Christmas Carapace

“Something in the insect seems to be alien to the habits, morals, and psychology of this world, as if it had come from some other planet: more monstrous, more energetic, more insensate, more atrocious, more infernal than our own.”
-Maurice Maeterlinck (Awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in Literature, 1862–1949)

“Did you know that the entire insect population represents over 90% of the life forms on the planet?”

Gladys Murphy sighed. Her son, Jeremy was always spouting off facts about insects. Or he was playing with them. He was 12 years old and still playing with insects. When other boys his age were playing sports or even video games, Jeremy would be in the back yard with his jars and boxes and nets collecting insects. Playing with them. Touching them.

His obsession with insects was unnerving and in her opinion wasn’t very healthy either. On many occasions Gladys had gone into his room to put away his clothes only to find him playing with his insects like they were Hot Wheels or little plastic soldiers. Sometimes she’d find a battalion of ants parading across his bedroom floor. Running across the occasional spider or cockroach could be expected in anywhere but it was routine in her household. Beetles and spiders would battle to the death in his collection of old mason jars and fish tanks. His walls were lined with window boxes full of the pin-stuck carcasses of dead insects.

One time she caught him playing with a wasp’s nests that clung to the rafters in the attic. She hated going up to the attic. Even with the lights on and flashlight in hand, hot, brackish shadows seemed to cling to every corner of the room and she always experienced a slight feeling of trepidation every time she had to go up there. But there was Jeremy, standing in front of the lone window in the attic, playing with the wasp’s nest without a care in the world of being stung. It seemed like dozens of them were flying around him like tiny helicopters and Jeremy was their air traffic controller.

Like cold, invisible fingers, an involuntary shiver traced down her spine just recalling the event.

“Mom, did you know that entomology is the study of insects?”

“Yes, Jeremy. You’ve told me a thousand times,” she replied, the patience slipping from her voice.

“Mom, did you know that in Latin, ‘insect’ means ‘cut into pieces’?”

“Yes, Jeremy.” She glanced at the clock and noticed it was time to go to Dr. Mendenhall’s office. “Jeremy, go upstairs and put your good clothes on because we have to go the doctor’s office now.”

Gladys hoped that Dr. Mendenhall could help Jeremy. And maybe in the process get some help herself. Lately she’d become a little frightened of Jeremy. It was something she’d been struggling with ever since her husband, Lou had died six years ago.

She had been so stupid. One night after work, she stopped at the bar up the street to have a drink before returning home. She’d had several more drinks than she had intended and ended up leaving with one of the less offensive patrons. Lou wouldn’t be home for hours so she took the guy home. She’d never done anything like it before or since. She never even got his name and couldn’t even remember the guy’s face but there was no denying that it was the best sex she had ever had before and since. Even now, that whole episode was a blur and each time she tried to recall even the slightest detail about that strange man at the bar with the blurry face, she came up blank. But she could recall that magnificent afterglow.

Shortly after Jeremy was born Lou dropped subtle hints at how Jeremy didn’t look like him at all. He’d noticed how different Jeremy was from the other kids. How he never showed any interest in sports, how Jeremy basically ignored Lou altogether. Always playing with those damn bugs. Even now she could recall hearing Jeremy correcting him by saying that they were ‘insects’, not bugs and that there was a big difference. Lou would get pissed and go out drinking, staying out all night.

She’d never told Lou about the affair. But she was certain that Lou suspected he wasn’t the boy’s real father.

Then one night he never came home. When the police knocked on her door at 3AM and told her that Lou had driven his car off the Downtown Bridge, she fell to pieces. The policemen were condolatory and stayed with her while she did her best to compose herself for the trip to the morgue to identify his remains.
Sitting in the back seat of the police cruiser Jeremy had never once questioned her about her crying. In fact he’d seemed almost eager to go. She recalled the slight smile he wore and how it had chilled her blood to think that he might have known what happened to Lou and that he was secretly happy about the outcome.
Later at the morgue, when the medical examiner pulled back the sheet to reveal Lou’s twisted and broken body, Jeremy had said, “Did you know that the Nematomorph hairworm is a parasite that can make its host commit suicide?”

The medical examiner, a chubby, gnome of man with huge ears mounted on a balding head had knelt down next to Jeremy. For brief moment neither spoke; the coroner and the freak regarded each other solemnly.
Finally, the medical examiner tousled Jeremy’s hair and smiled at him in genuine admiration. “That’s right, little man. How’d you know that?”

“The Nematomorph hairworm lives in swampy water. It lays its eggs in the water too. And when a small enough creature like a grasshopper drinks the water, it drinks the worm eggs.”

Gladys had been disgusted to hear her son prattle on with yet more insect trivia.

“Incredible,” the ME had remarked as Jeremy continued. Only this time he had turned and pinned Gladys with a cold stare devoid of emotion.

“The eggs hatch inside the grasshopper’s belly and swim up to his brain. The baby worms make the grasshopper so sick that it wants to go back for another drink of water to get better only now it is so sick that it can’t get out of the water and it drowns. Then the baby worms wiggle out of the grasshopper’s body and swim back into the water as bigger worms.”

Then Jeremy smiled and few things should be more precious than a smiling child but when Jeremy smiled it was like watching a hungry spider waiting patiently in its web.

Gladys was racked by an involuntary shudder.

That was really when it hit her – that Jeremy was different; much different. And thinking about how truly different he was always tended to start her speculating about the affair she’d had and who that strange man really was.

After she had signed all of the papers and was about to leave the morgue, the medical examiner had pulled her aside in the waiting area and spoke to her in a hushed voice.

“I didn’t want to say anything in front of the policeman or with your son being present but Mrs. Murphy, I’ve got to tell you,” he had looked over his shoulder nervously before continuing. “I found these on your husband’s body.”

Gladys looked at the liquid-filled jar that the medical examiner had placed in her hand. It was similar in size to the jars at the super market that contained peanut butter or mayonnaise and there was a ropy substance floating in the bluish liquid.

“They were inside his shirt.”

“W-what are these?” she asked.

Once again, the medical examiner looked over his shoulder and around the corner before proceeding. “They’re Spinochordodes tellinii, Mrs. Murphy. They are also called gordian worms or horsehair worms. The same worms your son spoke of earlier.”

Gladys felt her knees begin to give way. “B-b-but h-how…?”

“I haven’t the foggiest, Mrs. Murphy. Really I don’t. But it has been the weirdest evening of my professional life and I’m going home now.” He put a gently hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said walking back to the morgue.

Gladys had thought about that conversation every day for the last six years. She thought about how foolish she had been and about how utterly perplexing and unnerving it was when dealing with Jeremy.

And of course there were the nightmares.

Insects. Everywhere.

Every night. For six years. Insects. Crawling, biting, flying, jumping, stinging, eating, spawning, growing.
Insects. Everywhere.

In the car, Jeremy was furtive and withdrawn. Gladys never allowed him to ride up front with her anymore because more times that not, wherever Jeremy was, insects were sure to follow. She regarded him in the rearview mirror.

“You don’t have any insects back there, do you? No ants or bees in a jar or anything?” she asked.

Jeremy never met her gaze in the mirror but he did shake his head in the negative.

“You sure?”

Looking generally pathetic, even for Jeremy, her son shrugged his shoulders dejectedly. He could have been hiding any number of creatures in his clothes or in his pockets or even in his hair but he seemed so miserable that she let his vacillating response go without further punctuation.

In the waiting room at the doctor’s office, he was even more despondent. While the other children read the obligatory, Highlights magazines or colored or played with various toys, Jeremy slouched on the far end of his chair as if to create as much space between himself and his mother as the chair would allow. Gladys was envious of the other mothers; despite the fact that they were in the waiting room of a child psychologist, all of the children seemed much better adjusted than Jeremy. Even though she didn’t know what their problems might be, there was still a sense of innocence about the other children, a sense of normalcy that she could not project upon her own son.

Still scrunched in the far corner of his chair and looking pathetic and uncomfortable not so much with the furniture but more so by the present company, Jeremy flinched at every outburst by one the other children.
Finally the receptionist came to take them back to the doctor’s office. Gladys was looking forward to whatever progress might be made while she was sure that Jeremy was dreading the coming exchange. He shuffled along behind her with his head down and his hands stuffed in his pockets looking like the most pathetic member of the Lollypop Guild.

With the two of them seated in identical chairs in front of the doctor’s large, oak desk, Gladys couldn’t help but feel as if she and Jeremy had just been sent to the principal’s office. She knew Dr. Mendehall by reputation only and he was not what she expected at all. He was a well-dressed man, very GQ, unexpectedly tall with sharp, prominent eyebrows over penetrating eyes. With fingers steepled beneath his chin, he regarded them solemnly through the faintest whips of smoke from a recently extinguished cigar. He did not look at all happy to see them.

Normally devoid of any emotion in social situations, Jeremy appeared uncomfortable under the man’s heavy gaze. Gladys was about to second-guess her decision to schedule the appointment when the doctor spoke to her in a deep, soothing voice.

“Ms. Murphy, thank you for coming in today and for bringing your adorable son, Jeremy. It is a pleasure to meet you both.”

“That you for seeing us, Doctor. Jeremy, please say hello to Dr. Mendenhall.”

“Hello, Doctor,” Jeremy said in a choked whisper. He didn’t look at the doctor but spoke to his shoes.

“Hello, Jeremy.”

The doctor held Jeremy pinned with his steely gaze. Jeremy always had trouble looking people in the eye and even Gladys was a little intimidated by the doctor’s uncompromising glare.

“I’ve reviewed the notes from the consultation interview, Ms. Murphy and I believe I can help you and Jeremy.”

Gladys smiled all the way down to her toes and was immediately excited about the quick turn of events.

After thirty minutes of questions from Dr. Mendenhall and reluctant answers from both Jeremy and his mother, the doctor finally said, “This is really a classic case believe it or not.”

Dr. Mendenhall lit another cigar and eased himself back into his cushy leather chair before continuing. “You see, Gladys, can I call you Gladys?” The doctor continued with out waiting for her acknowledgement. “Although you may find Jeremy’s obsession,” the doctor used his fingers to indicate imaginary quotation marks, “with insects strange, it is actually quite normal for children of Jeremy’s age to become fascinated with insects.

“Children play outside more so than adults and insects and bugs are everywhere where children play. Adults don’t climb trees or play in streams or lift up rocks and logs because we have more productive activities to engage in while children of Jeremy’s age do not.

“In many ways, insects provide a source of entertainment for children much like puppets or cartoons because they are brightly colored and exhibit strange and sometimes fascinating behavior. Who among us hasn’t silently marveled at the brilliant butterfly? Who hasn’t wondered just how fast a dragon fly can fly? And who isn’t fascinated by the collective efforts of an ant colony as it hauls its latest kill back to its hole in the ground?

“They can even be quite cathartic for some children, especially for introverted children like Jeremy. Insects do not talk back or judge or speak in an intimating or condescending manner. They are merely there to listen as a child speaks of things that he or she would not normally speak about to either friends or family.”

The doctor winked knowing at Jeremy. “Sometimes secret things.”

At this, Jeremy sat up in his chair and like straight razor being flicked open, a crooked smiled sliced across his features.

“What’s more, Gladys, is that entomologists, should Jeremy continue to show an interest in insects and bugs, make a very good living. Some work for state or federal crime labs, medical and pharmacological research firms and even the agricultural industry. And let’s not forget about museums. Many museums have an entomology staff of at least twenty people including research assistants. In fact, entomology majors are more likely to find a job in their field than even doctors or lawyers.”

Gladys shook her head in amazement. “So you mean this whole thing could just blow itself out or become a real career opportunity for Jeremy? A respectable career where he’d be like a doctor or something?”

“Quite possibly. But that is up to Jeremy.” The doctor blew smoke rings that lingered above his head and then faded into a haze near the tiled ceiling. “Of course Jeremy has to realize that there is a time and a place for his hobby. Bringing bugs and insects to the dinner table is unacceptable. And much like his insects, if Jeremy expects to be treated like a grown up, he must shed the skin of these bad habits and embrace some new behaviors in order to grow.”

He glanced at Jeremy who shook his head in understanding. To Gladys he said, “And as long as you are tolerant and understanding of Jeremy’s hobby, the two of you should be on the path to a better relationship.”

Still chewing on his cigar, the doctor rose and pressed a red button on his desk. A moment later, the same receptionist came back to escort them out and spoke to Gladys about the billing process.

As Jeremy was leaving the doctor’s office, he shoved his hand deep into his pocket then took it out again and reached behind the bust of Sigmund Freud that sat on the book case by the door. Many of the doctor’s younger patients were fascinated by the big sculpture and gazed at it on their way out of his office as if that stern, granite countenance was the physical symbol of their final warning to change their behavior. At the time, Dr. Mendenhall didn’t think anything of Jeremy’s actions.

A short time later when the next patient and her parents arrived, the doctor became aware of a persistent buzzing sound that kept intruding on his thoughts. Finally when it seemed that everyone in the room could tell that there was an unaccountable noise threatening the serenity of their session, Dr. Mendenhall got up from his desk and sought out the disturbance. The noise was coming from near his office door and he began rummaging through the bric-a-brac on the book shelves.

When at last he moved the bust of Freud, he saw the unmistakable form of a wood pulp nest and squirming within its combs were the larvae of some kind of wasp. Inside the combs, the white larvae sacks where humming and vibrating at a fantastic rate.

The doctor grabbed a copy of Psychology Today, intent on smashing the nest. His patient had crawled up into the lap of her father who scowled disapprovingly. The doctor smiled awkwardly and tried to illicit their understanding. Jeremy, he thought. How could that little shit do something like this? He raised the magazine and was about to crush the nest when the vibrating combs burst open all at once as if fired from a shot gun. A dozen black and yellow wasps exploded into his face, stinging his eyes, lips, nose and mouth.

Dr. Mendenhall dropped his makeshift weapon and tried to swat the wasps from his already swelling face but they were too quick. Several wasps quickly found the moist membranes of his mouth and nose and set about stinging him repeatedly.

The family in the lounge area screamed collectively and in a huddled group backed away from the fracas. The receptionist came rushing into the office but the doctor was already on the floor writhing and twitching in the throes of anaphylactic shock. He gagged on the crunchy insects and tried to eject them from his nose and mouth with weak and pitiful coughs but their collective stings were overpowering. Within moments he lay still on the floor; his head and face swollen to almost twice its normal size; it resembled a purple basketball about to burst.

Two months had gone by since their visit with Dr. Mendenhall and in that time both Jeremy and Gladys had fallen into a routine of mutual acceptance. Gladys worked at accepting Jeremy’s morbid fascination and did not overtly criticize or demean his unorthodox interests. Jeremy’s behavior was relatively unchanged although he managed to keep his collection confined to his room and in their assigned enclosures.
Gladys was reading the morning paper and enjoying a cup of coffee when an uneasy feeling crawled through her. She put the paper down on the table and behind it, Jeremy stood as still as a statue.

“Insects have to shed their skin so they can grow bigger,” he said.

Gladys stared at Jeremy. He stood on the other side of the table and although he did not blink or turn away, his head was tilted downward in an expression that resembled a quizzical puppy. Maybe this was a breakthrough. Maybe this was his way of coming to grips with the situation.

“Yes, Jeremy. It is called molting. Many insects will take in large amounts of air and water to increase their blood pressure in order to expand their exoskeleton so they can eventually break out of it and into a larger body.” She had done some reading too.

Jeremy’s head immediately popped up in interest and his smile was the warmest, most genuine emotion she had ever seen him exhibit.

“Like cicadas?” he said tentatively.

“Or butterflies or even spiders. All living things have to grow to survive, Jeremy.”

“I know, mom. I know.” He turned and started to walk away but then he stopped and looked back at her. “Thanks mom,” he said and then he ran upstairs to his room.

Gladys thought she might cry. Things were looking up. Dr. Mendenhall was right after all.

After several hours without hearing from him, Gladys decided to see what Jeremy was up to. She’d ask if he wanted to go to the movies or to Burger King. Anything to get out of the house and to foster some of the changes she’d witnessed in him earlier. She went upstairs and knocked on his bedroom door.

“Jeremy? Can I come in?”

There was no answer. No sound.

She knocked again. “Jeremy? You want to go out for dinner tonight? Jeremy?”

She did not want to betray the trust that they had begun building together and she was reluctant to enter his room uninvited but it wasn’t like Jeremy not to respond like this.

“Jeremy, I’m coming in OK?” She turned the door knob and entered his bedroom cautiously. Jeremy wasn’t in sight. But his room was immaculate. Nothing was out of order. Everything was put away in its place. Everything was clean.

And there were no insects anywhere to be seen. All of his specimen jars and fish tanks were empty. There was nothing in his trash can. Nothing under his bed. Even his closet was as orderly and neat.

“Jeremy where are you?” she croaked, worry starting to worm its way through her bowels. “Jeremy?”

Gladys ran to the window and looked out over the front lawn. Then she ran to the other window that overlooked the back yard. There was no sign of Jeremy.

She rushed out of the room and pulled down the steps to the attic. She unfolded them without caring that the hard wood floor was scuffed in the process. She climbed the rickety stairs with reckless abandon, her fears of the attic forgotten in the face of her child’s safety.

“Jeremy, are you up here?” she yelled, her voice cracked with barely concealed panic.

At the top of the steps she bumped her head on the low ceiling. She pushed the dusty boxes of Christmas decorations out of her way as she traversed the attic walkway passing old suit carriers stuffed with dated clothing and cardboard boxes overflowing with barely used toys and stuffed animals. Particles of dust and fiberglass insulation stung her throat as she searched among the heaps of discarded items. But there was no sign of him.
“Jeremy!” she screamed.

After the police had come and gone and had searched the house from top to bottom, Gladys was back at the kitchen table. Her coffee had gone cold. Her paper lay untouched from where she’d dropped it hours before.
The policemen were very patient with her as she’d explained what had happened. She’d told them that she and Jeremy were getting along better than they ever had and until she realized that her son was missing, it had been one of the happiest days of her life. Now the shock was setting in. Her whole body was leaden with despair and the thought of doing anything not connected with finding her son was too exhausting.

The police would issue an Amber Alert and she was certain that they were even now combing the woods for her son. Neighbors that she had seldom spoken with called and offered their sympathy. Her responses were wooden and without emotion. She dreaded watching TV for fear that she would see pictures of Jeremy and begin to realize that the hope of his safe return dwindled with each passing hour.

Secretly she knew that something like this would happen. She had no other family. No support. And with Lou gone these last six years, how could she be expected to raise their son alone? Who could expect her to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table and to provide a safe, nurturing environment when they were both so alone?

She wept into her hands, shaking and crying and moaning until she fell asleep, slumped in a broken heap at kitchen table.

In the ensuing two days, the police had returned accompanied by more neighbors. They’d done everything they could. Checked and re-checked the house. Blood hounds had scoured the woods. Volunteer search teams had trekked to the ends of the county and back. Every basement, every storage shed, every garage, every distressed property was checked. They’d even dragged the two ponds out on The Barber’s property.

There was no sign of Jeremy. No missing shoes. No scraps of clothing. No scent for the dogs.

Christmas was in two days. The thought of being utterly alone on Christmas made her nauseous but a small seed of hope took root. Maybe she hadn’t tried hard enough. Maybe she’d been too stern all those years and Jeremy had simply run away. Maybe he was out in the woods watching her through the kitchen windows right now. Maybe he’d come back. What if the weather got too cold or what if it started raining? Maybe he would come back after all. Maybe if she pretended that he was still here and maybe if she put up the Christmas decorations…

That was it! She would just pretend that he was still there and that they were going to celebrate Christmas together; just the two of them.

Somewhere inside her was the ethereal sound of breaking glass but she paid no attention to those shattered, crystalline pillars.

Hope bloomed within her chest, misguided and neurotic though it may have been, it spurred her to action. She put on her coat, grabbed her purse and rushed out the door to her car and drove into town. She wiped back her tears and smiled and sang along with the Christmas carols on the radio.

She stopped at the grocery store and bought a turkey, stuffing mix, cranberry sauce and green beans. Jeremy liked green beans. She would make the best green bean casserole ever. He’d love it.

She also picked up two bottles of cheap white wine. It was the holiday season after all.

After the grocery store, she stopped at Wal-Mart and did some Christmas shopping. Jeremy could use a new microscope so she bought the most expense one they had. Everywhere she went, people would offer her their sympathies and condolences and she would smile and thank them for their kind words and wish them each a very, Merry Christmas. She was oblivious to their stares and to their looks of concern; she just went about her business of making this the best Christmas ever.

She pulled into the parking lot of the old 7-11 and bought the largest tree that the local Lion’s Club had to offer from their makeshift stand. It was for a good cause so the Lion’s Club folks tied her tree to the top of her car and silently wished her well.

With her Christmas tree, the presents in the trunk and the back seat full of holiday goodies, Gladys drove off singing the lyrics to ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ And of course, no one could.

Christmas morning found her sitting in the living room enjoying a cup of warm apple cider. Carols piped merrily through the radio on the end table. The tree was decorated with a lifetime of collected ornaments and strung with twinkling electric lights and glittering tinsel. Brightly wrapped presents nestled beneath the tree branches.

Outside it was a White Christmas. A dusting of snow covered everything and glistened like diamonds in the morning sun. Above the music, birds chirped and children laughed and played in the snow.

Now if Lou would just get here with that sleigh, it would be a perfect Christmas morning.

She got up to make some breakfast when she thought she heard a noise upstairs. She stood perfectly still, her ears straining. Then she heard it again. Something upstairs. Gladys cinched up her robe and hurried up the stairs.

Could it be? Was it really Jeremy? Had he finally come home?
She was halfway up the stairs when she heard it again; a light knocking sound, muffled and indistinct. Definitely coming from somewhere upstairs.

Emotion welled within her chest and tears leaked uncontrollably from her blood-shot eyes as she took the rest of the stairs two at a time. At the second floor landing she heard it again only louder, more real.

More urgent. But it wasn’t coming from anywhere on the second floor.

It was coming from the attic.

She yanked on the chain and the attic stairs unfolded to the floor in a dusty crash making yet another scuff mark on the polished wood. Expecting to be assaulted by a cold, draft, she was instead bathed in a warm rush of air. There was no heating unit in the attic and with the snow outside, the change in air temperature sent mental alarm bells clamoring in her mind. Before she could step onto the ladder, that odd feeling of trepidation returned and insinuated itself deep into the roiling pit of her stomach.

Suddenly she didn’t know if she wanted to go up those stairs into that black, gaping maw. The bare bulb was only a few steps up the ladder but it seemed like a million miles through teeming shadows.

The noise came again and whether it was through sheer force of will or some primordial, maternal calling, Gladys climbed the rickety stairs and entered the attic.

At the top of the stairs she pulled on lanyard attached to the light bulb but nothing happened. The light coming from the second floor did little to dispel the swirling black void and she had not thought to bring a flashlight in her frantic rush upstairs. Even that octagonal window, caked with a summer of grime and now faintly dusted with snow was merely a grayish blotch against the attic’s Stygian depths.

With her arms groping for solid purchase and the attic floor boards groaning beneath her, Gladys shuffled towards the diffused light.

“J-J-Jeremy? Are you up here?”

Sweat broke out on her forehead and formed beads on her upper lip. Every step was vertiginous; every heartbeat was a painful gong against her ribcage. The indistinct outline of everything on either side of the thin walkway held the possibility of menace; every dusty box, every toy, every lump or shape was steeped in sinister intent.

As she neared the window and the end of the walkway, she was again struck by how humid the attic was for such a cold day and that it should even be warm at all. Finally she reached the dull light of the window. She had traversed the entire length of the attic but there was no sign of Jeremy.
Gladys was about to call out to the darkness again when she heard the sound again. But this time is was coming from right behind her; it was a cracking sound like splitting plaster or snapping tree limbs in a heavy snow storm but on a purely psychological level it was like a scalpel slicing through her bowels. She turned to face the noise despite her instinct to curl into a ball and shiver herself into oblivion.

The dull glow of the shimmering moon sent just enough light through the attic window for her to discern that there was something attached to the rafters behind her. She took a shaky step in its direction. Blood rushed through her ears like a blizzard and each massive beat of her heart threatened to throw her from the wooden planks under her feet.

Nestled in between the ceiling beams was large shape that was covered in a fine, hair-like webbing. Beneath the webbing was a sickly, yellow sack that throbbed and pulsed wetly beneath the webs; every so often it would shake violently as if irritated by some unknown force. When Gladys peered at it, the first thing that came to mind was a cocoon but it was much larger than any cocoon she’d ever heard about and it was easily the size of child.

That’s when the thought struck her like a hammer blow. This had something to do with Jeremy. Could one of his insects have done this to him? How long could he survive in that thing? Those two questions gave birth to some very dark and unwholesome churnings at the very core of her psyche and as much as she wanted to bury them deep within the depths of her mind, those same demented depths spurred her to action. With animal-like fury, she tore at the sticky webbing covering the suspended pod.

“I’m coming Jeremy,” she cooed through gritted teeth. “Momma’s coming.”

The pod was wedged tightly between the wooden beams and pulling at the webbing that anchored it there was like tearing at fishing line; it made cuts and gashes in her fingers as she worked. But Gladys didn’t care; with her hands a bloody mess, she worked until the large pod was free. Still undulating beneath its jaundiced surface, she set it down gingerly on the dusty planks.

She was about to begin tearing at the outer layer when a large crack appeared on its segmented surface. She cried out in surprise and fell back into the pink fiberglass foam. A greenish fluid foamed through the crack and dribbled rivulets onto the planks. Frenzied movement from within caused the crack to grow and splinter until a spider web of foaming cracks covered its surface. Finally the pod broke apart in a violent splatter of green gore. Gladys yelped as she was pelted by the slimy debris.

The pod was now nothing but yellow-green scraps that lay quivering and steaming in plies on the floor and dripping from the rafters. That was when the stench hit her. It was like a physical force that immediately ripped the hot bile from her stomach and dragged it into the back of her throat.
But what stood in front of her was much, much worse. Even as her mind sheered away from the awful image, it tried to categorize it, to classify it. To justify its very existence.

There were no words to adequately describe what she beheld. Still dripping its viscous afterbirth, the thing before her was an unholy combination of several things; part insect, part human but all nightmare.

On all fours, Gladys scampered away from it until she was beneath the window. She was too afraid to look away from it. The thing turned and watched her with its countless eyes.

Every hair on her body stood on end, every muscle quivered in horror. The bile from her throat bubbled over her lips and her heart jerked wildly within her chest. As a terrible screeching sound filled her ears she was only dimly aware that it was the sound of her own screaming.

“Merry Christmas, Mommy,” the thing chittered.

That was what finally sent Gladys Murphy over the edge, what finally shattered the termite-damaged remains of her gossamer-like sanity.
With absolutely no hesitation whatsoever, Gladys Murphy stood up and jumped out of the attic window in a hail of shattering glass, falling snow and dripping blood.

Oddly enough she did not scream as she fell. At that point, she welcomed death. She welcomed it because facing her own death was much easier than facing the reality of what it really was that she had slept with those many years ago, of what it had done to her own body and what it was that she had given birth to. As the sidewalk pavement rushed up to meet her, Gladys could still hear those words, words spoken from the clicking mandibles of something that should not be able to form words at all; her son.

“Merry Christmas, Mommy.”

The End

Advertisements

Tremors

For the last 25 years, Alice Hadley had worked as the night auditor at Rachael’s Roadhouse, a shabby motel with a grill and bar on US Route 1 in the village of Chester, Virginia. From her small, cramped office that smelled like moldy flowers and wet cigarettes, she balanced the day’s receipts, set wake-up calls, prepared the bank deposits for the following morning and occasionally checked in the weary guest who invariably found that the nicer hotels on this stretch of road were all booked up.

Nothing much had changed in her life over the last twenty-five years. She sat at the same desk, drove the same 1979 Pontiac Catalina to and from work and wore her hair in the same fashion. In many ways she felt that life had just passed her by like so many of the cars up and down US Route 1. She felt stuck, trapped in a never-ending cycle of boredom and pain.

When she graduated high school in 1976, the possibilities seemed limitless. She was voted home coming queen and “most likely to succeed”. She dated and eventually dumped her “hunky” quarterback boyfriend for a biker she met at the bar Rachael’s. Bobby Miller. Bobby the Biker. It was a wild and wonderful fling; riding on the back of his motorcycle, the wind blowing through her long blond hair as they went from place to place, working where they could, partying where they couldn’t and all without a care in the world.

Life was her oyster.

Until 1981.

When the tremors started.

The diagnosis was multiple sclerosis. MS. Dizziness, fatigue, sensitivity to heat and light, lack of coordination, sudden onset of paralysis and cognitive difficulties. It was an “individual” disease the doctors said. She could be symptom-free for weeks, even months but inevitably the symptoms would reappear.

The first time she woke up and couldn’t move a muscle in her body was the most terrifying moment in her life. Thankfully the paralysis was not a frequent occurrence and over the years she dealt with it calmly when it occurred. The tremors and slurred speech killed any hope of a social life.  But it was the constant pain, the “pins and needles” sensation she experienced throughout her body that was the worst. She heard another patient say that it was like being constantly bitten by fire ants. Sometimes she would cry for hours because the pain was so intense, other times it was barely perceptible.

But it was always there.

And not just the pain but the fear and anxiety that at any moment her speech could slur, her tremors could become violent and noticeable or that she could be trapped in a state of paralysis for days; maybe even for the rest of her life.

Her disease was too “heavy” for Bobby the biker. One day he just up and left. No note. No goodbye. She never saw or heard from him again. But she remembered that last look on his face; it was one of deep concern.

As devastating as his departure might have been, it was surprisingly easy to get over him; she had the pain and worry to contend with every day.

So for 25 years she hid herself away from the world, too afraid, too ashamed and too embarrassed to truly live.

She was adding up the receipts from the bar when Diane Smythe, the owner, manager and bartender extraordinaire of Rachael’s walked into her office while clearing her throat.

“What’s up, Diane?” she said, not looking up from her adding machine.

“We’re hiring a new desk clerk and I need you to train him.”

The click-clack of the adding machine ceased abruptly and Alice slowly turned to her boss.

“Why?”

“Alice, look honey, you know I love you. You know that. But your condition is getting worse.”

Alice’s lower lip began to quiver every so slightly. “N-no itsssss n-not,” she managed to blurt.

Diane crossed the room and threw her arms around Alice, hugging her fiercely. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “Honey, I know it’s not easy. Lord knows I know. You know I know. But I have a business to run.”

She started to pull away but Diane kept her arms around her, feeling the first signs of tremors begin wracking Alice’s body.

Diane took her face in her hands and brushed away Alice’s own tears. “Honey, what if something happened to you while you were here alone? What if you had a fit of paralysis and someone decided to jump over the front desk and rob us blind? I’m doing this as much for you as I am for me, OK?”

Even though her long-time boss and friend’s words stung, Alice could still see the logic in her decision and the reasons behind it. She was getting older and the MS was getting worse. The Avonex and Betaseron drugs helped to curtail her symptoms but without them she would probably have to be hospitalized.

“D-Diane, I’m s-so s-sorry that I…”

“Don’t you worry about it honey. You have a job here for as long as you want. But just think about it. Wouldn’t it be great to have someone here with you every night, looking out for you? Learning from you?” She laughed and said, “Someone you can boss around?”

For the first time a long while, Alice smiled through the pain. It warmed her aching heart to know that she had such dear friend and concerned employer in Diane.

“You did say ‘him’, right?”

“I did indeed and he starts tomorrow night. His name is Anton. He’s from up north somewhere. Have a good night, Alice,” she said as she left for the night.

The click-clack of the adding machine began again.

The next evening, just as the gray shadows of dusk started elongating into inky blackness of night, the bell from the front desk sounded. Alice got up from her cluttered desk with wobbly, aching legs and hobbled to the lobby. A man wearing a crisp white shirt with a black tie beneath a battered leather jacket was standing confidently on the other side of the desk. His face was turned toward the parking lot so she did not get to see his face but for that split second he resembled Bobby the Biker. But that couldn’t be; this man had not aged a bit.

The man must have heard her shuffling because at that moment he turned around with a smile full of bright white teeth. They gleamed like little white knives fresh from the dishwasher. The breath caught in her throat. It was Bobby. But…it wasn’t Bobby. His hair was shorter, fuller and had a healthy sheen. His face was rugged and handsome like Bobby’s but the facial structure was off just a bit. His eyes were an even deeper shade of blue and there was something simmering behind those eyes, something hidden, something dangerous. But it didn’t matter.

At first glance she would have bet her last dollar that it was her Bobby. But of course it couldn’t be Bobby because Bobby would be older than she was now and the way Bobby lived, his drinking and smoking, they would have taken a toll on his body over the years but it was evident that this young man was vibrant, muscular even through his oversized jacket.

“Excuse me,” he said in a voice like a cool evening breeze, “I didn’t mean to startle you miss but I was looking for Alice Hadley.”

It took several moments for her to recover but she finally found her voice. “I’m Alice. H-how c-can I help you?”

If it were possible, the man’s smile turned brighter and wider. “Please to meet you, Alice.” He offered his hand across the desk. “I’m Anton Macrae.”

There was an uneasy sensation in the back of her mind, a wriggling thought that something wasn’t quite right about Anton but she swatted the idea away as if it were a buzzing gnat.

With a matching smile, somehow devoid of pain, Alice took his hand as if it were a glass of cool water and she a desert nomad.

The next two weeks were marvelous. Anton showed up for work on time every single evening, ready and eager to learn from Alice. He followed her around the motel grounds like a puppy, hanging on her every word. Never once did they argue, never once did she have to correct him. When the going was slow and customers were few and far between, they would sit in her cramped office and talk quietly about anything and everything.

One of the things he told her was that he owned and drove a motorcycle; a brand new Harley-Davidson Dyna Lowrider. She could just imagine him on that bike riding down the highway. Young. Confident. Sexy.

One evening he asked her what it was like living with multiple sclerosis. It was the most personal thing anyone could ever ask her. She could have spent the better part of the evening telling him about it but instead she just said, “It’s not so bad.” And lately that was the truth. He looked at her long and hard then and she got the distinct impression that he could see through her lie and deep into the core of her pain.

The similarities between Anton and Bobby were enough to make her feel like a giddy school girl.

She had become so preoccupied with training Anton and looking forward to each evening when he would arrive for work that she could not remember the last time she felt the effects of her disease. It was like she had been dipped in magical waters. When she passed a mirror or caught her reflection in the glass she seemed less like herself and more like how she was before…before Bobby left.

After three weeks Anton’s training was almost complete. If she had to miss a day of work or god forbid, something worse, Anton could fill in admirably. Even Diane was ecstatic with his progress.

For three weeks she had Anton all to herself but the more he learned from Alice, the more Diane would want to meet with him on this or that matter, matters to which she was not privy.

There was a time when Diane would tell her stories about the customers from the bar and the motel’s guests until the wee hours of the morning. She would talk about the trucker who hit a deer on the road and was so shaken up that he had to pull over and get a drink. About the guest in room 102 that clogged the toilet with so many maxi-pads that she had to call a plumber. It irked her that for 25 years, she knew everything that happened at Rachael’s Road House. And now that Anton was here, Diane was probably telling him these same stories, taking him into her confidence and excluding Alice, the diseased, old woman.

But as much as she wanted to get upset at Diane and even at Anton, she could not bring herself to do so because the absence of pain was such stroke of good luck that she did not want to jinx it.

Then one night, Anton was late for work. He had never been late. A boiling pit of anxiety suddenly opened in her stomach. Sweat broke out on her upper lip and she felt that sudden sensation in her legs. Was that the first stirrings of that all familiar pain?

She paced the lobby like an expectant father. Ten minutes late now. She re-checked her figures from the afternoon receipts. Fifteen minutes late. She emptied the ashtrays in the lobby and dusted her office. Twenty minutes late now. The crease in her forehead became deeper and deeper until it felt like her head was being squeezed by giant, unseen hands. Thirty minutes late. She was about to call Diane over at the bar when the phone rang. The coincidence left her shaking and weak.

It was Diane.

“Hi sugar, how you making out?”

“Anton’s late. He hasn’t called or anything.”

“Oh he’s not late, honey. He’s helping me over here at the bar. My back’s been bothering me lately and I asked him to take the empty kegs out back.”

The pins and needles came flying back. The fire ants came on so suddenly that she could barely hold the phone to her ear. And it wasn’t just the pain.

It was jealousy. Hot, searing jealousy.

“Really?” she replied contemptuously.

“Why? Do you need him for something?”

Through the phone she could hear the bar patrons as they drank their cares away. She could hear the smile in Diane’s voice and worst of all, she could hear Anton’s laughter in the background.

“N-n-noooo. Th-th-that’s OK.” She hung up the phone and scuttled back to her office; her sanctuary. With shaking hands she swallowed her dose of Avonex. She was on the verge of tears when a noise from the lobby broke through her pity.

“Alice?”

It was Bobby. No, not Bobby but Anton rather.

“Alice, are you back there?”

She did not want him to see her like this. He would know in a moment what she was thinking.

“I’m coming back.”

She heard him leap over the front desk and cross the hallway to the back office all the while doing her best to wipe the puffiness from her eyes and to suppress the shaking from her aching hands.

Then she felt a hand on her shoulder. Normally she would have lit up like a Christmas tree from his touch but there was something off about the feel of his hand on her body. She knew it was Anton because he always smelled faintly of his motorcycle but the hand on her shoulder felt like a cold fish and it sent an involuntary shiver up her spine.

“Alice, are you all right?”

She wanted to answer him, to say the things that were on her mind and in her heart but she was afraid that she’d stutter and make a complete fool of herself. And she was also more than a little afraid at the moment. He had crossed the parking lot in just a few moments and leaped over the front desk as if it were merely a child’s toy on the floor. Things she would not have thought possible, even for someone like him.

And the uneasy feeling of his touch on her shoulder was beginning to freak her out.

“I’m sorry,” he started. “I should have told you I was going to be with Diane. Should have told you that I was going to be late.” His hand slipped limply from her shoulder to the small of her back. She could feel his clammy breath in her ear as next he whispered, “I should have told you where I’ve been all these years.”

She turned around and faced him then because his last confession was not in Anton’s voice but…but Bobby’s. But to her amazement it was Bobby standing there. Bobby as she had last seen him. From the way he held himself, to the length of his sideburns and the very clothes he was wearing; it was most definitely Bobby.

But she never remembered Bobby with blood on his face. And his face was caked with the stuff. Bits and pieces of flesh and gore hung from between his teeth and blood dripped down the front of his ever-present Led Zeppelin t-shirt.

“B-Bobby?”

“It’s me, babe.” He kneeled down so that they were at eye level with each other. The coppery scent of blood washed over her. Alice felt the bile rise in her throat. “Anton was just a way to get around, like a suit you put on when you want to dress up.” His hands were smeared with blood as well and he touched her face with a bloody finger. He was trying to be tender, she could sense that but it just made her want to throw up.

“It took me a while but I’ve found a way to take away your pain, to make you into the woman you once were,” he whispered in her ear. “It requires a helluva life style change but I think you’ll find it’s worth it.”

His words floated in her ears like slimy mushrooms left in the sun too long. She wanted to look away from him, to find the strength to stand up and run but the tremors wracked her body with increasing intensity. She thought of Diane. If Bobby had been with her just moments ago then it was likely that it was her blood on his lips.

“D-Diane?” she asked in brittle voice.

He reached past her onto her desk, withdrew a few tissues from the dispenser and began to wipe his face. He looked at the bloody bits and the crimson stains against the sterile white of the tissue and shook his head. “I never liked her,” he said absently.

“B-B-Bobby h-how c-c-could you?”

“I did it for you babe,” he said with a toothy grin that looked more like it belonged on a shark’s skull.

Her vision dimmed. She was losing control. The tremors became so intense that it felt like she was rafting on a raging river. She couldn’t even hold herself up in her chair. She slumped to floor with Bobby’s elongated face swimming in her vision like a bloated, cancerous moon just before she blacked out.

When she awoke the sun had long since set. She was still in her office at the motel but the lights were off in the entire building. Normally she could detect the glow of Rachael’s neon sign reflected off the windshields of the cars in the bar’s parking lot but it was as if the whole world had been swallowed by the night.

Yet oddly enough she could see perfectly.

Still lying on the floor, she could see the individual perforations of the water-stained ceiling tiles. She could read the titles of the books in the shelf across the room.

She sat up slowly, an awful, yet familiar taste in her mouth.

“Welcome back, Alice,” Bobby’s voice hissed from the darkness.

With a quickness her diseased muscles were unaccustomed to, she stood bolt upright to find her Bobby sitting confidently in her desk chair, smoking a cigarette.

“What’s going on Bobby? What have you done?”

“Something wonderful.” He glanced at his watch for a moment before continuing. “You’ll see what I mean in about…five minutes.”

“What? Damn it. What?” She turned on him with clenched fists, a deep-seated rage boiling through her bones. Any other day of her life she would have cowered in fear, any other day she would have been paralyzed with grief and anxiety. But not now. Not if he really killed Diane. The truth of the matter was she felt more energized and stronger at that moment than she could ever remember feeling. And as thrilling and invigorating as that was, it was also unsettling because it was not in her nature to become this angry at anything except her own disease. It was her disease that turned her into the woman she was. It was her disease that kept her behind that desk, night after night.

“Is it really, Alice?” he said. “Isn’t it more a case of your fear of your disease controlling you that you hate the most?” He stood up from her chair, taller that he should be, thicker, wider than she remembered. “It is your fear that you hate.”

He had a point. She could see that now. Even if he could somehow read her mind, as freaky as that was, she knew he was right.

He walked in circles around her, faster that she thought was possible but somehow she did not become dizzy or disoriented.

“I am truly sorry it took me so long to come back for you. Believe me. But you have no idea where I’ve been and what I’ve had to do to get here.”

With a strength and quickness she never knew she possessed, she reached out and put hand on his chest, stopping his pacing. “What exactly did you do to me Bobby?”

He smiled then, a cold reptilian smile with impossibly long incisors that snaked below his bottom lip. “I have my own disease, Alice. And it is extremely contagious.”

“What?” she said incredulously.

“I searched for years in some of the most horrible, despicable places you could ever imagine but I finally found it.” He shrugged and blew a ring of smoke in her direction. “And you’d never believe where I found it either.” He shook his head and smiled, remembering something he chose not to share. He stood up then and spread his arms wide. “But the bottom line is that I’m back now. And what’s more, you’re carrying my disease inside you now.”

Although she felt as strong as an ox, she backed away from him in disgust.

“No reason to freak out babe. We share the same affliction now.”

“And what is that?”

He shrugged. “Call it what you will. I just know that in about three minutes, you’re going to have to do something you might find repulsive. At least at first anyway.”

She had no doubt that Bobby was serious. She could feel it in her bones. A thrumming, electric current snaked through her veins. There was something different about her. She knew that now. And she was ready to believe that whatever he did to her had released her from her fears. Released her from the sad, sorry life she had carved out for herself over that last 25 years. She flexed her arms, clenched her fists and she thrilled to the power simmering in her body. She could almost sense the wrinkles in her skin fading. She could imagine her body fat melting away.

And it was good.

A strange, delicious sound reached her ears then. With a new set of instincts, she glided more than ran to the window that looked out over the parking lot.

A lone hitchhiker walked despondently along the shoulder of the road. She could tell it was a woman. She could…smell her. And she was menstruating. She knew that it was not possible to know these things but nevertheless she also knew it to be true. And the scent of the hitchhiker’s blood was like an uncorked bottle of wine. The bouquet was pungent and mouthwatering.

But at the same time Alice was repulsed by these observations.  She turned back to Bobby wearing a defeated look on her face.

Bobby shrugged again. “What can I say, babe? It was the only way.”

Alice turned back to the hitchhiker. She was repulsed and captivated at the same time. She put a tentative hand up to the glass as the woman passed by the window. A gnawing, burning pit in her stomach opened and she longed to be near the woman.

Suddenly, Bobby was by her side and he put his hand on her shoulder again only this time it was warm and loving and full of the future.

The hitchhiker had lung cancer. She had been a smoker for many years and her disease was eating her from the inside out. It was almost as if the tumors were blossoming flowers in the woman’s lungs and she could smell them, sense them. Alice could not say how she knew this, only that she did.

And suddenly she was hungry. Hungrier than she had ever remembered being. It was as if there was a hole inside her that had to be filled and the only thing that could fill that hole was what was inside that hitchhiker.

Bobby leaned close to her. “Go to her, babe.” He took her face in his hands. “You need her and she needs you.”

Alice kissed him then. It was long, hard and deep and it was the most satisfying thing she had ever experienced. At least for the moment anyway. Because after she flew from Bobby’s arms and out into the parking lot like the proverbial bat out of hell, she killed the hitchhiker without a moment’s hesitation and gorged herself on the blood and tissues of her dying body.

The tumors were especially tasty.

She could hear Bobby’s insane laughter from inside the motel as the tremors started again. They wracked her body in ways she would have never thought possible.

Only this time, they were tremors of pure, crimson pleasure.

The End

The Watchers On The Roof: A short story with SRU as the setting

The Watchers On The Roof

“You do realize why we called you here this evening, Sheriff?” the chancellor said in a condescending tone, his voice echoing through the boardroom.

“I can only imagine,” Dan Spikes replied hoping his own tone didn’t sound as sarcastic as it felt.

He sat in a polished wooden chair before the panel of Slipper Rock University officials and town council members. Under his jacket, he could feel the reassuring weight of his whiskey flask but silently wished that he had the fore thought to have taken a long, hard swig before attending this impromptu meeting. It was already beginning to feel more like a lynching than a meeting.

“Seven years, Sheriff,” the chancellor continued amongst the mutterings of agreement, “Seven awful years this has been going on and your department is still no closer to catching this…this…madman than you were when the first body was found.”

Dan watched a visible shudder run through the panel members as they dealt with their own memories of that evening.

“You know this already, Chancellor, but for those of you who don’t, my department has enlisted the aid of the Pennsylvania State Police as well as a detachment from the FBI this year. We have plain clothes and uniformed troopers stationed all around campus, a SWAT team and a forensic team ready and waiting.” Dan shrugged his shoulders. “We have a better chance of catching him this year than we did last year, that’s for sure.

The Sheriff’s reassurances fell on deaf ears. The Chancellor raised a quizzical eyebrow before his rebuttal. “Be that as it may, I don’t need to remind of you how our enrollment has suffered these last few years. Each year we have fewer and fewer incoming freshman. We’ve had to let some of our brightest young professors go recently because we just don’t have the budget to keep them on.”

Even the mayor chimed in. He stood up and pointed a finger at him. “I’m going to have to close my antique shop soon if sales don’t pick up.”

“I’m sorry about that Mr. Mayor. We’re doing everything we can,” Dan replied.

“And there have been rumors, Sheriff,” the Chancellor added. This time his voice dripped with contempt.

Here it is, Dan thought. This was really why he was here.

The Chancellor said nothing for a full minute, trying to brow beat the Sheriff in to revealing the reason himself. But Dan just folded his arms and stared back at the Chancellor.

“We’ve heard rumors that you’ve been…,” the Chancellor cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable under the Sheriff’s stoic gaze now that it was about to be said. “…that you’ve been drinking on duty.”

A chorus of gasps and whispers erupted from the panel members, the incredulity evident on their faces. The Chancellor waited until the murmur died down before continuing, his indignant disposition resurfacing now that it was out in the open.

“Frankly, I couldn’t care less. You’ve always been a competent peace officer,” he sneered. “But this serial killer business has gone too far. Tourism is down. Residents are moving out of town and that means less tax dollars coming in.”

Emboldened now, the Chancellor got up from his chair and paced in front of the panel table with his hands behind his back.

“The papers are crucifying us. Have you read the headlines today?” he asked rhetorically.

The Sheriff had indeed read the morning paper and knew all too well about the bad press. In the last seven years the killings became a media circus. Today, like every Halloween, reporters descended on the town followed closely by convoys of FBI agents and forensic experts from around the county. SWAT teams. Undercover agents posing as students. Closed circuit cameras at every street corner. Nothing worked.

Not with this guy. Not with…The Shredder.

     Like clockwork, every year on Halloween night, a student of the university or someone from town was first reported missing by friends or family only to be found days later, the body split open and barely recognizable. Shredded. Literally shredded. Hence the media’s nickname.

The profile developed by the FBI had never helped; every case study on serial killers was useless when it came to The Shredder. The most puzzling thing about the case was that the killings never escalated but remained a singular, annual event only.

Five years ago Dan had taken to drinking in order to cope with the stresses of catching a serial killer, putting a failed marriage behind him and raising a teenaged daughter by himself. At first it was only a couple of shots a day or a beer or two at lunch. But unlike The Shredder, Dan’s habit escalated. His uniform wasn’t as crisply pressed as it had been, he didn’t shave as neatly or as often as he used to and smiling was something he’d just forgotten how to do.

Over the years, the papers had been merciless in their criticism of him and his department. The mayor, the university and even voters who kept re-electing the Sheriff also came under fire.

But it had finally come to a head.

“Just so you know, Sheriff, if you can’t catch him this year,” he paused and spread his arms in a gesture encompassing the panel members, “we’ll have no choice but to proceed with a vote of no confidence against you. Make no mistake, Sheriff, this university and this town has suffered enough.”

The Chancellor dismissed him with a wave of his hand.

As Sheriff Dan Spikes exited the university administrative building known as Old Main, he had the strangest sensation that something was about to come crashing down on his head. He ducked instinctively as he walked towards the parking lot. When he wasn’t struck, he stopped and glanced back at the building thinking the awning may have caved in from all the rain or that part of the old building had broken away. But nothing seemed remiss.

But for just a second he could have sworn he’d seen something on the roof.

Although built in 1893, the gothic style architecture seemed as solid as the day it was constructed.  Acid rain had turned the flying buttresses and spires an oily black but on sunny days, when the setting sun struck them just right, the gargoyles appeared to shimmer which to some, produced the illusion of movement. Many visitors to the campus had remarked on this oddity over the years but it was the first time that Dan had ever seen it for himself.

Freaky, he thought to himself.

Walking to his car, he was struck for the first time by just how many gargoyles there were on campus. Even on some of the newer buildings with a completely different architectural style, the stone creatures of various shapes and sizes could be seen clinging to their pedestals, watching over the throngs of students on the campus grounds.

As he drove through campus, he had the distinct impression that from their lofty aeries those same gargoyles were staring at him with the intensity of ossified demons.

Dan guided his cruiser up to the gates of the football stadium’s parking lot. As a safety precaution, he’d insisted that the university keep the lights in the parking lot turned on. He got out of the car, unlocked the gate, pulled the car underneath the darkened bleachers next to the concession stand and then locked the gate behind him. It was as good a place as any to keep an eye out for suspicious behavior without sticking out like sore thumb. Besides, with the gates locked behind him, he was unlikely to run into any reporters.  

His deputies and troopers from The Pennsylvania State Police were in their cruisers, spaced strategically throughout the campus. But even with the obvious police presence, monsters would still roam the campus and surrounding streets. Vampires, mummies, werewolves, ghosts and witches. Costumed children trick or treating and drunken students carousing to parties on Greek Row would make the task of identifying and apprehending The Shredder next to impossible.

He was glad that he’d sent his daughter over to her mother’s house in Butler, a small city south of Slippery Rock. He didn’t need the hassle of worrying about her in addition to trying to catch a killer.

From under the front seat, the Sheriff unscrewed the cap on his whiskey flask and took a long pull. It was going to be a long night. But not long enough for one poor soul.

It was Halloween in Slippery Rock after all.

The girl screamed into the duct tape that covered her mouth and strained against the rags that bound her spread-eagle to the bed. All to no avail. Her bladder loosened and she could feel the warm trickle against her naked thighs. She tried to calm herself, to beat back the wave of panic that threatened to engulf her.

Mascara streaked tears ran down her face. She’s made a monumental mistake. She knew that now. She should have listened to her father. She should have never left the party without her friends let alone with an older guy she didn’t even know. But after several drinks with the guy, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. And for some reason she was hornier than she’d ever been in her life. She must have been drugged. Rohypnol?

She scanned the apartment but she couldn’t see him anywhere. The apartment was dimly lit by dozens of candles and he could’ve been hiding anywhere in the flickering shadows. Just the thought of him watching her from the darkness made her flesh crawl.

She screamed again and again into her gag realizing that it hardly made a sound. With all the parties going on all over campus and probably even in the apartment building where she was being held, it was unlikely that anyone would hear her scream. But she continued long after severely damaging her vocal cords.

Professor Felder locked his car after he’d retrieved his brief case from the trunk. His briefcase contained the items that he would need for tonight’s experiment. An experiment that was a year in the making.

As he walked back to his apartment, the thought dawned on him again that he was completely insane. On some subconscious level, he knew it but didn’t care. But at times that moment of knowing was snatched away from him like a leaf in a hurricane. It was like living with a secret that he kept forgetting and remembering. Forgetting and then remembering.

No one seemed to notice.

But that wasn’t entirely true, he thought.

Something noticed.

They noticed.

He’d forgotten about them.

The professor stopped dead in his tracks. His spine tingled as if a hundred spiders had just scurried down his back. He was afraid to look for them. He thought if he made eye contact they would know that he knew they were there.

With a barely perceptible motion, Professor Felder turned ever so slowly and craned his neck upwards. At first his eyes had difficulty adjusting to the darkness above the street lamps but after a few moments he could see them.

They were perched on the roof of the science building that was adjacent to his apartment building. They were sitting languidly on the Sigma Nu house. They were assembled atop gymnasium.

They were everywhere.

He’d never seen so many of them before.

With great care, he turned back towards his building and continued walking as if nothing had happened. His hands shook as he fished the key out of his pocket. He was about to open the door when something heavy crashed on the pavement behind him and the professor jumped at the unexpected noise.

On the pavement behind him were the shattered remains of one of the large slate tiles from the roof. With a sudden, sinking fear he realized that they were now on the roof of his building.

He turned back to the building across the street and ran his gaze along the balustrade. He couldn’t remember how many he’d seen earlier but he was certain that their number had grown. And for just a split second, he had the vague perception of movement along the rooftop.

With a sickening fear tinged with excitement, the professor threw himself against the door, the molding splintered as the hinges tore loose. Inside, he rushed through the foyer and entered the stairwell. He had one last experiment to perform.

“Coming, darling,” he said as he bounded up the stairs.

Sheriff Spikes awoke with a start, drawing in a quick, nervous breath. His hand unconsciously shot to the butt of his .38 revolver. Damn, he’d fallen asleep again. An earthquake could have ripped through campus and he would never have known.

He screwed the cap back onto his whiskey flask and locked it in the glove box. From his jacket pocket he took out a tin of mints and crushed three of them between chattering teeth. He looked down at his watch. Ten minutes to midnight. He couldn’t remember when had last spoken to either of his deputies.

“Sit rep, sit rep. Whatcha got for me boys?” he bellowed into the radio handset.

“Sheriff, this Deputy McKay, over.”

“Go ahead, McKay.”

“Nothing much going on over near the dinning hall, sir. The usual student traffic. I did run into one of those FBI fellas near the library when I was making my rounds. Why do they got to act so high and mighty, Sheriff?”

The Sheriff smiled. He could sympathize with Mckay. He’d had his fair share of run-ins with the FBI over the years. “It’s because they’re all lawyers with a piece, Mckay.”

“Sheriff, this is Deputy Bailey, over.”

“Go ahead, Bailey.”

“Sir, things sure are getting weird around here.”

“How’s that?” the Sheriff asked, a frown forming on his face.

“Well, I was patrolling near the art building when Professor Eisenberg flagged me down.”

“What’d he want?”

“Well it’s the damnest thing. He thinks them fraternity boys are stealing gargoyles offa the roofs.”

“Which ones?”

“Which gargoyles?”

“No, damn it. Which fraternity?”

“He didn’t say but if I were to guess I’d say its probably them Sigma Nu boys. They’s always stirring’ up trouble. But it is weird though. I mean, I know I seen gargoyles on top of Old Main before and over by the theatre but damn if there ain’t none over there now.”

Bailey’s comments fell on the Sheriff’s ears like hammer blows. A small voice in the back his mind raised an unpleasant question. Gargoyles again?

“Oh, I almost forgot.”

“What?”

“I saw your daughter about twenty minutes ago. She told me to say hello.”

“Jessica Spikes, huh?” The man set his briefcase down on the kitchen table and glanced at the girl’s driver’s license. “Now where do I know that name from?”

Even as he studied the license, he reached into the brief case and brought out a pair of rusty pliers.

If Jessica’s eyes had opened any wider, they would have fallen right out of her face. She screamed again but her vocal cords were so damaged that all she could produce was a wet mewing sound. Her strength was draining but she still fought against her bonds, the bed springs squeaking with her efforts.

He was wearing rubber gloves when he bought the pliers to her face. “Save your strength, child.” He traced the cold pliers down her neck until they lay above her pink nipple. “We have all night to play,” he said and then with the pliers he clamped down on her breast and twisted.

To her credit, Jessica had already blacked out.

What the hell is she doing here? She should have been at her mother’s hours ago.

“Bailey?”

“Yes, Sheriff?”

“Where was she headed?”

“Said she was going to a friend’s apartment. I reckon she’s already there by now.”

He felt the cold fingers of panic squeeze around his heart yet he kept his voice even.

“Did she say which friend?”

“Naw. But Sheriff?”

“What is it, Bailey,” he said impatiently.

“I’m pretty sure she was drunk. I didn’t say anything to her on account of she’s your daughter and all.”

Wonderful. Now she’s following in her father’s footsteps.

The Sheriff was about to chastise his deputy for not letting him know immediately about Jessica’s condition when he his thoughts were suddenly distracted by a peculiar noise. It was a grinding, crunching sound like corn on a mill stone. And it was out of place amongst the creaking metal bleachers of the football stadium.

He opened the cruiser’s door, feeling a twinge of protest in his hip and got out to investigate the source of the noise. No sooner had he stood up when the trunk of his cruiser imploded. Something incredibly heavy had landed on the car. He stumbled back from the concussion and was pelted with a spray of tiny stone fragments and dust.

Immediately, his pistol was out if its holster and pointed at the upper levels of the bleachers. Moonlight streamed through the bleachers giving him plenty of illumination but there was no one up there. He checked behind his cruiser and around the corner of the concession stand but found nothing of consequence.

Satisfied there was no one about, Dan swiped at the specks of rock and dust on his jacket. He turned back to his cruiser but halted abruptly as if he had run into The Great Wall of China.

The back end of his vehicle was practically destroyed. The bumper was twisted like a piece of licorice and lay half on the ground. Glass from the taillights sparkled like diamonds on the blacktop. The rear quarter panels were dented and misshapen. The entire trunk had buckled under some incredible pressure and had caved in.

But even Dan’s whiskey fueled resolve was shaken by what lay at the center of the enormous dent in his trunk. A tiny stone gargoyle, maybe two and half to three feet in length lay partially obscured by the folds of twisted metal.

Still holding his revolver at the ready, Dan took a few hesitant steps in its direction. It was much smaller than many of the others found through out the campus architecture. The stone beastie was chipped and cracked from the fall. But battered as it was, the craftsmanship and detail was remarkable. Muscular and bald with curved talons for fingers and toes, it reminded Dan of a miniature gorilla with wings. And it wasn’t blackened by acid rain like so many others he’d seen. Its eyes were closed as if asleep, and for just a fleeting moment, the Sheriff had the distinct impression that it was a child.

An instant later, he threw open the car door and reached for the radio.

“Get your asses over to the Sigma Nu house,” he yelled.

“What’s up Sheriff?” Deputy Mckay responded.

“Some jack-ass just dropped a hundred pound gargoyle on my car.”

“Professor Eisenberg was right! Them boys is in a world of hurt,” Bailey promised.

“Just do it!”

Dan tossed the radio’s handset on the front seat in disgust. The whiskey in his stomach burned like acid as he holstered his .38 snub-nose. He was about to put the gargoyle in the back seat as evidence when suddenly he became aware that something had changed. It was subtle, like when the day turned itself over to the night, but something was most certainly different.

Before his mind had a chance to explore the possibilities, his sense of self-preservation kicked in. Drawing the revolver, he back-pedaled away from the car, searching for the source of that aberrant sensation.

And then he saw it…

The professor frowned when he realized that the girl did not scream or fight him in any way as the pliers did their work. A large purple bruise had formed on the girl’s left breast, but she was oblivious. He got up and walked to the kitchen table and from his briefcase; he pulled out a package of smelling salts and thrust them under the girl’s nose.

Instantly she came awake, coughing and gasping for air. But he wasn’t taking any chances; he wanted her awake for this next experiment. He kept the package under her nostrils until he was certain she was lucid. She struggled and kept turning her head from side to side to avoid the pungent bite of the inhalant.

The sting of the smelling salts must have been intense. Her face crinkled and contorted and she sucked in a huge gulp of air. But then he realized that he’d underestimated her body’s reaction.

It was automatic.

She sneezed so hard that it tore the packet from his hands and as it twisted and pirouetted in her uncontrollable discharge, its contents were blown back into his face.

He screamed in agony as the salts stung his eyes. He launched off the bed and rushed to the sink, banging his hip hard on the kitchen table. Barely able to see, his hands groped desperately for the spigot. When he found it, he thrust his face under the cold spray. He let the water run into his eyes and up his nose, anything to cool the burning. After a few moments the pain subsided. He wiped his face with a dirty towel; his eyes watered and his vision was blurred.

On unsteady feet he shuffled to the kitchen table, searching for his brief case. He felt around the tabletop until he felt its leather exterior. He still couldn’t see well enough to find what he wanted so when his hands rummaged over its contents; he picked up the first one he touched. He could tell by its worn, wooden hilt that it was the meat cleaver.

Good.

With his other hand he ran a finger up the blade, drawing a thin line of blood. Instantly he stood taller, straighter; as if the blade had infused him with an unseen strength. The professor flashed a wicked smile and then ambled towards the bed.

“I’m going to hack you up for that bitch,” he snarled.

He ran to the bed; the cleaver already arching back behind his head when he heard the unmistakable sound of glass breaking somewhere in the apartment.

“What the…?”

He never used glassware, just the plastic stuff so it had to be the windows. There were four windows in his corner apartment; two facing the Sigma Nu house up the street and two facing the science building across the street. Running into the kitchenette, he could see the flashing lights of police cars outside the fraternity house through the windows facing up the street.

He pulled back the curtains and checked the windowpanes for each but they were both intact. He crossed the room and inspected the other two windows. The first one was fine but even before he reached the second one he knew it was broken, the curtains swayed inward on an evening breeze. Glass shards littered the floor.

He crept to the broken window and then jumped in front it, brandishing the cleaver. But there was no one on the ledge. He hid the cleaver behind his back and leaned out the window. The ledge was empty in either direction.

The professor then felt a sudden unease, a creeping irritation that made his spine tingle. He had an unwelcome intuition there were something lurking, something staring at the back of his head from the stars above him.

He didn’t want to look but knew he had be sure. He braced himself in the window and turned his head to look above him.

And then he saw it…

The gargoyle.

It was no longer sitting on the ruined trunk. It was now perched upon the hood of the Sheriff’s cruiser. But even more unsettling was the absence of the cracks and chips that had marred is small stone body from the impact with his trunk. Even the texture of its limbs and torso was slightly different. It almost looked…alive.

But that was ridiculous. And yet that observation made some strange, irrational sense even though it made the hairs on the back of his neck tingle with dread.

Dan took a few hesitant steps towards it, still struck by how life-like it was.

Then it opened its eyes.

Brilliant, ruby-red orbs radiated from beneath its sunken brow, piercing his soul. Those eyes made his knees weak and rooted him to the blacktop as surely as if he was one of the street lights that filled the stadium parking lot.

In a voice that sounded as if it were spoken from the depths of a tomb it said, “Jessica,” and then it launched off the roof of the car with a mighty leap and was airborne.

Dan could only stare after it in awe, a stunned expression frozen on his face. It turned back to him for just a moment before it continued its effortless flight over the shadow-drenched campus.

The gargoyle may have left but its spoken word echoed in the dark hallows of the Sheriff’s heart. A strange sense of purpose seized him then. In only a heartbeat, he was in his cruiser and driving after it with reckless abandon, barely watching the road in front of him as he crashed through the chain link fence.

Through his windshield, Dan followed the thing’s course through the sky. There was the distinct possibility that he’d had an alcohol induced hallucination but looking through his rear view mirror at his damaged trunk galvanized his belief that the creature was real and that it knew something about his daughter. A thought that made him shudder.

Finally it seemed to circle around a building on the other side of campus before diving into the shadows. Dan was so intent on following the gargoyle that he bared watched the road. He winced when his cruiser clipped a parked car as he turned onto Kiester Road but he didn’t stop or slow down.

The thing had led him to a six-storied apartment building just off campus called The Tower. He braked hard and fishtailed into an empty parking space in front of the building, tires squealing. When he exploded out of the car he was simultaneously struck by two sights that chilled his blood.

The first was that the front door of the apartment building was broken and knocked off its hinges.

The second was the sheer number of gargoyles pacing back and forth on the roof. They were congregated around the window of an apartment on the top floor and massing on the ledge like a flock of pigeons on a park statue. Their massive, gray bodies undulated in the shadows; bat-like wings fluttered and twitched and he could hear their talons scraping gouges in the brickwork.

Still captivated by the sight of the animated gargoyles, the Sheriff slowly got out of his car, afraid to take his eyes away from the bizarre scene before him. One of the gargoyles pointed to the window where the majority of them were gathered and then ever so slightly, nodded his head in the Sheriff’s direction.

Shuddering with dread, his mind incapable of denying what was happening; Sheriff Dan Spikes did the only thing he could think of. He ran into the building with a rage beyond his control and his revolver drawn.

The gargoyle.

Curved horns protruded from either side of its bald dome and red eyes blazed from sunken sockets as it peered down at him from the rooftop. The professor felt his blood run cold when it grinned at him revealing a mouth packed with large, curved teeth.

It leapt from the roof and landed on the ledge in front of his window with a crash of buckling stone. He fell back into the room and swung the cleaver at its massive form but it glanced off the fiendish musculature with a resounding clang sending vibrating waves of pain shooting up his arm.

The gargoyle loomed in the window like a monolith, ancient, stoic and malevolent beyond his comprehension.

Jessica squirmed on the bed. Every muscle fiber in her body screamed with pain as she struggled against her bonds. Finally the rags he had used to tie her to the footboard were coming loose.

The pain in her breasts from where he’d used the pliers was almost unbearable and it was practically impossible to breathe with the gag in her mouth. Every breath was like a roaring fire in her lungs.

She could not tell which was more frightening; the man who had tied her to the bed, the man she now knew to be The Shredder or the monstrous thing in the window.

She kicked and kicked and kicked against the rags. Even as a torrent of pain threatened to wash her back into unconsciousness, she could feel the knots loosening. Even her gag was coming loose.

Just a little bit more. Just a little bit more, she thought.

The front door splintered as the Sheriff came crashing through it. His momentum took him though the short foyer where he ducked, rolled and bounded up with his revolver at the ready.

He didn’t really know what he expected to find but it sure wasn’t the scene before him. His daughter lay naked and restrained to the bed in the living room, her upper body bruised and swollen. Behind her a vaguely familiar man with a meat cleaver flailed wildly at a gargoyle while outside every window in the apartment a gargoyle stood silent and every bit as menacing as the stone sentinels on Easter Island.

“Hurry Daddy,” his daughter mumbled, spitting out the last of her gag.

Jessica’s pleading voice shocked him into action. He jumped on the bed and tore her bonds loose in one adrenaline filled motion. He lifted her from the bed with one arm, turned and pointed his revolver at the familiar man with the cleaver.

The man seemed not to notice. Gibbering with fright, he kept slashing and hacking at the colossus whose presence now seemed to completely dominate the room. But the creature never moved, never batted an eye except to turn its head in the Sheriff’s direction.

Suddenly he was reminded of his daughter, quivering and whimpering in his arms. He recalled the pale faces of all the parents whose sons and daughters had died by this butcher’s hands. Torn and tattered bodies under blood soaked sheets flashed before his eyes.

Through the windows, more gargoyles watched the drama. Some nodded their heads, silently giving their approval to the dark intent raging in his heart.

He pulled back the hammer on the .38 with an audible click that seemed to reverberate through the room like a jackhammer in a library.

The Shredder lowered the cleaver. His shoulders sagged and his head bowed. He turned around slowly and faced the Sheriff. Even though his posture was one of resignation, the wild look in his bloodshot eyes was laced with insane passion. In one swift motion the Shredder reached behind his back with his left and an instant later it held a pistol, pointed directly at the Sheriff.

The Sheriff’s reaction was instantaneous; he pulled the trigger and with a deafening roar sent a .38 slug careening his midsection.

The shot was fired from close range and the concussion knocked the madman back several steps but he remained standing. He could only watch in stunned disbelief as a small crimson spot appeared on his shirt and grew quickly. He dropped both the cleaver and the pistol to the floor and staggered further backwards…right into the arms of the gargoyle.

The Shredder shrieked wildly as its talons dug into the flesh of his shoulders.

The gargoyle turned to Dan and nodded then the others of its kind crashed through the windows and converged on the Shredder.

Dan did not wait around to see the rest; with Jessica in his arms he ran from the room.

The apartment door closed mysteriously behind him but he didn’t stop running until he’d made it down the stairs and onto the lawn in front of The Tower, an inhuman wailing still ringing in his ears.

Up the street he could see the flashing lights from his deputies’ cruisers and he walked stiffly in their direction.

From his jacket pocket he fished out his Sheriff’s badge and threw it into the sewer.

The whiskey flask followed it.

But not right away.

The End