13 Skulls: Virginia Horror Story


Heir to family fortune must solve the riddle of his father’s sinister tombstone to claim his inheritance in this Virginia horror story from K.E. Moore.

(Warning: Adult Language)

Bent Hill stumbled out the front door of the Jackspot into the cool night air. On the other side of the door behind him, he could still hear the din of the bar as it drank its way through the sharp cymbals and strained vocals of the live band performing its last set.

It was nine, and Chincoteague would be going to sleep soon; it was rare to find anything lively after eleven on the island. Normally, Bent would have stuck around to help shut the, for lack of a better word, club down. But tonight was special.

He slouched his way to the charcoal gray Jaguar in the seashell crusted parking lot, his uneven footsteps crunching a drunken jazz beat against the fading sounds of the revelers in his wake. Bent had known going into the Jackspot was a risk, and he only intended to have a few drinks disguised as regular soda to take the edge off. But after the day he had, it turned out the aforementioned edge was not so easily appeased.

He would be fine, he decided. This was Chincoteague, and he was a Hill. The worst that could happen would be him wrapping the Jag around a tree, and even then the townsfolk would likely sweep it under a rug.

Hell, these people might even pitch in and buy him a new Jag.

Bent smirked at the thought as he jangled his keys free from his once-pressed slacks. He hated Chincoteague with a fiery passion, but because his name was Hill, he was revered like a God. Fucking waterlogged hicks, he thought.

He unlocked the car, but only after adding a few more scratches around the already crosshatched paint. The opulent gray leather welcomed him, accepting his considerable girth as he slid into the car, the bucket seat almost enveloping him in a cool, soft embrace. When the engine turned over, it purred—fucking purred—because that, Bent knew, was what Jaguars were supposed to do.

On the seat beside him lay an anonymous brown paper bag, the sight of which made Bent smirk once more. Oh yes. Tonight was a long time coming. A real long time, and there was nothing anybody could do about it now.

At Bent’s command, the twin headlights came to life, casting their yellow pools of light onto the parking lot’s bleached shells. Seashells everywhere, on walking paths, front yards, parking lots—so many seashells if you didn’t watch yourself you’d end up with some jammed in your ass crack—and that was only one small reason why Bent hated this damned island.

The Jaguar whispered onto Main Street while the headlights cast their gaze on some of the other reasons Bent hated the island.

Chincoteague Island Sign 2

Main Street was a postcard. Up and down the street were quaint old stores owned and operated by island families. There was the fairgrounds, home of the annual firefighter carnival, the antique mall operated by a single old lady that would dash from one store to the next whenever someone was ready to check out. But the worst offenders in Bent’s mind were the bed and breakfasts. The whole damn street was lined with them, all looking like they were made from gingerbread and boredom.

This wasn’t life, Bent thought. This was a piss bucket—an old folk’s wet dream about what life was like back in the days when church bake sales were the hottest event on the books and kids stared slack-jawed at ten inch black and white televisions in display windows.

Bent wanted life as it was now. He would see tourists from New York and Pennsylvania, adorned in Abercrombie & Fitch and driving their Mercedes coups. How he wanted their life, night clubs that stayed open until sunrise, bespoke clothing, designer drugs, and women as exquisite and delicious as wine.

And yet, despite being the heir to a pile of money that would make Scrooge McDuck blush, Bent grew up here, in this sea-locked, aw shucks, prison.

The Jaguar turned onto the accurately named Church Street. Half a dozen churches lined the picturesque lane; why a town so small needed so many churches eluded Bent. But first, there was the funeral home.

Without meaning to, Bent slowed as he drove by the funeral home. It was a simple, squat, red brick building with an elegant green archway over the door of finely etched glass. The Jag nearly crawled to a stop as he remembered the first time he stepped foot in the place.

Now, at night, he could barely see through the glass, making out only sparse shards of light that cut sharp and thin into the amorphous shadows. For reasons his drink addled mind couldn’t comprehend, he felt his skin prickle as his eyes searched the nameless shapes beyond the funeral home door, as though some part of him, primal and scared, expected something to move, some dark nameless shadow to shift and drag itself closer to him, saliva dripping from its decayed mouth. His heart thudded, and the fog dissipated from his mind as he waited for it, waited to see a face twisted and decayed look back out at him.

It didn’t. Of course it didn’t.

Bent had been on the other side of that door recently. The whole funeral home was designed to offer comfort and solace. He remembered the cool air, almost enough to make one wish for a jacket even in the heat of summer, and he remembered the rich cream-colored walls and dark stained oak—plush red velvet chairs that wrapped him up like a consoling hug.

He remembered the funeral director, and the Jaguar pushed on.

Soon, Bent had put the churches behind him. He was now encroaching on the real side of Chincoteague, the part of the island not meant for the tourists. The picturesque houses had dissolved, replaced by cul-de-sacs guarded by signs warning that trespassers were not allowed. Mobile homes barely bigger than campers were propped precariously atop stacks of cinder blocks and cookie-cutter houses huddled close together, sharing the spare street lamps that existed in too few a number.

And still the Jag pressed on into the night. Into the darkness.

This was dark Chincoteague. The shadowy Chincoteague. As Bent coaxed the car through the unlit streets, he could easily believe that there was a reason why the island went to bed so early. Because here, where street lamps dared not to dwell, there was only the tall untamed grass, a bitter wind that knew nothing of civilization, and the dark—the kind of dark wherein predators slinked, hiding, waiting for their prey to stumble in cold and afraid and confused. Here, where the shadows had shadows, and things waited patiently with yellow, sharp, jagged teeth.

Cemeteries on Chincoteague are an odd entity. Most are small, maintained by family and friends. There is even a cemetery with exactly one occupant. The Chandler cemetery, at the north end of Main Street, is the final resting place of Captain Joshua Chandler, something of a local hero and rumored friend (or, as the more scandalous rumors told, lover) of the famed German composer, Richard Wagner.

But Bent’s Jag carried him to one of the most crowded cemeteries on the island.

It wasn’t until the last street lamp, faint bluish-white in the rear-view mirror, had come and gone did the twin headlights of the Jag pour over the painted green railing that contained the Bunting Cemetery.

A crooked garden of tombstones leaped and danced as the yellowed light of the car slipped over the markers. Shadows darted behind one tombstone before dashing to the next as Bent slowed the car to a halt. Somewhere under the haze of alcohol, and the cynicism of being in the mid-twenties, there was ten-year-old Bent, gaping at the dancing tombstones, knowing that under the tilled earth, corpses slept, but slept uneasily, tossing and turning from wicked dreams. Deep down inside, Bent knew that at any second, any of those corpses could rise from its rotted coffin and tear through the soft earth, the flesh eaten away by worms, leaving behind only a mask of rotted bone and yellow-gray teeth.

Bent eased the Jaguar to a halt as he shook his head. He was not some silly ten-year-old out on a dare. Corpses didn’t rise from the grave.

He looked up, his eyes following the headlights of the car, past the green fence, and through the headstones. They looked to him like rotten teeth. And there, at the very back, he found his final destination.

The tombstone in question stood out, to say the least. He stared at it, and it stared back at him. Those eyes, he thought, all of those ugly, hollow eyes. Fear covered Bent like a blanket, cold, prickly, and paralyzing, before he scolded himself silently in the plush cabin of the Jaguar.

Grown men did not piss themselves with fear at the sight of a cemetery. It just wasn’t done.

Bent studied the tombstone from the safety of the car, and recalled the moment he first laid eyes on it.


“It’s quite a remarkable piece, Mr. Hill,” the funeral director said in a silken, practiced voice that hovered somewhere just above a whisper.

Bent nodded. Compared to the blistering July sun, the air-conditioned sitting room in the funeral home was cool and soothing. And yet, something about the chunk of rock on display gave Bent chills of an entirely different sort.

Finally, he spoke. “It’s exactly as dad wanted,” he said, doing his best to sound like the loving, grieving son.

“Well, your father…” the director began. To Bent, the funeral director looked… well… like a funeral director ought to look. He was short and bald, thin and small. His eyes were kind, but it was a sort of manufactured kindness, almost as if he spent an hour every day in front of a mirror practicing. “…your whole family means so much to the island.”

Bent started to roll his eyes, blinking instead just in time. He raised a finger to his right eye and made a show of wiping away an imagined tear. It was far too close of a call, especially now when he was so near to the end. Bent simply had to keep his shit together for a few more days and he could put the whole thing behind him: his sainted family history, his revered father, and this stupid hick-spunk island.

Selling the act of the grieving son, Bent sniffled and squinted at the tombstone. Just on the edge of his vision, he saw the director smile understandingly at him, making the youngest Hill left alive wonder who was really bullshitting who?

The tombstone was… it was hideous. Horrific. No sane person would request a tombstone like that, and even if they did, good luck finding someone to make it. But the Hills of Chincoteague were special. And, in the end, Bent wasn’t sure which was worse, the subject of the sculptures adorning the stone, or the epitaph etched in its face.

“I know the material I gave you to work with wasn’t… common,” Bent said finally.

The director breathed deep and offered the man a modest smile. “Well, Mr. Hill was an eccentric. I don’t think there’s a one of us on this island that would have expected something normal out of him.” The director rested his hand on Bent’s arm, just above the elbow, the pressure perfectly calculated to show affection and commiseration. “But of course, you knew him better than any of us.”

Bent nodded. That was a complete fiction of course. Bent knew Thomas Hill III about as well as he knew the insides of the panty drawer of Ms. Haley Cox—that is to say, not at all.

It was then, as Bent studied the hideous tombstone, that he realized something. What if this was all just a joke? One last punchline, a zinger aimed at the people he worshiped, and worshiped him back in return. Those sculptures, that epitaph—if anyone else had asked for that tombstone the general consensus would have been that such a thing was in poor taste. But not for a Hill. Ol’ dad asked for a grave marker that was borderline offensive, and these hicks practically applauded him for it.

That thought was immediately followed by another; what if the joke was on Bent? Make him jump through all of these hoops, explain all of these oddities, just to get access to the family fortune? That seemed right. That was more like the man he knew.


Bent squatted and ran his fingers over the chiseled stone. “Fine craftsmanship, though,” he remarked. There was something gaudy about this dance that reminded him of buying a used car (an act that someone of Bent’s station shouldn’t have been forced to experience, but good ol’ dad strikes again).

“Ah, yes,” the director said in a voice that managed to somehow get even smoother, oozing from his lips warm and sweet like chocolate syrup. “That was one of the reasons I wished to speak with you, Mr. Hill.”

Bent rose and looked at the director. “Oh?” he said as though he didn’t know what was coming.

“Yes,” the little man said. He looked away, his fingers worrying each other as the man exuded embarrassment through every pore in his skin. “You see, Mr. Hill. This sort of craftsmanship—we couldn’t get that kind of work here on the island. Oh, I assure you, for your father, for your family, if we had the capabilities, there wouldn’t have been a problem.”

“But…” Bent said, fulfilling his half of the tango.

“But we had to go off island. That was the only way to get the work done in time for the service.” The director bowed his head. “I assure you we have done everything we possibly could to keep costs down, but I’m afraid that the final cost is more than the initial estimates by a sizable sum.”

Bent just stood there, his face unreadable.

“I understand that remuneration at a time like this is a difficult subject. Believe me, Mr. Hill, your name goes a long way here, and we will work with you in the days ahead, if need be.”

“How much are we talking?” Bent asked.

The director looked away, “two thousand, Mr. Hill. I do wish I could have done more, please understand.”

Bent had decided that either this troll of a man was in the wrong business, or Bent himself was. This was a scam, he knew he was being scammed, and he was almost positive the funeral director knew he knew. What was more, he was being scammed over his recently deceased father—a fact that might have had more impact if he cared for the old bastard. This tiny man was fleecing Bent, and the whole time he was consoling him about it. Bent was a little jealous.

He gave the funeral director a warm little smile, a smile he himself practiced in the mirror. Bent worked hard at that smile that said, “Yes, these are difficult times, but I’m soldiering on so please don’t worry about me, really, life goes on.” It was time to take it out for a spin.

“I’ll cut the check right now,” he said.

The director bowed and humbly said, “Truly, your father is so lucky to have such a dutiful son.”

Yeah right,, Bent thought. What he actually said, though, was, “When it comes to dad’s funeral, the checking account is bottomless.” What he omitted was that dad’s funeral was the only thing for which the checking account was bottomless.

For now, anyway.


Bent’s Italian shoes crunched against the seashells that coated the ground like brittle snow. His father hated Bent’s love of the finer things, and outright refused them throughout childhood, but when Bent turned eighteen, he regularly spent his monthly stipend on luxury and smiled at the old bastard as he walked by.

What’s the point of having money if you don’t spend it?

The brown paper bag on the passenger seat had a delicious weight to it when Bent picked it up, and as he slid out of the Jaguar, the contents of the bag glugged slowly.

Standing up was a little easier than it had been since he had left the Jackspot, and Bent could feel the buzz quietly drain from his brain. That was fine, it would be making another appearance in the very near future. Now, nearly sober, Bent was able to better appreciate the sound of the door silently swinging shut, and that special ker-chunk that you only ever seemed to get from the higher end luxury cars.

Darkness enveloped him. That was another reason he hated the island as much as he did, a reason he wasn’t keen to share. The further in one got into the island, the darker it got at night until it felt like being smothered in blackness, the few tiny shards of light scattered and feeble.

A chill wind wrapped itself around him and Bent’s arms prickled with gooseflesh beneath his silk shirt. He shivered as he let his eyes grow accustomed to that special Chincoteague brand of darkness picking out the porch-lights and distant street lamps that glowed like morbid fireflies on the periphery of the cemetery.

At first he could only make out shapes, curved patches in the night that weren’t quite as black as the rest. They looked like gray, teeth, all of those tombstones, each one etched with decay, staring at him, cold monoliths of stone molded into an army of the dead.

Finally his eyes fell back upon the one he was looking for. Its gruesome shape beckoned him, and he mindlessly pushed past the creaky green gate and threaded his way through the other grave-markers until he was standing before it. His father’s final resting place.

Bent took a step back and studied the grave-site. All of those eyes, black in the scarce light, stared at him, and those words, so familiar and yet twisted, wound their way through his mind. The macabre stone was offset by a fountain of flowers and American flags that rested at its feet that somehow made the whole setting seem more eerie not less.

To the rest of the inhabitants of the island, Bent knew, this whole thing was probably just one last joke, a dark punchline from a man who, despite his apparent greatness, had a strange sense of humor. But Bent knew better. This was only a small piece.

Bent braced himself against another tombstone and slid down its back face until he was sitting on the ground and resting against it. A small part at the back of his mind noted that he had probably just ruined a thousand dollar pair of pants, while another part of his mind noted that tomorrow morning, he could buy a new pair. Hell, once the sun came up, he could fill his entire closet with bespoke tailored suits if he liked.

He reached into the bag and let his fingers curl around the smooth glass neck of a bottle. The paper bag fell away like dead foliage as he cradled the bottle of Macallan in his lap and grinned. This, he knew, was just a taste of the life that waited for him.

Just as Bent was about to work off the cap, he paused and looked at the offensive tombstone before him. Mock mortification filled Bent’s features as he looked at his father’s name etched in stone. “That’s right. You don’t approve do you?” The melodramatic expression on his face drained, replaced with spiteful glee as he added, “Yeah, well I’d like to see you do something about it now old man.”

He opened the bottle and took a long, slow sip from it, letting the fire like gold slip over his tongue and down his throat. “To you, dad. It was a hell of a ceremony.”


If nothing else, it was a hell of a day for a funeral. Clouds stretched across the sky in lazy grays and whites, while a sharp breeze wound its way through black pant legs and rustling leaves.

A large number of mourners showed up, Timothy Hill III being a local celebrity and all. Bent recognized more than a few of them, though, to be fair, most of them looked the same to him. Most of them looked out-of-place in their cheap black suits, each pairing of coat and slacks struggling to contain the knotted muscles and leathery skin of fishermen and boat guides. Men squinted beneath their unruly mops of wiry gray hair, and women with skin like the melted wax of a dying candle sniffed and shuffled in old-fashioned dresses.

Bent wore the same suit he would later ruin by sitting in the damp grass of the cemetery as he sipped expensive scotch. That, and the sunglasses—don’t forget the sunglasses.

He could never manage to squeeze out a tear for the old man, but he could wear sunglasses and pretend to wipe away an imaginary tear for the sake of the townsfolk. He only had one more day to go, so he might as well sell it.

“I am the resurrection and the life, sayeth the Lord…”

The funeral was, as it turned out, harder to endure than Bent anticipated. Not because he had all of a sudden found a nugget of emotion for the bastard. Oh no. The difficulty came from trying not to laugh at the reactions from the other attendees.

Many gasped when they first caught sight of the tombstone as hushed whispers skittered throughout the crowd like spiders. Others stared quizzically back and forth between the strange epitaph and the front page of the embossed programs clenched in their liver-spotted hands, at the bottom of which was inscribed, “Per the wishes of the deceased, we thank all attendees to not read the epitaph out loud.”

Bent had to stifle a smile as he heard things like, “scandal,” and “what is that even supposed to mean?” whispered behind cupped hands. If only they knew the whole story.

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord…”

Bent spent much of the funeral wondering what the people would say if they knew everything else he had to do to protect his inheritance. He wanted to fight it, to be sure. He had even hired an outside lawyer to see if all of the provisions in his father’s will were legal.

To his dismay, they were.

In retrospect, Bent was glad at least for the tombstone. It made for some entertainment on what would have otherwise been a boring, annoying day.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

Pastor Simmons presided over the funeral with the same voice he used to put people to sleep every Sunday. Bent hadn’t attended one of his sermons since childhood, but he could never forget those early mornings, his ass aching from the hard wooden pews, and the sonorous drone coaxing his eyes to droop shut.

There was even a moment when he thought the ancient cleric might put him to sleep again all these years later. But Bent persevered.

Once he had tuned the pastor out, in fact, he was able to let his mind drift to other more important things. For a while he entertained himself with what he was going to do with all of his money, but that couldn’t cover up a darker thought that had been nagging at him all day long.

The list.

“He restoreth my soul…”

That was the real last punchline. The tombstone was part of it, to be sure, but only a part. There was the vial of blood that had to be hung from his father’s neck, and a sprig of rosemary for his left hand. He was not to be embalmed, per his will, nor were any organs to be removed under any circumstances.

This list of burial requests was so strange that Bent had taken to carrying the will around with him as he made arrangements. There was the folded linen napkin, and the ivory bracelet, and of course the tombstone.

Compared to all of that, the pack of cigarettes and matchbook placed in his breast pocket were downright quaint.

“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life…”

Bent delivered the eulogy. He had only written a paragraph and a half at which point he had planned to fake being far too overwhelmed by emotion to carry on. He was proud of his performance, going so far as to think maybe he had a shot at Hollywood.

And why not? He was still young and good-looking. He could easily sell off the family estate and move out to somewhere in Beverly Hills. His name might not mean a thing in California, but money talks everywhere, and he bet it wouldn’t be a thing to get in the right parties.

The possibilities opened themselves up to him, as long as he could make it through this last day.

Meanwhile Simmons had navigated the funeral like an expert, taking the host of mourners from one prayer to the next.

“To ashes from…” Simmons had said, his eyes affixed to the tombstone, before everything fell silent. The crowd in attendance sucked in a collective breath while every muscle in Bent’s body tensed. Don’t you dare ruin this for me old man, he thought. All of the work Bent went through, all of the acting, all of the waiting, all of it would be for nothing because some doddering old minister couldn’t follow simple instructions.

Bent’s eyes flickered over to Mr. Prescott, his dad’s lawyer, and he saw an entirely different future. In this future, the Hill estate would be donated, cut up and shared amongst the volunteer fire department and some charity for ponies. In this future, Bent wasn’t partying with Hollywood socialites, or cruising around in luxury cars.

In this future, Bent loses everything.

“Excuse me,” Simmons coughed. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”


“The old bastard almost had me, didn’t he, dad?” Bent chuckled before taking another swig of scotch. “And I bet you were rooting for him, weren’t you?”

Bent shook his head. The tombstone stared back at him silently.

“You’re an asshole,” Bent said with a sense of finality. “Sometimes I think you liked it. Like how they worshiped you. That’s why you never left the island. Out there, you would’ve been just another businessman, some nameless old fuck in a suit with more money than he knows what to do with. But here, you were a god.”

He pointed at the tombstone. “I mean look at that!” he said in a voice somewhere between a whine and a guffaw. “Thirteen skulls on a tombstone and no one says a word.”

Bent took another drink and stared at the tombstone again. There, all around the edge of the tombstone, were thirteen skulls carved from stone. Each one was positioned as though it were taking a bite out of the marker, making it look less like a tombstone and more like some ancient shrine to a dark and terrible god.


The thirteenth skull at the very top of the tombstone, larger than the rest, glowered at Bent with its wicked black empty eye sockets.

“And what the hell are those words even supposed to mean? ‘To ashes from ashes, To dust from dust?’” Bent could feel the buzz from the scotch spread through his brain as he shook his head more violently, giving the tombstone the kind of smile a parent may give to a bemused child.

“You know what, dad? The money? It’s almost not enough to make up having you for a father.” More molten gold slid down Bent’s tongue before he climbed back up to his feet and pointed at the grave with a wavering finger.

“But I did it. I did everything you asked, didn’t I? You can’t say I didn’t, because… well… ha-ha, you can’t say anything because you’re dead. But still, even if you weren’t dead, which you are, you still couldn’t say I failed you this time because I followed the instructions to a… to a T!”

Bent braced himself on an anonymous tombstone. This, he decided, was some really good booze. He would have to make sure to stock his bar with lots of it when he got to Hollywood.

“Oh, but there was one more rule, wasn’t there, dad?” Bent said. “No alcohol. Isn’t that right? ‘Cause my dad, the great Timothy Hill III is far too great a man to be brought down by the booze, isn’t he?”

By now, Bent was swaying gently from side to side. Yet, no matter how much he moved, those skulls always seemed to stare at him, like those trick paintings where the eyes follow you down the hall. Somewhere under the haze of alcohol, Bent could feel something dark and dangerous in the hollow voids that glared at him. But the scotch was running the show now.

“Oh well,” he said. “Looks like I screwed another one up, eh dad? Like you always say, I’m not perfect… just one big, spoiled disappointment. Right?”

One foot lurched in front of the other, carrying Bent closer to the tombstone, to those slightly twisted words, to the skulls. He rested a hand on the center skull and patted it with false affection. “But it’s okay, dad. ‘Cause you’re dead, and tomorrow. Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of my life.”

Bent laughed wildly at this, the bottle in his hand glugged with the effort, sounding like a deep, dark guffaw. “That’s right, father dearest. You’re dead, and I’m off to go put your money to some good use. But hey, I can be a good sport. Just like you always taught me right? Hell I’ll even share. Drink up, dad!”

Bracing himself on one of the smaller skulls with one hand, Bent took the bottle of scotch and upended it onto the center skull. One of the closer street lamps caught the flow of the liquid as it splattered off of the stone skull, sending out shards of reddish light that died in the darkness.

Bent laughed. He laughed as the booze drenched the skulls and fell over the face of the tombstone in a dark curtain. He laughed as thick tendrils of scotch, black in the shadow of the marker, stretched and reached for the freshly lain sod and the grave dirt underneath. He laughed even after the bottle was emptied, leaving only the bottle wavering in his hand.

“Drink up, dad,” Bent snorted. “Drink up and rot in Hell.”

Laughter died. All of a sudden, the whole scene didn’t seem all that funny to him anymore, instead feeling as empty as the bottle that dangled from his hand. Bent sniffed, and turned to walk away.

He only made it past the second row of graves before a strange sound stopped Bent fast. It was a soft sound, so soft he wasn’t even sure he heard it correctly. It could have been the sound of his foot against the soft loam of the graveyard, or the beating of a heart.

With his eyes closed, Bent focused his scotch addled mind on the sounds that surrounded him, carried by the night breeze.


He started walking back to the car once more when he heard that sound again, this time louder and sharper. Bent’s eyes scanned all around, looking for someone in the glow of a porch-light out for a smoke, or the yellow-green glow of the eyes of some small animal out foraging for food.

But the noise came again, a hard thump. The buzz quickly evaporated as Bent tried to home in on the source. Alarm bells were going off in his head like Klaxons even as his rational self refused to accept from where the thumps were coming.

They came louder now, faster, more insistent, and Bent’s feet drew him toward them, back through the garden of tooth-like grave-markers, back to the thirteen skulls biting into stone. And then there was a crack.

Bent flinched and felt his knees go wobbly as more sounds, different sounds emanated not from the tombstone, but from the ground beneath.

By the time Bent saw the ground actually move before him, he was dead sober, and quickly losing his sanity. There was just enough of his rational self left when the hands burst through the sod, pulling it apart with a terrible ripping noise, to know what he was seeing.

A shadow pulled itself out of the earth, clutching the grass with its black claw like hands until it spilled out in its entirety, sprawling onto the ground just a few feet from Bent.

His knees gave out and Bent fell on his ass. He tried to scream, but what came out of his mouth was more like a strained squeak, his hands scrabbling against the cemetery grass, his legs kicking futilely as though trying to run before he was even upright.

But when the thing that had oozed from the earth pulled itself to its feet, all of Bent’s will to move, to scream, to run, died. It wasn’t a shadow; it was his father.

Clumps of soil clung to the man’s scalp, and the faint glow of the distant lights gave him a ghastly, pale hue, but it was definitely Timothy Hill III. “Well, son, I gotta hand it to you. When I needed you most, you finally came through.”

“Wha…Wh…” Bent stammered, causing the older man to cackle a hoarse, gravelly laugh.

“Relax, Bent. I’m not,” and here the old man chuckled again, “some sort of movie zombie. Lord, no. Though I must say, zombies are grossly misunderstood. The mindless slouching about? That’s all Hollywood hooey. Now, the brain eating, we’ll have to come back to that one later. But it don’t matter. I’m not a zombie, son. I’m resurrected.”

Bent blinked dumbly.

“And I got you to thank for it.” The reborn corpse smiled at his son, his teeth brown and gray, rounded and crooked like the tombstones that surrounded the pair. “You didn’t know, of course. But then with your lazy ass, I didn’t expect you to care much beyond doin’ whatever you had to do to get my money!”

The man crouched down right in front of Bent with that graveyard grin still on his face. This close, Bent could see his eyes, bleached with the haze of cataracts, but still staring at him as though they weren’t there. What was worse, he could smell the thing, the sour-sweet, putrid stench of death pouring off of him. It made Bent want to vomit.

“Had to use a little reverse psychology on a couple of things though, didn’t I? The vial of blood, the napkin, the ivory, I knew you would do. The tombstone, Hell, Prescott would have that money out from under you so fast you’d bust your ass on the ground if the tombstone wasn’t right. But the phrase, that was tricky. Couldn’t have anyone saying it too soon, but I knew if I forbade you, you’d wait until no one was around.” The corpse clapped its hands right in front of Bent’s face and laughed.

Bent felt something hot and wet spread out over his legs and realized with hardly a glimmer of embarrassment that it was his own urine.

Timothy looked down at the steam rising up from the piss in the night and chuckled. “Look at the little piss boy,” he sang.

The old man leaped back onto his feet and stepped away. “Bent, Bent, Bent. I knew I could count on you. I knew I could count on you to be a greedy little shit. Just like I knew I could count on you to disobey me when you could, to come out here and say my words when no one was listening, and drink your booze when no one was watching. And here we are. I was worried for a little bit, but after all this time, you came through.”

The old man fished for something in his breast pocket, and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “These weren’t part of the ritual, just figured I could use a smoke after a few days on my back. Not like they’re gonna kill me now, right?” he chortled before putting a cigarette between his lips and lighting it. The flame illuminated his face a glowing red, each line and wrinkle etched in flickering darkness. That face was a nightmare mask, grinning, and breathing smoke.

“The ritual,” the old man nodded as blue smoke faded into the night. “We’re a little too far north for voodoo to be easily accessible, but after a while I managed to throw a few things together. What you did after my untimely demise was a kind of patchwork—a little voodoo here, some witchcraft there.”

“See, I knew I couldn’t leave the family legacy up to you. Probably fuck your brains out and overdose in some whore’s arms before the year was out. So I had to come up with another option, don’t you see? And here we are.”

Bent nodded as though he was listening and agreeing to everything his father was saying. Meanwhile, his fingers had found the smooth, cool weight of the bottle, and he was trying the best he could to wrap his fingers around the neck without his dad realizing it.

“Stupid and greedy, that’s my son. You weren’t worth a shit when I was alive, but I realized you could finally do something good once I had passed on,” the corpse nodded. “Oh, what do you have here?”

The man stalked towards Bent, his foggy eyes affixed to Bent’s hand. “I told you, boy, the bottle will do you no good, but did you ever listen?”

One big shoe lifted itself up and stepped down on the hand holding the bottle. Bent looked up at his father’s face, milky green eyes and tombstones curled into a crescent moon smile. He felt the shoe press harder, just as he felt the glass shatter from the force, the shards tearing through his flesh and slicing their way deeper into his fist. That smile continued to grin at him as Bent felt his fingers snap like twigs.

This time Bent screamed. Even when his father raised his foot again, Bent could do little more than hold his mangled hand and whimper.

“Still a little crying piss-boy, ain’t ya?” the old man said before flicking the cigarette off into the night. “Lord knows I tried. But maybe this is for the best.”

The corpse crouched down again, this time his face only inches from Bent’s. Bent could feel his father’s breath, hot and toxic as it smothered him.

“You see, Bent, originally I was going to give you a pass. Maybe even give you one last chance to redeem yourself, one last chance at becoming a true Hill like this island deserves. But you know, it’s the damnedest thing. Being dead makes you very, very hungry.”


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The Boo Hag Woman: Song Inspired by Georgia Witch Story The Boo Hag


Song based on Georgia witch story “The Boo Hag” about a man who suspects his beautiful new bride might be a witch. Song written and performed by Frank Whitaker. Original story written by Veronica Byrd with Craig Dominey.

Way out past the salt marsh, by a creek that leads to sea;
There is a spooky four-room shack beneath a twisted live oak tree.
A strange young lady lived there with a man she’d met in town.
Her perfect skin, it lured him in, but after ‘while he found;
That she was creepin’ out at night;
And she was slippin’ out of sight;
And she hardly ever acted right at all.


He thought she might be cheatin’ on him, but his friend said, “Son;
You done married yo’self a Boo Hag, and she’s slippin’ out for fun.”
“Boo Hags shed their skins at night, like evil spirit crones.
They suck the air from young men’s lungs;
And try to crush their bones.
She may look good by the light of day;
But at night, she’ll never stay;
And if a man can’t slip away, she’ll ride his back until he falls;”
And I said . . .

Boo Hag Woman, get on back – I don’t believe the things you say!
You can’t spook me with your sweet-talk, Girl —
I’ve got to live to see another day.
It is a sin to shed your skin.
You gon’ get got, I guarantee –
Boo Hag Woman, get on back from me.


Now, to get rid of a Boo Hag, there is just one thing to do –
If she can’t get back in her skin, then her Boo Hag days are through.
So late one night, when she went away, he searched around the shack.
Her slimy skin was hangin’ in a closet in the back.
He took the salt and the pepper down;
And he shook it all around;
Inside that skin that he had found, ’till he was done.

She came back ‘fore the morning, when the sun was ’bout to crest; And she said, “I am a Boo Hag, and Lord knows, I needs my rest.”
But when she slipped back in her skin, and gathered it around;
That skin, it started smokin’, and it made a bubblin’ sound.
And then that lyin’ witch;
She started jumpin’ from the itch.
He saw her body start to twitch and melt there, in the risin’ sun;
And I said . . .


He boiled her Boo Hag body in a barrel full of tar;
And poured himself a brand new roof, that hasn’t leaked so far.
And now, he lives there all alone, beside that crooked stream.
That Boo Hag taught a lesson, ’cause she was not what she seemed.
If there’s a pretty girl you know;
Then you’d better take it slow;
‘Cause there’s no tellin’ where she’ll go;
When she slips-out at night;
And I said . . .


. . . I don’t want no old Boo Hag attack, I said;
Boo Hag Woman, get on back from me.


Are You Roger? Georgia Halloween Horror Story


Georgia bullies terrorize the wrong trick-or-treater in this Halloween horror story from Harris Tobias.

I hear them upstairs. Bands of costumed kids coming to the door for handouts. “Trick or treat,” they yell in chorus and thrust out their bags for filling. Each kid dressed as something outlandish, something not real. In fact, the more unreal the better the people like it. I wonder what they’d think if they saw me. It makes me laugh to think how they’d react if they knew that I wasn’t wearing a costume. No, no costume, this is how I look. Like some special effects monster from a grade B movie. Halloween is the only night of the year I can go out in my Atlanta neighborhood and be with other kids without frightening them to death.

It’s getting dark. Soon mother will come down and unlock my cage and let me out. I can go outside and pretend I’m a normal kid instead of a horror movie freak. The joke in all this trick or treat nonsense is that I don’t even like candy. I still have the bag I collected last year. Oh well you can’t expect them to hand out raw steaks now can you?

Well, the candy is besides the point. It’s being outside with real kids for a few precious hours. It’s all I have to look forward to. They always want to know where I got my costume and ask me to take off my mask. They wonder if they know me. I tell them my mother made my costume which I guess is more or less the truth. They’ll say things like, “I remember you from last year.” or “Are you from around here? Are you Roger?” Sometimes I say no, sometimes yes. It all depends on how I feel.

I hear mother coming to unlock my cage. She keeps me locked up for my own protection. She says the state would take me away for medical testing if they knew about me. I wouldn’t want that to happen so I live in the basement. It’s not really so bad. I have a TV and books to read. Mom home-schools me. I have crayons and paints. I’m a good drawer. I’d like to be an artist.

Mother puts a cape around my shoulders. “To keep off the chill,” she says. The cape really completes my costume. I look like a werewolf trying to be a vampire. Well at least the fangs are real. I might look like a wolf but I’m a normal kid. At least that’s what Mom keeps telling me. I’m a normal kid that just happens to look like everyone’s idea of a Hollywood werewolf. It’s not my fault. I don’t thirst for blood or anything like that although lately the idea doesn’t seem quite as yucky as it used to.

Mother gives me a pat on the rear and sees me to the door. “Have fun,” she calls after me and then adds, “Be careful.” She worries about me. I join a bunch of goblins, ghosts and comic book superheroes and I’m off on my one night of freedom.

The other kids are curious about me. Some of them ask what school I go to or what grade I’m in. I don’t answer. After a while they leave me alone and we go from door to door. Things are fun until we run into some big kids who are working our street. The big kids aren’t even wearing costumes. They push us aside and take our candy. I hold on to mine. This annoys one of the bullies and he calls his friends over. “Mr. Dog Face here doesn’t want to share his loot,” he says to the others. Three big kids surround me and block my escape.

“I remember you from last year,” one of them says. “You wore that same stupid costume. What’s the matter, you can’t afford another costume?” Then they all start pushing me around. I drop my candy and run but they chase me into a vacant lot and one of them tackles me and knocks me to the ground. They’re all older and bigger than me. I’m scared but I’m angry too. I just want to be left alone. To be a normal kid for a couple of hours. But the bullies don’t let up.

“We want to see who you are,” one of them says. Two of them hold my arms while the biggest and fattest sits on my chest. He starts pulling at my face as if it was a mask. How I wish it was a mask but of course it isn’t. All he gets is a handful of fur for all his pulling. It hurts and I snap and growl. I bite his hand and he really gets mad. “Why you little freak! I’ll show you!” And he starts slapping me around and the two holding my arms join him in punching me. They hurt me. I taste blood but I don’t know whose. I’m thrashing and snapping with all my might but there are too many of them.


“Hold him down, boys. I think we caught us a real werewolf. Hold him while I look for something to kill it with. Any of you know how to kill a werewolf?”

They try to remember what they know about werewolves. Whether it’s wooden stakes or silver bullets. One of them is pretty sure it’s fire. By now I’m really frightened. I feel like crying but I don’t want to give them the satisfaction. I’m angry too. Angrier than I’ve ever been. What right do these kids have to torment me? I never did anything to them.

The ringleader is looking around for a weapon. The two holding me down are saying how they can’t let me grow up to kill innocent people. “You got to kill werewolves and vampires. It’s the law.”

The third bully comes back holding a big rock with both arms. I can see it’s heavy as he’s straining to lift it to his chest. I wish I was back in my cage. I want my mother to protect me. I look at the sky. The last thing I’ll ever see. The moon comes out from behind the clouds. It’s nearly full. It fills me with a funny feeling. I feel a surge of exaltation. I am suddenly very strong. I lift my voice in a glorious howl and the three bullies freeze, their bravado drains away. I have no trouble getting to my feet. Their weight is like so much paper to me now. Now it is their turn to be afraid. I look them in the eye and a deep growl rumbles in my throat. They turn to run but it is too late.

I don’t remember what happened next. I think I might have really hurt those kids. I don’t remember. When I got home, there was blood all over my face and hands. Mother washed off the blood. She kept asking me what happened but I didn’t know. She locked me in the basement. I can hear her crying upstairs. I’m afraid I did a bad thing to those kids. I’m afraid I might do it again. I’m afraid of what I might be. I can’t wait for next Halloween.


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The Warehouse: Florida Halloween Horror Story


Florida horror story of a wealthy Halloween decor supplier who may have unlocked a door to real evil. Written by Harris Tobias.

Oscar Muller was a wealthy man. He’d made his fortune several times over selling cheap plastic lawn ornaments and Halloween themed party crap to a seemingly insatiable American public. Plastic jack-o-lanterns, cackling witches, fake bats, and made-in-China demons, monsters and demiurges of every description filled the shelves of his Florida warehouse for one golden month a year.

He had the stuff made in factories all over the world. Wherever labor was cheap and worker safety wasn’t a concern. He shipped enormous quantities to the U.S. and stored the stuff in enormous warehouses all over the country. He worked out of an office near his Miami home, a rambling multi-storied manse with manicured grounds. He described himself as an importer which was accurate but missed the point that he set the style and substance of how Halloween was celebrated and displayed on the front lawns of America. It was his animatronic witch that cackled on a million porches because he caused them to be produced. It was his undead butlers that served freshly decapitated heads to the swarms of trick-or-treaters. He was the designer of the macabre and grisly artifacts of modern Halloween trends. It was a business, just profit and loss and nothing more. It didn’t bother Oscar that he was trafficking in some pretty spooky things. In fact, the spookier the better. Blood and gore sold. Scary was golden. The more depraved, the better. Every year he had to design and produce ever more frightening products. There seemed to be no end to America’s appetite for and fascination of violent death as decoration. Blood and gore were the keys to his success. He alone was responsible for turning the typical suburban front lawn into a diorama of screaming horror.

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When asked if he took any responsibility for making the macabre commonplace and inviting blood and gore into the home he would laugh and say, “I didn’t invent Halloween, Halloween invented me.” When asked if the millions of decapitations and scenes of slaughter might have a negative effect on the fragile psyches of the youth, he would snort and dismiss the remark saying, “For Pete’s sake, it isn’t real you know,” or “I’m only giving people what they want.”

To most Americans, the once-a-year aberration that is Halloween is simply passed off as an excuse for a party, a non-sectarian celebration of silly imagination. For retailers, though, it is big business. It’s the second biggest income producer on the retail calendar. If there were a way to make Halloween last for ten days like Christmas, the retailers would be all for it. Oscar Muller would certainly be all for it.

But there are those who think that Halloween opens the door to real evil. That evil is as real as Oscar’s plastic tombstones. As real as the spray can of instant cobweb you can use to disguise your vinyl sided, split level suburban home into a spooky looking haunted house. To those people there is no such thing as innocent evil. You open a door to the underworld and something is likely to walk through it. These people are paid little heed by the mainstream, Halloween-celebrating public and are generally considered spoil sports and party poopers. After all, where’s the harm in having a little fun with scary things? Where’s the evil in a plastic rat?

One August night Oscar Muller was awakened by his security service. Earlier they had detected a disturbance at his warehouse. The service responded and the officers found nothing out of the ordinary. Now, a few hours later they were getting the same signal again. “It’s probably another false alarm,” said the duty officer, “but we thought you might want to know. We’re sending a team out there again.” This was Oscar’s busiest time of year. The warehouse was filled to bursting with Halloween merchandise. He couldn’t afford to take any chances. He was wide awake now. The chances of getting back to sleep were nil, so he got dressed and drove the few miles to the warehouse. He had his office there and all his records. No sense taking any chances with his business.

When he arrived, the security team was just finishing up. “Everything’s fine, Mr. Muller,” said the head of the detail. “We gave the place a thorough going over. Everything’s in order. It’s probably a malfunction. I’ll put in a maintenance request when I get back to the office.” Then the security team left and Oscar sat in his car alone in the vast parking lot and looked at the huge, low metal building that held his fortune. He felt a wave of contentment wash over him. This would be his biggest Halloween season yet. He was an innovator. This year he introduced his expensive animatronic line of life-like creatures—the zombie butler and the screaming demon being just two big sellers.

He turned the key to start the car but the car was dead. No lights, no battery, nothing, just dead. Oscar cursed his luck. He got out and looked under the hood but the car’s engine looked as foreign to him as a roadmap of Croatia. Nothing for it but call for help. He patted his pockets for his cell phone but he’d left it at home. He had his keys. He would just go to his office and call AAA. He walked across the empty lot and realized how alone he was. There wasn’t another car in sight. He might as well have been on the moon. He quickened his step while searching through his keys for the one that would open the warehouse door. Something flew past his ear. In the light of a street lamp he saw it was a bat. Then he saw there were dozens of them flitting in and out of the shadows. Bats were one of his perennial best sellers.

He opened the warehouse door and slipped inside. He entered the security code to deactivate the alarm. He fumbled for the light switch but the lights didn’t come on. Moonlight pouring in from the upper windows provided enough light to see by. Oscar’s office was at the opposite end of the cavernous building. Long rows of shelving held countless boxes of his plastic crap. It never failed to fill him with pride to see it. In a few weeks it will all be shipped and the whole cycle will begin again. Walking through the darkened warehouse filled with ghoulish things might have given an ordinary person pause but not Oscar Muller. These were his ghoulish things. He owned every single one of them. Halloween was an opportunity to sell stuff, nothing more, nothing less.

Half way to his office he heard a slithering, chittering noise. Not the kind of man to scare easily, Oscar made a mental note to himself to contact an exterminator. Must be rats he thought to himself. A little further along he tripped on something. Bending down he saw it was a headman’s axe—item number AX-24453, $14.95 flashed through his mind unbidden— one of his many popular items. Must have fallen off the shelf, he thought. He bent to pick it up and was surprised at how heavy it was, it felt metallic, almost real. Something buzzed past his head. Had he let in a bat? Straightening up, the axe in his hand, he noticed three or four of his realistic looking gargoyles (item number Gar-1316, $19.95 each) standing on the floor in front of him. This was too much. First the axe and now the gargoyles. He’d have to have a serious talk with the warehouse manager about housekeeping. He reached down to pick up a gargoyle and return it to its shelf when it bit his arm. Made in the form of flying monkies, the gargoyles flew at him. One of them sank its fangs deep into his arm driving Oscar backwards. He screamed and shook the thing off but the others were on him, bearing their teeth and snarling. He swiped at them with the axe and succeeded in cutting one in half but the axe was an unwieldy weapon in the narrow aisle. He managed to knock down another, then a third but there were dozens more climbing out of their boxes. There was an army of them both ahead and behind. Oscar gripped the axe tighter and prepared for battle. Then all at once the gargoyles were gone, vanished, as if something had frightened them away. Feeling like a warrior, Oscar sighed with relief.

Heart pounding, already bleeding from a dozen wounds, Oscar tried to convince himself that none of this was actually happening. It was all a hallucination he thought, a nightmare, I’m at home in bed and soon I’ll wake up and go to work. His shirt was ripped where the gargoyles had bitten him. He was about to attend to his wounds when he heard the sound of leathery wings. Something large was flying close to the ceiling. He could just make it out in the moonlight, it was a screaming demon. One of his high-end, animatronic new additions (item number SD-2224, $239.95).

The demon screamed and swooped down on Oscar, claws outstretched. Oscar ducked but the hellish thing raked his back shredding his jacket and shirt and leaving six bloody grooves in his flesh. Oscar’s screams mixed with the demon’s as another dove from the ceiling. Oscar turned and ran. A demon landed on his back and began gnawing on his head, its talons dug deep into his shoulders. The pain was unbearable. He stumbled and fell. He flailed away at the thing on his back until he was exhausted and could not struggle anymore. The demon gave a scream of triumph and resumed feeding.

Lying face down on the warehouse floor, Oscar could feel his blood and strength pouring out of him. In a desperate attempt to rid himself of the demon’s teeth, Oscar crawled under the bottom-most shelf. The demon left him and Oscar thought he might have saved himself. He lay there breathing heavily in the dust. When he opened his eyes he was face to face with hundreds of the hairy black spiders that sold so well (item number SP-5698, $12.95 for 6). There were hundreds of them, large hairy spiders waiting for him. They swarmed all over his face and body. There was no room to fight them off and no strength left to do it. They crawled and bit and filled his dying body with their poison. Their snapping, venomous jaws were the last things he saw.

When they found him the next morning, there wasn’t a mark on him. There were no signs of foul play. The coroner suspected a heart attack or some other natural cause. Oscar’s heirs shared in his estate made even richer by his company’s biggest Halloween season ever.


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Play Monster: Virginia Horror Story


Virgina horror story of two young girls facing reality that the monster outside may, or may not, be their father. Written by Kyle Moore.

“Do you remember when we used to play monster?”

Elizabeth looked over at her sister. The words pierced the thick dusky air, cutting through the oppressive humidity and curling shadows. Outside the last rays of a bloated, blood-colored sun scraped along the dust coated windows and seeped through the walls, promising a few more moments of baking heat before nestling beneath the horizon.

Most of the girl’s brown hair was tied up in a pony tail. Those strands that managed to break free of the hair tie were pasted to her head by sweat. Elizabeth remembered there was a time when it was said that Southern women don’t sweat, they glisten. So much for that. Cassie’s once light tan top was streaked with deep, dark streaks of gray-brown, and her faded black jeans blossomed with faint tell-tale plumes of dried salt.

Cassie’s eyes looked straight ahead, ignoring Elizabeth as she pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on them. “Do you?” she prodded.

Elizabeth slid down beside her sister, paying little mind to a floor caked in dust and speckled in rat droppings. “Yeah,” she said. “I do.”

Cassie turned to look at her, her already light brown eyes catching the last slivers of a dying sun so they blazed a brilliant gold. She smiled, and Elizabeth knew it was not a happy one. “Me too,” she mumbled.

Elizabeth wondered just how far back Cassie remembered.

Elizabeth bowed her head, her eyes staring at her own scuffed and worn jeans without really seeing them. She was instead letting herself get lost in those early days when everything was so soft and pink and filled with warmth and love.

Their father had always been a goofy man with a pot belly and the complexion of someone who avoided the sun at all costs. He was the kind of man who wasn’t so much a man as a boy whose body kept growing long after the soul stamped its foot down and halted all progress on principle. This is perhaps why Elizabeth and her sister connected so easily with him. He could be stern at times—he would yell at them, and even spank on rare occasions. But more often than not all he seemed to really want to do was play with that same reckless abandon that was the proprietary domain of youth.

Elizabeth could even see him now, with half the blankets and sheets in the house draped over him, hanging down in swaying tatters as he lurched after them. He would growl dramatically and when he saw either of them, he would stomp and howl before charging, his heavy footfalls thudding throughout their house.

The memories of giggles filled Elizabeth’s ears as she remembered fleeing in mock terror from the blanket covered monster.

Cassie was always the smart one. She would try to make deals with the monster, giving up her sister’s hiding spot in lieu of becoming the monster’s sidekick. Their father would accept of course, and find Elizabeth who, back then, fell for Cassie’s gambit every single time.

He would tickle her until she couldn’t breathe, and, for fun, tickle her even more. Inevitably, when Elizabeth felt as though her lungs were on the verge of exploding, the monster would turn on Cassie, and surprise her by breaking their deal and tickling her until her sharp, high-pitched, screams filled the house and threatened to shatter the windows.

This would eventually lead to the two sisters teaming up and finding some way to beat the monster, usually by hitting it really hard with pillows.

“Remember the pillows?” Elizabeth finally said.

Her sister chuckled softly in reply. “He would get so… dramatic.”

This was true. He would scream and moan, those blankets whipping back and forth with each blow. After a few hits, one of the sisters would finally land the death-blow. Their father would howl in pain as he staggered, the blankets trembling with each over-acted movement until he collapsed on the floor.

“I remember the first time he did that, you thought you really killed him,” Elizabeth smirked.

“I did not!” Cassie spat back defensively.

Elizabeth shifted her gaze back towards her sister. She was so pretty, even with the filthy clothes and the moist sweat that cut through layers of grime. Cassie had her father’s eyes, warm and intelligent, but unlike their dad she was rail thin and olive-skinned. Elizabeth glanced at her own arms and recognized her father’s pale complexion.

“You even said it. ‘I killed him! I killed him!’ You ran through the house screaming that,” Elizabeth teased her.

Cassie scowled at her before looking away. Behind them, through the wall, there was a soft thud. Elizabeth stared intently at her sister, who made a point of not returning her gaze.

“I wasn’t talking about that anyway,” Cassie said. There was something shaky in her voice, and Elizabeth, feeling the tug of an older sister’s duties, felt the need to hug her. But no. Not now.

“Okay, so what did you mean?”

“I meant later.” Cassie looked back at Elizabeth. Elizabeth pretended not to notice the red rims around the younger girl’s eyes, or the glistening smears down her cheeks.

“You mean all those times at the park?”

Cassie nodded, and new, different memories engulfed Elizabeth. She smiled warmly. “He’s coming to get you Barbara,” she said in a low, sing-song voice.

Cassie snorted before responding in a high-pitched squeak, “Who’s Barbara?”

At this both sisters laughed. It was that special laugh, earnest and familiar, the stuff of shared inside jokes that have eased themselves into a warm, gold-tinted past. It was such an absurd memory, but one that, even now, had her in tears. And she was almost positive that these tears, at least, were tears of laughter.

Elizabeth never forgot that day. As with most, much of her childhood succumbed to the fog of an imperfect memory, but some memories, those formative moments, are crystallized, preserved in amber until deep into old age. This was one of those moments.

It happened in October. Thinking back, Elizabeth realized that was the year (she was, what? Ten? Yes, she was ten that year) when playing monster changed forever.

It was an abnormally hot autumn, even for southern Virginia which didn’t get good and cold until December. Their father, who normally preferred to spend the warmer months cowering inside with a well maintained air conditioner, had opted for a rare expedition to the great outdoors. In this case the great outdoors meant the playground half a block away from their house.

As Elizabeth sat on the dusty floor with her back against the wall, she could smell the smokey air of her childhood. North Carolina was on fire at the time, and a campfire aroma filled the atmosphere and turned the afternoon sun into an angry blood orange.

She remembered running around in the playground, her hands sticky from the popsicles their father gave the girls. She remembered Cassie, her normally chestnut hair ablaze in yellows and oranges in the strange smokey sunlight.

Elizabeth remembered her sister calling out, “Daddy! Let’s play monster!”

He had been sitting on the bench up until that point, an odd, soft smile on his lips as he watched the girls run around the brightly colored play-sets. At Cassie’s invitation, that smile widened, and he slowly pushed himself up to his feet.

Elizabeth had watched her father from the swings. When he stood the sun was behind him, turning him into a tall, black figure outlined in red-orange fire. He took one shambling step, and then another. The movement was out-of-place and jerky, somehow rendered in stop-motion animation. His form would lurch to life with a sudden jolt before hanging in time, slowed as though his muscles were confused, before crashing forward, each step looking as though it would end in disaster.

He had taken three or four steps before his voice came smooth and low, the words dancing in a haunting lilt. “He’s coming to get you Barbara.”

Elizabeth had stopped swinging. She was ten, a big girl by all accounts, and completely beyond being afraid of monsters. And yet, this transformation drilled deep into her center, curled up and turned into a tight little ball that felt like a scream trapped in her lungs. On that blank black canvas where her father’s face should have been, her mind etched the most horrific of details—jagged wounds weeping blood and gore, eyes covered in milky cataracts and swiveling insanely in their sockets, teeth crooked, yellowed, and pitted with time and decay.

She remembered wanting to scream, to run, and yet frozen, trapped in the hazy autumnal air like an insect that drank too long from the sap of a tree before becoming forever its prisoner. And then she heard it, a small voice, like a bell, the tone clear and yet confused.

“Who’s Barbara?” came Cassie’s eight-year-old voice.

The spell wasn’t broken so much as shattered. Their father’s lurching steps had stopped abruptly, and as he turned. Elizabeth could, again, make out his features, etched now in the sunlight. It was just their dad, chubby pink cheeks and a smile full of mischief that had been bended into a look of bemusement.

“’Night of the Living Dead?’” he asked hopefully as he looked first to Cassie and then to Elizabeth. He was met with young, innocent, but most importantly, blank faces. “No, I guess not,” he had concluded. “You’re mother would probably kill me, wouldn’t she?”

The memory faded away, and Elizabeth looked over to her sister. Her small and once delicate fingers grazed against black metal and ancient wood grain, her eyes staring at the object at her fingertips almost in a trance, but Elizabeth willed herself not to focus on it. Not to look upon it, even as the faint whispering sound of shuffling feet seeped through the locked door between them.

“The game changed after that, you know,” Cassie said without looking up. Her voice had a lazy, dream-like quality to it. It was the voice of a daydreamer stuck in class at two-thirty in the afternoon on a fine spring day.

“Yeah,” Elizabeth nodded. Her eyes drifted over to the dust coated window and the bloated red sun diving towards the horizon. “But that was just dad, you know? He was always into that kind of thing. I think… he felt it was kind of like his job. Get us into the scary stuff while we were young.”

“Guess so,” Cassie mumbled. Her fingertips kept skating over the cold black metal surface, back and forth. “He took the game serious enough didn’t he?”

“Yeah,” Elizabeth scoffed and nodded. She had become aware of a similar weight, pressed against her on the ground. Wood grain. Black metal. It spoke of a future that was coming too fast, and she violently pushed it out of her consciousness in favor of a past she still wished she inhabited. “I think he was having a lot of fun, but…”

Playing monster had become a special game for the two daughters and their father. And for his part, Elizabeth’s dad seemed to be trying to earn himself a spot as a zombie in a movie or TV show.

Back when they were just playing tickle-monster in their bedroom, their dad played up the growling and stomping about. It was almost a cartoon sketch of what a monster should be. But since the day he quoted the line from “Night of the Living Dead,” their father went for realism.

Whenever they went to play monster, their dad would start by letting his eyes go dead, staring emptily ahead and never centering on any one girl. His jaw would hang open; on some occasions he would even allow a rivulet of drool to slowly snake its way from his lips, finally coming to rest on his shirt in a dark, blossoming pool. Exaggerated stomping turned first into a limp and then into a subtle but effective shuffle. But the moans were the worst.

Their father worked his way up when it came to the moans. At first it would sound like he was clearing his throat, even coughing here and there (even now Elizabeth suspected the coughs were more a result of years of smoking and not part of the act). But eventually the strange noises that came from their father’s throat evolved, first into soft, low mewling before working their way up to slow, reverberating moans that ended in the most terrible rattle.

That was the thing about the moaning; it was believable. Elizabeth never admitted it, but she had had nightmares about those moans and the far away, dead look in her father’s eyes. As her father slouched around the playground, it was hard not to think that he really was the walking dead.

This would all eventually lead to the crescendo. The moans would again shift into growls that in turn shifted into speech. More specifically one word.

“Braaaaaaiiins,” Elizabeth caught herself saying in the dying light. For the first time in a while Cassie looked up at her, her eyes filled with anger and fear and accusation. “Sorry,” Elizabeth whispered.

The silence that passed between the two sisters was thick and ugly, filled by a black Armageddon of horrible memories. It was the kind of silence in which grudges festered and flourished, but Cassie’s look of anger cracked into a morose smile. “I get it,” she said. “He was…”

Her voice trailed off, unable to find words that could mesh with the strange emotions inside of her. Elizabeth could relate; that had been her life for the last year. She had gotten used to the feeling of being off balance—of normal causal emotional relationships being obliterated, turned into a rotting corpse parody of what she was used to.

“Do you think he took it too far?” Elizabeth finally asked, the question serving as an awkward kind of truce. “I mean…”

Cassie shrugged. “It’s how he was. I think, if things were… you know… normal. I don’t know. I think he wanted to make sure that when we grew up, he had someone who understood him—liked the same things.”

Elizabeth chewed on this for a minute. Outside the fat red sun finally kissed the horizon and lazy sunbeams filled with floating dust like glitter stabbed through the room.

Over time, whenever they played monster, the game kept changing. It had changed to the point where instead of tickling, when their dad caught either one of them, he would start gnawing at their scalp as moans of ecstasy rattled and hummed in his throat.

She had seen it on a number of occasions; Cassie always ended up getting caught eventually. At once, getting caught by the monster was hilarious and terrifying. The way their dad was so adept at letting his eyes fall dead, glassy, like those of a doll, and the way he could lifelessly open and close his mouth over Cassie’s skull—it was all so dreadful and uncanny, like watching someone get mauled by a marionette. And yet, it was still their dad—pudgy, with a face infused with good cheer. Elizabeth would sooner find herself more afraid of her own teddy bear than her dad.

Still, as the dusky light cast the room in a yellow-orange glow, Elizabeth found herself lost in the last time she remembered playing monster with her dad.

It was early winter in Virginia. The leaves had long since been shed by trees, leaving behind ashen husks that clawed at the skies with bare limbs like the bony fingers of skeletons. The grass crunched underfoot, frozen by the chill of the night before, and everyone’s breath hung in the air, thick and other worldly like phantoms before evaporating like fleeting memories.

They had gone to the park, so of course they were going to play monster.

No one else was at the park at the time, just the three of them, the sisters running around like lunatics among the swings and slides and the weird little things attached to springs that you rode like horses. Their father had started off this expedition to the park like he did most expeditions—sitting on the bench and watching the girls with soft, warm, amusement.

Abandoned playground in McDowell County, West Virginia

Elizabeth couldn’t remember who made the suggestion. In the years leading up to that day, both sisters had taken turns dragging their dad into a game of monster. All Elizabeth remembered was that not long after showing up to the park, they were running from the shambling man and his litany of low moans that vibrated along the soul, slowly biting into it like a rusty saw.

Cassie was the first girl caught. Their dad made a great show of dragging her down to the ground and “eating her brain,” before letting her go and wandering around the playground stupidly looking for his next meal

Elizabeth, who was usually pretty good at avoiding their dad, also got caught once. She remembered the feel of the mulch digging into her exposed flesh as he held her down and opened and closed his mouth against her skull. He cheerfully moaned, “BRAAAAAAAIIIINS!” until Cassie beat him off and Elizabeth could make her escape.

And then they were both fleeing, running from the ambling figure of their father, bundled up in old jackets and scarves, looking as much like a walking corpse as ever.

Elizabeth remember running onto the main play-set. It was large and colored a bright red, with several ways to climb onto it. Cassie was right behind her as their father was last seen by the swings. He was moaning and flailing so badly that one of his arms got tangled in one of the swings, allowing the girls a convenient escape.

The crisp air was filled with their giggles and gasps as they scampered up the opposite ladder, and tried to decide as a team what was the best part of the play-set to retreat to when Elizabeth let her eyes drift over to the swings again.

“Where’d he go?” she asked.

Cassie went from a crouch to full erect, her head swiveling as much as it could on her slender shoulders. When Cassie’s large brown eyes finally settled back on her sister, Elizabeth saw terror bubbling up in her little sister’s face.

Both girls ran from one end of the playground set to another. They didn’t dare call out, a terror that went unnamed clutching at both of their hearts. Elizabeth found herself torn between two completely different species of horror. On one hand, there was the sense of abandonment, the idea that they were now alone, and if anyone wanted to they could come along and pluck them from existence, and do with them whatever their dark, twisted imaginations could concoct. But there was a darker fear there, thicker, a kind of sediment of terror that drifted down to the very bottom.

Here, Elizabeth felt something irrational, impossible. She was overcome by the idea that their father was still there, but no longer—her father. Elizabeth’s lizard brain started to hum at his absence. Her eyes scanned the park. In her imagination, she could see her father lurking behind every tree and under every picnic table, only it wasn’t really him. His skin was now ashen gray, even green in some places, and his eyes; in the darkest corner of her imagination, Elizabeth pictured her father with shriveled eyes, white-green raisins sunk deep into his eye socket. That was if he had eyes at all. More likely she would just see hollow, blind pits lined with chunks of red and black meat that glistened in the dull overcast daylight. Elizabeth imagined yellowed fingernails and tattered clothes that were stained with sweat and blood and time.

Both girls stood on the play-set for a long time before either of them spoke. “Liz! Where is he?” Cassie asked.

“I don’t know,” Elizabeth had hissed.

“What are we going to do?”

Cassie looked up at her. Years later, Elizabeth would come to call that the “little sister” look. In her own head, Elizabeth took it to mean, “Okay Liz, you better come up with a better idea before I do something stupid, and I mean now.”

Elizabeth had just shrugged.

It was Cassie that made the first move. Back then, Elizabeth had been momentarily frozen in shock, but now, over ten years later, Elizabeth had gotten used to it. Cassie fed on instinct and impulse, and maybe that is what kept her alive as much as Elizabeth’s reliance on deliberation and caution.

Cassie grabbed Elizabeth’s hand and dragged her to one end of the play-set where, eventually, the two sisters decided to go down the big slide at the end and wait at the picnic bench until their father showed up again. Elizabeth couldn’t remember the logic behind this course of action—only that at the time it made perfect sense.

And so the two girls, one twelve, one ten (and a half thank you very much) crept along the reinforced brightly colored plastic to the spiral slide. The arch that stood guard over the yellow plastic that wound its way to the ground stood tall and aloof over the two girls. They looked at each other nervously under its indiscriminate blue glare, each girl daring the other to go first.

After much silent negotiation, most of which came in the form of threatening glares, Cassie agreed to go first, but only if she got to sit in Elizabeth’s lap as they went through. As such, Elizabeth sat down first under the royal blue arch. She tried desperately not to think about how the strange acoustics of the slide made her breath sound harsh—too loud—an ever-present reminder of her life and how fragile it was.

Once Cassie seated herself in Elizabeth’s lap, the harsh sound of their reverberating breaths became worse, almost an insanity, like a hive of bees sent spinning around their heads, threatening to sting over and over again until their bodies swelled with hot, searing, pain, promising only misery until death finally came with its hollow promises of release.

Elizabeth forced her arms to push off, to push them down the winding, slithery, yellow slide—towards the future that awaited them whether they were ready or not.

They flew. Elizabeth remembered feeling the wind on her face and the way the trees blurred around her as she and her sister wound their way down the slide. For a moment, the phantom of their father, the monster, was erased from their memory, and there was only the rush. Elizabeth and Cassie both whooped and cried, the exhilaration of speed had manifest in a buzz of pure joy and thrill. The world turned into a blur as the tan-bark of the playground became a reddish-brown haze while the yellow plastic slide promised more thrills ahead.

But a roar filled with hate and vengeance cracked the sky and sliced its way into Elizabeth’s heart. The world around her froze, and she realized that she had pushed her hands and feet against the edges of the slide without knowing it.

Cassie turned around and flashed Elizabeth with the biggest, most panicked, brown eyes she had ever seen. Despite everything that had happened since, Elizabeth still remembered those eyes.

Everything was as though it were encapsulated in ice. Every tree branch, every picnic table, every park bench, to Elizabeth, seemed encased in white and blue cages of timelessness. The snack bar, steel shuttered and desolate, appeared like a relic from a lost age, unintelligible to most.

And then there was a hand. It was pale, with pink blotches, and it snapped above the rim of the spiral slide. Both girls screamed, and the hand crashed down upon them.

They scrambled and tried to claw their way back up the slide, but on the left edge another giant hand shot up, each finger cocked and hungry, before it too crashed down, seeking their bones, their flesh, trying to tear them from the land of the living.

When the scrabbling hands found nothing but reinforced plastic, a pained howl erupted from beneath them, and Cassie and Elizabeth both quaked in fear, crying in each others’ arms. Their father, who had been careful in hiding under the slide the whole time, skittered up the slide like a snake, his large pink tongue dangling out of his unhinged mouth and wagging like the tail of a dog. Those dull, lifeless eyes hung to either side as they’re father clawed his way after the girls.

Elizabeth ran, her hand clenched down on Cassie’s hard. She could hear their footsteps banging against the play-set, and under that panicked machine gun rhythm she could hear their father slithering up the slide, awkward elbows and knees banging against the sides and sending hollow thuds reverberating throughout the contraption.

The girls had made it to the other end of the play-set when Elizabeth looked back over her shoulder. Their father’s head was just visible above the slide, his hair a tangled mess, and his dead eyes staring blankly past her. First one hand gripped the blue arch, and then another, and he pulled himself through, collapsing to the floor of the play-set with a heavy clamor. His mouth opened mechanically before he uttered a long, low groan that died in a gravelly growl.

The two sisters screamed again.

Elizabeth’s heart raged against her ribcage as she pushed her sister down the other slide, this one shorter and red. And that was when everything stopped.

Cassie didn’t go down the slide right. Elizabeth, in her terror, had pushed her little sister too hard and half way down, Cassie’s head banged against the slide before her whole body tumbled over itself. The little girl poured off of the slide and spilled onto the tan-bark into a silent crumpled heap.

Elizabeth couldn’t tell how long the silence lasted. Back then it felt like it went far too long. The horror of their little game had quickly been replaced as Cassie remained motionless on the ground. An ugly question bubbled to the surface of Elizabeth’s consciousness then, a question that stung at her eyes and hollowed out her chest.

Is she dead?

The question mark had just finished forming in her head, however, when a piercing scream followed by loud, pain-riddled crying filled the air.

Beneath her feet, the play-set quaked violently, and a new noise assaulted her ears—one crashing boom after another, each one racing closer and closer to her. Elizabeth had just enough time to spin around and see her father, face red, eyes no longer dead but wide with fear, and legs pumping like some frantic engine.

He didn’t even bother with the slide, instead choosing to leap over it and landing on his knees, coming to a skidding halt that exploded in a shower of tan-bark. His body hadn’t even come to a full stop when he was already scooping his big arms under Cassie, and drawing her to his chest.

“Sh-sh-sh-shhhh,” he cooed to her. “Baby, shhh, lemme see. Where does it hurt? Show me where?”

His voice was soft, gentle. Elizabeth may have caught a note of worry, but if she did, her father worked hard to shove it out of the way.

As he held her, she could see he had scraped his arms as he hit the ground. A single small stream of blood trickled from just below his elbow, but he didn’t seem to notice

Cassie had pointed to her forehead, and their father gently pushed her bangs out of the way. “Well,” he said, “you’re in luck.”

“It’s not bad?” her shaky voice asked hopefully.

“No,” he said. “You’re gonna have a healthy knot up there for a few days kiddo.”

“How is that lucky?” she asked, distraught.

Their father smiled warmly, hugged her tightly to his chest, and said, “I don’t eat scrambled brains.”

Elizabeth let the memory drift away into the twilight of the darkening room. That was their dad. Thinking back over all of the memories she had of them, that memory more than any pedestrian words she could imagine described exactly who he was.

Cassie’s voice cut their way through Elizabeth’s thoughts. “What do you think he would make of all of this?”

Elizabeth pondered for a moment. On the other side of the door she could hear more whispered shuffling and even a muffled bang before she filed that away, compartmentalized into the filing cabinet labeled, “Handle Later.”

“Scared like everyone else,” she finally answered. “I mean, everyone’s scared, you know, but…” Elizabeth ended in a shrug.

Cassie grinned. “At least part of him would think it was cool, huh?”

Elizabeth chuckled and nodded. “When he wasn’t scared for his life, yeah, he’d probably take a step back and think it was all kind of cool.”

The sisters fell silent once more, and for a brief, blissful moment, so too did Elizabeth’s brain. No real thoughts, just a small internal sabbatical from a year of terror and misery. Sadly, it couldn’t last, and the “Handle Later” filing cabinet in her mind loomed impatiently before her.

Her eyes drifted to the wood and metal object at her side, and she felt the words slither from her lips, lifeless, unbidden. “Are you ready?”

“No,” Cassie replied. Her voice was small, almost like they were kids again, running from their father as he played monster.

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Elizabeth said, hating the flat, dead tone to her voice. She wanted Cassie to argue, to validate her dissent. She needed her to.

“I know,” Cassie said, and Elizabeth felt herself collapse a little. Somewhere in the previous few fleeting seconds, they had crossed an imaginary threshold. The future, once comfortably some distance away, had somehow turned into the present. “Handle Later” turned into, “Handle Now.”

Elizabeth looked at the shotgun on the floor. She felt numb, like this couldn’t be happening, even as her fingers curled around its considerable heft.

“Do you have the key?” Cassie asked, and her voice sounded almost as dead as Elizabeth felt inside.

“Yeah,” she answered as she pushed herself back onto her feet.

The two sisters stared at the door while Elizabeth slipped her key ring out of her pocket. It slid smoothly into the lock and turned without the slightest of resistance. Her fingers curled around the dingy door knob, and she paused. She didn’t want to turn it. She didn’t want to push the door open and see what she knew was inside.

It wasn’t fair.

But they really didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t right.

A year of horror raced through Elizabeth’s brain. Headlines screamed in bold black and white, proclaiming that the stuff of movies and horror novels had become reality.

There was no origin story. No virus from some deep dark jungle, no super soldier project gone awry, no alien meteorite and no new street drug that carried horrific consequences. It just… happened. One day life was like it always had been, and the next day, people started eating each other.

People that were supposed to be dead instead started walking, decaying on their feet as they lurched after the living. As it turned out, what sealed mankind’s fate was that it all started in the hospitals. All those morgues filled with bodies ready to rise again—an army of the hungry dead risen in buildings filled with the weak and incapacitated to feed on and grow their numbers.

An actual zombie apocalypse. Humanity didn’t have a chance.

Cassie and Elizabeth survived by staying together and staying smart. They avoided the epicenters, avoided the riots and the looting, and took only what they needed and only when they knew the risk was manageable.

And it all culminated in this. In coming home. In finding the thing lurching silently just on the other side of the door.

Elizabeth turned the knob and pushed the door open.

Dim gray shafts of light spilled into the room on the other side, tracing lines over the ambling figure that awaited them. Its gray slacks scraped the floor, and its white button up hung loose over its trousers.

It was facing away from them at first, but the sound of the door creaking open must have grabbed its attention as it slowly started to pivot shakily on one leg. For a moment, as the light from the window caught its face, Elizabeth’s heart began to flutter.

He didn’t look… He looked like their dad. His hair disheveled, his face uncommonly thin, but intact. She recognized those soft eyes and his mouth that seemed to always curl into a smile full of mischief.

In that moment she half expected him to break into a wide grin. “Gotcha, didn’t I?” she could almost hear in the dusty air.

But without a single word he kept turning towards them, turning until the light caught the empty eye socket. He turned until Elizabeth saw the opposite cheek, the flesh ripped free in jagged gouges. His shirt, open, revealed a torso riddled with deep wounds. The flesh looked like it was torn out of him, and on one side the wounds were so bad that something thick and red and hose-like had started to swing free like a lolling tongue.

Revulsion filled Elizabeth as her gaze focused on his right hand. He was holding something, and as his dead eyes glared at them, he mindlessly brought whatever he was holding up to his mouth. A sickening wet squelch assaulted the sisters as his teeth tore into it, and in that instance, Elizabeth knew what must have happened.

Locked in this room after he had turned, their father must have taken to eating chunks of himself.

He chewed with loud, sloppy, wet slaps as he let the chunk of glistening flesh drop to his side. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed, and then the quickly darkening air was filled with a low, soft, moaning sound.

Instantly Elizabeth felt hollow, the moan driving her back into her childhood, back to the days when this same figure would play monster, and chase after them with that exact, same, moan.

The shotgun slipped from her numb fingers, dropping only a few inches to the floor and resting against her knee. He’s coming to get us, Barbara,she thought, and knew then and there that she was his. She knew that he would slouch his way towards her, and this time, when he wrapped his hands around her head, she would feel first his lips press into her hair, only he wouldn’t stop there. She would feel his teeth, sharp and hot, cut into the skin. She would feel her skull crush under the power of his jaws, and she would hear the crunch in the strange acoustics of her own head.

Would she feel his teeth bite into her brain? Would she feel herself dying as his fingernails ripped blindly at her face and neck?

In moments she would know the answer to these questions, and maybe that was a good thing. Maybe the nightmare could be over.

The walking corpse that was once their father took one step and then the room exploded.

To Elizabeth’s left, Cassie’s shotgun barked to life. One boom after another erupted into the room as brilliant red clouds exploded from their father. Tears poured down Cassie’s cheeks as she reloaded, pumped the 12-gauge, and blasted the creature again.

Chunks of their father dissolved into red mist, breaking away in clumps like childhood memories until what was left was little more than mangled red pulp that collapsed to the ground.

Elizabeth collapsed with it, falling to her knees, her eyes riveted to the still corpse.

Cassie sniffed. Her spent shotgun clattered to the ground and she collapsed beside her sister, resting her head on Elizabeth’s shoulders.

They looked on in silence for the longest time. The last vestiges of daylight had finally seeped out of the world, and the remains of their father had turned into a cold black pile of shadows in the center of the room.

After a time, Cassie whispered, “Bye dad.”

“We’ll miss you,” Elizabeth added as she held her little sister.

And it was over. The job was done. Cassie wiped her nose with the back of her hand and trembled as she got to her feet. As she picked up her shotgun she chuckled, the sound coming harsh, almost cruel.

“What?” Elizabeth asked.

She was met with a jaded smile. “It was better when he just played monster.”


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