Mordecai’s Surrender

The last soldier in Mordecai’s regimen fell just a few feet in front of him. Mordecai immediately removed his helmet and dropped his sword. With both hands in the air, he called out, “I surrender! I surrender!”

But as he looked forward to where the enemy army once stood, all he saw was a single soldier, the one who just struck down that last soldier in Mordecai’s regimen. Mordecai looked all around, trying to find the rest of the invading army, but all who was left was the last soldier standing in front of him.

The last soldier removed his helmet, revealed a bright red beard, long and braided. He looked around too, trying to find the rest of Mordecai’s army. When it dawned upon him that Mordecai was all that was left, he locked eyes with him and called, “Wait, you surrender? What do you mean you surrender?”

Mordecai knew exactly what he meant. His army negotiated the release of many of its soldiers from the enemy’s captivity. And from what Mordecai’s heard, the enemy’s prisoner camps are actually really nice. He heard of straw beds twice as comfortable as the thin cots the soldier slept on. The enemy’s territory to the south was well known for its array of fruits, so the prisoners were fed with sweet exotic flavours they never tasted before. And the weather at the prisoner camps always seemed bright and sunny and warm. It was raining on this day on the battle field. Mordecai could see his breath as he heaved each of his breaths, anticipating his capture.

“I mean I surrender,” Mordecai continued. The mix of battle sweat moisture in the hair clung to his dark beard, making it feel heavier and heavier. He was exhausted. All he wanted was to rest on a soft bed made of straw. “You have clearly defeated my army, I anticipate your reinforcements are on their way. I surrender.”

The soldier with the red beard looked behind himself, then back to Mordecai. “No no,” he began. “No reinforcements. But I can see by your grand armour and your well crafted weapons that you could easily best me in one-on-one combat. I surrender to you, good sir.”

Mordecai couldn’t believe that this man was trying to surrender to him. He had never seen his army’s prison camps. He imagined the strict admirals of his army constructing the camps to be complete with the most grueling labour any man could endure. He pictured enemy soldiers sleeping on jagged rocks and eating nothing but the dust and mud caked to their boots.

“Sir,” Mordecai said. “You don’t want to surrender to my army. Our camps are the kind of living hell that could be only imagined by the most perverse of damaged invalids. You are much better off returning to your general and fighting another day.”

The man with the red beard crooked his head to the side and squinted his eyes, as if he were attempting to read an abacus. “Have you ever actually seen your camps?” he asked. “Believe me, when we negotiate for the release of our captured troops, they re-enter battle with the energy and vigor of a month’s long rest. We know of the fine meats and spices your farmers produce in your area to the north. And that’s exactly what you feed your prisoners. Believe me, this is most beneficial for both of us. If you bring me in as a prisoner, you will receive ranks of valour and I will get the kind of rest I have been craving for years.”

Mordecai felt for the man. He knew of the pain and exhaustion this war was causing. But Mordecai didn’t care about a rank of valour. That would only mean more battles, more frontlines, more troops to command, more work. But after talking with this man for a few moments, he knew he didn’t want to put him through the same thing. There had been enough bad blood and blood shed during the many years of this war anyways. There had to be a way they could both be captured by each other.

“I know!” the man with the red beard yelled. “How far back is your general?”

Mordecai had to think about this for a moment. “A few yards to the north,” he answered. “Why?”

“Mine is just a few yards to the south,” the man with the red beard said. “We could go to each other’s generals, say our entire armies had been defeated, and surrender that way. I mean, I imagine this is why you tried surrendering first and have been hesitant to take on my offers.”

“Indeed,” Mordecai replied. “But won’t the generals have a few questions as to why we’re just walking up and surrendering? I mean, if either of us were all that’s left, wouldn’t we just return to our own generals?”

“We could say we got lost,” he explained. “And we knew the only way we could find our ways home would be through the mercy of our enemies and the generosity of our admirals. They would have to take pity on us then. Besides, the leverage of a captured troop is worth a lot in this war. Did you know my land’s population is half of what it was when this war started?”

“Really?” Mordecai was shocked at this. The admiral’s messages had always been that the south’s armies had only been growing stronger and that they needed more troops. This is why Mordecai joined the war effort. “I wonder what our population numbers are now.”

“But you see what I mean,” the red bearded man continued. “Our generals would absolutely take each other prisoner, we would both finally get some rest and relaxation time, and our admirals would absolutely negotiate for our safe returns. This will work.”

From there, the two men nodded to one another and, without another word, walked past each other in opposite directions to their opporite camps where their opposite generals stood waiting for either victorious troops or news of defeat. Mordecai came over a tall him and deep within a valley stood a small camp. There were maybe twenty men standing around, some were sharpening weapons and hammering plate metal armour. Others were huddled over tables reading maps and placing figurines determining strategy.

There was a moment when all work at the camp ceased and twenty or so pairs of eyes all fixed on Mordecai. His immediate reactions was to raise his arms, demonstrating defeat, and calling out, “I surrender!”

Mordecai walked slowly down to the camp. The men around formed a group in front of him, all staring at him. None of them were armed or ready to fight. They knew he was easily outnumbered and there would be no point in making any sort of move of aggression. The men gathered and watched more out of curiosity then out of any need to defend their base.

Another man with a long red beard walked to the front. Mordecai assumed correctly that this was the general. He was more portly than the man with the red beard Mordecai met on the field. His voice bellowed a much lower tone as well.

“Did you say you surrender?” the general asked.

“Yes, sir,” Mordecai answered.

“Where are the rest of my men?”

“All dead, sir. I’m the last to remain alive on the field.”

“Then why not return to your general?”

“Dead as well, sir. The battle front moved very far to the north. Your men did quite well in the fight. We were all along the battle fields, the next thing I knew, the battle moved to our camp. The enxt thing I knew after that, everyone was dead except me,” Mordecai quickly lied, recalling the conversation he had with the man on the field and adding his own colour to the tall tale.

“I see,” the general remarked. “And I imagine that surrendering to me and letting your admiral bargain for your life and freedom is your best bet of getting home?”

“Indeed, sir,” Mordecai said. “Though I’ve heard quite terrifying things about your camps. I’m quite fearful of what I will encounter.”

The men around the camp laughed, as if they all had the same discussions that Mordecai had with the man on the field. They knew he was looking for a quick vacation, and appreciated the way he played up the situation to make it not seem so sneaky that he was looking for a nice rest.

It was three weeks before the exchange for the two prisoners finally took place. Mordecai spotted the man who he discussed his plan for a quick vacation from the war with. They were both standing in front of their opposite generals. A few other infantry stood behind the generals, as was the custom for a prisoner exchange.

The man with the red beard nodded at Mordecai. “How was your rest my friend?”

“It was wonderful!” exclaimed Mordecai. “I haven’t felt this energetic in months. Did you know the straw beds in your prison camps have bits of cotton between the straw? It was like a real mattress.”

“Really?” the red bearded man answered. “That’s fantastic. Did you know your prison serves three hot meals each day? Each meal with a different meat. I have only been eating cold oats mixed in milk for years now. It was really wonderful.”

“Do you know where you’ll be assigned next?” Mordecai asked.

“I believe there’s an Eastern front lacking a few soldiers that I’m headed to,” he explained.

“Oh yes, I know of that one as well,” Mordecai answered. “I’ll be joining that front in about one week.”

“Excellent,” the red bearded man said. “Do you know how many troops?”

“Around 200,” Mordecai replied. “Our forces are running thin.”

“Indeed,” the red bearded man said. “Our numbers are dwindling as well.”

There was a moment of silence, then Mordecai piped up and said, “There’s a large forest near that front, isn’t there?”

“Indeed.”

“Lots of trees and brush,” Mordecai continued. “Two men could easily get lost in there, even during a battle.”

“Quite,” the red bearded man nodded, understanding what Mordecai was thinking. “Could get lost there for the duration of an entire battle, couldn’t you?”

“Indeed,” Mordecai smiled.

“See you in a week,” his smile glistened through the red follicles around his mouth.

“See you in a week,” Mordecai smiled.

Willow’s Peak

Jeannine had never heard of the town Willow’s Peak. Something about the name didn’t feel right to her the first time she heard it. The name wasn’t particularly ominous and she couldn’t compare it to the name of any town from a horror movie or book that she recognized. But she ran the name in her mind over and over again, Willow’s Peak, trying to place why it gave her a tight feeling in her stomach. Why it made her freeze in place and tense up, terrified that every breath she pulls into her lungs will set off whatever dreadful apparition around her, pulling out every iota of fear within her.

The first time she heard that dreadful name, Willow’s Peak, was at school when she was still at Pine Street Elementary. The kids would spend time during recess hanging upside down on the monkey bars yelling things like, “If you hang upside down long enough, you’ll go into Willow’s Peak.” Or sliding down the slides yelling, “If you slide fast enough, you’ll fall into Willow’s Peak.” Or swinging on the swings yelling, “If you swing high enough, you’ll land in Willow’s Peak.” Every kid tempted fate, hanging upside or charging at the slides or swinging so high the chain almost wraps around the metal poles, but no kid ever wound up in Willow’s Peak. At least not through the playground.

When junior high came around, Willow’s Peak wasn’t a game anymore. Now, it was a mystery. Like the name should only be whispered by ghosts and no living person should ever hear the name. Jeannine would overhear other kids talking about Willow’s Peak, saying things like, “I heard it’s actual name is Widow’s Peak, because of how many men died there when the mine caught fire.” Or, “You know there’s still people living in Willow’s Peak, but they all live underground and only come out at night. That’s why our parents only ever drive through there during the day.” Jeannine knew the other kids at Mountain Pass Junior High probably didn’t know what they were talking about. But, ever since Jeannine and her dad moved to the town of Mountain Pass while she was in elementary school, the name Willow’s Peak seemed like it appeared everywhere she went.

Then there was the weekend her family had to go to Willow’s Peak. Her dad’s work had a new project there. They were going to tear down all the old homes and buildings in Willow’s Peak and rebuild it as a new part of Mountain Pass. Jeannine didn’t feel right about going to Willow’s Peak and tried to convince her dad to let her stay home for the weekend while he went out there to start planning the teardowns.

“Come on, kiddo,” her dad said. “It’s going to be fun. No one has lived in Willow’s Peak for decades! It’s a genuine ghost town. It’s something worth experiencing before it’s torn down.”

“What do you mean a ghost town?” Jeannine asked, wondering if some of the kids at school had been right to be fearful of this place.

“There aren’t literal ghosts there, if that’s what you’re thinking,” her dad laughed. “It just means that the town was abandoned and no one lives there but all the old buildings are still standing, like time froze everything in place. They’re neat to explore. I promise there’s nothing scary about it.”

“Why is it abandoned?” Jeannine asked.

“Well,” her dad began. “It was a mining town a long time ago. Probably sixty or seventy years ago. Iron or coal or something. And the mine ran out of whatever was being dug out of it. It was the only industry in the town, so when people started losing their jobs they all just left and moved to another town that did have work for them.”

This explanation seemed perfectly reasonable to Jeannine. Her dad knew these kinds of things really well. He had been redeveloping neighbourhoods and towns for years. When it came to information about an area around any town, especially Mountain Pass, her dad’s word was always reliable.

Suddenly, Jeannine was excited for this trip to Willow’s Peak. The name still didn’t sit right in the pit of her stomach, but she fought against it and tried to ignore the ominous sense that something sinister was constantly hanging above her, looking down and waiting for its opportune time to strike. Ignoring that feeling became easier and easier as the weekend she would spend in Willow’s Peak came closer and the excitement of spending a weekend not at home by herself studying or reading books. She loved studying and loved reading, but knew that a weekend trying something else would be a welcome change.

The Saturday morning that Jeannine and her father left for Willow’s Peak was sunny and hot. Jeannine thought about how odd it was to be this warm this far into October. But decided not to think about it too much and instead enjoy the weather for the drive out of town. There was a thick forest between Mountain Pass and Willow’s Peak and Jeannine was looking forward to seeing all the leaves in different fall colours. She had a book picked out for when staring at the leaves would get tiresome. But the wooded area between Mountain Pass and Willow’s Peak wasn’t as bright and colourful as Jeannine expected.

The closer that her father drove out of town and towards Willow’s Peak, the darker the sky suddenly became. Thick, dark grey clouds built up in the sky about them. The thick forest didn’t any sign of leaves anywhere. Instead, the decayed, grey bark stood decrepit against the darkened sky. The bare branches and gnarled trunks weren’t what Jeannine normally remembered from driving through this are before to go to other town outside of Mountain Pass. She wondered about Willow’s Peak, how this was the first time she and her father would be exploring there and how this was the first time she had seen the forest along the highway out of town look so horrific.

As they drove along the highway, Jeannine noticed a bit of a mist in the air. It seemed to be getting thicker as they drew closer towards Willow’s Peak. Her father turned off the main highway and onto the side road that would take them into Willow’s Peak and Jeanine immediately noticed how much thicker the mist had become.

She unrolled her window and tried to smell the air. It didn’t smell like any mist or fog she had ever smelled. The nearby forest always gave the mist and fog around Mountain Pass a sweet dewy smell that Jeannine always loved. This fog, which was only getting thicker, smelled smokier to Jeannine. She could tell it wasn’t smoke, though. She had an allergy to smoke that would cause her to cough and give her a rash.

Strangest of all was how her dad didn’t seem to notice. He just kept driving, staring straight ahead out of the window. He would look over to Jeannine occasionally and smile, but said nothing the whole drive. Jeannine didn’t mind this, she was big on talking either and wanted more to just read her book and stare out the window in silence. But her dad would always try to break the silence with something. He would have at least brought up the fog. Her dad loved mentioning things he saw along the road, be it animals or weather or even what the highway signs said. This time, he was totally silent.

They drove past the welcome sign that said, “Willow’s Peak, Where You’re Always Home,” came quickly after came into what Jeannine deduced to be the town centre. The buildings that lined the streets were a couple of stories tall, the kind that had a storefront in the bottom half and an apartment or small office in the top half. The buildings had wooden signs hanging from chains on long metal bars. Each wooden sign had a different name like, “Wilson’s Grocery Store,” and, “McAllister Law Offices.” Every business had a person’s name on it.

Her dad stopped the car in front of a building with a wooden sign that said, “Robert’s Real Estate.” As he stopped the car and pulled the key from the ignition, he looked to Jeannine, smiled, and got out of the car and went into the building.

Jeannine tried calling out to him as he walked into the building, hoping to figure out what was wrong and why he was acting this way. But she got no reaction from her father. Figuring that she didn’t call out loud enough, she got out of the car and stepped towards the building. She stopped for a moment and looked up and down the empty, grey streets. The road was cracked all over and had weeds growing out between the splits in the concrete. The fog was heavy in the town leaving a grey hue on all the buildings along the block that Jeannine could still see. A cold wind blew through, sending shivers through Jeannine as she stood staring at the building her father walked into. Something was telling her to stay out of the building. It was that same feeling she had when she would think about the town’s name before. That dreadful, ominous feeling that she was being watched or stalked or hunted. But she had to know why her dad was so quiet throughout their drive. She knew something was wrong.

As she approached the door, she noticed a white flake fall in front of her face. She wondered if her warm autumn stay had suddenly turned to an early winter. She held out her hand to catch one of the flakes, and when she did she noticed that the flake wasn’t cold or wet. It was dry and it crumbled when she ran her finger over it. It left a grey smear along her hand where she once held the flake. She turned to look out into the street again and noticed the flakes were falling all over, slowly and gently like an early snow.

The first thing Jeannine noticed when she entered the building was how dark it was. She wondered how her dad navigated through this building. Directly in front of her was a stairwell that went up to the second level. The stairwell was against the right wall and Jeannine inspected the old, crumbling red brick and old smears of cement. To her left was an opening that looked like it would have been an old office. There were desks all over that still had stacks of paper on top of them. A small hint of light shone through the front window, between the half open blinds.

She approached one of the desks near the window and started rummaging through some of the papers on top. They looked like business documents that would have been written on an old typewriter. The headings on each of them said things like, “Willow’s Peak Real Estate Report September 1955.” Underneath the stacks of paper, Jeannine found a newspaper with a thick black and bold headline that read, “Mine Fire and Collapse Injures Workers, Many Feared Dead.” Jeannine looked at the date of the newspaper: October 10, 1955.

The pit of her stomach tightened as she read the newspaper headline over and over again, making sure she understood what it said. She couldn’t believe that some of the kids at school were right about the mine fire. It actually did happen. She wondered if her father knew about, or if he simply held back that information to not scare her. She folded the newspaper and slid it into her backpack and continued wandering through the office space, trying to find her father.

The bottom half of the building proved to be empty. Jeannine walked up to the stairwell to the second floor and stood by the bottom step. She didn’t know why she was freezing in place. The long, dark stairwell that she was sure led to where her father was loomed over her. At the top of the stairs, she could see a window giving off a glint of light to the second floor. Jeannine’s eyes fixed on the window and she stared as she tried to muster the courage to walk up the stairs. As she stared, the window started to look like it was reflecting two round objects. The round objects became clearer and clearer to Jeannine and started taking the shape as a set of eyes. Then the reflection blinked.

Jeannine’s heart felt like it suddenly sunk to the bottom of her stomach. She gripped the bannister of the stairwell, feeling like her legs may give out on her at any second. The eyes on the window looked like they were staring down the stairs, directly at Jeannine. The feeling on a hand lightly grazing Jeannine’s arm caught her attention and she quickly looked at her arm and behind where she was standing. There was nothing except for the hairs along Jeannine’s arms standing on its ends. She looked back to the window and the image of the eyes was gone.

“The darkness must have been playing tricks on my eyes,” Jeannine said out loud, hoping talking to herself would help keep her nerves steady. “The cold breeze from outside must have tickled my arm and given me that scare. Dad, are you up there?!”

There was no answer from upstairs. Jeannine figured her dad must be in a meeting and can’t hear anything outside of whichever room he was in. Gripping the stairwell’s bannister, Jeannine pulled herself towards the steps and forced her legs up each individual step, slowly.

Jeannine was out of breath by the time she made it to the top of the steps. She walked up to the window and looked out onto the town. She could see right across the town centre and into some of the neighbourhoods in the distance. Further away, Jeannine could barely make something out through the fog. She couldn’t tell what it was at first. It looked black and was in the side of a hill. “That must be the mine,” she said to herself, still hoping talking out loud will keep her calm.

The floors creaked loud with each step Jeannine took across to the only door she saw on the second floor. The door was shut and Jeannine could see the pile of dust on the doorknob and on the floor in front of the door. She wasn’t sure if her dad was in this room. It looked like no one had been through that door since the mine fire. But she saw her dad walk in this building, and unless there was some secret passage that she was missing, this was the only place he could be.

The doorknob was cold to Jeannine’s touch. It squeaked loudly as she turned it and the door creaked even louder as it swung open into the room. She stepped into the room and saw more desks, just like the ones she saw downstairs. There was another window that gave just enough light into the room that Jeannine could navigate her way through. The creaks in the floor echoed through the room and filled Jeannine’s ears before she stopped near the middle of the room and looked all around at the empty desks with only a few papers lying on top. It was another empty room and Jeannine had no clue where her father could possibly be.

The creaking of the loud filled the room with noise once again and ended with a thunk and a click of the door closing. Jeannine stood completely still, staring into the room, terrified to turn around and look at the closed door. She tried to convince herself that the wind caught the door and pushed it shut. But she looked at the window in the room and saw it was closed. She remembered how the door swung open into the room when she came through, so it wasn’t pushed from the other window either.

That twisting feeling in her stomach, that terrified feeling that someone is standing behind you, watching you and waiting for you to move filled Jeannine. Her limbs started vibrating with nervous energy, she could feel her hands trembling and her knees shaking. She thought about trying to run to the door, getting around whatever was behind her. She noticed how cold the room was and how that make her shivering and shaking worse. Then she felt the warm breath trickle along the back of her neck.

Jeanine turned and ran for the door screaming, without even looking at anything else in the room. She made her way through the door, down the stairs, and back outside again. She stopped out of breath and looked around. First she noticed everywhere was covered in ashy the flakes that were falling before. The next thing she noticed was her father’s car was gone. There were no tire tracks, nothing through the ash covered concrete that would tell her where her father went. It was just gone.

Knowing that someone was still in that building stalking her, Jeannine ran down the street, calling out for help in case anyone else working with her father was still in the town. Her voice echoed through the empty streets to no response. She was on her own, though she knew she wasn’t totally alone.

The smell of smoke filled the air, stronger than she had noticed it before. She looked over to the hill where she thought she saw the mine. Instead of seeing the small black opening into the hill she saw, Jeannine saw a faint orange glow in the distance, cutting through the grey fog. She wondered if her father and his business partners went over there to inspect the mine as part of the area redevelopment. So she walked through the ash covered streets, towards the hill, using the light in the distance as her guide.

It took about five minutes of walking for Jeannine to exit the town’s centre area of old shops and offices and enter the neighbourhoods where homes were abandoned more than half a century before. The houses weren’t disheveled or dilapidated, as Jeannine would have expected from a town that has been uninhabited for this long. Instead, the houses looked to be in perfect condition, like time hadn’t touched a single home in these neighbourhoods since the day the mine caught fire. From what Jeannine could tell, the only significant change these houses had experienced was the thick layer of ash built up on them from the flakes falling from the sky.

Jeannine stopped at one row of houses and looked down the block. If she didn’t know she was already in Willow’s Peak, she would have sworn it was the exact same block she and her dad lived on in Mountain Pass. She counted the houses on either side of the block and followed the numbers on each house, every one of them matching up exactly to the houses back on the block that Jeannine had gotten to know so well.

Her curiosity became too much to bear as she ventured down the street to find the house that would match the one she called home. A quick turn around a bend in the block, just her block back at home, and she was standing in front of number 17, the number that matched her house. Everything about it was the exact same: the brown garage door, the large front window, the two windows on the second floor that looked into the bedrooms, even the dark brown of the shingles on the roof were the exact same.

As she stared up, she saw one of the curtains move up on the second floor. She realized that if this were her house, it would have been her room. Through the curtains, she could see a faint shadow that looked like the shape of a person. The curtains kept swinging, as if someone were playing with them. Jeannine’s eyes stayed fixed on the window above her, trying to catch a glimpse of whoever was up there.

When her eyes finally moved back down to the front window, Jeannine saw a face of a woman staring at her through the window. The face was blue with a touch of silver, its eyes were black and empty, and its mouth hung open, stretching every part of its face. The face began to fade and in its place was a thick foggy condensation on the window. Lines began appearing through the condensation, as if a finger were writing a message in the fog. The message became clear as the letter spelling out LEAVE THIS TOWN appeared on the window.

Though the face was gone, Jeannine could still feel it staring at her. Though its eyes were empty, Jeannine knew it was staring directly at her. She wasn’t as terrified as she was back at the office building, but Jeannine knew she had to keep moving, find her father, and leave. No one was welcome here and she was scared to find out what would happen if they stayed any longer.

A low rumbling caught Jeannine’s attention. She followed the sounds as it grew louder and louder. The rumbling turned into a droning the louder it became. The more the sound intensified, the more Jeannine could make out what it sounded like. Did it sound like train wheel creaking against the tracks? Or like the whale calls she heard in the nature documentaries her science teacher showed her class? Or was it like a grinding noise echoing through the hills? All the while, the low rumble continued with the higher droning noises carrying over top. Jeannine had never heard a noise like this before. As she followed the sounds, she realized it was coming from the mine. And the orange glow was becoming brighter.

She followed the sound and followed the light. The smell of smoke became more pungent as she continued her trek out of the neighbourhoods, through the wooded outskirts, and to the hill where the mine lay. It was becoming harder for Jeannine to catch her breath. The fog was now more of a thick smoke and Jeannine’s lungs stung with each breath she took in. But she continued her journey, determined to find her father and leave Willow’s Peak and never come back again.

Jeannine could feel the heat of the mine before she even reached to the small opening in the side of the hill. The rumbling and droning noises became were so loud when she was this close to the mine that the sound caused sharp, shooting pains through her ears. She could feel the inside of her chest vibrate with the rumble. She approached the opening to the mine, still glowing orange brighter than a house fire. She could already feel the sweat pooling across her forehead as she approached the entrance.

“Dad!” she called out. “Dad? Are you in here?”

Through the mine’s entrance, Jeannine could see the opening plateau where the miners would have walked through before delving down into the pits to dig. She walked across the dry, dusty ground in the mine’s entrance and approached where the plateau dropped off and where the pits of the mine sunk down. Even before looking down into the pit, the heat inside was becoming unbearable for Jeannine. She wondered why it was so hot and what was making that orange glow. With no sign of her father anywhere, there had to be someone else illuminated the abandoned mine.

In the depths of the mine’s pit, Jeannine found out why it was so hot and what was glowing so bright. The put was engulfed in flames and Jeannine could see the skeletons of hundreds of miners still burning, all looking upwards with their arms extended outward, as if begging for someone to help them.

Along with the blazing heat of a fire that burned since 1955, Jeannine could feel the rumbling and droning sounds shooting up from the mine’s pit. As if it were the culmination of hundreds of screams, cries, howls, and gasps for breath all finally escaping out of the mine for someone to hear.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HEAR?” the rumbling and droning suddenly became words that Jeannine could understand. At first she didn’t know whether to respond. She stood frozen in place trying to figure out her next move. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” the rumbling and droning repeated.

“I’m looking for my father!” Jeannine answered. “I can’t find him anywhere! Where is he?”

“YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE!” the noise responded.

“Once I find my father, we’ll leave this place forever!” Jeannine cried out.

“YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE!” the noise repeated.

“Then let us leave!” Jeannine screamed.

“NO!” the noise barked back. “YOU WILL LEARN THE SECRETS OF WILLOW’S PEAK! YOU WILL LEARN IT AND YOU WILL TELL EVERYONE WHY THEY CAN NEVER COME TO THIS PLACE. AND WE WILL START WITH THE WORST PART OF BEING TRAPPED IN A MINE ENGULFED IN FLAMES! TYRING TO CATCH YOUR BREATH WHEN THE AIR IS ON FIRE!”

The entrance of the mine collapsed and the ground under Jeannine’s feet quaked, knocking her to the ground. She could feel everything around her getting hotter and hotter and she looked to the mine pit and saw the flames crawling up to the plateau where Jeannine lay.

All the while, the low rumbling and droning noise repeated over and over again… “JEANNINE… JEANNINE… JEANNINE…”

“Jeannine… Jeannine…”

The sound of her father’s voice woke her up. She looked around as saw she was in the passenger seat of her father’s car. It was sunny and warm outside. They were parked in front of the real estate office in Willow’s Peak, but there were other cars around, all of her father’s business partners, Jeanine immediately recognized.

“You been asleep a while there, kiddo,” her father said, smiling. “I didn’t want to wake you, you seemed too peaceful. I feel kind of bad that you missed out on exploring the town. Our meetings are done and it’s time to head home.”

Jeannine remembered the dream she had. It didn’t feel like a dream and she remembered it much more clearly than she ever remembered any other dream she ever had. She remembered the message on the window in the house and what the voice said in the mine. Her father would think she was insane if she brought up her dream and how she thought he shouldn’t develop the area because of it. But she needed to know what he would be doing next.

“How did the meetings go?” she asked.

“Well, awful,” her dad said. “We wound up meeting with a historical society, and they want to preserve all of this. And it looks like most of the law makers around here are going to side with the historical society. To battle them in court would cost us way too much money. So we’re just going to scrap the plans and look at developing another area. Sorry that this turned out to be a bust, Jeannine. Kind of a waste of everyone’s time I guess.”

As the car drove out of Willow’s Peak, Jeannine looked to the hill where the mine was. The orange glow wasn’t there. Instead, it was boarded up with wooden planks and caution tape all over, blocking anyone who would try to get in. The dream seemed so real, she thought. The office, the buildings, the houses, the mine, all of it seemed so much more real than any dream could possibly be. She thought about the rumours the kids at school would talk about and figured the nightmare was instigated by their chatter.

And Jeannine wouldn’t have paid any more mind to her nightmare either. If she didn’t open her backpack to find her book and instead found a newspaper from October 10, 1955, with the headline “Mine Fire and Collapse Injures Workers, Many Feared Dead.”

Mr. Mastiff’s Carnival of Mystery and Wonder

I want to say that it all started when the carnival came to town. That things got odd when the tents popped up and the Ferris wheel lit up and started spinning and the smell of corndogs and elephant ears filled the air everywhere you walked. Truth is, it all started well before that.

And I can pinpoint the exact moment when it really all started happening.

I was at the library, waiting for my father to finish work. His shift always ended at 5 o’clock and as soon as the next librarian would come, my father and I would walk back home together. During those walks, he would tell me about another new book that came into the library that day, or an old book he found stored away that nobody had touched in over a hundred years. But that day, the other librarian didn’t show up. We waited well past 6 o’clock, my father even encouraged me to head home ahead of him so that supper wouldn’t get cold. But I wanted to stay.

No one was coming through the library and my father decided he would close up early and leave a sign on the door for anyone coming by for a late night pickup or drop off. Just as he pulled out a piece of white paper and a thick black marker, the door opened, and a man I had never seen before walked in. He was tall, taller than any man I had ever seen before. He had white hair that hung down to his shoulders. His lips were constantly curled and he grit his crooked, yellow teeth. His black suit had dust and dirt cakes on the sleeves and pant legs. He looked around the library for a moment, then he spotted me.

“Booooyyyyyy,” he called out. His gritty voice as ugly as his teeth. “Where is the librarian, boy?”

I sat silent, just staring in fear, not even blinking. A lump filled my throat as I tried to speak, choking any words back. From behind, I could the clicking of my father’s shoes. He patted my shoulder and I finally blinked.

“I’m the librarian,” my father said. “Can I help you, sir?”

The stranger stared my father up and down for a moment. My father was considerably smaller than the stranger. His brown jacket and khaki pants were cleaner than the man’s suit, but despite the man’s long grey hair he was still clearly younger than my father. The grey hairs in my father’s beard and hair always gave away his years to anyone who met him.

“Mr. Mastiff is waiting for you, sir,” the stranger said. “Did you not receive his invitation?”

My father pulled off his glasses and rubbed the lens with the corner of his shirt. “I did receive the invitation,” my father said. “I simply wished to not entertain his advances.”

The stranger clenched his fists and his brow furled, making long creases across the top of his head. “Sir, I highly encourage you to answer Mr. Mastiff’s call,” he stranger continued. “It would be unwise to ignore this warning, I implore you.”

“I hear you warning, and I will pay no heed,” my father said. “Now, if you will excuse me, the library is closed.”

The stranger cracked a sinister smile. “Did the evening library not make his engagement? What a shame. I do hope he makes his next shift.” Then the stranger laughed and walked back out the door.

I looked up at my father, and he smiled back down at me. “Pay no attention to him, son,” he said. “There’s nothing he can do. Not while you’re here, and not while I’m around.”

The evening librarian’s name was Jason Carter. And he wasn’t seen again for weeks. Not until the carnival came.

The name Mr. Mastiff never came up again at the library or at home or anywhere around my father. Yet I wasn’t able to get the name out of my mind, or the image of the tall stranger with the crooked teeth who called me, “boy.” No one had ever called me “boy” before. My father was proud of my name. He always said that Bradley was a strong and confident name. He never even wanted me to shorten it to Brad. And that wish stayed with me. I was Bradley. So to be called “boy” struck an odd chord with me. Like my name didn’t matter. Like he was reaching into my soul and trying to pull me out of my own body by taking away my name.

The stranger’s voice echoed through my mind, as if I were standing in an empty library and the sound of that gritty harsh voice travelling out from between those crooked, yellow teeth was being shot at me like an arrow shot from a crossbow. I would never forget that voice, or the way he called me, “boy.”

*****

The town was abuzz when it was announced that the carnival would be here. People in the streets talked about the plans they made that they would have to cancel, the carnival announced itself in such short notice. Why, the people only had one day to prepare themselves for the festivities. After all, we were all living in such a small town and nothing fun ever came through, especially this close to winter. The shops in the old red brick buildings that made up our small downtown were filled with talk and gossip about where the carnival may have some from, what everyone can hope to see there, and what exciting things might happen with such a festival coming to town.

Even the library, normally a haven for the quiet and the silent, was filled with talk and laughter and excitement. Normally, noise would bother me while I tried to read the pulp adventures and science fiction tales my father always kept aside for me when I visited and waited for him. But this noise was welcome. I was excited about the carnival too. My father was less than enthusiastic.

“I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with you going to that, Bradley,” my father said. “A carnival hasn’t been through here in years, longer than I certainly can remember. I’m just not sure what to expect from it.”

I plead with my father to let me go. There were only so many things I could do in my imagination spawned by stories and books, I wanted to experience something for myself. I promised to be safe and that I wouldn’t go on any ride that would turn me upside down and I wouldn’t even waste any money on carnival games.

“Alright, but wait until I can go with you,” my father said. “I want to make sure I can keep an eye on you.”

We agreed that on the Sunday, the last day of the carnival, we would go together. The library was always closed on Sunday, so my father would for sure have the day off work. But the carnival started on Friday, and by Saturday morning, you couldn’t set your foot down for two steps before hearing someone talking about something they saw at the carnival.

“They had a gorilla there, it must have been 800 pounds!” one woman exclaimed.

“I could swear that the horses on the merry-go-round actually came alive,” one young man said.

“I had my fortune read. The fortune teller told me I was going to marry a millionaire,” a young girl swooned.

As I walked to the library, I ran into Maxwell Stern, a boy who went to my school but was a grade older than I was. Maxwell wore thick glasses and had his backpack on everywhere he went. He would sometimes show me comics and other books that he was reading and would always tell me he would lend them to me when he was done. But he never leant me a single book.

“Have you been to the carnival yet, Bradley?” Maxwell asked, adjusting his glasses.

“Not yet,” I answered. “My father and I are going tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Maxwell whined. “Why so late? All the good stuff will be gone by then. You should go today. We should go right now.”

“I can’t,” I replied. “I don’t have any money to get in. And my father won’t give me money to go today.”

“No money? No problem,” Maxwell answered. “You leave that to me.”

At that moment, I thought about my father. I thought about how disappointed he would be if I had already been to the carnival without him. He didn’t like the idea at that moment, but maybe if we had gone together he would have seen how much fun it is and enjoyed. If I went ahead of him, it would ruin everything. But I thought if my father never found out and I acted like I was seeing everything for the first time, it would still be as fun.

So I told Maxwell I would go with him. And I followed him out of the downtown, far from the red brick buildings, and toward an empty field where we would ride our bikes sometimes. And in that field stood the massive carnival.

We stood at the top of a hill that dipped down into the field and the carnival looked like it could be a city all on its own. The red and white striped tents stood interspersed around carnival rides and hot dog stands and you could see all the people walking around and hear the laughter like it was thunder in the distance.

Maxwell gave me a light shove and pointed down the hill to one of the tents on the other side from where the entrance was. He started walking down the hill and I stood at the top, frozen and confused as to where Maxwell was headed.

“The entrance is on the other side!” I called out.

Maxwell looked back and smiled. “Trust me,” he said. “This is how I got in yesterday. No one’s guarding the back of the tents. It’s easy. Now come on!”

Against the anxiety I felt weighing against my chest, I forced my feet to step forward and follow after Maxwell. We reached the back of the tents and, just like Maxwell said, there was no one in sight. He lifted an edge of the canvas sheet off the ground and motioned for me to crawl through. I took one last look around my surroundings and at the reassurance of only damp grass and fallen leaves around me, I ducked down and crawled through.

The tent Maxwell and I snuck into was one of the costume tents. All around us were chrome bars with empty hangers and rainbow striped one-piece suits strewn across the floor and along the few chairs. At the far end of the tent was a desk with a large mirror, bright lights, and bright coloured makeup. Red and pink and purple and blue fingerprints we streaked across the top of the desk and stained along the side of the chair.

“It’s a clown tent,” Maxwell said. “I don’t remember there being any clowns here yesterday. This is awesome.”

Maxwell slowly walked up to the desk, staring at his reflection more intensely with each step he took. I followed behind him, looking back the other direction to make sure any clown that needed a touch up didn’t catch us in the tent. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror and saw over my shoulder an old man’s face and he was gritting his ugly, yellow crooked teeth.

The feeling that my heart almost shot up through my throat left tingles through my fingertips as I jumped where I stood and looked behind to where I saw the face. And there was nothing but the dark, empty tent. I could hear Maxwell start to chuckle.

“A little jumpy?” Maxwell now in a hysterical laughter. “That was hilarious. I’ve never seen anyone freak out like that before.”

“I saw…” I muttered. “I… I saw…” I hesitated.

“What did you see,” Maxwell glared.

“N… Nothing,” I mumbled. “Just a weird shadow I guess.”

Maxwell looked back to the desk. “Those big lights probably make some weird shapes,” he said. “Probably scares the clowns too.”

We turned and headed for the tent’s exit. Maxwell stopped before pulling back the curtain and looked around before motioning to me to follow him. We stepped out into the carnival grounds, expecting a bright autumn sun glaring in our eyes and the sounds of exciting, wandering people filling our ears. Instead, we were met with a blackened sky with tinges of red lining the thick clouds. The grounds were empty, leaving behind the drawl grey concrete, cracked and covered in dry and crumbling brown leaves. The only sound around us was a wailing wind, blowing open the curtains into the other tents and shooting scraps of paper across the grim concrete.

“Where are we?” Maxwell asked. “I don’t remember this part of the carnival.”

A scrap of paper tumbled to my feet and collided against the end of my leg. I reached down and picked it up. It was an old flyer for the carnival, and in the centre of the page was a picture of a man with long, dark hair, a thick beard, and he was wearing a top hat. The name across the top of the page read, “Mr. Mastiff’s Carnival of Mystery and Wonder.”

“Mr. Mastiff,” I red out loud.

“Who?” Maxwell asked.

“I guess it’s the guy who owns this carnival,” I answered. The name Mastiff rang in my ears. I remembered the tall man in the library, and I remembered the way my father talked to him about Mr. Mastiff.

“Weird,” Maxwell said, looking at the flyer over my shoulder. “I wonder where everyone is.”

We walked around the carnival space, looking into tents and peeking behind stands, trying to find anyone who would be still around. The games hanging above the stands had all turned brown and the stitching holding together the stuffed animals’ limbs were all pulled out and the animals’ arms, legs, and heads were all barely hanging on as they hung from hooks around the stands. The cotton stuffing inside looked like rotten fruit.

“Something is really wrong,” I said to Maxwell. “We should probably get out of here.”

Maxwell nodded his head without uttering a word. The carnival’s entrance was close by and we quickly walked towards it, not taking the time to look around as we marched forward. When we reached the carnival’s entrance, we looked out at what looked like an endless nothing. I was just black. No ground, no stars, nothing to give a clue as to what we were looking into. Just black.

“Boooooooyyyyyyy!” a voice grinded out from behind. I quickly turned and my eyes instantly met the eyes of the tall man from the library who spoke with my father about Mr. Mastiff. His eyes were icy cold, colder than blue. More like a grey you would see in the clouds during an autumn rainfall. The tall man pointed to me, his eyes squinted and his brow furled as he gritted his yellow crooked teeth at me.

“RUN!” I cried out. My feet instantly pushed me to the side, away from the tall man who was behind us, away from the empty black in front of us. I had my eyes fixed on a tent I was going to try and climb through. Climbing through a tent got us here, maybe it would get us out.

I looked back for a moment and saw Maxwell still standing in place, facing the tall man, with his mouth hanging open in shock and his eyes so wise they were almost bulging out of his head.

“Maxwell!” I cried out even louder and harder. “Maxwell, hurry! Follow me!”

Like a hypnotic spell being broken, Maxwell locked eyes with me, turned back to the tall man who was marching closer and closer, and Maxwell turned and ran in my direction, running harder and faster than I ever saw any other kid run from before.

I waited for him to catch up to me before tapping his shoulder. “In here,” I pointed to the red tent. We flipped open the flaps that led us inside, where we prayed for safety. After a single step inside, I tripped on a stool left in the middle of the floor and fell, twisting my ankle on the way down. The sharp pain shot through my leg as I held my throbbing foot, already starting to feel it swell.

Maxwell reached down and helped me back up to my feet. I hopped on one foot to try and keep my balance and quickly looked around the inside of the tent. It was more costumes, another desk with a large mirror and bright lights, and more streaks of face paint left on every surface.

“Is this the same tent we came in through?” Maxwell asked.

“No,” I answered. “It looks a little different. But maybe we can still get out through here.”

Maxwell rushed to the edge of the tent and lifted the canvas cover lying against the ground. He dropped the cover and looked back to me with a looked on his face that spelt out defeat.

“Same as the entrance,” he said. “Just… black.”

The tent’s entrance was calm and quiet. The tall man had not made his way through yet. And yet was the word that was scaring me at this moment. When he did make it in, we were stuck. There was nowhere we could run from here. But as I listened close between my heavy, terrified breaths, I couldn’t hear any footsteps. Hesitantly, I crept slowly toward the tent’s entrance, hobbling along with all my weight on my good foot, and I peeked through the tent’s entrance. And no one was there. Just the same empty grounds and wind blowing papers.

“I don’t see him,” I said, closing the entrance and looking back to Maxwell. “I don’t know where he went.”

“Should we run for it?” Maxwell asked.

“I don’t know if I can run,” I explained. “I can barely stand.”

Maxwell looked around the room for a moment, and then stopped with his eyes fixed on one spot in the room.

“Would crutches help?” he asked, pointing to a corner of the room where a pair of crutches laid on the ground.

I hobbled over to where Maxwell was pointing and picked up the crutches. They were the perfect height to fit under my arm and help me keep balance. They helped a lot and as I tested out moving myself quickly through the tent, I realized this is exactly what I needed to help and that now maybe making a run for the tent we came in through could be possible.

Neither of us could remember exactly where the tent we came through was. We remembered it was to the back of the carnival ground, opposite to where the entrance was.

“I think the tent was polka-dotted,” Maxwell pointed out. “I remember that’s why I chose that one to go through. It was the only polka-dotted one.”

I poked my head out of the tent and looked back to the direction we came through. I couldn’t see the polka-dotted tent. The wind that bustled through the carnival grounds was getting colder and the red sky was getting darker. There were no light posts around the carnival grounds. I knew we had to get out of here before it got dark outside.

“You’re sure that the tent was polka-dotted?” I looked back to Maxwell. “I don’t see it from here. Are you totally sure?”

“Totally,” Maxwell said, without blinking and a face straight and serious enough to convince me of anything. “I remember where it was, exactly.”

Maxwell took the lead and walked out of the tent first, holding open the flap so I could find my way through easy. We both looked around for any sign of the tall man. With no sign of him, or anyone else, and the sky even darker than it was when I first noticed it getting darker, we quickly moved to the opposite side of the carnival grounds, looking for the polka-dotted tent.

We moved quickly. Far quicker than we did when we first started exploring where we were. We made it to the opposite side of the carnival and we could see the polka-dotted tent. As we drew in closer, we could see the flap of the tent’s entrance being held open by a large, pale hand with long yellow nails. A figure emerged from the tent, his face pure white with hints of red on his lips and on his nose. His eyes were trimmed thick with blues and purples and his hair was thick and green, but not a bright green. The kind of green you see when you over-cook spinach. The makeup around his eyes was running, leaving dark streaks around his patchy cheeks.

And he wasn’t the only clown to emerge from that tent.

One by one, more clowns emerged, all painted with streaks and flaws all over, like they had been wearing that makeup for years and was drenched in sweat all over. Their one piece suits must have been bright yellow once, but now were a faint greyish yellow that reminded me of the tall man’s teeth.

In all, six clowns emerged from the tent and started walking toward us. Maxwell quickly grabbed my sleeve and led me away from the approaching clowns and into the first building he saw.

We rushed through the doors and closed them tight behind us. I felt around for a lock as we pushed against the old wood, trying our best to keep it shut as the clowns drew in nearer. “There’s no lock,” I said. “What do we do?”

Maxwell pointed to the long hallway that led away from the door. “We head through there and find a back way out,” he said.

The long dark hallway felt like it never ended. We followed along the blank walls and floor caked with dust and dirt until we found where the room opened up. And all around the room were hundreds upon hundreds of mirrors, all crisscrossing and cutting through the room like an enormous glass maze.

Everything was dark and the few glimmers of light that shone trough reflected off the mirrors and glared into my eyes as I walked past. We felt around for the pathway through, but for every turn further into the maze we found, we hit three glass walls. As we twisted and turned, I felt more and more like we were just getting lost and circling around the mirrors.

“How do we know we haven’t been through this hall yet?” I asked Maxwell.

He looked around for a moment, then licked his thumb and smudged it along the mirror in front of him. “We’ll make each hall we’ve been in with a smudge, just like this one,” Maxwell said.

With each hall we passed through, Maxwell left another smudge. It felt like we were making god progress until we hit a mirror with a smudge. “We’ve been here before,” I said. “How did we wind up so turned around?”

Maxwell looked closely at the smudge. His eyes squinted small as he closed in. He then stuck out his thumb, just below the smudge. “I haven’t been smudging them that high,” Maxwell said as he looked closer in. “It looks like there’s white paint in this smudge.”

From behind, a mirror smashed and glass shards shot out, clinking against the ground. From behind the shattered mirror, one of the clowns crawled out and looked toward us. I stood completely frozen. Maxwell grabbed my arm and pulled me down the hall away from the clown. We rushed through, using our own reflections as our barriers. We followed along the path, spotting clowns popping up every few mirrors, assured by the feeling of the glass on our hands that the clowns weren’t in front of us, but terrified not knowing which directions the clowns are stalking us from.

Then, we hit a dead end. We came to a rounded pocket in the maze, completely surrounded by mirrors. Reflected on each surface around us was the face of a different clown, breathing heavily and staring directly into us, as if peering through the glass and preparing to reach through and take us. The sound of clicking footprints followed us behind where we came in from. We were trapped where we stood.

We looked back to find out whose footsteps were walking behind us. As they grew louder, I quickly realized there were two sets of footsteps, and out of the darkness came two men, one was the tall man from the library, he was walking behind the other man who wore a black top hat and had long hair and a thick beard. His hair and his beard were patched with grey all over giving away an much older age than even the tall man. But his face was smooth and without a single wrinkle, unlike the tall man and even my own father.

“Hello boys,” the man smiled. “How do you like my carnival?”

It was that moment I finally recognized the man. He was the man from the flyers on the ground being blown around by the wind. The man who sent the tall man to find my father.

“Mr. Mastiff,” I muttered.

“Oh, I see you’ve heard of me,” Mastiff replied. “I hope my little funhouse here was all that you expected and more.”

“Wh…. Where are we?” I stuttered.

Mastiff smiled wide. His cheekbones pushed up and made dark circles around his eyes. His eyebrows crooked up to a jagged, sharp angle that made his smile look less amused and more sinister. “The real carnival.”

Maxwell and I stared at each other confused. What did Mastiff mean by this? Mastiff read our obvious confusion and continued. “You see, boys, the carnival that went to your town, that was in your world, it a gateway, to my world. This world. This carnival has existed hundreds upon hundreds of years. You see, I need that gateway to your world to bring more people into mine. It keeps me alive. But, the people in my world are deteriorating faster and faster every time I bring someone new in. My clowns here were once people in your world. Brought over for their energy to keep this world, and me, alive. I need the energy that only people form your world possess. And what better way to find that perfect energy than with the fun and excitement of a carnival?”

“Why us?” Maxwell blurted out.

“You, my boy,” Mastiff pointed to Maxwell. “You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But you,” Mastiff pointed to me. “You’re something special. Your energy and imagination is like nothing else I have ever seen. And you are also the child of the only person to have ever escaped my world. He never deteriorated like the other people I brought into this world. He only grew stronger as time wore on. Your father had the same energy and imagination as you do, but I won’t make the same mistakes with you that I made with him. You won’t escape like he did.”

“You’re right, he won’t” a voice from behind the tall man called out. “It took me years to escape you, Mastiff. Bradley won’t face that same fate. I’ve been out of your world for years but I am no weaker now than I was then. Your clowns are weaker than they have ever been, and your tall man no longer terrifies me. As long as I am here, you won’t take Bradley, or anyone else.”

Mastiff smiled and pointed at my father. “You’re mortal,” he said. “Even in my world, despite how strong you grew, you would have died one day. You can’t protect your boy forever.”

“Once I go, Bradley will be even stronger than I am now,” my father answered. “And after him, there will be others. Your power is dwindling, Mastiff. You, your tall man, and the clowns no longer have the power you once had. Our world is no longer your feeding ground.”

Mastiff’s face gave off a look of anger like I had never seen before. His snear created creases along his face that gave away how long he has actually existed. Hundreds of years of ware and tear on his body, now starving for the energy he needs to feed, surfaced on his face, illustrating his hunger and his anger.

“You know you are powerless,” my father continued. “There is nothing you can do. Send away your clowns and you and your tall man stand back while Bradley and Maxwell walk through. I will take them back to our world. And this will be the last stop your carnival ever makes.”

As I turned to look at the mirrors, the images of the clowns slowly shrunk and disappeared, as if the clowns had turned and walked away from where they were watching us. I looked back to Mastiff and the tall man who both stood aside and cleared the walkway for Maxwell and I to walk through. Mastiff laid out his hand, signalling that the path was open for us to take and that we were invited to leave.

Maxwell and I both took hesitant steps across, walking in front of Mastiff and the tall man. It was the closest either of us had been to the tall man and his immense size made me feel so incredibly small. My eyes locked to the tall man’s as we walked by and just as I looked away to watch my father, I felt a hand wrap around the back of my neck, and the look on my father’s face turned from victory instantly to fear.

The tall man lifted me off the ground and held me by his one hand.

“Let Bradley go!” my father screamed.

“He’s ours!!” screeched Mastiff. “Come any closer and we will end the boy! You will not threaten me or my world!”

Then Maxwell lunged forward, calling, “NO!” and a bright light shot from him, hitting the tall man. Then I fell to the floor, and looked up to see the tall man was nowhere to be found. I scrambled to my feet and looked all around me and found the tall man, trapped in a mirror. He was banging the glass, gritting his teeth. It looked as though he was screaming, but there was no sound.

I looked to Maxwell, who was standing with a look of astonishment on his face, like he didn’t know his own powers. My father stood, smiling.

“Bradley isn’t the only one with the power the transfer and change between worlds,” my father said. “I’m shocked, Mastiff, that you didn’t see it. You always pull people in your world. But both Bradley and Maxwell just walked in. Neither were pulled. There’s more than one way to gain the power to travel between worlds.”

Mastiff’s face read like a book of pure horror. He couldn’t believe what he had witnessed. “That’s impossible,” spit flew from his mouth. “How? HOW?!”

“Stay out of our world, Mastiff,” my father said as he lifted his hand. And in the blink of an eye, Mastiff was trapped in another mirror next to the tall man. My father looked down to me, and then over to Maxwell. “Let’s head home,” he said.

My father turned and placed his hand against another mirror. It illuminated like a bright light was reflecting off of it, and then as the light died a door appeared. He looked down to me and said, “Open the door, Bradley. Take us out of this world.”

I reached for the door handle and twisted. The door began to slowly swing open, outward out of this world and back into our world. We stepped out and walked into the library again. I closed the door behind me and opened it once more and it revealed the sidewalk and the street that let me know I was home. I could see all my neighbours and friends walking down the streets, still talking about the carnival that came to town, but without any clue of the other world it led to.

“Bradley,” my father said. “That doorway was supposed to lead to the carnival grounds back in our world.”

“I didn’t want to go there,” I answered. “I wanted to be here.”

My father smiled. “It won’t be long before Mastiff and the tall man escape their prison. They have the same power as we do. But we’ll be ready, won’t we?”

I still go carnivals whenever I find them. I walk around the grounds, watching the people laugh and play games. I peek into the tents and sometimes, when I’m brave enough, I sneak through the back underneath a tent’s tarp. Looking to see if I find that other world again.

And if you see me, just know I have my eye out, constantly searching for the tall man.

The Tavern

Vorak walked through the tavern doors, stopped at the doorway, and looked around the open room. He saw a collection of different things: a few dwarves, some elves, and a lot of men. There were only a small handful of other orcs in the room, making Vorak a little uncomfortable. He wasn’t used to seeing his orc brothers sitting with dwarves, elves, and men, drinking ale and regaling stories. Dwarves, elves, and men were meant to be smashed.

He walked slowly through the tavern, staring at each thing as he walked by. No one in the room paid much attention to Vorak, not even the other orcs. Instead, the other orcs kept drinking, spill bits of ale down their chins and onto their still blood soaked chests. The orcs smiled as the men, elves, and dwarves spoke. The ocrs’ crooked and sharp teeth jutted between their lips as they smiled. Normally the sight of an orc bearing his teeth would bring Vorak great joy and excitement. But this wasn’t battle, and it made Vorak sick.

He grabbed one of the other orcs, wrapped his hand around the other orc’s tied back hair, pulled his head back and Vorak drove his fist into the other orc’s face, pummelling him off of his chair and onto the wooden floor.

“You drink and be merry with the enemies!” Vorak cried. “We haven’t been out of battle but minutes and already you betray your own blood!”

The orc on the floor chuckled, then the rest of the tavern began laughing loud. Vorak looked down at his prey and saw that there was no mark on his face. Vorak had crushed other orcs twice his size with half as hard of a punch. Why had this orc not even have a scratch, not even dust from the floor on his face.

“Aye son,” the orc said. “You have no clue where you are, do you?”

The tavern began shaking with laughter again. Vorak looked around and saw all matter of creature in the tavern all sharing the same laugh at his expense.

In a rage, Vorak grabbed a table with a single hand threw it against the wall. Only for the table to never connect to the wall. Instead, the minute it left Vorak’s hand, it vanished. And in the same instance, it reappeared in the spot he picked it up from.

Once again, the tavern shook with laughter.

The other orc took his seat and wrapped his hand around his ale stein. “Best talk to the barkeep, young lad,” he said. “I was the same as you when I first got here. The barkeep will set you drink and send you off with a pint.”

“What magic has cursed this place to never be destroyed?” Vorak sneared.

“Just, talk to the barkeep,” the other orc repeated. “Oh, and make sure he doesn’t pour you any of that stout shite. You won’t be used to it.”

“Why not?” Vorak asked.

“No blood,” the orc replied. “Will never taste the same without the dwarf blood in it.”

“Funny,” a pudgy, red-haired dwarf at the table interrupted. “I always preferred my stout with goblin blood. You gotta boil those suckers for a long time before you can put them in the barrels though. You don’t know a burning arse-hole shite until you’ve drank raw goblin blood!”

The tavern erupted with laughter and the dwarf drove his hand to the table with every breath of laugh he let out. Vorak watched all the creatures share the laugh as he walked over to the barkeep. He was human, small, with scraggly long hair and a thick dark beard. Vorak locked eyes with the barkeep as he reached the bar.

“What kind of sorcery is this?” Vorak demanded.

“No sorcery at all, good sir,” the barkeep replied, smiling. “Just the best tavern there is for folk like us.”

Vorak grabbed the barkeep by the scruff of his hood. “Don’t play with me, wizard,” Vorak grit his teeth. “Nothing can be smashed. Nothing can be destroyed. You have cursed this place.”

Vorak lifted the barkeep and threw him against the wall. He saw the barkeep hit the wall lined with bottle of liquor, and then drop to the ground. But no bottle moved, and as the barkeep stood back up, he straightened out his top and chuckled.

“I assure you,” the barkeep continued. “It’s not quite what you think.”

“Then what is it?” Vorak barked.

The barkeep let out a long exhale, as if he had to explain this so many times he was taking the time to think of a new way to explain, just to keep himself entertained. “Let’s start with this,” the barkeep began. “What’s the last thing you remember before arriving to this tavern?”

“Being in battle,” Vorak didn’t hesitate to answer. “Our armies were smashing all of your kind. Hundreds of men slaughtered in the fields.”

“And then what?” the barkeep continued.

Vorak thought for a moment. “There was a little one,” he continued. “One of those ugly, small creatures with the large, hairy feet.”

“Halfling,” the barkeep interrupted.

“That’s it!” Vorak cried. “Me and some of my orc brethren spotted a Halfling, and we began stalking it.”

“Did you kill the Halfling?” the barkeep asked.

“Of course!” Vorak yelled.

“Did you, really?” the barkeep continued.

“Well…” Vorak hesitated. “Not right away. The Halfling spotted us and began throwing rocks at us. But then we crushed him!”

“I see,” the barkeep nodded. “And you specifically remember crushing this Halfling, you remember crushing him, or driving your blade into him?”

“Um…” Vorak hesitated. “Yes, of course! The orcs are mighty!”

“Do you really remember?” the barkeep asked.

“Well…” Vorak paused. “Well, I must have. Orcs are mighty! Halflings are small! What else?!”

The barkeep nodded again. “Well, we have a lot of creatures here with similar stories to yours. The dwarf with the red hair, when he arrived, the last thing he remembered was fishing and catching a relatively small fish and throwing to the ground in anger. He didn’t remember stepping on the slippery fellow and falling back onto a rock. Or the elf on the far side of the bar? Was adjusting his crossbow. When he arrow wouldn’t fire, he started to inspect the stirrup, right at the tip of his crossbow. Sadly, he forgot to remove the bolt before the stirrup started working properly again. I even have a troll outside who got into a headbutting contest with a brick wall and still insists that he won the contest because the brick wall collapsed before he did.

“So you see, you belong here,” the barkeep smiled as he poured an ale. He slid Vorak the stein and continued, “Fresh ale. I always remember that no orc ever likes my stout. Hard to come by dwarf blood here, on a count that no dwarf here can actually bleed. I’m rather proud of my stout, though.”

Vorak took the stein without a word and took a chair at the table with the red-haired dwarf and the orc with the tied back hair. He sat down, placed his stein on the table, then hunched over looking at each of the creatures he had for company.

“Well,” the dwarf began. “What did you in?”

Vorak hesitated, then mumbled, “A hobbit threw a rock at me.”

The table was silent for a moment, then the orc began chuckling, then the dwarf, then the entire room was laughing harder than a group of jesters huddled around a campfire.

“No fucking shite!” the dwarf yelled. “A hobbit? I thought the fish was bad. Barkeep! Make sure this boy’s stein is never empty. He needs as much ale as he can get!”

The Thief in the Woods

“You better hold it right there,” Steven said, aiming his weapon directly at Sam. “Drop your weapons, your goods, and any coin you have and I’ll let you be on your way.”

Neither men knew each other. They didn’t even know each others’ names. But Sam could tell a lot about Steven from first glance. Steven was obviously an experienced thief. He wore a black cloak and his boots were dusted on the sides and caked with mud underneath. Steven obviously spent a lot of time in these woods, hunting any traveller that comes through. Threatening them with his ultimate weapon he held firmly in his hand.

There was a lot that could be inferred about Sam on first glance as well. He dressed well, wore a shirt and jacket made from the finest of materials. His boots were polished as if this were the first time they were worn. Steven figured Sam for a wealthy landowner. Probably oversaw a farm outside of a large village where trade was good and the harvests were thick.

“You better listen,” Steven continued. “I’m not afraid to use my arms and I must warn you that I am quite experienced with them.”

Sam looked at Steven’s hand and saw the odd object that Steven held. Steven held it the same way a hunter would hold his crossbow. Only Steven’s armament had no trigger. There was no indication that it projected anything.

“You have no idea what it is your holding, do you?” Sam inferred.

“What?” Steven quickly replied. “Of course I do! I’ve used this for years! Robbed many with it. Even killed a few.”

“Not holding it like that, you won’t,” Sam smiled and started chuckling.

“What do you mean?” Steven cried out. “Why is it that you insist that I don’t know how to use my own weapons?”

Through his chuckles, Sam answered, “Well, you have the damned thing pointed right back at yourself.”

Steven looked down at his arms confused. He tried to see what Sam saw. But he saw nothing.

“Look,” Sam began. “How about this, let me go free, and I’ll show you how to use it. It is, in fact, quite a deadly weapon. Very vicious indeed. You could lead an army with what you’re holding. But you need to know how it use it first.”

With a nod, Steven agreed and handed the thing over to Sam. Sam inspected it briefly, looked back at Steven, and raised the thing over his head like how a woodsman would hold his axe to cut a log in two. He held it a moment and said, “Now, you best better empty your pockets and hand over any coins and good you may have.”

Steven cocked his head to the side and squinted his eyes. He stared at Sam, holding this object over his head, attempting to grit his teeth and look threatening. And very much failing.

“My god,” Steven said. “You have no idea how to use it either.”

Sam lowered his hand, still holding the thing. He looked down at it, back up Steven, and shrugged. “You’re right,” Sam said. “Not the damndest idea. I don’t even know what it is.”

Steven approached Sam and stood next to him. Both men looked down at the thing. Sam turned it over a few times trying to look at it from every angle. Neither man had any idea what to make of this strange thing that they both previously insisted they knew how to use.

Finally, Steven pointed to a small hole on one of the thing’s sides. Sam brought it closer to both their faces for a better look. A thick, black smoke shot out from the small hole and covered both men’s faces in a black soot. Both men coughed and hacked, trying to catch their breaths. They could feel their throats closing as they gasped for air. Then, one after the other, they both fell to the ground and died.

A rustle in a bush gave entrance to a small woodland imp, maybe a fifth of the size of either of the men. He drug behind him a large sack. He stopped by the bush, looked in both directions for anyone else oncoming, and then ran right to the two men’s bodies.

As he emptied all of their coins and valuables into his sack, he said to himself, “Well, at least one of us knows how this thing works.”

The Europa Virus

Subject number 03198 was administered water about two hours before the adverse effects started to surface. This was the longest stretch of time yet without any sign of symptoms and Dr. Norton was feeling confident about this one. She hoped that she finally made water safe to drink again. But just as her hopes were rising, so was Subject 03198’s fever.

The subject was in a padded room with a large observation window. All the subject saw was his own reflection but Dr. Norton could see right into the room. Around Dr. Norton were a collection of different machines all reading different data: body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, brain activity, all the essentials when you’re fairly convinced that you’re watching a person die. Dr. Norton was in the room alone when Subject 03198 started showing symptoms. She reached down and turned off the communication microphones and speakers between her and the subject. She never liked hearing their screams.

She often thought it was cruel that the subjects had a mirror in the room with them. As the symptoms got worse, the subjects watched themselves more. They would first start looking into the mirror to see the sweat dripping off their faces as the fever got worse. Look up every once in a while when they start coughing. The first time they noticed the blood on their hands, they always look up at the mirror, as if they’re looking through and staring directly at whoever was in the booth, asking, “What the fuck did you do to me?” The first time they vomit they look into the mirror to see if any if left on their faces on got onto their clothes.

When the vomit turns to blood, it’s like they don’t stop looking into the mirror. As the blood vomit gets out of control, they only ever seem to stare at the floor. The vomit stopping is the worst sign and Dr. Norton almost wishes the vomit wouldn’t stop until they’re dead. But every time the vomit stops, the subject looks into the mirror, and their eyes start to throb. They last thing they see is their own reflection as their eyes pulsate more violently and finally pop like week-old zits. The screaming is always worst by this point. Sometimes they scream for hours. Sometimes they scream right up until their bodies finally give and they die lying on the floor. And that’s why Dr. Norton always turns off the microphones and speakers.

Subject 03198 was no different. All the same symptoms, all the same reactions, and the same end result. Another dead person lying in the observation room.

Dr. Norton didn’t even have time to pull her eyes away from the window when Dr. Edwards came into the room. “Jesus Christ!” he blurted out. “Not another one! I thought we had this one figured out. What happened?”

“Same symptoms,” Dr. Norton said. “Same order, same reactions, just started a lot later. This one didn’t show fever until two hours after introduction to the water sample. We are making some sort of progress with this –”

“Christ on a fucking stick!” Dr. Edwards interrupted. “How the fuck is it being delayed? It’s a virus. It shouldn’t be delaying. It either goes or it doesn’t. How is it delaying?”

Dr. Norton took a minute to review the notes she made while watching the subject before answering Edwards, whose fuming temper was warming the room hotter than the subject’s fevers. “It could be that there were fewer virus cells in the sample. That could delay the reaction. But judging by the symptoms and how quickly Subject 03198 is currently decomposing, the virus replicates at an enormous rate once introduced to the human digestive system. This shoots down any theory that humans could have an immunity to a small number of cells. It’s not the number of cells, it’s the virus itself.”

Dr. Edward and Dr. Norton both looked into the observation room and saw that Subject 03198’s decomposition was like all the rest: a week’s worth of rotting and stench in a matter of minutes. Dr. Norton looked down at the body temperature readouts and saw they were just as high as all the rest. Like the bodies were so hot inside that it was melting the flesh right off their bones and speeding up all the bacteria responsible for decomposition. Like leaving meat out in the sun on a hot summer day.

“In any other case, most bodies drop temperature once all life signs cease,” Dr. Norton pointed out. “This virus is completely different. Like the other samples, subject 03198’s fever temperature is persisting post-mortem. Almost 110 degrees. Hottest still was 112, I don’t think anything will break that record. But still, it’s inhumanly hot. It must have felt like they were being boiled from the inside out.”

“They probably pray for death,” Dr. Edwards said. “I know I fucking would. There are fates worse than death and any kind of pain like we’re seeing from this virus for any longer than a few minutes and they should drop dead just to stop the agony. Funny, because of how quick most subjects die after symptoms begin, this may be the most humane virus there is. It’s agony, but at least it’s quick. Funny how that works.”

Dr. Norton knew there was nothing humane about this virus. Dr. Edwards rarely stayed while any subject was in the observation room. He never had to hear the screams and see the agony in people’s faces. He never looked into their eyes before they exploded in their sockets.

“Any progress in eliminating all virus cells from the water samples?” Dr. Edwards asked.

Dr. Norton shook her head. “The virus doesn’t react the same way to conventional sanitation and decontamination methods. Fluoride and chlorine do nothing to the virus cells, electromagnetic radiation only makes the virus replicate faster, even when we try to distil the water, the virus cells latch on to the hydrogen and oxygen molecules during vaporization. I’ve never seen anything act like this before.”

“So we can’t altogether get rid of the virus,” Dr. Edwards began. “And the human body can’t withstand any exposure to it. Our investors aren’t going to be happy about this.”

Billions of dollars had been poured into what was being called Operation Europa. With the deterioration of the Earth’s atmosphere, weather patterns became more erratic, then altogether stopped existing. Cloud formations became minimal and the total precipitation on Earth over the past few years had been equal to a single spring in Arizona. Water was depleting fast and it was Operation Europa’s job to find a suitable substitute for the naturally occurring water that used to fall from the sky and that all life on Earth still needs to survive.

The biggest investor was Albert MacFarlane, who was a billionaire philanthropist constantly giving to every needy charity on the planet. At least, that was his public persona. When a person gives that much money to help stop the spread of Ebola in developing countries and provide winter jackets to homeless people living through harsh winters in northern climates, you tend not to question where the money came from to begin with. Everyone working on Operation Europa was under strict orders to not question where MacFarlane’s money came from, but be grateful it was coming in.

“When’s the next shuttle set to launch?” Dr. Norton asked.

Dr. Edwards looked around briefly, and then spotted a computer sitting on a table. He leaned over and started typing and scrolling. “Next week,” he answered. “They’re planning on extracting twice as much water on this mission as the last. According t schedule, we should have made the water safe by now.”

“We’re just going to have to tell MacFarlane that the water won’t be ready for public consumption,” Dr. Norton said. “We just need more time to better understand the virus in the water and how best to treat it.”

“Which one of us will be explaining this to Mr. MacFarlane?” Dr. Edwards asked.

*****

Albert MacFarlane’s age was showing more and more every day. Murmurs were that the stress of trying to fund Operation Europa was putting deep creases into his botoxed face. His temper was getting shorter and shorter the more he heard about the water contamination. Like a child who wasn’t getting what he wanted right away and his tantrums were getting louder and more violent.

“Ms. Norton,” MacFarlane began. “You do understand that the public unveiling is in a matter of weeks. The next trip to Europa is meant to fill the glasses of all the investors and all the politicians behind Operation Europa. Fresh, clean water for the world. I don’t understand how water, simple water, can be killing so many people.”

Dr. Norton shook where she stood. She looked down at her pale, frail hands and realized that she was in the room alone with Albert MacFarlane. She knew his reputation of violent eruptions. She was terrified as to how drastically he would explode at the prospect of cancelling the cocktail party where the operation he heavily funded would save the world.

She tried to speak, but MacFarlane leaned forward and put his index finger in front of his mouth, shushing her before she could get a full word out. “Please, keep in mind Ms. Norton –”

“Dr. Norton,” she blurted out.

“My apologies,” MacFarlane smiled. “Please keep in mind, Doctor Norton, I’m not a sciency kind of guy. So try to explain this to me in a way that I can understand.”

Dr. Norton took a deep breath, trying to slow down her jackhammering heart, and began. “All water has microbes and small organisms in it. They’re not bad for us, in fact a lot of the microscopic life in water is essential for humans. The water we’re extracting from Europa is similar in that way, only the microscopic life in the water from there is killing whoever drinks it.”

MacFarlane squinted, his hand on his chin. Dr. Norton could tell that he was listening, but couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “Well, why would this micro-whatever in water that usually helps us live kill us now?”

“We think it’s because the water is coming from a different planetary source altogether,” Dr. Norton continued. “Europa formed around Jupiter, and Jupiter is a mass of gas almost entirely composed of hydrogen with some helium and sulfur. Where Earth has a lot of carbon, and all life on Earth is carbon based. We think that the microscopic life in the water from Europa is evolved from hydrogen, or even sulfur, rather than carbon, and so when it’s introduced to our bodies, our bodies completely reject it, like an abomination. Things mix that shouldn’t mix and create a chemical reaction that heat the body from the inside out and completely destroy it.”

MacFarlane leaned back in his chair. “And there’s absolutely no way to destroy this virus? No cure? No medicine? How am I supposed to tell all the people who invested billions of dollars into this and all the big players passing bills to support this that it’s all a waste now?”

“It hasn’t been a total waste,” Dr. Norton replied. “Life forms evolving from anything other than carbon was completely theoretical up to this point. This is actually a huge discovery if we’re correct –”

“It doesn’t mean shit unless I have water to sell!” MacFarlane screamed. “I’m not funding this for the sciency mumbo-jumbo bullshit! I’m funding this to get some water back on this planet, sell it to everyone, and get my name down in history as the guy who saved the fucking world! And I’ll tell you what I’m starting to think. I think that you’re making these results up and pretending this water is making people sick so that the lab can stay open, you can Edwards and keep your jobs and keep playing scientists with my money!”

“Sir, I can assure you,” Norton’s voice was shaking, her hands were trembling, and she was holding back tears for the sake of staying professional looking. “The biological threat that this water is imposing—”

“Threat nothing!” MacFarlane screamed. “I’m serving this goddamn water at the party straight from the fucking plant and without any of your science-bullshit! And when you see everyone drink it fine, you’ll be fired and I’ll sue you for every paycheque of yours that I signed!”

*****

The worst part has always been watching people die. Norton knew that was obvious. If it ever got to the point where they could talk about the experiments and how people had been reacting to Europa’s water, the first thing she always knew she would say would be that watching people die was the worst.

The second worst was always the clean up. The funders behind Operation Europa were more than happy to supply the lab with a bio-waste disposal suit. Its metal armour and mechanical gears moving every joint in sync with its pilot’s body was built for cleaning out massive waste deposits on warfields. It could lift twenty human carcasses at a time and still be able to walk as if it was carrying a bag of groceries. Norton knew a bio-waste disposal suit like this was overkill for such a small lab. She heard that the team even had some difficulty getting it into the building at first. The suit was already in its place by the observation room by the time she was hired to be part of the research and experimentation team. She asked Edwards about the suit and why the heavy precaution. Edwards explained that the investors were worried about airborne pathogens coming out of whatever virus was infecting the test subject. The bio-waste disposal suit was the best tool for such a messy and dangerous job.

Norton climbed into the suit, slid her arms and legs into the padded opening through each of the suit’s limbs, used the suit’s arms to close the chest plate and fasten the safety mask and helmet. Norton adjusted the smell blockers, an addition she made to the suit after the smell of cleaning the subjects’ remains became too unbearable, and walked into the room smeared with fluids. Norton could have sworn the walls were still vibrating with the sounds of subject 03198’s screams.

Inside each of the arms of the suit were a set of control, small notches and buttons for each of the suit’s sanitation functions. It took Norton some time to get used to all the controls and remembers which function could be found with what. But she was a fast learner.

She moved through the room, mapping out how would be best and most efficient to clean what was left of subject 03198. She moved her right arm inside of the padded tube, found the switch to turn on the hot water power-spray, and started soaking the room. The tiny red bits of person smeared on the walls and along the floor moved easily. Nothing would settle on the coated walls and floors specifically designed to withstand the kind of mess drinking Europa’s water causes.

She soaked the room and moved all of the human remains into a single pile in the middle of the floor and thought about how all these small bits of mess make a human. A complete human laid in front of her, all the pieces were there.

*****

Norton and Edwards continued the experiments as scheduled, hoping to god they find something before the cocktail party when the psychopathic philanthropist pours the toxic water in hopes to out-gustoing their research. The weeks passed with no progress made. They watched the shuttle launch knowing that it was the shuttle that would bring the deaths of a few hundred people. They watched the shuttle return like the four horsemen come to bring the end. And still, they found nothing to slow down the virus that lives in the ice found on the moon Europa.

The cocktail party was held in the same facility as where all of Operation Europa was conducted. The shuttle and exploration teams used the upper floors, the science and research departments were in the underground floors, and the main floor was reserved for the massive reception area with water fountains, gold plated steps, and a reception hall.

Norton and Edwards both attended the party in full formal wear. They looked around hesitantly, not sure if they’re more terrified to watch a room full of people die, or see them live and know that every penny they will ever make from that moment forward will go right back to Albert MacFarlane. They knew their science was solid, but MacFarlane was ruthless. Norton half expected that MacFarlane would fill everyone’s glasses with the last of the Earth’s water, just to prove a point and save face.

They watched the servers hand out the crystal glasses of water. The guests all held their glasses by the dainty tips of their fingers. MacFarlane stood up to the podium and started making a speech. Norton wasn’t listening. She was watching the guests.

“Did we ever test a subject without any pre-emptive sanitation process?” Norton asked Edwards.

“The first ones, yeah,” he answered. “All the same results. We burned the bodies right away because we were afraid of contamination.”

“What do you mean you burned the bodies?” Norton asked. “They completely decompose in minutes. What’s left to cremate?”

Edwards stared out silent for a minute. Then answered, “Those ones didn’t decompose right away. We didn’t wait long enough to see what would happen. We were so scared about contamination, we just burned the bodies within minutes. Do you think we missed something?”

“We’re about to find out.”

MacFarlane finished his speech and everyone applauded. He held up his crystal glass and took a long drink of water. As he finished swallowing, he stared out and locked eyes with Norton.

Norton held her gaze in MacFarlane’s eyes for a moment, then looked out into the crowd, to catch everyone just as they swallowed. The sounds of joyous amazement filled the room, like a crowd who just witnessed a magician pull off an amazing trick. They smiled and laughed and mingled amongst themselves. Norton and Edwards kept staring out, observing and wondering what was going to happen next.

There were a few moments where it almost looked like MacFarlane might have actually filled everyone’s glasses with Earth water. The mingling kept going, MacFarlane’s icy cold stare jabbed at Norton and Edwards every time they looked in his direction. Norton wondered if he would have gone that far just to make them look bad and himself look good.

The first person at the party started vomiting about five minutes after the toast. It was an older man in a pinstripe suit. He tried covering his mouth and running out of the room. But his insides were spilling on the floor before he could make it anywhere near the hall’s exit. People were shocked, they stared at him with disgust. Then the second person started vomiting, this time an older woman in a golden gown. She keeled over, holding her stomach, and spilled herself right where she was standing. She didn’t even bother trying to move, like she knew there was no point.

One by one, all the guests were getting more and more sick. All except MacFarlane who stood on the stage looking down with wide eyes at everyone dying in front of him. He exhibited no signs. Norton knew right away that every guest had water from Europa, but MacFarlane gave himself Earth water. He was too much of a coward to drink it himself.

The shrill screams of everyone in the hall all dying at once filled the room like a television tuned to white noise. “Why are you just standing there!” someone screamed at Norton and Edwards. There was nothing anyone could do to help these people, and Norton and Edwards knew that. So they continued to observe, because there would no other good that could come of this situation except for maybe a better understanding of how the virus progresses in people. This was no longer a banquet and these people no longer had any hope. They were simply the next batch of subjects in this ongoing experiment.

A hand grabbed Norton by the shoulder and she looked back to see MacFarlane with a frantic and panicked look on his face. Beads of sweat dripped from his forehead, leaving long streaks of fear along his face. “Why didn’t you tell me the water was this dangerous!” his voice screeched through his teeth.

“We did tell you,” Norton answered. “You didn’t listen.”

The putrid smell of rot was already filling the room. It was no different from the other subjects. All the same symptoms in the same order and the same reaction from everyone suffering from the virus. It was a quick death, but the pain and anguish that accompanied it must have made it feel like a thousand years of suffering.

“I’ll call for sanitation and clean up,” Edwards said.

“No, wait,” Norton stopped Edwards. “You said you destroyed the bodies almost immediately last time someone was administered completely untreated water? I want to see what the bodies are like after an hour. I want to see if untreated water acts differently post-mortem than treated water.”

“Why?” Edwards asked.

“The virus acts the same in a living host, but what if treating the water actually does make a change, but the change isn’t prevalent until after the body dies?”

“What will that prove?”

“That the treatments are doing something. That all of our efforts didn’t leave us empty handed. And if it acts differently post-mortem, then there has to be a point where the virus acts differently while the host is still alive.”

Norton knew where her brain was heading with this idea, but she wasn’t sure if Edwards saw it too. He stared at her in silence, barely blinking, like his brain was trying to process what he just heard but couldn’t come to any sort of logical reasoning of his own. He was lost in Norton’s idea and completely froze trying to get it to make sense.

“Trust me,” she tried to assure him. “This will bring some progress.”

The acrid smell of rotting flesh started to bother Norton. She coughed into her sleeve, trying to keep down the contents of her stomach. Her instincts told her to get out of that room before she becomes violently ill. But she knew she couldn’t miss any minute. This was crucial.

Forty-five minutes passed and the bodies were almost completely liquid. Even the bone melted with the flesh and all that was left of the banquet guests was a puddle of human remains. Norton pulled her phone from her pocket and started taking photographs. She looked around as she was snapping photos and noticed that MacFarlane was nowhere to be seen. The sounds of screaming echoed through the hall and caught the attentions of both Norton and Edwards. It sounded like MacFarlane’s shrill, panicking voice.

Edwards tried stepping in the direction the sound came from and stepped directly into the liquefied human. The hiss of a burning acid sang out from under his foot and steam rose up, reeking of burning hair and melting rubber. He quickly jumped back and pulled his shoe off and threw it to the ground. The hissing and steaming continued as the shoe completely dissolve in front of them.

Edwards slipped off his other shoe and touched the gelatinous mass that once was a room full of people. The hissing rose up again and his other shoe dissolved as quickly as the first. He threw it to the ground and examined the bit of ash left.

“Corrosive,” he said. “Extremely corrosive. Some of Jupiter’s sulphuric atmosphere must be in this water as well. It’s mixing with the hydrogen of the water and the carbon and oxygen in the people. The pH levels are probably comparable to sulphuric acid, but this is like a much stronger dose.”

“Why isn’t it dissolving the floor?” Norton asked.

“These floors have the same coating as in the observation rooms,” Edwards explained. “A synthetic poly-ethylene plastic coating. Whatever this bit of mess is, it must only damage organic cells.”

Norton noticed that the mass of liquid corrosive human was crawling along the floor, spreading out like a droplet of water on a table going through osmosis. She tapped Edwards on the shoulder and pointed to the crawling threat and the two walked out of the room and headed back down into the lab.

*****

The first thing that Edwards ran to once the two made it into the lab were the binders of research notes. “If that keeps spreading,” he said. “It could coat the whole facility and burn up every piece of organic material in here. We’ve worked too hard to understand this much of it so far. There’s too much else left to learn about it and there’s no time to backtrack. Save every piece of record you can. If it’s paper, grab it and keep it safe.”

There were notes all over the lab. Norton grabbed for everything that she could see. From the scribbled covered notebooks to the small post-it notes stuck to the walls, she moved in a fury to grab everything she could. She handed a massive handful of notebooks and loose paper to Edwards, who looked at the pile from Norton and looked at everything he had gathered thus far.

“We need to start moving this out,” he said. “There was plenty of floor space left upstairs, and the mass was moving slowly when we came down to the lab. Stay down here and keep collecting everything you can and keep it in a single pile. I’m going to run this stack outside and into my car. It will be safe in there until we can get the rest out.”

Before Norton could get a syllable of objection out from between her lips, Edwards was already out of sight. She darted form one side of the lab to the other, picking up every sheet of paper she could see. She opened drawers, stood on chairs to reach top shelves, scoured every hidden space in the lab for anything. Once she gathered what she believed to be every sheet of paper in the lab, she noticed that Edwards still wasn’t back. She checked the clock on the wall and saw he had been gone for almost an hour.

She walked through the lab’s hallways and found the stairwell that led back up to the main floor. She called out for Edwards with only her voice echoing up the stairwell being her response. She stood still and waited, waited for Edwards to reappear for the next set of paper to carry upstairs. But there was nothing.

Then, a small drip started pouring off the top step. Norton watched it with curiosity. Not sure of what she was looking at, she grabbed a post-it note with a message that read “Call Mom,” and reach up with it to the top step. The paper touched the small drip trickling down and started smoking and hissing.

In a panic, she dropped the paper into the small puddle that was gathering on the next step. The paper burst into flame and was reduced to ash in a second. A heavy section of the mass then toppled over the top step as the corrosive human remains started pouring rapidly over, like a tower made of champagne glasses.

She ran back into the observation room and rummaged through the papers. She tried to read the notes as quickly as she could, trying to prioritize what would be most important to save. But she knew she was running out of time before she would have nowhere she could move to. She threw down all the papers back onto the desk and peeked out into the hallway to see the mass crawling its way down to the observation room.

She looked around for a window, an air vent, anything she could crawl through to get to safety. All there was around her were grey walls and fluorescent lights. She knew the stairs were her only exit, but there was no way she would get through the hallway now. She walked forward and touched her toe lightly to mass and her shoe instantly burned up. She kicked off both shoes and moved back to the observation room.

Standing just beside the doorway was the bio-waste disposal unit. It moved slowly. She never tried to walk up stairs with it before. But the metal armour was coated with the same poly-ethylene plastic to protect it from bacteria growing on it. She would at least be safe in the basement if she couldn’t get up the stairs.

The suit was already open and Norton just had to climb in, secure her limbs, and close the chest plate and helmet. Once secure, she began walking through the mass. Each slow, thudding step dispersed the mass under its heavy foot. The mechanical sounds of each limb moving as she walked along seemed louder than any time she cleaned out the observation room.

She made it to the steps, which were now soaked with corrosive human remains. The liquid poured along like a never ending fountain. She lifted her foot and stepped onto the first step. She could feel the foot slipping from under her. She tried to steady herself, but she was quickly losing control. The foot finally slipped out from under her and she fell back in the bio-waste disposal unit and landed directly on her back.

Her body seized up. The pain of the landing shot through her whole body, which refused to move despite any command coming from her brain. She laid flattened, staring at the ceiling through the helmet. She could see the liquid dripping out of the vents and through the fluorescent light fixtures. It dripped slowly down and landed on the helmet’s view screen, clouding Norton’s sight.

The fog from her breath condensed inside of the helmet, leaving it wet and smelling like rotting food. Her limbs began responding her commands and she tried moving the suit to stand back up. Gravity was not on her side as she began feeling like a turtle turned upside down on its shell. She was able to move the mechanical arm and wipe away the accumulating mass clouding her vision. She looked around and noticed on the far side of the lab from the observation room a small window. Small, but just big enough to crawl through.

Unable to get up still, Norton began kicking out her legs and flailing her arms, pushing the suit across the floor towards the window. She grabbed onto walls and kicked at corners, moving the massive metal body across the floor. After some hard pushes, she finally made it to the window.

The walls around the window still had no liquid on it. She knew she pull herself up through the window and pivot herself against the wall to get out of the facility. But she had to get up to reach the window first.

She opened the chest plate and helmet to the suit. She pushed one of the doors to the chest plate as far open as the hinges would allow, then pushed it further to pop the hinge and let the door swing from the other side. She stood up with her feet inside the suit where he back usually is and stepped out onto the open door and pushed herself up the wall and through the window.

Once outside, she walked directly to where Edward’s car is usually parked. There was no sign of Edwards or his car anywhere. All there was in the parking spot where his car usually is was a single piece of paper. An observation that she wrote during 03198’s brief time as a subject. She didn’t even remember scribbling down “this is hopeless” on the paper, but it’s how she felt while watching 03198.

She looked back to the facility and saw the liquid seeping through the doors. It crawled along the concrete and into the grassy area. Smoke billowed up to the sky and the sound of its hiss was louder than the traffic on the nearby highway.

She watched the grass burn and pictured what it would do to the trees, forests, jungles, how it would spread all over, burning up every piece of organic material on the planet. She wondered if Europa was once a forest moon, full of life and growth and potential. Until someone drank the water.

Too Much TV Will Make Your Eyes Fall Out

It’s Saturday night and you know you’re up well past your bedtime. But if you don’t tell your parents, then neither will I. For tonight, it’s just you and I and all the greats who gave us scares. I’m Count Spookenstein and this is Chiller Television. Don’t adjust your set, this is not a test. You’re now receiving signals from my lair and together we’re going to have a smorgas-morgue of fun. At midnight local time, we’ll be watching the 1942 Bela Lugosi classic The Corpse Vanishes. At two a.m. local time we move forward to the 1963 movie that launched one Jack Nicholson’s career as he co-starred with monster legend Boris Karloff in The Terror. But first, make sure your doors are locked and your windows are boarded up. We kick off tonight’s fun with the movie that started it all. The film that defined what a zombie was for generations to come. Judith O’Dea stars in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Don’t touch that dial, if TVs are even made with dials anymore . . . Don’t change the channel because Chiller Television has only just begun and we haven’t finished until goose-bumps run across your skin and your blood runs cold.

Gillian sat close enough to the TV in the living room to climb in and stand next to all the horror icons she watched every Saturday night. With a bowl of fresh popcorn neatly tucked between her knees, a tall glass of soda on the coffee table behind her and a pillow and sleeping bag ready for when she’s inevitably going to fall asleep before The Terror starts, her Saturday night was set and she was ready for whatever chills and scares that Count Spookenstein had ready for her.

Count Spookenstein and Chiller Television was Gillian’s favourite part of the weekend. In fact, outside from staying up to watch scary movies on Saturday nights, Gillian didn’t do much with her weekend. All the other girls at school spend their weekends at the mall, spending their allowance money on small cups of soda that they sip while sitting in the food courts talking about who wore what to school that week and what boys they think are cute.

Gillian knew she was the butt of a lot of their gossip and jokes. She didn’t dress like all those other girls did. She let her dark hair grow straight that she let hang in front of her face when she went to school. She wore loose sweaters with logos and artwork from her favourite scary movies. Her mom wished that she would start making friends with the girls at school and spend more time trying to look as pretty as they all were. Her dad, though, got it. Gillian’s dad loved all the same scary movies that she loved and bought her the sweaters that she wore to school every day. Her dad had only one rule: the sweaters couldn’t have anything too gruesome . . . well, at least not until she was in high school.

Gillian could hear her mother come in from the other room. Her high heel shoes clicked with each step she took. She had another date tonight but didn’t bother with a babysitter. Gillian was getting old enough to look after herself. And besides, she was going to spend the whole night in front of the TV anyways. What would be the worst that could happen?

“Gillian, I hope you’re not going to be watching zombies all night,” her mother said. “There are some great family comedies on channel seven. Why don’t you watch a few of those?”

The family comedies that Gillian’s mother was referring to made Gillian want to start throwing up. Every family on those shows were too perfect: mom and dad were still together, brother and sister got along like best friends, and Rover always brought back the ball he chased to play fetch. Gillian already figured out that life wasn’t like that: parents got divorced, some kids were only children who never got a dog, and sometimes thing don’t always wrap themselves up in a neat package at the end.

“That’s ok, mom,” Gillian replied, trying to be as polite as possible. “Count Spookenstien is playing some really good movies tonight. I’ll be fine. Have fun on your date. Hope this one is a real winner and the proverbial Mr. Right.”

“Why do you always have to be so condescending while you’re here?” her mom snapped back. “I bet you’re never like this at your father’s house.”

Gillian never tries to be condescending. Her monotone voice and diction already a few grades ahead of where she should be just gives her that tone anytime she talks. She really was hoping the best for her mom. Though her mom will always think Gillian has some vendetta against her.

“Anyways, I got to get going,” her mom said as she adjusted her dress. “How do I look?”

Gillian looked her up and down and said, “Like you would make a suitable mate for a potential suitor.”

Obviously flustered and giving a heavy sigh, Gillian’s mom reached into her purse shaking her head, “I don’t even know why I ask you sometimes. I just wanted a daughter to share these nice things with. I feel like I have nothing in common with you.”

With absolutely nothing to say, Gillian just stared at her mom for a minute, then refocused her attention back to the graveyard scene on the TV. Gillian’s mom walked in to the room and started stroking her daughter’s hair. “I’m sorry honey, I’m just a little nervous about this date. You know, he could actually be the proverbial Mr. Right. If this goes well, he might even be your step-dad.”

The zombie chasing the brother and sister through the graveyard on TV was easier for Gillian to deal with than what her mother was saying. She talked to her father a few times about her mother’s dates and how she didn’t know how to feel about them. Her father always said that she should just be happy that her mother has been able to move on. And even if she couldn’t be happy, it was her duty to pretend to be happy and supportive so that her mother could be happy. Things were so much easier with Gillian’s dad. He never dated, he never expected her to comment on what he was wearing, he never got frustrated when Gillian didn’t understand what the big deal was. They had monster movies and that’s all they needed. Gillian didn’t understand what anyone needed anything else.

“Well, there’s leftover pizza in the fridge if you get hungry,” her mom started walking towards the front door. “Don’t stay up too late, and please don’t watch TV all night. Too much TV will make your eyes fall out.”

As Gillian’s mom went out the door the commercial break started and then, the whole reason Gillian stays up this late on the weekends, Count Spookenstein came back onto the screen:

Oh my, Barbara’s in trouble now. That ghoul in the graveyard cracked her brother’s skull on that tombstone and now Barbara’s hiding with a few other survivors in that abandoned house. I wonder which of the first survivors will be the first to snap. But first, how about a few facts about this terrifying thriller? Even though colour film was the norm by the time Night of the Living Dead was filmed, director George A. Romero still decided to film the picture in black and white anyways. And that’s the topic of tonight’s first quiz question:

Why did George A. Romero film Night of the Living Dead in black and white? Was it, A, because filming in black and white would be cheaper, B, because he wanted a classic horror ambience, or C, because the black and white camera was the only one he had access to?

We’ll have the answer to this question later on in our program. But for now, but to the guts, gore and glory that is Night of the Living Dead.

A wolf howls in the background as Count Spookenstein faded off of the screen. Gillian popped a couple of kernels of popcorn into her mouth while the movie came back on, opening with a shot of a wandering zombie eating a slimy piece of meat.

Gillian looked at the piece of meat hanging from the zombie’s mouth and looked down at her own legs, wondering what part of the body that was supposed to be. It was probably a turkey leg, Gillian figured out. She knew how low budget of a film this was and figured the director wouldn’t have the money for decent special effects, so he probably just took the turkey leg off of the lunch tray for the actors.

Gillian knew all of these movies well: Count Spookenstein knew them better of course, but the Count always shared all of his knowledge every Saturday night. Every weekend, Gillian learned something new about the movies she loved. She figured, after watching enough of Count Spookenstein’s shows, she could one day be the painted up ghoul on the television screen every Saturday night. She would dress similar enough to Count Spookenstein: she would wear his trademark top hat, paint her face like a skeleton face all white with black outlines around her cheekbones and eyes, she would wear the same black cape and white shirt and she would live in the haunted castle and have her own laboratory. Just like Count Spookenstein.

There was another commercial break then Gillian’s hero came back on the screen:

We’re back and things are only turning for the worse. The young lovebirds went up in flames and a cloud of smoke, the family is read to tear each other apart and Barbara is practically comatose. Can Ben told them all together and make it until morning when hopefully some help will arrive?

But now, back to tonight’s question. Why did director George A. Romero decide to film his 1968 zombie-defining film in black and white?

Gillian looked up at the screen and blurted out, “It was the budget! It was an independent film and they had to keep the filming costs down!”

Sorry boils and ghouls, I couldn’t quite hear you, you’ll have to speak up. Why was it again?

Gillian felt a little stupid yelling at the TV still, but she couldn’t resist Spookenstein’s charm, she had to answer. “It was to keep filming costs down!”

That’s right Gillian. It was the filming costs. This was Romero’s first picture and because it was an independent film, Romero had to cut costs wherever he could. Good job my dear.

The popcorn that Gillian had thrown into her mouth dropped out and back into the bowl as she hung her mouth open listening to Spookenstein talk back to her through the television screen. She couldn’t figure out how this was possible. Was she just hearing things? Was Spookenstein really talking to her?

Spookenstein smiled down through the screen and if Gillian didn’t know any better, she’d swear he was staring right into her eyes.

You know a lot about horror movies, my dear. Possibly more than me. Why don’t you join me here and we can find out who knows the most.

The Count extended his hand forward, and then through the television screen and it approached Gillian with an eerie glow around it, outlining every vein in his decrepit hand following the shape of his long, cracked fingernails. His fingers spread and his palm opened up, inviting Gillian to take his hand and follow him. She reached out and felt the dry leathery skin on Spookenstein’s hands as he pulled her into the TV, then through, then into Spookenstein’s haunted laboratory.

She stood up close and looked into the cobwebbed beakers, ran her fingers over the smoke pumping out of the cauldron and flicked a small switch that made an electric sound off in the distance. Most people acting the way she was would have been in Santa’s toyshop; but, Gillian was somewhere better: Count Spookenstein’s haunted lab.

“Well my dear,” Spookenstein called out from behind her. “It’s time we found out who knows the most about classic horror films, shall we? For every question you get right you get one step closer to being my new assistant in my lab!”

Gillian’s smile shined brighter than an entire neighbourhood of jack-o-lanterns. She clapped a bit and spun in excitement, trying to take in all that there was to Spookenstein’s lab as quickly as she could.

“But,” Spookenstein’s tone quickly dropped. “For every question you get wrong, you will be one step closer to a worse kind of doom than Karloff, Lugosi or Chaney ever met. Three wrong answers, and you will be finished, for good. Are you ready to start?”

Gillian looked around the lab and thought about how much better everything will be once she’s here to stay. There was no way Gillian could possibly lose this game. She knew all the monsters, all the scream queens, all the writers and all the directors. She had this in the bag and in no time at all she would be Spookenstein’s assistant.

“The first question,” Spookenstein blurted out. “Who was the first actor on film to play Frankenstein?”

A trick question right off the start, Gillian thought to herself. She figured Spookenstein would think that she thought he was talking about Boris Karloff, who was the first to play Frankenstein’s monster. A common  misconception. Frankenstein was the doctor who created the monster, and she knew exactly who played him.

“Colin Clive,” Gillian answered. “Colin Clive was the first to play the good doctor Frankenstein.”

Spookenstein nodded happily. “Very good, you caught the first part of my trick,” he said. “But, not all of it.”

Suddenly, a round wooden plank shot up from behind Gillian. The plank had four sets of braces, two on the top and two on the bottom. Gillian had seen this kind of torture device before on many different movies where the victim spins attached to the piece of wood while the monster throws knives at them.

“You see my dear,” Spookenstein explained. “You forgot about the original Frankenstein, the 1910 version, what’s commonly referred to as Edison’s Frankenstein, named after the manufacturing company that filmed the picture. And the doctor was played by none other than Augustus Phillips.”

Spookenstein pointed to a screen at the other end of the lab, the very screen that Gillian went through to find her way into the lab. The image of her living room suddenly faded and clips from the 1910 version of Frankenstein started playing. Spookenstein was right and Gillian was getting worried.

“Second question my dear,” Spookenstein began. “And I’ll make this one an easy one. Name three actors who have played the monster Dracula.”

I know this one for sure, Gillian thought to herself. She didn’t love any other monster more than she loved Dracula. The Prince of Darkness himself. There wasn’t a single Dracula movie she hadn’t seen, even the new terrible ones. She thought about naming Max Schreck, the mysterious man who played Nosferatu in 1922, but that wasn’t technically Dracula. He’s never called Dracula in that movie. Gillian was on to Spookenstein’s games.

“Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee,” Gillian hesitated for a moment. “And Gary Oldman.”

Spookenstein’s face dropped and his eyes widened. “I’m impressed,” he said. “You avoided my trick with Nosferatu, well done. You may make a perfect assistant yet.”

Folding her arms and nodding confidently, Gillian was proud of herself in that moment and she hoped she could keep up her winning streak.

“Third question now,” Spookenstein began. “Name three monsters played by Lon Chaney.”

Gillian thought for a moment about what could Spookenstein’s trick be this time. It didn’t take long to find the key she was looking for.

“Lon Chaney Senior or Junior?” Gillian asked.

Spookenstein smiled. “Senior, my dear.”

“Easy,” Gillian prematurely blurted out. “Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, and…” Suddenly, Gillian couldn’t remember the third monster’s name. She had only seen clips of this lost and fabled film, it’s legend was as large as its start. But, did the monster have a name? “The… The… Monster from London After Midnight.”

Spookenstein laughed heartily as the picture of Gillian’s living room faded once again and clips from London After Midnight began playing on the screen. “Oh my dear, you were so incredibly close. The monster in London After Midnight did have a name. He was Inspector Edward C. Burke. And he dressed as a monster to solve a mystery. The monster was known as The Man in the Beaver Cap. And that’s two wrong answers.”

Suddenly, something pulled Gillian back and she was pressed against the plank, the shackles binding themselves against her wrists and ankles. She could feel the plank start to rotate slowly. She couldn’t get this next question wrong.

“Alright my dear,” Spookenstein walked up to Gillian, placing his hand on the plank and gently rocking it back and forth. “One more question and your doom is sealed. Here’s your question. Name three films where Vincent Price plays a doctor.”

Gillian was terrified but she was able to steady her breathing to think slowly about this. Her father’s favourite actor was Vincent Price. They had watched all of his movies together. She remembered sitting on the couch with her father while Price’s haunting voice carried over them.

“The Bat, The Lat Man on Earth and…” Gillian hesitated. “The… The Abominable Doctor Phibes.”

Spookenstein was silent for a moment, still rocking the plank. Gillian could feel her hair running along the floor. “I underestimated you, my dear,” Spookenstein finally answered. “One more right answer, and you will be free of these shackles and you will become my assistant. One more wrong answer and you will suffer a fate worse than Vincent Price ever did in any of his films. Your last question, and I highly recommend that you take your time thinking about it. Name three classics that were remade in the 1980s.”

Gillian didn’t know much about movies from the 1980s. Spookenstein never played those movies. But she heard about how some of these remakes were even better than the originals. She thought about the movies her father told her he watched in theatres when they first came out.

“The Fly, The Thing, which was originally called The Thing from Another World and…” Gillian tried to think of a third. She remembered the first time her father told her about Donald Sutherland. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

With a heavy sigh, Spookenstein looked down on Gillian. “So, so close,” he began. “And you would have made such a good assistant. Oh well, rules are rules. For you see my dear, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was made in 1978, not in the 1980s. I’m sorry my dear, this is where it all ends now for you.”

With a heavy cackle and flick of his wrist, the plank started to spin and Spookenstein walked over to a briefcase on a table, and pulled out a collection of large knives. “Hope this has been educational my dear!” He yelled out with a laugh.

Gillian felt the plank shift as she spun. With a kachunk the plank dropped and began rolling toward the screen, just missing the first knife Spookenstein threw. The plank rolled and hit the screen, launching Gillian through and back into her living room landing on the bowl of popcorn and sending kernels flying all over the couch.

And then she heard the front door open.

“Gillian I’m…” Gillian’s mother walked into the living room. “Gillian! What are you doing? Look at the mess you made. I’m going to have to get the vacuum and…” And Gillian’s mother hesitated for a second. Gillian looked up to see her mother’s glare glued to the television. “Is that Jack Nicholson?” she asked. “I love Jack Nicholson. What movie is this?”

“The Terror,” Gillian responded. “It was one of his first major roles. He got to star alongside Boris Karloff.”

“I can see that,” Gillian’s mother replied. “This looks really good.” And Gillian’s mother sat herself down on the floor, cross-legged next to Gillian.

The front door opened again and Gillian could hear steps in the front hallway. “Oh, that’s my date,” Gillian’s mother explained. “He’s coming in for a quick cup of coffee and heading home for the night, I think you’ll really like him.”

“My dear, where are you?” a familiar voice called out.

“In the living room!” Gillian’s mother called.

That’s when a man stepped into the living room. His leathery hands removed his top hat as he peered into the living.

“Hello my dear,” he began with a smile. “You must be Gillian. I hear you like scary movies.”

The House and the Dare

The house was on the edge of the town, just beyond the factories where most of the town’s parents worked and just before the highway that would take families to the city on the weekend. It was an old house, the kind you would see on those late Saturday night movies where the man in a mask would be hiding around the corners waiting for the teenaged girls. The window shudders were hanging by their hinges and would squeak anytime there was a gust of wind. Dust was caked onto all the windows making it impossible to see in. Cobwebs lined the front porch and the porch swing held on by only on chain hooked into the overhang.

Roy and his friends would ride their bikes through the industrial area of town, daring each other to go a little further in toward the house. They had all seen the house when their parents drove them into the city, but none of them had ever seen the house outside the safety of their parents’ car windows.

“My brother said he spent a whole night in that house once,” Roy bragged. He always looked up to his brother. He thought his long black hair and leather jackets with the spikes sticking out were cool. Roy often counted the years to sixteen when he could grow his hair long and have his own spiked leather jacket. “I bet I could do it too.”

All the other boys jeered and scoffed, saying that Roy would never have the guts to stay in that house even for a minute. Just as the other boys started to turn their bikes around to head home, Roy piped up.

“Not even a minute? I’ll do that right now,” he called out.

The other boys looked back at him, their mouths hanging out, then looked at each other hoping someone else will be the first to say something.

“I’ll go in that house right now and stand in there for one minute,” Roy continued. “And when I come out, one of you has to buy me root beer.”

Roy had been challenged with some bold dares before. He never backed down from a dare or a double-dare or a double-dog-dare. He had eaten more worms than any of the other boys at school, even ate a spider one time. Roy had swung a rope around the gym’s basketball net and climbed up to the rim once when he was called chicken. Roy prided in himself of his bravery. He would run home and tell his brother all about how brave he was. His brother would let Roy sit in his room, listen to his CDs with the loud screeching guitars and screaming singers anytime he was impressed with the dares Roy conquered.

Roy could only imagine how proud his brother would be for going into that house.

The boys rode their bikes over, further than any of them had ridden before. They passed factories and warehouses and read the names as they flew by. Yellow and brown leaves crunched beneath the wheels of their bikes as they drove down the empty streets. It was almost totally dark outside and a cold wind started blowing behind them, as if some invisible force was pushing them towards the house.

The boys stopped their bikes with a screech in the middle of the road as they looked up to the enormous house. It was twice the size of any of the houses on their block. The house loomed over them as if the upstairs windows were giant, dark eyes staring down at them waiting for them to answer the dare.

Roy hopped off his bike and rolled it up on the sidewalk and dropped it on the overgrown lawn, covered in burnt coloured leaves. He looked back and saw his friends still standing back. They wouldn’t even come up to the sidewalk. One of Roy’s friends hid behind a tree holding a stick he pulled from one of the branches and standing up on one of the roots protruding out of the ground.

“All right, I’m going in!” Roy yelled out to his friends. He looked down at his watch. “I got my watch, you guys watch your watches, and when one minute hits I’ll come out of the house. Hope you guys brought your allowances, I’m not kidding about the root beer.”

The house seemed like it was looming even closer to Roy now. Gusts of cold wind blew by like it was the house’s cold, dead breath blowing against Roy’s face. Roy took his first step onto the first wooden stair leading up to the front door. The creak under his feet echoed through the front porch and out into the street. Roy stepped carefully the rest of the way up, afraid that the old rotted wood would crumble under his feet. As he walked up slowly to the front door, he peered over to the porch swing hanging from one chain, creaking and squeaking as it swayed to and fro. Roy could hear the shutters above him slapping against the house, each new slap louder than the last.

Even before his hand landed on the doorknob, Roy could feel the heat coming from it. He tapped his finger against the doorknob and even that little touched singed his fingertip like the time he pressed his hand against the top of the stove while his mom was cooking. Roy slid his hand into his sleeve and quickly slid his hand along the knob and swung the door open quickly. The door swung with a loud wreeeeeeeeeeeeek before whamming against the wall behind it.

Hearing his friends chatter behind him, Roy looked back and smirked at his friends before lifting his foot and kicking the front door back shut.

Roy felt a shiver in the house after the door slammed shut. He inspected the doorknob to see what burned his hand. There was nothing on the inside doorknob. He reached to touch it and it was icy cold like how the streetlights get when it’s thirty below outside.

My imagination’s just playing tricks on me, Roy decided as he walked into the middle of the front foyer. In front of him was a wooden stairwell covered in an old dusty green rug leading upstairs. To his left was a room with a couch, chairs and lamps all covered in white blankets with grey and yellow stains. To his right was a room with an old wooden desk and wooden chair. There were still pens and papers on top of the desk and old books on a bookshelf hanging above the desk.

The house was quiet. So quiet, Roy’s ears began ringing with the sounds of his own thoughts. This minute couldn’t move fast enough. Bored, Roy decided to sit down at the desk. He walked in the office and ran his fingers along the top of the desk and then the starting touching each of the books resting above as he read out each title, each name stranger than the last:

“Murders in the Rue Morgue and other Short Stories; The Dunwich Horror and Other Strange Tales; The Lair of the White Worm; The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Roy didn’t know any of the books on the shelves. They just seemed like strange tomes from a different time. He sat down at the desk and began fiddling with a pen, his eyes still locked on the books hanging above him. An open book lying on the desk caught his eye and as he peered down at the book he noticed that there were no typed words on the page: only a single sentence, just three words, scribbled across in black ink so fresh it was still running down the page. It was three words enough to send chills down even the bravest of spines.

“Get out now.”

A bad of ink from the page pressed against Roy’s finger as he stood up from the desk, trying to distance himself from this message of warning. He looks down at the ink on his hand and he sees it running along his finger tip, like he was pressing a fountain pen against himself. But there was no pen in his hand and the ink kept spreading, covering his finger and running into his palm.

Roy ran through the hose, looking for the kitchen or the bathroom or the first room with a running tap he could find. He find the kitchen in the far end of the house on the other side of the stairs. He runs to the sink and twists open both faucets, but nothing comes out. The tap starts vibrating, then gyrating, then shaking, then convulsing and then starts spewing what Roy thought was black ink, until the black ink started crawling. Suddenly Roy found himself covered and surrounded by spiders.

Roy screamed and ran through the house back towards the stairs and up the steps with a clomp clomp clomp clomp clomp until Roy’s leg fell through one of the steps, hwith the splinters of the shattered, rotted wood scraping against his leg. He pulled himself up and made it to the top of the stairs, out of breath, and he heard a tapping coming from the room at the very end of the hall.

Roy walked slowly through the hall, letting each of his feet land gently against the floor beneath him, each step letting off a creeeek . . . creeeeeeeeeek . . . as he continued forward to the door at the end of the hall.

A cold breeze ran through this hallway and each door that Roy passed gave off a small jingling noise, like someone on the other side was trying to turn the handle. As Roy got closer to the sound of the tapping, the tapping grew louder and louder, until it became a banging Banging BANGING BANGING BANGING! The door shook more with each harder banging that hit it. The hinges on the door began loosening, screws began falling out and rolling along the floor, and Roy turned to run as the banging led to a crash and the door behind him flung open with a loud ROARING noise coming up from behind him. Roy had no idea if the noise was a monster, a ghost, a demon, or a wind strong enough to tear the house off of its foundation, but Roy just kept running. He could hear each of the doors that he passed swinging open and smacking against the wall behind them as he ran passed.

Roy made it to the stairs, jumped over where he fell, slid along the banister until the landed at the front door and swung it open.

Just as he saw his older brother reaching down for the handle.

“Whoa, didn’t take long for you to get spooked,” Roy’s brother smiled as he adjusted his leather jacket. He turns and looks back at Roy’s friends and yells out, “Hey, I told you guys your parents are waiting for you. Get home or I’ll run you over with my car.”

One of the boys chimed up, “No you won’t.”

Roy’s brother took a step down one step and looked down his nose at the boys. “Is that a dare?” he asks.

The boys rode off for home and Roy’s brother looked back at the brave young man and said, “Took some guts to go in there. Too bad you were only in there for like ten seconds. I saw you closing the door just as I was pulling up.”

Roy couldn’t believe he was in the house only a few seconds. He thought for sure, between the ink, which disappeared off of his hand, the spiders and the doors upstairs he must have been in there for five, maybe ten minutes. But no, as Roy checked his watch he realized that he was only in that house, for a few seconds.

“Put your bike in the back of my car, I’m going to double check in here and make sure you didn’t break anything,” Roy’s brother took a few steps into the house as Roy walked down to the station wagon Roy’s brother bought with the help of their parents.

Roy’s brother walked into the house, leaving the front door open. He moved the black hair out of his face as he began peeking into each room. He looked over the room with the books and the desk and smiled. “We had some fun, but not tonight. Another night maybe.”

He walked into the room and looked down at the book open on the desk with the fresh black ink running along the page which now said, “I Dare You.”

Old Books by Dead Authors

The librarian shushed Laurie as the heavy book dropped against the table. It wasn’t her fault that the book slipped from out of her hands and slammed against the wooden surface, echoing throughout the library like the sound shot out from underneath the book and travelled up along the walls and bounced off the roof again.

The other kids sitting at the table coughed and tried fanning the dust that was dancing in front of their faces. Laurie could hear the other kids asking how old that book was and why is she reading it.

Compulsion and curiosity, Laurie wanted to answer the other kids. She wanted to tell them that all the secrets of the universe, the keys to life and death, the meaning to our very being here at this very moment were etched neatly in 8 point, Times New Roman font along the pages of these books. She wanted to tell them that, but Laurie decided to keep it to herself.

She sat down and started to run her fingers along the indents of the book’s front cover. The title and author of the book were etched in, as if imprinted or cut in precisely, along the red leather that had become dry and worn with age. She read the title over and over, even mouthing the words a few times, taking in the full essence of the tome she was about to envelop.

A backpack plopped on the table and Laurie heard could hear it zipping. She looked up to see Jonathan pulling out his science textbook. She had forgotten that she was supposed to be tutoring Jonathan. IF only he picked somewhere else to study that didn’t temp Laurie so much every time she walked in. The mall food court would have been perfect, Laurie didn’t care about anything going on in the mall. But the library was somewhere that Laurie could get lost in for hours, thumbing through books and discovering new sections all of the time.

Jonathan smiled. He took off his baseball cap and threaded his long, dusty blonde hair through his fingers, moving the few rogue strands back into place before sliding his cap back on. “Sorry I’m a little late,” he said. “Coach wanted to have a stern talk with me about my grades. Thanks again for helping me out. This is the only class I’m having any trouble with but even on failed class and I won’t be able to try out for the baseball team during the spring.”

“It’s no problem,” Laurie replied, barely looking away from the book that she was looking forward to reading. “Statistically actually, October is one of the hardest months for schoolwork, be it for grade school or even college. The material starts getting harder but the students haven’t quite caught up because they’re still in a summer break mentality. In November, grades start to pick up, then December and January is final project and exams season.”

Jonathan kept smiling and nodded his head. “So I guess I’m not the only one who needs a tutor right now then? That’s reassuring. How do you know all that stuff about when students do the worst in school anyway?”

Laurie noticed a smudge on her glasses and pulled them off before wiping the lens on her open plaid shirt. She still didn’t make eye contact with Jonathan. “I read a book on the psychology of students in post-secondary education. I was hoping it would help me get into the right mindset before college. It was the only book that analyzed student activity in the whole psychology section on the library.”

“Is that it right there?” Jonathan asked pointing to the book sitting in front of Laurie.

She looked down at the book and re-read the title hoping that would help her find the right words to explain the book. “Um, no,” she replied, still searching her brain for the right explanation. “It’s just some fiction. It’s really old though. I’m actually really surprised they have this here.”

“Sure doesn’t look like any fiction book I’ve ever seen,” Jonathan said.

“Well, this is far from some sappy, mass-market vampire romance,” she replied. “Your average teenaged girl sure wouldn’t read something like this.”

Laurie thought about reading the book once she got home, but knew that she already had too many books taken out from the library, all of them late of course. By the time the two finished studying, she would have to head right home, so there was no point in holding on to this book and having it occupy her mind while she’s supposed to be helping Jonathan study.

“I’m going to put this book back before we start,” Laurie said. “It’ll be just a second.”

“I’ll come with you,” Jonathan replied. “I’ve never really walked around here before. Might be good for me to know where I can find some good fiction for when I get sick of the vampire romances.”

The early and classic literature section was on the opposite side of the library from where the study tables were. In fact, the section was on the opposite side from where everything was: the front desk, the front doors, and all the windows. The fluorescent lights above hummed and a couple blinked, but Laurie wouldn’t need any light to navigate her way through this part of the library because of how much time she spent going through all of the books in this area.

She found the shelf that the book belonged on and noticed one of the librarians on the far end of the same shelf. He was knelt down, emptying a cart of books onto the shelves one at a time each. His brown corduroy pants were covered in dust, his round thin rimmed glasses hung down at the end of his nose, and the front part of his combed back hair hung in front of his face.

“What’s back there?” Jonathan pointed to the very far end of the library. It was a section that Laurie had never even noticed before, let alone explored. The entrance was a dark arch that had a sign in front of it that said, “Close for Renovations.”

“Closed for Renovations?” Laurie curiously read. “This place was renovated when we were in kindergarten. Why’s that area still closed?”

“I can explain that,” the librarian walked over. “That’s where we keep the really old books.” He held up one of the books from the early and classic literature section. “Don’t get me wrong, these books are pretty old. Maybe 70 years old or so. But over there,” he pointed. “That’s where we keep the books that are hundreds of years old. Some of those books have been in there since this library opened back in the 1860s, even before this area was established as a town. We tried renovating it at the same time we renovated the rest of the building, but we realized there was too much risk to those books. So it’s been that way ever since.”

“What kind of books are in there?” Laurie asked.

“More of the same really,” the librarian answered. “Just a lot of old books by dead authors. Nothing fancy really and nothing you can’t find in a newer edition out here. They’re just considered historical and some collectors would pay ridiculous money for them, so we need to keep them safe.”

The intercom system called for help at the front desk and the librarian politely excused himself and headed back to the opposite side of the library. As soon as he was out of sight, Laurie headed straight for the Closed for Renovations sign. Jonathan followed closely behind.

“What are you doing? We’re obviously not supposed to go back there,” Jonathan said.

“I need to know what’s back there,” Laurie answered. “Besides, the librarian never said we weren’t allowed back there. Just that the books are old and we need to be careful.”

Laurie and Jonathan snuck past the Closed for Renovations sign and made their way into the hidden part of the library. The books weren’t visible right away. The two had to walk down a long hallway whose only light came from the entrance way behind them. Laurie pulled out the small flashlight she kept for reading at night and clicked it on, shining a dim, orange light in the direction the two were headed. The walls and roof were arched and lined with what Laurie guessed were the original cobblestones from the 1860s. Between the stones grew a few weeds and other plant life. The whole hallway smelled of moisture, mould, fungus, and old books.

They reached the end of the long hallway to an open room with shelves of books lining the walls and a large, thick, wooden table with two chairs in the middle of the room. Laurie’s dim, orange light was the only thing illuminating anything in the room. She shone her light on the spines of the books lining the walls. She couldn’t even read the names. Some looked like English letters but not in any sensible order to make out words. Others had symbols that Laurie had never seen before.

“Aren’t these amazing?” she asked herself, forgetting that Jonathan was even in the room.

“What are all these?” Jonathan asked.

“I have no idea,” Laurie replied. “And I won’t know unless I open them up.”

She grabbed one of the books that had the symbols she’d never seen before. The book was even heavier than the one she was looking forward to reading before. The cover had thick ridges running all over, like veins in a wrist. Laurie traced some of the ridges before finally opening up the book to a random page near the middle.

Only to discover the pages were blank.

“I don’t get it,” she said. “There’s nothing here.” She flipped through a few other pages. “There’s absolutely nothing in here.”

She looked up to see Jonathan’s reaction and as soon as she looked down she saw lines on the book. And the lines were moving, filling the pages of images. Laurie started to make out the images of skeletons, churches, fire, and, horrible monsters with horns and hooves. In terror, she dropped the book, breaking the binding on the side of the book. A cloud of smoke rose from the book and then dissipated into the air. Jonathan and Laurie stood stunned, barely noticing the voice that came from under the table.

“Oh my, look at what you’ve gone and done,” it said. It walked out from under the table and Laurie noticed it was dressed exactly like the librarian. He was much smaller than the librarian, though. He was standing perfectly upright when he walked out from under the table and put his hands on his hips and shook his head as he looked at the broken book. “This is why I told the administrators to keep people out of here. But do they listen? No. What do I know after all?”

The little thing looked perfectly human. His feet looked much too long for his body. He adjusted his bowtie and then began cleaning his glasses.

“Is that an elf?” Jonathan blurted out.

The small man looked back at Jonathan with a puzzled look, like Jonathan just asked if he were a pickle. “Elf?” the man asked. “What makes you think I’m an elf? I’m much too small to be an elf. In fact, most elves are taller than humans. I don’t know where you got the idea that I’m an elf.”

“You’re a hobbit,” Laurie pointed out. “Just like in the books.”

He nodded his head. “That I am. And thank you. But more than that, I am the curator of this collection and it’s supposed to be my job to take care of these books. You came in at the worst possible time. I was just cleaning up after supper and just about to get my dinner ready and in my distraction, I must have missed you coming in.”

“Aren’t supper and dinner the same thing?” Jonathan asked.

“Supper and dinner the same…” the hobbit stopped as if he lost the words to try and understand what Jonathan just asked. “Much like how hobbits and elves are the same thing? If I had the time to, I’d teach you a thing or two. But right now, we have bigger issues.” He points to the book on the floor. “Of all the books you could have picked up while my back was turned, why did it have to be that one?”

“I didn’t know what it was,” Laurie explained. “I couldn’t read the name on the spine, so I just opened it and…”

“You couldn’t read it,” the hobbit interrupted. “Because it’s in a dead language from more than half a century ago. If you could read it, you would have read, and I quote, ‘DO NOT Open this Book for it has within it Trapped the Darkest of all Evil.’ And you just let it out.”

Laurie’s eyes began to fill with tears as she thought about what she must have juts unleashed onto the world. “I’m so sorry,” she said holding back tears. “I had no idea. Can you fix it?”

Maybe,” the hobbit replied. “I haven’t read up on this in a while. When most people release this guy, they don’t break the book he’s in. They usually just watch the drawings finish.”

“So, this has happened before?” Jonathan asked. “When was the last time?”

“A few years back,” the hobbit answered. “The last time the demon made a good mess of this entire library. To cover up what happened they wound up renovating the whole place. Aside from here, of course. I thought the books would be safe here under my watch, help keep suspicion low. It went pretty good too. You two are the first to wander in here since the renovations.”

“So wait, this has happened recently?” Laurie asked. “So you know how to fix it then?”

“Like I said,” the hobbit pronounced slowly. “I can fix it if he’s let out from the drawings finishing. You broke the book, though. This was his cage and now all the bars are broken.”

“Will he destroy the whole town?” Jonathan asked.

“No,” the hobbit answered looking down at another book. “This library was built specifically to house these book, including some nice failsafes that keep out on the loose friend indoors. The demon can’t leave the library, but there are enough people in here that he could do some serious harm if he wanted to. So, objective number one is you two finding our demonic friend. While you find him, I’ll fix the binding on this book. Hopefully that will keep him in here.

“What does he look like?” Laurie asked.

“It’s different every time,” the hobbit answered.

Lurie and Jonathan walked back through the long hallway and back out into the main library area. They looked around for anything that would possible be a demon: all they saw were the librarian emptying out more kids, a little kid skipping through the library aisles, more kids from their school walking around, parents picking up their kids go home for dinner, nothing that looked demonic.

They walked through the library and just saw more of the same. Neither Laurie nor Jonathan knew what they were looking for.

“I have an idea,” Jonathan spoke up. “He can’t leave the library, right? Let’s wait for the library to close. Everyone has to leave by then. Whoever doesn’t leave we know is the demon.”

Laurie agreed that this was a good plan. It was a school night, so it wouldn’t be long before the library closed. Laurie and Jonathan didn’t want to disturb the hobbit as he tried to fix the book, so they hid out in the dark hallway and waited for everyone to leave and all the lights to shut off.

Closing time came quickly and at the first sign of total darkness and quiet in the library, Jonathan and Laurie starting looking though the library for any sign that someone was still around. They peered through the aisles and made it half way across the entire library when they finally heard it.

Footsteps. Small footsteps. Small, quick footsteps. And then a giggle.

The giggle was high pitched and playful. Like that of a child. They weren’t sure if they were looking for something that exactly looked like a young kid, but it sounded like a kid.

Following the sound to the front of the library, Jonathan and Laurie stopped at the front desk and still saw no one. But then heard another giggle coming from the studying tables.

“It’s just playing with us,” Laurie said.

“Even if we find it, corner it or whatever, what do we do then? It’s a demon. Do we try to catch it? Is there a special way to trap it?” asked Jonathan.

“I don’t know. The hobbit just said to find it. Maybe we just keep track of where it is for when the hobbit’s finished fixing the book?”Laurie added. “All I know is that if that thing is allowed to run rampant, it’ll destroy the library.”

They both ran for the tables and started looking around. Laurie bent down on her hands and knees looking under the tables. She crawled from table to table until she spotted two small feet run across. Laurie’s head popped up and she spotted Jonathan in the opposite direction that she saw the feet. “It’s running again!” she called out. “Headed towards the back of the library!”

They ran back to the far end of the library and looked down each aisle in each section until they came across the early and classic literature section again. At the back of the aisle, trapped by a wall between to shelves of books sat what looked like a young boy, no older than four, dressed in jeans, a white button down shirt, and wearing small white sneakers. Laurie remembered seeing him skipping across the library when she and Jonathan came out of the hallway after meeting the hobbit. The boy sat there on the floor with a book in his lap, open.

“Well, there you are,” the hobbit came up from behind and started walking down the aisle holding the book Laurie broke. “Clever disguise this time. It really was. But you’re not fooling me.”

“He’s just a little boy,” Laurie said. “How much damage could he possibly do?”

The hobbit looked back at Laurie like she just tried to convince him frogs taste like chocolate. “No, he’s not a little boy,” the hobbit said. “He’s a thirteen-hundred year old demon who’s angrier and has a worse temper than a hive of bullied wasps because he’s been locked in a book for a few hundred years and every time he gets out a certain hobbit always finds him.” He turns back to the little boy. “I sometimes fear we’re destined to do this forever.”

“Well, if that isn’t what he looks like,” Jonathan began. “What does he actually look like.”

The hobbit turned and opened the book to a page with a drawing of an immense beast with long horns, hooves for feet, a long snout, and a gold ring pierced through the middle of his nose. “Here’s your adorable little boy,” the hobbit said. “Or as I like to call him, Ornias. Something of a trouble making demon who likes changing shapes.”

The three looked back and saw the little boy flipping through pages violently, the expression on his face began contorting and his became redder and redder. “Come on you stupid book,” he said through gritted teeth. “There’s got to be something in here about getting me out!”

“Afraid not,” the hobbit said. “You especially won’t find anything you’re looking for going through a vampire romance like the one you’re holding.”

The boy looked up and suddenly the horns that lay in his demon head began showing much clearer. The boy stood up and his hooves clicked against the floor. “I’m not going back into that book,” the demon’s voice boomed out from his snout. “You’ll have to kill me hobbit. And I’ll burn down this wretched place!”

The demon’s palms began to engulf in flames and Laurie and Jonathan both ducked. Just as they hit the ground, a bright light shone out, and Laurie saw that it came from the book that the hobbit was holding. The light burned and only grew brighter, until suddenly it was gone and the book dropped down to the floor. There was no sign of the hobbit or the demon. Laurie picked up the book and where once was simply deep ridges in the cover of the book, now the ridges made out a face. The face of the hobbit.

Laurie and Jonathan put the book back where it belonged in the dark room blocked off by the “Closed for Renovations” sign. As they walked back to the front door, Laurie thought about that broken book whose bindings could only be fixed by a hobbit, who now lives in its pages holding a demon at bay.

The librarian in the corduroy pants was walking up the steps to the front door when Laurie and Jonathan were about to pass through.

“Oh great,” the librarian said. “How long have you two been in here for?”

“Long enough,” Jonathan said as he left and walked down the stairs. “I’ll see you at school tomorrow!” he called out. “Maybe we can study at the mall food court from now on instead.”

As Jonathan walked away, Laurie looked to the librarian and asked, “So, do you know much about hobbits?”

The librarian smiled and answered, “Little people with big feet and eat a lot of meals? I know a few things. Did you know they’re really good at binding books?”

Talking to Stiffs

The bar doors swing open and shut with a slow pattering across the floor. His shoes are barely tied and he almost trips over his laces but finds balance against the side of one of the booths. If someone were sitting in that booth, he’s sure they would stand up and try to take a swing at him, like everyone else does at these kinds of places. That’s why he gave up on stopping in during the evening. People are friendlier in the afternoon.

The bartender stares down at the stumbling man with the poorly laced shoes. He tries to pull himself onto a stool while the bartender wipes the rim of a pint glass. The stumbling man has to balance himself on the edge of the bar and firmly plant his foot on the ring around the legs of the stool to even see over the bar, let alone get onto the damn thing.

“Been drinking already, Roger?” the bartender asks with a raised eyebrow.

“Yeah, well, you know how it is. Hair of the dog and what not” the small man retorts. “Just a glass of the usual, my man. Just a glass of the usual.”

The bartender sighs and shakes his head, like he doesn’t normally deal with guys having fun earlier in the day. “I don’t know, Roger. Seems to me like you’ve had enough already.”

“Come on, man. Not like you’re getting a lot of business right now anyways. I see more life during my day job,” Roger belligerently snaps back. “Come on, just one pint. For the road.”

“Fine, one pint,” the bartender answers back pointing his index finger to Roger. “But promise me you’re going to stay off the road.”

“Scouts honour,” Roger replies with two fingers in the air.

Roger was never a boy-scout.

*****

Six in the evening rolls around before Roger finally gets out of bed. Maybe that last pint at the bar wasn’t the best idea. He has no idea how he got home or where he left his car. All he knows is he’s got to get going. He’s on the night shift this week. His clients aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, except a little sour and smellier, but his boss still doesn’t like it when Roger’s late. The moody prick.

There’s coffee still in the pot but God knows when it was made. Fuck it, there’s a microwave, and you can’t taste the staleness once you Irish it up a bit. Roger fills his travel mug and picks up his keys from off the table. Beside his keys is a Scrabble board with words scattered across. Wonder what the guys are up to, anyways. Last time they tried to play, they argued over the word “fibula.” Roger insisted there was an “H” at the end of that word. He’s not sure if he actually believed that or if he just wanted the three extra points. Watson finally got fed up, took all of his letters off of his tray and spelt out “alienation” on the board, declared he was the winner, and walked out of Roger’s tiny bachelor apartment.

Roger left it on the board. Could never figure that word out.

*****

“Well look who finally showed up,” the moody prick declared as soon as Roger walked in through the swinging doors. “Nice of you to join us. At least you remembered your lab coat this time. We won’t waste another fifteen minutes having you wander around the building looking for one.”

Asshole. Roger shuffles through the lab with his coffee in hand, up to his step-stool. His first client of the night already lying in front of him, awaiting inspection. Roger takes a sip of his Irish concoction and pulls out his Dictaphone from his lab pocket.

“Caucasian female. About age thirty. Bruising along the neck and around the jaw-line.” He places his coffee down and wraps his tiny hand around her jaw; just like her assailant would have wrapped his hand. “Jaw’s broken.” He gently pulls open her mouth. “Missing teeth along the front of her mouth. Five along the bottom. Three along the top.”

Roger tries to lean in forward to get a closer look but his weight shifts the wrong way and he tumbles to the ground like glass shards from a bottle thrown against a wall. Roger lies stiff on his back for a moment, trying to catch his breath. He looks at one hand. His Dictaphone broken in half but still recording. He muddles out a raspy “fuck.” He looks at his other hand which is still holding a bottom jaw missing five teeth along the front. He smacks his head back against the cold ground squeezing his eyes shut and gritting his teeth. “Shit, fuck, damn, goddamn, fuck, shit fuck.”

He opens his eyes to see the moody prick standing over him. His hairy arms jutting out like two sideways “V’s,” his fists firmly planted on his hips, his black and grey checkered tie hanging off of him like the pendulum of a clock.

“Jesus, Roger! How fucking Irish is your goddamn coffee?”

Moody prick.

*****

Roger hates being put on cooler duty. But after the fiasco with his first client and what’s left of her bottom chompers, he understands. The cool air sobers him up usually. Just fucking boring. No one to talk to.

Sifting through recycled organs wasn’t what Roger had signed up for. Stiffs always fascinated him and he liked to explore things. You know, taking things apart to see how they work and then putting them back together. It started with an old walkman he had back when he was in elementary school. Stiffs aren’t like walkmans, though. You can’t take them apart to figure out what’s wrong with them and then put them back together to see if they still work. Well, at least not in Roger’s line of work.

Roger’s been in the cooler for about twenty minutes. The job’s simple enough: check the dates that the organs were dug out of the stiffs, if it’s been so many months, then they’re no good and it’s time to toss’em. One thing Roger has a problem with, though, is that the dates are all numerical. Roger’s never been good with numbers – or putting them in logical order. That’s why he likes biology: science with words. He looks at the random numbers on the organ’s labels, counts on his fingers to figure out the months, and then realizes that he was looking at the day. Or maybe the year. Month, day, year? Year, month, day? How the fuck does this work again?

The cooler door pops open and Roger looks over to see the moody prick walking in with a clipboard under his arm. He hopes it’s a new assignment but knows we never get anything that we want in life.

“Roger, what the fuck is going on?” he asks looking down at the clipboard. “I can’t take any more of these screw-ups. Last week it was forgetting to drain the fluid before making the first incision. Goddamn stain still won’t come out of the roof. The week before it was breaking your scalpel and losing the broken piece while making an incision in a subject’s neck. Now this. Do you just hate working here?”

“What? No? I love it here!” Roger stops to examine his current surroundings. “Well, not in here here, but I love it in the lab.”

“Well, I’ve let this go on long enough. You know our policy here. Can’t be three-sheets-to-the-wind, even if you are on night shift. Either get some counselling or you’re fired.”

*****

She crosses her legs all coy, pretending she doesn’t realize that Roger has been staring at her porcelain white legs since he walked in. She’s pretending she doesn’t realize her appendages are a pair of sensual satin sex-magnets. She stares across to Roger from over her thick, black rimmed glasses.

“Roger,” she continues. “I asked you about your childhood. Please, tell me what was it like.”

“What’s there to tell,” Roger shrugs. “I got picked on all through grade school, I turned invisible in high school, I hoped university would be better. It wasn’t. What else do you want to know?”

She scribbles on her pad and looks back up to Roger. He feels a sudden surge of blood through his veins when her soft, blue eyes peer back towards him. Those eyes were like ice, the kind of ice that you would skate on just before Christmas dinner. They were welcoming and kind and made Roger think of happier things and happier times.

“What about your parents?” she questions.

“My folks? They were alright. Well, my mom was. Dad bailed when I was young. Like seven or something. Mom remarried when I was in high school. Dated the guy for a long time too. Good guy, but I never called him dad.”

“Did you not feel close to him?” she tilts her head.

Roger can tell she’s interested in him. Maybe as much as Roger’s interested in her. Her voice got a little higher too, not as monotone as the last few questions. Roger got the sudden urge to tell her that his step-dad was a heavy drinker and the first to give him a sip of hooch. He has the urge but also has no intention of telling her.

“I did but he never felt like a dad, y’know? More like a buddy. Like the neighbour who’s a little older and really cool.”

She tilts her head the other way and taps her chin with her pen. “Was he a drinker?”

Damn, Roger has to tell her now.

“Well, yeah, but no more than any other drinker. A bottle of beer when he got home, bottle of JD on the weekends. Normal stuff, y’know?”

“Did you ever drink with him?”

Roger knows she already knows the answer to this. Why is she making him say it? Roger tries to stay quiet for a second. He knows he’s becoming a bad stereotype, a textbook case of a functioning alcoholic. He wants to prove he’s different, but if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck…

“Yeah, almost every weekend until he died,” the thought of his step-father’s death always made him uneasy. Roger’s trying to hold back the tears thinking of watching the doctors pull the plug on the man too young to have a liver as damaged as it was. He was only in his fifties when he died, but he looked like he was eighty. The doctors always told Roger that it was liver damage that did it, but that explanation was never good enough.

Roger must not have been holding back his tears well enough, because she pipes up. “We don’t have to talk about this anymore. Let’s talk about your job. Why did you want to start doing this?”

Roger sniffs and wipes his eye, feeling the wet residue welling up in the wrinkles underneath. “Biology. It was the only subject in school I was good in. Well, English too, but not as good as biology.”

“So, why not work in environmentalism? Or with marine life? Why in a morgue?” the icy eyes continue to pry.

“People are more interesting than plants or fish.” Roger wishes that this session would just fucking end already.

*****

Roger grabs the cold face lying in front of him and moves it side to side, inspecting the perpetually open eyes. This one’s still fresh. The neck hasn’t stiffened up yet and all the limbs are easy to move like the joint of a G.I. Joe from the ’80s. Roger inspects the whites of his client’s eyes and leans forward to move its hair off of his client’s forehead. “Well, my friend, what happened to you exactly?” he questions as he inspects.

He moves to the rectangular, metal plate with his array of tools and his thermos of Irish coffee. He takes a sip of his coffee before reaching for his scalpel and shines it in the light, looking for smudges and fingerprints. Reading the medical charts only makes him question the cold body’s predicament even more. The only thing that makes sense on it is the name: Anthony Vito. No physical signs of what went wrong. “Well, Tony,” Roger puts down the medical chart, “Let’s take a peek inside and see what your squishy bits look like.”

The scalpel slides across Tony’s bare chest, evenly parting the diamond shape hair and following down the treasure trail to his navel. Roger moves the scalpel back to the top of Tony’s chest and slides the blade along his collar bone, again down at the bottom of his belly, and opens the flaps of skin like the arching doors of a church.

“Well, pal,” Roger continues. “Your ticker looks alright. Lungs are in good shape. Kidneys and liver looks like they should. Huh, and I thought my problems were bad.” Roger reaches down, deep into Tony, and feels around for that loose bit that will let him take his liver out. The squishing noise, like squeezing Jell-O between your fingers, got louder and louder the more Roger moves his hands around. “I’m sitting here, griping about my therapist, trying to figure out if she’s interested because she’s interested or because she’s getting paid. And here you are, lying cold and slowly getting stiff for seemingly no reason. I hate these ‘unknown causes’ cases.”

The liver feels like a wet steak left on the counter for too long. It slides around in his hands, but he’s able to keep a grip and lobs the organ down onto a chrome plate. He breathes heavy from his ordeal, wiping the sweat off from his brow and leaving a bloody streak across his face.

“I know what you’re thinking, buddy,” Roger continues. “She’s my therapist, of course it’s only because she’s getting paid. But I don’t know man, these past three weeks with her have really been something else. It’s like she knows me better than I know myself. I can tell her anything and she just gets it. And I’ll tell you another thing, Tony m‘boy, I bet she wouldn’t get pissed and storm out of my apartment like a little bitch if I cheated at Scrabble.”

Roger leans over his chrome plate and starts cutting off small pieces of Tony’s liver. He makes the incisions slowly, working in silence and nodding his head while he takes glances back up to the cold body lying in front of him.

“You know, man, I should just tell her, shouldn’t I? What’s the worst that could happen, right?” Roger pats Tony’s cold shoulder, “Thanks for the talk, man. We should have guy-talk more often.”

*****

“Excuse me?” she asks, her blonde eyebrow rises as if Roger just told her he’s into bestiality. Probably just to save face and keep the professional facade.

“I really mean it, I do, I can’t stop thinking about you, nobody listens like you do, no one gets me like you do, I need you in my life,” Roger explains.

“Um, thank you. Thank you, Roger, for your honesty, but, don’t you think that maybe this is just a manifestation of a bigger issue?” She acts like she’s trying to analyze him, but Roger knows she’s just looking for the best way to tell him the same back.

“I don’t think you get it,” Roger pleads, digging for a straight answer from her. “I know what’s going on. You can tell me. I only have like two more required sessions. We can be together.”

She takes off her glasses with a huff and crosses her legs. Her face is stern enough to make a drill sergeant uncomfortable. “Roger, I hope you trust me when I tell you that this is actually a very common reaction in patients, especially ones in your predicament. Let’s talk about this and try to understand where this is all coming from.”

Roger leans back in his seat and breathes slowly, trying to comprehend why she’s rejecting him like this. Is she just trying to keep her job and denying herself the happiness that Roger knows only he can offer. “But, the things you say. The way you understand me. I only want to make you as happy as you’re making me.”

She shakes her head. Her hair tied back bobs back and forth like the swinging tail of a golden retriever, only she doesn’t look as happy as the retriever would be. “Roger, I’m married, I have children, I have a whole life. Those are the things that are truly making me happy right now.”

Roger’s breathing gets heavy and the pressure in his eyes are almost unbearable. “But… But… I don’t think you understand. I… I… I don’t think you really get it.”

She leans forward, her face with the fake compassion that she’s been displaying during all the other sessions looking up at Roger. Her eyes were like the kind of ice you fall through and drown under. “I do get it, and it’s okay, Roger. You could have this kind of happiness too. With someone else, of course. As long as we keep up these sessions, we’ll get to the root of your issues and you’ll be able to have a happy life in no time.”

Roger wishes this session would just fucking end already.

*****

Still with no logical explanation, Tony lies in a cooler, baffling all the scientists in the lab. Roger walks up his stool snapping his latex gloves on and picking up the medical chart.

“Well Tony,” Roger begins. “My colleagues have found nothing off with your liver, your kidneys, nothing odd in your blood, and virtually no reason for you to be lying here. What’s up man?”

Roger opens the flaps on Tony’s chest to see an empty inside. All of his organs had been removed and his ribcage juts out like a couple of freshly blown bubbles.

“Can you fucking believe how she rejected you?” A voice asks Roger. Roger peers away from Tony’s torso to his face, but sees no movement. Roger looks away to grab his thermos and when he looks back, Tony is propped up on his elbows, looking at Roger, with a smirk on the right side of his mouth and his eyebrows high enough to reach his hairline. “I can believe it. It’s how all women are. Give them everything, have your heart broken, it’s like they don’t get that guys have feelings too, right?”

Roger tilts his head like a dog being given a command he’s never heard before. “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t know. That’s the first time I’ve ever said that to a woman.”

Tony shakes his head and gives a low chuckle. “Yeah, well, that’s just the nature of women, man. You were probably too soft. She wasn’t getting it.”

Roger shakes his head quickly. “No, she told me she gets it.”

“Well then, my friend,” Tony continues. “You probably just projected yourself wrong. She probably thought you were just another yahoo looking for love in all the wrong places. You need to show her how serious you are.” Tony reaches across the table and hands Roger his scalpel. “You know, they’re not going to notice one missing utensil. Get your point across, nice and clearly. You deserve to be happy, after all.”

*****

The glare of the evening sun stings Rogers’ eyes as he stumbles across the field and bumbles into some of the stones. He thinks he remembers how to get to his step-father’s stone. Something about a tree on the west side of the cemetery. He continues across and tries to balance himself on one of the stones with his forearm. He looks up as sees the tree just a few feet away. He lifts his bottle and takes another swig before launching himself off the stone with his arm, almost losing his footing.

He stops underneath the tree and looks up to it, the sun glaring between its branches and into his face. He walks across the aisle of stones, tapping each one on the top and counting out loud until he hit five. Number five. Larry Lucero.

“Beloved father and dear friend,” Roger reads out as he stares at his step-father’s stone. “I fucked up big time, Larry.” Roger takes another swig. “I really fucked it up this time.”

Roger plops down next to the stone and leans his back on the side, looking down to where his step-father is buried. “Goddamn bitch. Fucking told my boss that I wasn’t getting any better. I only saw her for like, what, six weeks? Maybe seven? What the fuck does she know?”

Roger raises his knees up to his face and lays his head down on top of them. He wants to hold back his tears and look like a man in front of Larry, but thinking about her blonde hair and the ice in her eyes made him weep worse than when he watched his step-father take his last breath and stare into nothingness.

“She just didn’t fucking get it,” he muddles out between sobs. “We could be so happy together. I need her. I could be such a better person if only I had her.”

“Quit crying you fucking baby,” Roger hears a voice from underneath him. The ground starts to thrust upwards like a volcano is about to erupt underneath. The soil breaks apart and a hand reaches up, plants itself back onto the ground, and pushes up the rest of its body. First the shoulder, then the head, and Roger realizes who it is that’s crawling out of the ground.

He’s still in the same blue suit and white shirt. His hair is messy and has bits of soil embedded into his scalp. His brown tie hangs while he tries to brush off the dirt. “You going to give me a swig of that whisky, shorty, or you just going to sit there with your mouth hanging open?”

Roger looks down to his bottle and hands it up to Larry.

“That’s the stuff,” Larry comments after a mouthful of the golden liquid. “Now, what the hell are you griping about?”

Roger sits for a moment without the words to answer his step-father. He has to remain still and process the words before he can give an answer.

“My, uh, my therapist,” Roger begins. “I told her that I loved her and she rejected me. And now I’m out of a job.”

Larry plops down next to Roger shaking his head. “Hah! Leave it to women to fuck with your head and leave you for dead like she didn’t do nothing wrong. I’m tellin’ ya, if it weren’t for booze, women would have been the death of me.”

Roger gives a quick chuckle before Larry hands him the bottle of whisky and takes a small sip. “Yeah, well, I’m totally fucked now. And you know what’s the worst part? I don’t even care about the job that much anymore. Any idiot can find some work. I just wanted her.”

“Well, did she know how much she meant to ya?” Larry asks.

“What do you mean?”

“That scalpel that Tony handed ya.”

“How did you know about that?”

“Not important. What’s important, there shorty, is that you get your point across. Women love it when a man is assertive. And they really love it when a man tries and tries again until he gets what he wants. No woman wants a pussy little whiner who cries into a bottle of whisky after a rejection. You just need to go back there and get your point across that much louder. She’ll appreciate it and be in your arms like you’re Humphrey Bogart.”

Larry always knew how to put things into perspective.

*****

The candlelight illuminates the small table in the bachelor apartment. Silhouettes of Roger and his guest creep across the wall like projections from an old film reel. Two places are set for dinner and Roger is smiling wider than the horizon.

“I’m so glad that you finally agreed to have dinner with me, Becky,” says Roger. “I hope you like your meal. I wasn’t sure if you were a vegan, or a vegetarian, or if you like chicken, or beef, but I’ll tell you what I figured. Pasta. Everyone loves pasta.”

His dinner guest at the other side of the table stays quiet.

“Is everything alright dear?” Roger asks. “Is your food alright?”

Another moment of silence from his guest.

“I know what’s wrong.” Roger stands and walks over to his date. He gently wraps his hand around her chin and tilts her head back. He examines the stitches across her neck and runs his fingers along the pathway. “Nope, all that’s all alright. I know, you need a drink, right? Sorry, there’s no booze in the house. I don’t touch any of that stuff anymore. I can make you a cup of tea if you like?”

He walks to the kitchen, letting her head drop to the side and her eyes roll down to stare at the floor. “You know, I’m so happy now. Sorry, I just need to say that, I’m just really happy now, and it’s all thanks to you.”

Roger peers around the corner from the kitchen. “If you want, we can play Scrabble after dinner. I got to warn you, though, I can be a bit of a scoundrel and cheat a bit. Hope you don’t mind.”

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