by Bill Hughes
At eight, I walk out of the office and take the long elevator ride down. The few who bothered to work today have long since gone. Off to dinners with family or parties with friends. Loved ones. The people who make life worthwhile, right?
I step out into the frozen, artificial half-gloom. The chill and the dark press down on me from beyond the streetlights like a giant boot angling to crush a bug. I tug my scarf tighter against my chin and start down the marble stairs. The limo is in its usual spot. As I slide in and give Garrett the address, I wonder if he recognizes it from last year. Or the year before. I realize then that I have no idea how long Garrett has been with me. I don’t even know if Garrett is his first or last name. I smile because it doesn’t matter. He gets his check every week, like clockwork, and this week there’ll be a little extra in. That’swhat matters.
Me, I don’t have family or friends. Neither parties nor dinners to attend. I’m a simple guy and I keep things simple. Maybe someday that’ll change, but not yet, not while I’m on top of the game and the money is rolling in. I stay busy, and it wears me out to the point that I don’t want anything more. It’s a full-throttle life.
Except, of course, tonight—the one night a year I cut loose. Although I’ve learned to stay focused, I also learned a long time ago that I need some relief every now and then. So I’ve built myself a little holiday tradition, something to take the edge off. I shift a bit in the limo’s deep seat, and it occurs to me that I’m excited. Just like a kid on Christmas Eve, I think, and that makes me chuckle.
The car stops outside the warehouse, and again I wonder how many years Garrett has taken me on this errand. As I step out of the car’s heated belly and back into the chill darkness—darker now that the streetlights are blocks away—I make a mental note to fire him before next year rolls around. Memories can be dangerous things. I don’t expect trouble, but I’m not going to invite it, either. For now, though, I tell him to come back at eight in the morning. He nods and drives off, taking the car’s lights with him. I stand and let the darkness wash through me. I lift my face to the night and gaze into the impenetrable blackness. A flat sheet of invisible clouds masks the distant stars, and the void above offers nothing except a thin scrim of snow that beats unseen against my face. The short day has been brutally cold, and the long night will be even colder.Man killing cold, my father used to call it, with a click of his tongue, as we rounded up the last straggling cows and shuttered then into the vast barn that was only marginally warmer than the pastures beyond. These nights are the universe’s way of thinning the herd.
I cross to the building, shoes clicking hard upon the frozen asphalt, and clang my way up the metal stairs to the door. I slide though the small, unused office, with its two small windowpanes, and into the first loading bay. I snap the flashlight on and watch the rats scatter. There aren’t many. There is no consistent food source in the abandoned building to attract them; they’ve only been driven here by the cold. Serge always leaves my present in one of the defunct refrigerators in the back, and he has strict instructions to make sure that the walls and doors are intact so nothing can get to it. I make my way to a small interior office near the back of the bay. Inside, I find everything just as it should be. There is a space heater set on high in one corner and a battery-powered lamp on the table. It’s warm enough that I can no longer see my breath. I slide out of my overcoat and step into the disposable jumpsuit that Segre has left for me, then don the biohazard gloves. I smile behind the mask as I take the took kit from the old plywood desk. With the lamp in one hand and the bag of implements over my shoulder, I cross into bay two and duck down the half-hidden hall that leads to the three walk-in coolers.
The first one is empty. Its open door juts into the narrow hall so far that I have to push it shut to proceed. Number two is closed. I jerk it open and hold the light above my head and gaze inside. I hear it—a muffled cry, a rustle of frightened movement—before my eyes can pick out the bound form struggling on the cot in the corner. I move forward slowly and then stop, savoring the frightened sounds my presence has evoked. The first detail I can make out are the large, round eyes. They reflect my lamplight back at me. They search my face, find my eyes, and pour questions into them. I lock onto those eyes, frozen by the glory of the terror there; I let it seep into me a bit, that anxious fear, and I smile. It’s so genuine, so heartfelt, so pregnant with self-importance and urgency. In a world full of pretense and fabrication, it is the one feeling I’ve come to trust. Terra firma.
Seeing my smile—I guess it qualifies as a disconcerting one, under the circumstances—it begins to whimper and moan with more force. I move toward it and find that I am unable to resist the urge to shake my bag of tools. The metallic clatter of the items inside makes me feel positively giddy, and I laugh. As my light fills the far corner, I finally see with clarity what Serge has brought me. It’s a boy, perhaps nine or ten years of age, with a bright head full of blond hair and enormous brown eyes. He has managed to draw himself up until he is sitting up at the head of the cot, leaning his bare back against the metal walls of the corner. I think he must be cold. He has managed, somehow, to knock all his blankets to the floor. His legs are tightly wound in a long rope that is heavily knotted at his ankles. His wrists are similarly trussed. His ball gag is still securely in place, which is a good thing since he is now shrieking mightily at the sight of me.
I try my best to look concerned as a rush to him, making shushing noises. He quiets, his haunted eyes filling with hope. I want to laugh, but I don’t. He is perhaps the most beautiful creature I have ever seen. His pale, smooth shoulders look as though they have been carved out of white marble, and the perfection of his fine, long limbs cannot be hidden by the cruel ruts created by the ropes. Serge has outdone himself.
“Just wait,” I lie to him, “I’ll get you out of here.” I rummage through the toolkit and come out with an old utility knife, a squat metal handle that terminates in a bit of rusting razor blade. I move to his feet and grasp a section of rope as though I am going to cut it, then twist the blade slowly into the ball of his right foot instead.
He bellows like a gored ox. The betrayal and pain that flash through his eyes are good, but not as good as the fear that remains in their wake when I withdraw the blade. Shock and pain have their place, but they are really just dread’s maids-in-waiting. I breathe in the thick scent of his fear and let its comfort pulse through me. For a true leader, there is nothing as purely satisfying and refreshing as the terror of an underling. All of us sense this, although very few are willing to admit it openly, and even fewer are willing to embrace the truth as I have. I lean forward until my eyes are just a few inches away from the boy’s and gaze deeply. The eyes are the windows of the soul, and I can see his soul writhing at my feet, prostrated by inarticulate terror.
I am a man. The boy, however, is subhuman. I have already reduced him to the level of a trembling beast. But there is more, so much more, that I want. Over the next few hours, we will explore new depths of fear together. Before we finish, he will lick the blade that guts him to show his gratitude for being allowed to die. That is, he will if he still has a tongue. One never knows how these things will play out. I try not to crowd my process with too many preconceptions. It’s best to act in the moment.
He bellows again into the ball gag, and I know I must remove it so I can hear his terror in its pure, unrestrained form. In order to do that, however, I have to take him to the soundproofed room. I take the light and leave him with his bleeding foot and hammering heart there in the dark. I find a wheeled bin and roll it back to the cooler. When I come back in, his eyes are closed, and he does not open them until I lift him from the cot. He is incredibly light, so light that it makes me think of the hollow bones of birds. I fling him into the belly of the bin and start wheeling him around the warehouse. I make it a point to ram walls and bounce the sides of the ungainly conveyance into door frames as we travel; our slamming, shuddering progress works him into a state of agonized frenzy, and I can see froth starting to form at the edges of his gag.
The joy of it makes me dance as I shove the bin along.
We whip down a long corridor and surge into the soundproofed chamber. I tip the bin. The boy rolls out onto the floor and slams helplessly into the legs of the worktable in the room’s center. He lies still, and for a moment I think that I’ve knocked him unconscious. When I lift him onto the table, I see his eyes are open. There is a vacancy in them, however, that was not there before. As I lay him down, I slap his face. He does not react to the blow. He’s slipped down deep inside somewhere, behind some wall or other that he thinks will protect him.
I’ll bring him out. I know how.
But first, the gag. I rip the thing loose and toss it to the floor. Reflexively, the boy draws in a few deep throatfuls of air in response, but he does not seem any closer to surfacing. His eyes remain unfocused, deserted. I dig into my tools and come up with an ice pick. I search the ball of his foot and find the ragged slice created by the utility knife. Slowly, I press my pick’s tip into the open heart of the wound. I work with patience, waiting for the shriek that will tell me he is back. It does not come. I press and press until the point if the pick emerges slowly from the top of his foot in the midst of an eruption of red. Still he does not scream. He does not give me as much as a whimper. I grasp his jaw and turn his eyes to mine, once again bringing my eyes to within inches of his. That’s when I see he is gone.
And they are my shrieks, then, that are muffled and contained by the padded walls. My screams of disbelief as I stab and maul the unresponding body on the table. I am unwilling—unable—to accept that death has come already. Come early to rob me of hours I’d thought I had ahead of me, hours of dread and surrender that would fill and sustain me through the too-long days of the coming year. It’s all wrong. I’ve been robbed. The realization comes over me that Serge’s to blame. He missed something, some congenital defect of the heart or brain, that caused this. Yes, that must be it. Serge will bear the cost. He must bring me a new present, I tell myself.
I fumble for my phone, determined to call him even though I know that his number has changed again and that I will have no way of contacting him again until he calls me next year. I have already deleted any trace of him from my call history anyway. I sink slowly into a chair in the corner and begin, quietly, to weep.
“Fear not,” a voice says suddenly, “for I bring you tidings of great joy.”
The boy is standing on the table, or, perhaps, hovering a fraction of an inch above it. I can’t tell. The ropes that bound him have vanished, and his pale body seems to glow white in the dim light. His eyes are alive and flash green and gold. A steady stream of blood pours from the hole I pierced in his foot, and other streams flow from wounds in his hands and his other foot that I did not make. I stand and walk toward him, unsure of what I am seeing.
“Fear not,” he says again. His voice is deep and dark, like the blackest trench at the bottom of an ancient river. The boy—the thing the boy has become—begins to laugh. His laughter is without humor or warmth, without malice or anger. It’s not, however, an empty laugh. It’s full of darkness and things I can’t name.
As the laughter fades, I realize I’m cold. My legs melt and I find myself on my knees beside the table, gazing up at him. I grasp the tabletop’s edge to keep from shuddering myself into a seizure. The child’s tongue flicks the lips, snakelike, and he resumes speaking with that impossible voice.
“Yes, yes. ‘Fear not,’ they said. Oh, but there was fear. Always, already fear. Black terror that turns bowels to water. The fear was the start of everything. How couldn’t it be? The gathering dark. The growing cold. The retreating sun. Terrifying.”
The boy travels, without moving his legs, to the end of the table. He floats slowly down until his mutilated feet rest on the concrete, just inches from where I kneel. His eyes are a steady green now, like two search lights. His red hands reach toward me, and I try to say I’m sorry, that it was a game, that I hadn’t meant it, but my throat won’t form words.
“Don’t lie,” he rumbles. As he speaks, the rest of the room turns to a wash of grey snow, as if it were an image on an old, reception-challenged television screen. The room snaps back to normal as his hands catch me on either side of the jaw, his small thumbs testing the corners of my mouth, his fingertips by my ears. His hands are cold, so cold that they scald and blister my skin. I want to scream, but I can’t. His hands press and hold my jaw shut. I’m sure that I’ll pass out from the pain, but instead he releases me. I fall prone before him. My lungs rasp hungrily at air so cold that it makes my chest ache.
When I exhale, I can’t see my breath. I wonder, then, if I am still alive.
“Of course you are,” the boy says, and he kicks me in the balls. The room becomes a scrambled blur again, and static fills my head, but I can still hear it when he says, “I am the Life.” He kicks me again, and the pain of the blow mushrooms through me, strangely warm and comforting in the midst of the bone-dredging cold. I curl into a ball and close my eyes and blows crash down on me. They come in a freezing torrent, like falling blocks of ice, for what seems like forever. I know I am going to die. That doesn’t particularly frighten me. But this does: perhaps this doesn’t stop when I get to the other side.
Then it does stop. My eyes try to open, but the lids are frozen shut. Hands press and uncurl me and I am flat like a sheet of ice, one layer among many. I am open: I feel vulnerable, terrified, but I am too stunned and weak to resist. Hands—warm hands—press my face, and a wash of warm air unglues my eyes. But I do not want to see, and I don’t open then until fingers gently brush and press them open.
The boy is gone, and a man is kneeling on the concrete next to me. He leans forward, his face inches from mine, and when he exhales, burst of warm air once again bathes my face.
“Your fear,” he tells me as he inhales, “is delicious.” I recognize his deep voice, though it seems less unnatural coming from a grown man.
I’m not sure what the fuck is going on here. Serge. Some kind of sick joke he’s planned. Everything that has happened is falling from me now, fading like the remnants of a bad acid trip. I can feel warmth and movement returning to my limbs. I need to get the hell out. I try to sit up, but the man holds me to the concrete with the delicate press of one impossibly strong hand on my chest.
“You need to—” I say.
“You understand the beauty of fear, Blake.” he interrupts. “You understand its allure. Its power.”
He smiles then, and I recognize him. I was wrong. The boy isn’t gone. He’s grown.
I try to move, but although I control my arms and legs, his hand fixes me in place. I’m pinned like a bug. I try to push him away, but I might as well shove a statue.
“But this, this is wrong,” he continues. “It’s small. You’re rich and powerful. You need to look up, Blake. Feel the vastness of fear around you. The world is a rancid vat of panic and terror waiting to be stirred. Stirred as only a master can. A God.”
He’s leaning over me again. His eyes glisten with enthusiasm. I’m still. I’m listening.
“The old fears have faded. People talk about tilt and axis and rotation. Science has spoiled the old game. But that’s why I’ve come back. There are new paths to forge. New terrors to bring them crawling before me on their knees. Before us, Blake. Because you and I will be one. Do you understand? Are you ready?”
I haven’t finished nodding before my mind begins to twist and bend before the presence that fills it. At first it is brutal, so vast and deep and cold and ancient that at seems inconceivably raw and deadly. It smothers me, and for a while I know nothing. Then, slowly, I return. It’s like emerging from a long, dark corridor into a place I’ve always lived but has been entirely redecorated. My thoughts and memories are there, familiar and orderly, but they are different. Each has new facets, new dimensions to them. I understand my path through life differently, more fully. Perhaps, I think, all of this has always been there, but I have not noticed. This idea seems both impossible and essential.
A new voice in my head says, in time, we will grow and learn together. There are so many things I will teach you, my son.
I open my eyes. I am alone in the room. I am covered in blood. The room reeks of bowel, and the remnants of a body are smeared across the table and the floor. I look, but I can’t tell if the remains belong to the boy, the man, or, perhaps, me. I suspect it is all three of us jumbled together. It doesn’t matter. Whoever Serge has arranged to do the morning cleanup will neither know nor care.
I wander through the warehouse, strip out of my biohazard gear and back into my overcoat. My watch says it is almost eight a.m. I make my way to the door and watch for Garrett’s return. When the limo pulls up, I climb in back and we roll into the city in the morning light. The streets are still and empty. Everyone is at home opening presents.
I smile. Perhaps it is time I gave serious thought to starting a family. Solitude can wear on a man.
No family now, the voice in my head suggests. But solitude is a bitch. Perhaps some good friends instead. A dozen or so would be about right.
Bill Hughes is the author of numerous short stories and is the former editor of the Dread Imaginings website.
∼ Read February’s story, “No Lovie” by Koji A. Dae ∼