The Housetrap Plant

The Housetrap Plant

The sun crept lazily up over the horizon, promising a long hot day. The first direct rays shone on a young man with a full pack and hiking gear exiting a beat up jeep. It was Friday of the last weekend in June, and Wyatt was intent on spending the entire day exploring the box canyon and surrounding area of Hemlock Cliffs. It wasn’t a completely desolate wilderness, being bounded by roads and towns on four sides, but it was a fairly large territory and a part of the National Forest. The developed trail was less than two miles long, but Wyatt didn’t intend to stay on the trail.

Fifteen minutes into the hike, Wyatt had already reached the halfway mark for the trail, and set off in a different direction. After crossing the creek and climbing for a few minutes, he emerged into a wooded area. There were indeed many hemlock trees, just as the name of the place suggested. He was out of the box canyon now, and traversing the undeveloped forest surrounding it. This was what he loved, trekking through a wilderness alone. Even though he was no more than ten miles from farmland in any direction, there was still the thrill of danger. There would likely be no one else anywhere in the forest that day, so he would be on his own if he were injured. Also, while this area was not completely unexplored, it was still wild enough that he might make some new discovery, which would be even more exciting.

Using an old fashioned compass as his guide, Wyatt hiked in a more or less north easterly direction, planning to eventually reach Otter Creek before turning south. He wandered for five hours, according to his watch, but never got to the creek. He stopped at a conspicuous rock formation and consulted a paper map of the area to confirm his proximity to the creek bank. With mild trepidation he figured that he ought to have seen it some time before. He checked his compass to make sure it was true. Walking back and forth for a space of roughly ten yards, he was stunned to discover that the compass needle did not hold it’s northward pointing position. In fact, the needle pointed directly to the rock formation. There must be some large deposit of iron or possibly a lodestone in the rocks, he reasoned. It must have been leading him in a circle for the past hour. He would have to get well away from that spot before the compass would work properly. He checked the position of the sun to see if he could determine which way was north, but it seemed to be directly over his head, and was no use for that at the moment. Since he wouldn’t be able to determine his whereabouts until the sun moved a bit, and since this whole magnetic rock formation was a pretty fascinating development, Wyatt opted to explore the immediate vicinity for a while, specifically examining the rocks. After a few minutes of careful inspection, he found a narrow passage in the sheer walls of the formation, and went through. The passage opened up onto a natural path that led underneath a sort of high archway of dark rock. He glanced at the compass, and was amazed to see the needle spinning wildly. Here was something that Wyatt had never before experienced. It would make an excellent story to tell his friends when he returned. As he walked beneath the archway, he felt a bit dizzy, and then a wave of nausea swept over him. He sat down hard on the rocky ground. Nervously, he fished a bottle of water out of his pack and sipped at it until the nausea dissipated and he gained his equilibrium.

On his feet again, he continued along the path, deeper into the heart of the rock formation. There was no green vegetation among the rocks, but scattered throughout the outcroppings and cracks of the walls was a darkly colored fungus of some unknown species. Along the path were occasional eruptions of roughly spherical white mushrooms that ranged in size and aspect from eyeballs to skulls. They gave off a faint aroma similar to chrysanthemums and rotting leaves. As he walked along, marvelling at the fungal growths, Wyatt began to detect a subtle curve in the path. He looked at the compass, and it indicated that he was headed north. He peered ahead, and saw the path disappearing in a leftward direction from his position. He proceeded forward to the place where he noticed the turn, and checked the compass again. It still indicated north. Wyatt scoffed, then chuckled wryly. Either the compass was completely useless, or north was at the center of the rock formation. It occurred to him that he ought to have reached the center already. The path was deceptively longer that it ought to be. He reasoned that there was some optical illusion at work. As he kept going deeper, the path continued to curve leftward, which ought to have indicated that he was changing directions, but the compass continued to show north, even when he turned it around. He began to feel fatigued, and decided to check his watch to see how much time had passed. The time it showed was the precise moment he had entered the fissure. Was it the magnetism, affecting all of his devices, he wondered. He looked up, hoping to gauge the passage of time by the position of the sun, which he figured must have been lowered by several degrees westward at this point. But, no, the sun remained precisely overhead. He could feel that hours had passed, but there was no visual confirmation. It seemed as if time itself had stopped, but not it’s deleterious effects on Wyatt’s body. He was feeling very tired now, as well as hungry and thirsty. He finished the water from his bottle, and consumed all of the granola he had brought with him. He still felt hungry, and ate a bag full of beef jerky as well, exhausting his provisions. He was still thirsty, and tired. Something in the air was affecting him. He was finding it increasingly difficult to think about anything other than the thirst. Some desperate portion of his mind told him to turn around and leave immediately. He rose to his feet. When had he sat down? It didn’t matter. He walked back several yards in the opposite direction, but the way was blocked. The narrow passage was filled with an enormous clotted mass of the white mushrooms, suspended in a thick web of the black fungus, from one rock wall to the other, all the way up. The smell was much stronger now, with notes of body funk and sexual juices. The fungus seemed to pulsate, and he watched in growing horror as the mass grew new fruiting bodies, inching toward him. He felt the need to flee, but there was no means of escape. There was no way to go except deeper in.

Wyatt staggered back along the path as quickly as he could, trying not to panic while wondering if he could climb the fifty foot high rock face and exit the formation by scaling down the outside. He followed the curve for what felt like another ten minutes, until the mass of fungus was out of sight. He was just about to attempt the perilous climb when he was startled to hear an unexpected sound. Music. There was music coming from further in. Where there was music, there must be people. Maybe they could help him. Maybe they had another way out. He rushed along the path, toward the music, following the curve. The way became more and more narrow, until his shoulders were brushing against the rock, but suddenly he stumbled into a wide space. Here there were trees growing up against the rock walls, giving the appearance of dense forest all around a hill that rose from the center of the space. On top of the hill was a little shack. It looked ancient, dark and weathered. The roof was uneven and steeply pitched. Around the shack were several humbly dressed people, playing music on harmonica, kazoo, washboard, spoons, and a jug. Wyatt breathed a jubilant sigh of relief. He called out to them, asking for help. They responded by waving to him in a friendly manner, gesturing to him that he should come up to the shack. Tears of gratitude welled up in his eyes as he followed the path up the hill. The musicians smiled at him, continuing to beckon enthusiastically. One of them, a tall man in an old top hat, opened the door of the shack and gestured inside. A green light shone out. Wyatt tried to peer inside, but his eyes refused to focus. His stomach lurched as he suddenly had a feeling of vertigo. Another of the musicians, a man with thick black whiskers, put a hand on his back and tried to gently push him inside. Wyatt stood firm. He could sense that something was wrong, although he could not say what. A gust of air blew at his face from the interior of the shack, full of aromas that promised good food and comfort. The musicians gathered at his back, smiling and urging him to go in. Somewhere in the dim green light, he saw a crystal pitcher of clear water, condensation slowly dripping down it’s surface. Wyatt licked his dry lips, yearning for the cool liquid refreshment. The desire was overwhelming.

Suddenly a crow cawed somewhere in the sky. Wyatt looked up and strained to see the bird. As he did so, he caught a fresh glimpse of the musicians, and saw that they were not as they had seemed before. The tall man with the hat had a face with the aspect of death. The whiskered man actually had a face full of black, scabby, tentacles, and one pale eye that glared menacingly. The man who had been playing the spoons appeared to be made of wood, bark, and branches, dressed up in a jester’s outfit. The washboard player had his face covered with a hooded mask, painted with a grotesque caricature of a human face. The last one did not even resemble a man, but was some obscene beast of the sea. Terror surged in Wyatt’s chest and he threw his body to the side of the group. He rolled over and tumbled down the hill to the rough rocks below. His limbs were bruised and poked by the rocks, and the pain of it cleared his senses some. He looked up and saw the monsters walking down the hill toward him. Long black tendrils attached to their feet connected them to the shack, but seemed to give them no trouble. Wyatt gaped in alarm at the shack. Rather than appearing welcoming it now seemed terrible, with malice seeping from the very crags of strange rough wood that formed it’s sides. He could see now that it was never a house, but some sort of living trap that meant to take him, as a fly trap plant might take an insect. The roof and walls of the imitation edifice bulged and swayed like an animal drawing desperate breaths. The musicians were getting closer. He turned and ran, as quickly as he was able, into the trees. He ran past the hemlocks, oaks, and strange dark evergreens until he came to those trees which grew next to the rock wall. Fueled with the adrenaline of near panic, he scrambled up a tree. Pausing once to take a breath, he looked down and saw the monstrous musicians looking up at him from the ground. The wooden jester was performing some sort of dance like ritual. Wyatt had no intention of waiting to discover it’s purpose. With a will, he returned to climbing. Up and up, and up, he climbed until he was over the top of the rock formation. Clutching a branch in either hand, he walked along a limb until he was as close to the rock as could get, then threw himself down, a nearly eight foot drop to the surface. He gasped painfully as the air was driven from his lungs by the impact.

He only paused a moment longer, as he caught his breath again. In that moment he saw the branches of the tree he had just climbed begin to sway, and then to curve toward him like grasping claws. Swiftly, he pulled himself to his feet and made his way across the perilous cracks and juts of rock. The further he got from the center, the smaller the fissures beneath his feet became. In only a few minutes, he had reached the edge, where a thin fog blocked his vision. He waved away the vapors, and gazed out over the forest of Hemlock Cliffs. He looked behind him to make sure he wasn’t being chased, and was astonished at the sight that greeted him. The rock behind him was barely fifteen yards across, laced with a spiraling pattern of tiny cracks and crevices, and at the center was a roughly shaped hole that looked barely large enough for a man to fit his arm into. Wyatt was amazed, but not inclined to study the mystery any further. He looked back down the side of the rock formation. There was an outcropping a few feet below him, and a sloping ledge from there, and plentiful handholds down to at least ten feet from the ground. He began his descent at once. An hour and a dozen scrapes later, he reached the ground.

The sun hung lower in the sky, at last. In another three hours it would be dusk, and Wyatt wanted to be well away from that place before nightfall. Wearily and painfully, he began marching to the southwest, and his jeep.

The Toad Wife

The Toad Wife

Darius Day Vanhoeke was a miserable man. He hadn’t always been so. For much of his youth he had been fairly happy, if not always content. He grew up poor, but managed to improve his lot by the sweat of his own brow until he had achieved a certain level of comfort in life that some folks would even find enviable. He was also a generous man who hated to see anyone else doing poorly, and tended to make many friends among those that the less charitable members of society would label as losers. Sometimes some of them would turn out to be good friends, and some of them would not, but that was no different than what Darius ever expected. He accepted such things as the normal flow of life, and maintained his own happiness through gratitude for things that went well. But as he approached middle age he had felt the need to marry, and had chosen his bride very poorly.

Lucretia Patton was someone that Darius had gone to school with, and had always considered a friend. He had even had a crush on her in high school. She had never noticed his affection then, and had ended up married to another school acquaintance of theirs, who was a boorish, violence obsessed, ego maniac named Arnold Brackish. According to the story Lucretia told Darius, Arnold had then spent over a decade emotionally and mentally abusing Lucretia and their two children, Vera and Cain. Lucretia escaped from Arnold after catching him molesting the mentally challenged teenaged daughter of one of their neighbors. She and the children hid out in the run down farmhouse of Darius’s elderly parents. That is where she was living when she and Darius had their reunion. Lucretia told Darius that she had filed for divorce before leaving Arnold, and told him horrible story after terrible tale of what had been done to herself and her children over the years, by Arnold and his mother, Zora Brackish.

Zora Brackish was the defacto matriarch of the Brackish family, and had been for the past thirty years, ever since a mysterious accident had left her husband crippled and cowed. She had a face like a troll, with uncombable hair that she kept under a babushka scarf, and enough bristles on her chin to earn the nickname Bearded Woman, which was less onerous than her other nickname, the Child Taker. That name had been earned by her habit of aggressively using the Child Protection Agency and the foster care system to steal children from their homes, and raise them in her peculiar personal religion. It was well known that her religious habits were both unorthodox and secretive, and indoctrinating the children was how she spread her odd practices. More than two dozen children of relatives and strangers had passed through her door, including Lucretia’s two babies. Some of those children had suffered strange accidents resulting in their deaths, but the many who survived were fiercely loyal to their matriarch. Somehow, the accidental deaths were never investigated, usually being blamed on the biological parents. The police and social workers always seemed to side with Zora, no matter what. Even most of the parents of the children in Zora’s care seemed to hold her in some kind of mystical awe, and behaved as though they were in thrall to her. Darius didn’t know to what god Zora prayed, but it apparently granted her considerable power. He had no trouble believing Lucretia’s stories of abuse.

After six months of Lucretia, Vera, and Cain living with the Vanhoeke family, Darius confessed that he had feelings for Lucretia. Lucretia latched on like Darius was the last lifeboat on a sinking ship. She talked about destiny, soul mates, and fates that were written in the stars. Darius grew to love Vera and Cain as if they were his own, which was no surprise to those who knew him. Within a month of her very messy divorce being finalized, Lucretia and Darius were married. Darius moved out of his luxury apartment, and purchased a house for his new instant family. Lucretia and Darius took a two week honeymoon at a cabin in the woods, and they made the most of it. Lucretia was insatiable. On the final night of the honeymoon, Darius reckoned that he had finally found the happy estate that would bring his life the fulfillment he had always felt was missing. Little did he know that it would be his last moment of happiness in this world.

Almost from the very instant the newlyweds returned home, having retrieved the children from the elder Vanhoekes, the bad luck began. Later, Darius would say that he ought to have known he was cursed. It began with a foot injury that left Darius unable to work for three weeks. Then the creek at the back of his property flooded, destroying the new garage and carrying away Darius’s car. That alone was devastating to him, since he had worked hard for years to afford such a nice car, and it meant a great deal to him. The house was also flooded, requiring expensive repairs. Following that, Darius’s business failed, and he had to take a third shift custodial job at the old high school. All the while, he was constantly being harassed by the Brackish clan. Zora Brackish was hellbent on taking Cain and Vera away from Lucretia, and destroying Darius in the process. She made numerous false complaints to the authorities, always referring to herself as the children’s true mother, while calling Lucretia “the trash”. There were death threats from Arnold and his thuggish friends. Guns were fired at the roof a couple of times a week. At one point, Lucretia’s pet cat was nailed to their front door by it’s paws. The stress of it all took an awful toll on Darius’s mental health.

Worse yet, the marriage began to suffer. Lucretia seemed to resent Darius for something that she would never articulate. She took her frustrations out on him in petty ways, like throwing away his personal possessions while he was at work, tearing his clothing, ruining the new floors with gouges in the wood, and ignoring him when he spoke to her. She stopped sleeping with him, and he began to suspect that she was having an affair with another man, possibly her ex husband. The children were increasingly disrespectful as well, and were stealing from him on a regular basis.

One night at the school, Darius’s foot began to ache from it’s previous injury, which had never really healed properly, and he discovered that he had accidentally left his pain medication at home. So, he waited until his meal break and drove home in the rusted out jalopy one of his friends had loaned him. The house was quiet as he entered, and he assumed that everyone was asleep. He made his way as quietly as possible to bathroom, and retrieved his pills from the medicine cabinet. He swallowed the pills with a bit of water from the tap, and allowed himself a small sigh in anticipation of the relief of his pain. He decided that since this was his meal break, he would go ahead and eat something before returning to work. As he crossed the hallway toward the kitchen, he caught a glimpse of something strange through the window in the back door of the house. At the back of the property, next to the creek, it appeared that someone had lit a small bonfire. Suspecting more foul play from the Brackish clan, Darius retrieved a baseball bat from the hall closet and crept out into the back yard. As he got closer, he realized that it was not a bonfire he had seen, but an arrangement of several dozen large candles, and the person who presumably had lit them was standing by it with their back to the house. The person seemed to be a woman, dressed in a scarlett gown with a matching veil, in imitation of a wedding dress. Her arms were gesticulating wildly in a series of bizarre but deliberate motions, while she held long bones in her hands. Her feet rose and fell with a strange rhythm as she shifted her weight from one leg to the other.

Darius had seen enough. He strode forward purposefully and grabbed the woman by the shoulder, turning her to face him. To his utter surprise, the face he saw was Lucretia’s. But in a moment, the face began to change. The mouth widened to the edges of the jaw, exposing rows of needle like teeth, the lips stretched long and thin, the nose receded into the swell of the cheeks, the eyes swelled up until they bulged from the sockets and turned black, the skin turned greyish and lumpy. A foul odor of sulphur arose from the creature that had been Lucretia. With clawed hands she reached for Darius’s throat. Panicking, he shoved Lucretia into the candles, where her dress caught fire, and she tumbled into the creek. Darius turned and ran back into the house. He grabbed a silver cross ornament that had been a wedding gift from his grandmother, just in case it might help protect him and the children from the monster outside. He tucked the cross into his shirt and went up to the children’s rooms. The doors were locked. He still had the bat, so he used it to break the lock and forced open the door to Cain’s room. On the bed where Cain slept, a nasty looking creature squatted, hissing with it’s toad like mouth, and glaring with black eyes. It swung a clawed tentacle at Darius, who struck the creature to the ground with a swing of his bat, and ducked out into the hallway. Another creature, like the first, was crawling stealthily out of Vera’s room. She looked at Darius for a brief moment with an inscrutable expression, and slunk off down the hallway to the stairs. Cain was back on his clawed feet at this point, and launched himself onto Darius’s torso, trying to sink his needle teeth into Darius’s throat. Darius shoved the bat lengthwise into the little monster’s mouth, breaking several teeth. Black ichor oozed out of the stumps. Cain clamped down with his jaw and shook his head violently, attempting to pull the bat away from Darius. Darius pushed Cain away with the bat and sent him sprawling down the stairs. As Cain tumbled, the silver cross fell from Darius’s shirt, landing directly on Cain’s exposed belly. The lumpy grey flesh began to sizzle and smoke as Cain screamed and thrashed, shattering the stair railing and impaling his tentacle on a shard of wood. Cain threw off the cross and scrambled away, fleeing through the front door.

Darius followed quickly, and as he arrived at the open door, a large pick up truck barrelled up the drive and skidded to a stop in front of the porch. Darius recognized the truck as belonging to Zora Brackish. Half a dozen very large creatures like the children were squatting in the bed of the truck, as it was being driven by another. The thing leaning out of the passenger door had the uncombable hair of Zora Brackish herself. The creatures began to ululate in awful voices that sounded like a hundred drowning men losing their last breaths. The children lurched from the shadows toward the truck. Darius took one step onto the porch. At that instant, another figure stepped between Darius and the children. Bedraggled, burned, and soaked in creek mud, Lucretia stood menacingly at the bottom of the stair. Her needle teeth exposed, the toad like creature that had been Darius’s wife hissed, and wiggled her clawed tentacles in a repulsive manner that was clearly meant as a threat. The children clambered into the waiting embrace of the monstrous members of the Brackish clan. Once they were secured, Lucretia turned and placed her claws on the edge of the truck bed, as though she would climb in herself. But Zora screeched, “No! The trash is not worthy of the gift! Leave her!” Darius watched in horrified fascination as one of the disgusting creatures, which he now recognized as Arnold Brackish, clumsily raised a semi automatic rifle, and shot Lucretia in the head. Green bits of brain, and black ichor exploded from the back of the ruined head, and the dead thing collapsed to the ground as the old pick up truck lurched away at top speed.

Darius sat down on the porch, and stared at the grotesque corpse. That’s where he was found, dehydrated and unresponsive, three days later. The authorities examined the rotting headless monster that was found at his feet. They didn’t know what to think about it, or pretended not to, and wrote it up as an unidentified animal. People assumed that Lucretia had taken the children and run away from her marriage, again. They sent Darius to the closest hospital, where his parents went to see him. The hospital refused to release him in his catatonic state. He was eventually moved to a nursing home in a neighboring county, which his parents paid for by selling his house. He never spoke again, locked into his mind by the horrors he had endured.

The Permeable Veil

There’s an abandoned shop just off the main drag in town. It used to be one of those places where you can buy dildos and lube, then take them into a back room to try them out while watching porno clips on coin operated screens. A lot of perverts and seedy weirdos used to hang out there. There had been a fire in the back rooms, and the place just shut down instead of rebuilding. The parking lot was overgrown with grass and shrubbery that no one ever tended to. Crows liked to occasionally form a murder on the dilapidated roof. Sometimes high schoolers would meet behind the building to fool around, get drunk, or smoke pot. Sometimes you could actually find wild marijuana plants growing back there, in a ditch. The cops never did anything about it. It was like the place was invisible to city officials. It’s where I first saw the fox.

I was cutting through the parking lot, on my way to the Chili & Chilly’s fast food joint down the way, when something dark and furry caught my attention as it crossed in front of me. At first I thought it was a black cat, so I froze. I’m not really a superstitious person, normally. It’s just that I had been concentrating on my hunger, running through all the menu options I knew by heart, and hadn’t paid attention to my surroundings until just that moment. I was startled is all. The fox stopped moving too, and it was watching me intently. It was an unusual looking fox, lankier than others I had seen, with a mottled black and red coat and big round yellow eyes, nothing like those cartoon foxes in the kids’ movies. It appeared to have a tarantula, or something in it’s mouth. I could see what looked like long spidery legs protruding on both sides. A lot of them, though. Maybe it had two tarantulas, but where it got them I could only guess. Someone in town must have been missing their pets. “Bon appetit, monsieur le fox” I said, touching the bill of my cap. The fox snorted and trotted off toward the back of the old shop. I continued on my way.

The Chili & Chilly’s was closed when I got there. Not like closed for the day, but closed for business. The sign on the door said they were shut down until further notice. I was pissed off. Damnit I wanted a Chiliburger and Chillyshake. Now I had to walk three more blocks to the Gas ‘n’ Stop, and probably get a shitty frozen burrito. At least their slushy machine was usually working. I decided to take a shorter route. If I doubled back behind the old abandoned sex shop, there was a chain link fence that someone had cut through, and if I went through there I basically only had to cross the street to get to the Gas ‘n’ Stop. So, back I went.

The fox was still there. It was actually sitting right in front of the opening in the fence, looking straight ahead, making soft yowling noises like it was having a conversation. As I walked around the corner of the building, it turned and looked at me, as though I were interrupting something. It still looked like it had a tarantula in it’s mouth. I figured it would have finished eating by now. Maybe I had misjudged what was going on. “Uh, mind if I cut through, Brer Fox?” I said as I slowly approached. The fox sniffed and stood up, moving several yards away.

“Thank you, brother” I said as I slipped through the low opening. Something strange happened then. It was like the air shimmered with multicolored lights, and I felt an intense queasiness in my guts. It only lasted a moment, and I attributed it to my hunger and guessed that I had stood up too fast after ducking down under the top fence rail. Now I know better, of course.

I pushed my way through a couple of yards of untrimmed brush, then quickly stepped down a short rocky grade to the street. The Gas ‘n’ Stop looked a bit grubbier than I remembered, but I was still hungry, so I jogged across and went inside. There was something off about the overhead lights. They were dim and flickering strangely, sickeningly, in repeating pulses. I ignored it and went to the hot dog carousel. The dried up, blackened weiners tumbling on the hot cylinders were more repellent than usual. I went to the freezer. There was a new box of burritos on the barely cold shelf, still unopened. I popped the thin cardboard lid open and grabbed two burritos, which I heated together in the microwave by the hot dog carousel. While I waited on the burritos, I grabbed a big cup and tried to get a cherry slushy. All that came out was a dark sticky liquid. Gross. I left the cup on the counter, as a public service to whoever would be the next unlucky customer seeking a frozen refreshment. I grabbed a Kafpop soda from the cooler and went to the cashier counter. No one was there. I tapped the service bell, and it chimed a feeble apologetic sound. I heard a rustling from a stockroom behind the counter, so I waited. I could hear someone open the front door, but when I turned to see who was coming in I only got a view of a dark shrouded figure ducking into the chip aisle. Weird.

“Hey,” I called to the cashier, “can I get checked out, man? My burritos are getting cold.” I was looking down at the candy bars when I heard the cashier approach the counter, grunting. I looked up into the face of a pig. A pig, on two legs, flat snout twitching, long ears flapping, wearing a Gas ‘n’ Stop uniform and a name tag printed with the name Lazslo.

“What the unholy fuuu?” I stammered. The other customer was coming up behind me. I heard him and spun around to see what I could only call a zombie. A corpse of a man, with sunken eyes and fetid flesh, lips peeled back around exposed, cracked teeth, with a black, decaying shroud slipping down around it’s shoulders. Thick purplish, segmented worms crawled in and out of the flesh, as the zombie softly moaned with sounds of perverse pleasure. It held out it’s hand to me, and a large worm slid from between it’s fingers, stretching toward me. Terrified, I flung the burritos at the zombie and ran out through the door, and across the street. I turned to stare at the gas station, and noticed for the first time that the entire thing was swarmed with black and purple worms, fat and slimy, segmented and revolting. They were in everything, the pumps, the ground, the signage. I looked away, toward the motorcycle shop behind the adjoining parking lot. It too was full of the worms. I looked up at the sky to avoid the writhing filth, but somehow, terrifyingly, it seemed the sky itself was cradled by giant writhing worms that stretched out into the distance and coalesced into a massive pillar in the distance.

“What the hell is happening?” I screamed.

“You’re on the wrong side” came a voice at my feet. “You’re not meant to be here.”

I looked down into the weird yellow eyes of the fox. I saw the tarantula legs on it’s muzzle, only now I could tell that they were actually little tentacles, attached where whiskers ought to be. I had reached my limit for weirdness. The talking was the immediate issue. “Excuse me? Did you say something to me?”

“What do you think, dummy? Follow me.”

I didn’t know what else to do, so I followed the fox.I needed to understand. I asked my guide, “I’m on the wrong side of what? The fence?”

“Sure. The fence. Also the veil that separates this reality from yours. It’s permeable right now. Your being here is an accident. Stop asking questions.”

The fox led me back to the hole in the fence. “Go,” it said sternly. “Forget about this experience. You aren’t ready.”

I agreed, and slipped through the fence. Again I felt the disorientation and queasiness. I blacked out and hit the asphalt hard. I don’t know how long I lay there, but I woke up to a trio of crows pecking at my nose and pulling at my shirt. I waved them off as I sat up. I felt hungry. I decided to go home and see what I had in the refrigerator. I was resolved not to visit this end of the street again, even if I starved.

Nexus Channel

Nexus Channel: Seduction of Innocence

In the summer of 1981 my two brothers and I discovered a mysterious television show that no one else could see, on a channel that didn’t exist. In recent years, there have been a few stories circulating on the internet about experiences that seem similar to ours. I read or listen to those accounts as often as I can, searching for answers to the mystery, but none of the stories are really the same as what happened to my family. The show didn’t have a pirate theme, there were no screaming puppets or moustachioed villains, although there was one skull faced man in a top hat.

The way in which we discovered the show seemed to be something of a fluke. The antique television we were watching belonged to our grandpa, as we were staying with him for the summer. It was a square wooden box set with four long spindle legs, and had a view screen that was rounded on the sides but flat on top and bottom. There was only a thirteen channel vhf dial built into it, but Grandpa had a uhf converter box hooked up, along with a giant set of antennas that scraped the ceiling when fully extended. The whole affair gave me the impression of some kind of space alien landing pod. On the first Saturday in June, my brothers and I were up before dawn, with a desire to watch some cartoons. We had turned on the set, and waited for the cathode ray tube to warm up, but all we were getting was static. We weren’t about to wake up Grandpa at such an early hour just to tune the tv, so we kept fiddling with all the knobs and dials ourselves. Eventually, we found a combination that gave us some results. We had turned the vhf dial all the way down to channel 2, and pushed it just a little past that. Then, with the UHF converter switched on, we flipped back and forth through all the numbers. Most of the stations were just static, but then we suddenly had a picture, while the dial was sitting between 37 and 38, where it got stuck.

The first thing I remember seeing were the words “Nexus Network Presents” in big bold lettering. Then there was a fade out and fade in, and we were watching a bizarre scene. A man with what seemed to be a plaster bandage cast covering his face was using a wooden axe handle to beat a young woman. He was gleefully swinging his weapon, cackling madly, as four other characters sang Happy Birthday loudly, off key, and out of tune. The characters who were singing were just as weird as the other one. There was a wooden man in a tattered jester costume, looking like a demented dryad. There were also two different figures with tentacles on their faces. One of these was wearing a bloodied and tattered lab coat, while the other seemed to be dressed in some sort of priestly vestments. These were in addition to the very tall man with a skull like face and a battered top hat. Together, this ghastly group dismembered and devoured the body of the woman, as we watched in horrified fascination. Then they turned toward the camera, dripping with blood and viscera, and began talking directly to us. I jumped up and switched off the television set, but as it powered down we faintly heard the monsters’ wicked laughter, until the point of light at the center of the screen faded to black.

We fled to our bedroom and didn’t speak to each other until after Grandpa woke up. We remained quiet for the rest of the day, traumatized as we were by all that we had seen. By next morning, however, we could barely remember the show.

The following Saturday, wanting early morning cartoons as usual, we managed to tune in to the Nexus Network again. We had all but forgotten that it even existed, somehow, yet as soon as that dial stuck between 37 and 38, it all came back. We looked nervously at each other, wondering who would turn off the television, but none of us did. It was like it had become forbidden to turn off the show before it was over, and we were compelled to watch.

This time the five monstrous characters were wandering through a spooky looking forest, apparently searching for something, when they stumbled upon a man who was camping there. He appeared to belong to a motorcycle club of some sort, being dressed all in black leather, and had his motorcycle with him. The monsters attacked the biker and stole a gold necklace from him, but he escaped on his motorcycle, after the monsters were drawn away by a green glowing light. They followed the light into the brush until they came to a little hill that was covered in giant black mushrooms that dripped with slime. At the top of the hill was a strange little shack with a steeply pitched roof. This is where the light was coming from. The door of the shack opened wide, by itself, and the monsters all stepped inside, one after the other in single file. Then the door closed behind them. At this point, the picture faded and we saw only static.

Later, we talked about the show to each other, and it became easier to remember. We tried talking to some other kids in town, when Grandpa took us shopping at the grocery store, but none of them had ever heard of the Nexus Network.

Every Saturday that summer, we watched Nexus Network Presents. We saw nine episodes, in all. Every show featured the same five monsters, and at least one other person, who was sometimes a guest, and sometimes a victim. I remember an escaped mental patient who wore a straightjacket and carried a doll, a bearded lady, a strongman who was kind of short, and one very flamboyant vampire pirate character with a monkey sidekick. The shows were usually very creepy, and often deranged and violent. The whole plot seemed to center on the sinister shack where the monsters lived. I remember thinking at some point that it was all leading up to something, that we were being prepared for.

During the week, my brothers and I played outside most of the time, but our games began to take a dark turn, mimicking whatever we had seen on the Nexus Network. Sometimes we would pretend to be the monsters, out looking for a victim. We would pretend to find some hapless person, describe our imaginary prey in as much detail as we could, and then pretend to smash in their heads and cut them up, even eat choice bits which we would also describe in every gory detail. Throughout, we would be keeping eyes opened for the shack. By the end of July, the shack had become our chief obsession. For some reason I can’t recall, we had decided that it must be in the nearby woods.

The first weekend in August, our parents called to say that they would soon come to pick us up, since school would be starting in a couple of weeks. My brothers and I decided almost immediately that we would find the shack before our parents came for us. To that end, we set out on an expedition into the woods. We took nothing with us. We just marched into the brush in the clothes we were wearing, staying more or less within shouting distance of each other, seeking the fungus covered hill. We wandered about without any sort of real plan, for the space of maybe three hours. It felt as though the wandering was an intentional part of the process of our weird initiation. The whole time, we could feel that we were being watched, and followed, by something else that stalked in the woods. Eventually, I heard a noise coming from deep inside the woods. It was a low, sort of guttural tone, a single bass note sounding through the trees. I followed it, deeper and deeper in, and completely lost track of my brothers, as well as the direction of the way home.

As I emerged from the brush into a clearing, I saw that my brothers had also followed the noise. We stood together at the foot of a hill, which was covered in various fungi, with a creepy old shack at the top. The noise stopped abruptly, and the clearing went completely silent. The huge mushrooms began to sway sickeningly, and black slime sloughed off of them, revealing pale surfaces with disturbing shapes. I could have sworn that they had human faces, distorted with unknown pain and screaming silently in horror or agony. The pale surfaces began to glow with a hellish green light that I could feel, like a thin oily fluid seeping into my body.

The black slime flowed together at a central point just above the foot of the hill, and coalesced into a shape resembling a gigantic toad with a wide mouth full of black slimy teeth, and black slimy horns on its black slimy brow. It’s eyes opened and they were the same pale surface as the mushrooms. After a few seconds, the eyes began to glow green, like the mushrooms. The black slime toad opened it’s toothy maw wide, and began to emit the same sound we had been hearing before the silence. My youngest brother lurched forward and staggered toward the monster. He had nearly reached it’s gaping mouth before I realized what was happening. I ran to my brother and knocked him down, falling with him to the ground. He looked up at me with terror in his eyes. I grabbed him by the hand and yelled to my other brother, who had started to lurch toward the still sounding toad. I knew that we had to get away from there as quickly as possible. The whole expedition had been a terrible mistake I had to take each of my brother’s hands and drag them away from the hill. As I turned to lead us back to the woods, we were confronted by the characters from the Nexus Network tv show. There they stood at the edge of the clearing, looming over us and standing in the way of our escape. They might have been behind us the entire time.

All of them were there: the tall skull faced man, the dirty tentacled one, the huge robed one, the man with the bandaged face, and the tree like clown. They cackled and cavorted, as though daring us to run, and they kept moving closer all the while. I let go of my brothers’ hands and bent down, grabbing at whatever my hands might find. I came up with handfulls of dirt, twigs and pebbles, which I desperately hurled at the monsters with all my might. My brothers did the same, but our puny missiles had very little effect.

Suddenly there was a noise of something crashing through the brush, and our Grandpa appeared at the edge of the clearing. He was charging toward us with a strange lantern in one hand, and a knitted blanket in the other. The monsters shrieked and fell back from the white light of the lantern, and Grandpa threw the blanket on top of us. He pushed us toward the cover of the trees. The monsters did not follow, but Grandpa kept us moving quickly until we were back in his yard. In the rush of relief and expressions of gratitude that followed, Grandpa explained how he had figured out what was happening with us. Apparently, something similar had occurred in his own childhood, and he had lost a brother. We had never known about our great uncle, or his strange disappearance, just as Grandpa had not known until that very day that the Nexus Channel had returned, or that we had been it’s prey all summer. He only discovered that we were in danger when he saw us on the old television. Apparently in our haste to find the shack, we had left the television tuned in to the Nexus Channel. Grandpa’s strange weapons had been gifts to him, after the disappearance of his brother, from an elderly dutch woman in the neighborhood, who some claimed was a witch.

Soon, our parents arrived and took us back to the relative safety of our normal, boring lives, and we never spoke of the things that happened that summer, in all these years. It had been more than a decade since I had even thought about the Nexus Channel, until I received a letter from my Grandpa, now eighty seven years old. In the letter, scrawled out in spidery penmanship, he explained that he was going to look for his brother, having lived a long life wracked with regret. He asked that neither I, nor my brothers, come after him. He said that even if he also disappears, it would be better that way.

I’m not sure what to do.

From Zanadu to Kokomo and Back

From Zanadu to Kokomo

I was twelve years old, right after the Y2K scare, when I first started seeing the Asian girl at the edge of the woods. She looked about nineteen years old, and always wore the same long tie dyed tee shirt, with a green weed symbol on the chest. Her hair was always done up in a complicated sort of bun, with wisps that came down over her face. The shoes that she wore were really odd, like little model boats of some kind, with a curled prow. But it was her fingernails that really left an impression on me. They were at least four inches long, and curled inward like the claws of some predatory bird.

Naturally, I tried asking my parents who she was, but they always said they didn’t know, and hadn’t ever seen anyone like that, but they reckoned I shouldn’t mess around with her. One time, my mother was with me when I saw her. She looked right at the girl, just standing there at the edge of the woods, and made a little sound of exclamation. Afterward, my mother claimed that she hadn’t seen anyone at all, and accused me of making it up. I was disappointed and confused. I couldn’t imagine why my own mother would act like that. I wondered if maybe the girl had actually made her forget, somehow.

The following summer, my Uncle Arthur took me and some of my friends camping in the southern everglades. Uncle Arthur told us a campfire story about a creature called a squid pope, that captured children and dragged them to it’s ancient chapel on a cliff. We thought it was pretty silly, so he challenged us to come up with something better. I told them all about the strange girl with the talons. I knew it wasn’t a scary story, but I wanted to see their reactions. At first, they all just stared at me quietly, then they all looked confused. In a minute, each of them started to chuckle warily. And then my friend Bill started telling a different story, about a smelly ape man that lived in the swamp. No one mentioned the girl again, but later, as we made our way to our cabin, I looked towards the woods, and she was there, looking at me. This time she smiled.

I saw her several more times over the next few years. She always looked exactly the same, and always appeared at the edge of the woods. When I was fifteen, she started waving to me. I did not wave back. I had become somewhat superstitious of her, wondering if she were really a ghost, and more dangerous than she seemed.

On the night of my sixteenth birthday, I tried smoking marijuana, which had been a gift from my older friend, Ned. I was out by myself, near the woods, away from prying eyes. Suddenly I became aware that I was no longer alone. The girl was standing there, right in front of me. She was smiling. For the first time, I noticed that she was actually quite attractive. She held out her hand for me to take, the long nails splayed outward. For some reason, I forgot my worries about her possibly otherworldly nature, and placed my hand in that strange, taloned hand.

She gripped me tightly and pulled me along into the woods. We seemed to be traveling along a path of some sort, though it was not well worn. The night was clear and the moon was full, so I could see a short distance through the trees. I thought I detected a leftward curve as we moved along. I told her my name, trying to start a conversation. She stopped and looked into my eyes, moving her body close to me. Still smiling sweetly, she laid the palm of one hand on my cheek, talons resting against the back of my head, while still gripping my hand with her other. She spoke my name softly. I felt a rush of heat in my face, and other parts of my anatomy reacting to this unexpected intimacy. She giggled in a way so charming that I immediately felt that I would never fear her again. She took her hand from my cheek, laying it against her own breast, and said her own name, Magu.

She turned away from me then, and continued leading me down the curving path. I asked where we were going, and after a moment she said “Zanadu”, with a decisive tone. We walked through the trees for what seemed like hours, but then the trees gave way to vegetation of a different sort. I recognized it by the smell before confirming it by sight. We were in a field of marijuana. At what appeared to be the center of the field was a small dark shack, with a steeply pitched and off kilter roof, and one door that I could see. She led me in through the door.

There was a small fire burning in a fireplace at the other end of the room, which I thought was strange because I hadn’t noticed a chimney outside. Also strange was the fact that the place seemed bigger than it looked from outside. Magu asked me to sit by the fire, on a low wicker stool, so I did. She let go of my hand, and busied herself with some sort of task at a long narrow table that stood against the wall. As she pulled jars of herbs down from a shelf, I looked around at the things in the shack. There was an ancient looking clay pot in a corner that I could reach from the stool, and when I looked inside, I caught a whiff of something very much like beer, though the pot was empty of anything except dust. I returned it to the corner. Other items scattered about included stone blades, long scraps of paper, bones that looked big enough to be human, old iron tools, and a pair of antique railroad lanterns.

On the wall across from the shelf, I spied a daguerreotype portrait of a group of asian people in a very old style of dress. Half jokingly, I asked Magu if that was her family. She replied yes, and offered no further explanation. Next to the picture was a pair of sharp metal hooks, embedded in the wall at least an arm length apart. Nearly bare, dried, plant stalks hung on the hooks. I watched her place marijuana nuggets and mushrooms into a censer with a flaming coal from the fire. She came to me, kneeled on the floor, and held the censer in front of my face. Smoke flowed out from a pattern of seven holes, and enveloped my head. It smelled like rotten chrysanthemums and skunk spray, with an infusion of mushroom.

I coughed profusely as the smoke entered my lungs and my eyes watered. I looked at Magu, and she was breathing it deeply and contentedly. I began to feel a pleasant numbness and my vision began to blur slightly as though my eyes were being obscured by white scales. Magu removed my shirt, and I allowed it. Then she removed that tie dyed tee shirt that she had always worn, and draped across her back. I gazed for a moment at her small pale breasts. She reached out with her talons and pierced my forehead. I knew dimly that I ought to be alarmed, but my numbness was so pleasant that I didn’t even flinch. She drew her talons down my face, and as she did so, I noticed that she was doing the same to herself at the same time. She continued cutting us both down the center, all the way to our navels. As she sliced our flesh, her smile widened, till the ends of her lips stretched back behind her ears. Her eyes had become reptilian. With unexpected strength, she lifted me up and hung me on one of the hooks. Then, by some means I did not see, she placed herself upon the hook next to me. She took my hand again. As I watched her, speechless, she began to wiggle and writhe, making a hissing sound all the while. Her face split apart, lengthwise, and a long, sinewy form wrenched itself from the husk of her flesh, sliding out finally at the slit navel. I felt my own body begin to tremble, and soon I was writhing just as I had seen Magu. Soon, I found myself flopping out and falling to the floor. I tried to look at my hands, but I didn’t have any.

The thing that had been Magu rose up from the dusty floor in front of me, and I saw that it was a white serpent. It was large, but graceful, and had a red triangle on it’s forehead scales. It slithered close to my face, and pressed it’s snout to my own. A forked tongue flicked out and gently brushed against my nostrils. I looked to my own shadow, cast by the fire, and realized that I too was a serpent. Looking out along my tail, I saw that my own scales were black, in stark contrast to Magu’s white body. I looked up at the hooks, and saw our bodies hanging there like drying marijuana stalks.

Magu slithered along side me, and curled her long tail around mine. She squeezed my snake body in rythmic pulses, until I found my snake body reacting as my human form had in the woods. Something was now happening to me in this serpentine form that had not even happened to me as a human. I became lost in the squirming ecstacy of that supreme moment.

I lay in the warmth from the fire, dazed from my exertions. Magu slithered away into the shadows, only to return in a moment with two eggs in her mouth. Only then did I realize how hungry I had become. She squeezed one of the eggs out in front of me, and I swallowed it whole. Somehow, I knew just how to squeeze and break the shell.

After we had eaten, Magu beckoned me over to a place in the hearth where there was a large hole. She slithered into it, and I followed. We emerged into a long cave, or tunnel in the earth, just big enough for our serpent bodies to pass through. I followed Magu, and had no sense of time. Together, we slid through the bowels of the earth in darkness, until at last we came to an opening. We entered a room where flasks of glowing green liquid illuminated several human skeletons in prone positions. An alcove at the end of the room held a statue of a strange deity in the shape of a man, but with fishlike attributes. There was an offering bowl set at the statue’s feet, and I realized that we were in a chapel of some kind. It was dirty and dilapidated. The roof was full of holes and sand had blown in from somewhere, but there were signs of recent activity, so it wasn’t completely abandoned.

Magu appeared to be searching for something. I slithered out into another room, which turned out to be the main sanctuary. There was a dias, faced by many rows of old pews. The room we had entered through was obviously a rectory of some kind. At the back of the sanctuary was a set of large wooden doors. One was broken and leaning open. I slithered out into the night air, and discovered that we were on a beach. The night was still clear, and the sky behind the full moon was filled with brightly shining stars. By the light of the heavens, I could see that the chapel itself stood at the very edge of a cliff, and a sand covered road ran along the edge of the beach that led away from the rise. I looked out across the water and saw several small islands, the lesser keys, and judged us to be near one of the bights. Turning back to the chapel, I slid over a fallen stone sign. The engraving said Kokomo. I returned to the sanctuary, where Magu came to meet me.

Her throat was enlarged, as though she had swallowed some object. I didn’t know if she was eating again, or if she had found what she was looking for. Suddenly, the air pressure changed with an audible pop. Out of the rectory there stormed a terrifying monstrosity. Robed in black cloth, with tentacles and claws, a blood red head in the shape of a bishop’s mitre, it roared as it rushed toward us. I recognized this creature from my Uncle’s story. It was the squid pope!

A slimy appendage darted out and grasped Magu. Instinctively I struck, and felt fangs I had not known that I had sink into the pulpy flesh of the monster. It shrieked, and flung me aside. My back collided with one of the mouldering pews, which broke under the force, and I collapsed behind it. I shook off the pain and tried to go after the monster again. It disappeared back into the rectory, with Magu clutched in it’s abominable claw. As I darted after them, I arrived just in time to watch a bizarre glowing door slam shut and vanish.

I didn’t know what to do. I waited there until dawn, which may have been my undoing. As the sun rose, I slipped back into the underground hole, and slithered back through the cave tunnel all the way back to Zanadu, alone. Once I arrived again at Magu’s shack, I was able to return to my human body by crawling inside and pulling myself off of the hook. The wound that had released the serpent healed automatically, although it left a very faint scar. I tried to go home after that, but I found that I am no longer able to go beyond the woods. I can walk to the very edge, just so long as some shadow of the trees touches me, but there is some magical force that now prevents me from going further.

I live in the shack now. Whenever I’m hungry I find mushrooms to eat, and sometimes there are oranges or other good things growing in the woods, but mostly I’m just not hungry. I couldn’t bear to see Magu’s dried husk on the wall every day, so I buried it behind the shack. I have written everything that happened on a scroll of paper from the shack, which I am placing in the beer pot and leaving at the edge of the woods. If someone finds it, I hope they will tell my family. Tell them that I’m alive in Zanadu, and that I’m sorry.

The Horrible App

The Horrible App

The first thing I noticed about the new app on my smartphone was the odd logo. It was a series of interconnected curves that formed the crude outline of a house, or a shed of some kind, with a barely discernable arcane glyph at the center, rendered in green and black. I didn’t remember downloading the app, so naturally I was wary of clicking it open. My best instinct was to just delete it, and I tried. Three times, I went through the process of deleting the app, but each time I tried a message popped up that asked if I was sure, because deletion would be permanent, and each time I saw the message my determination wavered. I don’t know why, but I kept tapping the button for no.

Frustrated, I looked at the data describing when the app was installed. I checked the date and time, mentally retracing my steps to remember where I was when this app was added. At last I recalled that I had taken the smartphone to a repair shop downtown. The repairman had been a strange sort of fellow, radiating competence in spite of his bald head and crumbling yellow teeth. But there had also been a certain vague undercurrent of sleaziness about him that I had found mildly unsettling. I had believed him when he told me that the problem I was having with the phone was a minor software issue, that could be resolved with a simple update. I had allowed him to make the changes there in the shop, which must have been when the app was installed, as well. So, what was the damned thing?

I wondered if the app had anything to do with making my smartphone run better. It’s name in the register was vague, and foreign sounding. I had trouble pronouncing it, and when I tried to hold it in my mind for more than a few seconds, I experienced an intense bout of generalized anxiety. An internet search revealed nothing. However, I wasn’t having problems with my smartphone anymore, other than not knowing what this app was, so I reasoned that I should go ahead and open it to see what it was for. As soon as I had that thought, a thrill of something rushed through me, as though some unseen entity were encouraging me to proceed. It was like receiving approval from a woman in authority over me, who I was sexually attracted to.

Giving in to the seduction, I clicked on the icon. At once my eyes were flooded with a chaotic series of flashing images, of strange sigils and monstrous forms. Transfixed, I could not look away. In a second, the flashing images ceased, and the screen filled with what appeared to be a map. In the center of the map there was a glyph like the one in the logo. Five red dots were crowded in next to the glyph. Away in the upper left hand corner, peeking out from under a strange looking toolbar, was another glyph. This second glyph was very different from the first, resembling a boat or sled, with several interlocking horns, and it was moving. The app appeared to be a tracker of some kind. I stared at the glyphs, one in constant motion while the other remained stationary, trying to comprehend what was being tracked, but I couldn’t fathom it. The glyph in motion seemed to always be sliding away from my eyes, so that I was unable to look directly at it, or scrutinize it in any way.

Meanwhile, each time my eyes fell upon the stationary glyph, it seemed to me that I heard a sultry female voice whispering to me the single word, “come”. I don’t know how long I looked at my screen, but as I did so the urge built up inside me to obey the sultry voice. Eventually, I found myself standing at my open door, looking out into the cold December night. Snow was falling steadily, and I had almost walked out into it without a coat or shoes. Quickly I slipped on a pair of work boots and pulled my wool overcoat onto my back, then I trekked out into the snow, following directions that appeared in the app.

My journey led me through parts of town I had seldom seen, into the outskirts and beyond. I marched through the snow and darkness into a wild place where people had no reason to go. Scraggly trees and dense, vined underbrush filled the space. It seemed to become wider, the deeper in that I went, tenting as I penetrated this strange, secluded area.

A greenish glow filled the screen of my smartphone as I entered a clearing, and I realized that it ought to have run out of battery power a long time before then. Perhaps the app was being powered by some outside source. I had no time to ponder such things, however, as a chaotic scene unfolded before me, lit by an aurora that filled the sky. In the distance, barely discernable figures appeared to be doing battle. Numerous people were moving through the clearing toward what appeared to be a small shack near the center. I could see that many of them held smartphones, with the green glow breaking through the darkness. These people all seemed to have a strange mark or growth in the middle of their foreheads. It looked like a round welt or nub, just above the eyebrows.

Reflexively I raised my hand to my own brow, and there discovered a round nub of my own. As my fingers approached the surface of it, I could somehow see the shadows of my digits, limned in greenish light. A cacophonous tumult from above the clearing drew my attention upward to an unbelievable sight. Flying back and forth above the clearing was an ancient wooden sleigh, drawn by several hairy, horned, beasts.

The beasts looked like some nightmarish miscegenation of gorillas and goats, and several of their horns had branched appendages that were red with blood. The creature at the front of this team of bizarre coursers was stranger still, having a face that seemed like a mechanical construction of brass pieces and glass lenses. It’s round, lensed eyes reflected a hellish glow from the red light projected from the lantern like construction in the center of it’s muzzle.

The sleigh itself was a dark shape against the aurora, an impressive craft built from a red and black striated wood with which I was unfamiliar, stained with centuries of grime. The driver was imposing, a man of large girth, wearing a long coat of reddish brown fur that looked remarkably similar to his coursers’ hides, and a white fur hat with a long conical red peak. He had a huge white beard, streaked with wisps of grey, that blew about him in a wind that he seemed to produce himself. He cracked a whip and pulled the reins hard, guiding his coursers to pull the sleigh away in a new direction. I saw other figures moving toward the sleigh, from above and below. Chasing it through the air, the shape of a man, masked with a doll like face, was riding a contraption like a tricycle outfitted with the wings of a truly enormous moth. From underneath, a ghastly creature with a face full of black tentacles attempted to hit the sleigh with a glowing liquid that it fired from a handheld weapon reminiscent of one of those powerful squirt guns that use air pressure. Still other strange creatures hurled objects and profanities at the sleigh driver.

I checked my smartphone, and saw that the moving glyph matched the motions of the sleigh. As I was considering what all of this meant, a figure abruptly appeared before me. It was an androgenous youth, clothed in a white robe, and glowing with a golden light. It spoke to me.

“Naughty, or nice?” it asked in a melodious voice.

“I don’t understand,” I replied, because I really didn’t.

“Are you naughty, or are you nice?” the golden apparition asked again.

“Oh. Well, nice, I suppose. I hope. Yes, nice.”

It nodded, and used it’s delicate fingertip to make the sign of the cross on the nub on my forehead. My vision was filled with light.

The vista surrounding me was now dramatically altered. It was the same scene, but now I could see so much more. The small building at the center of the clearing was emanating long tendrils of solid black shadow, connecting to five distinct individuals. The doll faced man with the moth winged contraption was still worrying the coursers of the sleigh, the tentacle faced thing was pumping up the pressure of it’s ooze gun, there was a tall, cadaverous looking man in a top hat, throwing bones at the sleigh, while a sort of jester made of rough wood was cavorting about, occasionally blowing fire into the sky, but far across the clearing was one last figure. I couldn’t get a good look at it from my vantage point, but it looked like the aurora was being projected from something in it’s hand.

It was then that I noticed that the sleigh driver was actually trapped by the aurora. He was careening back and forth, searching for an opening, while the monsters attacked him. The doll faced man swooped in from above, and swung an axe handle behind the driver. The axe handle caught hold of a large leather bag, spilling some of it’s contents out of the sleigh. Dozens of brightly wrapped parcels plummeted down. The monsters below snatched and grabbed the falling packages, handing some of them off to nearby humans. The other humans in the clearing were all queueing up at the door of the shack, as if they had no will of their own, being compelled by the app on their own smartphones. I had just enough presence of mind to turn mine off.

Then, it was as if a tunnel of golden light had formed from the aether, with myself at one end, and the terrifying figure with the green light at the other. A new compulsion formed within my mind. I roused myself in obedience to the demiurge, it could be nothing else, and sprinted across the clearing toward the figure at that end of the tunnel. In less than a minute I stood face to hideous face with the most monstrous being I could imagine. What may once have been a man stood before me engulfed in tentacles, claws, fins, and unmentionable chitinous appendages, it’s head a grotesque parody of a bishop’s mitre, formed with flukes and tentacles.

It held aloft, in a black, pulpy, not quite human hand, a golden amulet that glowed brightly with greenish radiance. It was from this amulet that the aurora proceeded. I could see that I was expected to attempt to stop this mad creature, but I did not know how. I felt an intense vibration in my pocket, and pulled out my smartphone. The screen was now lit up with a single large button with one word written on it in gothic script. The word was “nice”. I pushed the button. Green light began to be pulled from the monster’s amulet to the screen of my smartphone, which now showed a swirling spiral of script that I could not read. The monster screamed in a low, gutteral voice as both his amulet and my smartphone were pulled from our hands by some magnetic force. The two devices collided in midair with a clap of thunder. The aurora vanished, and with a mighty cry of triumph, the sleigh driver rode out into the cold night sky.

The androgenous youth appeared once more, hovering above the shack. What few humans remained outside of that dark structure looked up to the radiant beauty of that miraculous personage, as it began to rise, shining like a star with pure white light. The light filled the clearing until it drove out every shadow and was all that could be seen.

I must have lost consciousness then, because the next thing that I knew, I was awakening in my own bed, safe at home. It was the morning of Saint Nicholas’ day. In my slipper I found a brightly wrapped package, and inside that package was a brand new smartphone. It is the most advanced piece of technology I have ever seen. I truly puts the most expensive phones on the market to shame. In the months since that day, I have never had to charge it, I’ve never dropped a call, been out of service, nor run out of data. No bill has ever arrived, and the service continues. Best of all, I have never had any unfamiliar apps appear.

Just the same, though, I am always a bit wary.

The Tree of Dark Desires

The Tree of Dark Desires
Felix Galt stood at the very edge of his fifteen hundred acre estate, gazing across a low stone wall, into the woods, at a very particular tree. Unlike the thousands of trees at his back, the one he was observing did not belong to him, but he wanted it. The towering evergreen was very likely the oldest tree in the forest. It was certainly the grandest, in his estimation. Unfortunately for Felix, the tree lay just beyond his reach, in the very center of that part of the forest to which he had not yet been able to lay claim, despite his most devious efforts. That section of woodland, a mere ten acres, belonged to his despised neighbor, Roger Cares, who didn’t even have what Felix considered the decency to be a businessman, and would not even meet with Felix to discuss the possibility of selling. No, Mister Roger Cares had merely inherited the land, and lived off of it instead of making a living out in the civilized world; the world which knew that everything had a price.

Felix gnashed his teeth, thinking about the grubby little trailer sitting at the other end of that patch of forest, the grubby little garden that surrounded it, and the grubby little man who lived there; the man who dared to defy the will of Felix Galt! The man who owned the tree, he was a particularly irritating thorn in Felix’s side. There was simply no reasoning with him. Felix had offered a more than fair price for the property, according to the market value. Mister Roger Cares would not sell. He had tried arranging logging rights, to no avail. Mister Roger Cares would not allow it. But, Felix wanted that tree, and he would have it. This grubby little man could not be allowed to defy him so.

As Felix stared at the object of his covetousness, the tree itself seemed to brood. It was an odd specimen. Majestic, of course, but dark and mysterious, as well. It seemed to be the only tree of it’s particular, unidentifiable, species, in the entire forest. It was obviously an evergreen of some kind, over a hundred feet tall, with needles so dark they were almost black, and a thick trunk with black bark as well. Large black cones, a bit smaller than a human head, hung from the branches. There was an odor associated with the tree, which permeated the forest for miles around. It smelled like molasses and roses mingled together with something deeper, earthier, and beyond identification. It was at once alluring and terrifying, beckoning to the ancient memories deep in the core of the human brain, remnants of those aeons before manlike things were blessed with the gift of humanity.

Felix fantasized about what he would do with the tree once he had acquired it, as he surely intended to do. First, he would transport it to his mansion, and set it up in front as a Christmas tree, a rich surprise for his granddaughter. It would be an expensive process, but he could easily afford it, and he intended to make that money back with the wood. Once the holidays were over, he would have it processed as lumber, and build a house out of it. A house made of that wood was guaranteed to bring a huge profit. He had a sample of it, in his hand, a single branch that had been fashioned into a cane by his grandfather. Felix never knew the story of how his grandfather had acquired that branch, but he had always been fascinated by the wood itself. It was dark and reddish, with black striations from the growth rings, and absolutely unyielding. To Felix, this was the most beautiful wood in the world, and he had become obsessed with it at the first sight of that cane, when he was a child.

Felix used the cane to push open the old iron gate which was set into a stone archway in the wall that separated the two properties. An early November snow had begun to fall, and he intended to visit the object of his desire before the snow began to drift. Stepping confidently through the gate, he began to stamp through the low underbrush with his usual unswerving determination. A small minded person might almost think him heroic in his avaricious zeal.

A ten acre plot may be crossed rather quickly, even in an unkempt forest, and Felix was only going half the distance. Still, it took him nearly half an hour to get through. It was as if every weed and vine had conspired to trip him up or hold him back, but he had persevered. He stood at the outer edge of the tree’s perimeter, looking up toward the crown. It was glorious. He inhaled the tree’s exotic aroma. It was intoxicating.
Walking around the tree, he spied the male cones. Some people are surprised to learn that coniferous trees have both male and female cones, but Felix had already been aware. Nevertheless, these particular cones were rather unique, perhaps even a little alarming, in their appearance. They were bright red, like poinsettias, but with a perversely squid like form. There was a lumpy central mass with a dozen or so long, slender appendages coiling outward like tentacles. Each tentacle was covered in fine red hairs. Felix jostled one of the cones by poking it with the cane, and the tentacles appeared to make a sort of flexing movement, like the limbs of a cat while falling and finding it’s balance.

Suddenly the calm of the forest was broken by a screeching voice as something emerged from under branches at the base of the tree. Felix raised the cane to protect his face as gnarly hands swung a needled branch at him. He deflected the swatting assault a second, third, and fourth time, before tripping and falling backward into the brush. A small but powerful foot, just as gnarly as the hands, landed with force on his chest and pinned him to the forest floor. He gasped in pain and surprise. Blinking back tears, he was able to get a look at his nimble assailant. It appeared to be a person, small of stature, dirty, clothed in a short tunic made of squirrel pelts, with matted white hair jutting out from it’s head. The angry, ancient looking face had a petite but misshapen nose, and a withered jaw that held a single long tooth that lay over the top lip and almost touched the right nostril. On top of the head there was an arrangement of long, curved, spiky shapes that Felix first took for antlers, but quickly realized were actually small branches. Just beneath the branches, poking out of the hair on the sides of the head, were a pair of enormous, pointed, ears.

“Haha!” the little person crowed in it’s screechy voice. “Hasitnow! Killaneatit! Killaneatit!”

Felix’s mind reeled. He kept trying to decide if his attacker was male, or female, as if it would help him determine the level of danger he was in. He soon decided that he was under maximum threat, and swung his cane into the little person’s side. It rolled off of him with a howl. Felix scrambled to his feet and brandished the cane like a rapier, shouting.

“Go on then, you miscreant! Give it your best shot! I’m not afraid of you!”

“Ohohoho, notafearednotafeareditis! Doesnotknowitthendoesnot! Noknownoknownonono!”

“What the hell are you, anyway? Did Cares put you up to this? Are you his guard dog? Well, you can tell him he’ll have to do a hell of a lot better than this, to stop me from getting what I want!”

“Ohho! Hellthehellthehellyousay! Hellitisanhell Hellandgothehellwithyou!”

Felix roared and charged the little person with his cane, missing completely as it leapt over his head and disappeared back under the branches of the tree. Felix chased after it. The ground beneath the branches was devoid of other vegetation, but there was a thick buildup of needles and cones. It was difficult to see very far because of the heavy shade of the branches. He stepped close to the trunk of the tree, and the toe of his boot collided with a large, flat stone. Taking a closer look, he found that the stone was covered with some kind of runic inscription, and that it was arranged with several other identical stones around the base of the tree. He noticed that all of the stones were at a slight upward incline to the trunk, which bulged slightly over top of the edges. They seemed to have been purposefully placed in a tight ring around the tree, possibly many centuries in the past. Felix followed the stones around the trunk, and nearly crashed into a small hut that was built around the side of the tree, using it’s own branches. It was a highly effective camouflage.

Suddenly, the little person leapt out of the shadows, smacking Felix in the face with a handful of red dust. It danced around, cackling maniacally as Felix sputtered and coughed.

“Oogity Boogity Boogy Bee, Yiggity Draggoty Seely See!”

The acrid powder stung his eyes, nose, and throat. Tears streamed down his face, leaving trails in the dust.

“What the godamn hell, you little fucker! What are you trying to do to me?”

Felix struggled to see, and stumbled out into the more brightly lit forest. His head was swimming with strange sensations, and he could see several dark shapes approaching him through the falling snow.

“Who’s there? More miniscule miscreants? I’ll kick your asses!”

The shapes came closer, and he could see that the newcomers were very different beings from the little person. There were three of them, standing seven feet tall, skeletally slender, seeming to merge with the shadows like thick billows of smoke in the shape of something almost human. The snowflakes seemed to pass through them. He couldn’t discern any facial features, but he could feel them leering at him malevolently.

“So what do you want? Is this the part where you tell me the true meaning of Christmas? Hah? Are you going to offer me a chance to mend my wicked ways? Or tell me I’m being tested? What?”

“You perceive us,” a sepulchral voice rang in his head. “Interesting. But you are mistaken. We do not offer redemption. Your fate is sealed, Felix Galt. The suffering you have caused in the world has drawn us to you, and you belong to us. We will feed.”

Felix felt the blood drain from his face. For the first time, he was truly afraid. He did not know how to fight these mysterious beings who laid claim to his life. He realized in horror that he was facing a power far greater than his own, greater than any he had dreamed existed, and was helpless. A scream of terror erupted from him as his mind shattered. The dark beings closed in on him.

A voice called from the forest. It was a human voice, and that of a man. Someone was calling Felix’s name. He looked out in the direction from which it came, and saw the man approaching. It was Roger Cares, rushing toward him. Felix laughed. It seemed somehow absurd to him that another human being should, at this very moment, intrude upon this macabre scene. But here was Mister Roger Cares, not grubby and small as Felix had portrayed him in his mind, but tall and hale and heroic. Felix felt a rush of relief and gratitude. Roger Cares would save him, surely, and in return Felix would abandon his designs on the cursed tree.

The little person in the squirrel skins and branches suddenly emerged, and placed itself between Roger and the dark beings, chattering incoherently. The dark beings took their chance, and pounced on Felix, entering him through his every orifice, like smoke into a chimney. Felix screamed and screamed and screamed, as his body was swiftly digested from within. In a moment, nothing remained of Felix Galt but dust. The dark beings dissolved into mist and were seen no more, having obtained that for which they had come.

Mister Roger Cares sadly picked up the cane that lay within the pile of dust. He looked at it for a moment, and then presented it to the little person. The little person snatched the cane, and disappeared into the branches of the tree. Roger watched it go, and then sadly walked away from the tree.

The Arena On The Mountain

Bawepat cautiously crawled along the base of the immense, round, stone building at the center of the ancient complex, taking great care to remain hidden in the shadows. He knew that there could be Anephal brutes lurking anywhere. This ruin was their home, on their mountain, and Bawepat’s people had not been welcome there since the ice had divided the seas. Bawepat’s people, the Atrissua, had been at war with the Anephal periodically for more than a century, and it could not be resolved without the extinction of one or the other. Recently, an Atrissua elder had been given a vision by the one of the gods, a son of El named Yamhe, which could end the war forever.

In the vision, the great god El would use his veil of glory to melt the ice lands which surrounded the habitable lands of the world, causing a flood of water to run through the valleys of the mountains where the Anephal lived, washing them all into the mouths of the twin serpent rivers, overflowing their banks and destroying the villages of the Atrissua along with the Anephal. Only one family, of the Atrissua, and their herds, were to be saved. The patriarch of that chosen family, who must be of pure lineage, would have to construct a single building that was large enough to hold all of his family and herds, and coat it’s sides and floor with pitch to seal it, or they would not survive the raging waters that were prophesied.

Bawepat had come to the mountain of the Anephal to spy on them, and discover whether they had any means of surviving the coming apocalypse. If they did have, then Bawepat was to steal it so that his own family may make use of it, or, if it could not be stolen, to destroy it and ensure the extinction of the Anephal. He took a moment to observe the state of the surrounding structures. Each of the dozens of circular stone huts was accessible to a stone path which connected all of the buildings. The buildings themselves were arranged in a double spiral around and facing the much larger building, inside of which Bawepat was currently trying to find a way to peek. Curiously, the huts all seemed unoccupied at that moment, although several torches were burning at intersections of the path.

Bawepat remembered as a child, being told stories from ages before his birth, telling of the great arena where the Anephal held their infamous blood sports. Engraved signs on the stone huts showed where various animals could be purchased to toss into the arena to fight or be devoured by lions or cave bears, and the people would place wagers on the deaths of beasts and men. If a combatant were killed without being bitten, then the Anephal would roast it, and eat it’s flesh, even if it were a man. There were few who saw one of the Anephal up close, and lived to tell of it. Those who did survive such an encounter claimed that the Anephal were at least a head taller than any ordinary man, with a mane of thick hair all over their face and head, which they braided and decorated with bones. They had broad, hairy, muscular shoulders which gave them enormous strength, low foreheads with thick brows that jutted forward from over their eyes, bulbous noses, thick blubbery lips, and wide jaws filled with teeth as wide as a grown man’s thumb. The Atrissua considered them barely human, but according to legends, many of the Anephal were the descendants of human women who had been sold as slaves for entrance to the blood sports, and had been taken as wives by demons.

Bawepat felt his way around the arena’s outer wall, trying to find a crevice or peephole. Finally, he discovered the chink in the stone that he had been hoping for. He had to drag a stray piece of stone over next to the wall, to stand on top of, because the hole was at a greater height than his head. He winced as he pressed his face to the wall, as the foul odor of sweat and offal reached his nostrils. Once his eye was pressed to the hole, it took several seconds to adjust to the gloom inside. Torchlight flickered across the nearly naked, hairy flesh of a hundred or so entranced Anephal. They were all heaving and grunting in muted unison, their beady eyes fixed on the tableau at the bottom of the arena. A great stone pillar stood at each end of the court, engraved with shapes of animals and human figures from bottom to top. Bawepat noticed one of the human figures appeared to be moving, and then another at the other end. Something was holding them up against the pillars, where they writhed in pain, or ecstasy, or both, but his vantage point was not sufficient to see past all of the Anephal bodies in his way. Eventually one of them shifted, and Bawepat wished he hadn’t been straining so hard to see, that he couldn’t see what shambled, wiggled, and slithered on that cold stone floor. From a pulpy black mass as large as a horse emerged innumerable tentacles of various sizes, two of which entered the pair of struggling humans through their anuses and exited through their mouths, holding them erect against the pillars, so that they resembled a part of the motif. The Anephal weren’t just enjoying gratuitous violence. They actually appeared to be worshipping some sort of monstrous abomination.

Horror filled the heart of Bawepat, and he reflexively vomited, choking on his rising bile. One of the Anephal heard him, and looked into the hole in the wall from inside. The brute saw Bawepat and began to bellow something in it’s own language. Bawepat could not understand the words, but he had a good idea of what they must mean. He moved to run, forgetting that he was perched on a stone, and fell to the ground hard, twisting his ankle in the process. He could hear several of the Anephal passing through the exit on the opposite side of the arena, bellowing at each other. He scrambled to his feet in terror, and frantically limped away, desperate to find a place to hide.

By some miracle, he made his way out of the complex without being seen. He hoped that his good fortune would hold long enough to make it down the mountainside, as he lurched from the shelter of one rock outcropping to another, crouching and looking back to make sure the Anephal still had not seen him as he did so. He felt that he would be safe if could only reach the valley that served as unofficial border between the home of the Anephal, and the road which led down to the plains where the Atrissua villages were. Unfortunately, just as Bawepat crossed an open space between two great boulders, he heard a roar from up the mountain. The Anephal had spotted him. He had put a lot of distance between them, but they would close that distance much quicker than he would be able to get to the valley.

Bawepat needed to hide, quickly. He scrambled up into the rocks, away from obvious paths, casting about for a cave, or an overhang, anything that he might get inside so that his pursuers might overlook him. After several minutes, he saw something odd in the near distance. There was a small shrine, alone, in the shadow of the rocks and just barely visible. Bawepat could hear the Anephal closing in on him, and swiftly decided to go to the shrine. As he entered the shadows, a foreboding seeped into his bones. It was a feeling not unlike his revulsion at the sight of the Anephal’s blasphemous god, but Bawepat was desperate. He approached the shrine slowly, looking it over. It seemed to be constructed from acacia branches, bound together with lashings, and coated with something that resembled pitch. The over all effect gave the little building a gnarled and grotesque appearance. There was a single door, and carved into it’s surface there was a strange symbol, which gave Bawepat the impression of an eye that was staring into his very soul.

Suddenly, his revery was shattered by the sound of the Anephal’s bellowing. He turned and saw a trio of the brutes standing upon the rocks, looking down at him, close enough that he could see their faces. By the gods, they were hideous. It wasn’t just the ways in which their visages differed from his own that gave Bawepat an unsettling feeling, but the ways in which they were the same, almost but not quite right. They were slowly coming toward him, bit by bit. They seemed wary of the shrine. Perhaps it was not theirs. Certainly, it was of a vastly different design than the buildings in the arena complex. Maybe, Bawepat reasoned, they would not approach the shrine. Maybe he would be safe from them inside.

No sooner had the thought formed in his head, than the door of the shrine swung open. Bawepat saw only darkness inside, and an odor, like truffles, wafted out. As he peered deeper, a small green light appeared, as though at a great distance. He looked back at the Anephal, and they had stopped coming toward him, seeming to be disconcerted by what they were witnessing. Bawepat sneered at them, walking backward into the shrine, pulling the door closed behind him. He stood, panting, his hands resting on the door, listening intently for any sound from outside. He stayed that way for a long time. He heard nothing. The Anephal brutes did not follow him.

Slowly, Bawepat became aware of another presence, something that was behind him, and all around. For some reason that he could not have articulated, he was loathe to face what he could only imagine was some dark, forgotten god. Black, slimy tendrils crept around his legs and gently grasped his shoulders. He began to shake uncontrollably as fear gripped his heart. What had he been thinking, to choose the unknown that even the Anephal had feared? But it was too late now. The black tendrils engulfed him, and drew him into the bosom of the shrine.

The Curious Corpse

When Pretorius Dark’s Carnival of Curiosities rolled into town, it brought with it an old familiar face, though that face was somewhat diminished by time and the dessicating effects of arsenic preservation. This was no trouble, however, since the vast majority of the carnival goers had not yet been born when last the macabre visitor had graced their streets with his presence. Indeed, their grandparents would still have been in the throes of puberty in those long gone days.

They had, as their grandchildren would, pressed as close to the glass case as the velvet rope would allow, peering intently at the mummified man who had reportedly assassinated the President of the United States.

Some watched to see if the mummy would breathe, others demanded to know why it was called a mummy when it had no bandages, some adults claimed to recognize John Wilkes Booth, but Reverend Stanis declared the body to be an errant fraud made of wax. Indeed, the fiery Reverend declared the carnival itself to be a den of devils, accusing the proprietor, Pretorius Dark, of being Satan himself in mean disguise, come to pervert the souls of the citizens. Admittedly, Mister Dark did somewhat look the part in his cape and wide top hat, his waxy and barely moving face, and his long reddish hair sticking out like dry straw. But the citizens didn’t buy it. They were used to the preacher’s outbursts, since there wasn’t much in town that he hadn’t sworn was of the devil over the years. From Nick’s Old English Pub, to The Scratch Pool Hall, the Ritz Cinema, the Country Club, and the Hidey Hole Gentlemen’s Lounge, all had felt the heat from Reverend Stanis and his Church of Divine Wrath. The congregation had been determined to remove every bit of entertainment that might be competition for the church. Only the Hidey Hole had succumbed in all the years that the church continued it’s puritanical mission.

The mummy of John Wilkes Booth, if the specimen on exhibit was indeed the same body, had recently returned to the carnival circuit after decades of banishment. No one could say where it had been for all those years, or perhaps those who knew just didn’t want anyone else to know. Surprisingly, it was drawing a much larger crowd than it ever had on it’s first tour of the country.

The Dark Carnival remained in the fairgrounds for the week leading into Halloween, a perfect time for leering at a corpse. There were many who came early on, and then visited again later in the week, but most people waited for the weekend, so it was the Saturday just before Halloween when the largest throng gathered at the tent containing the mummy of John Wilkes Booth. Hundreds came and went, each with their own ideas about the mummy’s authenticity. None of them noticed the small boy who slipped in with one of the first groups, and didn’t leave the tent all day. He was able to hide underneath the cloth that covered a crate which had been turned on it’s side as a makeshift pedestal for a display case of artifacts that had supposedly belonged to the deceased Mister Booth on the last day he drew breath in the mortal world.

When the evening was spent, and the last carnival goers were making their way to the exit, the boy roused himself and stood looking at the objects that had been over his head for many hours. He chewed his lip in consternation while examining a disk of black stone. That was how Mister Dark found him when he entered the tent to extinguish the single light which illuminated the interior.

“Well, well, what have we here?” asked Mister Dark in a vaguely menacing tone. “I thought all of our customers had seen all they cared to see of John. I trust that you have paid the fee, son?”

“What a laugh,” replied the boy without turning to look at his inquisitor. “I’ve paid more than you’ll ever know.”

“Indeed!” retorted Mister Dark. “How extraordinary. Would you care to enlighten me?” The menacing tone had quickly given way to one of plaintive curiosity.

“No” said the boy. “Do you know this is wrong?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The spirit mirror. It’s the wrong one.”

“The wrong one? Whatever do you mean, child?”

“I mean it’s not – his. It’s a different one.”

“And just how would you know that?”

“I just do, that’s all. If it was the right one, it would have his initials carved on the handle tab there, and a symbol like a sideways number eight.”

“Gracious me, aren’t you the perspicacious one? Perhaps we’ve inadvertently switched it out with the one that belonged to John Dee. These things can happen from time to time. But what I’m wondering now is, however do you, a young child, know these things?” Mister Dark’s eyes narrowed with increasing suspicion as he peered at the boy.

“Nevermind,” the boy muttered. “It probably wouldn’t work again anyway.”

“What wouldn’t work? Tell me your name, child.”

“My name,” the boy replied wearily, as his shoulders sagged, “might be John, or George, or David, I can’t remember anymore.”

“What a remarkably unlikely answer. You appear to be much too young for such heavy thoughts.”

“Perhaps I’m an old soul.”

“Indeed?”

Mister Dark reached out his hand toward the boy, intending to grasp his shoulder. The boy suddenly darted out through the tent exit, and Mister Dark chased after him into the fairgrounds. The boy was too quick to be caught, swiftly disappearing into the night, and Mister Dark shuffled back toward the mummy’s tent, hands clasped behind his cape, head down, pondering. His curiosity was well piqued at this point. He sensed an opportunity to exploit, if only he could decipher the clues in the speech of that odd boy. Abruptly his attention was diverted to sounds coming from the tent. There was a loud thump, and the voices of at least two people, arguing. Were the carnies taking down the displays in there? Normally they would wait until daybreak, at least. He quickened his pace to investigate, momentarily forgetting about the boy. As he approached the tent, he could hear the words being spoken by whomever was inside.

A rather sonorous voice said, “Even with the legs cut off, I don’t think he’ll fit in the bag. We’d better get the arms and head off as well.”

A high pitched, scratchy sort of voice replied, “Well then you take this damned saw and you do it.”

“All right, Mister Grumpypants, hand it over.”

“Here. I still can’t believe I’m going to all of this trouble for a bit of mellified sweets, especially when your recipe probably won’t even work.”

Sawing sounds were now audible, and the sonorous voice responded. “What makes you think it won’t work? I’ve got thirty gallons of honey back at the shack. It should work just fine.”

“No,” screeched the other. “I’ve read up on this, in my studies. You’re supposed to feed the honey to the victim while he’s still alive. This man has been dead for half a century!”

“Oh, is that all? Don’t worry about it. The honey I’ve got is meat honey, from carnivorous bees.”

“What? That’s ridiculous! What difference does that-” the voice trailed off as Mister Dark burst into the tent.

“What the Hell is going on in-” Mister Dark failed to finish his loud outburst as his eyes beheld the two characters in the tent. The first gave him the immediate impression of a scabby sort of black squid crossed with a star nosed mole, and the second was a very tall man decked out in voodoo paraphernalia reminiscent of Papa Legba or Baron Samedi. There was a moment of quiet tension as they all regarded each other. The moment was broken when John Wilkes Booth’s head, a bone saw halfway through his neck, snapped off and fell into the patchwork sack being held open by the squid like person. Mister Dark’s eyes followed the head as it disappeared, and then he roared, “Thieves!”

He produced a whistle from his belt and began to blow it vigorously. Voices rang out from across the fairgrounds as carnies rushed to his aid. The two corpse thieves grabbed their sack and bolted from the tent. They had managed to remove both legs, the left arm, and the head from the mummy. Mister Dark stared at the ruined remains in disbelief, and mounting fury. One of the carnies entered the tent in a rush.

“I haven’t seen anyone strange, boss. What happened?”

Mister Dark gestured at what was left of the mummy, and gave the carny a description of the thieves. The carny, a portly fellow with light hair and dark wells beneath his eyes, still wearing a red jacket with tails, ran out to spread the word amongst the other carnies. Mister Dark began to clean up the tent, desultorily. Then, he remembered the boy. Of course, the boy, who had distracted his attention while the strange burglars plied their gruesome trade. Obviously he was a part of the plot! All that strange talk was just an act, a script written by his older partners. It had to be so.

A bell began ringing outside, and Mister Dark went out to investigate. Someone had heard noises coming from one of the storage wagons, and had discovered an intruder rummaging through one of the trunks. The carnies had shut and locked the door, posting guards outside. Mister Dark arrived with fire in his eyes, imagining the unholy vengeance he would wreak upon the bodies of the thieves that had destroyed one of his most valuable exhibits. But when the door was opened, it was only the boy, seated on the floor and sobbing uncontrollably.

“Well, John, or George, or David,” Mister Dark raged, “your monstrous cohorts may have escaped, but we have you, and you will pay dearly for their crime!”

At that the boy began wailing, in a manner most unlike the confident detachment of their earlier conversation. He hardly seemed like the same boy at all. This, thought Mister Dark, was all the more proof that the boy had been reciting some script to beguile him then. He grabbed the boy by his collar and hoisted him up to look into his eyes.

“Now then,” he said menacingly, “Who in the unholy fires of Hell are you, really?”

The terrified boy looked at him through tear filled eyes and whimpered, “My name is Josiah Harkin. I don’t know where I am. Can you help me find my daddy?”

“Ha! If your daddy is one of those villains who cut up my mummy, I’ll do more than find him, I’ll stretch his neck for him as well!”

The boy looked confused. It dawned on Mister Dark that Josiah might not actually know what he was talking about. He recalled some bit of news from one of the small towns that his carnival had passed through to the north. It seemed that name, Harkin, was attached in some way to the unfortunate mummy of John Wilkes Booth, but in the moment Mister Dark was not able to recall the connection.

“Did you say Josiah Harkin? Are you from a town called Wheatfield?”

The boy nodded as best he could, eyes wide.

“Yes, that’s where I live, mister. I want to go home.”

“Oh for pity’s sake,” growled Mister Dark as he dropped the boy to the floor. He sat down heavily on the trunk in which the boy had been rummaging. “What were you looking for in here?” he demanded.

“I don’t know. I don’t think I was.”

“Really. And I’m expected to believe you, I suppose?”

Josiah shrugged. “I don’t know where I am. I was in a field with my daddy, and he was digging up a box. I wasn’t to touch what was in the box, but I did, and now I’m here, and I just want to go home. Please can I go home?”

Mister Dark noticed something on the floor, amongst scattered fliers and fished it out. It was the black stone disk that was supposed to be in the mummy exhibit. There was a bit of burned paper adhesed to it’s surface with candle wax.

“Does this look familiar, Josiah?”

“Yes sir, that looks like the thing that was in daddy’s box. I’m sorry that I touched it.”

“Well, I will be damned again,” Mister Dark muttered to himself. “No wonder the blasted thing would never work for me. I don’t have the right mate to it.”

“What is it?”

“Eh? This is a bit of ancient occult technology, fetched out of an ancient Aztec treasure hoard. Very useful, under the right conditions. I got it with the affects of my late mummified man, John. Someone has used it recently.” He looked accusingly at Josiah, who ducked his head and shook. “Your mother was ill recently, wasn’t she, boy? Or someone else in the family? A friend, maybe?”

Josiah nodded. “Mommy had the fever. A doctor came and said nothing could be done. That’s why daddy wanted the box, I think.”

“That fits,” Mister Dark said, sighing deeply as he rubbed his temples. He sat, deep in thought, as Josiah stared at him.

“Mister,” Josiah said, breaking the silence. “Can I go home now?”

Mister Dark looked at the miserable child as though for the first time. “Right,” he sighed. “That. Boy, hand me one of those newspapers over there.”He gestured to a pile of old papers tied up with twine in the corner of the wagon, and Josiah obediently went over to fetch one. As Josiah wrestled with the knot, Mister Dark began removing various bits of brass machinery from the many pockets of his costume. The overall impression one might get from the odd arrangement of parts could be of a brass sextant that had been exploded into all of it’s discrete bits, but as Mister Dark began fitting the pieces together, it took an altogether different form. There was a sort of platform with a frame, and spindly armatures arching above, with a multitude of knobs and levers attached to these at intervals. Josiah brought the newspaper to Mister Dark, and looked at the contraption in wonder.

“What’s it for?” he asked.

“I’m going to check on your parents,” replied Mister Dark, as he took the paper and laid it into the frame. Reaching back into his cape, he produced a large crystal lens, and fitted it to the armature assembly. He then took out a candle and a match. He struck the match on the bottom of his shoe while muttering an incantation, then lit the candle as he intoned, “to see, by me, for thee, agree, alee, alee, oxenfree.” He then handed the lit candle to Josiah and bid him to stand in a certain spot. That being accomplished, Mister Dark peered through the lens at the paper, muttering incoherently. At length he stopped his muttering, raised his head with as dour an expression as his waxy face could hold, and blew out the candle. He then proceeded to dismantle and put away his apparatus, in silence, as Josiah nervously watched. When the last piece was put away, Mister Dark straightened his waistcoat and spoke in a subdued tone. “Josiah, I have some bad news. It seems that your mother did not recover from the fever. Tragically, your father was imprisoned for mishandling her body. It doesn’t appear likely that you will see him again for many years.”

At that, the boy began weeping uncontrollably. Mister Dark let him cry it out. He was getting an idea.

“Josiah. You appear to have no place to go. No home to return to. I can give you a place. You would have to work, of course. And help the other carnies. But you would have a place to sleep, a roof over your head, and food in your belly. Think about it. We pull up stakes tomorrow.”

He placed Josiah in the care of two of the young lady carnies, with instructions to feed him with hot sausages, popcorn, cotton candy, toasted peanuts, and whatever else he wanted. He knew that Josiah couldn’t help but choose to live in the carnival. It was his best option, and it wouldn’t take long for him to realize that. This could work out well for Mister Dark, to have a new apprentice, already touched by the occult. It was good to have options.

http://www.granburydepot.org/z/biog/BoothJohnWilkesOnTour.htm

Rachel and the Corn Maiden

The idol of the Corn Maiden was the most exquisite piece of stone statuary that Rachel had ever seen come through her gallery. She couldn’t pull her eyes away from the fine details of feathers in the outstretched wings, the delicate look of the tiny folds of cloth in the dress, the proud look of defiance on her upturned face, and the long, windswept hair. What moved her the most was the dynamic posture, and gesture of the arms, which spoke to her of longing, loss, and the will to overcome every challenge. She could understand the impulse to worship at the feet of such a goddess, as she was overcome with awe herself.

Her gaze lingered on the implements held in the idol’s hands. They were not a part of the same block of stone from which the Corn Maiden herself had been carved, but were fashioned from chert, leather, river stones, and pine sap. The right hand thrust upward a chipped blade of pink chert, the handle wrapped in thongs of deerskin leather, the loose ends of which terminated in attached, bright red, circular stones, through holes in their centers. The legend claimed that this mystical weapon had been fashioned by spirits of the underworld, given as a gift to the goddess of corn. The left hand held aside and away from the forward thrusting hips a wreath of ears of corn. The husks of each cob were made from dyed deer leather, while each ear had been painstakingly crafted with small quartz pebbles and pine sap attached to what may have been real corn cobs. Rachel marveled at the shape of these artifacts, which bore little resemblance to the sort of corn a modern person might purchase at a grocery store. These were rounder, and comparatively smaller. A large man might grasp the entirety of a single ear in a closed hand.

After admiring the work for a long time, she turned her attention to the accompanying letter that the owner of the statue had sent along with it. The letter extended the owner’s gratitude for including the piece in the upcoming show, citing some vague financial difficulty as the reason for parting with the idol. There was also an apology for the lack of provenance for the idol. It was obviously not as ancient as it’s indigenous subject matter, being more heavily influenced by Renaissance art than First Nations depictions of their own iconography. The artist was completely unknown, but there was a description of the statue included in the records of a frontier town from the late 16th century. Rachel judged it possible that the implements in the statue’s hands were actually much older, perhaps authentic First Nations relics, but she wasn’t going to admit to that out loud, for legal reasons. This commission could be worth quite a lot of money, and that was her priority.

Her cellphone rang, interrupting her train of thought, the ringtone a snippet of music from the song Money by Ivy Levan. She let it go for a few seconds before answering. It was her fiance, Daniel, calling to remind her that they had a reservation at a new hip restaurant. She smiled. This was someplace where she definitely wanted to be seen, and Daniel was someone she enjoyed being seen with. He was just two inches taller than she was, at six feet tall, and classically handsome. He had always dressed well, and she had taught him how to dress to impress. She told people that he was a former martial arts instructor, which was technically true, although when they met he had been an aerobics instructor in the same building where she had her first studio. Her favorite attribute of his was his ability to shut up, look pretty, and let her schmooze, which had always been her greatest strength.

They met at the restaurant, before going inside. She was right on time, and he was already there, waiting. This was how she liked it, and one of the many ways in which she pulled his strings, such as demanding that he limit his stride to match her shorter legs, walk on the side of the street so that any out of control car would hit him first, or pull her chair out for her at restaurants, even if she was wearing pants. This evening she was wearing a chartreuse A line dress that she had had custom made, with ridiculous sequined opera gloves and kitten heels. A tiny matching hat that perched at a jaunty angle in the wave of her dark chestnut updo completed the ensemble. She had him wear his best modern tuxedo, with a tie that matched her dress. The color brought out the green in both their eyes, although she disliked the muddiness of her own natural irises, and elected to wear colored contacts that almost matched the clear emerald of his. She also wore a pair of cat’s eye reading glasses on top of this, just for the effect.

As they were shown to their table on the veranda, she made a point of smiling and discretely waving to every important or wealthy person that she recognized, even if she had never met them. The music was upbeat and contemporary, played by a live band, and the decor was expensive but not stuffy. Rachel approved, since this was a good environment for her to make money. Daniel leaned toward her over their menus and asked how her new commission was going.

She replied, “Not now, pet. I need to make a round of the bar, and then powder my nose. When the waiter comes, order for me whatever chicken dish is most expensive, with a glass of wine. You know which ones I like.”

He assented with a nod, and that curiously whimsical expression that she had never quite been able to decipher. She floated across the dining room to the bar, making a carefully calculated, low key spectacle, appropriately eccentric for her profession. Twenty minutes later she began her return to the table, balancing a ridiculously fruity martini in one hand, pinched by the stem between her thumb and forefinger. As she approached the dining area, she thought she caught a glimpse of her friend, Kortney, walking through from the front door. Sure enough, the elegant blonde silph approached the table where Daniel sat, and he rose to greet her. Just as Rachel was considering how disruptive it would be to call out to her, Kortney threw herself into Daniel’s arms and kissed him full on the mouth. To Rachel’s further astonishment, Daniel kissed her back. Rachel kept walking toward them, unheeding of the sticky sweet beverage she was spilling on the floor. She came to within a few feet of the table, and stopped. Her fiance and her friend did not notice her presence. She dropped the martini glass and it shattered on the floor. Now the two looked up at her, expectantly, startled but somehow unabashed. Daniel flashed her that whimsical look. Kortney straightened her spine and looked at Rachel directly, with a hint of defiance. Rachel was furious. She did not know what circumstances had led to their revelation of the affair in this public manner, nor did she care. The tower was toppled, and there was no undoing it. How could they do this to her, here in the restaurant where all of her potential clients could see her humiliation?

She fled the restaurant in a rage. She drove to her gallery without thinking, driven by some unconscious desire to avoid her fiance if he returned to their apartment. She found herself standing in front of the Corn Maiden, seething in her wrath. She began pacing in a frenzy.

“How do I get them?” Rachel asked the statue, though really talking to herself. “How do I make them pay for this shit? Because they are not gonna get away it! Oh no, not after doing…That! To my reputation!”

Scalding hot tears of anger began to flow down her cheeks. She stopped in front of the idol and stared up at the stone woman’s chin. “You’re supposed to be some kind of goddess, aren’t you? Do you grant wishes, or answer prayers, or whatever? Do you? Because I know what I would ask for, oh boy do I know! I want him dead, slowly and painfully. And her! I want her to suffer for the rest of her natural life! And when she suffers, I want her to know that it’s because of what she did to me, what she stole from me!”

At last, Rachel collapsed into one of her stylish but barely comfortable accent chairs and slumped back against the slim cushion. She was spent, weeping softly in self pity. She fell asleep there, and she dreamed. It seemed that her spirit had left her body. She was drifting through fog in a dark space. Rows of corn grew up around her. She followed the rows in rounded circuits toward the center of the dark field. Flickering flames illuminated something in the distance, and she drifted toward it. Sounds began to emanate from the lighted space, a low rhythmic chanting. As she drew near to the light, the canters came into view. They were dozens of naked men and women, holding lit torches, decorated with paint on sun browned skin, hands reaching toward the corn goddess, alive and warm, her wings moving slowly, her eyes cast down upon the fawning throng with compassion. Rachel found that she could understand the meaning of the words being chanted.

Beautiful Kokomo speak to us, Kokomo whisper in our ears, come close, Kokomo, we will cast out fear, We cry out for you Kokomo Kokomo, give us food from your elbows, give us nectar from your knees, embraced with ecstasy, in your serpent squeeze, Kokomo Kokomo, we heard what you have told, we heard what you have said, we will not be angry, we will not go mad, Kokomo our beloved, Kokomo our most adored, We cry out for you, Kokomo'thena our doom  

The crowd parted to let Rachel approach their goddess. Kokomo’thena looked down at her with glowing green eyes and smiled beatifically, and Rachel had a wrenching, squeezing sensation deep inside her chest. Tears flowed, forming a pool around her, and she fell to her knees in the water, sobbing.

Morning came, as it will, and Rachel awoke as daylight pierced the glass doors of the gallery lobby. She remembered the dream, but vaguely. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs to their full capacity, as a feeling of power and purpose welled up within her. She decided to go home to change and freshen up, and face her cheating fiance, if he dared to be there. Either way, she would be continuing on with her life without him.

He was there. The nerve! He met her at the door, and wanted to talk, not to explain himself or beg her for a second chance, but to discuss “breakup stuff”. Ugh. Rachel moved past him into the kitchenette without responding. The cold shoulder was her signature move when she was upset, another power play in her extensive repertoire. She opened the refrigerator, intending to retrieve a bottle of wine she had been chilling. Instead, her hand closed on an amber bottle that she didn’t recognize. She took off the cap and sniffed the contents. It seemed to be some sort of chocolate infused corn liquor. Repellent. Was this something that Kortney had left here? Rachel considered hurling the bottle at Daniel’s head. Instead, she sucked as much of the liquid into her mouth as she could, and then spit into his yammering face in a single slow stream. He spluttered and cursed her for being a crazy bitch, but she just started laughing. Her laughter increased in intensity until it became a mad cacophony. He became alarmed, and fled the apartment, grabbing a large duffel bag filled with his things on the way out of the door.
She felt exhilarated, and rode that high through to her exhibition. She did hear some gossip from someone in her circle that Daniel had developed an odd infection that marred his handsome face. She had laughed and said that it served him right, but she didn’t have time to waste thinking about him. She had a show to do. Several offers were made for the idol of the Corn Maiden, including one very strange proposition from a pair of odd gentlemen in vintage clothing, who offered a pair of exquisitely scrimshawed femurs from a “manitou.” She declined all offers, not feeling inclined to part with the statue just yet. Curiously, the client did not contact her to inquire about the show, so she didn’t have to come up with any excuses. All of her other pieces, however, were sold, and she made the most profit from a single show in her career. It had been a great success.
Hours later, she was standing alone in the mostly empty gallery, gazing up at the face of the idol in a hypnotic reverie. This was how Kortney and Daniel found her. Kortney was raving at her about sexually transmitted diseases, but Daniel couldn’t even speak through the large, slimy, black tumors that covered his face and trailed down his throat. When Rachel saw them together in this state, she had another paroxysm of mad laughter.
“Well! What do you losers want?” she demanded. “Can’t you see that I’m busy?”
“You bitch!” screamed Kortney, as she lunged at Rachel and grabbed her by the hair. Rachel pushed her to the ground, and suddenly found the chert blade in her hand. She pushed the blade to her former friend’s throat.
“What do you say, Kortney? Want to have your hide flayed from your corpse like a corn husk?” Kortney crumpled into the fetal position, and began weeping uncontrollably. Then Rachel turned her attention to Daniel, who seemed transfixed in anguish. Thick drool dribbled from the corner of his disfigured lips.
“How about you, pretty boy? Want me to cut those disgusting things off of you?” she taunted him as she thrust the blade against his crotch, tearing the expensive jeans she had bought for him.
He started making a gurgling sound, and black fluid bubbled up from his lungs, pouring down his chin. She screamed, a feral sound, and chopped ferociously at his face with the blade. Chunks of black fleshy matter spattered around them, with gelid gobbets of black ooze. Daniel collapsed, and his breathing rasped to a stop.
Rachel rounded back on Kortney, cackling. Kortney remained where she had fallen, frozen in shock. Rachel let her lie there, and returned her attention to Kokomo’thena. The chant from her dream rose in her mind, and she gave it voice, low and soft. The statue’s eyes glowed green, and it began to move, with fluid grace. Rachel handed the blade to the goddess, who took it from her, and placed the wreath of corn around Rachel’s neck.
Just then, the gallery began to vibrate, and a door appeared on the wall where no door had previously been. Made of some dark wood, rough and worn, it looked preposterously alien in the gallery, as though it were an avante gard installation piece comparing urban bleakness with rural squalor. The door swung open, proving it was no work of art. A greenish glow spilled sickly across the floor, broken by the lurching shadows of emerging figures. Rachel was astonished to see the two strange gentlemen from earlier in the evening, though now they seemed monstrous.
The two men, or creatures, laid hold of the idol of the Corn Maiden, pulling and pushing, sliding it across the floor to the open door. Rachel called out in panicked protest, but was ignored. She watched in helpless confusion as the Corn Maiden disappeared from her sight. As a final act before their departure, the pair of monstrous gentlemen tossed a bundle, wrapped in burlap, at Rachel’s feet. The door vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared, seeming to disassemble itself and melt into the shadows. Rachel picked up the burlap bundle, and unwrapped it’s contents, discovering the scrimshaw pieces. She had forgotten about them. She stood in the gallery, with her dead ex lover and her traumatized friend, wondering how much money her new acquisitions would command at an exhibition.
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