Sunday, December 31, 2017

Christmas Takeover 2017 5: Tim Majka

Welcome back for #5 of this year's Christmas Takeover.  I'm excited to have Tim Majka on today.  After reading this story, and getting to know him a little over this past year, I can't wait to read some of his actual work... and I hope you feel the same way.

Grab a hot cup of cocoa... get comfortable in your reading chair... 

Undying Devotion
By: Tim Majka

SPENCER  JOHNSON HAD A MORAL OBJECTION to combing over the remains of the dub-dead. But, it was the crew’s number one rule of surviving ‘The Rot’. People kept the important shit close. “Hey, check this, these people have been doin’ some crazy shit.” 
            Dean snatched the small book from his younger brother’s hand. “Let me see.” He thumbed through the pages. “Useless,” tossing the book back on the bed he continued, “if it’d shown a list of supplies or location of a stash, we’d have something to celebrate. These sentimental fuckers had up a Christmas tree and lights, ended up just two more suckers to burn.”
            Spencer scowled and straightened the Santa hat his brother had knocked askew. If we aren’t preserving the history, we’ll lose the humanity. What’s the point? He pocketed the book while salvaging anything else useful from the corpses.

*    *    *    *


Angelica pulled the ragged, cloth-covered diary from under the pillow and carefully opened to a fresh page. Recording the events since ‘The Rot’ swept across the world was therapeutic, hoping one day it would serve as a time capsule to an era people would just as soon forget. Hell, even Angelica had a hard time believing what she’d been doing to survive, keeping her one and only safe, sound, and breathing. 

Angelica not like those things.
God-forsaken, life-challenged, decaying, abominations.
Stop thinking, stop thinking, stop thinking, just write.

She put pen to paper: 
December 24, 2022
Dear Diary,
Christmas Eve, I had almost forgotten. 
To us, it's just day 90 since the Rot came.  If the emergency band on Mike's military short-wave radio is to be believed, the government will have it under control and be here within two weeks to clear the area and pick up survivors.  The cold weather seems to have helped. 
That's certainly what we are.
Greg and I are going on five days without an incident, thanks to Mike.  A record so far.
We may have hit on the right circumstances this time.  Praise to everyone who sacrificed for us to stay together at this point.  All of them hold a special place in our hearts, especially our little Tommy.  Today would have been his 10th birthday.  Our Christmas miracle.  Happy Birthday, T-man!  I hope you are having fun, wherever you are.  Mommy and Daddy love you so very much.
We're making a supply run soon.  It is getting to be slim pickings around here.  Greg thinks the farm houses may have fruit cellars storing homemade canned goods.
I don't want to think about leaving these four walls and risk losing him, not again, not after the last sacrifice.  It was hard on both of us.
Greg argued.
I insisted.
I'll be damned if I'm going on without him.
Can't and won't.
 Gonna sign off.  We leave right before dawn to check the houses outside of town.  Hoping for the best.
Who else but me? 😊 
She tucked the book back in its resting place and kissed her restless husband’s forehead. He felt cold. Another blanket was added. Drifting off, her mind wandering back to when she lost Tommy and almost lost her beloved …

ANGELICA WATCHED AND LISTENED from the storefront as her son snuck closer to this father’s location. He wanted so badly to be big and tough like his dad. 
            THWAAK!  SQUIRRSHH.
            “Take that motherfucker,” Greg Roberts stabbed the crowbar into the eye socket the Rotter, forcing bits of bone and puss-filled, mushy gray matter out the back of its skull. 
            “Oooo, Dad, good one!” Tommy Roberts peeked out from behind the mailbox by the curb. “But, why’d you hafta use the bad word? Help kill’em quicker?”
            “Sometimes. What’re you doing out here? Told you to stay with Mom.”
            “Awww, she wasn’t doin’ nuthin’ fun. Jus’ countin’ supplies. Booorrrring.” 
            The man knelt in front of the boy, cupped his face in his hands, “T-man, killing Rotters is not fun. People didn’t ask to be turned. I only do what’s necessary to keep you and mom safe.” He mussed his son’s hair and turned him around. “Those boorrring supplies are what’s keeping your belly full, go help. I’ll be right behind you.” He watched his son scamper off as he pulled a rag from his back pocket to wipe down his weapon.
            Then he heard it.
            “Rrmmm. Uhhhh. Mmrrr.”
            Greg spun, a Trotter-Rotter was closing, fast. “Fuck.” He yelled back, “Tommy, run to Mom! Now!”
            Yellow teeth clicked. The end of decomposing half-bent arms, gray-skinned fingers topped by long uncut nails grabbed at the air until snaring a patch of Greg’s shirt. His nostrils filled with the pungent odor of decay. He reached, but failed to grab his weapon. 
           The Trotter-Rotter’s body lurched forward, its knee bent in the wrong direction from force of the crowbar. Tommy hadn’t run to safety, instead he moved to help. Darting to the left, he swung – CRAACK – the other knee was obliterated.
            Angelica came running from the store with her own version of ‘Lucille’ in hand. She saw her soul mate topple under the weight of the Rotter. Tommy was trying to brace his dad and hand him the crowbar. Greg brought his arm in front of his face and caught the full force of an undead chomp.
            “Arghhh. Fuck. I’m bit. Get outta here.” 
            “Greg!” Angelica stopped her advance. “No!”
            The load of two men came down on Tommy. His head smashed into the concrete and his body was piled on, pinning him. 
            Angelica shuddered, raised the bat and sprinted towards the mass of humanity and inhumanity. With one swing, the head of the Rotter separated, bounced twice and came to rest at the edge of a building, teeth still clacking. She pushed the remains of the thing off Greg, only to see the thing of nightmares, a soul-less gaze coming from her lover’s once beautiful eyes. 
            The newly undead started to rise.
            “Angie, sweetheart, what the hell?” Tommy’s body scrambled from underneath his dad’s.
            “Tommy, oh God, you’re alive. Get up. Get up, now and run!” 
            “Tommy? Baby, it’s me Greg.” Now standing, he looked at his arms, legs, and felt his torso. “Holy hell, what happened?” He looked to see himself staggering toward Angelica. “Angie, kill that thing! It’s not me anymore. Kill it!” 
            “I … I can’t. I won’t hit your beautiful face. I’m scared. I can’t kill you.”
            He ran and leapt, sweeping down with the crowbar in both hands – THUNK – the curved end pierced the cranium, pressing into the rotting brain. The body slammed to the ground. What should be inside oozed out from the jagged hole. 
            Angie ran over and swept the boy up in her arms. “My big man, my hero. You saved Mommy’s life.” She kissed him on the cheek and held him tight to her.
            “Put. Me. Down.”
            She complied. 
            “It’s not Tommy, babe, it’s me, Greg. Not sure how, but it is.”
            Shock froze Angie’s face. “G … Greg, but, but. What the hell? It’s not possible. You hit your head too hard. You’re confused. Daddy’s gone baby. It’s just you and me now.” Bulbous tears dropped from Angie’s face and splattered on the ground. She knelt in front of the boy.
            “Angelica Joanne Roberts. Listen to me. It is your husband talking. I am inside Tommy’s body. I remember his final thought, ‘Please, God, just let Dad be okay, Mom can’t live without him’, then his soul, life-force, whatever, drained as mine filled in its place.” 
            “My baby is dead and his last thought was wanting us to be okay?” Angelica slumped, folded arms touched the ground, head resting on them. She forced out a deep breath. “How did he die?”
            “Not positive, but when the Rotter and my body dropped onto him, we all hit the ground. I think his heart stopped from the force of the blow. I rotted out from the bite and here we are.”
            “I … I, can’t look at you like this Greg. Not looking, sounding like our baby”
            “Maybe we’re both in here. I can feel his presence. Listen to me. I need you to look at me.”
            Angelica slowly turned, averting her eyes until she couldn’t anymore.
            “Don’t freak out. Just listen. I think we need to know if this ‘body jump’ thing was an accident or if we can make it happen.”
            “Wha … How? You don’t mean, we … we take lives to test this theory. Greg, that is twisted. I’d rather it be —”
            “What if T’s body rots out? Are you going to be able to put us down? I’m telling you it’s worth a shot.”
            “But, who?”
            A guilty grin grew on the boy’s face.
            “No, you can’t mean, not your brother.”
            “We were heading there anyway. He’s the damn ex-special forces, doomsday prepper.” Greg took his bride’s hand. “Maybe this body jump worked because of DNA. It’s the best plan. Besides if something happens to me while I’m in Tommy’s body, at least you will be safe with Mike—”
            “And I’ll still be able to look at your face every day.” Angelica furrowed her brow and kicked at the ground. “Let’s get packed up.”

About the author:
Tim A. Majka teaches high school social studies along the shores of Lake Erie, in his hometown of Dunkirk, NY.  He resides there with his best friend and bride, Bridget, their college-age sons, Jacob and Alex, and two rescue cats, Stanley and Corky.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Christmas Takeover 2017 4: Jay Wilburn

I decided to take a few days off to enjoy my first Christmas in Florida.  So we'll take over a little of January, too *shrugs*

Jay Wilburn is beyond awesome... great guy, super nice, hilarious, talented... and someone I'm very fond of.  After watching him almost die, then finally getting to meet him in person (and his beautiful wife) earlier this year, I have such an amazing respect for him and all that he has endured.  I can't tell people enough to buy his books, or to (at the very least) reach out to him on social media.  I promise that you won't be disappointed.
            Due to all that he was dealing with this time last year, he was unable to participate in Christmas Takeover last year.  Having him this year definitely puts a smile on his face.

I must admit, being a huge fan of A Christmas Carol, I got really excited when I saw the title of this one.  Sit back and enjoy...

More Grave Than Gravy About You
By: Jay Wilburn

Christmas Eve Day

Bob bent over his desk as Mister Screw throttled the man against the doorframe. Bob did his best to keep his lines straight in the ledger as their elbows occasionally struck the front glass in their struggle. No matter how many times he heard, he still startled as if it were the report of a flintlock. He did not know for certain how it sounded to the passers out on the street, but they turned their heads suddenly and staggered away from the storefront each time. Some nearly dropped their bundles or Christmas hams from under their arms.
            Mr. Gage, the one Screw had by throat, opened his fist and the pence he had brought to buy time on his debt rolled across the floor. Gage locked his fingers into the fabric of Mr. Screw’s coat. He seemed to do so out of desire to lift himself above the strangulation rather than any effort to continue the fight.
            Gage was a dockworker by trade. He was no frail character and Mr. Screw was as old as any Bob knew. But Screw had built up different muscle over the years to wiry perfection. Strangling a man or even a woman was no easy business. Gage himself attempting it for the first time might find himself needing to complete the job in shifts to rest his forearms and hands. Mr. Screw possessed the drive and determination of a reanimated corpse. Gage went purple, the capillaries in his eyes scratched their way to the surface of the whites in bright red, and his tongue swelled out between the gaps in his yellowed teeth.
            Then, Mr. Screw let go. He turned away and did not wait for Gage to complete the crash to his side on the floor. Mr. Screw collected the coins.
            Bob dared to pause from his transcription. “Do you wish for me to drag him out back, sir?”
            “Not yet. He’s still alive, Bob.”
            Bob craned his neck, causing his stool to creak. Gage did twitch and heave for air in forced hitches from his barreled chest. He might not be so for long. Bob felt sure Screw had cracked something small but vital in the debtor’s throat this time.
            “Still, Mr. Screw, it is Christmas and the constables, if they were to stroll by or stop in …”
            “Christmas? Constables?” Mr. Screw shook a fist before he slammed Gage’s pence down onto the counting table. “Bah, rat fuck, I say. The constables come to the backdoor for their payments from me, Bob. Same as I go to the backdoor on the wives and daughters of men who are three months in arears. To a constable, there is only one important difference between a corpse and a drunk to them. You know what that is, Bob?”
            “What is that, Mr. Screw?”
            Screw used his red quaking fingers to pick up the four coins again for Bob to see. “Corpses don’t have to be housed or fed or picked up again the next night. Merry Christmas to us all. Right?”
            Bob swallowed. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Screw.”
            Screw grunted and waved the coins again. “Deduct this from his debt … after you calculate the interest. We will send the updated bill to his family whether he lives or not. If he does die, we’ll wait to the new year to come collect.”
            “Very charitable of you. Mr. Screw.”
            “Watch your tone, Bob.” Screw returned to his high back chair and resumed counting. “Besides, Gage will be three months arears at that point and I can take up the matter with his plump wife.”
            “Yes, sir.” Bob double and triple checked his calculations in the ledger. There was no need to test Screw with an error in the books. Not any day, but especially not this one with Gage heaving and clicking upon the floorboards.

Christmas Eve Night

Gage finally expired after sunset. Bob had nearly forgotten the man was there until the wretched sound of his labored breathing died out. He had not registered the sound until it was gone.
            Screw still clicked and counted coins. The last debtor of the day had come in as the smells of suppers cooking leaked in through cold cracks in the walls. The fellow had eyed Gage in the floor before paying his debt in full with interest without a word. Some had not shown for payments and Bob knew they would be paid visits bright and early Christmas Morn.
            Bob’s hand shook as he returned the point to the inkwell. “Mr. Screw, I wondered might I trouble you for a half day to leave before midnight tonight, sir. Since it is Christmas Eve.”
            “Bah… rat fuck Christmas Eve, Bob.”
            “Yes, sir.” Bob went for the plume in the ink again.
            “Fine. If you are proud enough of the work you have done today, I will grant you this much. Never say I never gave you anything. Or do say it. I don’t give a damn either way.” Screw swept his counted coins into carpet bags to store. He lifted another bag for the uncounted.
            Bob closed the ledger and hopped down from his stool. He hobbled as he tried to regain feeling in his haunches. His clumsy walk reminded him of his ailing son and Bob’s throat drew tight for a moment.
            “Um, sir, would you have me drag Gage’s body out back before I leave? I believe he has expired, Mr. Screw.”
            “He’ll keep until morning.” Screw set the bags of coins on top of his desk where he bound and locked each. “You can come in early to drag him out with the rubbish then.”
            Bob halted next to Gage’s feet with his back to Screw. “Tomorrow is Christmas, sir.”
            “Yes, there’ll be more rubbish to cover his body then.”
            “I meant that…” Bob made a quarter turn away from the door. “I thought that we had the day… off, sir.”
            “Day off? Rat fuck, Bob. What have you ever done to earn a day off? If you thought we had the day off tomorrow, why would you dare to ask me to leave early today, Fool?”
            “I don’t … I’m sorry I can keep working until midnight and take a partial day tomorrow instead.”
            “I’ve already bagged my coins. You want me to restack them tonight so you can cheat me of work tomorrow? Is that it, Bob?”
            “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll see you at the regular time tomorrow.” Bob turned toward the door again.
            His numb haunch caused him to lilt to the side as he made his next step. Were it not for that, Screw’s cane would have surely cleaved Bob’s skull in two. As it was, Screw grazed Bob’s temple and broke the skin in a bloody flap before pulverizing the cartilage in his ear. Bob fell to his face while his ear and hairy skin flap waved from wind of the fall.
            Screw kicked him in the ribs and flipped Bob to his back where he could watch the ceiling spin above him.
            “I told you to come in early, Rat Fuck.”
            Screw opened his hand into a claw and bent for Bob’s throat. Bob’s vision wouldn’t focus or stay locked as his eyes danced in a concussed spasm. Some cue within the lizard portion of his brain sensed the predator over the top of him, its prey. Years of watching Screw’s choking power had imprinted the fear of that attack down to the primal level as well.
            Bob brought his hands up in blades to foil Screw’s grip and target. This infuriated the man. With all the choking strength in his hands, Screw was still an old man and it pained his back to stay bent too long to handle this task. He balled his fist and pounded Bob’s cheekbones until his eyes nearly swelled shut. Still, Bob blocked Screw’s attempts to throttle. The bones in his fingers and hands paid the price, as Screw squeezed and cracked them, but Bob knew the price of exposing his throat would be not living to see sunrise Christmas morning.
            Screw screamed and held his back as he stood as straight as the man was able. He lifted his cane and whipped it down through the air with the sound of the rush of a sword. He connected with Bob’s knee and the cap rotated position around in his flesh. Screw brought the cane to his shoulder as Bob howled and then struck Bob in the ribs, cutting off the sound. Bob gagged and heaved for air with more choked vigor than Gage had shown on his final Christmas Eve. Screw brought the cane up to his opposing shoulder on the back swing before striking Bob in the shin. Something cracked as Screw brought the cane to his other shoulder. The impact was enough to bring the kneecap back to almost true, but left the leg less functional. Bob groaned and Screw alternated shoulders in battering Bob’s limbs, hips, and shoulders. Bob brought his forearms up to protect his face and skull from the blows intended there. His arms paid a heavy price and he could see through the pain that his bones changed shape and bent unnaturally between the joints.
            Bob used his good leg to push himself backward along the floor. Screw hobbled after him, using his cane as a weapon instead of the support for which it was intended. Not a weapon any longer. No. It was an executioner’s instrument and Screw was a pro at taking – taking money, taking wives, taking lives, and every other thing which wasn’t nailed to the firmament.
            Bob swung his ankle out and hooked the leg of his stool. The good leg as it was hurt too. He did not recall Screw hitting him there as agony filled him in every other place. The stool leg toppled before his leg of flesh and bone gave out. It was a weak counterattack at best, but the seat hit the old man in the hip and then grazed Screw’s knee on the way to the floor. Screw staggered and resorted to using his cane as any poor old man must.
            Bob scooted himself back again, but Screw launched forward once more with his cane raised in both fists. Screw brought the cane down in a wide arc for Bob’s head. Bob rolled to the side and hurt everywhere bone and body touched the floor. The cane struck where Bob had been, splitting up one side. Veins bulged on the side of Screw’s forehead as he stared down at the damage.
            Screw turned on Bob and whipped the cane back and forth on ribs. Bob’s arms came down to his sides for mercy, but then Screw go one good shot to Bob’s face. His nose twisted and both lips split. His nose bled salty into his mouth.
            Bob seized the desk and heaved it over. The inkwell impacted, rolled, and splatter. The ledger tumbled end over end over its spine past Screw’s feet. The drawers shattered and forgotten contents rolled in every direction.
            Screw took a step and a foot went out from under him. He wheeled his arms and Bob thought he might see the old man split his own skull. He prayed for it. Screw grabbed his back and his face twisted up with eyes squeezed shut.
            Screw regained himself and whipped the cane overhead before Bob was ready to raise his arms in defense. The cane hit the wall above Bob’s head and broke in two, leaving Screw with the sharp handle.
            He cried out in rage as he plunged the jagged stake at Bob’s heart. Bob twisted against the wall and took the forked point of the split wood to his right bicep. The splintered cane reached bone and separated on both sides of the bone.
            Bob’s breath caught and his eyes bulged. He pissed himself and his bowels released in a fury.
            Screw tried to pull the cane free, but the fork in the wood hidden within Bob’s muscle tightened on both side of the bone and would not release. Bob found his voice to scream again. He coughed up blood he had swallowed from his nose.
            Screw twisted the cane handle from side to side to try and wretch it free of Bob’s arm. Bob blacked out.
            Screw gave up on the cane and seized the wrist of Bob’s stabbed arm. As Screw dragged Bob along the floor, he burst awake in clear agony. Bob groaned weakly as he left a streak of blood and filth along the floor.
            The old man used his free hand to flip a low table Bob had never seen moved in all his years of working for the murderous miser. Underneath was a short shackle bound to the floor itself with an iron ring and bolts. It was like a proper dungeon.
            As Screw locked the cuff around the wrist of Bob’s wounded arm, Bob wondered if Screw even still knew where the key was or if it mattered.
            Screw stood straight over the body and Bob braced himself to be kicked to death. Screw spit on Bob, but hit the man on the neck instead of the face. Bob did not lift his hand to wipe it away.
            Screw held his back with both hands and grimaced. “At least you will be on time in the morning now whether you live or not, Bob.”
            He turned away and limped toward the stairs leading to his rooms above and behind the storefront. Screw stopped, limped over to the money bags, and then hauled their weight up the stairs slowly.
            Bob’s lips swelled into inhuman things, straining the splits in his flesh there. Still, he slurred out. “Rat Fuck …”
            Screw grunted and said, “Bah, rat fuck, indeed. See you in the morning, Bob. And Merry Christmas to you and yours.”
            Bob tried to bend the wrong leg and felt the agony through his groin. He thought about his youngest son. It appeared the boy might well outlive him after all. Wonders never ceased.
            He missed his family already as Screw’s footsteps ascended and diminished.
            “I will see you dead before me or my son, Bastard Screw.”
            No one remained in the room to hear except for Gage nearer the door and he had nothing to say neither ill nor encouraging.

Christmas Midnight

Bob's eyes slid open slowly to the dark ceiling and tight pain everywhere about the time he would normally be leaving. He had no moment of confusion where he might think he was home or had forgotten what had happened to him. He was only mildly surprised to still be alive.
            The scratching near the door drew his attention. Perhaps a constable checking on Gage on account of the debtor’s wife. Not likely, but possible. Maybe a thief looking to fill his own stocking from Screw’s bags instead of Saint Nicolas’s. There were easier ways to kill one’s self.
            Bob raised his head and felt the effort and weight of it in his throbbing skull, his neck, his back, and his gut. Bob knew he couldn’t survive this. Part of him wanted to cry out for help to whoever fiddled with the door. Half wanting rescue and half afraid he might scare them off. Half wanting to be found and half fearing discovery.
            His eyes tried to form all matter of shadowy shape of man and monster beyond the thin glass, but there was nothing of substance to discover in this world or the one beyond it.
            Inside the room though, Gage’s foot twitched. Then, the whole leg moved before Bob could convince himself he had not seen that either. The heel of the big man’s shoe rumbled on the floor.
            Bob tried to talk himself into believing he had been premature about Gage’s demise, but Bob knew death. And Gage had met the reaper to pay in full.
            This was some spirit of the dockworker or some other creature come to visit Bob in Gage’s body in the night to see in Christmas with him or either to see him out from it.
            The shirt rippled in two pulsating tumors which swirled around one another, causing Gage’s form to lose its shape. This strange spirit intended to reconstitute the dead man into some horrid figure unlike any man. A pink ropey tentacle popped out from the collar and whipped around Gage’s waxy face. What unearthly horror was breaking through to this side of the firmament to greet Bob?
            The shirt ripped and two buttons rolled away on the floor. One furry tumor revealed itself. The other crawled free and turned its beady, black eyes on Bob. Its nose twitched as if sniffing out Bob’s presence, trying to make sense of these men left out in the lukewarm shelter of Screw’s collection floor where normally not a crumb was left behind. The shirt parted and the other rat burrowed is snout into the hole it had eaten through the flesh between Gage’s ribs. The oversized rodent tore a red string of gut loose and chewed with its bloody face and glistening whiskers turned into the heavens in ecstasy.
            The unfed rat, only slightly smaller than the sewer monster between Gage’s ribs, jumped down and scurried to the corner of the overturned desk. It peeked around and twitched its whiskers. Still not sure any of these Christmas visions were true. Bob couldn’t blame him, but he had trouble sympathizing too much as he watched at least a dozen other rats weave over and around the dead body a few feet away.
            They snapped at each other and jockeyed for position on Gage’s fresh flesh. Some wiggled into pants legs or up sleeves. Others were two big. One snapped off a pinkie finger at the base knuckle in one bite. Another rat grabbed up the severed digit and sprinted to the door. The biter followed after the finger and snapped at the thief rat’s hindquarters. They hissed and squealed and scrambled around one another in unending circles.
            The rat eyeing Bob from the corner of the fallen desk turned its head at the commotion of the biter and the finger thief.
            Bob thought the biter would feel a kinship to Screw himself in not letting one stolen finger go unpunished. He whispered to himself. “He’s still going to make me drag the rat-eaten corpse out back in the morning.”
            The rat turned its attention on Bob once more and crept forward as if Bob’s whisper were an invitation.
            It circled wide around Bob’s feet and then leaned in to sniff at the blood-soaked pant leg.
            “Get away from me, Bastard.”
            The rat opened its jaws and exposed razor front teeth. Bob made to kick it away. The bad knee responded with pain, but not motion. Bob grunted, but the rat ignored him as the teeth sunk through cloth into already agonized skin.
            Bob growled and jerked his right arm in reflex. First the shackle stopped his wrist and then the cane head stabbed into his arm paralyzed him with white hot pain. The blackness of the room threatened to become complete once more.
            The rat’s teeth meeting shinbone blasted Bob full awake again.
            He kicked over the top of the bad leg to connect with the rat’s head. He thought the toe of his shoe felt as if it crushed skull. The rat hissed, released, and backed away a few steps. The jostle of the bad knee hurt more than the tear from the rat’s teeth.
            The rat appeared to have survived Bob’s kick just fine. It stood close enough that Bob wasn’t convinced the creature had been deterred from fresher meat at all.
            The rat leaned in again and Bob kicked over with his good leg. The rat made a lazy dodge which proved more than enough. The sewer dweller moved farther up Bob’s thigh and closer to his groin. Bob didn’t think he could kick that far.
            The rat lunged in and nipped through Bob’s pants and drew blood from his thigh. The rodent hoped back and looked for an attack. When none came, it sniffed at the spilled blood with emboldened interest.
            “Leave me the fuck alone. I’ve been through enough without you tonight.”
            Other furry heads with beady black eyes peered over the top of the desk.
            The rat bit into Bob’s thigh and wiped its head like a lion. Bob punched the beast twice in the ribs before it released, but then it sunk its teeth into his fist to the bone. Bob thought about Gage’s finger.
            He swung his fist away with the rat still attached and heavy. Bob heaved the animal over his own body and slammed it to its back. The thing let go and spun in a squealing, angry circle.
            The other rats crossed the desk and stalked Bob from a half dozen positions.
            Bob looked around him for any weapon he might use. He saw the ledger in a heap to his right, but nothing else.
            The rats drew closer.
            He growled as he rolled his body in the direction of the book. The side of the cane embedded in his arm rotated with his arm to the floor and he screamed in pain.
            The rodent’s nails clicked against the boards in the silence which followed.
            He stretched for the book and his fingers brushed the spine. Bob closed his eyes and took several deep breaths.
            Teeth yanked at his pant leg from two sides. One bit through his shoe into his foot and Bob yelped. He tried to jerk the leg, but could not lift the rats holding on there. He felt sure he lost a toe as his shoe filled with blood.
            Bob leaned out for the ledger until his eyes bulged. The cane in his arm pressed against the floor and twisted around the bone. He didn’t realize he was screaming until his voice broke and he tasted warm salt in the back of his raw throat.
            His fingernails caught the edge of the cover and he dragged the book along the pages toward him. Then, he gripped the spine, lifting and closing the tome of figures in one motion.
            As he rolled to his back, he felt the body of a rat under him locked onto the flesh of one cheek. Bob had the terrible notion that it was trying to burrow into him from there. He brought the edge of the book down on the rat’s exposed back. It didn’t see the attack coming. It went still, but didn’t let go. Bob hit it again and again until the dead teeth tore free with a chunk of flesh.
            More creatures had sunk their teeth into him from all sides during his tortured reach. The lion’s share of the hunting pack of this particular mischief must have abandoned Gage for the challenge of feasting on Bob. 
            He slammed the book flat against a large one positioned on his chest. The creature opened its jaws and snapped at Bob’s face. He swept it off and away with the ledger instead of attempting another strike.
            Bob crushed the skull of another on his left thigh, using the edge of the book’s spine. Its teeth released on its own, bless him.
            Bob swung and struck at the others, but they released and circled around out of reach. As quickly as they disengaged, three of them dove back in together for another snack. Bob swung again and they dodged away.
            He used one leg to scoot himself back closer to the iron loop which chained him solid to the floor. He tried to sit up, but with nothing to brace himself upon and more injuries than he could catalog, the effort was impossible. He rolled to the chained side, bending his arm and bringing his weight down on his elbow. The cane in his arm reached a level of excruciation he thought to be unearthly and cosmically impossible.
            He screamed and collapsed. Bob struck his head on the iron loop where the flap of skin and the pulverized ear compounded the infinite suffering. He unleashed a scream too profound to be contained within his body. His vision blurred from the vibration of it and it surprised him the house did not shatter along with the rest of the universe.
            As his thoughts pulsed in and out of complete sentences, he wondered why Screw had not come down to silence him for disturbing his Christmas sleep. Or why the rats had not climbed the stairs to raid Screw’s bountiful, private stores. Bob could not decide if he’d prefer Screw to rescue him from the rats or to put him out of his misery straight away. If that scream did not bring the master, Bob was simply not going to live to see the man or his own family again. He’d be on the rubbish heap with Gage before the sun rose again.
            The rats were on him once more. Bob blinked on gummy tears and reached for the ledger again. Two rats scuttled it away and then fought over it. More bounced on the book and ravaged it as they turned on each other. The pages with Screw’s accounts pulped away into nesting material.
            Bob swatted with his free hand, but the rats did not even afford him a glance after the slaps as they feasted on him.
            Bob gritted his teeth and took hold of the cane. He did not have nearly the strength to do it, but he pulled and wretched the thing from side to side. Colors swirled through his vision. He screamed until blood from his raw throat speckled his teeth front and back. He pulled the cane and screamed more.
            Bob thought about the rats on him and eventually inside him like Gage.
            The wooden steak tore loose with a wet, meaty report and left a wide open wound in his ruined bicep.
            Bob stabbed one through the ribs and then shook it off away from him. The rodent twisted on its back as two of its brothers pounced on it to tear the wounded creature apart.
            He stabbed another through the skull and it went still. A rat took the dead creature’s tail and dragged it away.
            Bob stabbed at others, but only hit floor as they jumped away. He turned the cane over and brained a couple more before the rest backed farther away. One of the skull-crushed rats curled to its side. Three more jumped onto it to eat.
            He stabbed and hit as a few tried to return. Others scurried back over to Gage by the door.
            Bob lowered his head to the floor and did not realize he had blacked out until teeth on his inner thigh drove him conscious again.
            He realized his hand was empty, so he felt around for the cane. His hand closed over the wet body of the stripped skeleton of a rat. Bob released it and grabbed the live one between his legs bare-handed. The creature held on to Bob’s flesh until Bob’s thumb widened the rodent’s eye socket and drove into its soft brain.
            “Rat Fuck …”
            Bob lifted the corpse and hurled it across the room hard enough to bounce off the leg of Screw’s counting table. He blacked out again before he saw how many rats fell on the one-eyed body.
            His final thought of the night was a prayer to whatever God might oversee this horror on the day of the birth of his son. My family … Bless them every one … never let them see what is left of me …

Christmas Morning

Bob awoke to the sound of sweeping, but in his mind, it was a rat as large as his overturned desk. He felt around for the broken cane again without opening his eyes.
            “Scat. Go. Be gone with all of you.”
            Bob opened his eyes. His body did not allow him to forget everything which had happened to him, but he was surprised to see sunlight pouring through the front windows. It hurt his head to be alive in the light.
            He raised his head to see Screw scattering the surviving rats with a broom.
            “One rat fuck remains,” Bob mumbled.
            Screw dropped the broom and ran to Bob’s side. “I do not expect to be forgiven, but I still intend to try, Dear Man.”
            As Screw twisted a key in the cuff lock of his shackle, Bob tried to wrap his brain around the words he had just heard. “Forgiven.” He knew the word in other context, but out of Screw’s mouth, the word was some alien thing with sharp edges. It scared Bob to hear it.
            “It took me forever to find this key. I hadn’t used this shackle since… my old partner died. He and I had a falling out many years ago. Doesn’t matter now.”
            Screw opened the cuff and peeled it away from Bob’s wrist. Bob grunted as Screw pulled him along the floor through rat carcasses. He heaved Bob up by his shoulders and set him upon a couch.
            “I’m so sorry for all of this and everything which came before it. I’ve wronged you for as long as I have known you, but I am a changed man now.”
            Bob’s throat was swollen and ruined. His voice gave out as he spoke, so he mouthed the words more than he said them. “What are you talking about?”
            “I was visited by many spirits last night who showed me all that was, is, and one day could be. I’m seeing to change what is now so that we might change what could be for me, you, your family, and especially that tiny one with the bad leg.”
            Bob’s eyes went wide and his blood went cold. How did Screw know about his family? What did he intend to change exactly? What did he intend to do?
            Mr. Screw brought bandages and ointments to the couch. He started with the wound on his arm. Bob hissed at the painful application of the treatment, but he did not move or speak. Mr. Screw moved from wound to wound. As he did, the man spoke of his past, his missteps, lost love, the cooling of his heart, becoming the same kind of monster his father was, and more. Bob’s head buzzed and he forgot the stories as fast as he heard them. By the time Mr. Screw bandaged Bob’s legs and tried to set his knee, he heard nothing anymore. Mr. Screw spoke of visions of the future, but Bob registered none of it. He instead stared at a bloody swatch over the crotch of his trousers. He felt thankful Mr. Screw did not try to treat it. Bob didn’t want to know what had happened there.
            Mr. Screw stood and helped Bob to his feet. “Let’s see about the Christmas meal, shall we?”
            “… meal …”
            “Certainly. I can’t come over for Christmas supper without bringing a little something myself. That would be rude and un-Christian.”
            He’s going to murder my family, Bob thought.
            Mr. Screw brought Bob’s good arm over his back and shoulder and braced Bob as they walked for the front door.
            Bob looked down at Gage’s corpse. The eye sockets opened to empty, bloody pits of darkness. The face tore away to exposed skull. Ribs and chewed organs showed through wide gaps in flesh and muscle. Dark fluid gathered under the body and caked into a paste.
            “… move him …”
            Mr. Screw said, “No, I couldn’t make you do that now. I’ll handle it myself later. We have an appointment with your wife and children. It’s Christmas morning, Bob.”
            Bob pictured his wife bent over like the wives of other debtors over the years. He saw himself chained to the floor and his children watching.
            Mr. Screw slung a bag over his other shoulder and they were out on the snowy streets. The cold bit at his flesh between treated wounds. Bob looked down and saw he was more bandage than man at this point.
            “I should pick up a Christmas goose for Gage’s family as well. That was an awful business indeed.”
            “… goose …”
            Mr. Screw stopped at the first shop and ordered two Christmas geese – the biggest they had left. He paid to have one delivered to Gage’s family that very morning and handed the other to Bob. They took a few steps with Bob hobbling behind before the headless, featherless bird slipped from his grasp to the sidewalk.
            “We’re all eating that today, Bob. Try a better grip.”
            As Mr. Screw handed it back to him, Bob thought about his thumb sinking into the socket of a rat and a dead rat’s teeth locked tight into one buttock. He thought of the stain around his groin. He dropped the bird again.
            Mr. Screw paid a boy to carry the large goose for them. He pulled Bob along with him and still chattered of Christmas cheer and second chances. They stopped at toy shops and other stores where Mr. Screw bought gifts for all Bob’s children by name and Bob’s wife as well. He bought fixings for the meal to go with the goose and paid more boys to carry these things as well.
            Mr. Screw pulled Bob along street after street until they stood in front of Bob’s house without the old man being told the address. So, this was it. Whatever Mr. Screw had planned, it was about to happen. Bob felt winded and on the verge of another blackout. He did not have the strength to fight off whatever it was this man intended.
            His wife answered the door and she stared in shock at her husband hunched behind Mr. Screw. Bob didn’t know if she recognized him any longer. He realized she stared at the patch of blood over his groin and he felt small and ashamed.
            The boys handed over the goose, the fixings, and the gifts. As Mr. Screw tipped each of them, Bob’s wife hissed at the older children and handed off the items. They gasped at the sight of their father, but she hustled them away.
            “Where were you all night?” she whispered.
            Bob bowed his head without answering. How would he ever explain any of this? Ever?
            Mr. Screw took Bob by the collar and walked inside with him. The wife backed away until she hit a wall and then tried to back away still. Mr. Screw held Bob up and waved his other hand in a flourish. The children cowered in the corners except for the tiny one who could not move from his chair on his own.
            “Merry Christmas to all.”
            No one spoke or moved.
            Mr. Screw continued. “I will pay off this house and see that you get a long overdue raise. Back pay. Back pay as well to make up for the years that you did not get what you deserved.”
            “What happened to Daddy?” his youngest daughter whispered.
            Bob closed his eyes and wished her silent to avoid Mr. Screw’s attention.
            Mr. Screw said, “I did another thing this morning, too. Before I unshackled Bob from the floor …”
            “Shackled to the floor?” Bob’s wife covered her mouth.
            “ … I went to the notary. Knocked him up on Christmas and had my will drawn up anew this very day. Upon my hopefully distant demise, all my property is willed to your family. My estate will be smaller in a few days as I pay back those I have wronged – a multitude of people, I fear. But what is left will be yours.”
            Mr. Screw released Bob and Bob held onto the wall. The old man stalked toward the tiny one in his chair.
            “And you…” Mr. Screw said as he approached.
            Bob staggered away from the wall and fell to his knees with a yelp and a high whimper. He tried to call out, but he had no voice and barely any air behind his words. “Don’t you touch him.”
            “You…” Mr. Screw leaned over the boy. “I have something special planned for you. There is a hospital in London where they do marvelous work on little cripples …”
            The cast iron pan sounded off the back of Screw’s skull and the old man went down in a heap next to the tiny one’s chair. Screw tried to climb up, but Bob’s wife struck him again. The old man covered the back on his head and stayed on his face.
            “Mother?” The eldest son stepped away from the wall.
            “This bastard did this to your father all night.” She pointed with her skillet at Bob on his knees. “Make this monster suffer.”
            The children stepped forward. They joined their mother as they kicked and punched the man. Some of them grabbed silverware and stabbed him as well. Screw cried out, but did not rise or fight back.
            As he watched, Bob thought about the diseased, mad frenzy of the rats through the night he had shared with Gage. He watched his children stab Screw and he thought about pulling the cane from his arm to stab the rats. Bob bent over and vomited up clear pink from his empty stomach.
            The tiny one covered his eyes.
            Bob thought about the thumb through the rat’s eye into its brain and he found his feet. He walked over and pulled his family away from the crying old man.
            Bob found his voice. “Get me a rope.”
            The children obeyed. Bob tied Screw’s wrists together over his head and then tossed the rope over the beam. With his family’s help, he hoisted Screw up into the air and tied him off hanging.
            “I don’t understand. I’m making it right.”
            The tiny one stared up at the old man kicking above his head. They took turns striking Screw with fire logs, chairs, pots, and pans. When Screw passed out, Bob used a poker from the fire to sear him back awake.
            During a lull, Bob’s wife went to cook the great goose and the fixings. Bob took his eldest son by the collar and said in his ear, “Go get Mr. Gage’s family.”
            Gage’s wife and children did arrive. After they heard what had happened, they came up with more creative things to do with Screw as he dangled like an ornament. Bob stopped them short of killing Screw.

All the Days to Come

As the days went on, Screw mumbled about spirits and the future. Bob thought of new things and tried them on Screw.
            Bob and his family had many visitors through Christmas and into the New Year. They thanked Bob and left again. Some asked to come back to go at Screw again before he expired and Bob was gracious to their requests.
            When Bob found out Screw’s last will and testament really was to them now, killing the man grew more and more tempting, but Bob fought the urge and kept the old man alive for a while longer.
            As the days and nights wore on, Screw would see his visions in the corners of Bob’s house. His old partner. Gage. Others he had killed and disposed of. He did not remember them all, but they whispered their names over and over to remind him. Then, those spirits again. Past. Present. Future. They grinned at him, these three. Future drew back his hood this time to show a never-ending skeletal smile. It was the same smile as Gage’s mangled ghost.
            This is what they intended, he realized through the haze of torture.
            Softening his heart to lure him into this trap had been their purpose all along. It was a greater torture than if they had left him hard and the debtors had set upon him in that state. The short-lived redemption made it all so much worse.
            Bob finally had the courage to check the wounds on his groin. His wife insisted upon helping him. She cleaned and treated where infection had set in. It was not all gone, but there was not much worth saving. Bob’s fever mounted and would not relent.
            Bob could never sleep. There was no comfortable position and no end to pain. He began to hear voices speaking to him in the night from the past, present, and future.
            He finally asked his wife to take the kids from the house and leave him alone for the day. The oldest boy carried the tiny one bundled in a blanket.
            Bob picked up a meat fork and stared at Screw.
            Screw slurred. “ … need to take him to London … can save him … he’ll die if you don’t do … I’ve seen it. I’ve seen …”
            Bob set the utensil aside and searched the alley behind his house. There he found a jagged, rusted half of a tin can. That instrument he took and brought back into the house to stand before Screw again.
            The old man opened his eyes and stared. Earlier, Bob had to be nimble to avoid the man’s kicks. Now Screw hung with eyes half open and his shoulders twisted out of joint.
            Screw coughed and mouthed. “Mercy. Forgive me as Christ forgave his thief, his debtors, his torturers… Please, Bob… mercy…”
            Bob drove the jagged tin into Screw’s groin. As the old man screamed anew, Bob thought about whether it would be worth capturing a rat to bring into the house for Screw’s final moments.
            Blood splashed Bob’s face from around the edges of the rusted can as he twisted it back and forth. “Rat Fuck.” 

About the author:
Jay Wilburn is an author of horror and speculative fiction.  He lives in Conway, South Carolina and recently received a kidney transplant.  He is doing well since then.  He is the author of the Dead Song Legend series and The Great Interruption.  He cowrote The Enemy Held Near and has a piece in Best Horror of the Year Volume 5.  Check him out at his website.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Takeover 2017 Day 3: Christine Morgan

It is an absolute pleasure for me to have Christine Morgan back on The Gal this year with another Christmas offering.  She is such a talented lady... and pretty awesome in general, too.  If you're looking for a female horror author to read in the new year, I suggest picking up one of her's.  


The Naughty List
By: Christine Morgan

They got sent in after supper, the other kids.
            The other bad kids.
            Sent to the basement. 
            No party for them.
            No Christmas party, with crafts and games, songs, cocoa, cookies, and a visit from Santa with presents. 
            Not for them. Not the bad kids, the kids on the naughty list. 
            Parties were a privilege. A special reward.
            They hadn’t earned it. They didn’t have enough points. 
            Minda sat in the corner and watched them come in. 
            She never got points.
            Like Derp. Derp never got points either, though Derp tried. He really did. He tried really hard to play nice and be helpful, turn in assignments, pass tests, keep his room clean, and all that good-kid point-getting stuff. He just couldn’t do it right.
            Minda didn’t try. Minda didn’t care.
            Derp meant well, that’s what her granny would say. He meant well, but he just couldn’t do it right. Derp was big and dumb, kind of clumsy, and he scared people. He didn’t mean to do that, either, but he did. Even grownups, even teachers, were scared of Derp sometimes. They wouldn’t say so, but they were. Minda knew. Minda could tell.
            They thought because Derp got frustrated, because he yelled and waved his arms when he was upset, that he must have super-Derp powers. Retard strength, one of the big boys had called it. Derp would snap, and start hitting, and be strong as ten wrestlers or a wild animal. 
            But Derp hardly ever hit anybody except for himself. He didn’t want to be scary. It made him sad.
            Being sent to the basement now made him sad too, Minda saw. He came in with his head down and his feet dragging. His froggy mouth turned down in a crumpled wet fold. He snuffled a sigh as he went to a table and plopped onto a chair. There were some crayons and colorbooks on the table. Derp opened a colorbook to a page with trains and started scribbling.
            Tess, Jimmy and Spencer were next, clomp-tromping down the stairs in a noisy arguing group. They’d had extra chores for being in trouble. They usually were. Jimmy for stealing and lying, Spencer for being a dirty-messy potty-mouth, Tess for starting fires.
            After them came Lamont. He was new to the school. Did he not know the many rules. Or he was too smart to care? Maybe both. Minda had heard that his mom was a doctor, the rich kind, the kind that gave ladies new noses. He earned lots of points by getting best grades on all his tests and assignments. It seemed kind of strange Lamont would be here. 
            He looked mad about it, too. He glared at Miz Parker like he wished she’d be crushed by a truck. 
            Miz Parker didn’t notice. She just sat at the desk, drinking coffee and playing on the computer. That was pretty much all she did. Solitaire, Mahjong, Minesweeper, Angry Birds. Unless somebody pitched a total fit, she’d ignore them.
            Lamont moved his glare around the room like he’d never seen it before. Maybe he hadn’t. This might have been his first time to the basement, to the detention hall. 
            Minda idly wondered what he did. A smart kid with a rich mom, losing enough points to miss out on the Christmas party? Must have been something extra bad.
           His lip curled up in a disgusted kind of sneer at the sight of the cruddy old furniture, the low bookshelves crammed with cruddy old books, the cruddy old toys. He glanced at Derp, still scribbling loops in the train colorbook. He glanced at Spencer, who was picking his nose, then at Jimmy and Tess, bickering over what to do first. 
            He glanced last at Minda, sitting in her corner. She kept finger-combing her long straight dark hair down over her face. She tried to avoid his gaze. Lamont sneered the other side of his lip and went to a chair by the stack of puzzles. He sulked into it with his arms crossed over his chest. 
            “This isn’t fair,” he said in a grumbling mutter. 
            “Yeah, dude.” Spencer renewed his digging for nose goblins with a corkscrew motion. “Sucks to be us.”
            “I didn’t want to go to any stupid baby Christmas party anyways,” Tess said. 
            “But there’s treats.” Derp sighed again, a doleful-soulful sound.
            “We’ll have snacks,” said Jimmy. “They have to give us snacks, they can’t starve us in here all night.”
            “Snacks, right.” Tess made a rude noise. “Graham crackers and juice, same as always. Not good snacks.”
            “They get good snacks at the party,” said Derp. “Hot cocoa with marshmallows. Frosted snowman cookies. Candy canes.”
            They all fell silent, thinking about that. In the hush, from beyond the basement, came muffled but cheery holiday music. The party was starting. Footsteps thudded their vibrations as excited kids rushed along the halls and stairways.
            Everybody had seen the preparations underway, of course. The school’s gymnasium, auditorium, dining room and courtyard being all decorated…twinkly lights and glittery garlands, wreaths, ribbons, cardboard reindeer and penguins, construction paper snowflakes, a real Christmas tree covered in ornaments, a big red chair where Santa would sit to give out presents …
            “And we’re stuck here.” Lamont blew out his breath with what was almost a snort.
            Miz Parker didn’t notice.
            “Why’re you here anyway?” Tess asked the question that had been on Minda’s mind. 
            Lamont scowled and re-crossed his arms. 
            “I know why.” Jimmy flashed a sly grin. “He cut Mikey Nelson.”
            “No shit?” Spencer perked up. “That was you? Dude!”
            “He had to get like ten stitches,” Jimmy added. 
            “What’d you cut him with?” Spencer regardeding Lamont with interest as if watching a documentary on television about dangerous wildlife. “A switchblade? A boxcutter?”
            “Should’ve shot him,” Tess said. “Mikey Nelson is a turd.”
            “A scalpel,” said Jimmy when Lamont didn’t seem to want to answer.
            Derp’s forehead creased. “A what?”
            “A doctor knife, doofus. You know. Like on the shows. Nurse! Scalpel! Forkseps!”
            “Forceps,” Lamont said. 
            “Forksex,” snickered Spencer. 
            “Should’ve shot him,” Tess said again. She made a gun-hand and mimed aiming a headshot at Miz Parker, whose oblivious attention remained fixed on the computer. “Pow.”
            “She always wants to shoot people,” Jimmy told Lamont. 
            “Or set them on fire,” Spencer said. “She’s a firebug.”
            “I am not. You’re a litterbug and a bug-killer. But I’m not a firebug.”
            “You set shit on fire.”
            “That’s not why. Jeez. I don’t like fires, I like explosions.” She clenched her fists in front of her face and sprang them open. “Ka-boom.”
            “You’re Lamont, right? I’m Jimmy. That’s Tess. He’s Spencer.”
            “I’m Derp. My real name’s Walter but everybody calls me Derp.”
            Lamont glanced at Minda again, or at the curtain of hair concealing her face. He lowered his voice. “Who’s she?”
            “That’s Minda.” Jimmy paused, his freckled face twisting in thought. “She’s…uh…”
            “Weird,” said Tess.
            “Effin’-A,” Spencer said, not without a note of approval. “Minda’s one weird-ass chica.”
            Tess nodded. “Even since before her brother died.”
            Lamont took yet another look. Before he could decide whether or not to say anything else, the detention hall door opened to admit a shrill, complaining whine. 
            “You can’t do this, I’m telling, I’m gonna tell! My mommy’s gonna be sooooooo mad at you!”
            Miz Parker leaned over from the computer, saw who it was, and pinched the bridge of her nose like she had a sudden ice cream headache. 
            “You can’t dooooo this! I’m the Christmas princess!”
            “That’s enough, Jolene,” said Mr. Gregson, the vice principal. “You had plenty of chances and plenty of warning.”
            He marched in Jolene Sinclair, all sprayed blond curls, chubby pink cheeks, and eyeshadow. Her poofy green satin holiday dress trimmed in shiny gold lace, gold tights, and green velvet shoes with golden buckles reeked of holiday cheer. Wedged under one arm was a stuffed rabbit almost as big as she was, a fluffy white rabbit wearing a curly blond wig and a green satin dress identical to Jolene’s. 
            “Now you stay here and behave–”
            “But I’ll miss the paaaaaaarty!”
            “Yes.” There might have been a grim glint of satisfaction in Mr. Gregson’s hint of a smile. “You should have thought of that before you pushed Kayla off the stage.”
            “She was in my spot! She’s a bratty-bratty-bratty-brat and she was in my spot!”
            The vice principal turned away from her to have an annoyed-sounding conversation with Miz Parker, leaving Jolene to huff in indignation. 
            The rest of them watched as she flounced her way to the middle of the room and stood there, pouting.
            “What are you staring at?” she demanded. 
            Nobody said anything.
            Then Derp spoke up. “That’s a really pretty dress.”
            At once, the pout became a dazzling toothpaste-commercial smile. “Thank you.” She skipped to his table. “I’m Jolene and this is Bunny-Hoo-Hoo.”
            “Bunny what?” asked Jimmy, eyebrows raised.
            “Bunny-Hoo-Hoo,” repeated Jolene. She had a giggle that sounded like metal screeching on glass. “Because she’s a bunny, and…” She flipped the rabbit over so that its dress fell up around its head. “… and here’s her hoo-hoo!”
            Underneath the skirt were no tights or panties, just furry bunny butt and a puff of white tail, and the kids all laughed like maniacs. 
            All but Minda, of course, who stayed where she was, quiet in her corner, running her fingers through her hair.
            Mr. Gregson’s phone beeped. He unclipped it from his belt to check the text.
            “Of course, to top it all off, the damn Santa’s not only late but lost,” he told Miz Parker. “I need to talk him through the directions--”
            “Oh, great,” Her voice was distracted. Miz Parker must not care for any holiday.
            “--then figure out what’s going on with the choir microphones…” He pressed his temples. “Just make sure this bunch stays out of trouble.”
            “Sure,” she said as her attention returned to the monitor. 
            He dialed and left with the phone to his ear.
            “Did you hear that?” said Derp. “Santa’s lost.”
            “So?” Spencer, having worked a fat yellow booger from his nose, squish-wiped it under his chair. 
            “So, Santa!”
            “Not like we were gonna get presents anyways,” Tess said. 
            “I am,” proclaimed Jolene. “Lots of presents. The best presents. For me and for Bunny-Hoo-Hoo.”
            “Are not,” Jimmy said. 
            “Am so!”
            “Are not, not now. You’re stuck here with us, now.”
            “You get squat,” Spencer said. “Jack-shit-diddly-squat.”
            Her lipsticked mouth made a wounded O-shape. “But …”
            “They’re right,” Lamont said.
            “But that’s not fair!”
            “Tell me about it.”
            Spencer shrugged and started picking pieces of rubber from the tattered soles of his sneakers. “We’re screwed. Effed in the A. Or in the hoo-hoo.”
            “While everybody else gets Christmas.” Derp drew a sadface in the colorbook.
            “I didn’t do anything wrong.” Jolene fussed with her rabbit’s wig.
            “Did you really push Kayla off the stage?” asked Tess.
            “She was in my spot. She’s a show-offy bratty-brat and she thinks she’s prettier than me.”
            “And she gets Christmas and you don’t,” said Derp.
            “The good kids do,” Lamont said. “The mama’s boys and daddy’s girls.”
            “The goodie-goodies.” Tess made a face. “The teachers’ pets.”
            “The kissbutts,” said Spencer.
            “The tattle-tales,” Jimmy chimed in.
            Another grumpy silence fell as they pondered the ginormous cruel injustice of it all. Outside, the music was the Rudolph song, bright and bouncy. There were laughs and shouts. Vague whiffs of yummy smells – popcorn, gingerbread, cocoa – wafted on the air. 
            Lamont looked around at the rest of them again. “We should do something.”
            “Color?” suggested Derp. “Or puzzles, there’s puzzles --”
            Spencer flicked a speck of shoe-rubber at him. “No, derp-for-brains!”
            “He means do something about being stuck here,” said Tess.
            “While they have fun at the party!” Jolene added.
            “Do something like what?” Jimmy asked. 
            “Bust out?” Tess did gun-hands again. “Never take us alive, coppers?”
            “Jailbreak!” crowed Spencer.
            Jolene smacked him. “Shut up. Gawd. Tell the world.”
            Miz Parker, without looking over, raised her voice in a bored not-listening way. “Quiet, keep it down.”
            “She’s not gonna let us go,” said Jimmy. “And even if she did, then what?”
            “Then we go to the party, duh,” Jolene said.
            “We’d get in trouble,” Derp said. “They’d put us in detention.”
            “We already are.”
            “Oh yeah.”
            “What else could they do?” Lamont spread his hands. “And at least we’d be able to grab some cookies before they threw us back in here.”
            “Let’s do it.” Tess hopped up from her seat. 
            “What about her?” Jolene pointed at Miz Parker.
            “I got an idea.” Jimmy wore his sly grin again. With his freckles and his red hair, it made him look like a crazy wooden clown doll. He beckoned, and the others leaned close to hear him whisper.
            Minda, from her corner, didn’t move. Her ears were good but not that good, good enough to only catch snippets of what they said.
            “…know how she always…”
            “…yeah in the janitor’s closet…”
            “…thinks nobody will…”
            “…won’t she…”
            “…how do we get…”
            “…take care of that, trust me…”
            “…let her out, right?”
            “…worry about it later…”
            “…I dunno, guys…”
            “…want cookies, don’t you?”
            “…well yeah…”
            “…everyone agreed?”
            “…what about…?”
            Minda felt six pairs of eyes focus on her then. She ducked her head, hunched her shoulders, and hid behind her hair. 
            “She’s okay,” Tess said.
            “She wants cookies too,” said Derp.
            “She’s with us,” Jimmy said to Lamont.
            “Can she even talk?” asked Jolene. “Can you even talk?”
            “She can talk,” said Tess. “She just…uh…”
            “Doesn’t,” Jimmy finished. “But she’s cool. Right, Minda?”
            Minda did a quick nod, still averting her gaze.
            “So, we just wait until…?” Lamont sort of jerked his chin at Miz Parker.
            “Yeah. Act regular.”
            Jimmy’s advice was easier said than done; they tried not only to act regular but act innocent, sitting quietly, coloring, doing puzzles. Miz Parker swept them a few suspicious, uneasy looks. Then she went back to ignoring them in favor of Angry Birds or whatever.
            Eventually, more or less on schedule, Miz Parker pushed back from the desk. She made a show of cricking her neck side to side. “I’m going to stretch my legs,” she said. “I’ll be back in a minute, so, no nonsense.”
            What she really meant, the kids knew, was, sneak into the janitor’s closet for a cigarette, though the whole school was supposed to be no-smoking. ‘A Proudly Smoke-Free Zone’ the signs said. 
            Miz Parker stepped out into the corridor. Her shoes clacked on the cement floor. Jimmy, fast like a fox, darted to catch the door before it latched shut. He held it open just a crack, enough for them to peep through. 
            Light bulbs in wire ceiling cages cast Miz Parker shadows on the painted-cinderblock walls. The janitor’s closet was at the far end, past the stairs, the bathrooms, and the ancient drinking fountain with its eternal cold drip. 
            Jolene tried to elbow her way between Spencer and Lamont for a better view, or to make sure Bunny-Hoo-Hoo could also see. Derp started to say something, too loud, and Tess elbowed him. 
            Jimmy gave Miz Parker enough time to get settled and light up. Then, still fox-fast, and quiet as a ninja, he zipped down there, pulled a key from his jeans-pocket, and locked her in. Then he spun and did a big beaming “ta-da!” gesture. 
            “Hello?” came Miz Parker’s startled but muffled voice.
            She tried the door, but Jimmy had left the key half-turned and half-stuck from the lock so she couldn’t open it from her side. 
            “Hey! Hello? Is someone out there? Hey!”
            Rattle-rattle-rattle. Knock. Thump thump.
            It stayed shut. The other kids crept into the hall, tentative and amazed, like mice surprised at being let out of their cage. Freedom, but wariness, because what if it was a trick, a trap? What if the cat was ready to pounce?
            Minda trailed after them.
            “Hey! Open this door! Did you little shits lock me in?”
            “She said shits,” said Derp, eyes agog.
            “Potty-mouth! That’s detention for you!” Spencer whooped at the door. He high-fived Jimmy. “You da man, you slick effin’ bastard!”
            The rattles, knocks and thumps, joined by some hammering bangs, resumed loud and angry, but the door continued staying shut.
            “Oh you’re going to be in so much trouble!” called out Miz Parker.
            “Wow, it worked,” Lamont said. “Awesome!”
            “Bunny-Hoo-Hoo wants to know what if someone hears her?” Jolene danced the rabbit back and forth. 
            “Nobody will,” Jimmy said. “Not for a while, not with the party and the music and the choir and everything.”
            “Where’d you get a key?” Lamont asked.
            “My dad. He works in the cafeteria, that’s why they let me go to school here. He’s always losing stuff, forgetting where he puts it, when he’s drunk. Sometimes he gets mad and blames me.” Jimmy winked. “Sometimes he’s right.”
            “So let’s go already.” Tess headed for the stairs.
            They went up, reminding each other to avoid the teachers, avoid the prefects and tattle-tales, not make a big deal of it, blend in, and–
            “Eat all the treats!” Spencer cried, thrusting a fist in the air. 
            Then Lamont stopped them at the top of the stairs. “You guys…” he said. “Look!”
            The stairwell came up into a lobby, with the infirmary and nurse’s office one way, the school mail room another way, glass double doors opening onto the courtyard, and a glass side door opening onto a parking lot. It was the parking-lot door where Lamont pointed, and when they looked, they saw three people out there by a van with a light-up wreath hung on its front and cartoon reindeer decals along its side. 
            One of the people was a curvy girl, and another was a short midget guy. It was the third person, the jolly fat man with the white beard and the red suit, that riveted the kids where they stood.
            “Santa,” Derp gasped.
            And two of his elves.
            The short midget guy wore green pants with triangle hems, shoes with jingle bells on their curled-up toes, a red jacket, and a pointy hat with more jingle bells. The curvy girl had on candycane-striped tights, a short red skirt with a white fuzzy hem, a ruffled white top, candycane earrings, and a cute little cap. 
            Jolene, clutching Bunny-Hoo-Hoo, uttered a high-pitched greedy squeak as the two elves began unloading boxes from the back of the van. 
            Presents. The boxes were full of presents! Gift bags with tissue paper blooming out the tops. Packages wrapped in shiny foil or fancy paper, tied with ribbons or topped with bows. So many presents.
            “You guys,” Lamont repeated. “You guys, I got a better idea.”
            “Yeah,” Jimmy and Tess said together. 
            “Fuck yeah,” said Spencer.
            Moments of hasty, hurried planning later, Jolene pranced out the side door. She pirouetted, made pretty-feet, waved, and chirped, “Santa! Hi, Santa, over here!”
            Santa, in the process of poking his white-gloved thumbs at his phone, jumped and looked around. He seemed confused for a second, then put the phone in his coat pocket and went, “Ho, ho, ho, hello there little girl, Merry Christmas,” in a full, jolly voice. “Aren’t you a pretty darling?”
            “I’m Jolene,” she said. “I’m our school Christmas princess.”
            “I can see that you are, ho, ho, ho.”
            “And this is Bunny-Hoo-Hoo.”
            “Mr. Gregson said we should meet you out here,” said Jimmy, moving up beside Jolene. “In case you got lost again.”
            “How come you got lost?” asked Derp. “Santa shouldn’t get lost.”
            “Ho, ho, ho,” laughed Santa, patting his belly. “Santa’s elves are still getting used to our new GPS.”
            “The reindeer never got lost?” Tess asked.
            “That’s right, not my sleigh team.”
            “C’mon in,” Lamont said, holding the side door wide open.

About the author:
Christine Morgan are up in the high desert and headed north for water and trees as soon as she was of age.  Twice married, twice divorced, twice cancer-battler, she has an amazing adult daughter who's a talented author in her own right.  Christine relocated to Portland, Oregon a couple of years ago and has been active in the local bizarro and weird fiction scene; she's particularly known for her oddball crafts and bringing goodies to events.  An avid reader, she's a regular contributor to The Horror Fiction Review.  She also occasionally dabbles in editing, being four books into the Fossil Lake Anthology series.  Her other interests include superheroes, cheesy disaster movies, cooking shows, modifying Barbie dolls, and working toward becoming a crazy cat lady.