Nick's Literary Vault

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CARL’S WISH

Oh, how he wanted them all dead--and not just to fall over from a heart attack, but to watch them writhe in agony as fluids gushed from their orifices; but it wasn’t polite to think about family members like that.

Carl detested these family gatherings--twice a year, what the hell? He would often sit in the corner of the rented hall or on a hill in the park and just watch them all stuff their faces with the flesh of innocent animals and guzzle down the fermented taint of alcohol. He would often hear the whispers of “that boy’s off” or “I hope his mother has him on medication.” And yes, his mother had him on medication; pills that he would pulverize and slip into her morning coffee. His mother was doing just fine.

It was spring which meant that the family reunion was at Lord’s Park, a quiet little place with a few picnic shelters and a swing set. And as usual, Carl found a hill that gave him an excellent vantage point for watching his cattle. His mother was tending to her parents--the geezers who sat there and chewed when nothing was in their mouths. His aunts and uncles were circle-jerking each other with monotonous stories of their children’s successes. His cousins were fighting over a swing with a new shiny chain because the others had rusted.

It was easy for him to desire to strangle the kids with that rusty chain they all wanted to avoid. But Carl fancied himself creative and thought about it.

He could tie them up with the chain and crucify them to their god, the swing set. He could whip them with the chain, tearing away the skin that was so afraid to touch the rusty metal.

He broke a smile as he wondered if it was at all odd that he was well on his way to being one of the world’s most sadistic killers. But then he frowned, feeling alone. He wished that there was one other person to share his fondness for art--albeit a personal attachment to his specific media.

As he watched the children, a new face weaved about the other family members crowded around the food table. It was soft and round with a pointy chin and large, green eyes framed by naturally red hair the color of drying blood. The cousin that no one talked about was finally out.

Her name was Wish--a silly name derived from her mother’s desire for a pregnancy by tossing a coin into a fountain. Wish was barely eighteen and apparently just home from a long stay at a state mental facility (they call them hospitals now; and these hospitals have wards devoted to girls like Wish; the deep dark secluded wards with no names or numbers).

Wish was everything that Carl did not want to be. She was a true Gothic in the sense that she appreciated a good novel, not for its darkness but for its social commentary. True, she wore a black leather bodice with red cords pulled tight around her developing frame; a black tutu that sprouted well-formed legs garbed in red and black striped stockings; and, of course, the floppy, unlaced military boots. If Carl dressed like that, people would avoid him, and his art might never be seen. He stuck to blue jeans and light, colored tee shirts. But he could not take his eye from her.

And just as he was imagining what she would look like with her long, red hair covering her bare breasts (like the painting of Venus and the sea shell), she turned and secured an emerald gaze on him, like she could hear him from dozens of yards away. His eyes finally darted quickly to the parking lot where several of the men gathered around the back of an SUV and were urinating.

But he could hear her. He could feel her foot steps as she flung her heavy shoes in front of her. Her breath was steady and determined. Twigs snapped and leaves rustled and Carl nearly cried out with rage when the blur of red and black stood next to him, the knees bent as if they were pointing at him.

“Carl?” She asked.

He turned his head to respond and found that he was engulfed in tutu. He jumped up and took a few steps back, nearly stumbling down the hill. He felt awkward, like he was back to being a gangly youth and not just the gangly young adult he was.

“Oh, hey, Wish. I didn’t know you were coming.” Carl found the words easy if he imagined her stripped down to her broken skeleton.

“I escaped,” she whispered.

He let a nervous laugh slip.

She raised her arms and grasped him. “Give me a hug, Cuz.”

Carl mimicked the gesture, letting his hand touch the naked flesh of her back. His middle finger found the natural gap in the rear of the rib cage, and he dreamed of how nice it would be to slide a razor into the innocents.

“Whoops, careful,” she giggled, “don’t stab me.”

Carl let her go and stared at her, terrified.

“What?”

She blushed and began to play with the fabric of her tutu.

“You’re little soldier got excited and was eager to say hello”

Carl immediately went limp, not realizing he’d been hard in the first place; what’s more, he was afraid that she’d felt his knife.

“I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay,” she said, waving it off with a flick of a scarred wrist. “Uncle Mort had me on his lap and tried to finger-bang me.” She stepped towards him, acting like a little girl who was very nervous. “You wanna go play?”

“No, I think I’ll just hang here for a bit.” Carl could feel the eagerness rising. She was so pretty that he wanted to wear her flesh. She was so messed up that she just might let him.

“Come on,” she begged. “I’ll let you cut me.” She turned around and walked farther up the hill, making sure to give him a good view of her posterior. Carl gazed about to make sure that no one saw them, though he doubted they would understand. They would think it strange, but to people like Wish and Carl, what was about to happen had nothing to do with sex. It was about pleasure. Sex was merely a byproduct.

He followed her over the hill to a safe spot near an unused shelter. By the time he caught up with her, she was already in the back corner, the darkest spot, unrolling her stockings.

The rock-hard instrument Carl felt in his pocket was not a sexual device. It was his personalized knife, purchased in Tennessee when he was in the fourth grade. It had a long, whale bone handle and a thin, razor-sharp blade, “perfect for skinning your catch” the box had said. It worked as well as it had said on several occasions and was not doubt still the tool he wanted.

“I like the stockings on,” he said entering the shelter.

“Oh, you’re like that, huh?” She leaned against the brown cinderblock wall.

“I just like the way the blade feels going through two kinds of media.”

“Oh, you’re an artist?” She propped one naked leg up on the bench of a picnic table. “Why don’t you roll them up, if that’s what gets it going for you?”

Carl gently placed the knife in the drinking fountain next to her and bent down, taking a firm hold of the stocking and jerking up, smashing his hand purposefully between her thighs. She grunted. He smiled.

She grabbed him by the ears and pulled him in, biting down hard on his shoulder, through his shirt. He felt the warmth as her mouth brought about a flow of blood. Carl pulled back and tore his shirt off.

Wish stared at his chest for a moment before letting her finger nail dance across the scars on his chest.

“An artist,” she repeated, pressing hard and using the nail to break the scab of a fresh laceration.

Carl hissed through his teeth, feeling the rage at the pain growing inside him. But this was a different kind of pain. It was inflicted by someone else and it felt better than any self-mutilation and masturbation.

He leaned in to nip at her earlobe, hoping to break the tender skin, but she jerked back, grabbing a handful of hair on the back of his head.

“I’m not really your cousin,” she sighed, licking his Adam’s apple. He clutched her firmly by the chin, biting at her lower lip, tasting the coppery salt of her life.

“Oh?” He finally found her ear and pierced it with his canine tooth. She purred.

“I was found on my parents’ doorstep.” She raked her nails across his chest, raising the skin around his nipple. Tiny red drops formed and began to slowly grow, oozing down his hairless chest.

Carl wanted her like no other. He wanted to share in her pleasure; he wanted to make her eyes roll into the back of her head. He wanted to make it sexual now, but without crossing the boundaries.

He shoved her up against the wall, hard enough for her head to rebound off the concrete and cause her to laugh. He forced her legs apart and stepped between them until he could feel her through his jeans--and he was quite sure she could feel him.

She didn’t fight, though he wanted her to. Their lips locked and they both bit hungrily at the others invading tongue.

Carl reached out slowly for his knife, feeling the stainless steel rim of the drinking fountain.

“This will hurt,” he whispered. “How much is up to you.”

“Oh, Carl,” she gasped. “I need it.” She groaned and arched her body, pushing him back slightly.

Carl felt a hot burn from his thigh and was worried that he ejaculated too soon, but then it turned to icy cold and pain like he’d never before experienced.

He looked down and saw that a nice slice had been filleted from his leg, jeans and all, leaving just blood and muscle and some bone showing.

Carl could not inhale. He felt like he was choking on sand. He looked over for his knife and saw it was gone.

No, not gone, but in the hands of Wish; she was watching the blood drip from the blade onto her chest and run down between her breasts. Through blurred vision, Carl could see that she was even more aroused.

“You’re right,” she moaned, “through cloth and skin is better.” She wiped the piece of damp denim on her chest, tossing it away when it was dry. She then used his knife to remove her bodice in one, raw motion of passion.

Oddly, the first thing Carl thought of was that her breasts were not as big as he had hoped. The illusion of Wish being the image of Venus emerging from the shell was ruined.

He tried to stand, but the pain kept him down, where she wanted him. Wish, in turn, forced his legs apart and straddled him, using the tip of the blade to carve a smiley face into his scarred torso. He enjoyed it, but was close to no longer having fun. Wish was hogging all the pain. He had barely had a chance to see her bleed. Oh, this would not do, he thought.

Struggling against his wound, Carl seized the knife and went to work. First, he slashed her skin on both collar bones. She reared back and fell off of him. He stabbed her slowly and gently in the naval, but not deep enough to kill. She twitched as that feeling of pleasure raced into her brain.

She was on her back, breathing heavily, allowing her own blood to cascade over her body. Carl crawled to her, and skewered one of her nipples.

This apparently was not the pleasure she thought it would be, because she lashed out and with her nails, clawed his face. He shook it off and swallowed the feeling.

They were silent as they traded blood-letting strikes.

He slashed at her inner thigh and she gouged into his wound. He cleaved the skin from under her chin and she tore one of his nostrils. He sliced a small “X” over her ribcage and she attacked his scrotum. They danced; both nearly reaching orgasms.

The cement floor was slick with a thin layer of blood. Wish tried to get to her knees, but a powerful thrust of the blade severed her Achilles tendon. But she did not scream. She fell forward and took a chuck out of his neck with her teeth. Carl’s eyes fluttered. The spray covered her half-naked body in a slick curtain of his very being. He lunged for her, missing her as she scuttled back, but he got what he was aiming for. Her panties came off in a single jerk thanks to the lubrication of blood. Now, Wish only had on the tutu and the red and black stockings and floppy boots. She gnashed her teeth as Carl found the strength to undo his jeans and slide them down.

Her eyes begged for him, a mirror of the gaze he gave her. It was a long journey to her, but he made it, not sure if he could perform well, being so close to climaxing already.

The not-related cousins embraced. He could feel the heat from her and from her blood mixing with his. If he only had one Wish, he was glad it was her.

In a flash, he dragged the blade across her neck, drawing a lot of blood, but not enough to kill--not yet. She arched her back, beckoning for him. And he was too happy to oblige, for he could hold it no longer.

There was only one point of penetration, mixing pleasure and pain finally. He had shown her he was a man and joined them both by sliding his narrow blade through his mark and between her ribs. She gasped a few times, eyes rolling back and smiling, finally satisfied.

Carl had no more to give. Her kiss on his neck had drained him beyond hope. He left the blade in her, as a sign of their kindred spirits, and laid his head on her chest.

Closing his eyes, he heard himself screaming out in agony. But he heard her, too. His wish had come true.

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IN THE DEVIL’S FAVOR

“Yes, hello, Mr. Hall, I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time?” The male voice on the other end of the phone was thick with a British accent, rippled with politeness. “You see, I need your help, and, well, quite frankly, I am out of options.”

Glenn Hall looked at his clock. The green glow assaulted his adjusting eyes. It was one thirty-three in the morning.

“I don’t have any money to give you,” he grunted, hoping it would get rid of the caller. Instead he was greeted with a hearty laugh.

“Oh, my dear boy, I don’t need your money. You see, I am the Devil.”

Hall hung up and rolled over. Immediately the phone rang again. He punched his pillow several times before answering it.

“I know it’s late,” the Devil said, “but you really are my last hope.”

“Look,” Hall grunted, “I don’t know who you are, but please leave me alone.”

He hung up again. But the phone came back to life right away. He let the answering machine do its job.

“Mr. Hall, this doesn’t have to be difficult,” the Devil said. He sounded like a grade school principal who was trying to get a child to confess to his bad deed; like he wanted to be a friend, but that he was disappointed. “But it can be if you choose.”

Hall’s cell phone vibrated so hard it jumped off the table as it rang. At the same instant, his doorbell began to chime in a constant bing-bong/bing-bong. Hall jumped out of bed, unsure of what action to take.

“You see?” the Devil taunted. “Now please pick up the phone and hear me out.” The cell phone went silent and the doorbell faded to soft echoes in Hall’s ears.

He grabbed the phone from its cradle and pushed the button.

“What,” he barked. “What does the Devil need from me?”

He waited to hear “your soul,” but he was pleasantly surprised when the answer came.

“I need your car,” the Devil said.

Hall rolled his eyes. He was tired of these telemarketing scams--this being the worst.

“Listen,” Hall sighed. “I really don’t know who put you up to this, but you tell them that I’m gonna beat their ass tomorrow.” Hall went to hang up when a piercing roar erupted from the earpiece. It was so loud that he was afraid that his phone would crumble.

“This is not a game,” the Devil roared. “You, Mr. Glenn Hall, are being asked to do the Devil himself a favor.” The volume decreased and his tone returned to the casual Brit. “Now may I have the use of your vehicle?”

“Sure,” Hall blurted. “On one condition.”

He could almost hear the Devil smile on the other end.

“You tell me why,” Hall said.

“You strike a hard bargain,” the Devil said slyly. “But very well. Since the car is your property you have a certain right to know its purpose with a stranger.

“I have recently arrived in town and I need a ride. You came highly recommended from a...” He paused while the name came to him. “A Mr. Frederick Bates.”

“So why don’t you call a cab?”

“I would, but it is not that simple, Glenn. May I call you Glenn? If I were to take a taxi to where I need to go, then that would be a direct action. While I am here, I cannot do direct actions, only indirect actions, understand?”

“No,” Hall said.

“Yes, I thought not. Simply put, I can ask people to do things for me, but I cannot do anything myself. So I cannot call a taxi, therefore I need a ride.”

All you have to do is say ‘No’, Hall thought. If you say ‘No’ there’s nothing he can do.

“But why me?” He asked.

“I’m going to be honest with you, Glenn. Your friend, Bates, owed me a favor. And you owe him a favor. By a matter of indirect action, I am calling on Mr. Bates’ favor from you.”

Hall had stripped off his pajamas and was pulling on his jeans. “So I’ll be square with him and you?”

“Most certainly with me,” the Devil said with a slight chuckle. “As for Bates...well, he won’t have any use for your favor.”

Bates was going to be off his back? There was nothing for him to loose.

“Where are you?”

“So I can count on you for a ride?”

Glenn paused, thinking about his car. It was a 1997 Chevy Cavalier, rusting around the edges of the door. The seats puffed out a horrible stink when a body fell in them and the seals all leaked, flooding the car with cold air. He wasn’t sure if the car was what the Devil had in mind.

“Sure thing,” he said.

“Very well. You will find me at the train station in Fairview. Gate Six.”

“Fairview!” Hall exploded. “That’s over two hours away.” “Yes, I suppose it is,” the Devil said. “Then I suppose you’d better hurry.” The line went dead.

Hall tried to redial the number on his caller ID, but he was routed to a switchboard at a software design firm in California. He cursed and grabbed a sleeveless shirt from the top of his dirty laundry pile and put a jacket on over it.

* * *
The Devil looked very much like Glenn Hall had thought. He was tall and lanky with salt-and-pepper hair greased back to a point above his neck. He had black bushy eyebrows that curled slightly upwards towards a forehead that was scarred with an eternity of worry-lines.

His wardrobe, on the other hand, was well beyond the closest thing his imagination could have predicted for the Prince of Fucking Darkness.

The Devil was wearing tan Dockers and a pink Polo shirt. A straw hat was tucked under his arm.

Hall pulled up to the curb and the Devil walked briskly to the car. As he moved, Hall heard the obnoxious flapping of rubber beach sandals. The Devil was wearing flip-flops? Of all the things...

The Devil slid in and extended his hand.

“Good to finally meet you, Glenn,” he said, his accent rolling off of his tongue. “You can call me Bill.”

Glenn shook his hand. It felt normal, firm, like a real person.

“So where to,” he gulped, “Bill?”

Bill pointed down the road.

“Just there a little ways,” Bill said. He put his hat on his head and tilted it down over his eyes. “I’ll tell you when to turn.” He reclined in the seat, sighing heavily.

“Sorry about the car,” Hall said. “Things are...”

Bill held up a finger and wagged it back and forth, clucking his tongue.

“Please, Glenn, I need a few moments. I have one hell of a horrible headache.”

Hall pointed the car down the road and silently weaved it through the very light traffic. Soon the Devil...Bill started to snore. It was throaty and shook the entire car. Hall looked over at his companion.

What the hell am I doing, he thought? I’ve made a deal with the Devil and I’m sure this won’t turn out well.

He just wasn’t sure where and how things would go wrong. Scenarios trickled down the back of his mind. He saw himself being directed to a remote spot where the Devil (Bill) would reach over and tear his heart out and devour it. He saw himself driving on and on, and getting hotter and hotter until he drove right down Main Street in Hell. In Bill, all things were possible.

The snoring came to an abrupt end when Bill sat up and rubbed his face.

“Ah, that was pleasant,” he said. “How long was I out?”

“I don’t know,” Hall grunted. “An hour, maybe more.”

Bill checked his watch and smiled. “Take the next left,” he said.

Hall peered through his dirty windshield. There was a gravel road up ahead that was bordered by thick trees. The only reason he even knew it was there was that some kind soul had placed two red reflectors on either side.

The car’s tires spun as it hit the gravel. It kicked and caught something sending it rocketing forward.

“Easy, Demon,” Bill said. He caught his own joke and laughed heartily. Hall found nothing funny about this. He was very tired, very lost, and very scared. There were a bunch more “very’s” that he could list, but the top three concerned him most.

“It’s just up ahead,” Bill said, indicating a bonfire roaring between the trees.

Hall pulled the car between several others that were parked in a dirt patch. Bill popped out of the car with excited quickness and urged Hall to hurry.

“The night is young,” Bill said taking in a huge gulp of fresh air.

Hall looked at his watch and disagreed.

He followed Bill as the Devil flip-flopped through the woods, his hat looking ridiculous in silhouette.

They entered the clearing with the raging inferno. Bill opened his arms and seemingly embraced the flames. He inhaled again, and when he exhaled a wave of heat rolled from between his lips rippling the bonfire.

“Friends,” he bellowed.

From the shadows of the forest, dozens of people emerged. They were all naked and their bodies glistened with sweat from the fire’s heat. Their faces were painted white with black symbols painted over that. The symbols were crude and jagged, looping and serpentine.

“I’m so glad to see all of you,” Bill said. “Especially you Mr. Bates.”

A stocky man with a symbol that looked like a sideways “P” on is face bowed slightly. Hall hadn’t seen Bates in a few years, and he certainly let himself go from the bruiser he used to be.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Bill continued, “but I was caught up at my golf tournament and then I had a little difficulty attaining a ride.” Bill glanced over his shoulder at Hall. Bates also looked at Hall. It was eerie seeing all these middle-aged naked people standing around a fire. It was obviously some kind of Satanic gathering; why else would Bill be there?

“Empower us, Dark Lord,” someone called. The rest of the flock echoed.

“In time, friends.” Bill paced slowly around the circle. “You have all asked me for certain things. And these things, which I happily gave, cannot be gained without sacrifice.”

“Sacrifice,” the group reiterated.

At the sound of the word, Hall felt his stomach clench like he’s swallowed a bolt of lightning. Small beads of sweat--having nothing to do with the heat of the fire--formed just under his hairline. He suddenly realized why it was him the Devil had chosen. The Devil had called in his favor to Bates, who in turn had suggested Hall for the sacrifice.

“The time for that sacrifice is now,” Bill said stopping at a stump of a tree that had been carved into a podium.

Hall took a step back, ducking behind a tree. His heart was racing, but his feet wouldn’t move. He wasn’t sure he could make it back to the car, start it, and get away before he was accosted with Bill’s naked friends.

A twig snapped and Hall turned to look. A hand touched his other shoulder. It was Bill and he was smiling.

“Would you join me at the dais for a moment?” His words were completely without malice. But Hall already knew what he wanted.

“I really think I need to go,” Hall stammered.

“But you can’t.” Bill’s face fell. “I will need a ride back to the station.”

Hall backed away, fumbling for his keys in his pocket.

“Maybe one of your friends could take you back. I’m really tired and it’s a long drive.”

“Don’t be silly, my boy.” Bill took Hall by the arm, firmly but not threateningly and encouraged him. “This’ll be great. And I promise it’ll be over in a moment. No worries.”

Bill pulled Hall into the clearing and had him stand to his right. He took his place at the dais and looked out over his followers.

“I am pleased to introduce Mister Glenn Hall,” Bill said, his voice booming. “He is going to be assisting us in tonight’s little ceremony.”

Hall stared at his shoes as the crowd murmured excitedly among themselves.

“Now who would like to begin?”

Hall looked up and saw Bill survey the ring of naked people. As his gaze swept back and forth, the Devil’s face began to tighten into a scowl, his eyes narrowing into slits that were reflecting the raging flames--at least Hall thought they were only reflecting the flames.

“What’s this? None of you are willing to begin the ritual?” Bill clucked his tongue at them. “Most unfortunate. And here I thought that you were men and women of ruthlessness, willing to sell your souls to the Devil to get what you want.” The crowd shifted nervously, like scolded children. “No one?” Bill sighed and looked down at Hall. “Then we will have to continue as a group.”

Just at the moment when Hall thought his last breath passed between his lips, another one escaped. Then another and another.

Bill had climbed down from the dais and was standing before a middle-aged woman with flabby breasts and pubic hair that grew as wild as the underbrush of the woods. Bill scanned her briefly before grabbing her firmly by the neck and raising her up off the ground. She didn’t fight at first, but the harder Bill squeezed, the more she began to squirm. She grunted softly as Bill shoved his hand under the flesh just below her sternum. Blood poured like a waterfall from the opening and splattered on the dirt.

No one moved except Bill and the woman as he pulled her intestines out. She quivered and was still. Bill let her fall and threw the organs he removed on the fire. The blaze roared a putrid green.

Bill moved on to the man next to her. He was young with a nice physique. But his body was soon nothing more than a sloppy pile after Bill sliced the man’s skin open and yanked the bones out. They too went on the fire.

Hall watched as Bill went down the line tearing into people, removing organs, bones, liquids, whatever his fancy was at the moment. He was frozen to the spot, wondering what fate had in store for him. The people in the circle seemed to accept theirs without a fight. But Hall would fight. He’d kick and punch and do whatever it took.

Then it was over. The last of the bodies sloshed to the dirt that was more of a mud. Bill, who apparently did not have a drop of blood on him, came up and clapped Hall on the shoulder.

“Are you ready to go?” Bill smiled at Hall. “Glenn? You okay?”

Hall wet himself. It was an action he hadn’t done in almost twenty-seven years, but now it came naturally and fluidly. Bill laughed heartily.

“Glenn, relax,” Bill said. “I may be the Devil, but I’m not a bad person.”

Hall closed his eyes as tears wet his cheeks, and he nodded.

Bill’s laugh continued, but it was distant. Hall opened his eyes and the Devil had vanished. He rubbed his eyes and shuddered. The bodies were still on the ground, so he knew it wasn’t a dream.

He let out a giggle. He was alone in a clearing with over a dozen corpses and all he had to do was get in his car and drive off.

“Come along, Glenn. Let’s get you home.” The voice floated through the trees. Hall looked around and saw that Bill was leaning on his car, waiting. He hurried back to his vehicle.

“Just what was my part in all of this?”

“I needed you to witness that they gave themselves freely,” Bill said. “You thought I was going to sacrifice you?”

“Yeah. I kind of did.”

The car pulled out and they were back on the road.

“If I did that, how would I get back to the train?” Bill asked.

Hall grunted. They rode in silence for a long time.

“So what do I get out of this deal?” Hall asked.

Bill looked at him, the corners of his mouth turning up.

“I already told you, that you get nothing.”

“But I think that after what I’ve seen tonight--and that you didn’t tell me I’d have to take you back--I deserve a little something.”

Bill considered it and nodded. “Very well, Mr. Hall,” he said.

“What happened to ‘Glenn’?” Hall asked.

“What indeed?” The awkward pause lingered before Bill folded his arms. “You can have anything you want.”

Hall nodded and focused on the road, but his mind was a million miles away, thinking of what it was he could want from the Devil--and what the Devil might want in return.

Bill tilted his hat down again, protecting his eyes against the rising sun. Hall looked over at him. He knew what he would ask for.

The car pulled up to the train station. There were no passengers on the platform at this early hour. Bill opened the door and got out. He turned and leaned in the window.

“So what’s it to be, Glenn?” He winked.

“I ask you for this and we’re even? No questions asked?” Hall wanted to cover all his bases. “You’re not coming after my first born some day?”

“Why Glenn, don’t you trust me?”

“No.”

Bill smiled.

“Okay,” Hall said. “I know what I want.”

“I’m on pins and needles.”

“I want...” he took a deep breath and savored the silence. “I want to be you.”

* * *
Hall opened the door and got out. He stepped up to Bill and gave him the once-over. Bill backed away, but Hall grabbed him by the throat and lifted him in the air.

“This looked like it was tons of fun,” he said. Hall plunged his hand into Bill’s abdomen and grabbed a handful of rubbery organs. Bill grunted. Hall smiled.

In the Devil, all things are possible--and the Devil was in Glenn Hall.

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THINGS HAPPEN

Sometimes things happen just because they do. Even the goddamn scientists were saying it now. It was like we’d given up on helping each other and spent all our time trying to save ourselves. We were losing--not something we were used to--and half the time we just surrendered. But surrendering didn’t stop the battles. It only made them much shorter.

A lot of our boys were coming home in boxes. Too many for some. They protested, yelling with megaphones into deaf ears how tired they were of funerals. And the non-violent actions of some led to even more funerals; a result that is all too common now-a-days. But all the yelling and banner-waving didn’t stop the boxes from being shipped home.

My letter came four days after my wife and I celebrated our twenty-eighth anniversary. And unlike the movies and television programs, a knot of men in uniforms were not standing on our front porch. It was just a parcel delivery guy in shorts with a thin cardboard sleeve in his hand.

I knew what was inside. We hadn’t received a letter from our son in almost three weeks and so we braced ourselves for the reality. But seeing that sleeve made my wife break down, and I almost joined her. I scribbled something resembling my signature onto the electronic clipboard and took the envelope from the young man. I could tell that he had delivered a lot of these lately. His face told me that I had his sympathy. The plastic yellow ribbon on his uniform told me he was fearful of getting a letter himself.

Greta would not be in the room with me when I opened the sleeve. She locked herself in the bathroom, sobbing into one of our towels.

It was a single sheet of paper with the Army logo stamped at the top. It said that Rick, our nineteen year-old son, was Killed in Action and that we should expect his body at the air base within the next seven days. That was all. There were no descriptions of what happened or the obligatory comment that he was a fine boy. Just that he was dead and we should come and claim him. I had received letters from the airlines about lost luggage that had more feeling.

I threw the letter away and took the trash to the curb. Greta was out of the bathroom when I came back in.

“How bad?” Her voice cracked out the words as if they were her first, ever.

“Not very,” I said. There was no sense in telling her that our only child had been killed for a country that sent us a form letter to explain it.

“Good,” she said, nodding her head a lot. It was like the action forced her to feel better about the situation. She vanished into our bedroom and the door closed.

She blamed me. I know she did. I was the Man, the one who encouraged him to play football and fix cars. I was the one who used to tell him courageous stories of my time in Nam--I now wish I hadn’t glamorized it but told him the truth, of the brutality and the horror--and I was the one who had taken him toe the recruiter’s office on his eighteenth birthday. But he asked me, damnit! He practically begged me.

And I was more than willing to fulfill his wish. I felt it would give him an edge in life. Especially now, after the attacks in New York and D.C. Everyone loves hero; except the mothers of the dead ones.

I thought a lot about the letter as I sat on the couch watching infomercials. I knew that there was no reason to be upset with the Army about their lack of personality. The Army had sent out so many of them in the past year that it was a shock that they still made the singular announcements, as opposed to a reading of a nightly list on the news. And they wanted us to come claim his body soon because the number of coffins at the airbase was staggering. And it wasn’t just at the local one. Bases all over the country were suffering from overcrowding of coffins.

* * *
Eleven months ago, there were, maybe, two Americans killed overseas a month. But then...They joined the war.

It was hard to describe these new adversaries at first. The President called them “rebels without a cause.” Analysts called them “ruthless heathens” that preyed on our wounded soldiers. But then reports started coming in of hundreds of these fighters attacking both sides.

Our side didn’t know what to do; the other side didn’t know what to do. They continued to fight each other while defending themselves from the other. It was madness. And the shit really hit the fan when imbedded reporters started giving reports of wounded soldiers being picked up on the side of the road and then attacking their comrades soon after.

Things changed fast. It was like our foreign foes no longer existed. The news refused to use the word “zombie” because most of the so-called experts were not sure that’s what They were. The rumor mill was working so fast that it fell apart. Everybody believed everything.

When the bodies started coming home, protesters lined the fences near the air bases demanding they be burned. They didn’t want what ever was going on over there to get back here. And we really should have listened.

Whatever They were, They were very good at the element of surprise.

Late on a Thursday, I believe it was in July--I know it was Thursday because of the show I was watching--the local news broke into a television program with a live feed of a funeral home in Port Henry, just a few miles away. The scene showed mourners scattered in the parking lot, hiding behind cars as a team of police advanced slowly on a young man dressed in his formal Marine uniform. The anchor called it a “hostage situation”, but that is only because he didn’t know what else to call it. And it sure did look like a soldier had gone nuts and invaded a funeral.

As the scene played out, more information was coming in to the station. The hostage-taker was revealed to be none other than the same soldier whose funeral had been upset. Naturally, the news anchor was speechless. Someone in the studio, who was out of the camera’s view, muttered the word “zombie.” But it wasn’t a zombie.

Sometimes things just happen because they do.

My wife and I watched--and prayed--as the police approached the soldier. They had their weapons drawn and were shouting at him. He just eyed them. The first officer lowered his sidearm slightly and said something to the soldier. The solider lunged at him, yanking him down and out of frame.

The scene cut away to the news room where the anchor looked shocked and terrified. His mouth was open and his eyes bulged. My wife and I had the same expression.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am receiving an audio description of what is going on,” the anchor said after awhile. “I can only say that we are all lucky that we are not witnessing what is happening.”

He cracked. His solid features melted, his brow rolled towards his eyes and his mouth opened in a silent scream. Tears gushed down his cheeks. The anchor was in full-fledged melt-down. He cried and cried, his sorrow reaching through the screen and grabbing me by the heart. I turned off the television.

The newspaper was not so sheltering in its telling of the tale. The national paper was the worst. It went into gory detail, telling how the young man had, with one swing of his arm, taken the heads clean off the first two police officers. Immediately, the other officers opened fire. But the soldier took dozens of rounds and still advanced. He took out the three remaining police by punching one through the chest; he tore the arms off of another, and pushed the gun under the chin of the third as he pulled the trigger. SWAT was about to move in, but he ran. He ran, the paper said, as fast as a drag racer from the start line, vanishing behind the funeral home and into an alley. Just like that.

The country was shocked, but only for a few hours. By quitting time on Friday, several more of these soldiers had attacked their own mourners. And by lunch on Saturday, there were more than four dozen cases of soldiers waking up and going bonkers. But it would take another few days before their victims went down the same path.

By this time, the “V” word had hit the papers and news shows. They were being called “vampires.” They didn’t move like zombies or have the brain chemistry of a block of salt. They were smart, violent, and strong. They also roamed around in bright sunlight, and I knew that everything I had ever heard was a lie. They were not just creatures of the night, but creatures of forever and always.

The National Guard was called out to try and subdue them, but They took every round, every shell, and every grenade. They were unstoppable.

My boy was already in Iraq when all this started happening. His letters told us of how the fighting would often break out as they assaulted these new enemies, but then the Iraqis would join in. It was hard for him not to scream, he said. I often thought of my tour of Nam. I would wake up, certain that a suicide bomber was under my bunk. His last letter told us that he was about to enter an abandoned city to seek shelter. He was wary, he wrote, because he and some of the other guys had seen too many horror films. They all knew it was a trap, but there was no other option.

We stopped hearing from him.

Sometimes things just happen because they do.

* * *
I clicked off the television. It was horrible to sit and stare at people pretending to be enthralled with some ditzy blonde selling an electric knife.

I went to the door and unlocked it. I went to my chair and plopped back down. On my end table I had my old .45 service pistol. It was fully loaded--except for the one bullet I put into the back of my wife’s head.

Just point and squeeze, I told myself.

The letter had been post-dated four days ago, and from what I’d heard, it took about that long for the bodies to come home.

I sat in my chair, feeling the cold metal of my pistol on my finger tips. I sat and I waited for my son to come home.

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SPOOKS

I

Setup

We arrived on location close to one in the afternoon, the Victorian spires pointing up to a dreary October sky. It was Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween; the night that is supposed to be the eeriest and most evil night of the year, and most of my crew was excited about investigating the Granebury Funeral Parlor.

Jill Finnegan, my spiritualist and lover, met with the owner while the team and I unloaded our gear. Once the thousands of dollars worth of high tech gadgets were inside, I found Jill and our host while the three other team members unrolled cables and turned on monitors.

The Granebury was owned by Fred Gillian, a stout man with little hair and rosy cheeks, flushed from the weather, which was uncomfortably seeping into the old house from everywhere.

He began our tour in the foyer. There were dark woods with intricate patterns and a salmon-colored carpet with several spots of severe wear by the front door. “This area,” Gillian told us, “is where the families would gather before and after services to meet and console.” He rambled on and on about some of the rich and famous townsfolk who had been through both entrances of this place. Only he laughed at his joke.

“Anything unusual happen here?” Jill asked.

“Well, when it was still an operating funeral parlor, some of the guests would say they would hear soft crying right here. I assumed it was just an echo from one of the grieving rooms that founds its way through the ducts.”

“That’s very astute of you,” I said looking around at the faded decor. He nodded.

Gillian led us through each of the parlor rooms. There were six in all, but the front two were large enough that they could be broken into two smaller ones. Again he regaled us with the tales of phantoms sobbing and the occasional apparition. Nothing of much interest.

As he led us up the stairs, Jill pulled me into an alcove. “This is so lame. Why in the hell did you agree to do this?” Her whisper was dangerously loud, but Gillian continued to stomp up the steps and talk to himself.

“Because Channel Nine offered us five grand to do an investigation of the local spook-house for their Halloween broadcast.” I kissed her on the cheek quickly and caught up to Gillian who was just explaining about the director’s quarters and the strange things that went on in there.

But he was only teasing us, daring us to stay with him until we got to the meat of the tour. The basement. The cold operating room where bodily fluids were drained and the bodies became dolls.

The rest of the tour lasted another fifteen minutes before we finally went back downstairs and towards the back of the house. The walls were very dirty back here and cobwebs hung from the light fixtures like it was the set of an old black and white horror movie. Gillian stopped at the end of the hall and pushed a black button. Suddenly, the floor split in half and two trap doors opened up towards us. A stainless steel platform groaned from years of neglect and we got on and descended into pitch black.

I won’t lie, I was freaked out. Of all the haunted places I’ve been to in my life, of all the noises I’ve heard and the shadows I’ve seen, this one moment was the most terrifying. Three of my grandparents had been tended to at Granebury and each time I was terrified by what lay below the plush carpet with years of dead flowers embedded in it. The bodies had scared me more than anything. The thought of what my own death would be like haunted me. And now, here I was, going into the belly of the beast.

The lights snapped on and I was assaulted by the white and silver of a sterilized room. My eyes scanned the indented table quickly, hoping to see a brownish stain that would look great in the night vision of the camera. But it was gleaming with imperfections.

“Now down here,” Gillian went on, “is where the most activity occurs.”

“I’ll bet,” Jill said quickly. She picked up a box of condoms that had been torn open in haste. I kicked an empty liquor bottle that skidded across a pile of the burnt butts of joints--roaches they’re called, but I didn’t want to confuse the term with the insect.

“Yes, well since we closed down five years ago, it has been quite a struggle to keep the vagrants and street kids out.” Gillian brushed a dead rat under a cabinet with his shoe, hoping we wouldn’t see.

“So what kinds of things go on down here?” I wanted to get right into it. After all, this is why I was here. Jill, on the other hand, was here for me.

“Right, well, eh...” Gillian’s voice froze. I had heard this kind of vocal phenomenon before. It meant that he wasn’t sure that we’d believe what he was about to say. “That thing is, that down here, even when it was open, I would hear distinct voices commenting on my work.”

“Commenting?” I asked.

“Yes. Saying things like ‘she looks so natural,’ or ‘doesn’t he look peaceful?’ and that sort of thing; and other times I would leave to get a tool or some fluid and come back to find the body’s eyes open.” Jill and I could both sense how uncomfortable it made him feel just to talk about it.

“We can go back upstairs now, if you like,” she said, offering him her hand.

“I think that would be best,” he sighed.

The lights snapped off again as we rode up the platform that was used to bring that caskets up from the basement. Back in the light of day, Gillian perked up and spoke for another twenty minutes about the house’s history so I left Jill with him.

It was nearly two when I found the three remaining members of my crew out back on a smoke break. They said that they were nearly finished setting up the inferred cameras and the wireless audio recorders. They even set up a motion sensor in the overgrown garden to catch any exterior activity near the garage which used to hold the hearse.

At ten after two, we all met back up with Gillian in the foyer and said our goodbyes. He left and we went about our pre-investigation briefing.

“Listen up, kids, we’ve got a live one tonight.” I always started off my briefings like that because it gave my crew hope. “There’s lots of activity on all floors so keep your eyes open and your mouths shut, got it?”

They all nodded in agreement.

“Any questions?”

Hal, my sound guy raised his hand.

“Are you keeping us in the dark on the particulars, as usual?”

“Of course,” I said. “It wouldn’t be any fun if you knew what to look for.”

“What about time?” asked Debra, a spunky little college girl who operated a camera and who I was pretty sure was a sensitive. “Are fixed or do we get to roll until sun-up?”

“We can leave when we have enough footage. I have to edit it and have it at the station by five tomorrow for their six o’clock broadcast, but I will have more time to edit and go over it for the eleven o’clock show.”

She nodded in acknowledgement.

Danny, my teenage nephew, raised his hand as well. Though he was family, I still wasn’t sure about having him along for this kind of thing. He was only sixteen, and so far, the only real extreme thing I’ve seen him do is brandish is shiny new earring at the last Thanksgiving.

“How are we doing teams?” he asked.

“How are we doing teams,” I repeated. I looked at Jill, who met me with a shrug.

“I’ll go with Debra,” he volunteered.

I could tell by the way he said her name that I wouldn’t be letting them anywhere alone together. If only for her sake.

“No,” I sighed as if I had a better idea. “I think we’ll break it up with Jill and Debra upstairs, and Hal and Danny down here. I’ll take first watch at the monitors and guide you guys along.” Everyone seemed to roll their necks at the same time, several of them cracking horribly. It was going to be a long night. And there were still three good hours until the sun went down.

The pizza arrived near five and we ate it heartily. I went on with some silly stories from growing up here in town, and how the Granebury was a place not even the stupid kids would go. There was no gang cool enough or any girl hot enough to get anybody anywhere near it after the lights went out and the only illumination was from the mercury vapor street light that cast the yellow painted building into a deeper sense of decay.

So the pizza was gone and the stories were over. It was time to get to work.

II

The Investigation

At six thirteen that evening, the sun slipped behind the cemetery trees across the street and plunged the house into a bold blackness. Everyone was gathered around the folding table with the monitors as I turned the main power switch off.

When I got back to the folding table with the monitors, both teams were huddled together, waiting on me. We checked our radios and earpieces, making sure they worked.

“Well, get going,” I ordered. “The faster you move, the faster I can get this on the news.”

Silently, the girls and boys split up. I heard Jill and Debra climb the stairs, whispering softly to each other. I looked at my first monitor and saw the beam of their flashlight break that top step. I watched them for a moment, making sure they wouldn’t get spooked by the red LED on the camera.

I didn’t need to use the monitor to see Hal and Danny. They were across the hall in the second parlor, sitting in dusty old chairs and asking the spirits to make a noise or show themselves or something. Their light beam whizzed around the room and often landed on the marble fireplace. I heard Danny joke that the mortician probably cut up the bodies and cremated them in that fireplace as a cheap form of fuel and disposal. I chuckled myself.

At six twenty-three, Jill called me on the radio and said that she and Debra were going into the master bedroom to see if they could get anything started there.

I watched them on my screen as they entered the room and sat on the bed, trying to get some communication started with anything that would listen.

At six twenty-four, something big and dark flashed across the screen connected to the camera that was outside. It was there, and then it was gone. I informed everyone; they seemed excited, but went right back what they were doing.

Danny and Hal had moved into one of the rear parlors, away from me. But I was transfixed on the girls. They were lying on the bed, silent as two spent lovers. Then Jill got up and vanished into the bathroom. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Debra.

The whole reason I hired her in the first place was that she was attractive. And, if anything were to happen to me and Jill, then I am still young enough for her to find me attractive. It’s hard not to fall for someone when you see them at their most intimate--scared and in the dark.

At exactly six thirty, the dark shape appeared on the staircase, midway up. I got on the radio and quietly told everyone to freeze where they were.

“Jill, I want you to go slowly out into the hall way, without your flashlight,” I said. When she was there, the shape moved up the stairs to the top of the landing where it froze. “Zoom in,” I told her.

The image on my screen zoomed in, but I could only see the shape on one of the cameras.

“Okay, slowly take a step forward,” I said.

She did. And the thing vaporized on the monitor. I was about to say so, when it reappeared on the monitor from her handheld. But it wasn’t just a dark shape, now. It was solid, and short.

“Zoom in,” I said again. “More, more,” I commanded in the loudest whisper I could muster.

“I don’t see anything,” she snapped back.

“Look on your camera’s display.”

The image jostled and then steadied.

“I still don’t see anything.”

But I could. He was standing at the top of the steps, just staring at her. He couldn’t have been more than eleven. His hair was parted nicely and he wore a checkered suit with matching shorts and shiny shoes.

“My God, Jill, I can’t believe you don’t see this.”

The camera jostled again.

“Are you screwing with me,” she demanded.

“Not on my life. Wait till you see this.”

We were silent for another eight minutes as the boy watched her watching him. I hadn’t even noticed Hal and Danny’s camera had gone black.

At six forty, the little boy stepped towards Jill and vanished from my screen. I heard her scream and watched as she ran back into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

“I saw him, I saw him,” she panted. “Oh shit, he was there on the screen, but not in front of me.”

Debra got up and held her, rocking her for comfort.

The boy was gone from my screen.

At six forty-five, Hal and Danny came back to me in the front parlor. They looked a little shaken by what they had heard in their earpieces. I told Jill she would have to look out and see if the boy was still there. If not, she and Debra could come back down and meet up with the rest of us.

But she refused. Debra refused to leave Jill. So I sent Hal and Danny to get them, all the while reassuring them that there was nothing on my screens but them.

Seven o’clock and the entire team was back down with me. Everyone was eerily quiet. I tried to get them to talk about it, but Jill glared at me and made some comment about feeling like a worm on a hook. Hal was by himself, looking at the monitors and Danny was as close to Debra as he dare get. It was an uneventful hour break.

Eight o’clock. Debra offered to go with Hal and Danny back upstairs. Jill stayed with me. I tried to get her to talk about her experience into a camera, but she kept putting her hand up like I was the paparazzi invading her privacy.

Nine twenty-seven. The investigators came back. They had caught nothing, experienced nothing. I looked at my watch and begged them to stay at least until midnight. If nothing else happened, we would pack up and go. They agreed, but with some fight from Danny and Jill.

I was up next. I usually went out with Jill, since her psychic abilities comforted me some times. But since she was being somewhat prudish, Debra opted to go. It was our first time out together.

Nine forty-five. Debra and I descend into the basement via the casket elevator. It creaks and groans and shuddered like and old man in cold weather.

The basement is much colder than it was hours ago. We have to guide ourselves with the night vision on the camera screen.

“Looks good,” Hal said in my earpiece. “Glad I ain’t down there.” His chucked was very loud in my ear. “I think there’s a counter over there where you can set the camera down facing the table.”

I made Debra stand at the table so I had a reference point for the shot. I could see it in my head even before I set the camera down. This would be the defining shot of the whole show, at least for me: two ghost-trackers, sitting on a mortician’s slab, trying to invoke the ghosts to come. I didn’t even care about the footage of the little boy earlier. If it even came out.

I found my way back to Debra and we hopped up on the table. It sounded like a muted gong when we flopped down, but the sound was fed to the darkness like a sacrifice.

“So how do you usually do this?” Debra asked me.

“I like to start by letting them do whatever they want. No sense in telling them what to do yet.” I could almost feel her nod her head.

We sat quietly for uncountable minutes.

“Boring,” Danny squawked into my ear. “Get them going.”

Suddenly, Debra grabbed my hands and squeezed.

“Is there anyone here who wants to talk to us?” Her voice rang for only a moment before dying. “Do you want us to relay a message to someone?”

I hoped that my digital recorder was picking up any audio we could not hear.

“Maybe you should offer....” Hal’s transmission crackled and went dead. I could hear him start to say something that sounded like “wait.”

Debra’s grip tightened on mine, squeezing like a constrictor about to swallow.

“What’s going...” I started to say, but she “shushed” me. “Hal says: ‘don’t move,’” Debra whispered. “There’s something behind us. They can see it upstairs.”

She screamed and let me go. I felt her jump down and then I heard her as she tore around the room, crashing into the bottle and cabinets.

“Where is it,” she yelled. “Where’s the damn elevator?”

I jumped down and grabbed my camera, focusing the nigh vision screen to where we just were. But I saw nothing. I panned around and say Debra slapping the wall trying to find the button.

I made my way over to her and helped her out with the aid of the camera and soon we were going back up to the others. Debra was shaking so hard I thought she was going to topple us over.

Ten thirty. We had been down there almost and hour.

Danny tried to explain what they had seen on the monitor.

“It came up between the two of you, from behind, like it was listening to your conversation. It kept looking back and forth at you. Then it reached out and put its hand on Debra’s shoulder and leaned in like it was going to bite her on the neck,” he said in that style of speech that only teenagers can master.

I put the tape in from the camera and watched it. Nothing was there. The film hadn’t picked up anything. I kicked the pizza box out of the room only to have it come flying right back in.

I grabbed a camera and pointed it at the foyer and we all looked at the monitor. The little boy was standing at the base of the stairs looking at us. I kicked the box to him again and he kicked it back. And this time, even if the boy didn’t show up on the tape, the moving box would.

We had done it! Actual footage of supernatural phenomena that could not be denied or explained away; the night vision would have picked up any sign of a thread, and we surly didn’t have the time to rig something this elaborate.

III

Breakdown

The little boy vanished and the box didn’t come back to me after about three minutes. But it was the most exciting three minutes of my life.

Though there was still the question of the thing in the cellar, it was clear that this old Victorian funeral parlor was haunted and we decided to pack it up and head out.

Eleven o’clock. I asked Hal to go outside and get the camera first, that way we wouldn’t forget it. Jill had regained some of her nerve and went halfway up the stairs to get the wireless recorder we placed there; Danny was with me, and Debra was in the bathroom.

Jill came back and looked at the monitor that I was ignoring.

“Oh Jesus,” she whispered.

I swiveled around in the chair to see Hal walking towards me, or actually towards the camera.

“Yeah, he’s letting himself go,” I chuckled.

“No,” she said softly and seriously. “Don’t you see it?”

Then I did. The black shape was floating along right behind him. It had mass, but I could see trough it like a dirty window. And its shape was, for lack of a better term, like ghost. It had no arms or legs that I could see, but there was a definite head and shoulders and torso. And it was creeping up on Hal.

I grabbed the nearest radio.

“Hal, there’s something right behind you. Stop moving.”

But he kept going. And the shape was getting closer and closer.

“Hal, you bastard, I’m not playing around. Don’t move.” But he must have taken his earpiece out.

Hal looked into the lens of the camera and made a goofy face before flicking us off.

The shadow behind him was now casting its own shadow on him. Debra came back and the four of yelled at him, but he didn’t hear us.

The screen went black just as the shape was enveloping him.

Danny broke away from us and sprinted out the front door. I was seated and by the time I jumped up, he was long gone, and the girls were in utter amazement.

Moments later Danny returned carrying the camera and the tripod. He came back alone.

“He’s not there,” he whimpered.

“Maybe he went around the other side of the building,” Debra choked.

“I came back that way,” Danny panted. “He’s not there, either.”

“Well he has to be somewhere,” Jill exploded. “People just don’t...poof and their gone. It just doesn’t happen.”

“Who says,” is interrupted. “Aren’t we here to prove things that don’t happen? Haven’t we spent hours and hours and hours telling other people not to turn of their mind and to think about it?”

“This is different!”

“How? How is it different? This could be another Bermuda Triangle type of situation. Maybe that black shape was a time rift of a dimensional void.” My collar felt like it was strangling me. I could feel it getting tighter and tighter.

“Because those things don’t exist, damnit!” Jill slapped me across the shoulder. “They’ve never existed and they never will exist. And you can spend all your shitty life trying to convince the inconvincible that they do.”

“How can you say that after what we saw tonight? After what you saw tonight?”

“And what was that? What did I really see? Do we have any of it on film?” She was stomping around the room, her footfalls echoing through the old building like it was chuckling at us. “Every time we get a little tiny piece of evidence, something screws up the film and it isn’t usable, or we just missed it, or some other kind of bullshit.” She kicked the table causing it to collapse and shattering my monitors. The room was dipped in ink. Only a few, tiny green LEDs gave off any light. “It’s like you want us to fail. Like you can’t let yourself find the answer because then you’ll have to stop searching.”

I heard her storm off into the second parlor. Debra and Danny were silent, but after a while, I heard Debra go lightly over to Jill. Their muffled voices carried well across the dull wood, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

“What are we going to do about Hal?” Danny asked as we tried to clean up the equipment.

“First thing is, we’re going to get the lights on,” I said. The lights did not come on nearly as bright as I had hoped. Everything was sickly and faded. Even the table with my broke gadgets on it looked as though it had given out due to rot instead of brute force.

“Will you go get the camera from the top of the stairs?” I asked Danny.

He went off slowly, his shoulders slumped, worried about what we were going to do about Hal. And as far as I was concerned, Hal had been spooked and run away--probably home or to the nearest bar. I planned on calling him the next day.

“Oh shit!” The words flew down the steps like they were on ice. I looked up to see Danny backing down the steps, slowly, staring ahead of him.

“Danny?” Debra was the closest and she screamed first. The black shape had come back. It was forcing Danny to retreat down the steps, advancing on him malignly.

“Maybe it’s just the boy, back to play,” I observed. But the shape seemed to be pulsing, beating like a machine that only understood its sole purpose.

Danny stumbled, reached out for the rail...

...And was gone. I don’t know how else to describe it. The shape didn’t eat him, eating requires some kind of movement. It just...absorbed him. It took him in an he was gone.

It began to advance on Debra.

I ran around and grabbed her, pulling her farther from it. Jill was by my side in a flash as we ran down the hall towards the elevator. Debra punched the button like a martial arts master, delivering a fatal blow. The doors swung open and down we went.

The light down here was invasive.

The walls glowed with a whiteness I’ve only imagined in the afterlife. But the table; it didn’t glow near as much. In fact, I think it was being muted by something.

As I made my way towards the table, Jill screamed. I turned and saw that the shape was dripping into the basement through the slow-closing trap doors, regaining its shape. Before I could yell out, Debra slipped on the liquor bottle and went feet first into the shape. Again, it just absorbed her with out so much as a twitch.

The tears poured down Jill’s face. I wanted to go to her, but my attention was drawn to the table again. There was a thick gurgling coming from it.

I watched as black, mucus-like fluid began to flow from the pipes at the top, oozing down the stainless steel and off onto the floor where it went down the drain. I heard a loud ratting coming from the pipes as a small object was ejected onto the table. As it slid down, I could see it was a shiny earring. Danny’s earring, his proof that he was grown up.

I took hold of Jill’s arm and swung her around the other side of the table. She was a wreck. Tear and sobs and gasping. “I’m going to get the elevator moving again,” I told her. “If we can climb up than we can run for the front door.”

She didn’t answer, and I didn’t expect her to.

As the shape advanced on us I bolted right, as fast I could with dead weight on my arm, slammed into the button.

The motor hummed and struggled and slowly, much slower than I remember it going ever before, the platform began to rise and the trap doors opened.

I climbed on and offered my hand to Jill. I pulled and lost my footing, crashing into the platform.

The shadow was close now. If I waited any longer I would be dead.

I made up my mind and gave Jill a hard shove. She reeled backwards and vanished into the shape.

Free of my anchor, I jumped up and pulled myself up through the trap doors, crawling and kicking to make myself go just that much faster. And when I was clear, I ran as hard as I could, hardly slowing to turn the old door handle. It just seemed to give under my weight.

I felt the early Halloween morning air on my face and I ran. I ran until I collapsed.

IV

After

Two-oh-seven in the morning. I came to in the cemetery across the street. Fearful of the shape on my tail, I ran to the nearest gas station and dialed 9-1-1. Quickly, I came up with a story about a group of young men who accused us of encroaching on their turf. I explained how we had been chased off and that I was fearful because I hadn’t heard anything from my friends. I was also quick to point out the high-dollar equipment that we had left in the house.

A squad car picked me up and took me home while the funeral home was searched. All that was found was my broken equipment. I shed tears for Debra and Hal and Danny. But I shed tears for Jill as well. I loved her and what I had done to her was horrible, but it was the right decision.

A few days later, I was called to the police station where I was shown one of the tapes from the house. Imagine my surprise when the detectives fast forwarded through hours and hours of fuzzy static only to come across a crystal clear image of me leading a screaming Jill and Debra to the cellar, only to emerge alone several minutes later.

Obviously, I couldn’t defend myself. After all, the rest of my proof that the paranormal incident even happened was either destroyed or not even close to usable.

The odd thing is: the angle of the camera that the police showed me was from above the front door, looking right down the hall towards the casket elevator. And I don’t remember putting a camera there.

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THE RIGHT PATH

Ever since he’d first seen “The Shining” on the late-night movie, Grant had been somewhat afraid of over-sized mazes. It was mostly irrational; he wasn’t scared of Jack Nicholson coming around the corner with an axe and burying the edge deep in his chest. What terrified Grant was being lost. He would practically freeze up thinking about it sometimes. The mental image of finding himself in such a situation caused his stomach to knot and his heart to race.

Naturally, on a late October evening, Grant found himself facing an eight-foot high wall of corn. It was hard for him to swallow; his palms were sweating. He turned away from the corn and looked at the only thing that could get him in that terror trap.

Her name was Ashley. She was a buxom red-head--he’d looked up the perfect word to describe her--with the softest emerald eyes and lips as pink as strawberry frosting. It was easy for him to think of her in such ways. He’d longed to be with her since their freshman year of high school, and his feelings hadn’t changed in nearly ten years; he wasn’t sure of her feelings for him--never had been.

She was standing with her best friend, Jill, Jill’s boyfriend Casey, and Casey’s younger sister, Bonnie (a senior at their old high school). It was homecoming weekend at their old high school, and since Grant had never left town, he was able to go. He was pleased when he saw Ashley’s name appear on the online guest list. So much so that he emailed her about her plans for the weekend. They had been good friends in the past and she was eager to see him again (something that still tumbled his emotions). They met up before the football game and sat together. And then Jill and Casey showed up.

* * *

Grant had never liked Jill. He always harbored the idea that Jill was the one who always told Ashley not to go out with him. But he would never admit that. She had sashayed her way up to where they were sitting, towing this frat-boy behind her. Casey had the body of a clothing store dummy, and probably a slightly lower IQ. But he was the perfect man-candy for Jill to fling around to all of her old friends, and especially to her old boyfriends.

After a short introduction, Jill immediately moved on to plans for later. Ashley was more eager to go out with them than Grant alone, but she was at least kind enough to ask him. And knowing that he would spend the night alone if he said no, Grant agreed (even lied) that it would be great to hang out again.

* * *

Seven years. It had been seven years to the day that Grant had first asked Ashley to the Homecoming Dance.

She had already had a date, but she said that she was flattered--he wasn’t sure if she was lying. But he’d never let up. Not really. He’d lessened his active pursuit of her, but spent as much time with her as possible. Even after they graduated and she went off to a state school while he stayed behind at a community college, they at least stayed in touch. But then the visits home started to lessen, as did the emails. And soon, it was three or four months at a time before she’d talk to him...and most of that was her responding to emails he’d sent her. Then she became a regular acquaintance again. Grant guessed that she must have just broken up with a boyfriend and needed to hear that she was loved by someone, which he was all too happy to do. And then, as predicted, she would vanish for weeks and months while she dated. But she always came back to Grant, even if it was only for emotional support.

Grant clutched the steering wheel of his Jeep tightly, feeling his knuckles go numb. He screamed and roared and beat the passenger’s seat in a rage. Ashley had opted to ride with Jill and Casey because they had to pick up Casey’s sister. So Grant was forced to drive himself to the restaurant and reserve them a table. Grant took the time to practice talking to them all, telling Casey to shut his yuppie mouth, and asking Jill when someone had lit the fuse on her tampon. He practiced talking to Ashley too.

“God,” he moaned to himself. “Why is it that I can’t get you out of my head? Why do I think of you all the time?”

He waited while the silence answered.

“I know, I know; but isn’t it about time that we grew up and realized that we’re adults now and don’t have to act like unsure teenagers?”

Again he waited while the whispering of his tires told him that Ashley had never really felt like that about him.

“Shut the fuck up, Jill!” His own voice startled him. “What do you have against me, you bitch? Huh? Why have you constantly kept Ashley thinking that I’m not good enough for her?” He could feel the heat starting to rise around his collar. “You’re just afraid that she’ll see what you’re doing. You want her to turn in to a goddamn syphilis sponge, just like you, you fucking whore!” He lashed out and smashed his fist into the headrest of his passenger seat. The whole Jeep lurched with the impact.

“You need to make your decision, right now,” he told the invisible Ashley. “You can either be shackled down by a skuzzy cum-dumpster, or you can dust off the past and start over with something you were refused--you might even like it.”

He was in the parking lot of the restaurant, waiting for a reply that would never come because he could never say those things to her. That was the whole reason he’d said them in the first place.

Grant was seated at the table when they all walked in, laughing and joking. The table sat six and he was seated at the end. Jill sat down at the other end, Casey across from her; Ashley sat next to Casey, and Bonnie (he was introduced to her later) sat between him and Jill.

Fuck, he thought. Just like old times.

His mind raced as he imagined the horrible conversation they’d had in the car; he was the butt of the jokes, the same old Grant. But he wasn’t the same old Grant.

The discussion, most of which did not involve Grant, quickly moved to their plans afterwards. Not knowing his fear, Casey mentioned the corn maze that was just down the highway. Eagerly Jill and Ashley agreed; Bonnie, on the other hand, could have cared less. She just liked that she was hanging out with college kids. Finally, it was Casey that asked Grant if he wanted to go. Grant took a deep breath and said that he did.

* * *

Ashley rode with him this time since he’d never been there and she knew the way. Their talk was small. How are things going at school? Plans for after graduation? Dreams? Goals? It was the same meaningless dribble regurgitated for the millionth time. But it flowed like warm syrup over hot pancakes; it was just too good to give up.

They pulled into the parking lot of the corn maze. The gravel crunched satisfyingly under his Jeep’s tires. They did not speak to one another as they walked up to the ticket booth and waited for the others to arrive. There were no other customers at the late hour; the ticket seller told them they would be the last ones through.

The ticket booth served dual purposes. They sold admission and refreshments out of a small trailer with a lift-up panel. The sides were lined with neon green tubing that, as they got closer, looked like an alien fluid was flowing through the glass. He bought Ashley a hot chocolate and watched her sip it slowly, wishing that he could taste the little mustache of cocoa that was stuck to the tiny hairs above her lip.

Jill, Casey, and Bonnie arrived shortly there after. The tickets were purchased as well as drinks for the other three. Casey picked up a crude map and surveyed it like he was looking for the Arc of the Covenant. Grant took a second to walk away from the group, towards the wall of corn. He needed to deal with this situation before he made a fool of himself.

* * *

The entrance to the maze was framed by the most horrible thing Grant could have imagined. It was a giant clown. A big, fat bringer of jollity who was squatting over the arch; he was waving, a painted smile forced on his wooden face. He was wearing a pointed hat with a bulbous tassel on top that glowed red. Grant could not get over the symbolism of having to enter the maze by passing under the round buttocks of the massive clown.

But when he turned and looked back at Ashley and how glad she seemed to be that he wasn’t around, something melted inside of him.

He went over to the group.

“Shall we go?” he asked, extending his hand to Ashley. Her smile froze uncomfortably on her face. She tossed her eyes between Jill and Casey. They didn’t seem to notice so she took his hand.

Grant led everyone under the clown’s ass and into the maze. He let go of Ashley’s hand so that he wouldn’t sweat on her. He could see her relax, ever so slightly, out of the corner of her eye.

They went right, then right again, then left, then right. Grant was already lost. He could feel the corn creeping in around him.

The fall night air was crisp of a fresh apple and it tickled the stalks. Grant focused on his breathing. In and out. In and out.

Easy, old boy, he thought. Can’t lose it right here. He slowed down, letting Ashley go ahead of him. Jill and Casey pushed passed him, Bonnie in tow. Grant was positive Jill gave him a snotty look.

“I found the first marker,” Ashley called out. She clapped her hands, forcing her breasts to press together in a hypnotic rhythm.

The others went up to her and pulled out the map, marking an “X” on the spot. Grant approached them and they got quiet. The marker was nothing more than a sawed-off fence post with a plaque nailed to it with the number one painted on it.

“Exciting,” Grant said.

“Well it is for us,” Jill said. Her tone masked the contempt very well. She looked at Grant then hugged everyone but him in a massive gesture. “Let’s keep going. This is great.”

On they trudged, following Casey like he was some kind of alpha male of the pride, which left Grant as a runt of the litter. Left, left, right, straight, backtrack and backtrack, left. It was obvious Casey was as good with a map as he probably was with word problems. Grant could have easily taken over the lead. There was a trick to the maze that he’d picked up on early. But he wasn’t about to share it just yet. He was still worked up by the maze. He didn’t like being inside this living thing. It was like he’d been swallowed by a giant snake and was working his way through its bowels, winding down into the pit of non-existence, to be digested for eternity.

After twenty minutes, the second marker (same as the first, but with a two on it) was found and marked off the map. Grant hung back, saying nothing. Ashley was having fun and he was going to leave her to it.

The further they went in the maze, the farther back Grant slid. The group was a good thirty feet in front of him by the time the third marker. They didn’t notice.

* * *

Grant had spent an agonizing hour and a half passing the corn stalks that were lined up like a green prison cell. He could barely see Casey and Bonnie and Ashley. But he could hear Jill. Her voice carried like the shriek of a hawk on a still night. Her words fertilized the corn, but her tone was clear. She was having a grand time without him there, which was fine with her.

Oh the things he wanted to do to Jill. He never found her attractive, thought apparently many guys did. She always seemed to have her dark hair pulled into a tight ponytail--so tight that she looked as though she were constantly surprised. Grant wanted to grab that hair, pull it back and...

He heard his name being called. It was Ashley. She had missed him(?).

He quickened his pace and came to a right turn that was illuminated by a flood light on a pole. But before he could veer in that direction he heard voices weaving through the stalks.

“Oh, come on, he’s a fucking loser,” Casey said.

Grant stopped, trying not to make a sound. He slid up close to the corn, his fear of it rapidly subsiding.

“I just can’t believe you were excited about seeing him,” Jill said. It was like a screwdriver had been shoved in Grant’s ear.

“I know.” It was Ashley. Her voice was low and forlorn. “I’ve just always had a soft spot for him.”

Grant’s chest tightened. He was about to hear those words he’d dreamt about since he was fifteen.

“You know,” she continued. “He was always so pathetic and lonely; but he was so loyal. He was always there for me.”

“Stalker,” Casey barked.

“I think he was staring at me during dinner.” Bonnie spoke up. “I didn’t want to say anything, but it was creeping me out.”

“What?!” Casey’s voice squeaked.

“And he’s been staring at my ass since we got here. I can’t believe you were thinking of going out with him.” Jill’s two cents filled the bank.

Grant stepped out from around the corner. His fists were clenched and at his sides. His back was tight and his nerves twitched in his chest. He felt like his face was on fire, the heat rising into his hairline.

He must have looked positively psychotic standing there, backlit by the bright light, his head tilted forward.

“Oh, hi, Grant.” Ashley at least tried to sound innocent. The others jumped a mile and suddenly found the ground more important than anything.

“We were just talking about you,” Jill said, starting at Casey’s shoes.

“So I’ve heard.” The words were slow and deliberate; he paused between each on to let it sink it.

“Well, let’s get going,” Chase said. “It’s getting late.” They walked in silence turning when they felt like it. The wind began to pick up and even the corn began to talk about him.

Grant could take it no longer. He slipped down a path that they others had passed. He waited until he could hear the others complaining that he was gone again. The bitching continued as he slowly worked his way around them, using the wrong path. But it was a simple plan.

He knew they were behind him, he could hear Jill’s whining. He called out, saying he’d found a short cut. He could hear them coming, Casey grumbling as they marched closer and closer. They found him by the sixth marker.

“I’m lost after this,” he said. I couldn’t get back if I tried.”

Jill sent him a sour look.

When they were near enough, Grant shot his hand out and took hold of the map. It tore from Casey’s hands, leaving the corners behind. But that didn’t matter. He ran as hard and as fast as he could, turning this way and that, listening as their footfalls tried to catch him. He didn’t need the map, but they did.

Casey was fastest, being the gentleman he is, and he left the girls behind in pursuit. Grant ducked into a shallow dead end.

“I found the seventh marker,” he called out.

Casey’s heave stride came closer.

“Come here you son of a bitch,” he growled.

When Casey came around the corner, Grant launched himself at him before he could turn to discover his hiding place. They collided, and Grant was on top. He reeled back and punched Casey in the nose, sending tears flooding from the corners of the frat-boy’s eyes. Casey opened his mouth to scream, but Grant brought both fists down on his teeth, causing a great deal of blood to cover his hands. Casey was writhing on the ground, holding his face, blood beginning to pool around his head. When Casey pulled his hands away to get a breath, Grant shoved the palm of his hand as hard as he could under Casey’s nose.

Casey arched his back, his hands curling into horrid claws. And then he lay still. Grant nudged him with his shoe, but he didn’t move.

Grant wiped his hands on Casey’s shirt, cleaning them somewhat thoroughly, and then he took off back the way he’d come.

* * *

The girls were coming. But he had to get them separated. He couldn’t allow himself to stop now. If they stumbled across Casey, it was over. He had to finish.

Grant found them. He ran up behind them and dropped the map as he passed. As he whisked by, he grabbed Ashley by the arm, tugging her along until she went with him.

She resisted at first, but when he started laughing, she soon joined in. A little game of hide and seek never hurt anyone.

“Where are you going,” Jill hollered.

“Look at the map,” Grant called back.

He led Ashley deep into the maze, hoping that she would go along with him. Soon they found the center.

It was a trimmed garden of flowers and shrubs intermixed with park benches. A closed lemonade stand was at the other end. Grant told her to hide behind it while he lured the others to her so she could jump out and scare them. Ashley giggled and did as he asked.

Once she was safely stowed away, he took off for the lying bitches.

He found Bonnie alone, standing at a fork in the maze, her hands on her hips. She started to go left then changed her mind. Grant snuck up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. She screamed and turned around.

“Boo,” Grant said.

“You asshole!” Bonnie slapped him across the chest. She went to hit him again, but he grabbed her by the wrists and pulled her close to him. He firmly grabbed her by the neck and tilted, cutting off her ability to scream.

“Oh you would have liked it if I were staring at you, wouldn’t you, whore?” He whispered these words so close to her lips that his brushed hers with each word.

She nodded her head and leaned in to kiss him, but she pushed her back while still keeping a grip on her.

“You know what I like about you?”

Bonnie’s eyes widened, girls like her fed off of talk like this. This time, when he pulled her close, Grant kissed her, hard. He kissed her so hard that he could taste blood. She winced as he forced the tender insides of her lips be shredded on her teeth. He pulled away.

“Nothing,” he said. With the grip he had on her neck, it was easy to snap. Her eyes bulged and she fell limp. Grant tucked her into a dead end and allowed the corn to shield her body.

“Oh Jill,” he called in a sing-song tone.

* * *

Jill was furious. Grant watched he stomp her feet and fling her ponytail from side to side as she called out to her boyfriend, and to Ashley. She turned around and faced him, nearly falling over with shock.

“Grant, you dink. Where is everybody?” She looked at the map, turning it over and over. “I have no idea where to go from here.” She pointed to the sawed-off post behind her. She’d found the seventh marker.

Grant walked up to her.

“Here,” he said, friendly as can be. “I’ll show you where they are.” He motions for her to lead the way.

She took two steps. Grant grabbed her by the ponytail, yanking back just hard enough to bend her neck.

“What the--“ her cry was cut off as Grant karate chopped her in the exposed windpipe. He felt the organ crumple under his hand like an aluminum can. She gasped, sounding more like a car that couldn’t start. It was a frog-like sound.

He let her go limp and dragged her over to the post. She tried to fight him, but she was too busy drowning in the open air.

He forced her to her knees as her croaking grew softer. She twitched as he held her top half over the angled wooden post. She croaked out in one loud gasp of terror before he let her go.

Her torso smashed down on the steak with a meaty crack as her ribs were shattered. She flopped one, like a fish. He pushed down on her back until the wooden post began to poke through the back of her bloody shirt.

He looked around to make sure that he truly was alone. When he was quite sure he was, he undid her pants and slid them down. He looked at her ass. He tilted his head from side to side before shrugging.

“Eh,” he sighed. “Nothing special.” He redressed her; after all, he wasn’t a pervert.

It didn’t take him long to get back to the center of the maze. He entered cautiously.

“Ashley?” Her name echoed slightly.

She lifted her head up. He went over her and crouched down behind the lemonade stand.

“Hey,” he smile at her.

Her eyes darted around the clearing. “Where are the others?”

He chuckled. “Funny thing,” he said. “When I found them and told them I found the way out, they didn’t believe me and said that they wanted to find it for themselves. They said it’s more fun that way. So I left them alone.”

“Oh.” She stood up and brushed off her jeans.

“What do you say? You want to get out of here?”

“But we don’t have the map.”

“We don’t need one,” he laughed. “I know the way.”

“How?”

Grant bent down. He placed his hand on the grass.

“This is the wrong path,” he explained. “You see, how the grass is thicker and taller?”

Ashley joined him, running her hand across the sod until she brushed his wrist.

“Well,” he continued, “on the right path, the grass is heavily trampled and almost gone in some spots.”

They stood up.

“That’s brilliant,” she said, smiling at him. At him!

“So do you want to ditch these fools and go get some coffee. There’s so much I want to tell you that I didn’t get to say earlier.”

She took his hand and he led her back to the horrific clown’s ass.

He told her to go wait by his Jeep, now one of three cars in the lot. He went to the closed ticket stand and knocked on the door. The middle-aged woman who sold them the tickets opened the door and looked at him curiously.

“Yeah?” She nearly barked the words.

“Hi,” he chimed politely. “Our friends may be lost in the maze.”

“Oh great,” the lady said.

“They’re not the brightest bunch,” he laughed.

“I’ll bet.” The woman took her jacket off the hook and stepped out.

Grant turned to go, but stopped and faced the woman again.

“Oh, and you’re probably going to need to help the other guy,” he said.

“What other guy? The five of you were the last ones I let in.”

Grant looked at the closed flap of the trailer and shrugged his shoulders. “He tagged along with me for a bit when I was a little lost. He met up with my fiends later because they had a map.”

“God damn ticket-jumpers! I’ll have his ass and then the police can deal with him.” She continued cursing as he walked off into the corn maze.

Grant opened the door for Ashley and helped her in. When they were on the road home she looked at him.

“So what is it you said you wanted to say earlier?”

“I just wanted to let you know that I’ve changed. I’m a whole different person than I was in high school.”

“We all are,” she said taking his hand that wasn’t on the wheel.

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GINGERBREAD HOUSE

Hank Gregory punched out three minutes early with every intention of killing himself before his next shift. The sleeping pills were waiting in a grocery sack in his car and he found himself almost longing for them.

When Hank started his car, he eyed the bag with the pills. If he took them now he would be drowsy by the time he got home and hopefully dead by morning. The digital clock flickered pale green telling Hank that it was eighty-eight minutes after eighty-eight o’clock. He sighed and pulled out of the parking lot of the family restaurant and onto the smooth, glassy pavement of a road moistened by a late night misting.

Hank’s life was on the verge of tipping over. Everyday he woke up shivering in his drafty apartment. Everyday he used dish soap to clean himself because his shower was spurting rusty water that stained his skin. When he looked at himself in the mirror, he saw a young man who had lived a destitute existence all because he tried to take the easy path.

As his tires whispered the soothing lamentation of a life short-lived, a painful burn began in Hank’s stomach. It was the acidic sting of nerves that weren’t quite ready to be deadened. He calmed his breathing, focusing more on the number of seconds he spent inhaling and exhaling than on his driving. The measured rising and falling of his chest had settled his stomach in the past, but it seemed to only worsen the condition now. It raged in his bowels like a blender of razor blades.

Just down the street from the restaurant was the same grocery story Hank had gone to buy his pills just before his shift. He made the quick decision to pull in and buy some stomach medicine. But before he went in he opened the package of sleeping pills and took four. He’d hoped that twice the recommended dose would speed up the process.

Hank found a small bottle of chalky pink liquid, opened it and chugged it right there in the store. He took the empty bottle to the cashier and set it down.

“It was an emergency,” he said to the old woman who was looking at him with one eyebrow raised. She said nothing as she scanned the empty bottle and then dropped it in the wastebasket under her register. He paid and headed for the door, but as the automated doors whisked open he thought he heard the woman tell him to sleep well. He hoped it was just the pills starting to work.

The parking lot was empty, except for Hank’s car. It sat under a lamp post that cast an infected yellow glow on the peeling maroon paint. He took a few steps towards it, but then he wavered. His vision blurred and began to swirl. As best he could he fought to keep his balance until he slammed into his car, grabbing it like it was a life preserver in the middle of a choppy ocean. He hugged it until the spinning subsided and he was able to fit the key into the lock without it digging into the metal.

Hank allowed himself to be swallowed by the cheap foam padding in his seat. He leaned forward and started the car, unsure if he could really make it to his apartment before passing out. Even though he was planning on killing himself, he didn’t want to die in a car accident. He was too afraid of pain to do something like that, which is why he’d opted for the pills. With those, the worst he felt there was to contend with was stomach cramps, and those were easily settled with the medicine he’d taken in the store.

A burp rolled out of his chest and into the small cab of is car where it vanished in the cold. He was feeling better, the dizziness mostly gone and replaced by sleepiness and the cramps lessened. But he couldn’t bring himself to put the car in gear. It was as if this parking lot was the most comfortable place on earth and was holding him there.

Hank sighed, sinking deeper into the seat. He wanted to be back home; not his frigid apartment, but his real home, with his parents and clean sheets and warm food. And he could be there now, if only he hadn’t taken a short cut and gotten lost. If only he hadn’t said he was better without them. Now, the only thing he had to remind him of home was a small loaf of gingerbread his mother had made for him. It was the only real comfort he could afford. It was waiting for him on his counter. Maybe he would have a slice and then take the rest of the pills.

His apartment was more or less dead. Many of his lights had burned out and even fewer of the outlets worked. He nearly slipped on a stack of discarded junk mail the postman had let fall through the slot. Again, he was taken by the irony of what it would be like to die in an accident when he was ready to do it himself. He clutched the paper sack in his fist, hearing the bottle rattle like a deadly snake’s warning.

It took him three tries to get the faucet to turn on to fill a glass with water. The pills were scattered on the counter, the bottle discarded. Hank stared at the pills. They looked so small in comparison to the gingerbread loaf that was on his counter. They looked so insignificant. He scooped them into his palm and staggered into the bedroom, falling into its malfunctioning darkness.

He heard a few of the pills hit the floor and tatter off, but he still had plenty. Once his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he tried to take two more pills, but he missed his mouth and sent them skittering away. Cursing, he tried again, but with one pill. It hopped in his trembling hand like a Mexican jumping bean. Again, he lost it to the floor.

Only a few pills left.

If he couldn’t get anymore down, he was sure that he would only wake up horribly sick, but alive...and in the same spot he was now--praying for death.

“God, you’re a screw-up,” he told himself. “Can’t even kill yourself right. Even those sappy-ass teenagers can at least put a belt around their neck and do it.” Hank leaned over and beat his pillow ferociously, his fist popping into the dark folds of the material.

He fell back onto the mattress and began to cry. He wasn’t sure if he was tripping or just that upset.

It was like being back in school. “Always taking the easy road ain’t so easy,” his father had told him. “You got to work extra hard to make sure that it’s easy.” And it was true. He’d worked harder at trying to goof off than many of his classmates did at studying. He would spend class after class perfecting his seating positions so that he could sleep but still look like he was awake. And what did his accomplishments get him? A C minus average, and an invitation to community college.

All his failures began to whirlpool around him while he tried to clear his head enough to take the final pills. He wanted to do something right, Goddamnit. For once in his life.

Hank sat up and turned on the flickering bulb next to his bed. He reached for the water but it had fallen on the floor and been sucked into the dry wood. The pills were also missing from the bedside table.

He must have fallen asleep and knocked everything off.

Hank stood up, feeling strangely lucid and cast his gaze to the floor, hoping to find his wayward pills--which he did almost immediately.

The small blue ovals were indeed on the floor, but not in a random pattern. They were lined up, about a foot apart.

Could I really have dropped them like that, he thought.

He bent down and picked up the first one, held it tightly and picked up the second. He wasn’t about to let them go again.

It was still dark, so there was still time to finish. He picked up the pills in the hallway and in the kitchen. But the path also led under his door. He got down on his hands and knees and used his long finger to scoot the pill towards him. And there was another pill behind it. Just on the other side of the door.

It was somewhat reasonable to assume that the little devils had run all over. Hank opened the door and looked out. Pills were lined right down the hall and, presumably, down the steps.

Now he knew that he didn’t do that. Hank closed the door, squeezing the retrieved pills, feeling them shift under the pressure of his grip.

“Just going a little crazy,” he said to himself. “I woke up too soon and I’m still drugged out.” But no sooner had he said those words than his head cleared. He sighed and opened the door again. Someone was playing a game with him and he was going to find out who. He through the tablets into the sink and washed them down the swirling drain, and taking a clean-ish cup from the cupboard he filled it and went into the hall.

He bent down and put the first pill in his mouth, swallowing it with the water. He would show whoever it was. He would take all the pills he came across and let them be damned.

He took the second and third and fourth pills, and, finding himself at the top of the stairs, began his descent. There were a total of five pills on the stairs, which gave him a running count of nine, plus the one by the front door to his apartment complex. Ten total. He should be feeling something very soon.

He opened the door after taking the tenth pill and went out into the street. It was mostly dark, but the little pills seemed to glow from the inside, leading him away.

He took another eight pills and found himself at the corner, still feeling okay. His stomach was starting to roll, but it felt more like hunger than anything. He passed people as he continued on his way. They seemed to not even notice. This town wasn’t New York, and when people did strange things, other people took notice. but here he was, walking down the street, eating pills off the side walk, like he was invisible.

After a staggering fourteen pills more, Hank sat down and leaned against the side of a building. The pills still stretched out before him. By now he should be feeling very sleepy, if not ill. But he felt fine. Maybe whoever laid them out had used placebos as a way to try and save him.

Hank stood up and kept at it, unable to not take the pills as he went. He finished his water after pill number fifty-eight and dropped the glass. Still he kept going. Eighty pills, one hundred three pills, all the way up to one hundred forty pills. He hadn’t even looked up to see where he was in that whole time.

His parents’ house was just a short walk up the driveway, and there, at the base of the door, was a piece of paper with a glowing blue pill taped to it. Hank took the pill and slipped the paper into his pocket. Then he knocked on the front door.

It seemed like a while before the door opened and his usually gruff father bade him enter. The family--the whole family--was just sitting down to dinner. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents were all staring at him. He waved to them sheepishly, realizing that he must have been tricked into an intervention. They all smiled and nodded and went back to their conversations.

The house was filled with the happy scents of baking poultry and warm sweets. His Aunt Patty’s vanilla perfume was, as usual, too heavy.

Hank came into the dining room and put his hand on the door frame, taking a moment to revel in this feast that was apparently all for him. When he took his hand away, it was wet, sticky, and white. His parents must have just painted.

“Have a seat, boy,” his grandpa Earl called out. “We’ve been waitin’ on you since before lunch.”

The others at the table made room for him in the center. Just as he sat down, his mother came literally whirling out of the kitchen with a huge, brown turkey. Hank wasn’t sure how she could keep her balance as she twirled around and around, but she did and set the bird down right in the center of the table.

“I hope you like it, honey,” she sang. Her voice was clear and chipper like she was a cartoon.

“Go on and carve,” his father said.

Hank looked down and took the long, thin knife with one hand and the carving fork with the other. He had never done this before; it was usually reserved for more respected men in the family. But maybe it was just the thing they had all worked up to welcome him back into their lives.

Hank smiled and gently poked the fork into the turkey, careful not to go too deep. He gently caressed the blade back and forth, watching steam rise from the depths of the slice. “Easy, now,” his grandpa Hal said. “Don’t get crazy and slice your wrists up.”

Hank froze and looked at his parents. But they had apparently not heard what was just said and continued to smile at him. If this was an intervention, then he only had more of this kind of talk to look forward to after dinner.

The smaller children awed at the bird as Hank peeled off the first slice. But it looked underdone. The meat was spongy and pink. Hank carved again, but as he drew the blade back, thick red blood flowed from the breast. The people around the table gasped in delight and stood up, dipping their fingers into the flowing fluid. His cousin Tammy, stuffed her red fingers into her mouth.

“Cherry,” she squealed, “my favorite.”

Hank watched the red stuff flow from the bird as the carcass slowly began to deflate. He gingerly reached out and dipped his finger into a small globule that had dripped from the knife and onto his plate. As soon as his finger touched his tongue he felt a relief of sorts. It was indeed cherry.

“This is the best ginger-bird you’ve ever done, my dear,” Uncle Frank crowed.

“Well, it’s was mom’s recipe, god rest her soul,” his mother said.

Hank shot out a hand and grabbed a hunk of flesh, tearing another huge hole on the side and allowing more cherry filling to escape. The children jumped onto the table and began to gulp from the wound like starving vampires. Hank sniffed the flesh in his hand only to discover that it was not flesh but, in fact, gingerbread.

“What the hell is this,” Hank demanded. But no one was listening. They were feasting on the ginger-bird and drinking from its cherry filling. They were toasting good tidings and stuffing their faces.

Hank jumped up forcing his chair back into the wall where it exploded. Splinters of white chocolate began to snow on his family and they all began to grasp at them downing them in great swallows.

He left them to it, rounding the corner into the hall. He took several deep breaths, trying to avoid smelling the sweet cakes or vanilla perfume.

“Are you alright, son,” his father asked. He had come up behind Hank and put his hand on his shoulder. “You seem different.”

“No, I’m not okay, dad,” Hank whimpered. “I did something really stupid and I think I’m about to die, right here in front of the family.” He could feel his stomach churning, boiling from the poison.

“You’re not going to die,” his father said. “Come on back to dinner. Your mother baked it especially for you.”

“I think I should go. I don’t think I can take an intervention right now.”

“Intervention?” His father folded his arms across his burly chest and glared at his son. “Why would you need one of those?”

“Because I took a lot of sleeping pills on my way over here.”

“How many is a lot?”

“About a hundred and fifty.”

Suddenly, the older man’s arms shot out and shoved Hank backwards, into the wall, with such force that Hank left a small crater.

“Why? After all this trouble your mother went through? Why would you say something like that? Don’t you love her?”

Hank tried to free himself from the wall, but he was stuck. The fresh paint had adhered itself to his shirt. And the sweet smells of the dinner were suddenly turning sour, rotten.

“Of course I do.”

Finally the wall released Hank and he stepped away. He squared himself up to his father.

“Then why would you want to hurt her?”

“It’s because of you!” Hank yelled. “You never let me live up to the expectations you set for me, always making sure I would fail.” Hank reeled back and punched the softened wall where he’d impacted. And surprisingly, his fist went right through.

The material was soft, and warm, but with a putrid stink of an unclean outhouse. Hank pulled his arm free to see maggots and worms waving their heads or tails at him from the rotting wall.

“You just don’t get it,” his father yelled. “This was all for you. Everything we did for you. You just wanted to fail to have something to complain about.”

Hank lost control. He landed a blow square on his father’s nose and sent the old man down. He was about to run when his legs were tugged out from under him.

“All you had to do was accept it,” the old man gurgled.

Hank turned to see his father’s mashed face. The skin was cracked and mushed, and the same cherry filling was pouring from the fist imprint. But there was more. Where the skin had cracked, dark, spongy material protruded.

Gingerbread.

Hank looked at his fist. It was covered with flesh-colored icing. He kicked frantically at the gingerbread man that was holding his legs.

“What’s going on in here?” Hank’s mother came around the corner, her hands on her hips and the rest of the family behind her.

“This little bastard needs to be taught some manners. He’s trying to ruin your dinner.” The gingerbread man got to his feet, letting Hank go.

“Well, that just won’t do,” his mother said.

Hank looked at the door. His twin cousins, Marty and Monty, were blocking the door. And Monty was chewing on Marty’s shoulder, pulling off hunks of maggoty gingerbread with his teeth. Hank lunged for them, shoving Marty out of the way and not watching to see him fall apart when he hit the wall.

He burst through the door, slamming it behind him. But the gingerbread door, like everything else, quickly crumbled away and the hands of his family reached for him, pulling him back inside. He screamed as they forced their rotting cake fingers into his mouth, and he felt the worms wiggle down his throat. He tried to fight, but the more he struggled, the more they broke apart and reformed into one giant mass of molding gingerbread slowly sucking him in.

* * *

“All we found was this,” the police officer said, handing Hank’s mother a small note scribbled on a restaurant napkin.

She read it and cried, slapping it into her husband’s chest. He read it over and shook his head.

“Don’t go in. Follow the pills home. What is that?” Hank’s father handed it back to the officer.

“Well, there were sleeping pills scattered all over the floor,” the officer explained.

“But where is our son,” Hank’s mother cried. “He didn’t come home.”

“We just don’t know,” the officer said.

Hank’s mother broke down. Hank’s father shook the officer’s hand and went to his wife.

“They’ll find him,” he said. “Hank’s a good boy.”

“But he didn’t even touch the gingerbread I made him,” she wailed. “You know it’s his favorite.”

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Places You Should Visit

Tim Waggoner's website
Ed Davis' website
The Horror Writers Association
The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft Online
Everything Scary
HORRORFIND.COM-Everything Horrific
ReallyScary.com-Horror News

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