Category: Horror


Henry folded up the packing box and looked around the kitchen. He couldn’t help a little pride showing on his face at having finally finished. That was the last box. They were finally all moved into their first house as a family.

Teresa had gone out to pick up some dinner, Chinese, from a take-out place that one of their new neighbors had mentioned, and some celebratory wine for later that evening. Henry imagined how, once their daughter Gabriella was asleep, that the wine might lead to Teresa and he revisiting the conversation they’d started that morning, about christening their new home; surface by surface and in varying degrees of undress.

Henry was pulled out of his daydreaming revelry by the sound of Gabriella’s voice coming from down the hall. Gabriella was precocious, as four-year-olds can be. Teresa had mentioned that their little one had seemingly entered into the imaginary friend stage of childhood that some kids do, as she had heard Gabriella talking to an empty room on more than one occasion since they moved in.

Henry smiled and walked down the hall toward his daughter’s room, wishing to see such a precious moment for himself. Gabriella’s imagination astounded him sometimes, with the stories she would make up and the questions she would ask. He paused at Gabriella’s closed bedroom door and listened.

“I don’t have toys like that,” she said, matter-of-factly, “but I have a dragon named Hocus that you can play with.”

Henry’s smile widened.

“No.”

Henry thought maybe he could hear some rustling papers, like Gabriella was coloring with her new friend. “The girl’s my mom and the boy is my dad.”

Henry suppressed a giggle at the cuteness of the situation.

“No, they’re nice. They wouldn’t do something like that.”

Henry’s smile slightly faded.

Gabriella’s bedroom beyond the closed door went quiet. Henry began to smell a strange scent and he quickly opened Gabriella’s door.

His little girl looked up at Henry from a small pile of papers surrounding her and smiled at him.

“Hi, Daddy, are you done?” She got up and walked over to Henry, hugging his leg, “Can we play a board game now?”

Henry carefully took a small step back so that he could look down at her. “Gabriella, what is that smell? Did you get into your mother’s perfumes again?”

Gabriella’s smile folded up into a look that showed she remembered once getting into trouble for playing in her mother’s things without permission and she gave Henry a quick “No.” Then she tilted her little head to the left and sniffed, followed by a tilt to the right and sniff. “What smell, Daddy?”

Henry sniffed the room but the smell was gone.

“I –” he sniffed again to be sure, “never mind. I heard you talking to someone, though, and thought –” Henry stopped himself. He actually didn’t know what he’d been thinking or why he’d gotten so unnerved.

“Oh,” Gabriella said, “that’s the boy who lives here. He plays with me sometimes.”

“Gabriella, you know that it’s just you, me and Mommy living here.” Imaginary friends, to Henry, had suddenly become less precocious than, say, scary. The idea now made him feel that Gabriella was unsafe.

Gabriella seemed to weigh this statement for a second, her little girl’s mind allowing the truth of the situation.

“Well, he used to live here before we did, I guess. Maybe he still has a key?”

Henry didn’t respond. He was the adult, after all. No need to frighten his daughter with what he felt, particularly since he couldn’t explain these sudden scared feelings.

“He lives in our house with his mom. He said his dad used to be here, too, but now he can’t find him.” Gabriella continued as she dug out the Candy Land box from beneath a stack of books and toys, “He told me his mom has bad dreams in the daytime.” The feeling of fear crept back over Henry as he looked down at the pages on the floor where Gabriella had been sitting. They were awful images of dead bodies taken from countless magazines and newspapers. All of the terrible things that humans can do to one another, splayed on the floor like a mosaic of horror amidst his daughter’s Elmo and favorite Barbie.

“Daddy,” Gabriella asked, her face scrunched up quizzically as Henry felt the panic overwhelm him, “how come boys can turn blue?”

* * * * *

Teresa poured the wine again, refilling first Henry’s glass and then her own. Their Chinese food sat untouched on the dining room table, where she’d placed it upon returning home to Henry’s stack of death and gore pages.

She sipped her wine. All thoughts of a night of carnal pleasure with her husband, the night’s previous intent, had disappeared – the images of death had taken care of that – but seeing Henry so scared when she got home, the story he was telling, had caused her to drink the first glass too quickly. Her nerves were settling now and she wanted to keep a clear head.

“Gabriella had these?” Teresa asked as Henry returned from getting their daughter to sleep in their bed. Somehow their room had felt safer.

“It’s like I said,” Henry began, taking a healthy swig from his wine glass as well, “I heard her talking to someone and went into her room. She was looking at these on the floor when I came in.”

“Did she – I mean, is it possible she found them stuffed into one of the closets? Someplace we must’ve missed when we bought the house?”

Henry took a deep breath and exhaled. He finished his second glass of wine with a gulp. “I dunno. Maybe.”

Teresa took another sip of wine, letting her better logic overtake her wilder imaginings. Her rational mind slowly explaining away the This Is What You Should Do rules of every crappy horror movie she’d ever seen as nonsense. Henry seemed to be calming down, too.

“Gabriella was just so . . . creepy! The way she nonchalantly asked me about this kid being blue,” Henry shivered.

“I thought about that part, too,” Teresa said, “and I’d bet you anything it’s because we let her watch Avatar with us. Our last night in the apartment, remember?”

Henry smiled and cocked his head back in a sigh. “Avatar! I hadn’t even thought of the connection.” He finished off the wine bottle into his glass as he and Teresa gave over to giggles of relief.

“Kids do that,” Teresa laughed, “make those kinds of weird connections in the stories they make up. Pulling stuff from all over the place. If you’d asked her, I bet the boy had a tail.” Henry continued to laugh, albeit quietly so as to not wake Gabriella. “I mean, I don’t blame you,” Teresa continued, “for freaking out. Those pictures are awful and we should pitch them in the trash right now, but I think she just found them somewhere and didn’t understand them. We’ll talk to her about them in the –”

It was right then that an odor, the smell that Henry had first smelled in Gabriella’s room, overwhelmed the dining room.

“Oh, God,” Teresa said, covering her nose from the strong scent, “what is –“

Then, from their bedroom down the hall, from the master bath, they could hear the water blast on from the bathtub faucet. The sounds as if it were filling came down the hallway and it hit Henry, what the smell was.

What he’d smelled in Gabriella’s room earlier.

The overpowering scent now.

It was bubble bath soap.

The kind you use for a child’s bath.

“Mommy!” Gabriella screamed at the exact moment that the doors began opening and slamming shut all around the house.

Teresa toppled her chair over, hopping out of it. Henry knocked the table aside as both parents raced down the hall toward their bedroom.

The door was closed. The sound of the bathtub filling up was the only sound from behind it.

“Gabriella!” Teresa screamed as Henry kicked at the door to open.

“Teresa,” Henry kicked again and again, “it won’t – Gabriella!” he pounded on the door.

Silence.

The bedroom door opened.

The room was turned topsy-turvy; anything in it scattered or broken. Henry and Teresa ran in, scouring for any sign of Gabriella amidst the strewn clothes, bedclothes and broken lamps, only to come up empty-handed.

“Henry,” Teresa said, pointing to the closed bathroom door.

They couple went over to the door and turned the handle.

The bathroom was filled with steam, but they could each make out Gabriella sitting on the toilet with her legs drawn up to her chest. She was staring toward the bathtub. The shower curtain was drawn closed.

“His mommy was so scared, but,” Gabriella said, turning wide-eyed to her parents as Henry ran to her, “he can’t breathe.” Her eyes brimmed with tears.

Teresa let her hand fall gently from the top of her daughter’s head as her eyes looked toward the shower curtain.

Legs shaking, Teresa walked toward the bathtub.

She drew back the curtain.

This year for my October Friday flash pieces I’m doing homages to my favorite four Stephen King horror novels.

Last week was The Shining, which you can read here if you like: 217

As always, I hope you enjoy.

*     *     *     *     *

The dog couldn’t have known how his day would go, playing in the field as he was.  There was sunshine.  There was field.  There was rabbit.  Rabbit was fun to chase.  Rabbit was always fun to chase.

The bat flew into the small cavern’s wall.  Again.  Up was down, it seemed, and the bat thought the glimmering ray of sunshine streaming into its domain might possibly taste of red-heat-pain-shiny.

It wasn’t so much that the dog particularly wanted the rabbit, not really.  It was just so cocky with its bounce and dart and weave, its fluffy cottony tail and – oh! almost got it.  So close.

The bat twisted its head quickly, back and forth, the froth building up around its mouth like an overzealous child learning to brush their teeth.  It looked to its fellow bats, squinting its beady eyes in confused hate.

This rabbit was a quick one, the dog must give credit where it’s due.  Terribly fast.  But he thought he would wear it down eventually.  And then, once the rabbit was tired – when he caught it and won, the rabbit would lie down (the dog would flip it up in the air once or twice to make sure it was sleeping) and then he would bring the rabbit to his boy.  He loved his boy, more than a nice steak bone.  Well, just as much.  No, no, more than a steak bone.

The trembling. . .the red-heat-pain-shiny noise that the bat heard in its ears/head/wing/heart was BARKBARKBARK and it trembled and could not stop trembling.  The cave vibrated, the bat felt, with waves of thumping.

Oh no you don’t – dang it! – that rabbit bunnied its way down that hole.  But that wouldn’t stop the dog, no way.  Well, he’d just follow in and. . .nope.  Hole’s too small for that.  Well, the dog figured he’d just have to call the rabbit back.  This was no fair, after all, no fair at all for a chase, running where the bigger dog couldn’t run.  So he barked and he barked.

The fever rose up then in the bat.  Restlessness in all of his company.  Annoyance at the noise.  NOISE.  “Get the noise” the bat thought, “make it stop” thought the company.  And the bat knew that to stop the noise it must bite and scratch.  It followed the swell of bats that attacked in the dark, attacked the noise.  Maybe the bat could lose the trembling red-heat-pain-shiny in the blood.

The dog heard his boy calling him home and was happy to heed the call, trying his best to lick and groom his aching nose, his face.

Those funny-looking mice played too rough.

217

This year for my October Friday flash pieces I’m doing homages to my favorite four Stephen King horror novels.

As always, I hope you enjoy.

*     *     *     *     *

“Enjoy your stay!” the clerk says, handing you your room key.  Is it odd that the chipper tone of his voice in no way matches the haunted, hollow look in his eyes?

No matter.

Thanking him with a nod you gather your overnight bag and head for the lift.  As you wait you feel a chill run down your back, goosefleshing your arms.  Well, it is Colorado.  There’s bound to be a nip in the air.  You can pull a sweater out once you’re in your room.

The lift arrives, doors sliding open to reveal its operator standing attentively.  You look up and stifle a gasp.  For a second, merely the quickest flash, you would have sworn that the man’s face was. . .wrong, though you can’t explain it beyond that.

“Going up?” his game show host smile painted on.

You enter the lift, shaking the fading image of his jagged, tilting face dismissively from your mind.  You tell him your floor as he closes the lift’s doors, his eyes looking forward.

You feel the presence of others now, like the lift is overcrowded; forcing you to share space, share breathing air – arm to arm and crotch to butt.  Only there isn’t anyone else there but the operator.

The chill goes up your back again.

You hurry from the lift as it opens, unable to find the nerve to look back at it.  It must be the mountain air.  Making you think childish thoughts; seeing things, feeling things that aren’t there.

You’ll feel better once you’re in your room.

The hallway is a long one, the only sound the soft wooshing of your steps on the carpet.  Not a soul around.  Well, maybe souls but none inside a living body.

Stop it!  Why did you think that?  What a creepy thing to ponder.

Your hands give an involuntary shudder.  It’s because you’re so chilly, so unaccustomed to this climate.

Mountain air.

Wait, was that –

The peephole of that room as you walked by. . .the way the light from the other side of the door moved, blinked, like someone, someone inside that room was watching.

Watching you.

No!

Ridiculous.  You’re being silly.

You quicken your pace anyway, all but running until you get to your room, slide the key in the door, turn it and shut the door behind you.

You realize that you are gasping – completely out of breath.

Shh-hhh.  Shh-hhh.  Shh-hh.

Just relax.  Slow it down.  Close your eyes.  Breathe in, breathe out.  It’s okay.  There you go, getting back to normal.  You’re just tired is all.  A good night’s rest will do you.  There we go.

Only.

There’s a second faint sound now, isn’t there?  It’s music playing; big band.

Now a New Year’s Eve countdown, and

Shh-hhh.  Shh-hhh.  Shh-hh.

That’s not your breathing.  It’s not –

Shh-hhh.  Shh-hhh.  Shh-hh.

Something, something coming from the bathroom.  Water sloshing.  Is someone there?

Shh-hhh.  Shh-hhh. Shh-hh.

Is someone there?

Lord of the Night

So here it is, the last of my Halloween pieces paying tribute to the Universal Monsters.

If you have any interest in the other pieces:

The first was Frankenstein’s Monster, here.

Second, The Wolf-Man, here.

And up third, The Mummy, here.

As always, I hope you enjoy.

*     *     *     *     *

The Night belongs to monsters.

It is the folly of men that they forget this truth, allowing for sleep to come easily with dreams unguarded.

Windows unlatched.

Gu-gum…gu-gum…gu-gum…

He had heard her heartbeat drumming his invitation from the street below.  His lifeless lips parted at the thought of soft, warm flesh; his teeth, instantly aroused.  He knelt to grant his kiss, watching intently as her neck pulsed in time with the beating of her heart.

Gu-gum…gu-gum…gu-gum…

She stirred, ever so slightly as he tended her; heartbeat quickened with the hint of his touch.  He carefully wound his spirit through hers, softly exploring like a gentleman thief as he drank deeply from the source of her.

Gu-gum, gu-gum, gu-gum

He saw in her the beauty of life in the sunrise.  The glow of days yet to come burned a soft flame, all but extinguished by his shadow.

And still, he drank.  Her life raced to him, begging to be taken.

Gu-gumgu-gumgu-gum

He stopped, short of snuffing her flame completely, closing his eyes and his lips as he stood, shaking off that pull of life like an uncomfortable thought.  When once more his eyes were open, their steely gaze returned to her sleeping body.

He listened.

Gu-gum…gu-gum…gu-gum…

He slowly made his way back to the window, stopping to look back only once.

She was his now, as it should be.

As he wished it.

For the Night belongs to monsters.

And he was Lord of the Night.

Change

Another of my shorts celebrating the Universal Monsters in honor of Halloween.  The first, if you’re interested, was Frankenstein’s Monster, here.

Hope you enjoy.

*     *     *     *     *

 

The wind sounds a lonesome tune.

Wshhhhhhh.

Mourning at dusk, the Moon has no wish to incite the Change.  She can’t help that their cycles match.  No one asked her thoughts on the matter.  Does the Moon bring the Change or is that backward?

Everything is still.

Except the wind.

Wshhhhhhh.

Over the years he’s become accustomed to his joints popping; of blood boiling its passage through his veins as the beast’s coat arrives.

Of hearing nothing but heartbeats.

And the wind.

Wshhhhhhh.

But there’s no getting used to his mind’s behavior, as it crests the verge of no longer being his.

How it unfolds, slowly, filling with his heart’s blood until bursting, forcing the beast from the quiet, hidden cave in his mind.

Madness given form, dressed in nightmare.

Wshhhhhhh.

Finally, the Moon can wait no longer.  In her fullness their terms are met.  Would she weep for him, were she able?  Offer a balm for his weary soul?  He wondered sometimes.

But for naught.

For in the end, it is always the beast she chooses.

It is the beast she dances with as it howls.  As it hunts.

The wind serves as their tempo.

Wshhhhhhh.

Sour Mutters

My buddy Clint writes roleplaying games and Don’t Walk In Winter Wood is one of his latest ones.  It’s brilliant, as some of us discovered last night (though, we had a Wine and Winter Wood party, so we may not have fully discovered just how brilliant as, wine being what it is, we finished the wine before the game).  It’s not like a D&D type game, no.  It’s a story-telling game.  About spooky stuff.  If you’re anything like I was as a kid, you loved hearing ghost stories.  Well, in this game, we all sat around by candlelight and shared in telling a ghost story.  This is what came of it.  I cleaned it up and streamlined the scenario I wrote for the group a little, but this is the nuts and bolts of what happened. (Er, well, would have happened.  But, like I said.  Wine.)

It’s too long to be a flash piece, I know.  Apologies.  Hope you enjoy anyway.

*     *     *     *     *

Few ventured into Winter Wood.

Every villager, from childhood, knew the stories of those who crossed into that shadowy forest.  Legends grew in the telling, of demons and angry spirits, unseen observers and strange noises.

Of monsters.

Fear would not take Thatcher Drummond, however.  At thirty-five, nearly an old man in those days, Thatcher singlehandedly hunted Winter Wood for the good of the village, keeping their larder filled in preparation for New England’s harsh winters.

“I’m charmed!” he was fond of saying, “No evil thing, neither living nor dead, dares bar my path there.  Winter Wood holds no fear for me!”

Until the winter of 1738.

Two weeks before the snows were to arrive, rats had infested the larder, devouring the village’s source of life in the harsh cold.

Thatcher looked on it as a challenge.

“I’ll go this very morning, into the woods.  I’ll see to our survival.”

Gathering his equipment and accompanied by his faithful hound, Beauregard, Thatcher made off into Winter Wood, whistling a tune as he went and promising to return by day’s end.

Three days went by.  Thatcher had not returned.

Natalie, Thatcher’s sister, convinced herself that she would go into Winter Wood and look for her brother.  She called a meeting with the village elders to get their blessing and to see to it that someone looked after she and Thatcher’s place while she went to find her brother.

“I’ll come with you.” Benjamin, the blacksmith’s apprentice spoke up.  Natalie thanked him and turned to leave.

“As will I.” Josephine, wife of the town drunk said, standing up.

Confused but happy for the extra support, Natalie agreed and the trio left for Winter Wood.

The forest was cold as they entered, the bite of the cold on exposed flesh only heightened by the smell of dried, dead leaves on the forest floor.  The noise of their footsteps the only sound to be heard, the small group tightened their cloaks about them as they warily wandered down the only path they could make out.

Hours passed.

Natalie could feel someone watching her.  She turned her head quickly, trying to catch whatever was at the corner of her eye.  She saw nothing.

Josephine’s eyes darted back and forth, scanning the wilderness in front of her for sign of Thatcher.  He was always kind, Thatcher.  Not like some of the other villagers who mocked Josephine for being married to a drunk.  When Thatcher smiled at her, she felt warmth spread through her.  That warmth was the reason she kept the things that she and Thatcher did, in the dark, in the hidden, a secret.

Benjamin halted the group as they reached a creek, flailing his arms out to his side and stopping short, his eyes locked across the ice-filled brown water.

“The Lost Sisters.” He whispered.

There, at the water’s edge across from the trio, stood two young girls.  Only, not girls.  They were pale with moldy, peach pit eyes, set too far apart on their faces, and dirty rat teeth smiles that chittered.  Their too spindly arms twitched as they twisted their heads on too spindly necks like confused dogs, staring at the travelers.

Watch for the little one. She bites.

“Who was that!?” Natalie screamed as she looked at the madness across from her.

“Who was who?” Josephine turned, asking Natalie.

“I – I heard someone.  A whisper.”

Benjamin turned to Natalie only for a moment, but when he turned back, the Lost Sisters were gone.

“Sour Mutters.” He said, still looking across the creek, “Voices.  Whispers without bodies.  They mimic what they’ve heard here.  Try to ignore them.  No good can come from listening.”

They walked on as the path in front of them gradually disappeared.  Deciding to make camp, each ate their provisions quietly.  Natalie kept first watch, sitting by the fire and praying for her brother’s safe return from those wretched woods.

See you.

Natalie prodded the fire, trying desperately to listen to anything beyond the Sour Mutters.

Hiding, waiting.

Hungry.

Josephine dreamed.

In the dream she was back in the village, just outside Benjamin’s cabin.  She could hear someone speaking in an angry voice.

You know.  Everyone knows.  One mustn’t walk in Winter Wood.”

Josephine dared a peek into the window of Benjamin’s cabin in her dream, seeing a young, beautiful woman standing before a roaring flame in the fireplace.

“But I allowed him passage,” the woman continued, fuming, “to be the hero of his village, to feed you all, because he said he was mine.  That we belonged together.”  She pulled a burning log from the fire with her bare hand and turned toward Benjamin who, in Josephine’s dream, lay asleep in his bed, “He lied.”

As she watched the woman walk toward Benjamin, the flame on the log growing bigger, brighter, Josephine tried to wake up.  She didn’t want to see what was about to happen.  Couldn’t see it.  Wouldn’t see it.  She just wanted to wake up.  Benjamin screamed in her dream as the flames danced about his face, his hair.  The fire was a living thing, carving his flesh with burning, white-hot teeth.  The woman laughed.

Josephine retched as the smell of Benjamin hit her and then woke up to find Natalie trying to shake Benjamin awake.  He screamed the same scream she had just dreamt about.

Finally, Benjamin lay silent, lifeless – smoke from an unseen source poured out of his eyes, nose and mouth.  Natalie sat dumbstruck over his corpse.

It was then that Josephine saw Thatcher.  He was looking at her from just outside the firelight.  He looked lost. Confused.  He turned to stumble away into the night.

“Thatcher!” Josephine shouted, running into the woods after him.

“Josephine, wait!”  Natalie turned from Benjamin’s body as Josephine stepped out of sight, into the dark.

Josephine ran toward shadows that looked like Thatcher, only to turn and see him lumber off in a different direction by the light of the moon.  If she could just catch him.  Just get him home.  She heard Natalie shouting her name but dismissed her.  She would save Thatcher on her own.

Within minutes of leaving the fire’s light and with no moon to see by, Natalie had completely lost Josephine in the forest’s shadows.  She continued screaming after her in a vain hope that she could call Josephine back, but to no avail.

Natalie was alone in Winter Wood.

Josephine followed Thatcher by the full moon for what seemed like hours as he stayed just out of reach.  Finally, they came upon a rock face and in it, a cave.  Josephine could make out firelight as it danced within and she watched as Thatcher stumbled inside.

“We’ll get warm in the cave,” Josephine thought, “I’ve saved him!”

As she stepped into the cave, Josephine saw a woman, sitting with her back to Josephine, warming herself by the fire.  She didn’t know how she knew it, but she knew this was the woman from her dream.

“Come in, child,” the woman said, her voice cold now, ancient, “warm yourself.”

Josephine looked around the small cave.  The rock walls were covered in red.  Covered in meat.

“Yes,” the woman spoke again, “he said we belonged together.  He said he was mine.  But he lied.  He laid with another.  He laid,” the woman spun around, “with YOU!”

Josephine’s scream echoed into the night.

Bowwrow!

“Beauregard!” Natalie yelled, hearing her brother’s dog just through the trees, “You’re never far from Thatcher!  Thatcher!” She yelled into the moonless night, “Thatcher!”

Bowwrow!

Natalie ran toward the sound of Beauregard’s baying.

“Thatcher!  Beauregard!” she tripped, uncaring as she hurried through the trees.

Bowwrow!

Natalie came into a clearing suddenly.  She could hear water.  Suddenly she felt hands all over her, pulling her down as she screamed.  Chittering rat teeth sank into her face.

Watch for the little one.  She bites.

There are one and ten brave souls, waiting beneath the moon.  Clara, their only teacher, went missing last Wednesday after church choir practice.  They found her car abandoned at the edge of a nearby creek; keys in the ignition, purse in the passenger seat.  Nothing missing except Clara.

The mountains, surrounding, whistling a dead man’s tune in the crisp, cold air.  One and ten souls, braver than most, standing guard in the shadows of their campfires, waiting beneath the moon.  A cracking log, spitting embers into the night, signaling the stars, saying “Wait, wait for me!” like a little brother left behind.

There is a motorcycle rumbling, coming up the country road, interrupting the mountains’ whistling.  Its rider arriving is emboldening one and ten brave souls to ask of themselves more than they ever have, waiting beneath the moon.  One brave soul, head covered in a Coca-Cola hat, standing before the ten other, addressing them in the firelight.

“I told you he’d come.  Jackie, get the hemp ready.  We’re going to save your sister.”

There’s a young woman digging in her backpack as the rider is approaching.  As she’s pulling out a length of rope, the motorcycle is stopping before the one and ten brave souls, gathered in anticipation beneath the moon.  The rider is pulling off his helmet, turning off the motorcycle and then extending an arm to the approaching man in the Coca-Cola hat.

“Mr. Coalstream,” the man in the Coca-Cola hat is saying, clasping the rider’s forearm, “I can’t thank you enough for coming.  I didn’t know who else to turn to.  Who else to get involved with. . .well, with what we’re dealing with here.”

Getting off his motorcycle, the rider is replying “No need for formalities.  Jedediah’s fine.  You’ve got the fires burning oil?” Jedediah’s asking, looking around the area.  “Five pits, all burning oil and birch wood?”

“We do, sir,” the girl called Jackie is answering, holding up her small length of rope while trying to put loose strands of hair behind her ear, “and I’ve got the hemp rope here.  Three feet is all you needed?”

The man, Jedediah, taking the rope from Jackie, examining it closely, seeming satisfied, is walking around Jackie.  Ignoring her, Jedediah is looking around to the other faces of this group, checking their fingertips and sniffing their hair.  He is taking the hemp rope and sweeping along the ground until dust clouds, like frenzied freed spirits, are dancing amidst the smoke of the fires.

A wolf is howling in the forest of the mountains.  Followed by a second wolf.  There’s a third.  Now a chorus of wolves, howling at the night, at the moon, at those standing around the fires.  A flicker of fear is passing among the one and ten brave souls.  If fear is in Jedediah, it is not showing.

Jedediah is positioning the men and women of this group two to a fire, having them sit cross-legged with the fire between them.  He is placing Jackie in the middle of the circle of fires.

“Can’t I be by a fire?  I want to help.”  Jackie is saying, tearing up as she does so.

Jedediah is pulling some cloth from his pocket and wiping his hands with it.  Looking into Jackie’s eyes, he is folding the cloth into a long triangle and now tying it around the top of his head.  The howling wolves sound closer.  There is anger in their song.

“Clara is trapped, Jackie, but I know she can still hear what’s happening now.”

Jedediah is circling, slowly circling, Jackie.  The whites of his eyes begin slowly disappearing into the darkness of his skin, looking to Jackie like his dark pupils are expanding, making her feel afraid.

“Wh–what are you doing?” she is asking Jedediah, spinning along with him as he is circling her.

The wolves sound closer still.  Their high-pitched wails sounding more and more like dead things, hiding outside of the fire’s light, explaining their torment in the only way they know how.  Jedediah is taking a step back from Jackie now, reaching back into his pocket.

“You were too jealous of Clara, weren’t you, Jackie?  You felt stuck in a small town with no prospects and no talent, didn’t you?”  Jedediah is pulling a black harmonica from his pocket.  “But Clara, she’s a different story.  She has the love of the community.  Suitors lined up from here to two counties over.”  He is blowing a quick, sad note on the black harmonica.

Jackie is fondling the stretch of rope, looking nervously to see if the others can hear as they sit catatonic by their fire pits.  The wailing of wolves is upon them.  Jackie is suddenly looking over Jedediah’s shoulder to almost see a small, red-skinned man, his gray hair in long braids, standing naked just outside the edge of firelight; melding with the night shadows, mixing between physical form and nightmare.  Feeling empowered, Jackie is no longer needing to keep up pretenses.

“I hated Clara,” Jackie is smiling a toothy smile, “so much.  She had what I wanted, so I offered her up to any dark god that would have her.  Now, she’s gone and people will notice me.”

“I’ve nearly undone what you did to your sister.” Jedediah is grim, “Novices always mess up their offerings.  You really shouldn’t have played with magic.”

“Novices?!”  Jackie is laughing a crazed cackle to the heavens, “You think I’m a novice?  I may not have understood what your little plan was tonight, but it isn’t going to work!  This is nylon, stupid!  It isn’t hemp rope!”  Jackie is trying to throw the length of rope at Jedediah.  She is looking confused at the rope staying attached to her hand.

“I know.”  Now Jedediah is playing the black harmonica.  A blues tune never meant for the ears of man.

“What is happening?  What are you doing?! Stop!” Jackie is screaming as the rope is working its way over her fingers, consuming its way down her arm like a half-starved constrictor.  Her shoulder is popping, dislocating as the rope swallows its way toward her head and over, muffling her screams and finally bursting her skull.  Within a minute, the being known as Jackie is gone, leaving in her place only a length of rope.

Jedediah is ending his song on the black harmonica.  He is walking over to where the rope is and, picking it up, heading to the edge of the firelight with it.  There, the almost man is holding out its almost hand.  Jedediah is giving it the length of rope that is now Jackie.

“I already have someone waiting for Clara at the creek where you got her.  Clara better be there.  Don’t forget,” Jedediah is saying, tapping the black harmonica in his hand, “I know other songs.”

The almost man is giving a slow nod and disappearing back into the mountains, the sound of rattlesnakes slithering on sand its accompaniment.  The brave souls, who now only number ten, are beginning to move in the fresh morning light as if they are waking from a deep sleep.  The man in the Coca-Cola hat, seeing that Jackie is no longer among them, knows that the plan worked.  That this stranger with the black harmonica saved Clara.

He must keep his gratitude, though, or whisper it into the wind.

The man known as Jedediah Coalstream is gone.

Travel Costs

The land of Dream, as vast as it is, is located on the banks of a realm even more infinite.  The origin of every thought stems from this unnamed eternity; the birthplace of monsters and gods.

We, as humans, upon falling asleep, demand direct deposit onto the beaches of Dream, so as to conjure our reveries from its copious dunes.

Alas, we do not know the way to Dream.

To traverse the unnamed eternity, we cross in the vessel of the Stygian.  Everyone knows that the first dream of each night’s sleep goes to the Ferryman (it’s only upon Death, the final sleep, that he deals in currency), but some mistakenly believe that this is the charge for the use of his ferry, which is not the case.  The ride is free.

The payment is for safe passage, to and from, untouched by what dwells along the way.

*     *     *     *     *

Nancy had the most vivid dreams before the car accident.  Each night she’d fall asleep wondering what amazing adventure she would end up having; a night of dancing with princes and thieves in an array of radiant clothes woven in colors one only finds in dreams, roller coasters that touched the clouds only to rush down through the bowels of the Earth.

Since the accident, however, Nancy hadn’t been sleeping well.  The doctor said there was no concussion; to take the next couple of days off of work and to get plenty of bed rest.  Try as she may, it took Nancy forever to go to sleep now, and when she did, she never felt rested upon waking.

She no longer dreamed.

Nancy noticed the bites after the first night, assuming that a rogue mosquito had found its way into her room and had had its fill of her bare legs as she lay sleeping.  She did find it odd that the bites didn’t itch, though, but were quite tender.

She found a bigger bite, about the size of a quarter, on the back of her neck after the second night.  It was ugly, purple and black.  Nancy felt queasy and couldn’t think straight.

Insomnia set in the third night.  Nancy had a heightened sense of fear that she couldn’t explain.  On edge, she turned off her phone and watched Disney cartoons, trying to find a rational explanation as to what she was afraid of.  It was just something.  No more substantial than out there.

Nancy’s hands trembled.  Her eyes were bloodshot.

After a momentary lapse of insomnia’s thrall, Nancy screamed awake in pain.  A mouth-sized bite’s worth of her left arm was missing.  Blood was streaming from the wound, coating her bed.  She turned her phone back on and called 911.  The paramedics arrived and carted Nancy off to the hospital.

Nancy lied in the hospital bed, looking down at her gauze-wrapped arm.  She hadn’t let them relieve her pain with shots, even going so far as to deny surgery to keep from falling asleep.  She looked to the bites on her legs, felt where she knew the one on her neck to be.

Another doctor came in then.  This one, Nancy knew, was a shrink.  He asked how she was feeling.  Fine, she said.  He said he knew she had been in a car accident recently.  Yes, she said.  The doctor asked if Nancy knew what had happened to her arm.  I can’t dream, she told him.  It was the only truth she understood.

The doctor had injected Nancy before she knew what was happening.  In her sleep deprivation, she had been too wrapped up in the dripping of her I.V.  As the room started to get foggy, less defined around the edges, Nancy tried to explain to the doctor about dream-rendered colors and roller coasters in the clouds until, finally, she was asleep.