Stay Extended

Darkness engulfs the shitty Park Vista Hotel, trapping guests inside with no power. Ben, a touring cyclist looking for a night in a bed, regrets not pushing on to the campground.

Three days trapped in the concrete hotel. Three days with that prick Carver appearing out of the darkness to demand a volunteer before feeding the trapped guests.

Ben seeks answers. A way out. An explanation for the darkness, for Carver. Answers that change everything.

A story of things that do more than go bump in the night.

💀

Ben joined the rest of the guests in the Park Vista Hotel lobby to hear what that prick Carver had to say today. Walking down the stairs in the dark all he could think was how much he hated this massive concrete silo. Why design it to look out into this massive empty space and then do nothing with the space? At least with the power out he didn’t have to ride the elevator and look at it, but he remembered the dull gray space. A dozen or so brightly colored kites hanging from the different levels would make the whole thing much more cheerful. At least it would give guests something to look at when they rode the glass-walled elevator, instead of the few fake plants and brown furniture waiting at the bottom.

Ben pushed open the door and walked out into the dark corridor. He knew the way now so well there was no need to use the flashlight he carried in his pocket. Lights flashed around on the walls from the flashlights the guests held. One hit his eyes, causing him to wince.

He heard raised voices from the crowd and picked up his pace.

Cole Petersen, a gray-haired overweight golfer from somewhere in the mid-West shook his pudgy finger at Carver. “You can’t keep fucking doing this!”

Carver didn’t budge. He didn’t even blink. Ben slid into the crowd, nodded to Tuyet who was rubbing her hands together nervously, and made his way closer. Carver looked unchanged since the first day when this all started. About five six, thin, probably no more than a hundred and thirty pounds. He had these sunken eyes that all the same looked very bright and a narrow nose. He wore the same perfectly pressed blue suit as the first day too.

Carver smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “It’s very simple. One person submits to the blood test and then you all get to eat. It’s just a blood test. I only need one. And then you eat.”

Carver gestured at the tables behind him. Bracketed by two bright Coleman lanterns were at least a dozen pizza boxes. Now that Ben saw them he realized that he could smell pepperoni and sausage. His stomach growled. Nothing since the leftovers he ate this morning and that was with rationing. Some of these people probably hadn’t eaten since yesterday.

Ben raised his hand. “I’ll do it.”

Sweet old Sara Thompson reached out with one liver-spotted hand. “But you did it already, Ben.”

Carver snapped his fingers. “And so right you are, Mrs. Thompson. Sorry Benny, one to a customer. I need a new volunteer. One who hasn’t been tested before? The pizzas aren’t going to stay hot forever. Pepperoni, sausage and Canadian bacon for the meat lovers among you, and some vegetarian selections for the sheep. Even a couple plain cheese for anyone that has had enough excitement already. Alright? Who is it going to be?”

“I’ll do it!” That came from one of the guests Ben didn’t know well. Mary? No, Margaret. Something like that. She was short and stocky. She stepped forward and pushed up her glasses. “Let’s get it over with.”

Carver turned sideways and gestured back at the reception desk. “If you’ll just come with me to the office, miss?”

“Marlene Carlton.”

“Ms. Carlton, thank you so much for your assistance. I’ll send you back out with the others soon enough.” Carver followed her around the tables. “The rest of you? Enjoy!”

Cole made it to the table first and snatched an entire pizza box off the tables. Ben turned to Mrs. Thompson. “Why don’t you have a seat here? I’ll bring you some food.”

“Thank you Ben, you’re so kind.” He held her hand as fragile as twigs as she sat down.

As soon as she was safe he made his way quickly to the tables where people were starting to crowd around. Cole reached for an entire bottle of soda but Ben put his hand on it first.

“There’s plenty of food if we share,” he said loudly.

Cole’s chubby face flushed.

“Cole’s going to help serve everyone, right?”

Ben took the pizza box from Cole’s hands and put it back on the table. Everyone had stopped and was watching. “I’ll help. Let’s form an orderly line and we’ll all get through in moments. Okay?”

Cole looked around at everyone watching. He opened his mouth and closed it again.

“Great! Cole, thanks for giving me hand.”

Ben walked around the table. He put down the pizza box and opened the top. Supreme, with peppers and olives. The smell caused his stomach to rumble louder. he ignored it. Cole joined him at the other table. They opened all of the boxes and the rest of the guests formed a line. It went quickly then. They picked up paper plates and Ben and Cole served out the slices and poured the sodas into the paper cups Carver had provided. When a box was emptied they moved it down to the floor beneath the tables.

When Tuyet reached the line Ben handed her a second plate. “Can you take a plate over to Mrs. Thompson and come back for the drinks?”

“Yes, of course.”

Ben put three slices on each plate. Mrs. Thompson wouldn’t eat so much in one sitting but she could save it for later. Cole noticed and scowled but he didn’t say anything. Just as Ben had said, they got everyone through in short order. Marlene, he would remember it now, came back just as they were finishing the last guest. Ben handed her a plate. She had a bit of a gauze pad tapped with blue tape to inside her elbow.

“How’d it go?” Ben asked.

Marlene wrinkled her lip. “It hurt! I think he did it on purpose. I saw him smiling about it. Is there any supreme left?”

Ben gave her the last two slices and added the last pepperoni as well. “You need to get your iron up.”

After she left Ben picked up a plate and handed it to Cole. “Take your pick.”

Vegetarian or cheese, that’s all that was left. Cole looked at both, scowling and finally grabbed the last three slices of cheese pizza. He poured the last root beer into a cup and stomped off. Ben tried not to chuckle as he happily piled the four remaining vegetarian slices on his plate and picked up a two-liter Coke bottle with a little left at the bottom. Later he’d take the empties and fill them with water.

He carried the plate over to the coffee table where Tuyet was keeping Mrs. Thompson company and tried not to pay attention to blackness covering the Park Vista’s front doors. He should be able to see out towards the Great Smokey Mountains but there was nothing out there. Literally nothing. The first day they all must have gone out on the balconies thinking that someone had pulled a prank and painted their windows black during the night. But the blackness wasn’t paint, but it did envelop the hotel.

And yet somehow Carver managed to have fresh hot pizza for them.

“There’s Ben,” Mrs. Thompson said. She pushed the paper plate with two remaining slices an inch across the coffee table. “Dear boy, this young girl brought me too much. I can’t possibly eat all that!”

Ben nudged her plate back. “You’ll want to save those for later Mrs. Thompson. Our Mr. Carver hasn’t been bringing us three square meals. You might get hungry.”

Mrs. Thompson curled her lip and waved her hand, as if shooing off a fly. “That Mr. Carver is a sadistic prick!”

Tuyet coughed on her food. Ben handed her a napkin. “Are you okay?”

She nodded quickly.

“I don’t disagree, Mrs. Thompson, but that doesn’t change the fact that we don’t know for sure when our next meal will come.”

Mrs. Thompson looked past him at Cole. “No. You never do know.”

Hard to believe they’d only been in this situation four days. Sometimes it seemed like hours. And yet each day Mr. Carver only wanted one person to donate blood for whatever tests it was that he was doing. As for the man himself, no one saw him come or go.

Ben bit into a slice of pizza and looked around. No sign of Carver at all. He put the piece back down on his plate and stood up. Tuyet looked up at him with wide eyes.

“Where are you going?”

“I want to check something out. Keep an eye on my plate for me, okay?”

“Of course.”

Ben walked away from the table towards the reception desk. Behind him he heard Mrs. Thompson’s voice, louder than she probably realized.

“Such a good-looking young man, don’t you think, dear? Are you married? You should be so lucky as to get someone like him.”

Ben grinned. Mrs. Thompson sure spoke her mind. He loved her for it too, but he worried about her in their current situation. No power, cut off from everything, what if something happened?

Past the modest reception desk was a door marked, “Staff Only.” Ben had been back once already, when Carver conducted his blood test. Maybe now would be a good time to get answers. Ben picked up one of the Coleman lanterns from the food tables on his way. He shoved the door open and went inside. A narrow hallway with vertigo-inducing stripped wallpaper, faded now with age. A grim sort of place with no expense spent to make the staff feel more comfortable. His lantern light barely lit the long hallway. If Carver was back here he didn’t have a lantern on.

Ben walked past the door to the reception desk to the next door on his right, the manager’s office. That’s where Carver had been doing the blood tests. The dark brown door was open and no light was coming from inside. Ben edged the door open and lifted the light high.

“Mr. Carver? It’s Ben Paulson. Are you in there?”

Inside the same boring office he’d seen on his first trip back here with Carver. Nothing but unattractive beige filing cabinets on one wall, a fake wood desk with a dusty computer taking up most of the room. Piles of paper had claimed the rest of the desk except on one side. Those papers lay scattered on the floor behind the desk and in their place was a box of gauze and blue tape. Nothing else to indicate Carver had even been here.

So where had Carver gone? He had to have a back way out. Maybe a way that they could take advantage of if they found it. Ben turned around and a bright light shone in his face. He could just see someone behind the light, holding the lantern. Ben raised his hand.

“Mr. Carver?”

“Think again asshole.”

Ben recognized the voice. Cole fucking Petersen. The last thing he needed right now. Ben kept his tone even.

“Did you see Carver when you came in?”

Cole swung the lantern at Ben’s head. Ben turned away barely in time. Even so the heavy base caught his shoulder. The pain was sharp and immediate. He stumbled away from Cole and collided with one of the chairs, dropping his own lantern on the floor.

“Asshole, think you can order me around!”

Cole brought the lantern swinging down at Ben’s head. Ben’s hands tightened on the arm of the chair and he swung it up. The thin, curved metal legs caught Cole’s arm and the lantern and knocked them aside.

Cole grunted and charged.

Ben thrust the chair at him. The legs caught Cole in the ribs. The man bellowed and the force shoved Ben back towards the wall. Cole grabbed the chair and pushed towards Ben. Ben resisted just for a moment then he let go and stepped quickly to the side.

Cole, off balance, crashed forward and landed on the chair. He groaned and started getting up. Ben waited until Cole shakily regained his feet and then sent a sharp right into Cole’s face. Like hitting bread dough on the counter. Two more quick jabs and Cole dropped. He fell on his side.

Ben shook his hand. What now? Tie the man up? Leave him to try it again? Maybe he wouldn’t.

Ben left the office and pulled the door closed behind him. He took both lanterns with him. Let Cole blunder around in the dark for a while. Maybe he’d remember who the real enemy was.

The others would need one of the lanterns. Ben went back out to the lobby. Heads turned when he came out, groups clustered around the flashlights that Carver had passed out the first day. People whispered to one another. They must have seen Cole go in and hadn’t done anything about it. And now Ben comes out with both lanterns. There’d be lots of talk now. Ben replaced the lantern on the table. Tuyet waved to him.

“Are you okay?” she asked when he reached their chairs.

“Fine.”

Her eyes turned past him back to the “Staff Only” door. “Cole?”

“He’s taking a nap.” Ben shook his head. “We’ve got to find out what’s going on here and we can’t have people like Peterson creating trouble. I need to go back. Have you seen Carver?”

“No.”

“Such a nasty man,” Mrs. Thompson commented. “I don’t like him.”

“Yeah, I don’t like him either,” Ben said. “But right now he’s our only connection to what is going on here. I’m going to go back and see if I can find out how he’s coming and going.”

Back through the door into that unappealing hallway. He paused at the office door and checked on Cole. Still out, but breathing with a slight snore. Bruises already forming on his cheek. Ben left him. Nothing he could do for the man right now.

Down the hallway. The light chased away the darkness as he moved forward. More rooms. Doors to the kitchens, storage rooms and a staff lounge. All disturbingly quiet. Ben hesitated and went into the kitchen. There could be food. He went to the big refrigerator and pulled open the door. Even though he knew the power was out it still surprised him when the light didn’t come on. Ingrained habits.

Nothing inside. Bare racks and a faint smell of mold and cleansers as if someone had cleaned it out quickly without getting down into all the corners. He shut it and looked around. Another door open to what must have been a dry goods pantry. Nothing there. Not even toilet paper.

It would have surprised him if Carver had left anything back here for them. The bastard must have cleaned it all out before starting his little blood test experiments. Couldn’t have them running to the kitchen for meals, could he?

Ben leaned back against the counter. So nothing. Vending machines empty. No power anywhere. Fortunately the water worked but nothing else. And nothing but blackness outside. It was so dark in here that the lantern only made a small pool of light. Hardly seemed any different than the stuff outside.

Except the darkness outside never went away. It didn’t have substance. It didn’t even prevent anyone from going out into it.

Three days ago. People still didn’t have a clue what was going on. Carver had shown up with sub sandwiches that day. Asked for a volunteer to give blood and then they could have the food.

Thinking back, the thing that struck Ben as the strangest about it all was that no one threatened Carver. A small man with his oddly bright but sunken eyes and that perfectly pressed blue suit. A lightweight. The sort of guy that men like Peterson delighted in picking on. Outnumbered by all of the guests but not one of them threatened Carver. Ben had felt it when he stepped forward and looked into Carver’ eyes. There was an emptiness there that said, that said, Ben rubbed his eyes thinking,

Go right ahead bucko, and see what it gets ya.

And more than that, something else. In Carver’ pocket. He played with it. His fingers fondling the cool metal switch. A switchblade.

Ben’s head snapped up. A switchblade in Carver’ pocket. That’s what he had. No reason that Ben should know it but he didn’t doubt what his gut told him. Good ol’ Carver carried a six-inch switchblade and in days past he liked to cut on people with that blade.

“Lost, Benny? Maybe you ought to get back on to the others.” Carver stood leaning against the pantry door frame as if he’d been there all the time.

Except Ben knew that Carver hadn’t been there. The pantry had been empty and Ben had closed the door after he checked. Regardless, Carver stood there now watching him.

Ben stood his ground. “How long is this going to go on? How much longer are you going to keep us here?”

Carver shook his head. “Benny, you’ve been tested already. My advice? Go back to your room. Stay there until my work here is done.”

“That’s it?”

Carver spread his empty hands.

“Great. Fucking great.” Ben clenched his fists. He wasn’t a cowardly man, but he also wasn’t the sort that started fights. As strange as everything was he couldn’t just go after the guy.

Ben forced his fingers open and walked away trying to tell himself that he wasn’t a coward. That he was doing the right thing and that he wasn’t — snick — afraid that Carver would pull out a switchblade kept sharp and cleaned many times.

Passing the office Ben checked on Cole, but the office was empty. Ben went on out to the lobby again. He carried the lantern over to the table where Tuyet and Mrs. Thompson were waiting. He put the lantern on the table and dropped heavily into his chair. He rubbed his eyes.

“Are you okay?” Tuyet asked.

He looked up and forced a smile. “Fine.” He thought about telling them about his run in with Carver and decided against it. His stomach growled. “Just tired. And hungry.”

Ben snagged a slice of pizza from his plate. Only lukewarm now but he didn’t care. It still smelled of garlic and cheese and tasted great when he bit into it.

Mrs. Thompson hadn’t touched her pizza.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” he asked.

Mrs. Thompson shook one brown-spotted hand. “I’m not hungry now. Maybe later. I think I’ll go to my room and rest.”

Tuyet stood and offered Mrs. Thompson a hand. Mrs. Thompson accepted her help and slowly rose. Tuyet picked up Mrs. Thompson’s plate. “Here, I’ll help you.”

“Thank you dear, you’re so sweet. Both of you, absolutely delicious.”

“You’re sure you’re okay?” Ben asked.

“Fine, dear boy. I just need to rest.”

“Okay. Be sure you drink plenty of water.”

Mrs. Thompson’s thin lips spread in a smile. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll get plenty to drink.”

Ben watched them walk away across the darkened lobby towards the stairs. Then he turned his attention back to the food. He finished the slice he’d been working on, enjoying the rich onion and garlic flavor, and eyed the remaining three slices. Best save them. Eat one later and then he’d have two for tomorrow. With nothing to wrap them up he didn’t think they’d last longer than that.

He picked up the plate and the Coke bottle and headed for his own room. After he safely stashed the food and filled the Coke bottle he’d come back for the other empties and fill them too. He didn’t have any bleach to sanitize the bottles but they could rotate them out. So far water hadn’t been a problem but he wasn’t counting on it lasting any more than all the food in the hotel kitchens had lasted. Carver had to be behind cleaning the place out. If it served his purpose he’d probably turn off the water too.

Maybe Carver would if he didn’t get what he wanted. Ben thought about the switchblade again. He could imagine Carver cleaning blood from the gleaming silver blade — silver? Ben shook his head. He was just making things up. He couldn’t know for sure if any of this was real or all in his head. He might have imagined the switchblade.

Except it felt real. It felt true. He couldn’t explain how he knew, but then he also couldn’t explain the darkness that had engulfed this monstrous, soulless hotel.

As he came out of the stairwell on his floor he could see light from down below. A few people were still hanging out in the lobby. Little pools of light from their flashlights. Wasting batteries so that they could see each other’s faces. Three had taken the chairs around the lantern he had left behind. Anything to get away from the ever-present darkness.

Ben still didn’t take his flashlight out when he headed back towards his room. In the hallway he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face but he knew the way and his hands were full with the plate and Coke bottle. He stopped when he had counted out enough steps. He put down the bottle and took out the flashlight and clicked it on.

There was his door. Room 413 in this shit hotel. He put the plate down too and pulled open the door. With the power off the electronic locks didn’t work. At least they hadn’t been locked in, probably some fire regulation. He pushed the door open and held it with his foot while he picked up the plate and managed to hook a finger around the bottle so he could carry both inside. Once in he turned immediately to the right and put both down on the counter beside the bathroom sink. Then he went back to the door and flipped the security bar.

Ben hated the room. If there was any other way to strip a room of personality and charm, he couldn’t imagine it. The room was functional but it lacked anything of interest. A bed, a small desk and a television on a stand. One abstract painting on the wall done in nothing but orange and green that looked like some sort of sore. The darkness was the best thing that ever happened to the room. If he only saw it through the small, dim circle of the flashlight then it didn’t seem quite as bad.

The light caught his red reflectors on his Street Machine recumbent bike where he’d leaned it against the wall. Not for the first time he wished he had pushed on to the campground instead of deciding to splurge and stay the night in this concrete death trap.

He crossed the room to the sliding glass door and unlatched it. He slid it open and walked out onto the balcony. Nothing more than a three-foot deep concrete balcony that ended in a waist-high concrete wall that had a square metal railing running around the top. The air outside felt just as it did inside, warm and humid. The flashlight illuminated the faint circle in front of him and then nothing beyond.

It was quiet. Quieter than anyplace Ben had ever been before and darker. No glow reflecting off of clouds from the city that should be at the bottom of the hill. No lights at all except for his weakening flashlight. He might as well be suspended in a void with only the small piece of the balcony remaining. It didn’t even induce vertigo because there was nothing below to see.

Ben turned around and the flashlight pulled the sliding glass door and his room out of the darkness. He went inside to the nightstand and took out the Bible there. Then he carried the book out to the balcony and set it on the concrete wall. He carefully place the flashlight on the wall to illuminate the book, then he flipped it open at random.

1 Samuel 23.16. Ben ripped the page from the Bible. He worked quickly and folded the thin paper into a long narrow paper airplane. Then he picked up the airplane, and his flashlight. He threw the airplane off the balcony and kept the light on it. For a couple seconds the airplane hung suspended against the darkness. Then it vanished.

Ben put the flashlight down and flipped to another section. Ecclesiastes 10.10. He ripped the page and folded another. This second one he threw at an angle downward. It flew straight but when it got about four feet away from the building it too vanished in the darkness.

Ben closed the Bible and shut off the flashlight. Everything vanished around him except for what he could feel beneath his feet and in his hands. The edge looked clearly defined. It surrounded the core part of the building but that meant the sections of the base that extended outwards from the central core were cut off. What happened beyond the darkness? After what had happened that first day Ben hadn’t dared test it.

There’d been a man, Ted Wright. Young guy, in shape. Neatly dressed. He kept cracking dentist jokes to calm everyone down. He had volunteered to go out before Carver showed up. Walked off into the darkness and never came back. Peterson had been one that had argued that it must mean Ted got out, but Peterson hadn’t volunteered to follow him.

Ben knew it in his gut. Wise-cracking Teddy was as gone as those paper airplanes. Maybe Carver could bring him back out of it but — snick! — he wouldn’t.

By feel alone Ben walked back into his room, shut the door and returned the Bible to the nightstand. He sat down on the bed. Tomorrow he’d do some more experimenting. They needed to map the boundary, mark it somehow so that they could monitor any changes. It was better than sitting around doing nothing while Carver tested them one-by-one.

 

#

 

Morning. If it could be called morning when Ben couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, but his alarm had woken him up to a breakfast of pizza and water. Now he was on his way downstairs to check the boundaries of their dark prison. He left the flashlight off to conserve the batteries and made his out to the balcony overlooking the center of the hotel. Nothing but darkness. Everyone was probably still in bed. That suited him. Especially if Peterson stayed up in his room. That’d be great.

He walked along the balcony with his hand grazing the concrete wall until it ended at the elevators. They’d been lucky that no one had gotten stuck inside. He crossed the hallway to the stairs and pushed the heavy door open. It banged shut behind him, the echoes fading out in the dark.

Ben started down, thinking not for the first time, that this must be what it was like to be blind. No light whatsoever. Nothing but absolute blackness that could be hiding anything. Carver could be standing right there in the dark and Ben had a feeling that Carver didn’t mind the dark at all. Ben listened carefully but didn’t hear anything that suggested anyone else was in the stairwell with him. He took his time going down with one hand on the stairwell rail the whole way.

At the bottom Ben headed out into the main lobby. He wanted something to mark the boundary. Masking tape would be good. He flicked on the flashlight a couple times to stay on track for the front desk. He shoved the door open and made his way behind the desk. Cupboards beneath the desk hung open. Papers and other supplies lay scattered about. He hadn’t been the first to poke around back here.

He didn’t find any masking tape but he did discover a package of small yellow Post-It note pads. Those would do the trick. He stuffed them in his pocket and headed back out to the front of the lobby, keeping his flashlight on. He wanted to do this quickly. He walked out past the first set of open doors into the main foyer past the brochure rack of local attractions and the newspaper machines that still had papers from almost a week ago.

His flashlight couldn’t illuminate the doors to the outside. The light vanished as if swallowed by a black hole. He ran the dim circle along the floor until the darkness cut across it, sharp-edge and unyielding.

Holding the light on that point Ben walked right up to the darkness. He crouched and set the flashlight on the ground so that a long beam illuminated the edge between the hotel and whatever the blackness was that had engulfed them. He peeled Post-It notes off the first pad and placed them on the floor right up against that darkness. His knuckles grazed the boundary line and he felt a deep cold but no substance.

Ben used a half-dozen notes to mark this segment and then he rocked back on his heels. Cautiously he reached out with just his fingertips to try the barrier. Cold, but not unbearably so. No resistance to his touch. He pulled his hand back and his fingertips were unharmed. So what had happened to Ted Wright? Could he have gotten through? But if he had, why hadn’t anyone come to help?

Ben picked up the flashlight and stood. No way to know but he wasn’t going to try the darkness, not just yet anyway.

Instead Ben worked his way along the barrier, placing Post-It notes every few inches. The way the light cut off even though there wasn’t anything solid was unnerving. He stuck notes all along the boundary line across the lobby from one wall to the next and then stood back to survey his work. The arc was gentle, but obvious, as if a wall of darkness had gone up around the hotel.

He went back into the hotel and headed over towards the gift shop. He walked past empty candy shelves — guests or Carver? — and aimed the flashlight at the back corners. No wall of darkness interrupted the beam. Evidently the gift shop didn’t extend back far enough to intersect with the wall.

Next he tried the staff only corridor again. The place was empty and silent. He walked back towards the kitchens and staff lounge. Once again he felt as if there were silent people watching him from the darkness. Ben turned in a circle but the flashlight only showed the worn, dull brown wallpaper. Nothing else.

Just past the staff lounge the flashlight’s beam was cut off by the wall of darkness. Ben walked up close, put the flashlight down on the floor and used the Post-It notes again to mark the boundary. He played the flashlight along the dividing line on the wall. The darkness, whatever it was, bisected the entire hallway. He stuck a couple more Post-Its on the wall to mark the line there. Then he picked up the flashlight and turned it off.

The darkness was absolute. He could hear his own breathing. Ben took a breath and held it as he listened for any other sounds. Nothing. Pressing in all around him, an unnatural absence of everything. He reached out his arm towards the wall and was rewarded by his fingers touching that numbing cold. It had no substance but there was something there.

Ben imagined bone-white gnarled hands grabbing his own hand and pulling him into that cold dark. He jerked his hand away and rubbed the fingertips on his pants.

He resisted the urge to turn on the flashlight and instead turned away from the barrier and walked blindly down the hall back towards the main lobby.

Lights flashed across the lobby into his face as he emerged. A young family, father, mother and a small boy stood across the lobby. He’d seen them before, in line for food. The boy had dark hair and grinned as he pointed the light at Ben.

“That’s not him,” the mother murmured.

Ben shielded his eyes with his hand. “Good morning.”

The father coughed. “We thought maybe mister Carver —”

“I haven’t seen him.” Ben clicked his own light off. “I’m Ben. You are?”

“Matt and Trina Parker.” Matt touched his son’s head. “This is Connor.”

“What are you doing?” Trina asked.

“Looking around to see if we’ve missed anything.”

“You mean a way out?” Matt looked at his wife and back to Ben. “I could help.”

Ben shook his head. “Best you all wait in your room. If I find anything I’ll let you all know.”

Matt shook his head. “No. I’ll come with you. Trina, take Matt back to the room.”

“What?” Trina lowered her voice. “But Matt, it’s so —”

“We’ll be fine. No sense all of us blundering around in the dark.”

Ben waited. Trina sighed and took Connor’s hand. “Fine. We’ll go back.”

Connor tried to pull away. “No! A want to go with them!”

Ben shook his head. Matt touched his son’s shoulder. “Listen, go to the room and look after things there, okay?”

Connor looked at Ben and back at Matt. “But—”

“Connor.”

“Fine.”

Trina leaned close and kissed Matt’s cheek. “Be careful.”

“Go on now.”

They walked away, slowly. Matt turned back to Ben. “Now what?”

“I’ve already marked the line across the lobby and down the hall in the staff area back there. I was going to go into the restaurant next. I think it might extend out far enough. Then the conference areas.”

“How are you marking it?”

Ben held up the package of Post It notes.

“Oh, okay. What will that tell us?”

Ben shrugged. “Maybe nothing. It might help someone avoid walking into it. And it’ll give us an idea if the line moves.”

“You think it’ll move?”

“I don’t know but it feels like a noose around this hell hole and the thing about a noose? It tightens.”

“Right.” Matt twitched his light back towards the restaurant. “After you?”

Ben headed for the restaurant. He didn’t turn on his flashlight. Matt’s looked brighter, the batteries would probably last longer. Matt walked beside him. He flashed the light up into the silo. Ben caught a glimpse of a white face looking down from the balcony four floors up. Whoever it was pulled back before he could recognize who it was.

“Keep the light on the floor,” Ben said. “We want to see the edge when we reach it.”

“Right. Okay.” Matt pointed the flashlight at the floor. Dark brown carpet in this section around the chairs. “Why did you come here?”

“The park,” Ben answered. “I’ve on a cross-country bicycle tour. Just made the bad mistake of deciding to stay in a hotel one night.”

“That sucks.”

“Yeah.” That’s what Ben had thought the moment he walked into the hotel. Three things had convinced him to stay. First, no one told him he couldn’t bring in his bike. Second, it was already getting dark outside and he had put in a lot of miles already. Twenty more in the dark seemed too much. Plus he’d already climbed the hill to the hotel. And last, the prospect of a hot shower. Big mistake.

They left the carpeted area for the fake marble floors and the restaurant was just ahead. The sign board out front still proclaimed the grilled salmon special. The darkness swallowed everything else.

“Slowly,” Ben said. “Let’s not walk into whatever it is around the hotel.”

Together they moved into the restaurant, both of them watching the circle of light on the dark floors. They walked past the cash register and the bar deeper into the restaurant. Ben remembered seeing seating back under the windows. It seemed like the restaurant must stick far enough out to intersect the darkness surrounding the place.

Sure enough, right before the step up at the back, a line of darkness cut a sharp edge across the circle of light.

“Wow.” Matt moved the circle further across the line and back. “Look at that! What happens to the light? How can it just stop like that?”

“I don’t know.” Ben pulled out the Post It notes. “Hold the light still while I mark the boundary.”

The light steadied. “Sure. Okay. That’s just weird.”

Ben crouched down at the edge of the circle of light. He extended his hand out to that sharp edge and felt the cold on his fingertips. He pulled his hand back.

“What’s it feel like?”

“Nothing. It doesn’t feel like anything except cold.” Ben peeled off a Post It note and stuck it right down at the boundary line.

“That’s a good idea,” Matt said.

“Maybe.” Ben added another. “It might help as long as the batteries last in the flashlights. After that, not so much.”

“But —”

Matt’s words cut off in a yelp. The flashlight flipped away across the restaurant, hit a table and bounced off to the floor. The light flashed across Ben’s eyes. Very aware of the barrier only inches away he pulled out his own flashlight.

Matt screamed. He heard Matt or someone crash into some chairs. Ben aimed the light towards the noise. He saw Matt’s terrified face, very pale in the light. Someone with frizzy white hair clung to his back. Then they stumbled out of the light.

Ben rose and headed towards the sound, trying to catch them in the light. Matt screamed more. Ben found him with the light and saw that the person on Matt’s back appeared to be biting his neck. Bright red blood spread down Matt’s blue shirt. Once again whoever had Matt jerked him out of the light. Ben went after them.

Ben heard a grunt and then a thud, like someone falling. His light found Matt face down on the floor. Mrs. Thompson stood beside him in the shadows with blood covering her chin. She grinned at him and ran her hands up her sides suggestively.

“Ben, dear boy. Will you help me carry this —” she kicked Matt “— up to my room?”

A deep biting chill touched Ben’s back. He turned the flashlight away from the horrific image back towards the barrier and his arm swept into that deadly chill. The light vanished, including Matt’s dropped flashlight. He lurched away from the cold and his light returned. He heard a snarl from Mrs. Thompson but before he could get the light on her the cold hit him again.

It was moving!

Ben backed away and aimed the flashlight at the floor. The line advanced steadily. He walked backwards and the light kept pace with him. He reached Matt and reached down to check on the man.

A polished black shoe and perfectly pressed blue suit leg emerged from the darkness, followed by the rest of Carver. He walked out of the barrier and looked down at Ben.

“Leave him, Benny. He’s gone. Who did it?”

Ben slowly rose. “Mrs. Thompson. What is she?”

“My problem.” A brief smile flitted across Sander’s face. His hand slid into his pocket and came back out holding something. Snick. A bright silver switchblade popped up. “Now that I know who it is I’ll take care of it.”

The line continued to advance and Carver walked forward at the same pace. Ben held his ground.

“That’s what all of this has been about? Finding her?”

Carver looked out into the darkness. “Of course. Contain, identify.” Carver grinned. “And remove.”

And then Carver disappeared into the darkness. Ben tried to follow him with the light but the man moved too fast. A second later the barrier touched Ben’s back again and he hurried forward. He ran past Matt’s body, sorry he couldn’t do anything for him, and left the restaurant. From above he heard a man shout and swear as if surprised. The cold darkness was closing in on the building. By now it must be intersecting with the rooms.

Flashlights flickered to life above like so many fireflies in the night. The lights danced around the concrete walls. Voices were raised and the hotel echoed with the sound. The smell of Matt’s blood clung to Ben and when he pointed his flashlight down he saw that he was leaving bloody footprints. He must have walked through Matt’s blood.

Ben heard more shouts and saw people pointing their lights up the central shaft. Several floors up the lights cut off. The darkness descended at the same rate it advanced inward. People started screaming and running along the balconies towards the stairwells.

“Stay calm!” Ben shouted. “Don’t panic!”

No one heard him over the din. He saw a middle-aged woman with brightly dyed red hair trip and fall. Up on the floor right below the approaching darkness a balding man climbed over the balcony and appeared to be trying to reach the next floor. He let go. Fell towards the next balcony and his hands bounced off. He screamed and tumbled as he fell eight floors down until he landed with an audible crack across the back of one of the chairs.

Ben clenched his fists. Carver. That prick Carver was behind it all of this. Okay, so Mrs. Thompson was some sort of vampire, but trapping them all here? Obviously Carver didn’t care who got hurt in the process.

“Ben!”

Ben looked up and saw Tuyet three floors up struggling through the panicking guests.

“Hold on! Let them go past!”

Tuyet clung to the balcony as others shoved past her. Ben started towards the stairwell but people poured out into the lobby. He backed up and looked for Mrs. Thompson. He didn’t see her. Those coming down saw the body of the man who fell and backed away. Several people were crying.

Above he saw Tuyet moving now towards the stairs. He shoved his way through the thinning crowd towards the stairs. He met Tuyet there when she came down and pulled her aside.

“Are you okay?”

She wrapped her arms around him, her body thin and light. She smelled faintly of apple. She nodded against his shoulder. She drew back and ducked her head.

“Sorry.”

He squeezed her hand gently. “Don’t be. Are you okay?”

“Yes. What’s going on?”

Ben held onto her hand and led her out into the lobby. With so many using their flashlights he turned his off and stuffed it in his pocket. Several people had their lights pointed up at the balconies as they watched the impenetrable darkness descend.

“Carver’s barrier is closing in on us. He’s looking for Mrs. Thompson. Have you seen her?”

Tuyet shook her head. “Wait, Carver is doing this? Why is he looking for Mrs. Thompson?”

“She’s not what she seems. I saw her kill a man.”

Tuyet covered her mouth.

Just then a scream cut through the babble of the guests. More people started screaming and running away from the other side of the lobby. Lights flashed in Ben’s eyes. A man ran right at him. Ben braced himself so that the man hit his shoulder and bounced off. The guy staggered and ran around Ben.

“Stay here,” Ben said to Tuyet.

He plunged into the crowd, shoving his way through as people backed away from something. When he got through all he saw was another body, a woman in a auburn dress, lying on the ground with a bloodied throat. He saw Marlene standing at the edge of the crowd, pointing a flashlight out into the darkness beyond the body.

“What happened?” Ben asked. Tuyet came up behind him and touched his shoulder.

“The old woman. She attacked her,” Marlene said. “She’s gone crazy.”

Ben took out his own flashlight and stepped out away from the crowd. Tuyet tried to pull him back but he waved her off. Ben walked slowly towards the body with his flashlight on. Carver’s darkness hadn’t reached the lobby yet. Past the woman’s body was the opening into the conference areas. Ben aimed the light that way and caught a glimpse of something moving in the dark.

“Mrs. Thompson! It’s Ben, please talk to me.”

Laughter floated out of the darkness.

Ben walked around the body and deeper into the dark. “There’s nowhere to go. We’re all trapped here. Come out.”

Another throaty chuckle from the dark ahead. Ben hesitated. Where was Carver and his silver switchblade? What was the man going to do? Kill her? What if she had already killed Carver? But then if she did that wouldn’t it mean that the darkness would go away?

Ben walked deeper into the dark beneath the balconies, into the wide hallway. On either side were conference rooms and ahead a wide staircase that led down into more conference areas. Except Carver’ blackness cut off the stairs. A flash of white in his light drew Ben’s attention towards the conference room on his right.

The light illuminated a woman standing in the doorway. Mrs. Thompson, except her skin wasn’t wrinkled anymore and her blood-splattered dress clung to firm breasts. More blood smeared across her full lips. She was young again. She smiled at Ben and licked her lips.

“You, my dear boy, are an unexpected treat.”

Ben shivered. He didn’t have any weapon. No way to fight her. He kept the light on her. “If we stop Carver will the darkness go away?”

She tilted her head to the side. “You’d help me?”

Carver stepped forward out of the dark conference room behind her. Mrs. Thompson gasped and her back arched, thrusting her chest forward. She screamed and spun around. Her hand lashed out, long nails ripping out Carver’ throat. He blinked and dropped to his knees.

Carver’ silver switchblade stuck out of her back. Ben ran forward and grabbed the knife.

It felt like ice burning his hand. He yanked it free. Mrs. Thompson turned around but he was ready for it and ducked beneath her swing. He rose up and plunged the knife up beneath her breast bone, seeking her heart. She gasped.

Ben slid his other arm around her and pulled her close. He shoved the knife up harder. She shuddered against him. Their eyes met.

“Dear boy, why?”

“Really? You have to ask?” he whispered.

She went limp in his arm, forcing the knife even deeper. Ben lowered her to the floor beside Carver’ body. He pulled the knife free. Blood covered the silver and dripped to the floor. He crouched down and used her dress to wipe the blade clean.

Then he stood and — snick — retracted the blade. He pocketed the knife.

Light flooded the hallway as the ceiling lights came on. He looked down at the floor but the bodies were gone. Not really gone, he knew. Left in the other place. Since he took up the switchblade he understood it all. Carver had shifted all of the guests into a pocket in the other place. Now they had returned and the pocket had collapsed, taking the bodies along with it. Ben walked back out into the lobby where the guests were already leaving. Some going back to their rooms but others just headed out towards the doors.

Tuyet came towards him and folded her hands together. She looked at him with big dark eyes. “What happened?”

“They’re both gone.”

She nodded. An awkward silence grew between them. Ben could say something, he knew. Make some effort but he understood Carver now. Mrs. Thompson hadn’t been the only one of these creatures. There were others out there. How could he just forget that? The switchblade gave him the ability to fight them. He knew how to walk in the darkness and shadows now.

Tuyet looked away for a second and that’s all it took for him to move into the shadows. Just enough to hide from view. She looked back and gasped. From her perspective he had vanished.

“Ben?” She looked all around, bit her lip, and then turned and walked away towards the elevators.

Ben trailed along. He’d go up to his own room, sticking to the shadows, and get his bike and gear. That’s all he needed. A way to get around, until he found another one. He had a feeling he needed to go north.

💀

8,088 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 60th weekly short story release, written in September 2010. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Truth-Seeker.

What Dragged in the Cat?

In this quiet suburban neighborhood, Monica Clayton runs a successful online business collecting and selling old books.

Violence shatters her peaceful life with the terrifying death of her cat, Scrunch. Something stalks her.
Toying with her. Taunting.

To survive she must uncover the secret, and answer the question.

What dragged in the cat?

💀

It all started Tuesday morning with Scrunch in the living room. His flat Persian kitty face looking back at the rest of his body with a familiar look of indignation, as if his last thought was, shit, doesn’t that beat all?

Monica couldn’t go back down there right away. She stayed on her bed with her knees tucked up against her chest, and tried to reason it out. After the first half-hour she wondered if she had simply imagined what she had seen. His body smaller without the inside parts.

Maybe it had been some laundry she left on the floor? It was early and the living room was still sort of dark. His legs scattered like sticks. Except she didn’t leave laundry around the house. She kept the place neat and clean. Blood flecks bright red on the pale carpet but not as much as she would have expected. Something else then. Or maybe nothing. Maybe she had dreamed that she woke up and went down to the living room. Long black and white fur, the softest fur, matted with blood.

Except she was dressed to meet with a seller later, she had on her makeup, and the sunlight made the loft look bright and cheery. Monica pushed her hands down against the bed. She had to go look. She got off the bed and took a shaky breath.

“You can do this,” she whispered.

Monica crossed the loft to the railing, grabbed onto the smooth wood, and looked down. She screamed.

💀

It took the police twenty minutes to arrive. Two squad cars pulled up into her driveway. Four officers got out. They all walked towards her. A big blocky woman officer took the lead.

“Ms. Clayton?”

“Yes. Monica Clayton.”

“I’m Officer Fabin. Are you okay?”

Monica let loose a strangled laugh. “Sure. Great.” She took a deep breath. “I’m okay. I had to cancel my meeting.”

“Just tell us what happened.”

It didn’t take long. There wasn’t that much to tell. When she finished the officers talked among themselves for a minute and then the other three moved off towards her house. Officer Fabin stayed with her in the yard.

“This is a nice place you have here. You live alone?”

Monica nodded.

“Boyfriend?”

“No.”

“Can I ask what you do?”

“I buy and sell rare books online.”

Officer Fabin looked around at the yard. “You must be doing okay?”

“Yes.”

“Did you notice any signs of forced entry? Did you hear anything?”

“No. There’s blood in the kitchen, and on the pet door.”

Officer Fabin talked into a mic on her shoulder for a second. “Okay. I know this is hard. Can you think of anyone that might bear a grudge against you?”

“God, no. I don’t think so.”

“Are you going to be okay if I go help the others? Do you need me to stay?”

“No.” Monica forced herself to smile. She wouldn’t fall apart. “I’ll be fine.”

The police had been inside for fifteen minutes. Monica knew because she kept checking her watch while she waited and paced the yard. The neighbor’s pug, Popeye, charged up and down in their yard on the other side of the fence. He wheezed when he barked. Popeye’s smashed in face was a canine reminder of Scrunch. This is silly, she told herself. Scrunch is dead. Deep breath. She had to deal with it. She couldn’t stay out in the yard all day. She started up the stairs to the porch. Before she reached the top Fabin opened the door and came out carrying a white plastic trash back. In the light Monica could see streaks inside and something heavy and dark at the bottom.

“Ms. Clayton,” Fabin said gently. “We cleaned it up the best we could. You’ll need to do something about the stains. Would you like us to help you bury him?”

Monica felt like someone had their fist down her throat. She coughed. “No. I can manage. Do you have any ideas how…?”

One of the other officers, a nice looking guy about her age, stepped forward. “A raccoon, Ms. Clayton. It must have injured the cat outside and then followed it in through the pet door to finish the job.”

“A raccoon?”

“Yes,” Fabin said. “It must have been shocking to see that this morning.”

Monica gave a nervous, relieved laugh. A raccoon. Of course. She felt a bit flushed. “I’m sorry to call you out for something like this. I was so startled.”

“No problem, Ms. Clayton.” Fabin gently let down the plastic bag. “Take care.”

Monica squeezed her hand. “Thank you. I will. Really, I’m sorry to bother you.”

The officers left. Monica retrieved her shovel from the garage and buried Scrunch in the front planter near the rock where he liked to sun himself. She cried a bit saying goodbye, then went inside to clean up. The police had cleaned up everything except a few brown stains on the carpet. After scrubbing away the stains she showered, then made some tea and decided to use the remainder of her day off lost in a good novel.

💀

Wednesday morning Monica slapped at her alarm and instead hit something warm and a bit squishy. She opened her eyes. Popeye’s head sat on her nightstand looking with cross-eyed surprise at his corkscrew tail which hung from his mouth. Monica screamed. The alarm buzzed on.

She scrambled back from the nightstand. Her hand landed in something wet. Monica slipped and fell back against the sheets and felt the back of nightgown become instantly soaked. A thick butcher shop smell ran across her face. Screaming in great shuddering breaths Monica thrashed and rolled off the bed. More liquid splashed against her front but she got off the bed. She backed away while great sobs shook her body.

Blood pooled on the sheets. Popeye’s deflated corpse lay scattered on the pillow. Monica fled to the bathroom. For several minutes she kept her eyes closed and tried to regain control. It was on her, she knew. She didn’t want to see. It stank. She stank. Monica opened her eyes. She looked ghastly. The lights seemed unnaturally bright. Most of her nightgown clung to her in vibrant wet red. It was splattered across her arms, her neck, and even her face. A drop ran down her lip. She licked automatically.

Monica heaved and collapsed against the sink. Her gut kept heaving until nothing was left. Gradually it subsided. Monica shuddered and pulled the nightgown off. She dropped it in the trash can without looking and climbed into the shower. She didn’t come out until the water turned cold and even then it took her several minutes to open the door.

Monica dressed quickly and hurried downstairs. She called the seller and left a message apologizing for canceling twice. She’d reschedule later. After hanging up she pressed nine and stopped with her finger shaking about the one. She set the handset down. How would this look to the police? Popeye was killed in her bed and she didn’t wake up? How was that possible? And putting his head on her nightstand—his curly tail sticking out of his mouth—that wasn’t something that a raccoon would do. What if they thought she was crazy? They might decide that she had done this. Monica took a deep breath. But what had? She couldn’t go to sleep tonight not knowing.

Monica stood up. First she’d clean up the mess upstairs. Then she’d start investigating.

💀

A search online failed to turn up any recent reports of attacks on pets. Monica settled back in her chair and absently rubbed at her hands, still raw from scrubbing her fingers. She had buried Popeye along with her bedding and nightgown in a new flower bed along the back. She didn’t want the neighbors to think that there was anything odd so she had dug out the sod in a large curving bed. She had gone Home Depot and came back with bags of soil, bark, and a selection of new plants. Then she had spent the better part of the day working on the flower bed. At one point Joseph, Popeye’s owner, had been out in the yard calling for the dog. She had felt guilty when he asked if she’d seen the dog that she didn’t say anything. What could she have said? Yes, I’m sorry, but I woke up this morning with his butchered carcass in my bed? Monica took a deep breath, let it out, and looked back at the screen.

There wasn’t any sign that anyone had broken into the house. She hadn’t noticed any signs that anything else had been disturbed. The possibilities seemed limited. Could she have done it? Maybe in some sort of unconscious state? Popeye had been barking at her yesterday when she was in the yard. Monica didn’t think it likely but she refused to rule it out right away. What other options were there?

Bookshelves lined the walls of her study. It was a collection unlike any that would usually be found in someone’s home. The shelves were full of rare volumes. She had cases for the most delicate and valuable volumes. A couple safes for the really spectacular finds. That’s what she did—collect and sell rare books online. It was the perfect job. She traveled around the world. She got to work at home. Best of all she had the opportunity to read some of the most extraordinary things. Yet with all of this knowledge at her fingertips, and the internet through her computer, she was still at a loss to explain what had happened.

Maybe she should have called the police. Monica sighed and pushed her chair back from the computer. After dinner she’d try again. She got up to leave, stopping to straighten a box of new deliveries that had fallen over beside the door.

Scrunch’s fault, she thought as she picked up the books. He was always jumping on things he shouldn’t. Her eyes moistened. He wouldn’t be doing that anymore. Monica wiped her eyes and picked up the last book. The binding was broken. It might have happened when the box fell. Some of these books were very fragile. When she had a chance she would see if it could be repaired or not. She put it in the box, then went to the kitchen.

Although Monica spent the evening looking for answers she didn’t find out much. Raccoons did, at times, attack and injure house pets. There wasn’t any mention of the sort of thing that had happened to Popeye. She checked the newspaper’s online archives, animal abuse sites, and arrest records. Nothing came up that sounded like what had happened to her. So far, except for the notion that she might be doing this in an unconscious state, she didn’t have a clue what was going on.

Monica rubbed her eyes and groaned. She should get to bed. She was afraid to sleep. Would it be so bad to stay up? She could watch movies all night. If anything happened she would call the police. But first she wanted to make sure that nothing would happen. She shut down the computer and left her study. Then she went through the house and made sure every door and window was locked. She taped the pet door closed with excessive amounts of duct tape. When she finished she made some popcorn and settled in to watch her musicals, starting with Singing in the Rain.

Monica jerked awake. Something had woken her up. She listened. Other than the music for Brigadoon’s menu she didn’t hear anything unusual. She hit the mute button. There was a sharp intake of breath behind her. Monica twisted around.

What light there was from the television reflected across a curved, boney spine. Monica’s first impression was of a skeletal child, skin stretched tight over bones. It was crouched over something with its back to her. There was a stiffness about the bony shoulders. It knew she was watching. It was waiting for her to do something. Monica felt a scream building in her throat. What would it do if she moved again?

The head lifted slowly and Monica lost the impression of a child. Whatever this was, it wasn’t a child. It had a bald skull with a few bristly black hairs. There were spots on the papery skin like liver spots. But the ears were what really killed any childlike impression. They looked chewed. Mangled strips of flesh which hung in tatters around the ear channel. Monica didn’t dare move.

Bony arms reached down into the shadows around its lap. Monica heard flesh tearing and bones snapping. With a faint snarl it threw something away towards the wall. The object landed wetly and looked back at her with glazed eyes. It was the head of a Scotty dog. Smacking sounds drew her attention back to the creature. It was eating with great gasping, gobbling sounds. The noise and the stench made Monica’s stomach clench painfully. Her head swam. No—

She stood up.

The creature hissed and dissolved into a thick black smoke. The dog’s remains splashed on the floor. Monica swayed as the smoke oozed across the floor into her study. She waited a moment then edged around the couch and followed. She turned on the lights as she went. Much of the study remained dark but there was some light in the doorway. Monica crept up and reached in for the light switch.

Claws darted into the light and raked across the back of her hand. Blood poured over her fingers as she snatched her hand back, crying out. She backed up and her heel hit the dog’s head. She bit off her scream and took a step to the side. She saw a sense of movement, just out of the light. It was in there, probably on the box of books next to the door. But it doesn’t like the light, she thought. She didn’t think the light hurt it since it hadn’t been enough to drive it away from the dog. Monica edged towards the floor lamp.

It still hadn’t moved. At least she didn’t think it had. Monica grabbed the lamp with her good hand and pointed it at the doorway. For a second she saw it starkly illuminated. It was crouching on top of the books as she had thought, licking its claws and fingers with a broad purplish tongue. It had a wizened bat-like face. When the light hit it the big yellow eyes snapped shut. It hissed. A second later it vanished, replaced by the inky smoke which sank down into the book.

Monica carried the lamp as far as the cord would allow then stretched out her injured hand towards the study light switch. She could just about reach. With a grimace she sat the lamp down, took a step, and flicked the switch. Warm light filled the room. There wasn’t any sign of the creature.

Carefully, to avoid bleeding on it, Monica picked up the book that had absorbed the smoke. It was the one she had noticed on the floor earlier with the broken binding. The invoice for the shipment was in the box too. She gingerly picked it out. The translated title on the invoice was A Collection of Stories about Demons, Imps, and Haunts.

Whatever that thing was it had come from the book. And if a broken binding had let it out she didn’t dare burn the book or otherwise destroy it. She looked at her hand and winced. First, she’d bandage her hand, but then she’d come back in here and repair the binding and clasp on that book. Then she’d take everything out of the safe and lock it in there. She could get a new safe in the morning.

Monica carried the book to her desk and pointed the task light at the cover. Her Latin was rusty but a literal translation seemed to be A Gathering of Demons, Imps, and Haunts.

No mention of stories. From now on she was going to do her own translations. She winced again looking at the ragged cuts on her hand. She didn’t think she needed stitches but it was going to be sore for a while. Plus who knew what that thing had under its claws? Monica shuddered. She’d better take care of it right away. Two steps away from the desk she stopped and looked back at the book starkly illuminated by the task light. She hated to leave it alone.

She turned and went over to her work table. She pulled down a large number sixteen plastic book cover and spread it out on the work table. Then she turned on the table’s task light so that it was pointed directly at the center of the cover. She went to the desk and carefully picked up the book with her free hand. The cover twitched in her fingers.

Monica gave a startled gasp and nearly dropped the book but managed to keep a hold of it. She hurried back to the table and put the book face down on the cover. Quickly she wrapped the long ends around the book and then folded the short ends over as if she were wrapping a present. She pulled a large piece of book tape from the dispenser and taped the cover shut around the book. For good measure she turned the book face up so that the flaps were held down the back the book’s own weight.

“Now just rest,” she whispered. “When I get back I’ll fix up your binding.”

Monica still didn’t like leaving the book, but she was dripping blood on the floor. The sight of the blood was making her sick. She hurried out of the study, edging around the dog’s remains, and went upstairs to her bathroom. After pouring a liberal amount of hydrogen peroxide on the cuts she pressed a gauze pad to the wounds and wrapped her hand with an Ace bandage. It didn’t leave her with much mobility in her hand. She took a couple ibuprofen.

Her reflection looked pale. There was a smear of blood on her chin. Monica scrubbed her face with a wash cloth. She took a couple deep breaths until her shuddering subsided. She just had to finish this and everything could go back to normal.

💀

Downstairs, she froze in the study doorway. Her hands went to her mouth.

“No,” she moaned against her fingers.

The plastic cover was swollen. Inky black smoke, so thick it looked liquid, pressed against the cover, ballooning it out around the book. A trickle started to run out from beneath the book, bleeding down from the work table.

“No!” Monica ran to the table. She slammed her hands down on either side of the book, ignoring the pain that flared in her injured hand. She yelled right at the bulging blackness. “No! Stop it!”

That twisted bat-nosed face swam up out of the blackness. Yellow eyes squinted against the light as it pressed against the plastic, distorting its wrinkled face further. Its fat purple tongue writhed against the cover and left slimy tracks as it made slobbery noises. Sharp teeth snapped as it tried to get purchase to chew its way free. More smoke oozed from the underside of the book, bringing with it a fecal and blood smell. Monica took a step back from the table. She looked around for something that could help her.

The task light on the desk! Monica rushed over, grabbed it and yanked the plug free. She hurried back to the table and put it down so that it pointed right at the struggling face. Her hand shook as she plugged it in.

The thing’s face vanished back into the smoke. More light, Monica thought. She needed more.

She ran back out to the living room and unplugged the area lamp. She carried it back inside, plugged it in and pointed the lights at the work table. With a faint crinkling sound the cover started to deflate. The edges of the book reappeared. Monica thought quickly. What else?

Finally, after several minutes of scouring the house, she ended up with two more area lights, a large flashlight, and her Coleman lantern. The book lay bare within the blaze of illumination. Monica eased into her chair. Her sore hand was throbbing with her rapid pulse. She bit her lip as she turned the book over and began cutting the cover free with her Exacto knife. Once she had it free she discarded it to the floor. Gingerly she turned the book over and opened the cover.

It was a beautifully illustrated manuscript. Under other circumstances she could see a collector paying a handsome price for such a rare find. She laughed nervously. Of course they wouldn’t have any idea just how rare this book was. She turned the pages and covered her mouth. Horribly disfigured creatures leered from the pages with almost life-like intensity. Monica bit her lip as she turned to the section with the broken binding. There it was. The creature glared at her from the pages. The drawing was split by the broken binding. Monica felt chilled as she stared at the stark illumination. Her hand shook as she reached for the glue and started to work.

When she finished she bound the book by a large four-way rubber band that would hold everything in position until the glue was firmly fixed. Outside the sky was turning pink as the Sun started to rise. If Scrunch had set the creature free by knocking over the box, causing the binding to break, then repairing the book should bind the creature once more. But she had to make sure.

With a careful eye on the book Monica started turning off the lights. As each went off the study darkened. She kept her hands on the last two switches after turning them off and watched the book. Nothing moved. She didn’t see any smoke coming from the pages. She watched it until the Sun came up and flooded the room with light again. Then, stiffly, Monica got up to take care of the final precautions.

She shrink-wrapped the book. Three times. Then she emptied her fireproof rare items safe and locked the book inside. For now it would be enough. Eventually, however, she knew that more steps would have to be taken. Books decay over time. This one would have to be preserved against acid and environmental degradation. She needed to do far more research into the book’s origin. Maybe she could discover another way to bind or destroy the things bound in that volume.

For now, at least, she was safe. The book was repaired. Nothing else would be coming out. She had another unfortunate victim to bury in the garden and some cleaning to do but after that she wanted to get some much deserved sleep. Monica yawned and went out to face the day.

💀

3,875 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 54th weekly short story release, written clear back in July 2003. It’s the oldest story I’ve kept in my inventory. Why? Because it was the first story I sold, appearing in Alien Skin Magazine. It wasn’t a pro market but I was still happy to sell the story. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Garden of Evan.

The Caretaker

The warming baked the fields to dust, turned forests into stands of dead wood. And the vamp infection spread.

Among his other jobs, Damien tends the high school football field, one bit of green left in the small town of Elk Park.

He worked all day so he didn’t have to think about being alone, aching for someone to touch, to love.

Warning: Graphic content.

 

They had crucified another cheerleader on the home team’s goal post, the third of that hot August, which must set some kind of record for a town like Elk Park with two thousand people on a good day. But why’d they have to do it on the goal post, leaving it to him to clean up the mess? Damien pulled a stained handkerchief from his pocket, mopping his forehead. The day was already hot — even though the sun hadn’t actually risen yet.

The sun coming up was like a hot oven at his back. Ordinarily he got out earlier to take care of the field, that one solitary patch of green grass left in the whole town. They’d had a meeting on it and everything, when it turned out that denying a thing didn’t stop it from coming and baking the fields to dust, and turning forests into stands of dead wood. The town had voted to keep on watering the football field, so Damien kept his job and came out in the early morning to mow and trim, and lay out the chalk lines again each week and before each game. When he finished he went on to his job at the Thompson’s IGA grocery market until his evening shift over at the solar charging station. Three jobs to cover for his ex’s gambling debts. It wasn’t too bad, at least at the store and the station he got to work in air conditioned buildings, but at home with the broken air conditioner, lying on the sheets damp with his sweat, he ached for someone to hold again.

Continue reading “The Caretaker”

Hauntlet

You know that moment when you’re standing outside the worn down Victorian house, it’s night, and Friday the 13th?

Thomas does and he knows he shouldn’t go inside. Except his best friend lives there and Percy might need help.

For readers who enjoy a little spooky with their eggnog. Happy Holidays!

December thirteenth was colder than a witch’s tit, a fact that Thomas knew very well as he coasted his mountain bike to a stop outside the worn down Victorian house his best friend, his only friend, Percy had leased as the headquarters for App-aration.

Percy’s idea of a pun. He designed independent apps and games for the iPad, iPhone and whatever else Apple decided to come out with.

It was almost five already, which meant that it was pretty much dark already and in the gloom the house suited the name. The light on his helmet cast a circle across the front of the house as he studied it. Peeling paint, cobwebs, and missing shingles were just details. No lights, that was another point, the only light, beside his helmet light, came from the nearly full moon already up casting pale shadows across the yard from the skeletal fruit trees rising above the patchy grass. The house suited the name of Percy’s business very well, it was just the sort of place to send children running by in fear.

Not that children would come out here. The house sat pretty much by itself at the end of a dead end street just outside Rainier. It had taken Thomas the better part of an hour to ride out the Chehalis-Western trail, then find the street and get to the house. All because Percy had promised to show him something really cool. After which Percy had also promised a movie marathon with eats and drink. And tomorrow was his mid-week day off so he didn’t have to bike it back until later. After it warmed up.

Still, the place looked dark and empty. He didn’t see any lights on in the house, which wouldn’t have been unusual for Percy but there should have at least been the glow of his computers. Percy always had at least three monitors on his primary machine, not to mention his other machines, game consoles and HD TV.

But there was none of that. No lights, not so much as a candle flickering in a window.

The longer Thomas stayed outside with his bike the emptier the house felt. He had a strong urge to get back on the bike and ride home. If this was a haunted house in a horror film this was the point when the audience would be screaming at him not to go into the house. What sort of person did that?

An idiot? Maybe, he’d been called worse. And if it didn’t matter he would have left but the house was very isolated and Percy had a lot of expensive stuff. What if someone had broken in and Percy was hurt? Was he supposed to ride off and just leave his only friend on the floor bleeding or worse?

That was bad enough, and probably ridiculous to think, but there was also the fact that it was freezing. He his breath fogged in the moonlight. Even with his shoe covers his feet were freezing. His fingers almost felt numb beneath his outer shell and the gloves he wore underneath. Leaving now would mean at least another hour of riding in the dark and cold all the way home.

It was insane to even think about that when he hadn’t even tried the door. He could go that far, at least.

He rolled the bike up the cracked and weedy walk. The grass coming up through the broken concrete was covered in glittering frost and crunched beneath his feet. The house needed lots of work. Percy had been excited about the deal he got on the place, but seeing it Thomas could understand why he got such a deal. The roof of the porch sagged and one of the posts was at an angle. The board at the bottom of the steps was cracked in half and needed to be replaced.

Thomas carefully stepped over the broken board, lifting his mountain bike up with him onto the porch. No way he was leaving his bike out on the porch, given the state of the place.

The front door might have been lavender at one time but now it looked more gray than anything. There was a nice frosted oval window in the door, but it was crusted with grime, spider webs and desiccated bug corpses. There was a brass knocker, a simple bar weighted with a ball at the end but Thomas just knocked with his hand.

“Percy? Are you in there?” He didn’t hear any response to his cry. He stripped off his outer glove shell and cycling glove to knock with bare knuckles on the wood. The door felt solid. He wasn’t sure how much the sound got through the heavy door, so he grabbed the knocker and smashed it down once, twice and three times. “Percy?”

The door handle, an actual long handle instead of a knob, turned. Thomas jumped back, startled because he hadn’t heard anyone coming to the door or seen a light.

Hinges screeched as the door swung open. A pale face, thin with haunted dark eyes and wet hair plastered to his scalp, swam up out of the darkness and squinted against the light from his helmet. It was Percy. He looked terrible, but it was Percy.

Percy raised a hand to shield his eyes from the light. “Thomas, man, what are you doing here?”

“You invited me. Remember? I’m off tomorrow? We were going to watch movies, plus you said you had something to show me.”

Percy scratched at his wet hair. His clothes were wet too, it looked like he had been sweating with large wet circles under his arms on the white t-shirt. He had on faded blue jeans, no shoes or socks, despite the cold.

“Can I come in?” Thomas asked. “I’m cold.”

“This isn’t a good time, man. Sorry I forgot about, you know, but really, it isn’t so great.”

“What’s wrong? Are you sick or something? Maybe I should come in while you tell me about it.” Thomas leaned forward with his hand on the door frame. “It’s a long ride home in the cold and dark.”

“I’ve been so hot,” Percy said. “I like the cold and dark.”

“I don’t. Let me in, Percy. Then you can tell me what’s going on.” Thomas moved forward and Percy stepped back out of his way.

Percy tucked his hands beneath his arms and backed off. Thomas came in, wheeling his bike in with him, then shut the door to keep in the heat. Except there wasn’t any heat! It didn’t feel any warmer inside than outside, just darker without the moon.

There really wasn’t any light in the place, except for the light from his helmet. Percy was standing at the edge of the light and just beyond him Thomas could see the dark shape of Percy’s old leather couch that he’d bought with his first app release.

“Some lights, maybe? Heat?”

“No,” Percy said, drawing it out. “I don’t think that’d be good. I think you should go, man. I’m really sorry for bringing you out here, but it’d be better.”

Thomas was really worried. This wasn’t like Percy at all. Something had to be seriously wrong. He turned around and found the light switches himself and flipped them on.

“Hey!” Percy cowered back from the light, shielding his eyes. “That’s bright!”

Except it wasn’t. A light had come on in the fixture above the door but it was a weak yellow light that just cast a pale circle of light on and around Thomas and his bike. He leaned the bike against the wall beneath the light switches.

The other lights on were the two lamps on either side of the couch. They both looked like they had twenty-watt bulbs at best. But over in the front alcove Christmas lights had come on around Percy’s Christmas tree. It was a thick Douglas fir, not much taller than Thomas, sparsely decorated with ornaments but a string of lights blinked on and off in red, green, blue and yellow. It should have cheered the place up but the tree leaned a bit to the side and the needles looked dry. When Thomas’ light hit the stand he could see that it was bone dry.

“Man, you forgot to water your tree. We should do that before the lights start a fire or something.”

“Just turn the lights off,” Percy groaned. “I don’t feel good.”

“Yeah, I get that, but it’s not good to sit here in the dark.”

Thomas went around the corner and found a thermostat on the wall. The needle was pushed all the way over to OFF. He pushed it back up until the needle hit the seventy degree mark. Something thunked downstairs and rattled. Then he heard the faint hum of air blowing through the vents.

“There.” Thomas took off his helmet and switched off the light.

Percy crawled onto the couch and lay in a fetal position with his hands up over his head.

Thomas hung his helmet on the bike then crossed over to the couch. There was a knitted afghan in faded green and yellow crumpled on one end. He picked it up and pulled it up over Percy.

“Yeah, just stay there. I’ll go get you something to eat. You’ll feel better. Trust me.”

Percy didn’t answer but he also didn’t complain anymore.

Thomas didn’t know which way to go but he made his way back to an entry leading out and that led to a hall, and across the hall, through a passage beneath the staircase, he could see the kitchen. And there was a smell coming from it that made him hesitate. He didn’t want to go in there and turn on the lights. But what choice did he have? Percy was in a bad way, he probably needed food.

The kitchen was as bad as Thomas feared. It was like sedimentary layers. The bottom layer, still visible from the side, were dishes and utensils in the sink and on the big oak kitchen table. Then on top of that was a layer of paper plates and plastic utensils. The final layer was pizza boxes and fast  food wrappers from the espresso and pizza place in town.

Flies crawled in bloated agony across the piles, gorged on the stomach-churning mess. The stink made Thomas’ eyes water and his stomach clench. The very last thing he wanted to do was go into that kitchen, but it just confirmed what he had feared. Percy was in trouble and this was as good of a place as any to start.

Thomas took a minute to go back to the living room with its pathetic Christmas tree and check on Percy. It looked like Percy had fallen asleep. That was good, it’d give him time to clean up and find out if there was anything edible left in the house. If not he could call the place and have them deliver something. With one last look at Percy’s pale, sweaty face – even sleeping his face was drawn in like he was in pain or having bad dreams – and Thomas went back to the kitchen.

 

Cleaning that kitchen would haunt his nightmares. He’d wake up some nights clenching his gut with the memory of that night.

By the time he finished the kitchen was stripped down and cleaned. The dish washer was running the last load of dishes, and the rest were put away. The cupboards turned out empty of anything except mouse droppings, dusty spider webs and lots of old cartons and boxes.

Thomas returned to the living room and sat down in the recliner that faced the alcove and Percy’s pathetic Christmas tree. He took out his cell and called the pizza place. Some guy answered, sounded bored and asked what he wanted.

“Large pizza, Canadian bacon and pineapple, extra cheese on a thin crispy crust. Not soggy, okay?”

“Yeah, no problem. What’s the address?”

Thomas told him and there wasn’t anything else on the other end except he could still hear the guy breathing.

“Hello?”

He heard the guy whispering to someone, then the guy came back on the phone. “That’s the big spooky place, right? You don’t sound like the guy that lives there.”

“Yeah, that’s the place. I’m a friend of his.”

“Right.” More whispering and the guy came back on the line. “I’m sorry, sir, but we’ve told him we’re not delivering out there anymore.”

Thomas laughed. “Come on, seriously?”

“Sorry, but you’ll have to tell him that having someone else call isn’t going to change anything. We’re not allowed to deliver out there.”

Thomas felt his neck redden. Despite the mess in the kitchen he was still somehow hungry and Percy was clearly sick. They couldn’t do this! “Look, my friend is sick. I don’t know what’s been going on but there’s no food in the house. I just spent an hour cleaning up his kitchen!”

“Sorry man, we can’t.”

The line went dead. Thomas rose up out of the chair clutching the phone. He had his hand back, ready to throw it and he stopped himself. He took a breath in and blew it out. Then he looked over at Percy. The guy needed something to eat. And if they weren’t going to deliver then he had to go get something.

Thomas slipped the phone into his jacket pocket and zipped it closed. He looked at Percy sleeping. “Dude, sorry. I’ll go get something to eat. Just rest until I get back.”

Percy didn’t give any indication that he had heard.

Thomas went over to his bike, put on his helmet and gloves, and pushed the bike outside. He reached up and turned on his light again. The beam shot out and illuminated bright white snowflakes floating down from the sky. His breath fogged in the beam. He took a breath, so cold that it felt like it was freezing his lungs. Best get it done.

The only thing worse than going into the haunted house in the first place was returning again. Thomas stood outside Percy’s house with fresh snow crunching under his numb feet. His fingers felt stiff and unwilling to move. He hadn’t expected it to get quite this cold or he would have bundled up more. But then he had also expected to stay inside the house tonight.

The lights were off again. The house looked as empty and as dark as it had the first time Thomas arrived. Percy must have gotten up and turned off the lights. Or the power had failed, but they still had power back in town.

He really didn’t want to go back inside. If it wasn’t so cold he would have considered going back home, except he couldn’t leave Percy in the state he was in. And riding back now, in this cold, threatened frostbite. He had to go inside.

And it was Percy. Sick, true, and catching something would suck, but it Percy. It wasn’t like Percy was a deranged killer or something.

Standing outside in the cold wasn’t helping. Thomas pushed his bike back up the porch, lifted it up and stepped over the broken step. He didn’t even bother knocking this time. He reached out and tried the knob. He expected it to be locked but it turned easily and the door opened.

His helmet light splashed across a pale figure sitting on the stairs. It startled Thomas but he was too cold to react much. A second later he recognized Percy, sitting with his knees up and head down. It looked like he was cradling something on his lap.

Slowly Percy raised his head. His expression was pale, drawn and his skin still glistened with sweat. His hair clung to his scalp like a wet towel. His lips spread in a jerky, uneven motion into a parody of a smile that bared his teeth.

He slowly lifted the thing in his lap. The shiny, techy screen caught the light from Thomas’ helmet.

“I’d forgotten.” Percy’s voice sounded faint, distant and in a way mechanical. It could have been someone pressing play on a tape recorder. “I wanted to show you something.”

Thomas realized he still had the door open. He pulled in his bike, bags from the store banging into the door frame. He leaned it against the wall and closed the door. The heat was still on, he felt the difference in the air.

“Yeah man, that’s one of the reasons you invited me over.”

Percy lifted the thing he held higher and tipped it toward Thomas. It was an iPad. Percy always had the latest gadgets.

“Your app? You finished it?”

Percy nodded but it was more like a convulsion than a normal nod. His breath hissed between his teeth. It took Thomas a second to realize that Percy was laughing through his clenched teeth.

“That’s cool.” Thomas took the bags off the handle bars. “Look, I ran to the gas station store and got a bunch of chicken noodle soup. They didn’t have many options. I also got some frozen breakfast stuff. Why don’t I fix us some soup, and then you can show me?”

“No. No.” Percy moaned, shaking his head. His hands holding the iPad trembled. “No! No!”

It scared Thomas. He really thought maybe he should call someone, but he couldn’t do it while Percy was freaking out. So he put the bags down and pulled off his gloves. After he stuffed them in his pocket, he stepped forward and extended his hand to Percy.

“Okay, man. It’s alright. I can take a look now.”

Percy stilled but a shudder ran through him. He gave Thomas another one of those broken grins with his head cocked oddly to the side. “Take a look.” More hissing laughter through his clenched teeth. “Yes, that’s it. Take a look. If you dare!”

Thomas took the iPad. He was half-afraid of dropping it with his frozen fingers but humoring Percy now might make him more willing to eat something. “What do I do?”

“Push the home button, at the bottom.”

He pushed the button and the screen turned see-through. Or not exactly see-through, it was a camera app. He’d seen the camera app before on the iPad and this looked very much the same with buttons to switch to the front or back camera, between still and video.  There was another setting on the slider. It showed a cartoony ghost icon.

Thomas’ finger hovered over the icon. “What happens if I hit the ghost icon?”

More hissing laughter and Percy rocked back and forth. “Take a look!”

Still Thomas hesitated. The way Percy was acting, it was like he’d gone crazy or something. But it couldn’t be because of the app. That was just a program running on the iPad. Where could the harm be in that?

So why was his mouth dry? He was shivering because he was half-frozen from being out in the cold, but that didn’t explain the chill of fear icing its way along his nerves.

It was ridiculous. He touched the icon.

The edges of the screen fogged. It showed Percy sitting on the stairs, illuminated by the light from Thomas’ helmet. The fog effect made the image look cool, faded sort of like an instant aging effect. Thomas felt relieved and a bit let down. This was it? This was what Percy had come up with after all this work? Had it led to a nervous breakdown for this? That was a depressing thought.

“Okay, man, I guess that’s neat enough –”

The fog on the right side of the screen pulsed. Thomas automatically turned the iPad in that direction and the fog effect pulsed more, draining in an eerie fluid way from the other sides of the screen to the right where it thickened.

What the hell?

The more he turned the iPad the more the fog concentrated. Then it started flooding back around the other sides of the screen. When he turned back it flooded back to the right. Thomas laughed.

“Okay, that’s cool. Weird, but cool.”

Percy moaned in response.

A little more experimenting showed that the fog was acting in a hot-warm-cold fashion, increasing as he moved in the direction the app wanted him to go.

Thomas followed the fog indicators. The effect grew more intense as he walked into the darkened living room. He couldn’t figure out how the app was leading him. Was it random? Any time he turned the iPad toward the walls the effect diminished and faded, only to strengthen when it turned toward the room. Was the app actually aware of the space?

If that was the case, what Percy had accomplished was even more impressive. Particularly the elegant, fluid way the fog moved and coalesced like a living thing.

As he entered the living room Thomas paused and flicked on the lights. The light above the entry way, the lamps on the couch and the lights on the Christmas tree came on. Immediately the fog effect vanished and the screen went blank, white and featureless. Red letters swam up out of the white background, which rippled like milk.

TOO MUCH LIGHT.

Thomas flipped the light switches off again. The picture came back along with the fog, which had gathered near the upper right corner of the screen. Thomas followed its cue and turned in a circle, holding the iPad up to study the room.

Sudden the fog swam down into the picture as the Christmas tree came into view. It looked like it actually left the screen and flew out into the room, an amazing 3D sort of effect. The fog swirled beneath the tree and took on a shape.

Thin white arms, pale and swollen with putrescent cracks, wrapped around bony knees. A child with dark hair plastered to pale, rotten skin. Part of the skull showed through a patch where the skin and hair were peeled down the side of the child’s face. The bones were cracked and stained with long-dried blood. The fog had become a child but he was there, beneath the tree. Thomas’ heart hammered in his chest. He’d never seen anything like it.

The child’s head was down. The image looked incredibly real. He couldn’t look away from the shattered patch of skull. Thomas realized he was shivering harder than ever. His eyes burned and he rubbed at them. It was only a special effect. It had to be. Percy had taken the picture of the child, all done up like that, and the app just revealed it inserted into wherever you were, a sort of augmented reality thing. Chilling, effective, but that’s all it was. Horrifying, really.

Then the child shuddered.

Thomas froze, his eyes fixed on the screen. He must have imagined it. Then the child’s hands twitched. They released their grip and the knees lowered. Thomas pressed a fist to his mouth.

The child’s head was coming up and soon he would be able to see the child’s face. He so, so, so didn’t want to see that! Thomas looked away from the iPad, looked beneath the tree and there wasn’t anything there – but on the screen the child kept looking up.

Pale eyes with no iris, streaked with broken blood vessels looked straight at him through the iPad.

Thomas staggered back. He looked away from the iPad and then back at the screen.

The boy was standing, looking at him.

“No,” Thomas moaned.

Percy laughed between his feet and started to sob.

The child took a step forward. His mouth opened and there was nothing but blackness inside. From the iPad speaker came a sound like a wind blowing through a pipe. A moaning, crying noise that grabbed Thomas’ heart. His chest hurt.

Thomas’ stomach tightened and he felt like he was going to be sick. He threw the iPad away from him. It hit the back of the couch and flipped over onto the seat.

The windy, moaning noise continued coming out of the iPad speaker.

Thomas stumbled back into the foyer. His light splashed across the stairs and found Percy looking not too different from the boy. His eyes were streaked with red blood vessels already.

“Took a look!” Percy giggled. “Now you’re hooked!”

Thomas swallowed and managed to clear his throat. “What did you do?”

“Exposed the truth! Ripped back the veil! Answered the question we always wondered about!” Percy rocked back and forth. “You can’t take it back. Can’t.”

The noise kept coming from the iPad and it sounded louder. “What do you mean?”

Percy looked right at him with red-rimmed eyes. “You took a look.” Percy licked cracked lips. “It looked back!”

Percy clenched his teeth and his breath hissed in and out as his whole body shook in a convulsion that threw him back on the stairs.

Thomas ran to his bike. He yanked it around and pulled the door open. Seconds later he was outside, standing on the pedals as he rode away as fast as he could. Cold, cold wind bit into his fingers, his toes and face but he hardly noticed. There was a deeper chill that seemed to have sunk right down into his core.

Careening into the frozen night Thomas feared he could never ride fast enough. And he couldn’t help but wonder, had Percy uploaded the app to the App store?

It didn’t take long before his extremities grew numb and his legs felt like wood. He was miles down the trail when he saw the benches beside a trail marker. It looked like a good place to stop. Get some sleep.

The next morning a runner found Thomas, frozen, on the bench. Death by exposure, but exposure to what? And he was only the first.

 

4,318 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 42nd weekly short story release, written in January 2012, so just about three years ago. It appeared in Exposed Monthly, the monthly magazine I was releasing at the time. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing a novel, Europan Holiday, now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my horror story The Caretaker.

Bed Bugs

No one really understood what it took to be a single parent running your own business out of your house.

Anne treasured a few hours of uninterrupted sleep and nap time when she could get a little work done.

No one could expect her to do everything. She had to prioritize. Sometimes things just creep up on you, as Anne discovers in this story.

🐛

Anne had her arms full of fresh-smelling, warm right-from-the-dryer clothes when she stepped out of the laundry room and saw something long and dark slither rapidly away from her bare foot.

She screamed! She jerked back. Clothes flew into the air and rained down around her. She hit the door frame. Blood rushed to her face and she brought her hands up to her mouth. A short slender woman in her twenties, suddenly realizing that her reaction must have looked pretty silly. She laughed uneasily and peered around.

Had she really seen it? Had that been a snake?

If there had been a snake she didn’t see it now. She looked at the clothes scattered about with suspicion. What if the snake was under that black t-shirt? Or her purple panties?

Then suddenly she heard baby giggles and Carrie toddled across the hard wood kitchen floor towards the scattered clothes. Anne stuck out her hand.

“Stop!”

Carrie skidded to a stop, wind-milled her arms to keep her balance. Her big eyes looked at Anne in total surprise.

“Sorry, honey,” Anne said quickly. “Momma’s not mad, but stay there. Okay?”

A wide smile spread across Carrie’s fat round face showing her four bottom and four top teeth. Deadly cute, Anne thought, and wicked.

“No, Carrie. Stay there.”

Carrie laughed and toddled rapidly across the floor towards the fallen clothes. If she hit them she could slip or worse ― she might step on the snake! Anne lunged forward, stepping right in between her black lace bra and the dark blue hand towels. Not fast enough to stop Carrie from grabbing the violet washcloth.

A long black and yellow snake jerked into motion. It slid across the wood to Carrie’s leg and curled around a fat ankle. Carrie stopped. The snake slithered right around her leg, up around her waist and out around one out-stretched arm so that its head came back looking right at Carrie’s face. A long tongue flicked out as if tasting Carrie’s breath.

Anne felt like her heart might explode. “Oh. Oh. Oh. Shit. Carrie! Don’t move! Don’t move, honey!”

Carrie turned her head a bit to the side with her blue eyes locked onto the snake’s yellow gaze. She giggled deep in her chest and brought her arm and consequently the snake’s head closer to her face.

Anne reached out towards the snake. She didn’t want to spook it. What if it bit Carrie? Was it poisonous? How would she know? Shit. Shit. Shit.

Fuck!

She clenched her fingers into a fist and froze. Maybe it would just slither away on its own. The snake slid further up over Carrie’s arm. The end of its flicking tongue only a hair away from Carrie’s face. Carrie reached over with her other hand, her fat fingers reaching out for the snake.

“No, honey! Don’t grab it!”

Carrie didn’t even look up. And she didn’t stop. She grabbed the snake just behind its head but gently. Then she lifted it up and took a hold of its body with the other hand. She slowly lifted it up and then lowered it down over her head so that the snake hung like a scarf over her shoulders.

Carrie laughed and clapped her hands together. The snake lifted its head and regarded Anne with black eyes. Carrie lurched into motion, toddling towards Anne with outstretched arms. Anne screeched ― Carrie giggled ― and Anne jumped back. Carrie kept coming and Anne couldn’t help it. She back-pedaled away from her daughter.

“Stop! Stop, right now Carrie!”

Instead her daughter just kept coming. Anne scrambled backwards and her foot came down on something hard that twisted underneath her. Pain flared in her ankle and she stumbled. Almost fell down. A bright red plastic triangle block. She caught her balance and saw the snake watching her with those horrid black eyes. The tongue came out and tasted the air. Carrie kept coming.

Anne looked behind her at the sliding glass door. An idea came to her. She hurried over to the door and forced a smile on her face. “Come on Carrie! Let’s go outside!”

Even to her own ears her voice sounded high-pitched and fake. Carrie obviously didn’t care she just kept coming. Anne opened the sliding glass door and stepped out. She moved back away from the door. Carrie appeared in the door, squinted and hung onto the side to step out onto the back porch. She immediately did what she always did and headed for the steps and the lawn beyond. Anne crossed her arms and watched. She felt sick. What if the snake bit Carrie? She didn’t know if it was poisonous. She didn’t want to touch it. So far it didn’t show any sign of wanting to leave Carrie.

Carrie reached the steps and sat down to scoot down the two steps. She stood up and ran towards the lawn. Right at the edge she forgot to step up and tripped.

She fell flat forward on the grass. Anne hurried towards the edge of the porch and saw the snake slither away unharmed into the grass. Carrie picked herself up and patted her chest. When she didn’t see the snake her little face screwed up and she screamed.

Anne scooped her up and ran up the stairs back into the house. She shut the slider and locked it while still holding Carrie. Then she went to the couch and sat down rocking her daughter.

“It’s okay. It’s okay now.” She didn’t know who she was trying to reassure more, her or Carrie.

 

🐛

It was absolutely the weirdest thing ever, a fact that somehow escaped people when she told them about it. Her own mother said, “Anne, that’s just what children do. They love all those creepy crawlies.”

Anne shuddered. “I never liked snakes!”

To which her mother responded, “But Anne, you were always a fussy girl. You’d go into hysterics if a bug so much as crawled on you. I guess not much has changed.”

After that Anne sat stewing at the window looking out at the yard. A perfect lawn. Flower beds with roses kept trimmed around the edges. All sorts of roses. She loved looking at the roses. Carrie was down for a nap. She still had reports to finish for her bookkeeping clients. She needed to get as much of that done before Carrie woke as possible. These days it seemed nearly impossible to get anything done when she was awake.

Anne got up from the couch and headed down the hall to Carrie’s room. She eased the door open and looked in at Carrie sleeping peacefully in the oak crib.

The spider crouched with malevolent intent on Carrie’s arm. Giant freaking spider! All big hairy brown legs and body. Carrie had her arms up, hands palm up beside her cherubic face and the spider was right on the soft underside of her arm next to her elbow. Two legs waved in the air as if the spider just need to pick the most delectable place to bite.

Anne felt like she had swallowed a tennis ball. She couldn’t breathe at all. There was a giant freaking spider on her daughter’s arm and her hand felt glued to the door jamb. She couldn’t breathe. Her heart probably wasn’t even beating anymore. In her head she heard a high keening noise that she couldn’t get out but then she realized that she was getting it out, that that sound was really coming from her and oh my god giant freaking spider!

If anyone were there to say “just a spider” she’d hit them. If she could move. But what was she going to do? Stand there and watch the spider bite her defenseless daughter? What kind of mother would she be? Carrie would hate her. She could just see the disgust in Carrie’s eyes every time that a bug came into the house and sent Anne into cataleptic shock.

Anne managed a breath. She could do this. This. Remove the spider. How? She let go of the door jamb and could almost swear that her fingers creaked. She drew another breath. Let it out.

She could do this. Would do this.

Anne eased into the room on tiptoes. She slowly reached out and picked up Mr. Moo from the end of the crib where the raggedy cow hung watching over Carrie. Fat lot of good you did, Mr. Moo. Time to make up for it.

Right up alongside the crib. Then Anne brought Mr. Moo up into the air. Her hand shook. She took a breath and swept Mr. Moo down. The raggedy cow, still soggy from Carrie teething on him, snapped across Carrie’s arm and sent the spider flying out of the crib into the center of the room.

Carrie screamed. Anne looked down and saw the skin on Carrie’s arm had turned bright red. Shit! She reached in and scooped up her daughter. Cradled her and grabbed her arm to look at it closely. No fang marks. She’d done that, when she hit the spider the raggedy cow and snapped across Carrie’s arm like a locker room towel. Shit. Shit. She rocked Carrie.

“I’m so sorry honey,” she murmured as she backed out of the room. The giant freaking spider had scurried off into a toy or under the dresser. Maybe in that hole in the wall where the previous owners had pulled through cable into this room. “Shhh, honey. It’s okay now.”

Anne closed the door and took Carrie down the hallway to her own bedroom. She sank into the rocking chair and tried not to sob as she rocked Carrie back to sleep. And what made her feel really guilty? She wanted to go scrub Carrie’s arm where the spider had touched her. What kind of a mother was she?

 

🐛

The question plagued Anne the next day. She hovered over Carrie while her daughter played with blocks. She put off doing the laundry because she didn’t want to leave Carrie alone in the living room. They read books together and played patty cake. Carrie’s arm didn’t even have a mark on it anymore but Anne still felt guilty.

A little after three Carrie started rubbing her eyes. Then when the plastic barrel of monkeys wouldn’t go back together again she screamed and threw the toy away. Anne scooped her up and rocked her.

“Time for a nap, honey. Somebody is too tired.”

Carrie nodded sleepily against Anne’s shoulder. Anne kissed her soft hair and kept rocking her until Carrie’s breathing settled down and she went limp in Anne’s arm.

Even though it made Anne’s stomach feel all fluttery she took Carrie into her room and laid her down in her crib. Anne had picked up all of the toys early that morning and had vacuumed all of the cracks and crevices. She hadn’t found the spider, which bothered her still, but it didn’t seem to be anywhere in the room. It must have crawled away.

Carrie looked so peaceful lying in her crib. Her face scrunched up a bit as Anne lay her down and then she was peaceful. For several minutes Anne stood beside the crib watching her daughter. Then she realized just how grungy she felt. She hadn’t showered today because she had been so afraid to leave Carrie alone. But she was sleeping peacefully and Anne could leave the doors open. And it wouldn’t take very long to just get in, a quick wash and then out again.

The hot water felt great. Twice she stuck her head out and listened but the house was quiet. Anne finished washing and toweled off quickly. As she walked down the hall she thought she heard something and stopped. It had sounded like Carrie laughing. Or coughing. But nothing now.

Anne went into her room and pulled on underwear, jeans and a plain green t-shirt. She left her wet hair loose and walked in bare feet across the hall over to Carrie’s room.

She eased open the door.

Peeked inside at the crib.

Her brain couldn’t process what she saw. She didn’t see Carrie. It didn’t make sense. Carrie couldn’t be in the crib, but she couldn’t have left.

A swarm of flies crawled around over the blankets. Then the flies moved enough that Anne saw a small pink pinky finger before more flies crawled over it again.

Carrie! Anne ran into the room. Flies crawled all over Carrie. A few buzzed around in the air above her as if searching for a place to land. Others crawled along the light wood rails.

Carrie giggled. Anne realized that her daughter was awake. Flies moved and she caught a glimpse of Carrie peeking out at her between the flies. Carrie giggled again.

Anne took a step back. Her hands pressed against her mouth. She bit down on her knuckle. This wasn’t normal. Something was horribly, horribly wrong!

Carrie rolled over and the cloud of flies buzzed up around her. Anne saw her daughter sit up, smiling. She looked up at the hundreds of flies buzzing around her and spread her arms. As if invited the flies started landing again all over her arms, her face, her head and everywhere else. The flies enveloped her once again.

“Mama?” Carrie waved her fly-covered arms the way she always did when she wanted to be picked up. “Mama?”

Sobbing, still biting her knuckle, Anne shook her head. She backed up into the hall.

“Mama?” Carrie cried out, more frantic.

Anne popped her finger out of her mouth, flinging spittle onto the wood. “I can’t!”

She turned and ran away from the room. Down the hallway, out and across the kitchen, through the laundry room. Unable to stop. Out into the yard. She staggered out right into the middle of the grass and dropped to her knees.

Faintly, from the house, she heard Carrie screech louder. “Mama!”

Anne’s gut clenched and up came coffee with eggs whites and toast and bacon all splashed across the brilliant green lawn. A fly buzzed through the air and circled her head. She screamed and scrambled away across the grass batting at the fly.

 

🐛

Anne huddled in the back of the ambulance watching the flashing lights from the police cruiser. Neighbors must have called after she ran out of the backyard screaming. So embarrassing, but they’d know. They’d understand. All they had to do was go inside.

Poor Carrie. She must be so scared. Anne turned and looked at the paramedic slipping a blood pressure cuff on her arm. An older black woman with gray in her hair and a thin, kind face, she smiled at Anne.

“There, just a little pressure now.”

“My baby, she’s inside,” Anne said. “Is she okay?”

Pressure built on Anne’s arm. “I’m sure that they’ll take good care of her. Let’s just look after you right now.”

Two police officers, both heavy set men, walked past the ambulance. Anne caught snatches of their conversation.

“― a mess. Food and dishes everywhere in the kitchen ―”

“Lost it, looks like.”

Anne looked at the paramedic. “What are they saying?”

“Don’t worry about it. Please hold still.”

Anne leaned forward, straining to hear. She didn’t see Carrie anywhere. Who was taking care of her?

“Ma’am, please?” The paramedic pulled on her arm.

Anne pulled away and stood at the back of the ambulance. “Carrie?”

Then she saw her daughter. Carrie sat on the roof with bright yellow and black butterflies all over her upraised arms. Carrie waved her arms and a couple butterflies took off into the sky.

“Carrie!”

Hands grabbed her shoulders. Anne jumped out of the ambulance and ran towards the house.

“Help here!”

Carrie toddled towards the roof’s edge. Didn’t any of them see?! “Carrie!”

Anne stopped and pressed her hands to her face. Carrie teetered right on the edge. Anne heard them coming, running up behind her. “Please, honey?”

More butterflies took off. Carrie snatched at them with her perfect, delicate fingers and then she fell and as she fell she broke apart into dozens of butterflies.

They scattered, flapping away in all directions. Carrie’s laugh floated on wind.

Hands grabbed Anne and dragged her away from the house. She sagged in their grasp and watched the butterflies that had been her daughter fly away.

🐛
2,737 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 41st weekly short story release, written in July 2010, and initially released under my “R.M. Haag” pen name. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing a novel, Europan Holiday, now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my horror story Hauntlet.

The Thing in the Snow

Living at the end of a dead end road with nothing but pine trees and snow, Ray tended his chores, feeding the horses even in below zero temperatures.

Only tonight something up in the woods made a noise unlike any he knew..

Braving the night, Ray discovers more questions than answers in this dark science fiction story.

1

Raymond, Ray to his buddies, Anderson walked out of the trailer that December night in 1984 a normal thirteen year old. Brickland, in the northeastern reaches of Washington state, normally saw plenty of snow and cold, but the winter of ’84 was the sort of winter that people would talk about for years to come. No sooner would one day set a record snow fall or a record low temperature — or both — than a new record would be set a day or two later.

Record cold temperatures or not, the horses needed feeding and it fell to Ray to do it that night. It was his turn, lucky him, so he bundled up and braced himself as he opened the door and stepped outside.

His slight frame was hidden in the depths of a puffy green winter coat, hood up around his thin face. The first breath of air outside came like twin ice picks rammed up his nose, sharp and unforgiving. In the pool of light from the open door he saw the rough-hewn boards of the porch, made from half-split logs, caked in ice and frozen mud, but beyond that only dark shapes of snow shrouded pine trees in the darkness.

“Close that door! You’ll let all the heat out!” That was Ray’s mother, huddled inside beside the wood stove.

Obediently, he pulled the door closed, which plunged him into darkness. It wouldn’t be so bad once his eyes adjusted, but right now he couldn’t hardly see anything. He dug into his pockets for his gloves and pulled them on by feel. Next he pulled his flashlight out of his pocket, but didn’t turn it on just yet.

He went down the porch, his boots clumping on the ice-crusted boards, and down to the snow-packed path at the bottom. It made a rubbery sort of noise beneath his boots. So cold now that you couldn’t pack it into a snow ball or anything. It wouldn’t stick together. Even though the sun hadn’t been down long Ray wagered that the temperature was already down below zero. Quite a way below but he didn’t turn on the light to check the thermometer hanging on the post at the bottom of the steps.

Rays eyes started to adjust as he clomped along the path they’d made through the snow. Now that his eyes were adjusting there was just enough light from the moon filtering through the clouds for him to see the path. Of course he had good night vision. He liked playing a game of it and see how far he could go without needing the flashlight. If the moon wasn’t nearly full there wouldn’t be enough light getting through the clouds. He’d been out on other nights when he couldn’t see his hands in front of his face.

On either side the snow rose up nearly to his waist and it was snowing right now, a fine white powder drifting constantly down from the sky. Each flake that hit his cheeks a tiny spark of cold. He caught one on his tongue and it tasted like a pinprick.

The trees around the path stood like dark conical structures in the darks, their branches weighed down by snow. The fine light snow falling made a hissing sound, but otherwise the night was quiet except for the rubbery crunching sound of his footsteps.

Ray was almost to the clearing where the barn was when a new noise rose in the night. He stopped in his tracks to listen. The noise pulsed and throbbed through the night, rising up in intensity.

Womm, womm, womm.

He’d never heard anything quite like it. A machine, obviously, but from where? It didn’t sound like any generator or engine he knew and besides there wasn’t anything nearby. But the sound continued, coming from somewhere ahead.

Womm, womm, womm.

Ray thought about turning around and going back. But he wasn’t a chicken, and didn’t want anyone saying that. His older brother, Pete, would tease him about it for weeks. Ray’s ears burned just thinking about the taunting he’d have to endure if Pete thought he came running back because he was afraid of the dark and a snowmobile engine.

Womm, womm, womm.

Except that wasn’t a snowmobile engine, he knew what they sounded like. This noise was unlike anything that he had heard. It might be best to go back, even at the risk of Pete’s teasing. But the horses still needed feeding. Whatever the noise was it sounded farther away than the clearing. He could go that far at least and feed the horses. If he did that then he wouldn’t need to say anything about the noise. He could go back and pretend that everything was fine. The noise wasn’t loud enough to reach all the way back to the house.

Womm, womm, womm.

Ray flicked on the flashlight. If he was going to do this, he wanted a light on at least. The bright flashlight made the night seem darker. He couldn’t see much of anything outside of the beam of light. The falling snow sparkled in the beam.

Womm, womm, womm.

Squaring his shoulders, the flashlight lighting up the path in front of him, Ray picked up his pace and hurried down the trail to the clearing. He passed the small well shed and came out into the clearing. The barn stood dark and tall ahead. The metal roof white with new snow that hadn’t slid off yet.

Here the noise sounded louder. Ray stopped in the middle of the clearing and aimed his flashlight up, across the snow to the trees on the other side on the hill. From the clearing the hill rose up, all forested and difficult to access. No one lived up there. It was nothing but private property all the way up to the state lands and then state forest on up over the hill and down the other side until Deer Lake.

But something was up there, making that noise. Ray shook his head. It didn’t make any kind of sense. Nothing was going to get up there. The only road came across their property and they had a gate across it. Plus, once you got to the hill it was too steep, rutted and covered in several feet of snow. A snow mobile could make it up the road, maybe, but no trucks, and that machine noise didn’t sound anything like the whine of a snow mobile engine, or a truck engine. And no one had gone up the road anyway. He couldn’t think of another way that anything could be up there in the woods.

Ray shivered, but not from the cold. The noise scared him. He didn’t like admitting it, not even to himself, but there shouldn’t be anything up there and he had never heard anything like that noise.

Best feed the horses, and hightail it back inside. Just keep quiet about it.

As Ray lowered the flashlight, the white circle sliding down across the trees onto the unbroken snow of the clearing, he saw something red. His heart beat faster and the flashlight shook. He steadied it and found the thing he had seen.

There, within the dim white circle of light from his flashlight a red circle lay gleaming on the snow.

Womm, womm, womm.

Ray bit his lip. “What the hell?”

How could there be something lying out there on the snow? It didn’t even have any snow on it and it’d been snowing all evening!

Ray looked at the barn. He still needed to feed the horses. Under the throbbing noise up in the woods he could hear them shuffling and snorting in the dark of the barn. They were probably spooked by the noise, but had seen his light.

Whatever that red circle was it didn’t do anything. It just was there, on the undisturbed snow at the base of the hill.

He had to check it out. He was spooked, alright, but he couldn’t ignore that there was a strange noise in the woods, and now this strange thing just lying out there on the snow. Ray left the path and immediately plunged up past his knees in the snow. Just forcing another step through all the snow was a chore but he did. One step and the next, more wading through the snow than walking. After a couple minutes he was sweating beneath his thermals.

Struggling through the snow it was impossible to keep the flashlight on the red circle but every so often he paused to catch his breath and found the circle with his light. It didn’t move, but the snow also didn’t stick to it. And the noise in the woods above continued.

It took several minutes before Ray reached the red circle and what he saw just made the whole thing feel even stranger. About two feet across, the material was a perfect circle, but the edges were cut into a fringe of small strips, about two inches long, all the way around the circle. It looked very thin lying on the snow. The red color was the color of a bright fresh red rose, shocking against the white snow all around. Snowflakes that hit the surface didn’t stick. He couldn’t see what exactly was happening to them, they just went away but the surface wasn’t covered in water drops either, so it didn’t look like the snowflakes were melting.

Ray hadn’t ever seen anything like it. No feed bags, no packing material, no packaging that he was familiar with looked like this thing. If he had to guess, just looking at it, he’d have called the material plastic. Some kind of plastic anyway, but what was it? There wasn’t any obvious purpose to it. Seeing it up close only added to the strangeness of the situation. Ray couldn’t decide what was stranger between this thing, and the constant thrumming noise up in the woods.

How had it gotten here? If it was plastic it could have blown into the clearing except there wasn’t any wind. The snow drifted about as it fell, but wasn’t blowing. The thing lay on top of the fresh snow so it had to have shown up recently. Like tonight, probably in the last few minutes.

Ray shivered at a sudden thought. What if it had only shown up when he came into the clearing? He turned and aimed the light up at the snow-cone trees, only a short distance away up the hill. What if someone had put this here, seeing him come into the clearing? But why? It looked harmless enough. A marker? A lure? Something else?

One of the horses down in the barn whinnied and he nearly jumped out of his boots. He chuckled when he realized it was only the horse. He still needed to feed them. This strange plastic circle, the noise still going on up in the woods, those were mysteries he didn’t have answers for and should probably ignore. He could walk away, feed the horses, and go back to the house.

Except.

Ray shook his head. If he did that wouldn’t he always wonder about this night? He couldn’t leave it, not and just walk away. Whatever this was he wanted to understand, at least enough so that he could go back and prove to Pete and everyone else about what he’d seen. Starting with this thing in the snow.

Carefully he reached out and used the flashlight to probe the edge of the circle. The material moved like plastic, bunching slightly, but seemed inert. Nothing bad happened. Ray transferred the light to his left hand and then reached out with his right. He very carefully pinched one of the little strips on the fringe around the disc. When nothing happened he lifted the circle up.

It weighed nothing. It did nothing, just hung limp from the strip he help between his thumb and finger.

Ray turned the thing around but it just hung limp over his glove. It didn’t do anything. It felt thicker and heavier than it looked, but still seemed like some sort of thick plastic sort of material. The snow falling on his glove stuck around but none of the snow could touch the red circle. That wouldn’t happen if it was just made from plastic.

Womm, womm, womm.

A horse whinnied again at the barn. He couldn’t stay out all night. If he took too long his mother would start worrying. And when his dad finally got home from work in the early hours of the morning there’d be trouble to pay. If he was going to do anything he needed to do it soon.

If he needed any evidence at all of what was going on out here tonight, he was holding it in his hand. He wasn’t sure about bringing it back to the house. He could shove it down into the snow and come back for it in the morning, once it was light. Ray bent down and stopped. He straightened back up. What if it disappeared? He couldn’t explain how it got here, what if he left it outside and it went away? He couldn’t take that chance. He stuffed it in his pocket instead. As big as it was it folded up alright. He got it into his pocket and snapped the flap on the pocket closed.

Womm, womm, womm.

The noise up in the woods worried Ray. Something was definitely up there, he had no idea what, but someone had what sounded like a big machine running up in the snowy woods at night.

He couldn’t go check it out. On foot it’d take forever to get very far through all that unbroken snow. Besides, he wasn’t sure that he wanted to go up there in the dark to find out. He had the red circle in his pocket. That was enough. The horses needed feeding, it was below zero and he was freezing. Time to get back inside.

Retracing his steps wasn’t much easier than breaking the trail through the snow in the first place, but Ray managed to get back to the shoveled path leading to the barn. The odd noise up in the woods continued without pause as he hurried on up to the barn and slipped inside through the side door.

The barn smelled of manure and hay and horses, a rich warm smell. It made Ray feel safer. Plus it was warm in the barn, at least compared to outside thanks to the heat lamps hanging above the stalls. The lamps gave off a red light that made everything look reddish, but it didn’t bother his eyes like the bright flashlight reflecting on the snow. Even the sound of whatever it was up in the woods was muted in the barn. As Ray went about his chores, filling the horses feeders with fresh hay, checking to make sure that their water troughs were full and clean, he talked to the horses as he worked. He patted their soft noses when they pressed close to the stall doors, probably seeking reassurance that everything was alright.

“Shhh,” he said. “It’s fine. Probably just somebody up cutting wood illegally. Most likely they’ve got a generator going, or a log splitter or something.”

Except, Ray told himself, the noise didn’t really sound like a log splitter, did it? He ignored that thought and finished up with the horses as quickly as possible.

When Ray left the barn, stepping back out into the biting cold, the night felt darker than ever. He turned on the flashlight and blinked in the bright light when it hit the snow. Not only darker, but snowing harder than ever. He couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead. A slight wind had also come up so the snow moved through the beam of light at an angle. The noise of whatever it was continued up the hill in the dark, but more muffled now.

He hurried back to the house, clomping through the fresh snow on the path that had already turned his old tracks fuzzy. By the time he got back to the trailer he couldn’t hear the noise at all, but it kept playing in his head like when a stuck song.

Ray stomped his feet on the porch steps to knock off what snow and manure he might have tracked back to the house, then opened the door and stepped inside. It felt like he had stepped into an oven. Hot, dry air hit his face, making it hurt after the intense cold outside. His mother looked up from her recliner near the wood stove, facing the TV on its stand against the wall. She was in her early forties, but her craggy face and uncombed hair with its gray streaks made her look even older. Sometimes he thought she was permanently attached to her chair since that’s where he mostly saw her. Her dark eyes narrowed when she saw him standing by the door.

“Took you long enough, thought you might have gotten all hypo-whatever, frostbit or something, froze your ass off.”

Ray pushed back his hood, then shut the flashlight off and put it down by the coat rack next to the door. He started peeling off his gloves, but didn’t respond to his mother. Doing so wouldn’t help anything. He kept waiting for her to say something about what was in his pocket, but of course she didn’t. The TV had already recaptured her attention, even though it was only the news playing.

A giggle threatened to escape from Ray’s lips. He turned and blew into his cold hands instead. Boy, did he have news. Whatever that thing was he found, not to mention the noise outside? Not that he was going to tell his mother about it, she wouldn’t understand. He peeled off his boots and left them by the coat rack, but kept his coat on. He was padding across the room, heading back to the bedroom he shared with Pete, when his mother spoke up again.

“Why’re you still wearing your coat?”

“Haven’t warmed up yet,” Ray said, without stopping.

“I don’t want to find that coat wet on the floor!” His mother called after him. “You put it away right!”

“Okay!”

Ray made it down the hallway paneled in fake wood, past the pictures hanging on the walls full of him and Pete with plastered on fake smiles. He hated the pictures, it always felt like their eyes were watching him. Especially right now, sweltering in his coat, knowing that the red thing from the snow was in his pocket.

When he reached his room he opened the door slowly. Pete didn’t like being surprised so Ray called out. “Hey.”

“What, chump?”

That was Pete, lying on the bottom bunk of their bunk beds, knees up and a comic book open across his legs. Action Comics and Batman were Pete’s favorites and he never let Ray touch them. Of course Ray had taken a look at them Pete was out.

“Nothing.” Ray hurried across the room and jumped up on the ladder, tensing in case Pete tried to hit his feet.

Ray made it up onto his bunk unscathed. Quickly, before he melted any more, he stripped off his coat. Up on the shelf above his bed he had a mason jar for coins. He pulled off his socks, then took down the jar and unscrewed the top. He poured the coins out into his sock.

“What are you doing up there?” Pete asked.

“Nothing.” Ray dropped the sock back onto the shelf. He held the jar, ready to hide it if Pete got up.

“Well keep it down,” Pete said. “I’m trying to read.”

“Sure Pete.”

Ray unfastened the snaps on his coat pocket, wincing with each, but Pete didn’t say anything else. The red thing from the snow was still there in his pocket. Ray reached for it, planning to pull it out, but then hesitated before he touched it. He still didn’t know what this thing was. What if it turned out to be toxic or something?

The bed beneath him squeaked as if Pete might be getting up. Ray grabbed the red thing. The piece of material he pinched felt like slick oily plastic, thick to the touch, but it didn’t hurt or anything. He yanked it out of his coat pocket and stuffed it into the mason jar. At first he thought it might not fit but he crammed it down until it filled the jar and only a few of the fringe pieces were sticking up. He grabbed the lid, put it on and spun it closed. The bottom bunk squeaked more, really sounding like Pete was getting up.

Ray stuck the jar up on the shelf next to the sock full of coins. He grabbed his coat and tossed it to the end of the bed so that it landed over the bed post and hung down.

Pete stood up beside the bunk bed. He glared at Ray. “What the hell are you doing? Are you jacking off up there?”

Ray, who only had a vague idea of what jacking off even was shook his head. “Naw, Pete, just getting ready for bed.”

“You should do that, so I can get some peace. And don’t be snoring tonight or I swear I’m going to pound on your throat while you’re sleeping.”

Ray shook his head quickly. “I won’t.”

Still glaring, Pete sank back down to his own bunk. Ray relaxed slightly. Sharing a room and bunk beds with Pete was like trying to sleep over the troll that lived beneath the bridge. Not a good deal. He looked up at the jar on the shelf. Whatever that thing was, he had it in the jar now. It wasn’t going anywhere until he could figure out just what it was. He finished undressing quickly, throwing his pants off the end of the bed, then slipped under the covers and lay down. He just had to wait for his chance, when Pete wasn’t around, and then maybe he could figure it out. Sleep weighed down his eyelids. Ray fought for a few minutes before giving in.

A noise woke Ray, a sort of metallic clatter. He sat up blinked in the dark and rubbed his eyes. It felt late, like middle of the night sort of late. He could see a bit from the night light in the hallway. In the bunk underneath him Pete snored. Whatever had made the noised hadn’t woken up his brother.

So what had made that noise? It wasn’t early enough in the morning for his dad to get home.

Ray sat holding his blankets and listened. He looked around, trying to see anything in the dim light. Then he saw something.

On his shelf. The jar. His heart hammered faster. The jar where he had put the red thing from the snow! The lid was off, and even without much light he could see that the jar was empty.

The thing was gone!

Ray jerked away, pulling his blankets free of the mattress in one jerk. He threw them away onto the floor.

The thing didn’t fall out. He didn’t see it on his bed. Slowly, carefully, he leaned over the bed upside down and looked at Pete. For a second he imagined that he was going to see the red thing stretched tight over Pete’s face like some hideous mask, the small strips around the sides digging into the back of Pete’s head.

But Pete was fine. There wasn’t anything there. Pete was asleep, snoring with his head on his pillow.

Ray pushed himself up, using the ladder as leverage, and saw something move in the hallway. He only saw it for a second but the image burned itself into his mind.

A being stood in their hallway, lit by the night light, its gray skin flat and dull. Big, big dark eyes looked straight at Ray, saw him, and for an instant he forgot to breathe. The being had a narrow mouth, but he could’ve sworn it snarled at him in that moment before it was gone. Had he seen something red in its hand? Ray thought he had.

Whatever the being was, it didn’t make any noise. It was there one moment and gone the next. Ray’s heart beat so fast that he thought it had to wake Pete up. Several minutes passed and he didn’t dare move. He listened with every bit of his attention, and heard nothing. The house felt so quiet that he thought he could have heard something, anything, but nothing happened.

Eventually he couldn’t take it anymore. Even though he kept shivering, Ray climbed quietly down the ladder. He wanted to wake Pete up, tell him what he’d seen, but Pete wouldn’t believe him and would probably hit him for his trouble.

Instead Ray tiptoed past his blankets to the doorway. He stopped there and peeked out, listening carefully, ready to jerk back but the hallway was empty. He tiptoed on out to the main room. Nothing except his mom, sound asleep on the fold-out bed. Whatever he had seen, it was gone!

Ray hurried back to his bedroom. He scooped up the blankets, throwing them onto his bed, and bounded up the ladder. When he got to the top he dove beneath the blankets and hid his head. He didn’t think there was any chance that he would sleep, but he did.

When Ray woke the next morning he remembered the events of the night before but he had a hard time believing it was real. A red thing in the snow? The being in the hallway last night? That sound up the hill where there couldn’t have been anything? It all sounded impossible and he didn’t have any evidence to the contrary.

Only his coins were in his sock. And the lid was off the jar, balanced against the wall on the shelf as if it had rolled there, and the jar was empty. That made him think that what happened last night was real but he could hardly point to the jar and say that was evidence of whatever had happened.

Ray had nothing. Nothing, except he believed it had happened. He poured his coins back into the jar. So he couldn’t prove it. Not yet at least, but maybe someday. Maybe when he was older, maybe he could find the being he had seen in the hallway. If he did he’d ask them what they were doing up the hill at night, and what the red thing in the snow was, and like a zillion other questions.

But that was all for later. Ray screwed on the lid of the jar and put it back on the shelf.

4,996 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 37th weekly short story release, written in September 2011. It was one of the more autobiographical stories that I’d written. I’ll let you figure out which parts.

Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is a science fiction story Eetees.

Trick or Treat

Christina wanted little Roy to have a perfect first Halloween.

She never considered what might happen, taking her innocent son up to strangers houses in the night.

On a dark Halloween night, the trick is on her.

1

The house stood proudly alone at the end of the dark street, surrounded by the dark wet boughs of the towering Douglas fir trees, but the street light across the street cast a pool of lurid orange light across the wet pavement. A three-story tall Victorian was painted like a bruise in deep purples, with yellow trim. Along the tops of the steep shingled roof iron spikes stabbed up at the heavens. The gutters ended in thick iron chains, down which the water splashed and tumbled into stained wooden rain barrels. The closest house, at a diagonal across the street, was an empty double-wide with a realtor sign in the window and Christina had already been to the last house before this one on this dead-end street. The people there must have gone to a Halloween party because her knocks had only raised the rabid barking of what must be a monstrous dog.

Christina popped the front wheel of the stroller up to swivel around a large puddle. Nestled in the seat Roy looked around at the dark night with wide eyes above the whiskers she had drawn on his face. His little tiger outfit was so cute but so far they’d only found one house where someone answered her knock and that was way back down the other street. For all the trouble she went through to get into her own witch outfit — and she looked totally hot despite the few extra pounds of baby weight — and to get Roy into his outfit, it didn’t look like it was going to be worth the trouble.

“I don’t know, little man. It might be your first Halloween but it looks like it’s going to be a bust.” Except for the pictures she took with the camera. Those came out good. If nothing else she could point to the fact that he at least had a costume and got to go out for his first Halloween.

Big Roy told her not to bother. He said that Roy wouldn’t even remember it, but she had said that she would remember it and when they looked back she wanted to have a picture of the holiday. And since Big Roy was deployed in Afghanistan right now it wasn’t like it even mattered to him anyway.

The house might look scary but it was dark and it was Halloween. On a sunny day it would probably look totally cute. The flower beds and lawns looked immaculate, plus they had on three lanterns on that big porch which wrapped around two sides of the house. At least a half-dozen Jack-o’-lanterns that leered, scowled and glowered from the porch railing. A skeleton reclined in a faded floral dress in a rocking chair near the door and another in overalls without a shirt leaned against the wall beside the door cupping the bowl of a pipe in his bony hands. She half expected to see the skeleton light the pipe and bring it up to his grinning teeth. To top it off tiny wizened shrunken heads with their eyelids sewed closed hung in between each of the pumpkins from the top porch beam. Clearly these people had gone all out to get their house decorated. With them being so isolated it was surprising that they had gone to so much trouble. How could she disappoint them? And besides, she deserved a bit more than a single tootsie-roll for all of her trouble.

She pushed the stroller up the concrete driveway and noticed that the flat stones among the flowers were done up as tombstones, with names and dates on them. They looked real, not like those cheap plastic ones sold at the store. So real that it made her feel all shivery inside. Or the cold night was finally getting to her through the thin black dress. It already made her breasts ache.

“We do this last house,” she told Roy. “And then we can go home and you can nurse until you pass out. How does that sound?”

Roy didn’t answer. Of course not. At least he wasn’t crying. He stared up at the bright lanterns that hung from the walls as she pushed the stroller up the ramp onto the porch. The tires made small thud, thud noises as she rolled across the boards. Her heels added sharper raps with each step. By the time she reached the door she wouldn’t even need to knock. These people had to hear her coming. The shrunken heads were like the tombstones in the flower beds. They didn’t look like plastic at all. She slowed and reached up, extending her index finger to touch one. The wrinkled skin felt just like dry skin! Christina gave a little yelp and jerked her hand away while the shrunken head rocked gently in the breeze and turned to look at her with sightless eyes.

She laughed softly at her fright and leaned over to look at Roy. “Momma’s silly! So silly.”

She pushed the stroller on toward the door. The heads had to be made of leather, that had to be it. Maybe rabbit hide or something like that. She considered turning back but if she did that she could never tell Big Roy about this. He’d never stop teasing her if she let a few Halloween decorations scare her off. Besides, they really were pretty cool. These folks obviously had the money to pay for that sort of thing. And besides all of that, they had to have heard her coming by now. Wouldn’t they think it was weird if she turned around and left now?

Christina reached the front door after navigating the stroller around the skeleton in the rocking chair. She gave both skeletons an uneasy look. Up close they looked startling realistic, horror-movie special effects realism. Bits of tissue clung to the bones just like a turkey carcass at Thanksgiving. Mold spotted the tattered floral dress and other dark stains marred the pattern. Beneath the rocker was a dark pile of something, it could be dirt but it looked more like mud with a few leaves stuck to it. A couple chilled flies took off from the skeleton and buzzed up around the lantern hanging above the porch. Too realistic. These people obviously wanted to carry the whole thing a little too far.

She raised her hand and knocked twice on the door. Two sharp knocks, and if no one came quickly she was going to turn the stroller around and leave. At least she could say that she was brave enough to get up to the door and knock. Maybe despite the decorations they wouldn’t come —

A woman opened the door. She was really tall, almost to the top of the door frame. Long blond hair cascaded down past her shoulders in complex motionless waves that look so unreal it had to be a wig. She wore a low-cut strapless red dress with pearls around her neck. From behind her came the sounds of music and laughter and the smells of roast turkey mingled with pie. The gigantic woman clapped her hands together and did a little bounce.

“Trick or treat,” Christina managed to say.

“How he’s so adorable! I could just eat him up!” She bent down and plucked Roy right out of the stroller.

Christina was so stunned for a half second. She just blinked in shock and in that moment the woman stepped back into the house and slammed the door in Christina’s face.

Christina hurled herself at the door, screaming Roy’s name. The door knob wouldn’t budge. She pummeled the door with her fists still calling for Roy. The door didn’t open.

She ran to the window, knocking against the pipe-holding skeleton in the process. He clattered to the porch behind her. There were dark curtains across the windows. She couldn’t see anything inside. Christina banged on the glass. She didn’t care if she broke a window or not. She wanted to break the window! That woman had stolen her baby!

The window held and no one so much as peeked through the curtain.

“Give him back!” She screamed so hard that the words tore at her throat.

She raced back to the stroller, stumbling over the fallen skeleton. She grabbed the stroller and carried it to the window. She drew back like a batter in the world series and let it fly at the window. The stroller hit hard enough to shatter the plastic that held the front wheel to the frame. The jolt numbed her arms but the window held. Christina stabbed the broken frame at the window again and it made a horrible screech as it slid down the glass without leaving so much as a scratch. Screaming in frustration she threw the stroller over the railing out into the yard.

Christina charged down the length of the porch looking at the other windows for any opening, any way she might even get a look inside. Nothing. She ran back the other way, jumping over the fallen skeleton, and checked the other windows along the porch. Not a single one showed anything from the inside. She threw herself at the nearest window, pounding against the glass with her fists while screaming Roy’s name over and over again.

Exhausted after several minutes of that she fell away. Her hands throbbed with pain. The skin on several of her knuckles had split open. She panted and stumbled down the porch, off onto the sidewalk, and then out into the yard. She collapsed on the lawn and vomited. The heaves brought up the tea she’d had before coming out. It felt like her insides were trying to claw out of her throat. She gasped and spit into the grass, then she got back up and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. She had to get her baby back! She saw the headstones in the flower bed. The stroller might not have broken the window but how about one of those!

Christina ran to the flower bed. She clawed at the ground. One of her nails ripped, the pain a bright star that she dismissed and kept digging. She got her fingers beneath the stone and yanked it out of the ground. The marble felt heavy in her hands. Abigail Mission, may she rest in Heaven. Too nice for a decoration. Much better as a battering ram!

She ran back to the porch. At the first big window she heaved the stone at the glass shouting, “Eat this!”

She rushed forward, raising her arms to protect her from the broken glass. The grave stone hit the glass and tumbled down. Christina couldn’t stop, she was already in motion. She crashed into the glass after the stone and the grave stone dropped onto her foot. The pain burned past her foot and up her leg. Sobbing, Christina stumbled away and fell on the porch. She hit the hard wood and raised her hands up to her head. Tears burned her eyes and sobs choked her. Her foot felt immense and on fire. Through her tears she could see that the window remained intact. There wasn’t even a scratch on the glass. She wanted to curl up in a ball but she couldn’t do that. That woman, those people inside, they had Roy. Her sweet little boy.

Christina got up and tried to stand but the pain in her foot was too much. She fell back to the porch. It felt like the shoe was closing around her foot. She kicked off her pumps. Her right foot was already turning red and purple across the top and sides. It was swelling out like a balloon beneath her tights. She dragged herself across the porch to the railing and used it to pull herself up, keeping her weight off her foot as much as possible. She must have broken it with the gravestone. It wouldn’t be so bad otherwise. Still, she made it up and wiped her face with her sleeves. They were probably all having a good laugh at her expense inside. For all she knew those curtains were like one-way mirrors and they were watching her throw herself at the windows. She pointed a finger at the nearest window.

“You’d better bring Roy back out here right now! Please, he’s my son. I won’t tell anyone, I just want my baby back!”

The curtains didn’t move. The door didn’t open and Christina wanted to wail but that wouldn’t get Roy back. She needed a better plan and she could hardly walk. She needed help.

She started shuffling down the porch. There might be another way in. She could go around the house and check. If she only had a cell phone this would be over so easily. She could just call the police. But she didn’t have a cell phone. Big Roy thought that they were a rip-off. They had one when he was stationed at home because he had to carry one, but he wouldn’t get one of their own for her to use. He went on about how it was a conspiracy to take over the nation’s communications. She’d take that right now if it meant getting Roy back. She reached the first Jack-o’-lantern and shoved it off the railing. It bounced unharmed into the flower bed. When she reached the next shrunken head she reached up and yanked it down. It left a few strands of dark hair trapped in the nail that had held it up. She chucked it after the Jack-o’-lantern.

Two more Jack-o’-lanterns and two more shrunken heads followed the others before she got to the end of the porch. She couldn’t put her weight on her foot at all, which made her next move difficult. She hoped around the post at the end of the porch and started back along the porch so that she could keep her hand on the house and avoid putting her weight on her swollen foot. God, it looked twice the size as normal and the tights were pulled taunt against the swollen skin. It throbbed with her pulse. She rubbed her nose and smelled the pumpkins on her skin. It suddenly made her think of carving pumpkins with Roy earlier in the evening. He had watched, not understanding, but it seemed like he had fun. He had smiled a lot. And those horrible people! They had stolen him!

Christina limped along the porch. She felt like puking again both from the pain in her foot and the thought of what might be happening to Roy. That woman had said she could just eat him up but she couldn’t possibly be serious, could she? It was hard getting across the uneven ground of the flower bed on one foot but she took great delight in each flower that she crushed. She reached one of the shrunken heads that she had thrown down and delighted in smashing it down into the earth. Horrid thing! She stepped off and a thought occurred to her.

What if that’s what the woman had in mind for Roy? The shrunken head’s stitched up eyes seemed to blindly look at her. She had thought that they must be made out of rabbit skin but what if these heads were actually the heads from babies?

Christina heard a low wailing sound that started building in intensity. It took her a couple steps away from the head before she realized that the sound was coming from her. She tried to stop making the noise. The shrunken heads couldn’t be baby heads. That was insane.

Nonetheless she saw Roy’s head hanging by his fine baby-soft hair from a nail in the porch beam. His plump cheeks withering like a raisin, and his beautiful eyes stitched closed with heavy black stitches.

No.

No. No. No!

Christina lunched along the porch. She was going to find a way into this house. She’d get Roy back. And she’d make them pay for what they had done.

She reached the end of porch and started around the side of the house. It was dark away from even the dim light of the street light. Not far across the narrow strip of lawn tall Douglas fir trees towered over the house, dripping with moss and menace. The ground started sloping down and that put the windows out of her reach. She stooped and grabbed a handful of rocks from along the base of the wall and threw them at the window overhead. They rattled off without harming the window.

“Roy!” She grabbed another handful and threw it at the house, not even caring what she hit anymore. “Give him back!”

The house stayed as silent and as impenetrable as the grave. Christina hobbled onward.

Around the side of the house she saw her first sign of hope. The ground continued to drop away and there was a daylight basement window only a few feet ahead. She hopped and shuffled over to the window and looked down. It was a good-sized window with a curved metal barrier holding back the earth. Like the other windows a dark curtain made it impossible to see inside. Christina scooped up a rock lying by the culvert and threw it as hard as she could at the window.

It bounced off with the same dull thunk as the others. She bit back her screams and sat down with her legs in the small area in front of the window. She crouched down, gasping when her foot hit the walls of the barrier, and tried pulling the window open. It wouldn’t budge. She pounded on the window with no result.

She had to get in. She had to find Roy! Christina grabbed the rock she had thrown from the ground and held it in her hand as she hit the window again. Her arm ached from the impact but the window remained unmarred.

Christina threw the rock aside. There had to be another way. She stood up on her good leg and grabbed the side of the barrier to pull herself up. She got up on the side on her knees and leaned against the house to stand again.

Just as she did she saw the curtain in the window twitch, just a tiny bit, but the flash of light from inside caught her eye.

“Give him back!”

The curtain didn’t move again. Christina leaned her head against the wall of the house. “Please give him back,” she muttered. “Give me back my son!”

The house might as well not be there at all, she couldn’t hear anything from inside. The light didn’t escape from the windows. She could just as well be asking a mountain to open up. The pain in her foot radiated all the way up her leg and made her teeth ache. She was tempted, despite the chill and the dew, to stretch out on the grass and just sleep. Escape from everything.

But she wouldn’t give up. Christina shook her head. She’d never give up Roy.

It was the house, or the people in the house, that even made her consider giving up. Like some Jedi mind trick, they wanted her to give up and go away, leaving Roy at their whims. She wouldn’t do it.

Christina started limping along the wall of the house again. As she rounded the back corner of the house without finding any way in a dog starting barking at her. She flinched, expecting to see it flying across the back lawn at her but it was contained within a chain link pen at the back corner of the lawn. Next to that were the desiccated remains of a garden. Dry stalks of corn like rows of spears. At the center of the garden a skeleton scarecrow hung from a cross. The dog barred his teeth and snarled at her. She couldn’t see much of him at all in the dim light. His teeth, and glowing eyes, beyond that he was pretty much just a black shadow. She ignored the barking. Let him bark, if he couldn’t get out then he didn’t worry her and the barking might bring someone outside.

There was a deck along the back of the house. Christina grabbed the railing and hopped up onto the first step. Her leg ached so much that she barely made it. She sank down to her knees and crawled instead. She made sure to keep her foot up so that she didn’t bang it on the steps. Once she made it up to the top of the short stairs she stopped and looked at the house.

One dim yellow bulb was responsible for what light there was in the back. Fancy double doors with framed glass were closed and curtains blocked any view of the inside, just like the windows on either side. It had to be locked. Everything else had been locked up tight. But she couldn’t let herself give in. She had to try. She thought of Roy’s perfect pink cheeks and his little fingers and she started crawling to the doors. It took a minute, but she got there. She reached up and tried the door handle.

It didn’t budge.

Even though she had expected the door to be locked, it felt like the door had maliciously taunted her. As if the door had been unlocked just until the second before she touched the handle. She grabbed the handles and yanked on them as hard as she could. They didn’t even rattle. She screamed despite her sore throat and banged her bloodied fists on the glass.

Nothing. No response. The whole place was locked down tight. There was no way she was getting inside.

Christina slumped against the doors, covered her face and wept. Roy’s face kept appearing in her mind. First the Halloween costume, his little Tigger outfit with the whiskers drawn on his adorable face. Or his to-die-for coveralls with the Thomas train engine shirt. The fuzzy monster pajamas covered in red and green monsters with green monsters on the feet. He loved to growl at them.

And now a real monster had him and she couldn’t get to him. She needed help. The two closest houses were empty, but if she went further back up the road there had to be houses with people home. All she needed was one place, one that would let her use a phone and she could call for help. Call the police. Then the people in this house would have to give her back her son. It’d be hard. She couldn’t even think about how hard it was going to be to walk all that way with her broken foot but it didn’t matter. She’d crawl if she had too. It made her sick to even think of leaving the house while they had Roy but what other choice did she have? She couldn’t get in and they just ignored her.

Christina lowered her hands and there was a small boy standing right in front of her on the deck. She hadn’t heard him at all. He wore a black outfit with a glow-in-the-dark skeleton on it. In one hand he held a black plastic bag with the picture of a Jack-o’-lantern design. He wasn’t such a little baby anymore, but she recognized him. How could she not?

It was Roy, a toddler but still Roy!

She reached out for him. “Roy —”

Roy turned and ran away across the deck, toward the stairs. He could fall!

Christina lunged to her feet and pain shot up her leg. It wouldn’t support her weight and she fell flat on the deck. She lifted her head just in time to see Roy descend the stairs and race away across the lawn toward the other side of the house. He moved so fast for a toddler!

She scrambled across the wood and got up holding onto the railing. She couldn’t put any weight at all on her foot without sharp pain. She hopped along the railing toward the stairs.

“Roy! Come back!”

He stopped running. But he wasn’t a toddler anymore. A boy of maybe five years old. Still wearing a black skeleton costume and holding the trick or treat bag.

Christina held out her hand. “Please come back, Roy, honey!”

He looked like he was listening to her. At least he didn’t run. Christina couldn’t stand anymore. She sank down on the step. “Please, come back.”

Roy waved to her and gave her his bright smile that made her heart ache. Then he turned away from her and walked around the corner of the house and disappeared again.

Christina pushed herself forward. She went down on her hands and knees and crawled down the steps. She kept crawling when she got to the grass. She didn’t care. She couldn’t walk and she wasn’t going to let Roy get away. Not this time. She crawled as fast as she could to the corner of the house.

Roy was walking away from her along the side of the house. Into the darkness. He wasn’t five anymore, more like ten, but he still wore the same costume.

“Roy!”

He glanced back and for a second she could just make out his face. His eyes searched the darkness but he didn’t seem to see her. Then he was gone again, around to the front of the house.

Christina scrambled forward, crawling as fast as she could manage. When she forgot to keep her foot up the pain flared up her leg and nearly made her give up. But she couldn’t let her son get away again.

So she crawled.

The wet grass soaked her clothes even more. Hidden stones dug into her palms. Her nose ran and dripped but she didn’t stop crawling awkwardly forward until she finally reached the front of the house.

A young man stood in front of the porch, lit by light from the open door. He was good-looking, with the same blond hair that she remembered, only not a boy or a baby anymore. It was Roy, dressed entirely in black but a long black coat had replaced his costume. She heard music coming from the house. Music so beautiful and dark it made her want to put her head down and just die. Christina crawled out of the shadows at the side of the house, and then used the corner of the house to brace herself so that she could stand up on her good leg.

“Roy?”

The young man that was somehow her son turned and looked at her. His eyes narrowed and then widened in slight recognition. He walked to her and she saw he was wearing an expensive black suit. A small curved silver tie-tack held a scarlet tie in place. A metallic black watch glittered on his wrist. He stopped several steps back.

“You’re her, aren’t you?” he asked, his voice gentle.

“Please Roy, please come back.”

Roy shook his head. “No mother, that’s a whole other world, don’t you know that? There can’t be any going back. Not now.”

“I don’t understand,” Christina said. “What’s happened to you?”

“I can’t explain it to you.” He looked at the watch. “But I remember seeing you, when I was little. I thought you were a ghost.”

“I’m not a ghost!”

Roy nodded. “I know. I understand it better now. I wish I could make it easier for you.”

The woman appeared in the front doorway. The same one that had snatched Roy away when he was a baby. “Roy, we’re ready to go. It’s time you went to work.”

Roy nodded. He gave Christina a sad smile and turned away. The woman that stole him came out. She wore a long flowing black gown. She was beautiful. When Roy stopped in front of her she straightened his tie, brushed his hair to the side with her fingers, and then they started walking down the porch. The front door shut behind them but the lanterns still lit the porch. The Jack-o’-lanterns were back, Christina realized, and the shrunken heads that swung in the breeze. Not only that the sky had cleared and the moonlight shown down on the yard and reflected off the roof of a long black car that sat in the driveway.

Christina limped along the wall of the house. “Wait! Roy! Wait!”

Neither Roy or the woman paid her any attention. They walked past her as if she wasn’t there at all and went to the car. Roy got in on the driver’s side, the woman on the other. Christina tried to step away from the house and fell. Her head struck the corner of one of the gravestones and the world went dark.

2

Hands grabbed her. Christina shrieked and fought.

“It’s okay! It’s okay!”

Someone held her arms. “It’s okay, ma’am. We’ll take care of you.”

The voice sounded soothing. She opened her eyes, blinked against the blinding light, and finally could see the face of the man holding her arms. He reminded her of her grandfather, with his white hair and round face. He smiled at her.

“There you go, we’ll take care of you.”

Christina swallowed and looked around. There were other people. Police. A woman beside her in blue. She wasn’t on the ground, but a bed, a gurney. And it was daytime.

Roy. “Did you get my son! Roy! They took him into the house!”

The older policeman looked over at the woman in blue and back to her. “House?”

Christina tried to sit up. They pushed her back with their hands but not before she saw the blackened overgrown foundation at the center of the empty lot. No house. No sign that a house had been there in a long time. An enormous howling emptiness engulfed her mind and she went limp. The only thing that remained was the memory of Roy, smiling.

4,996 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 36th weekly short story release, written in November 2010, originally published under my pen name “R.M. Haag.”

Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is the One more spooky story The Thing in the Snow.

Tortures Small Animals, Seeks Same

Ted didn’t take his job too seriously, how could you? It paid the bills as long as he did enough work to keep his boss quiet.

He liked the quiet. It gave him time to plan his weekend.

The personals ad caught his eye. “SWF, tortures small animals, seeks same.” Freaky chicks were sometimes the hottest. What could it hurt?

October continues with a cautionary tale in “Tortures Small Animals, Seeks Same.”

1

Ted was at work, Employment Securities Department, in the big office building that went up right before the State started laying off everyone in Olympia. It was Friday too, when half of the staff were off on unpaid leave. Of course he’d gotten scheduled to work, because he always agreed to work.

Still, it left the offices quiet. Not even phones ringing. He’d gotten used to the quiet. He even liked it that way.

The blinds were closed against the rare sunny Spring day outside. Otherwise the glare on his computer made it impossible to see anything at all. Not that he was looking at the computer anyway. He had his iPhone out, flipping through the ads on Backpages for a little excitement.

One of the posts caught his eye.

“SWF, tortures small animals, seeks same.”

It couldn’t be real. Cops, probably. Who would fall for that anyway?

Ted rubbed his hands on the hard plastic arms of his seat. He rocked back, looking out past the gray Ethospace cubby into the empty cubby across the aisle.

Used to belong to Dolores. Skinny woman, too bony, smoker. Usually sounded like she was coughing up a lung half the time, but now the space was stripped bare. The computer looked lonesome sitting in the corner of the cubby.

Ted looked back at the post.

“SWF, tortures small animals, seeks same.”

He licked his lips. Twisted. Seriously messed up stuff. Sometimes the twisted girls were the hottest. He had dated a few over the years. This one girl had even been living with a guy. Just roommates, she said, but when the guy came home to them screwing on the couch, that wasn’t the reaction of ‘just a roommate.’

Hot, though.

But this?

“SWF, tortures small animals, seeks same.”

That couldn’t be real. He hoped it wasn’t real. He didn’t get off on that sort of thing. He wasn’t a bad guy. Single, sure, he liked it like that. First dates, that was his favorite thing. You got to have a nice time with the girl, company for the night if nothing else. Even then usually a kiss.

And plenty of times you’d at least get to make out with her.

And a few, fewer than he’d like, honestly, would go all the way on a first date.

Not being a girl or being into guys, Ted found it difficult to judge his attractiveness to the opposite sex. At five eight he wasn’t exactly tall, not really short either. Thin build that he kept up with some light sprints and weight lifting. He didn’t go all chronic with cardio. Usually kept his diet pretty primal, few grains, starches, sugar or gluten.

Good-looking or not he knew the thing that really matter for most girls was being confident. He’d show up to take them out, and he dressed nice. Suit and tie, nice restaurants, a good time.

Three dates max, if she wasn’t going to sleep with him then she wasn’t, and he didn’t hold that against her. He was always mostly honest with girls. He didn’t go on about marriage or anything to trick them into bed. Nothing like that.

Most of the time he didn’t bother with online sites or anything. But Backpages had some girls on there who simply wanted to hook up. Some charged, others didn’t, and today he didn’t really want to take time to go find someone to ask out.

He really just wanted to get laid. Was that horrible? After a while jacking off just didn’t really swing it. He wanted someone in his bed.

The phone went dark. he pressed the home button to wake it back up. “SWF, tortures small animals, seeks same.”

That was some crazy stuff. Maybe cops, but if he just offered to take her out on a normal date what crime was that? He’d set up a meeting at Anthony’s, and if she was hideous or looked like a cop he could also stand her up. And if she was hot? Well, it wasn’t like he was going to torture small animals with some crazy girl, but if she was hot enough he might fuck her brains out.

Who knew? It might actually help the poor girl.

Ted used his Hotmail account to answer the ad. “Hey, saw your ad and found it intriguing. Would you be interested in meeting tonight? Ted.”

Then, before sending the message a bright idea popped into his head. A test to see if the girl on the other end really was freaky. He changed the signature on his email.

“Ted, you know like Ted Kaczynski.”

He was getting a bit stiffer just thinking about the possibility when he hit send.

Nothing to do about that now. Chances were that he’d be going home alone tonight. Was it any wonder that so many civil servants ended up being found offed with a bottle of pills, or a razor in the tub? You worked these jobs long enough, it was bound to get to anyone.

Ted pocketed the phone and turned back to the mind-numbing grind on the computer. Paper pushing turned into digital pushing but he was still a rat smashing buttons in order to get fed.

Too bad he didn’t just have his pleasure center wired to doing work. It probably wouldn’t be long before they started doing that, wiring people up so that you came to work and plugged in. Each task you checked off would send a wireless signal to your implants in the pleasure center. Say goodbye to vacations and sick leave. They’d have people working overtime without any bonus, just for the privilege of working.

Only a matter of time.

A half-hour after he sent the email his phone buzzed, vibrating against his leg. Ted pulled it out, thumbed it on. Email. He swiped it open.

It was her, Tortures Small Animals, answering back.

“I’d love to hook up tonight. What did you have in mind? We could go by the pound, see if they have any kittens in? – T.”

T? She’d signed it T.? What did that mean? Was it short for her name, or his? And go by the pound to see if they had kittens? Okay, so it fit with what her ad said, but that was just twisted.

“Maybe that’s what T stands for,” Ted muttered aloud. He glanced around, but there wasn’t anyone around to hear him talking to himself.

He hit reply. “Kittens sound great, but do you mind if we get something to eat first? I was thinking Anthony’s? We could meet there at seven. Wear a red dress, so I know it’s you.”

He hit send with his pulse pounding in his ears. He liked women that could make red dresses work. A red dress, generous cleavage and pouty lips. Too much to hope for from Tortures Small Animals, but you never knew and it didn’t hurt to try.

The phone beeped and buzzed again. Her reply. “The pound closes before seven, but never mind. I’ll bring something special. Can’t wait to see you at Anthony’s. – T.”

Ted snaked a hand into his pants and made the necessary adjustments, but after that his mind wasn’t on work.

That evening he showed up at Anthony’s early, a quarter to seven, plenty of time to see her show up and decide if he was sticking around for the date or not. It wasn’t raining but he stayed in his Prius, parked in one of his favorite spots just down the street where he could watch the front of Anthony’s without drawing too much attention.

She showed up five minutes before seven by his phone. Red dress, creamy complexion that he couldn’t wait to taste and a fantastic body. He’d guess mid-twenties. He caught a glimpse of her face framed by waves of dark hair and didn’t even stop the laughter bubbling up inside.

Way, way out of his league. She was gorgeous. This woman couldn’t possibly be Tortures Small Animals, but he didn’t give a shit. He got out and raised his hand in the air as he started to the front of the restaurant.

She stopped, coolly watching him. Looking right at him as he jogged up. At least he had on a suit, but she still out-classed him. Close up he saw diamonds glittering at her neck, and on her surprisingly delicate ears. She hardly had any ear lobes at all, but the diamond studs she wore were probably worth more than he made in a month.

“I’m Ted.” He reached out to shake her hand and she let him. There was that almost electric feel when skin touched skin. Her nails matched her dress, and her hand was warm and smooth in his. Such soft skin!

“Good evening, Ted.” Her red lips spread in a wide, toothy smile. “I’m glad you could make it. I’m Tina.”

“Tina. I like it. You look absolutely stunning, Tina, I have to say it.”

“Thank you. Shall we go inside?”

“Yes, yes! Let’s do that.” Ted slid around her to open the door, taking advantage of the gesture to lightly touch her back with his other hand. That’s when he discovered that the dress she was wearing was backless down to her lower back. His fingers touched bare skin and he almost jerked away as if he had touched a hot stove.

Tina didn’t react, other than murmuring thanks before brushing past him, her hand grazing the front of his pants. She smelled like roses, and he was already reacting to her, getting an uncomfortable hard-on. He wiggled, walking through the door, trying to adjust position, but he couldn’t wait to get to the table before someone noticed.

He gave the hostess his name even though Megan knew him as a regular by now. She had the table ready and showed them right in. At the table Ted focused on the steps. The odds against getting this girl into his bed, shit, he didn’t even want to think about it. If he did he’d freeze up. Instead he focused on the routine.

Pull the chair out, which brought her close enough that her hair brushed his face as she sat, like touches of silk scented with roses. His hard-on had subsided by then. Sitting across from her Ted looked into her eyes, hazel with green flecks, almond-shaped and dark. It was the first time that he’d gone on one of these dates and ended up with someone that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a movie screen. Usually the girls he dated were pretty, or at least cute with a decent body, but never someone in Tina’s league.

She leaned forward on the table. “I’m so happy to meet you, someone that understands.”

He understood that he wanted dinner over quickly and then a trip back to his place, but he couldn’t rush this. Confident, but not over-eager, especially not with a woman like this.

“I feel the same way, Tina. I couldn’t believe your ad, when I saw it.” He laughed. “I even thought that it might be the cops putting it in.”

She laughed warmly, tossing her head a bit. “That’s so funny! I had the same thought, but as soon as I saw you I knew you weren’t a cop.”

“You did?”

“Oh yes, cops have cop eyes.” She looked at him through her lashes and her voice dropped lower. “I know what your eyes want.”

Her gaze dropped and he looked down to see what she was looking at only to find himself looking at the swelling mounds of her breasts, pushing against the red lace along the top of her dress.

Ted looked back up into her eyes, slowly, not rushing it. No apologies. “As I said, very lovely.”

The waiter came. “You want drinks, perhaps? Or to hear the specials for tonight?”

“Could we have a glass of Cava to start?” Ted asked. He looked across the table at Tina. “That’ll give us a chance to decide what we want.”

“Of course, sir. Very good.”

All routine, but Ted appreciated the fact that the man never sounded like he had heard it before. And then the waiter was gone, which Ted also appreciated.

Tina smiled. “I told I’d brought you something special, let me show you?”

Ted fought to keep his thoughts off his face. Please, not a kitten. So far Tina was by far the hottest girl he’d had out on a date and he really wanted to take this date all the way.

She reached into the small red purse that she’d carried in and came out with her hands cupped together, fingers extended, almost as if she was going to pray. She kept her hands together as she reached across the table.

“Put your hands over mine,” she whispered.

Okay. Anything that meant more touching had to be good. Ted slid his hands along hers, relishing the feel of her silky soft hands. He didn’t know what she did to take care of her skin, but it felt great.

“Keep your hands together.” She started to pull back.

Her hands sliding again against his, he wanted to do the same thing with their whole bodies.

Then something flicked against the inside of his hand. A light touch, but something twitched and it wasn’t her fingers.

“What?”

“Keep your hands together!”

Ted looked around. Nobody was paying them any attention. He kept his hands together but there was something in his hands. Alive. Feathery. A bird? Tina slid her hands entirely out of his, leaving him holding whatever the thing was.

She gave him another one of those big toothy smiles. “Look!”

Ted moved his thumbs back and a bright yellow head with a beak popped up between his fingers.

Tina’s hand darted out, onto his, pressing the bird back down into his hands. “Careful!”

Her hand slid down, caressing the back of his. Then her other hand was also caressing his hands, sliding up and down across his skin. The bird twitched inside his cupped hands. Tina’s hands pressed hard, almost massaging the backs of his hand, sliding back and forth. His hard-on came back, pressing against his pants. Fortunately the long table cloth hid that from view.

Tina was watching him, watching his face and her smile grew wider. “Exciting, isn’t it? Knowing you hold such a fragile life in your hands?”

It wasn’t the bird turning him on, exciting him. It was her touching his hands that definitely had an effect.

The waiter showed up then, suddenly at Ted’s elbow. He put the glasses of sparkling wine on the table. Tina had stopped stroking Ted’s hands but her hands were still over his.

“Do you need more time?”

Ted swallowed. “Uh, yes please. A few minutes.”

“Very good, sir.”

After he left Tina leaned further over the table as if she intended to kiss him. Her hands pressed firmly against his. Ted found himself leaning to meet her. She was a freaky girl, but what was the harm of a kiss? She stopped with her lips just above his, he could nearly feel them, her breath playing on his mouth.

“Crush it.”

He couldn’t believe what she’d said, but her hands pressed down harder.

“Crush it,” she repeated. “I’ll let you do it.”

Her tongue, just the tip, touched his lip, and at that he squeezed his hands together. Her hands pressing against his, his hands pressing in on the bird as her lips found his. Hot and wet, tongues touching, exploring, playing as bones and feathers crushed against his palms. Hardly any resistance at all.

As Tina drew back he was shaking. His hands were together, pretty much flat.

“You can use your pocket,” Tina said.

Right. Before someone saw. What else could he do? He pulled his arms back, cupped the pulverized limp body by feel in his left hand and stuffed it into his pocket. Only then did he even look at his hands. A small smear of blood on his left palm, and a tiny yellow feather stuck to it.

Tina reached out and used her thumb to wipe it away. Just like that it was gone. No sign of what had happened.

Tina lifted her glass, sipped the sparkling wine, watching him over the edge of the glass. “Do you know what you want?”

God help him, he did. He knew what he wanted, and dinner couldn’t end soon enough.

During the scallops over linguini they took turn feeding each other the morsels from the plate and while the buttery taste melted in his mouth Tina kept reaching over and rubbing his pocket.

Those pants were so going into the trash after this date.

Any chance of escaping without desert went out the window when Tina ordered the chocolate mousse. Ted asked for two spoons and once again they took turns feeding each other. He loved watching her lips slide over the spoon. He felt dizzy, intoxicated even though he’d barely even touched his wine with dinner.

Tina ran her finger around the inside of the bowl when they were nearly done and then held out her chocolate smeared finger to him. Ted bent down, taking the proffered digit between his lips, sucking off the sweet chocolate.

When she pulled her finger back she leaned in and he found himself drowning in her lips again, drinking in the taste of her mingled with the chocolate while his pulse pounded in his ears.

Her hand slid around the back of his head, fingers digging into his hair. As they broke apart he found himself looking into her eyes.

She asked the words he’d been dying to hear. “Should we get out of here?”

Ted smiled. “Let’s go to my place.”

Tina flicked her finger lightly across his nose, smiling. “No, silly. You’ve got to see what I’ve got for you back at my place.”

It felt like someone had opened a window as a chilly ran down his back. “Uh, your place? What did you have in mind?”

“I don’t want to spoil the surprise,” she said, coyly.

Ted ran his hands down her arms, exquisite, like the rest of her. Why not go with it? So she was a bit crazy, look at her! This was like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one he’d regret forever if he fucked it up now.

“What’s the surprise?”

Tina’s eyes narrowed. “You’re impatient. I’ll bet you couldn’t wait to open your first puppy.”

“What?”

She reached out and ran her fingers through his hair, lightly playing with his ear. “Come here, I’ll whisper a hint.”

Ted leaned in and found himself shivering as her lips brushed his ear. He wanted her more than he’d wanted any girl before. What did it matter what her surprise was, if he got the chance to screw her?

Her lips brushed against his ear again, her tongue lightly licking along his earlobe, sucking on it, and suddenly he was squirming in his seat. She stopped.

“It’s a surprise,” she whispered.

Then pain, sharp and immediate in the earlobe like an icepick through his head. Ted screamed. He jerked back, but Tina was still attached, teeth clamped firmly on his ear.

Other people were looking. Tina released him. Ted fell back against his seat, wilting away from her. His ear throbbed with pain. Tina slowly rose, showing him every fantastic inch of her body. She leaned on the table and Ted shrank back against his chair.

Tina made a tsking noise. “Maybe we shouldn’t take this too fast, Teddy Bear?”

She pouted, blew a kiss at him and then walked away, out into the night.

After that Ted figured she was gone, out of his life at least, off torturing someone else. He had dreams about screwing her, and they weren’t all bad. Mostly.

Saturday morning the doorbell rang. Ted looked up from his coffee, at first unable to even comprehend the sound. By the time he figured it out and got to the door he didn’t see anyone outside, but when he opened the door he found a small box sitting on top of a newspaper.

Ted picked up the box, it wasn’t heavy. No postmark and besides, it was too early for the mail. The newspaper must have come with the box, he didn’t get the Olympian, it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.

Tina. The box was wrapped in plain brown paper, no marks, but he knew, knew it was from Tina. How she knew where he lived, he didn’t have any idea, but this had to be from her.

He couldn’t not open it, as tempting as it was to toss it directly in the trash. He tore at the rough brown paper. Tossed that aside. A plain white cardboard box, like the kind that Chinese food came in, without any markings. There was plain white card taped to the top. He peeled it off and read what was written in beautiful handwriting.

“Teddy Bear, look what you missed out on last night. I’ve got to go out of town for a while, but when I get back maybe we can try again. Kisses. – T.”

Ted tossed the card down on the counter. He really didn’t want to know what was in the box now. His eyes fell on the folded newspaper. A smiling little girl was on the front page, blond, probably about four years old. In big black letters beneath the picture he could read part of the headline.

MISSING.

The box. The newspaper. Ted’s ear throbbed. He stuffed his knuckles into his mouth, but even that wasn’t enough to muffle his screams.

3,626 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 34th weekly short story release, written in March 2012, while at a workshop on the Oregon coast. I’m putting up scary or disturbing stories all October.

Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is an unsettling, sad story, The Bug Builder.

Eating Disorder

Some people would call it an eating disorder but a ghoul has to eat, right?

It’s actually a funny story, how I ended up this way. Why don’t you settle back and I’ll tell you all about it.

Yeah, I wasn’t really asking.

Kick off your October with a ghoulishly fun story in “Eating Disorder.”

1

I’ve got what you could call an eating disorder. I don’t like talking about it. Hell, I don’t even like thinking about it, but at three in the morning, listening to the sound of ice-coated branches and trees breaking all around me it’s hard not to think about how I ended up here, in Olympia, I guess that’s the capital, right smack in the middle of the worst storm in like fifteen years or something.

See I’m one of those people that no one likes looking at. Not that I’m bad on the eyes. I’m petite but what the guys call stacked. I’ve hacked off my hair, it’s all white, but you couldn’t tell that from the dirt, so it sort of just sticks up in every direction. It used to be black and long and I paid whatever it cost to have it look good.

Not anymore. A ghoul like me can’t afford that sort of thing.

Instead of designer clothes and jewelry I get what I can shoplift from Goodwill. Nothing pretty about that but when you’ve got what I’ve got you learn real quick not to get too attached to your clothes.

Or fingernails. Hell, I’d love to have the beautiful patterned nails like I used to get but instead I’ve got these thick yellow and black nails, not even nails. Let’s tell the truth. These babies are sharp enough to shave with. Not that I bother with shaving anything anymore.

You have a keen sense of smell, don’t you? It must be torture for you being close to me right now. But you’re going to help me with that.

This storm is sure something, isn’t it? A foot of snow overnight, that was bad enough, but then this ice storm on its heels? I usually don’t let things go this far, but the storm really messed up my plans.

See I never stay in one place too long. Too easy for the hunter to become the hunted, but then your type likes staying in one place. Ties to your dirt and all of that sort of thing. It’s usually pretty easy to spot your kind. From the money, the whores and the expensive houses closed up all day, your sort always stands out.

I know, you don’t think that you do, but it’s true. I spotted you right off.

Me? I’m on that. A Trek Marlin 29er, that’s a mountain bike. Big wheels, see. I don’t carry much. What’d be the point? Mostly my sleep-gear backed in that trunk bag.

Ordinarily I’m not one much for the chit-chat. I’m the go straight to the eating sort, if you get it?

Sorry about laughing, but you should have seen your face then. Your sort, how you’ve changed! Used to be among the worst sort of monsters imaginable, the kind of nightmare that made grown men wet their beds. Now you get their women to wet their beds and not the same way.

Now they all want to fuck you.

Talk about your PR campaign!

Oh? You want to know where this place is? I’d think even someone like you would recognize the piss-stink of an overpass. That’s the Woodland trail down there beneath us, street up there, duh.

Yeah, don’t worry about anyone coming by. You hear those cracks and snaps like firecrackers going off? That’s the sound of branches breaking and trees falling. This ice storm is making a mess of everything. Roads up there are awful.

No one’s coming. No one’s going to be using the trail. And I already dumped your car.

You and me, we’ve got time. That’s why I’m so chatty, and I’m not normally that sort of ghoul.

Sorry. Can’t help it. Do you think I like this? Fuck-you-very-much.

I don’t know if this is your lucky night or not. Thanks to that storm I can’t be riding or I’d have already eaten and gotten on my bike and put some miles in before I crashed for the night.

What with the ice storm and all I can’t do that right now and I don’t like sleeping where I eat. So you’re the lucky fuck. I’m going to tell you how I ended up like this. Just so you see it isn’t personal.

Like I said before, I wasn’t always like this. That changed six months ago. Before that I was a mostly normal girl, doing her thing. Oh I still rode the bike, that didn’t change. Give me an epic ride any day. Nothing I liked better getting out and hitting the trails, you know? I could ride all day until I didn’t have any energy left at all and then just crash. If I was back home that was cool but sometimes I’d just crash where ever I was at, stealth camp, you know? I always rode with my full kit so it didn’t really matter. I was always more home on the bike than I was back in my cheap apartment. That was just a place to keep the stuff that didn’t fit on my bike. But everything important fit on my bike.

So six months ago. I was out in Canada hitting the Tour Divide.

No? Haven’t heard of it? No reason you would have, heck even most people that get out during daylight hours haven’t heard of the Tour Divide.

Two thousand seven hundred and forty-five miles along the continental divide from Banff, Canada all the way down to a Mexico border crossing at Antelope Wells. Epic. Totally epic, that was the big thing that I’d been building toward hard for two years before that June.

Two years! More than that if you really went back, but two years that I had actually intended to ride the race. I’d even thought about doing it the year before but didn’t figure I was ready. I should have done it then.

The Divide throws everything at you. Climbing up passes, snow, brutal trails in the middle of nowhere. Total shitting in the woods, epic riding all frickin’ day. And the riders, they worry about things like grizzly bears because it totally goes through grizzly bear country.

I wish that’s all I had to worry about.

First day of riding and that night I’m up in the Flathead valley just pushing my bike up this trail that you can’t even hardly see along a mountain side covered in snow. There’s a bit of a moon, but not much. Enough to keep going. Not snow like you see out there right now, there wasn’t the fucking ice for one thing. This was old snow, all rotten and slippery. It used to be deep but now it didn’t even come up to my knee but I couldn’t ride through it, not if I hoped to get across the mountainside without tumbling down the cliff to an early death.

Even that would have been better.

So I’d gotten past the worst of it, so I thought, when I heard a motor. That  freaked me out. You’ve got to see it, you’re in the middle of shit-knows-where on this hillside and it’s all quiet. No cars, no sounds except animals and shit. And then there’s this sound of motors. Engines revving. I could hear shit getting kicked up and I’m freaking out. Who the hell is crazy enough to be out here at night except Divide riders?

I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

ATVs. Two of them ripping across the mountain without headlights. Crazy mother-fuckers, to ride those unstable machines across this mountain only by moonlight. Or that’s what I thought at the time. I didn’t know, couldn’t know right then, that they could see in the dark as well as an owl.

I could only see them as dark shapes roaring across the mountain, more shadow than substance. The sound and the size made it clear that they weren’t grizzly bears charging. They were much worse.

Only two ATVs but four riders. The came at me, engines snarling as they spun around in the snow and stopped. I was pissed but also scared. A woman alone in the middle of that God-forsaken country, with a pack of backwoods idiots on ATVs? It sounded like a recipe to get tortured, killed and thrown off the cliff for the animals. By the time anyone found any remains they wouldn’t have a clue what killed me, the animals or the fall.

Yeah, laugh it up. Obviously none of that happened. But that’s what I was afraid of back then. Only I wasn’t about to let these guys know that.

I raised a hand. “Hey, any of you got some Snickers? M&Ms? Really, any kind of chocolate would do.”

They gave me snickers, but not the kind I was looking for. The leader, Raul, I learned that later, got off the ATV first. In the dark moonlight he looked like any other raggedy thin guy you might find at some bar tossing back one or ten beers.

“What’re you doing out here?” He spread his arms. “Does this look like a fucking bicycle trail?”

“Sure as hell does, fuckwad,” I said. “And it’s going to take me all the way to Mexico, so why don’t you get out of my way. I’ve got a lot of riding to do.”

Saved my bacon. Sort of.

Raul, he sort of bent over and let out this hacking laugh. He slapped his legs as he did it and I thought he sounded seriously fucking sick. He hawked and spat into the dirty snow.

“Mexico? You’re a long ways from Mexico.”

“And I’m not getting any closer talking to you.”

He sort of stood up straighter then and an eye-blink later he was right up against me, like pressed up hard enough that I would have gone over and tumbled down the hillside except he had a hand around my waist and was holding me in a grip that felt like a fucking steel band. And the smell!

Well, you know all about that.

That dude smelled like something left dead on the road under a hot sun, even though it was cold. And when I looked into his moonlit face from a kissing-distance away I saw just how sharp and black his teeth were and I was suddenly truly, fucking scared. Far more than I’d been only a moment before. I didn’t understand how he moved like that. Worse, all of his buddies were off the ATVs and around us in a close circle like they were all waiting for a turn.

And they were, right then. All waiting for Raul to take his piece. He sniffed me real close. He knew before then, but he was making a show of it. He did a little pout.

“She’s muggle, every bit. Nothing special about her.”

I brought my hands up and pushed against his chest but I might as well have tried to push the mountain aside. “Whatever. I’m sure you find lots of women riding a mountain bike from Canada to Mexico.”

More snickers all around. Raul tilted his head. “We’re in Canada now?”

“Yes, don’t you know where you’re at?”

Raul stared at me. I couldn’t figure out what was going on with the guy, how he moved that fast, why his teeth looked like they did or why he smelled so bad. The rest stank too and I was starting to feel sick from it.

“I told you, I’m riding the tour divide from Canada to Mexico, so it sounds like we’re going opposite ways. Why don’t you get the hell out of my way and we’ll call it good.”

“Why?” Raul asked softly.

“Why what?”

“Why should we let you go?” The others all snickered more. “We could have fun with you.”

“Thanks, I’ll pass. Now let me go.”

Raul leaned in closer. I didn’t know what he meant to do but he was fucking freaking me out. So I did the one thing I could do. I lifted my can of bear spray that I had right there in my hand, on my bike and gave him a shot right in the eyes and mouth from inches away.

He howled! The sound split the night, and he flew back away from me. In the process that fucker scratched my back. I felt it tear, four long scratches that cut right through my jersey but I didn’t stop to worry about it. I was on that bike and I took off riding.

Snow flew from my tires and I got going. I was flying along that mountain side as if it was nothing but a smooth paved multi-use trail like that Woodland trail right down there. Or at least it seemed like that for a few minutes.

Then there was a tree down across the trail ahead of me. Not the first, or the last. I barely saw it in the dark and sort of braked and slid down the side of the mountain. I actually slid underneath the tree like I was going to slide under and pop back up on the other side. That would have been cool but that didn’t happen. I didn’t make it all the way. My head hit the tree and I was going so fast that it snapped my neck in an instant. I didn’t even know I was dead yet when I slid out the other side with my legs twitching on the pedals like I was still riding.

Being undead sucks. Being an undead ghoul really bites.

Yeah, very funny.

Raul and his buds thought my accident was hilarious. I don’t know about you vamps, but the change for ghouls happens pretty fast. You rot. I mean there I am, newly dead, and my skin bloats, the stink comes out and I started looking as nasty as something lying dead on the hillside for a week. My neck bones reset themselves at least.

See that’s the thing about us ghouls. We’re tough. We look and smell like shit, but there’s not much that can take us down.

Raul showed me that right off. Tore my jersey to shreds along with the skin underneath just to prove a fucking point.

But you know what happened then? He made the mistake. He told me that my only hope to look normal was to eat other supernatural critters. Humans might help for an hour, but there were other things out there that would make me look alive and human for days at a time. Maybe even weeks, but those sort of targets were dangerous.

Or I could hang out with them and just pick off anyone unfortunate to cross their paths.

I had another idea.

I thought I’d be squeamish about it, but it’s instinct. I went for Raul first. Ghouls are tough but I wasn’t just any old ghoul. They hadn’t considered that. Idiots.

Some might call that cannibalism. I called it justice. Maybe I’m deluded, but it felt that way at the time. I packed away extra nibbles and had myself enough to finish the whole Tour Divide race all the way down to Mexico. What I found there is a whole other, and much longer story.

Now, now. Don’t even think about trying to get away.

2,558 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 33rd weekly short story release, finished in January 2012.

Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. For October I thought I’d focus on scary stories, and next up is Tortures Small Animals, Seeks Same.

Trailer Park of the Dead Things

The call on Stefan Roland’s supernatural tip line describes the Willow Lane trailer park as haunted and terrifying.

It’s possibly the only opportunity for Stefan to revitalize his Dead Things series of films.

The whole gang comes back for one more shot at filming dead things before the Inquisition sweeps in to cover it all up.

Assuming they can get out alive!

1

The call on Stefan Roland’s supernatural tip line described the Willow Lane trailer park as haunted and terrifying. Leaning forward to look out the van window, Stefan agreed, but probably not for the same reasons as the caller.

Out of habit he pulled back and checked himself in the side mirror. At fifty-three he still managed to look good for the camera. Or good enough. He had that sort of Peter Jenkins look these days with his hair mostly gray, but he stayed in shape. When you had a reputation for filming zombies the last thing you wanted was to be huffing and wheezing on camera when you tried to get away. He straightened his bright red tie and straightened up in time to see his driver and cameraman, Craig Marshal grinning at him.

“What?” Stefan asked. “I have to look good when we shoot this.”

Behind his sunglasses Craig raised an eyebrow but remained silent as he steered the van around a child’s bike abandoned in the road. Roan Collins stuck her head up between the seats, still sporting the same spiky blond hair she had back in the days when they’d gone to Afghanistan to film War of the Dead Things. She looked more or less the same, actually more tanned with a few lines around her eyes but he wouldn’t dare mess with the petite sound wizard.

“Shoot what?” she asked. “This place is a dump. I can’t even believe that we’re doing this.”

Stefan shrugged. “I thought we all agreed that we needed another film. We can’t ride on the royalties from the first three forever. People want something new.”

“But this?” Roan grabbed the seat backs as Craig stopped the van in front of one of the trailers. A hand-painted sign out front read ‘Manager’. “We haven’t gotten anything better from the tip line?”

“No. These days the Inquisition swoops in too fast. They’ve usually got the witch in custody before we ever hear about it.” Which was part of the reason he hadn’t put out a new documentary in twenty years. That and after Afghanistan he had needed years of therapy. Not to mention the book deals, talk circuit and merchandising.

Craig spoke in his deep voice. “Then why aren’t they here? If there’s anything to this, shouldn’t they be all over it?”

“When I talked to the manager he said that they did send out a team and nothing happened while they were around, but he said it has started up again since then.” Stefan popped open his door. “Come on, grab your gear and let’s go talk to him.”

Craig and Roan exchanged a look before she disappeared into the back. Craig climbed out of the driver’s seat to follow. Stefan got out of the van and shut the door behind him. It felt good to have the team back together, out in the field. A cool breeze blew dry leaves around his feet that sounded like whispers and smelled like rain. He looked up at dark clouds massing overhead. Hopefully it’d hold off on the rain until they got set up, but it would make for some good atmospheric shots later.

The Willow Lane trailer park looked run down and worn out, but not really haunted. None of the trailers looked new and some looked dangerous. The one to the right of the manager’s had cardboard duct taped up over a broken window with big pointy shards of glass still dangling from the frame. More glass reflected light up from the weeds around the trailer. Moss and branches from the willow trees littered the roofs of the trailers. Garbage bags, boxes, kids toys and cars crowded around the trailers. He heard the van door open and walked around the front of the van, barely missing a pile of dog crap on the tiny patch of weedy grass around the manager’s sign. At least he hoped the crap was from a dog, it was fresh enough to smell, but he couldn’t shake the disturbing thought of some dirty child crouching to dump beside the sign as a prank.

 

Craig and Roan had their gear sorted when he reached the other side. These days Craig still had his height but he had put on more weight over the years. Like Stefan his hair was mostly gray now, but he wore it longer.

“Let’s do a quick intro,” Stefan suggested. “Do we have the wireless recording set up?”

Roan gave him that look that said he had dared to question her abilities. “Everything is transmitted back to the van and recorded. The system checks out.”

“Okay.” Stefan grinned. “You know me and new technology. Ready?”

Craig adjusted the camera. “Sure, any time you’re ready.”

Stefan glanced back and positioned himself in front of the willow tree leaning over the manager’s trailer. “How does it look?”

Craig gave him a thumbs up.

“Roan?”

“Ready.”

“Okay, on three, two, one.” He smiled for the camera. “Welcome to Willow Lane, a simple trailer park home to hard-working people just trying to get by, and just possibly, a witch. I’m Stefan Roland and I’ve made it my life’s work to document instances of witches waking dead things. From our rural countryside, to our malls, all the way to the deserts of Afghanistan, my team and I have traveled the globe to bring you the true stories of the behind these horrible events that the Inquisition doesn’t want you to see.”

Stefan walked a few steps closer to the trailer’s front door. “We’ve received tips that this seemingly peaceful trailer park is haunted by a dark force unlike any we’ve seen before. We’re here to uncover the truth.”

The front door opened and a man stepped out. At least he thought it was a man. There was enough white hairs on his chin to suggest a beard, but he was also fat and wore bright purple sweat pants and a stained pink sweat shirt. White hair stuck out in all directions on his head like pictures of Einstein. Stefan couldn’t have timed it better. He walked quickly toward the small porch.

“Hello? I’m Stefan Roland. Are you Pete Larson, the manager?”

“Yep, that’s me.” Pete grinned and pointed a finger at Craig and Roan. “Are you filming this?”

“Don’t worry about the camera,” Stefan said smoothly. “We film everything. Most of it never ends up in the actual movie. When we’re done we have to go back and edit it all together to make the documentary. Do you mind if we come inside, so you can tell us what’s been happening?”

“Sure, sure.” Pete turned back to the door and pulled it open, hinges creaking. “Come on in.”

Stefan looked back at the camera. “Let’s go find out about the haunting of Willow Lane.”

The porch steps sagged beneath Stefan’s feet when he stepped up to join Pete on the small porch. When Stefan got up close to the manager he smelled like dirty gym socks and fried chicken. It wasn’t only stains on the front of Pete’s sweat shirt but also bits of breading. Stefan breathed through his mouth and stepped on into the trailer. Given Pete’s appearance he expected a mess but it wasn’t all that bad. He went right into the small living room, which held furniture that would have looked at home on the curb with a cardboard ‘free’ sign. A kitchenette occupied one corner of the room but there weren’t even dishes piled in the sink. A small mini-fridge was tucked away beneath the counter. A big bucket of KFC sat on the battered and stained coffee table and the smell of fried chicken was even stronger. Stefan’s stomach growled, but the thought of eating held little appeal at the moment. Still, the place wasn’t actually messy. The lack of some sort of disarray made Stefan wonder if Pete hadn’t cleaned up specially for their visit. He turned back around as Craig came in with the camera, followed by Roan.

Pete let the door bang shut and shuffled in behind Roan. Stefan noticed Pete watching Roan’s backside and hoped, for the manager’s sake, that she didn’t catch him checking her out.

“Thank you so much for talking to us,” Stefan said. “How about we sit on the couch?”

“Sure, sure.” Pete brushed the front of his sweat shirt. “Should I change? Sorry, everything was dirty. Today’s laundry day but I haven’t had a chance yet.”

“It’s fine,” Stefan said. “We want to capture real life, here. I want you to feel comfortable.”

Pete beamed and dropped down onto one end of the couch. Stefan went over and sat on the other side, his arm along the back, and tried to project an air of relaxed interest. “Okay, Pete, whenever you’re ready, can you tell us about what has been happening in Willow Lane?”

Stefan heard a low groan. At first he thought it came from Pete, but the manager’s head turned and looked toward the hallway. Stefan leaned forward. “What was that? Is there someone back there?”

Pete wrung his hands in front of his chest. “No. I live alone.”

The moan came again, low and drawn out, like someone in pain. Or possibly pleasure. Stefan motioned for Craig to turn the camera. Craig did, filming Roan as she moved into the hallway entrance. She held up her mic, her head turned slightly to the right. Her left hand adjusted the controls on the equipment.

“What have you got?” Stefan asked.

“Someone’s in the bedroom,” she said flatly.

“Not ‘un,” Pete said. “See, that’s what’s going on! Stuff like that!”

Stefan stood up motioning for Pete to stay on the couch. He went around the coffee table to stand behind Roan so he could see down the hallway. With the light off it was dim, the room at the end darkened with closed curtains.

Another moan. The hairs on his arms and neck rose up. His mouth seemed dry. He swallowed. “Well, let’s take a look. That’s why we’re here.” He held his hand out to Craig. “Flashlight?”

Craig pulled a small Maglite out of his pocket and handed it over. Stefan twisted it on. The tiny dot of light danced along the walls.

Roan reached over and flicked a light switch. The light in the hall above the front door came on. “You get to go first.”

“Thanks.” Stefan turned the flashlight off and slipped past Roan.

“Don’t mention it. You’re the on-screen personality.”

He took a step forward and another moan rose out of the bedroom. It sounded like someone in pain. He made himself walk down the short hall, past a bathroom, to the bedroom.

“What is it?” Pete called out.

Stefan didn’t answer. From the hall light he couldn’t see anything. He slid his hand in along the wall and found the bedroom light switch. He flicked it up. Nobody there. A queen-sized bed with a dark blue bedspread covered the mattress. Other than a dark wood dresser beside a closet with mirrored doors, there wasn’t anything in the room. He turned back around to face the hallway and the camera.

“I don’t see anything in the room. Pete, do you mind if we look around?”

“That’s fine!”

Stefan went in and walked over to the closet. He really didn’t want to pull that open and see what was inside, but the camera was watching. He slid the door open. No zombies jumped out. Mostly the closet held empty clothes hangers, and a closet organizer with multiple pairs of shoes ranging from worn out sneakers to black dress shoes. Nothing that could have created the moaning noise.

“There’s nothing here.” Stefan closed the closet and moved over to the dresser. It felt wrong to dig through Pete’s stuff, but if the manager wasn’t going to complain, he wanted to rule out a prank.

It didn’t take long to pull out each drawer. Socks, underwear that Stefan wasn’t going to touch, some sweaters and in the bottom drawer stacks of Penthouse magazines. Stefan looked up at Craig after he closed that drawer. “Cut that when we edit.”

He went over to the bed and got down on his hands and knees. He grabbed the bedspread and suddenly froze. He really didn’t want to lift it up and find someone staring back at him from beneath the bed. What if Pete had tied up someone and hid them under the bed?

Stefan chuckled. “I hope there’s nothing under here.”

“Wait, let me shoot it,” Craig said.

Stefan waited until Craig got the camera down in position and gave him the nod, then he lifted the bedspread. Nothing. Not unless dust bunnies had started moaning. Stefan saw Roan’s sneakers over on the other side of the bed. As he dropped the bedspread she started walking back around the bed. He climbed up.

“What were you doing over ther—”

“What?” Roan asked behind him.

“Holy fuck!” Stefan jerked back from the petite sound technician. She was standing over by the closet. “No way.”

Craig brought the camera up. “What?”

There wasn’t anyone else in the room.

“We’ve got to play that back,” Stefan said. “Did you see the feet on the other side of the bed?”

“Yeah, I thought it was Roan.”

Roan grinned. “I haven’t been over on the other side of the bed, guys.”

“What’s going on?” Pete called from the other room.

Stefan shook his head. “Okay, I’m convinced there’s something going on. Let’s go finish talking to Pete, he’s got a vacant trailer for us. I want to play back that footage and see if we caught anything on tape.”

They all went back out the living room. Pete looked up from the bucket of KFC he cradled on his lap. “Want some chicken?”

“No thanks.” Stefan went back to the couch and sat back down.

“What’d you see?” Pete asked. “Was there something there?”

“We don’t know. We’ll have to review the footage. Pete, tell us what’s been happening in Willow Lane.”

Pete’s big shoulders rolled. “Weird stuff like that, noises, things happening. One time last week I heard my trailer door open. I always lock it. I’m like compulsive about it, you know? But I heard the door open and someone went into the bathroom. I heard that door close. I got up and asked who was there, but they didn’t answer. When I turned on the lights I went into the hall and I was so scared I thought I might pee my pants, but there wasn’t anyone there. Then I really had to pee but I didn’t want to go into the bathroom but I didn’t have any choice.”

“Is it only here, in your trailer?”

“No! I’m getting pestered all the time by people with weird shit happening. I don’t know what they think I can do about it, but I’m the manager so they think I have to do something. People tell me that stuff has moved around. Pets have disappeared. Things have gotten broken. I think it’s because of the cemetery.”

“Cemetery?”

“Yeah, it’s on the other side of the trailer park, been there for a long time. I think that’s why we’re getting haunted. Some of the dead folks are restless, coming over here and making trouble. That’s what I told the inquisitors that came. They said they’d look into it but nothing strange happened while they were here.” Pete looked back at the hallway. “I don’t know if I want to sleep back there with something strange going on.”

“Whatever it was, it seems to have stopped,” Stefan said. “On the phone you said that you had a trailer that we could use during our investigation?”

“Yeah, old Mrs. Kunkle’s trailer. They carted her off to hospice two months ago but no family showed up to take care of the place. I cleared out the fridge, just so things didn’t spoil in there, but all the furniture and stuff is still there. There’s soups and stuff in the cupboards. I don’t know who is going to take care of it, so I don’t think anyone would mind if you use it. Plus she was a real nice lady so I don’t think she would haunt it or anything.”

“Okay.” Stefan turned and smiled for the camera. “It looks like we have a haunting to investigate. Thank you Pete Larson, manager of Willow Lane trailer park.”

“You’re welcome,” Pete said.

2

Mrs. Kunkle’s trailer smelled of lilac, medicine and dust with just a hint of mold. She obviously enjoyed collecting dog figurines since the dusty ceramic figures filled shelves in each room of the single-wide trailer. Her trailer was larger than Pete Larson’s with a full kitchen, larger living room and a much bigger bathroom. Craig moved from room to room working on setting up cameras, just in case whatever was going on came back to this trailer too.

Stefan and Roan sat in the living room. Looking around at Mrs. Kunkle’s living room, the dozens of ceramic dogs, and the dried up spider planet on the window sill, it made him sad that no family had come forward to take care of the place. Who would turn out if he died? Would Craig and Roan clear out his studio apartment? They were the closest he had to family. He had the die-hard fans, of course, but that wasn’t the same thing.

“When did we become ghost hunters?” Roan asked.

Stefan shrugged. “Ghosts, zombies, what’s the difference? They’re all dead things.”

“Yeah, but ghosts don’t do us any good if we can’t catch them on film.”

That still bothered him. The first thing Craig did when they got back to the van was use the portable player to take a look at the bedroom recording. The video they’d shot under the bed didn’t show any sneakers on the other side of the bed. But both he and Craig had seen it, he was sure of that. Without it on camera he looked like an idiot reacting to something that wasn’t there. Likewise Roan’s playback of the audio didn’t show any of the moaning that they had all heard. She thought she might have more luck when she got the recording back to the studio and could really take a look at it, but playing it straight back they only heard their own voices. Once again making it look like they were trying to stage the whole thing.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and the witch will wake the zombies in the graveyard next door.”

Roan swatted at his arm. “Don’t even joke.”

Stefan laughed. “Who said I was joking? If we can’t record ghosts, we need something else.”

Craig came back into the room. “Cameras are set up. If anything moves during the night it’ll trigger the motion sensors and turn on the cameras.”

“Good job.” Stefan gestured to the recliner at the end of Mrs. Kunkle’s glass-topped coffee table. “Have a seat. I’ve ordered a pizza.”

Craig dropped into the chair. “Excellent. Better than Afghanistan, at least.”

“Yeah,” Roan said dryly. “I haven’t gotten shot yet.”

“What’s the plan?” Craig asked.

“We see if anything happens tonight, and tomorrow we start interviewing the residents. I want as many stories as we can get. Let’s keep our eyes out for anyone that might turn out to be the witch behind this.”

“You think there is a witch behind this?” Roan asked.

There was a knock at the door. Stefan glanced at his watch. “Under thirty minutes. Not bad.” He got up and looked down at Roan. “And yes, I do think there’s a witch involved.”

He went to get the food.

3

A loud crash woke Stefan. He sat up in the dark, his heart hammering in his chest. Had he —

Crash!

It sounded like something hit a wall and shattered. He threw aside the covers and sat up. On the other side of the bed Roan stirred.

Crash! Crash!

“What the hell?” She sat up too.

“I don’t know.” Stefan reached over for the lamp and felt rather than saw something fly past his head. He flinched as whatever it was smashed into the wall right in front of him. Tiny sharp fragments peppered his face as he dove back onto the bed.

Roan yelled in alarm.

From the other room Stefan heard Craig call out. More crashes, in rapid fire. Something hit his shoulder! He grabbed the object, recognizing by feel one of Mrs. Kunkle’s ceramic dogs. “Under the covers!”

He lifted the blankets and dived beneath. On the other side Roan copied him and from somewhere produced a small Maglite which she turned on. They looked at each other in the light while above the blankets more ceramic dogs shattered on the walls. Roan started giggling. A second later Stefan joined her. He held out the ceramic dog that had hit his shoulder. An English bulldog about the size of a baseball. His shoulder still throbbed.

“Not hardly a bullet it, but it still hurt,” he complained.

Roan laughed harder.

Stefan reached out and took her hand. “Thanks for coming.”

She grinned. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

The barrage slowed. A few more crashes and then nothing. Roan sat up more beneath the blanket. The flashlight pointed up at her face like she was about to tell a spooky story. Except they were in the middle of a ghost story right now.

“Do you think it’s over?” she asked.

“Only one way to find out.” Stefan pulled back the blanket, ready to duck back beneath. Nothing flew out of the dark at him.

Roan shown the flashlight around. “Holy shit!”

Even though he expected it, there was something horrible about the dozens of ceramic dogs lying shattered to pieces on the floor. Pieces marred the walls where they had been hit. No wall was left unmarked and the entire floor was covered in sharp shards of broken canines.

There was movement and a shape in the doorway. Stefan’s breath caught in his throat and Roan let out a little squeak as she pointed the flashlight at the shape.

Craig shielded his eyes. He was wearing nothing but boxer shorts and sneakers. A few scratches on his chest beaded with blood. “Are you guys okay?”

“I think so.” Stefan moved his arm. “One of them hit me.”

Craig looked at the bedroom. “I guess she didn’t like sharing her trailer after all.”

Stefan reached over the side of the bed to find his shoes. He shook out pieces of the dogs and pulled them on. “Let’s check the cameras. I hope it caught this!”

It did. Fortunately the cameras survived the incident, although one had gotten knocked over by a flying poodle. The three of them sat around the portable monitor watching the replay from the camera facing the bedroom. Stefan bit his knuckle watching the scene. Even unedited the night vision footage was chilling. The dogs shot across the room as if shot from a gun to explode on impact.

Roan made a disgusted snort and flopped back on the couch. He couldn’t believe it.

“What’s wrong?”

“That!” She shook her hand at the screen. “Who is going to believe that? With the night vision and everything they’re going to say it was all rigged.”

“We can prove the video wasn’t tampered with,” Craig said.

She shook her head. “Anyone with a brain watching that will assume you used filaments to pull the figurines across the room!”

Stefan shook his head. “There are dozens of figurines in that shot, plus the ones out here. It wouldn’t be easy to rig that.”

“I’m telling you it won’t matter.”

It was a sobering thought. Craig stopped the playback. “I think you’ll change your mind when we get this back to the studio. It’ll look better.”

“Not good enough.”

Craig’s jaw tightened. “I’m not offering you advice on sound recording.”

Roan got up. “I’m going to find a broom and get some of this mess cleaned up. Unless you want to take more pictures?”

“No, I’ve already got it.”

She left and Stefan looked over at his cameraman. He trusted Craig’s opinion, but he couldn’t discount what Roan said. “You could both turn out right.”

Craig surprised him by nodding. “Yep.”

“It’ll work out,” Stefan said. “We just move ahead with the plan. Get the interviews, see what else we can record. When we have enough footage then we call the Inquisition and turn over copies. We film them in action and then we’ve got another movie. Everything documented and verified.”

It had to work. They all needed another successful documentary in the series. This was his retirement plan.

Craig stood up. “Sounds good to me, man. I’ll give Roan a hand.”

While Craig went into the other room, bits of ceramic dogs crunching under his sneakers, Stefan hit the play button on the camera. There wasn’t any sound on the playback. He watched the blankets moved as he and Roan took shelter. She’d been scared, that’s why she was acting all pissed. The ghost or whatever force was here scared her. He rubbed his jaw, feeling the rough beginnings of a beard. He was already up, might as well get started figuring out what he was going to ask the residents today.

4

Willow Lane held twenty trailers and so far Stefan hadn’t found any really credible witness. They had great footage of half-literate types saying that they’d seen stuff move around in their trailer. A window or door opened or closed. One lady had a boxer that kept barking at a particular corner in her trailer, but he wouldn’t do it on camera.

Trailer eighteen, a double-wide trailer with flowered curtains and rose bushes growing in a small flower bed beside the porch. It almost looked out of place among the other trailers in Willow Lane. Stefan consulted the list that Pete Larson gave them this morning of resident names.

“Helen Richardson, lives alone. Pete said she gets lots of guests.”

“You know what she does,” Roan said, grinning. She was in a better mood since breakfast.

Stefan got the nod from Craig and walked up the three steps to the porch. He rang the doorbell and heard it ding dong inside. A dog barked somewhere inside, its voice deep and raspy. There were footsteps and then a woman opened the door, leaning out to look at him. She was something. Long legs that ended in a small blue jeans miniskirt, and a fuzzy white tube top that showed off her bare midriff. She wore way too much blue eye-shadow and her hair rose up in sculpted waves. Stefan’s eyes stung from the cloying scent she wore. Big red lips parted into a man-eating smile.

“Hey handsome, what’re you doing here?” She looked at Craig and Roan standing at the bottom of the porch with her equipment. “Hey! Are you like from publisher’s clearinghouse or something? Did I win a ton of money or something?”

“Helen Richardson?” Stefan asked.

She looked him up and down then reached out and ran one hideously purple fingernail down his tie. He resisted the urge to swat her hand away. “That’s me, honey. So what’s the story?”

“I’m Stefan Roland, the filmmaker? Farm of the Dead Things?”

Helen laughed and clapped her hands together. “So you are! Shit, I’ve seen that movie! That was really good. I’ve watched them all! I didn’t know you were still making movies!”

Stefan tried not to wince. “I’m here because of reports of strange things happening here in Willow Lane. Have you noticed anything odd happening? Things moving on their own? Doors or cupboards opening and closing? Anything like that?”

“Honey, are you going to put me in a movie?”

“It’s possible,” Stefan said, although at the moment that was the last thing he wanted to do.

Helen pressed closer to him and it was a struggle not to hold his breath. “Heck, if you’re going to put me in one of your movies then we’d better get a lot better acquainted. Why don’t you all come inside and I’ll tell you all about it.”

“Really? So you have seen things?”

Helen winked at him then tugged on his tie. “Honey, I’ve seen everything. You can’t surprise me, and heck yeah, I’ve seen some weird shit around here.” She covered her mouth. “Oops. Can you say shit in your movie?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Stefan said. “We’ll take care of all of that sort of thing.”

She laughed. “I’ll bet you will. Probably put in a beep or something, am I right?”

“It’s possible.”

“Come on.” Helen held the door open. “Inside with you.”

Stefan walked into the trailer. Craig and Roan followed him up the steps and inside. They came into a linoleum section between a living room on the left and a dining room on the right off the kitchen. An arched entry on one side of the living room must lead on down to the bedrooms and a bathroom. Beneath the over-powering scent of Helen’s perfume he smelled something else that stunk, a hint of rot or decay. The whole place was a disaster area. Clothes were scattered around the room, draped over furniture and piles of newspapers. Everywhere he looked there were more newspapers in stacks. Half of the dining room table was covered with more papers, and just trashed all piled up on the table. From where he stood he could see dirty dishes in stacks on the counter, and piled high in the sink. This was what he had expected when he first went into Pete’s place, but that was spotless compared to this trailer. And it had looked so nice on the outside.

Helen headed back to the kitchen, her red pumps clicking against the floor.

“Can I get you anything?” She called over her shoulder. “I’ve got beer or wine, if you want.”

“No thanks,” Stefan said. “We only have a few quick questions.”

“I’ll get you a beer.”

Roan handed the equipment over to Stefan. He took it as her hand went to her mouth. Her eyes watered. “Sorry, got to go. I’ll, uh, check the equipment in the van.”

She bolted before Helen came back. As the door banged shut behind her Stefan heard retching noises outside. He slung the strap over his shoulder as Helen walked back holding a couple beers in her hands.

“Did someone leave? Or was that just the door banging on its own again?” She held out a beer to Stefan.

“Thanks.” He took it, and set it immediately down in a tiny clear patch on the coffee table. A fly buzzed up away. “She needed to check on our gear.”

Helen shrugged and smiled at him. She raised her beer can and took a drink without ever taking her eyes off his. “So you came all this way about some little noises out here?”

“We thought we’d check it out. Do you think the place is haunted?”

She laughed. “Honey, what place isn’t haunted? Plus we got that big ‘ole cemetery out back. Seems to me there’s bound to be a few things going bump in the night.” She grinned. “If you know what I mean.”

That wasn’t a thought he even wanted in his brain. “What can you tell us about the —”

The dog started barking again, its voice scratchy and harsh, somewhere back in one of the other rooms. Stefan heard nails scratching and then the clear sound of a door opening. Claws rattled on the hard floor of the hall and the dog ran out right at him. Craig moved smoothly out of the way, still filming the whole thing.

The dog skidded to stop a few feet away and lowered its head. Stefan’s gut tightened up at the sight of the dog. Some sort of mutt, maybe a Rottweiler mix. It was mostly black with brown on the paws and muzzle, but its fur looked greasy and unkempt. It barred yellowed teeth at him. Worse of all was the look in its flat eyes, almost like it had cataracts and couldn’t quite see him. A deep growl rumbled out of its throat.

Helen came to his rescue, stepping in front of it. She stamped a foot down and pointed. “Get back there! Get! How dare you fucking come out here and growl at my guests! Go on! Get!”

The dog’s heavy head turned her direction and its lips raised higher. The dog’s tongue vibrated in front of its teeth.

Helen cocked her head to the side and stared back at the dog. Stefan couldn’t believe it. He felt frozen, expecting the monster to leap on her any second. And what was he going to do?

The dog staggered, its growl cut off. A whimper crawled out of its throat. Just like that the tail dropped and it turned quickly around, feet slipping on the floor, and ran back into the hallway. Helen looked over at Stefan and smiled.

“Just a sec, honey. I’ll lock him back up. I swear sometimes I think he stands up and turns the knob himself. That door never wants to stay shut!”

Her heels tapped on the floor as she went back to the other room.

“Stay the fuck in there!” She yelled.

Stefan heard a door slam. Craig looked at him, eyebrow raised. The stink in the place was giving him a headache. He started thinking of an excuse to leave when Helen came back, taking a swig from her beer.

“Okay, sorry about that. I think Chuckles is upset today.”

“Do you need to take him to a vet or something? We could come back another time.”

Helen waved her hand. “No, hon. Don’t worry about that dog. He hasn’t been himself lately, that’s all. It’ll pass.”

Not himself? Stefan decided to try again. “Let’s start at the beginning. We’re talking to folks in the park about strange things that some people have noticed. How about you? Anything happen here?”

“Honey, I specialize in strange. Just ask my daughter!” Helen laughed. “I need a cigarette. Why don’t we go in the dining room? We can have a seat and I’ll tell you what’s going on.”

The idea of sitting around that filthy table disgusted him but Stefan forced a smile onto his face. It couldn’t get any worse than it already was. Actually, if she started smoking the cigarette smoke might help cover up some of the other stink. He could already feel the headache coming on.

“Okay.” Stefan motioned to Craig to follow. “Let’s go sit down.”

Helen didn’t move until he got gloss and then she pressed herself up against him, intertwining her arm around his. She leaned close. “You’re even better looking in person.”

He smelled the beer on her breath, even through her perfume. He was totally going to shower after this interview. No way he was going through the rest of the day smelling like this woman. In the dining room he pulled out the chair at the less cluttered end of the table for her.

“Such a gentleman,” she said and laughed. She picked up a pack of cigarettes and tapped one out. She extended it to him. “Want one?”

He raised a hand. “No thanks.”

Helen shrugged and pulled one out. She slid it slowly between her red lips and used a lighter on the table to light up.

Craig moved around by the kitchen counter to get them both in the shot. Helen blew out a cloud of smoke at Stefan. He struggled not to cough. She pointed the cigarette at Craig. “Do we have to have that camera on? I thought maybe you and I could have a private chat, off the record, you know?”

That was interesting. Stefan looked at Craig. They’d worked together long enough that Craig understood what he wanted when he said, “No problem. Why don’t you put that down and take a break?”

“Sure, boss,” Craig said. He put the camera on the counter, shoving some glasses out of the way.

The shot wouldn’t be quite as good, but it’d work.

Stefan leaned forward. “Okay, Helen, whenever you’re ready?”

“That’s off?”

“Yes,” Stefan lied.

Craig pointed his thumb at the door. “I’m going to go check on Roan, make sure she’s okay.”

“Sure,” Roland said, keeping his eyes Helen.

Her smiled widened, a predatory, chilling grin. He smiled back. Craig left quickly. When the door banged shut the dog started barking again back in the bedroom.

“We’re alone now,” Helen said. “I like that. It gives us a chance to get better acquainted.”

“How about we start with what’s going on? I get the feeling that you’ve been avoiding the question, you know what’s happening don’t you?”

Helen took a long drag from her cigarette and glanced into the kitchen. She looked back at him. “Sure I know. I know all about it. Seems to me we can help each other out.”

“How’s that?”

“You’ve got connections. Seems to me that if you make a movie about me, I should get something out of it. That’s only fair isn’t it?”

Stefan interlaced his fingers. “Is this movie about you? Are you saying that you’re behind what’s been happening here?”

A fly landed on the table near his elbow, a big fat black fly. It jerked and toppled over. The legs twitched one and stopped. Helen lowered her cigarette and pressed the ash and glowing tip into the fly’s fat body. Stefan smelled a sharp stink and a thin column of smoke rose into the air. She lifted her cigarette off the charred body and took another drag.

“I don’t mind flies,” she said, smoke pouring from her mouth. “A lot of people don’t like them, but they’re just doing their thing, you know?”

The fly twitched. Its wings buzzed against the table. Stefan jerked away in surprise. After a couple attempts the fly righted itself and took off buzzing into the air. It circled his head. He swatted at it and missed.

More flies rose up from the dishes in the sink and took to the air.

Stefan looked at Helen watching him coolly. “You’re doing that? You brought that fly back to life?”

“That’s right honey, I can wake dead things. Sometimes it happens all on its own. It’s like I’m full of static electricity or something and they just start doing their thing again like someone put new batteries in them.”

He heard a glass move in the kitchen, sliding across the counter, but when he looked he didn’t see which of the dirty glasses had moved. “Was that you too?”

“Nope.”

He let that go for the moment, but he was glad that Craig and Roan could watch what was happening from the van. “So what are you going to do with this ability? Aren’t you afraid of the Inquisition?”

Helen shook her head. “That’s where you come in, honey. I’m gonna raise me a whole big flock of dead things. More than anyone, more than that big woman you filmed. And I’m not gonna be stupid about it either. I’ll raise ‘em up and people are going to have to start paying attention to me. The Inquisition won’t do nothing.”

“They’re pretty effective at what they do. I don’t know if you’d want them showing up.” Stefan didn’t dare look at the camera but he hoped that Craig and Roan were paying attention. “At least not until we have everything ready.”

Helen’s smile broadened. “See, that’s what I’m talking about!”

More dishes clinked together in the kitchen. The dog barked back in the bedroom. The air felt charged and the flies flew in faster circles around the table.

Helen leaned forward. “Honey, we’re going to make a fortune together! Just wait and see. Once I get started they aren’t ever gonna stop me. You can put me on TV, can’t you? Get me on the news?”

“Yes.”

A dish fell off the counter and shattered on the floor. Stefan tried not to looked startled. He forced a chuckle. “But maybe we’d better dial back until we’re ready?”

Helen took another long drag on her cigarette and blew out the smoke. “What’s wrong? You’re scared?”

“I’m just wondering what’s going on?”

“Nothing but some itty bitty little ghost in a tizzy.” Helen glared at the kitchen. She caught him looking too and laughed. “You’re not gonna see him. Not unless you’ve got the gift too.”

“I don’t see anyone.”

She waved the cigarette, tracing smoke circles in the air. “There you go. That’s why you need me. See, what I figure is we stir things up around here. I know some people that have been a pain in my ass, I wouldn’t mind scaring them in the process, and then we bargain with the Inquisition.”

“Bargain about what?”

“Whatever I want! It’s about time that people like me got the respect we deserve. Instead we’ve got the Inquisition running around burning out people’s brains! It isn’t right.”

He wasn’t going to argue the relative merits of the Inquisition. As far as he was concerned, since it shed its religious affiliation a long time ago to become a secular, international police force designed to protect people from those with paranormal abilities, he didn’t have a problem with it.

She wouldn’t want to hear that. “I don’t think they’ll listen me.”

“What choice do they have? If we’ve got hostages they won’t have any option.”

“Hostages? Helen, maybe you should rethink that plan.”

She waved her hand. “I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry about it. You put us on TV and they aren’t going to do anything that might get the poor people of Willow Lane killed. That’s all you have to do. Then we’ll be the ones in control.”

Stefan decided to try again to convince her to cooperate before this thing blew up. “Helen, don’t you think that taking hostages and making demands just reinforces the Inquisitions’ mandate? People aren’t going to cheer for you if I put it on TV, they’re going to be cheering for the inquisitors to put a bullet in your brain!”

Helen took a long drag on the cigarette. Her hand shook. She just sat there looking at him. The combined odors from her kitchen, her perfume and the cigarette smoke was making his head pound. Back in the bedroom the dog started barking again. Helen turned her head and looked at something he couldn’t see, then her eyes slid back and fixed on him. It was the same look he’d seen in the dog.

“You lied to me.” Her words came out flat and cold.

Stefan stood up fast enough that the chair tumbled back with a crash to the floor. The dog’s barking took on a new level of ferocity. Then he heard it chewing on the wood of the door. The camera moved and Stefan lunged without thinking. He grabbed it and hung on. It felt very cold to the touch. Some unseen force pulled it but he clung to it and when whatever had a grip on it let go he stumbled back. He tried to keep it turned toward Helen. Flies buzzed around his head but he ignored them.

She started panting.

Stefan hoisted the camera up, but backed up. He tried to distract her. “What are you talking about?”

Helen grinned and at him, her face taking on a skull-like appearance. With her eyes open wide she lowered the cigarette to the pale underside of her arm and pressed it to her skin.

She screamed at him. Stefan nearly jumped backward but held his ground. The smell of her singed flesh mingled with the rest of the odors in the place. She clawed at her own arms, her purple nails leaving long welts of bloodied flesh as she panted and screamed. There was a loud thud in the bed room, and the crack of wood breaking.

Stefan backed quickly to the front door. Helen screamed over and over in quick succession, clawing at her neck, and ripping at her hair. There was another thud from the bedroom and a louder crack of wood followed by the sound of teeth ripping and cracking the wood further. He turned the camera down the hall and saw the dog’s head burst through the door. It looked at him with maddened eyes and struggled to pull itself free.

He moved faster, getting the hell out of there, but unwilling to stop filming. Helen reached down and clawed at her inner thighs, screaming all the while, but her cries were changing, turning to deep moans.

Stefan grabbed the door and yanked it open. He almost tripped stepping out and the strap of the recording equipment slid down his arm. He caught it and hurried down the steps. His heart pounded so hard in his chest that he worried about a heart attack. Wouldn’t that be perfect? Dying right outside of the witches’ trailer?

A long yowl of protest on his right made him jump. It came from a trailer beside Helen’s where a decaying leg pushed through a hole in the siding around the base of the trailer. Claws extended from the bony paw.

She was waking dead things. The air seemed thick with flying specks. Bugs, he realized. All of the dead flies, bees, moths, mosquitoes, gnats and nits were up and moving again. The air was filled with their buzzing as they flew around him. He ran through the park to their van outside Mrs. Kunkle’s’ trailer. Craig and Roan jumped out as he got close and ran out to meet him.

“Holy shit!” Roan reached him first and took the recording equipment. “That was intense! You’ve got a way of pissing people off, you know that?”

Craig accepted the camera back. “Thanks for grabbing it.”

Stefan tried to catch his breath and looked back the way he’d come. Beside all of the bugs flying around the place he saw bigger things too. Dead birds had joined the party. The whole mass of them swirled around the trailer park in a sort of funnel that reached into the sky.

“I think she’s a bit upset. Did you call the Inquisition?”

“Hell yes,” Craig said. “She’s as crazy as they come.”

Stefan heard a motor revving and a small four-door Volvo sped into the parking lot. It blasted past their van and went on around the loop away from Helen’s trailer.

“They’re in a hurry,” Craig said. “I wonder why?”

Roan swatted at bugs flying around her face. “Can we take this inside? I don’t like bugs, and I really don’t like dead bugs still moving around.”

“Good idea,” Stefan said.

They all piled into the van. Stefan got into the driver’s seat so he could keep an eye on what was happening outside. Craig went around and got into the passenger’s side with the camera while Roan got in the back and shut the door. A few bugs managed to get inside. Roan pulled out a fly swatter.

“I’ll get ‘em,” she said grimly.

“I already got the gear out of the trailer,” Craig said. “We’re good to go if we need to get out of here.”

Thwack! Stefan glanced in the back. Roan grinned. “Got one.”

A fly buzzed past Stefan and landed on the dash. It sat there cleaning its head for a second until Roan lunged forward between the seats and smacked it with the fly swatter. Another one gone. She flicked it off to the floor.

“Don’t worry, I’ll clean them up later.”

“We need to warn these people,” Stefan said. “If she wakes the cemetery this place is going to turn into ground zero with zombies.”

“It sounds like that’s her plan,” Craig said.

“So we’d better move.” Stefan dug the keys out of his pocket. “Stay alert. If you see anything zombies, shoot them.”

“Too bad we don’t have guns,” Roan said in the back.

“Funny.” He looked in the back. “You still got that loud speaker back there? Can you give the warnings?”

Roan grabbed a box of equipment and started pulling out components. “Sure. Go, I’ll have it patched in a second.”

Stefan started the van and pulled out, moving slowly forward to the next trailer. “Roan?”

“I’m good, keep going.” He heard a noise and glanced back and saw her wedging the loud speaker in the side window. She grabbed a mic and thumbed it on. “Evacuate. Attention, please evacuate the trailer park.”

Stefan kept the speed down under ten miles per hour while Roan repeated her warning. He saw people coming out of their trailers. Then he saw something that chilled him to the core. Past the trailers, through a broken and falling down fence, a crowd of people staggered toward the trailer park. Even from here he could see that they weren’t really people but zombies, dead things woken by Helen. Even after all these years he recognized the dead and they were coming. Now the people coming out of the trailers saw them too. A muscled guy with tattoos and a shaved head jumped on a Harley and gunned it out into the road right in front of the van, swerved and kept going.

“Evacuate now! The dead are coming. Attention, evacuate the trailer park!”

More cars pulled out ahead of them. A woman in a blue bathrobe came out of her trailer rubbing her eyes and holding a coffee cup. She squinted at the van.

“Yes you!” Roan shouted. “Look the fuck behind you! Get out now!”

The woman turned around in time to see several zombies crash through the fence not ten feet from her trailer. The coffee cup tumbled from her fingers and shattered on the porch. Then she darted back inside, slamming the door behind her. Stefan braked.

“What are you doing?” Roan asked.

Craig had the camera out the passenger window, filming the dead things converging on the trailer. Stefan heard their moans again and felt ill. More zombies followed the first three and soon there were at least seven dead things dressed in their funeral finery pounding on the side of the trailer. A window in the side of the trailer slid open and a shotgun barrel poked out.

Blam! The head of one of the zombies exploded in a spray of gore. The others continued pounding on the wall. The gun shifted to the side and with another loud crack a second zombie toppled to the ground.

“Yeah! You go girl!” Roan shouted in the loud speaker.

Several pairs of dead eyes turned to look at the van. Roan clicked off the loud speaker. “Uh, boss, maybe we’d better move.”

She got back on the loud speaker. “Evacuate! The dead are coming! Evacuate the trailer park!”

Blam! A third zombie fell.

Stefan gave the van gas and picked up speed around the driveway. Around the next corner was Helen’s trailer and he tensed up approaching it. Other cars were moving now. People were running away from the cemetery end of the trailer park. He saw Helen’s trailer and she was actually standing right there on the porch with her arms spread and her head thrown back. She’d ripped off her top and stood bare-chested, with more welts crisscrossing her front. Her tits sagged without support but she had what looked like teeth marks on both. Self-inflicted? Stefan gave the van more gas and it picked up speed.

The idea of ramming her with it flitted through his mind. No more witch, no more dead things walking around.

He rejected the idea. Let the Inquisition deal with her. They’d do what they could for the people in the park. Zombies gathered near Helen’s trailer, looking up at her with dead gazes. The whole time Craig filmed the scene.

Stefan drove the rest of the way around Willow Lane and joined the stream of cars, pedestrians and cyclists getting the hell out of the park. It looked like most of the residents had opted to flee. He hit the street and drove north a half-mile before pulling over when he saw sirens and lights approaching.

“We’ve got to go back and get this on film,” he said. “Or we don’t have an ending.”

Craig grinned. “Just like old times.”

“You’re both crazy.” Roan grinned. “Count me in.”

Police cars blasted past them, heading to the trailer park. And right behind the police came several black SUVs with the red pin stripe that identified them as Inquisition vehicles. Stefan got out and hurried around the van to the sidewalk. The others joined him.

His mouth felt dry as he started back. Inside he felt sick, like it was all his fault. Was it? Had he goaded her into doing this? He pushed the thought away. Helen was crazy. Whether her ability made her that way, or she became crazy after it he didn’t know. Sooner or later she would have lost it, if not today than some other time.

Down the road was chaos, but the police and the Inquisitors were already getting the situation under control. Stefan waved to the others and picked up his pace. They made it back as the police started putting up barricades. Zombies staggered out of the trailer park into the street.

One of the zombies, who looked like a forty-something guy in a suit, stepped right out in front of an old green Volkswagen Beetle pulling over to the side of the road in between the police vehicles. The driver obviously didn’t see the zombie in time and hit it. The dead thing tumbled down to the road.

The passenger side opened and a young man got out. He looked back at the police cars and then down at the fallen zombie. Cries rang out from the trailer park evacuees watching but he didn’t listen.

Stefan willed the man to stop. He could see the confusion on the guy’s face. They’re driving along and suddenly there’s all these people and police and they’ve hit someone. He tried to do the right thing and ran over to the fallen zombie.

It felt like time stopped. People were crying out, no! Sirens still rang out. Over by the barricades Stefan saw men in deep red suits with black ties, inquisitors, moving past the barricades with weapons in their hands.

No one could reach the guy in time.

The passenger bent down over the zombie, not realizing that the zombie was already dead.

The zombie grabbed the passenger and yanked him down, going for his throat. Stefan was too far away, there was nothing he can do to help. He couldn’t hear the sounds but in his head he imagined the meaty tear as the zombie tore skin and flesh, chewing and eating its way into the guy’s throat in a spray of hot blood.

A crowd of zombies shuffled out of the trailer park. Stefan heard screams. There was movement in the Beetle as the driver leaned across the car and yanked the passenger door closed.

Stefan looked at Craig and Roan. Their faces were set as they recorded the scene. Right now there wasn’t anything he could do. Later there’d be things for him to say, interviews to record. For the moment he couldn’t do anything except watch.

The inquisitors moved forward, eight of them, shooting zombies in the head with deadly accuracy.

5

Stefan stood in front of the barricades facing the camera when they brought out Helen. The inquisitors had her in cuffs, wrapped in a blanket. A bloody bandage was wrapped around her leg.

“They’re bringing her out now, Helen Richardson, the witch of Willow Lane. It appears she’s been injured, we’re told that she was shot attempting to flee the scene. According to the laws regarding individuals with paranormal abilities the Inquisition will evaluate her and determine whether or not her abilities can be safely removed. Until such a time she will remain in their custody.”

Stefan turned and watched as they bundled her into the back of one of their vehicles. No ambulance, no trial. Most likely they’d burn out the part of her brain responsible and, if it was determined that she was no longer a threat, she’d end up released but likely with significant brain damage. He couldn’t really say that he felt bad about that either.

He noticed the others looking at him. “That’s it. I’m done. This is my last one. I’m retiring.”

Craig nodded. Roan came over and slipped an arm around his waist and gave him a squeeze. Stefan felt better, lighter somehow. Maybe now he could rest.

9,272 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 21st weekly short story release and the fourth in the Filming Dead Things series. I’d originally published these as written by my pen name Tennessee Hicks along with the rest of the Dead Things series. Stefan Roland returns to the series in Killing Dead Things.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Attack of the Sand Gnomes, a fantasy set in a different world.