A Bone to Pick

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Kristi Petersen Schoonover

Fires can't be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men. ~James Arthur Baldwin
Photo Credit: Chinmoy Mukerji

When I said I wouldn’t get back together with Warren if he were the last man on Earth, I meant it.

For years—before the world ended—I was his go-to girl. He’d split with someone, track me down (consistently on the heels of my broken heart’s mending), swear he’d changed, beg forgiveness and promise picket fences. I’d been deeply in love with him since we met in a Robert Frost poetry seminar, so I’d always fall for it. As soon as I dreamt of a wedding, he’d run off with another woman, citing he wasn’t sure I was the one—he needed space.

Shortly after the last incident, I was thumbing through my Chic Chick and stumbled across the article “10 Signs He’s Using You”—and Warren exhibited every one. Simultaneously incensed and embarrassed, I texted him to never again find me, punctuating it with the “last man” cliché.

Then came what CNN (while it was still on the air) unoriginally dubbed Skullpocalypse—like the invented zombie disaster that’d spawned movies, anthologies, Walks for Hunger and The Walking Dead—only minus the virus-rotting-flesh-eating-of-brains tropes.

Deep in Haiti, a scorned voodoo practitioner cursed her cheating husband and his lover. Flesh melted off their bones, organs withered and turned to dust, and all that was left were skeletons. But it had an unforeseen effect: The skeletons were alive, and they possessed an obscene strength and harbored an evil so vile their vacant, tar-black sockets coaled with hatred. They set to biting every living thing they could find. And whoever or whatever got bitten followed suit.

They overtook and escaped the island, and there was no stopping them. You couldn’t bash them apart—they simply reassembled, stronger and more aggressive (I saw the bones of a squirrel re-connect and break his attacker’s legs before biting her). You couldn’t shoot them—bullets whizzed through. There was only one recourse: The skeletons fled from dead things. If you died before you were bitten, you’d never be condemned; if you had a dead body near you, they’d leave you alone.

I don’t know how people brought themselves to do it, but many shot themselves. Or others.

That was Halloween, when the New England air was rife with the smell of carved pumpkins, wet leaves, Sweet Tarts, and snappled in anticipation. By Thanksgiving, the air was redolent with the skeletons’ rancid milk and overcooked mushroom smell, and the gray skies weren’t just somber, but oppressive. By Christmas, I was, as far as I knew, the only living person in a debris-strewn Mystic, Connecticut. I spent the day below decks on the famous Charles W. Morgan drinking bottles of exquisitely-aged Amontillado and reading the only book I’d taken from my apartment—The Complete Poems of Robert Frost (a gift from Warren). The inscription inside read, Mel… something there is that doesn’t love a wall. Maybe one day we’ll mend.

I was sure he was out there, and he was one of them. Which meant any human skeleton I came across could have been him. Which meant that my fatal bite could possibly come from his mouth.

I’d be damned if he was going to get me. I had to cut town, go someplace remote—and since I knew that I’d meet death eventually, I considered where I’d want to be when it happened.

Armed with the dead body of a Mystic Seaport Security Guard and the gun he’d used to kill himself, I secured an abandoned pick-up truck and hit the road. By the January snows I’d arrived at Robert Frost’s farm in Derry, New Hampshire. Although it was now a museum and gift shop, his life there had inspired the poem, “The Mending Wall.”

In light of the circumstances, it was the most apropos location I could think of.

At first, there weren’t any skeletons around—the sparse population had likely succumbed, leaving none to bite, so they’d boned elsewhere. By Valentine’s Day, they knew I was here—my oil lamps’ glow through the sheer curtains and the smoke channeling from the chimney had probably given me away. By George Washington’s Birthday, the security guard’s body had decomposed enough so the skeletons weren’t afraid of it anymore. That was when I discovered, by defending myself with a flaming piece of firewood, that not only did they recede from fire, it was the only way to kill them: they couldn’t rise from their ashes.

With the help of equipment from the maintenance shed, I managed to penetrate the frozen ground and dig a trench around the house and barn. I only built a low flame—I needed to conserve wood—but I found that was enough. I keep fires going twenty-four-seven.

Day and night, in the woods beyond the smoking gash, they rattle around the hibernating oaks and maples, snapping branches beneath their metatarsals. When they walk, it sounds like banging drumsticks and shaking maracas—the thickets bristle with a snap-shhh, snap-shhh, and you can tell how close they are by its volume. Unless, of course, there’s an ice storm, because the clicking of the crystal-coated birches is louder.

During the day it’s easy to spot them, but at night, it’s dark as cloak, and they’re so white they blend with the field’s snow cover—if I squint, I can distinguish their gaping eye sockets, hovering like phantom holes.

Tonight, mist shrouds the field—the mud and vanilla smell tells me it’s warming up, for which I’m glad; but it’ll be March soon, for which I’m not, because the ensuing spring rains will most likely extinguish my line of defense.

I sip fresh coffee—it’s so hot it warms me instantly. I adjust my flannel blanket; then I hear something. I lean forward, cock my ear toward the woods—there’s a different sound, as though something is running. It could be a fast-moving non-human skeleton, like a rabbit or deer—but they’d sound similar to the others.

This could be a living creature.

Like a bear.

I reach for a gun and rise from the rocking chair, simultaneously shedding my blanket. I move to the newel post and focus at the edge of the forest.

A shadow bursts from the evergreens and books toward my fire.

It’s a person.

I race to the edge of the flames.

The intruder stops just short of the trench, pushes back his hood.

The heat prickles my cheeks. “Warren?”

“Mel.” He doesn’t look surprised. “Boy I’m glad to see you.” Hyperventilating, he slides a nervous glance behind him; then he looks back at me, nods at the flames below. “What’s with the fire?”

The back of my throat burns with anger. “They won’t go near it. It’s the only thing that destroys them.” Then I remember the gun. I train it on him. “I wasn’t kidding, what I said about the last man on Earth.”

“Now that I really am?”

I visualize our last break-up: he calls, can’t see me anymore because he’s just met Rose, doesn’t want to blow it with her, if she’s not the one he knows that I am, he needs space, thanks for putting him back together again, he’ll always be grateful, he has a bond with me he’ll never have with any other woman no matter what.

I taste rage—metallic, sour.

His dead body would ensure the skeletons don’t come near the trench for awhile. The spring rains issue would be solved.

I cock the gun.

“Mel. Put the gun down. Come on.” He peers over his shoulder. “I’ve got no one else and neither do you.”

In the woods, I hear the snap-shhh, snap-shhh.

“What happened to Rose?”

His eyes flash desperate. “Please. Let me across.”

I don’t move.

He turns completely to look at the skeletons—as if assessing whether or not he can make another run for it—then pivots to face me again. “She got bitten. Okay?”

“I’d like to say I’m sorry, but I’m not.”


“You ever seen it, Mel? Gnashing teeth, running flesh, vomiting, withering organs, shrieking. Watch someone you love die like that is that what you want?”


Love. So he did love her. I thrill to his anxious expression—he’s always been so brash, arrogant, cocksure I’d always be there when he needed me. Not today.

He clenches his hands into fists. “Mel, we’re it, here, for God’s sake, don’t wall me out!”


The smell of rancid milk and overcooked mushrooms is suffocating. They’ll reach him soon.

As many times as I’d delightfully imagined him tortured, it’d been fantasy. In two minutes, it’s not going to be fantasy anymore. And I’m angry at him, but he’s right—I can’t watch him suffer what he’s just described.

I ram the gun into my pocket. “Follow me on your side of the trench.” I rush to the house and seize the ancient metal toboggan I’ve been using as a bridge. I slam it down across the ditch with a creak-ploof as it hits the opposite snow bank. “Hurry up.”

He reaches me and I retract the bridge just as one of the boners leaps, misses, and plummets into the flames. It erupts into an ember-spewing fireball; Warren crushes me against him, and I’m immersed in his familiar smell, something like almonds and bourbon. It stirs things in me.

When the flash dies down, we both look. An indigo plume of smoke rises from where the thing had met its end. The rest of them retreat to the woods.

“Imagine how many lives would’ve been saved if we’d figured that out months ago,” Warren says. “Rose would still be here.”

I pull away from him, start up the porch steps.

He’s quiet, then says, “Thanks, Mel.”

I poise and grab the railing. “Let’s get this straight. You can stay here tonight, I’ll feed you, we’ll heat water for a bath and wash your clothes, but in the morning, you take some supplies and go.”

Before I head inside, I retrieve my coffee.

It’s ice cold.


The fire in the hearth casts the framed photographs of Frost in flickering shadows; heating water for Warren’s bath, cooking his food has softened me, and I try to quell cozy fantasies as I clip his flannel shirt to a clothesline I’ve strung across the living room.

“Wow. You never do let that thing go out.” Warren, in my bathrobe, appears in the doorway.

My pulse quickens. I move to poker the coals. “The key is to stay focused, constantly watch. Of course, there’s not too much around to distract me.”

He steps closer; I smell the gift shop’s lavender soap. “It’s lonely here, isn’t it?”

I shut out the tactile memory of having been crushed against him outside. “It’s not bad.”

He rubs his hands before the flames. “What smells good?”

“Corned beef hash.” I slip into a rooster-patterned oven mitt and palm the iron skillet I’d had warming on the bricks, bring it to the table.

“I haven’t had that since I was a kid.” He settles into one of the rustic pine chairs.

“The stores are full of canned goods.” I shovel the food on his plate. “It’s scary to get ’em—I gotta go into town armed with a torch in my hand or a dead squirrel tied around my neck—but it’s doable.”

He eyes the red taper in a burnished gold candlestick. “Can we light this?”

I take my seat. “I’m out of matches and lighters.”

“Isn’t that risky? Being matchless?”

“As long as the fires don’t go out, I’m fine for now. I’ll get more on my next trip to town.”

He considers me for a moment. Then he says, “You’re not going to town alone—I’ll get ’em.”

I’m about to respond you’re gone tomorrow, but his sad St. Bernard-esque eyes disarm me; in this moment I see what I’ve always wanted: just us, a meal, a fire, a home. Desire, excitement, cliffhanging fear course through me. “How’d you find me here?”

He sets down his fork, shifts, and reaches into the robe’s pocket, extracting a piece of wood the size and shape of a large cookie. He sets it on the table as though it were Spode.

I immediately recognize it.

It’s from the maple that stood on this property—outside Frost’s bedroom, the subject of his poem “Tree at my Window.” Years ago, the tree had become feeble—a threat to the house—so it’d been cut down. The farm had sold these wooden mementos for fifteen dollars each. There are still, in fact, some in the gift shop.

I’d mail-ordered the one he has, given it to him the first Christmas we’d been together. I’d admitted my one dream was to marry him, here, on this farm, where that maple had stood.

His gaze intent on mine, he quotes the poem: “My sash is lowered when the night comes on, but let there never be a curtain drawn between you and me.”

There’s a knot in my throat.

“Do you still want to marry me, Mel?”

I blink. “But… you loved her. Rose.”

“I did.” He leans toward me. “It doesn’t matter now.”

The air is still, the only sound is the fire’s hisspop-crackle.

“10 Signs He’s Using You” seems farcical, stuff penned by bitter women, and right now I’m not one of them—joy burbles through my limbs, belly, chest, face. “Yes.”

He cups my hand. “Then we’ll do it. Tomorrow. We’ll just marry ourselves. Out by where the maple used to stand.”

I flush.

He’s on me; we land on my makeshift bed in the corner.

Suddenly, something jabs my hip. The gun. It’s still in my pocket.

I laugh. “Wait.”

He stops. “What?”

I pull the gun out, set it on the small table that serves as my nightstand.

“Just take everything off,” he says.

And I delight in his almond-bourbon-lavender taste and think something there is that doesn’t love a wall. Maybe one day we’ll mend and now that day is here.


I open my eyes. The drear of late-winter day leaks through the sheers; there’s a chill in my bones and a bouldering roar.

The fire in the hearth has gone out. And it’s raining. In torrents.

I jar the dead-to-the-world Warren. “Oh my God get up! Get up!”

He mumbles, stirs as I struggle into my jeans and flannel. I rush to the window. The fires in the ditch are dead; there isn’t even any smoke. Out in the gloom, the skeletons merrily funnel into and out of the trench like a river of white flesh-eating ants. They’re advancing on the house.

“What’s going on?”

“The fires went out, they’re coming!”

“Shit.” He whips his clothes off the line. “Just re-light the fire in here, we can wave burning logs at them!”

A claw seizes my heart. “We have no matches!”

He just stops and looks at me, his eyes wide. “We can run.”

But I peer out the back window and know better: the skeletons have encircled the house. “We can’t.”

He comes up behind me, brushes the sheers aside. For a few moments, we simply watch them approach.

Then he whispers, “At least I’m not alone.”

The words are hot pokers through my heart, cement in my lungs. My face burns; I can’t breathe; I can barely speak. Then I collect myself and face him. “Is that why you really came to find me? You didn’t want to be alone?”

He looks surprised, and I know immediately he hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud.

He sets his hand on my cheek. “I knew if anyone was gonna still be breathing, it’d be you. You don’t give up.”

I sadly recognize this is true about more things than it should be.

“I had no choice,” he says.

The skeletons hurtle over the porch railing; the house shakes. A black object plummets from the small table that serves as a nightstand.

The gun.

All those people who shot themselves or others, I’d marveled at how hard a choice that must’ve been. But now, facing the only man I’ve ever loved, knowing that he truly had deeply loved Rose and the only reason he’s here with me is because the world ended, what kind of heartbreaking existence is knowing all of that, every day, loving him, knowing that?—now the choice isn’t difficult at all.

I fling myself on the mattress, reach for the weapon, aim it. “Step back, Warren.”


“You heard me. Step back.”

I swear I see sweat break out on his forehead. “Wha—what are you doing?”

“I’m not you, Warren. I’m not afraid of being alone. Or anything else.”

A skeleton, its bony fingers reaching for us, crashes through the wall. I close my eyes and pull the trigger.

When I said I wouldn’t get back together with Warren if he were the last man on Earth, I meant it.


Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s short fiction has appeared in Carpe Articulum, The Adirondack Review, Barbaric Yawp, New Witch Magazine, Toasted Cheese, and others, including several anthologies such as Dark Opus Press’ In Poe’s Shadow. She holds an MFA from Goddard College, has received three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies, and is editor for Read Short Fiction. Her most recent work, Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole, is a collection of ghost stories set in Disney Parks; her horror novel, Bad Apple, is forthcoming from Vagabondage Books. She’s also a member of the New England Horror Writers Association. Her website is kristipetersenschoonover.com. Email: petersenschoonover[at]gmail.com

Bridging Christmas

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Kristi Petersen Schoonover

My eight-year-old sister Kelly says that Santa doesn’t come to Salisbury.

“That’s ridiculous,” I say. The latest in a string of ridiculous things in this nowhere village. Like the football team only plays against itself and I have to be up making breakfast at 5:30, because our school’s an hour away and the bus, according to the guys, takes even longer in the winter on account of the plow attached to its grill. “Santa goes everywhere.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’m eighteen.”

“You’re wrong, Graham. He doesn’t come here,” she insists. “Ask your nickelback friends.”

“Quarterbacks.” The kitchen linoleum is out of the forties with dancing salt shakers for a design, and it’s so cold it’s numbed my toes. I just hate stuff on my feet—even if Mom says we shouldn’t walk in this house barefoot because of the mice. It’s not the city, she’d said. Country mouse poop is loaded with esoteric diseases. It still wasn’t enough to keep me from wearing socks, but now that it’s December—a much harsher December than two hundred miles southeast in New York City was, I might change my mind. “My friends are quarterbacks.”

“My friend Shelby says they don’t need Santa because they have their own special guy called The Flannel Man.”

The toaster pops. A piece of toast rockets from the slot and hits one of the pinged white metal cabinets. The wallpaper’s dingy, the couch sags in the middle, and the porch windows leak in the summer rains, but we have a toaster that could dance if it weren’t even plugged into the wall. Mom’s concession. Not like there could be much of a concession for her driving Dad away and moving us to a town whose main drag is a single-plot cemetery, a combo gas station/general store/post office/diner, and a decrepit barn covered in deer antlers.

I shovel the eggs and sausages onto two plates and set one in front of Kelly.

She frowns. “I don’t like sausage.”

“Then don’t eat it.” I reach for the pepper and blanket my eggs.

“Why didn’t you make bacon?”

“Because we’re out and Mom hasn’t been to the supermarket in awhile.”

Bacon’s Kelly’s favorite, and when we lived in the city there was always plenty because Mom could get it right around the corner. But the only place we can buy it up here is the Price Chopper in Gloversville, which is a total haul. So she only goes there once a month—and then doesn’t buy enough.

“Do you think Mom will buy some so we can have it on Christmas?”

“That’s three weeks away,” I say, stabbing my egg with a fork. The runny yolk creeps toward my toast. “I’m sure we’ll have some by then.”

“If she doesn’t, maybe The Flannel Man will leave some on the porch! Shelby says last year The Flannel Man left them a whole roasted pig for Christmas, so I bet he’ll bring me bacon!”

“Who will bring you bacon?” Mom shuffles in, looking haggard. She’s in her bathrobe, and she’ll probably be in it all day. Not like she drinks anymore—she used to, after Dad took off, but since we moved here, she’s channeled her creative energy into making jams. Jerva’s Jams, she calls them. She churns them out, decorates the jars with red gingham, and sells them in the I-90 rest stops next to the shot glasses that say I ? NY.

“The Flannel Man,” Kelly says. She hasn’t touched her breakfast.

“Who the hell,” Mom says, pulling a mug out of the cabinet and peering inside it, presumably looking for mouse crap, “is The Flannel Man?”

“She’s got something in her head that Santa doesn’t visit here because they have their own dude who does it just for this town. Something her friend told her.”

“It’s true!” Kelly stands up and almost falls over. She was born with one leg shorter than the other, so walking’s difficult enough; when she’s excited, she forgets and does things like falls over getting out of chairs. It’s why I always have to look after her.

“Kelly!” Mom reacts. “You need to stay calm. You don’t want to crack your lip open again.”

“But it’s true. He lives under the bridge. The abandoned bridge.”

I almost choke on my toast. “Not the one on our property?” I say. Elkie told me Mom was able to get this broken-down place cheap because our driveway used to be a town road that connected Route 29A on one side of Trammel Creek with 29A on the other. You made a left onto our driveway, you went three miles, you passed our house, and then you went about three hundred feet to an old wooden bridge. I guess five years ago part of the wooden bridge collapsed. The town didn’t fix it or move the debris, they just left it. Built a new bridge in town instead. Nobody wanted property with a broken bridge. It was cursed, Elkie said.

“Yes.” Kelly nods enthusiastically. “Our bridge! The Flannel Man lives right up the road!”

“That’s a bit silly, isn’t it? A man living under that falling-down thing.” Mom sips her coffee.

“He does! Shelby told me her brother saw him and he was like this big hairy ape-man. Like Bigfoot.”

Mom dries the cup, pours her coffee, and sighs. “Somehow I doubt a Bigfoot would be running around leaving gifts on people’s doorsteps, even if he were a friendly neighborhood one. Now eat your breakfast and hurry up.”

I get up and put my plate in the sink just in time to see a wood spider crawl down the drain. “It was probably just some animal he saw. There’s tons of bears and stuff around here.”

Mom touches my arm and murmurs, “Graham, don’t scare her.”

“Did I sound like I was trying to scare her?”

“Not really,” she says, sipping her coffee, “but I know that tone of voice.”

She’s talking about the first few months after Dad left. I tortured Kelly. I was just pissed off and she was an easy target. I played jokes on her, told her there were ghosts living in her closet, shit like that. Mostly so Mom would talk to me, though. She wasn’t doing a lot of that after Dad left. She was talking a lot to the bottle of blackberry brandy instead. If I was being yelled at, at least I felt like I existed. “That was a long time ago, Mom.”

She eyes me, dumps her coffee in the sink, and shuffles toward her bedroom. “I’m going back to bed for awhile.”

Outside, there’s fog. Make no mistake, it’s cold, but there’s fog. It’s another thing about the Adirondacks I hate. In the city, if I saw fog, I knew it was warmer out. Here, the fog billows in like something out of a John Carpenter film and leaves ice on the leaves behind it. I help Kelly into her Barbie coat and mittens.


Me and Elkie smoke cigarettes during lunch in the woods behind the school. There’s a private clearing surrounded by a huddle of evergreens and tons of boulders that have plenty of holes for us to hide lighters and ditch butts. In the summer, it’s a festive hideaway out of the Adirondack humidity, the kind of place you want to toast marshmallows. Now, though, with a foot of snow on the ground, the logs we sit on glazed with ice, and freezing rain stinging our cheeks, it’s creepy.

I flick the Bic and light up, then pass the cigarette to Elkie. “So who the hell is this Flannel Man my sister keeps talking about?”

“Oh, he goes back, like, a hundred years or something.” One of her long black braids is caught under the collar of her coat and the other one hangs loose; the incongruity is annoying. “There was a town up on top of the mountain called Bungtown ‘cuz they made barrels or some crap. And like at the end of the 1800s everybody who lived there got plague or whatever and died, but there was this one guy who survived and he came down and moved underneath the bridge that used to be on your property.” She takes a drag. “He had to live there because nobody wanted to go near the old fart for fear of getting sick. But I guess he had scads of money and he missed his kids who died, because every Christmas he supposedly left presents for all the kids in town on their porches.” She passes the cigarette back to me. “He did that for like ten years and then he disappeared, and the parents felt so bad they started giving their kids stuff from ‘The Flannel Man’ instead of Santa.”

I get what Kelly is saying now. “So nobody writes ‘to Jimmy from Santa’.”

“Pretty much,” she says. “Around here, it’s ‘to Jimmy from The Flannel Man.’ Kinda bizarre. Every couple years some freak resurrects the whole thing and really does leave presents from The Flannel Man on people’s front porches. You’ve lived here long enough to see there isn’t much to do around here, much less in the dead of winter, except for shovel snow. Like last year there were like six families said they woke up Christmas morning and found presents on their porches, presents they didn’t buy.” She stands up and stretches.

“So it’s true? Shelby did have a whole pig roast left on her porch on Christmas last year?”

Elkie’s trapped braid finally comes loose. “Oh, yeah. But like I said, some freak like Shelby’s brother Seth probably did it. Bored, wanted to get his rocks off.” She takes the last drag off the cigarette. She tries to pitch it into the cup-sized hole in a boulder we’ve been using all week to toss our butts. “He would, too, he’s such an asshole. Let me tell you that apple don’t fall far from the tree.” That’s when I notice the hole is empty. There should be at least five or six butts in there—me and Elkie make sure we dump it every Friday, so hunters or anybody cross-country skiing or hiking through these woods on the weekends won’t find it and discover our secret patchaway—but today’s only Wednesday.

“Elk, did you dump the butts? Our hole’s empty.”

“Why the hell would I do that in the middle of the week?” She pulls her hood up over her head and wraps her scarf around her mouth. “Maybe it was The Flannel Man, ooga-booga,” she laughs as her booted feet crunch through the snow.

There is a crash in the woods behind us and I turn and look.

Elkie doesn’t seem to hear it and keeps walking.


The last time I saw my father was Christmas Night two years ago, and he was wearing the brand new peacock-colored flannel shirt, XXL, that was the first present he opened that day—the one from me. And I was surprised he liked it so much.

My Dad was always all about his job, working his ass off, crunching numbers in some cubicle at a company. Mom and me and Kelly, especially Kelly, with all her surgeries for her legs, we never wanted for anything. He was always working, working late, leaving before I left for school and coming home after I was in bed. And I thought he loved his work. So every Christmas I bought him business-y things. Ties. Or dress shirts. Or pencil cups and boxes of paper clips.

But for the better portion of that year, I found out Dad wasn’t all work and no play. At least, he didn’t want to be all work and no play. I heard Mom yelling at him at night. It seemed like she was always asking him for more stuff, we need a new car, I bought this new dress, Kelly needs to have a trip to Disney World… the more I listened, the more I figured out that Dad really didn’t like work; he was just doing it for us. And he never yelled back when my Mom got all harpy. The only thing I ever heard him say back to her at a volume above normal was, “Jesus, aren’t you ever going to appreciate what I do for you?”

So that Christmas was the one that I decided to encourage him to take a little down time for himself. To go do something guy-esque, like bowling or hunting or fixing cars. And so I took a risk. And I bought him the flannel shirt.

He put it on and buttoned it up. “This is nice, Graham,” he said, feeling it. “It’s really comfortable.”

“I thought you could use it,” I said.

He looked at me for what seemed like a long time. I know because we got almost all the way through “We Three Kings,” which was playing on the stereo, before he winked at me and said, “Don’t you worry, I will.”

“Open mine!” Kelly demanded. She was chewing on a very crisp piece of bacon, and crumbs fell from the corners of her mouth to the rug. “Open mine!” She handed him the box, inside which was a tie with martini glasses on it.

He thanked her by patting her on the head, but then said, “Okay, now comes the best part! Kids, let’s get to opening your presents!”

Later, after Mom and Kelly were in bed, me and Dad were cleaning up the living room. He still had the shirt on.

“I really like this, Graham,” Dad said. “Really. I know it was probably a little scary for you, buying me something so different.”

“I didn’t think you’d like it,” I answered. “I was nervous.”

“See?” He nodded. “It pays to take a risk, doesn’t it?” He took a piece of wrapping paper, tossed it in the fireplace, and lit a match. “I want you to remember that. Sometimes you need to be not so safe about things. Sometimes, you need to change it up if you’re going to make yourself happy.”

The next morning I got up, and Mom was sitting at the kitchen table, crying. “Your father’s gone.”

“Where’d he go?” I was rummaging in the refrigerator in search of leftover eggnog—the only thing I was allowed to drink in my parents’ house, and I could have it for as many days as I pleased until it was gone, but once it was gone, there would be no more.

“No,” she said. She blew her nose. The worn-out tissue broke apart and disintegrated into tiny white bits. “Gone forever. He won’t be back.”

I stood there, blinking. “Why?”

But she cast her gaze to the floor, went to the bedroom and slammed the door. That was the first night I saw her really drunk, and after that, there was eggnog in the house every night and I could have had it whenever I wanted.

We made it through one more Christmas in the city.

Then, this past April, we came here.


It’s the middle of the night—almost morning, actually—and there is a thunk, a crash, and Kelly screaming. I hear Mom rush downstairs, and when I get down to the kitchen and flip on the light, I realize Kelly wasn’t screaming in horror, but in surprise.

“He was here! He was here! The Flannel Man!”

Mom rolls her eyes. “For God’s sake, Kelly, it’s five o’clock in the morning and I only just went to bed an hour ago. I was up all night, I didn’t see anyone.”

“He was here!”

“You had a dream,” Mom says. “All this bat-shit talk, it’s got you imagining stuff.”

But through the dark of the kitchen, out in the indigo night, I think I see a shadow dart by the window. And I hear footsteps.

“Mom, take Kelly and go upstairs.”


“I’m on the football team, Mom, I can handle it. Now take Kelly and go upstairs and lock the door. Somebody is definitely out there.”

She is about to protest further, but then Kelly says, “I told you!”

They tiptoe out of the room; they tiptoe up the stairs. And the sound of the Civil-War era stairs creaking under their lighter footfalls chills me, because I realize it’s familiar. I’ve heard that sound in the house before. I’ve heard that sound in the middle of the night when I knew both Mom and Kelly were in bed.

Whoever’s out there has been inside our house.

I have no choice.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and cross myself, and in my head, I heard Dad say, sometimes you need to not be so safe about things. I grab the mop, because it’s the only thing even close to a weapon, pull open the door, and rush out onto the porch, shrieking “yeeyeeyeeyeeyeeyeeyeeyee!

But there is nothing but the sound of the wind chimes and that mournful mountain silence broken only by the occasional hoot of an owl.

Until I see the footprints in the snow. Footprints that don’t belong to me, or Kelly, or Mom. Because they start in the corner by the woodpile, trail off the edge of the porch, and wend their way toward the frozen stream in the direction of the broken bridge.

I look back at the house. In the upstairs hall window I see Mom and Kelly’s huddled shadows.

I swallow. I should follow those tracks to the bridge and put an end to this once and for all. For all I know, it’s that asshole Seth, like Elkie said. But then I feel how cold my feet are and realize I’m out here, in the snow, barefoot.

On Christmas Eve.

I wave an ‘all-clear’ up to Mom and Kelly, and I see Mom pull the sheer curtain across the window and the hall light goes out. I balance the mop handle on my shoulder and start to walk, as fast as I can because my feet are burning, back toward the porch—

But I see a dark, hulking shape moving toward the bridge. Son of a bitch! “I see you!” I yell, and the thing stops for a moment and turns. God, it’s thick in the middle. Big, I can’t tell how much bigger than me, but tall.

“Get off our land!”

The thing turns and starts to run back toward the broken bridge, and I follow it, hoping to catch up with it before it decides to duck into the woods. As I get closer I can hear its heavy footfalls, a heavy crunching of the iced-over snow. God, my feet are burning!

Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.

It veers toward the broken bridge.

“Get out of here!” I shout, waving the mop. The shape is standing on the embankment, just above its lair, and it’s watching me advance, making no move to retreat. I keep running, brandishing the mop handle. I try to become one with the burning in my feet, to use the pain for courage, and I rush at the figure, raise the handle over my head, and poise to strike. And when I do, the handle clubs nothing. I end up falling down in the snow.

The dark shape has vanished.


Mom’s Swedish meatballs taste like plastic because she makes them with the powdered sauce that comes in a box. But it’s Christmas Day and she’s making something other than jam, so I’m not going to complain.

“So,” Mom says. “If you didn’t see anyone, what was all that yelling out in the yard?”

I hadn’t wanted to frighten them, so I had lied about the dark shape. “Just raccoons. I went all the way up to the bridge, Mom,” I say. “There was no one there.”

“You didn’t see The Flannel Man?” Kelly is sitting by the Christmas tree, sorting presents to the strains of Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

I look at Mom. She has that stern I’m-warning-you-young-man look on her face.

“No,” I say. “No, Kelly. There’s no such thing as The Flannel Man.”

Mom nods her approval as she stabs meatballs with her fork puts them into the Crock Pot with that vile yellow sauce.

“Really? Because he left us presents!”

One of the meatballs falls off Mom’s fork and makes a soft splish as it lands on the metal countertop between the stove and the Crock Pot.

My chest pinches. “Stop joking around, brat.”

“No, really! He left us presents! Come and see!”

Mom and I don’t move for a moment, and then we head into the living room, lit only by the twinkling white and red lights of the tree. Kelly’s got a gift, wrapped in red shiny paper, in her hand. At her feet is a pile of four or five more. “See?”

Terror: that shadow person was in this house last night. There was someone in our home.

“They have our names on them!” Kelly is beaming. “Look! Kelly. Mom, these two are for you. And Graham he even got you, too! We should go down to the bridge and thank him and maybe bring him some meatballs!”

Mom looks at me, her eyes narrowing. “Graham,” she hisses. “How could you?”

It takes me a second to figure out she’s accusing me of playing a prank on Kelly. “Mom. I didn’t! I swear!

Her expression turns sternly dubious. “Right. You said you didn’t see anyone last night.”

“I…” I know I have to come clean or she’ll blame me. “I… I did, Mom. I did see someone. I lied. I’m sorry.”

She scowls. “If your father were around—”

But she doesn’t finish her sentence. There’s no sound in the room except Frank Sinatra crooning “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.”

“Where’s Kelly?” she asks.

Kelly is gone.

Mom’s voice goes up in pitch a notch. “Where’s Kelly?

As if in response, I hear the wind chimes on the porch and the slam of the door.

“Kelly!” Mom screams and clambers to her feet, nearly tripping on her bathrobe as she races toward the kitchen.

“Mom, I’ll go.”

“Graham, she’ll fall, she’ll get lost, she’ll— Oh, God! She took the meatballs!”

I set my hands on her upper arms. “Mom, I’ll get her. Go sit down.” And then I’m out the door, running, my feet freezing because I once again am a complete ass and am running outside in the snow barefoot. “Kelly!” I see her, in her yellow nightgown, hobbling down the embankment. She vanishes behind the skeletal bushes.

I envision her cracking her skull open on the boulders that line the creek and pick up my pace. I scramble down the embankment, slipping a few times on the ice, but arrive under the bridge unharmed.

Kelly stands there, her mouth hanging open, her little chest heaving, her breaths coming out in white puffs.

She is staring at one big, hairy man, all right. He’s got a squirrel-colored beard and hair that looks like fourteen chickadees have built nests in it. But he’s far from Bigfoot. He’s just your regular old homeless guy living under a bridge. Only something’s different.

I’d know that peacock-colored flannel shirt anywhere.


Kristi Petersen Schoonover‘s short horror fiction has appeared in WrongWorld‘s latest multi-media anthology, I’m Going to Tell You One More Time; Barbaric Yawp, The Illuminata, New Witch Magazine, MudRock: Stories & Tales, and over a dozen others, including Sussurus Press’ I Am This Meat anthology. Her stories “Wailing Station” and “King of Bull” took 2nd and 1st place, respectively, in Toasted Cheese‘s 2006 and 2007 Dead of Winter Contests. She holds a BA in Literature and Creative Writing from Burlington College and is pursuing an MFA at Goddard College in Vermont. E-mail: petersenschoonover[at]gmail.com

King of Bull

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Kristi Petersen Schoonover

I make beer that comes with its own bull. Urban Legend, it’s called, and each can’s got a story printed on it. All you need to do to impress that lady is read the can while her back’s turned, then entertain her with amazing, terrifying tales. Of deadly South American spiders lurking under restroom toilet seats. Of children bitten by snakes living in carousel horses. Of slighted dead brides seeking revenge or spots where cars roll uphill. No matter how wasted you are, you’re glib as Saki.

Yup, it’s a winning idea. People drink the bars out of Urban Legend faster than I can brew it. Last year, I surpassed Sam Adams in output, for God’s sake. I own the second biggest brewery in the country, and I’m now rich.

And famous. Just ask last month’s Beer Times. Or Bottle Talk. Everyone wants to know “Why Urban Legend’s got ’em talking!” But don’t bother reading the articles; I know the story. Consider the couple who brought home a dog as a souvenir of their Mexican vacation (turned out it was actually a rat). Or the homemaker who bought a very expensive cactus (which suddenly exploded, infesting her million-dollar home with deadly tarantulas). Or the girl who swam with her mouth open (nine months later, she gave birth to a frog, a lizard, or an octopus. Depends which version you hear). This stuff sounds plausible. It plays on common fears. Add a little alcohol, you get a sensation. I figured out how to capitalize on that. That’s why Contemporary Brewery dubbed me “King of Bull.”

Which gives me a lot to be grateful for on Thanksgiving Day. It’s bright and cold, and this makes it out of the question to eat at home. No, I like where I live. It’s an abandoned factory that’s been converted to lofts. Except for the unfinished top floor. Because I live underneath it, on windy days like today, there are all kinds of frigid drafts bouncing around my apartment. And all kinds of weird noises from up there. Like the skitter of leaves or maybe rodents looking to get out of the elements. Not to mention winds screaming through every crack. So I eat my Uncle Cluck’s Cock-n-Bull Special—chicken and roast beef in gravy—in my office at the brewery, where it’s warm and quiet.

That’s when she walks in. A wisp of a woman in a white gown with a poinsettia-red bow at the bodice. Attractive, save for her thin lips and slightly blue complexion. And the smell. Like slugs, boiled rice, and rubbing alcohol.

“You.” She points a squiggly, curled fingernail at me. “You’re the one that’s gotten me in this mess.”

I suddenly regret not being at home.

“Uh… I’m sorry. What mess?” I get the pit in my stomach. The one that signals unavoidable catastrophe. Like a lawsuit, maybe she cut herself on a can. Just give her what she wants…

“The mess that’s brought me back from my perfectly pleasant vacation.” She takes a cigarette from the pack on my desk and rams it in her mouth. “I’d like a light please.”

“In the bowl, there.” I nod.

She strikes a match and lights up. “People had almost forgotten about me. I was finally going to get some rest!” She blows out a long column of smoke. “But now that you’ve got every inebriated individual telling my story, I’m running all over the place again, and do you have any idea how outlandishly cold it is in a cemetery in the middle of October when you’re only wearing a nightie?”

I just blink at her.

“Okay. Fine. How about this. A typical night of my life. In Vermont, I hang from some bridge because my bastard lover jilted me. Then I travel to New York and rise up out of some dirty lake looking for my dead child. If I get done with that before witching hour, I get to Connecticut, where I streak across the road scaring motorists. If there even are any at that hour. And then, just before dawn, I’m in New Jersey, where I was either killed immediately after my wedding or following my first prom, and I’m still looking for either my new groom or my prom date. I think. Hell, I don’t even know who I am anymore! All I wanted was some time to find myself!” Then she cries.

I reach over and touch her arm. It’s like touching a cold keg. “I’d like to—”

“Get away from me!” She recoils. “Don’t touch me.”

“Look, ma’am, I really—”

She slams her hand down on the desk. The ax-shaped ashtray jumps, and my pencil cup falls over. “You don’t understand!”

The pencils, one by one, roll off the desk.

She is suddenly nose-to-nose with me. “Every time someone tells my story, I get more real. Look at me, for God’s sake! I’m practically opaque. I have no shimmer anymore!” She shudders and rubs her arms. “Horrible. I’m like this flat gray pasty thing.”

I know the story on this one. She obviously just believes she’s the Lady in White. Yup. Like someone who skipped the meds today. All I need to do is appease her, talk her down. “What… what do you want me to do?”

“I want you to pull all the cans with my stories on them. All the variations that have a white lady, I want them all pulled. Off the shelves, out of bars, wherever else you’ve got them. Pulled.”

Why don’t crazies ask for simple stuff? Like give me six cases of free beer? Or give me a check for fourteen grand? “Look, miss, I… I can’t… what you’re asking me to do would be impossible… cost-prohibitive—”

“Fine. You’ll hear from my lawyer, then.” She opens the door and whisks through it.


This isn’t new. I’ve been threatened before. When I bought the abandoned asylum to turn it into a brewery, people around town buzzed. Said I was going to get attacked by the Bulldog Boy. Or the Melon Heads. Or whoever it was that had been rumored to live here. I showed up one day and BULLDOG BOY WILL BITE YOUR ASS was graffitied all over the side of the building. And whoever did it used neon green spray paint—it was obvious as snot on a bridal gown. But there is no Bulldog Boy, of course. There are no Melon Heads, of course. So nothing ever came of it.

When my office phone rings, I answer it on speaker.

“Dix, what are you doing? I thought we were past the days when your mouth was getting you into trouble.” It’s Rick, my lawyer.

“What do you mean?” I glance over at the bar. I’d ripped it out of our old house before I had it bulldozed. Yup. Had to condemn my childhood home. Nothing quite builds character like that.

“You know what I mean,” he says. “I just got a call from Lady White’s lawyer.”

I go over to the bar and get myself an Urban Legend from the fridge. The story on the back claims that if you chant “Bloody Mary” thirteen times in a candle-lit bathroom a pissed-off ghost’ll show up and rip off your face. “Who?”

“Lady White? She stopped by to politely ask you to remove the defaming stories from your beer cans and advertising, and you refused? So she went to her lawyer, who promptly called me.”

You have got to be kidding me, I think. I light up a cigarette, lean back, and put my feet up on the desk. “First of all, she wasn’t polite. She helped herself to my cigarettes—”


“I won’t do it, Rick. She’s a nut. I can’t believe you’re buying this.” What’s-her-face’s cigarette butt is still in the ashtray; I pick it up and twirl it in my fingers. The butt has blue lipstick on the filter.

“She has a case. Be smart and let’s just drop this. If it goes to court, you’ll lose. Besides, great stories never really die.”

The only sound is the ticking of the big clock that’s shaped like the state of Maryland. A gift from the guys at Weird U.S.

“Unless you stop telling them.” I toss her butt back into the ashtray and crush out mine. They look like a pair of grubs hibernating in the dirt.

I remember her despair. Her whinnying tears. Oh, hell. There are tons of other urban legends out there. It isn’t like I’m gonna run dry. She’s a little nutty, and it might be best to just play along. And Christ, it is the day after Thanksgiving. “Wait a minute. You know what? Tell her I’ll pull them.”


Anyone else’d be thrilled to see a package outside his office door on Christmas Eve. Well, maybe not if it looks like this one. It’s pretty beat up and has no return address. The brown paper’s stained and waxy like the wrapper you’d find at the bottom of a greasy order of fries.

I set it down on my desk next to my Uncle Cluck’s bag. I crack open a can of Urban Legend, and bite into my Cock-n-Bull Special, contemplate the package as I chew. I suppose I could open it. It doesn’t look like there’d be a bomb in there, and there’s also an antiseptic smell.

Which suddenly I’m not sure is coming from the box or my sandwich. It tastes weird. A little off. The roast beef’s flat, the chicken’s yeasty. I put it aside.

I open the box, and a shower of those damn Styrofoam peanuts sprays all over the room. The smell gets worse as I peel aside a couple of layers of yellowed newspaper. There’s a white satin dress.

And now I know the smell. Formaldehyde. And I know the storythat goes with it. Yup. It’s on the backs of the latest batches of Urban Legend. A poverty-stricken girl gets an invitation to a fancy ball. She goes to a pawnshop and buys a dress. It smells a bit strange, but she thinks nothing of it ‘cuz she’s just thrilled to be able to afford a gown. Only halfway through the night, she starts feeling sick. When she goes home that night, she dies. They do an autopsy and find her blood’s coursing with formaldehyde. Turns out the dress she bought’d been on a corpse just a couple of days before. The embalming fluid soaked the dress and then into the poor girl’s pores. It killed her.

Of course, that’s just an urban legend.

I reach for my sandwich and it’s not on the wrapper. Where the hell did it go? Did I miss the wrapper when I put the chicken down?

I shift papers around. I look on the floor. The damn sandwich is gone.

I consider this a minute. Just as I lift my beer to take a sip, I catch the story printed on the can.

Animal 57: The Evil Lurking Beneath the Drive-Thru Window. Think that fast food is real meat or chicken? Think again! Here’s what’s really going on in the back rooms of those chains we’re all so fond of: ungodly genetic experimentation. Huge, throbbing piles of artificially created meat float in nutrient-rich jelly. Headless chickens with fourteen breasts and thirty-six thighs hang from hooks, feeding tubes coursing through their flesh. Worse yet? Some of these animals are conscious. They know when they’re about to be flayed. They can feel themselves being—er—dismembered. So the next time you’re tempted to cruise the drive-thru, stop and think. And I wouldn’t leave that sandwich unattended if I were you.

My God. Maybe Lady in White is… telling the truth. Maybe anything I print on these cans comes true.

Which means some girl really was just poisoned by embalming fluid. Which means there’s a possessed sandwich crawling around my office with plans to take over the world.

Unless I pull the stories. Put it all back the way it was.

Enter the Lady in White. Only she’s—a little difficult to see. Almost like gauze, sparkles trail behind her like a bridal train. “You!” She twirls toward me and kisses my cheek. “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, gracious sir! Look at me!” She flies to the mirror. Apparently she can see her reflection; I can’t. “In just a couple of weeks I’ll be practically invisible!” She tosses her tresses back over her shoulders. “I hope it happens soon! I absolutely can’t wait to get to Florida.”


She turns. “Well, yes. I’m going to retire down south, sit on the beach, and bask in the sun. I’ll be warm! No more nighties!”

I reach for a cigarette. “Glad to hear you’re feeling better.” Her eyes are yellow, like hops. “Want one?”

“I’d smoke another but I’m almost getting to the point where I’m too transparent to pick things up and I wouldn’t want to drop it somewhere and start a conflagration. Well, I’ll be on my way.” She glides by me. “By the way, my name is Constance.”


“Yes. I remembered it just yesterday. I can’t wait to figure out my last name and how I died! Thanks again!”

Over the next few hours, the snow turns to freezing rain.


When I leave the air’s warmer. Thick fog cottons the parking lot. Yup, it’s real Loch Ness weather to the point I have to guesstimate where I parked my car. The second I get in and start the engine, it rains, like small brutal fists beating on my hood. Visibility’s sucking. But I know these roads, so it’s all dandy.

Until I start over the railroad tracks and my car dies right in the middle of them.

Which it’s got no reason to do—I’d only driven it off the lot in June. I sit back in the driver’s seat and think. It’s still pouring, I have no umbrella, and it’s not like there’s a whole lot of houses around here I can run to anyway.

Just as I think I should get out and see if I can push my car over the tracks, there’s a God-awful rumble. The clang-clang of the bell and the red warning light that translates to get your ass moving because there’s a train coming. And there is. Chugging around the bend, hell-bent right for me.

I go to bust open the door and something holds it closed. An angry teenager glares at me. Some of his teeth are broken. Then, in the back window, I see a dozen or more petite shadows. I feel the car move. Something is pushing it over the tracks. The kid glares at the group in the back and starts yelling, but I can’t hear him. The train blasts its horn.

Jesus. I know this story. I’m being pushed over the tracks by a bunch of dead kids.

I cringe as I hear the shocks creak and groan before the car slams down safely on the other side of the tracks. The train rockets past, so close the car shimmies.

First, I thank God for Urban Legend. Then I roll down the window. “Listen, you crazy—”

The kid who had trapped me shouts at the others. “I told you guys we could have ended this if we just knocked him off. But no, you have to be a bunch of humanitarians!” Angry Teen folds his arms across his chest. “Listen, dude. It’s like this. We were gettin’ all cozy. We were goin’ home to the light. And then you started with the stories on the freakin’ cans about the dead little kids in the school bus accident and how they haunt the place where they died and now? Now we’re back where we were. Once again we gotta stand out here every freakin’ night and wait for clowns like you to come along and break down on the railroad tracks.”

A little girl with blond curls clutches Angry Teen’s leg. Trickles of blood play at the corners of her mouth. “You’re mean. Please let us go home.”

“Stop printing our story,” Angry Teen says as the group gathers around the car. They yelp please please please please and it sounds like a flock of Canadian geese. I roll up the window and their hands paw at the glass.


A vacant parking lot greets me at the apartment building. Not unusual for Christmas Eve. My five neighbors’ve got relatives in better towns. They’re at family dinners where everyone secretly wants to stab everyone else with forks.

I turn off the headlights and smoke a cigarette. It’s gotten cold again and freezing rain pelts my windshield. I think about the kids at the railroad crossing. If they’re huddled in some cave, trying to keep warm. If they’re trying to remember their last Christmases. Or if they even know that today is Christmas. I should pull those stories. Let those kids go home.

But I’m the King of Bull. What am I going to do with no stories to tell?

Right now, nothing. I’m doing nothing. I’m going up to my apartment. I’m plugging in that scraggily half-dead thing I call a Christmas tree. And I’m drinking a few more beers.

I get out of the car and make my way across the lot to the building entrance. There are strange-shaped footprints in the snow, ones that don’t have toes. And the door to my building is wide open. There’s also a gash in it, like someone splintered it with an ax. Snow and ice have blown into the hallway. Icicles stalactite the mailboxes. The lights buzz and flicker.

This doesn’t feel right. But I climb the stairs anyway.

They’re blocking my front door: a clown with glowing eyes and blood running from his mouth, and a man in a rabbit suit, who’s gripping an ax.

Dear God. I know these stories. The Phantom Clown and the Bunnyman.

Which means at this point it’s probably too late for me to do anything.

“Mr. Robinson,” Bunnyman hisses. His face is pocked, like from years of bad acne. “We’d like a word with you.”


Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s work has appeared in The Taj Mahal Review, Adirondack Review, Afternoon, Barbaric Yawp, Bewildering Stories, Chick Flicks, The Circle, Citizen Culture, I Like Monkeys, New Witch Magazine, Toasted Cheese, and a host of others. She is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College and lives in Danbury, Connecticut. E-mail: petersenschoonover[at]gmail.com

Wailing Station

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Kristi Petersen

On the forsaken Antarctic island where I was unfortunate enough to grow up, the snow littered the volcanic sand like a thousand dead terns on asphalt. At night, the brittle winds whipped across the plain and carried with them the forlorn cries of elephant seals burdened by their tire-rolls of flesh, starving Orca whales, and lonely penguins in search of mates. These animals had such pitiful wails to express their miseries, wails that haunted the landscape like spirits in a burned-out building.

Glasgow was my only friend in that forgotten place, and if it weren’t for his bright red coat he could have been mistaken for an indigene. His hair was a tuft of white like feathers; his skin was sallow like the dirty bellies of penguins; his eyes were the black of the volcanic sand beneath our feet. But Glasgow was afraid of nothing, and when we found the baby Orca on the beach he boldly touched its rubber skin.

“It’s a ghost!” he exclaimed. “See how pale it is!”

The beast grunted, then moaned like a ship’s horn.

“It’s dying,” I said. “We should try to save it. Maybe it could be a pet.”

Glasgow eyed me and his crooked smile revealed one gray tooth. “Ya think your pop would let us?”

But Pop came with a shotgun and four large men. He looked at me with sad eyes. “It’s better off out of its misery, Carrie,” he said. And I watched as the men dragged the battered body across the black sand, up over the rocks and toward the station. I asked Pop where he would bury it, maybe up in the cemetery next to the little white church that had half-collapsed in a volcanic mudslide two years ago, but he didn’t. That night and for many nights thereafter, I heard the whale’s desperate moaning, drifting across the barren land, forcing its way under the thick pane of my window, pummeling my fitful long-johnned sleep. I saw Pop, his gun aimed at the creature’s head, and I saw the whale, begging me right before it was shot, eyeing me with something like pleading.

But each morning I woke, and I knew Pop had done the right thing. I should have known Pop would never have let us keep a whale as a pet, and the animal would not have stayed around very long anyway; animals and sometimes even people had a way of suddenly disappearing. For a long time, I thought they would stow away on the supply ships that—when they could get through—came every once in awhile. But men and pets would disappear before that. And no one said anything. I asked Pop once, and he just told me, “Don’t go poking around.”

Glasgow and I were the only children on that dangerous whaling station. Ninety-nine of us lived in Wildman House, where we slept in separate, tiny rooms with desks and cots. Outside, the frigid air smelled of iron, damp, mud, creosote, and always the pungent odor of garbage and guano. Glasgow’s pop had come there on the beckoning promise of monumental cash after their house burned to the ground and there was no insurance to re-build. My momma came with my pop before I was born; Momma taught me and Glasgow in a small school room behind the infirmary until she died a few winters ago of flu, which Pop said she could have survived if the supplies had arrived in time. I hugged Pop a lot, then, but he did not stop saying they were going to leave us all here to starve.

Once Momma was gone, Glasgow and I were left to look after our own education. And many days we didn’t study. We stole the rusty shovel from behind the blacksmith’s workshop. We went behind Wildman House and dug a hole in the sand. The island was geothermal, so the sand was warm, and if we dug a hole, it filled with hot water, like a hot tub. We stripped our clothes and sat in it with only our cheeks and noses burning from cold, our red parkas lying on the white snow like patches of blood. Always Glasgow had his eye out for his pop or mine, because they would haul us out like boiled rabbits. “The water’s dangerous,” Pop told us. “If the volcano gets to erupting, your little bath there’ll fill with acid and cook ya crispy as a couple o’ fried chickens.”

But no threat of paternal or geologic fury could stop Glasgow. Not even the unholy baleful cries that echoed across the zebra-striped mountains. He said they came from Light House, where both our pops, and the rest of the men at the station, worked. And what they did in there, I didn’t know. All I knew was their cadaverous morning routine: like zombies in the cold dark the men rose from their cots, went to Commissary House to eat power breakfasts of bacon and slabs of ham—they were the greasiest and thickest meats I had ever seen—and then waddled with their meager lunch pails and hooked tools to Light House. They vanished inside, and the last man in was always Pop.

Our tub was not anywhere near Light House, but a dolorous screech, the sound of twisting metal, pierced the air.

Glasgow grinned. “Those are the ghosts,” he said, moving forward in the tub through the fog of steam. “The ghosts in Light House.”

Despite the fact that sweat was pooling underneath my eyes, chills spread from my feet up to my budding breasts. “What kind of ghosts?”

“Whale ghosts. Like the one we saw on the beach.”

“Get out of here!” I splashed water at him.

He squinted and held his hand up. “Stop it! What do you think they do all day in there? They kill whales. That’s how they get the oil for the barrels.”

My eyes slid across the long plain to the mountain of oil barrels at the water’s edge, near the docks. I knew better. I saw the supply ships and how they took the barrels of oil and gave us new ones. “No way! Pop only killed that one because it was sick!”

He splashed me back. “No, he kills them all day. All the pops do. That’s why they won’t let us over there and if we get caught we get whipped. They don’t want us to see them beating those poor whales to death, because the ghosts will leave the building and come after us. Our pops are trying to protect us.” He slid his frail body next to mine and dropped his voice, glancing suspiciously up at the windows of Wildman House. Three of the windows that were boarded up during the last gale still hadn’t been uncovered. “What do you think happened to poor Mr. Tomien?”

Mr. Tomien had been the last person to disappear a couple of weeks ago. The adults never spoke of it; there was no lumbering processional to the pathetic half-buried cemetery with the body.

“That was the whale ghosts. The ghosts are mad, and if they get too mad, they pick one of the men and kill them off. Why do you think there’s so many guys that disappear? Maybe the next one will be your pop.”

“You’re wrong.” But I thought of Momma’s funeral. I thought of the men carrying her body on a stretcher, the procession like a rook of Emperor penguins marching to the sea. I thought of the hole in my stomach when they came back without her. I could not lose Pop. Then I would truly be in the world alone.

I decided I was too hot and raised myself up out of the hole, feeling less the shock of cold and more the grit of the volcanic sand in my cotton panties. And I heard the wailing once more, this time like the sound the men made when they blew across the tops of their beer bottles, and the tinkle of the wind chimes outside Wildman House.

The heartbreaking shrieks, moans, and cries carried into the night. In Commissary House, the men ate and grumbled at long, rickety tables. “I am out of here on the next transport boat that comes through,” harrumphed Jix as he pushed away his bowl of pork stew. “I can’t take this no more.”

“One more day in that stinkin’ Light House is going to kill my back,” moaned Mr. Grommet. He was a bean pole. He wasn’t hired by my father. My father chose only fat men.

Me and Pop ate in the back room, because he was the boss, and since I was the only girl-child here, they didn’t want me near the men. The stew was as nasty as Jix said. The potatoes were like stones in the bottom of the brown broth. It reminded me of the guano I had seen over near the chinstrap penguin colonies, where Glasgow and I liked to explore. “Where is Mr. Tomien?” I asked.

Pop pegged me with that glass, milky eye of his that had no iris. After an accident in Light House, he had no eye for a long time, until a supply ship brought something he could use. “Why d’you want to know?”

“Glasgow says that the pops kill whales. And the whale ghosts are in Light House and that’s what got Mr. Tomien.”

Pop wrapped his stubby fingers around his amber bottle and swallowed his food. He was wearing his red gloves, the ones with the holes in the fingers, and he gobbled his dinner greedily. “That Glasgow kid is trouble. You should be studying, not running around with him.”

Outside in the other room, Jix said something about price per barrel.

I picked up my spoon, then put it down again. “Is it true?”

That time he squinted at me with his good eye. “Now you listen, Carrie. Sometimes, better off is better off. And you’re better off understanding that we’re doing what’s best. That’s all you need to know.” He swung his leg out from under the table and stood up. He had the red stains down the side of his leg again. At least once a week, I saw those red stains, because, he said, the buildings there were painted red and the stains rubbed off on his pants. I always tried to wash them out, but I decided then and there I shouldn’t do that again. It would be like trying to erase the As Momma used to put on my best papers.


He turned to look at me.

“What if the ghosts don’t understand?”

He gestured at my bowl. “Eat your food.”

I gave him a small smile, and he took his woolen cap from the hook by the door and fit it on his head.

That night, as I chased sleep, I heard the woebegone cries and imagined them coming from the bloody mouths of the ghosts of the whales. Normally, I slept with the lantern on full next to my bed, watching happy tongues of light lick my wool blanket; that night, I shut it off, wondering if perhaps I was burning their very body fat. That if just one of them were to escape Light House and see the sliver of my lamplight under the wooden shutter that covered my window, they would know that I, too, was guilty, and they would take me as they’d taken the others.

I opened the shutter that was on the inside of my window. At first I saw nothing. Then I looked at Light House, and against the indigo snow, a hunched shadow figure skulked about. Oh my God it was coming for me. I had not put out the light soon enough. I slammed the wooden panel and it rattled the window in the frame. I held my breath to see if anyone came, but no one did. Music poured from the Great Room, where I was never allowed because Pop and his friends gathered there to play cards and talk. The heavy smell of deep-frying bacon leaked down the halls and under my door.

I took a deep breath and climbed back into my cot.

The window rattled. Knock knock knock… I screamed, clamored for the oil lamp, and made ready to light it. I would set the ghost ablaze on a pyre of its own lard.

“Open up!” It was Glasgow. “Come on! It’s just me!”

I flailed for the latch on the shutter and pulled it aside and pushed open the glass.

“What the hell was that screaming about?”

“You scared me,” I whispered.

“How come you don’t have the light on in here?”

I didn’t answer because I felt foolish.

“What’s with the blood on your shirt?” He pointed.

I looked down. Speckles of blood dotted my light green flannel, and that’s when I felt the sting in my lip; I must have bitten it. I wiped it on my shirt sleeve.

“I’m going to Light House,” he said. “I read in this book that if you apologize to a ghost you can send it back to where it came from. I want to put them out of their misery.”

A pair of doleful shrieks, like women at a funeral, reached our ears.

“I’m not going down there. They sound mad. And didn’t you see the shadow before?”

“That was me, you idiot.” he whispered. “I found a way in that’s not locked.”

“I don’t think we should.”

“What are you, chicken?” he sneered. “This is the one way we can protect our pops.”

I thought of putting my pop in the volcanic ground, and again I felt encroaching isolation. I looked behind me at the dingy room. There were footfalls in the hall, the tromp-tromp-tromp that used to scare me when I was little until I learned it was just one of the men. Glasgow reached out his spindly hands sheathed in thin gloves, and I took them.

We booked across the midnight wasteland, and the snow crunched beneath our feet except for where the volcanic sand was warm and had melted it. We raced toward Light House, and the wailing, like whimpering dogs, pursued and pierced my arm bones like metal rods. I reached out and stopped Glasgow. “We shouldn’t.”

“We have to know!” He was out of breath. His exhales made clouds in the shapes of one-legged animals. “Come on.” He pulled me, but I struggled to keep up with him, and then my boot whacked something hard and… thwack! I was down in the sand, my chin a scraped burn.

I had tripped on some large white bones.

The building was not as angry-looking close-up as it was from far away, but to be that close gave me a strange tingle. I touched the board nearest me, and the peeling paint caught on the knit of my gloves. Bang! “What’s that?” I chirped.

“It’s just a metal panel, see?”

Above our heads, a corrugated metal door blew and shimmied against the wall, the sound of a hundred barrels plummeting down a mountainside.

And then there was the wailing.

“I’ve changed my mind,” I said.

But Glasgow had already lifted up a panel from the windowless wall, and the opening belched a stench of rust and hot oil and… something else. Bacon grease. “Come on!” He bent down and eked through the opening.

Another wail, like that of a starving cat.

I was considering staying outside, waiting for Glasgow and his foolishness to be done with. But in the cruel night canvas, there were only the zebra mountains, the sentries of our warm station buildings, a lone penguin or something hobbling about in the distance, and barrels of oil in a pile that loomed like the humps of sea monsters. The wind stirred a wallop of snow and stung my face like pine needles.

“Don’t you want to save your pop or what?”

I swallowed and scuttled through the opening.

Inside was nothing like I imagined a place Pop would work. It was not like the bright infirmary, full of syringes, comfortable beds, and bandages for the ill and dying. This place was windowless and black as the sand, the air rife with sickness and dead animals. I stretched my hand out and it hit something sharp and cold, and I screamed.

“Shut up!” Glasgow hissed. “You want them to hear?”

But the noise that came after was far more offensive than what had come from my own mouth. A sorrowful bellow that trembled the metal walls, and upon its silence there was a rattling of what sounded like heavy tools crashing into one another.

Something snorted and sighed and I wanted to vomit in fear. In the distance was the echo of a drip, like the dripping of the sink, and it rose and fell like a heartbeat. “I don’t want to go!” I rasped, closing my eyes as he guided me. My foot kicked over a bench with several jars and horrible instruments; one was a long rod with serrated edges that barely missed grazing my snow suit. I couldn’t imagine what Pop would do with such a thing, what Pop would do with any of these horrible things.

That was when we saw the creature lying in the corner chained to the wall in the dying light of a small lamp. It barely moved, but it had been the thing making the sounds; it curled and writhed and I could see as I got closer it had a leg missing and rough gouges cut from its flesh. I had seen this ghost before. I knew its identity.

“Mr. Tomien!” Glasgow gasped.

“H-h-h-hellll…p,” he wailed.

When he shifted his limbs, the smell of rotting flesh clouded the air.

I couldn’t say anything except “Wh-what?”

“They eat us,” he cried. “When they don’t give… enough… supplies… they… they… take a chunk.”

Glasgow seized my arm and wretched beside me. I thought about the pork stew. The smell of bacon wafting down the halls at night. The missing men. This is how Pop was feeds us all when supplies ran low, I thought. My mouth filled with saliva and the back of my throat burned.

“Please,” Mr. Tomien pleaded through mashed lips. “Please save me… they’ll come back… cut more.” He was wheezing. “And they… keep me alive… fresh meat…”

“What are we going to do now?” trembled Glasgow, and I sensed that for the first time, in his life, probably, he was afraid.

I thought about Pop, his missing eye, his fingerless gloves, his crying in the night after Momma had died, his cursing the supply ship captains. Now you listen, Carrie. Sometimes, better off is better off. “Put him out of his misery,” I said, and I glanced up at the row of hooks and sharp metal rods dangling from an overhead rack.


Kristi Petersen’s fiction has been featured in New Witch Magazine, Afternoon, The Circle, Citizen Culture, Mud Rock: Stories & Tales, Sinfully Twisted, The Wheel, I Like Monkeys, The Adirondack Review, Split Shot Magazine, Waxing & Waning: A Journal of Creative Pagan Fiction, and a dozen others. She lives in Danbury, Connecticut with her cat, Poe, and is pursuing her B.A. in Creative Writing and Literature from Burlington College in Vermont. E-mail: petersenschoonover[at]gmail.com