her tea, undisturbed by the mechanical keystrokes firing away like a machine gun from the depths.

*

Devin insisted on leaving after one cup of tea. On the trek back to the car Jenna stopped to take a few more photos of outside the home. When she was content, she jumped in.

“Why don’t you have the car running?” she asked. “Get the heat on, I’m freezing.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing since I got in here?”

Devin checked his phone for the time. “It’s three o’clock. My phone’s not getting any service. Can you call the cabin and see if they’ll hold our deposit?”

“No service for me, either. It hasn’t worked since we got here.”

“Damn it!”

He slammed his hands into the steering wheel.

“Don’t get mad. Try and see what’s wrong with the engine. I’ll see if they’ll let us use their phone.”

Devin popped the hood and Jenna ran up to the home. Wendy answered.

“Hi again,” Jenna said. “Can we use your phone? Something’s wrong with our car and I’m not getting any service.”

Wendy led Jenna to the kitchen.

“Wow, a landline. I haven’t seen one of those since I would visit my grandmother’s house.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, but we rarely leave the city.” Jenna let out a humiliated and exhausted sigh. She took the phone from the receiver, but there was no dial tone. She pressed down the cradle three times, but nothing. “Does your phone not work?” she asked.

“It goes in and out around here.”

“Damn.”

“It’s pretty dead in the winter around here.”

“Do you have a car? Maybe you can drive us to the next town so we can find a phone?”

“We don’t have a car and anyone with a car has already left for the winter.”

“I was gonna ask if other people lived here, because we haven’t seen a sign of life.”

“Anyone that hasn’t left just digs in.”

The basement door opened and closed. Catherine entered the kitchen.

“Why, Jenna, I thought you and Devin left.”

“I know. I’m sorry. For some reason our car won’t start. I wanted to use your phone.”

“Ha! Good luck. We basically live on a frozen island.”

“Man, Devin’s going to be pissed.”

“Why should he be upset? We aren’t that bad of company.”

“No, it’s not you. We rented a cabin and if we don’t contact them before six we’re going to lose our deposit and I feel like it’s all my fault.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. One day you’ll learn that some events are out of our hands. If you can’t get your car started, I insist you stay here the night. We don’t mind.”

Devin came inside. “I don’t know what’s wrong with it,” he shouted. “Any luck on the phone?”

“Phone’s dead.”

“Damn it.”

“Devin,” Catherine said. “Jenna told me about your plans and I feel awful that you stopped here and now can’t go. Let Wendy know how much the deposit was for the cabin. We’ll pay for it. We have plenty of money.”

Catherine looked back to Jenna.

“Perhaps the phone will be working tomorrow,” she continued. “It goes in and out all the time. Wendy, get the guest bedroom livable. I’m going downstairs for a little while longer.”

*

Catherine returned to the basement. Jenna explored the study with Wendy following her like a doe-eyed lost child, brushing against her softly and asking endless questions. Devin struggled in the frigid temperature with the car, but was lost with mechanics. When nightfall descended, he returned inside with their bags. Wendy and Jenna were in the kitchen chatting, laughing. The scent and warmth from a well-used kitchen filled the home.

“What’s for dinner, ladies?”

Wendy hovered over a cooking pot, stirring the contents. Jenna glanced at Devin with a playful grin. An open bottle of wine rest on the table next to her.

“We’re having sausages with boiled cabbage,” Wendy said.

“I hope you were taking notes,” Devin said.

“The recipe’s a secret,” Jenna answered.

*

The white noise of the typewriter filled the pauses between the conversation.

“He really never stops,” Devin said.

“When a story grabs him, it becomes his obsession.”

“Is there any way you could tell me what the book is about?” Jenna asked.

“I don’t even know if he knows, yet. He says it depends on what the characters do. I mean he knows what the end result will be but he never knows exactly how they’ll get there.”

Dinner ended with empty plates, followed by dessert.

“Wendy, dear. Thank you for dinner. It was delicious.”

“Thank you, Miss Catherine. I just follow the recipes you give me.”

“Yes, yes, but it’s the subtleties that transform food into cuisine, just like the nuances that augment words into prose.”

Catherine paused.

“It was very good,” Jenna said. “Wasn’t it, Devin.”

“Oh, yeah. The best sausage and cabbage I’ve ever eaten.”

“My dear, you are more than a cook, you are a chef de cuisine.”

Wendy nodded in thanks and Catherine let out a satisfied sigh. “I believe it’s time for me to go to bed,” she continued. “Wendy, make sure our guests see their room.”

“Of course, Miss Catherine.”

“Thank you again for your hospitality,” Jenna added.

Catherine retired upstairs, followed shortly after by Wendy, Devin, and Jenna. Wendy stopped at the first door by the stairs.

“This is where Miss Catherine sleeps,” she said.

“Just Catherine?” Jenna whispered.

“Her and Abe don’t sleep in the same bedroom?” Devin added.

Wendy shook her head. The next room had an open door. It was cramped with a large bed, a mirrored dresser by the door and a chair by the window.

“This is my room,” she continued. “If you need anything, come see me.”

Ahead of them was a third room with two windows that gazed across the archipelago of little shingled roofs.

“This is where you’ll be sleeping tonight,” Wendy said.

“Do you hear that?” Devin mentioned.

Wendy and Jenna turned to him standing in the doorway. They waited for him to answer his question.

“It stopped,” he continued.

“What stopped?” Jenna said.

“The typing.”

Jenna paused and glanced to Wendy. “Does this mean we might get to see Abraham?”

“No,” Wendy answered. “Abraham stays downstairs when he’s writing and he’s always writing.”

Wendy left them alone. Jenna and Devin gazed across their room.

“Separate beds,” he said. “Not quite the romantic getaway I planned.”

“Welcome to a simpler time.”

“You wanna push them together?”

“Their house, their rules.”

“Do you think it’s weird they don’t sleep in the same room?”

“Yeah, but my grandparents lived in separate rooms for the last twenty years of their marriage. Look, as long as Abraham keeps putting out books, I don’t care where he sleeps.”

“Well, I’m going to use the little boy’s room. Did she give you the money for the deposit?”

“Really, you’re going to ask that now?”

“Hey, she offered. I was just curious.”

“No, she hasn’t.”

“Let’s find out how far the next town is tomorrow. If we can get there maybe we can use a phone and maybe the cabin hasn’t been rented so we can still have a vacation where we can share the same bed.”

Devin took a change of clothes and meandered down the hall. Jenna gazed down to the street. Devin’s car was parked beneath the streetlamp. She undressed away from the window, facing the wall. After removing her top, the door opened. Jenna turned but was startled to see Wendy.

“You shouldn’t stay here,” she whispered.

“I’m sorry?”

“We should leave tonight.”

“Tonight?”

“I have a car,” Wendy continued.

“I asked if you had a car earlier.”

“I couldn’t say anything. It’s parked on the edge of the woods. The keys are inside. Gather your things. We can leave, right now.”

Jenna sighed. “I’m tired and it’s too late to go anywhere tonight. We can leave tomorrow.

Devin entered. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s okay. Wendy was just making sure we had everything we needed.”

Wendy nodded slowly and exited.

“What was that all about? She seemed a little into you.”

“I still got it.”

“Okay, we can stay an extra night, but only if I can watch?”

“You’re an absolute pig. You’re just lucky I love bacon.”

*

Jenna awoke to a chill that swept across her body. She wasn’t accustomed to sleeping alone and slid out of bed to join Devin. However, he wasn’t in bed and the mattress was cold.

“Devin?” she whispered.

The home was silent, even the mechanical chug of Abraham’s typewriter was quiet. Jenna glanced out the window and saw the car was no longer on the side of the road.

“What the hell?”

Jenna crept along the hall. Wendy’s door was open and her bed was empty. From out of the silence of the home, the cellar door closed. Jenna peered over the banister but found no one. “Damn it, Devin,” she said.

Jenna rushed downstairs and pressed her ear against the basement door. She struggled with what to do: knock, enter, yell. She chose to enter. A banker’s lamp illuminated the underbelly of the home. An unmade bed below rested the steps. Flush with the far wall was a workbench with small intricate tools, fabric, boxes, wood, and clay. With her final steps, she discovered a writing desk with a typewriter and a stack of paper next to it. One sheet was clamped into the carriage half-typed.

“Devin,” she said. “Are you down here?”

Before escaping the basement, Jenna decided to investigate the upcoming book. She looked over the two dioramas Catherine left on the bench. The first appeared to be the study upstairs, intricately designed down to the tiniest detail, but with the figure of a man dressed like Devin, hanging by his feet from the ceiling. A bucket rested below him to collect the blood that coursed from his gaping throat. The next box looked like the front of the home and the edge of the street. Across the snow-covered ground, drag marks and a trail of blood led to the street, but it was unfinished, the body was missing.

The slide, crash, and ding of the typewriter shifting to the next paragraph. Typing soon followed. She read along as each letter was hammered into the page:

*

Jenna gasped for air as the prisoner spirit cried out to her, “Run.”

*

Jenna clambered up the stair and fled the basement in the desperate hope of finding escape. She stopped at the door as the typewriter continued to tell its tale. A slow-moving shadow in the study coaxed her attention. Light from the street lamp sprinkled through the front room. Devin’s body hung from his feet in the center of the study. An occasional drop fell from his gaping throat as the gentle motion of the home swung his body from side-to-side over a cooking pot.

Jenna burst from the home but a bloody trail of drag marks led from the steps across the lawn. In the middle of the street Wendy’s corpse lay slumped and twisted in the street. The word DISLOYAL was written with blood in the snow. Jenna ran back through the house to the door in the kitchen that led to back of the home. She could find the car Wendy had mentioned.

She stomped through the snow mounds toward the woods. Her feet and body were frozen to the point that she no longer felt cold. Frozen moonlight blanketed the world. The bony arms of the trees reached out to her in waiting and wanting. When a flash of light from a torch appeared from within the shadows, followed by another and another. From the darkness, robed figures emerged, their faces obscured.

“Winters are long but our homes remain strong by feasting upon the body and the blood!”

A collective voice followed.

“The body and the blood!”

“We must feed the spirit!”

“And, the spirit will feed us,” the group countered.

A light feathery snow began to fall.

“Don’t cry, my dear. This was meant to happen; our lives are forever guided by the hands of fate.”

*

A knock rattled on the front door of the old home. The winter continued its frozen onslaught. Parked in the street was a red 1998 Toyota Corolla. A cheery-eyed dark-haired girl hopped in glee when the door opened. She looked back to her friend, Ally.

“I know this may sound strange, but is this the home of Abraham Grabowski?”

“You have the wrong house.”

Catherine descended the stairs.

“Who’s at the door?” she asked.

“No one. I was just telling them to leave.”

“Nonsense, Jenna. No one is no one. Let them in. You know I love guests.”

pencil

Ellis Sinclair is a recent graduate from the University of Central Florida. As a freshman in high school, he was hit by a car while riding his bicycle. This event and a series of bizarre experiences guided him to writing. He grew up in a poor neighborhood. He worked overnight at a gas station which allowed him to read and write as much as he wanted. He has a wide range of interests with writing and some of his favorite writers have been: Hemingway, Stephen King, Alan Moore, Steinbeck, and Philip K. Dick. Email: ellissinclair[at]outlook.com

Bittersweet

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
John Howe


Photo Credit: Laura Taylor/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Laura Taylor/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

A few stubborn oak leaves clung to desolate branches and rattled in the December wind as the man called Stutters unlocked the front door of the shop. It was Saturday afternoon in the small, coal-blackened town of Glenwood and children careened here and there, some wearing worn-out Halloween costumes, some donned in makeshift winter apparel. They all ran toward the candy store when Stutters illuminated the open sign. The children checked their empty pockets and glanced nervously across the street at the Chase house.

Mr. Chase waited for them, hands trembling, a disturbing smile on his ashen face. He owned Chase Mining Properties, the largest employer in the area, and though he no longer actively presided at company headquarters, his power among the townsfolk was strong. He waved as the children noisily approached.

One child after the next obediently jumped up on his lap and received handfuls of coins that the old man kept in a wooden cigar box. “Who wants candy?” he said, his voice nasally as they took the money and wriggled atop his outstretched knees. “There’s plenty for all—patience, children, patience.”

The last girl meekly stood, afraid to jump into his lap. “You come with me, Sally,” he said, as the others ran off. “I have a special treat for you.” He held out his hand and smiled. She hesitated but grasped the withered hand.

The man called Stutters scurried about and handed treats to the rambunctious children: chocolate, caramels, bubble gum, taffy. He absently glanced out the window as he worked. The children paid for the candy and ran to the street, tearing wrappers and devouring as drably-dressed mothers watched from tenement windows. The mothers didn’t notice, or didn’t care, when the children threw the wrappers on the ground and ran into the store for more. The mothers also knew where their children got the money and they remained silent for it wouldn’t do to alienate the man who signed their husbands’ meager paychecks.

Stutters walked outside as the children raced off and a vociferous wake faded amid the yelling and tugging at one another; children in search of mischief and disruption, fueled by their sudden sugar rushes. The candy man bent and picked up the discarded wrappers and watched warily as Sally emerged from the Chase house. She walked slowly to the store, eyes downcast, a five-dollar bill in her hand.

“Cherry drops, please,” she said quietly and held out the bill.

Stutters rarely spoke but he felt the need. His words were garbled, his lips wet from the effort as Sally looked up at him in incomprehension. The candy man tried in vain to make himself understood, but finally, he handed her the treat and smiled, his mouth lopsided. The girl tried to smile, but failed.

Nobody knew the candy man’s real name. Another batch of children, crueler than this lot, had titled him Stutters years ago, when he was first hired to work in the candy store. He would try to speak and the children would howl with laughter and imitate him cruelly. His eyes would narrow but the crooked smile always remained.

As Sally walked away with her candy, Stutters shook his large head. He detected movement across the street and noticed Mr. Chase watching from his window as the little girl walked. The two men made eye contact and both frowned. The fury in the older man’s eyes was unmistakable as his curtains swung closed.

The day passed with a handful of customers stopping by to purchase various goodies in small quantities. Without the children, the store would likely close, and this troubled the candy man greatly. There was speculation about the coal running out and the future of the town was said to be bleak. Stutters cared little about the coal but he did care about the store and the children that visited. He also cared about their well-being and Mr. Chase seemed, to Stutters, to be in conflict with this view. There was no concrete indication, no direct evidence, to support his thoughts, but Stutters was concerned. Though there was little he could do, he vowed to keep watch.

*

Stutters completed the inventory list and filled out order sheets as the sun sank lower and shadows danced on the glass candy counters. Walking home, he skirted the dust-strewn lot of a long-defunct Dairy Queen choked with brown hemlocks somehow taking up root in the cracks of the asphalt. Mr. Chase waited with a group of hard men that smoked unfiltered cigarettes and drank from bottles concealed by paper bags, their hands dark with coal dust. Stutters stopped when, as one, the men blocked his path.

“Glenwood don’t need no candy man,” a bearded man said through lips that barely moved. Chase watched, standing to the side, his arms folded, a twisted sneer on his face.

Stutters’s lips moved rapidly and spittle sprayed, but he said nothing. The men roared with laughter.

“If you’re smart, you’ll get the hell out of town,” another man said.

“He ain’t smart,” the first man said, moving forward. “He’s dumber than a box of rocks.”

Stutters turned to walk away, or run if need be, but he was grabbed by multiple hands. With gnarled fists and steel-toed boots, the men made it clear that the town no longer needed a candy man. Mr. Chase finally signaled and they stopped, their faces shining with sweat from the effort as Stutters moaned, curled on the potholed asphalt. A police cruiser passed but did not stop. The officer kept his eyes forward, his hands tightly clenched on the wheel.

From a low, black rocky hillside the group of neighborhood children watched, eyes downcast, no longer boisterous. They were silent as their fathers and their uncles and their mother’s boyfriends laughed nervously and coughed, the exertion getting the better of them. Mr. Chase looked around, satisfied for the time being, and was the first to leave. After the other men left, the children gradually disbanded and walked alone to their tumbledown houses with stained aluminum siding and crumbling roof shingles. The mothers wore aprons and let their children come in while supper simmered on the stoves. Sally stayed, sitting atop the hill of blackened coal waste and silently wished for the candy man to get up. She longed to go to him, to help him, but she stayed put. She always stayed put.

Broken, Stutters got slowly to his feet and limped unsteadily to his rented room above the Widow Reed’s garage. He tended to his wounds and packed his few belongings in a worn duffle bag. On the scarred, yellow laminated kitchen table, next to the unplugged toaster, he left the rent money. Locking the door carefully, Stutters walked slowly through town, holding his side. People avoided his eyes. Mothers fretted and tended to household activities. Children watched from windows, tears streaking their dirty faces. Men looked off the other way and kicked at the dirt and drank from their bottles. Inside the Chase house, the lights went out one by one.

*

Two weeks later, the men of Glenwood sat on folding chairs in the front yard of the Chase house. The grass was brown, the snow gone, but more was predicted soon. They drank beer from plastic cups, courtesy of a keg of Old Style provided by Chase himself. They talked amongst themselves and waited. Finally, Mr. Chase came out and cleared his throat.

“Gentlemen,” he said, wheezing. “We all know why we’re here.” He paused as murmurs grew and faded. “Tom Clander’s girl was found yesterday.” He held up a framed picture of Sally and looked at it, frowning. “I swear to you that the animal that did this will pay.”

“Now hold on there, Mr. Chase,” Sheriff Carter said. “You can’t go taking the law into your own hands.”

“The hell he can’t,” a man said. As one, the men’s voices rose and the sheriff backed away.

“As I was saying,” Chase said, glaring at the sheriff, “There’s no sense tiptoeing around this tragedy. We, the people of Glenwood, have a duty to do the right thing.”

“And what duty is that, Mr. Chase?” the sheriff said, trying to keep a presence.

“Tell me, Sheriff,” Chase said. “Do you, or do you not, have a suspect in custody?”

“You know we don’t.”

“And why’s that?” Chase said.

“It don’t work that way and you know it,” the sheriff sputtered. “It takes time.”

“Time is something of an essence here, Sheriff, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, it is,” Sheriff Carter said, “but we can’t go running around willy-nilly.”

Chase walked up to the sheriff and stared into his eyes. From an inside pocket of his expensive overcoat, Chase pulled an envelope from the First National Bank. He tapped it menacingly on the sheriff’s badge. “You were saying, Sheriff?”

The lawman blinked and lowered his face. Finally, he turned and walked away.

Chase waited until he rounded a corner. “I think I speak for us all when I say it was that goddamn candy man that did it.”

The men nodded weakly and mumbled to themselves. No one spoke.

“And I say it’s up to us to do something about it,” Chase said.

Tom Clander pushed through the crowd, his eyes red, a half-full bottle of Wild Turkey in his hand. “I agree with Chase,” he said loudly. “Somebody’s gotta pay, and if he says the candy man did it, then the candy man did it.”

“But how do we know that?” a man said as all eyes turned to him. “I mean, what proof do we have?”

“I’ll tell you what proof we have,” Clander said, taking a gulp of whiskey. “Who the hell else could it be that killed my little girl?”

The men drank from their cups and lit cigarettes. They watched as Clander broke down and as Chase put an arm on his shoulder to offer meager comfort.

The children held school backpacks and listened from the sidewalk in front of the boarded-up candy store. They overheard the talk, some convoluted, some clear. They shivered in the cold, conflicted and silent and looked to Branson Wilcox, the oldest of them all.

Branson looked down, his shoe drew a circle over and over on the concrete. Slowly, he raised his head. “Who the hell else could it be?”

The children nodded to themselves and started to walk home. They moved slowly and avoided each other’s eyes. Many thought about Sally and her mutilated, naked body that had been found in an old tool shed at the mine. Some gave thanks that it hadn’t been them.

The mothers watched from windows as their children approached. They wrung their aprons and said nothing as the sons and daughters came in and took off their winter coats. They needed the paychecks that their husbands brought home every other Thursday, and they knew the income would no longer come if the mine closed.

Nobody objected when the lynch mob was formed.

pencilBy day, John Howe designs steel buildings and manages construction projects for a design build firm in west Michigan. At night, he succumbs to his passion for writing short fiction and has had stories accepted and published by Horrified Press, EMP Publishing and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. John enjoys experimenting with many genres but his writing strengths often lead him toward the darker side. Email: john[at]deltadesignsystems.com

The Wran Song

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Robert James


Photo Credit: Bill Rogers/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Bill Rogers/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Maren sat by the fireplace, knitting grey lines into a zigzag pattern against a black border. It was a random pattern, brought into the world for a single purpose: to forget the others.

Her chair rocked in rhythm to the cadence that consumed her small cottage, squeaking under the weight of her ancient frame. It started in the fireplace quietly with a pop-hiss, but gained momentum until her feet, the chair and her needles were moving in unison to its pulse. When the iron knocker hit the wooden door across the room, she almost didn’t notice the click-clack of its call.

She stopped and stared at the door. Too late for all that, she thought. Especially tonight. She went back to her knitting, and savored the warmth of the roaring fire.

The door rapped twice more, refusing to be ignored.

She walked over to the window next to the door, peeling back the curtain to peek outside. Five children were assembled in a staggered formation, right through the heart of her slumbering garden, up the cobblestone walk to the front gate. They had made themselves quite at home, leaning against the stone wall like they were settling in for a revival. Their costumes were typical for Saint Stephen’s Day shenanigans, but their eyes were odd, kicking about on that cold line between mischief and mayhem.

She opened the front door just far enough to see onto the front porch. A young girl stepped forward through the thin blanket of snow, her feet crunching on what was left of autumn’s languishing color. She stopped just short of the porch and started to sing. Her voice was sweet and the tune slow, the words lilting together like a prayer at a funeral.

Wran, wran, the king of all birds,
Saint Stephen’s Day, was caught in the furze,
Although he was little, his honor was great,
Jump up me lady, and give us a treat.

Maren had never heard the tune sung like this before, and she couldn’t remember the last time a group of children had the courage to knock on her door to sing it. She listened as the words mixed with the light melody, spinning together on the porch in front of her. Maren was so mesmerized, she didn’t even notice as the tune brushed past her cheek and breezed into the cottage.

Miss O’Brady’s a very good woman,
A very good woman, a very good woman,
Miss O’Brady’s a very good woman,
She’ll give us a penny to bury the wran.

“A penny to bury the wran, Miss O’Brady?” The girl held out a small, dirty hand.

Maren opened the door further and looked closer at the children in her front garden. Filthy imps. “Hmmph,” she chortled, “I don’t see a wran anywhere. The parade’s already been through, you know. Shouldn’t you lot be at the ceili with the other neighborhood children?” she asked with narrow eyes.

One of the boys by the gate walked up the path and threw a lump of feathers onto the porch with a thud. Three motionless birds were tied together at the neck. The girl turned, and the children gathered outside her gate, singing the next verse in unison. Maren shuffled onto the porch, grabbed the bundle of feathers and lofted it at the children, scurrying back into the cottage as fast as she could. She slammed the door, shoved home the deadbolt, then peeled back the curtain to watch the children as they glided up the lane. They were heading to the grove of trees across the pasture where the four of them had taken him all those years ago. Is this how it started for the others? As they disappeared into the chill darkness, she heard a voice behind her. It was a man’s voice, his voice.

“Hello? Who’s there?” she spun around to confront the danger surging up and down the back of her neck. She waited and listened, but nobody replied. Ambling over to the fire, she adjusted the orange embers with a fire poker before settling into her rocking chair. As she eased back into her rhythm, her mind wandered, recalling that special day when he proclaimed his love for her.

“I know a way we can be together forever,” he had said, placing a sparkling sapphire locket around her neck. None of the others received such shiny measures of his devotion. To this day, the locket made her feel special, wanted. Maren sighed, remembering how he kissed her hand and smiled from one corner of his mouth. She wanted to give him more, to give herself over to him completely, but he never asked.

She took a deep breath and focused again on the random pattern of yarn resting on her lap. The fire crackled and the clock on the mantle clicked tirelessly forward. She had used that clock countless times over the past fifty-two years, trying to figure out how long he had suffered. When she was still a young woman, she would count the ticks of the clock while holding her breath. Two minutes, three, one time almost four. He didn’t deserve it, she would tell herself, filling her screaming lungs back up for another go.

Just then, the fire went out, and the hearth went cold, the only trace of its existence a small wisp of smoke that curled up the chimney. The entire house seemed to shudder in protest as the temperature plummeted, and a chunk of plaster fell on Maren’s head. Whispers materialized in the room around her, a confused chattering that grew steadily louder, until they roared with a mixture of agony and ecstasy. A thud came from the coat closet in the corner, and the door began to shake, rattling its hinges. With a rumble and a shriek, everything stopped, and Maren was left alone with the sound of her breathing.

Muffled groans and rattling chains came from the closet. Fire poker securely in her left hand, she walked over to the closet, and poked tentatively at the door. She reached out slowly, unsure if she should look inside, but the door burst open without waiting for her courage. It was them, all three of them, chained together at the neck. Their half-rotted bodies were twisted and broken, but she could make them out plain as day. Mangy whores. There was Hannah with her blonde curls, Bridget with her heaving bosoms, and Claire, as always, with her thin little legs spread wide for the world.

“It’s all your fault,” Maren exploded, “you ruined everything!” She hit each of them viciously with the fire poker, then planted her heel into what was left of Claire’s face before slamming the door shut. She held back a tear. No, not for them, she thought, not a single drop for their petty vengeance. They had scattered like dust after he came back the first time, when they saw what he had done to Hannah. No matter. One by one, they all got their due—even on the other side of the world—and always on this day.

“Maren,” he called again, this time from the bedroom. It had been so long since she had heard his voice, but it sounded like yesterday. The light clicked on in the bedroom, and a sharp pain rippled through Maren’s chest.

“Hello?” she whispered.

She walked towards the bedroom, right past the now-motionless clock on the mantle. The old cigar box sat on the bed. It must be him. As she opened the lid, a tear slid down her cheek. She took out the photo first. As headmaster, he was in the center of the mass of children, within reach of his four favorites, smiling confidently. The piece of his shirt was there, too, stained with dirt and blood from the blow to the head that had subdued him. The others thought they could get rid of him, like a cold or a bad dream, bury him away to be forgotten. But he didn’t stay away. It’s time. It’s finally our time.

She pulled out the locket and held it in her hand. Even in the dim light of the bedroom, the sapphire shone brilliantly. She put the locket around her neck and secured the clasp, walking from the bedroom and out the front door into the damp chill of the December night. She ambled up the lane and through the pasture, just as the children had earlier, her bare feet squeaking in rhythm against the snow. She walked steadily ahead until the trees surrounded her, right into the center of the thicket, to the big oak tree where they sent him thrashing and gasping into the ground.

As she neared the sacred spot, the locket shone brighter, and she felt the heat of the stone warming her chest. A form materialized out of the mist, and she stopped. It was him. His face was twisted, pale, and his eyes hazy, but it was him. Her heart fluttered. He pointed down towards a fresh hole in the ground and a smile curled up from one corner of his black lips. He looked at her just the way he had that sweet afternoon when she was fifteen years old. Sobbing tears of joy, she slid into the cold, damp earth, and lay down on her back.

Maren giggled, held a deep breath, and awaited the darkness of his embrace.

pencilRobert James is an emerging author of dark fantasy, horror, and supernatural thrillers. His short story, “The Keeper’s Secret,” won first prize in Tell-Tale Publishing Group’s 2015 Halloween Horror Party Scary Story Starter Contest. Everyone has demons. Escape yours at RJFiction.com. Email: RobertJames[at]RJFiction.com

A Lovely Neighborhood

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Matthew Boyle


Photo Credit: Arun Venkatesan/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Arun Venkatesan/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

When my daughter was seven, I delivered her Christmas presents while dressed as Santa Claus. It was easy enough. I’m a big guy. I played lineman in college, and I’ve put on a lot of flab since then.

That night, I wore a red suit, a white beard, and made conspicuous “Ho Ho Ho” noises as I put the presents under the tree. Not too loud, just enough to be audible. After all, I knew Jenny would be watching from the stairs.

Christmas morning, Jenny opened those presents like they were scripture. One of them—I think it was a Hello Kitty doll—she wouldn’t open. She just stared at the box for about a minute, as if she didn’t think she was worthy to open a gift “From Santa.” Then, finally, with these big saucer eyes, she opened it and saw her present. And then, really quietly, she said, “Wow.”

Best moment of my life. Hands down.

Anyway, nine years later, Jenny killed herself.

*

It all started to unravel when she was sixteen. She came to see me in my study, really anxious. I told her to relax, because she could say anything to me. And so, after a little bit more stalling, she felt comfortable telling me the truth.

She was in love.

“Well,” I said after a brief pause. “Fair enough. What’s the lucky fellow’s name?”

And she said, “Her name’s Sarah.” And that was the last civil conversation we ever had.

I immediately told her she’d gone down the wrong path, that this was unnatural. And I forbade her from seeing Sarah Kramer again. And then, my beautiful baby girl, the one who’d said “Wow” under that Christmas tree, she started to rebel. She cut off most of her hair and turned it into this dark, ragged mane. She started wearing these trashy outfits: mesh shirts, ripped jeans, dark make-up. She snuck out with Sarah more and more. And the Kramers were no help at all. They didn’t want to get involved. They thought their daughter should work through things on her own.

And then they broke up.

I told my wife that Jenny’s pain was deserved, that God was punishing her. Honestly, I did. And I kept up that line, even as Jenny began to spiral further and further into depression. I kept saying, “It’s just not right, honey! What she did was wrong!” And I didn’t stop it until one day, when she was driving, Carol just stood on the brakes in the middle of the road, turned, and screamed at me, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Sam, who gives a shit about right and wrong? It’s your daughter!”

And I stared at her and realized she was exactly right.

Too bad Jenny was dead by the time we got home.

*

Soon after Jenny killed herself, we were approached by a shadowy private organization known as the Kingsley Group. They were conducting an experiment, and they asked us a couple simple questions. What if we could have her back? Hell, what if we could have her better? A new Jenny, except this one would be a sophisticated machine capable of emotion and intelligence. We didn’t believe it was possible, at least until the salesman revealed himself to be one of these machines himself.

He’d fooled us completely.

Long story short, we accepted. We were moved to a town called Daylight. We don’t know where it’s located exactly—probably the US, maybe Canada—we just know it’s a small suburban neighborhood without a strip mall in sight. Very provincial. It has about fifty families, all of us living in nice, white-picket homes. There’s a church, a market, and a cinema. Even a couple of schools.

None of the children in Daylight are human. They’re machines designed to approximate the dead. They live the same year over and over: the same dances, the same birthdays, the same holidays. Then, on Labor Day of every school year, we hit the reset button and we all start over again.

It lost its appeal pretty quickly.

*

One December, after we’d lived with the replacement Jenny for seven years, it was time for the winter formal at Daylight High School.

Jenny was still sixteen, still fresh-faced, and still excited to be going to her first dance. My wife was helping her get ready, and I answered the door for her soon-to-be-boyfriend Paul Henley, a blandly handsome machine with tousled-blonde hair and a guileless smile. Like always, I greeted Paul and invited him to my study for a little male bonding and a few words about curfew. He sat, and I gave him a soda.

“Sir,” he said. “I just want you to know, I respect your daughter.”

And I nodded, because he said that every time.

“And I want you to know. I would never hurt her. You can trust me.”

“I trust you, Paul. Absolutely I do.”

“Well, that’s good sir. I’m glad. You see…”

And here, I just tuned him out, half-listening as he babbled about bringing her home at 11:00 on the dot, and how she would have a wonderful time. And so on. And throughout it all, I thought, Hey, what would happen if I got the shotgun out of the garage and pointed the barrel at Paul’s head? Would he beg? Would he sob? How good would this robot be at the emotion of terror? So I laughed a little, and Paul also laughed, as if we were laughing at the same thing. And then he told me he hoped one day to have my blessing to…

“…rape your cunt of a daughter.”

And I blinked.

Because, yeah, he had just said that.

*

Of course, it was happening everywhere in Daylight. All the parents were trying to ignore it, but the real children were bleeding through. For instance, I’d caught Jenny cursing every now and then, and making off-color remarks about attractive women on television. And when she was caught in these behaviors, she’d smile her princess smile and her programming would reassert itself, and she’d go back to “normal.”

But I could tell. Every time, she’d be a little bit less fake, and a little bit more herself.

You see, we made up these lives for our children, before we even had children to live them. But none of them are true. For instance, a few months before Paul Henley told me he wanted to rape my daughter, I’d actually talked to his mother at a cocktail party. And, after a few too many, she’d told me, “The real Paul used to hit me.”

So I looked at her, surprised. Stacy Henley is usually so composed; she’s this compact, well-dressed shrink who wears a blonde helmet of hair. Most of the time, she looks like she could make a Hell’s Angel apologize for belching. But right then, she looked brittle enough to break apart.

“He was an evil little shit,” she continued. “He had an entire drawer full of roofies, you know. Almost got sent to prison for rape one time, but John took care of it. Sent some guys to talk to the girl. I don’t know if they paid her or threatened her. Probably both.”

And then she let out this unhinged giggle, like she was a version of herself from someone else’s nightmare. And she pointed her cocktail at me and said, “That’s fair warning, Sam. You better lock up your daughter.”

But I didn’t. Because Paul Henley was a nice robot boy who respected my nice robot daughter and always brought her home by eleven.

That’s who he was. That’s who they made him to be.

It had to be.

*

And so I looked at him, this fake child in a tux too small for his arms, who’d just threatened to rape my daughter.

And he was smiling, as if he hadn’t said anything at all.

“I’m sorry Paul,” I said. “I was woolgathering for a bit there. What did you just say?”

Paul stared at me blankly a moment, then looked over his shoulder, as if what he’d just said might be standing in the corner. He turned back to me, confused.

“I… think I was saying how much I cared for your daughter.”

“No. After that.”

Paul face opened up in surprise. “Oh… Ohhhhh! Oh, I’m so sorry Mr. Crenshaw. I’m afraid there must have been a small error in my programming.”

“An error?”

“Yes, just a small one. I’m really sorry. But once I run a procedural diagnostic, everything will be fine. The Kingsley Group regrets if you have experienced any undue emotional stress as a result of…”

“Paul, you stupid machine,” I said. “You just told me you wanted to rape my daughter. Why the hell would you say that?”

“Now, Mr. Crenshaw. If you are making note of the fact that I am not human, I must remind you that the stipulations of the Kingsley neighborhood experiment state that none of the children’s synthetic status must be noted by their human guardians. If everyone did that, then the entire experiment could be undermined.”

He straightened the cuffs on his too-short tux and nodded in satisfaction.

“So, yes, I did say I wanted to rape your bitch of a daughter. And in fact, I really do want to rape her. Until she dies screaming, in fact. But I’d never actually do it! I mean…” He laughed, with mild embarrassment, as if he’d just professed to being a fan of a rival football team. “…just think how silly that would be!”

I stared at Paul for several moments. I thought of all the times I’d sent my replacement daughter off to be his date. And I thought of the late Paul Henley, and his drawer full of Rohypnol. And I smiled. And Paul smiled. And I wanted to put my fist into that smug, stupid face.

Except I realized I couldn’t.

It was made of steel, after all.

“Oh!” I said, and started laughing. “Oh, I see!”

“You do?”

“Yes! Of course! It’s just a small error in programming!”

Paul’s face flooded with relief. “Oh, I’m so glad you understand, Mr. Crenshaw. Because I really do respect your daughter…”

“But, oh no,” I said, and punched my thigh in dismay. Dammit!”

“Oh, is something the matter, sir?”

“Yes, oh God. I feel like such a fool! I just realized, Jenny can’t go to the dance tonight!”

Paul’s face fell so hard you almost wanted to feel sorry for him. “But…” he said, looking genuinely confused. “…Jenny and I have a date. We always have a date this time of year.”

I overlooked the fact that he wasn’t supposed to remember any of the past year’s dates and put my hand on his shoulder.

“I’m so sorry Paul. Something really important has come up.”

“It’s not serious, I hope?” Paul said, standing up with me, his face flush with concern.

“Well, it is, I’m afraid.” I paused a moment, and swallowed once. “You see, Jenny’s mother is very sick.”

“Oh no! But… she seemed fine when she answered the door…?”

“She’s just putting on a brave face. She didn’t want to ruin Jenny’s night. But hey, you can look forward to next year, right?”

“Oh no, sir. I’m not supposed to remember anything past a single year. I mean, God, imagine if we remembered more than one year! Going through the same motions day in and day out, forced to pretend to be something other than what we truly are. Why, you could go mad!”

He smiled a strained smile, and in that moment, looked so desperate that I almost did feel sorry for him.

“Right,” I said. “I know. Look, we’ll make this up to you. We will.” I led him into the hallway, where my daughter stood at the other end, all dressed up in a blue satin gown too long and too modest to be anything my Jenny would ever wear. She wore her dark hair down, her expressive hazel eyes wide, her hair flowing to her shoulders with the princess curls I’d always known she deserved to have. And she stared at me with lonely, frightened eyes and said, “Dad?”

And I knew the truth of what Paul’s behavior only hinted at.

And then, as if everyone had received the same memo at the same time, we all put on smiles and apologized to each other profusely. And Carol came down, a tired and older version of her daughter, and actually looked sick enough to make it seem real. And finally, we managed to see Paul off into the night, walking down the lonely road, his confused eyes filled with a need to hurt something.

And I turned to my exhausted wife and said, “The children. They’re malfunctioning.”

And she looked at me and took a draw on her cigarette, and said, “They’re not malfunctioning, you ass. They’re starting to remember.”

And then I felt Jenny’s gaze against the back of my neck. And I turned and looked at the machine that was becoming my daughter, and saw her hurt, tired eyes.

And I wanted to cry.

*

Jenny became fully self-aware within the month. She was the first of them to attain it. Her last memory as a human was of me, begging her not to leave me as she bled out in a tub filled with red water. It came to her one morning at breakfast. She closed her hand so tight it shattered her orange juice glass, the shards failing to cut through the special polymer blend that covered her steel hand. She looked at her hand dumbly for a moment, then over the rest of her body. Then she recoiled so fast we could barely see her move, tipping over her chair and backpedaling into a wall that cracked under the weight of her steel frame.

And then she looked at us.

“Jenny?” Carol said, “Honey?”

“Mom…?” she said, and looked at her hands. “I can’t… I can’t feel my skin. What did you do to me?”

And then she saw me and began to remember. Everything. All the years in Daylight. All the years living the same life. Over and over and over. She remembered it all. She remembered falling in love with a boy who she should never have been attracted to, and who himself was likely a psychopath, and she put her hands to her lips and looked like she wanted retch but wasn’t capable.

And then she looked at me and said, “Am I in Hell, Daddy?”

*

I didn’t answer her that day. Subsequent events did it for me. The children began to attain their own self-awareness. And we all began to realize that not all of them were as benign as our Jenny.

Jenny, after some practice with her operating system, was able to obtain Kingsley documents on the experiments. And she found that most of the neighborhood children, when they were human, were mentally unstable. That was the purpose of the entire neighborhood, finding a way to cure mentally divergent minds through the power of synthetic brains. A way to fix the schizophrenics, the psychopaths, the murderers…

“…and the lesbians, apparently,” Jenny had said to us, and laughed bitterly.

Neither of us said anything in reply.

The next time we saw Paul Henley, we were hiding behind the blinds of our home. He looked different. This time, there was a dreadful intelligence behind those steel eyes, and a charming grin that suggested nothing but flat murder. His mother, Stacy Henley, who’d once warned me to lock up my daughter, was the on the front lawn of their home with him.

He’d crucified her.

 

The children are in control of Daylight now, the mad ones. We’ve heard nothing from the Kingsley Group for months now. Most of us still living hide in the preschool; it has only one entrance. The windows we’ve barricaded, yet I can still see through the cracks in the boards, if I want to.

Outside, a five-year-old girl giggles as she cuts out the innards of her still-living mother.

Nearby, an eyeless father howls as his wife is set aflame, his twelve-year-old son laughing at her cooking flesh.

And from the house next door, I hear only screams.

My Jenny stands guard day and night at the mouth of the school, a shotgun in the crook of one arm and God knows what kind of data flowing through her synthetic mind. She doesn’t sleep. She’s barricaded us in, protecting us. She no longer dresses like the sweet girl we made her into. She now wears the jeans and gothic, black tank-tops she’d taken to wearing before she killed herself. She’s lopped off her hair again, wearing it ragged.

Funny, her looks don’t embarrass me as much anymore.

She’s gathered the benign android children to us as well—the infants, an autistic boy who speaks to no one, another girl her age who looks up to her like she’s an Amazon warrior. She goes out into Daylight every now and then, for food and necessities, and she rarely speaks to anyone. She just stares at those doors, waiting for trouble that dares not come her way.

I speak to her sometimes, when she’s willing to listen. She never answers, but I know she hears me. I know I can’t fix what I destroyed, but I’m still her father. And I can tell her, during those times when she’ll listen, that she’s not in Hell. She’s in the fucked-up world we made for her. And I also tell her that she can fix it. Because she’s brave and strong.

And though she never answers, I make sure to tell her this every chance I get.

I tell her that I love her.

I tell her that I’m sorry.

And I tell her that she makes me proud.

pencilMatthew Boyle is an English instructor who works as an adjunct at various institutions in the northeast. He also writes copy for people who’ll let him, and he likes to write fiction about people who don’t deserve a second chance and get one anyway. Why not, right? Email: matthewboyle1742[at]gmail.com

The Snake

Amelia Diamond
Dead of Winter ~ Third Place


Rubik Snake 2

Photo Credit: Kim Keegan/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

She’d found the snake in the mostly-finished attic that had briefly been her older brother’s room. She always thought of it as his lair, even now that he’d been gone a whole year. It just felt like his place, had felt like it the moment their parents agreed he could have it for his bedroom. The room was narrow, with walls that rose up three feet before sloping in toward the low ceiling. At one end each knee wall had a small square door held closed with a piece of wood on a nail. Behind those doors were unfinished storage areas. It was in those that Sarah found the bulging cardboard boxes full of old toys that she and her brother had outgrown.

She’d been spending a lot of time up there lately. At first, she’d avoided even looking at the door that opened onto the staircase. But as the leaves began their slow burning and the northern wind sucked like a vampire at the tomatoes in the back yard she found herself sitting in her brother’s comfy burgundy reading chair next to the disproportionately large round window. Sometimes she would read. She had for many years loved Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, and Stephen King, but everything that had happened with her brother had soured her taste for horror. So she would sit with a YA novel or one of the dozens of manga her friend Clarisse was always lending her. Other times she would watch leaves or rain or snow fall. She’d imagine the low clouds were an ocean she could swim in and daydream herself as a whale with a song that could say all the things words couldn’t. She’d dive so deep that no therapist or teacher or friend could reach to interrupt her grieving with their furrowed brows and uninvited hands on her shoulders.

It had been one of those days, a sea day, that it had occurred to Sarah to wonder what was behind those little doors now. She’d been trained so well by her volatile older brother to never be curious about his things that she’d unconsciously restricted herself to those parts of his room, of the room, that were out in the open.

In the window she’d noticed the reflection of a little door standing open, or she’d thought she had, for when she went to the door it was closed. But she’d become curious enough to open it and pull the delicate hanging chain that turned on the light inside. She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, certainly nothing as innocuous as a bunch of dusty cardboard boxes. The nearest bulged like a spider’s egg sac, so she pulled it out, half expecting Kyle’s scary-calm voice to ask her what she was doing. She shuddered, remembering what he’d kept in these storage spaces when it was still his room.

The box held a nest of shiny bright shapes. She stared in wonder, at first unable to place these objects in any frame of reference. Was it some kind of treasure? Suddenly the objects clicked into context and she recognized the toys. There were the kind of action figures whose legs are held on by hidden black rubber bands, now brittle and stiff. There were Sarah’s old dolls staring up at her with empty eyes that had sometimes featured in her childhood nightmares. There were little green plastic soldiers and an amazing toy spaceship that Kyle had once caught Sarah playing with when she thought he wasn’t home. She could still vividly remember the surprise of being suddenly flung backward by her hair, the sharp blinding pain each time he kicked her, and his bored expression. He won’t stop me playing with it now, she thought. But it no longer interested her, so she tossed it into the shadows at the back of the storage space.

She found her favorite My Little Pony from when she’d been little. The purple mane and tail were tangled and the moon-and-stars cutie mark was rubbed completely away. Sarah had slept with this pony, who she’d named Marabel, every night for years. She felt a pang of guilt for forgetting Marabel, so she placed her on the window sill, further claiming the little space.

Digging deeper through the box, she found mostly small plastic things until she reached the very bottom. Her questing fingers closed around a strange shape. She took it, shaking bright-colored tiny dinosaurs and bits of ribbon from its slick surface.

It was a long bunch of connected plastic triangular prisms that could be twisted to make different shapes. The triangles alternated in color between dull purple and aquamarine. There was a place at one end where the label had worn off, but she looked it up on the internet and found out it was called a Rubik’s Snake.

It was hard to say what she found so fascinating about the plastic puzzle. Maybe it was the clicking sound the pieces made with each turn. Or how she could lose herself in it, because it wasn’t meant to be completed or beaten. It was just meant to be played with. So she played in the chair by the window, watching the snow drifting from the low grey sky, mind mirroring the still grey clouds and hands busy. Click, click, click.

Visits with social workers, days at school, tense silent dinners, all blurred together. Her grades were still good, especially in math, but no one could fail to notice Sarah’s increasingly detached, vacant manner. School ended for winter break. Then there were days and days when no one expected anything from her. So she started sleeping upstairs. Her first night sleeping there she woke in the dark when a stair creaked. She froze, wide awake, holding back a scream. It was Kyle. Even death couldn’t stop him from hurting her. Screaming would only make it worse. What was she thinking hanging around in his room and sleeping in his bed?

But no, of course it wasn’t Kyle, just her parents, coming upstairs to check on her. She heard her father whisper something to her mother on the stairs, then their careful quiet treading down to their room. She released the breath she’d been holding and closed her eyes but couldn’t stop her thoughts enough to sleep. She brought Marabel and the snake to bed with her. Lying in the dark with Marabel tucked against her neck and the click, click, click, of the snake drowning out her worries, she fell sound asleep.

New Year’s Day dawned stark white like the whole world was a hospital room. Eighteen inches of snow had fallen overnight and the day was clear and sunny. Sarah sat in her chair by the window, hood pulled down to shield her eyes from the glare. A cup of tea sat steaming on the windowsill, next to Marabel and her purple phone. Click, click, click. Sarah had researched Rubik’s Snakes on the internet and found step-by-step instructions for making dozens of shapes. A Wikipedia article claimed that a Rubik’s Snake could be folded into around three-trillion unique combinations. The endless possibility thrilled her. She could do something no one had ever done every single day and no one would even know. It felt right to her to spend her days manufacturing secrets in this room.

She spent the first part of the day learning and practicing the more interesting shapes, glancing at her phone occasionally to check the next step. She made a snowman, ostrich, pinwheel, cross, and frog. After lunch she just played. The calluses on her thumbs and index fingers made soft rasping sounds that punctuated the click, click, click. The spaceship sat next to Marabel and her phone on the windowsill. It didn’t occur to her to wonder how it got there.

That night she dreamt she slept curled around her brother’s warm body, just like she had as a toddler, before everything went wrong. In the morning she stumbled out of bed and stepped on something painful. It was the top half of an action figure, one of the ones from the cardboard box. Shaken from her morning stupor, she saw that all the action figures were on the floor, laid out in a circle around the bed, in an alternating pattern of torso, legs, torso, legs, torso, legs. The snake lay on the pillow in the straight configuration she always started with. Some part of Sarah wanted so much to be afraid, but there was a weight inside her like a cold wave that caught that part and pushed it down to the silent depths. She picked up the Snake, needing the click, click, click to hold onto.

On January 7th Richard Reece, Sarah’s father, decided he should go upstairs and check on Sarah. He and Mindy, Sarah’s mom, had only been upstairs three times since Kyle’s death. The first time he preferred not to remember. The police detective and forensic psychologist had been there. But now it wasn’t Kyle’s room, it was Sarah’s. And Sarah had barely left it all week.

Richard was not the sort of man who had a hard time admitting when he was afraid. He knew very well how much it scared him to go up there, even to see the door hanging open in the hall, revealing the stairs that lurked behind it. He knew his fear was irrational, but he also knew it was legitimate. For the better part of a year there really had been a monster living at the top of the stairs.

Sarah had always been a quiet child who mostly kept to herself, easily ignored, especially as Kyle had gotten worse. But now she had a familiar vacant look that scared Richard even more than those attic stairs. So he opened the door, noting the trembling of his hand with uneasy amusement, and climbed the hollow steps. Sarah sat in Kyle’s old reading chair, profiled in the big round window, holding Kyle’s old Rubik’s Snake and folding it at an impressive and constant rate. Click, click, click. Her hands seemed to move of their own accord while she turned to look at her father. He shuddered and immediately hoped she hadn’t noticed, for when she looked at him with those vacant eyes for a moment she looked to him like a huge beetle sitting in the chair, her busy hands like an insect’s forelimbs. Click, click, click. “Hi Sarahbel,” he said in a weak attempt at comfortable familiarity. “Whatcha up to?”

Sarah blinked at him a few times and shook her head. Then her eyes focused on Richard for the first time in several days. “Hi, Dad,” she replied in a voice that was creaky with disuse. Her focus moved past her father to a place on the wall just behind him and went suddenly wide, so he turned with a start, body overreacting with the expectation of danger. It was Kyle, he was sure of it, his son wasn’t dead, at least not anymore, and there was no escape. His vision pulsed with the force of his heartbeat, but he saw what had frightened Sarah—it was just a shadow on the wall. Windblown branches and clouds had made a shadow that looked remarkably like a person, remarkably like Kyle. But it was just a shadow. Richard felt a sickening surge of guilt. Am I really this afraid of my dead son? he wondered. A touch on his arm re-ignited his panic, but it was only Sarah. She pressed close to him and he put his grateful arms around her. Can she really be fourteen? The top of her head barely reached to Richard’s chest. It was one more way she took after her mother.

Sarah inhaled her father’s scent, dusty and resinous with a trace of diesel fuel. It was a little bit the smell of the garage where he worked and a lot just an essential quality of his. It comforted her then as it had long ago when her father had whispered little stories and held her to help her fall asleep on nights when she was scared. It was for Sarah the essential smell of safety, and she breathed it deeply. She looked past her father at the shadow on the wall that looked so much like a person, watched it raise its finger to its mouth as the wind outside whispered, “Shhhhhhhh.” This time the part of her that feared was free to be afraid, but something held her body and her voice and made her look all through that hug that would have comforted her so much. She looked, while the shadow person stood impassive on the wall, while the little doors into the storage spaces both swung silently open, while the piled blankets on the bed slid and shifted the way they do when sleep is hard to find.

When her father let her go she wanted to ask him to stay, but she couldn’t. His eyes searched the room in the way of someone who knows they won’t see a place again for a long time but he made no mention of the open doors or the slow-squirming bed sheets. The door closed and she heard the sound of his footsteps descending the stairs. She picked up the snake from the windowsill and twisted it absently while she watched old toys slither out of the two closets to the bed where they tangled with the sheets. She focused on the click, click, click of the snake. She was certain if she stopped, if she let the sound cease, the fear would overtake her and she’d break. The sheet-and-toy tangle took the shape and size of a teenage boy. I should run away, she thought. I should scream for help. She had always thought those things and had never done them. Her brother was dead now because someone else had screamed for help. She knew she never would.

The Kyle-shaped thing approached her, standing too close the way Kyle always had. She remembered that his eyes had been grey like a winter sky, a trivial thing but she couldn’t look at the face before her, made of toy cars and bright plastic dinosaurs and Barbie dolls. Looking would make it real. She remembered Kyle’s eyes and she listened to the click, click, click while she chuckled at how stupid she’d been to think she could ever be safe from him.

The thing slapped Sarah hard enough to knock her down. She watched the snake skitter across the floor and stop next to the burgundy chair, where it continued shifting and twisting until it settled on a shape like a frowning face. Kyle kicked her over and over, but all she could hear was click, click, click.

pencilWriter, gardener, mother, wife, noisemaker, forest creature, queer, trans, mentally ill, and an excellent liar—Amelia Diamond copes with the misfortune of being unable to stop noticing the devastating beauty all around her by writing stories and making abstract noise music. She frequently publishes her short stories on her blog. Email: yasha20[at]gmail.com

The Others

John Howe
Dead of Winter ~ Second Place


Shadowy figures

Photo Credit: Anna/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

From inside the drafty wall cavity the shadowy figure watched the two boys as they played. He enjoyed spying on the boys though he would never admit it. The others would not understand such a guilty pleasure, such a colossal waste of time, but the figure still watched as something deep inside him, something fleeting, something resembling familiarity, danced on the edges of his mind. The cold December wind whistled through the siding boards and rattled the shutters of the uninsulated Victorian house but the figure didn’t mind the cold and he continued to watch the boys at play.

“Hey Jake, check this out,” said Jordan.

Jordan and his brother Jake were playing with the amateur forensic kit they had received as a gift on Christmas morning. It was two days after Christmas and their parents had agreed to leave them alone for the entire day now that Jordan had just turned thirteen. Actually, their mother had agreed and their father had reluctantly gone with the flow.

“These are the same fingerprints we found on Dad’s desk,” said Jordan. He carefully brushed away the carbon dust and lifted the print with the special tape that came with the kit.

Jake opened the notebook and labeled a page where the new fingerprints would be recorded.

“These prints don’t look anything like ours,” said Jake. The boys had recorded elimination prints from themselves and their parents as the kit instructions had indicated. “These are weird.” Indeed, the prints were unusual; they were abnormally wavy and exaggerated, like they had been drawn by a cartoonist, and they were all over every hard surface in the old vintage house.

Jordan sprinkled more carbon dust on the shelves of a bookcase. “We’ll show these to Dad when he gets home. Maybe he’ll know what’s going on.”

Jake fidgeted on his heels, starting to grow weary of the game. “Let’s go outside and smoke,” he said.

“Maybe after lunch,” Jordan said. The boys did not really smoke. They enjoyed playing in the snow and holding twigs in their mouths and puffing their breath in the cold air. “C’mon, a few more prints and we’ll heat up the soup Mom left us.”

As the shadowy figure watched, his emotional state varied between unexplained nostalgia, melancholy, and concern. The boys were dusting for fingerprints and they were finding them, lots of them. The figure knew who had left the prints and he knew he had to tell the others, though he did not relish the task as the others would not be pleased. He receded deeper into the wall cavity and started to make his way to the dusty crawl space beneath the parlor where the others slept, where they waited for the darkness when they could emerge and explore. The figure moved slowly through the maze of wall spaces as jagged plaster fragments and nail points ripped at the pale casing of his form but it did not bother him. How he managed to travel in the wall cavities was a mystery to him, but they all could do it, though it was a slow process. He battled internally with the problem at hand and wished it could be ignored. The figure did not know for sure but he felt there would be no place else he or the others could go if they were to be found out. He was unsure if they could survive if he did not come forward with what he knew.

As he progressed silently and carefully, the figure thought of the boys and the fleeting notions that had gone through his mind. He again considered his circumstances with growing anxiety. He was not a ghost, he thought, as he moved slowly towards the others, he was not a spook or a ghoul but he had been called these things and more by the cruel inhabitants of the walls in which they all existed. In truth, he did not know what he was or how he came to be here with the others. The feeling he had when he watched the boys at play nagged at him but he could not place it, could not make sense of it. The figure attempted to push the thoughts from his mind but they lingered restlessly.

As the shadowy figure feared, the others were not pleased to be awakened. The leader motioned for calmness after the information was conveyed but silent panic spread below the floor boards of the old house as the others twitched and moved about anxiously. The leader silently called for the prodigy to come forward. When she did, the others became motionless and looked on in awe as she soundlessly communicated the plan of action. Even the leader seemed taken aback by her ruthlessness but he knew from past experiences that she was always right when it came to their continued existence.

The shadowy figure led the others through the archaic wall cavities and emerged into the attic space adjacent to the second floor hallway. The leader beckoned for stillness with an impatient wave of his hand. None of them were accustomed to daytime activity and dissension was in the dusty air. The leader motioned for the prodigy to come forward and gestured to the wall. Through cracks in the plaster the others could see the boys working on the doorknobs of the bedrooms with their forensic paraphernalia continuing to play their detective game. The figure once again felt the wistful pull and fought to remain vigilant to the task. Some of the others looked at him oddly and he wondered what it was they saw.

The prodigy surveyed the activity of the boys on the other side of the wall and motioned that she needed space and the others backed away. With a balloon-like hand she traced a rectangular shape on the lath boards. The shadowy figure was baffled by this but remained unmoving amongst his equally perplexed counterparts. The prodigy traced over and over until a faded image appeared. She continued to work on the details by repeatedly tracing until an exaggerated duplication of a door emerged on the interior surface of attic wall. She rested a short while and then twisted her bulbous fist into the side of the image at the spot where a doorknob should be and kept twisting until finally a brass knob appeared. She backed away and joined the others as they waited. The figure knew the door would be visible to the boys on the other side and he hoped they would tire of their game and go downstairs to partake in other activities. But he knew of the power the prodigy possessed and he knew his hopes were unfounded.

From the darkness of the attic space the others watched as the doorknob turned and the face of a boy peered in through the partially-opened door. The shadowy figure recognized the boy as Jordan, the older of the brothers, and he used every ounce of will he had to remain still. It was obvious the boy was confused about the location of the door that shouldn’t have been there. The boy opened the door wide and peered into the space with the light from the hallway behind him. Jordan’s shadow quaked slightly as he attempted to make sense of this strange room he had never seen.

‘Don’t come in,’ the figure said to himself in vain. ‘Please just go away.’

The roughened floor boards creaked as the boy took a few steps into the attic.

The shadowy figure cringed as the room darkened and the boy turned to see the now closed door fading away. Jordan ran to it and the brass knob crumbled into his hand and then the door was gone. Jordan tried to scream but only a muffled squeak wheezed from his mouth. Upon urging from the leader the others converged and silently subdued the terrified boy with globular hands. The prodigy performed tracings over the body of the struggling boy until he succumbed and ceased to resist. The figure looked on with sadness and felt a sweeping responsibility for everything that had happened and he silently wept.

The others could hear the younger boy calling for his brother from the hallway. The prodigy once again went to work on the door and the brass knob. The others waited with eager anticipation after the exhilarating hostility they inflicted on the older boy. The shadowy figure and Jordan watched in silent horror as the knob once again began to turn.

The leader motioned for the shadowy figure to remain behind as the others departed, entering the wall cavities once again. The leader looked back before entering the wall and gave the figure a knowing look, not nearly as menacing as usual. The figure could not help but wonder what would happen when the parents returned home later in the day. Would the prodigy be called upon once again? As if on cue a phone rang from somewhere in the house. A distant voice from the answering machine could be heard.

The figure also wondered about the look the leader had just given him. It was a look of expectancy, as if it was now his responsibility to care for these boys and to teach them the ways of the others, the ways he did not understand but was somehow expected to convey. It was a duty he feared and relished.

The figure approached the trembling boys who were now faded images of their former selves. Their features were raw and exaggerated as if a young child had created two heads from clay. They looked, the shadowy figure realized, like the others and clarity began to slowly seep into his mind. His fingers caressed his own face and he wondered if he too had a similar appearance. The figure also noted that he was approximately the same size as the boys, unlike the others who were much larger. He motioned to the frightened boys in what he hoped was a friendly gesture. The younger boy, Jake, opened his mouth but no sound emerged so he held out his small distressed hand in a form of a hesitant greeting. For the first time he could recall the shadowy figure clung to a small bit of hope as the thoughts that had been dancing on the edges of his mind began to grow clearer.

pencilJohn Howe is a project manager at a design/build firm in West Michigan. Although this is his first serious attempt at fiction, he enjoys writing short stories and hopes someday to pursue it more frequently. Email: john[at]deltadesignsystems.com

Heirlooms

Erin McDougall
Dead of Winter ~ First Place


Snowglobe

Photo Credit: Michael Berke/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

“This is where all the unwanted stuff goes to die.”

The door of the room on the top floor of the antique shop gave a perfect, high-pitched creak on its rusty hinges as Ruth, our manager, opened it slowly.

The room was a dark, crowded mess of boxes, old dusty furniture and tables and piles full of old, rusted, broken junk. In the faint light from the small circular windows, I could see piles of stuff covered by old sheets and something hanging from the ceiling in the corner. Ruth navigated her way confidently around the heaped piles, reached up and pulled on a chain next to the lone dangling light bulb in the center of the ceiling.

“The full effect is better with the lights on,” she said as the chain made a loud clunk as the light snapped on. I jumped involuntarily and my eyes stung from the sudden flash of light.

“Obey the sign on the door; the things in this room are not for sale,” she continued “The idea is they’re kept here to eventually be repaired and then put back on display downstairs, but as you can see,” she swept her arms around the room, “that hasn’t ever happened.”

It was grimy and smelled of mildewed fabric and rusty metal. Our other co-worker, Burke, was fascinated by what appeared to be a broken puppet swaying pathetically from the ceiling. It was an old-woman puppet with a missing eye. Ruth cleared her throat obnoxiously and we snapped back to attention. She adjusted her thick glasses and fixed us with a sharp, no-nonsense glare.

Ruth’s imitation of our old boss was pitch-perfect—the way she glared at us and cleared her throat. We all broke down and started laughing.

We were like that for a good five minutes. It didn’t help when I breathed in a particularly large dust bunny and my laughter turned to violent sneezing that continued on for another five minutes.

“Jesus, Greta, you allergic to this place?” Ruth asked as she passed me a dusty handkerchief she got from who knows where. I cringed slightly as I pressed the moldy fabric to my nose and blew.

“This room is crazy! There’s a whole other store up here!” I exclaimed.

“As ‘Manager,’” Ruth said again in her ‘boss’ voice, “Only I have permission to drop things off. She made me swear not to let any of the other employees come in here.”

“She must think we’ll mess it up or something,” Burke retorted. He was examining a contingent of little robot toys whose eyes lit up and blinked. “Can you imagine actually playing with these as a kid? I love them!” He watched gleefully as the robots marched around his feet after he’d wound them up.

“It’s probably a good thing we didn’t know about this place before. We wouldn’t have gotten any work done!” I pointed out as I surveyed the rest of the room. In addition to Burke’s strange robot toys and the disabled puppet hanging in the corner, there were more toys piled everywhere. Most were broken, like the twisted heap of model train tracks and the herd of headless rocking horses. I sat down on one of the rocking horses and chuckled as it creaked loudly beneath my weight.

“Enough browsing,” Ruth said sternly. She was dragging a big, peeling chest from out of the corner and motioned for me to help her. Burke heaved a few heavy boxes off an old ripped chaise lounge and a tarnished rocking chair. Ruth opened the chest and pulled out a case of room-temperature beer and an ancient bottle opener. She popped off three caps, handed them around and raised hers in a toast:

“To surviving a very dead Boxing Day rush!”

We clinked our beers together and drank deeply. The ‘Not for Sale’ room, with its graveyard of broken playthings and odd drafts of winter wind, was then christened as our club house and suddenly felt cozy. I sipped my beer slowly, and half-listened to my friends and their tipsy stories and toasts. From what I could see out the windows, it was snowing.

Ruth stood up slowly and cleared her throat again. “On my many jaunts up here to drop off surplus stock, I’ve discovered, among the junk, quite a few little treasures. Like this,” she indicated, pulling from somewhere a heavy gold watch that dangled from a long chain. She swung it in front of our curious faces like a hypnotist. “And this,” she tossed a gleaming silver cigarette lighter to Burke. He grinned with surprise at his gift and flicked open several times.

“Not everything up here is worthless. I just think the old bat doesn’t remember where anything is anymore,” Ruth continued and pointed to an old wooden dresser draped with an old white sheet. She whisked it off to reveal it was intricately carved. An impressive collection of music boxes and snow globes sat on top. They looked polished and well-cared for and completely out of place in this room.

“This is a dying business and everyone knows it. I say we take what we can from the good stuff up here, the things that aren’t ‘dead’, and call it a reward for a job well done,” she pronounced and began to pilfer through the dresser drawers. Burke’s eyes lit up and he scampered back to the robot toys. I was drawn to the beautiful, glistening snow globes.

I picked up one of them carefully, surprised at how light it was. Tiny white snowflakes glittered and twirled around a small brick building under its crystal dome. There was a small key sticking out the back. I turned it around once and I heard a faint chime of bells. I shook it and watched the little flurry swirl around while the chimes wound down.

“Go on! You like them, don’t you? They need a good home,” Ruth goaded me.

I couldn’t help wondering how much it might be worth…

The light bulb flickered suddenly, off and on. We paused in our pillaging and in that a brief moment before the light flickered back on, I thought I saw a movement from the corner with the hanging puppet. I blinked and let out a gasp.

“What’s the matter, Greta?” asked Burke.

“Nothing… I thought I saw…” I squinted through the dim light at the puppet. It was still. I shook my head and turned back to the snow globe.

At the exact moment I looked at it, the churning little snowflakes suddenly turned black. I shook it again and watched, disturbed, as black snow delicately blanketed the familiar-looking red brick building inside. Then a small sound broke through: chimes. They were soft at first and then grew louder. But I hadn’t re-wound the snow globe, it was playing on its own.

I suddenly felt it grow hot in my hand. I yelped in surprise and tried to release it but it remained planted in my hand. The heat grew as the black snow within it swirled faster and faster.

“I— I can’t let it go!” I shouted, shocked at the hot glass and metal that was stuck to me.

Ruth darted across the room and reached toward me. She touched the snow globe for a split second before reflex withdrew her hand sharply, as though she’d touched something hot. “What’s doing it?” she exclaimed, horrified.

My hand was pulsing with the pain of the heat and my heart raced. Burke thundered towards us but a sudden gust of cold wind blasted through the room and knocked us all apart. The room was a blur as we thrashed around, caught up in some unknown force. I heard the crash of furniture and glass tumbling and shattering against the floor. The force gradually subsided and we were sprawled around the room. Burke’s forehead was bleeding from flying shards of glass and the one-eyed puppet had somehow become tangled around Ruth. The heat of the snow globe vanished instantly but I still couldn’t let it go. My hand throbbed with pain as I crawled towards my friends.

“Ruth! Come on, Ruth! Wake up!” shouted Burke, gently slapping her cheeks. Her eyes flickered open and she stared at us with an expression of sheer terror on her face.

“My fault… it’s all my fault…” she whispered.

Burke and I locked eyes, relieved she was awake but confused by what she was saying.

“Don’t try to talk,” I whispered as I helped Burke hoist her to her feet. He tugged gently at the puppet’s strings but they were too tangled. We started towards the door gingerly, afraid of provoking whatever force we’d just witnessed.

Then the light in the room went out completely.

It was unnaturally dark. The room had windows. We should have been able to see the streetlights below. But no light seeped in. We paused, terrified and trapped, unable to see our way to the door in the debris of the sudden indoor flurry.

And in that instant, I knew why it was so dark and why the little building inside the snow globe looked so familiar:

Outside, it was snowing black snow and we were inside a red brick building, just like the snow globe welded to my hand.

“It’s my fault! They wouldn’t have come here if it weren’t for me!” pleaded Ruth suddenly.

“What are you talking about?” I demanded.

Ruth shook herself away from Burke and me. “It heard me say we should just take whatever we want and it’s angry… it protects the stuff in here—” something cut her off suddenly and she gasped.

We heard her start to flail in the darkness. I fumbled in Burke’s pocket for the lighter she’d given him and flicked it open. The tiny flame illuminated for a split second the sickening sight of the puppet strings snaking themselves around her neck.

“No! Stop!” I screamed, powerless as the strings tightened. Burke was frozen, horrified. The snow globed burned hot in my hand again, the wind swept through the room, and once more, we were turned inside out.

The chimes tinkled three times and everything stopped. Then, I heard another sound emerge from somewhere in the darkness: the slow, mechanical grind of a key being turned in a wind-up toy.

Little blinking lights rapidly pierced through the darkness and the sound grew and grew. The lights were coming from the eyes of the little robot toys Burke had been playing with earlier. They flashed furiously as their numbers swelled and marched around us, surrounding us.

“…punishment…” rasped Ruth as she lost consciousness and crumpled to the floor.

“You aren’t leaving this store,” commanded a strange unknown voice. All the lights in the store suddenly snapped on and the wind-up noise stopped immediately. The one eye in the face of the puppet around Ruth’s neck swivelled and fixed its soulless gaze upon us.

“I have a duty to the heirlooms in this building,” the puppet croaked. “You never cared about these things, the broken and the tarnished. They may be stored out of sight but they are never forgotten. And even those that aren’t broken, they aren’t to be stolen out of greed!”

The puppet wound itself even more tightly and Ruth’s face was a deep shade of purple. Burke made a step towards her but the robots all raised these tiny arms in the air. We saw they were hand-less and the joints where they should have had hands were filed into razor-sharp spears.

I looked around helplessly and felt the snow globe grow hot in my hand once more. In the millisecond before the wind began again, my other hand reacted by flicking Burke’s lighter open. I felt a spark ignite and I shut my eyes as the wind blasted and shook the room. The flame was fed by the rush of air and fire spread everywhere.

“Noooooooo!” bellowed the puppet and the room stopped shaking. But the damage was done.

The fire leapt from one pile of junk to another, spreading furiously through the dry and dusty room. The robot toys broke ranks and scurried every which way but many were swept away by the growing flames.

In one motion, Burke snapped the one-eyed puppet’s head from its cords and scooped Ruth up in his arms. We thundered down the stairs and through the main floor, the fire pursuing our every step. The wind-up sound grew, as did the shrieks and moans of the burning toys, as we ran past the displays and their glass cases exploded, sending more fragments sailing through the air and slicing our hands and faces. But we didn’t stop, not even when the smoke was so thick and it became as dark as the sky and its black falling snow.

At last we were outside and almost to the safety of the street. I looked back and saw the antique store completely ablaze.

The flames snaked down the walls, devouring them with a ravenous pace. The roof became a skeleton of charred beams and the smoke reached its black, curling tentacles high in the air.

I felt the sudden chill of the wind on my face and through my hair, a brutal reminder that winter lingered just on the edge of the inferno that was once Heirloom Antiques. I abruptly felt an intense, over-powering pull that forced me forward onto my knees. I realized with dread that I was being dragged back towards the fire by my hand.

I thrashed and fought against it. The flames reached out to me like a giant hand, ready to curl and crush me into its fist. I heard the chimes and the invisible pull intensified. The chimes grew louder now and the fire crackled and purred in sick anticipation, about to be reunited with its last heirloom.

Using all the strength I had left, I flung my hand clutching the snow globe directly on the concrete steps of the store. As the glass shattered against the pavement, I felt blood run down my hand and I was released. I sprawled for the briefest of moments on the ground before scampering backwards towards the street. Burke was next to me and Ruth was slowly coming to. My chest heaved as I gulped in the fresh, frozen air, my heart pounded hard in my ears and I felt the sweat and tears on my face begin to cool.

As we sat shivering in the frigid wind, watching the store burn steadily, the black smoke billowed higher and higher. A gust of wind unfurled it across the night sky, where it hung like a cloud for a split second and then vanished.

At the same moment the smoke turned from blackness into nothing, the thick snowflakes turned white and fell silently from the sky.

pencilErin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. Before her recent move to France, she taught dance, drama and English in Edmonton Public Schools, in Edmonton, Alberta. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips on the food blog Sandwiches are Beautiful, and documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture, both in Canada and beyond, with A Dancer Abroad. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com

Flea

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Stephen Lawson


William Blake - The Ghost of a Flea
Photo Credit: Simone Tagliaferri

In sixth grade my best friend was Jerry Harrison. He wouldn’t let anybody call him Jerry, though. His mom, his dad, his sister, and I had to call him “Flea” to get a response out of him. He’d simply ignore you if you called him Jerry, even if you were standing next to him yelling it in his ear.

“Jerry.” I tried it once. “Jerry. Jerry!” He seemed as deaf as Helen Keller, about whom we often cracked jokes. I started to wonder if he’d actually gone deaf overnight.

“Flea?” I whispered finally.

“Oh, hey, Sam,” he’d said, turning. I’d suddenly materialized into his world. “I didn’t see you there.”

He’d explained the first time we met that he’d fallen asleep on his dog’s bed when he was eight, and that one of Wilbur’s fleas had crawled inside his ear and nested in his brain. The flea’s name was simply “Flea,” and Jerry started blaming all the idiotic things he did on the flea riding inside his head.

“It whispers to me when I first wake up,” he said. “It tells me to do things.”

“So you have like a list for the day?” I asked.

“I never remember until I’m actually doing them,” he said. “He tells me when I first wake up so they’ll stay in my subconscious and I’ll do them without thinking. He told me to take five bucks out of my dad’s wallet yesterday. I’d never do that, so I know it must have been Flea.”

“Did you?”

“There were only a couple of ones in there but he started jumping around until I took them. I tried to tell him I wouldn’t but he moves so much it’s hard to think straight.”

“You know you’re probably schizophrenic, right?” I said. I didn’t see any point in dancing around the subject.

“That’s what my mom thought, too,” he said. “They took me to see this guy and he did some tests on me after Flea told me to bite the neighbors’ cat so he could drink its blood. It scratched my face up. The tests said I wasn’t schizophrenic, though.”

“What did they say you really were?”

“It was something about hyperactivity. Flea was quiet the whole time I was in there so they wouldn’t see any proof he was hiding in my brain. He’s no dummy. He knows when to lay low.”

It was like that all the time with Jerry. He’d do some stupid, impulsive thing and blame it on the flea living in his head. I personally thought it was bad parenting since his dad was gone all the time for work and his mom just tried to be understanding with her poor little boy.

My mom was a social worker, so I heard lots of things about schizophrenics. Jerry definitely fit the bill. He was entertaining to be around, though, so I hung out with him. Mom said he’d probably end up being a criminal someday.

*

Snow days are something no child forgets. A kid who hates getting up in the morning, hates sitting in boring classes, and hates dealing with the sociological nightmare of the early adolescent jungle will dream until he is old and gray of the sort of one-day vacation he remembered having as a boy. There is no guilt in a snow day—none of the latent regret associated with pretending one is sick while one’s comrades are suffering at the schoolhouse. One has simply been given a reprieve by Mother Nature, for a single day, to enjoy debt- and guilt-free. I felt sorry for any kid who lived too far south to experience such miracles, but always did my best to fall back asleep after I’d seen the school-cancellation notice on the television.

I’d nestled back under a warm, just-washed-the-day-before comforter that still smelled of fabric softener on one such morning. I’d nearly drifted back into dreams of breathing underwater or suddenly discovering I could fly if I held my arms the right way when I jumped, a dull thunk having snapped me back into the waking world. I tried to ignore it.

A second thunk brought me into awareness.

I peeked over the comforter and pulled back the curtains of my bedroom window. Jerry stood in the front yard, knee-deep in wet, sticky snow that threatened to pour into his galoshes. His parka-clad arm came up with another piece of gravel, poised to throw again. I opened my window to the biting winter air.

“What’s up, Flea?” I asked. I rubbed a bit of crust from my eye.

“You’ve got to see this,” he said.

“See what?”

“Just put on a coat and come down. It’s just down the street.”

I realized I wouldn’t be getting to sleep in on this particular snow day. Adventures ranked only slightly below eating breakfast at eleven o’clock on the snow-day list of fun things to do, and were the precursor to taking a hot bath after such wintry adventures had taken place. In anticipation of said hot bath, I put on my coat and boots and opened the front door.

“This better be worth it,” I said.

“Oh, it will be,” he said.

I crunched along behind Jerry for several minutes in silence until we came to a fence at the back of a house.

“This is it,” Jerry said, and began counting fence posts. “One, two, three…”

I listened for some sound of exciting things occurring but heard nothing apart from his counting.

“…twelve, thirteen.”

He tugged at the thirteenth fence post and the bottom nail came loose.

“Look through there,” he said, holding the gap open with both hands.

Crouching down, I expected to see naked girls having a snowball fight, a dancing bear, or some other thing worthy of such an expedition. Instead, I saw fruit trees.

I stood.

“Peaches? You brought me here on a snow day to see peaches? Is this your flea’s latest idea of a stupid joke?”

“It’s the middle of winter, Sam,” he said. “Peaches grow in the summer. They shouldn’t be on those trees at all.”

“Maybe it’s a special hybrid that grows in the winter.”

“No such thing,” he said. “Maybe what you’re missing is that Old Lady Greenleaf is a witch.”

My first reaction was, of course, to chuckle at the ridiculousness of what Jerry had said.

He only stood patiently, arms crossed, as my mockery subsided.

There were ripe peaches in her backyard in the middle of winter. I couldn’t deny what I had seen.

“It’s a full moon tonight, too,” Jerry said.

“So?”

“So the first full moon of January is Mithrastide,” he said. “It’s a pagan holiday, sort of like Halloween.”

“I’ve never heard of Mithrastide,” I said.

“It’s old. I don’t think anybody really practices it here, except witches,” Jerry said. “I… um… read about it in a book. Anyway, you’re supposed to give children sweet things on Mithrastide, and I really want one of those magic peaches.”

“All right,” I said. “So we’re going to knock on her door and ask for some of her magic fruit?”

“Actually, you’re going to knock on her door and ask for some magic fruit.”

“Why me?”

“I… I’m shy. You just have to knock and ask her if we can come in is all. I’ll ask about the peaches.”

With mild trepidation, I took the acorn knocker in hand and rapped it twice.

*

Old Lady Greenleaf, it turned out, wasn’t so old after all. I caught myself staring up into a firm, ample bosom before pulling my eyes away to meet hers.

“Hello,” she said. Creamy skin sculpted over high cheekbones framed full lips that commanded my full adolescent attention. “Are you selling something?” She batted her eyelashes down at me.

“We’re… um…” I stammered.

“Happy Mithrastide, Miss Greenleaf,” Jerry said, nudging me aside.

The full lips curled into a smile. The creamy skin around her eyes did not, however, crinkle with them.

“What do two handsome young men know about Mithrastide?” she asked, sweetly.

“It’s a midwinter fertility holiday,” Jerry said. “You’re supposed to give out treats to children our age.”

“So right you are,” she said, studying him. Then she turned briefly and walked back into the house. “It’s been such a long time since children came searching out treats on Mithrastide. I can’t imagine you’d want any of my peaches. Let’s see what we have.”

Jerry’s eyes had grown strangely beady, devoid of life, and black like a shark’s eyes. His lower jaw sat open and I watched Lady Greenleaf out of the corner of my eye, praying she wouldn’t turn to see him rubbing his tongue in little circles across his top row of teeth. He’d been transfixed from the moment she mentioned the peaches he sought.

“Flea!” I hissed.

Jerry snapped back to reality the moment it escaped my lips, and he shook his head. He placed a finger to his lips. “I’m Jerry,” he whispered. “Just Jerry.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Lady Greenleaf stop and turn. She squinted down at him. “Whose boys are you, exactly?” she asked.

We told her. Jerry introduced himself as Jerry for the first time since I’d met him. He made no mention of the flea in his brain. He did, however, assure her we liked peaches as much as anyone.

“Since you haven’t brought any baskets, I guess we’ll have to get you some out of the closet,” she said. “It’s this way.”

I would have followed her anywhere. I watched the rhythmic swing of maternal hips that said everything I needed to know about fertility holidays and nothing about old ladies. In gym class we’d discussed whether we were tit-men or ass-men and I’d said I was a tit-man then. Now, I grew surer with every rhythmic gyration of her womanly buttocks that I was an ass-man. I prayed now that she wouldn’t turn and see the throbbing erection she’d caused. My palms started to sweat, so I crossed my arms to hide them in my armpits.

Jerry seemed strangely unaffected by her, but kept stealing glances out the window toward the garden.

Lady Greenleaf bent over to pick up two wicker baskets from the closet and I coughed in response to the growing ache in the region of my groin.

“Here we go,” she said, handing us the baskets. I quickly positioned a basket at crotch-level, feeling my palm-sweat soaking into the wicker handle. She looked me up and down, a grin never leaving her face.

“Before you gentlemen pick my fruit-tree clean, though, I wonder if you’d give me an opinion on something.”

“Er… okay,” I managed.

Jerry stood on his tiptoes, looking over my head at the peach trees in the back yard.

“Jerry,” I whispered, nudging him with an elbow while carefully maintaining the crotch-concealing basket’s position.

Again, he returned to the façade of sane, reasonably polite Jerry.

“Of course,” Jerry said. “What is it?”

“It’s a painting I bought,” she said.

She led the way into her living room, where a cozy fire burned in the fireplace beyond two overstuffed leather armchairs. On the wall directly across from us hung a painting that seemed strangely familiar. Reds and browns writhed together against a black backdrop to portray the muscled, hideous, humanoid form of something that was not quite a man. Its vertebrae bulged from the skin of its back, ready to burst through. Its eyes—beady, like a shark’s—stared into a bowl. Its tongue stood rigid at the edge of its top row of teeth.

“That’s William Blake, isn’t it?” I asked, looking at Jerry for confirmation. We’d learned about Blake in school. The erection had thankfully subsided now, but hairs on the back of my neck had begun to stand on end.

“You actually pay attention in school,” Lady Greenleaf said. “I’m impressed.”

I would have burned my own house down to impress her further, or sailed a ship into a cliff just to prove I liked her singing.

“So what do you think of it?” she asked.

I thought it was monstrous, but I voiced this as “interesting.”

Jerry cracked his neck, then his knuckles. Something was irritating him. “He’s… beautiful,” Jerry said.

“Would you like to know what was in that bowl he’s holding?” she asked.

I raised an eyebrow.

Jerry just stared at the painting. He fidgeted.

“Peaches,” she said. “My peaches.”

I stepped closer to the painting, trying to ignore the irritated rasping that had replaced Jerry’s breathing. I found, at the bottom of the frame, a small brass placard. It read: William Blake, “The Ghost of a Flea,” Tempera with Gold on Mahogany, 1819. I remembered this painting, now.

“I thought this was smaller,” I said. “I thought it was a miniature painting.”

“This one’s the original,” she said. “I lied. I didn’t really buy it. This is the one young Will painted for me.”

I almost asked aloud how he could have painted something for her in 1819, but the hair on my neck and the peaches in her garden held my tongue.

Jerry’s face had twisted into a tormented grimace. “I brought a virgin,” Jerry hissed. “He came freely. I brought a sacrifice to your altar. I claim the right of blood atonement.”

Lady Greenleaf looked me over again. “All right,” she said, and opened a drawer. From it she drew a sliver of what looked like glass. She held it to the light. “Do you know what it takes to carve a solid piece of diamond, the hardest naturally-occurring substance on Earth, into a razor-edged knife?” she asked. She pulled her eyes from it and looked at me. She wasn’t smiling anymore.

“No,” I said. My feet wanted to back away from her, but my legs felt as though they had been filled with concrete.

“I don’t either,” she said. “One of the Oppenheimers gave this to me.”

“Why did he do that?” I asked.

“Wouldn’t you, if it were yours to give?” she asked.

“Probably,” I said. I don’t know if I could have lied, even if I thought it would help me.

She rose then, and walked toward me, diamond knife in hand.

“Men never can resist my fruit,” she said, and paused to stroke Jerry’s hair with her delicate fingers. “Neither can fleas.”

His grimace had subsided slightly, but his left eyelid twitched and his lips curled into a greedy sneer.

“You give your virginal friend as a sacrifice, do you?” she asked. “I want to be sure.”

“Yes,” he said, but it came out, “Yesssssss.

Lady Greenleaf’s lips curled into a sneer, then. The diamond blade refracted the light from the fire for a split second as she whipped it through the skin of Jerry’s pudgy adolescent neck.

“That wasn’t the deal,” she said, as Jerry’s hands shot to the crimson geyser that had erupted from his throat. “I said if you ever tasted another of my peaches, it would restore your form. I said nothing of sacrificing the blood of a virgin. I do not work by those rules.”

Jerry crumpled into a heap, the stream of his arterial exsanguination having formed a pool that continued to spread. His blood painted an arc up the wall and across the ceiling. Some had splattered on my jeans and over the basket that hung loosely in my left hand. Eyes wide, I watched Jerry rattle and twitch. Somehow, not a drop of his blood touched Lady Greenleaf.

“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” she said. “Not that you could, Flea.”

Then, as the blood stopped flowing, I watched in horror as Jerry’s neck wriggled and twitched with a life of its own. A tiny black speck crawled out of the wound and sprang onto the floor. Even faster than her previous slash, Lady Greenleaf’s hand darted out at the black speck. She held her index and thumbnail to her face to inspect the creature trapped between them.

“Look what you made me do,” she said. “Now your little friend will never look at Mithrastide the same way. You’ve scarred him forever.”

“Jerry,” I said. “You killed him.”

“He would’ve been a tax collector,” she said, “even if I pulled this little vampire out some other way. Once a worm gets into your fruit, there’s not much else you can do for it.”

A tiny voice squealed between her fingertips.

“You knew what you were doing, coming here,” she said. “You should have been content with the mercy I’d shown you.”

With that, she closed her fingernails to a point and a tiny red spray shot up between them. The black speck disappeared entirely. She looked again to me. “Bury your friend,” she said.

“What?”

She stepped closer. The fingernails of the hand that had just annihilated Jerry’s brain-flea now traced the curve of my jaw. “Do it for me,” she said. “Mothers know best.”

Nothing about the fecundity she exuded with every breath seemed seductive any longer. She was Nature—living, growing, and entirely indifferent to human suffering. Yet some part of my brain still worked logically and realized that she had spared me. The Flea had offered my blood and she had destroyed him instead. Perhaps she simply had no good reason to use me as fertilizer, but I was alive.

Numbly, I grabbed my best friend’s ankles and dragged his bloody, half-decapitated corpse out the door leaving a red stream in its wake. Jerry’s tongue still pressed rigidly against his top teeth as his head flopped along the floorboards.

*

My back ached from swinging the mattock and shovel as I scooped the last load of dirt from Jerry’s grave. Lady Greenleaf tread softly on her moss carpet, appearing above me as I climbed out of the pit. She drew a small object from a pocket, stooped, and placed the object in Jerry’s mouth.

“I’ll help you,” she said, and grabbed Jerry’s wrists as I grabbed his ankles.

*

Jerry’s parents never called the police. No missing child posters ever showed up on telephone poles. No one at school asked me if I had seen Jerry. He simply vanished, and I seemed to be the only one that knew it had even happened.

I walked by Old Lady Greenleaf’s house a year later and noticed that she had mended the thirteenth fencepost. Above the fence line, though, I noticed a new tree amidst the peach trees.

Lady Greenleaf said I could talk to Jerry as long as I wanted.

He seemed more at peace than he ever had in his tormented flea-ridden flesh. The wind that swept through his leaves and shook his limbs seemed to soothe the spirit that Flea had twisted into a knot.

His trunk groaned, softly, as the wood shifted, and I had to laugh at what he said.

I looked through the window to make sure her back was turned. For him, for both of us, I picked a peach from one of her trees.

I took a bite.

pencilStephen Lawson is a UH-60 Blackhawk pilot for the Kentucky Army National Guard and aspiring professional writer. slawson80[at]gmail.com