Short Stories

So yeah, I don’t celebrate Christmas anymore

Christmas. A time of cheer when you sit around the table with your family; drinking eggnog as you catch up. You laugh as your dad and uncle Phil fight over who gets to carve up the turkey while your mom and aunt exchange embarrassed looks. You turn to your siblings, your laughs are slowly fading, yet the smiles remain. Later in the night, you smile to yourself as you lay in bed, wondering when the last time you were so happy was. 

Once upon a time, Christmas was like that for me too. Though, as I sit here, sipping bourbon from a tumbler, sitting in my empty living room – hoping the sweet buzz of drunkenness will soon carry me off into a dreamless sleep – I can’t help but feel resentment for such families. 

I’m getting ahead of myself though. Let me start from the beginning. 

It was our first Christmas as husband and wife, by God, it’s hard to believe that it’s already been nine years. We’d gotten married that October on her parent’s acreage and it was perfect. The leaves fell around us as we exchanged our vows, painting the forest’s path with oranges, yellows and reds that turned an otherwise dull setting into a scene from a fairy tale. 

She looked so beautiful in her dress. 

We were still in our ‘honeymoon’ phase when the snow began to fall on our quiet home, plunging that world of autumn colors into a vast expanse of white. We’d walk down the street almost nightly, marveling at our neighbors immaculate Christmas decorations, her red gloved fingers interlaced with my black ones. I can still recall the way she’d look at me and smile; the faintest tingest of pink coming forth under her pale cheeks, and the tip of her nose. 

I’d give anything just to have one more of those moments with her. To feel her hand in mine and experience that smile that sent warmth radiating through me regardless of how cold the air was. She was mine, and I was hers. 

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As a wedding gift, her parents gave us a family heirloom. It was an old, hand painted Santa statue that had been in their family for years, and as tradition dictated, it was always given to the first child to get married. Sheila was an only child, so it was always destined to be hers. It stood just over three feet tall and was dressed in a shiny blue robe as opposed to a red one. 

I remember the words her mother told me as her father loaded it into the back of my car, “Just leave out milk and cookies Daniel. He likes notes too.” 

I chuckled, “You know Delores, we’re not expecting to have children anytime soon.” 

She smiled, though it looked a little strained, “Just do it Dan, it’s a fun tradition to get into and when you have kids it’ll make it all the more worthwhile.” 

I nodded, confused, “yeah, sure thing. Whatever you say.” 

I turned to look back to Sheila and her father, though from the look on her face, he’d just given her the same run down that Delores had given me. I shrugged, thinking nothing of it and walked back to my car to drive Sheila and I home so we could consummate our wedding vows before we left for Maui the next day. 

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We sat in the den drinking hot chocolate on the night of December 20th, simply enjoying each other’s company and the warmth of the fire. The light coming from the Christmas tree twinkled idly across the floor and ceiling alight, really setting the mood for the evening. 

I looked into Sheila’s eyes and smiled, “I love you so much.” 

Her deep brown eyes widened as she stared back into mine, a smile trickling across the edge of her mouth, “we love you too.” 

I frowned and raised an eyebrow, “we?”

Her smile widened as she placed a hand on her belly, “Yes, we.” 

I looked at her confused, then to her hand, then back to her. My confusion turned into happiness as I finally understood the implications of her words. 

Joyfully, I exclaimed, “really?” 

She smiled at me, “really.”

I wrapped her up tightly in my arms, as tears of joy ran down my face, “since when?” 

She smiled, obviously pleased at my reaction, “I just found out this morning.” 

Once more, I doubtfully looked at her, “so I’m going to be a father?” 

She nodded as she chewed on her lower lip, “yes you are, now come here.” 

I smiled and started kissing her passionately, but then stopped altogether and withdrew, “are you sure I won’t hurt it?”

She giggled, “yes, now come here daddy.”

That was all the encouragement I needed. 

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We placed the Santa statue just off to the right of the fireplace, and almost instantly forgot about it. Sheila had scolded me when I insisted on calling it ‘Gandalf’ and got even madder when I’d point at it and say “you shall not pass” as she left for work in the mornings. 

As a freelance digital marketer, I do most of my work from home and very seldom leave the house for meetings. Thus, most days I’d find myself seated in the den with my laptop, working away the hours until Sheila would come home. Then, I’d simply pack it up and tuck it away, resigning to finish whatever work I had left for the next day. 

I made a comfortable income and had no inclination to pursue a higher tax bracket if it meant forfeiting the time I’d share with my wife. In the times she worked, I worked, and when she was home, I made sure I was home both physically and mentally, with no distractions. 

Often times, however, when I was home alone, I found the Santa statue quite unnerving, and would turn it around so it would face the fireplace. Though I’d never see her do it, Sheila would wordlessly turn him back around, probably figuring the same thing I did; he was unnerving in almost every way. 

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On December 24, 2010, I almost forgot to follow the simple instructions given to me by Sheila’s mother. Okay, I admit. I did forget. Thankfully, Sheila didn’t. 

Right as we were going upstairs to bed she halted, “Oh shit, the milk and cookies.” 

I frowned, “the what?” 

She scowled, “for Santa!”

I stifled a laugh, and thankfully, she didn’t notice it. No, by that point she was already halfway back down the stairs, undoubtedly headed towards the kitchen to get Santa his milk and cookies. I shrugged and followed her, bemused. I figured that she must have grown up with it, must have gotten used to putting out the milk and cookies for the fake Santa claus every Christmas. 

I watched as she threw several cookies onto one of our fine china plates and poured a tall glass of milk into one of our crystal glasses. I said nothing as she went by me and placed the two items on the table; right in front of Santa. 

Not wanting to miss out on an early christmas present, I said nothing while she wrote a hasty note for him and tucked it under the edge of the plate. I smiled, thinking that we’d be doing the same thing with our child in the foreseeable future. 

She walked back over to me, “all done, now you ready for bed mister?” 

I smiled and nodded, “I am now.” 

She winked as she grabbed my hand and led me up the stairs towards our bedroom. 

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I awoke to a cracking sound coming from the basement. It sounded like multiple ceramic plates falling onto the floor and breaking. Fear clutched in my chest, as my mind ran through the possible causes of the noise. 

Suddenly alert I turned to Sheila, whispering out into the darkness, “Hey babe, I think someone’s downstairs.” 

When she didn’t respond, I felt along the spot next to me on the bed, my alertness turning to panic as I realized she wasn’t  there. Not knowing what else to do, I threw the blankets off me and rushed out from my bed anxious to disrupt whoever was making noise on the floor below. 

I moved quietly down the stairs; grateful for the carpet that muffled the noise as my feet carried me to the level below. As I stepped onto the main floor, I became aware of two things. The first, I didn’t know where Sheila was, and the second, it was far too quiet. 

I had just begun to search the main floor when I heard a muffled noise coming from the pantry. Without thinking I began moving towards it, closing the distance in a mere matter of seconds. I threw open the door, not quite sure of what to expect inside. 

Inside, I found Sheila. She was pinned up against the wall of the pantry by a man that was holding a knife at her throat. Slowly, he turned to look at me, dragging the blade across her throat in the process; severing the blood vessels that lay within. 

Instinctually, her hands flew up to her neck in a futile effort to stop the bleeding. Suddenly aware of the situation I was facing, I dove forward and drove my knee into the man’s abdomen, screaming in rage as I sent him clattering into the wall at the end of the pantry. I stalked over to him and went to kick him, but he quickly recovered and plunged his knife into the meat of my thigh, causing me to fall to the ground as he rose to his feet. 

The last thing I remember as I lay on the ground with my hands on my leg was a blinding flash of light as his foot connected with my face and plunged me into a world of darkness. 

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I awoke in a hospital bed with bandages on my head and my leg. Sheila’s parents were in the room, though, they looked like they’d just been through hell. Looking back, I suppose they had. 

In my foggy daze I looked at Delores and asked, “Where’s Sheila?” 

She suddenly broke down crying, and Sheila’s father put a hand on her shoulder as he met my eyes, “She’s gone Dan… your neighbor heard your screams and called the police. The man was caught hiding in a bush just a few blocks away and admitted to everything. He said you tried to fight him off. You were just a little too late, I’m sorry.” 

The numbness settled over me as I lay in that hospital bed, wondering where I’d go from there, immediately thinking of how I could just join her on the other side. 

Tears began to stream from my eyes as I shakily mumbled to myself, “She… was carrying… our child.” 

Her parents went white as my words met their ears, though her father was the first to speak, “what did you say?” 

The reality flooded in as I screamed in sorrow, “that bastard killed our child!” 

Their tears soon joined me as they made their way over to the bed and wrapped me tightly in a hug. 

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The following days spent recovering fluttered by in a foggy haze as I tried to contemplate my life without Sheila. She was all I’d come to know, all I loved. Now, without her, I had nothing. 

I recall the drive home for the first time since that night. The yellow cab left trails in the snow behind us as it rode down the road where Sheila and I would walk. Though no one had their lights on at night, my mind filled in the spaces, showing me the once marvellous lights that now didn’t shine as brightly with her no longer there to enjoy them with me. 

The cab pulled up outside of my house, and I struggled with my cane to stand onto my anxious legs. I was almost afraid to go inside, as though by opening the door I’d be disturbing the life I’d lost and see nothing but Sheila’s corpse lying in a pool of her own blood. 

I walked up to the door and took a deep breath, realizing that I’d have to go inside eventually. I slid the key into the lock and turned, opened the door and stepped inside. 

It was just as we left it. The tree stood in the corner with the presents we’d gotten for each other left settled just underneath it. On the table sat a plate of stale cookies with a note tucked under it and a glass of milk that had long since gone off. The tears rolled down my cheeks as I hobbled over to the coffee table where I’d seen my wife writing out a letter for Santa. 

I smiled and picked up the letter, though I didn’t read it. I walked over to the bookshelf and slid it next to her favorite book, then plopped down in the chair and cried until the familiar blackness washed over me once more. 

——

All these years later, I still don’t celebrate Christmas. Though, tomorrow night, I’ll make sure Santa’s not facing the wall. I’ll put out cookies that I bought just for him alongside a tall glass of milk. 

For the eighth year in a row I’ll go back to the bookshelf and retrieve Sheila’s unread note. I’ll tuck it back under the fine china plate for him. Then I’ll go upstairs and go to bed, hoping that if I wake in the middle of the night, she’ll be there next to me and this will all just have been one long, horrible dream. 

The Girl In The Velvet Dress

I’m not entirely certain of when I’d first met her; the girl in the velvet dress. But looking back, I think it was around the third or fourth grade. It was a long time ago, and though, unimportant details like the name of my teacher at the time, and what the course material was happen to drift just beyond cognition, the events that happened have remained sharp within my memory. They linger, like a rose bush that you reach out for, anxious to pluck it from its stem and smell it, but in the process you prick your finger on a thorn. You still manage to get hold of the rose, however, but when you finally bring the bright red petals up to your nose and take a long, deep sniff of it, you realize that the scent of the rose maybe wasn’t worth the pain.

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While caught in the boughs of youth, I could have been coined a social outcast. Sure, I was a small, timid girl, but more than that, I think it was the dirt that lined the hems of my dresses, the bags under my eyes and the occasional bruises that would poke out from under my collar that caused the other kids to avoid me like the plague. To say I had a hard upbringing would be paramount to saying that twinkies are just barely unhealthy for you. No, though I was avoided at school by my peers, my father gave me nothing but attention. God, I wish he hadn’t.

Yet, as I would hobble down the hallway on shaky legs, I found that the one and only thing I’d ever truly wanted was a friend. I just wanted someone I could talk to, regardless of weight, gender or sex, I wanted a friend. The loneliness weighed on me heavily, and though I was no older than ten years old at the time, my thoughts often wandered towards ending it all. I’d known what my father did to me was wrong, yet I still didn’t fully comprehend why, or just how wrong it truly was.

In the nights I found myself waking up with soiled sheets, and I’d cry silently into my pillow, afraid I’d wake him. Afraid It would bring forth an additional nightly visit. Most nights went this way, and I found myself wishing for a way out, it wasn’t long before those wishes turned into actions and I tried to take my life for the first time.

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It had been a rather horrible week for me. The bruises that were typically hidden beneath the thin fabric of my dresses had leaked out onto my arms and neck. My teacher at the time, brought me to the principal’s office on the suspicion that I was being abused. I’d never heard the word before, and shook my head vigorously at the prospect. I’d assumed to ‘be abused’ was a bad thing, and I was correct in that front, however, I didn’t realize that it didn’t mean I was in trouble. So I denied it, and that’s when they called my sole parent to school; my father.

As the men in the fancy blue suits came into the school and spoke to me, my father arrived. Through a hate filled gaze he stared through the open door to the principal’s office and shook his head while placing a lone finger over his stubble surrounded mouth. His eyes pierced through me, filling me with a child like fear akin to finding a monster under one’s bed, the slow reaching hand that threatens to pluck your leg right off the edge of the bed and send you into an obsidian purgatory.

Needless to say, I was quieted by the sight of the gesture. And when the men in the fancy blue suits were finished talking to me, I moved out of the office to sit on the chairs by the receptionist’s desk. She looked at me sadly, though, at the time I could not understand why. I remember seeing the circular glint of metal on one of the men’s belts as my father walked into the room. I caught his eye as he looked back at me angrily, causing me to draw and try to hide the frightened tears welling up in my eyes.

The men in the blue suits walked out of the principal’s office, followed shortly after by my smiling father. He laughed with each of the men as they bid him farewell, then he grabbed me by the shoulder and led me out the door. I remember the smiling faces of the men as I tried to get away from my father.

.

In the hours following, I found myself beaten and bloody laying in my closet, as I clutched my knees to my chest, wishing deeply for the darkness to take me. I looked up to the cross bar where my clothes hung and eyed the thing leather belt that went with one of my dresses. It wasn’t the first time I looked at it like that, though it was the first time I acted on those urges.

I stood, gripping the thin leather cord tightly as slipped the end through the buckle then tied it onto the crossbar next to the selection of dresses given to me by my mother shortly before she died. Standing up fully now, I worked my head through the small loop in the belt, then gently began to lower myself, smiling as I felt the circulation slow and the oxygen restrict. I’m finally going to be free.

I heard a faint crying sound as the door to my closet slid open and a beautiful girl in a purple velvet dress stood there, looking at me through her tear strewn eyes. I remember thinking that she was a ‘big kid’ as she worked the knot free of the bar and helped me down onto the ground, though, she couldn’t have been older than twelve. She slid the belt off from around my neck and regarded me sympathetically. She felt familiar, and in that moment, I thought she was an angel. I smiled and tried to speak, though, nothing but a hoarse whisper escaped my mouth.

The girl in the velvet dress stood and looked at me and the tears continued to stream down her face, though she didn’t speak. She reached down and took my hand, helping me onto unsure feet and guiding me through the house, towards the back door. I recall looking into my father’s room as we passed and I saw him sleeping in bed. His red blankets pulled up snuggly to his chin. He was smiling as if satisfied with his prior work.

We entered the cool breeze of the outdoors and she led me down the path to the front of our house and onto the sidewalk, dragging me behind her as we ran. She looked back and smiled reassuringly several times, though at the time, I wasn’t sure why.

After some time, we found our way to a large brick building where many men in those fancy blue suits from before – the policemen – were milling about. I looked around in awe, completely immersed in this world I hadn’t known about. But as I felt my empty hand, I frowned, and began looking around frantically for the girl that had brought me here. She was nowhere to be found.

When they saw my dirty dress and bare feet, they asked if I was lost. I shyly hid my face in my hands, unsure of what to say to these large men in blue suits. They sat me down and gave me hot chocolate, something I hadn’t had since the days when my mother was still alive. It tasted so sweet that I eventually talked to them. They asked how I got there and I simply told them that I’d followed the girl in the velvet dress. They looked confused, but asked if I could lead them back to my home. I did, even though I didn’t want to go back.

When we got back, they decided to try and wake my dad up, and had to call more of their friends. He must have been heavy because they needed to put him on a bed and carry him out. One of the men was crying when he’d found my diary, at the time, I didn’t know why.

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The world faded into the periphery as the years passed with reckless abandon, and though my life had been changed by that night, I’d never attributed the event to her. Therapy had dulled my recollection of the night and after some time, I’d written her off as some figment of my traumatized imagination. My father had died, and though for a time I didn’t know why; I was glad it happened when it did.

The officers thought I was the one who killed him, though judgement was not passed onto me after they discovered my diary. They’d ruled it as self defense, yet I’d never laid a hand on my father, despite the numerous times he’d laid hands upon me. In the endowment of his will, I received the house, and though my mom’s sister and husband helped to sell it, they’d kept all of my mom’s items that had been in storage.

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When I was sixteen, and full of life, I found a job at a local diner in town. The food wasn’t the best, yet, it gained popularity among the night crowd for being the only one within the span of a few blocks to be open twenty-four hours a day. Unfortunately, as I proved myself more and more reliable the owner began to suggest putting me on nights, and after two years of working there, he finally did on the day after my eighteenth birthday.

It was a typical night. One where the smell of drunken men would come in and hit on the single waitress that brought them their waffles at three in the morning. The world passed along in dark obscurity outside the window and after some time I found myself all alone in the diner.

I had been washing dishes and organizing the mugs for the morning rush when I heard the sound of the door opening to the front. Sighing, I walked through the diner to the hosting desk, expecting to see another group of young inebriated men just waiting to reach out and grope me. Yet, to my surprise, no one was there. Assuming it was just another bunch of young, dumb high school kids, I returned to my tasks when I suddenly heard a voice in my ear.

“I have something else you can clean.”

I turned in horror to see an unkempt man standing behind me, wobbling with drunkenness as he smiled. He began to move towards me and I took a step back, fear rushing through my veins as he clamped one of his clammy hands on my wrist. I screamed.

“Ain’t no one else here for you to call for help there sweet-heart.”

I screamed again and this time the man’s face went slack as he looked behind me. His eyes full of confusion, “who’s that then?”

I turned to peer over my shoulder and there she was, a small twelve year old girl in a beautiful velvet dress. Her eyes were full of hate and malice as she strode towards us and the man stumbled back. As she passed, she smiled at me and I immediately remembered what she had done to my father all those years prior.

She launched herself onto the man and dug her fingers into his neck, causing blood to spurt out all over the restaurant’s carpet. He screamed in agony as she repeatedly clawed at him and dug into him, tearing flesh off of him as he writhed in pain. When she was finished, she stood calmly and walked over to me; blood dripping off the hem of her dress.

She took my hand and led me out of the restaurant, into the silent night. This time there were no tears on her cheeks. She simply smiled at me, as if she knew of the fate she’d saved me from. I was afraid of the power she wielded, the agonizing death she’d given that man and my own father, yet I felt so comfortable in her presence. Not knowing what else to do and afraid of what she may do if I resisted, I let her lead me out of the diner and down the beaten path towards my house.

She led me to the house I’d lived in since the day my father was found dead in his bed. Though I hoped she would stay longer this time, allow me to thank her for all the help she’d given me over the years, I knew she couldn’t reply and that like last time she’d have to leave.

She led me through the front door and into the attic of the house, holding my hand all the while. She led me to a small box that I knew contained my mother’s items. It was a box I hadn’t dared to open for fear of what would be kept inside, I was afraid of the reminders of what my father had done to me in years past. I turned to her, scared of what I might find inside, but to my dismay, she was gone.

I turned back to the box, and wept.

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After some time, I mustered up the courage to sort through my mother’s items when I came across a picture that caused my breath to catch in my chest. The picture was dated to the year I was born and was taken in the hospital shortly after my arrival. I was cradled lovingly in my mother’s arms and she was smiling down at me. Standing next to her bed was a young girl and my father. The girl’s eyes were wide with wonder, and my father’s eyes were trained on her, with a hungry sort of lust that I had only ever seen when he looked at me.

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I turned the photo over.

Today October 7, 2001 Kayla Smythe was born. Her big sister and dad watch with excitement as her mother cradles her.

My heart thudded hard in my chest.

I turned back over the picture and looked at the girl on the front.

My sister, In her beautiful velvet dress.

They’re Not Wolves

Their howls pierce the night like nails on a chalkboard, my skin breaks into goose flesh as I cower in the closet of my home. No one knows where they came from and I’m afraid if they continue on their hunt, I’ll surely be dead by morning. Authorities aren’t responding, the lines weren’t built to accommodate all residents calling at the same time and now no one can get through. The signal on my cell ran out a little while ago and landlines are all jammed. I tried to help, and when I couldn’t, I tried to call for help but now they’re all dead and I’m all that’s left. I don’t know how much longer I can hold out here, I’m typing this on my phone as I hide, hoping beyond all hope that someone can send help.

I should probably let you know what’s happening.

I live in the small town of Caroline, Alberta. It’s a dreary, little town with a very insubstantial population of five hundred and thirty people. It’s primarily a farming town and if you followed the highway that bisects us east, you’d see nothing but farmland for hundreds of miles. It stretches as far as the eye can see. If you head west, however, you would find yourself surrounded by the expanse of wilderness where they came from.

I work at a gas station located in the center of the city. It is the only one in town, it’s the only one we need. The spaces between pumps are wide to allow for tractors and all other manners of farming equipment – not that they’re merrily driving their tillers through here, don’t get the wrong idea – so no one really needs another gas station, nor do they expect one. There’s only five hundred and thirty people in town, what do you expect.

You probably don’t care about all that anyway, probably just thinking to yourself, “what are they?” Well to be frankly honest, I’m not sure, we initially thought they were wolves. Now, well, as I said, I’m not sure. But they certainly aren’t wolves.

The howls had initially erupted yesterday morning around eight. See, this close to the mountains, you’re bound to hear wolves howling in the depths of the night, as they struggle to locate each other in the darkness of night. We’ve never heard them this early though. Or this close.

I was on shift, I alternate every twelve hours with Bobby. I get the morning and afternoon shift, he gets the night shift. On the weekends we get Hank and Lloyd to run the shop. We also have a couple part timers from the local high school. At least we did, but now I think they’re all gone. The howls were loud enough to be heard from the inside of the store and for a moment, I thought they were inside the store. See, we have double pane windows and doors on account of semi trucks being loud as all hell when they idle. Management thought we could use the quiet so they made the store as soundproofed as possible. We could barely hear the Semis with all the glass, so in order for any sound to come through the store at that volume, it would have to be tremendously loud.

I’d placed down the book I’d been reading and rushed over to the window to see what had produced such a noise, but saw nothing. Opting to leave to go investigate, I grabbed the safe keys and shoved them into my pocket. I wrote a “back in 5” note on a slip of receipt paper and taped it to the door then let it swing closed. I left it unlocked. Now, I know, irresponsible right? Well, it was eight am in the damn morning, farmers around here are up well before that and gas up nearer the end of the work day. No one was going to be coming through that couldn’t wait five minutes for me to get back to my post. Calm down.

I walked out onto the long since faded asphalt and stared down the empty road to the treeline beyond. In a big city, an empty street is a red flag, in Caroline, it’s the norm. At this hour, everyone is either working or too old and is withering away in their home. Only ever leaving their homes to go to the only diner in town for the 3:00pm early bird special.

The first one ran across the street then. It’s pale form scuttled across the asphalt, limbs flying out in various directions as it ran. It was a quadruped, and appeared humanoid in shape, however it had two distinct arms emerging from where it’s shoulder blades should be and it was horribly emaciated, as if it hadn’t eaten in weeks, if not months. It’s skin was pale and pulled tight across its bony body. I could hear its joints cracking as it moved.

It ran straight up to the front door of a house that stood on the street side and barreled through it, as if the door wasn’t even there. I heard the startled screams emanating from within and turned to run back to the station. I got to the door and flung it open, ran to the counter and hurdled it. I anxiously swept my hand underneath where the register was, breathing out a sigh of relief when my hand found purchase on the double barreled shotgun underneath. I knew it was loaded, that gave me two shots. I dug around in pocket and pulled out the key to the safe. Bending down, I opened the false cupboard and jammed the key into the lock, turning it as I grasped the handle and pulled.

Inside, there was a stack of cash to replenish the register if necessary, some coins, a log book for the cash and a small box of cartridges for the shotgun. I grabbed the box and counted its contents. 8 more rounds, all buckshot. That gave me ten shots total.

Now I’d been hunting plenty of times. You take a week off and go stay out at your friend’s cabin. Spend the first night scouting with a red flashlight looking for eye flares and then the next day you try to find the animal in the area you had seen the eyes. This was a little different though. This would be like hunting a moose, if the thing charges, I didn’t think I’d have much time to get a shot off. The small amount of reserves I had meant I would need to make every shot count as I worked my over to Lloyd’s house.

Why Lloyd? Because Lloyd is the person I’d go hunting with. He may be a coworker, but as far as I know, he keeps his small arsenal at home well stocked. If anyone would have a means to eradicate whatever those things were, it would have been him.

I ran up the street towards Lloyd’s house and saw several of the creatures laying on the ground out front; an inky black liquid spreading on the ground beneath them. I saw Lloyd standing in his doorway, cigar in one hand, shotgun in the other. He looked at me and gestured hello with his cigar. I began moving towards him, my shotgun bobbing as I ran. When I drew near however, another howl erupted over the town, sending me to my knees as my eardrums threatened to burst. I clamped my hands over them in time though, throwing my shotgun to the ground in the process. Lloyd wasn’t so lucky, he lay on the ground writhing in pain. I got up and stumbled over, worried for my friend.

Blood ran down the sides of his face and onto his hands, which were now clamped over his ears. By the sheer amount it was evident his eardrums had burst from the sudden onslaught of noise. He reached over and grabbed his shotgun, dragging himself up off the ground onto unsteady legs. It was clear is equilibrium was shot. He aimed the gun at me and I froze, was he going to shoot me? But he flicked the barrel off to the side, gesturing for me to move. I stepped out of the way and turned to see the creatures standing up, the inky substance that I had assumed was their blood was flowing back inside of them.

I cursed and ran back to my gun. As I was picking it up, a sudden gunshot shattered the silence that had unknowingly descended over Caroline. I snatched up the shotgun and turned to see Lloyd falling over; the recoil of the shotgun blast knocked him off balance and sent him back to the ground. Two of the creatures pounced on him tearing chunks of flesh off and shoving them into their mouths, which folded open to reveal numerous large and sharp teeth.

I mumbled out “Jesus Christ.”

One of their heads snapped over to me, a low guttural noise escaping from the depths of its throat. It leaped off of Lloyd and ran straight at me. Readying my shotgun, I braced myself and fired. Buckshot sprayed through the air and peppered the creature’s face, turning it into a chewed up pile of flesh. This sparked the attention of two others. I turned and ran, breaking the shotgun getting ready to slide another cartridge into the chamber.

My heart beat with a frenzy as the fear gripped me and my hands began to shake. I pulled a cartridge out and was about to slide it in when I fumbled it and it fell. There was no time to retrieve it so I pulled out another and managed to slide it home. I snapped the shotgun back together and turned almost screaming as I saw the monsters were no more than ten feet away from me now. I shouldered the shotgun and fired off both rounds in quick succession, nailing one in the chest and the other in the leg obliterating it entirely. The first one fell and stopped moving, dead. For now. The second began to crawl after me, its stump digging into the earth as it pulled itself along.

I readied another two rounds and aimed right at its head, firing both rounds straight through. It slumped over, unable to move without its brain. I broke the shotgun once more and slid two more rounds in. Leaving me with four rounds total. I needed to find somewhere to hide.

I looked around and recognized the road I was on. It was my street! I mean in all fairness I had a one in four chance of ending up on the right street. I ran down the block, shooting one more creature on the way. Three shots. When I got to my house, I paled, the door was knocked down and I could see the thing moving around in the entryway. My palms got even sweatier and clenched tighter on the stock of the shotgun. I had to make these shots count. I ran into the house and shot the creature on the main level, it went down easily taking down a lamp as it fell.

A bounding sound reminiscent of a dog running sounded on the level above me. It shrieked as it came down the stairs, bounding towards me a top speeds. I aimed and fired once, grazing it’s leg but not slowing it. I shot again and it’s back legs exploded, but not before it had the chance to make its final leap.

It soared through the air and landed on me, knocking the wind out of me. It opened its mouth and was preparing to clamp down on my face while I failed around with my hands, desperate to find anything I could use to hit it with. I found the lamp.

I slammed it into the creatures head but it didn’t budge, I hit it again, and again and it finally let go when I sent the lamp’s base through its skull. The inky substance spewed all over me and I gagged. It smelled like a rotting corpse. The creatures body went limp and it fell on top of me. I pushed it off and struggled to get up onto my feet. When I was finally standing, I walked to the stairs and began to climb them, I knew the perfect spot to hide.

This is where we are now. I don’t know if this will even get out or if there’s any way for you to send help. The people of Caroline are gone but these creatures need to be stopped. So if you can, please, send help.

I just heard another howl.

Now I can hear them moving around downstairs.

Time In a Bottle

Written By Justin Tuts

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day
‘Til eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you

The singer strummed away on his guitar, plucking the notes with dexterous precision. I closed my eyes as the words enveloped me; hypnotising me with words like velvet, transferring me through time. Each note was precise, each strum deliberate, I looked across to my girlfriend and saw her smiling as the music carried her away. I reached out and placed my hand on hers, the softness of her skin a welcome, familiar sensation on my fingertips. 

If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I’d save every day like a treasure and then
Again, I would spend them with you

Her eyes fell upon me softly; bringing forth memories of travel, country roads, and the adventures we shared together. She smiled warmly, the first time I’d seen her smile since the accident. Color flushed in her cheeks, and she winked at me before she bashfully hid her face. My heart skipped a beat.

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do
Once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go
Through time with

My mind lingered on the promontory that was the night of the crash, when the world stopped for us, though kept spinning for me. I interlocked fingers with her, felt the tracing of her thumb on the back of my hand. I brought her hand up and kissed  it. 

“I’m sorry.”

Her smile faded as the singer brought forth the last decrescendo, his voice fading to little more than a whisper on the last note, his guitar slowly quieting under his skillful hands. The tear traced down my cheek as her hand dissipated within mine and she faded into the still silence that had befallen the bar. 

I finally opened my eyes. 

The Root of Your Desire

Written By Justin Tuts

“Hey kid” 

My eyes flitted erratically to the areas the light refused to reach with the feverish swiftness of a man hellbent on paranoia. Searching the narrow street in the spaces between the streetlamps and into the doorways of vacated storefronts for anything that could tell me where the voice had originated from. The shadows danced as I quickened my pace, flickering in the light as if they were reaching out to grab me and take me hostage. 

“Kid”

My blood froze as my ears picked up their deep vibrations. Bewildered, I turned; anxious to find the voice of this mysterious person and perhaps confront them. Demand an answer to the question that had been inching its way up my throat like bile. No one was there. 

The voice came smooth and deep, as if formed by velvet and refined in the depths of Hades; right next to my ear, “I’m right here.” I jumped, my skin rippling with goose flesh as I turned in a flurry, ready to fight or flee. 

He stood meer feet away from me, a tall and broad man in a nicely pressed pinstripe suit, a blood red handkerchief sat folded delicately in his pocket, it matched the tie that dangled from around his neck. He stood their, hands tucked behind his back, like a curator of a museum, eager to show his collection. 

He chuckled and bowed. It wasn’t a deep bow, but one that showed a certain amount of arrogant respect. As if to say ‘I know I’m the boss here, but I want you to feel special.’ He straightened and slid his eyes over my person studiously, as though trying to decide if I was another relic to add to his menagerie. 

“The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 19:34” He flashed a dazzling white smile, his eyes betraying the eagerness he had hidden from his voice. 

I looked at him, the fear waning momentarily as bafflement took over. “Huh?” 

He let forth another one of those deep and condescending chuckles, “Leviticus states we should treat strangers as if they were family, are you not a man of God? Come on Jonathan, you were raised catholic, correct? Tsk-tsk-tsk, you should know your important Bible quotes young man.”  

The fear struck deeper than it had before, inlaying in my nerves and running hot through my blood, “Listen man, I don’t know how you know my -”

“Name? Simple, I know lots of things, and I know what you need. You live your life in squalor, the mundanity of everyday life is plaguing your very core. You wake up to work a job you hate and don’t leave the office until its -” he paused, gesturing to the quiet and still darkness around him, “this.”

I wanted to run, I should have run, but my pride was holding me in place as the rage bubbled and boiled within me, “Listen asshole, I don’t know who you think you are, but you know nothing of me. I’m -”

“Working your way up? Going to reach the top someday? Come on Jonathan, you know better than that, you tell these lies to yourself as a means of rationalization. You struggle in vain to attempt to grant your life some small semblance of purpose in your mediocre life. You don’t understand the grand scale of things and your insignificant effect on the progress of mankind as a whole. You live your life questioning your very meaning and can’t even think up a consequential reason as to not off yourself. How many nights do you lay awake in bed, unable to pass into the realm of subconscious due to the lack of control you have, even on your own life? Two, three? I think it’s more than that, perhaps six or seven. You want to be great, to do magnificent things, but you fall short in every conceivable way. I’ve seen it many times before Johnathan. If you assist me in just a small way, I can help you.”

My mind tried feebly to wrap around the idea that this man this stranger had just surmised the entirety of my existence in a matter of minutes. My mouth hung agape, staring at the man as he simply smiled at me once more, returning his hands to their position behind his back. I tried to formulate an argument, but found myself unable, my mouth was dry, parched as if I had been the one talking.

I hoarsely managed, in a small and shaky voice, “uh, what – uh, what is it that you, um, want?”

He grinned like a child who just got their way as he brought a single gloved hand out from behind his back and dipped it into his suit jacket. He kept it in their momentarily as he dug around in the pocket within. He produced a small black almond-shaped object. It was blacker than anything I had ever seen, in fact it appeared to suck in the light around it, it felt hungry. He held it out on his flat palm and I simply stared at it not particularly anxious to touch the decrepit thing. 

Another one of those low chuckles escaped his lips “I want you to take this… seed, and plant it somewhere, anywhere of your choosing. And take care of it, nourish it. Allow it to grow and prosper. When it grows to a size where it can be maintained by the roots that hold it steady, and the fruit it bears ripen, you must eat one, but only one. For they contain your desires and will grant the wish you hold steady within your heart. This will allow you to experience a higher level of existence upon this mortal coil and rise to the top amongst your peers.”

Without thinking I reached out and plucked the seed from his outstretched hand, holding it close to myself immediately. I would not let this opportunity pass me by, I would get the life I deserve. The stranger smiled, his eyes showing a sign of relief mixed with something I couldn’t put my finger on. He turned on his heel and began to walk away while whistling to himself. 

Before I could stop myself I called out “Wait! You said I had to do something for you! What is it?” 

He didn’t stop moving as he raised one hand over his head in a wave-like motion, “doesn’t matter kid, you wouldn’t gain anything by knowing it”

And with that, the stranger was gone, fading into the ethereal darkness that had enveloped the desolate road that fateful night. His final words echoing in my head like the fabled whispers of ghosts, repeating and turning as I stared longingly at the black seed that now occupied my open palm. I clutched it and walked the rest of the way home. 

Home was an apartment that bordered one of the less friendly neighborhoods in town. The kind that frequented break ins and bar fights, late night shootings and STD fueled hook ups. Even though the building was decrepit and withering, I tried my hardest to make my apartment feel like a home. I welcomed its subtle flaws with open arms from the front door that creaked noisily when opened to the bathroom sink that was barely holding on at this point. You wouldn’t know it from the outside, but it was my sanctuary, a place away from the woes of the world; to spend my sleepless nights reflecting over the days events and the tasks of tomorrow. 

I planted the seed in a small ceramic planter and placed it by the window that overlooked the street and the stripclub across the road. Never being a natural at caring for plants myself, it had never occurred to me to ask about germination practices or growth phases, watering procedures, max size, soil type or anything even remotely relating to care for the plant that had come into my possession. 

After weeks of fearing I’d killed the thing, the first stem and leaf sprouted from the soil. A backwards-folding black leaf, no larger than a quarter stood on a single pin-sized stem. It’s edges were hemmed with a delicate gold that contrasted the fringes of darkness that emanated from the leaf. I looked as amazing as it looked ominous, and as I stood there, eyes transfixed on the clay-potted stalk, I felt both immense fear and resounding joy. My heart leaped while my palms sweat, my mouth was dry and my eyes were wide. I wanted to run at the same time as scream with insurmountable fear. In that moment, unable to determine the correct way to deal with two very conflicting emotions, I did what any sane man would do. I drank. 

The rye hit my lips in a familiar burn, scorching my throat as it worked its way down my esophagus. It didn’t take long after I set my ice-filled tumbler down that the warmth spread through my chest and into my veins, blurring the emotions bubbling within me. I sat on my dilapidated couch for a while, enjoying the buzz and absence of coherent thoughts as I stared into the blank television in front of me. 

After some time, the buzz started to fade. Not wanting to linger on the thoughts that led me to drink in the first place, I stood and maneuvered myself to the counter; mind set on refiling my tumbler. I glanced over to the plant to see it had grown significantly more in the time that had passed since I last saw it; the stalk now supporting several more of the dark leaves. I frowned and downed the glass once more, reminding myself that I couldn’t expect anything less from a plant that would make all my dreams come true. 

I was meandering around the thought when I heard a creak coming from somewhere in the apartment. It was one I recognized; as I’d heard it every day. The front door. I turned slowly and frowned, noticing that my body had started to feel quite heavy. I wasn’t drunk by any means, but I could feel myself fading as though someone – or something – had slipped something into my drink. I stumbled to the counter as a figure entered the room; eyes wild. He stared past me and initially, I couldn’t make out exactly what had been the object that drew such a malicious stare. In hindsight, however, I realized that he had been staring at the plant the same way I had. Eyes transfixed on the black and gold leaves, he started moving. 

By this point, although blatantly aware of the amount of danger I was in, my body continued to become rife with the weight of several men. My eyelids began to droop as I slid down the counter. As the weight became too much to handle I fell, my body shaking with fear as the final wave of unconsciousness crashed over me, plunging me into a world of oceanic blackness. There was a small sound coming somewhere from the waking world, penetrating the depths of the darkness; barely reaching me. 

Somewhere, a man was screaming. 


I awoke on the kitchen floor; stiff and in pain. I’d rolled onto my side at some point, this much was made clear to me by the pain shooting from my shoulder down my arm and the pins and needles that prickled at my fingertips. I scowled as I made my way onto unsteady legs, my muscles screamed their protests as I managed my way to the fridge. 

At this point, the final moments of the last time I was awake were but wisps in my head, like the remnants of a dream you’re aware you had, but can’t remember the details. Everything’s fuzzy, but when you mentally probe the thought appears as elusive as always, like poking a cloud with a stick and expecting it not to go right through. It wasn’t until I poured myself a glass of water that reality snapped back into place. For as I looked up from my glass, I saw the plant. 

Although small in the day prior, it had now grown exponentially. Blackened bark lined the base of the small tree, almost like it was scorched in a wildfire. Dark, twisted and mangled branches jutted out indiscriminately; each one tipped with a multitude of leaves. Although it remained in the ceramic pot I had placed it in, the roots had grown out of it, snaking down the sides and across the countertop, as if in search of additional nutrients. 

The tree itself seemed to be brimming with life and not from its sudden onset growth spurt. No, the treem appeared to be shaking, not in violent epileptic seizures, but small pulsating vibrations. The rattling allowed the leaves to catch glints of light and reflect them around the room, each one shining dazzlingly, alluringly. I must have stared at the tree for hours, completely enthralled by the enigmatic presence of it. I appeared to be inviting me in. Come here, feed me, love me, what else do you need but us?

I took a hesitant step towards it, every fiber of my being felt as though it needed to be near the damn tree, this Idol of growth and prosperity. Another step. My mind snapped to a realization, what had happened to the man that was in my apartment last night? He’d been walking towards me when I passed out and I’d heard screams, could that have been him? 

As the questions flooded my mind the fog that covered the dreamlike memories began to fade and I found myself staring at the tree with morbid curiosity. Perhaps it found its food. The stranger had said ‘When it grows to a size where it can be maintained by the roots that hold it steady, and the fruit it bears ripen, you must eat one, but only one.’ Did that mean it would bear fruit some time soon? Would I finally be able to break free of these chains that have bonded me to an unforgiving world? 


The tree stood proudly atop the counter. I’d brought several friends over to show them the exotic plant, they’d never left. As the tree grows so does my desire, the desire to see this to the end, to grab the fruit it bears and the life I could lead. This quintessential being of self sustaining magnificence would surely grant my every desire. I thought of all the good that could be done with it, and all the payback I could get. I spent hours daily basking in its presence, staring into the abyss each leaf contained. I began to wish there were more of them, more trees, more voids, more people need to experience what I’m experiencing. I’d thought. 

I was wrong. I was so wrong. 

As the week drew to a close, I took note of several pomegranate-looking fruit hanging on the branches of the tree, each one ripening at a quickened pace. I plucked them and tore one open, revealing small golden dew-like droplets within, each pulsating and undulating with a metallic shimmer. There were little swirls of blackness in the droplets as well, flitting around within as they chased each other. I lifted the fruit to my mouth and licked the dew off it. 

It tasted like heaven. The flavour filled my mouth with memories of everything good that had ever happened in my life. It showed me everything I’d ever wished for, everything I’d ever wanted. It showed me the happiest moments of my life, staring at the tree as it grew; spreading its vast network of roots across my living space. It reminded me of how I wanted more, needed more. I needed more trees, more trees meant more happiness, more happiness meant more trees. 

I stared in wonderment as the other fruit broke open in front of my eyes, each one filled with the black seeds the stranger offered. They spilled out of the sides of the fruit, piling on the floor and the counter around them. I began to pick them up with fervor, stuffing them into pockets and dishes, anything that I could hold them in. I rushed over to the sink and got to work. 

I hurriedly planted them, anxious to get more trees growing, I stuck some in cups, some in bowls. Each one got a small amount of water added to them. They began sprouting and growing almost immediately, turning my living room and kitchen into a jungle. I smiled to myself. Until the first one lashed out a root that took off my leg. 

I fell to the ground screaming, pulled out of whatever twisted euphoric hallucination I was living. The trees snapped and writhed hungrily each one sending tendrils of roots after me, I clawed my way into my room and slammed the door. 

Here I reside, afraid to move or do anything other than wait out the monstrous plants that threaten to break in at any moment. As the world fades to black, I’m afraid that it won’t take long until I become food for the horde.

The Homestead

Written By Justin Tuts

The winds howled outside, bringing with them an air of uncertainty that washed over our home; rattling the loose planks that lined the walls and tearing free the shingles that had long since expired. 

“We need to get down to the cellar Marcus!” 

I looked to my father whose fear stricken face was pale in the moonlight that poured through the newly formed hole in the ceiling. 

“Pa, we gotta wait for Jeremiah and Ma! They can’t be too far!”

Thin lines etched themselves into my father’s face, “there’s no time to wait son, come on. Move-”

His words were cut short by a tremendous gust of wind that shattered the window behind him, he launched himself to the ground on pure instinct as shards of glass were blown through the window and into the small space surrounding us. I brought my arm up to shield my eyes as I began to understand the dire situation. 

“Okay Pa! Let’s go! Hopefully they found somewhere to hole up!”

He struggled onto his feet, wincing as he removed a piece of glass that had lodged itself in his hand. 

“Hurry now Marcus! Right down here son.” 

I scampered over the floorboards towards the large cellar door that my father now held open. I furiously ran down the steep stairs as my father closed and latched the door behind him, barring it against the storm. A thin beam of light formed in the space between us and I looked to see my father holding a flashlight. 

The light bobbed in his shaky hands, ““Marcus, you see that rope? Bring it here.”

I nodded and ran to the rope that lay piled in the corner, like a rattlesnake resting in the sun. I picked it up and brought it to my father, who was now standing next to a large wooden support beam that was cemented into the ground below. 

I realized what he was doing and shot my eyebrows up, “Good thinkin’ Pa!”

“Stand with your back to the beam son.” He wrapped the rope around the beam and then my torso, then he looped it around his torso and tied it around his abdomen. “Hold on tight my boy.” 

He wrapped his arms around my shoulders and the pole, I could feel his muscles tightening as he held himself firmly in place. Outside, I could hear the wind picking up as the storm readied itself for another bout. 

My father mumbled a quiet, “I love you boy, you’re gonna be a good man.” right as the ceiling above us was torn free and debris was thrown around the room. 

I closed my eyes and buried my head into my father’s chest as the world around me erupted into chaos, his arms tightened around myself and the pole. His body soon began to shake from the strain of holding us in place as the storm raged around us. 

“Pa, I’m scared.” 

He said nothing as the storm continued on, giving us little chance for idle conversation. 

Hours passed before the storm finally let up and I was finally able to open my eyes. My arms were slick with blood and hurt from the multiple lacerations I’d sustained from the flying debris of the storm. Though, as I finally brought myself to unclasp from my father, I realized he was limp. 

“Pa, the storms over. You can wake up.” 

He leaned back, though his head lulled forward. 

“Pa, I’m going to untie us now. Then you can wake up.” 

I clumsily untied the tight knot in the rope between us. 

“Pa, you just sleep it off. When you wake up, we’ll bring you to the doctor. He’ll fix you up”

To my dismay, my father collapsed onto the ground before me, landing hard on his shoulder. I rushed to his side, noticing the large pieces of wood and glass embedded in his back. 

Above us the moon shone through the clouds indifferently, illuminating his smiling face as I rested his head on my lap. He just needed his rest. 

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