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.

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