“Brother, My Brother” – Original Horror Short Story

Mama-2013Willa was born to Andrew and Annie Foreman in the winter of ‘93, only months before they’d put a down payment on their first house.  She was a spirited thing.  Annie always jested their daughter was to be the second coming of Karen Carpenter, for she had a humble, stirring voice and was never short of hitting everything in arm’s reach. Willa was prone to smiling, carrying herself with the firstfruits of a southern belle, and laughing at everything in the childlike freedom that came with not needing to worry about whether it was appropriate.

‘99 was not a good year.  Andrew found himself downsized from his position at the laundering press where he’d just begun to think he’d made enough leeway to begin an ascent up the ladder.  The couple grimly entertained the idea of foreclosing on their home of six years, when fate made the decision in their stead.  Andrew and Annie were on a date when they’d received a call from the baby sitter about a smell of gas.  Nothing major, so Andrew dismissed it.  She was likely mistaking the smell for electric burn, since the heaters were just turning on for the first time since autumn.  He instructed her to close up whichever room was the culprit, and decided he’d take a look when he got home.

An hour later half the house went up.  The babysitter was cursed with winding, third-degree burns.  They held Willa’s funeral procession four days after the accident.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” well-meaning family would console, “She’s in a better place now.”

It was an exercise in tolerance mostly, for Andrew to refrain from rolling his eyes at their ignorant sentiments.  ‘A better place’ was not here.  ‘It’s okay’ was not I’m sorry you lost your daughter.

Of course, they would try again for a child, eventually.  If not before Andrew and Annie shared some bouts against some new, fledgling demons.

“Hon,” Annie came home from work one day, “Why is there alcohol in the basement fridge?”

“I dunno,” Andrew shrugged, head already half-inebriated from the second bottle of scotch.  “Just felt like something worth getting.”

Her expression was equal parts understanding, and kindling fear, though it was hard to tell if something else might be hiding beneath the miserable, grey swathes under her eyes.  “You haven’t had a drink since college.”

Andrew shrugged again.  That was his response for the first few months, before he started getting violent.  To his grace, he’d managed to pull back from the habit before doing any irreparable damage to his world.  He almost hit Annie.  Almost.  The sober part of his pride drew a line in the sand, and he killed the vice where it stood.  The following week of cold turkey was an affliction unlike any he’d endured in years, but he made it through on his mind’s recycled fiction where his daughter kept asking him why he hit mommy.  That illusion, that salvation, was convicting enough to recover from the brink.

Annie’s demon was a bit more stubborn, as it was fond of being a quiet, personal apocalypse.

In the beginning, Annie wept a lot.  Then not at all.  Hours of sleep would be sacrificed to restlessness, only to be answered by days of bed-ridden apathy and slumber.  Andrew hadn’t thought much of this, as his behaviors were much the same, albeit less extreme.  Annie was saddened by the loss of Willa, but of course she would be.  It was her daughter.  Perfect, perky Willa stolen away in one fiery blast.  But ‘saddened,’ Andrew eventually decided, was a pitiful and inadequate term.  Annie was not saddened, she was obliterated.

Andrew thought he’d been grieving hard over the loss, but in comparison to his wife, he was merely inconvenienced.

It didn’t really strike home until Annie tried to kill herself.

Andrew returned from a day of job searching to find his wife seizing on the bathroom floor, a bottle of Tramadol empty of its guts in the sink.  Through her gasps, convulsions, and implosive spasms, Andrew eventually managed to shove his hand down Annie’s throat, upending the drug in one ugly, caustic purge.

After a trip to the hospital to make sure she would be able to filter out what of the substance her body had already broken down, Annie and Andrew both promptly went to recovery therapy, Annie for her depressive grief, Andrew to figure out how he might better help his wife.  It was a slow crawl, but over a year, they saw progress.

Around that same time, Annie became pregnant again.

It had no reason to be a surprise, but the shock met them anyways.  Nonetheless, the months traveled by in relative tranquility.  As Annie’s belly swelled and grew taut, Andrew finally found a substantial source of income and they were able to trade their one bedroom apartment for a condominium on the far side of town, closer to Andrew’s place of work.

Appointments came and went like the tide.  The baby was healthy.  The baby was a boy.  They named the baby Shae.

Little Willa thought Shae was a wonderful name.

Shae was born to Andrew and Annie Foreman in the summer of ‘01.  He was a quiet thing.  Andrew would have remarked how his son might have been the second coming of a great athlete, or perhaps something academic, like a surgeon or attorney.  But Drew had far too much on his mind to concern himself over something like that.

Nowadays, it was all the couple could do to make sure Willa did not take their son away.

In the delivery room, Annie’s life had nearly gone forfeit.  Shae was hard on her body, exacting more than one technical complication during the procedure.  It was a hideous eight hours spent in that room, a seemingly timeless miasma of physical and emotional strife for everybody present.  You’d think a complicated delivery would be the worst of it.

Minutes after Shae had finally been evacuated and placed in the doctor’s hands for sanitation and all other medical protocol, Annie shrieked in terror, stiff-arming one finger towards the foot of her bed, eyes peeled back in an alertness uncommon to those who’ve just delivered.

Everybody turned, but only Andrew saw.  A nine-tailed hook caught his stomach at the sight of his daughter. It struck with such vigor that his subsequent throttle backwards into the wall nearly brought a nurse down with him.

Willa stood idly at the foot of Annie’s bed, watching her mother, seemingly undeterred by the aghast drain of color in her mother’s face.

Their daughter wore the same outfit as the day she died.  Black overalls on top of a baby-blue longsleeve shirt, embroidered with stars and whorls of white.  The skin beneath was mangled and bloodless, her complexion so ashen you might actually mistake it for the namesake of the word.  Burn scars clawed against her face and arms like brambles, skin ripped up and then melted down into a new geometry.  One eye had been sealed shut by the skin around it, which had dripped in its molten state and apparently cooled into a mask afterwards.  The hair, the beautiful hair Willa got from her mother, was inexplicably perfect in shape, albeit grey as a chimney pyre.

“What’s the matter?”  The lead doctor asked Annie, who was still stricken with terror for the undead girl at her feet.  He followed her finger again, back and forth, looking for the subject of her attention.  It was evident he saw nothing.

Annie began to babble, scream, and cry.  She kicked and drew her feet back despite the pain parading through her legs, core, everything.

Andrew, on the other hand, was a little more composed.  He simply recycled the same handful of choice words until they’d become something of an obsessive chant.

As could be expected, the doctors didn’t know how to handle this sudden onset of insanity among the new parents.  They exchanged glances with one another, fear, confusion, and helplessness thick in the way their brows furrowed and hands trapezed through the open air.

Willa turned to face her father.  The marring of her scars pulled down on the lips a little, making a subtle, perpetual frown.  Her one good eye was the same lattice of gold and brown she’d always had, which felt more like an insult to her absent mortality than a grace.  She cocked her head to the side, burned skin straining against her jaw and neck.  Without flourish, she looked up.

A nurse walked into the room, Shae in hand, blood having been swabbed and cleaned from his newborn body.  He was a ripe pink, with a peacefulness on his face to betray the journey he’d endured only moments before.

“Brother, my brother.”  Willa said through a filtered voice as though her throat was full of sediment and moss.

The panicking continued.  The swearing continued.  The confusion continued.  When they tried to explain the apparition by their bedside, even when it was both parents united under one front, their words fell upon ears of ignorance.  To their relief and perplexity, the phantom girl left shortly after, flickering out of existence with just as much haste as she’d come.

If not for their mutual experience of the event, both mother and father might have thought the other mentally unsound.

They left the hospital a couple days later with Shae, and a stark recommendation to wring out their nerves.  For a period, Willa did not return.

No, when she did decide to make visits, they were frequent and without pattern.  One night, Annie might walk in on Willa standing over Shae’s crib, watching her brother.  Possessing over him, you could argue, as one might when they were watching something very intently, observing change.  Watching an hourglass.  Then she’d depart for days, weeks, months without trace or mark upon the world.  That is, other than the deep wounds of confusion she left on her parents’ hearts.

Never in the first four years of Shae’s life were Andrew and Annie able to figure out why their daughter plagued them, let alone how.  She was a walking denial of most philosophies and theologies, so seeking advice from therapists and clergymen was as fruitful as the parents could have expected.  Time and again they were met with scoffing, gentle skepticism, and invitations to find help (with someone else).  A considerate ear, even a humorous ear would have been a great relief, but all were in woefully short supply.

Willa did not speak much.  Only a handful of phrases, each sounding as though the girl had just finished drowning only a moment earlier.  “Brother, my brother” seemed to be her favorite, but there were others.  “I’m here for you,” and “You have such a pretty name, Shae,” and “Shh, shh” whenever he would cry.  Once, when Annie was breastfeeding, Willa appeared and asked “why did you never do that for me?”

That was the first time Annie screamed, not because of Willa, but instead, at her.  “What do you want from us?”  Then, having already found her brave anger, “Leave us alone!”

If this bothered the spirit girl at all, she betrayed nothing.  Instead Willa walked forward until face-to-face with her mother.

“I’m lonely here.”  Willa said.  She looked at Shae, then back to her mother.

Willa did not return for months after that, but she didn’t need to.  The unspoken ultimatum lingered behind with Annie, who, being unable to shoulder the burden alone, spilled it onto her husband as well.  Their daughter—no, they could no longer think of it as their daughter.  This creature, whatever crooked thing it might be, was not Willa.  It was a spectral perversion of something beautiful.  Their shining, smiling little girl, now cold, lips frozen into a melted frown.

It was not Willa.  But it did want to take their son away.

The day Shae turned six, the same age Willa was when she passed, the demon appeared again.  It had been so long since they last saw the corruption of their daughter, both Andrew and Annie thought she might have been gone forever.  They knew in their bellies that she was not, but they’d hoped.  They hoped in vain.

At the park, amongst his friends, Shae was made conscious of a strange girl.  He’d never met this girl, but somehow recognized her all the same.  She was funny-looking, at didn’t take her eyes off him for a very long time.

Andrew certainly recognized Willa, because he hated the masquerade that she was.  As every time before, she was a ghost among the rest, incorporeal and imperceptible to the ignorant passersby.

“Willa!” Andrew yelled, more to distract her than anything.  Willa did not acknowledge her father, and Shae seemed so enraptured by the girl with the burns to even notice he’d said anything.

“Brother, my brother,” Willa said, sadly peaceful.  “Want to come and play with me?”

She reached out a hand to be taken.  It was wrinkled and grey, with singed fingernails, black at the bases.

Shae seemed to regard the hand as something with a mysterious, curious quality.  Andrew saw in his son’s eyes the desire to take hold, if only to know what it felt like.  Andrew sprinted at them from his place among the other parents, and managed to intervene just as Shae started reaching for the hand.  He pulled his son up off the ground and spun him away from Willa.  There was a crowd watching, uncomfortable and written with concern, witnessing the father and son’s game of charade.

“Get the hell away from my son!” Andrew snapped at the girl, her one open eye irritated and unimpressed.

Gasps filled the air around them, onlookers aghast.  Andrew blinked and Willa was gone, replaced by another little girl, one of Shae’s friends from the party.

It was not a simple task convincing the parents that he was right of mind, and frankly, Andrew did not care if they believed him.  No, his concern was that Shae was now aware of Willa’s existence, even if he did not fully understand who she was, or what she was supposed to be.

Andrew and Annie did not even understand what she was supposed to be.  But still, they took his questions in stride, mostly to gloss over the mounting curiosity with each successive prompt.

“Who was that, dad?” and “Why did she call me her brother?” and “She looked hurt, why didn’t we help her?” and “Why shouldn’t I touch her?”

“Because she’s a stranger, honey,” Annie would cup Shae’s face, “We don’t talk to strangers, remember?”

“But you know her,” Shae would rebuff, “I’ve heard you and dad talk about her.  You said her name is Willa.”

To make things worse, he started to learn.  Annie remembered catching her son watching a movie on television, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.  In it, he saw dead people, their skin a similar complexion as the ghost girl from the park. They didn’t talk about it, but Annie knew her son was putting pieces together in his mind, threading a large, supernatural tapestry.  That girl he saw in the park on his birthday was dead.  His dead sister, maybe?  That’s why nobody else could see her.  That’s why mom and dad were scared of her, because she’s a ghost and ghosts are supposed to be scary.  But Willa seemed nice.  She only wanted to play.  I like to play.

Willa showed up again only a week or two later.  Shae was sitting in the back seat of the car on their return trip from the grocery store.  In his hands, he fumbled with a toy replica of Sully from Monsters Inc.  Willa materialized in the open back seat, hands folded neatly in her lap, regarding her brother.

Annie jolted for a moment when she saw the apparition in the rearview mirror, but managed to compose herself.  She reached over to Andrew in the driver’s seat, tapped him on the arm, and gave him a look of deliberate intensity.  Her eyes cut to Willa.  Andrew followed them.  He looked back at his wife and nodded.

“Good afternoon, Willa,” Andrew smiled.  “How are you?”

The specter turned its attention on the parents, face placid and wreathed in old wounds.

“I’m lonely,” Willa said.  She turned back to Shae.  “Would you like to play?”

“Willa,” Annie said, “I’d like to play.”

Again, the Willa spirit faced her mother.  Her one eyebrow knotted.

“I would like to play,” Annie’s voice shook, but she managed.  They’d practiced.  She could do this, she knew.  “What do you want to play?”

Willa blinked with her one eye.  It was a slow, consuming blink.  “I…don’t know.”

Shae watched on with that same morbid curiosity that followed everything involving Willa.

“You always liked to sing,” Annie pressed play on a CD in the car.  Journey began to invade the airspace.  It was something Andrew and Annie would often play during car rides, and so Willa had grown accustomed to it while she was alive.  She enjoyed singing along, especially to the tune “Don’t stop believin’.”

If ever Willa had seemed staggered, it was now.  There seemed to be an unsettling conflict within her, a typhoon of the child she had been versus the monster she’d inexplicably become in death.  Her mouth opened with a word, she closed it, that word lost to the void.

“Why?” She said after a lull.

Annie looked over at Andrew.  The bump of the car as it crossed between roads and the existence of a world outside the vehicle was all but forgotten, sacrificed for the sake of focus.

“Why what, sweetie?”  Andrew said.

Willa shook her head and made a low tumble in her chest.  “Why would I like to sing?”

Annie smiled, and was surprised by the genuineness of it.  “Because,” she said, “you’ve always had a beautiful voice.”

Shae’s means of staring at Willa was so severe it was borderline frightening.  But his parents had talked about this, too.  They talked to him, told him about his sister.  “Hi, Willa,” he said, not smiling, but not frowning, “I want to hear you sing.”  He turned to his parents.  “Can I hear her sing?”

Andrew nodded.  “Only if she wants to, bud.”

Willa’s lips pursed, her one eye darting around the car seat in front of her, as though looking for an instruction on how she should behave.  “But,” she garbled, “How?”

“Like this,” Andrew said, picking up the lyrics, lifting the timbre and cadence of his throat.  “Just a small town girl, living in a lonely world…”

She took the midnight train,” Annie rested a hand to her chest, projecting her voice, “Going anywhere.”

They began to sing together.  Eventually Shae joined with them.  Willa cast suspicious, but hopeful glances among everyone in the car.  Then finally, when the chorus arrived, she joined.  It was a creaking, skidding ensemble, but she sang.  Her throat rattled as though filled with lead bubbles, but she found the enthusiasm.  The skin outlining her mouth was taut when she drew it wide to sing, but it did not rip like one might suspect it would by appearance.

“You sing really well,” Shae said, “I think you have a pretty voice.”

Sad admiration, or perhaps longing for appreciation, filled the girl’s dead face.  “You think so?”

“Yes,” Shae smiled.  It was not a smile on the hinge of bravery, or clambering to satisfy.  It was a wide, I want you to believe this because it’s true sort of smile.

Willa did not smile.  She looked back to the front, Annie waiting to meet her gaze.

“I’m lonely,” she said.

Annie shook her head.  “You can’t take Shae-”

Willa’s attention grew sharp and cold.

“-but you can come and play with him whenever you want.  You are still our daughter,” Annie said.  “We want to love you again.  We want you with us.”

“Can I,” Willa chewed her lip, a film of black around her gums, “Just stay?”

Annie blanked and screwed her eyes onto Andrew.  He hesitated, attention fiercely locked on the road, mind a million miles away.

“Of course you can,” Andrew said after a few beats.  “If you give us a few days, we’ll put together a room for you.  We can have dinner as a family again, all four of us.”

A satisfactory script of trust deployed across Willa’s face, her scars fighting against the upturned curl in her lips.  “Okay.”  She nodded, a small vein of moisture in one eye.

Then she was gone.

As promised, Andrew and Annie started making up the spare bedroom to be Willa’s.  They weren’t sure what they were doing, or how, but they’d figure out a way to make it work.  Maybe she wasn’t as she used to be, but it was still their Willa, and they would love her the best they could.  They ought to consider themselves fortunate.  Not every family gets their daughter back.

Even if she couldn’t eat.  Even if she couldn’t sing.  Even if sometimes Andrew would wake up to her, standing at his bedside, watching him sleep.  Even if she still reached out to Shae sometimes, as though some demon controlled her fingers, demanding that she try to steal him away, her expression estranged and like steel.  Shae knew not to take Willa’s hand when she became like this, but the curiosity in his eyes could not be dodged.  It was all his parent’s could do to alleviate his interest.  Willa was good, they would say, but she was not entirely herself.  Something wanted to drag them to a dark place where nobody returned.

Willa and Shae were happy with their parents, Andrew and Annie Foreman, in the winter of ‘07.

Only God knows how long that was going to last.

“The Ghost of Christmas Never” – Original Short Story

Candle in the Night

As only made sense, Past came first.  Carol had been mislead to believe Past was distinguished by predominantly feminine qualities, but instead, the spirit had seemed to her like a candle.  It was a vague, angelic creature with a crown of fire dripping down its perpetually melting body, geometry in constant question.  Carol took fondly to Past, for it had been gentle and quiet, if not a little bit garish in its respect towards her feelings.

Present had been a cruel phantom, though Carol suspected he’d truly meant well.  Of the three, Carol missed Present the most after his passing, for he’d revealed intimate things about the world of men and it was good to know that, in spite of all the horrors saturating the news, pockets of hope still yet lived.

But of course, Yet to Come was of the greatest interest, if not the most terrible of the three.  Terrible only because of how determined the demon had been to draw their session to a close.  Carol could not figure any way her future might somehow be filled with any greater dread than she’d already endured, so she eagerly awaited the third phantom.  But he came and went with such fantastic haste that Carol barely had a moment’s time to process what she’d seen.  It was all fearfully anticlimactic.  Or at least, it would have been, if Yet to Come had been the final apparition.

But stories change. Carol knew deep inside herself, something else was coming.  The spirits were no longer three parts of eternity, but four.

Past. Preset. Yet to Come.

Carol breathed out, a whisper of snow pawing at her apartment window.

Never.

Christmas Eve smelled like pine needles that year.  Perhaps this was not unusual to most people, but it was the first time in a while where Carol could say it about her home.  She’d gotten a real Christmas tree for once, as per her husband’s suggestion, as he believed it would marshall some ‘much needed festivity’ to their one-bedroom apartment.

Charlie was flying in from Los Angeles, where he’d extended his holiday cheer to family in a home away from home.  The spirits had seen fit to make the most of his absence, and plague Carol with all their devices, just as they had with the miser from the classic tale.  However, her history was not like that old penny-pincher, and so their lessons consisted of a different caricature.  If Carol were being frank, she’d admit that even after the providential visitation, she still was not sure exactly what they were trying to do.

Past had pounced without warning only a few hours earlier, after Carol finished decorating the tree to the white noise of Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause.  Carol had counted twenty-four ornaments on the pine, while eager shadows played hide-and-seek behind windowsill candles.  One ornament had proven quite difficult to place.  It was not enrapturing, with a glistening red bulb, professionally laden silver glitter, or a fanciful design across its face, but it was special.  A quaint, little frame with a name in the middle, hugged by two angels on either side.

It read, in penned blue, “Isaac.”

Carol ran a tender thumb over the name, barely touching it for fear any damage might somehow annihilate all memories of a child she’d never had.

It was right then, when the spike of regret was most bountiful, Past had appeared.  Carol was given no warning or pretense of the spirit’s arrival, but could not find it in herself to panic.  There was something immediately nostalgic about its presence, kindling feelings of benign memories.  Like being a child, cradled in the warm arms of a grandmother.

But the memories did come of course, as that was Past’s pleasure.  The spirit, bright and imperial in its majesty, stole Carol from her apartment, where it unleashed a gallery of history upon her contrite soul.  They cut through noise, through years of guilt and innocence, back to the beginning.  Past revealed scenes of joy and of sadness.  A rope swing over a lake, campfires, and the company of friends.  Christmas’s gone and faded, both warm and cold.  Boys and men, with their affections through each season of life.  Love, hope, kindness in all their colorful forms.

Still among them, she witnessed a young girl suffering through a night alone, wrapped around her pillow, incubating it with the hurt of a broken heart. That same girl, hardly a woman in the next memory, laced fingers with her mother as the figurehead of love in her life lay helplessly in a hospital bed, dragged slowly into a pit of unconsciousness from which she would never wake.  Christmas’s better left forgotten.

But there was one more flashback of distinguished significance.  An austere, white room.  The white room where she’d given up the hope in having a son.  A place where the walls had only heard goodbyes.

Carol only noticed she’d been crying when Past wiped away one of the tears.

“It’s sadness,” the spirit said, “that helps us appreciate the nature of joy.  Pain, so that we may be meek towards others.  A lesson of the most difficult nature, rarely conquered.  Yet, you learned well.  Better than many.”

‘Conquered’ seemed to Carol a much exaggerated term.  She’d never much conquered anything in her life.

But the spirit, it was kind.  Not condescending or pontifical.  No, it had a contrition of the greatest sort, an open-faced love and atonement which understood its importance in the scheme of helping others sort out their hearts.  So, Past seemed to stay the longest of the three.  It was the first to regard Carol’s feelings with conscious respect, and so allowed her to spend a little more time in the good memories.  When Carol finally found herself back at home, The Santa Clause was finished and the T.V. worked only to entertain itself.

Carol sat quietly, hands idly folding over themselves in an admixture of fond remembrance.  Scents of pine, clover, and warm barley were sharp in the apartment and held to the dried tear trails against her cheeks.

“Long night already, hm?”

Carol looked up to find a great bull of a man sitting on her living room sofa.  Unlike Past, this creature was evident in his human likeness.  This was Present, Carol knew, for he looked much as she’d imagined in the old tale.  Curls of brown flowed from his head and face, over a coat outfitted with two different kinds of fur.  Carol recoiled for a moment when she caught sight of a sword scabbard in his lap.

“Don’t worry,” he chuckled in a smooth, baritone thunder, “There is no blade.”  He lifted the scabbard and true as it was, Carol saw no weapon within.

Still, Carol remained content with her quiet anticipation.

He smiled knowingly.  “You can’t much expect the world to change if your only means of doing so is through employing fear, I think.  Weapons may serve a purpose, but I have no need of them.”  He took to his feet, great robe swaying.  With one monstrous hand, he reached out to Carol.  “Come now, so you may know me better.”

While Present did not exude the same comforting presence as Past, Carol still felt he was trustworthy and so took his hand.

With a great suddenness, Carol found herself in the airspace above her home.  A moment later, Present was whisking her across the city.  Snow fell against and through them, as though Carol had become part of the spirits’ incorporeal company.  On the other side of town, they found rest outside of an old bar.  The neon in its window was burned out, but light still shone behind the glass.  They stepped inside.

“Why are we here?”  Carol asked.

“For one of the best reasons, I think,” Present said, “To watch and, if we should be lucky, to find.”

“Find what?”

The hulk raised a single, bushy brow.  “First we watch.”

Only four souls occupied the pub.  A stringy, middle-aged barkeep with the countenance of one who had been so long without family that he’d started to forget what the word might have meant.  Two people sat at stools of the bar, a jovial blush in their cheeks to accentuate the winter cold and tickling bourbon in their bellies.  Still there was one more, a completely inebriated man with little more than rags for clothing.

“Here you find the great contrast,” Present said loudly, though nobody seemed to address his existence at all.  “Christmas is not a wonderful time for all men, I’m afraid.  To many, this season is the worst of them, for it is coldest on the streets and coldest in the hearts.  Some are not welcome at home, others have no home at all.”

“And what of them?” Carol pointed at the two at the bar.  “They seem to have happiness enough.”

Present rolled his head in a half-shrug.  “I suppose.  It depends on whether or not you believe the spirits in a bottle are enough to fill the hole where Christmas spirit is supposed to lie.  Those two, they have things which bring them joy, yes.  But notice, they are still alone, even in the company of others.  They do not even talk to one another.  Each of them is lost in fond memories of time that is spent, with no attention towards making tonight a fond memory as well.”

Carol watched, as the spirit had said, and saw that once again he was right.

“There are different kinds of loneliness, as I’m sure you know, dear girl.  These are scarce few of them.”

Carol nodded slowly.  “Yeah.”

“Still,” the giant took her hand and carried her slowly through the ceiling, “It is not all bad, I think.”

Together, they entered an apartment above the bar.  Festive lights armored a tree with red and gold.  In the bedroom, a father knelt at the bedside with his two sons, each barely reaching the plateau of the mattress.

“…and God, please thank Mama for me,” one boy said, “For convincing Papa to buy a guinea pig for my birthday last year.”

“…and thank you, Mama,” the other boy added, “For making good food when I’m hungry.”

“…and God, please take care of my Amanda,” the father said, “For helping me raise two wonderful children.  You and I both know I couldn’t have done it on my own.”  His voice hitched slightly.  “We miss her very much, and I promise I’ll try my best to keep it up without her.”

“Amen.”  They said in harmony.  The father began to stand up.

“And merry Christmas, Mama.”  One of the boys tacked on to the end.

Carol warmed her hands against her hips and looked away.

“See?” Present rocked slightly to himself, eyes closed.  “Loneliness is not all bad, I think.  Ironically, it might be one of the best devices for bringing people together.  The beginning is always so dreadful, a chasm bleak and utterly without hope.  But it must not stay that way.”

Attention on the floor, Carol stepped back.  “Can we go now?”

“Hmm?” Present turned to her. “Has something upset you?”

Carol shook her head, but still would not meet the spirit’s gaze, soft though it might have been.

“Oh.” Present looked over the father as he tucked in his sons.  A single tear pinched free of the father’s eye.  “Forgive my indiscretion.  I’m sure that was not easy for you.”

Snow was still falling outside, Carol knew, because the blue-black dark was all she could bare to look at.

Present rested one hand gingerly on Carol’s shoulder.  “I’m so sorry, dear.  I suspect you’ve dreamed of hearing those words for some time now, hm?”  He squeezed and then spoke kindly, as if to himself.  “Merry Christmas, Mama.”

Carol found it was impossible to swallow when your chest was full with a clenched heart.  She bore her teeth like a cage, spittle gathering on her bottom lip.  Her fingers curled into fists.

“Anger too, you must learn,” the great spirit began to lift Carol out of the home, “is not all bad.  It might be man’s greatest weapon for changing himself, I think.  If first he can come to understand the benefit of experiencing loneliness.”

On the return ride, Carol and Present flew past an airliner as it descended into the city.  Somewhere inside, Carol knew it was her husband’s flight.  Charlie would be home soon.

When she landed in her living room, it was as if Carol had left for only a moment.  The wax of the candles on her windowsill had not gone down at all, and Present was nowhere to be found.

She assessed her environment, not certain what she would find.  Not certain what there was to find, if anything.  The third apparition had not yet arrived.

Carol moved to her television set and turned it off.  The sudden silence captured her, allowed her to hear the sound of her own heart and feel the weight of her own body.

Merry Christmas, Mama.

Carol wasn’t sure which came first, wrapping her hand over her mouth or collapsing to her knees.  Either way, the heat of sorrow came and crushed her from the outside-in.  She felt tightly coiled, the body’s natural response to resisting pain that has been long dormant in the core of us.  

Yet to Come must not have been interested in Carol’s forlorn waywardness, as it appeared in the midst of her grief and without so much as the tracest concern for timing.

Through bleary eyes, Carol saw the specter.  Fear immediately took her primal mind and she backed into the corner, brushing through and almost knocking over her Christmas tree.  It was not out of good sense that she didn’t scream, but a sheer, overpowering awe.

As expected, Yet to Come was darkness incarnate.  The wraith was without consistent form, much like that of Past, but not entirely.  Past gave a human sensation,  which Yet to Come had lacked.  The spirit was far taller, its hooded crown brushing the ceiling, and the folds of its gown spread along the floor, consuming all.

If she remembered correctly, Carol believed that Yet to Come was without voice.  Still, she could faintly hear something coming from the creature, a deep, far-reaching noise.  It was the sound of an eternal vacuum, like the ocean draining through the bottom of the world.

Yet to Come pointed at Carol with one skeletal hand.

“What could you possibly have to show me?”  Carol said with a confidence made of patchwork fury.  It was juvenile and weak in its anger, but it was enough.

With a sweeping gesture, Yet to Come threw its arms.  The world went black.  In this pitch, Carol could see further into the angel’s hood, at the flashing eyes on the other side of their universe.

The darkness decayed into grey light, revealing a stoic, night-worn avenue littered with ashen snow, salt, and the grime of untended winter.  The wind there was hollow and dry as metal, and carried with it no smell beyond the cold itself.

“What is this?” Carol said, somewhat indignant on the coattails of her anger.  It was at this point she realized that, unlike in her recollection of the phantom, Yet to Come wielded no life-slaying weapon.  No scythe or hell-wrought instrument to suggest any agenda of bringing pain or ending life.

A sob broke her concentration and Carol turned around just in time for a man to phase through her.  Carol knew she was the one who was immaterial, that this was a future-to-be and so lacked solid form.  Nevertheless, a stroke of shivers touched on every inch of her spine, her instincts suggesting it was unnatural for such a thing to happen.

Carol judged the man to be some sort of vagabond in spite of his military uniform.  He was not ragged, though had hair suggesting it’d been at least a few days without a hygienic touch-up.  There was no way he’d been on the streets for long.  It didn’t reflect in his gait.  There was pride upon his shoulders, though even now Carol could see that pride beginning to crack.

Carol looked up and down the street, only realizing for the first time that there were staggeringly few people to be found.  None at all, actually.  What’s more, the windows on the nearby establishments, they were barred or boarded.  Carol’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, uncertain of her location.

Then Carol saw the girl.  Carol did not know this girl, though her face seemed awfully familiar, as she came out of one of the buildings at their right.  The girl chased after the soldier, spoke softly at him, too softly for Carol to hear, and grabbed the man’s arm to draw him inside her home.  The vision ended.

“What?” Carol blinked.  “That’s it?”

Still, she waited.  Yet to Come sat with her in a surreal darkness, his existence a natural abomination to the state of things.

But no other scene came.  In an instant, they were back in the apartment, prismatic frost reflecting candlelight on the windowsill.  The demon was gone and Carol was alone again.

Somehow, Carol knew Yet to Come would not be the last.  Unlike the story she’d been familiar with, there was no friendly phantasm to warn her of the spirit’s trials.  No Marley and his unbearable, horrific chains dragging across her floor.  But still, she knew in her heart of utmost hearts that a fourth spirit was approaching, for a word rang in the back of her mind.  Though it was not just a word, it was also a name, just as Past had been a name, and Present, too.  There was a fourth phantom beyond the original tale, unnecessary for what the old miser needed to understand.  His problem only mandated that he encounter three of the principalities.

But Carol would have to face a fourth, the word and name which rounded over and again in her skull.  A creature of temporal defiance.

Never, Never, Never.

So Carol prepared for the spirit to appear as all the rest.  She bunkered against the couch, leaning only slightly into its cushion.  Her apartment, what with its modest trappings and faint idyllicism, was lit now only by christmas lights, dying candles, and moonlight refracted off the deployed snowfall.  Carol waited, her eyes feeling the burden of being without sleep, her waking mind shutting down despite her longing to unravel Yet to Come’s enigmatic vision.

It was right there, on the precipice of slumber, where Never moved into her living room.  Carol did not start suddenly awake, but found her liveliness stirring as she looked at the child, sitting cross-legged on the living room floor.  He shuffled a Christmas ornament back and forth like a cat, not watching Carol as she gaped.

“You,” Carol felt moisture in her eyes and pain rising through the back of her throat, “Why are you…”

The Ghost of Christmas Never looked up at his mother, eyes shining with a polish of tenderness and good will.  He smiled, brushing a strand of hair from his face.  “Good morning, ma.”

Carol’s chest was a cave, gently collapsing.  “That’s not fair.”  She whispered, not to her son, but perhaps to God himself.  “That’s not fair.  How can you be here?  Who are you?”

“Ma?” Isaac said, his boyish face full of concern and knowledge, “Why are you sad?”

“You shouldn’t be here!” Carol took to her feet so quickly she nearly fell over.  Red swam through her face, through her eyes beginning to burn.  “You shouldn’t.  I…You should be…”

“Dead?” Isaac said.

Carol nodded violently, using both hands to stifle the silent screams coming from deep inside.  Salt bit into her cheeks.

Isaac nodded slowly, knowingly.  “Yeah, I know.  I’m sorry.”

Nodding turned into shaking.  Carol turned away, unable to contain herself or form any semblance of composure.

“I guess,” Isaac unwrapped and re-wrapped himself, no longer crossing his legs, but now hugging his knees to his chest, “The others must have been harder on you than I’d thought.”

“It’s not that.” Carol said through a hitched throat, a tang of salt on her lips.  “It’s not that.”

Isaac just rocked himself, watching his mother.

When finally Carol managed to turn to him, she was still unable to generate a complete thought.  Everything was backwards.  Everything was wrong.  How dare they make the final ghost, the all-powerful spirit of Never, into a manifestation of her unborn child.  Whose sick idea was that?

Still, Isaac, the phantom Never, was there, and Carol found him watching her with both sympathy and understanding.  They were things that did not befit his physical shape.  He appeared to be only six or seven years old, about the age he’d have been if she hadn’t given up on him.

“So,” Carol flung out an exploratory wave when she’d finally gained an inch of control. “Go on with whatever you’re supposed to be helping me with.”

Isaac blinked.

“Well?” The whine in Carol’s voice started to spiral out of control again.  “Hurry up.”  She shifted her weight once, twice, folding and unfolding her arms.  “Please.”

Isaac lowered his head into his knees, breathing out.

“Why,” Carol screamed, her emotions boiling over once more.  She dropped to her knees in front of her son.

“You still don’t know what the spirits are trying to do.”  Isaac said softly into his knees, and then into the open.  “Ma, we know life has been hard.  We know Dad is trying his best to be a strong support, but even he can’t carry what you’ve got.  It’s slowly killing you both.”

Carol studied the boy in front of her.  His gaze was reticent, but did not waver.

“Why do you think you’ve been visited by the spirits this eve?”

Carol shook her head helplessly, shrugging.

Breathing out, Isaac began to rock himself again.  “In a time that’s reserved for peace and good cheer, your heart brings you back to nothing but your own failures.  In a season of love and thanksgiving, you are reminded how impossible it is to forgive your transgressions.  To forgive your decision to give up on me before I’d even had a chance to prove I could make it in this world.”  Isaac paused, when Carol fell in on herself, a mourning shambles.  “Because when you should be feeling grace, you feel only loathing.  That is why we have come.”

Isaac moved over to his mother and rested his head on top of hers.  “And that’s why I’m here, to tell you this.  If you won’t forgive what you’ve done, then I will.  I forgive you, ma.  I forgive you.”

“I watched you die,” Carol wept through a stuffed nose and exhausted soul.  “I was afraid you might be born born sick, or that I wouldn’t have been able to protect you, wouldn’t have been able to provide for you.  I just didn’t want you to hurt like they said you would.”

“I know.”  Isaac leaned back again, nodding.  “Making that call couldn’t have been easy.  I have no idea.”

Carol finally began to work through the conclusive stages of that particular grieving session, her tears and tight throat finally loosing enough to allow the poor girl a moment’s breath.

“Christmas must have been lonely these last few years.”

“It was.” Carol sniffed.

“It doesn’t have to be.”

Carol shook her head again.  “No.”  She swallowed.  “It’s not that simple.  Everything reminds me of you.  Regardless of how I spend my day, who comforts me, or how much love I see in people, when I go to bed at night I can only see your face.  I spend every waking moment remembering that you are not here.”

Isaac sat still, watching.

“I didn’t think it was possible,” she said, “To so deeply miss somebody I’d never met.”

Carol felt weight on her shoulders and looked up to find her son kneeling there in front of her.  He pulled her up until she no longer faced the ground, and then, as she should have expected, but did not, he hugged her.  The shock of it was only matched by the flood of kindness which jabbed through her core, stripping each wall within of the rotted guilt which had made its home there over the years.

“Ma,” Isaac spoke into her shoulder, “Please love yourself again.”

It was surprisingly frightening, Carol thought, to try and forgive herself.  It didn’t really seem fair.  Sorrow seemed like something she deserved.  Was that not the natural course of those who decided their own children were not worth having?  She’d always believed that was the punishment for stupid decisions.  You needed to live with them, suffer them.

“No,” Isaac contested, as if his mother’s mind were an open book, “That is not the only option.  That’s the thing about grace.  It gives us what we don’t deserve, and all it asks for is a little honesty.  The beauty of grace is that it makes life unfair in our favor.”

Carol continued to shake her head, though with less resolve than before.  Isaac released his mother and stepped back, letting her hands fall to her sides.  He turned away and his form began to glow slightly.  Then he began to dissolve.

“No!” Carol protested, all of her fears and insecurities redoubling on her.  Agony filled her bones once more.  “Please don’t leave again.  Tell me.  Tell me about you.” Carol clenched her fists as only the helpless knew how.  “Please.”

Isaac shook his head numbly.  “You aren’t losing me, please understand that.  Learn to forgive yourself, so you may have a future unburdened by sadness.”

“Future?” Carol said.  “What about that?  What was the vision supposed to mean, the one from Yet to Come?  I still don’t understand.”

Isaac did not turn back to look at her.  “You must learn to forgive yourself,” he said slowly, “So my sister may grow up knowing how to love and forgive others in a cruel world.”

Carol blinked.  Sister?  Isaac did not have a sister.  At least, not one that had yet come.

“Tell dad I said hi,” Isaac walked to the apartment’s front door and took hold of the handle.  He stopped. “And mama,” he turned back to Carol and smiled, “Merry Christmas.”

He opened the door and hurried out, shutting it behind him.  Carol bolted for the handle, threw the door wide, and found Charlie fumbling with his keys on the other side.  He gasped and receded at the suddenness of her approach.

“Woah, Carol.  Hi.”  He grinned.  “Didn’t think you’d be waiting for-” He paused. “Hon, have you been crying?”

Carol barreled into his chest, wrapping her arms around him and tightening.  It was something she did often, but it had never been so liberating as when she did it now.  Charlie must have noticed a difference, for he dropped his keys to return the gesture and kissed the top of her head.  It was pleasant.  It held no question, just the simplicity of being perfect.

“Thank you,” Carol said, “For being patient with me.”

He kissed her head again, knowing not to ask questions at a time not meant for questions.  “And thank you,” he said, “for having a wonderful heart.”

For all Carol minded, dawn could wait.  Everything could wait.  They entered the warmth of their home together, where a touch of hope met the comfort of a new day.  A candle dripped, a heart left its burdens to die, and, as could only be hoped for, snow gently covered the ground Christmas Eve.

“Papa’s Little Girl” – Short Story

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It just doesn’t seem fair, you know?

I mean, I don’t hold anything against you.  How could I?  You are guilty only of good things, papa.  The warm night snuggling beside you or at the foot of your bed, I loved those.  They were some of my favorite things.  Not to mention the treat you’d grant me from your very own hand, and that smile when you’d drop, look me in the eye and say “That’s my girl,” with a comb of your fingers through my hair.  That was my favorite, too.

It’s hard not to love you, papa.  I know when I was young I had brothers and sisters.  I remember them vaguely, but I remember.  You took me home with you, so I haven’t seen them in a while, but that’s okay.  Maybe I was scared at first, being removed from my family. Scared of you. I can only hope my siblings were also blessed with such wonderful papa’s.  Thank you for making me safe and not scared anymore.  Thank you for sharing your home with a clumsy little girl like me.  Thank you so much, papa.

Papa, I’m still not sure why I’m not allowed to be a mama someday. I went to sleep around some strange people and when I woke up, well, it just hurt.  Something was wrong inside of me too, I just hadn’t figured out what at the time.  I’m not questioning you, papa.  I know you only want what’s best for me, but I still get sad sometimes.  Is that okay?  Am I allowed to be sad when I have such a great papa?  I just…I don’t know.  I wish I could be a great mama, too.  I wish I could show little puppies all of the love that you showed me.  I wish so bad to be as great as my papa.

It just didn’t seem fair back then.  Papa, you’re a good guy.  I’m sorry you get hurt sometimes.  Sorry the job people didn’t want you anymore.  Sorry that woman didn’t love you.  The tears you cried into my head were warm.  They made me want to cry, too.  When you kept saying “Why am I not good enough?”, I knew you weren’t talking to me, but papa, I wanted to answer so bad.  I wanted to tell you exactly how good you were.   That you were friendly, and funny, and made the sun sparkle, and worth the trust of all things in all the whole wide world.  You deserved the best friends, the best family.  I wanted my papa to be happy so bad it hurt.  I’m sorry I couldn’t help, papa.  You were the best papa a little girl could ask for, and it made me sad that I didn’t know how to tell you.  I’m not very good with words, papa.

But even though you got hurt sometimes, you never gave up.  Papa, that’s what’s great about you.  That’s why I’m proud to call you my papa.  You got a new job, a better job, and you stopped asking if you were good enough anymore.  It helped you be happy again.  Then you bought me my stuffed bunny toy, Squeakman.  I love Squeakman.  Even now, he’s still my best friend, even if he doesn’t squeak much anymore.

But even better than Squeakman was your face when you met mama.  I remember when you came back from your first date.  Oh papa, how you smiled!  You picked me up and spun me around and laughed with a full heart.  The spinning made me dizzy, but I’d be dizzy for a million years if it meant my papa could be happy.  Mama was a good lady, I knew.  We shared that same feminine instinct and class, so there was no doubt in my mind.

So papa, I know you’re no dummy.  That’s why I knew you’d propose to mama.  I’m sure the wedding was beautiful too, but I couldn’t go.  Nah, papa’s little girl was starting to feel tired lately.  That’s okay.  Squeakman and I celebrated from afar and eagerly awaited your return.  I was only sad once, the whole time you were gone, when I thought about being a mama myself.  But it passed and I remembered how happy my papa was.

Our new home was bigger than the old one and full of new smells, so me and Squeakman made a day of exploring it when you both went to work.  We found a secret lair beneath the deck, I chased two squirrels out of the yard, and we introduced ourselves to our neighbor Sammi.  She’s a bit of an airhead, but I like her.

Papa, you have no idea how my heart fell through the floor when mama got that call you were in the hospital.  They said it was an accident and you’d need surgery.  Papa, it just wasn’t fair.  I wanted to go and be by your side so bad, I would have turned over the world to find a way, but mama said I couldn’t come.  I didn’t want to disobey mama, and knew she had her reasons, so I stayed, though my soul was in tatters.  I paced, and cried, and prayed to Big Papa that you’d be okay.

I’m really thankful to mama.  She was there when I couldn’t be.  I knew she was good, but to think she was also the best.  She was the best mama a little girl could ask for, because she knew how to take care of you, papa.  I know she was the best, because once you got better and she was out with her friends for the night, you cried with me.  You cried and thanked Big Papa for sending mama to help you through life when it got hard.  I didn’t know you could do that.  I didn’t know a person could cry and smile at the same time, but you did it papa.

I saw you do it again a while later, when Little One was born.  I saw you cry, but not because you were sad.  No, you might have been even happier than ever.  I was happy too, and not just because of how Little One made you smile.  Little One helped kindle an old fire in my heart.  If I couldn’t be a mama myself, then I would help my mama protect her Little One.  I would do it with all of my heart.

Watching Little One grow was one of the best things in my life.  You were a great papa to us both and I loved showing Little One that you didn’t need to be afraid of people like me and Sammi.  People with four legs.  Thank you for allowing me to be there when Little One began to walk.  Thank you for letting me be a protector when you were gone.  I promised that until the day I die, I would never let any harm come to Little One.  On my honor as a mama.

But as Little One got bigger, I started to feel something strange. Papa, it happened every time you came home from work or kissed mama.  It happened every time you woke up in the morning and began to move around.  There was something wrong with all of it.  But the problem wasn’t with you, papa, it was with me.  I was broken.  I was changing and you weren’t.  The stairs I climbed to reach your bedroom, they seemed further apart, but you didn’t think so.  My legs which helped me run to your side everyday were made of heaviness. Why didn’t your legs seem heavier, papa? Why could you still run when I could not?

Eventually it became too much for this little girl.  I tried so hard to keep up with you, papa, but you were moving too fast.  Everything hurt and I was always tired.  But why?  All I wanted was to stay by my papa’s side.  Why couldn’t I do that anymore?  What was wrong with me?  It just wasn’t fair.

One day I woke up when Little One accidentally fell on me.  My body hurt something incredible.  I knew it wasn’t Little One’s fault, because I’d felt the pain growing deep inside of me for a while, but suddenly I couldn’t move.  I could barely even breathe, papa.  Do you know how scary that is, not being able to breathe?  Thank you for taking care of me though, and please let Little One know it wasn’t their fault.  I was a broken little girl.  I take full responsibility.

Still, it just wasn’t fair.  You took me in to see that doctor person.  I didn’t like that doctor person because he smelled like the people who stopped me from being a mama, but I trusted you knew what was best.  He placed cold things all over my body and shined a bunch of painful lights into my eyes.  He asked you to sit down in the chair so you could talk, but I knew what he was going to say.  I was starting to get the feeling that I wouldn’t get to leave with my papa today.  The words he used were big and confusing, but I understood the fear in your face.  He said I was broken, didn’t he?  I was too “old.”

What is old, papa?  Are you old?  Please don’t become old, it’s really not very fun.  I hope Little One never becomes old.

You left me with the doctor person for the night.  Papa, that was the loneliest night of my life.  I was so scared and I only had Big Papa to comfort me.  I could do nothing but lay down and wait and hope you’d come back when the sun rose again.

Thank you for coming back.  Thank you for bringing mama and Little One to see me.  This is going to be the last time, isn’t it?  I can tell because nobody is smiling.  I mean, you’re trying to smile, but you can’t trick me, papa.  I could smell your sadness when you stepped through the door.  I can feel your heart breaking, just like mine.

Papa, did I ever tell you how much I love mama’s voice? It’s so tender, like she’s apologizing to Big Papa for every bad thing everyone has ever done.  It’s so sweet, like a magical rain made of candy.  You are so special to have her, papa.  She’s a better mama than I could ever be.  Please take care of her forever and always.  I know you will, because that’s the kind of papa you are.

Little One doesn’t know what’s happening, do they?  That’s okay.  I protected them, just like I promised I would.  Please keep Little One safe when I’m gone.  Please show them what love is.

And Papa, it really, really isn’t fair, you know?  Why do you not look any different?  I spent my whole life with you.  You were there from the beginning.  Had you had little girls like me before?  Will you find another once I’ve left?  If you do, please be the papa I know you are, and show them how to be happy like me.  Fill them with wonder and hope and joy.  Little girls need those things from their papas.

Because I’m old now, papa, and very tired.  Thank you for placing Squeakman beside me, so I don’t have to go alone to find Big Papa.  Thank you for being here, even though I know it hurts your heart.  You’ve always been here, haven’t you?  I’ve seen you every day since I could remember, and you still look exactly the same as when we first met. That’s not fair.  I want to spend more time with my papa, but I can’t keep my eyes open anymore.  Why are my eyes the only ones that have to close?  Why do I have to go into the dark without my papa?

It just doesn’t seem fair, you know?

“The Drums” – Short Story

There was rain. On a Hallows’ Eve, that meant something. In the shadows of the manor Whitewine, it meant something more. Whitewine was a cobweb of antiquity, and one could swear it was that way from the beginning. But there had been people once. A family of five and however many generations preceded them. Noel was a Whitewine, so she knew it to be true, even if that was long ago and time had since filled the manor with desolation. Noel was trusting and altogether knowledgeable in the stations most considered worth having knowledge. But she was also young, frightfully empathetic, and tonight, very much alone.

There was rain and it came hard. Against the ceramic shingle rooftop of the manor, it struck like an army of drummers. This was a good thing. The drone of their fall helped muffle each creak in the aged manor floor as Noel stepped within. It muted her imagination, which would have otherwise suggested there was somebody walking through the upstairs. But Noel’s mind was prone to remembering, and it remembered awful things at the worst of times. Whitewine was a family, one of her own blood. And in a time before hers, they were considered very much unholy. She would never have thought to thank the rain, because she underestimated its kindness. For without the rain, she would have heard the moans from the basement cellar. Moans very real, despite her being alone.

There was rain, but soon it might stop. Nobody was allowed in the manor without rain’s company, especially during the after dark hours. Noel knew this, but decided to take the risk regardless. The family Whitewine was notorious for their business of stealing people. Noel had learned such in the news columns of decades passed. When finally the family had been caught in evidential movements and the manor was searched for missing persons, the town militia did not understand how sundered the minds of Whitewine truly were. Their discovery led them to a home for bones and things which bled out slowly. The kidnapped persons were not wholly themselves any longer. Through rigorous and generous torture, only parts of their minds and bodies remained intact. Many were stripped nude, strung up by manacles in the cold cellar until their feet had gone black and flaky. They would beat their heads back against the cellar wall, trying to lull themselves into death. Some succeeded, others simply cracked their brains. Some were missing their tongues, eyes, lips, or ears, later found assorted in the children’s bedrooms. There were worse things than this, things that would make the devil proud, but those memories were dark and the worst representations of man, so Noel dutifully tried to forget them. But these crimes were not easily forgotten. Not by man, by God, or by time.

There was rain, and it made the air cold. Noel wondered sometimes if God forgave people like these. Did Heaven also delight in their company? She was unsure what to think of it all. But that wasn’t important now. The manor was important. Basking in its history and acclimating to its macabre silence. Except it wasn’t silent. There was always a sound of drums. The rain now making earth its pasture. There was something more to the noise, but it was lost in the rain, to her benefit. Young Noel would find the Whitewine legacy on her own very soon. Once the dust guided her down to the cellar. All in time, all in time.

Still there was rain, but it was drawing to a close. The yearning patter began to crawl to a stop, leaving all natural life refreshed and thankful. In this saturated world, hope was as alive as it sounded. And that was beautiful. But though the rain reached the manor, it held no cure for the bitter memories within. Those memories of pain and hatred and cruelty of the greatest sort. Noel remembered them from her readings, and for years her imagination had played with her, trained her for this moment. This was not good, nor beautiful, as she would soon find out. Not that she expected different from God’s worst sinners. But within her dark dreams came a whistle, something entirely unexpected because of its ferocity. Dread crept onto her the way only it knew how. With a smile and slow courtesy. The whistle was not in her mind, like she first believed it might have been. It came from the boards between her feet, twenty feet into a grave of the earth and the black heart of the Whitewine manor. Noel flinched and stepped forward, quickly finding the door to the basement cellar.

The rain died and ceased its pounding. The new absence reminded Noel of an old heart, finally giving up its struggle. There was quiet, but only for a moment, until the girl reached for the cellar door. As she did, the drums dawned again. Rather, she only finally began to hear what had always been. These drums belonged more than the rain and it was their right to stay. They thudded like a dull fist striking a table and echoed twice as deep. Noel spun the knob and yanked open the door. She was welcomed by a years-old stink. Something like wood rot and disease. The clouded light from outside filled in the cellar as she descended. There were windows, veiled by the webs of a hundred dead spiders, and everything was of tattered stone. It looked and smelled as unhallowed as she’d imagined. But the drums were different. They were a raw beat, unsettlingly alive and visceral. With the bravery of a fool, Noel began to search for that rhythm growing ever louder.

There was no rain, but still the drums sounded. As she lurked ahead, Noel was increasingly aware of her thin frailty. She was a scarecrow. All straw and thread, no spine or substance. But the drums had her. For a breath she reconsidered if it wasn’t all in her mind. That would be simple and explanative, but it would also be very untrue. In the furthest back, towards the darkest end of the basement, she found a man in suffering. Iron shackles arrested him, and they lay at his sides. Noel cringed at the slope of his body. It was as though his spine had been pulled apart and fastened into a stretch, with only his upper torso and head supported by the cellar wall. An unsettling gray crust had baked over his skin, while his jaw seemed broken and slack, swaying back and forth with each toss of his head. Both of his manacles were affixed by chain and nail to a slab of wood behind his head, forever preventing escape. Noel shivered.

Where was the rain? She wanted it back. Again and again the dead man would crack its head against the wood. It was a dull thump, thump filled with resigned defeat, something Noel took to mean that he’d wanted to die for so long, only for death to never come. Thump, thump it continued, just like the rain. Thump, thump went the drums. It quickly became too much. Maybe Noel cast herself away from that horror, that godless tomb. She couldn’t remember, even years later. Again she tried to counsel herself into believing that the Whitewine’s sins had long since ended. The dead man was just as he was, dead. A disaster of her mind, fabricated from long nights of reading Whitewine lore. It didn’t really matter. Every moment the rains came thereafter, she remembered the drums. And of course they remembered her, too. Goodnight, Noel.

“Ghost” – Short Story

In evenfall there was a ghost, one who took kindly to others, but found all his company alone. Children share their tales, as children do, about when they met the ghost and what they’d done together. About what they might do, should they ever again meet this apparition. But while their stories were only by the fond side of the heart and meant no ill, they were also the sorts of false expression expected of children. Unlike their tales, the ghost never housed a guest, as guests never made it so far into the woods without turning back. More than that, it had been a long age since the ghost last knew anything of friendship. But should any wandering souls find themselves lost in that wood, and if perchance they stumbled upon the ghost’s home, they would find something lovely. Lovely, maybe, but terribly austere and lonesome in all the gentlest ways.

The ghost made its days cultivating a modest cabbage patch, with rough carrots intermixed. This gave credence to the white-washed stone gardening walls, put up only a few years earlier. It was all that could be done to keep out intruding hare and all manner of invasive critter. A rickety sign clicked overtop the doorframe of a home that the innocent and friendly might envy. Scrawled in black ran across its face a single word: ‘Ghost’. This was its home, the only place it knew. Perhaps a mystery to the ghost, but this was also a prison. Thoughts and memories of its life were all trapped here, and for that reason, it could never leave. And because it would never leave, it would never find something new.

Still it stayed, and it was happy. Lonely on bad days, but it was a cheerful ghost with the knowledge that bad days couldn’t last. So it remained inside when the rains came and made its home well, so that when somebody might finally brave the wood and find the gentle cottage beyond, it would be ready for them. There would be festivities of the sort only a ghost could satisfy. It would be a celebration with warm, butter-baked bread and the ghost’s favorite kind of chocolate. Pumpkins might be carved with the ghost’s perfectly polished tools and marshmallows would be roasted in a quiet fire. There would be music, because of course the stranger would have a spirit for song and dance. Maybe ghosts struggle to dance, but this ghost would try. It practiced often, when nobody was looking.

But this was all just a dream, one of the happy dreams meant for a good day. Today was a laundry day, which meant it was neither good, nor bad. The ghost was thankful that it was cloudless outside. It preferred its labors at night, and night was awfully solemn without any stars. You’d think a ghost would have no need for laundry, but you would be wrong. This ghost loved each of its four sheets more than anything else in the home. They were simple, often just as dirty as they were now.

Everlasting fingers of mud had saturated deep into their white. A light tattering could be felt in the surface of each and along their edges. These made them imperfect. But imperfect was most usually the best way to have something. The ghost knew this and liked them all the same.

Sometime long ago the ghost cut little circles in the sheets. The circles were cut in pairs and, because ghosts aren’t very coordinated, they were laughably asymmetrical. Some were too high, others too low. Nearly all of them too close or too far. But the sheets were already imperfect, and so surely they understood how difficult it was for a ghost to cut proper eye holes. This only made the ghost love and nurture them that much more. So as it was, the ghost would wash them, grinning as it churned through popping bubbles and suds. The companionship of the moon made these evenings warm and before long the ghost would finish bathing its sheets.

A slash of string was spread across the yard, suspended between two rods of timber. Since the sheets would need a chance to dry, the ghost used this line to hang them and let the night air have its way. During this period it sank into a deep patience. Sometimes the ghost would sit in silence and wait, other times it might hum the progression to a sweet autumn song. You know, something red and yellow, but mostly orange. A song that smells of nutmeg and cinnamon. One of these days somebody would be sitting nearby and humming along. You don’t have to be a ghost to appreciate the small things like a humming comrade.

When finally the sheets were cured of their wetness, the ghost would pull them off the line and smile. It would smile a tender, forgiving smile. Something it learned from children’s books. Armed with that smile, it would carry the sheets over and drape them on four posts, standing no more than three heads from the ground. If assorted properly, the eye-pockets would look straight back at him. Or as straight as possible, with the ghost’s handiwork. In that moment, the ghost would fondly share its musings and happenings with the sheets. They were usually a kind audience, with a generous ear. On bad days, they never said anything. But that was alright, because usually it was a good day, and on good days the laundry would talk back. None of them bore scars of rudeness or malign gestures. Instead they were friendly, and often times their stories were better than any the ghost could tell. Together they would reminisce of young life games, younger sweetheart loves, and the adventures known to dwell in far lands and amidst the sea. Naturally there was laughter, and even though there may not have been music, they always sang.

In time a wind would come and snatch the sheets up as a futile attempt to steal them away. But the ghost had a big yard, and though the sheets might tumble and mar with dirt, it would always catch them. There would be a pang of sadness in its heart as the conversation drew to a sudden close. For a moment the ghost believed the sheet might not ever talk again. If anybody has ever lost a friend, or said goodbye for what they knew could be the final time, then they understand much of how the ghost felt during these moments. But it was a hopeful ghost, with a big heart and keen understanding. The sheets could get dirty over and over, and the ghost would always be ready to clean them anew. So it would, so it would.

Because today might be a good day. Maybe. This ghost was an ambitious ghost and not taken to long-suffering or hardship. Strangers never came to visit, so it had time to do the laundry. And once it had begun, it could sit alone and wait according to its custom. Though strangers never said hello and children never ventured near its home, if the ghost waited long enough it would always have someone that might listen. Some sheets with little holes for eyes. Some sheets that fluttered upon a post. Friends with which it could sing and not be disheartened. Because at evenfall there was a ghost with homemade friends, and nobody knew their stories but him.

“The Interview” – Short Story

“As I’m sure you’ve suspected, this isn’t normal protocol.”

I nod as I take my seat, “If we were normal, we’d be out of a job.”

If the overlord was amused, he didn’t show it. My answer seemed to satisfy him enough, but I can’t say the same for the triad of his peers, my interviewers. Then again, I knew they were a tough crowd. Any supervillain worth their mettle always was.

“Jericho here has to level a Mediterranean island this evening, so forgive us if we are attentive to time. It couldn’t be helped.” A burly oaf with skin fair enough to challenge The White Witch gave a stunted nod. I’d heard of Jericho. He was probably the least imposing of the titans before me, but still had enough experience and power under his belt to give A-class heroes a modest challenge.

As for the piece of work that had been breaking me in, that was Malachi, more notoriously known by-and-large as Utter Doom. I’d trained myself to look at his forehead when speaking with him, so as to avoid direct contact with the “Lucifer Eyes” that brought him to the top of his field. They were blank, cleaner than white, and only an accessory to his esteemed fury. Utter Doom had been around since the dawn of the supervillain, and was the standard that defines many supervillain tropes. Ironic, because nearly all of those came from his younger days and most of them are a reflection of inexperience. Nowadays it’s a rule of thumb you don’t make your ventilation ducts large enough to crawl through, and you never monologue for more than two lines.

“That’s understandable,” I said, “Thank you for the opportunity to be here today.”

Utter Doom gave a curt nod, “Of course. Let’s begin. Why are you interested in becoming a supervillain?”

I did my best to shed a practiced smile and passed my eyes along each of my interviewers, steering clear of their gazes, “As a former superhero,” I paused for an instant to take in their expressions. Good, none of them seemed surprised by this, “I have always admired the resilience of your side. You make greater sacrifices than most of the supposed ‘heroes’, and are very action-oriented. Supervillains are creative, meticulous, and have tremendous resolve. Superheroes do not do much for themselves. They simply respond to your presence. If not for you, there would be no need for the hero. I am fascinated by that instrumental importance and influence you carry.”

Doom scrawled things on the clipboard in his lap. He sat straight-backed in a black throne chair, fitted with leather. It was daunting how his expression remained. Absolutely deadpan, without the slightest tremble or fidget. “You clearly weren’t a superhero for very long.”

This caught me unprepared, “Might I ask why you think so?”

“In my experience, heroes often sacrifice just as much, if not more than the supervillains. We might be lonely, or in perpetual financial ruin, or thought monsters, but like you said: it is by our own devices. We are the proactive ones. Maybe some of us have better reasons for our actions than others, but ultimately it is still our decision to behave and act against standardized morality. We are sinister and underhanded, and many heroes are felled by our cunning and deceptiveness. Some even come to our side because of how much we have cost them. Do not underestimate the sacrifices of your enemy.”

I found myself closing peeled lips. I hadn’t expected such class and respect from a supervillain, especially towards his adversaries.

“Our records show that you were a superhero for only five years?” A new voice broke the conversation. Miranda, the only female in the office. The Queen. I nod my affirmations, “What was your region and what are your powers?”

The Queen was entirely different from Utter Doom. She weaved her words with enough restraint, but the tears of blood forever spinning from her eyes made me wary, like she would happily drive twelve blades into my heart at the drop of a hat.

Keeping your voice straight in front of a woman of this caliber was no simple task, “My first few years were largely based in central Europe, but the latter half was spent on the Eastern American shore. As for powers, I can manipulate gravity.”

This seemed to please her. “Always formidable if utilized properly,” she said.

I couldn’t stop my grin.

“Show me,” Jericho spoke. They weren’t words. They were bombs, and they blew apart both my knees and my conviction. Steeling myself, I thrust one palm forward and unleashed a hideous shockwave, one strong enough to snap pillars of stone like chicken legs. The table we gathered around blew into dust and shards, and the room was filled with a low-bass ringing like we were inside a troll’s war drum. While the hair on his flesh might have flittered, the giant was a full four-hundred pounds of not-moving. Only now did I realize that any one of my interviewers were enough to topple a nation. I had nothing before them. They were each at least ten times deadlier to the world than I was. Doom didn’t even blink. Jericho grunted, “Pretty good.”

Pretty good? Oh, man.

Until now, the last interviewer hadn’t yet graced me with a word from his unholy tongue. Honestly, I would have preferred it stayed that way. The final of the four was Famine, one of the infamous Horsemen of Apocalypse. A demon among supervillains and probably the only inquisitor present with enough spine and cruelty to stand up to the devil. “If you were accepted for the position, what methods would you take to ensure optimal damage output? What are some of your operational preferences?”

Swallowing through my heart, I persevered, “Until now I’ve been familiar with working alone or in small groups, but I feel the next best step for my career is to join an organization. Power in numbers and all of that. This will give me the first-hand experience I need for the long-term ambition of leading my own dark organization. A sort of anti-hero unit, I suppose. We will have no other purpose but to destroy those who defy us,” I paused for a moment to study Utter Doom, who seemed to be clenching his jaw quite tightly. I continued, “As for specific methods, I would abide by the guidebook of Doom’s apprentice ‘Black Stroke’. Absolutely brilliant methodology and technique, with humor and wit to boot.”

“It’s a shame he didn’t take his own advice,” Doom said off-handedly, in a slow drone, “Rule twelve: ‘Never let the hero have a last request.’ That one mistake was all he needed.”

“Nevertheless, they are quality guidelines for any contemporary supervillain,” I defended, “And as for ‘optimal damage output’ I would probably start by convincing my former companions that I was still interested in being a superhero. Manipulation and deceit are wonderful tools, even for ordinary men.”

Famine was a dirty red color in his skin, like desert sands at sunset. His skull was lined with jagged black protrusions and I wondered how he ever slept. Or if he ever slept. He pursed his lips and tipped his head, jotting down notes.

Utter Doom cleared his throat and readjusted himself, “Answer the following with as much speed and precision as possible.”

I readied myself. I’d been studying for this part.

“As a supervillain, is it better to have a son or a daughter for your progeny?”

“Neither,” I shoot out, almost forgetting the rest of my answer, “Sons are proud, and their inevitable plans to usurp me might fail, but it will almost certainly be at a critical point in time. The distraction could result in my downfall. Daughters are easily tricked into falling for the hero’s swashbuckling charm and skill, thus leading to ultimate betrayal. Though if I had to choose, I’d rather have a son. I could use his evil strength until he came of age, and then I would kill him in what looked like an accident. If he had friends, they would be disposed of preemptively, so as to waylay their possible vengeance.”

Doom was quick with the next question, “When is an enemy considered defeated?”

“When they are either cremated, or at the very least, mutilated to the point that they wouldn’t want to live. And absolutely no assumptions. If they fell down a cliff, I would personally go down with a strike team to retrieve the body and finish up a proper disposal.”

“If you had a platoon or army under your command, what sort of aesthetics would you employ in the design of their uniform?”

This one was disappointingly easy. Only the stupid villains missed this question anymore. “Grant them individuality. They might all wear one suit, but make it unique and open to slight variety and character. If helmets are included, and they should be, then they ought to reveal the identity of the soldier underneath. At the very least, the eyes should be visible. Such a simple device does tremendous things to the hero’s psyche and makes your underling more likely to survive in battle.”

Utter Doom sighed and penned his thoughts onto the board, “Straight from Black Stroke’s lessons. I can’t say they were poor answers…just rehearsed.”

“I prefer to use the word ‘practiced’. Makes me feel more disciplined and malleable.”

The Queen licked her lips, “One last question. If there were any one villain you could follow for a day, who would it be?”

“Whipgun,” I answer, aware that I might be making a poor decision.

“Whipgun?” The Queen grimaced, “The speed beast? Why him? He has fulfilled nothing but minor-league contracts, heists, and burglaries. Any hero worth their power can defeat Whipgun.”

“Because if I could follow Whipgun, that would mean I was really, really fast.”

Jericho made a tumbling noise in his chest that I hoped was laughter.

The Queen curled her fingers around the pen in her hand and looked at me hard. For a second, I thought I’d made a mistake. But my concerns melted when she smiled. An evil smile, but a smile all the same, “At the end of it, he cracks a joke. I like how you play this game.”

Doom and Famine were profoundly unaffected by the humor, but it wasn’t for them anyways. “That’s all I have,” Doom said, “Does anyone else have something they’d like to add?”

Unanimous shrugs and head-swaying across the board.

“Very good,” Utter Doom directed himself towards me, “Before we go, do you have any last questions?” He’d already begun to leave his seat, so I took that as a cue I could as well.

I wore that practiced smile like a mask of hope, “Only one. When can I start?”