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THE OFFICIAL SD EZINE Introduction by Steve Upham The Demon Eater by Alexis Child Infected by Ryan Neil Falcone A Voice From the Grave by Mark Iles Snip Snip Snip by Neil Williams Wazonkey by Mark Howard Jones Nightmare by Paul Edwards Loop Like Time by Sarah Ann Watts A Dark Sky Laughing by Michael Kelly The Pumpkin Thief by James Bennett

Published by

Screaming Dreams The stories in this eZine are works of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Cover Illustration Copyright Š Steve Upham 2010 All content remains the Copyright of each contributor and must NOT be re-used without permission from the original Copyright holder(s). Thank you. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without prior written permission from the publisher.

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STEVE UPHAM

M

y sincere apologies for the lack of Estronomicon issues this year. The schedule for the print books in 2010 was hectic, to say the least, and took priority over the online publications for a while. But at least it means that I am finally catching up with the print backlog a bit now! Screaming Dreams has released five new book titles during the past ten months, including a PPC hardback edition of Against the Darkness by John L. Probert and paperback editions of Yuppieville by Tony Richards, The Gemini Factor by Paul Kane, Songs from Spider Street by Mark Howard Jones and The Empathy Effect by Bob Lock. Next on the list are Lake Mountain by Steve Gerlach and the first volume of the mini anthology series Dead Ends. Keep watching for more information about those releases. I have also been making an effort to attend more conventions and other events this year, but of course it all requires extra time and money. Plus I have been working on new illustrations for book covers and prints for displaying at art shows. Again though, it’s all down to finding the time to work on all these different projects, so progress sometimes feels a bit slow. Anyway, it’s Halloween again so sit back and enjoy reading some scary stories in this issue. As always, feel free to get in touch with your comments and feedback. Happy haunting, everyone! -1-


ALEXIS CHILD

Impure outlines exorcised On wounds uncleansed Shift cloak of sin off shoulders Lustful angels fall like flies Around the stems of sacrifice Darkness beyond the grave Mingles in licentious dance Encompassed with wild hymns Demonic infection glows pure fire Driven into distant lands He is not the last priest To sully bright truths Of the many-voiced monster Distressed heir of hell Seeking rest but finding none Returning to whom it came from

Copyright Š Alexis Child 2005 Previously published in Whispers of Wickedness, July 2005

Alexis Child hails from Toronto, Canada; horror in its purest form. She works at a Call Crisis Centre befriending demons of the mind that roam freely amongst her writings. Her fiction and poetry has been published in too many places to list here. Keep watching for more of her dark words in future issues of Estronomicon and be sure to visit her website where the guillotine continues to gush forth with blood at : www.angelfire.com/poetry/alexischild

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RYAN NEIL FALCONE

H

arold Dibble steadied himself as he lined up the approaching boy’s head in the center of the rifle’s cross-hairs. From his vantage point atop the roof of his house, he had a perfect shot. Through his scope, he could see that the boy was infected; even from this distance, the signs were unmistakable. Dead eyes bulged from eye sockets frozen in a decaying expression of predatory hunger. The left side of his head was collapsed like a sunken cave. Putrefied blood, maggots, and gray matter had spilled out of this chasm into what at one time had been a robust head of healthy hair, giving it a harsh, unnatural look. His lips were gone; in all likelihood, chewed away and eaten by the boy himself. Gore-encrusted teeth protruded from the obscene lesion that had once been the lower part of his face, and the boy gnashed them continually as he prowled the neighborhood searching for fresh meat to consume. With one pull of the trigger, Harold could end the boy’s tormented existence once and for all. Doing so would also serve the dual purpose of stopping the boy from getting too close to the house and potentially attracting more of his infected brethren. Although the infected did not travel in packs, where there was one there were bound to be more. Indirectly, that’s how he’d ended up on the roof in the first place. He and his family had managed to survive the initial onslaught by barricading themselves inside their house while the world went crazy outside. They’d hidden for weeks, subsisting on the provisions that were stored in the pantry, but it hadn’t taken long for these supplies to dwindle, and Harold had been forced to venture out in hopes of replenishing them. His plan had been simple: drive to a nearby convenience store, grab enough canned goods to last another few weeks, and get back to the house as quickly as possible—ideally without attracting attention from any of the roaming infected. The particular store he had in mind was located only a few miles from his house, making it a frequent destination for last minute shopping runs before the outbreak changed everything. With surreal detachment, he recalled how his irritated wife had dispatched him on one such errand just a few short months ago, to stock up on ice cream for their daughter’s sixth birthday party. He realized that the circumstances surrounding his current trip to the store were exponentially more exigent. He’d climbed into their mid-sized sedan at 6am on a Tuesday morning, -3-


RYAN NEIL FALCONE pausing to glance back at his wife and daughter standing in the doorway connecting the garage to their house. Although he was reluctant to leave them behind unprotected, one look at how gaunt and frightened they were was enough to convince him that it was a necessary risk. Before departing, he’d established momentary eye contact with his wife, but her expression of naked desperation caused him to avert his gaze, feeling ashamed about his inability to safeguard them from the blight outside. His wife manned the garage door, closing it as soon as he’d disembarked from the garage. As a precaution, he’d brought along his rifle and a backpack full of shells. Although the weapon riding “shotgun” next to him on the passenger seat reminded him of just how dangerous of an undertaking this was, he’d initially hoped that the mission could be accomplished quickly and without incident. It didn’t take long for that notion to be dispelled. The infected were everywhere, roaming the streets of their formerly quaint suburban neighborhood like feral vermin in search of their next meal. Attracted by the sound of his car, they’d flocked into the road, attempting to claw their way inside the vehicle as he drove past. At first, he’d made an effort to avoid hitting them, but as more and more amassed in the road, scurrying across yards and spilling out of open front doors in an attempt to intercept the approaching car, he’d abandoned that self-imposed constraint and begun to drive right through them. If nothing else, running them down would prevent them from being a threat on his trip back home. His destination was located at the end of what was now an abandoned strip mall. He’d approached with caution, noting the large number of infected drifting aimlessly in front of the Home Depot across the parking lot. Several more were visible wandering amidst the derelict cars scattered throughout the lot. As he’d guided his vehicle around these now-dormant relics from the way the world had been just a few short weeks ago, several of the infected began to lurch toward the moving car, attracted by the noise and the prospect of fresh meat. He’d pulled up in front of the convenience store, jumping the curb to get his car as close to the front entrance as possible, but one look inside the shop’s sliding glass doors had convinced him to abort his mission, as several of the infected were inside. Even with the rifle, he wouldn’t have enough time to take -4-


RYAN NEIL FALCONE them out before the ones outside the store got there. There were just too many. Tires squealing, he’d driven off scant moments before the first of them arrived, watching in the rear view mirror as they’d attempted to give chase. He’d taken a different route home, hoping to avoid the throng he’d encountered en route, but even this precaution didn’t prevent a swarm of them from chasing him back toward his neighborhood. Harold recognized that he had a choice: lead the infected back to his house and try to get inside before they could, or play the role of pied piper and lead them away. Neither option was without risk. The former might endanger his family, whereas the latter would leave his family unprotected—especially if he was unable to get back to them for an extended period of time. Given the depleted level of their supplies, it would only be a matter of time before they’d be forced to venture out again out of desperation. Panicked, he’d opted to make a break for home, driving haphazardly through the neighborhood in an attempt to shake the pursuing horde off of his trail. Zooming onto his street, he’d pulled into his driveway at nearly 40 miles per hour—praying that he’d timed opening the garage door so that there would be sufficient clearance to accommodate his vehicle when he got there. Slipping just underneath the still-opening door, he’d slammed on the brakes and jammed the button again to close the garage door behind him. He’d leapt from the vehicle, rifle in hand, hearing the snarling vocalizations of the infected as they ran up his driveway in pursuit. His stomach churned with nervous urgency as he’d watched the garage door descend, knowing that it would be a race against time. It was only mere inches off of the ground when one of the infected dove forward, trying to wriggle through the diminishing gap underneath the closing door. Harold felt his heart sink when the door closed upon the intruder’s arm, triggering the failsafe that caused it to automatically open again whenever the door touched something underneath. Standing in the doorway leading into the house, his wife screamed when the door began to rise, allowing a large number of infected to stream into the garage. He’d shouted for her to get inside, thinning out a few of their number with his rifle before retreating into the house after her. Although he’d managed to lock the door behind him, he’d known that it wasn’t sturdy enough to hold back the burgeoning number of infected -5-


RYAN NEIL FALCONE amassing on the opposite side for long. Already, they were pounding on the door, eagerly trying to break through to get to the meat they smelled on the other side. He’d pushed his wife and daughter upstairs, screaming for them to get to the attic when the door finally yielded, allowing the insatiable intruders to enter the previously fortified house. He’d fired several rounds into the assemblage mindlessly flocking toward the stairwell before turning to run, heading for the door at the end of the hall that led up to the attic. He’d gotten inside just as the voracious predators reached the second floor, but as he’d slammed the door shut, he’d caught a fleeting glimpse of his terrified wife and daughter standing in the doorway of the master bedroom down the hall. They hadn’t listened; they’d gone to the wrong room. Before he could even react, he’d heard their screams as the infected descended upon them and began to feed. The horrific sound of his wife and daughter being consumed was only partially drowned out by his own howl of despair. There was nothing he could do to help them; it was already too late. Haunted by this knowledge, he’d fled up the stairs, inadvertently crushing a piñata left over from his daughter’s birthday party underfoot…knowing that he only had seconds to act before the infected found their way into the attic. Sobbing as he’d kicked loose the planks he’d used to board up the attic window several weeks earlier, he’d barely had time to toss his rifle up onto the roof and haul himself to safety before the first arms began to reach outward from the smashed-out window in an attempt to grab hold of him… Tears blurred his vision as the dreadful memory replayed in his mind, causing him to temporarily lose sight of the boy through the rifle’s scope. He paused to wipe his eyes, forcibly suppressing the haunting echo of his family’s screams so that he could again focus on the only thing that mattered to him anymore: destroying as many of the infected as possible in retribution for what they’d done to his wife and daughter. Regaining his composure, he again located the boy in his sights but hesitated before pulling the trigger. The branches from a nearby tree were now in the way, obstructing his clean shot. Keeping the infected boy squarely in his crosshairs, he eased his finger off of the trigger, not wanting to waste ammo. In the three days since he’d foolishly ventured out and lured a horde of the -6-


RYAN NEIL FALCONE infected back to where his family was hidden, he’d used the majority of his remaining shells to gun down the swarm outside his house. Since then, he’d maintained a solitary vigil on the roof, picking off any that wandered into his sights. When the boy finally moved back into the open, Harold pulled the trigger and put a bullet through what remained of the boy’s brain. It was a perfect shot. He admired his handiwork through the scope for several seconds, verifying the kill before setting the rifle aside to do a quick inventory on his remaining ammunition. Seven bullets. Harold couldn’t help but smile. Seven was his lucky number. He hoped that the sound of the gunshot would attract the attention of more infected targets who might be roaming nearby. He looked forward to purging six more of them from the world before using lucky number seven to purge himself of the wretched memory of his wife’s and daughter’s faces when he’d shut the attic door and left them behind. Copyright © Ryan Neil Falcone 2010

Ryan Neil Falcone's short fiction has been featured in The Absent Willow Review, Macabre Cadaver, Black Petals, Estronomicon, The Dark Fiction Spotlight, Necrology Shorts, MicroHorror, and Foliate Oak Literary Journal. His work has also been accepted for publication in upcoming issues of Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine and Death Head Grin. He is an active member of Cornell University’s Irving Literary Society.

ESTRONOMICON CHRISTMAS SUBMISSIONS There’s still time to submit your work to one of the fave themed eZine issues of the year - The Creepy Christmas Special! Please make sure your stories have a Christmas, festive or winter theme, and the creepier the better! Save in RTF or DOC format (not DOCX) and send to the usual address, thanks.

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MARK ILES Ancient forest where mischief sleeps ‘neath twisted boughs where shadows leap Dwell there beasts that should not be Ware thee well, for they crept up on me My hidden grave is hard to find Dug not, just laid with kind Bones gnawed whilst clothes rotted Teeth clenched and hands knotted Dancing leaves gather round, Afore moving on in one wind borne bound Wizards and elves avoid this place Even heroes around it race! Dragons, gremlins, beasts unknown In darken places their shadows shown Nightmare creatures, their sight brings screams To haunt us in our darkest dreams Another victim dreams to seek To call uncertainly into this forest deep Where beasts dwell that should not be Awaiting you, where they awaited me Copyright Š Mark Iles 2010

Mark Iles has one non-fiction book published plus over a hundred articles, poems and short stories in a wide variety of genres; whilst his fiction firmly remains entrenched in SF, fantasy and horror. Working on his first novel Mark's currently completing his MA in Professional Writing, with Falmouth University. You can find Mark's website at : www.markiles.moonfruit.com, his blog at : Markiles.blogspot.com and on Twitter at : twitter.com/welcometoearth -8-


NEIL WILLIAMS

H

e snatched the note from beneath the brass door knocker, it fell back with a hard rap that was louder than he had expected. Off to the side a frantic flap of wings and a wood pigeon disappeared into the glare of the low winter sun. He followed the path of the bird across a bramble choked garden then turned back to the house, the heavy curtained bay window gave no hint of occupancy the door impassive his own reflection in a large polished brass doorknob accentuated a feeling of isolation, dislocation. He’d come all this way and the old fool wasn’t in. He didn't like Rafferty much; he'd met him on three occasions. He'd first introduced himself at a local book fair as a collector and seller of antiquarian books. He was a short, bald headed man of indeterminate age; fifty five to possibly seventy he thought. But it was anyone's guess. He realised Rafferty wasn't quite the expert he'd first taken him for when he offered him a pittance for one of the more valuable books he was selling. Rafferty had accepted the offer without a quibble. He was also an indiscriminate buyer of any book his eye fell upon; regardless of value or quality. The more he thought about the man; the more he regretted agreeing to come here. The phone call had come as he was closing for lunch. He would have said no; but what Rafferty was offering was too good to turn down. After Rafferty's previous sales to him; he fancied he could turn a serious profit here. He looked down at the neatly folded note. In the top corner written in Rafferty’s small fussy hand was his name. He opened it and read: My dear Mr Parker I have unfortunately been called out on an errand, I will not be long. He glanced back up at the window cursing under his breath; he continued reading, As I have no wish to put you to any inconvenience and waste your journey you will find the front door unlocked and the book you wish to examine upon the desk in my study. The word examine underlined several times; Please make yourself at home; peruse the full extent of my collection if you wish. I’m sure you will respect this trust I have shown in you. I hope to return before you leave. Yours cordially -9-


NEIL WILLIAMS Then an illegible scrawl that passed for a signature. He stared at the door for another second, and reached towards the brass doorknob. His reflected self reaching back. He gripped it with long slender fingers and turned slowly as if afraid of making any sound and held his breath as the door swung inwards into the gloom. Standing at the open door he felt like he should still knock or call out, announce his presence to the apparently empty house, even with the crumpled invitation still in his hand he felt like an interloper. He’d reckoned Rafferty to be a little eccentric, his dress and manner shabby. But even this seemed too careless given what Rafferty had promised him. Newton’s Principia Mathematica, the 1726 3rd edition no less left out on full view in the empty house with the front door unlocked. Now here he was and Rafferty was not, he was beginning to doubt the veracity of what Rafferty had told him. He valued his time, measured it out by the minute. And never took kindly to anyone who wasted it. Straightening the strap over his shoulder he crossed the threshold. Once inside the hallway didn’t seem quite so dark, a stillness came up to meet him, the outside chatter of birdsong and drone of distant traffic faded, the silence brought with it that familiar sweet mustiness and he breathed again. All books of a certain and venerable age had such a scent. The airy fragrance of Victorian romances mingled with the medieval bitterness of tallow flecked bibles. And there across the hallway was the room that housed Rafferty’s library. As he walked toward the door he took in his surroundings; to his right a broad stair ascended to the upper floor. Beneath this was a small asymmetrical door probably a storage or cloakroom, at the end of the hall another two doors all of a dark stained wood and all fixed with the same large spherical brass door knobs as the front door. By the nearest door were two Bakelite light switches. It was what estate agents called a 'house in need of modernisation'. A constellation of dust particles hung in the dying sunlight that spilled through the half drawn curtains, beneath them a tatty time worn ink stained desk and on it the book Rafferty had asked him here to see. Books nestled everywhere; the room had floor to ceiling bookcases along all available wall space, breaking only for the door and opposite flanking an ornate stone fireplace and jutting chimney breast around which clustered two high backed chairs in what appeared a silent discourse. Every shelf was full of books, then books upon books. He scanned the - 10 -


NEIL WILLIAMS shelves, noted a few interesting titles here and there but this was no meticulous collection. Old and new, some good, bad, mostly indifferent were indiscriminately stacked. At the base of the bookshelves like rough stepped buttresses were further piles of books; mostly dog eared paperbacks, precarious stacks that threatened to topple at the slightest breath. The sweet air that had promised such riches moments earlier gave way to a heavy miasma like day old vomit. But it hadn't come as a surprise given what he'd seen of Rafferty's book buying habits. Giving a sigh of resignation he returned to the reason he was here and approached the desk and flicked on the desk lamp. It flickered threatening to fail then slowly brightened. He eyed is suspiciously wondering how anyone these days could live with such decrepitude. He placed his bag beside the desk, his coat on the back of the chair and pulled his glasses from his jacket pocket, placed his mobile phone, once turned off, on the desk and then in culmination to this ritual gently ran a slender index finger across the book's speckled calf skin cover. He picked the book up admiring the elaborately gilded spine. He opened the book to the frontispiece; title and author of the work printed in alternating lines of black and red ink. He delicately sniffed at the paper savouring that acid tang peculiar to old books. After several minutes he removed his glasses, the book was genuine and worth a small fortune; not some facsimile as he had first suspected. How it came to be here was some thing he wanted to ask Rafferty. But it would have to wait. He glanced up at the window then looked at his watch; it would be dark soon and he had no desire to wait for Rafferty. He’d leave him a note. As he was rummaging through his bag for paper, his eye was caught by a small black book on top of one of the many towers of books that crowded around the back of the desk. At first he took it to be a notebook or diary, but he knew it was old. He abandoned what he was doing and picked up the book and instantly felt a giddiness rise up; his hands shook as he held the book into the uncertain light, On the cover was embossed a ornate scroll design and within this it read: TOMMY THUMB’S PRETTY SONGBOOK He opened the cover and continued: Every pretty Moral Tale Shall o’er the Infant Mind prevail. - 11 -


NEIL WILLIAMS For all little MASTERS and MISTRESSES To be Sung to them by their Nurfes till they can fing them themfelves Embellifhed with cuts Publifhed by Mary Cooper 1743 He turned the pages with tremulous anticipation, this single tiny book was undoubtedly the single greatest treasure he had ever held, an unprecedented find. Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Songbook published circa 1744. The British Museum held the only surviving copy, but that surviving copy was always believed to be the second volume. What he held and what he now realised he held was that lost first volume. The oldest known printed collection of English nursery rhymes. Then a thought suddenly occurred to him. Did Rafferty know? He looked up from the book glanced about the room. Amongst all this detritus did Rafferty realise that he had such a book and if he did was he fully aware of what it was, what such a find might be worth? He thumbed through the books 36 pages and stopped at the first rhyme, it differed from the version he knew. London Bridge Is broken down Dance over my Lady… Above it a rough woodcut of the Thames, a many arched bridge around which clustered tiny boats and above it all a skyline of spires. Rock a bye baby or Baby on the treetop as it was called here was accompanied by the image a stout looking woman nursing a small infant and with her free arm pointing up into the branches of a tall tree. Another page and here the illustration occupied the full left hand page. It showed five small children seated on stools each held a finger in the air and each one appeared to be crying. Behind them a dark frock coated figure rose up. A long high shouldered trunk that sprouted two thin arms raised above a grinning skull face. Gripped in the long fingered hands large shears that hung other the heads of the sobbing little boys and girls. Above the head of each child a single letter, b over the youngest then r, t, p and finally another t. He imagined it would have looked more at home in Holbein’s The Dance of Death. Opposite this macabre woodcut was the rhyme: Tommy Thumb, Tommy Thumb - 12 -


NEIL WILLIAMS Where are you? Here I am, here I am. How do you do? Peter Pointer, Peter Point.... Then he heard the sound. A slow metallic rasping. He broke from reading and looked through the half open door into the hallway. It was getting too dark to see much more than the black shape of the stairs. He cautiously rose from the desk; he closed the book and slipped it into his jacket pocket. Was there someone else in the house? He suddenly wondered if Rafferty lived alone. That all the time he'd been here; someone had quietly waiting elsewhere in the house. He was sure Rafferty wasn’t married; he considered the unkempt condition of the house. But he could picture some decrepit bedridden old woman left to wither away up there. His mother perhaps? He stepped over to the door reached around into the hallway and found the light switch. At the top of the stairs a 40 watt bulb stuttered on. He walked to the foot of the stairs and called out. “Hello, I’m here to see Mr Rafferty.” Announcing himself he felt vulnerable; his voice louder than he intended. He was not particularly fearful, but he felt like the whole house held a drawn breath, listening. A small window above the front door revealed the greying daylight, he glanced at his watch. He tutted to himself. Rafferty had told him to make himself at home; and if he should return while he was snooping round his house so be it. He'd say he was looking for the bathroom. He climbed the first few steps and peered up. He could see the tops of a number of doors through the balustrade but little else. He ascended the further; felt the book knock against his hip and patted it and felt reassured. He was about to go back down the stairs but something stopped him. He glanced up at the flickering bulb, it looked like it might blow at any second, the filament seemed to throb inside that dust mottled glass casting a sickly yellow light that barely illuminated more than the top few steps. The bulb was probably older than he was. He stepped onto the landing. Standing beneath the light he could see all five doors, the first directly before him, another three along the full length of the landing. And the final fifth at the far end were the uncertain light faded into amber shadows. The first door appeared to be a Nursery, about to thirds of the way up there - 13 -


NEIL WILLIAMS was a small ceramic plaque decorated with swooping swallows and intertwined flowers, at its centre was the word Baby. He stepped forward fully onto the landing now the light nudging his shadow which in turn seemed to pull him towards the fifth door. The second door also bore a similar plaque, as did the next. He could now see that all the doors had them. Each carried the same images and a name, here it said Ruby, then Toby; he gingerly took a few steps wincing as a floorboard creaked under his weight. The fourth name was Peter. About three paces short of the last door he hesitated. The name on this one said Tommy. And the door was slightly open. He leaned in toward the door and listened his ear as close to that sliver of blackness as he dared, could he hear anything? The slow regular breaths of a sleeper, perhaps. No nothing. He very gently pushed the door the aperture widened. He warily reached through the open doorway his hand crawling along the wall in search of the light switch. Again he heard that sound, that slow deliberate rasp of metal against metal, like a bolt being drawn. No something keener. Suddenly a abrupt shearing sound then a glint in the darkness. He felt the sharp sting and snatched back his hand and yelped as a burning pain shot up through his fingers, caught his hand in a vice grip sending agonising waves up his arm. He felt a tightness around his torso and staggered back clutching his hand to his stomach. His first thought was of electric shock, a faulty switch, an exposed wire. There was that flash. He tottered back passed the row of doors, turning toward the light at the end of the landing and as he reached to steady himself on the balustrade he saw the blood. His left hand slipped, his grip failed as he stumbled forwards onto his knees. He looked down and raised the injured hand into that dim yellow pool of light. All the fingers to the knuckle and most of his thumb had gone. He was gasping for breath, his chest tightening. He started to sob, blinking hot tears from his eyes. He tucked his mutilated hand under his left arm and pressed it into his ribs then slowly shuffled round the end of banister and started the descent down the stairs; spit flecked lips half forming words silently trying to articulate something of the chaos that now occupied his mind. As he staggered to the bottom of the stairs the nursery rhyme went round and round in his head. Tommy Thumb, Tommy Thumb - 14 -


NEIL WILLIAMS Where are you? Here I am, here I am How do you do? Peter Pointer... Toby Tall... Ruby Ring... Baby Small... Five names, five doors, five little crying children with one finger each held aloft. He tumbled to the floor but was up again half crawling toward the door. His injured hand pressed to his chest dripping blood that smacked wetly onto the floor like the sound of a ticking clock. He reached for the door knob and saw all that was reflected in it. His outstretched hand, a wide eyed gaping, tear and blood streaked face and the high shouldered, thin armed silhouette beyond. A flash of steel sent his four remaining fingers skittering across the hallway like discarded chips. He was now kneeling before the door staring at the large round brass door knob that ebbed in and out of focus as the tears flooded his eyes. Again that rhyme came to him; Tommy Thumb, Tommy Thumb Where are you? He looked down at his ruined hands. Then in a croaking broken voice, teeth clenched against the pain, he started to sing. “Here – I – am,” He straightened up, trying to stifle the sobs, eyes screwed tightly shut in concentration. “Here – I – am.” And as he started to turn, he lifted up his left arm, opened his eyes and held out his remaining thumb. “How – do – you – do?” Copyright © Neil Williams 2010

Neil lives in Cheshire with his wife and young daughter. He has written a number of short stories, more of which will hopefully be published soon. - 15 -


MARK HOWARD JONES

T

his was his one chance during the year to escape the mundane thuggery of the working day, and now it was being ruined. This definitely wasn't the right road. Even allowing for the tricks memory plays and the span of years since he'd last been here, he knew this couldn't be the way to the cottages. It was little more than a rutted track. He had a clear memory of the little row of whitewashed stone houses, with the nearby beach stretching for miles up the coast. But his dream of recreating his idyllic childhood holiday seemed to move further away with every mile they drove. "Why don't we stop and ask someone?" The tone of pleading in Ellen's voice was almost pathetic. Peter made a point of peering out in mock frustration at the deserted hedgerows and high banks that surrounded them before turning to his wife. "Who? Ask who, exactly?" Ellen sighed heavily. "Well, there must be someone around here ... somewhere!" "I'm boo-ored," complained a voice from the back seat. Peter pulled the car over to one side, slammed the door hard behind him and stamped up to the top of a high earth bank, leaving Ellen to pacify Simon as best she could. They should have been there over an hour and a half ago. From where he stood, free of the noise inside the car, he could hear the sea and the raucous fuss of seagulls from across the fields. Tantalisingly near. He fished the badly-folded map from his pocket for the hundredth time that day, tracing his finger along the line that should have been the road they were on ... but wasn't. Peter scanned the horizon. There was a house, surrounded by a sea of hedges, about a mile-and-a-half away. He checked the map. As he'd expected, no sign of any house there. It was final confirmation that they were lost. A few white clouds made their slow way across the late summer sky as he clambered back down the bank, map waving above his head. "Hey, there's a house nearby. This road has got to lead there. Maybe they can help." "Let's hope there's someone in," muttered Ellen. Simon's hand tugged at her sleeve. "Will they have a toilet, mum?" After nearly 10 minutes of avoiding potholes and staying out of ruts, they pulled into a small farmyard. A large, grey, weatherbeaten house was guarded - 16 -


MARK HOWARD JONES by a ramshackle wall and gate to one side. Peter made sure to close the gate as they made their way to the house. After three knocks a large woman in a plain dress answered the door. For a second she looked blank. Ellen broke the silence. "Uh, hello. We're lost. Could you help us?" It was as if the woman had suddenly woken from a trance. "Oh, right. Yes, come in. Where were you headed?" She led them into a large kitchen where a huge pot was simmering on the stove, clouds of steam almost filling the kitchen. While Peter spread the map out on the table, the woman showed Ellen and Simon where to find the bathroom. When she returned she asked again where the family were headed. "Framley," said Peter. "This is supposed to be our fortnight's holiday." She leaned over and peered at the map. "Oh, yes. Well, you're a bit out of your way. But there's a road a mile or so back where you can cut across. See?" He followed the woman's finger over the map and saw what had happened. He'd taken a wrong turn at the big crossroads at Penham. "God! What a stupid thing to do," he groaned. He thanked the woman, then seemed lost for words as he waited for his wife and son to return. The roar of a large angry engine came from outside. "That'll be my husband, no doubt," said the woman. Peter remembered how narrow the road was and had visions of his car being scraped by some brute of a farm vehicle. He dashed outside to see the farmer climbing down from a huge blue tractor, scowling at the car blocking his way. Hurrying across the yard and opening the gate, he shouted: "Excuse me. Hello? You're blocking me in ..." The farmer pulled himself up and stretched his back before glancing scornfully at Peter. "This is a private road. Didn't you see the signs?" Peter hadn't seen any signs. Suddenly on the back foot, he felt uncomfortable in this stranger's territory. "Er ... no. There weren't ...," he began, then stopped. This was no time to pick a fight. "Do you think you could please move the tractor. Then we'll be on our way. We won't bother you anymore." But the big man was already striding past him towards the gate. "I've gotta get something from the barn. Won't be long." Peter felt defeated. 'OK. Thank you," was all he could think of to say. - 17 -


MARK HOWARD JONES Nearly five minutes later, Peter had checked his watch at least nine times. Where was the bloody man? He suspected they were being held up on purpose, to 'teach them a lesson'. Eventually impatience won out and Peter decided to go and find him. He went through the gate and around the side of the house, passing a sty with two depressed looking pigs, and found an enormous, ramshackle wooden thing. It looked more like a carpenter's nightmare than a barn, having obviously been repaired many times. There seemed to be flies everywhere in this part of the farm. Peter pushed open the big door, which resisted his efforts, and poked his head around. Seeing no-one, he took a few steps inside. The man had been swallowed up by the gloom inside the barn. Peter squinted, trying to force his eyes to accustom to the dark. "Hello?" It stank in the close, hot space. A heavy, unpleasant smell. Something that didn't really belong in a barn. "HELLO?!" Peter was about to turn around and go back to the house when he caught sight of a movement in the dark. He peered closer. The farmer had turned around and was facing him. His eyes were the only thing clearly visible to Peter's still sun-shocked gaze. Firmness was needed now, Peter decided. "Look, I don't mean to be rude but your tractor ..." The man began to move towards him quickly, threateningly. Peter backed away. "What's wrong? What ... ?" Peter saw the light glint off the tip of a large blade in the man's hand. It took the space of a breath to realise what was happening, then it felt as if all the heat of the summer had collected itself in a choking bubble around his head. He scuttled backwards like a child trying to escape a schoolyard bully. He turned, ready to run, making for safety, heading for daylight. Unsure of his footing, he cracked his head hard on the barn door. The darkness surrounded him too fast for him to outrun it. When Ellen ushered Simon back into the kitchen, she felt awkward that her husband wasn't there. The woman looked round from the stove when she heard them coming. "Your hubby's just outside for a minute with mine," she said. Ellen nodded. - 18 -


MARK HOWARD JONES "My name's Wilmott, by the way. Call me Jean." The kitchen was grubby and badly needed a spruce up, Ellen noticed. As Simon busied himself with a toy car he'd stashed in his pocket, Ellen did her best to make small talk. She was the first to admit it wasn't one of her gifts. "I'm Ellen. That's a big pot. Smells nice. Pork, isn't it?" Jean beamed and lifted the lid to show her several pink joints simmering away. "Oooh, there's a lot of it," said Ellen. "Well, I've got seven mouths to feed, luv. Times are hard for everyone. But we make things stretch somehow. We always find something to put in the pot." "Seven?" Jean nodded towards the window. "That's my lot down there." Ellen followed her lead and leaned across the work surface to peer out of the window. The farmyard ended just a few yards past the window, leading to some grassy dunes and a beach only a hundred yards down the gentle slope. Running back and forth between the dunes was a group of five children of various ages, looking tousled and ragged. They were being led by a tall girl with bright red hair, tossing an oddly shaped football about. Whenever one of them kicked it or threw it, small pieces seem to fly off it. Ellen thought it was probably an old one they'd found. A roar came from the children, the wind stealing the first syllables. "- nkey!" "What's that they're shouting? Donkey?" "Oh, 'Wazonkey!'. It's somewhere between football and touch, as far as I can make out. They don't tell me, I'm just their mother," chuckled Jean. Ellen sighed, tiring of spectating on the children's impenetrable game. "I wonder where Peter's got to then? He was full of fuss to get on as soon as possible. Though it is good to stretch my legs after being sat down for over three hours." Jean made a sympathetic face. "Oh, my husband'll probably be talking to him about his car. Anything with an engine ..." Ellen chuckled along with her, recognising Peter in her words. "We really should be going, though." Simon had lost interest in his car and was stretching up on tip toes, craning his neck to see the children playing. "Can I go out and play, mummy?" Ellen sighed again. "No, Simon. Your father will want to go soon." - 19 -


MARK HOWARD JONES "Oh, let him. He's been cooped up in that car for hours, you said. A bit of fresh air will do him good, won't it, luvvy?" There was suddenly something about Jean's eyes that Ellen didn't like. She felt jealous as the woman beamed at her beautiful tow-haired six-year-old, ruffling his hair. If he was outside Jean couldn't get her hands on him. "Alright, Simon. Go on then. But don't go far," she agreed. "Stay where I can see you." Simon cheered and ran outside. Ellen watched through the window as he ran the short distance over the grassy dunes onto the beach. She kept her eyes on him until she was distracted by the door opening. A big man with brown hair and bright eyes came in. "Here he is," said Jean, chuckling. "This is my husband. Big Bill Wilmott. Hello luv. Have you been in the barn?" Jean's eyes widened slightly as she waited for the answer. The man walked over to her, fished in his pocket and bought out a small muslin bag. A blood stain was spreading across the bottom of the material. He rolled it in his hand for second then put it on the chopping board next to his wife's hand. "Sweetbreads," he muttered. She beamed. "Oooh, lovely! Thanks." Ellen had expected to see Peter follow the man into the kitchen but the door remained firmly closed. "Did you see my husband, Mr Willmott?" The man looked straight into her eyes and said: "He's in the barn." Ellen was confused. Why was he hanging around in the barn? What the hell was he up to? "I'd better go and ...'" she began. But something caught the corner of her eye. Out on the beach the children had begun to move in a different way. She turned to gaze at them. They were co-ordinated now, not so chaotic in their movements. They were organising themselves, preparing to repel an outsider. The girl with red hair had something in her hand and started to move towards Simon. He tried to run but his legs weren't long enough. The tall girl caught up to him easily, dragging him back into the knot of young arms and legs. Ellen gasped in panic. They were hurting him, she was sure. Ellen wanted to go outside, to run to her son and protect him but somehow she knew it was too late. She knew that there was nothing she could do. A minute passed, or maybe it was 60, and Simon didn't emerge from the group. - 20 -


MARK HOWARD JONES Where was he? What were those scarecrow children doing to him? She turned to look at Jean and began to speak, before a huge shout tore her gaze back to the beach. "Wazonkey!!" She saw Simon's golden hair catch the late afternoon sun, floating and turning, as the children threw his head high. At that moment Ellen knew her life had ended. From behind her, she heard the sound of a heavy knife being picked up from the table. "Wazonkey!" Copyright Š Mark Howard Jones 2010

Mark Howard Jones has had dozens of stories published on both sides of the Atlantic. His novella The Garden Of Doubt On The Island Of Shadows, by ISMs Press, drew praise from Ray Bradbury, among others. His new book Songs From Spider Street is available now from Screaming Dreams. See here for more information : www.screamingdreams.com/songsfromspiderstreet.html

- 21 -


PAUL EDWARDS

T

he beast stares emptily into its hands. The palms are green and rough, and the fingernails are dead black and sharp. Running a black tongue over scabbed, discoloured lips, it averts its gaze to the walls of the room. Everything is bare and featureless, except for the crude pictures it has smeared on the plaster with its own faeces. There are screaming faces. A man in a bathtub with his face smashed in. A woman’s head dripping gore from the stump of her severed neck. A bound and gagged girl with shrieking mouths instead of eyes. A light flickers on. Slowly, stiffly, it climbs to its feet. This time, it thinks, you will see me. On the wall there is a mirror, and through it is a room exactly like its own, except there’s a door and window. The beast cannot see itself; instead, it sees another – a man – pacing the carpet in contemplative silence. The man is thin and pale and aged somewhere in his forties. He has a dishevelled beard and thick, round glasses. Every so often, he glances up at the beast. How long do I have to wait? it wonders. I am here, always have been. See me, look! Coldly, grimly, they regard one another, but it can tell he cannot see it. His expression is slack, empty, and pale. The beast scratches its fingernails against the glass, skritch-skritch-skritch, then cocks its head to one side and calls to him. The man frowns, deep creases forming in his brow, then turns and quickly snaps off the light. The rooms go dark. Sighing, the beast retreats to its corner, where it crouches and waits for the man’s return. Half asleep, the beast lifts its head. A light flickers on; shadows pirouette across the walls. It glances to the mirror, where it can just make out the man pacing his room again. How long has it been since it saw him last? It could be minutes; could be days. With one black nail, the beast scratches the glass, skritch-skritch-skritch, but the man doesn’t turn, doesn’t respond, doesn’t notice at all. He just stares, his face empty of colour, expression, and hope. He whispers something – an obscenity, perhaps; a curse to no one in particular. Let me make our mark on your world, the beast whispers. Snatching shut the curtains, the man turns and gazes into the mirror. “Who - 22 -


PAUL EDWARDS am I?” he sighs. The beast stares back with crimson eyes. See me. The man tilts his head forward, frowns. See me. With a hand over his face, the man whirls and snaps off the light. The beast whispers, You know I am here, and smiles as it shrinks back into the cold, empty darkness of its world. Once more the light stutters on. The beast looks up, then gets to its feet and shuffles toward the mirror. As the man paces the carpet, he grimaces and sobs “it would be the worst thing,” over and over again. A whimper draws the beast’s attention to the bed. Immediately, it smiles. She must be in her late teens, early twenties. Long blond hair hangs in her face, and she lies there with her back against the wall, knees hitched up to her chest. There’s duct tape across her mouth, and her hands are bound behind her back with cable wire. “I’m sorry,” the man tells her, stooping, eyes hidden behind his glasses, “but there are some things that I have no control over. Just as you have no control over this.” She speaks, but it comes out muffled, inaudible, and distorted. Tears well, glisten, fall. She jerks her face from left to right as he tries to touch her, then howls at him from behind the tape. “C-can’t do this,” the man whispers, suddenly, straightening, turning to the mirror, and the words echo strangely in that cold, box-like room. Then, face cracking, eyes bulging, purple vein protruding from his left temple, he yanks the sleeves of his jumper up over his hands and raises balled fists. The beast laughs as the hands come crashing down, shattering cold, black, brittle glass… At last. Dropping its hands, it stares at the broken mirror. Then, head whipping round, the girl on the bed squirms and kicks and thrashes under its pitiless gaze. It touches its face, feels the knotted beard, the glasses, the soft, fleshy jowls. - 23 -


PAUL EDWARDS Then, reaching out, it watches those pale, pink hands harden, grow, scale over; nails sprout, crack, extend, and a bloom of panic flowers in the pretty girl’s eyes. Finally, it breathes, tongue lolling, eyes blazing, hands wrapping themselves slowly around her soft, slender throat, I have found me. Copyright © Paul Edwards 2010

Over 30 of Paul's stories have been published in various anthologies, magazines and webzines, such as Peeping Tom, Kimota, Midnight Street, Dark Doorways anthology and, of course, Estronomicon. He's currently hard at work on a collection of 'dark mirror' stories, which hopefully will include Nightmare. He lives in Frome, Somerset with wife Mandy and two children, Lily and Poppy. He draws inspiration from horror films, ghost stories, and indie/rock music. You can view his blog here : http://pauledwards76.blogspot.com

WATCH FOR THE NEXT ISSUE Convention Edition The following issue of the eZine will bring you a report and photos of both the World Horror Convention (held in Brighton) and the FantasyCon event in Nottingham. Re-live the adventure and don’t miss it all the embarrassing snapshots of your favourite authors and artists! The fantastic pen & ink cover artwork on this issue is by Russell Morgan.

- 24 -


SARAH ANN WATTS

I

am in a box where no light reaches and the scent of oranges twists between my teeth as I gnaw on what I think is peel. In this darkness it is impossible to tell, yet I spit out shreds and there is the remnant of juice and a bitter odour. It tastes sour, strands fill my mouth like candy floss and if I swallow they catch in my throat and I cannot breathe. I hang suspended from a broken cane and while the wind blows, this cradle will not fall. Metal reverberates and the draft lifts the hair on my skin. There is little room to move – I twist and turn, easing cramped bones in a narrow space. I use my hair to lie on – soft and brittle – it shifts beneath me as it grows. There is nothing broken in my mind and I count the days and trace shapes like numbers in the dark. I feel the sun rising and the heat of each new day. In the evening it fades and when the metal cools then I scratch another cross. So I keep from brooding and by day I sleep. The shriek of the gulls is a song that salves my dreams. I remember the moon. She calls the waves and they listen. I press my eyelids together and her crescents glow in the dark – she is my goddess and I worship, locked forever within her shrine. I hear whispers and sometimes I wonder if they will remember and open the box. I slipped so long ago and was never missed. Now I’m dreaming I’m alive – caught in a loop like time. Copyright © Sarah Ann Watts 2010

Sarah Ann Watts writes science fiction, fantasy and romance. Her work has appeared in Bewildering Stories, The Future Fire, Neon, Twisted Tongue. Ink, Sweat and Tears, Every Day Fiction, The Ranfurly Review, Static Movement, This Zine Will Change Your Life, Everyday Weirdness, Andromeda Spaceways and the anthologies, 100 Stories for Haiti and A Brush of Wings. She lives in Hull, East Yorkshire and is currently working on a novel. Find her online at : www.sarahannwatts.com - 25 -


MICHAEL KELLY

O

n the day that Pete went missing – the day the sky spoke to him and told him of his destiny – he’d been thinking about school, his classmates, their taunts, and what they called him. Piggy. He hated when they called him that. Piggy. Like in that fucking book they made him read in school. Piggy Pete. It wasn’t his fault that he was short and pink and portly, with cold black eyes like old buttons. They wanted a pig; he’d give them a pig. Pigs were cunning. Pigs could be lethal. Last week Pete had gone to Withrow Park after school to meet up with Steve and Charlie. The park was in the centre of town and had graffiti-scarred benches, a rusty playground, a dried up fountain, and a large hedge maze that had grown wild and unused. When Pete arrived at the park, Steve and Charlie were nowhere to be found. There wasn’t a soul in sight. Pete sat on a bench and waited. Shortly, he heard sounds emanating from the maze. The maze had one entry and exit point. Pete stood and went to the entrance. “Charlie? Steve? You in there?” Low voices and a rustling. Pete stepped into the maze. He heard laughter, giggling. He followed the twisting pathway, left, right, right, left, hoping he was taking the right direction whenever he came to a crossway. The sounds seemed closer, so he pressed on. “Charlie?” Pete turned a corner and almost ran into a group of boys. It wasn’t Steve or Charlie. They were seniors. He didn’t know them, but they seemed to know him. “Piggy,” one of the boys said. “What are you doing here?” “Lost your way?” said another. “N-No, I …,” Pete said and turned to leave, but they grabbed him. “Not so fast, Piggy,” said a boy. “Tell us, Piggy, what do pigs do?” Pete gulped. “They eat,” said another boy. “They eat and they shit.” Pete looked from one boy to the other, frantic. “Go on,” said a boy, “show us. Take a crap in the path.” - 26 -


MICHAEL KELLY “I-I …, no,” Pete said. One of the boys held Pete while another grabbed his jeans and yanked them down to his ankles. “Please,” Pete begged. “Don’t.” “Go on, take a shit.” “Oink oink.” Pete shook. He held his hands in front of his underwear in a vain attempt at modesty. He began to cry. The boys laughed and continued to ‘oink’ at him. “Well,” said one of the boys,” if he isn’t going to shit, he should eat. And pigs eat dirt.” They shoved Pete to the ground. They pushed his face into the dirt, then rolled him over and shoved more dirt into his mouth until he was choking and blubbering. Chortling, they left. And Pete stayed in the maze until it was dark and the only sound was their laughter echoing in his head. Today, Pete was taking the long way home from school, through the forest and across the hydro fields. He wasn’t going anywhere near the maze. It was cool in the shade, cool in the forest. But there was a strange buzzing in his head. This wasn’t such a bad thing, as it drove thoughts of Piggy from his muddled grey matter. Once he was off the path and into the shade, Pete had thought the buzzing would go away. That hadn’t happened. His head thrummed. Pete stepped out of the dark forest into the hydro field. Electrical towers, ringed by a chain link fence posted with DANGER signs, stretched in silent symmetry across the grassy field. Pete walked to the fence, climbed over and stood directly under a grey tower. He looked up at the tower, wondering what it’d be like to climb up there. Maybe there wasn’t any real danger. Parents and grown-ups were always telling kids not to do things because it was dangerous. Maybe they posted those signs to keep inquisitive kids off the tower. Pete stood in the waist-high grass and listened to the low droning thrum, wondering if he should climb the tower. And he did. He reached up and gripped a part of the metal frame. He pulled himself up, feet finding support in the V joints where one piece of metal met another. Up he went, toward the bluest sky he’d ever seen, an electrical din chorusing in his head. Up, up. He grew dizzy, and giddy. Still he climbed, not looking down. Up, and up, his head abuzz. Then, when he could go no further, when it - 27 -


MICHAEL KELLY seemed that he could reach out and touch the sky, there was a loud snap, a crack, a strange popping, buzzing sound, an acrid burning smell; and something moved through him, hot and quick, and he blinked, and the sky was now black and shot through with veins of yellow, and it had a mouth and it was talking to Pete, whispering of its ancient secrets. Then Pete was on his back on the ground, staring up at the sky, which was now blue again. But still the sky talked. It told Pete what to do. Then it squealed in delight. Charlie hated the maze. The sight of it filled him with a queer dread. When he was very young, he got lost in the maze. It was an easy thing to do. The hedges were high and brambly; the paths were narrow and crooked. And once you got in the maze and were twisted about, it was hard to get out. He recalled frantically running along the pathways, turning corners that lead to more twisting paths, as the sky above him darkened, and that very dark seemed to encroach on the maze, shadowy tendrils creeping and coiling just behind him, on his heels. He raced through the maze, nettles catching at him, until, finally, out of breath and trembling, he stumbled through the exit. It was the same overpowering fear he felt at his uncle’s farm when he was trapped in the holding pen with the hogs and they started to nip at him and chase him around the pen. He felt surely that he would die, that their hooves would trample him and they’d chew him up with their voracious little mouths and terrible sharp teeth. But then his uncle had plucked him from the pen, patted him on the head and chuckled at his predicament. That was the last time he’d been out to see his uncle. But he still heard from him. His uncle called a couple days ago, told Charlie someone had killed one of his hogs. Skinned the thing clean and left it in a pile of blood and sawdust. Charlie shivered at the memory, broke from his reverie. He stood at the maze entrance and wondered if he should go in. Pete could be in there. No one had seen him in days. And though the police and community volunteers had searched the park and the maze, Charlie thought that they might have missed some vital clue. Or perhaps Pete was in the maze, hiding. Waiting. And Charlie shivered again as the old fear bubbled up, and he turned away.

- 28 -


MICHAEL KELLY Steve trundled along the forest pathway, head down, hands shoved deep in his pockets, his shoulders hunched. All he wanted was a cool spot, out of the blazing sun. A sound reached his ears. A sound of bushes rattling and branches snapping, as if something large and ponderous lumbered through the trees. Pete? Steve thought. Could it be? His heart quickened. Pete had been missing for days. No one had seen him. His parents were frantic. The police had questioned everyone; conducted searches through the fields and forests, but hadn’t come up with anything except some poor dead animal that had been skinned and butchered and buried in a shallow grave. At first, they’d feared the worst. But the thing in the grave wasn’t human. “Pete?” Steve croaked. “Pete?” Sounds then, high and low, like a cross between a laugh and a squeal. Steve trembled, his skin going prickly. He stepped off the path and hid behind a thick tree. Steve peered into the dark half-light, cocked his head to try to determine from which direction the noise had come. Nothing. The sound was gone, borne away on the summer breeze that blew cool through the trees. He stepped back onto the path and walked along, scanning the trees and scrub for any sign of movement. Whatever had made the noise was gone. Maybe, Steve thought, there had been no noise. He’d imagined it. Or, whispered a dark corner of his mind, it lay in wait for him just up the path, around the bend. Just what it was Steve couldn’t say, but he had a momentary image of something fat and pale stalking him through the trees Steve shook his head. His heart beat quick and strong in his chest. He trembled, giggled. Spooking myself, he thought. Just a daydream. Or a daytime nightmare, he thought. But not like the kind that awaited him at home. Off the path, amongst the dead leaves, a large tree had fallen. Steve walked over to the dead tree, sat down and leaned back against its rough bark. Steve reached into his inside jacket pocket and retrieved a package of Winston’s cigarettes. He pulled a cigarette from the pack and shoved it into his mouth. He took out his lighter, lit the cigarette, drawing in a harsh lungful of cool smoke. Smiling, Steve closed his eyes, took another drag. The rough tree bark pressed into his back. Another drag from the cigarette and Steve felt that pleasant little buzz in his brain. He tilted his head up to the sun, letting it warm - 29 -


MICHAEL KELLY his face. Through his closed eyelids, the world was a membranous pinky orange. The buzz in Steve’s head wouldn’t go away. Except, he realized, it was an actual buzzing noise, droning and insistent, the kind a swarm of bees would make. Steve jumped up, spun around, searching for the wasp nest that surely was nearby. He scanned the shadows, high and low. Nothing. He gave himself a mental shake. The buzzing continued, a low drone that electrified the air around him. No sense hanging around here, Steve thought. He turned to walk away but stopped, puzzled. He could have sworn the path was just over there. Steve turned the other way, took a step then stopped. Where was the path? He scratched his chin, decided he’d start out in his original direction and see where it lead. Steve started forward, his feet crunching heavily through the brush. The air seemed heavier, and it still buzzed and thrummed. And his head spun, still dizzy from the cigarette. He surged ahead, arms flailing, looking for the path back. Panic rose in him, bitter like bile. His head whipped around, eyes and arms reaching and searching for an escape. He stumbled drunkenly, his footing slipping on the dead carpet of leaves. Then he was down, sprawled in the moist, damp earth, his mouth full of dirt. Steve staggered up, sputtering, his face a dark brown mask. He whimpered. The buzzing in the air and in his head continued. Steve clamped his hands over his ears and screamed. But the buzzing continued; a low, loud hum. Through a knot of branches, Steve glimpsed a patch of sunlight. He raced toward the light, and tripped. He fell into something soft, squishy. Face down, Steve blinked but saw nothing. Bzzzzzzz. There was movement all around him. Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. A foul stench, like rancid meat, made him gag. Steve tried to pull free but his left arm was tangled in something. He tugged, and his arm came free with a wet snapping sound. Below him, on the ground, was a mass of flies and white, wriggling maggots. Steve blanched. The - 30 -


MICHAEL KELLY flies and maggots writhed and buzzed around a large black lump. Something dead. The wind shifted and Steve caught a whiff of the dead carrion. Bile rose in his throat. He gagged, stood, tottered backwards and vomited all over his shoes. Fuck, Steve thought. What the fuck is it? He turned, clamped a hand over his nose, leaned close and regarded the foul, festering lump. Too small to be a deer or bear, but too big to be cat or groundhog. A dog perhaps? Or a fox or coyote? A pig, he thought, his mind racing, thoughts gibbering. It resembled a pig. Steve blinked, leaned closer. The rotting stench overwhelmed him. His head swam, his vision blurred and blackened at the edges. Then the rotting carcass seemed to rise up, all black and wet and crawling with maggots, glowing red eyes sunk deep in its misshapen head. The pig-thing caught Steve in its stare, opened a black maw of a mouth and laughed. And it was the sound of madness. A shudder quaked through Steve. He found his legs and ran and ran and ran, through bramble, branches, and kudzu, unmindful of the thorns that bit and scratched and clawed at his skin. Unmindful of anything but a mad dark laughter, a squealing, that resonated through the woods and into his head. He ran. And still the thing laughed. Pete waited. Hunger gnawed at him. It was dark, and as long as he didn’t move around, he could keep quiet. If he was quiet and cunning he could catch one of them, and he could feed. He knew he could catch one. They were stupid. He almost had one of them in the woods, but there was something about that one, something that niggled at the back of his mind. But no more. This time he’d feast. He was like them once, he knew, but he was smarter now. He had a new skin, one he was comfortable in, one he was born to wear. He answered to a new God. And he would do its bidding; he would be a worthy supplicant. And the sky would squeal with dark laughter. Night. A thick black cloak came down, cocooning the town in cold brilliant - 31 -


MICHAEL KELLY darkness. Sodium streetlights dotted the sidewalks, throwing weak wan light that tried to fend off the encroaching dark. Dark and quiet. Too quiet. Then the wind moaned. Somewhere distant an animal screamed. A tin can, blown by a cool evening wind, scuttled along the rain gutters. In the town’s main intersection, the stoplights winked amber like a diseased eye. Charlie, and Steve stood outside the bowling alley. Neither spoke for a long time. They huddled together, hands in pockets, kicking at the dark pavement. Nervous dogs. “You see that?” Charlie asked. “What?” Steve replied. Charlie pointed. “Up there, in the sky. That light.” Steve looked up, squinting. “Fucking star,” he said. “So what?” “Nothing,” Charlie replied. “It’s just so bright. Almost like its alive or something. A giant eye, watching. I can almost make out a mouth, too. And all those tiny stars are like little teeth.” Steve laughed nervously. “You been smoking pot, Charlie? Reading poetry?” Charlie shrugged. “Knock it off. Just making conversation.” “Let’s hit the park,” Steve suggested. “Sure,” Charlie said. “Let’s go.” They turned and headed down Main Street. The town lay quiet before them, dull and gloomy. Their feet clomped and stamped along the sidewalk like young stallions. The park was quiet and still, as if asleep, a lumbering guard dog waiting for a chance to leap up and growl and gnash its big teeth. A small streetlamp threw ineffectual light on the skateboard park. In the distance, beyond the concrete skateboard bowl, lay the maze, shrouded in darkness. Steve grunted, walked over to a bench and sat down, staring at the ground. He took out a cigarette, lit it, and took a deep drag. The tip winked orange in the gloom. He exhaled, and a thick plume of smoke filled the air around the bench. A noise came from the maze, a rustling, the clatter of tiny feet. “Hey,” Charlie called. “Who’s in there.” Laughter. Charlie turned to Steve. “You hear that?” - 32 -


MICHAEL KELLY Steve nodded, gulped. He hadn’t told Charlie, or anyone, about his encounter in the woods. Charlie trembled. The black fear bubbled up. He fought it, forced it down. Charlie waved at Steve. “I’m going to go see who it is. It could be Pete.” That’s what frightened Steve. That it could be Pete. Or something else. Steve didn’t look up. He took another long pull on his smoke. “I wouldn’t do that.” But Charlie had already disappeared. Charlie reached the maze opening. It yawned before him like an expectant, hungry mouth. He stepped in. Not only was it dark, but it was completely quiet. No more softly sighing wind. No more tin can scuttling along the street. No more cries from cats or other creatures. Charlie shivered, took a tentative step. Then he grinned. Spooking myself, he thought. He thrust his hands in front of him, feeling for the way, and twisting this way and that began to make his way through the dark, quiet maze. Ambling forward, Charlie’s eyes grew accustomed to the dark. He could faintly make out the moonlit-limned path of the maze branching left and right. He couldn’t hear anything ahead of him. Too quiet. He’d thought he’d be able to make out some sound of passage, whether the crunch of boots through the undergrowth or a smattering of conversation. But nothing. “Hello?” Charlie called. “Hello.” Charlie continued forward, turning right, then left, and left again. A smell like burnt electrical wire wafted past him. A small laugh floated through the air. Charlie stopped. It came again, a short sharp cackle. Pete, Charlie thought. He was always chortling away at some inane comment or action. “Pete? Pete? That you?” Charlie stumbled onward. Pete could hear it coming. It was a stupid animal. He quivered in anticipation. He inched forward, waiting. His eagerness got the better of him and he let out a little squeal. Another small cackle stopped Charlie short, made the hair on the back of his neck bristle. The burning smell was back, more acrid, making Charlie gag. A childish giggle rolled past his ears. It didn’t sound like Pete. Or even - 33 -


MICHAEL KELLY Steve for that matter. But it had to be, didn’t it? Who else could it be? To think otherwise would just invite madness. Bastards! Charlie thought. Let them have their fun. “Okay, I’m leaving,” Charlie said, and turned around. He took a step, then stopped, because he thought he saw something in the path ahead of him. Something pale and crouching that smelled awful and snorted throatily. The pale mass shifted. Charlie took an involuntary step backward. A lump formed in his throat. What to do? Charlie thought. Run, part of him said. Run. “P-Pete?” Charlie said. And then Charlie imagined the thing in front of him with dozens of hard little glittering teeth in a porcine mouth. Charlie shuddered. He blinked his eyes. The pale crouching thing moved, lurched forward. Charlie gasped. It was human, or at least humanoid. It was leaning forward, on all fours, and its pinkish skin was loose and flapping as if it had been hastily draped onto its frame. “Pete?” The thing rose up, pale, large, and quivering, and regarded Charlie with flat black eyes. Charlie took a step back. “Oh, Pete, dear God, no.” Then the Pete-thing was after him, all black mouth and tiny red teeth, snorting and snuffling. The dark sky laughed. Then the air filled with terrible keening squeals. Squeals of terror from Charlie; and squeals of giddy delight coming from the thing that chased him through the endless dark maze. Copyright © Michael Kelly 2010

When he isn’t busy writing his own work, Michael can be found editing and publishing with his own small press, Undertow Publications. Be sure to check out their debut anthology Apparitions and the forthcoming literary journal, Shadows & Tall Trees. Visit the Undertow website here : www.undertowbooks.com

- 34 -


JAMES BENNETT

T

hey say tell the truth and shame the Devil. As I sit here beside the fire, reflecting upon Old Times, I think – for one matter, at least – the time has come for the truth to be told. My mind travels back to Massachusetts, to the sleepy town of Abner’s Hook, a huddle of houses set around a ramshackle church a few miles inland from Salem. The year in which we travel is 1790 – a good year for Congress, a bad year for printers – and the season is harvest, the end of October. All Hallow’s Eve, to be precise.

The Hook was never an important town – the state of its church was proof of that – and its people were of the same homely, principled stock that first sailed into Cape Cod Bay. Once on American soil, they built their farms and sowed their traditions, raised their young and prayed to God that nothing would ever disrupt, destroy or otherwise invade their peaceful, mundane lives. The woods around the Hook could stay deep and dark, as long as they provided game. The surrounding hills could cast their shadows across the vale, as long as the fields were gold with corn and very few strangers wandered across them. In the Hook, you could hardly tell one day from another, and on the whole, God granted its people their wish. Today, on the morning of All Hallows Eve, folk made busy for the night’s festivities. In the town square, farm boys were stacking wood on two bonfires for the Reverend Bliss to light at midnight. Later, the boys would drive cattle between the fires, an ancient ritual of cleansing (a ritual that no one cared to mention went against the grain of Puritan creed). Along Briar Row, pumpkins and turnips appeared on doorsteps, carved with grotesque faces. Children outside the schoolhouse sat on benches painting masks, or sewing costumes for guising. Tonight, superstition held sway. Tradition – that ageless, English, evergreen seed – had taught these folk that for one night only, on this, the eve of All Hallows, the door between the living and the dead stood wide, and witches, demons and ghouls poured forth, hungry to feast on mortal souls. The cattle-run between the fires was an offering to who-knew-what-gods, long sunk beneath the Irish Sea. The pumpkins and turnips guarded each house, shaped to scare the unearthly away. Children masked and strangely garbed would go knocking from door to door, promising to bless the dead in exchange - 35 -


JAMES BENNETT for coins. Old Times and Old Traditions. Who knew that cows were so sacred? That turnips and pumpkins held such power. Forgive me if I sound doubtful. I am a Man of the World, and not given to superstition. I can see the Hook in the flames before me, just as it was back then, a place of peace and rustic industry. But sooner or later, into every ointment comes a fly, and so it was with Jacob Case the morning of All Hallow’s Eve. Ah, Jack. The Miller’s son. Was there ever a boy more at odds with his kind? Where the other boys were stout and firm, muscular from ploughing fields, Jack was thin, gangling and tall. He was soft from shirking his work at the mill and brown from idling beside the river, poaching Master Goff’s trout. Jack spent much of his time in the woods, where, in a little cave, he hid his ill-gotten gains, anything from mirror to comb, string of pearls to family portrait, things he had filched from the farms thereabouts. Jack was far from a dull boy. In many ways, he had great talent. You’ll see why I came to admire him. But for a town as pious as the Hook, Jack’s sins were bound to stand out. Jack would have stolen the sun, were it not nailed to the sky, and as his father might have told him, no matter how deeply one kept a secret, the geese will always fly home, eventually. Look at him now, lazing in the glade as he is in my fire, seeking a kiss from the Reverend’s daughter, all those years ago. “Now, now, Jack,” Sarah said, and pressed a hand to the boy’s lips. “I won’t be going that far. Certainly not on a holy day.” The trees around them were green and dark, their tangled branches sharing the embrace that our friend Jack had in mind. He looked away into the woods, the bosky shadows hiding his scowl. “All Hallow’s? Holy? A time for witches, demons and ghouls? I’m not sure your father would agree.” He looked back at her, a challenge in his eyes. “I reckon that you’re just scared.” To his dismay, Sarah laughed. The birds fell silent, jealous of the sound. “Oh Jack. The only thing my father won’t agree with is me being here with you. He’s had his eye on you for quite a while. Ever since Master Smith’s pigs went missing. If he didn’t have so much faith in my wits, he wouldn’t let me - 36 -


JAMES BENNETT see you at all.” Jack screwed up his narrow face. “What the Hell is that supposed to mean?” “It means, Jack, that he who sups with the Devil needs a very long spoon.” They sat in silence awhile, considering this wisdom. Then Jack stood and threw up his arms, addressing the boughs overhead. “The Devil! Who is the Devil to me? Were I to meet him travelling the road, I’d put my boot to his behind!” Sarah crossed herself at this, but Jack only laughed, falling to his knees before her. “Dear One, don’t let your father put Fear in you. Don’t let the townsfolk,’ he said the word contemptuously, “make you jump at shadows and the wind. This All Hallows business is just a chance for pious folk to show how very pious they are.” “My father says that faith makes us brave.” “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” “And are you so brave, Jack? Without faith?” “Brave enough to scale Greylock Mountain; swim the length of the Charles River.” He neglected to tell her he had said the same thing to Mary Gage, Molly Wade and Ruth Porter, in the same place, these past few weeks. “I’m the bravest man in all of the Hook.” “Well then,” said Sarah. Her face was not made for a smile so sly. “Prove it.” Jack’s grin faltered a little. “Prove it? What for?” “For me, of course. Now listen up. In the church, there stands a statue – and Lord knows the Porters frown on idolatry. The statue is of the Virgin Mary. You know the one, up near the altar?” She waited until she saw Jack nod. “Well, around the neck of that statue, my father hangs a little cross. A pretty thing made of silver. It’ll hang there now, a ward against ghosts. If you are as brave as you say, you’ll steal that cross and bring it to me. Place it in my palm by dusk, and you shall have the kiss you seek.” With this, Sarah climbed to her feet and ran into the woods, curled brown leaves falling from her dress. Jack gave chase until he lost her. There in the shade, he chewed over her words, wondering whether the Devil was a girl. Out of the woods crept Jack. Down Briar Row crept the Miller’s son, past turnips and past pumpkins. Past children sewing in the schoolyard. Past farm boys stacking bonfires. Up the steps and into the church. - 37 -


JAMES BENNETT Inside, all was still. The guts of Saint Luke’s were drab and bare, a row of pews that stretched to an altar. Sunlight peeped through the ramshackle walls, shone half-heartedly through the windows. In this dim and dusty place, the little silver cross shone like a star, and swift as a shadow, Jack snatched it from the Virgin’s neck, slipped outside and ran up the hill. At the top of the bluff, he turned to look back. He gazed down on chimneys, the crooked spire, wagons dotted here and there. Folk milled to and fro, readying for All Hallow’s Eve. Turning west toward the woods, he saw rain clouds black with storm and hurried on, clutching his prize. The boy neglected to see the Reverend, emerging from behind a tree. Eleazer Bliss was growing old but this fact had failed to make him a fool. Fearing for his daughter’s Virtue, he had indeed been keeping his eye on Jack. Under his breath, he cursed the thief, for he had followed him uphill through the thicket and knew what he had robbed from the church. Robes covered in burrs, he slipped after Jack, a grim look clouding his face. That look said several things – disgust, outrage, disappointment – but most of all, it seemed to say: Sure as God is in his Heaven, Jacob Case will pay for his crimes. Sitting here now, stoking my fire, you might be wondering how I know all of these details. Well, just because I offer you truth, I never said you had to believe me. Doubtful or no, I’m not offended. Folk have called me a liar before. There’s a fine line between a story and the truth, and by and large, the truth is only the way we see things. So call this a myth, then. A story, but a true one. The best thing about myths is that any fool can pull them apart, knit them anew, make them their own. Chances are, that’s what stories were for in the first place. Nobody ever owns the wool, except sometimes maybe the gods. And some say that even the gods are a story. This is the way it was with Jack and how I happen to know all about it. Now our friend Jack had time to kill, and he meant to use it. He whistled his way down the road, the clouds growing thicker overhead. He passed a beggar sleeping in a ditch, and relieved his hat of scattered coins. He passed a window with a fresh-baked pie, and travelled on licking his fingers. He passed some slaves working the fields, but they had nothing of any use, unless he fancied rags. All the while, the little silver cross jangled in his pocket, and the Reverend - 38 -


JAMES BENNETT Bliss trailed after him. Soon Jack came to the Frog and Thistle, a roadside inn three miles from the Hook. Being as it was a House of Temptation, the inn was set this goodly distance in respect to the church, avoiding the eye of Puritan scorn and marking the furthest limits of the town. Sat outside the inn on this day, enjoying the last of the cloud-wrapped sun, were Nathaniel Peck, Israel Hicks, Caleb Smith, Joseph Slack, John Lincoln and Jeremiah Goff; the town Judge, Mayor, Doctor, Lawyer, Marshal and Clerk respectively. Good Pilgrims all and honest men, all were halfway drunk on ale. Mary Gage was also present, as were a trio of slaves, serving the men from laden trays, the jugs upon them foaming at the brim. Mary waved as Jack slunk by, but the six men barely looked up, their worldly talk of George Washington and Union Addresses, the Sad Death of Benjamin Franklin and the Quaker Threat to Slavery taking up their minds. Jack, of course, did not want to be seen, and only gave Mary a wiggle of his fingers, hand held down by the pocket of his coat. When Mary sulked and turned her back, he left the Frog and Thistle behind, breezing by like dust on the wind – but not before he had seen the pumpkin, fat and orange in the innkeeper’s garden. A grin spread over his narrow face. He had it in mind to carve a face in the thing, and lit with a single candle, bring his gains to Sarah at dusk. With the cross in her palm and pumpkin on the step – and the Reverend Bliss preaching at church – surely Sarah would feel protected and adored…and our friend Jack would be free to have his way… Fleet as a fox, Jack was in that garden. Pumpkin tucked under his arm, little silver cross jangling in his pocket, he was on his way down the road to the woods. And trailing after him, the Reverend Bliss came to the inn. “Reverend Bliss, good Go – good morning! What an unexpected pleasure!” So said Nathaniel Peck, who shot to his feet rosy-cheeked, his voice holding the trill of alarm, his words a warning to his fellows. Next to the Judge, the Mayor, the Doctor, the Lawyer, the Marshal and the Clerk rose from their chairs, standing shamefaced and a touch unsteady beside the jug-strewn table. On another day, Eleazer Bliss would have spewed thunder, railed against - 39 -


JAMES BENNETT the Sin of Drunkenness, and the six men quailed in expectation. However, this was All Hallow’s Eve, and far from being an ordinary day. Mind preoccupied with Virtue (and somewhat at a loss how to proceed), the Reverend barely noticed the inn, barely noticed the rosy cheeks, foam-capped jugs or the men wobbling before him. All he saw were Good Pilgrims, friends and allies, and in resounding, pulpit tones, the Reverend stopped to address them. “Blasphemy!” he cried. “Damnation! The Miller’s son has robbed Saint Luke’s! Robbed the church of holy treasure! Jacob Case goes down to Hell!” A general uproar followed this claim, the Good Pilgrims all talking at once. They forgot all about George Washington and Union Addresses, Sad Deaths and Quaker Threats. Then Mary Gage, perhaps with a sprinkle of spite, a dash of vengeance at Jack’s rebuff, set down her tray and said, “I don’t know why you look so surprised. The boy Jack was always a thief.” “The girl has it!” cried Master Smith. “Why only last month my pigs went missing!” This admission prompted several revelations. “Jack came by to paint my fence,” Master Hicks said. “Later, could I find my purse?” “He dropped some flour off from the mill,” said Master Slack. “That night our cellar was dry of wine!” The revelations came thick and fast, recounting the losses of Abner’s Hook. “An ornate mirror!” “A golden comb!” “A family portrait!” “A string of pearls!” “Trout! Trout!” cried Master Goff. “A hundred, shining rainbow trout!” Their outrage warmed the Reverend Bliss. With one righteous, trembling finger, he pointed up the woodland road. “A little silver cross,” he said. Now as for Jack, the storm came up, dark and wild over the hills. The road had become no more than a tunnel, the sheltering branches laced like fingers. Clouds streaked by overhead, their swollen bellies black with rain. - 40 -


JAMES BENNETT The wind took its temper out on the grass, rattling bramble, creaking bough. And through the shadows hurried Jack, pumpkin tucked under his arm. Up ahead, he saw a man, standing all alone in the road. The man raised a velvet palm, tipped his Pilgrim’s hat in greeting. Jack knew him for the Devil at once. As the boy drew near, he saw something of the goat in those eyes, amber slits aglow in the gloom, and remembered his teachings from Sunday school – that Beelzebub could take any shape, echo the beasts that lived in folk’s hearts. Jack shuddered in the rising gale. Curiosity pushed him on, the wind threatening to drown out his words. “Why have you come here?” he cried, his long coat flailing about him. “This is not my time to die.” The Devil spoke smoothly, his words threading silk though the gale. “Come Jack, it’s All Hallow’s Eve. The door between the living and the dead stands wide.” The Devil gave a little bow. “I came because you invited me. Speak of the Devil and he will appear. When you scorned faith to the Reverend’s daughter, you offered your soul up to Damnation.” “I spoke in jest! As a free thinker!” The Devil did not seem to hear him. “Those who scorn God belong to me. Those who steal, doubly so.” Mortal afraid, Jack’s tongue worked overtime. “Back, Devil, back! I steal only for my poor father, so we might eat and see out winter. Blessed are the meek, the Bible says, for they shall inherit the earth…” The Devil winced at mention of the Book. Then he shook his handsome head. “They say I dance in an empty pocket. But you, my friend, are far from poor.” “I am but a Miller’s son!” “Yes. A Miller who would see you fed and schooled. A Miller who would teach his craft, so you yourself might raise a son. But these treasures mean naught to you.” “I am alive, flesh and blood. How can you take me when I still live?” “Flesh and blood are measly trappings. It is your Immortal Soul I want.” The Devil smiled, a blade of ice. “As for your life – things can change.” The Devil pointed at a nearby tree. Lightning cracked jagged from the sky. The branch split, fell to the road, smouldering and black. “Come, thief. You cannot fight me. Come warm your bones in the fires of - 41 -


JAMES BENNETT Hell!” Jack opened his mouth to scream, when a cry at his back made the sound for him. He turned and peered down the tunnel of trees, and there, robes windswept and raging, he saw the Reverend Bliss. Around him swarmed an angry mob, all shaking fists and flying spit, and Jack’s flesh prickled with fear. He saw Nathaniel Peck, Israel Hicks, Caleb Smith, Joseph Slack, John Lincoln and Jeremiah Goff; the town Judge, Mayor, Doctor, Lawyer, Marshal and Clerk respectively. Good Pilgrims all and honest men, and all halfway drunk on ale. Mary Gage was also present, her eyes fixed balefully on Jack. The men had traded jugs for weapons, shaking pitchforks snatched from the fields. The Marshal swore and brought out a pistol, aimed it foggily in Jack’s direction. Caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea, Jack thought fast. As I told you, he was far from a dull boy, and faced with peril, his wits grew sharp. Moulding his face into regret, a new expression that hurt his cheeks, Jack fell to his knees before Old Nick, hands clasped before his breast. “Take me you must, for now I see the error of my ways. Oh, how I have sinned! How right of God to strike me down! How I deserve this dreadful fate, for spurning the fact of Heaven and Hell, caring naught for the people I pained!” The Devil grinned and stepped towards him. “But before you drag me to Hell, I beg of you one favour.” Jack opened his arms, his eyes pleading. “I have heard that Beelzebub can take any shape, his talents many and strange. So I may at least pay for this pumpkin, and show these Good Pilgrims remorse, I beg you change into a coin. Let Sarah Bliss not think ill of me, when I go to my grave.” He glanced over his shoulder at the men in question, but saw nothing Good in their faces, or in their bristling wall of forks. “Do this,” he beseeched the Devil, “and I will ride with you willingly to Hell, not kicking and screaming like some foul fiend.” The Devil paused to consider this, his amber eyes bright with admiration. The mob came closer, baying for blood. Then the Devil said, “Very well. For you have amused us, on the whole.” With this, the man in the road was gone – goat’s eyes, velvet, Pilgrim’s hat – and in his place, there lay a coin. Jack leapt forward and scrabbled in the dust. Yelling in triumph, he shoved the coin into his pocket, stuffed it beside the little silver cross. - 42 -


JAMES BENNETT Deep in his coat, Jack heard a muffled curse. Trapped by the cross – the Good Lord Jesus mighty over all – the Devil found that he could not move. Nor could he change into human form, the silver holding his talents fast. Mouth full of fluff, he ranted and raved, but our friend Jack paid him no mind. Pumpkin tucked under his arm, he bade the angry mob farewell and dived off the road into the woods. For miles and miles, Jack ran, the wrath of the mob fading behind him. He had no reason to return to the Hook and made his way to his little cave, there to chew over what to do. As he leapt fallen boughs and crashed through ferns, the Devil spat and cursed in his pocket. No one likes to find themselves tricked, and the Devil promised Jack a thousand torments, each one more painful than the last. Jack ignored him until he reached the river. At the sound of running water, the Devil fell silent. Even an unbeliever like Jack knew that running water was death to the Damned. “Now listen up,” said Jack, fingers closing around the coin in his coat. “I have heard all your promises and don’t care for one. More than that, I care naught for the sway you have over folk, and even less for that of your Maker. I have it in mind to live footloose and free, unanswerable to Heaven or Hell. If I let you go, promise me that you’ll never take my soul.” The Devil shrieked and blasphemed, whimpered and wept, the coin growing hot in the boy’s pocket. As the storm blew itself out, the skies becoming a flat grey hush, the Devil’s fury dwindled too, and in circular shape, he gave a great sigh. “Very well. What choice do I have? But you have made a bargain with the Devil, and most folk think such a thing unwise.” All the same, Jack was not cowed. “I hear that folk call you the Father of Lies. Speak falsely, and I will know it. I’ll throw this coin in the river, and all your wickedness will be undone.” Reluctantly, the Devil gave his word. Even for Beelzebub, that means something. Jack brought the coin out of his pocket. At once, the Devil assumed human shape. Handsome head shaking in fury, he regarded Jack with goat-like eyes. - 43 -


JAMES BENNETT “I go now to attend to my kind, for the door between the living and the dead stands wide. Cherish this life, Jacob Case, for I swear it will not last forever. We’ll meet again, one of these days…” “Perhaps. But my soul will always be mine.” Seeing the Devil look so downcast, Jack offered him a gracious smile. “Still, you won’t go to Hell empty handed. Never let folk say that Jack is unkind.” With this – and before the Devil could protest – Jack dumped the pumpkin into his arms. The Devil cursed and started to bluster, but no longer in need of protection, Jack turned his back and walked away. Later on, a free man, Jack climbed the hill and looked down on the Hook. Night was falling, and candles shone from windows and steps, wicked grins that pushed back the dark. Children roamed the darkened streets, each one masked and strangely garbed. In the town square, the two bonfires remained unlit; the farm boys would wait for midnight for that. Nevertheless, cattle lowed there, sacred and dumb. A candy apple scent was on the air, the sweetness of Tradition, mingled with dust. Old Saint Luke’s blazed with light, the church spire crooked under the sky. If witches and ghouls wandered down there, the boy Jack failed to see them. In the end, he never went to meet Sarah. Free men have little loyalty to girls. Nor did they have much use for Reverends, for angry mobs or even gods. He had enough coins to see him to Boston, and after that, maybe over the sea. He had time to kill and meant to use it – Abner’s Hook was no longer his home. Whistling, he headed off down the road, little silver cross dangling from his neck. Sitting here beside my fire, I’ve told the truth and shamed the Devil. In truth, the Devil knows no shame. As we speak, 1790 is a long way away, and the flickering flames cannot hold the Hook. Stoking the embers, I think about everything that came after. Jack lived a very long life, and for the most part, life was good. Perhaps not good for the people he met, the friends he robbed and the girls he kissed, but it’s fair to say that Jack had fun. He travelled the earth, far and wide, from Mosi-oa-Tunya to Machu Picchu, his adventures too many to recount here. Nevertheless, as Jack grew old, he slowly came to learn regret, as most men - 44 -


JAMES BENNETT will when darkness calls. Often, he thought of Sarah in the glade and wondered how his life might have been, had he raised some sons with the Reverend’s daughter. But Jack was too footloose and free to sow sons. Sometimes, he would look to the heavens and wonder at all the sadness in the world. He knew for a fact that there was a Devil; it troubled him greatly to know of a God. Jack’s soul would always be his. He could not give it away even if he wanted. One day, he was even older, and the Reaper came knocking on his door. The man with the scythe comes to all living things, and with the Reaper, there can be no bargaining, and very few tricks, not even for the likes of Jack. Jack died with no friends to mourn him. They buried his body in an unmarked grave. This was the year 1912. A good year for China. A bad year for ships. Jack’s soul floated to Heaven, but Heaven, of course, did not want him. He had hardly lived the life of a saint. Saint Peter sent him down to Hell, but the Devil, of course, could not take his soul. Poor, lost, miserable Jack. Some said that Beelzebub took his revenge, handing Jack back his stolen pumpkin and an ember from Hell’s Eternal Flame. Pumpkin sporting a grotesque face, eternal ember bright inside it, some said Jack wandered the earth, doomed to walk forever through night, searching for peace that would never come. They came to call him Jack of the Lantern. I will always call him the Pumpkin Thief. Whenever folk come to tell these tales, most agree it’s unwise to deal with the Devil. As for me? Well, I remain a Man of the World, and not given to superstition. I tell you this only so you’ll know the truth. I sit here now, before my fire, remembering a boy I came to admire. A boy I once had reason to fear. I know that some superstitions are true. Copyright © James Bennett 2010

James Bennett is a British author of horror, fantasy and the occasional contemporary fable. Further information is available at : http://waxlyrikal.webs.com - 45 -


Estronomicon Halloween Special 2010