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Fun Sized

James Savini was not happy. He held the miniature Tootsie Roll in his left hand, his thumb and index finger delicately fixed around the wrapper. His right hand propped up his .38 Special. He twisted and turned the tip of the barrel, pressing it into Sam Overton’s forehead. It would leave a mark. How much of a mark was up to Overton.

“What the fuck,” Jim said, “Is this?” He held the Tootsie Roll cautiously, as if it were a piece of packaged shit. Overton closed his eyes. Warm liquid ran down his leg and onto his flip-flops. The smell of piss followed.

“Tha-Tha,” Mr. Overton stuttered, “That’s a Too-T-oo–Tootsie Roll.”

“I know what the fuck it is, Sam,” Jim growled, “What was it doing in my kid’s pillow case? Where’s the good shit? The king-sized stuff that you always pass out? Little Jimmy’s been cryin’ for an hour.”

“I r-r-r, r-r-rannn out,” Overton sobbed.

Jim cocked the hammer back and pushed the barrel even harder, putting Overton fully into his foyer. Jim dropped the candy, reached behind himself and pulled Overton’s front door shut.

“My bullshit reservoir floweth over, Sam.”

“I-I-I-.”

“Little Jimmy saw kids coming out of your place with the good stuff. What gives? You think my kid is a fattie? A big old porker? Think he needs to stick to wimpy shit?” Jim pulled back the gun and gave Overton’s gut a nice hard kiss. With his knee. Overton, a short, fat, shape-less man, made an oomph sound, curled up, and put his hands up to hide his face. Jim opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a knock on the door. He gave Overton another kiss. Right in the kidney. With this shoe.

“Not a word, ya hear?”

Jim opened the door. There were two girls, both dressed like Disney princesses. Probably about 9 or 10, he figured. They held out two pillowcases and pleaded.

“Trick or Treat!”

Jim scanned the porch and found an orange bowl, filled to the top with the rabbit turds that his boy had brought home. He snatched it, dumped half the bowl in each sack, and told the girls to fuck off. As one of them started to cry, Jim slammed the door and fumbled for the porch light, flicking it downward. There would be no more treats tonight. Overton looked up and squealed.

“D-D-Don’t H-H-Hurt me, Mr. Savini.”

“Oh, I’m not gonna hurt ya. You’re gonna hurt ya.” Jim reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic tube.

“This here,” Jim said, “is for giving especially large pills to big and nasty dogs.” He paused and picked up the Tootsie Roll from the floor. “You, Mr. Overton, are going to stick this right up your ass.”

Overton’s hands trembled. Still curled up, he reached for the plastic tube and the Tootsie Roll. Snot dribbled down his lips and hung off of his chin. He wiped it with his forearm, fumbled to hold onto the items, and dropped them. Jim frowned.

“My well of patience runneth empty, Sam.” Jim raised up a foot and brought it down on Sam’s toes. Sam howled, and his eyes bulged.

“S-S-S- Sorry, J-J-J–”

“Mr. Savini,” Jim corrected.

“Sorry. Mr. Savini.”

“Apology accepted. Right after you stick that up your ass.”

Overton reached for the items and, trembling worse than before, shifted the Tootsie Roll into the launch position. He pulled down his athletic shorts, revealing an ass that was half acne and half Albino. Overton closed his eyes and sunk the tube in the sweet spot.

“Deeper, Sam.”

Overton scrunched his face and gave the tube a final shove. His face turned red. He bit his lip and let his head hang.

“That a boy, Sam,” Jim said, patting Overton on the head.

Jim walked into Overton’s living room. In front of him stood the largest freshwater fish tank Jim had ever seen. It seemed to cover the whole wall. Fish swam in slow, lazy circles, in and out of fake plants and a plastic pirate ship. They weren’t going anywhere either. Jim pointed at one, which seemed to glisten more than the others, and smiled.

“Sam Overton. You never told me you had a Platinum Arowana. That’s a hell of a fish. And I know my fish. That’s a rare color, Sam. A fish like that will run a man at least $400,000. Where’d you get the cash for a specimen like that? You’re comfy, Sam, but you ain’t that comfy.”

Sam eyed Jim and said nothing. Talking would only make it worse.

“I suppose you could say that I’m a man who’s been… inconvenienced. But I know how to fix this.”

Jim snatched a lamp from a nearby side table, turned it upside down, and brought the base squarely into the fish tank. The sound of the glass breaking was almost muffled by the whooshing of the water. Dozens of fish flopped this way and that, and then stopped. Their bellies moved up and down.

“That’s better,” Jim said, side stepping an expanding puddle of water. He opened a nearby closet and pulled out a broom and a dustpan. “When you get that thing out of your ass, go scoop up that fish. Have it stuffed.”

Overton sniffled.

“And Sam?” Jim whispered, stooping down to Overton’s head. “You still owe us for that stash of blow that you lost. The boss says you’ve got a week. I think that’s fair. Oh! And one more thing.”

“Y-Y-Y—ess? Mr. Savini?”

“I want a box of Snicker’s bars with your payment. The good stuff. None of that fun-sized shit.”

Sundown at the Toxic Shock Syndrome

So, this was how it would all go down? Eric the Red thought with disdain. An army of crazed, soulless flesh starved things that used to be people, battering down his fortified office door, tearing him to shreds, leaving just enough of his chewed carcass to become one of them—whatever they were. He had always expected to die young and violently, but not like this, and certainly not by his own hand. Eric appreciated the bitter Irony. He had been the father of this atrocity. That he should fall victim to it would have been hysterical, if it weren’t him. Now, here he sat at his desk in his windowless basement office. All he had was a syringe of the awful mixture he had set loose on the world, and a choice.

+++++Eric had only lasted this long because of the door. He had it installed in anticipation of needing to protect himself from one of the many drug dealers with whom he had entered into an uneasy partnership over the years. Eric sold their drugs for them in his club. As skillful and efficient as he was at moving narcotics to the addled metal heads who frequented the place, Eric was even better at skimming profit far above his agreed upon percentage. His erstwhile partners were getting wise to the scam. The grumblings had begun. With that in mind, Eric had the four-ply titanium fire-door put in. It was more vault than anything else. He was assured by the contractor the door would withstand all manner of explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, and any hand-held missiles currently available on the black market. But Eric knew it would be just a matter of time before the horde of berserkers presently outside would finally accomplish what explosives and weaponry could not.

+++++Eric Funschman had been called Eric the Red since he was ten-years-old. His father, Irwin, a criminal with his dirty fingers in all manner of quasi-legitimate small businesses, gave Eric the name. It started to take hold before anyone knew the reason for the appellation.

+++++“Why Eric the Red? It’s not like you guys have Viking blood or anything,” Tovar Beral, Irwin’s retired Mossad agent/bodyguard observed. “You’re Bronx Jews, not a Nordic raiding party. Scary enough if you ask me, I certainly wouldn’t cross you. But, why not something snappy in Hebrew or Yiddish?”

+++++“I call him Eric the Red because he’s always in a foul mood. He is the most unpleasant boy I ever encountered. More is the pity, he’s mine,” Irwin said.

+++++“I still don’t get the red part.”

+++++“Because he’s always on the rag.”

+++++“Oh…that makes sense.”

+++++In fact, Eric was not always on the rag. He had an inability to express himself to others. As such, Eric was awkward around people almost to the point of paralysis. He wanted desperately to interact pleasantly with others. But, his facial expressions and deadpan demeanor would not allow him to communicate his better intentions. Eric had done a lot of work over the years to combat his forbidding appearance, but all his attempts to counter it only exacerbated the problem, and put him further out on the island where he had no desire to be.

+++++A year after his mother passed away, when Eric was ten-years-old, his father brought him to a psychiatrist. He was hoping for a diagnosis that would allow him to have his son declared incompetent, and commit him to an institution—to be rid of him. The psychiatrist, referred by an associate, didn’t understand this was supposed to be a formality. The doctor undertook a pain-staking and rigorous examination. His diagnosis was Asperger’s Syndrome. When Irwin explained the setup as he understood it, Doctor Amalfitano scoffed at him.

+++++“My diagnosis was based on the medical evidence and symptoms your son evinces. I’m not fudging my findings just so you can dump him in a mental hospital for the rest of his life.”

+++++“But Tony Scaggs told me you would do the right thing,” Irwin argued.

+++++“And I just did it. Tony Scaggs is my uncle. I see people he refers to me as a favor. But he understands I will not tailor my diagnoses. Nor will I prescribe drugs which aren’t medically needed. Many of Tony’s associates come in here with the wrong idea. They get sent away just like you. I can help you with your son. But I’m not taking him off your hands for you.”

+++++“What the fuck is wrong with him then?” Irwin demanded.

+++++“He has a high functioning form of autism. His social awkwardness and inability to modulate his voice to coincide with his facial expressions prevent him from communicating with others very well,” the doctor explained.

+++++“So, he’s a retard?”

+++++“No, quite the opposite. He’s actually brilliant, but until he learns to function socially, he’ll never be able to utilize it.”

+++++“What do we do about it?”

+++++The doctor went on to describe a rigorous plan of counseling, occupational and physical therapy and drugs to combat the anxiety brought on by the awkwardness. Irwin thought it would have been easier to just burn the doctor’s office to the ground, destroying his precious medical records, and finding another shrink willing to play ball, but he was prevented from doing so. Irwin Funschman was the second scariest and deadly gangster in Youngstown Ohio. Tony Scaggs Amalfitano had him beat by a mile. There was no way Irwin was going to start a war with Tony by messing with his nephew. He could sense the little prick doctor knew it too.

+++++The treatment prescribed helped Eric to be able to communicate with others and to begin to use his outsized intellect. His father didn’t like him any better, but as he grew, Irwin started to find uses for the boy. While he was able to communicate with others, he made no progress with respect to putting people at ease. If anything, his therapy and training further alienated them.

+++++To combat Eric’s clumsiness when the training began, he started learning mixed martial arts, and lifting weights. Because autism sufferers tend to fixate on rituals and routines, the training took on an almost religious zeal. The fact he was big already made it all look frightening. He countered his impulse not to make eye contact with others by simply forcing himself to do it. This force of will, coupled with his expressionless mask of a face, and his deadpan demeanor made eye contact look and feel like a glare. He never figured out what to do with his hands when he spoke. So, he would push his chest out and throw his shoulders back. He would leave his hands at his sides, but to keep them there he clenched them into giant balled fists. It appeared to everyone he was one cross word away from killing them. With his massive chest, and shoulders like bowling balls, his aspect was terrifying.

+++++Eric’s low raspy voice, delivered from deep within him didn’t help matters at all. It made everything sound like a demand, rather than the polite request he intended. The monotone words, without inflection or emphasis, on their best day sounded like sarcasm. On every other day, they sounded like the portent of doom.

+++++Given these unintended consequences, it wasn’t long before Irwin dropped to number three on Youngstown’s scary gangster list. Tony Scaggs was still nominally recognized as number one, but that was more out of respect and tradition than reality. No one was betting on Tony if Eric ever decided to challenge him.

+++++His father chose Eric to run his most lucrative but volatile business venture, an erstwhile dance hall and saloon. In short order, Eric informed his father he was taking the club. Irwin was no longer in a position to argue. The Toxic Shock Syndrome was a rave hall and exotic dancing emporium fronting an enormous narcotics distribution operation, which is a polite way of saying it was the amoral epicenter of Ohio. Tucked all the way out on the McGuffey Road, out near the county line, the place was the perfect cover for all manner of criminal behavior. And if you had a sin you’d like to commit, or a form of self-abasement you hadn’t yet tried, The Toxic Shock Syndrome would afford you ample opportunity. The strippers were drug addicted prostitutes. They also sold the drugs for Eric. The transactions all looked legal. Buyers would appear to be paying for lap-dances. They would get a lap-dance, along with their purchase of narcotics being slipped into their pockets.

+++++It seemed like a flawless operation, and it was for a while, but Eric was his father’s son. He had been taught to skim everything since he was young. So, he skimmed. Every parcel of narcotics coming into the club to be sold, would be automatically cut with a third of its weight in lactose powder. Eric did all the cutting and re-bagging. The autistic are creatures of habit.

+++++Once Eric started cutting the drugs, it wasn’t long before it was what he had to do. To keep him functional and in his comfort zone, no matter what else happened, Eric cut the drugs. It was this attention to detail and habit that would ultimately slide the world out of its comfort zone and into a world-wide pandemic.

+++++When the Professor showed up, Eric’s operation was already in full swing. He was making more money than he could ever spend, but he was never averse to making more. Counting money was a comfort to him. So, when the tall, thin, stooped and creepy man made his business proposition, Eric was all ears. The vibe of impending tragedy which was coursing through Eric’s body at that moment was not communicated in his face or body language. No one else knew he was suddenly afraid. Eric suppressed his initial revulsion to the Professor, and listened to his deal.

+++++The Professor really was a professor. He had taught bio-chemistry at Ohio State University for thirty years. He became bored after he retired and started messing with the kind of chemistry the University never would have permitted. He would become known in the organized crime world as a synthetic drug manufacturer. His motivations were much darker than narcotics, though. What he was creating wasn’t a drug at all. It was a nerve agent. He called his creation Cornucopia, and insisted it be marketed as such. What the chemical compound did when injected was to simulate the initial high of a heroin shot, coupled with the adrenaline rush of a methamphetamine hit, encased in the general warm encompassing feeling of euphoria and well-being one gets from that first line of cocaine. Eric immediately recognized the limitless earning potential of this product. A drug with those properties sold itself. His only question was, would its allure guarantee repeat sales?

+++++“Is it addictive?” Eric asked.

+++++“Most certainly….and instantly. One shot of Cornucopia ensures the user will need another shot every single day,” the Professor assured him.

+++++“How do we sell it?”

+++++“Like heroin, it’s a powder. We sell it in gem paper in exact doses. The user cooks it with one milliliter of distilled water. There are no impurities, so we have removed the tedious need to strain it through cotton, like they do with their dirty brown tar heroin. They just load the syringe from their spoons and they are as they say, good to go.”

+++++With the built-in demand to such a product, Eric knew it wouldn’t be long before every junkie west of the Appalachians and east of the Rockies would be banging at his door just to get some. And they would be back for more every day thereafter.

+++++“I’m in,” Eric said.

+++++“Yes, of course you are. But before I agree to sell to you, understand this compound cannot be cut or adulterated in any way. The dosage is precise. Any attempt to dilute it will have catastrophic results. Do you understand?”

+++++“Yeah, sure,” Eric intoned, already factoring his inflated profit by one third.

+++++The Professor sensed as much, and was secretly delighted. He had engineered this chemical as a weapon. He was going to sell it to the military, but declined to do so because he knew they wouldn’t have the courage to use it. This was his baby. He wanted it introduced to the world. So, he went back into his lab and engineered the compound with a blocking enzyme to thwart the full, and secretly intended effect. He had heard rumors about Eric’s practice of stepping on his drugs. That’s why the professor sought him out as his distributor. He was counting on it.

+++++The professor had engineered the enzyme to be blunted when simple sugar molecules adhered to it. Eric’s preferred cutting agent for powders was lactose—pure milk sugar. Once the sugar removed the blocking enzyme, Cornucopia did what it was originally intended to. It attacked the brain, which instantly signaled the pituitary gland to put every other gland in the body into overdrive. In an instant, the user felt the effects of enormous quantities of testosterone, adrenaline, growth hormone and insulin coursing through their bloodstreams, with all of the inherent aggression and nervous energy. At the same time, the outer half of the adrenal cortex started pumping enormous quantities of cortisol. This triggered the bodies fight or flight impulse. Except, with this particular nerve agent, there was no longer a flight option. The user became a crazed hormone bingeing dynamo of violence. The aggression stayed in check momentarily until the compound could further attack the brain by depleting the serotonin levels to zero. Once that happened, the ability to reason was gone. The switch had been flipped. What was left was a superhuman turbo-charged killing machine with no other impulse but to destroy or murder.

+++++Then there was the bad news. Once a user of cornucopia either bit, spit, or bled on another person, that person was instantly infected. That’s how a miserable hole in the wall in Ohio became ground zero for the apocalypse that would eradicate the human race.

+++++As Eric the Red Funschman sat at his desk, watching his impregnable door start to give way behind the crush of the berserker horde behind it, he gave some thought to how he would meet his end. He had a syringe of the adulterated cornucopia. He reasoned he could just wait for the door to go down and be consumed by the horde, thus becoming one of them. Or, he thought, he could just inject the drug and join the Armageddon he created. As he jammed the syringe into the side of his neck, and drove home the plunger, he thought, for once I won’t feel awkward around my peers.

Flesh and Bone

Listen instead!
Listen instead!

The evening sun glows a dark shade of red as it hovers above the murky-looking shoreline. From where I’m sitting it looks like a festering wound.

*

It is July. Paignton has been stewing under a brutal layer of heat and grit for the last three weeks. During that time four local rent boys have been abducted and eviscerated by a man known only as the Bone Daddy.
+++++I’ve seen two of the crime scene photos, and they seem to have less in common with murder and more in common with modern abattoir methods. He had stripped the flesh off the bodies, and left the bones to rot in car parks and condemned factories. The police never found the flesh, nor the organs. The cops think that the boys were still alive when the Bone Daddy went to work on them. Fuck – I heard that one of them was still breathing when the fucking ambulance arrived.
+++++We are sitting outside the Burning Wheel, at one of the sea-salt ruined picnic tables. Jerry Connelly passes me a copy of today’s Herald Express.
+++++The lurid headline screams ‘COME TO DADDY’.
+++++Subtle – like a brick in the teeth.
+++++“He has taken another one, Joe. Number five.”
+++++I try to focus on the newsprint, but the words seem to slide right off the page.
+++++Jerry passes me the bottle he has been slurping from, and I take a hit off the scummy yellow liqueur. I grimace as it curdles in my throat.
+++++“The doctor says I’ve got a fucked-up liver to go with my blacked-out lungs. This is about as much as I can manage these days.”
+++++He hands me a photograph.
+++++“Henry Clerval. 19 years-old. Missing since Friday night. Last seen outside the North Atlantic Video Lounge.”
+++++The boy has thick black hair and smoke-coloured eyes.
+++++“Help me nail this Bone Daddy freak, Joe. Put him out of circulation for good.”
+++++I nod.
+++++Jerry’s not a cop. Not anymore. He quit after getting stabbed in the neck at a drug-den in Foxhole. He didn’t take to retirement, and now he works as a private investigator. Just like me, but with a better moral code. He’s also stubborn – like a fucking bloodstain.

*

Every job feels like it could be my last, but this one just might be.
+++++I’m still in the Burning Wheel when Jerry catches up with me. He is red-faced and wheezing. His orange satin shirt is splattered in fresh blood. He told me that he had rousted an organ trafficker called Krempe near Paignton harbour. He found four Chinese girls – fresh off the boat – manacled to a trough in the back room of a derelict gift shop.
+++++After a little bit of gentle persuasion from Jerry’s rat-tail sap, Krempe started babbling like a schizoid. He confirmed that there was a rogue surgeon in town, offering to sell cheap human body parts on Winner Street. He told Jerry that this guy turned up in the Oldenburg one lunchtime, with a carrier bag full of warm organs. Sour blood was seeping through the plastic and stained the carpet. Witnesses said that he had a badly lacerated face and a European accent. He gave a couple of local juiceheads his phone number and told them to ask for Viktor.

*

2am.
+++++We are sat outside the Chadwell Centre in Jerry’s bile-coloured hatchback, sipping from his bottle of liqueur. The whites of his eyes have turned red.
+++++It used to be an asylum for the blind, but was closed down in 2004, shortly after a man named Walton ran amok with a cut-throat razor.
+++++A skinny, shirtless guy with track-marks down both arms lurches towards the hatchback and starts banging frantically on the window. He looks like a fucking zombie. Jerry presses his Remington pump-action twelve-gauge up against the window, and the junkie melts into the gloom.
+++++“Don’t mind Mr Kirwan. He’s just working through a few personal problems. He won’t get in our way.”
+++++I’m impressed. Jerry has an encyclopaedic knowledge of local low-lives. He considers it one of his finest features, and I don’t disagree.
+++++Jerry passes me the bottle. The liqueur – combined with the thought of what I might see inside – makes me feel sick.
+++++“Fuck.”
+++++“Are you ready?”
+++++I nod.

*

The building stinks like a butcher’s bin-bag. It smells so bad that I want to hold my breath. The stairs feel soggy under my boots. Jerry is clutching the twelve-gauge in his clammy hands. He is muttering obscenities to himself. I feel something dangerously close to fear in my belly.

*

At the back of the room the Bone Daddy looks small and unassuming. He doesn’t look like much of a threat.
+++++His victim is spread-eagled on a slab. The boy’s small intestine is coiled around his wrist, dripping blood. Earlier Jerry told me that a small intestine can fetch up to £1,500 on the black market, twice as much as a gallbladder and five times more than a spleen. I feel bile rising in my throat.
+++++In the rancid, milky light the boy’s skin looks peeled raw, barely covering the muscle tissue and blood vessels underneath. Human skin is worth £6 an inch to the right buyer, but I doubt that the Bone Daddy has money in mind.
+++++The boy twitches, still alive. His eyeballs shine yellow.
+++++Motherfucker.
+++++Jerry screams. He screams so hard that no noise comes out.
+++++The Bone Daddy looks up at us and smiles, a small vanilla cigar clamped between his teeth. He has a face like a ruined archive. His grin is so wide it makes him look lipless.
+++++I reach for the pig-knife in my boot.
+++++His smile gets even wider. It makes my blood shrivel.
+++++Jerry racks his shotgun.
+++++“Gentlemen. I have been expecting you.”
+++++The Bone Daddy raises the scalpel to his own throat.
+++++“Learn from my miseries, and do not seek to increase your own.”
+++++He laughs, briefly, and a grotesque silence fills the room.

The Guests

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Listen instead!

I find them living in the woods, a girl, a barefoot man and a woman wearing a paper crown. They’ve set up a dining table in a muddy clearing between the greasy trees and stare at each other through the late October twilight as a light rain falls. A caravan the colour of a diseased lung stands a little way off into the forest, lit from within by a wavering yellow light. I watch them through the thick undergrowth, my breath coming in little gasps that hang in the air like smoke.  The table is made of some highly varnished wood and is too big to fit into the caravan. A damp cloth of pristine white covers it, upon which is set a full silver service. I can’t see what’s on the plates through the grey light. The girl’s about 14 years old clothed in a white dress that’s mud-stained and yellow with sweat. Her lank hair hangs wet around the bones of her shoulders and she glares across the table at the woman. The latter is massive, and her grey hair’s like the hair you see on the fringe of a cheap Halloween mask. A tattered paper crown is jammed onto her head. The man’s thin, badly shaved and drools onto the front of his grey vest. It’s silent in the wood and I crouch low in the undergrowth, confused and beginning to lose whatever confidence I have left.
+++++It’s an ancient forest near Bein Dearg, in the Scottish highlands. My girlfriend Ruth and I made the trek from Inverlal, up to the mountain over the previous two days. A fellow walker recommended the trail through the forest. He said it was a beautiful diversion on the way to Fort Auchter. I left Ruth at the camp we made that morning after breakfast and had somehow strayed from the trail in pursuit of a rare bird I’d hoped to photograph. I’d wandered for hours as the light failed.
+++++Then I came across the prints of a man’s naked feet in the mud, which I followed, for want of any better plan.  Each arduous mile felt like a hundred and the forest was thick with mist and sopping wet undergrowth. The trees towering above me were wet-barked and black and I thought I heard a cry at one point, in the vastness of the forest’s heart. Probably, a stricken Hare, I thought, that’s now a Fox’s supper.
+++++I crouch a little lower, trying to make sense of the scene upon which I’ve stumbled. Then the man rises and walks slowly around the table. He begins to hum and dance in circles. His broad, naked feet, pale as a dead man’s, splash and squelch in the mud as he circles.  There’s something obscene about the glee this dance seems to afford him though his female companions continue to glare at one another across the perfectly set table. I rub my eyes, and peer through the gathering gloom and, for the first time, begin to feel truly afraid. I’ve stumbled across something that makes no sense.
+++++I crawl backwards and the low branches of blackthorn scratch the back of my jacket. The man, smiling and laughing as he dances, strips his vest. His skin’s grey as a worm, and caked with filth.  The large woman suddenly picks up her plate and throws it at him with a growl.  He stops, turns and glares at her. Gravy drips down his chest.  His thin face carries a perfect expression of subdued, impotent rage and when he opens his mouth, I see his teeth are nothing but denuded pegs of bone, scattered across black gums.  He mumbles. ‘Do we not dance at the feast?’
+++++‘Our guests have yet to come,’ the large woman says, ‘and ye have not gifted them a thing. Angry will they be, angry; aye, there will be a merry dance soon enough.’ They speak with a strange accent that sounds old fashioned but utterly alien as well.
+++++The girl glares at the woman. ‘It is hungry I am mother; the table is set and the guests have not come. Can we not eat?’
+++++I inch backwards, my heart thumping the cold earth. The mud’s deep about my trembling fingers.
+++++The woman scowls. ‘Have we nothing at all, foolish man? We have the meat, we need the gift.’
+++++The girl echoes the sentence in a hollow voice, ‘We have the meat, we need the gift.’
+++++He stretches to his full height and sniffs the air, straining every inch of his lanky body. ‘Yet there might be something.’
+++++The damp has soaked through my thin clothes as I work back through the undergrowth. I slip off my rucksack and push it to the side. I’ve stumbled across something I shouldn’t have, something weird, something dangerous. I know that. I can feel that, and I have to get as far away as I can, and quickly.
+++++Then, it’s like a giant bird has dug its talons into my shoulders and hoisted me up. I gasp and fight back, then find myself face to face with the man. His grip’s hard and his breath’s rank.  He laughs as I struggle. ‘Please,’ I stutter, staring into his rheumy eyes, ‘I’m lost, I was following a bird.’
+++++‘A bird, is it? Then come, traveller, join us.’ He laughs again, a wet, bitter sound, and pushes me into the clearing. The mist has resolved itself into a light drizzle that’s rapidly soaking the cloth. ‘Sit,’ he says, forcing me into a chair at the table. ‘A fine gift we have now,’ he says to the woman. ‘All is well, except with thy faith.’
+++++The trees sway to my right as the breeze picks up. I can’t feel it though, everything is silent and heavy in the clearing.
+++++I breathe fast, too fast. I feel dizzy.  ‘Look…’ I start to say.
+++++‘Are ye hungry?’ The large woman pushes a tureen across the long, perfectly laid table. The wind must have started in the high trees above us. She offers me a dark stew of some kind with a layer of grease on the surface.
+++++‘No…I….’  Then I see the ring forced onto her fat finger. I gave a similar ring to Ruth, on the mountaintop. I’d proposed on bended knee, and thought it very romantic. How strange this woman should have the same ring? Tall, dark trees move in the corner of my eye, yet I can’t feel the wind. The pulse pounds at my throat so hard it hurts.
+++++Then the woman with the paper crown claps her hands in joy and looks beyond me. ‘Ah,’ she says, laughing, ‘our guests have arrived.’
+++++I turn quickly towards the high trees moving in the wind.
+++++They aren’t trees.

Masquerade

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Listen instead!

‘Are you going?’
+++++The words were on everyone’s lips. ‘Will you be there? Everyone who’s anyone will be there!’ A week ago no one had heard of Leonorini, yet somehow the avant-garde artist had garnered such instant fame that even Talk of the Town breathlessly gossiped about her every move. The photogs snapped her in Chinatown and atop the Chrysler. Even Weegee caught her as she stood outside the Cotton Club, staring at a heartbroken fan of the Dandridge Sisters who shot himself. Of course Julian Levy looked smug as could be when he broke the news that his gallery would host her debut.
+++++But first would be the ‘event’—or as the artist called it, The Conjuring. It seemed to be a sort of masquerade party. At least that’s what the word on the street had pieced together. Everyone in the Village advanced theories, most of them based on other artsy bacchanals or on the enigmatic photos of the artist herself. The New School exiles who hung around the Whitney, desperate for any kind of attention, claimed it was just a publicity stunt, because the artist invited ‘all the world’ to her party. New York art had always lived on exclusivity and jealously barred doors.
+++++An open party? Where would the mystery be in that!
+++++‘Wear your dreams,’ the leonine woman purred on the radio, her exotic accent nearly as thrilling as her outlandish attire. The sumptuous wardrobe had been trotted out in a huge photo spread in the Sunday Times. From the Automat to Wall Street, all the city buzzed about Leonorini, which made a nice change from the depressing talk of the economy and the war in Europe.
+++++Mind you, it put a few noses out of joint. Abbey Rockefeller had gone off in a snit when the artist failed to show any interest in having a rich patron call the shots. Brooke Astor did no better, but rumour had it that Peggy Guggenheim was more successful, using her pal Cocteau’s name as ticket to the artist’s sanctuary, begging a few pieces for her collection.
+++++But no one knew what to expect that night as they made their way to the south Village flat to climb the stairs to the coldwater flat. The tiniest sliver of a moon hung in the crystalline night sky. ‘Don’t bother to knock’ read the sign on the door. The loft proved to be enormous. The walls had been painted a midnight blue and the velvety night that gleamed through the skylights matched it well, right down to the twinkle of the stars painted in silver.
+++++In the hubbub of voices, conversations varied. Over here someone was in raptures about Billie Holiday’s latest, over there an editor fresh from London raving about a new Irish book, something about birds swimming. ‘The funniest book ever written!’ he promised. But most of the murmurs were about the hostess: where was she? When would she reveal herself? Would she be worth all this anticipation?
+++++Then the door at the back opened and Leonorini made her entrance. Poe could not have rendered Red Death with more breathtaking awe. She wore a mask like a raptor’s or an owl’s, resplendent with enormous feathers, all dyed crimson to match the face. Her eyes shone white behind it. Blood-red silk enrobed her form like flayed skin newly torn from a victim and wrapped hastily around her limbs. Many swooned at the sight of her, so tall, imperious and magnificent. Murmurs multiplied: shock, envy and aroused desire. A few people fled.
+++++Those who remained squeezed closer, as if afraid they might miss something. Her voice boomed across the room, like a diva commanding her audience. ‘My friends, I draw you here to this place for a ritual—a conjuring—a summoning! We call out to Astaroth, she who has been called a demon, but will be the mother of new inspiration in this new world. The hallowed one will join us tonight!’
+++++Leonorini raised her arms and loosed a call impossible to describe: somewhere between a scream and an aria’s top note. It sent shivers down your spine. The sound was at once so utterly feral and yet magic, as all great art must be. The room felt silent. ‘Let us cast the circle!’ She snapped her fingers: one, two, three, four, five. At each snap an explosion and fire as a flame appeared in a bowl. Some said it was only stage magic, but others swore they caught a whiff of sulfur. ‘Enter the circle with perfect love and perfect trust, if you do not wish to perish.’
+++++A few nervous chuckles did not dissuade the artist. ‘You think I jest? Imagine being enclosed for millennia. Astaroth will explode onto this plane in a ball of fire, filling our world with new energies, sweeping away the dead past.’ She threw back her head and loosed a true banshee howl. More than a few voices joined her. ‘Come to us, oh great one, come to us, come to us!’
+++++The chant was picked up by much of the crowd. Though a few hung back most of the audience surged together, many taking advantage of the press of flesh to steal furtive hands into unexpected warmth. The room seemed to writhe.
+++++‘She is come!’
+++++There was indeed an explosion of fire and light. Leonorini screamed again, in pain this time. Her limbs contorted. From her lips a guttural sound emerged that only gradually changed to words. ‘I am Astaroth, the fiend of fire. Let us burn together, let us bleed.’
+++++The party became a mêlée.
+++++Some ripped off their clothes and began to fornicate right there, sometimes in pairs, sometimes in larger groups. Others bit and clawed at one another, growling like animals. Shrieks, screams and grunts filled the room with a sound that was almost palpable. The building shuddered as if it might fall away completely.
+++++No one was certain where that painter found the Gurkha blade. Leonorini later disavowed all knowledge of it when the police muscled her down to their headquarters, until her rather impressive lawyer arrived to threaten suits. Four people died, five more eventually recovered. They dined out on those scars for years. Leonorini flounced off back to Paris, unimpressed with the Big Apple. The murderous painter landed in Bellevue, where for the remainder of her blighted life she painted over and over the grim visage of the same fiery muse: Astaroth.

Kicking The Habit

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Cessanol is an FDA approved medication to help adults 18 and over quit smoking. Side effects may include anxiety, panic, depression and unusual or strange dreams. Jesus you gotta be kidding me, it might just be better to die from cancer,” Wade said reading the pill bottle in his hand.
+++++He popped two of the little blue ovals into his mouth and washed them down with the remainder of his soda. He really needed a smoke, but Sarah had been on him to quit, and he promised to do that for her. He picked up his tray and walked it over to the garbage can near the exit. There was nothing more bleak and depressing than a hospital cafeteria at three in the morning.
+++++Wade was tired, but he didn’t want to go back to Sarah’s room until the nurses were done changing her bedding. The ICU was small and he always felt like he was in the way. He checked the clock on the wall and walked over to an empty waiting area tucked in next to the reception desk. He sat down on the faded burgundy couch and wondered how many poor souls had huddled right there, worrying about someone they loved, feeling helpless just like him. Soon he felt the warm froth of sleep start to wash over him and he closed his eyes.
+++++A sound like scraping metal woke Wade from his slumber. He opened his eyes and found that he had fallen over and was curled up in the fetal position on the couch. The metallic howl ripped through the empty foyer again and Wade jumped up. He walked out into the wide lobby and found the source of the sound. The automatic doors that led out to the parking lot were wedged open and a dark fog was rolling in like a river across the polished tile floor. As the doors tried to close, the electric motor hidden within the walls, screeched and protested in vain.
+++++Above the mist floated long, smoky tendrils that curled and snaked up the walls and over the desks. Without thinking, Wade found himself following the fog toward the stairs. He passed the empty admittance desk and wondered where the hell everyone had gone. The haze spiraled up the stairwell like the trunk of a dark, twisted tree. In a trance, Wade shuffled up the stairs with the vapor swirling around his ankles.
+++++At the landing for the ICU on the fifth floor, the fog pushed through the open doors and spilled out into the ward. Wade followed it, his feet moving on without his control. The ICU was abandoned with no sign of the staff. A pit formed in his stomach when he saw that the stream of fog ended at Sarah’s room. It swirled in dark eddies as it poured under her closed door.
+++++Wade’s body felt distant and fuzzy, like he was somehow outside himself, a silent, powerless witness to the events unfolding in front of him. He saw his hand reach out and turn the knob to Sarah’s room. As he entered, the lights in the corner began to dim and flicker. The thick gray fog was pooled around the base of Sarah’s bed, slowly rotating. It began to billow upward, and Wade watched in horror as a large, inky tentacle emerged from it, crawling across the sheets and clamping down on Sarah’s face. He tried to scream but no sound left his throat. A wave of panic flooded Wade’s body causing the trance to break. He leapt onto the bed, and grabbed the slimy appendage with both hands. It was cold and wet, and began to writhe and twist in his grip. He could see thick muscles ripple under its black, spotted skin as it pumped something from Sarah’s unconscious body. Wade strained and pulled until the skin on his hands began to peel away. Suddenly the tentacle released with a jerk and an unearthly scream echoed from down the hall. The appendage slithered back into the fog, sending Wade crashing into the wall. The impact knocked the air out of his lungs, and he fell to the floor gasping. As he lay there trying to catch his breath, he watched the vapor recede back out into the ICU. He pulled himself to his feet and looked down at his bloody, blistered palms. His head felt dizzy and his legs began to buckle. Wade collapsed into the recliner next to Sarah’s bed just before everything went black.
+++++“Mr. Lockhart? Mr. Lockhart, you need to wake up sir.”
+++++Wade opened his eyes to find a nurse standing over him. He was in the chair in Sarah’s room. He looked over at the empty bed.
+++++“Where is she? What happened?”
+++++“Relax Mr. Lockhart. Your wife came out of her coma a few minutes ago, she’s downstairs having an MRI right now. This is great news sir.”
+++++Wade rubbed his eyes and tried to get his bearings. How did he get back upstairs from the cafeteria? He couldn’t remember anything but that horrible dream. The nurse gave him a warm blanket and told him that Sarah would return to her room shortly. After the girl left, Wade stood up and stretched his legs. His nerves were an absolute wreck and he could’ve killed somebody for a smoke. He remembered his promise to Sarah and pulled the bottle of pills from his pocket. As he popped off the cap he noticed the bloody scrapes on both of his palms.

The Irish Nagual

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By a blazing log fire on a winter’s night in an old An Oige hostel. We settled down to hear the story of, ‘The Irish Nagual.’ Seamus was an old Irish folkie. He sang songs we all enjoyed, as the fire warmed our faces, and whiskey warmed our souls. Seamus could spin a tale with the best of them. But on that snow filled stormy night, he swore on the grave of his mother, what he was about to tell us was true.
+++++He still shivered at the memory of his hitchhiking road trip, along the Rio Grande. Seamus had been drunk when he was picked up. When the car finally stopped, he’d just managed to grab his guitar, before the, ‘Vaquero,’ all hat and no poncho, drove off. His heart sank, when he was told, he was on main street Juárez. He had meant to give Juárez the body swerve. A town with a reputation for people going missing. Death, he knew, came dripping slowly to the random victims of the drug wars. Tortured beyond any form of meaning. The powerless Federales, out gunned, out bribed, by the Cartels.
+++++Seamus was broke. So he headed for the only place he could generate some cash. The nearest Cantina. With any luck he would soon, be on a bus heading north to Gringolandia.
+++++The bartender studied him with pity as he approached. Seamus went through the international language of travellers. Pointing at his guitar. Then taking his hat off, pointed at the hat. Then pointing at the stage.
+++++The bartender was drying a beer glass and said, “Are you a simpleton Señor, or just loco?”
+++++Seamus apologized and asked, could he play and collect some morralla.
+++++The bartender arranged a paid gig and took his passport as security for the offered beer and food.
+++++As Seamus ate, the bartender asked, “You know who comes here, every night?”
+++++“No?”
+++++“The Devil Señor, and he sits and he listens, and if you do not entertain he will consign you to hell.”
+++++“Sounds like a tough audience.”
+++++“They say he enjoys the screams of his victims. It’s his favorite, música.”
+++++“OK, is there anywhere else, with a less demanding audience?”
+++++“You play tonight and if it please him, you live. No try vamoose. He will find you.”
+++++Seamus was shitting himself, at the prospect of this gig of death. And decided to vamoose, like, immediately. He had no cash, no passport and after one of his madder off the grid moments, no plastic. Spotting a Church in the distance he made a beeline for it.
+++++The Church, as expected, in a city of impending death, was a moving experience. Seamus entered, sat, and tried to feel like a believer. But felt only the shame of the hypocrite. Someone spoke in Spanish. Seamus turned, to see it was an old priest. Then looking closer, he could see the priest was not old, just worn down. He reminded Seamus of someone, but he couldn’t quite place him.
+++++“Sorry Father, I’ve just arrived, I’m desperate. I need help.”
+++++“You’re Irish. Me to, name is Father Phil. So, you need to get out of town.”
+++++“I’m expected to play the Cantina, in front of the Devil incarnate. Yep, I need to get out of town.”
+++++“You must play for El Diablo,” was all he said, “then we can see, if we can get you over the border.”
+++++Then he left to do his rounds.
+++++Seamus sat in the Church and pondered the life of a gigging musician. It was hard enough, without having a rear end hot poker as an added incentive. He now remembered who the priest looked like. But dismissed it as a ridicules coincidence.
+++++The Cantina was packed with a screaming rowdy crowd. El Diablo was front stage, surrounded by his entourage. He was ugly and small of stature, as all these wannbe Santa Anna’s seem to be. Seamus went on after a Mex-Tex band, singing a string of Narcocorrido songs, in tribute to El Diablo. Seamus went with Irish rebel songs, to tame the beast in the room. Then he played, ‘Sally Gardens,’ a soft, powerful love song. That could move the heart of a frozen mountain.
+++++Bad Career move, as El Diablo rose and pointed at Seamus and stormed out of the Cantina.
+++++Seamus was bundled off stage, punched and beaten into the back of a pickup. Then driven out of town.
+++++Out in the mountains a burning pyre. Sharpened blades laid out on a table. El Diablos crowd of comancheros baying for fresh blood.
+++++Seamus lay where he had been thrown. A rough cross had been made out of slabs of wood. Seamus was berating himself. Should have stayed with, ‘Whiskey in the Jar.’ Juárez was clearly not yet ready, for the message of love.
+++++A thunderbolt split the black clouds. El Diablo studied the sky and pointed at Seamus. He was being dragged to the cross when he was dropped. The comancheros were pointing and getting excited. Father Phil came striding through their midst and stood in front of El Diablo. El Diablo was frothing at the mouth, seeing his entertainment being interrupted. The heavens where going crazy as the wind whipped the black thunder heads. The lightning bolt seemed to come from the heavens or the earth or both. And there in place of Father Phil, was a prancing black stallion. It rose on its hind legs and hammered down on El Diablo, battering him to a bloody pulp. In panic the comancheros ran in every direction. Seamus ran as well, but the stallion came for him, and he instinctively knew it was his ride out of this nightmare.
+++++Seamus awoke to Father Phil standing over him. Then in a blur he was a great Golden Eagle that flew away into the black night.
+++++Seamus retold this confused tale, to the bemused US Border guards who found him.
+++++“Irish, you been drinking too much Chuco mescal. There aint no Irish priest in Juárez. Never has been never will be.”
+++++But a couple of days later his guitar turned up at the Irish Consulate, along with his passport. A note was included. It was signed Phil.
+++++Seamus spoke at length to the Shamans who travelled the border country. And they all agreed,
+++++“Yes, the Nagual, the shape-shifter can become anyone he wants. A great Stallion. A great Golden Eagle, and yes, even an Irish rocker called Phil Lynott.”

Yard Work

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“This is so unfair,” Derrick grumbled to himself, as he pulled the rake from the garage.
+++++He wouldn’t even be in this mess if it wasn’t for his little brother Ricky. Sure he’d broken Mrs. Morrison’s window, but no one would ever have known if Ricky hadn’t tattled on him. Now he was going to be short two weeks allowance, and have to spend his whole Saturday raking and bagging leaves, when he could be inside playing Call of Duty. This was just one more reason to hate his little brother, who was perfect in his parent’s eyes. Ricky could do no wrong as far as they were concerned.
+++++The yard was huge with high hedges along both sides and a privacy fence across the back, separating the yard from a small wooded area. Three large maples bordered the rear of the property. They were almost barren, only a few splashes of color were left hanging delicately on their branches. The fencing ensured that all but the fewest of leaves became trapped inside. The weather had been windy and had blown the majority of the leaves to the back fence. It made his job much more manageable, but he didn’t see it that way. All he saw was a lot of work caused by Ricky.
+++++Working close to the house he spent his time split between grudgingly raking for a while and bagging up the debris. He found Ricky’s action figure, Iron Man, which he’d lost last week and was still throwing a fit over. He put it in his coat pocket.  He’d throw it into the woods later he thought smiling to himself.
+++++With this part of the yard finally done he set out to the back fence. The wind had funneled most of the leaves to this area. They were blown almost three feet high against the slat board fencing. His hands starting to blister, he was thankful that it would be mostly bagging from here on out.
+++++With six bags full, and what seemed like a mountain more to go, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. The leaves seemed to rise from the far side of the mound, moving in his direction like a ripple across a pond. He immediately thought of the old Bugs Bunny cartoons and how the ground would swell when Bugs traveled underneath it. Momentarily startled he jumped back and out of the pile. The leaves waned and ceased moving. Something was under there.
+++++Gathering his composure he picked up the rake. It was probably just a groundhog or maybe a skunk that had slipped in under the fence from the woods. There had been a lot of them around lately. A skunk would be good. If he got sprayed he wouldn’t have to finish raking and it would suit his parent’s right for punishing him in the first place. He’d stink up the whole house and make everyone as miserable as he was. Taking a deep breath, preparing for the skunk, he took the rake in his hands. Gripping it firmly he stabbed and poked it into the heap. Nothing happened. Then he swung it wildly through the high pile sending leaves flying in all directions. After a few minutes the leaves were scattered everywhere, but nothing had been in there.
+++++“That was stupid,” he muttered.
+++++Now he had twice as much work to do. At that thought the leaves began to move again.  A deep, throaty growl whispered from them as they pulled together, slowly shifting and swirling, swelling and ebbing, until they were heaped once again along the fence.  He backed away slowly never taking his eyes off the pile. When he got to the back porch he sat down to think.
+++++What should he do? He should tell his parents, but they wouldn’t believe him. Besides running to mom and dad was the kind of thing Ricky would do. He wasn’t like Ricky. He’d figure this out on his own. The pile swelled and receded again, as if taking a great breath. Whatever it was he didn’t think it was friendly. Freckles, Mrs. Morrison’s cat was lounging on their porch. He hated that cat.
+++++“Let’s try a little experiment,” he said, a feral look in his eyes.
+++++Coaxing the cat to him he picked it up and approached the unmoving pile of leaves slowly, gently stroking Freckles and whispering softly to him with every step. This was going to be fun. As he got within a few feet of the menacing mound it swelled once more, as if in anticipation of what was to come the cat hissed. He tossed Freckles indifferently into the pile. Nothing happened for a long moment. Suddenly there was a growl and Freckles hissed. Crunching and a loud tearing sound filled his ears, skin being peeled to the bone.  It sent a chill up his spine. A vortex stirred in the mass of debris, like water down a drain. The leaves then erupted in a flourish, a geyser of crimson splashed into the air mixed with the amber and gold of the leaves. Derrick stumbled then fell backwards, his heart pounding.  As suddenly as it had started it stopped. The leaves settled back comfortably.
+++++The pile looked almost as it had before, only smaller and not just a little smaller but considerably smaller. Derrick pulled himself up and watched the mass of leaves swell slightly. He had an idea, kill two birds with one stone. Thrusting his hand into his pocket he pulled out Ricky’s Iron Man action figure and gently tossed it on top of the pile, where it could easily be seen.
+++++“Ricky will be so happy that I found it for him,” he said to himself. Then he turned and walked purposely towards the house.

Sandpit

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The park was empty as Lisa sat on a weathered bench watching her two-year old twins jostle back and forth in the sandbox. Her hair flailed around her pale face from the warm July breeze, and overhead, a flock of small birds soared toward their unknown destinations.
+++++Her boys, Jack and Evan, were typical toddlers. They loved to watch cartoons and play with their trucks, while constantly at odds with each other to see who could get more attention. Jack had a bit of a temper, which surfaced more frequently than Lisa would have liked. Evan on the other hand was a quieter child, usually content to play by himself. And her husband, Frank, was at work, as usual. It seemed that whenever Lisa had something bothering her, he wasn’t there. She knew what she was signing up for by marrying a detective, but it was still difficult to deal with.
+++++Leaning back on the bench, Lisa took a deep breath. She wished for a cigarette or a winning lottery ticket, or both, but knew that neither would be possible. She quit smoking when she got pregnant with the twins, and rarely played the lottery. Her mind began to wander, affixing weird scenarios to any passing thought. She looked at the twins in the sandbox, playing with their trucks; building sand castles; digging holes. They seemed to be having so much fun.
+++++Sand pits can have a solid bottom, or be built directly onto the soil.
+++++The strange thought and the sudden onset of it startled Lisa. She didn’t know where it came from; it just sort of popped into her head. In an attempt to dispel it, she focused on her children and their playing. Evan was busy filling a small plastic bucket with sand. Jack was pushing one of his toy trucks through a small mound in the box. Neither was aware of their mother watching them. Lisa yawned deeply and stretched. She was feeling the effects of the fresh air; it always relaxed her, sometimes the point of making her sleepy.
+++++And then she noticed it.
+++++It was small, so much so that at first she thought she imagined it. But when she leaned forward and looked, she knew it wasn’t just in her mind. Jack’s truck was pushed into a mound of sand up to its little plastic windshield. He was trying to nudge it forward, but couldn’t. Something was stopping it.
+++++Something in the sand.
+++++And Lisa saw what that something was a finger, or more accurately, a couple of fingers. They jutted up from their grainy home about an inch or so, and were blocking the path of the toy truck. Tiny flecks of sand dotted the mouldering appendages. Lisa felt a scream take root in her gut, and begin to work its way up to her mouth. Eventually, her comprehension of what she was seeing would catch up to the rising scream and all come out in one big cry.
+++++Jack didn’t notice his mother. He was too busy trying to force his truck into the sand. But Evan saw her. He dropped his plastic bucket, intent on running over to her.
+++++Lisa screamed when the fingers rose up from the sand, showing the grey, skeletal hands they were attached to. Dripping fungus oozed from the terrible things, forming grainy clots of sand. One hand snatched the toy truck from Jack’s grasp, neatly snapping it in two before yanking the remains into the sand. And another pulled Evans bucket onto its side, its chipped nails gouging into the frail plastic. It too was pulled into the sand.
+++++But that was not what scared Lisa the most. It was when three new hands sprouted up from a corner of the sandbox, and went directly for Evan’s feet, and before she could react, pulled one of her little boys kicking and screaming to an impossible death. Jack started to cry. Lisa jumped to her feet, and despite being handicapped by the crushing grief over Evan, sprinted straight for the sandbox. By then, her remaining son was himself in the powerful grip of two of the hands.
+++++Lisa dove headfirst for the reaching arms of Jack. She saw his tiny face contorted into an expression of pain and disbelief as he was forcibly yanked, first down to his waist, and then up his neck. And all in a split second.
+++++“Help me Mommy!” The last time Lisa saw her son he was crying the words – and then he too, like his brother, was gone.
+++++Lisa fell face-first onto the ground next to the sandbox. She was numb with grief, and shock threatened to overtake her. Her anguished sobs were muffled by the grass. Reaching into her pocket, she slipped her cell phone out. She fumbled with the buttons, but knew she had to call for help. She also knew that nobody would believe her, but that didn’t matter. All that did was getting help.
+++++Sandpits can have solid bottoms, or be built directly onto the soil.
+++++With shaking hands she dialed 9-1-1. A dispatcher answered after the first ring.
+++++“This is 9-1-1 Dispatch. Can you tell me the nature of your emergency? Hello? Hello? Is anybody there?” But Lisa couldn’t answer. All she could do was gasp for air. The hands had shot out of the sand and wrapped themselves around her throat with brutal efficiency. And then, in seconds, she was unconscious. And then dead. Her body was pulled into the sandbox, leaving only her cell phone behind.

 

***

 

“Hey, someone left their bag here,” Andy called out as he strayed away from his friends, moving towards the bench. The sun was starting to dip towards the horizon and they had decided to cut through the park on their way to the party at Scott’s house. Greg put the six-pack of beer down on the ground at the edge of the sandpit, then noticed something wedged up against the wooden surround.
+++++“Someone dropped their phone here too,” He added, stooping down to pick it up. “It’s not locked.”
+++++“Any interesting photos on it?” Andy replied as he rifled through the bag’s contents. Locating a purse he opened it – finding a driver’s license within seconds.
+++++“No, but there’s a message,” Greg responded. He began to retrieve the message before he paused for a second. “Did you hear that?”
+++++“What?” “Some sort of scratching sound.” He explained as he put the handset to his ear. “Probably a squirrel.”
+++++“Hi Honey. It’s me, Frank. I’ll be home late tonight. I have to go to Stellar’s Beach. It seems that a couple of kids have gone missing there. Witnesses say they vanished right on the beach. I have to go now. Love you.” The message ended as abruptly as it started.
+++++“I know this woman,” Andy said as he ventured across to his friend, holding up the driver’s license in one hand and the purse in the other. “She lives over on Elm – husband’s a cop from what I remember.”
+++++“Any money in it?” Greg joked as he looked around quizzically at the ground.
+++++“Are you nuts? My parents would kill me…what’s wrong?”
+++++“Did you just pick up the beer?”
+++++“No,” Andy half-laughed. “You had it.”
+++++“I know – I put it down just there…” he pointed to the spot next to the sand pit. “I swear, I…”
+++++“Come on, let’s get out of here.” Andy said, the tone of his voice suddenly different, more insistent. “I always hated this place as a kid, used to creep me the fuck out.” Greg moved around the sandpit, still looking for the six-pack. “Greg, let’s go.”
+++++“Okay, okay, I’m coming.” He said, giving up his search. He looked at his friend with an expression of pure confusion. “Is it true what they said about this place? With the kids going missing and all that?”
+++++“I don’t know,” Andy said, grabbing Greg’s arm and finally dragging him away. “But I don’t want to stay here and find out.”

The Last Scarecrow

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“Jonah?”
+++++“Yes, Grandma?”
+++++“You know what sound a scarecrow makes when it walks?”
+++++“Scarecrows don’t walk, Grandma.”
+++++“They don’t?”
+++++“You know they don’t.”
+++++“I know they do. Come to the edge of the porch where the porchlight’s glow ends. Where the dark begins. Come down off the porch and take a listen. Come along, child. Listen to the scarecrows walk.”
+++++Jonah wraps an arm around a column holding up the roof over the porch. Listens into the night.
+++++Whisk-whisk…Whisk-whisk…Whisk-whisk…
+++++“Hear that, Jonah?”
+++++“Yes, ma’am.”
+++++“That’s a scarecrow walking.”
+++++“Ain’t it the wind, Grandma?”
+++++“Wind don’t walk. It glides. It glides and whistles.”
+++++“When you coming onto the porch, Grandma?”
+++++“We’re not supposed to go on the porch.”
+++++“Grandpa don’t mind. Come up here on the porch.”
+++++“You know I can’t, Jonah, on account of what I done.”
+++++“He don’t blame you, Grandma.”
+++++“Oh, but he does, Jonah. This my doing. I got to be out in the fields. I got to keep the crows off the corn and the raccoons away from the sugar beets and the scarecrows away from you.”
+++++“Come up on the porch, Grandma. Come out of the night.”
+++++“Come down off the porch, Jonah. You’re not supposed to be up there. The scarecrows are coming. Do you hear them scarecrows coming?”
+++++“I hear them.”
+++++Whisk-whisk…Whisk-whisk-whisk…Whisk-whisk…Whisk-whisk-whisk…
+++++Scarecrows shuffle-run in the night. Run rampant. The straw stuffing rubbing against itself. Scarecrows don’t just scare away the crows, they look for souls to steal to give themselves life. When the sun comes up they return to their posts. But at night, as soon as the sun falls behind the last row of corn, they come down off their T-posts, go looking for souls like kids going house to house for candy. No tricks. Just treats.
+++++“Grandma?”
+++++Jonah gets no answer. He hugs the column, presses his face against the cracked and peeling white paint, brushes the paint chips from his lips with the back of his gloved hand. He no longer likes being on the porch at night. The front door, just ten feet behind him, might as well be a hundred miles away. If he keeps one arm wrapped around the post and reaches with the other, well, there’s just no way he can reach the old, dented, brass door knob, tarnished by the touch of generations.
+++++He’ll have to let go of the post. He’ll have to run for the door. He’ll have to get inside before the scarecrows can get him.
+++++Jonah grabs for the door. Legs buckle. Feet tangle. He trips, falls face first to the boards. A scarecrow leaps over the rail on the far end, catches the toe of an old boot its leg got stuffed into on the edge of the wood, falls face first onto the same boards. It lifts its burlap sack of a head. Beetles pour out of a jagged rip. They crawl over the back of Jonah’s hands. Jonah jumps to his feet, brushes away the beetles he feels along his legs and on his belly.
+++++He has to get inside. The beetles will die in the house. These aren’t regular beetles. These are corpse beetles. They eat the flesh off those who lose their souls to the scarecrow’s touch. He has to get inside.
+++++Hand on the doorknob.
+++++Small shadow on the wall diverts his attention. Corpse beetle burrowing into the clapboard siding. The flesheater turns gray, drops to the porch. Jonah kicks it away out of spite. The beetle crumples into dust.
+++++Jonah puts two hands on the knob. Still can’t turn it. He rattles it until the door swings into the house. A frightened old man stands inside the door, an over-and-under, double barreled, shotgun in his grasp.
+++++Jonah throws open his arms. “Grandpa!”
+++++The old man racks in the shots. Levels the gun at Jonah’s chest. “Get back to the field.”
+++++“Grandpa! It’s me. It’s Jonah.”
+++++Jonah takes a step. Something pulls him away as the old man fires bird pellets into the night. Jonah kicks and screams and cries for his grandfather until he hears a familiar voice.
+++++“Sun’s coming up, Jonah. Time to come back to the fields.”
+++++“Grandma?”
+++++“Time to come back to the fields.”
+++++“I don’t want to come back. I want to play.”
+++++“You can play tomorrow.”
+++++“You always say that.”
+++++The fallen scarecrow lifts Jonah from the boards. It stares at the man inside the house.
+++++“You done this,” he says. “You done this with your conjurin’.”
+++++Out in the fields, Jonah and the scarecrow ascend a platform, take up opposite sides of the T-frame, slips their raggedy wrists through rope loops. The chill of the night floats away under the morning sun’s glow.
+++++Overhead the crows circle. Refuse to land. Jonah looks out at the fields.
+++++“Grandpa?”
+++++The old man pours gas over the corn.
+++++“Corn’s no good anymore,” the old man says. He sets down the old, rusty, gas can. Pulls a crumpled pack of Chesterfields from his shirt pocket, fishes out the last cigarette. He pushes it between his lips. “Corn’s no good anymore because you had to conjure so I told you all to stay in the field. I can’t sit up every night keeping you in the fields. I can’t do this anymore.”
+++++The old man strikes a match on the sole of his boot. Lights his cigarette. Drinks in the heat.
+++++“No, sir. Can’t do it anymore.” He drops the match to the gas soaked field. “He was a good boy until you went and conjured.”
+++++Smoldering fields. Smoke. Flames.
+++++“Grandpa. Come up here.”
+++++The old man hangs his head. His shoulders raise and drop as he sobs.
+++++Jonah pulls his hands out of the loops. He jumps down, puts his arms around the old man. After a moment, the old man returns the gesture.
+++++“Look at the sky, Grandpa. This’ll keep the birds away.”
+++++And the fire burns and the crows squawk at the loss.

Will’s A Dish

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Me sisters are weird and absofuckinglutely deplorable, not unlike tonight’s tri-aspect weather: Thunder, Lightning, and Rain, named for our individual charms, s’pose. And on this, the night of the lunar eclipse, we three meet again.
+++++Inside, it’s utterly rank. The food in this hovel’s disgusting, which isn’t particularly surprising considering the peculiar tastes of t’other two. I’ve got a pretty straightforward diet, like, but they go in for all kinds of weird shit. I spotted one o’the old ‘ags thunderin’ around the place this mornin’, stompin’ with ‘er enormous size twelve clod’oppers, not even tryin’a be quiet, filleting a fucking snake. Nice.
+++++Sure, the hissy little shits are easy to come by – it’s reptile central round ‘ere – but still…snake on a plate? Even the idea gives me gobvomit.
+++++But yeah – sis is ALWAYS cooking weird shit. Bake and boil, boil and bake – the whole place fuckin’ stinks of what used to be life. And she were always the smart one – not that y’d know it.
+++++Take today, right – there were a charmed little pot of something or other boiling away on t’stove, and when I unlidded the bloody thing, its contents eyeballed me right back. And this: in ocular concoctions, eyes don’t bother sinkin’ – there, in the thick and slabbish gruel, floated at least a dozen of the little buggers. A gift from six dead bovines, prob’ly, although two ‘balls looked different than t’rest. She were boilin’ it down, she said, to reduce it for summit she were makin’ later. But I didn’t fancy ‘angin’ around and had to politely decline: “fuck that ‘ell-broth shit. I’m off for a burger.”
+++++So I took meself down to t’local junk food dive instead. Ended up with Macbreath.
+++++I never went in for any of that eyebally or offally shite meself. I don’t wanna be served mashed brain, liver sausage, or bowels in a bowl. Regular muscle-cuts’ll do for me, thank you very much; a tender cut of rump, maybe. And call me picky, but Eyeball stew? I don’t really want me food to look back at me, thank you very much. What would it see in any case?
+++++The other ‘ag keeps herself to herself, except she does drip on over occasionally to stir the shit every now and again. And together, although it’s a bit odd, the three of us actually do get along, despite our differences.
+++++We only really ever had one thing in common, like: a bloke. I always reckoned ‘e were ok, if not a little grubby, but as it turns out, William were a bit of a twat to me sister.  Cheating all over the place, ‘e even had a go of me bezzie mate once, being utterly unable to keep it in his kecks ‘n’ all.
+++++Speakin’ o’which, whilst it were out, you could tell the bugger were Jewish. I never quite understood the goddy thing, being that all ‘e did were rant about ‘ow shite religion were, how stinky the planet, and how fucked its people. ‘e had no god; ‘e can’t have done, blaspheming all over the place like ‘e did.
+++++There were a thing, though – as soon as ‘e ‘ooked up with ‘er, he ‘ooked up wi’ me. There were just something about Will once ‘e belonged to another – ‘e were so much more attractive when ‘e were someone else’s. And proppa fit, ‘e were – I couldn’t say no to that, despite ‘ow much of a twat ‘e were.
+++++It’s ‘ard seein’ ‘em together, though. ‘e were ’ere last night in’t kitchen with ‘er, I ‘eard ‘em clatterin’ and bangin’. Wi’me, e’s kinda quiet and sits back, y’know, enjoyin’ it. Funny tho’, when ‘e’ s with ‘er, I realised last night, ‘e screams. ‘e disappeared ‘fore I could sneak a midnight bit with ‘im in’t back lounge: our fuckroom of choice. But I’ll ‘ave ‘im tonight instead.
+++++I still can’t believe she hasn’t figured it out. Me and ‘e will always have chemistry. e’ll always be a part of me. I can still feel him inside me from last time ‘e were’ere.
+++++This is the night of the lunar eclipse. And as’t sun aligns wi’ earth and our Moon, some things fade into’t shadows.
+++++The moonlight highlights a pie on’t windowledge. She made it just for me! She says it’s just rewards for our sisterhood, bless her. It seems firm and good – I might go and grab a slice.
+++++“Be sure to let it cool” she says. “That’s a dish best served cold”.
+++++I’ll ‘ave it tonight instead.

I See You

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“Please, do not touch the bones,” the zealous tour guide called, her Spanish accent more pronounced as she raised her voice. Willie snapped his hand back shamefully from under the railing and the tour guide continued with her over rehearsed presentation detailing the history of The Medieval Ossuary in Wamba.
+++++It was dusk, the final tour of the day, and the night shadow crept slowly over the Ossuary stealing the last shard of light from the crypt portraying its unsympathetic elegance, capturing the essence through the discarded bones and skulls; a labyrinth of souls.
+++++Willie sighed, hands at his sides drawing circles with the tip of his shoes on the dusty floor of the crypt.
+++++A flicker of light caught Willie’s eye. Curious, he parted company with his parents, still enthralled in the exhibition did not notice his absence.
+++++Dazzled by its opalescence he stood in front of the unusual skull. Scanning the skull it It did not appear to be as matured as the others which lay in disarray, grey and fossil like.
+++++“Ok now if you could all follow me please,” the guide called as she walked slowly towards the exit followed closely by the tour group.
+++++“Come on William” His mother called but to Willie, the sound of his mother’s calls, muffled as he remained frozen, fixated, staring deep into the eyes of the skull as it did him, boring into his soul.
+++++Willie unable to move felt an irresistible pull as he leaned in further staring deep into the eyes of the skull.
+++++At first there was nothing but darkness, a bottomless pit deep within the sockets of the skull. Willie closed his eyes tightly, snapping them open hoping to tear himself away from its trance only to find himself floating in the void. His cries echoed as he called for his mother, anxiety his only solace.
+++++A distant cry distracted Willie and he began to float silently desperately listening, seeking the voice he thought he had heard in the darkness. He was not alone.
+++++A multitude of voices weeping in the darkness “sorry” the voices sobbed.
+++++Lights appeared all around Willie turning the darkness into an elliptical galaxy.
+++++The pins of light drew closer and Willie saw that they were not lights at all.
+++++Willie’s eyes welled once more as he was confronted with hundreds of souls, crying, tormented, alone, pleading into the abyss.
+++++Willie felt another pull, similar to before and he started floating rapidly toward an object so bright forcing him to squint.
+++++Willie gasped as he finally came to a halt, recognising the skull in front of him, from the crypt.
+++++Wiping away his tears, his vision once again clear he looked into the eyes of the skull to see that its eyes were no longer empty, they were very much alive and familiar for Willie was looking into his own eyes or at least a reflection.
+++++Willie blinked and the eyes of the skull blinked also but when it opened its eyes images started flashing within them. Images of his life so far.
+++++Panic filled Willie as the images before him were not those of happy times but those of deceit. Every little wrong doing, every lie he had ever told or hurtful word he had uttered came flooding to the surface and Willie felt consumed with guilt and remorse. Willie watching the horror story of his life being played out in front of his very eyes sobbed and then, the images stopped, the skulls eyes returned to black pits within the skull and then – there was nothing.
+++++The room became alive with the flash of a light and Willie jumped banging his head on the rail.
+++++“Hey kid, you ok?”
+++++Rubbing the crown of his head Willie looked around the room puzzled for he had no memory of the last few minutes of his life.
+++++Willie looking up scanned the stranger who’d appeared at his side. Willie smiled at the stranger, his leather worn boots, tattered levis, checked shirt and cowboy hat evoking joy.
+++++“Son, are you ok?”
+++++“Are you a real cowboy?” Willie asked in wonder.
+++++The man’s boots squeaked as he knelt down, face to face with Willie
+++++“I sure am, buckaroo”
+++++“Wow” Willie stood, mouth gaping.
+++++“You know, you should be careful,” the cowboy said, tilting his hat up revealing brilliant blue eyes.
+++++“William,” Willie’s mother stood at the entrance to the crypt, her eyes filled with equal measures of relief and rage “Oh god, there you are, get here now!” she demanded.
+++++“Go on now,” the cowboy patted William on the back and turned to face the skull and bones.
+++++William reached his mother and turned back to look at the cowboy once more but he was nowhere to be seen. The cowboy had vanished, all except for his hat which lay, at the side of the railings
+++++Releasing himself from his mother’s grip William ran to the hat picking it up and dusting it off.
+++++A cowboy cannot be without his hat Willie innocently thought as his eyes scanned the crypt frantically wanting to give the hat back.
+++++“Where did you get this?” his mother demanded snatching it out of his hands.
+++++Willie turned with a strange feeling of dread as he looked to the skull’s brilliant blue eyes
+++++“He went there mummy” Willie said, pointing into the eyes of the skull.
+++++“Come on it’s time to go,” sighed his mother leading Willie, still clutching the cowboy’s hat, out of the crypt.
+++++“What does that mean?” one of the tourists asked pointing to a sign above the exit to the Ossuary”
+++++“As you see yourself, I saw myself too. As you see me, you will see yourself. Everything ends in this. Think about it and you won’t fall into sin.” The guide recited “It means never look into the eyes of the dead unless you are without sin as all could end with this”

Something In The Woods

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Somethin’s bangin in my dreams, then there’s a smash and I wake up. It comes from next door, daddy’s room, then somethin’s outside. I hear it scrape against the side of the cabin.
+++++I jump outta bed, go to daddy’s room. I can hear the wind howlin like there’s a window open, and I can feel the cold against my bare legs, then all over my body, dressed as I am in my nightdress. His room’s empty, and I can see that the window’s smashed, bits of glass scattered on the wood floor. The bed is all torn up like an animal’s been at it, and there’re what look like claw marks on the walls. Daddy didn’t even get a chance to pull down his rifle from where it hangs above his bed.
+++++To my right, his closet is open but it’s empty of clothes, just some broken shackles hangin from the top of it and loose at the bottom, ankle height. I call for daddy, though he ain’t here, and I can hear myself gettin louder, can feel myself gettin frantic, almost screamin now, headin for the window cos if he ain’t replyin he ain’t inside, must be outside. The bushes are rustlin out there, might be the wind, might be somethin in the woods. “Daddy?”
+++++That somethin growls.
+++++It’s out there, amongst the bushes and the trees, and it’s got my daddy, so I grab his rifle and jump out the shattered window, no time to get my boots on. Bits of glass and broken twigs dig into my soles but I ignore them, hurry into the foliage and keep the gun raised in case the thing shows up. I’m wonderin what it could be – a bear, a wolf, I don’t know. Daddy’s always told me, if I hear somethin outside I’m to leave it be.
+++++He sat me down on my bed right after we moved up here, away from school and all my friends. “You hear anythin in the woods, you just ignore it, okay? Leave it alone and it’ll leave you alone, y’understand?”
+++++I nodded.
+++++This was after momma had disappeared. He told me she wasn’t comin back. “Why not?”
+++++“She just ain’t.”
+++++“How do you know?”
+++++“She ain’t comin back, Goddamnit! Y’understand?” Daddy was shoutin. Daddy never normally shouts. He scared me and I started cryin, and he took me up in his arms, squeezed me tight and kept sayin I’m sorry, and he started cryin, but his tears were hot and didn’t seem like they were ever gonna stop and it didn’t feel like he was apologisin for shoutin.
+++++But he never said anything about if an animal came inside and pulled him right outta his bed. I know what he would do if it was me, though, out in the cold and maybe hurt.
+++++I come to a clearing and stop. It’s well lit, the moon shining down through the openin in the treetops. My feet are achin. I look down and there’s blood between my toes, round my ankles. My shins are all cut up from thorns.
+++++There’s a noise, somethin’s in the trees, runnin circles round the clearing. I shoulder the rifle and I hear its growl again. Daddy taught me how to shoot, though nothin bigger’n a rabbit. I remember everythin he taught me now, to stay cool, keep breathin. The bushes stop rustlin, the thing stops runnin, and everythin goes quiet.
+++++Then I feel its breath on my neck. I turn and it straightens, about seven foot tall on two legs, just a broad mass of sleek black fur over ripplin, flexin muscle. Its eyes are bloodshot yellow, lookin right into mine, and there’s foam frothin at its gums, some spit hangs down, splashes on my cheek. I’m frozen, can’t scream. Then it’s on me. The gun goes off when it hits the ground, fires into the bushes. I’m cryin out for my daddy, but he doesn’t come, and the thing on top is rippin me apart, teeth and claws sharper than the thorns.
+++++I black out, fade in, I can’t feel anythin anymore. Then it’s almost mornin, the sun comin up, I’m fadin out for maybe the last time, but daddy’s here now, he’s got me in his arms and he’s screamin, and there’s blood on his bare chest and round his mouth, on his teeth, but it’s okay now cos daddy’s here, he’s got me, everythin’s gonna be all right.

Condemned

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As a church the place had stood abandoned for decades. A creepy reminder of a time long since passed. Daniel Irvin had lived in the area all of his 37 years and he’d never known it open. There was little call for a house of God around here these days the locals weren’t God fearing people. Until recently the only time anyone had paid the place any attention was last year. A fire had taken hold. When the fire crew burst in and put out the blaze they found three junkies dead from burns and smoke inhalation. The fire had confused investigators. Yes, the junkies had set a fire for warmth, but it had been on a cold stone floor. The blaze had engulfed the old church and yet there was no trace of accelerant.
+++++The church was condemned and Daniel saw his chance. He bought the place, renovated it and tomorrow he’d be opening the doors to the public no longer a church, no one would come to that. He knew the local market – they liked pubs. That there wasn’t even one objection to his planning application underlined exactly how little the locals cared for church.
+++++As the summer sun rose outside the old beams creaked and cracked above Daniel’s head. The building felt alive. Light penetrated the stained glass windows and created shadows that loomed tall on century old walls. He’d taken delivery of stock this morning. Things were starting to become real. Optics had been fixed to the wall behind the bar. Daniel fixed spirit bottles in place. As he did he saw a man approach the bar reflected in the mirror on the back wall.
+++++“I’m sorry fella, we don’t open until tomorrow,” Daniel said without turning.
+++++The man ignored him. His face had a gaunt haunted look to it that chilled Daniel. The face felt familiar and yet he knew he’d never seen this man before. Daniel turned to face his unwanted guest. There was no one there. He switched his focus back to the mirror. Gone.
+++++A shiver ran down his spine. The bottle he’d been fixing to the optic fell to the floor and smashed at his feet. He jumped, hadn’t he secured the bottle properly? Had he really seen someone? He’d barely slept in the past few weeks, maybe a couple of hours a night if he was lucky, getting this place up and running was taking a lot out of him. He put the vision down to sleep deprivation, cleaned up the spilt alcohol and broken glass and carried on stocking. Always with half an eye on the mirror.

*

The plumbers had left the toilets in a right state. Yes, they”d done the job expected of them but cleaning up after themselves hadn’t been high on their agenda. With the bar stocked Daniel took a mop and bucket to the tiled floors. The bucket’s wheels squeaked as he moved it across the floor. He stopped and started mopping, the squeaking continued somewhere off in the distance. At first he thought it was an echo, but it had a different rhythm and continued for far too long. It was as if someone was mimicking his work elsewhere in the building. He looked up and back through to the bar, there was nothing there. He felt his eyes getting heavy and knew now that it was fatigue affecting his senses. When the toilets were clean he could finally rest ahead of the big opening the following day.
+++++“Out.” A voice whispered from the walls.
+++++Daniel froze to the spot and the shiver returned to his back. He was alert now, fatigue giving way to adrenalin. He told himself how stupid he was being, he was just tired and in that place when you’re still awake but starting to dream. He ran the tap and splashed cold water on his face.
+++++He looked in the mirror and threw himself backwards, terrified. His face was running wet with blood. He scrambled across the room backwards on hands and feet and pushed himself hard against the wall as if trying to get through it.
+++++He touched his face and looked at his fingertips, there was no blood, only water. He stood slowly to look in the mirror. When he did the blood was gone, his face damp with water and sweat. Enough was enough – the toilets could wait until the morning. He needed sleep.

*

Daniel’s dreams were troubling. The three junkies who had died in the fire appeared. He recognised their faces from pictures in the papers at the time of the incident he’d never met them. They were warning him. “Get out, he doesn’t want you here,” “Leave, run, you’ll be next,” ‘You’ve woken him, get away.”
+++++He woke drenched in sweat. His eyes stung as they struggled against the light in his bedroom above the pub downstairs. The light was all wrong, it flickered orange and the sound of burning wooden beams filled his ears. Intense heat closed in on him. He couldn’t catch his breath, smoke filled his lungs, he coughed against it but it caught in his throat and he felt choked.
+++++From the flames that filled the edges of the room a man appeared. The same man that had appeared in the mirror at the bar. His face still familiar and yet Daniel still knew that they’d never met. This time he wore the robes of a priest.
+++++“This was a house of God.”
+++++The words roared from the priest’s mouth.
+++++He pointed angrily at Daniel who cowered in his bed, still choking against the smoke. Controlled by the priest’s actions the flames that filled the room engulfed Daniel’s bed. The priest disappeared into the flames and the last words Daniel heard, as he burned alive, boomed in ghostly tones over the cracking and whipping of the flames.
+++++“Get out, get out, get out!”

Trunk Or Treat

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About twenty minutes ago I hit that no- good cheating bastard Randy Leeman with a meat tenderizer. I’d had my suspicions for months.  Mysterious phone calls, evasive answers and the scent of another woman, all the signs were there.  It took some snooping, but I finally tracked him to his cousin’s trailer shoved in the corner of a scuzzy trailer park.
+++++I pulled up right as his slut was leaving. Through the dust and gravel I was only able to make out a brunette head in a blue Mazda. I rang the doorbell; like I was his whore and I’d forgotten something and I was trying to be cute.  This piece of shit answered the door stark naked.  I punched him in the face and we fell inside the cramped trailer.  Sometime during this fracas I wrapped my hand around the tenderizer and hit Randy upside his cheating head. The clunk of the hammer smacking flesh felt like an orgasm.  Problem was Randy’s eyes went blank and blood started gushing. I’d been mad as hell when I saw that woman leave and I’d been mad as hell when Randy answered the door, but I swear I hadn’t been murder- the -bastard mad.
+++++I’ll admit I panicked a little bit. Sure, I could call the cops, but my family was mad enough I’d put off school to marry Randy.  They’d be fit- to- be- tied they found out on the evening news that I’d done gone and killed him.
+++++I opened the trailer door and took a long look around. Nothing. Luckily it was the middle of the afternoon on a pretty Halloween Sunday. Everyone was either hunting, watching football on TV or preparing for Halloween. I grabbed his keys sitting on the counter and I slid my hands under Randy’s naked arm pits. It took me almost twenty minutes to get his ass over to his car.  I opened the trunk with his body precariously balanced on my knee. Thankfully, it didn’t take me nearly as long to dump Randy’s body in the car.  I covered him up with some jackets and blankets he kept in case the Appalachian weather turned treacherous.  Fighting my instincts, I didn’t hit the gas Dukes of Hazzard-style.  I drove out of the trailer park at a normal speed.  No need to give anyone a reason to notice me.
+++++I drove for a while, aimless, just trying to process what I’d done. A few miles down the road the adrenaline started dying and I began swerving onto the gravely shoulder.  On the second swerve the steering lurched to the right and I heard a thumping sound.  Fuck! A flat was the last thing I needed.  I spotted a church up a ways and pulled into the parking lot.  As soon as I shut the car off my eyelids started to get heavy and I fell into a hard sleep.  I awoke to a knocking on my window and a plump face framed in red hair.
+++++“You ok, honey? Looks like you got a flat.
+++++“Wh-what?” I asked, trying to shake off my nap.
+++++“Your tire is flat…and your hands. Are you here for the Trunk or Treat?”
+++++“Wha—Yeah,” I said, looking at Randy’s dried blood on my hands. “Just part of my costume.  Halloween and all.    I was on my way to get some candy and I got this flat.  Figured there’d be people to help here.”
+++++“’Course, honey. We’ll help you once we get all set up.  You’re in a good spot right now so I’ll send  one of the men over once we get a bit more situated. Great costume!  Really gruesome! ”
+++++I flashed a weary smile and the woman scurried off toward a makeshift pile of hay bales. Over the next hour or so the parking lot filled up with minivans and pick-up trucks.  People busied around decorating their cars with hay, scarecrows and other Halloween-type stuff.  A few of them were dressed up.
+++++So as not to look suspicious, well any more suspicious than I already did, I popped the trunk and began tucking the jackets and blankets around Randy’s body. I left the head wound visible.
+++++“Wow, that’s amazing! It almost looks real,” said a woman dressed like a skeleton as she walked toward me, her hands full of bags of candy. “Brandy told me you was needing some candy.” She thrust three family-sized bags of mini-candy bars at me.
+++++“Thanks.”
+++++“That’s no problem, sweetie.   I have plenty.  Brought a bunch for the kids.”
+++++I tore the bags open and covered Randy’s body in Baby Ruths, Snickers and Three Musketeers.
+++++The kids started to show up as the sun dipped further down behind the mountains. Ole Randy got his fair share of “oohs” and “ahhs.”  Kids giggled as they reached for the candy and grazed Randy’s bare hands and feet.  A few skeptical parents gave me disapproving glances, but overall Randy and I were a hit. About eight-thirty the kids started to get sleepy and it looked as though things were starting to wind down. Everyone’d been having so much fun no one had come by to check on my tire.  I wasn’t going to take any more chances.  I threw the keys in the car and locked the doors.
+++++In all the commotion of packing up no one noticed me disappear into the woods behind the church.  Looking at the dried blood on my hands in the moonlight and picturing Randy still contorted in the car’s trunk covered in candy, I smiled.  All things considered, it had been a pretty good Halloween.