Ever heard of the legend of Bloody Bones? He knocks on your door at night, hoping to catch you alone so that he can wear your flesh!
Better You Believe…
Tony Evans delivers a fantastic collection of short stories based on urban legends and folktales. Each story is unique and powerful, creating a fresh serving of relentless horror told without needless filler and fluff. Tony Evans knows how to frame a story. The aspiring horror author knows how to deliver a story that resonates with people.
I write and publish some short stories in the horror genre using a PEN, and the writer side of me is jealous of Mr. Evan’s simplistic yet unrelenting style. The stories in this collection are phenomenally entertaining. Tony Evans stays on point with tight prose. He writes with confidence. He shows faith in his reader, a trait to be admired in a writer.
We seem to be in an era of horror in which Lovecraftian themes are dominating, but Mr. Evans brings the boogeyman and local haunting tales back to the forefront. This collection is more than a breath for horror fans, it’s a gosh darn gasp of crucial, life-pumping, fresh air. Author Tony Evans and publisher DEADMAN’S TOME knocked it completely out of the park.
I love the way the author gives background history for each of the short stories. The stories themselves pull you in and make you want to know more. It is well written, and perfect for reading scary stories to your kids, if they like that kind of thing, which mine do!
Good God, Gary Jennings thought as he hustled to his car, I can’t get away from this place fast enough. He’d spent an extra hour at the dealership crunching numbers, trying to come up with a way to persuade a customer into one of the new cars displayed in the front lot. His efforts were futile; it was written on the woman’s face when they shook hands that she would be buying elsewhere.
If only he could sell his writing, just get a foot in the door in the publishing business, maybe life wouldn’t seem so unbearable. Maybe the ball would get rolling for him. Even if he never made it big-time, so what? He could keep working jobs he really didn’t care about. He’d been doing it his whole life. If some of his stories were published, he’d be able to say he accomplished the one goal in life he was bent on making happen. Of course the possibility of striking gold always lingered in the stretches of his mind. That would be the life. Novels, cocktail parties, and women. Heck, with a flourishing career as a novelist he might even find a woman suitable for marriage.
He glanced at the clock—six-thirty. Of course he was in a pissy mood. He’d wasted an extra hour at work, an hour he could’ve spent drumming his mind for magical words and phrases.
As he turned onto the expressway ramp he noticed a man dressed in rags with a sign propped up against his legs. Scrawled and colored in with dark marker, the crude yet bold penmanship read, Craftsmanship for food. Jennings had seen the man there yesterday, slumped on his ass in the same tired posture, the same sleepy face.
This time, when Jennings passed the man they made eye contact. Jennings instantly felt downright deplorable for the pity-party he always threw for himself over his job and not being able to achieve some otherworldly goal. At least he’d always had a steady income.
On impulse, Jennings slowed the car down, pulling over to the side as a couple commuters sped past. He wasn’t sure how many days the bum would be out there in the heat begging for work, but Jennings knew he couldn’t just drive by ignoring him every day. After all, the man was a real life representation of the types of characters Jennings so desperately tried to portray in his stories. Besides, Jennings liked how the sign was written.
Craftsmanship for food.
At least it didn’t read, Will work for food. That phrase was so tired, so overused, so banal.
Craftsmanship for food.
The phrase was tight, to the point, and about as original as a sign begging for a handout could be.
Jennings waited as another car whizzed past, then backed up to the stranger. The stranger idly watched as Jennings leaned over while thrusting open the passenger side door.
The stranger hid any excitement or gratitude behind a poker face.
“Come on, hop in,” Jennings invited. He took off his sunglasses, grinning hugely. “I think I can help you.”
“What do you have in mind?” the stranger asked.
“Umm, I don’t know really, but I’m sure I can find some kind of work for you to do. Clean my apartment maybe.”
The stranger coiled his face in a look of disgust. “You people are all the same. Read the sign again, Asshole. Craftsmanship for food. It doesn’t say I need charity, or that I want to be a pet monkey.”
“Come on, man. I’m just trying to help you out.”
“Yeah, and maybe when I’m done changing your toilet paper roll I can clean your ass too, but that would mean wiping away that shit eating grin.” The stranger’s face dared Jennings to make another offer.
“Sorry,” Jennings mumbled, more than a little bewildered. “I didn’t mean anything by saying…anything.” Mentally, Jennings kicked himself for sounding so stupid.
That was tight and to the point, not very original, but definitely concise.
Jennings opened his mouth to say something but found he was lost for words. He swung the door shut and drove home.
Jennings cried himself to sleep that night. Not over the confrontation with the man, but because nothing had gone right with the story he was currently drafting. He’d studied the first few pages, analyzing them, trying to pinpoint why exactly the pieces weren’t fitting snuggly together with the tale he was trying to weave. After only a half-hour he pushed away from the computer screen cursing and throwing papers. Nothing could be done to save the story. It was doomed, sentenced to the half-finished, half-imagined vault of his mind. It was a one-way vault, never opened to retrieve something from the past.
He broke down in the shower, curling himself into a knot of limbs while the water pelted his bare skin. Wasn’t this how professional authors behaved?
Yes, of course people with artistic minds behaved in this manner. Didn’t they?
Or did they go so far as to bleed their stories out?
Eventually, still passing tears, he got out of the shower and went to bed naked and wet.
He traipsed through work the next day, meddling only with the customers he knew had already been helped and avoiding those with questioning faces.
The times he did talk to a customer he used a surplus of adjectives, big fifty-cent words without knowing their full meaning. Alabaster. Albescent. Using this type of vocabulary on a daily basis would strengthen his writing. An insane thought, still, he’d arrived at the conclusion that this very well might be the last method of self-training to help his cause.
Another day droned by, and Jennings made no sales. Mr. Johnson called him into the back office at the end of the day. Johnson told him he’d better get his act together—a salesman is supposed to sell.
Writers are supposed to write, Jennings thought, but bit his tongue and complacently nodded.
On the way home he stopped at a fast food joint to pick up dinner. There was no time to cook at home. All attention had to be given to the craft.
Craftsmanship for food!
Jennings prayed the bum would be at the onramp again today, hopefully looking shabbier, hungrier than the day before and more willing to bargain.
Yes, the man was there.
The man was standing instead of sitting, as if expecting Jennings’s arrival. The sign was propped against his shins. Jennings didn’t drive by him but wheeled his car in frantically enough to strike fear in his own heart that he might actually strike the man. The man stood stock still, looking down curiously at the nose of the car only inches away from his legs. Jennings rolled down his window.
“Hello, Asshole,” the stranger said.
“Get in the car. I’ve got an offer you can’t refuse.” Now he sounded like a salesman.
Amazingly, the bum did not retort. He simply folded the cardboard sign in half before dropping into Jennings’s car.
“Listen,” Jennings said, pulling the car back onto the ramp. He ignored the honking from the traffic behind him. “I’m trying to become a published writer. I like your style. I don’t know why you live the way you do, but you seem intelligent, and more than anything I like your style.” He cursed himself for sounding so pathetically redundant. “Your sign I mean. I like the style of phrase there. Craftsmanship for food. That style…that…that voice. I really like it. I like the style of that voice you used on the sign.”
“Get to the point, Asshole.”
Jennings cleared his throat. “I want you to edit my writing. I’m not sure why I think you’ll be able to do it, but there’s just something about you I can’t describe, can’t quite put into words. I guess it’s the style of that sign. I can just hear a voice when I read it. It’s got—oh I don’t know what it is—style man. Style is the best I can do.”
“I think we can come to some kind of terms of agreement.”
“Great!” Jennings said. “This might work out just great. By the way, I really am sorry about yesterday. I certainly didn’t mean to insult you in any way. What’s your name anyhow?” Jennings freed a hand from the steering wheel and extended it out.
“Jennings,” the bum said. “Gary Jennings and I’m a cannibal.”
The man leaned over to spit on the floor as if this were a practiced custom after shaking hands.
They rode to the apartment in mostly silence.
The stranger sat with a smug smile covered by his wildly unkempt beard. Humming, the bum twiddled his thumbs.
“I don’t know what’s going on here, but your name can’t be Gary Jennings. I mean, I’m Gary Jennings.” Jennings stood in bafflement as the stranger strode into his apartment not bothering to remove his dirt-caked shoes. Paying no attention to Jennings, the man headed straight to the kitchen, pulled a glass out of the cupboard, and drew water from the tap. He took a long drink, gulping nearly half the glass down in one giant swallow. Jennings feared the man might actually eat the glass.
Why had he let this man into his home? Why had he even bothered to try and help the man? Had he heard the man correctly when he’d said he was a cannibal?
The man went right past Jennings to sit on the couch. He propped his feet onto Jennings’s hand-me-down coffee table and flicked on the television. A cold sweat broke out on the back of Jennings’s neck. His hands began to shake. He had to show some authority here. He couldn’t allow a stranger—a bum of all things—to act like he owned the place.
“Hey buddy,” Jennings’s intoned while trying to sound authoritative; yet his voice rattled with nerves.
“What, Asshole?” The stranger turned, his expression frozen as a winter gravesite.
“First of all, quit calling me asshole.”
“Asshole! Asshole! Asshole!”
“Get out of here!” Jennings roared. He pointed towards the door as if sending an impudent child to bed without dinner. “Get out of here! Leave! Leave at once!”
“Is that really the best you can express yourself?” The man stood. He placed a sympathetic hand on Jennings’s shoulder. “No wonder you can’t get published, Asshole.”
The man strode away taking his invasion of Jennings’s home even farther to the back of the apartment.
Call the cops, Jennings thought. They’ll come and throw this piece of shit out, probably haul him off to jail. Cops enjoy kicking this kind of person around.
Then Jennings heard the familiar sound of his computer booting up. He ran for the spare bedroom where he attempted to write every night. The stranger was sitting in front of the monitor, looking as patient as a sea turtle on a nest of eggs. The stranger canted his head to the side to spit on the floor.
“Don’t do that. Stop spitting all over the place.”
The stranger spit again. “Shut up, Asshole.”
“Who the heck do you think you are?”
“Jennings. Gary Jennings, and I’m a cannibal.”
“You’re not Gary Jennings! I’m Gary Jennings! You’re nothing but a bum!”
The stranger’s hand clicked on the mouse. The word processor opened on screen. He began diligently typing. There was deftness in the manner the man’s fingers worked, lightly gliding over the keys, barely pressing on them. He never once glanced down at his hands. From time to time he would pause to spit. The current of anger in Jennings ceased as he watched with his mouth agape.
“Listen up, Asshole.” Typing at a mind-boggling pace, the man’s attention didn’t stray from the screen. “This is how it’s going to work. I write. You leave. Jesus, Asshole, don’t you know the first thing about this craft? It isn’t easy. You have to let a man write in peace. Now go fix some dinner. I haven’t fed in nights.”
The man was a lunatic, an absolute lunatic. Jennings couldn’t imagine why on Earth he’d thought to help out this bum. He’d let a total stranger into his home. He’d let the man invade his life.
“Didn’t you hear me, Asshole? Believe it or not, I can get extremely agitated. I suggest you find me something to eat.”
Now the man did stop to look up at Jennings. He grinned. For the first time Jennings noticed that every single tooth came to a point, as if they’d been sharpened with a steel file.
Jennings stepped out of the room shutting the door behind him. He went to the kitchen to cook a dinner.
“Here it is, Asshole.” The stranger plopped a thick bundle of papers onto the kitchen table. “Your first story that will get published. I’ll send it out tomorrow. You should probably read it just so you know the basic plot if any editors have any questions.”
The man sat down and heaped a large portion of noodles on a plate. He smothered them in a thin sauce with meatballs.
Jennings picked up the manuscript. Judging by its thickness it was about fifty pages deep. Jennings’s name and address were at the top of the first page. The title was “Running with Rabid Dogs”. The corners were marred with dirt where the stranger had handled them.
“You got all this done in under two hours?” Jennings asked, digging a red pen from a drawer.
“Yes. You can put the pen down. It doesn’t need any editing.” The stranger stabbed a meatball and took it right off the knife with his mouth. He chewed and then spat it out. “I thought we had a deal.”
“Huh?” Jennings looked up from the story.
“Our deal. Craftsmanship for food. Remember? I’m a cannibal.” Red sauce dripped down the man’s chin, and of course, Jennings remembered. “Maybe I’ll take your story back. How would you like that?”
“No!” Jennings cradled the pages to his chest. “Please don’t do that.”
In a flash the knife was an inch away from Jennings’s eye, the point of it promising unrelenting pain.
“Tomorrow night you feed me better, or else I start finding my own meal around this place. I won’t have to search far.”
“Yes,” Jennings trembled.
The knife dropped away from Jennings’s sight. The fear was so strong he thought he might retch over the table.
“Good. Go ahead and read your story. It’s good.”
It was good, better than good. The man was some kind of deity of the craft. Just two pages into the story Jennings found himself enthralled by the simplicity of the writing as words and phrases coalesced drawing out perfect sentences, perfect paragraphs. He was too deep into the story to feel any jealousy towards the man sitting next to him. The action of the story was fast, happening in flashes. The dialogue minimal but absolutely essential and effective. There was just the perfect amount of imagery painting a background to allow the reader fill in the details with his or her own experiences. Emotionally it packed a punch; there was love and love lost, pain and sorrow, and in the end a hint of redemption as the protagonist’s soul bled out whether to heaven or a dark nothing was left for the reader to contemplate.
Jennings was lost to reality. He finished reading in what seemed five minutes, but when he shook his attention from the imaginary world, the clock on the wall indicated over an hour had passed.
The seat next to him was empty. The shower was running.
After the shower turned off the stranger stayed in the bathroom for an impossibly long time. When he came out he was naked and clean-shaven. The resemblance was undeniable: the muscle-build, the facial features, even the birthmark on the man’s back shoulder. How had Jennings not before recognized this man as his doppelganger?
“What did you shave with?” It was all Jennings could think to ask.
“My razor of course. I keep it in the medicine cabinet.”
The stranger smiled, a second time flashing his predatory teeth. “Your story, it’s good isn’t it?”
“I’m glad you like it. No small market publishing, it deserves much more. Goodnight, Asshole.”
The stranger spit on the floor once more and left the room.
Jennings ran to his bedroom, but the stranger was already in bed with the light off.
“I never said you could sleep in my room.”
“The story, Asshole. Your first published piece. Go sleep on the couch.”
Jennings glared flatly. When the man in his bed ignored him and rolled over, Jennings headed for the couch. The apartment seemed dark and cold.
Jennings stayed awake most of the night listening to his own thoughts. Maybe fame wasn’t so far out of reach after all. The story really was that good. It was early morning when he finally nodded off.
Someone was shaking him.
“Wake up, Asshole.”
Jennings rose out of sleep, his joints complaining and cracking from the awkward, strained positioning he’d been forced into from the restraints of the couch.
Jennings realized he’d never set an alarm clock. He popped his eyes alert and gasped, “What time is it?!”
He’d overslept. For sure Mr. Johnson was going to fire him.
“Relax,” the man said. He was dressed in Jennings’s best suit. “I still have over an hour before I have to be at the dealership. I’m just getting an early start because I’ll be hitchhiking. You’re going to need the car today. Remember, I want a solid meal tonight.”
“Wait,” Jennings said. “I just have one question.”
“Young or old?”
“Doesn’t matter, just make it human.” The stranger held up the manuscript. “I’ll mail this out today.”
He walked out the door, smiling.
To Jennings, it was like watching a happier version of himself leave.
Could he do this?
He’d already committed murder. The wound on the old man’s head had finally stopped bleeding so profusely. If Jennings shifted the neck in the right position more blood would seep out, but it wasn’t as messy as he thought it would be. He’d used a hammer, only meaning to knock the man out before toting him home to slice away a muscle or two that would make a good slab of meat. If the man’s consciousness came around the plan was to simply crack him in the head a second time. Then he was going to ditch the old man in a side-alley and make an anonymous call to 911.
Instead, the old man had expelled the weakest, most haunting groan Jennings had ever heard and died in the backseat of the car.
So he’d killed an old man.
Could he actually carve him up to cook the meat?
The flesh came away from the bone considerably easier than he’d anticipated. He didn’t worry about the blood spilling. The kitchen floor was linoleum, easy to mop up with a little time and elbow grease.
Maybe the meat of a human was actually palatable.
Maybe it was like chicken.
When he was done butchering the legs he decided to try a thigh for himself. He melted some butter and slapped a slab of meat in the frying pan.
The meat sizzled; juices jumped. A sweet aroma wafted about the apartment.
It didn’t taste like chicken, but with some added spices, it was good.
When the stranger came home he told Jennings all about his day. He’d sold three cars and Jack Johnson, not Mr. Johnson, had thought that was just exceptional.
“By the way, I mailed out the manuscript today. We should be getting an acceptance letter in about three weeks.” He said this mildly with the slightest overtone of confidence. He spit on the floor. “We can expect a check for at least five-hundred. Smells good in here, almost like veal. You must’ve tried some. I like my meat pretty rare. Did you eat it rare?”
“That’s fine,” the stranger said. “but you’re losing all the juices by cooking it that long. I’m going to bang out some more pages. The old noggin is just crammed with ideas. Fry me up some back straps. You did butcher out the back straps didn’t you?
“Great. Don’t overdo mine, and hold off on the spices.”
Jennings unwrapped a cut of meat he’d stored in the freezer. It was amazing how fast it had frozen, so he had to unthaw it in the microwave.
Jennings cooked the meat along with a baked potato as a side.
The stranger ate dinner without complaint.
Gary Jennings woke up the following day feeling fresh, ready to make some more sales. He was silent on his way to the shower so not to wake up his roommate sleeping on the couch. He shaved using his razor, pissed in his toilet, and brushed his teeth with his toothbrush. He took the time to make sure his shirt was tucked in just right and the knot of his tie was nice and snug.
Have to look sharp to make sales.
He would let Asshole sleep in today.
Gary Jennings found the couch unoccupied. He wasn’t all that surprised as it had been a rough couple of days for Asshole.
There was a note on the end table.
Dear Mr. Jennings,
What happened to me? I killed a man yesterday,
an old man. Then I cooked him. I ate part of
another human! And—oh God—I liked it.
I don’t deserve my life. I’m gone. Please don’t
worry or look for me. Good luck with your future
in writing. I killed an old man. Don’t look for me.
There was no signature at the end of the letter, only a damp spot, as if spitting was the perfect closure.
A whistle on his lips, Gary Jennings strolled out of his apartment.
Please don’t worry or look for me.
That part of the letter was almost funny. In time, Asshole would be fine. He just had to learn what it meant to be a starving artist. He’d figure it out eventually, once he reached a point where he’d eat almost anything. Then he’d have some real stories to tell.
It was heavily disguised, he knew that, and as such, there was not a trace of accent. His heart sank a little at the words, but he knew it was coming, this call. He had been paid, and paid well, and God knew he deserved the money.
The desert blew in sandy twists around his feet, and when he opened the seventh and last packet, the wind threatened to dislodge the dark powder nestling there. He cupped a gloved hand around it, and breathed deeply of the desert air.
‘Christ, man! What the fuck?!’
Armitage pushed back on his bunk, his right hand clamped across his brow. He felt absurdly like a film-noir heroine about to faint, but couldn’t stop himself. His right hand held a bottle of beer, and he felt the slow pulsing of its contents escaping over his lap. The TV high on the wall in the corner blared banality. It served to add a level of normality to the surroundings. The humid clench of the air, the muted pops and stuttering chatter of distant gunfire dispelled it.
Donnie sat across from him on a ratty chair. Threads of stitching had popped free all across the upholstery on both arms. It would scratch your own arms unrelentingly if you sat there, which was why Armitage always opted for his bunk. This was Donnie’s lucky chair, or so he claimed. It didn’t seem so now. Donnie’s arms, for the most part, lay in his lap. The hand holding the chef’s cleaver drooped between his opened legs. His other hand, the one he had just severed, rocked gently to stillness at his feet, tendrils of blood threading the hardwood floor and the big toe of his left foot.
‘What the fuck have you done? Ah, fuck!’ Armitage almost screamed. Donnie was silent except for the tight inhalations of hot sour air through his clamped lips.
The beer finished its pulsing escape and Armitage let the bottle fall to the floor. He stared at the hand. He thought it was the very one that not five minutes ago has passed him the beer that was currently soaking through his jeans. He tried to speak but could not.
‘It’s ok, man,’ Donnie whispered. ‘I’ll be ok in a minute.’
He raised his head and looked straight at Armitage. His eyes were wild and white, red-rimmed and brimming with wetness. Armitage thought that they looked like they were brimming with insanity, and why not? What else could it be?
He had not seen the cleaver pushed down between the chair and the seat cushion. He had only vaguely seen Donnie pull it out, but had thought nothing of the gesture because his head was tipped back, swigging deeply from his beer. He had heard the whistling smack as the cleaver came down through the air and buried itself into the arm of the chair. He had heard a soft thump that only now did he sickeningly associate with the fall of a severed hand. Donnie’s hand.
Donnie’s jesus-fucking-christ-almighty left hand!
‘Why, Donnie?’ he whimpered. He could barely take the breath for these words and they left him panting, his chest tight.
‘I don’t think it was mine, man. The hand, I mean. I don’t know.’ He looked confusedly at Armitage.
‘What?’ Armitage asked, stunned and feeling foolishly like laughing.
Donnie shifted so that he could look down to his feet and prodded at the hand with his big toe. It rocked, looking like a dead spider, still leaking redness at its wrist. He looked at his abridged arm, leaking more copiously. A smile began to tweak the corners of Donnie’s mouth. Armitage felt cold wash through him.
‘Better,’ said Donnie quietly, and nodded.
‘Donnie, man, we gotta get you to the doc, something, you’re gonna bleed to death.’
Armitage stood in panicked jerks, his knees feeling like someone had taken a sledgehammer to them. He fought the urge to vomit, but lost as Donnie absently kicked his hand across the hardwood in a series of strangely balletic tumbles. Wiping strings of drool from the corners of his mouth, he fell back onto the bunk. He clutched his head in both hands so that the bends of his elbows formed a tunnel through which he stared at his friend, and implored him.
‘Come on, man. We gotta do something! You just cut off your fucking hand, for Christ’s sake!’
Donnie put down the cleaver, a circular smear of red bisecting the blade, and reached into his shirt pocket. He pulled out a plastic tie-wrap, and threaded one end through the other, clumsily, holding it in his teeth. He looped the resultant noose around his ruined wrist and ratcheted the tie closed, forming an absurd collar of puckered flesh at the arm’s end. The bleeding slowed and stopped. Donnie raised the stump and gestured to Armitage. It looked as though he was proffering a wet red rose to his friend.
‘Ok?’ he asked, petulantly. Then, more to himself, ‘It’ll be ok, man.’
Armitage moved his hands from his head and squeezed them tightly over his eyes. He could hear Donnie’s ragged breathing, hear his own.
‘What are you gonna do, Donnie?’ he asked without looking. ‘I mean, you gotta do something. You are a fuckin’ soldier, what are you gonna do?’
‘First I’m gonna cut off my foot. It’s this whole side,’ he said, waving the dripping cleaver up and down the whole left side of his body. The honed blade chimed on the leg of his jeans. ‘It’s not mine. I don’t know how or why it was changed for….this….fucking thing…but it’s not mine. I have to be rid of it. I have to, man.’
‘Donnie, no,’ Armitage moaned through his hands. ‘Come on, man, let’s talk about it. What’s got you like this? You sick? You worrying? It’s getting to us all you know, this fuckin’ war.’
Donnie looked up momentarily, just long enough to speak two words. ‘Less, now.’
He hefted his left leg up onto the arm of the chair. Armitage began to rise, but the look shot him from Donnie’s crazed eyes stopped him cold. He sat roughly back down onto the sofa, amid cooling vomit and beer stains.
‘Please, Donnie,’ he said. ‘Don’t.’
* * *
‘How long?’ he murmured into the mouthpiece on his cheek. ‘Till this is over?’
The voice chuckled. ‘You will be home by Christmas, Fallon. Your part in this war has begun, and for a few nights work, you will have saved countless lives.’
‘But please, is there no other way? I don’t want…..’
‘Just do as I have instructed you. The powder is untraceable, and is perfectly formulated. You have used six sachets so far. One per night? It will do as I have told you, and your men can go home. You…can go home. There need be no further death, my friend.’
The cleaver whined through the air and a meaty thump marked its progress through the tough meat and bone of Donnie’s ankle. Donnie whimpered softly as he wrenched the blade free, a little jet of blood following the blade’s edge, as if desperate to cling there. Armitage fixed on the arcing droplets. He shut his eyes and did not see the second swing of the cleaver. It met less resistance this time, and in a soft crunch of bone and tendon, the foot fell free and came to rest, sole down in perfect companionship to his still attached right.
Armitage screamed. He launched himself to his feet and rushed to Donnie, who was convulsing slowly on his chair, blood jetting from the end of his leg, still raised onto the arm of the chair.
‘Tie it,’ Donnie said, weakly. Without thinking, Armitage reached into Donnie’s shirt pocket and found a second tie wrap. He noosed this around Donnie’s leg and pulled it tight. His hands were slick with his friend’s blood.
‘Why are you doing this, Donnie? Why, man? Please, talk to me.’ He was crying now, and as he wiped the tears a thick smear of blood painted across his cheek. The tears cut through it slowly.
Donnie appeared to think. The convulsions had stopped, and his ashen face was turned up to the ceiling in beatific smiling blankness.
‘Those…things…’ he said, ‘weren’t mine. They just weren’t, ok?’ He said this last defiantly. ‘I don’t know. When I woke up today I saw the truth. That hand wasn’t my hand. The foot wouldn’t fit in my boot any more. You getting that, man? My fucking boot wouldn’t fit anymore!’
‘But Donnie, that can’t be right! You can’t cut off your own fucking hands!’
Donnie nodded. ‘Not both, of course,’ he chuckled, sounding weak. ‘But this one is ok. This one’s still mine. I can see it is. Can’t you see that?’
Armitage looked at the remaining hand, blood speckled and living, then looked across to the severed hand. Already greying, it rested against the leg of another bunk. It was curled into a half fist, as if it had tried to grab the leg. Armitage shivered and reached into his jeans pocket. He brought out his mobile phone. In a flash, Donnie swung the cleaver and sent the phone across the room. It broke into pieces against the floor. Armitage just stared at the fragments.
‘I’m ok, man!’ Donnie said again. ‘No doctor. I’m ok.’
‘Look, Donnie. You’re gonna have to explain this. You can’t hide what you’ve done, and if we don’t get this stitched up or something, you’re gonna fucking die.’ Armitage shook. He felt dangerously close to hysteria. He could hear a hitching in his breathing, a tight clipped tone to his words. ‘Talk to me, man. Explain why you’ve done this.’
Donnie dropped his head and appeared to sleep. Armitage started towards him, and was reaching for his shoulders when Donnie raised his head. His eyes showed none of their previous madness. Armitage made an involuntary noise deep in his throat all the same, and sat back.
‘I have no idea,’ said Donnie.
Armitage willed himself to calm. He rose quietly, backed away from his friend, and continued backing until he almost fell onto his bunk. The soft scrape of the iron legs against the floor caught Donnie’s attention for a second, but only that. He turned for a brief moment, and then returned to his inspection of his shortened limbs. He appeared to feel nothing at the sight of the stumps, but Armitage could see a waxy yellow sheen starting to show on his cheeks, and runners of sweat were beginning to paste his hair in dark feathery fronds across his forehead.
Armitage thought Donnie would be heading firmly into shock right about now. He made as if to move for the door and Donnie spoke, almost too quietly for him hear.
‘I feel…better, somehow,’ he said. ‘That’s the funny thing about all this. After our food last night, I slept better than I ever have. The sound of the guns didn’t disturb me like it usually does. I had no nightmares. And yet I woke thinking that something was terribly wrong with me. Something that only this could fix.’ He motioned to his mutilation with a nod of his pale face. ‘So I fixed it. And now I feel better, like this is how I need to be.’
Armitage chilled, and slowed his movement. He stared at the severed hand, curling like a starfish brought suddenly into dry desert air.
‘What am I going to do, man?’ said Donnie, and Armitage thought,
At last, he sees what he has done. I can help him,
but Donnie said, ‘This is how I need to be, but this is not how I trained to be. I am a soldier, man, and now I can’t fight. What am I gonna do?’
‘I’ll go and see the doc, Donnie. He can fix you up and we can get through this. That sound ok?’
Donnie waved with his remaining hand. Armitage left.
* * *
‘But…..?’ he said. ‘Must it be this?’
‘It must, and please be realistic now. It is too late to turn back. You know cannot possibly win this war. Do this, or you will all die, and will continue to die until there are no more of you.’
There was a soft click as the call ended, and he knew that was the last time he would hear the voice. His part was done now. It was over, or would be in scant seconds time.
Armitage pushed into the medical tent. The hot smell of blood and the chemical tang of disinfectant washed round him like mist. There was time enough to see the beds, all of them occupied, and the nurses that tended there, and then all was blocked from view as a uniformed officer stepped into his line of sight and laid a hand firmly onto his chest.
‘Sir,’ began Armitage, and then stopped, convinced his words would eject from him in a flood of teary babble. ‘I…’
‘You can’t be in here,’ said the officer.
‘But Private Donald Richards, sir. He’s…ah…excuse me sir, but he’s cut off his own fucking hand.’ He blurted this last and stepped back, head lowered.
The officer was silent for fully half a minute. ‘Christ,’ he murmured, then louder. ‘Christ, WE GOT ANOTHER ONE!’
The tent erupted into action around him, nurses flocking around Armitage, their hands fluttering feather-like across his arms, and feeling his hands.
He shook them off. ‘Not me!’ he shouted and ran back towards the bunkhouse he shared with Donnie.
They removed Donnie, strapped to a gurney that looked rusted with blood. His hand and foot went with him, although whether there would be a reattachment attempt, Armitage could not guess. All he knew was that the body parts were gone, and as he sat cradling the shattered remains of his mobile phone, he was thankful for that.
The officer that had stopped him in the medical tent came to see him as the darkness fell around their tents. Armitage sat in his desert combats, as if they would afford him protection from madness as they had from enemy eyes. The situation was explained. In the hours since Donnie had begun his nightmare mutilation, in the hours since he was stitched and sedated and guarded, 16 more soldiers had suffered the same dysmorphic reactions. The medical tent was now bursting with amputees, Donnie by no means the worst of them. One soldier had systematically shot the fingers from his left hand, one by one, and had put a bullet into each knee. One had attempted to remove his own head but had passed out from shock before he could complete the deed. There was no loss of life, not yet, but fully half a hundred bleeding stumps, burst knee joints, ruptured organs. Donnie had not been the first, and listening now to the officer’s words, words of sabotage, of mass hallucinations, of hypnotic suggestions, Armitage knew he would not be the last.
The officer asked Armitage if he had felt any similar desires to mutilate himself. Armitage almost laughed at this last. Desire to mutilate? When did he ever think he would have heard those words spoken in this or any other situation? The officer had finally left him alone, content with his assurances that, no, he didn’t feel the need to cut off a limb, or thrust a pen into his eye, or into his ear drum. The officer had looked at him for a long time before exiting the room. There were orders in that gaze, Armitage knew. When we are on the other side of this, that gaze inferred, there is to be no mention of anything that has happened here. Armitage didn’t think he would have trouble keeping this to himself. Already he felt his brain slowing, bogged down with the enormity of seeing his friend knowingly cut his hand from his body and sit watching the jet of blood like a fountain in a park. Time would tell if his mind would ever work the same as it had.
He almost entertained the notion that come morning, come the cleaning of weapons and the donning of uniform, all this would be nothing but a nightmare. He expressed as much to the officer, not noticing the look of suspicion in his eyes. His own eyes felt hot with grief, and his hands shook. He thrust them deep into his pockets and followed the officer, kicking the door closed behind him. He wandered, in and amongst the dusty habitation quarters, the dry desert biting his ankles, and sending hot air deep into his lungs.
The order to surrender was given two hours later. He heard rushing footsteps along the tented corridor that flanked the dining area. Armitage followed them in. He heard raised voices, and asked Fallon, the cook, what he could see from his vantage point behind the cooker. There was no answer.
Presently, officers and the remaining unharmed soldiers trailed into the canteen. They sat, and the order was relayed. Several voices were raised in protest.
‘Let us at least wait till everyone is here!’ one such said.
There was a beat’s hesitation from the commanding officer, and then,
‘We are here. All of us left. We are here.’
Shocked silence filled the room. The scuffing of boots became deafening as soldiers moved, restless to fight, but now unable. With the officer’s last words, Armitage again thought of Donnie, bandaged and screaming insanities in the medical tent, along with two thirds of the soldiers stationed here.
* * *
He straightened, but his head dropped low into his chest. A ragged breath scorched into his lungs, and he exhaled it. He hurriedly removed the ear- and mouth-piece, and with a deft flick of his wrist, sent the sandy powder drifting down into the huge pot of bubbling chilli con carne that was tonight’s meal. He stirred it in, and raised his smiling face to the first soldier that stood in line.
‘What war is there to fight when the army you rely upon to fight it has destroyed itself in the most fundamental way? We do not understand this,’ he continued, ‘but we know that we no longer have an army here. There are not enough of us and there are too many of them. We truly have no choice but to surrender ourselves. I suspect…? God help us, I have no idea. Is it magic, or poison, or hypnosis?’ he said, looking bewildered and shocked by his own words, as if they could not have come from him. He sat heavily. ‘We have undone ourselves.’
Armitage chilled. There were murmurs and soft words but no more cries of disagreement. The remaining soldiers had seen too much, and were numb with it. To see such wounds on the battlefield was one thing, but to see them here, and inflicted as they had been? It was too much. Armitage stood with the others and queued for food. None of the remaining soldiers spoke now, and none wanted to eat, but there seemed little else to do while they waited for their captors to remove them, as they surely would.
He sat alone at an empty table. There were many. His plate was heaped high. Armitage ate greedily but without hunger, mopping the wetness with hunks of dry bread and washing it down with water. He tasted none of it.
There was time enough for one last night.
Armitage noticed the first tingle in his fingers as he sat on his bunk, restless after the night’s bad sleep. In the second it took his brain to register the feeling, and perhaps begin to formulate some hypothesis as to its cause, he thought how much better it would be if he removed that itch. He looked at his hand and saw nothing that he recognised. A wedding ring gleamed from his ring finger and it was not the one he knew. A scar, jagged and deep pink, wormed across the back of the hand, and Armitage could not place it, nor the wound that caused it. He reached nervously to the hand and touched it. The hand felt not his own. He frowned and began his examinations afresh. There was no corresponding feeling from his left hand as his right fingers pulled gently at the skin there, just a deep itch in the tendons of that wrist, and in his mind’s eye, he could see the tendons fighting the connection of wrist to hand. He turned the hand over, and was unable to make a fist. The palm was too soft, he thought, to be his, the lines too deep.
‘Oh God, Donnie,’ he said softly to no one. ‘God, man. You were right.’
The screams intensified from the medical tent, and the sound of gunfire waned in the distance. Armitage stood and walked to the ratty chair, and to the cleaver that lay blood-rusted on the floor beside it.
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Nicole Tanquary, author of Cheshire (a horror short featured in Campfire Tales), is rumored to be considered for Ellen Datlow Best Horror of the Year! Ellen has been editing science fiction and horror for over thirty-five years and has seen everything from the worst to the very best. If this is true, then we’re honored.
Enjoy a sample of Cheshire
Jocee’s fingers curled in on themselves, around a little flesh-wound that was just beginning to sting. She tried to think back to when she and the others had lined up to wash their hands in the class sink … had the cut been there then? She couldn’t remember. At the sink, she had been focused on the promise of apple juice and graham crackers for snack-time, not cuts.
She sat cross-legged with the other students in a semi-circle on the carpet floor. Ms. Elli was reading them “The Lorax” for story time. The Lorax was one Jocee knew already; her older cousin Richie had been a big Dr. Seuss fan, and she had inherited his children books when she was born. He had scribbled in them with his Crayolas when he was little, though. So in Jocee’s book, the Lorax’s orange fur was waxed over in blue, turning it a dingy brown color. The bright orange in the teacher’s book didn’t look quite right to her.
Thinking of Richie’s books made her think of the big crayon box in the playtime cabinet. Most of the crayons were old, broken in half and crumbling, but still, you could find all kinds of colors in there if you looked hard enough. Really pretty colors too, like Burnt Sienna and Midnight Blue. Jocee doubted that Ms. Elli would let them color in her Dr. Seuss books. The pages were clean, fresh from the school library. Almost alien to the books on Jocee’s shelf at home.
Jocee rubbed her hand against her calf, eyes turning briefly from a field of Truffula Trees to examine the wound. It was a little nick, right across the upper end of her pointer-finger. It was red still, but with dried-out, brownish edges.
The skin around the cut, though … it was starting to go red, swelling up until it was almost shiny. Jocee bit her lip, rubbing her finger harder against her leg to massage away the sting.
She waited until the story was done, when Ms. Elli had sent everyone out with pencils and huge slabs of paper to practice writing their names. Then she went up to Ms. Elli, holding her finger gingerly in the air. “May I have a band-aid?” she asked, like she was supposed to. Jocee’s mother always told her to put a band-aid on a cut right away, to keep the germs from getting in. The pain in her finger was turning to more of an ache by now. Like a sore stomach that made you sick if you thought about food.
As Ms. Elli smiled and got out the band-aid box, Jocee’s insides tossed and turned. In the corner of her eye … the very bottom corner, almost hidden by the curve of her cheek … she thought she saw a gleam.
She turned that way and found nothing but abandoned puzzle pieces. Still, it had been very clear.
A smile. A smile made of shiny-white teeth.
Shivers started at the base of her neck and wriggled down into her feet. The smile hadn’t been a nice one. Jocee didn’t yet know the word ‘sneer,’ but instead thought to herself that it had been a little like the Cheshire cat’s smile, from Alice In Wonderland. The Disney version had always scared her, especially that dark forest where the pink-and-purple cat lurked in the trees …
The idea solidified in her mind, and Jocee decided that, yep, the smile she had seen belonged in the mouth of Cheshire cat.
The world might’ve looked a solid black from her bedroom window, but Jocee saw now that it was more of a gray; the white snow reflected up into the clouds, staining their bellies with sickly-dull light. Powdery sheets of the stuff had been falling since midday, but with the disappearance of the sun the flakes had thickened, turning puffy, sticky, piling up on layers other storms had left behind weeks ago.
Jocee’s feet dug fresh tracks into the snow, which was almost to her knees. The wind was at her back, pushing wet, chilly strands of hair around her face. The trees around her were naked, moaning in the snow-edged wind.
Ice was starting to melt into the bottoms of her shoes. But by now, the needly-feeling in her fingers and toes had gone away, replaced with a numbness that was slowly creeping up her extremities. Her baggy Led Zeppelin shirt billowed against her waist, reminding Jocee that she had (on purpose?) forgotten the winter coat hanging in her closet. She wore no hat, no hood. The warmest thing on her were her sweatpants, and they were soaked with snow-melt and turning clammy against her legs.
Jocee could feel a little niggling voice in the back of her head. What the Hell are you doing? Get back to the house where it’s warm, no living person should be out in this. She pushed the voice deeper and deeper inside her head, until it could only yammer to itself. Her eyes were fixed on the space ahead of her.
She was not giving up this time.
Cheshire’s brown gaze was settled on the back of her neck. Jocee had been feeling his stare for the past ten minutes or so, though she couldn’t see him just yet. She forced one foot forward, then the other, feeling them sink into the snow’s heavy cold. She wouldn’t let Cheshire have the pleasure of seeing her afraid.
Her thoughts spun outwards, desperate to find alternate routes to busy themselves with, but there was nothing – nothing besides the freezing snow. This whole situation was ridiculous. How had she even gotten here? It was Cheshire’s fault, she knew that much. But when had this whole thing even began? This chase scene that had gone on for years and years now?
Kindergarten, she answered, to herself. That’s when this mess started. The good old days of clay sculptures and glitter-glue. A smile came, painful on her winter-dried lips. That first day in Kindergarten, Jocee hadn’t known that Cheshire had touched her, save for that little cut mark he had left on her finger. Even though she’d seen his smile, she hadn’t found out where the cut had came from until a week later, when he came again. In the meantime, the spot had swelled under the band aid, itching like a rash. She had kept rubbing it … looking down now, Jocee could see the scar tissue built up from then, white and hard against the pink tip of her finger.
“What are you doing?” Cheshire’s question came from somewhere behind her.
Jocee shoved her hands into her armpits and plowed ahead, fixing her gaze on the unbroken white beneath the trees. She could hear footsteps crunching on the snow, following her from maybe fifteen meters away.
When had Cheshire first spoken to her? Not the first time they had met, he had come to her as a stray dog, not a person, as she had been standing and waiting for the bus. Jocee’s brow furrowed in thought. Maybe it was when he came into her room – that had been when he first introduced himself, wasn’t it? A week after he gave her the cut?
While the old couple slept Malakai the demon eyed them in the dark. They disgusted him and were perfect for his needs. 3000 years of servitude was over and he was free of this half-life. He was ready to return to the full world and no one was left to stop him. He had outlived all his hated masters.
His last token holder had died with no heirs to pass the trinket that held Malakai’s spirit and so the cragged metal returned to Malakai, granting his freedom.
He held the shiny nugget to his lips, licked it slowly then rubbed it against his cheek like a preening cat.
“Let us play and flay.” The demon whispered before tucking the nugget back into his soul, where he would never again be parted from it, no matter how much it hurt to hold onto, the blunted edges that pushed at his insides for release.
He had been watching the old couple for the past few moons. He hated them. They rarely spoke to one other and struggled to even look in the other’s direction. They abused each other with their silent hate and disappointment.
The old woman’s wrinkled hand moved as he scampered up her body, no bigger than a mouse. Even her movements repulsed him, shakes that screamed of old weakness.
They blamed each other for their own failures, their bitterness permeated every corner of their shack which smelled of piss and boiled cabbage. Malakai felt only inevitability at destroying them. After all, they had left the door open for him, all he would do was give them exactly what they wanted.
For the husband, freedom.
For the wife, the child she was promised.
Standing on the crone’s right shoulder, away from the husband, Malakai rearranged his features to resemble a child, the hag’s ultimate weakness.
“Mama, set me free. I’m so alone.” Malakai’s sharp little needle teeth emerged from his purple lips as he smiled brightly.
The old woman was infected with him now, she would never stop until she saved her little boy from the big bad monster that lay in the bed beside hers. And in return for his hard work Malakai would receive a body that would fit the size of his soul instead of this tiny carcass no bigger than a man’s thumb.
He trotted closer to the old man, licking his large callused thumb, wrapping his arms around it and biting down hard enough to draw a few drops of food.
Malakai was hungry and the old man’s blood was good. At least these country types ate well and tasted strong and when the old woman made the poppet this body would be Malakai’s to do with as he pleased.
Enid woke to the feel of tiny feet scampering up her body. Her hands jerked in reaction before she could stop them. It frustrated her, all this aching and shaking, it would only scare the child away. But what could she do, she was frail and old, no law against that, goddamn it all to hell.
She glanced toward Tom’s single bed on the other side of the room. The floral comforter was on the ground, tossed aside by his nightly struggles with sleep. She could see his striped summer pajama’s, old man’s clothes, and his plaid slippers lined up just so. Everything about him screamed old and stuck in his ways.
He wasn’t sleeping, she knew him well enough to know the difference in his breathing. He was lying still with his eyes shut, like he did every morning, waiting for Enid to get up and make his breakfast. Lazy old goat.
“Dead yet?” There was little of the humor that had made their marriage a success left.
“After you, my sweet.” He replied, gruff with lack of sleep.
Enid clacked her false teeth into place and left the room. The tiny child was waiting for her in the kitchen and she gasped in surprise, clutching a hand to her heart wondering if her body’s aged pump would stop dead.
“You’re really real?” She asked.
“Almost.” Malakai said on a wet, wobbly, pitiful sigh. “I need the doll. Have you finished it yet?”
Enid hobbled to the cupboard that held her knitting bag, rummaging inside she found the doll she had been working on for the past few days.
“Is it perfect?” Malakai snatched it away, sniffing each seam and licking each stitch. “Perfect.” He turned wide blue eyes to Enid. “It’s perfect. You have done perfect.”
Enid held the table to help her sit. Resting her chin on her hands to stare at the gorgeous little boy who so resembled a young Tom. “Thank you, child. I followed your directions exactly, and now you’re here. Will you be able to become a real child now?”
“Yes. Just one more thing…” He allowed one tear to trail down his perfect cheek.
“What is it? I’ll do anything. I promised.”
“I need my father’s body to complete my transformation, to be with you forever.”
Enid blinked, becoming more enraptured with each glance at the perfect child. “Alright. Just some skin, nails that sort of thing?”
“I need flesh to become flesh. I must be made from the meat of my father.”
“Not much. Just enough to fill the doll.”
Enid lifted the knitted doll. It was smaller than her hand, with tan skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, just like Tom when they met.
“Tom’s thumbs.” Enid said, “I’ll use Tom’s thumbs.”
Malakai clapped his little hands, “Perfect. Perfect. Thumbs and Plums. Soon?”
“Tonight. I promise.”
Later that day, Enid got her chance. “Don’t worry with lunch for me.” Tom said. “I’m not feeling so well.”
“Yeah, looks like the doc was right. I don’t have much longer, Enid.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Nothing, nothing at all. I’m going to bed. I feel like I might actually sleep.”
“Why don’t you take one of the pills the doctor gave you to sleep?”
“No, I told you. I’ll be ending on a mountain of drugs, I want to go without them for as long as I can.”
“I’ll bring you through a warm drink then.”
“I don’t think…”
“Just do as I tell you and don’t be a stubborn old man.”
Tom chuckled, “Alright, Enid, don’t get your knickers in a twist.”
“Would be the only thing that’s happened to my knickers in years.” She grumbled as she stalked to the kettle.
The spiked drink put Tom into such a deep sleep he didn’t even move as she took his favorite boning knife to his thumbs. She reminded herself that this was his penance for having bought home the disease that had rendered her sterile. This was the least he could do for her.
Afterward she cleaned his wounds, dressed them carefully, like a mother, cooing gentle words of apology. She doubted he would notice, he didn’t seem to notice much anymore these days, and if he didn’t like it he could go tell someone. There was another problem. Their lack of children had pushed them away from those that had them until they were solitary with only each other for company.
She gently washed the detached thumbs, waiting for the blood to drain away, soaking them in the kitchen sink wondering how they had ever created anything. They looked so small and shriveled when she pulled them from the water that she worried they would not be good enough for her child.
Back at the kitchen table she dried them with complete devotion, careful not to miss a watery red drop, even going so far as to use the napkins she had kept for good. Except there had never been a good. So the tissues were old and perishing. With frustration she threw them all in the trash, snatching out the white linen sheets she had been given for a wedding gift. Another thing to keep for good. Useless.
They continued to drip and seep for so long Enid was in tears, certain they would never be good enough. For once in her life she wanted to accept only perfection, not the ongoing faults, blame and mistakes.
She left them in the sun, sitting beside them on a blanket for several hours to ensure the birds didn’t come and snatch her treasures away. The thumbs resembled tiny ham hocks. There was nothing about them that made her certain they would produce life.
That night she wrapped the thumbs in one of Tom’s unused handkerchief’s, one he had gotten from his mother and hidden away in the back of his underwear drawer. His private territory. She then slipped the small package into the doll. It slid in easily. More room left around the doll than she expected when seeing Tom’s thumbs still attached to his hands.
She washed her hands, wondering if she should sew the doll up or leave it to await instructions from the child. emptying the sink she mindlessly wiped at the discolored ring left behind from the bloodied water. She wondered what the child would be called? Would he look like her as well as Tom? Would he have Tom’s calm personality or her erratic temperament. She hoped he had more of Tom. Her several breakdowns over the years making her certain she was riddled with demons in her blood. Remnants from her deranged family.
Behind her a small voice cried, “It’s not enough!”
She spun with a sinking sense of dread. “I did what you asked.”
“It’s not enough, and where’s the blood?”
“I cleaned it, I refuse to allow blood to drip all over my floor.”
“I need the blood.”
His blue eyes flashed to red and Enid stepped back, once more automatically clutching her chest, worrying for her aged heart.
“You’re not real.”
“I won’t be if you don’t do things right. Thumbs and plums. I asked for thumbs and plums.”
“His nuts, the seed. I need his seed.”
Enid sat down, disgusted even though it sounded logical. “I refuse. You can’t ask me to do that to him.”
“His dirty plums destroyed your life, they took your chance of children. They stole my life from you. All I’m trying to do is give that back to you. Please help me give you something. Help me. Set me free. I was supposed to be born and it never happened because he cheated on you and ruined your life. He took my life from me. Do this for me if not for you.”
That small pleading voice drilled at her brain. When she next looked up the child was a stunningly handsome young man.
“Who are you?” She gasped.
“It’s me, Mom. This is what I’ll look like when I’m older. If you give me that chance.”
“I can’t.” She wailed. “I’m not strong enough.”
“Cut them out. for both of us.”
Enid stared at him, in awe of his beauty, so like Tom as a young man.
“Will you stay with me?”
“I’ll do it.”
“I love you, Mommy.”
Tom came awake. Something was wrong. He felt sick to his stomach. He relaxed back into the dirty old pillow. The cancer had taken hold. It was eating him from the inside out like a horror movie monster. On a frown he lifted his hands that felt hot and thick. They were wrapped up and something about the shape made his heart beat hard. His head was too fuzzy to put it altogether.
His bowels clenched in a familiar sickening way and Tom scrambled from his bed, frantically kicking aside bedding that should have been replaced years ago. Forgoing his slippers for speed Tom stumbled to the toilet, terrified at the amount of blood he found when he flushed.
Clutching his stomach with one bandaged hand he steadied himself with a shoulder to a floral wallpapered wall (he had always hated floral but Enid never gave him any choice in decorating all those years ago). He found his wife seated at the table with a doll clamped in her hands, rubbing it against her cheeks and whispering to it frantically.
“Enid,” He interrupted, “I don’t feel so good, in my stomach. I might need the hospital. And something’s wrong with my hands. Honey, are you listening?”
When she turned, Enid’s eyes had that flat, long stare that showed she was in the thrall of another one of her delusions. Tom wanted to punch her back to life. After all these years, of enduring her hostility and her mental instability, when he needed her for once she was off on another one of her fucking breakdowns.
“Not now, Enid. Snap out of it. I need you.” She bared her teeth at him and Tom’s heart sunk further. She had returned to that one indiscretion that had almost broken them. It was strange that she had forgiven him all those years ago, yet when her mind wandered this is where she inevitably returned too. His one stupid mistake. He would never be forgiven and he berated himself for ever having stayed in this painful loveless marriage.
Stumbling to the phone he lifted the receiver, thankful he had always controlled the money so bills were always paid on time.
“What are you doing, Tom?” Enid asked in that far-off voice that made Tom rage.
“I’m calling an ambulance. I’m sick, Enid, real sick.”
The call connected but Enid touched his shoulder and took the phone off him. Dropping it back into the cradle, she smiled, just like the Enid of old, the passionate, fiery woman he had fallen for all those years ago.
“I’ll sort it. A taxi will be faster. You go get dressed while I organize everything.”
Tom sagged a little with relief. “Thank you, Enid. I know you’re going through something right now but I need you. Just for a little while.”
“I need you too, Tom. More than ever before.”
His stomach clenched again and Tom had to fight black speckling unconsciousness that threatened to overwhelm him. Stumbling back to the room, Enid followed with water and pills.
“Painkillers.” She said, dropping them into his mouth.
The look in her eyes warned him but Tom was all out of fight. He swallowed the pills and lay back on the bed.
That night Enid gave Tom more pills, more than she thought wise but enough that he would feel nothing and not wake up. Whatever her decision.
He was hot to the touch and she noticed that above the bandage that covered his left hand a hot line of infection was creeping into the light. She wondered if she should have boiled the boning knife she used? It was too late now. She sat on his bed for a long time with a small pocket knife. One Tom had been given years ago by one of the many customers he had entertained in his shoe store. It seemed sharp enough to do the job.
The little voice came from her dressing table. “What are you waiting for?”
“I can’t do it.”
“We’ve been through this. You have to do it.”
“He’s sick, he needs a doctor.”
“He ruined our lives.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I’m not alive because of what he did.”
“I forgave him.”
“I cheated too.” She gasped, never once having admitted this before. The secret that festered in the back of her head now tried to worm it’s way out of her mouth.
“It was too late by then. He infected you.”
“I can’t let him die!” She was crying now. Yelling with certainty.
“Then I will die.” The small boy turned away but Enid saw that flash in his eyes again in the mirror. That glint of something more hidden behind the façade she wanted to see. Could this all be her imagination? She had lost her mind several times before but those times she had never hallucinated. She reached out to touch the boy but he backed away.
“Not until I’m real. Please.” His pleading burrowed into Enid’s brain, twisting into her exhausted nervous system.
It was easier to just give in than to fight. “Okay.”
“Don’t forget the blood this time.” He said and scampered away.
“What’s your name?” Enid asked his back.
He turned back on a grin, “I’m Tom Junior.”
It had been a late night for Enid but the next morning she awoke with a feeling of dread and excitement.
“Today’s the day.” She told Tom who slept on, unaware of his new mutilations.
Noise in the kitchen had Enid sitting upright, hand to her chest. “He’s here, Tom. Our boy has finally come home.”
Tom surprised her into a small shriek then by saying, “He’s not ours, Enid. He’s trying to kill me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I need the hospital, Enid. Please…”
“For once, this isn’t all about you, Tom. It’s my time.”
She shuffled from the room to find Tom more drugs and to meet her son.
On the kitchen table the small doll had come to life. It moved and jerked with life. “Help me.” He cried.
Enid rushed to hold the small creature upright, it’s squirming sickening and unnatural. She had been expecting a real child, not an animated doll. Her disappointment sparked, that overwhelming feeling that had travelled the road of her life on her shoulder, reminding her of all the things she would never be, would never do.
“You’re still a doll.” She said.
The thing froze. “Not forever. I will change with your love and devotion. Like any other little boy.”
“But I don’t have much time left.”
“There is time.”
“Will you grow?”
“I will become more like you.”
“But will you grow?”
“Am I not good enough?”
“I want grandchildren like all those nosy women in the fancy units in town. I want to be rid of their pity and their dislike. I want to be one of them.
“You have what you wanted.” The knitted eyes sparked into life, not the blue of the child in Enid’s imagination but the fiery red she had glimpse. “I’m a fucking kid.”
“Don’t you profane at me!” She roared, insulted to her very core.
“Then be grateful I have worked so hard for you.”
“But I wanted a child, grandchildren. All you have given me is a midget and a sick husband. Two retards to attend to.”
“This is what you wanted.”
“I’ve changed my mind.”
“Too late.” The little creature snarled, small teeth breaking through the knitted wool. “You will attend me, crone, else your torment shall be ceaseless.”
“Torment? You think I don’t understand torment?”
With that she turned away and left the room. Malakai tried to move but the vessel his body was contained in was tight and slow. Until he became accustomed, until he learned to control a body once more, until this obscene shroud began to turn into a body proper, Malakai was trapped and at the hag’s mercy.
“Mother!” He called, “Please come back. I’m sorry I just…it’s been a shock finally being with you.”
It was sometime later that Malakai heard the sirens. He saw no one because Enid returned to the room only to stuff him into a drawer, unmoved by his pleading, her lips tight with anger, the wrinkles deep, her eyes heavy.
With little else to do Malakai waited, eventually falling asleep. Something he had not done for over 3000 years.
When he awoke it was bright and hot. He was under a spotlight of some kind and could hear a strange frantic clacking noise, could feel an incessant dull tugging at his legs. His head was held down with a cold iron, he couldn’t budge it.
He squinted past the bright light to see Enid frantically knitting, the wool coming from Malakai’s new body.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting rid of you before I go to jail to finish my days. You never warned me cutting Tom up like that would send me to jail.”
“How was I to…”
“He’s dead you know. Infections, cancer, blood loss, old age. Whatever it was I started it and I killed him. Least I can do is make sure you don’t do it to some other weak minded woman.”
“You can’t do this. I’m alive…”
“Not for long.”
“You don’t understand. I’m trapped in this material. I can’t be killed least it is completely consumed.”
Enid smiled. “Consumed, huh? How’s a fire for consuming?”
“My base is gold. You could never put me in a fire hot enough. Please, you must let me stay. Take me to this jail with you.”
“Like hell. I ain’t going to jail. I’m an old woman. I’m going to Hell to meet my maker and atone for all my sins. I’ll meet you there you evil little monster.”
“Fuck you, crone. Set me free. There is no way an old piece of shit like you can stop me now. I’ll find another way into the world. I’ve come this far, there’s no way back.”
Enid stopped knitting.
“I think I can slow you down at least.”
She picked the doll up, slipping out the back door of her horrible shack as the police turned into her road with screaming sirens. It was dark now but they would soon find her. That was not Enid’s focus. Her focus was getting this evil little puppet to the house three roads over.
She had to take the back way, down dark, dusty streets, past howling dogs and hissing cats. Eventually she came to the right place, clutching her chest as the huge dog threw itself at the fence then shoved his huge head through a hole it had dug.
Without further comment, hearing the police dogs on her trail Enid dropped the shrieking doll into the hole. The dog growled at it uncertainly for a moment then picked it up and swallowed it whole, the smell of blood permeating his mind.
“Enjoy that you evil little shit.” Enid said just as a police dog brayed at the other end of the road and a policewoman screamed at her to lie down on the ground.
Malakai waited inside his precious stone. All his earthly trappings were gone by the time he left the dog. He was picked up by a bird and dropped into a nest. The bird either died or didn’t find a mate as the nest was never used and it took long years for the twigs to rot enough for the stone to drop from the tree.
A young boy found the gold nugget, thinking it just a strange stone he put it in his pocket and took it home. His life would never be the same and the voice in his head pushed him to many things he would otherwise never dream of. He even swallowed it once, interested when it re-emerged unchanged.
Malakai was patient. He would wait for the right time. He had nothing but time.
Deadman’s Tome is home to Book of Horrors, a horror anthology loaded with terrifying horror short stories that’ll chill you to the bone!
DISCLAIMER: Deadman’s Tome is a dark and gritty horror zine that publishes content not suitable for children. The horror zine proudly supports the freedom of dark creative works and stands against censorship. Hardly any subject matter is too taboo for this horror zine. As a result, Deadman’s Tome may feature content your mother would not approve of. But she doesn’t control you life, right?
Caught In The Act by Brian J. Smith
WHEN the door flies open and hits the wall, it’s already too late; my dick shrivels like a turtle dodging a bullet and everything seems to slow down.
The air in the room grows into a thick suffocating noose that wraps itself around my throat and renders me speechless; my heartbeat muffles all sound, even the ones I can barely make out. Claire Hopkins sits up, her naked body still spread-eagle across my desk and gasps; her eyes only got that big when I’ve made her come but this is different. She is young enough to be my oldest daughter (twenty-one to be exact) but she’s got the body of an Internet scam. Smooth pale skin pulling taut over a slim rack of ribs, Grade-A breasts with stiff brown nipples, bubble-gum pink lips and shoulder length blonde hair pouring down her face like rivers of liquid sunlight.
How could I resist?
She was begging for it, wearing all those “fuck-me” clothes that didn’t leave much to the imagination. A little sliver of skin here and a little bit there and I was drooling like Cujo. I’d seen her staring up at me amongst the sea of other slack-jawed zombies slouching in their seats half sleep from long boring lectures about Hitler and The War of 1812 and blah-blah-blah. She’d always beam at me from her seat, all bright and cheery like a newly risen sun. To be honest, she’d caught it before I could.
“I need to pass this course, Mister Swanson.” She’d said ten minutes ago. “I’ll do whatever you want.”
The brightness in her eyes died and sadness clouded her looks. When I mentioned a one-on-one, the exuberance came back and she smiled like a California socialite. Today, she’d worn a breezy-white see-through and fire-engine red heels; her smoky blue eyes were accentuated by two thick rings of black mascara. She smelled like a rose that wanted to be fucked although she had hair as bright as a sunflower.
A shadow flees down the stretch of red carpet running between the seats, looking vague and blurry. Claire grabs her dress off the edge of the desk, her twisting under a mask of shock. Her lips drooping apart, she exposed a nice cum-dumpster mouth. I back up against the chalkboard, rapping my lower back against the chalk tray. I squint at the gloom as the shadow steps into the light like a whodunit and trip over my words.