Black Petals Issue #92, Summer, 2020

Chilled Bones Under Lovely Skin

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Mars-Chris Friend
Misty Page-A Game of Chess
Sean M. Carey-Chilled Bones Under Lovely Skin
Roy Dorman-Death in the Round Room, Part IV
Lael Braday-Magical Perspective
Matt Spangler-Master Smasher
Lena Abou-Khalil-The Nowhere Man
Grace Sielinski-'Port
Gavin McGarvey-The Black Petals
Marc Dickerson-Theater is Dead
C. S. Harbold-The Whispering
Dean Patrick-Vincent's Warning
Doug Park-We Get Him Together
Joseph Hurtgen-Worlds to Conquer
Mickie Bolling-Burke-The Bringer of Darkness
Aaron Hicks-The Last Days
Cindy Rosmus-Out of Juice
Matthew Wilson-Endless Men's Hate
Michael Steven-Hell Rift
Sean Goulding-Hypnagogic
David C. Kopaska-Merkel-In the Land of Giants
Loris John Fazio-The Thing in the Woods
Loris John Fazio-The Beggar Knows
Richard Stevenson-Peg Leg
Richard Stevenson-The Alkali Lake Monster
Richard Stevenson-The Green Man

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Art by Darren Blanch 2020

Chilled Bones Under Lovely Skin

By Sean M. Carey

 

Tommy Misery shivered his ass off during the thirteenth day of darkness. He stood outside in Deadhorse, Alaska, where the world wouldn’t be inclined to brighten until next month.

His breath fell over his stubbled cheeks in clouds. He clamped his hands in his armpits, rubbing to keep warm behind a lonely lodge. It was the Elk Rest Trapper Lodge—one of the last warm spots anyone could find when wandering the outskirts of Deadhorse. It was also one of the last spots accessible from the road. Past this little shack, with its stone hearth and fur tapestries and antlered decor, a person could only move on foot.

One flickering light shone on Tommy from above the backdoor. He was alone; all the other men were inside.

The first reason Tommy had stepped out was because he didn’t like the men; he knew many of them thought about his lover, Adora. Perhaps even talked. Rumors about town speculated that one man, Red Hattabunker, faked his recent death so that he could leave his wife for Adora. Red had founded the Lodge, and his wife, Betsy, ran the place now. She wasn’t much different than Red had been, in that her hands had harder calluses than the men, and she could drink them under the table. Tommy believed Red was dead and doubted Adora had anything to do with him.

The second reason he had stepped out was because he was waiting for Adora to call.

He shivered again, feeling cold-induced doubt. “Can’t keep doing this for too long. C’mon, ‘Dora, what’s taking you?”

Adora was the only woman Tommy had ever loved in his thirty-nine years. She was born with natural beauty; a face marked with divine lush; symmetry and color that attracted every type of beast, men included.

Tommy felt insecure about the attention she drew, but never said anything because, when he saw her alone, he detected a secret feeling. A sense that she felt like an unfortunate soul: coveted so much, genuinely loved and hated so little. More ornament than person. She never said so, and, again, he never mentioned it. For that unspoken reason, he believed she chose to live out here in hiding.

Something crashed to Tommy’s left. He turned and looked at the Lodge’s backdoor.

It was propped open by a foot, one that was sideways and limp.

The wind fought the door’s self-closing hinge, reeling the door back, then letting it beat the limp foot. Annoyingly enough to Tommy, the slamming door matched the tempo of his watch. He tried ignoring it, but his anticipation for Adora’s call built with each slam.

“Adora?” he called to the sounds, to the dark.

I bet this is her version of an annoying joke, he thought. Tick-tock, tick-tock, right? Cute...

Then, Tommy watched as blood rolled from under the limp foot like a tide. It drizzled over the door’s ledge and melted the snow beneath it. 

Yes, the men were still in the Lodge, as was Betsy Hattabunker, and some of them might still be alive. Not likely, though. Tommy had made sure they weren’t breathing when he stepped out. Five of the six victims could be classified into the two species of men that occupied the Lodge’s bar day-in and day-out: trappers and miners.

But to Tommy, there was only one type of men out here...

Lizard Men, or so he called them.

Lizard Men were always disguised as the forthright men that frequently inject themselves in every person’s life: the loud aggressors, the walking spectacles, the hairy and touchy. The Lizard Men liked to walk casually in stalking strides. Talk casually with territory-marking spittle. Sit casually with hungry erections. But they were no more casual than Tommy was secure. They meant cruel and calculated business, the business of self-confined reptiles. Lovely above the skin, but chilled to the bone.

Above all, they wanted to defile all decent human women and desecrate all decent human men.

The men in the Lodge had qualified, and, to Tommy, were dangerous. He could only imagine what their minds might have looked like: hollow and deep like the rolled eyes of attacking sharks. And, at the center of all five of their minds, he suspected, was Adora. They were beasts, after all, and voracious ones at that, even without factoring Adora’s allure. They had to go.

Tommy thought about the body that the blood flowed from. He scowled.

“Vermin blood,” he said. He felt his hand drawn to his jacket pocket, where his fingers glided on the edge of a sticky straight razor and the hot barrel of a revolver. The stickiness repulsed him. He jerked them out of his coat pocket and chucked them into the woods.

The door slamming continued. He called Adora again.

“Oh, shush,” the whirling wind whispered. It was Adora. She had finally projected some of her psychic energy. “Tommy. It’s time. Come to me. Walk out and find me again!”

She was in tune with the forces of nature--maybe not the forces of Deadhorse, but forces she carried with her that used the forces in Deadhorse. That sounded like mystical fluff, but it was true, and Tommy didn’t know how it worked. She could throw her voice and even more vivid psychic energy to passersby, saturated with her strong feelings. Strong visions, even.

“Come find me, Tommy,” she said again.

Tommy forgot about the Lizard Men. He walked into the dark and out to a frozen pond behind the Elk Rest Trapper Lodge.

#

Another cold-blooded Lizard Man? Tommy thought. How? And why didn’t Adora scream for me?

This Lizard Man was alive and naked. He was huddled over Adora on the frozen pond, and his seemingly human body trembled. The moon highlighted his pale skin and contrasted his blued joints. A dusting of snow covered his feet, as if he had stood there since the last storm.

Jesus, Tommy thought. Adora! Why won’t these perverts leave you alone!

Tommy’s stomach felt full of icicles, and invisible hands cinched it around them. He sprinted, but he found the slick pond slowed him down.

“Son of a bitch,” Tommy huffed. “Hey! Get the hell away from her! I said back off!”

The naked man grinned at him.

“Don’t smile at me, motherfucker!” He hoped Adora had heard his hostility, his need to protect her.

Tommy shuffled his feet vigorously across the ice, feeling his hamstrings and groin muscles straining. Before he reached the man, he noticed a dark patch near the naked stranger, which stained the pristine ice.

The man closed his eyes and hugged both of his sides, as if he’d never feel himself again. He inched closer to the dark stain and away from Adora. Tommy slowed down.

The naked man opened his eyes and nodded at him. Tommy thought later that maybe the man had just lolled his head--the exhaustion in his face said so--or maybe hypothermia had set in. For Christ’s sake, the bastard had walked butt-naked into the arctic.

“Where the hell did you come from?” Tommy asked. “And what do you want?”

“Far,” he replied. “And what we all want from her...”

Tommy heard his own teeth grind. “Which is?”

“...more…”

“You sick bastard,” Tommy clawed at his pocket, but remembered he had thrown the gun away. “Get away and go back where you came from!”

“She’s not yours, you know,” the man croaked through trembling lips.

As strange as it seemed, Tommy unclenched his hands for a second and almost nodded back at the man. The notion felt right, as if to agree that the part of himself that felt insecure about Adora’s attractiveness also confirmed she was never truly his. Never would be. Then he snapped out of it, thinking back to protecting her.

Tommy prepared to pounce. “Adora and I love each other, you fucking freak.”

The man smiled complacently, closed his eyes, and nodded again. Before Tommy could charge him, the man jumped into the dark stain. He sank. Black water splashed out. Tommy saw the stain was really a hole that someone had carved. With the hole’s frosted film now broken, it looked like a wormhole into deep space.

When Tommy felt certain the man wasn’t going to resurface, he went to Adora. But, all he saw of Adora were the naked man’s snowy footprints. At least for now.

He knelt and transformed her. He swept snow until he could see through the ice, as well as into the silver face of a bare-naked woman.

She bobbed under the frozen sheet.

She was an ancient woman that had once attracted nomadic men crossing the Bering Strait. But Tommy didn’t know that. In fact, he had a false memory of meeting her at the bar of the Lodge, and some funny logic in his head told him he had put her under the ice. For safekeeping, obviously, because she needed to be kept safe from Lizard Men. Attractive and psychic, Tommy would often think, she has to be number one on their most-wanted list.

“There you are,” he said, beaming at the pallid woman. “Thank God, you’re safe and sound.”

Safe maybe, but certainly not sound. Her mind swam in another reality besides Deadhorse, Alaska. It was a dream-world, really, which justified her ulterior motives and secret plots with faulty logic. But, Tommy also didn’t know anything about this.

“I’m tired of this, ‘Dora,” Tommy said to the pallid woman. “There has to be another way to be together. I bend over backwards just to see you. To keep you. To protect you. So why—why, dammit—why do you keep letting these monsters near you? In you?”

Tommy cupped his face and bent over, stroking his temples. He tried not to look at the hole the naked Lizard Man had jumped in.

“This lifestyle isn’t good for you. You look pale. Sick. Not just on the outside, but how I see you in my mind...what you show me when I dream. It’s not good for both of us!”

Adora’s dead face bobbed against the ice again and stared off somewhere far.

He reached into his coat’s inside pocket and pulled out a silver locket. Sliding on all fours over Adora, he presented the locket on the tips of his forefingers.

“I bought this for you,” he said. “Look, I need you to commit to me. This is for you, and only you. It means you and me are together—you’re mine, I’m yours—got it? Faithful.”

Adora’s face was stoic.

“C’mon, babe, help me make us whole again. Don’t worry about that Lizard Man. I can forgive you. We can clear the slate, so long as you’ll stay true to me.”

Finally, a peculiar magnetism sucked the locket from Tommy’s fingers. The hole in the ice swallowed it. It hadn’t looked much like a display of tenderness from Adora, more like a rigid act of atoning. Regardless, Tommy laid his hands on the ice and kissed the arctic barrier keeping him from her.

“Thank you, babe,” he said. He lay down near her. “I want you to know; I always leave room in my bed for you. Sometimes I rub the spot where you’ll lay one day. Helps me find peace at night, when all I hear outside my window is the wind and the lonely zooms from the freeway.”

He leaned in closer to her.

“I know, at those times, you give me dreams. Still don’t understand those,” his whisper became airy. “But I wish I knew what you dreamed.”

#

Adora’s mind had actually responded to all of his moping. Though her face had looked expressionless, her brain had lit up.

At first, her mind was a blip of consciousness that glinted somewhere endless and dark. This vast somewhere was buried deep in her head, where she felt safe. The blip then gleamed, pulsating from a germinating white to a propagating mixture of rose and gold. Adora’s mind was rebooting.

Her dream-world finally came to life, and some version of Adora awoke. It was not the version Tommy was looking at in Deadhorse, Alaska, but a version saved in her head. The real her. The real Adora had to reside backstage, while the luring voice and pretty face had to stand in the spotlight, right in front of her audience. Because, of course, the brains behind the show couldn’t play stagehand, actor, and director.

Tommy’s voice, a concerning voice—from somewhere cold and beyond to her—had called her out of idling. To her, that voice’s tone was unhinged, and she couldn’t distinguish its impulse from intention. It was starting to sound like a threat.

An unpredictable threat.

At least we’d be warm… she heard the voice say after pleading to her. The voice spoke of physical warmth, but also the strange emotional warmth that two humans might share when tangled together. If pressed to translate for her, the voice might have called that strange warmth loving, love-making, or perhaps just love.

But Adora the Alaskan Pond Damsel only heard one of many foreign sounds she had learned in the past, which indicated her source was drying up. Its unhinged tone was asking her to share the warmth, and it sounded desperate.

With this voice’s specimen and many others before, she had basked in the satiating warmth they gave her. The warmth’s pink waves had beaten against her while in its radius, and it had filled her for a while. Fixed her. Mended the endless void at her core.

Until her mind broke again, as it always did, and she felt a stronger yearning for the strange warmth. Another fix of that all too addicting and foreign energy she had discovered long, long ago.

Her species had no such custom or practice, at least none so delectable.

But, if her source of warmth had dried up, and it had become a threat, she decided it may be time to cut her losses. 

 

#

“I wish we could go in the Lodge,” Tommy said. He was shivering mildly but constantly now. “It’s a mess in there. Filthy. But at least we’d be warm.”

Adora was silent once again, even though she would steal his words in her dream-world.

But the Alaskan wind answered Tommy with a distant howl. Then, something else, closer and probably hungry, answered him with a real howl. It came from the woods near the far edge of the pond. He grimaced at the animal's call.

“Even the wildlings who fear the trappers—the Lizard Men, I mean—even they are drawn to you...”

Whatever had howled in the woods now began to whine. Then it squealed.

Tommy looked up.

The squeal cut off, and he only heard wind and rustling branches afterwards. Twigs and deadfalls began to snap at a steady pace, echoing out from the thickets to the open air.

A scrawny, wounded stag emerged from the woods. Its nostrils flared with chilled clouds. Tommy noticed the tips of its antlers were bloody. Its eyes looked spacey and glossed by the shellshock of combat...or, perhaps, the high of a kill. Elated gratification.

Tommy didn’t like the look in the stag’s eyes. He had seen the same look in the naked man’s eyes earlier. He thought this stag must also be a Lizard Man.

“Hey! Screw off!” he yelled. “She’s mine!”

It’s a lone buck, Tommy, he thought, part of him still rational. I know the cold is getting to you, but pull it together. It’s just a stupid animal wandering around. And, shit, be careful; it might be rabid.

A low rumble purred from the stag’s chest. It was growling. It beat its hooves on the pond where the ice patches overcame brown roots.

Tommy heard a crackling sound behind him. Panicked, he looked back at the ice. He saw hairline cracks here and there, and he couldn’t tell if they were new. If Tommy Misery had turned completely, he would have caught the sneaky black tendril that uncurled many yards behind him. It laid something large at the other end of the pond, then snuck back into the break in the ice from which it came. Then, the thing at the other end of the pond stood and walked toward the Lodge.

Tommy studied the ice still.

Isn’t so thick, he thought. Holds weight, but not too much. Weakened by me and that naked Lizard Man.

He looked up at the stag.

“Hey!” he yelled. He stood up slowly with shaking legs and waved his arms like an imbecile. “You get away! Leave us alone, Rudolph! You damn nitwit! You’ll kill us all!”

To Tommy’s horror, the stag responded, but its voice came from inside his head.

“Animal?” Its primitive voice growled. “Ha! Back, Man-Thing! Back! Give her me. She mine.”

He could only guess that Adora’s psychic energy had its own field, which the stag’s simple mind may have tapped into, like a walkie-talkie intercepting the signal of a radio show. Perhaps any animal could tap her broadcast, so long as they craved what she offered. Or whatever they thought she offered. Tommy felt deceived with every word the stag spoke, now firmly accepting he was one of Adora’s many secret lovers.

Rage burst from the pit of his stomach and flared in his chest. He barked at the stag, hacking up uncontrollable and guttural bursts. He had never done such a thing before, but it felt appropriate in the moment. He clutched a stray chunk of ice and hurled it at the stag. As the chunk fell from the peak of its arch, Tommy thought about Adora’s psychic field. He imagined the chunk bursting prematurely, powdering the invisible dome-shape of her field. But, it didn’t. The ice chunk completed its arch, missing the stag by many feet.

The stag finally turned, still huffing and wild-eyed, and stamped into the woods. “Be back! Be back...knock down Man-Thing!”

Tommy felt the tension and defensiveness float away. He knelt again, but jerked away when his knee stung. He saw the black water had sloshed out of the hole. He wondered if shifting sheets of ice under the frozen top-layer could have rippled the water that much. Then, as if providing unwelcome closure, the pond cracked: one crooked yard of bright white right under Tommy’s ass.

He interpreted it as backlash from Adora, who had no doubt been working deceptively on attracting creatures, such as the stag. He snapped.

“What did you do that for?” he asked her. “What, is that because I didn’t want to let that filthy animal near you? I’m not good enough on my own? Having some buyer’s remorse, are we?” He looked into her milky eyes, eyes that no longer took light in, but probably would ooze something out if Adora thawed.

Suddenly, the hole in the ice spat out the silver locket, and black water pushed it towards the middle of the pond.

“Guess I’m failing your expectations, huh? Nice to know, now that I see you have more tricks and secrets than I realized. I’m all tangled up with what I wanted us to be, and you’re living your own delusional, twisted fantasy!” he yelled at her while fixating on his tossed gift. He raised his fist over her and cussed. “WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?”

The crack grew a little longer. Adora bobbed indifferently.

“You sound hostile. Turning against me, love?” her facetious voice rode in on a cold gust. He could have sworn, in the split second between her last word and her next, one of Adora’s milky eyes winked at him. The frost on her lashes flaked, at least. “You keep trying to control everything too much. Maybe this is too fast for you. Maybe you should take some space…”

“Oh! You are killing me!” A vein bulged down the center of Tommy’s forehead. He stomped the ice, and a web of cracks spurted from under his foot. “What a suspiciously quick change of heart. You take all you want until it’s time to give. This whole time you’ve just been a bear trap to my vulnerability! A vulture circling around me like a leftover snack! YOU TRICKED ME! TRICKED ME INTO FALLING IN LOV--”

His body fell down in an awkward, mechanical sequence. He dropped to his knees, exhausted from shouting in the subzero air.

“What have you done to me...to my head...” he hissed. “I don’t stand a chance with you—near you—do I?”

#

“Wake up from your dream, my love,” a hoarse voice said to Betsy Hattabunker.

Her round and wrinkled face stuck to the floor of the Elk Rest Trapper Lodge. She lifted it out of a drying pool of blood.

Betsy remembered she had thought, I need to drag my ass over to my phone. Need to call for help before that bastard gets away.

But then she had felt so sleepy.

She had no dreams. But she remembered the night well. She had been talking with Reggie Wallace, Harry Louviere, Sam Haimey, Black Joe (a white boy, but known for his dirty miner appearance), and Stu Phillips. They had come in around eight o’clock. Three of them got obnoxiously drunk at the bar, and two of those three were so obliterated that they both dozed off. The two that were less drunk shot darts and lounged by the fireplace.

Then that fucking kook, Tommy Misery, walked in sometime after eleven-thirty. He had come with a thirst for blood and no shortage of untreated psychosis. Then that pussy-footed bastard walked up behind three of the men and spilled their blood with a razor. The other two were caught off guard and didn’t stand a chance against the gun he pulled out. And that was only the harm he did at first...

“Wake up, love. It’s time for us to be together again,” the croak rapped against her ear. “Goodness, this Tommy-boy really is shittin’ bananas, isn’t he? What a mess we’re in, ay?”

Betsy looked up and saw the gore around her, as well as the gore that spoke to her. Two fat men in worn jean-clothes were slumped over the bar, which had a tablecloth of blood drizzling off the edges. Another man, with slices and gashes up and down his body, stained the billiard-felt with his splashes. A broken pool stick laid beside him, coated in red. Darts stuck out of his face. His companion lied head first in the fireplace, the fire now dead. Piles of ash and soot covered his head, and he had slices too.

The man in the fireplace had also been stuck by the poker, which stood upright from his chest like a flag post claiming territory over his body. The last man, Black Joe, the only one recognizable because of his token sooty filth, had made it to the backdoor. His foot wedged the door open and let in cold gusts.

NO LIZARD MEN ALLOWED was finger-painted in blood on the back door, next to: LEAVE MY ADORA ALONE.

Christ. That psycho hunk of moose shit left a calling card, she thought.

Now, Betsy’s aghast stare traveled up the naked man who had spoken to her and now stood over her. His member had shriveled to a black bean, but the rest of him looked intact. His skin looked whiteish-blue, and frost grew out of him like moss. Black muck covered his toes, and a similar gray slime adorned his naked body like garland around a Christmas tree, as if he’d been wrapped by something putrid.

“Come with me, Betsy,” he said. Her dead husband, Red Hattabunker, looked down on her with milky eyes and hollowed cheeks. She didn’t believe what she saw. “Time to be together again for a long, long time.”

Lost a lot of blood, she thought. I’m hallucinating. Shit. I don’t know what shape I’m in, but this is clearly not good. Need to get to my phone. Come on, Besty, crawl!

Betsy dug her nails into the sticky floor and pulled. She kicked her legs, but felt a searing pain under her arm and inside her hip. She squealed and stopped.

“Come, darlin’. Let me help you up—you’re hurt,” Red Hattabunker said. He hooked his freezing, stiff arms under Betsy’s blood-soaked underbelly and hoisted her. His knees creaked as he did so.

Betsy detected a slight rotting smell on him, but it was mostly masked by that stale and lifeless scent of freezer-burnt food.

“Red?” she asked between short gasps, panting from her pain. “You can touch me...I can feel you…”

She sounded airy and drunk to herself. She knew it must be the lost blood, and it scared her.

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied.

“You’re—you’re—” Betsy’s frown contorted her face. She shook her head. “It can’t be you. You’ve been gone for months...months! I buried—”

“Sh, sh, sh. You buried an empty coffin. I’m not stuck in the ground. I’m here with you now,” Red pulled her in close. She flinched, realizing, even in her slight disorientation, that this person was partly Red...and partly dead. Or, partly suspended from death because of some peculiar force; unnatural vibrations had crawled onto her when Red had hugged her. But one look at her bloody clothes and the wounds peeking out of them eliminated any preference she had for one life force or another. “Honey buns, I’m going to take you away. We’ll be together. And before we go—to share our love for a long time—you’ll get a chance to see the man who hurt you.”

“Red, how are you here and what are you talk—” The mean reds that had motivated Betsy to crawl across the floor now took over her mind. She had a limited bandwidth, and her survival mode was overriding all needless logic. “—Tommy? You know where that bastard is?”

“Across the pond. We can’t let him live, Betsy. We can’t let him break up our love, ruin it with his troublemaking. It’s toxic.” Now Red sounded airy and distant to Betsy—detached, as if he recited a script. “He’s gone too far.”

“My phone’s behind the bar. Help me. Can you—”

“No, Betsy,” Red said. “No police. No law out here, no laws can touch our love. It’s threatened, and we need to take care of him ourselves. We need to take him out, so he doesn’t hurt our love. Or any other love ever again.”

She studied her once handsome husband’s pale and sunken face. This moment with him felt real enough to her, tangible at least. It did feel dreamy, or more so nightmarish. But, whether surreal or delusional, she didn’t care as long as she could get revenge on that sonofabitch Tommy Misery. Trap him and take his head as a prize, in the same way some of the trappers he had murdered might.

Her hazy mind and damaged body told her she might as well go with this opportunity, because she probably wouldn’t live to tell it, whether she went along with Red or took the dispassionate route and called the cops.

“Fine then, Red. All your hunting shit is upstairs in the loft. You’ll need to do a lot of the carrying.”

He smiled at her with his blackened gums and gray teeth. “Alright, then Betsy. Let’s avenge these poor folk on the floor. He’s trapped on the ice. He’ll be easy picking, especially for a great shot like you.”

She smiled back at him, laughing at herself for feeling affection for such an ugly mug. “You promise you and me will be together after this, Red? This isn’t some trick of the devil, right?”

“Yes, we will, Bets’. And, no, it isn’t. I’ve missed you.”

Betsy surprised herself by crying into Red’s stiff, icy chest. “I missed you too. Every night.”

“One last hurrah in this place, honey buns. Then we’ll never miss each other again.” He kissed her head, but it didn’t make a smooching sound. Instead his dry, cold lips simply pinched her hair.

“Red,” she said, looking up with a smile. “Promise me you’ll freshen up your looks in the afterlife? You’re a goddamn mess.”

He laughed, a husky fluttering noise. “Sure thing, Missus. Now, let’s kill this sonofagun.”

The Hattabunkers trudged upstairs, Red giving Betsy several helping hoists, and they armed themselves with Red’s old hunting rifles. On their way back, adrenaline flooded Betsy’s body. In minutes, she could focus on aiming her rifle and ignore her lacerations. At least, she hoped to God what she felt was truly from her body and not from whatever hocus-pocus Red was running on.

She was glad he was back, but she knew whatever hocus-pocus he carried must cost something mighty.

#

Tommy felt his energy draining and all the warmth running from his body. The air around him felt like it had dropped forty more degrees in the last fifteen minutes. He thought about Adora’s tricks and her field of psychic influence around this area. She had more power than he had thought. He struggled to move, though he wanted to run, crawl if he had to.

The pressure to compete for Adora had unraveled him, and now he felt utterly alone. Contrary to the last few weeks, the look of the pasty corpse below disgusted him.

Suddenly, the surface of the frozen pond broke. Sheets of ice tilted and unleashed sloshing ice water. Tommy looked at it and shook his head.

“You know,” Tommy said to Adora. “This may sound crazy—and, God knows, I feel crazy right now—but, I think you know things. You’re not quite dead...and I haven’t been quite alive either. Have I, Adora?”

The water came up in small waves and receded like a tide on a shore. Tommy yelped as it stung him. He tried to recoil, but he still couldn’t move.

“What are you, some witch?” he screamed. “Some witch that lures prey? You knew you’d end me this whole time didn’t you? Didn’t you, you conniving bitch?”

The shard of ice Tommy was on slanted forward, propped by an unknown force. The dark water bubbled beneath.

“Oh, go ahead!” he yelled. “I murdered people in your name, thinking they were monsters. But now I see—”

Before he could finish or understand what bubbled beneath him, he heard:

“Man-Thing!”

The rabid stag had returned, visibly horny and sniffing the pond. Then it charged Tommy.

Tommy yanked on his stuck flesh, yelping and crying. He couldn’t move. The stag lowered its antlers in the middle of its ice-cracking sprint.

Snow flew from its hooves to Tommy’s eyes. He shut them. Its hot breath plumed over his face. The air in front of him changed, and he knew that meant the sharp antler tips would soon spear him. Maybe rip parts of him if the stag bucked. He cracked his eyes open, forcing himself to face his demise.

Tommy finished his thought, “—now I see you’re the monster, Adora!”

But then the stag’s head exploded.

Brain bits, skull frags, and blood splattered on Tommy’s face.

“Oh, shit for brains!” a woman cried, echoing from far behind him. “Missed! Don’t worry, Red, I’ll—sweet Mary, Mother of God! What is that behind him, Red? What in God’s name is that?!”

#

“Don’t worry, honey buns,” Red Hattabunker said. “Just take another one.”

Betsy turned around, squeezing her rifle, and stepped away from Red. “What is it, Red? Under the ice.”

Her eyes bugged out, darting up and down Red’s naked body. She stared at his frosty patches again. Red gently lifted her chin up with a cold finger.

“We gotta protect our love, Betsy. And no one protects it like Her. Love’s all we got. And She needs it too, like any one of us.”

“You’re not making any sense.” Betsy realized this sounded stupid in this scenario, given that she was a widow talking to a ghostly shell of her husband. “Who are you talking about?”

Red’s eyes lost their gentleness. They seemed to fog over, and his brow narrowed. “She’s the one I’ve been with. She’s the one who let me come back. She’s the one we’re going back to. She keeps all of us safe down there, so we can stay in love down there, Betsy. Forever.”

“What? That fucking thi—monster—out there? I’m not going near it!” Betsy whined, exasperated. “This was your plan? Red...no, no, no…”

Betsy’s eyelids drooped. Her skin had been white for the past few minutes, and Red had taken notice. He also took notice of her increasing clumsiness with the rifle and her stumbling. She was going. And, she was going with him, whether she knew it or not.

Red picked up his rifle. “You telling me you’re gonna leave me again, darlin’? Before our business is done?”

“Leave...with that?” She pointed to the stag’s body, now getting torn apart and devoured a few feet away from Tommy Misery. “Red...I...I can’t…”

Red blinked and, in that moment, his eyes became fully clouded. He swung the butt of his rifle and hit Betsy’s head. She fell on the ice. Her wounds ran and stained the dustings. Red hoisted one of her legs, and she slid easily along with him as he walked out.

He pulled her into the hole that the black tentacle had lifted him from earlier.

Betsy Hattabunker was never seen by her friends or her remaining family ever again.

#

Tommy felt shocked from the stag-surprise, but it was far from the worst of it. A blackish-gray tentacle, flowing with lava-lamp bubbles, wrapped itself around the obliterated deer carcass and pulled it under the ice.

Suddenly, Tommy’s inverted ice shard was nearly straight up and down, and he felt the pull of gravity towards the dark water.

The bloated, blue corpse of Adora hung over him on a lolled stem. She was some type of bait, like the glowing light on a monstrous deep-sea fish.

The real Adora was under him, creeping out of the bubbling water.

More black tentacles broke through the ice and uncurled. Dozens of them reached high over the tree line, forming a circle around Tommy.

The surface of the pond shattered, and a splitting mound emerged from the water. Tommy screamed as Adora’s mouth opened underneath him. Its flowery lips revealed a long tunnel of serrated teeth, which seemed to spiral down endlessly.

The massive creature groaned, but not ferociously; it sounded melancholy. Then it pushed Tommy down its throat.

Tommy wondered in horror, as the real Adora ground him with her teeth, whether he’d find himself reunited with her in looped love-dreams after his soul left his remains.

#

Decades after Tommy Misery’s alleged murder-suicide at the Elk Rest Trapper Lodge and its subsequent shut down, the highway stretched and looped farther into the Deadhorse wilderness. Year by year, more people other than trappers and miners could venture out.

One day, a young, scraggly-bearded man wearing many sweaters trotted passed the rotting remains of the old Lodge. He sported a tacky walking stick and a stuffed hiking pack. He could smell copper wafting out of the wood from the past bloodshed, but he didn’t have that context. He merely studied the remains.

He felt high from his trek into Alaska, having burned his social security card and cleared his bank accounts. Cash took him far enough, until he felt ready to travel fully nomadic, so he burned the rest of that too.

Now, he was free—his stomach growling after his first day living off small, overcooked game and wild berries.

The wind drew his gaze out to a frozen pond on the other side of the Lodge. The sun was setting early for the last time this year, and it would stay down for many weeks. But he didn’t turn back to set up camp. Instead, he watched the sunset sheen go from yellow to orange across the pond’s surface.

And, when the wilderness and the frozen pond were all black, except for the silver blanket of the full moon and stars, he still stood in the same spot, interested in something out there.

Eventually, he threw his walking stick and backpack in the snow and stepped onto the ice.





Sean Carey started creating art and stories back when it was acceptable for him to color at the kitchen table in his underwear. Since, he’s become a copywriter, a fiction writer of genre short stories (mainly horror, suspense, sci-fi, and fantasy), a painter, and guitarist. His mind is a whirlwind, and he doubts his work. Always. But, he can only hope, his readers will feel something from it. He resides in Newark, Delaware, where he’s lived all his life.



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