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My wife glared at me from across the kitchen table. Finally, she spoke, “Don’t you at least feel a little guilty?”
I shrugged. “Why should I feel guilty? It’s not my fault the dumb dog ran right past the underground fencing and onto the road. That shock collar never worked on Lucky; she was too dumb to figure out that the pain meant that she should stop.”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” said my wife. “For five years all you did was make jokes about how dumb or out-of-control Lucky was. Now that she’s dead, can’t you show her a little respect?”
“Hey,” I defended myself, “You have to admit that we owned the least intelligent black lab in the world. Besides, I haven’t made any jokes about how stupid she was in front of the boys. And I’m going to wait a couple of days before I tear down the doghouse. A doghouse, by the way, that cost me nearly $200, and the dumb mutt didn’t sleep in it; not even once.”
“There you go complaining about how much keeping Lucky cost.”
“You’re darn right I am. Between the vet bills, the damage she did to our lawn, all the things she chewed to pieces, and the doghouse, she cost us a fortune. And that’s not even counting the useless underground fence system you made me put in.”
“So, it was expensive to have a dog. Big deal, she a good playmate for the kids.”
I shook my head. “Sure, when it was convenient for them to play with her. But who ended up having to take her for walks or entertain her most of the time? I’ll tell you who. Me.”
My wife wanted to continue the discussion, but she stopped short when Michael and Joe walked into the kitchen. They looked at their mother as if expecting her to say something.
“Oh yeah,” she said, “the boys have something to ask you.”
I didn’t even let them get the words out of their mouths. “No. We are not getting another dog.”
It was about two weeks after the accident that I had my first unexplainable encounter. The boys, like typical ten- and twelve-year-olds, got over Lucky’s demise rather quickly. Sure, they moped for a couple of days, but it wasn’t long before they were totally entranced in the latest Mario Kart or Zelda game. My wife eventually quit hounding me and I had, happily, put the entire fiasco that had been pet ownership behind me. I missed that darn dog but there was no way I was ever going to admit it.
It was around 10:30 on a Friday night and I was watching the end of a college basketball game. When it ended, I turned off the TV and started heading upstairs to bed when I heard a thumping sound in the basement. The kids have a playroom down there and I thought that maybe one of them had snuck out of bed.
The playroom was empty. Curious about the noise, I opened the door to the storage room and flipped on the light. At first, I didn’t notice anything but as I was about to leave, I spotted a tennis ball sitting on the floor.
The boys had talked me into buying a bunch of balls a few years back so that they could play fetch with Lucky. The dog never quite figured out the game, however. She would chase after the balls and bring them back, but none of us could ever get her to let go of the ball. The boys quit trying after a couple of weeks. I, on the other hand, had tried, unsuccessfully, to get her to play fetch properly for a couple of summers. Eventually, I gave up and stuck the balls on a shelf in the storage room.
I figured one of the cans must have tipped over and a ball rolled off the shelf. When I first touched the ball, it felt wet. The dampness only lasted for a fleeting moment. When I examined the ball closer, it was totally dry. The moisture must have been in my imagination. I shrugged the incident off as me being tired and nothing more.
During the next month or so, I continued to hear muffled sounds from the storage room in the basement. My wife and the boys never heard anything. After the first couple of times, I gave up asking them. Whatever was going on was either completely inside my head or only meant for me to hear.
Could it be that I was subconsciously missing Lucky? Was I hearing things out of guilt over the way I had talked about her? I never mistreated her, but I had spent years complaining about the hardships of owning Lucky. I had worked hard to maintain the charade that I didn’t like having a dog and I was too proud to admit that I missed the darn mutt.
Not believing that the noises were in my head, I searched for other explanations for the sounds. I set mouse traps all around the room and would check them nightly. I never caught anything.
It was during one of my excursions to check the traps that I had my next encounter. I walked into the storage room and immediately stepped into a puddle of amber liquid. I stepped back; my sock was soaked.
When I looked down again, the puddle was gone, and my sock was dry. I know there was something there. I’m certain it was dog pee. God knows I had stepped in enough times when Lucky was alive. I swear she had no control of her bladder.
I searched the room for anything that would explain the liquid. There were no leaking pipes or empty soda bottles. Even if there had been, there was still no explanation for how quickly the liquid had disappeared.
I had to face the truth, as strange as it seemed.
Lucky was haunting me. Perhaps she was punishing me for all the bad things I had said about her. I had no idea what kind of revenge this ghost dog had in store for me.
I didn’t know what to do. If I told anyone that I thought I was being haunted by my dead dog they would think I was crazy.
I tried my best to go on with my life. I ignored the noises from the basement; even when I started to hear muffled barking sounds. I think I put on a good façade, but Lucky’s presence was taking a toll. I couldn’t sleep at night. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and have to stifle a scream. I dreamt of unnaturally sharp dog fangs enclosed around my neck. I found myself unable to enter a room without the lights on. My nice, safe, suburban home was beginning to turn dark and threatening.
I started to catch fleeting glimpses of something black hanging just outside my peripheral vision. Lucky was there, waiting for her chance.
Fittingly, everything came to a head on Halloween.
I survived a few more weeks without being attacked by the ghost dog or having a mental breakdown. My wife had volunteered to host the annual neighborhood Halloween party. I still hadn’t told her about Lucky and had no choice but to agree to host the get-together.
That evening, four families came over for dinner and games. The adults visited and played cards upstairs while all the kids headed to the basement to play video games.
I have to admit, after a little while, I started to relax. Between the adults talking and the kids shouting as they played their games, I couldn’t hear any of the noises that had haunted me for the last few months.
When everyone had gone home, my wife and Michael headed up to bed, but Joe hung around. He had something on his mind.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I need to tell you something that happened downstairs tonight.”
Suddenly, a million thoughts jumped into my head. Had Joe seen Lucky? Had the ghost dog done something? Was she beginning to extract her revenge?
“What?” I shouted, a little too anxiously.
“It’s about Andy Carlson. He did something bad.”
Relieved that this had nothing to do with Lucky, I nodded. I wasn’t surprised that Andy would make some sort of trouble. The boy was sixteen and already had a reputation in the neighborhood.
“What did he do?”
“Well . . .” continued Joe, “while the rest of us played video games, he snuck into the back room and . . .” He took a deep breath. “I think he was doing drugs. You know, marijuana.”
“Why do you think that.”
“Michael told me that the funny smell coming from the back room was insemps and that Andy was covering up the marijuana smell.”
“I think you mean, incense,” I said. “Thanks for telling me. I’ll let Andy’s mom and dad know about this tomorrow. You did the right thing. Now, get to bed. It’s past your bedtime.”
I had no desire to go into the storage room this late at night. I would check things out in the morning.
Something hit me, snapping me awake. I sat up. A tennis ball rolled off my chest and bounced on the floor. Before I could look for it, a soft bark drew my attention toward the doorway. I caught a glimpse of a black shadow moving past the nightlight and down the stairs.
I wanted to crawl back under the covers and hide but another whimper stopped me from doing so. It wasn’t a threatening sound; it was more of a plea.
I found the courage to get up and follow the sound.
Lucky’s whimpers lead me to the basement door. The moment I opened it; I was hit by a whiff of smoke.
When I got to the bottom of the stairs, I saw Lucky pass through the door into the storage room. She stopped and turned to make sure I followed.
Inside, I immediately spotted a box of old paperback books burning in the corner. The remnants of an incense candle sitting on top of them. The flames were growing but still not out of control. I ran back to the kid’s game room and grabbed the fire extinguisher that hung on the wall.
It didn’t take long to put out the fire though it was obvious that it would not have taken much longer for the flames to spread to the curtains and the many boxes in the room.
A quick look upward confirmed that Andy had disconnected the smoke detector. There was no telling how long it would have taken us to notice the blaze. We had narrowly escaped a terrible and, possibly, deadly catastrophe.
I turned to find Lucky sitting in the middle of the room, staring at me.
“Thank you,” I said. “I can’t believe it. After all the things I said about you, all the times I complained, you saved us.” I reached out to pet her like I used to do when nobody was watching.
Before I could touch her, she faded away.
I haven’t seen any sign of Lucky since that night. That’s a good thing because we’ve been awfully busy. Lady is quite a handful. Taking care of her is a full-time job.
James Rumpel is a retired high school math teacher who has greatly enjoyed spending some of his free time turning a few of the odd ideas circling his brain into stories. He lives in Wisconsin with his wonderful wife, Mary.
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"In an old abbey town, down in this part of the country, a long, long while ago—so long, that the story must be a true one, because our great grandfathers implicitly believed it—there officiated as sexton and grave-digger in the church-yard, one Gabriel Grub. It by no means follows that because a man is a sexton, and constantly surrounded by emblems of mortality, therefore he should be a morose and melancholy man; your undertakers are the merriest fellows in the world, and I once had the honour of being on intimate terms with a mute, who in private life, and off duty, was as comical and jocose a little fellow as ever chirped out a devil-may-care song, without a hitch in his memory, or drained off a good stiff glass of grog without stopping for breath. But notwithstanding these precedents to the contrary, Gabriel Grub was an ill-conditioned, cross-grained, surly fellow—a morose and lonely man, who consorted with nobody but himself, and an old wicker bottle which fitted into his large deep waistcoat pocket; and who eyed each merry face as it passed him by, with such a deep scowl of malice and ill-humour, as it was difficult to meet without feeling something the worse for.
“A little before twilight one Christmas Eve, Gabriel shouldered his spade, lighted his lantern, and betook himself towards the old church-yard, for he had got a grave to finish by next morning, and feeling very low he thought it might raise his spirits perhaps, if he went on with his work at once. As he wended his way up the ancient street, he saw the cheerful light of the blazing fires gleam through the old casements, and heard the loud laugh and the cheerful shouts of those who were assembled around them; he marked the bustling preparations for next day’s good cheer, and smelt the numerous savoury odours consequent thereupon, as they steamed up from the kitchen windows in clouds. All this was gall and wormwood to the heart of Gabriel Grub; and as groups of children bounded out of the houses, tripped across the road, and were met, before they could knock at the opposite door, by half a dozen curly-headed little rascals who crowded round them as they flocked up stairs to spend the evening in their Christmas games, Gabriel smiled grimly, and clutched the handle of his spade with a firmer grasp, as he thought of measles, scarlet-fever, thrush, hooping-cough, and a good many other sources of consolation beside.
“In this happy frame of mind, Gabriel strode along, returning a short, sullen growl to the good-humoured greetings of such of his neighbours as now and then passed him, until he turned into the dark lane which led to the church-yard. Now Gabriel had been looking forward to reaching the dark lane, because it was, generally speaking, a nice gloomy mournful place, into which the towns-people did not much care to go, except in broad daylight, and when the sun was shining; consequently he was not a little indignant to hear a young urchin roaring out some jolly song about a merry Christmas, in this very sanctuary, which had been called Coffin Lane ever since the days of the old abbey, and the time of the shaven-headed monks. As Gabriel walked on, and the voice drew nearer, he found it proceeded from a small boy, who was hurrying along, to join one of the little parties in the old street, and who, partly to keep himself company, and partly to prepare himself for the occasion, was shouting out the song at the highest pitch of his lungs. So Gabriel waited till the boy came up, and then dodged him into a corner, and rapped him over the head with his lantern five or six times, just to teach him to modulate his voice. And as the boy hurried away with his hand to his head, singing quite a different sort of tune, Gabriel Grub chuckled very heartily to himself, and entered the church-yard, locking the gate behind him.
“He took off his coat, set down his lantern, and getting into the unfinished grave, worked at it for an hour or so, with right good-will. But the earth was hardened with the frost, and it was no very easy matter to break it up, and shovel it out; and although there was a moon, it was a very young one, and shed little light upon the grave, which was in the shadow of the church. At any other time, these obstacles would have made Gabriel Grub very moody and miserable, but he was so well pleased with having stopped the small boy’s singing, that he took little heed of the scanty progress he had made, and looked down into the grave when he had finished work for the night, with grim satisfaction, murmuring as he gathered up his things--
Brave lodgings for one, brave lodgings for one,
A few feet of cold earth, when life is done;
A stone at the head, a stone at the feet,
A rich, juicy meal for the worms to eat;
Rank grass over head, and damp clay around,
Brave lodgings for one, these, in holy ground!
“‘Ho! ho!’ laughed Gabriel Grub, as he sat himself down on a flat tombstone which was a favourite resting place of his and drew forth his wicker bottle. ‘A coffin at Christmas—a Christmas Box. Ho! ho! ho!’
“‘Ho! ho! ho!’ repeated a voice which sounded close behind him.
“Gabriel paused in some alarm, in the act of raising the wicker bottle to his lips, and looked round. The bottom of the oldest grave about him, was not more still and quiet, than the church-yard in the pale moonlight. The cold hoar frost glistened on the tombstones, and sparkled like rows of gems among the stone carvings of the old church. The snow lay hard and crisp upon the ground, and spread over the thickly-strewn mounds of earth, so white and smooth a cover, that it seemed as if corpses lay there, hidden only by their winding sheets. Not the faintest rustle broke the profound tranquillity of the solemn scene. Sound itself appeared to be frozen up, all was so cold and still.
“‘It was the echoes,’ said Gabriel Grub, raising the bottle to his lips again.
“‘It was not,’ said a deep voice.
“Gabriel started up, and stood rooted to the spot with astonishment and terror; for his eyes rested on a form which made his blood run cold.
“Seated on an upright tombstone, close to him, was a strange unearthly figure, whom Gabriel felt at once, was no being of this world. His long fantastic legs which might have reached the ground, were cocked up, and crossed after a quaint, fantastic fashion; his sinewy arms were bare, and his hands rested on his knees. On his short round body he wore a close covering, ornamented with small slashes; and a short cloak dangled at his back; the collar was cut into curious peaks, which served the goblin in lieu of ruff or neckerchief; and his shoes curled up at the toes into long points. On his head he wore a broad-brimmed sugar loaf hat, garnished with a single feather. The hat was covered with the white frost, and the goblin looked as if he had sat on the same tombstone very comfortably, for two or three hundred years. He was sitting perfectly still; his tongue was put out, as if in derision; and he was grinning at Gabriel Grub with such a grin as only a goblin could call up.
“‘It was not the echoes,’ said the goblin.
“Gabriel Grub was paralysed, and could make no reply.
“‘What do you do here on Christmas eve?’ said the goblin, sternly.
“‘I came to dig a grave Sir,’ stammered Gabriel Grub.
“‘What man wanders among graves and church-yards on such a night as this?’ said the goblin.
“‘Gabriel Grub! Gabriel Grub!’ screamed a wild chorus of voices that seemed to fill the church-yard. Gabriel looked fearfully round—nothing was to be seen.
“‘What have you got in that bottle?’ said the goblin.
“‘Hollands, Sir,’ replied the sexton, trembling more than ever; for he had bought it of the smugglers, and he thought that perhaps his questioner might be in the excise department of the goblins.
“‘Who drinks Hollands alone, and in a church-yard, on such a night as this?’ said the goblin.
“‘Gabriel Grub! Gabriel Grub!’ exclaimed the wild voices again.
“The goblin leered maliciously at the terrified sexton, and then raising his voice, exclaimed—“‘And who, then, is our fair and lawful prize?’
“To this inquiry the invisible chorus replied, in a strain that sounded like the voices of many choristers singing to the mighty swell of the old church organ—a strain that seemed borne to the sexton’s ears upon a gentle wind, and to die away as its soft breath passed onward—but the burden of the reply was still the same, ‘Gabriel Grub! Gabriel Grub!’
“The goblin grinned a broader grin than before, as he said, ‘Well, Gabriel, what do you say to this?’
“The sexton gasped for breath.
“‘What do you think of this, Gabriel?’ said the goblin, kicking up his feet in the air on either side the tombstone, and looking at the turned-up points with as much complacency as if he had been contemplating the most fashionable pair of Wellingtons in all Bond Street.
“‘It’s—it’s—very curious, Sir,’ replied the sexton, half dead with fright, ‘very curious, and very pretty, but I think I’ll go back and finish my work, Sir, if you please.’
“‘Work!’ said the goblin, ‘what work?’
“‘The grave, Sir, making the grave,’ stammered the sexton.
“‘Oh, the grave, eh?’ said the goblin, ‘who makes graves at a time when all other men are merry, and takes a pleasure in it?’
“Again the mysterious voices replied, ‘Gabriel Grub! Gabriel Grub!’
“‘I’m afraid my friends want you, Gabriel,’ said the goblin, thrusting his tongue further into his cheek than ever—and a most astonishing tongue it was—‘I’m afraid my friends want you, Gabriel,’ said the goblin.
“‘Under favour, Sir,’ replied the horror-struck sexton, ‘I don’t think they can, Sir; they don’t know me, Sir, I don’t think the gentlemen have ever seen me, Sir.’
“‘Oh yes they have,’ replied the goblin; ‘we know the man with the sulky face and the grim scowl, that came down the street to-night, throwing his evil looks at the children, and grasping his burying spade the tighter. We know the man that struck the boy in the envious malice of his heart, because the boy could be merry, and he could not. We know him, we know him.’
“Here the goblin gave a loud shrill laugh, that the echoes returned twenty-fold, and throwing his legs up in the air, stood upon his head, or rather upon the very point of his sugar-loaf hat, on the narrow edge of the tombstone, from whence he threw a summerset with extraordinary agility, right to the sexton’s feet, at which he planted himself in the attitude in which tailors generally sit upon the shop-board.
“‘I—I—am afraid I must leave you, Sir,’ said the sexton, making an effort to move.
“‘Leave us!’ said the goblin, ‘Gabriel Grub going to leave us. Ho! ho! ho!’
“As the goblin laughed, the sexton observed for one instant a brilliant illumination within the windows of the church, as if the whole building were lighted up; it disappeared, the organ pealed forth a lively air, and whole troops of goblins, the very counterpart of the first one, poured into the church-yard, and began playing at leap-frog with the tombstones, never stopping for an instant to take breath, but overing the highest among them, one after the other, with the most marvellous dexterity. The first goblin was a most astonishing leaper, and none of the others could come near him; even in the extremity of his terror the sexton could not help observing, that while his friends were content to leap over the common-sized gravestones, the first one took the family vaults, iron railings and all, with as much ease as if they had been so many street posts.
“At last the game reached to a most exciting pitch; the organ played quicker and quicker, and the goblins leaped faster and faster, coiling themselves up, rolling head over heels upon the ground, and bounding over the tombstones like foot-balls. The sexton’s brain whirled round with the rapidity of the motion he beheld, and his legs reeled beneath him, as the spirits flew before his eyes, when the goblin king suddenly darting towards him, laid his hand upon his collar, and sank with him through the earth.
“When Gabriel Grub had had time to fetch his breath, which the rapidity of his descent had for the moment taken away, he found himself in what appeared to be a large cavern, surrounded on all sides by crowds of goblins, ugly and grim; in the centre of the room, on an elevated seat, was stationed his friend of the church-yard; and close beside him stood Gabriel Grub himself, without the power of motion.
“‘Cold to-night,’ said the king of the goblins, ‘very cold. A glass of something warm, here.’
“At this command, half a dozen officious goblins, with a perpetual smile upon their faces, whom Gabriel Grub imagined to be courtiers, on that account, hastily disappeared, and presently returned with a goblet of liquid fire, which they presented to the king.
“‘Ah!’ said the goblin, whose cheeks and throat were quite transparent, as he tossed down the flame, ‘This warms one, indeed: bring a bumper of the same, for Mr. Grub.’
“It was in vain for the unfortunate sexton to protest that he was not in the habit of taking anything warm at night; for one of the goblins held him while another poured the blazing liquid down his throat, and the whole assembly screeched with laughter as he coughed and choked, and wiped away the tears which gushed plentifully from his eyes, after swallowing the burning draught.
“‘And now,’ said the king, fantastically poking the taper corner of his sugar-loaf hat into the sexton’s eye, and thereby occasioning him the most exquisite pain—‘And now, show the man of misery and gloom a few of the pictures from our own great storehouse.’
“As the goblin said this, a thick cloud which obscured the further end of the cavern, rolled gradually away, and disclosed, apparently at a great distance, a small and scantily furnished, but neat and clean apartment. A crowd of little children were gathered round a bright fire, clinging to their mother’s gown, and gambolling round her chair. The mother occasionally rose, and drew aside the window-curtain as if to look for some expected object; a frugal meal was ready spread upon the table, and an elbow chair was placed near the fire. A knock was heard at the door: the mother opened it, and the children crowded round her, and clapped their hands for joy, as their father entered. He was wet and weary, and shook the snow from his garments, as the children crowded round him, and seizing his cloak, hat, stick, and gloves, with busy zeal, ran with them from the room. Then as he sat down to his meal before the fire, the children climbed about his knee, and the mother sat by his side, and all seemed happiness and comfort.
“But a change came upon the view, almost imperceptibly. The scene was altered to a small bed-room, where the fairest and youngest child lay dying; the roses had fled from his cheek, and the light from his eye; and even as the sexton looked upon him with an interest he had never felt or known before, he died. His young brothers and sisters crowded round his little bed, and seized his tiny hand, so cold and heavy; but they shrunk back from its touch, and looked with awe on his infant face; for calm and tranquil as it was, and sleeping in rest and peace as the beautiful child seemed to be, they saw that he was dead, and they knew that he was an angel looking down upon, and blessing them, from a bright and happy Heaven.”
Again the light cloud passed across the picture, and again the subject changed. The father and mother were old and helpless now, and the number of those about them was diminished more than half; but content and cheerfulness sat on every face, and beamed in every eye, as they crowded round the fireside, and told and listened to old stories of earlier and bygone days. Slowly and peacefully the father sank into the grave, and, soon after, the sharer of all his cares and troubles followed him to a place of rest and peace. The few, who yet survived them, knelt by their tomb, and watered the green turf which covered it with their tears; then rose and turned away, sadly and mournfully, but not with bitter cries, or despairing lamentations, for they knew that they should one day meet again; and once more they mixed with the busy world, and their content and cheerfulness were restored. The cloud settled upon the picture, and concealed it from the sexton’s view.
“‘What do you think of that?’ said the goblin, turning his large face towards Gabriel Grub.
“Gabriel murmured out something about its being very pretty, and looked somewhat ashamed, as the goblin bent his fiery eyes upon him.
“‘You a miserable man!’ said the goblin, in a tone of excessive contempt. ‘You!’ He appeared disposed to add more, but indignation choked his utterance, so he lifted up one of his very pliable legs, and flourishing it above his head a little, to insure his aid, administered a good sound kick to Gabriel Grub; immediately after which, all the goblins in waiting crowded round the wretched sexton, and kicked him without mercy, according to the established and invariable custom of courtiers upon earth, who kick whom royalty kicks, and hug whom royalty hugs.
“‘Show him some more,’ said the king of the goblins.
“At these words the cloud was again dispelled, and a rich and beautiful landscape was disclosed to view—there is just such another to this day, within half a mile of the old abbey town. The sun shone from out the clear blue sky, the water sparkled beneath his rays, and the trees looked greener, and the flowers more gay, beneath his cheering influence. The water rippled on, with a pleasant sound, the trees rustled in the light wind that murmured among their leaves, the birds sang upon the boughs, and the lark carolled on high, her welcome to the morning. Yes, it was morning, the bright, balmy morning of summer; the minutest leaf, the smallest blade of grass, was instinct with life. The ant crept forth to her daily toil, the butterfly fluttered and basked in the warm rays of the sun; myriads of insects spread their transparent wings, and revelled in their brief but happy existence. Man walked forth, elated with the scene; and all was brightness and splendour.
“‘You a miserable man!’ said the king of the goblins, in a more contemptuous tone than before. And again the king of the goblins gave his leg a flourish; again it descended on the shoulders of the sexton; and again the attendant goblins imitated the example of their chief.
“Many a time the cloud went and came, and many a lesson it taught to Gabriel Grub, who although his shoulders smarted with pain from the frequent applications of the goblin’s feet thereunto, looked on with an interest which nothing could diminish. He saw that men who worked hard, and earned their scanty bread with lives of labour, were cheerful and happy; and that to the most ignorant, the sweet face of nature was a never-failing source of cheerfulness and joy. He saw those who had been delicately nurtured, and tenderly brought up, cheerful under privations, and superior to suffering, that would have crushed many of a rougher grain, because they bore within their own bosoms the materials of happiness, contentment, and peace. He saw that women, the tenderest and most fragile of all God’s creatures, were the oftenest superior to sorrow, adversity, and distress; and he saw that it was because they bore in their own hearts an inexhaustible wellspring of affection and devotedness. Above all, he saw that men like himself, who snarled at the mirth and cheerfulness of others, were the foulest weeds on the fair surface of the earth; and setting all the good of the world against the evil, he came to the conclusion that it was a very decent and respectable sort of world after all.
No sooner had he formed it, than the cloud which had closed over the last picture, seemed to settle on his senses, and lull him to repose. One by one, the goblins faded from his sight, and as the last one disappeared, he sunk to sleep.”
The day had broken when Gabriel Grub awoke, and found himself lying at full length on the flat gravestone in the church-yard, with the wicker bottle lying empty by his side, and his coat, spade, and lantern, all well whitened by the last night’s frost, scattered on the ground. The stone on which he had first seen the goblin seated, stood bolt upright before him, and the grave at which he had worked, the night before, was not far off. At first he began to doubt the reality of his adventures, but the acute pain in his shoulders when he attempted to rise, assured him that the kicking of the goblins was certainly not ideal. He was staggered again, by observing no traces of footsteps in the snow on which the goblins had played at leap-frog with the gravestones, but he speedily accounted for this circumstance when he remembered that being spirits, they would leave no visible impression behind them. So Gabriel Grub got on his feet as well as he could, for the pain in his back; and brushing the frost off his coat, put it on, and turned his face towards the town.
But he was an altered man, and he could not bear the thought of returning to a place where his repentance would be scoffed at, and his reformation disbelieved. He hesitated for a few moments; and then turned away to wander where he might, and seek his bread elsewhere.
The lantern, the spade, and the wicker bottle, were found that day in the church-yard. There were a great many speculations about the sexton’s fate at first, but it was speedily determined that he had been carried away by the goblins; and there were not wanting some very credible witnesses who had distinctly seen him whisked through the air on the back of a chestnut horse blind of one eye, with the hind quarters of a lion, and the tail of a bear. At length all this was devoutly believed; and the new sexton used to exhibit to the curious for a trifling emolument, a good-sized piece of the church weathercock which had been accidentally kicked off by the aforesaid horse in his aërial flight, and picked up by himself in the church-yard, a year or two afterwards.
“Unfortunately these stories were somewhat disturbed by the unlooked-for reappearance of Gabriel Grub himself, some ten years afterwards, a ragged, contented, rheumatic old man. He told his story to the clergyman, and also to the mayor; and in course of time it began to be received as a matter of history, in which form it has continued down to this very day. The believers in the weathercock tale, having misplaced their confidence once, were not easily prevailed upon to part with it again, so they looked as wise as they could, shrugged their shoulders, touched their foreheads, and murmured something about Gabriel Grub’s having drunk all the Hollands, and then fallen asleep on the flat tombstone; and they affected to explain what he supposed he had witnessed in the goblin’s cavern, by saying that he had seen the world, and grown wiser. But this opinion, which was by no means a popular one at any time, gradually died off; and be the matter how it may, as Gabriel Grub was afflicted with rheumatism to the end of his days, this story has at least one moral, if it teach no better one—and that is, that if a man turns sulky and drinks by himself at Christmas time, he may make up his mind to be not a bit the better for it, let the spirits be ever so good, or let them be even as many degrees beyond proof, as those which Gabriel Grub saw, in the goblin’s cavern.”
Charles Dickens was an English writer of the 1800s who created some of the Western World's most famous stories including Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and A Tale of Two Cities.
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Oh, Gods. It’s happened again. I can’t move. My entire body—all three segments, wings, and tail—are paralyzed.
I tell myself to breathe. The last time this happened, I managed to wake up before he appeared. How is this possible?
I’m the sleep paralysis demon!
I try shaking my head, but my neck muscles tense so tightly that the pain squeezes a stream of black tears from all four of my eyes. To make matters worse, the conduit I’m laying on, a huge slab of smooth obsidian, has powered down; the glass now sucks the warmth from my body.
I can’t tell how long I’ve been here. Usually, I close my eyes and appear in the world of the living. My job’s simple: squat on a sleeping human and harvest their fear.
It’s quick and painless. The feeding glands dotting my anus numb my victims into a state of catatonia. I then slurp up my fill, hop off, and make my way back to this chamber where I squeeze out what’s owed to Samael, my boss, and keep the leftovers.
But not tonight. Tonight, I’m going to miss my quota again. At this rate, the boss’ll harvest me. No, that’s not going to happen. I just need to snap out of--
A gust of wind flows into the chamber, extinguishing most of the tallow candles set around the table I’m on. I hear a voice. His voice. The man’s mumbling something in Enochian. His pronunciation is awful, but I catch the gist of what he’s doing—a summoning spell.
A cloud of purple smoke swirls around the stone ceiling. The puffy tendrils reach down and clot on my chest. This is how he makes his way into the Underworld. I can already feel the man’s weight bearing down on my exoskeleton. It’s getting harder to breathe. Slowly, the entire cloud settles on top of me and solidifies into a lumpy shape. It’s him—the poet.
The way my neck is turned and the low light make it hard to see all of the man’s features, but I can tell it’s the same flesh sack that’s been visiting me the past few days.
He’s squatting on my chest, hugging his knees. The plates on my exoskeleton groan as he shifts his bony ass around.
Now I can see my tormentor: pale and thin, he has the look of an accountant—or a mortician. Someone who doesn’t get out in the world or see sunlight too often.
The man’s slick brown hair, parted down the center, looks glossy, almost like a pair of gigantic cockroach wings pasted to his head. A ridiculous painter’s brush mustache graces the top of his thin, upper lip.
“I did it. I’m back,” he whispers in Enochian.
His deep-set brown eyes dart around the room and meet my gaze. Shit. He’s going to start with his poetry again.
The man wipes his nose with the back of his hand and smiles. “Hello, brother. It’s good to see you again.”
I manage a low growl. All I want to do is reach up with my claws and strangle the bastard. He pats my chest.
“It’s ok. I know that you can’t get up. I was hoping I could run a few lines of my new poem for you—”
The candles flare up, glowing red. That means my time in this chamber is almost up. Thank the Gods! Even if I don’t wake up on my own, the clerk outside will sever the link to the human world.
The man’s head drops to his chest. “Ah, I see that you’ll wake up soon. That’s too bad. I shouldn’t have spent so much time making my summoning circle perfectly round.” A garish smile, cast in crimson and shadow, erupts across his face. “Lesson learned!”
The lights go out.
When they flare up again, the man’s gone and I can finally move. There’s a knock at the door.
“Ammun, are you finished? I need to hunt too.”
It’s Janara, one of the most gluttonous demons on this level. A slug-shaped beast with an eyeball in her gaping maw. I slip off the slab and make my way toward the knocking. As I open the door, she slithers backwards. Lords, do I look that bad?
“You look sick,” Janara says. Her bloodshot eye focuses on the center of my chest. “What happened there?”
I look down. There are two oval-shaped dents in the center of my thorax where the man was squatting down on me. That’s never happened before. It wasn’t a dream. The human was in the chamber.
Beads of sweat start pooling between my segmented joints. I glance back at the obsidian slab in the center of the chamber.
“Have you ever had anything come through?” I ask.
“What, from the human world?” Janara asks, confused. “No, that’s absurd. They can’t cross over. Everyone knows that.” She stands there for another moment, as if waiting for me to respond. “What’s gotten into you? Move!”
She pushes me aside and slams the chamber door closed. The door glows purple. She’s already found a victim. I stumble through the corridor and make my way to the exit.
The clerk, a jackal-headed demon, shakes an empty earthenware jug at me. “You couldn’t squeeze an ounce from your trip?”
I shake my head and drop twenty sestari onto the counter. The fee I have to pay for coming back empty-clawed. The silver coins dance across the marble surface. That’s a sound I’ve been hearing too often.
The clerk scoops up the coins with his long fingers. “See you tomorrow, dreamer.”
Instead of going home, I make my way to the Gut, a market run by half-human hybrids—Fauns, Harpies, Nāgas, Jengus, and a host of others.
They make their living selling trinkets, weapons, spells, and potions from their respective home worlds. The wisest of these beasts are the Centaurs. Over the years, I’ve heard that their knowledge of flesh sack anatomy and psychology is beyond compare.
If I’m ever to harvest fear from a human being again, I need to find a Centaur that can help keep my tormentor from visiting me ever again.
But the Gut is a labyrinth of tent stalls stretching for miles in all directions. The sound and smell of meat sizzling on a spit turns my attention. A crocodile, large enough to swallow a hippo, slowly rotates above a fire pit.
Turning the squeaky metal shaft is a Strider, a ten-foot-tall praying mantis demon. The black pupils in his bulbous eyes widen as he catches me eyeing his meal.
He extends his sickle shaped claw and slices off a strip of meat then extends it my way. The creature’s mandibles spread open revealing half of a human mouth.
“Would you like a sample? It’s savory.”
I shake my head. Master manipulators, Striders can make you do just about anything without you knowing that they’ve played you. Accepting a gift is like opening the door to your mind and letting them in.
“No, that’s not necessary. But I am looking for a Centaur.”
The creature’s mandibles snap shut. He juts his beak-shaped mouth to the right. “The horses are over there, cousin.”
It takes me almost an hour, but I finally find where the Centaurs ply their trade at the Gut—a mile by mile square of stalls dedicated to these jovial creatures.
Hoof beats, drums, and laughter fill the air. Even the demons shopping here seem to be smiling. Above every stall are hand-painted signs. Most announce their proprietor’s specialization in the medical and military arts. One sign, however, catches all of my eyes at once. It reads:
Interspecies Medical Arts Master
The owner, presumably Magellan, chats with a customer as I glance over his wares. There are dozens of vials and beakers lining the counter and even more in the crates stacked up behind him. Dried herbs and flowers hang from the rafters along with leather pouches taut with powders and Gods know what other substances.
The Centaur finishes his conversation and turns. The light gleans off the smooth skin of his torso and the slick, brown coat covering his flanks and four legs. His bright, blue eyes light up and he runs his muscular hands over his smooth scalp.
“How can I help you, my friend?”
The Centaur places his fists on his wide hips and turns his head.
“Of course! I am the Underworld’s foremost demon and Homo sapiens expert. There are famous renderings, you know?”
I follow his gaze to a pile of small oil paintings of him in the same pose.
“How may I be of service?”
I grunt. “I have a problem.”
Magellan lifts a pinky and wriggles it in the air. “What’s the matter? Can’t lift the old proboscis for the Mister or the Missus like you used to?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“Then what ails you, brother?”
I rotate my head to make sure no one else is listening. “It’s a human,” I whisper.
Magellan’s eyes widen. He leans down. “Please, explain.”
“Every time I go on a harvest, a human, this man, appears on my chest. Every damn time!” My voice rumbles with anger.
The centaur rests his hand on my shoulder. He squeezes and a sense of calm washes over me.
“Ah, I see. You have a passenger.”
“Is that normal? There’s a term for this? Does that mean it happens a lot?” I stammer.
“No, but there are a few humans out there dabbling with powers that they don’t understand. Occultists I believe is what they’re called. Every once in a while, they make it down here. It’s rare, but it does happen.” The centaur chuckled. “But I’ve never heard of a sleep paralysis demon with his own demon.”
“It’s not funny. This is serious. If I don’t meet my quotas this month—“
“Your boss, Samael,” Magellan says, nodding his head. His tone softens. “Yes, I understand. Even we know that your kind work for a very, very serious entity.” He reaches for a basket on the top of the stall and hands me a small vial filled with blue goo. The liquid writhes within the glass and pushes at the cork as if alive.
“Smear that on your chest before you use the chamber conduit. It’ll prevent the human from crossing over. But make sure you use every drop.”
“You’re sure it’ll work?”
“Yes, trust me.”
“How much then?”
Magellan strokes his long, braided beard. “For you, my friend. A hundred sestari.”
That’s all the money I have left. Still, if this goo works, I’ll be able to cross over. I can make double that amount if I get a hold of three dreamers.
“Fine,” I say, stretching out my claws. The coins materialize on my palms.
The centaur swipes the silver and hands me the vial. I try pulling it away, but his grip is strong.
“Remember, you have to use every drop. If you don’t, the process will backfire and kill you both.”
I nod and rush back to the chamber.
“Come to waste another twenty sestari?”
I ignore the clerk and find an empty room. I sit on the slab and uncork the vial. The cool, blue liquid falls into my palms. I shake the glass to make sure every drop is gone. I rub my claws together and lather the goo across my smooth chest. I pinch the vial between two talons and bring it close to my eyes. There’s nothing left, not even a smear. Good.
I lay down on the obsidian slab and close my eyes.
Someone’s snoring. That’s a good sign. I crawl toward the sound—it’s an elderly man clutching at the sheets. I’m so happy that I want to shout! The goo’s done its job. Now, all I have to do is straddle the man and start sucking out the fear.
The bed’s creaky, but I don’t give the geezer enough time to react. My glands are doing their job already. His head lolls back into the pillow and his chest rises and falls beneath me. Somethings wrong though. Nothing’s coming out from the man. I look over and his head snaps back up. Lords! I’m staring at my own slack-jawed face. This isn’t real. This is a nightmare!
The room spins and I’m back in the chamber.
I can’t move. My tormentor is squatting on my chest again. There’s a wild look on his face. He shimmies his rump in a semicircle. The goo squelches between us.
“Oh, this feels different. This feels…good,” he growls. His eyes roll back into their sockets.
Magellan’s warning echoes in my head: “Remember, you have to use every drop. If you don’t, the process will backfire and kill you both.”
There’s a strange tingling sensation oozing into my body. Then I hear a crack as the man presses his ass down hard on my chest. I yelp as the blue goo dribbles into the wound. The liquid’s immediately vacuumed out as the man squeezes his knees together. Oh, Gods he’s sucking my insides out! I’m being emptied!
I can hear my blood and guts rush into the man. The poet’s body expands like a balloon. The skin around his now bulbous forehead is so transparent that I can see swirls of black fluid dancing behind the taut, pink flesh. Just as he’s about to pop, something strange happens—the man’s body starts turning into stone. He looks like a hunchbacked gargoyle and is just as heavy.
The weight is unbearable. For a moment, the man’s eyes glow red and then go out. My exoskeleton cracks and squeals as the stone figure sinks into my chest and severs me in half. The top half of my body lands on the floor with a hollow thud.
Magellan’s glass vial rolls into view. The last thing I see before everything goes dark is a tiny drop of blue goo clinging to the underside of the cork.
Luis Paredes is a horror, fantasy, and speculative fiction writer living in Westchester, New York. Current work includes Head Hunters, his debut novel featuring 10-foot-tall praying mantis demons; Out On a Limb, the first in a series of magic noir mystery adventures staring private occult investigators Rebecca Suarez and Peyton Marx, and the mob-inspired short story, Forgive Us Our Debts. When not crafting strange tales, you can find Luis tinkering with old typewriters or using pencils, brushes and ink to bring his weird characters to life on paper.
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The zombie sat at her kitchen table, face twice as ghoulish in the faint light from his phone. Keiko did her best to ignore him. She had a lot going on these days. There was the trip to the doctor tomorrow and this whole fiasco with her mother’s cat. She pressed the button on the zojirushi and focused on the tepid water gurgling over her peppermint tea.
The zombie moaned mildly. Keiko shot a glance at him. She had fed him, hadn’t she? Pig brain was not easy to come by and Okamoto, the old butcher, was getting suspicious. She told him it was for her pet snake. The moaning grew insistent. Keiko put down her cup and reached for the phone. He had let the screen lock again. She unlocked it and put it back in his mildewed hand. He quieted and recommenced scrolling. A little dribble of black ichor fell from his chin onto the screen. Keiko frowned.
“Darling,” she said. “Hey, you!” It was so difficult to get his attention. “I’m going to watch TV now. There’s a documentary about Menopause.”
He made no reply. She took her cup into their front room and settled under the kotatsu. It always took some fumbling to figure out the remote. It had more buttons than a keyboard. He used to navigate it for them. All of his complicated entertainment options went neglected now. Eventually the screen jerked alive. A cartoon of an ageing woman, age indicated by her slight hunch and lined face, contorted with exasperation from a hot flash. The graphic had thin lines indicating inadequate hormones coursing through her body and into her brain.
Keiko sighed before deeply inhaling from her cup. Despite the tea’s aroma, the foul fug of his rotting cadaver permeated the house. She hated his stench most of all. She had tried opening all the windows to air the place out but he had groaned at the sunlight. After a small sip, she put the cup down and closed her eyes. At least they didn’t need to heat the place as much. Cold didn’t bother him. As the documentary droned on, she put her head down on the table and closed her eyes.
Tottori sand dune. Struggling up that impossibly high slope of sand. Laughing at each other and kissing at the top. School kids pointing and giggling. A school trip, maybe? Running back down to fading shrieking. A quizzical camel traipsing back and forth offering rides. Later, staying at a cheap inn in Matsue: their room long and narrow with old bachelors snoring behind thin walls.
Keiko startled awake, looking around and dry-swallowing absent-mindedly. Her tea was cold. The program had changed to some interminable variety show. She got up, stiff, and turned the TV off at the source. She listened to the silence for a moment or two, then went to bed.
She was dead asleep when he ambled into the room, noisily making his way under the covers. His withered lips were pulled back, revealing a rictus of teeth and a distended tongue. He rolled towards her, a lusty rattle emerging from his throat as he attempted to touch her.
“Hey!” said Keiko, pushing him away. “Don’t you touch me!”
The zombie slumped back, quiet. After a while, he turned over. Keiko stared at the ceiling. A spear of streetlight came through their half-closed curtain and landed between them. She realized it was coming through the hole in his chest cavity.
Ronan O’Driscoll is the author of Poor Farm, published by Moose House Press, and Chief O’Neill, published by Somerville Press. Poor Farm is an imagining of what might happen to an autistic young man in nineteenth century Nova Scotia. Chief O’Neill covers the life of Francis O’Neill (1848-1936), another wandering Irishman who ended up in America as Chicago chief of police, remembered today for his collections of Irish tunes. He lives in Nova Scotia with his wife and three children. For more details visit https://ronanodriscoll.com.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.