Friday, December 30, 2016

The Gal's 62 Days of Horror Christmas Takeover 28: Martin Berman-Gorvine


Festival of Lights
By: Martin Berman-Gorvine

Jeffy doesn't like his new house.  Mom says it is better than the old house on Sycamore Lane across town, which backed onto a fenced-off utility right-of-way that ran out of sight in either direction, the giant silvery towers bestriding the landscape like Martians out of H.G. Wells, only instead of being felled by earthly germs, Mom says they infect people with cancer.  But the old house had a crawlspace underneath where Jeffy, who is eight and puny for his age, used to play alone with his Power Rangers and his Star Wars action figures.  The new house is an aluminum trailer whose outer walls made a crushing sound like thunder if you slam into them hard enough.  Mom won't let Jeffy play in the overgrown grass of the trailer park; she says it's cause she doesn't want them getting cut on the glittering shards of bright green and dark brown beer bottles, though he has an idea she's afraid one of the neighbors will stab him.  They seem harmless enough to him, Mr. Smalls with his grizzled kindly face on the right as you go out the front door, the little old lady on the left who's always in her threadbare navy blue bathroom when she wanders outside to collect her mail mid-afternoon.  True, there's a mean old dog always barking somewhere two or three rows down, but he's no danger to anyone who stays outside the ringing radius of the thick chain he's tethered to a tree with.

            Or maybe Mom is more worried about the woods that spring up just steps beyond the trailer's back stoop, the deer that she says lurk in there carrying ticks that carry Lyme disease, which Jeffy imagines must make your skin break out in enormous oozing green boils.  "I've heard foxes barking back there, and there could be bears," Mom says firmly when Jeffy protests that it's too hot and stuffy inside the trailer, even with the air conditioner running so hard you have to raise your voice to talk over it.  Besides, his room smells of mildew no matter how much Lemon Pledge Mom sprays it with, and his bedspread is old and ratty and printed all over with babyish light blue teddy bears.  But she won't hear reason, Mom won't, and so Jeffy doesn't get the chance to make one single friend all summer, which he knows will result as predictably as the approaching autumn in his getting beaten up every day on his way home from the new school.

            There are only three days of summer left when the Beast starts showing up in Jeffy's room.  When he first sees it, he naturally assumes he's having a nightmare, though he can't remember ever smelling anything in a dream, much less anything like the powerful pungent stink of musk off the beast, the stench so strong that for a moment Jeffy thinks there's a skunk in the room.  But it's no Pepe Le Pew, no, this beast is so big it takes up half the space in his bedroom, snorting and stamping and waving around the tremendous rack on its head so that it keeps banging against the ceiling with a metallic clang.  The tip of one of the antlers is on fire!

            Jeffy sits bolt upright in bed, clutching the blanket with both hands under his chin, his throat convulsing so he can't even scream.  When he finally does, it's a wordless shriek and Mom comes rushing in, terrifying Jeffy with the thought that the Beast will impale her the moment she sets foot in the door.  Instead it vanishes.

            "What is it?  Jeffy, what is it?"

            "M-monster," he stammers, letting the blanket drop, already feeling like a fool.  Of course she fusses over him, makes an exaggerated show of checking under the bed and inside the stand-up wardrobe.  As if the horned Beast could fit in such small spaces!  But it must have been in Jeffy's imagination, Mom says, and Jeffy is forced to agree.  Until the morning, when he sees a dent in the ceiling with a ring of ash around it.  And the next night, when the Beast is back, thrashing around even harder, kicking the blanket right out of Jeffy's hand with one of its sharp hooves.  This time two neighboring antler tips are on fire, both to the left of the creature's head.

            Jeffy's throat spasms just as it did the night before, but this time he swallows the shriek.  What would be the point?  Mom would only disappear the beast again and he would feel twice as foolish.  Worse, she might take him back to see Dr. Hahn in his medicine-smelling office, and the psychologist would smile his fake-happy smile at Jeffy and make him feel like an even bigger fool.  No, Jeffy would rather face the Beast alone, even if it means getting gored.  Which seems like an increasing certainty the more wild thrashing it does.  But after butting the ceiling again, leaving two ashy indentations where before there was just one, the Beast vanished again.  The following morning, when Mom comes to get Jeffy for breakfast, she frowns at the mess.  "Can't you pick up your things, Jeffy?  It's like you don't even care about these toys I buy you!"

            Don't tell her.  DON'T TELL HER!  "Everything WAS picked up, Mom, but the Beast came back last night and it messed up my room!"

            "What beast?"

            He shouldn't have opened his mouth in the first place, but now that he has, he can't get out of it.  "The m-monster that was in the rom the night before last, when I yelled..."

            "Oh."  The lines on Mom's face shift around, and end up mostly pointing down.  "Jeffy, I told you that it was just a bad dream.  You can't blame bad dreams for messing up your room.  This is a small space; you have to keep it neat!"

            "Yes, Mom."

            "Now come on, we have to eat quick.  My shift starts in less than half an hour."  Mom's already dressed in a powder blue apron for her work cleaning noms at the Pine Valley Motel.  Which means Jeffy is gonna be stuck till three o'clock watching cartoons in the stuffy, windowless lounge.  He knows better than to complain, though, not if he doesn't want a swat on the behind.  Besides, watching TV in the motel beats sitting around in the trailer wishing t heir on TV got cable instead of only receiving a blurry broadcast picture through an old rabbit-ear antenna.  So he dutifully helps out by making his peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich on white, bagging it and putting it in the battered old backpack he will have to take to his new school the day after tomorrow.  For a change, their battered old gray Chevrolet Celebrity starts without complaint and deposits them at the motel fifteen minutes later without incident.  Jeffy spends the time staring out the window at stoplights and storefronts, wishing his Nintendo DS hasn't gotten stepped on and broken in the move.

            Shawn, the motel desk clerk, greets them with a scowl.  He isn't the owner and can't fire Mom - Jeffy knows that, but he's still afraid of the fat man in his stained Harley Davidson T-shirt and bushy, uneven ginger-and-gray mustache.  It's his temper Jeffy fears, remembering vividly the screaming rant he let loose back in the spring when he burst into the lounge bellowing that Jeffy had the Disney Channel on too loud.  Mom had come running to rescue him, which was a belief but made Jeffy feel secretly ashamed, so this time he's careful to turn it on real soft, almost too soft to hear the flying robot cars challenging each other to duels.  Jeffy creeps closer to the screen, and closer still, reaching out to turn off the lights so that nothing takes away from his enjoyment of mental shrieking as it crumples.

            With the bright light streaming from the TV screen itself, Jeffy isn't scared of the dark.  He isn't alone in his bed with a fire-horned Beast waiting to strike; he's soaring with those robot cars over a sparkling city.  He doesn't hear the little rustling noises coming from the baseboards, and if he does he assumes it's just mice in the walls - Pine Valley Motel isn't exactly a five-star establishment after all.  The first he knows anything is amiss is when three burning antler tips get between him and the TV screen, with two red, glowing eyes the size of small eggs right behind them.  Jeffy's screams mingle with the Beast's roar and he jumps to his feet, leaping backward as an enormous hoof staves in the screen in a cascade of sparks and a stink of burning insulation.  By the light of the electric sparks, Jeffy can see the thing's teeth.  Long and sharp as steak knives, they are, colored a fearsome shade of yellow with brown stains on them.  He screams again and dodges around the room, grabbing frantically for the doorknob, but his hands are slippery with sweat and he can't get a grip and has to jump out of the way when he sees the three flaming torches heading straight for him.  He's all the way over on the other side of the room when the door bangs open and a voice booms, "What did I tell you about keeping it - What did you do to my TV?"

            At least, afterward, Jeffy figures that's what Shawn the den clerk must have said because he can't say anything anymore, not after the howl he let out when the flaming antler skewers him.  Jeffy almost slips on Shawn's blood, scrambling past, but he makes it as the Beast is tugging hard, trying to free itself from the desk clerk's twitching body and shredded Harley Davidson T-shirt.  He staggers out into the parking lot, where Mom is trudging past with her room-cleaning rig, and then it's screams, flashing red and blue lights, cops nothing like the ones on TV, they at like maybe HE killed Shawn Watkins (who knew, says Mom afterward, that the creep even had a last name?).  Mom is awesome - she screams at them not to be morons; obviously some crazed addict broke in and killed Mr. Watkins, and it was only luck that Jeffy survived, so grudgingly the cops ask him what the killer looked like and he gives them a dead-on description of the bad guy in the detective show he watched last week when Mom was out shopping.

            With all the excitement, he missed the first day of school, and the second, but the Beast never misses a night - four tips burning, then five, the newest one lighting up the right-hand antler.  When there are four tips lit up on that side, for a total of eight (Jeffy is good at math), well then, the entire rack will be alight, and something terrible is going to happen then, Jeffy just knows it - something more terrible even than what happened to Shawn Watkins.  But he's powerless to stop it.  He can't do anything but wait, wide awake in bed, for the Beast's nightly visitations, and dodge clumsily when it arrives, bellowing and burning and leaving those little dents in the ceiling.  Mom seems to sleep through it all, never noticing a thing unless Jeffy comes and wakes her, which he tries not to do because that business at the motel really shook her up and she needs her rest.

            But finally Jeffy does have to start his new school.  Mom marches him to the office on the third day of class, all dressed up in a nice button-down shirt and trousers she ironed specially for him, so of course his new classmates are already sniggering at him by lunchtime and at recess someone kicks him in the butt so he ends up face-down in a mud puddle to shrieks of laughter.

            All that, and Long Division, and the Beast in the night, roaring and stamping and gnashing its wicked teeth from the pain of six antler tips burning.  How can the antlers have been burning all this time, and not have burned up, setting the Beast itself on fire?  It's a miracle - a negative of the sort of miracle Mom says Jeffy had, surviving the attack at the motel.  The other kids at school want to know all about that, but as usual Jeffy blows his chance and they just hate him the worse for it.

            "Come on!  My dad's a policeman, and he was telling my mom the other cops said you were there when a guy got killed!"  The boy saying this is half a head taller than Jeffy,with a wild tangle of black bangs half hiding bulging eyes almost as big as the Beast's.  "They say there was blood everywhere!"

            "I don't wanna talk about it," Jeffy mumbles, his eyes on a dirty streak on the tile floor of the school entrance hall.  If Mom cleaned the school, she would never be so careless.  Overhead, a poster insisted on "ZERO TOLERANCE FOR BULLYING."

            "Whaddya, too stuck up to talk to us?" the bigger boy says, shoving Jeff lightly in the chest while a bunch of other boys and a girl with long blonde hair stand around guffawing.  And they're standing inside the school!  Where are the teachers?  Jeffy knows a moment of incandescent rage before the usual dull hopeless surrender quenches it.  There's been a boy like this at all six school's he's attended in his academic career so far, and he knows in his heart there will always be one waiting for him wherever he goes.  He starts to walk around him to get to class, but the way is blocked.  "I ain't done talking to you!" the bigger boy snarls, bending down hands on knees so he's eye to eye with Jeffy.  "Maybe you didn't even notice nothing?  You some kinda ree-tard?"

            "Yeah, must be a retard, Tommy!" the blonde girl squeals with delight, and that's it, a done deal: Jeffy knows he's been assigned his nickname for as long as he goes to this school.  It would take a miracle to change it.

            A miracle.  The word comes back to him that night, when his eyelids slam open to the sight of the Beast demolishing his room worse than ever before.  Is Mom really going to look at the ruins, come morning, and think it was just Jeffy being messy with his things?  'Cause that's how it's gone every night till now.  It's a miracle too that the whole trailer hasn't gone up in flames, especially now that seven of the antler tips are aflame, four on the Beast's left and three on it's right... Jeffy yelps as he dodges the points on the antlers, the points on the dripping fangs, the huge enraged eyes.  Suddenly he can't take it anymore.  He lurches out of the room and wakes Mom up; she's grouchy, but she holds him and calms him down while the Beast, of course, vanishes back to wherever it came from.  A miracle.

            Next day at recess he sees Tommy standing in a loose circle talking to his buddies, including the blonde girl, Madison, who is on the other side and sees him coming first.  "Hey, Tommy, watch out, the Retard is trying to sneak up on  you!"

            "Was not!" Jeffy says hotly, barely managing to duck a blow.

            "Whaddya want, Retard?" Tommy demands.

            Jeffy pokes him in the stomach.  "You, me.  In the boiler room.  Soon as the last bell rings."

            There is much hilarity at this proposal.  Everyone wants to come see Jeffy get beaten to a pulp.  Of course they do.  And that's fine with him.  He cuts all his afternoon classes - something he's never done before in his life - to scout the place out, hiding when he hears the janitor coming, only to emerge again into the humid, ashy air and resume his search for the master circuit breaker.  He finds it just before the last bell rings and hopes there, his little hand on it, waiting for the bell and the covert stampede down the stairs to begin.  He doesn't have long to wait.  There are muffled giggles and the patter of many feet, sounds that might charm a grown-up who doesn't know any better.  "Hey, Jeffy," Tommy calls out in falsetto.  Madison shuts the door at the top of the stairs, which is just what Jeffy has been hoping will happen.  Then she tosses her blonde hair back and follows the others down the stairs, with Tommy in the lead, shouting, "Hey, Retard!  Come out and fight, you sissy!"

            "He's not coming.  He chickened out," Madison sneers.

            "Yeah," one of the other boys chimes in, "try's make ya look stupid, Tommy!"

            "Let's go find him and kick his ass!" Tommy roars, and turns back toward the stairs.

            Jeffy throws the circuit breaker and ashy, humid darkness descends like a soaking blanket thrown suddenly over everyone's head.  There's a scuffling noise and a sudden shriek, which Jeffy isn't sure came from the girl.  Then a roar, and eight flames in the darkness over two glowing red eyes.

            Behold, the Festival of Lights!


About the author:
Martin Berman-Gorvine is the author of six science fiction novels: Heroes of EarthZiona (as Marty Armon), Save the DragonsSeven Against Mars36, and The Severed Wing (as Martin Gidron), which received the 2002 Sidewise Award for Alternate History (Long Form) at the International Science Fiction Convention in Toronto in 2003.
            His short stories include: "Of Cats' Whiskers & Klutzes," which appeared in Brave New Girls; "Palestina," which was published in Interzone magazine's May/June 2006 issue, and was finalist for the Sidewise Award (Short Form); and "The Tallis," which appeared in Jewish Currents magazine, May 2002.  He is a professional journalist, currently serving as a reporter for the Bureau of National Affairs newsletter Human Resources Report.
            Follow him on social media: websiteFacebook pageTwitter; his musings on books, politics and life can be found on his blog.  He lives in the suburbs of Washington, DC with his wife, a teenage son, three orange tabby cats, to shy kittens, and a sort of Muppet dog.

The Gals 62 Days of Horror Christmas Takeover 27: Jon M. Jefferson


All That Glitters
By: Jon M. Jefferson

Snow.  Fresh snow.  Fluffy, crisp, snow that crunched under his feet as he padded through the yard to his mailbox.  Tendrils of cold wormed their way across his flesh.  He hadn't been prepared for it.  They predicted for weeks that the first snow of winter were still over a week away, nothing to worry about.  But this wasn't the first time the weather stations had been wrong.

            The empty mailbox screamed at him, an effect of the heavy white that covered the road.  Everything had shut down in the sudden onslaught.  Overnight two feet of the stuff had fallen and blanketed the world.  Road crews couldn't keep up.  It still came down.

            He had considered firing up the snow-blower earlier, but he needed gas and two cycle oil.  Both were a hike through the tundra his neighborhood had become.  He had heard all the closures on the radio earlier and even then he considered himself lucky to still have power.

            Gary scanned up and down the street, expecting to see the neighborhood outside, building snowmen, clearing driveways, or even as he was doing, questioning the whole thing.  But no one he could see had joined him outside.  Wisps of smoke rose from chimneys, but no movement other than the gentle susurration of the falling snow.  The quiet, unnatural brooding chilled his bones more than the cold itself.

            He turned with a shiver as he pulled his robe tight against his chest.  The trip back to his porch took longer than the trip to the mailbox.

            The icy wind's fingers scraped across the skin of his legs and belly from the bottom of his robe.  As he shivered through the chill, he gave a soft curse into his robe.  His warm breath brought on a deeper chill and he quickened his pace to the door.

            Once inside, he kicked off his boots and set them on the mat beside the door.  Janine would scold him.  She would go out of her way to remind him that kicking off his boots and the snow like he did would send it further into the living room.

            She didn't allow shoes of any kind on her living room carpet.  Not past the front door and the mat.  The cold and the snow weren't a good enough reason to punish those in the house.  Especially her.  She worked hard to keep the living room clean, keep it ready for presentation to any guest who may drop by.

            Gary chuckled at that.  They hadn't had visitors in quite some time.  Janine's tirades in front of little William's friends had scared them off.  What else would explain it?  The boy spent most of his time away from the house.  It'd been like that for a while now, longer than Gary could remember.

            The boy and his mother had gone at it like feral cats, and neither would give ground to the other.  That last fight, the one a few weeks ago, well, even now it made Gary cringe as he thought about it.

            William was 15.  Probably a typical teenager, rebellion was in their psyche and they couldn't go against their nature.  Gary remembered some of the fights he and his father endured when he was William's age.  Brutal; not quite bloody, but they m ay as well have been.  He never really felt at home till the time he moved out.

            Quiet and stillness had settled over the house.  The steady fall of snow outside pressed on the picture window in the living room.  The soft crackle of the fire's glow was lost to the widow's light.  He poked at the remaining log to adjust it before adding a couple more.  A fresh snap sent a shower of sparks up the chimney.  He turned and allowed the heat to warm the back of his legs.

            After a lingered moment in the radiant heat, he spun around and used the poker to lift the top of the cast iron pot hanging above the flames.  He dug into the liquid inside with a long handled spoon.  Bits of stringy meat and bacon mixed and swirled in the stew pot, a bean thickened gruel.  He withdrew just a portion of the stock with his spoon and blew on it before he sampled it.  He couldn't contain his soft smile as he recovered the pot.  Janine loved his stews, fresh from the fireplace.  He hadn't made them often enough this winter, supplies being what they were  now.

            "Won't be much longer," he said.  The words were for his benefit, his alone.  The time in his living room was the time to collect  his thoughts and clear his mind before he went to work.  His eyes had locked with the fire, prey to the dancing flames that had overtaken the fresh logs he added.

            "I'm sorry it's so late."  The words, the only ones that still registered after all the times he had played the message.  It had gone on for some time, a conversation between William and Janine.  The apology for the fight.  Gary had forgotten which one blamed the other after all this time.  He wanted them home for the holidays, like his mother and father so many years before.

            The day his father had walked out was a dark day, though Gary's mother had sworn he would always be with them for the holidays.  He couldn't see how.  His dad never even said goodbye.  It wasn't until years later that she shared the family recipe for their holiday stew, the same stew he hung over the fire now, a family tradition.

            He had gone to the basement work room.  Janine had never been allowed in the work room.  He liked the solitude, the quiet, the time away from the fighting.  He had built it himself.  One side of the room had been converted into a freezer/refrigerator.  The other side had been set up with washable walls and a sturdy table that worked as a butcher block and work bench.

            It had taken a few years, but he built up a decent catering business that focused on specialty meats and cheeses.  Recipes that had been handed down for years on his mother's side.  They took their charcuterie seriously and she had taught him well.  He had intended to teach William at one time, but the boy never took an interest.

            And then the fight...

            He couldn't get it out of his mind.  Sometimes people say things they can't take back in a fight, the things that hurt the most.  But he did apologize - he did, didn't he?  It was on the phone message.  Janine had spoken with him for a long time that day.

            Funny thing with that though - Gary's mother had said that his father was sorry too.  She said that he would be with them for a long time even if he was only there for the holidays.

            Now he remembers his father with a smile every time he makes his mother's Christmas stew.  Just like he will remember William.  He will be with them for many more Christmases to come.

About the author:
Jon M. Jefferson writes Speculative fiction with forays into Noir and Bizarro.  His stories have appeared in the 2013 Indies Unlimited Flash Fiction Anthology, the Weird Tales Magazine website, and in Siren's Call Magazine.  His work can also be found on Amazon and Smashwords.  Flash fiction stories can be found at his site Misadventures in Strange Places or his anthologies, short stories and novellas can be found at his Amazon Author Page.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Gal's 62 Days of Horror Christmas Takeover 26: John McNee


The Tag
By: John McNee

You wake up one morning and don't know who you are.  You lie in bed trying to remember how you got here, but you can't.  You go to the bathroom and stare into the mirror, but the old man staring back at you is no one you recognise.  You wander the house, searching for some clue that will revive your memory, but find nothing.

            You try very hard not to panic.  And then you panic.

            At the hospital, you face a barrage of tests and too many questions for which you have no answers.  The paramedics who attended your home found your wallet and ID.  The hospital has accessed your records and have all your information, but when they show it to you, all you see is a jumbled blur.

            It is more than 24 hours before you speak to anyone who seems able to help.  They call her a specialist.  Her name is Dr. Allahan.

            She gives you a magazine and asks you to read one of the articles aloud, which you do.  She then gives you a card on which are typed two printed words and asks you to speak them.  You try, but you cannot.  The letters make no sense to you.  Whatever the words are supposed to say, it is indecipherable.

            "It's your name," she says.

            You tell her you might have guessed.

            "You appear to have suffered an acute brain event, not dissimilar to a stroke."  She smiles as she tells you this.  "Do you know what a stroke is?"

            You tell her yes.

            "The cause is unclear," she says.  "The way in which it has attacked your memory centres, effectively erasing your identity, and preventing you from relearning it, suggests it may even be psychological.  But the scans do show evidence of... damage."  She hesitates over the last word.  "Are you aware that it was your birthday yesterday?"

            Yes, you say, but only because you were told.

            "Perhaps coincidental," she says, though she sounds unsure.  "I can say that it's a very unusual case, but not completely unheard of.  In fact, I was recently reading about two startlingly similar cases from earlier this year."  She smiles again.  "Perhaps it's catching."

            You ask her if you will ever remember who you are.

            "It's possible," she says.  "There are certain therapies we can try, though I should warn you that they have not proven particularly successful with those other cases I mentioned.  Given time, of course, the brain may repair itself.  However..."  She glances down at your case notes.  "Given your age, time may not be on our side.  Frankly, this may be something you have to learn to live with."

            That's impossible, you tell her.  Impossible.

***

You learn to live with it.

            A case worker accompanies you home and  helps to make some sense of your surroundings.  He leaves once you've convinced him that you can make it from your bed to the bathroom and back without killing yourself, but he returns the following morning.  He visits you every day for the first few weeks, but then his visits become more infrequent, till eventually they cease altogether.  During this period you learn how to complete simple tasks like a trip to the supermarket without making a complete ass of yourself.  Complications prove inevitable.  You have no idea who you are.  But you make a habit of carrying documentation explaining your condition, along with a phone number for Dr. Allahan.

            You get by.

            They put you in a support group for people who have suffered strokes and brain injuries.  You attend twice a week.  The intention is to teach you coping mechanisms, but what you really learn is humility.  There are so many others, it transpires, who suffer with afflictions far worse than yours.  The catastrophes that have engulfed their minds have made things like comprehension, communication, even basic movement almost impossible.  And somehow you struggle on.  They learn to live with it.  Your only disability is you have no idea who you are.  Is that so bad?

            Eventually you come to the conclusion that it is not.  You don't know who this man is whose life was once your own, but you are able to make a few assumptions about him.  At the hospital, they had no record of any next of kin.  No address can be found in your home.  The phone does not ring during your recuperation.  No concerned friends, family or neighbours stop by the house to see how you're doing.  What you infer from this is that there are no concerned friends, family or neighbours in your life.  You appear to be a man who has lived decades without making a single human connection. You wonder how this is possible.

            You are retired now.  Dr. Allahan and others have told you what you used to do for employment, but you can't keep the information in your head.  With no family, friends, and no work to occupy yourself, your days quickly become a tedious bur of TV watching, interspersed with visits to the grocery store and the support group.

            Your memory does not improve.  But at least it doesn't worsen.

            "What you need is a hobby," says Dr. Allahan, during one of your increasingly infrequent appointments.  "Something to occupy your mind.  Something that will get you socialising."

            You wonder what kind of hobby would suit a man like yourself.  For all you know, you were proficient at many things, but there's no proof of it now.  No memory in the muscles.

            Photography, you think.  One wall in your living room is covered in framed photographs, all landscapes.  No people in any of them.  It strikes you as lonely more than anything, but you imagine you must once have found beauty in it.  Perhaps you even had talent.

            The local college offers evening classes.  The participants are mostly retirees like yourself, looking for something to occupy their minds and stave off the rot.

            Your condition makes socialising difficult, but not as much as you feared.  Conversation flows when you ask people questions about themselves.  You remember their answers.  It's only when you're the subject that difficulties arise, but with practice you learn how to navigate your way through.

            After just a few classes you must conclude you are not much of a photographer.  But you stick with it.  You are making friends.  One in particular.

            Her name is Ruby.  She is divorced, with grown children and a large house on the edge of town that she can't stand to be alone in.  The photography class is just one of dozens she has taken to fill her days.

            You take a shine to each other.  Something about her obvious loneliness attracts you.  It's comforting to be in the company of someone almost as awkward as you are.  But there's more there.  Soon you both feel it.

            After a few weeks, photography class - and the rest of your classmates - fall by the wayside.  You and Ruby relocate to cafes, bars, the theatre.  Romance blooms as autumn leaves fall.

            Then something happens that you can't explain.  You take Ruby to dinner at a restaurant near your home.  Afterwards, you hope to take her back to the house for the first time, but it doesn't work out that way.  The restaurant is not one you've been to before.  You chose it for its location, its closeness to home, but you soon regret it.

            There is something about the people here.  Not everyone, but the staff and a few tables are watching you intently, glaring, as though they can hardly believe what they are seeing.

            You try to hide your distress.  Ruby lets you, but it is clear she can tell something is wrong.  You're halfway through your first course, and thinking about fleeing, when you look up and see a monster.

            He has the body of a man, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, but his head is a whirling sphere of molten flesh.  Rivers of liquid skin churn across his bones, carrying hair, teeth, nostrils, and ears like so much debris in the current.  And his eyes.  They grind against each other in the chaos, bulging and shrinking, but for a very brief moment they hover beneath his bubbling brow and fix themselves on you.  They are furious.

            The monster crosses to your table, points a finger in your face and unleashes a torrent of words you can make no sense of.  Panicking, you try to flee.  You try to take Ruby with you, but the monster is in her face now, shouting more nonsense with its broken tongue.  Incredible as it is, she seems to understand it.

            You pull her from the table and hurry her out of the door.  The rest of the diners and staff watch as you leave, the monster ranting indecipherably at you as you go.  Some applaud.  No one demands you pay for your half-eaten starters.

            You are relieved to make it out to the street.  Ruby stays with you long enough to ensure you'll be okay, then makes her excuses and catches a cab.  You return home alone.

            If ever you wanted to forget a night, it is this one.  But you can't.

***

Autumn turns to winter.  You do not see Ruby again.  You try contacting her, but she makes herself unreachable.  You soon get the message.  You do not blame her.

            The night in the restaurant plagues you.  You wonder about the monster.  What did everyone else see?  Was he just a man?  A man who knew you?  Your mind makes him unrecognisable.  It twisted his words so that they were incomprehensible.  Yet others understood only too well.  You wonder how it is that the mind could do something like that.

            You attend the support group meetings a few times.  You want to talk about the restaurant, but you can't bring yourself to do it.  Eventually you stop going altogether.

            You rarely venture out of the house now.  Even on a trip to the shops, you can feel people staring at you - or imagine you can.

            The nights grow long.

            You take to drinking more.

            In mid-December, you receive a Christmas card from Dr. Allahan.  It is the only one you will receive.

            On Christmas Day, you awaken with a bad hangover, the hands on the clock ticking towards noon.  You drag yourself to the bathroom and splash some water on yourself, then head downstairs, thinking of coffee and trying to decide on the liquor to cut it with.

            You halt when you reach the living room.

            A package sits on the coffee table, wrapped in glittering red paper and tied with a green bow.

            You are perplexed and concerned - how did someone get into your house?  When were they here?  Who would do this?

            But you're curious, too.  You cross to the table and pick up the gift.  It has a tag, but the writing is illegible.  You tear off the bow and the wrapping paper to reveal a small metal box.  You open it...

            ...And you remember.

            You remember your name.  The names of your parents, your brothers, the town where you were born.  You remember your schools and university and the sports teams to which you belonged.  You remember all your workplaces and colleagues.  You remember your friends, your lovers, the woman you married.  You remember the life you shared.

            Glancing around the room at the photos on the wall - you see them, all the people who were a part of your life.  Not landscapes.  The faces, hidden from you for so many months, suddenly resolve themselves into focus.  Finally you can see them.  You remember them.

            You remember it all.

            You remember the abuse, the threats, the brutal wielding of power.  You remember the violence and the repeated assurance of worse to come.  You remember a litany of crimes; the scandals that, when they came to light, brought an end to your career, tore you from your family and left you alone and unloved.

            You even remember the man from the restaurant now.  No one of consequence.  A member of the local PTA you'd met once or twice and knew of your crimes from the papers.

            And you remember the rest.  The scandals that never came to light.  The evil acts the papers never made public.  The secret horrors you managed to keep hidden from the wider world.  All the sadistic terrors you inflicted on those closest to you in service of your petty gratification.  You remember the inexcusable pain you caused others and the satisfaction you took from your own depravity.

            You remember the shame, the guilt, the constant agony of waking up each morning with the knowledge of who you are and all the terrible things you'd done.

            You remember who you are, why you are alone, and why you deserve to be.

            It was your birthday.  You received a package.  You opened it and found a small metal box.  At the time, you thought it was empty and threw it away.

            You know better now.  That box, you realise, released you from the knowledge of all that you are, everything that you were capable of and all the unspeakable acts you committed.  That box was the greatest, most generous gift you could ever hope to receive.

            The one you hold in your hands now is the most hateful.

            You spot the tag on the coffee table.  Its words are suddenly legible to you.  Through tears, you can make out the name scrawled at the bottom.

            And above it, the words: "To Dad, Merry Christmas."

About the author:
John McNee is a writer of strange and disturbing horror stories, published in a variety of strange and disturbing anthologies.  He is also the author of Grudge Punk, probably the only dieselpunk-bizarro-horror-noir anthology around.  His first novel, Prince of Nightmares, was published in January of this year by Blood Bound Books.  He lives on the west coast of Scotland, where he works "in magazines."

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Gal's 62 Days of Horror Christmas Takeover 25: Evans Light


Due to the craziness of the season, Evans and I spoke and, instead of writing a story for us (which he did last year, along with his brother, that spawned this month-long idea in the first place), his intention was to guest review a Christmas-themed horror on The Gal, something that has never been done before.
            Having read the book, which shall remain nameless, he found that there was absolutely nothing good he could say about it, and decided, instead, to do the following, which I am all gung-ho about...

As a Merry Christmas gift to everyone, my weird Christmas Tale, The Package, is free today on Amazon.  This bizarro-style story is a tribute to the weirder work of Joe R. Lansdale, based on a story prompt that came directly from the master himself.
            True Lansdale fans will find it to be stuffed to the brim with references to titles and themes of his numerous books and stories.  I hope you enjoy it, and wish each and every one of you the happiest of holidays.

You can find the link to the book - one of my absolute favorite Christmas short stories - here.  So, please, if you have not enjoyed this amazing story... or if you don't yet have it downloaded on your Kindle... head on over and grab it up now.  
            Wishing you and your family a very merry winter holiday!!


About the author:
Evans Light is a writer of horror and suspense, and the author of Screamscapes: Tales of TerrorArboreatumCrawlspace, and more.  He is co-creator of the Bad Apples Halloween anthology series.

The Gal's 62 Days of Horror Christmas Takeover 24: Jonathan Janz


Jonathan Janz, one of my most favorite people on the whole planet, has a busy December, what with his beautiful family, his students, and all of his commitments, but he didn't want to miss out on being a part of my Christmas Takeover, so after some discussion, we decided that him just doing a blog post would be perfectly acceptable.  

Another Reason for Horror Fans to be Thankful
By: Jonathan Janz

My kids are running around the house, and I'm eager to be with them.  I say that not to annoy you, but to explain my brevity.  Life is short, and as always, my children are growing too fast.

            I'm a person who believes in appreciating what I have and the positive things that happen, and maybe you're that way too.  I'm thankful every day of my life for my wife and kids, for my job as a teacher and my other job as a writer.  I'm thankful for all sorts of things.

            You know what else I'm thankful for?

            What's happening in horror.

            Maybe I should change the word "horror" to something else, because if you remove that word and look around you - at the worlds of books, television shows, and movies - you find something incredible occurring.  Not only has darker storytelling continued to bloom inside our genre, but it has so thoroughly permeated popular culture that folks who'd never admit to liking horror are now absolutely devouring it without realizing it.

            And it's only going to get better.

            You're holding a video camera.  You're the cinematographer of an impromptu film.  You also possess magical powers.

            I want you to ignore gravity, to become weightless, to unmoor from the earth and rise, helium-like, above the entertainment world.  What do you see?

            I see Stephen King, the best horror writer of all time, still telling amazing stories.  I see his contemporaries, writers like F. Paul WilsonJoyce Carol Oates, and Tom F. Monteleone, still telling amazing stories.  Go a little younger and you'll find writers like Joe R. Lansdale and Robert McCammon and Clive Barker writing some of the best fiction of their lives.  Keep going, and you see authors like Brian Keene and Gillian Flynn and Paul Tremblay and Joe Hill and Sarah Pinborough and Stephen Graham Jones and... and...

            And we can go all the way down to writers in their twenties who are already doing amazing things.

            Folks, we're experiencing a multi-generational boom.  And that's just in the world of the written word.

            What about television?  Stranger Things fits as snugly in the horror section as it does in sci-fi or mystery.  American Horror Story and The Walking Dead?  Clearly horror.  Even stories that no one would ever call horror have been venturing into darker territory than anyone would have dreamed only fifteen years ago.  Watch, for example, certain episodes of Breaking Bad and House of Cards and tell me there's no horror influence there.

            And what of film?

            Good gravy.  I can't go to a movie these days without hearing the echoes of horror.  Even kids' movies understand how important it is to make the Big Bad even badder.  How vital it is to make the audience experience real fear.

            Take Trolls, arguably the most innocuous kids' movie released this year.  How about the antagonist in that one?  She's never called a witch, but she might as well be one.  Ripped straight from the pages of the Brothers Grimm, the fearsome villains in that film was enough to make my kids burrow closer to me and formidable enough to make me shake my head in admiration.

            Even the sweetest kids' movies understand the importance of horror.

            So this holiday season, I'm thankful for many things.  Though it's not at the top of the list, one of those things is the current state of horror.  Popular entertainment doesn't always call it horror these days because that would be admitting the fact that most folks enjoy horror, even though they'd never admit it.

            But we know the truth.

            Horror is beginning to explode.

About the author:
Jonathan Janz grew up between a dark forest and a graveyard, and in a way, that explains everything.  Brian Keene named his debut novel The Sorrows "the best horror novel of 2012."  The Library Journal deemed his follow-up, House of Skin, "reminiscent of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Peter Straub's Ghost Story."
            In 2013, Samhain Horror published his novel of vampirism and human sacrifice The Darkest Lullaby, as well as his serialized horror novel Savage Species.  Of Savage Species, Publishers Weekly said, "Fans of old-school splatter punk horror - Janz cites Richard Laymon as an influence, and it shows - will find much to relish."  Jonathan's Kindle Worlds novel Bloodshot: Kingdom of Shadows marked his first foray into the superhero/action genre.  Jack Ketchum called his vampire western Dust Devils a "Rousing-good weird western," and his sexual to The Sorrows Castle of Sorrows) was selected one of 2014's top three novels.  His newest release is called The Nightmare Girl.  He has also written four novellas and several short stories.
            His primary interests are his wonderful wife and his three amazing children, and though he realizes that every author's wife and children are wonderful and amazing, in this case the cliche happens to be true.  You can learn more about Jonathan at his website.  You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, or on his Goodreads and Amazon author pages.

The Gal's 62 Days of Horror Christmas Takeover 23: Stephen Kozeniewski


Holiday Microfiction
By: Stephen Kozeniewski

Brightly Shining
Clyderium was shivering again, deep in their nest of panda pelts.  Troos-Troos clutched his friend's naked body until he stilled.

            "Thanks, T," Clyde whispered, "I don't think I'm going to make it to tomorrow."

            T nodded.  His traveling companion said the same thing every day.  Usually it was a drawn out battle of wills to get him to crawl out of the mound of fur, get dressed, and try to scrounge enough food to survive until the next day.  Today, though, was special.  Today was the one day of the year when he would not have to bluff and beg to get Clyde out of bed.

            "Have you forgotten the date?"

            That was enough.  Clyde draped himself in his favorite pelt and limped to the entrance of the cave.  T followed and, unbidden, handed Clyde the binocs.  Clyde scanned the sky from horizon to horizon.

            "Do you think it'll happen once this year?" Clyde whispered through his cracked blue lips.

            "It happens every year," T replied, "Like clockwork."

            Clyde nodded and continued to scan the sky.  Hours passed, and T's frostbite-blackened toes had frozen together before Clyde finally gasped and pointed.

            "Look!" 

            A tiny hole, no more than a pinprick really, appeared in the cloud of nuclear dust enveloping the earth.  Through it, Troos-Troos could just barely see the Star of Bethlehem.

            T wrapped his arm around his friend's waist, sharing animal warmth and seasonal cheer in equal measure.

            "Merry Christmas, T," Clyde said.

            "Merry Christmas."

Traditions
Granny clattered on the counter with a wooden spoon until the children stopped squabbling.  When they finally turned to pay attention, she smiled, baring each and every bright white denture with joy.

            "All right, little nuggets," she said, "Now granny is going to show you what to do.  Come up here."

            She lifted two-year old Benji and planted him on the counter beside the sheer metal stockpot that was almost as tall as him.

            "Now, Benji, this wax is very hot so don't put your fingers in and don't splash."

            "Yes, grandma."

            "Now start to feed the coil in slowly and let me know when you run out of length."

            Giggling, Benji did as he was told.

            "Granny, why do we wax the decorations?" little Suzie asked, her pinky hooked into the corner of her mouth.

            "So that they last, my dear."

            "And why do we want them to last?"

            Granny crouched down to Suzie's level, even though it pained her ankles.

             "Because it's a tradition, my dear."

            Little Suzie's eyes lit up with the wonder of excitement and recognition.

            "A t'adition?"

            Granny nodded.

            "Like when we invite a homeless person in for Christmas?"

            "That's right."

            "All done!" Benji announced, clinging to the last link of this year's holiday visitor's small intestine.

            Together, as they did every year, they draped the wax-dipped organ around their tree of horrors.  The attic was starting to overflow with their collection of decorations.

            "God bless us every one," Benji said joyously.

A Visit From...
A thump at the boarded-up window startled Dad into dropping the handful of shotgun shells.  He whirled around, leveling the unloaded weapon at the creaking boards.  The monster outside had long since shattered the glass, and now was pressing in the wood, testing its strength.

            For an endless moment, we all watched as the board bent without breaking, while the nails holding it up squeaked in agony.

            "Dad," I whispered, handling him one of the red shells.

            Without a word of thanks, he took the proffered ammunition and loaded it.  He quivered violently as he raised the granite to his eye, attempting to follow the path the creature was taking around our home based on guesswork alone.  He nearly blew Mom's head off when the next thump came from the back porch, instead of the front door as he had been expecting.  Luckily, he only managed to "kill" the peephole and litter the reinforcing boards with pellets.

            "What's that scratching?" Mom whispered.

            It was climbing the walls.  Two loud thumps.

            "It's on the roof," Mom mouthed, her tongue too dry to form actual words.

            All eyes suddenly turned to the fireplace, ironically, the only entrance we hadn't sealed up.  The monster dropped down through layers of soot and ash and approached us, whip and sack in hand, stopping only to leer at the Christmas tree.

            "Why couldn't you just have been gone this year?" Dad said, "Fine, take her."

            With that, he shoved me towards the grinning, hairy Krampus.

About the author:
Stephen Kozeniewski lives in Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the modern zombie.  During his time as a Field Artillery officer he served for three years in Oklahoma and one in Iraq, where, due to what he assumes was a clerical error, he was awarded the Bronze Star.  He is also a classically trained linguist, which sounds much more impressive than saying his bachelor's is in German.