Friday, February 27, 2015

Robots Don't Lie

The puppy seemed happy. The robot made a little mechanical whirring noise as it bent over to pick up the ball. It stood up again. Then its arm cranked back, and with a mechanical thump sound, it launched the ball across the yard. The puppy barked happily and ran at his awkward stumbling pace to fetch it.

It got to the ball, snatched it up in its mouth and scampered back to the robot, dropping it on the ground in front of the mechanical boy with its dead, unblinking eyes to do it all over again.

The puppy ran. I watched. Its leg seemed to be healing. It seemed happy.

The robot boy looked nothing like me. Its skin looked rubbery. It's hair was obviously a wig. Its eyes were balls of glass that never blinked, never looked left or right, just stared straight ahead. It had this weird smile that almost looked painted on. I guess its all my mom and dad could afford, after all the funeral expenses.

The robot may be kind of ugly, but at least it had somehow taught the dog to play fetch. That's more than I could do. I threw that ball so many times, my arm was aching, and all the puppy would do was bite at my pants, and run around in circles. I was frustrated.

Then when Jake Hoffman and his buddies rode by on their hover bikes and started teasing me, it made me feel even worse. "You suck, Miller! That dog is smarter than you are! Give up, loser!" Then they all laughed.

I didn't say anything. I just picked up the ball and threw it again. The puppy bit my leg this time, instead of my pants. I gasped, and they all started laughing.

"What a fag! He screams like a little girl just over a dog bite! Wait til we tell everyone at school!"

Then they rode off.

Stupid dog! Stupid fucking dog! This time I threw the ball as hard as I could. It went right over our side fence, over the neighbour's front fence and bounced into the street. And you know what happened? This time the stupid puppy ran for it. He bolted before I could even catch him. He chased it right into the street.

I heard the squeal of tires, and a horrible scream of pain. I ran, and there was the little guy, dragging himself across the pavement, still trying to go after that stupid ball. I'll never forget the sad howling crying sound it was making. The woman in the car started screaming at me, too.

"You fucking idiot! Why don't you watch your damn fucking dog! I nearly hit a parked car! Fucking moron! Asshole!"

And then she got back in her car and drove off. I picked up the puppy and hurried into the house calling for my mom.

Well, there was over ten thousand dollars in vet bills. It set us back quite a bit. We nearly lost the house. Mom and dad wouldn't even talk to me for days. I heard them arguing about it, too. "I never even wanted that fucking dog! It was him who wanted it!"

Well, I didn't want it any more. I was sorry I'd gotten the stupid thing.

I got beat up at school, too. People said I probably broke the dog's legs myself. And then the rumours started circling, around and around, that yes, it was true. I beat the hell out of a puppy and broke both its legs. It didn't matter that that's not what happened at all. People just like to hate.

Even the teachers gave me dirty looks. Everybody loves dogs. And they didn't bother to find out of the rumours were even true.

Then one day my dad confronted me. "It wasn't really a car, was it? Just be honest." I tried to explain to him again about the woman in the car, driving off. I told him exactly what she said, what she looked like. He told me he'd asked around the neighbourhood. Nobody had seen anything.

"Well fine, then! I did it! I kicked the dog and broke both it's legs! I kicked it as hard as a speeding car! I might as well just admit it since nobody believes me anyway!"

"Uh huh," Dad said. And he walked away.

I died on October 17, 2084. I left a note saying, "I don't care if anyone believes me. It was a woman in a car. She was blonde. She drove away. But I don't even care anymore. You can all go to hell."

The puppy is doing well, now. It's got a weird little stumbling limp. But it's doing well. He's gotten so big, too. I come back to check on it now and then. I'm glad it finally learned to fetch, even from the ugly-looking robot they got to replace me.

Jake Hoffman and his buddies rode by again on their bikes like they usually do. They threw rocks at the robot like they usually do, only this time, the robot tipped right over and hit the ground with a clang. It couldn't get back up. I think they broke it. They laughed and rode away.

Dad fast-forwarded through hours of footage the robot had recorded, hours of the robot simply throwing the ball to the dog. Over and over and over again, never getting bored, never getting frustrated. Fast forward. Fast forward. I watched him. He seemed angry. He wanted to find out who was throwing rocks at the robo-boy.

He stopped on footage of a blonde woman stepping into our yard. She got out of her car and walked over to the dog. She looked down at it, and then stooped down to pet it. "I'm glad you made it," she said. "Damn, stupid kid should watch where he's throwing his ball."

Then she noticed the robot standing there and jumped a bit, startled. She hurried back to her car and drove off.

Dad cried for a long time. He hugged the robot and said sorry over and over and over again. The robot just stared at me with that weird, painted-on smile. But I wasn't even mad. I guess things are gonna be okay now. Robots don't lie.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Girl and Her Shoes

There once was a girl named Apple. She lived in a far away land where every child was given $100 on their thirteenth birthday. They gave you your money once, people said, and that was all you would ever have. When her thirteenth birthday came around, she put her money in her purse, and cherished it for many years, not spending a single dime of it.

But then one day while walking through the market, she saw the most beautiful shoes she'd ever imagined in a shop window. Her heart nearly broke she wanted them so badly. She went into the store but the shop keeper stopped her in the doorway.

“Let's see your money!” he said. She showed him. And so he let her look at the shoes.

She looked at the beautiful shoes for hours and hours. And finally she went home, but she thought about the shoes all day and all night. They were so beautiful, and the shop keeper told her it would feel like walking on air when she wore them. She was so excited, but they would cost nearly everything she had! It made her sad to think her money would be all spent, and she'd be broke and poor for the rest of her days.

But in the end she decided that with shoes that beautiful, it would be worth the cost. So she went down to the store and asked to buy them.

"Are you sure?" the shop keeper asked. "You won't be able to return them."

"I'm sure. I love those shoes. They're so beautiful. I will treasure them forever."

So the shop keeper gave them to her, wrapped in a beautiful box, and she went out of the store already feeling like she was walking on air before she even put them on. She sat down by the road, took off the shoes her mom and dad had given her, and put on her brand new beautiful shoes. Her heart was all aflutter. Her mind was all giddy with excitement. She put them on and looked at her feet. She felt so beautiful she was scared to even walk.

People passing by admired her shoes. "They're so beautiful on you!" one lady said. Another man told her they made her look radiant. But one old woman told her they looked very expensive and she hoped they were worth the cost.

"You only ever get $100, girl," the old woman told her, poking in the direction of the shoes with her cane. "After that, you're poor forever!"

Apple did not care. "These shoes are worth it!"

After a while she got up and began walking home. The shoes felt magical. She felt like every step was on a soft fluffy cloud, and she was so happy, she danced and pranced and skipped all the way home, singing joyfully to herself about how much she loved her new shoes. 

But after a while one shoe ripped. "Oh no!" she said, horrified. So then she walked along more carefully. But then the other shoe ripped as well. She began to cry. She was scared she was damaging the shoes, and she thought about taking them off, but she realized that she'd left her old shoes, the ones her mom and dad gave her, back in the street by the shoe store. She couldn't go home barefoot! And besides, what's the point of even buying shoes if you couldn't even wear them? She would just have to be careful.

So she walked carefully along. But with every step she took, the shoes got more and more ripped and torn. They were getting dirty now too. She walked along crying. "What have I done? What have I done?"

By the time she got home, her shoes were nothing but tatters and rags. They had completely broken up on her. The last of the threads fell away and she was forced to stumble along the last mile completely barefoot. Her feet were dirty and sore and all she could do was cry. "I'm such a fool. I'm such a fool. I bought those shoes just because they were beautiful, and they fell apart so quickly. And now I've lost everything. I'll be barefoot forever. I'm such a fool."

She ran in the house and went straight to her room. Her mother came in, and saw her crying so brokenly. Apple didn't want to tell her what happened. She was too ashamed. But her mother saw her dirty, bleeding feet and she quickly figured it out for herself.

"Don't worry, Apple. You're still a beautiful girl. I will always love you."

Her father came in with a basin of water and washed her feet. He put bandages on her cuts and kissed her goodnight.

"It's so nice to have such a beautiful family, but I'm still gonna be barefoot and broke for the rest of my life." And she cried herself to sleep, feeling miserable and bitter.

The next day, her friend Floyd came to visit. "Why are you so sad?" he asked. And she told him the story, still feeling angry and cheated. Floyd asked her one simple question.

"How much money do you have left?" he said, smiling.

And then he gave her a hug and left, without waiting for her to answer.

She went to her room and looked in her purse. She was absolutely astonished and over-joyed to discover that she still had $100 deep down in her purse. She wept with joy, feeling refreshed and renewed. Floyd had somehow known it! How had he known? Then she told her dad and her dad said, "Tomorrow, we'll go into town, and you can buy some new shoes."

She went to bed, beaming with excitement.

The next day, since she had no shoes, her dad carried her into town. It was a long walk and very tiring, but he didn't mind. He was more worried about whether her feet would be hurt. He put her down at the shoe store and wished her luck. Then he went home again, very tired.

"Ah ha!" said the little old lady. "Barefoot, I see! Foolish girl! Now you're broke and you'll have dirty feet for the rest of your days. Ha!"

Apple knew she was not broke. She still had her $100 deep down in her purse. She didn't tell the old lady that. She didn't argue at all. She just went back into the shoe shop.

"Why bother going in there?" the old lady said. "You're broke! You'll never be able to get a nice pair of shoes! And even if you got cheap shoes, your feet are all dirty now. You'll only mess them up!"

Apple went in anyway. Her father had washed her feet, and she still had every penny of her $100.

“Let's see your money!” the shop keep said. She showed him. And so he let her look at the shoes again.

This time she spent all day shopping. She'd learned that the most beautiful shoes were not necessarily the best quality. There were so many styles, but she could not tell how much quality was in each pair. She definitely did not want to make the same mistake. She still had her $100, but every pair was very expensive. So she looked at each one very carefully.

Finally at the end of the day, she selected a pair that wasn't quite as attractive but looked to be more durable. The shop keeper put them in a box for her and she walked out, happy, but not as excited as when she'd bought her first pair of shoes.

"The first day, I was dancing and prancing, not being careful at all. Maybe it was partly my fault those shoes fell apart. I'll be more careful this time."

Still, she thought, a girl should be able to dance and prance as much as she wanted in a good pair of shoes. Isn't that what they were for?

She put them on and started walking. The old lady saw her with new shoes and scoffed at her.

“You only had a few dollars left. Those shoes must be terribly cheap! They'll fall apart before you even get home, and you'll have dirty, tired feet all over again! And now you're surely penniless! Ha! Silly girl.”

The shoes did last longer than the last time, but they were too tight on her and they began to hurt her feet after a while. And just like last time, they began to fall apart on her. They at least got her all the way home though. But she knew they would not last. She was very sad again.

But the next morning when she woke up, she realized she still had every penny of her $100 deep down in her purse. It  was a strange mystery.

She headed back to town, knowing she would need to shop for shoes again by the time she got there. Sure enough, the shoes fell apart on her by the time she got to town, and the old lady saw her with dirty tired feet again. This time she just shook her head, laughing.

"Soon, your feet will be all ugly and used up, and you won't even be able to fit a nice pair of shoes!"

Apple ignored her, remembering how her father had so carefully washed her feet.

“Let's see your money,” the shop keep asked. She showed him, and so he let her in once more to look at shoes.

“Twice now you've sold me very expensive shoes, and twice they've fallen apart on me. This isn't a very good store.”

“It's the only shoe store in town. Take it or leave it.”

She had no choice but to go in. This time she took a pair of shoes that were maybe not so pretty, but they looked comfortable and durable, and they were still pretty nice looking. The shop keep boxed them up. And this time, the girl went to a quiet stream to wash her feet before putting the shoes on. But while she was washing her feet, another girl with prettier feet crept up, stole her shoes, and ran away.

“NO!” Apple cried, dismayed. But there was no hope for it. The shoes were gone. She cried for a very long time. She began walking all the way home barefoot. But because she was taking so long, her father realized something was wrong and went out to meet her. He found her stumbling along crying, with wounded, dirty feet. He carried her all the way home. Then he washed her feet and hugged her.

When she looked in her purse before falling asleep, there was her $100, deep down inside. She smiled and drifted off into dreams, though her feet were very sore.

Floyd came to visit again the next morning. She told him all the crazy stuff that had been happening with her shoes and her money. “Every time I buy a new pair of shoes, I think I'm gonna be broke the next day, but when I check again, I still have my $100. Why is that?”

“Haven't you notice that the shop keeper just asks to see your money? You don't actually lose anything by buying lousy shoes each time. You're still worth just as much as you were before.”
That's very strange, Apple thought.

“But the old lady said-”

“That old lady is just mean. Don't listen to her. All you have to worry about is choosing a good pair of shoes so your feet don't wind up broken and sore.”

“But how do you know which shoes are good quality and which shoes are crappy? You can never tell just by looking at them, and you can't try them on before buying. It's like you just have to take a wild guess! It's so scary! I don't even wanna do it anymore!”

“Take as many guesses as you need to. You're still gonna be worth just as much each time some crappy pair of shoes falls apart on you. Some day, you'll find the perfect pair.”

“I don't want a perfect pair. I just want a pair of shoes that will get me all the way home without hurting my feet.”

The next day in town, she saw the girl who had stolen her shoes. The girl was sitting on the road side crying because the shoes she had stolen had fallen apart on her and her feet were all dirty and injured. At first, Apple wanted to point and laugh and tell her it served her right for stealing someone's shoes. But she realized if she did that, it would just mean she was mean, just like the old lady. And besides, all this girl wanted was a nice pair of shoes to put on her dirty tired feet. Apple knew exactly how that felt. She felt bad for the girl in a way.

“Look in your purse,” Apple told her. “Way deep down inside. You still have your $100, you know. You're not broke. You don't have to go stealing someone else's shoes.”

The girl looked, and sure enough, there was her original $100. She was over-joyed and she hurried away to buy new shoes. Apple smiled and continued along to get some shoes of her own.

“Let's see your money,” the shop keep told her. Apple showed him the $100, and he let her in once more to look at the shoes.

When she came out again, there was the old lady, scoffing.

“Ha! Back again, silly girl!? How many times are you gonna keep trying? You're obviously not very bright. And your feet are gonna be all ugly and dirty and all used up in the end. Ha!”

But then Apple looked down at the old woman's feet. She wasn't even wearing any shoes herself! Her feet were all ugly, and dirty, and all used up.

“Look in your purse, you mean old Lady!" Apple told her. "You still have your hundred dollars. You can still go buy yourself some shoes. You don't have to be mean to everyone else just because your feet are hurting. Just go get some shoes!”

But the woman was old and bitter and she didn't even bother looking.

Apple put her new shoes on and walked away feeling glad she had a friend like Floyd. She knew that no matter how many times she tried a new pair of shoes, no matter how many times they fell apart on her and left her sore and tired, she would always be worth just as much as she had been before. Feet could be washed. Cuts and bruises would heal. And she would still have her $100. Maybe she would find the perfect pair of shoes one day, maybe she wouldn't. But she would always be the same girl deep down inside, and she would always keep trying again.

The Muddy McCluddys

Clim McCluddy and his twin brother Clem were fighting. First they were fighting over toys, then they were fighting over food. Then they were fighting over a chair. Then they were fighting over a pillow. It was really silly. Finally when they broke down into shoving and hitting each other, their father had had enough.

“Outside you two! It's time for a dunk in the mud!”

“No! Father!” they chorused in dismay. But father was angry and determined that they would be dunked in the mud.

Behind the house was a deep gulch of icky gray mud. Father marched them out there and pointed.

“In you go!”

“Why do we have to get dunked in the mud every time we fight!? Why does everyone in this village do this to their children? It's cruel!”

“Get in the mud and roll around and I'll tell you.”

They groaned, but they tiptoed into the gulch up to their ankles, hiking their pant legs up to their knees.

“No, no,” father said. “All the way. Dunk right in, head to toe.”

“But father!” they chorused again. “Can we at least take our clothes off first!?”

“No. In you go, clothes and all” father said. And he pushed them in one by one with the toe of his boot. They sank down until they were completely covered. Then they sat up gasping, covered head to toe with icky gray mud.

“Gross!” Clem groaned.

“Yuck!” Clim agreed, slinging a great goop of mud from his fingers. It splattered on Clem's arm.

“Hey! Stop it!” Clem shouted, and slung some mud back at him. “This is all your fault! If you hadn't-”

But right then, father burst out laughing a loud, boisterous laugh and the boys hushed their bickering.

“What's so funny!?” Clem demanded.

“Look at you two! You look ridiculous!”

 And he laughed some more. The boys looked at themselves, and then at each other and and let out a few chuckles of their own. Soon they were laughing riotously and flinging mud playfully at each other until even father was splattered a bit. Eventually they calmed down.

“Now, I'll tell you the story of why our village sends fighting children to wallow in the mud. Sit there and listen carefully.”

Father sat on a stump and lit his pipe.

“It was many hundreds of years ago, before your grandfather's grandfathers were even born. The villagers were constantly bickering with one another, just like you two. One man was mad about his neighbour's barking dog. Another was mad about his neighbour's goat who had gotten into his garden and eaten all his crops. There seemed to be no end to the disputes around the village. Every little thing seemed to make the people angry. And the angrier they got, the less and less it took to make them even angrier still. Soon they were falling into fist fights over a mere sneeze in the wrong direction, or a certain hair style someone didn't like, or somebody sitting in someone's chair and using their spoon at the dinner table.”

“Like Clem did to me!”

“Quiet boy, and listen.”

“Yeah, shut up, Clim!”

Father took a puff of his pipe and continued.

“One day, a shop keeper started selling red tunics, which was what they called sweaters in those days. They were very fine and comfortable, and made a person look very sharp. Once a few people had bought them, they became very popular. Soon every villager had to have one. But the tailor had only made a hundred of them before running out of red dye. So he locked his shop up and began busily working on yellow tunics because he had plenty of yellow dye left. After a few weeks, he opened his shop again and made a lot of money selling the yellow tunics. And all the people who never got to buy a red tunic, now bought a yellow one, until every villager had either a yellow or red tunic. And then the real fights began.”

“How did different colours of sweaters cause people to fight, father?” Clim asked.

“There you go again, interrupting!” Clem chided him.

“Well, now that everyone had either one colour tunic or the other, each colour began to feel like they were part of a team, and they began to ridicule and belittle and harass the people of the opposite colour. They decided that they were superior just because their tunics were dyed a certain colour, even though the tunics were exactly the same in every other way.”

“That's dumb,” Clem said.

“It is,” Father agreed. “But they didn't know it at the time. They were so used to being angry. And so tensions between the two sides mounted day after day, week after week, month after month, until one day a man with a yellow tunic became so enraged, he grabbed a hold of a man's red tunic and ripped it in half. Now, these tunics were very expensive you see, and very precious. Soon the man with the ripped red tunic and the man in yellow were scrapping full out. Then others in the town square joined in. Red people attacked yellow people, and yellow people attacked red people. It was an incredible brawl. Then people from all over the village heard the commotion and came running to see what had happened. When they say the reds attacking the yellows, they joined in, fighting, screaming, cursing, even clobbering each other with tools and furniture. Eventually the whole village was involved, and there wasn't a man woman or child who weren't attacking somebody. Even little babies in their little baby tunics were pushing and shoving each other. Many people were badly hurt, but their anger kept them coming back for another attack. The fight lasted half a day, from morning 'til supper time.”

“Wow!” Clem said. “That's way worse than me and Clim!”

“So where did the mud come in?” Clim asked.

“I was just about to get to it. You see, God looked down on the village and saw the horrible state it was in. So much anger. So much hate. So much violence. And all for nothing. So he sent a great rainfall. There was a mighty clap of thunder and the rain came pouring down like never before. But still the people fought, and now they were fighting in the mud and rain, rolling around and around, punching, scratching, pulling hair, biting, and breaking things. It was a great mess.

“But after a while, everything got so muddy, that nobody could see what colours the tunics were any more. Everything was completely covered in gray slop, even people's faces. And when they could no longer see which man was their enemy and which man was their friend, they had no choice but to stop the fighting. It was then that they realized how silly the whole fight was. There was really nothing so wrong about the other person except that they'd decided the other team was bad based on nothing more than a colour. Other than that colour, they were all exactly the same. And now that the colours were all covered up, they all stood confused, and feeling quite silly.

“After a while, the village elder started to laugh. He laughed so hard he fell over a bucket and splattered into the mud on his behind. Then he laughed some more. Soon everyone in the village was laughing until they had tears in their eyes. And they rolled around in the mud, like animals, laughing and slinging great gray glops of mud at each other, man, woman, and child. And in the end, they all went down to the great river and helped each other wash the mud off, and when each man uncovered someone with the opposite colour tunic, he gave him a big hug, tended to his new friend's wounds, and invited him to supper. Then they rebuilt the village and the elder gave a great speech about how God has show them true humility. Everyone agreed.

“Eventually the tunics were all worn out and faded away, but the story remained, as well as the tradition. And to this day, when children begin fighting, they are sent to go sit in the mud, and be drenched in it from head to toe to remind them that there is really no difference between one person and the next except the prejudices we each hold in our own minds. There has been peace in our village for over 400 years, and it's all thanks to a great rain shower that drenched us all in sloppy gray mud.

“Now do you understand why children are sent to be dunked in mud when they bicker?”

“Yes, father,” Clem admitted. He apologized to Clim. Clim apologized in return. Then they went down to the great river and helped each other wash. They hugged and promised to share their toys and food and chairs and pillows from now on.

They fought a few times in later months and years, and father always sent them back to dunk in the mud until they learned how silly it was for one person to feel like he's better than another. They eventually learned that we are all equal, especially when we're covered head to toe in icky grey mud. And when everyone is equal, there is nothing to fight over.


 Waterbot rolled down the street looking like a tall white garbage can. He had three legs underneath the great white cylinder of his body. The wheels negotiated the cracks and bumps in the walk well enough, but now and then Waterbot could feel a bit of his precious cargo spill inside him. He was old.

He stopped on each corner, calling out, offering water to passing humans. "Water here. Clear, clean, cool water.  It's free. It's delicious. Water here!" Most had their own drinks. Others jostled him aside as they hurried on their way. And it was raining.

"I'll take some water," one young man said. His friend tugged at his arm, urging him on to whereever they were headed. Waterbot stopped, opened the front doors in his chest with a soft  hydrolic hiss. He reached in, plucked up a paper cup and filled it from a faucet that seemed to come from beneath his neck. Then his arm extended outward and he offered it to the man.

"Here you go, sir. Delicious, clear, clean, cool water! Free of charge."

"I changed my mind," the young man said, and threw the water back in Waterbot's face. He crumpled the cup and threw that in Waterbot's face too. Then he strutted off into the crowd. Waterbot extended a hose from his left side and vaccuumed up the crumpled cup.

"Water," he called. "Delicious, clear, clean, refreshing water. Free of charge. Who wants water?"

"Out of the way, stupid bot!" an annoyed-sounding woman said. She shouldered him so hard in her haste, he nearly fell over. He corrected his balance though, and resumed his call. "What a waste of electricity! Nobody even drinks water anymore! Why are we paying taxes for this nonsense?"

"Delicious water," Waterbot said. "Would you like some water, miss?"

"No! Get out of my carsin' face!"

Waterbot rolled on.

And then he saw a couple of young men in an alley. He paused and turned toward them.

"Delicious clean, clear water, gentlemen. Would you like some water?"

"Sure," one of them said. "I'll take some." And then he laughed.

Waterbot rolled toward them, scanning the path for obstacles as he went. When he reached them, he opened his chest and began to repeat how delicious and clear and clean the water was as he reached for a cup. But one of the boys kicked him right off his legs. His gyrosensors tilted and he struggled to right himself, but the lateral force exceeded the gravitational pull on his counterweights, and he tipped over. He hit the pavement with a crash. His precious water began bubbling out of his storage tank, pouring out onto the dirty concrete of the alley, which washed from black to grey as it passed over.

"I request assistance, sir. I seem to have fallen," Waterbot said.

"Here's your assistance!" the boy said, and he began kicking and stomping Waterbot with his heavy red boots. His compainion laughed and joined in.

"Stupid bot! Who needs your carsin' water!"

Then they grabbed up two-by-fours and laid into his external structure with those as well.

"Please, sir," Waterbot said. "You'll harm my external structure." And then he added. "Set me upon my wheels and you can have some delicious, clear, clean, cool water. Free of ch-"

That's when a swing of the man's club smashed out his voice box. The rest of his requests and offers came out sounding like record scratches played through a tin-can telephone.

By the time they were done, Waterbot was destroyed. They walked off laughing, wearing his paper cups like devil horns.

The technician found Waterbot the next day after a brief search. He was the last of a discontinued model from a cancelled program. The tech stood over him for a brief sentimental moment, wondering why there was a lump in his throat.

"Ah, well. You did good service, Waterbot," he said by way of a eulogy. Then Waterbot was swept up into a crate and hauled off to be recycled into something more useful to society than a robotic water fountain.

Little Santa

The alarm clock, for some reason, did not go off on Christmas morning and Candace leapt from her bed in a panic at ten minutes after ten. “Oh my God, I slept in!” she gasped, and after that one brief moment of foggy revelation everything else was rush, rush, rush.

She had been up until 2:30 in the morning trying to get everything ready for the family get together that was planned for today. People would be arriving at noon and she still had plenty of things yet to do. Of course Josh had been no help at all the night before. He had been constantly pestering her with “How do you spell this, and how do you spell that?” for some last minute letter he was trying to write to Santa. After spelling out about 20 or so words for him she had snapped at him to leave her alone.

“Josh! Enough already! Can’t you see I’m busy here? Santa won’t even get this letter until after Christmas, so if you’re asking him for any extra toys you’re wasting your time. ”

“I was just writing to thank him, momma,” Josh said. He had a confused look on his face, as if he thought she should have known that. Suddenly Candace felt a little guilty, and that made her even more irate. She didn’t need to feel guilty on top of everything else.

“Just spell it however you want. Stop bothering me with every little word.”

It was a little bit later, that she noticed Josh come in from outside at nine o’clock at night. She hadn’t even noticed him leave.

“Josh! Where have you been? Outside by yourself at this time of night!”

“I just had to mail that letter, momma.”

“You know you’re not supposed to leave the house without permission, especially this late at night!”

“The mailbox is just down the street. I also went to say goodnight to Timmy and Tommy too. They were just watching out the window for Santa and-”

“You know you’re not supposed to play with them. Their mother doesn’t like you hanging around there all the time.”

“But momma, they’re my friends!”

She sent him immediately to bed. With so much to do she didn’t have time to argue with him.

“Santa doesn’t come if the kids aren’t asleep. You know that.”

“Yeah, I know. ‘Night, momma,” he said, and dragged his rumpled little teddy bear by one hand off to bed.

Now it was Christmas morning. Now it was a mad rush to get everything done in time, and her first thought was that she would go downstairs and see that Josh had already mangled all his presents open and left a big mess all over the living room floor like he had done last year.

“Josh! You better not have gotten into your presents already. What will the family think if none of the presents under the tree for you are from me?”

She remembered being embarrassed last year about that. Though nobody said anything, she knew what they were thinking, and she over-explained how Josh had already opened all his presents before they’d even gotten there.

Josh was laying in front of the Christmas tree, filling in one of Santa’s boots in a coloring book with a black crayon. The presents were untouched.

“How do you spell ‘believe’, momma?” Josh asked, glancing up from the page he was working on.

“Who said you could plug the Christmas tree in? That’s very dangerous, Josh. You know you’re not supposed to play with the plugs.”

“I was just trying to help, momma. I’m sorry.”

“I’ve got so much to do. I’ve got so much to do!” Candace muttered over and over to herself as she hurried out of the room.

“Momma! How do you spell ‘believe’?”

“Not now, Josh. I told you last night I don’t have time for that. Just spell it like it sounds.”

So for the next hour Candace rush, rush, rushed around, trying to get everything ready in time, trying to beat the clock, trying to make everything perfect before that first ring of the doorbell announced the arrival of the first in-laws. She knew it was next to impossible to get everything done in time, and she really wished she had some help. She was so stressed out that she once again bit Josh’s head off for incessantly hollering “Ho, ho, ho! Ho, ho, ho!” up and down the halls in his jolliest little Christmas voice. “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!”

“Josh! Shush!” was all she could say. “If you’re not going to help me, you could at least go and play somewhere and stop driving me nuts!”

“Can I go see Timmy and Tommy?”

“No! I told you already, their mother doesn’t like you over there all the time!”

“But it’s Christmas! I have to see my friends on Christmas.”

He was getting upset now.

“We have people coming over in twenty minutes and you’re not going anywhere. Now go and get dressed! Hurry!”

“Can I go and see them later?”

“No, Josh! I just finished telling you we have people coming over. How would that look if you just left us all and went to play with your grubby little friends?”

“They’re not grubby!” Josh retorted indignantly.

“Josh, I’m not going to stand here and argue with you. I’ve got so much to do, and you’re not helping me at all. Now just get upstairs and get dressed before I get really angry.”

“They’re not grubby. It’s not nice to call people mean names like that, and you should-”

“Josh! Now!” Candace hollered, teetering at the end of her patience.

Tears burst from Josh’s eyes and he turned and ran up the stairs.

“You’re mean like the Grinch!” he told her without looking back.

“Yes, that’s why I got you those stupid little presents, isn’t it! Maybe I should just take them back to the store! You won’t even play with them anyway!”

The presents she had gotten him weren’t even really a surprise. He picked them out himself at the store the week before. He lifted each one off the shelf with big bright eyes and said, “Momma, can Santa get me this for Christmas?”

“Why would you want that? You don’t like those kinds of toys?”

A shopper jostled past Candace in the aisle, impatiently grimacing at her as though she were merely an obstacle in the path, and not even a human being. Her cart was knocked sideways and bumped into Josh’s arm. He rubbed at it unconsciously, but didn’t really seem to notice.

“Excuse me!” Candace snarled at the woman. “Some of us are trying to shop here. How rude!”

“Go to hell,” the woman muttered under her breath, but Candace heard her and for a moment she wanted to take that stupid toy Josh was holding and hurl it at the woman’s fat and ugly head. Some Christmas spirit!

“Please, momma. Can I please get this?” Josh whined.

“You won’t even play with this thing, Josh. I know you won’t!”

“But Timmy and Tommy love these things!”

“Oh, well that explains it. You just have to get everything Timmy and Tommy like, don’t you? I suppose if they jumped off a bridge you’d jump off with them.”

“No, momma. Timmy jumped off a bridge last week and I didn’t do it too.”

“That figures,” Candace muttered. “I don’t know where their mother is half the time and I honestly think…”

Josh didn’t even hear the rest. Candace had absent-mindedly tossed the two presents into her cart. He grinned ecstatically to himself and kept quiet so she wouldn’t change her mind.

She had thought of arguing the point with him. It seemed like a waste of money to buy him presents he wouldn’t even play with, but she let it go. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about picking anything else out. It was one less worry she had to deal with, and if he didn’t like it on Christmas morning that would be his own fault.

Candace thought about that day at the mall as she rapidly tidied up the living room. Josh’s coloring book and crayons were all over the floor. There were pages ripped out of it with little dedications scribbled across the top of each one. “Dear Tommy, I hope you beleev in Santa this yeer. Hes really real. I saw him at the mal with momma. Love, Josh.” Another one said, “Dear, Timmy. Santa will bring you a presint this year. I jist no it. Love, Josh.”

“Yeah, right,” Candace muttered. “Santa doesn’t visit kids with negligent alcoholic mothers.” Then she yelled, “Josh, come get these pictures you left all over the place. Now! And take your crayons upstairs with you.”

Josh came down gathered up his pictures and crayons, and sullenly slinked back up the stairs.

The first ring on the doorbell came shortly after 12:00 PM. The first guests were admitted and sat down, while Candace hurried around getting the last few things in order. She had not even taken a moment to have any breakfast, and she didn’t think Josh had either. Candace turned on a CD of Christmas music, and fetched them a cup of hot chocolate and eggnog.

“The place looks wonderful, Candace darling. I just love this time of year, don’t you?” her mother-in-law called from the kitchen.

“That’s easy for you to say, you old crone,” Candace muttered under her breath. “Don’t offer to help me or anything.” But out loud she called back, “Yes, it’s wonderful isn’t it?”

“I honestly don’t know why Douglas left you. You’re such a wonderful person.”

Then Candace heard her father-in-law mutter, “Gwen, shush! You don’t need to bring that up at a time like this!”

“Why not,” Gwen bickered back. “It’s true, isn’t it?”

“Quiet. She’s coming.”

They both went silent and smiled broadly as she entered the room. Candace put on a phony smile of her own, and decided she couldn’t wait until the rest of the family got here. She couldn’t stand her parents-in-law at times.

“Well at least I still have you two,” she grinned at them, setting a tray of dainties down on the coffee table in front of them.

“Well we’re not going anywhere,” Gwen announced cheerfully.

“Lucky me,” Candace smirked. Then she headed back into the kitchen hoping to avoid anymore awkward moments.

Josh came in and presented them with pages that he had colored himself, with similar dedications on the top of each one. Candace could hear them reading and laughing as they read each one aloud.

“Dear Gandma. ‘Gandma’. Isn’t that adorable? Dear Gandma. I hope you like this picture. I collared it myself. Oh, collared. That’s adorable, isn’t it, Jack? Collared. How adorable.”

“Mine says, dear Grimpa.”

“Oh ‘Grimpa’. How adorable.”

“Dear grimpa. Santa sed you give good gifts. He likes when you help him out. Love Josh. And look, Gwen. There are a bunch of little elves making toys. That’s wonderful, Josh.”

Candace rolled her eyes. How phony can you get? She thought to herself.

“Momma wouldn’t help me with the spelling. I’m sorry of there’s any mistakes.”

“I was very busy, Josh,” Candace interjected from the kitchen. “You know that. I had to get everything done myself, you know.”

Her face was flushed hot with embarrassment. “What kind of mother will they think I am? I don’t even have time to help my son with his spelling. Well if they’re so upset about it they can get everything done all by themselves next year and see if they have time to look after every single little trivial thing Josh needs all day long!”

Of course, nobody had even said anything, but she knew what they were thinking in their hearts. They’d made such a big deal about Josh not having any presents from her last year, asking over and over again if there was anything under the tree from mom. “He damn well opened them all before you even got here. I’m sorry I couldn’t watch him every single moment of the day. I’m a terrible mother, okay!”

Candace stopped her train of thought. She was getting madder and madder and she had to force herself to calm down. Thankfully, the doorbell rang again and she was distracted from the inner turmoil of having her motherhood put on trial by these folks who had no idea what being a single mother was all about.

More and more guests arrived. Josh’s uncle Alex showed up with his latest girlfriend Darla. Max and Christine, Douglas’ brother and sister-in-law arrived, and finally Dennis and Phillip, Darla’s two teen-aged sons walked through the door. The pile of presents under the tree grew. Candace rolled her eyes and dreaded the clean up she would have to do afterwards, all by herself once again no doubt.

“Wow! There’s so many!” Josh beamed. “This is great!”

“Easy for you to say, kid,” his uncle Alex grunted. “You didn’t have to pay for it all.”

“And you won’t have to clean it all up after,” Candace added.

“Now, now, let’s not complain,” Gwen chided them. “We should be grateful for the blessing we have.”

That was easy for her to say, Candace thought. She had the most money to blow on Christmas, and the least cleaning to do. In the real world people struggled for their “blessings”.

“Santa told me Christmas is not even about presents,” Josh piped in. “He says friends and family is most important of all.”

“Fine. We’ll just take all your presents back to the store then, Josh,” Uncle Alex replied.

“No way!” Josh objected, and there was an eruption of laughter.

Finally everyone was settled and they began the opening of presents.

“Now you didn’t go ahead and open all your presents already like you did last year, did you Josh?”

They just had to bring that up, didn’t they? Candace grimaced inwardly.

“Nope,” he grinned. “Not even one.”

The presents were passed out one by one and for a brief moment Candace was filled with a little bit of holiday cheer. The carols played softly and the family was unified in the sharing of gifts. Perhaps all the trouble was worth it after all, Candace thought. The peaceful Christmas moment passed quickly however when Josh was offered one of the presents “from Momma”.

“I don’t want to open that one right now,” Josh said, and he passed a present to Uncle Alex instead. “Here you go, Uncle.”

“Sheesh. I never heard of a kid who refused a present before,” Alex muttered.

Candace on the other hand was not so cheerful about it. The hint of aggravation began to grow in her heart as she wondered if Josh would cause any problems for her like he did last year. “Great,” she thought. “He picks out presents he doesn’t even like and now he doesn’t even want them. Crazy kid. This is all I need: another reason for them all to think I’m a bad mother.”

The pile slowly got smaller and smaller, and the mess got bigger and bigger. Dennis knocked over a lamp throwing a basketball he’d gotten, and Darla spilled a glass of wine on the carpet with nothing more than a simple “Oops, clumsy me.” Candace hurried around here and there, cleaning up spills, re-righting fallen lamps, and stuffing shredded wrapping paper into a garbage bag, and they all simply passed things to her, as though she were a mere servant, and not the hostess. She was also running in and out of the kitchen as well, checking on the dinner periodically at the same time, and fetching beverages and dainties for the guests as well. They shouted orders at her like some sort of waitress or something. Imagine treating someone like a petty servant on Christmas day. How indignant, and not a single one of them offered to help in anyway. She began to grind her teeth at this, but kept up her phony smile.

“Here’s another one for Josh, from Momma. You want this one, Josh?”

“No. Not right now. I’ll open it later.”

“Open it now, Josh. Everyone wants to see what momma got you.”

Momma wants everyone to see what she got you, was what she really meant, but Josh refused to let her off the hook of embarrassment.

“Can’t I open it later? It’s a special one.”

“Open it now, Joshy,” Candace said, now with an edge of impatience in her voice.

“Here. Here’s one for Grampa Jack,” Josh offered, trying to change the subject.

Jack took his present and the focus turned to him while he opened it. Candace however turned a sideways glance at Josh, accusing him of humiliating her with her eyes.

“Look, momma,” Josh said nervously. “Grandpa got a watch!”

“Actually,” Candace said. “I didn’t notice any presents that you got for anyone else, Josh. What did you do with the money I gave you?”

“I made everyone pictures, momma. Santa says gifts you make yourself are more valuable than anything you buy in the store. It’s the thought that counts.”

“A department store Santa said that?” Alex chortled. “I bet he was fired after the first day.”

“What did you do with the money then, Josh?” Candace asked again.

After an tense silence Josh confessed, “I spent it.”

“Well that’s a fairly selfish way to be at Christmas,” Gwen said. “You’re supposed to think of others before yourself, Josh. Don’t you know that?”

“What did you spend it on?”

Josh remained silent. He was almost pained with the thought of confessing anything more.

“You spent it on yourself, didn’t you, Josh?”

“I guess so,” Josh sighed. “Sorry.”

He seemed more confused than sad, however, and Candace was curious as to what he had bought. She hadn’t noticed him carrying anything out of the mall that day. It was a hectic day of course. There could have been a U.F.O. flying over head and she would have missed that too.

“Well a person’s entitled to spend a little on themselves now and then,” Uncle Alex said. “I got myself a new bowling ball last week.”

“Can we get back to the presents now?” Phillip groaned.

The pile got smaller and smaller, and Candace grew more and more tense as she hurried around trying to stay on top of the mess. Finally there were only two gifts left and Josh still refused to open them.

“Those are the only two left, Josh. You have to open them now.”

“I don’t want to,” Josh said. “I want to save them for later.”

“We’re opening the gifts now, Josh. Open them now.”

“Later,” he said, and then quickly added, “I want to play with the Choo_Choo Uncle Alex got me. See? It makes a funny noise. Isn’t that adorable, hey? Choo! Choo!”

There was an awkward silence as they all looked from Candace to Josh and back at Candace, and then at the Choo-Choo. Candace was flushed with internal rage and she could swear she felt their gazes upon her, judging her.

She such a terrible mother, he doesn’t even want the gifts she got him! Imagine that!

“I’ll check on the turkey. Josh can open it later, if he wants to. Or never. I don’t care.”

She hurried out of the room. She was near tears, and her hands were shaking, but somehow she fought it off. She took a couple of deep breaths and forced herself to just focus on the turkey. Just get through this. She could deal with Josh’s incensing antics later. This was definitely the last straw. She had a good mind to take those stupid $40 ‘Talking Trucks’ back to the store the very next shopping day. He obviously didn’t want them. She had been right all along. She never should have let him pick out his own gifts.

Somehow she managed to get supper on the table, denying drink requests shouted from the living room periodically. Her guts were burning with resentment now.

“Candace, darling, will you bring me a glass of Brandy?”

“I’m really very busy right now, Gwen. You’ll have to get it yourself.”

“I’m a guest, Candace dear. I will not serve myself in your house. It’s simply not proper.”

Candace felt like screaming at her, “If you want a drink get up off your lazy butt and get it yourself, you miserable old crone! I am not your slave!” but instead she simply said, “Dinner will be ready in ten minutes. If you want me to fetch every little drink for you it will be twenty minutes and the food will be burned.”

“I’ll get it for you, Grandma,” Josh offered.

“I’m sure you would, darling Josh, but you should not be handling liquor at your age.”

“I’m sure he could handle it better than you, you old lush,” Candace muttered to herself.

“Let him get it, Gwen. He can handle it. It’s not like he’s gonna drink the stuff. You better not anyway, kid,” Alex Laughed. Alex himself already had a bit of a slur in his voice. Candace cringed as she recalled him throwing up in the fireplace the year before.

“There’s some milk an’ cookies fer ya, Santy,” he had babbled. There had been an eruption of laughter, but it had been Candace who had to clean it up. She hadn’t found it funny at all.

Josh came into the kitchen. “Choo Choo!” he shouted, startling Candace from her reverie. “Where the brandy, momma!”

“Josh,” she hissed angrily, instantly dousing his Christmas cheer with the intensity of her tone. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing not opening your presents in front of everyone. How could you embarrass me like that?”

Josh stood frozen, almost panicked. Finally he spoke.

“Sorry, momma. I just wanted to save them until later. Why do I gotta open ‘em now anyways?”

“So that everyone can see you open them, and they won’t think I’m a bad mother.”

“Santa says Christmas is not about what you get-”

“I don’t give a damn what Santa told you. Santa’s not a hardworking single mother with a horde of judgmental in-laws hovering over her every move like a bunch of god damned vultures.”

Josh was not entirely sure what she was talking about, but he could tell by her tone of voice that she was very upset, and that she was talking more to herself than to him anyway. He said nothing in reply.

“The brandy is on the counter. Take the bottle to Grandma and she can fill her own glass if she needs it so badly.”

“Momma, please don’t be angry. It’s Christmas,” Josh said.

“It may be Christmas for all of you, but for me it’s just another day of work.”

Josh reflected on this for a moment and then offered, “You’re doing a good job, momma. Everyone is happy.”

Then he took the bottle from the counter and carried it under his arm to the living room.

“I’d be happy too, if I had a slave to wait on me hand and foot,” she sneered to herself.

Josh was right though, in one way. It was Christmas and she should be happy about having family over. She wasn’t though, and she began to feel guilty and ungrateful once again. Then she felt angry that she felt guilty, and she felt even worse. She slammed the turkey down onto the center of the table in the dining room and all heads turned to see what the big fuss was all about.

The bitterness melted from her face back into the phony smile she had plastered on all day.

“Dinner’s ready,” she said sweetly, rebuked back into good cheer by their critical gazes. Then she strode back into the kitchen to fetch the stuffing and potatoes.

There was a mountain of food and it looked like a veritable banquet set before them. They praised her for all her preparations but she was already too upset to be encouraged by their kind words. If they were really so thankful you’d think they could have lifted a finger to help her, she thought angrily, but smiled, nodded, and politely thanked them.

Then Josh continued causing problems for her. He piled his plate high with enough food for two of him, and he sat there jabbering away with everyone, not touching a bite of it.

Candace was beyond stressed by this time and could not eat either. She sat there staring at the mountain of turkey, potatoes, corn, peas, and stuffing on his plate, already deciding that it was sure to go to waste, without a single bite of it being touched. She was so upset she could not even speak to him about it. She just sat there, sipping her cold coffee, and trying to fight off the cold sneer that wanted to spread across her face. Then her eyes wandered from one guest to another, hearing their inane chatter, but not really listening. It all seemed so phony, and she began to feel as sad as she was angry. She began to feel like Christmas had been robbed from her. The one time of the year when she was supposed to be happy no matter what was going on--it had been stolen from her by this ravenous pack of hyenas.

“Josh, aren’t you gonna eat your supper?” Gwen asked him.

Josh looked down at the pile and picked at one little carrot with his fork. Then he glanced at grandma, saw she was no longer watching, and dropped it back onto her plate.

Candace said nothing. She was too tired now, mentally, emotionally, and physically to fight with him about it. If he didn’t eat he would go hungry. Too bad for him.

She didn’t eat either, however. Her stomach was knotted into a ball of tension and she thought that if she took one bite she would throw up all over the table. She just sat there, glancing from one guest to another, with a façade of a smile, pretending she was enjoying the holiday festivities. She felt robbed though, and she was very bitter.

And Josh wouldn’t even touch his food.

“Josh, dear,” Gwen said again. “Eat your supper now. It’s not good to be wasteful.”

“Yes, Josh,” Candace added. “Why don’t you eat? Or are you going to be difficult again.”

“First he doesn’t want her presents, now he doesn’t want her food,” Uncle Alex sniggered, stuffing half a turkey into his mouth and washing it down with a swig of beer.

“Yes, eat up, Josh,” Grandpa Jack said. “You’ll make your mother feel bad.”

Suddenly Candace felt the attention turned back onto her. There was an uncomfortable silence.

“I’m saving it for later,” he said meekly, as though expecting a rebuke.

There was another awkward silence. Somebody coughed, and a fork clinked against a plate.

“Well you should never force a child to eat. It’s not healthy,” Darla commented.

“Why did he take such a mountain of food then?” Gwen asked. “It’s wasteful.”

“He can take as much as he wants. We’re not in the third world here, you know!” Alex replied.

A bit of an argument started between them all and Josh and Candace just stared silently as it played out. Eventually Josh reached up to quickly eat a mouthful of food, hoping to cool the tension in the room, but he dumped his tumbler of apple juice over into the potatoes in the process. The conversations ceased all at once.

“I’m sorry,” Josh stammered.

“Go to your room, Josh,” Candace said. Her tone was flat and emotionless, as though she knew he would mess up somehow.

“Now, now, Candace, It was just an accident. That’s all.”

“He’s not eating anyway, he might as well go to his room.”

“He doesn’t have to go to his room. It’s Christmas for God’s sake. Give the kid a god damn break!”

“Please don’t use that kind of language in my presence. It’s not proper!”

“Can we all please just calm down. Let’s not argue like this. Please.”

“Well I don’t need to be told what kind of language I can and can’t use.”

“I don’t need to sit here and hear that kind of language.”

The conversation escalated like that and soon people were outright yelling at each other. Candace finally snapped.

“Josh! Go to your ‘goddamn’ room before you ruin Christmas for everyone! Now!”

Josh’s face curled up into a look of fear and heartbreak. He slid his plate off the table and carried it away with him from the dining room.

“There now. The problem has been removed. Can we all get back to eating?” Candace sneered. There was a lot more she wanted to add, but she restrained herself.

“Honestly. The kid didn’t’ have to be kicked out like that. It’s Christmas for God’s sake.”

Candace ignored him however and finally dug into her own plate of food. She had been robbed of Christmas, but at least she would enjoy the meal she worked so hard to prepare.

The conversation split off into various subjects among pairs of guests, but Candace just kept to herself, focusing only on her food, and the notion of a hot bath and a glass of wine after everyone finally left. The food was gradually consumed, cheer slowly returned to the table, and eventually everyone had completely forgotten about Josh.

“Are you planning on leaving any more milk and cookies for Santy this year, Alex?” Jack joked.

There was a chorus of laughter. Jack raised his glass. “Let’s hope not.”

Dinner was eventually finished and the group sat around sipping brandy, beer, and eggnog while Candace cleared the leftovers away, by herself once again. They complimented her on the meal once again, but she shrugged it off internally and busied herself with the cleaning.

“You should check on Josh, Candace,” Gwen suggested, as though she were just standing around doing nothing. “He’s been gone for almost twenty minutes now.”

Candace bit her tongue, resisting all the bitter comebacks she could have offered to that ‘suggestion’, and simply dropped what she was doing and went to check on Josh. She was sure she would find him playing with his Choo-Choo, or picking at his food, or coloring in his coloring book, or simply sulking, or even sleeping. Meanwhile there was cleaning to be done and nobody else made a move to help her in any way.

Josh was not in his room. He was not in her room either. He was not in the bathroom and he was not in the living room or kitchen. Surely he was feeling bitter and wanted to get back at them all by hiding, drawing attention to himself by making them all worry about him. He was not in the basement, or any of the closets.

“Have any of you seen Josh?” she said, poking her head into the dining room.

“He’s probably taken his presents and gone up to his room to open them I bet,” Grandpa Jack smiled. “He can’t hold out forever.”

Candace glanced behind her. His two little presents were indeed gone, but he was not in his room.

“I can’t find him. I’ve looked through the whole house.”

“Perhaps he took his toys out in the yard. What did you get him?”

“Talking Trucks,” Candace muttered as she turned to head for the back door.

Josh was not out in the back yard or the front yard, but Candace did notice his boots and his coat were gone. She slapped her hand immediately to her forehead. Suddenly she pieced the mystery together. Of course, it was so obvious. He’d unwrapped the presents while they were eating dinner, and had decided to take them to Tommy and Timmy to show off the cool new trucks he’d gotten.

“I told that little brat not to go anywhere!” she sputtered to herself, tugging on her own coat and boots. “He’s really in for it this time.”

“Where are you going, Candace?” Gwen asked, strolling into the hallway in shock. “You have guests.”

“Josh has run off to visit his little friends down the street. My guests will have to wait while I go and bring him home.”

“Honestly. You’d think you could control that boy. It’s Christmas day! He’s done nothing but defy you all day! He’s ruining Christmas. Honestly! It’s Christmas and you’re running out on your guests!”

Candace could hold back no longer.

“You know what, Gwen? Why don’t you go sit your fat ass down and drink your beloved brandies? I’ll be back to wait on you hand and foot after I get my son.”

With that she stormed out, without even closing the door behind her.

“Well, I never! Of all the insolence!” Gwen shouted. “I go out of my way to come all the way down here, and this is the treatment I get? It’s simply not proper. Come on Jack, we’re leaving!”

Candace did not even hear it, however. She was already halfway down the street. She had a bone to pick with Josh. One by one her guests left, taking their gifts and handfuls of dainties with them.

Candace was fuming. The little flakes of snow that fell from the leaden sky melted on her face almost with a hiss. What would she do to him? Ground him? Spank him? Confiscate every single toy he’d gotten that day? He had absolutely no excuse. All her preparations, all her hard work, stress, and worry was all ruined. It was a big catastrophe.

She looked down and could see his boot tracks in the freshly fallen snow, wandering down the sidewalk between the tracks of a sled. Had he taken his sled too? What was this kid thinking? Was he planning on going tobogganing with those grubby little runts as well?

“Not today, Joshy. You’re in nothing but trouble today.”

She was nearing the corner where Tommy and Timmy lived. Her boots crunched in the snow as she passed the mail box where Josh had deposited his letter to Santa the night before.

She stopped in her tracks for a moment. There on the ground was Josh’s letter. It was fluttering, half-buried under a small pile of snow. It did not have a stamp and was not even in an envelope. She saw his handwriting on it though: Santa Claus, North Pole. Please send this fast. Candace snatched it up, unfolded it and read it.

Dear Santa,

Its me Josh. We talked at the mal and you said that you did not have enough helpers. Remember? Anyway I jist want to say thank you for the presints I got. You are doing a grat job. Love, Josh.

Ps. Please help momma to under stand what you said about helping. She has been vary mad a lot. I don’t want to get in truble.

Helping? What did he mean by that? Why would he get in trouble for being helpful? If anything he was in trouble for taking off on his family on Christmas day, when she had specifically told him he was not allowed to. It was getting dark now too, and that made it even worse. Candace stuffed the letter into her pocket and rounded the corner.

What she saw around that corner, in front of Tommy and Timmy’s house, brought her instantly to tears.

The two kids were sitting excitedly on the front steps of their little apartment building and Josh stood in front of them. He was dressed in a little Santa suit, standing next to his little red sled, and he had a red pillow case over his shoulder. He dropped it to the ground and Candace could hear his little voice through the muffling snow fall, trying to sound deep and resonant, “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas! Have you been good this year Tommy and Timmy?”

“Tommy jumped off a bridge, but I told him not to!” Timmy said.

“That’s okay, Tommy. I heard you’re a really good friend, so I brought you a present anyway. You shouldn’t make your mommy worry like that, though.”

“Do you have one for me too?” Timmy asked.

“Why yes I do, Timmy my boy, and it’s your favorite thing in the whole world!”

“Talking Trucks! Talking Trucks! Is it Talking Trucks?”

Candace leaned against the building she stood next to, almost wanting to fall down.

“Why don’t you open the presents and see?”

The little Santa reached into his sack and pulled out two carefully wrapped boxes. He gave one to each of them.

“Hey this says ‘To Josh, from Momma’”, Tommy commented.

“Oh sorry,” the deep little Santa voice said. “One of the elves must have put the wrong tags on there.”

Josh ripped the tags off and stuffed them back into the bag.

The boys tore the wrapping away and squealed in unison.

“Talking Trucks! Talking Trucks! They’re really real!”

The looks on their faces was pure joy, joy that Candace had never seen in all her life. They jumped off the steps and ran around in circles hoisting the gifts high in the air as they went and chanting “Talking Trucks! Talking trucks! Yay!”

Then they gave Josh a great big hug. Then they danced around some more.

“Ah thanks, Josh! You’re the best friend ever!” Tommy said. “You’re the best!”

He turned the toy over and over in his hands, admiring it as though it were the greatest thing in the universe.

“My name’s not Josh. It’s Santa!”

“Oh. Sorry, Santa,” Tommy grinned.

“I brought you some food too, guys, if you’re hungry, and some candy from my stocking, uh, I mean, from a stocking that some little kid didn’t want. Here you go. You can have it.”

The two boys sat on the stairs with their Talking Trucks close by their sides, and the little Santa served them one at a time from the plate of food that he had his sled. He had even brought little paper plates and napkins and forks.

“Sorry,” he said. “It’s a little cold.”

If the boys had any complaints, they didn’t say so. They dug in ravenously, grinning and chewing, and looking up and down from Josh to the piles of food in front of them.

“This… is… great…Josh!” Tommy mumbled between gulps.

“You’re the best, Josh!” Timmy added.

“I’ve got to go now, guys. Please don’t tell my mom about this. I’ll get in so much trouble. I’ll just tell her I lost the trucks or something.”

Candace broke down crying right then. She could not believe that her incredible little son would think he might get in trouble for all of this. He’d sacrificed his own presents, planned and thought through this whole idea probably for weeks, and now he had executed it, making his two little friends the happiest kids on earth. This was the most generous and thoughtful act she’d ever seen and she was more proud of him than she’d ever been his whole life. How could he possibly think he would get in trouble for it?

As if in response to her thoughts, Tommy asked, “Why would your mom get mad? Wouldn’t she be happy you were sharing?”

“You don’t know my mom. She’s very grumpy about giving things away. She says we can’t afford it. So I had to give these to you secret.”

Candace stepped away from the building she was leaning against and began walking toward her son.

“Josh,” she called out. Her voice cracked with emotion. Tommy and timmy snatched up the gifts and hid them behind their backs.

Josh turned around in surprise. “Momma?” he said. Though they hid the Talking trucks behind their backs, he knew he could not hide what was going on from his mother. He ran to her, waving his hands as if he could somehow block her view. “Momma, don’t come over here. Don’t look. Please. It’s a secret! You can’t see! Please don’t look.”

Candace did look though. She looked at the food, the stocking full of candy and treats, the piles of shredded wrapping paper and the red pillow sack. She saw the quiet awe and fear on the two boys’ faces.

“What are you doing, Josh?” she asked sadly.

Josh saw her tears and feared he had broken her heart with this little stunt. He feared he had ruined Christmas. He began to cry as well.

“Please, momma. Don’t look. I’m sorry. It’s just that Tommy and Timmy don’t have anything at all. They can’t even see their momma on Christmas ‘cause she has to work all day. They had no presents and no supper and I just felt awful. Please don’t be mad at me, I’m sorry.”

“Oh, Josh,” Candace said weakly. She dropped to her knees to face him, but he couldn’t look her in the eye.

“I’m sorry I lied to you, and didn’t eat, and made you feel bad. I’m sorry for everything. It’s just that when I asked Santa why he didn’t visit Tommy and Timmy last year, even though they were good, he said he couldn’t get to every house all the time. He said that’s why he needed helpers. He said I could be a little Santa and take some presents to them for him. He said that. He really did. Please don’t be mad.”

“So you planned all this from the start?”

“Yeah. I picked out presents that I knew they would like, and I took the Christmas money you gave me and bought a Santa suit. It was on sale, so I was lucky. It was normally $69.95, but there’s a big rip in the bum. I had to sew it. I hope you’re not too mad at me. I just wanted to be a good friend. I wanted to help Santa.”

“I’m not mad, Josh. You’ve done the nicest, most sweetest thing I ever saw. I’m so proud of you. I’m sorry you had to lie, and sneak around, and do this all in secret. I’m sorry. I haven’t been a very nice person. Can you forgive me?”

“You’re not mad?” Josh asked with confusion that made her feel even worse.

“No. Not at all. You’ve done a wonderful thing here. I’ll bet your friends are the two happiest kids on earth right now.”

“I guess so,” Josh smiled. “They were dancing around and everything. I was so happy, but I was scared too.”

“You were so brave, Josh,” Candace said. Then she added, “Thank you.”

“What for?” Josh asked, confused once again.

“Thank you for reminding me what Christmas is supposed to be all about.”

She hugged him tightly to herself, sniffling and sighing, almost drowning in the pride and joy she felt.

“Thanks, Josh,” Tommy said timidly, feeling it was now safe to speak.

“Yeah, thanks, Joshy!” Timmy added. “I am the happiest kid on earth. Really I am. Don’t get him in trouble, please Miss Josh’s Mom.”

“Momma?” Josh said hesitantly.

“What, my dear?”

“Can Tommy and Timmy come to our house for Christmas? I don’t want them to be all by themselves.”

Tommy and Timmy were silent, but obviously excited.

“I think that would be okay. As long as their mom says it’s okay.”

“Maybe their mom could come too,” Josh suggested. “Maybe we could give her a gift too, cause she didn’t’ get anything either.”

“She didn’t?” Candace asked the two boys.

They shook their heads. “No. We’ve hardly got money for the rent. She had to work on Christmas day so we wouldn’t get kicked out. She works really hard, but there’s just too much bills.”

Candace thought for a moment. Then she scribbled a note with their address and the situation, and Tommy ran into the house. Then they went home.

When Angela, their mother, arrived at the door an hour later she was ushered into the house with much ado. She was fed and entertained, while the boys played with the talking trucks. Candace waited on her and the boys hand and foot, but she didn’t mind so much. It was a joy to see this hard working single mom smile on a day she’d thought would be the most depressing of her life.

O-Wem O-Witch

Patrick was dressed as a construction worker. He had overalls, a hardhat, work boots, and even a tool belt with a power drill in a holster. It wasn’t really a costume if you asked me. Dressing up as something you see every day isn’t what Halloween is supposed to be about. I was dressed as a faerie.

“That’s such a stupid costume! What’s the point of dressing up if you’re gonna be something ridiculous like that?”

“What’s so ridiculous about it?”

“You look like one of the Village People! You might as well stand next to a cop and an Indian and start doing the YMCA!”

“Yeah, well you’re the one who looks ridiculous. How many faeries do you know who walk around with a Louis Vuitton purse?”

“I am a fashion faerie, if you must know. I go around to all the poor slobs with no sense of style and I wave my magic wand and POOF! Instant trendy.”

“And the desperation to be trendy is a desirable quality on the planet you’re from?”

“You wouldn’t know style if it smacked you in the face, Fatrick.”

“Wooo. Fatrick. What a burn. Get this man some Aloe vera, stat!”

But I think that did burn him a bit. He was quiet for a few minutes and then when we passed a house with a bunch of toys in the yard, he took out his power drill and started drilling holes into some poor kid’s prized possessions.

“What are you doing!?” I hissed at him, trying to be quiet and furious at the same time. “That’s somebody’s toys!”

“This will teach ‘em to leave their mess all over the yard.”

“You’re such a jerk!”

He ignored me and punched his drill through the forehead of a Mr. Potato Head.

“Now he’s Mr. Potato Dead!” he muttered with a demented giggle.

I continued down the street, no longer wanting to be seen with him. A few minutes later he came hurrying up to me again, still laughing.

“Here. I brought you a souvenir.” He handed me a plastic Potato Head ear. “This is for all the times you say I never listen to you.”

“Hardy har. You’re such a jerk. That poor kid will be crying his eyes out when he sees what you did.”

“Did you see all the toys he had? He’s probably a spoiled little brat. He deserves it.”

“You don’t even know him!”

“This guy’s an ass too,” Patrick said in front of someone else’s house. And he drilled a hole through an expensive-looking fence.

“God! You’re such an idiot!” I told him, stomping ahead without him once more.

“You sounded like Napolean Dynamite just then!”

“Whatever. Why did mom make me take you to this stupid party anyway? It’s gonna be so lame. You’re an idiot. All your friends are idiots. The whole place will be full of holes by the end of it, and you’ll all finish out the night playing with yourselves over some stupid Megan Fox movie.”

“Megan Fox is hot!”

“Well if you meet her, you can wow her with your fabulous YMCA dance. Jack ass.”

And so we continued on in silence. The party was quite a ways away yet. We’d left early because we had to walk the whole way. Not only did mom insist on me escorting this little menace to his stupid Halloween party, she wouldn’t even give us a ride. I’d begged her for nearly half an hour, but she ignored me, dancing around the kitchen with her headphones in her ears listening to some stupid musical from the 1970s or something and icing Jack-o-lantern faces onto the cupcakes she’d baked. She was dressed as a witch. How appropriate.

“Mom! Please!”

“Let’s do the Time Warp again!” she sang to herself.

Patrick drilled his drill at me. “She can’t hear you, stupid. She’s in Rocky Horror Picture mode.”

“God! I hate this family!”

The trick-or-treaters were trickling out into the streets now. Ghosts, magicians, knights, pirates, and pokemons all started wandering up and down the streets in little groups. One kid was even dressed like Indiana Jones. He even had a whip and a toy gun on his belt. I wanted to grab the whip and give Patrick a few lashes with it. Too bad fashion faeries didn’t carry weapons of their own.

Oh yeah, and there were a whole lot of vampires. Vampires were everywhere. It was really pretty ridiculous. Was there a sale on stupid looking teeth and fake blood or something?

“I vant to suck you blood…” a little kid muttered as he walked past.

“You’ll have to suck it outta my arse, ya little bastard,” Patrick said.

“Oh my God! Can you be a civilized human being for just one day of your stupid life!? For even one hour?”

“No,” was all he said.

“You’re just a sad little jerk who’s mad at the world because you’re overweight and you can’t even get a girl to talk to you, so you gotta be an ass to everyone else!”

“Wow! You shoulda dressed up as Sigmund Freud. You want me to tell you all about my mother too? Obviously you’ve got me all figured… out…”

He trailed off. He’d stopped walking. What now? I turned back and saw him standing on the sidewalk, staring through the wrought iron fence of some ramshackle old Victorian house. It was grey with black trimming. The second floor windows seemed to be scowling down at passers-by above a porch that sagged on each end, making it look like an angry frown. The lawn looked like it hadn’t been raked in about 200 years. To our right, an old metal sign creaked, swaying in the breeze above the gate: Trespassers Beware. And then in parenthesis below that was hand written, I ain’t kidding! The whole place looked abandoned, creepy, and old. Worse yet, it felt creepy and old too. And it was even scarier, now that it was almost totally dark. You could be sure no trick-or-treaters would be knocking on that door. Not even on the biggest triple-dog-mega-dare you could imagine. A second sign hung on the gate as well, one side of a cardboard box that said, Peddlers will be roasted alive! Keep out!”

“Come on, Patrick. What are you staring at? Let’s go!”

“Look. There on the window sill.”

I looked. Up on the saggy porch, to the left of the front door, the light was on in one of the windows. The window itself was open a bit and I could see what looked like a fresh-baked pie, steaming on the window sill.

“What about it? Come on! Let’s go!”

“It’s apple pie. Can’t you smell it?”

“Big deal. There’s gonna be all kinds of deserts at the party. Now can we just-”

“Wait here,” he said. And with a quick glance up and down the street, he ducked under the creaky sign and into the yard. The gate groaned far too loudly and then shut itself again with an irritated clang, as though it would have rather have been part of the fence so it wouldn’t have to be bothered with all that opening and closing nonsense.

“What are you DOING!?” I hissed at him again. This was much worse than drilling holes in some poor kid’s toys. Now he was messing with some apparently psychotic old bugger’s apple pie. He ignored me of course, tip-toeing across the crunching leaves toward the stairs. “Patrick!” I said, one last time, trying to get his attention. But he was zoned in on the pie. He apparently meant to steal it. I looked up and down the street again. There was a not a vampire or pokemon to be seen. It was like they’d all vanished. A cat darted from beneath a parked car across the street, scaring the hell out of me, but other than that, the area was deserted.

Patrick got to the front porch and crept towards the open window. When he got there he turned to grin at me one last time, and then he reached for the pie. But then he stopped as though distracted by something only he could hear. He stepped forward and leaned over to peek in the window.

“Patrick! Don’t!” I whispered, as loud as I could, but there was no way he could hear me from the street.

He leaned right over and was nearly sticking his head right in the window. He let out a startled squeaking noise and suddenly his whole body was yanked up off the ground and dragged into the house. It happened so quickly I’d nearly missed it between blinks. He was there one second. And then he was gone. His power drill was all that was left of him. It clattered to the porch floor with a couple of thumps and then all was quiet again. I stared, stunned, horrified. At first I thought I’d imagined it, but then the window dropped closed with a ka-chunk like a guillotine, the shade was pulled, and the light behind it went out.

“Patrick!” I screamed, when I finally realized he was really gone. “Somebody help me! Patrick!”

But nobody heard me. Nobody was around. Not even a cat.

After I gave up screaming for help, I ran to the front door and tried to look in all the windows. All was dark. I grabbed up the drill and ran to a neighbor’s house to bang on the door. Of course nobody answered. I ran back out into the street to flag down a car, but no cars came. Five minutes had passed, then ten, and there was no sign of anybody. Should I run all the way home and get my mom? Why had that idiot gone after that stupid pie in the first place?

I finally decided to try to get into the house myself and maybe try to rescue him. It was a ridiculous idea but I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly. I was panicked about my brother being murdered by some lunatic old man with a pie fetish. I had to get him out of there. It was the only thought in my head.

The only entrance I found was in the back of the house. There was a back door but it was pad-locked. I used Patrick’s drill as a saw and cut through the wood around the lock. It was old and rotted anyway. The drill would also come in handy as a defensive weapon, if need be. This is what I told myself anyway.

The door swung open and I stepped into the darkness. I was apparently in a very old kitchen. I stood in the doorway, aiming the drill like a gun with both hands, waving it back and forth at every little skittering noise I heard in there.

“Patrick!” I whispered again. But I heard no reply, only my own breathing. I stepped forward. The door thumped closed behind me. There was a hallway in front of me, leading away into even thicker darkness than was in the dreary old kitchen. I called to him again, a little louder, but there was still no reply. Finally I stepped forward, heading into the hall. I had to find that front room he’d been dragged into. And if I had to drill the drill through the old bastard’s head, so be it. I was ready. I just had to save my brother.

I made my way down the hallway purely by feel. It was pitch black. There was light behind me in the kitchen, and a very dim light ahead of me, but the hall itself was as black as a coffin. The floor creaked. The skittering noises rustled in the walls. I stepped forward again and bumped into something… an end table. I went around it and made my way toward the light of the front room.

I went through the doorway and saw the window with the blinds pulled down. “Patrick? Are you in here?” No answer. And then I took a step forward again, and my foot squished into something soft and slimy. I slipped in it and fell sideways into some sort of chair. I bumped off of that and landed on the floor. The drill slipped from my hand and jostled away across the floor. My hand had slapped into the gooey mess on the rug. It was still warm and wet and sticky, and my first thought was that it was Patrick’s guts. The old psycho had already ripped him to shreds with an axe or something. I yanked my hand up in a panic and began frantically wiping it off. And then I smelled it and realized what it really was. It was apple pie.

I needed some sort of light. Then I remembered there was a lamp in this room when we’d first stopped in front of the house. I crossed the room and felt around for it. I found it and fumbled for the switch. It clicked on and the room was suddenly bathed in pale, brownish colored light. I spun around and saw only furniture—chairs, bookshelves, a table, an old foot-pedal sewing machine. There was a crackling electrical sound and the smell of burnt copper. The light flickered a bit, as though it would go out, but then it steadied again. My heart pounded, terrified of being plunged back into darkness. I scanned frantically around for the drill, but it was nowhere to be seen. Had it gone under the old couch? Had it clattered over into the hallway? I couldn’t see it anywhere.

“Patrick?” I called. And then I saw a rat dart across the floor out in the hallway and I nearly jumped out of my own skin. It was all teeth and hair and little beady eyes, and it was so quick it was almost a flash.

I slowly walked to the hallway again and looked out into the darkness. To the right was the front door and the stairs leading up to the second floor. To the left was the kitchen where I’d come from, and a small door that apparently led down into the cellar. A cellar. Uhg. It was the last place I wanted to be, but probably the first place a maniac would take someone they’d just kidnapped off of their front porch. If I was going to find Patrick, I was pretty sure I’d find him down there. But now I didn’t even have my drill.

There was an umbrella stand next to the front door. I pulled an old one out of it. It had a pointy metal end on it, and a curved wooden handle. It looked to be about ten thousand years old and probably hadn’t been open since Noah’s flood, but it was something to hold onto anyway. It was nice and heavy. I headed for the stairs. But when I got there, the light in the living room started flickering again. Then it went out for nearly a whole second. I turned back toward the living room, wondering if I’d have to go back there and turn it on again. It came back on its own but then went out again, this time for nearly ten seconds.

“Oh God, please…” I whispered in the dark. There was an electric crackle again, and the light came back on finally. I turned back toward the cellar again, and screamed. I was looking up into a hideously wrinkled and deformed old face with pale greenish skin, a fat, beak-shaped nose, and a long bulbous chin. It was not a man at all. It was a woman. Two powerful hands grabbed my arms before I could turn to flee. I screamed again, looking up into her face. Her teeth were rotted and random, like a row of brown and reddish headstones on a purple graveyard. Her hair was clumped and matted like the straw of a black and white broom. Her eyes were shiny wet black beads in her head. She hissed at me like an angry cat and a low rumbling growl rose in her throat. That was all the horror I could stand. I yanked one arm back reflexively and jabbed the umbrella at her face. The long metal point stabbed right into her eye and cold black goo squirted out, splashing across my neck. I screamed again, expecting her to collapse in a heap, but she held on, still grinning, still staring into my very soul with her one remaining eye. And then she began laughing. She threw her head back and cackled a long and sickening laugh. And when she stopped laughing again, she gave me a fierce glare, reached behind her back, and clobbered me with Patrick’s drill.

Everything went black, even blacker than it already was.


I woke in a cage hung from the ceiling in the cellar. My eyes were blurry at first, but I smelled fire. I glanced over toward the only light source. There was a great cauldron in a fireplace with a fire crackling underneath. There on a table next to the fireplace was Patrick. He was tied. He was gagged. He was still breathing, but he was not awake. There was blood and pie smeared on his coveralls. He was bleeding from a gash on his forehead. So was I.

“Patrick! Patrick, wake up!”

“He can’t hear you, dear,” the sound of a dozen hissing snakes said from beside me. My head snapped left and I saw her sitting there, on an old gnarled wooden throne that looked like it was made from tortured trees. Her right eye was still gone, and the wound oozed black blood down her cheek, but she didn’t seem to be in any pain.

“Who are you?” I said. “You can’t do this to us! You have to let us go! The police-”

“Are you afraid, my dear?” her voice rasped again. “You need to be very afraid for the spell to work. Your fear gives it power, you see. Your fear charges the crystal, for me. The crystal cannot suck the soul from your flesh until it is fully charged, and I do so need that dear sweet soul. I’m getting so terribly, terribly old, you see. So be a dear and give in to your fear, and I shall end your misery.”

“You can’t do this to us! I-”

And as I felt a flash of fear bubble up in my guts, I noticed a dim flicker in the crystal hanging from the ceiling.

“See? See there?” she pointed at it with a crooked finger. “Once that crystal stops flickering, you’re mine! Go, be afraid! Be terrified! Give in to fear! I’ve been living on rats and birds and cats and toads so long, but as you can see, they’ve deformed me quite a bit. But a sweet succulent soul like yours is exactly what I need to be beautiful and comely once again, and then I shall be able to lure whomever I wish into the cage. I’ll keep the comely ones, such as yourself, for the crystal, but fat and ugly ones like him go into the stew.”

The cauldron was steaming a bit now, heated by the fire beneath it. It was large, big enough for a child to hide inside perhaps, if any children were foolish enough to wander into this God forsaken house as we had.

“Please! Let us go and we won’t tell anyone about this. I promise! We’ll just run away and never return.”

She got up off the throne and shuffled over to the side of the cage, leering at me with her one good eye as though I’d insulted her.

“That’s what they all say, dear. So say they all, when death is near.”

Then she shuffled over and tapped at the crystal with a gnarled looking fingernail and turned to glare at me once again.

“Still dark, yes. But it is powerful enough. I shall try the incantation a little early. Sometimes it works before things get messy.”

Messy? What was she planning to do to us? My fear flared up again and the crystal flickered a bit. She smiled a malicious grin and nodded, wringing her hands together.

“That’s right. There you go. It’ll all be over before you know…”

I decided to try my best to control my fear. If that weird little crystal got stronger the more I was afraid, I’d better not give in to it. What was the happiest thought I could possibly think of? I couldn’t think of anything. All I could think of was Patrick drilling holes in some poor kid’s toys.

The old crone approached me, holding a small leather bag she’d lifted from a shelf by the fire. She began chanting out a demented little rhyme at me as she slowly shuffled around and around the cage, jabbing at me with the pointy tip of her old wooden cane.

“O-wem, O-witch.
I’ve got you, bitch.
I need your soul
to scratch an itch.
Give in to fear
the end is near
shed one last tear
give one last twitch.
O-wem, O-witch
I’ve got you, bitch.
Your life and mine
shall make a switch
Then you shall die,
but I’ll be fine…
O-wem, O-witch
I damn you, bitch
Your soul is mine.”

Her voice was like a hissing leak of poison from an old iron pipe, and each time she jabbed at me, I jumped a bit, and the crystal glowed a little hotter.

Control! Control! I screamed at myself.

“You really should go as a pirate this Halloween,” I said. “Just throw a patch over that eye of yours and off you go.”

And the flickering suddenly ceased, much to the old woman’s furious dismay. She growled at me again, leering at me out of her good eye. And then another cold, calculating grin spread across the cemetery of her mouth. She lifted the bag from her chest, pulled the draw strings open and dumped its contents over the cage. It spilled through the bars above me, down over my head and into my hair, down the back of my shirt and all over my legs. What was it? Pepper? Black sand? What the hell was it? I lifted my arm to look and she suddenly threw her head back, cackling horribly again.

Spiders! I was covered in tiny baby spiders! Thousands of them. They were in my hair, in my shirt, crawling into my ears, and up my nose. I screamed like I’d been stabbed through the heart, slapping myself all over my head and face in a desperate panic. I flipped and flopped and writhed in the cage like a worm on a hot pan.

“Ho ho! Ho ho! Look at that crystal glow!” she said, in between gasps for breath, and more hideously sadistic laughter.

I forced myself to calm once again, though I could feel the things crawling all over me. They were dropping to the floor by the hundreds but I was still covered in them. I whipped off one of my faerie wings and started beating at the bars of the cage, and at my head and shoulders.

“I sure hope at least one of these things are radio active,” I said, between screams. “Cause I’m gonna turn into a superhero and kick your frickin’ ass!” I kicked at her through the bars of the cage and knocked her back into that throne of hers. She fell with a crunch and I think she broke something. Her laughing stopped all at once and she glared at me again. I took a quick glance at the crystal again, still flicking spiders away, and she restarted the incantation. It was still only flickering, but it was much, much brighter now.

“O-wem, O-witch, O-wem, O-witch, your soul is mine. I’ve got you, bitch…” She went through the entire chant once more but nothing happened when she was done. She tapped at the crystal again. “Not long now,” she said, giggling. “I think though, that it’s time to wake your fat little friend.” She drew an old pair of shears from a nearby table and hobbled towards him. “Wake up. Wake up, fatty Patty. I’ve got something here that will drive you batty.”

She walked right up to him, lifted one limp hand from the table and snipped his little finger off. He lurched to life, suddenly screaming into the gag. His eyes flashed open wildly and he yanked and kicked at the ropes that restrained him. I watched in horror but then shut my eyes tightly when I saw the crystal pulsing more steadily. Patrick was screaming helplessly into his gag, and the old crone rapped him hard on the head with her cane.

“Quiet, you! You squeal like a pig!”

Then she took a nibble of the finger she’d cut off of him and spat, disgusted.

“This one’s been playing with himself! Foul swine!”

And she snipped off another finger as punishment. Patrick thrashed wildly again and blood spurted from his wounds, then he fell into piteous sobbing. The old hag threw his fingers into the cauldron, which was now simmering steadily.

“Disgusting!” she said again. “Luckily I’m not the one who eats it.”

Then she busied herself with dicing carrots, turnips, and potatoes with an old dagger she’d pulled from yet another shelf. It was a heavy old iron thing, but it was apparently razor sharp. She handled it deftly in her withered old fingers too. When Patrick kept kicking and screaming behind her, she turned and lopped off another two fingers from his other hand with a quick downward chop and flipped them into the stew with the tip of the dagger. “Keep you silent, I say again! Your squealing’s like a knife in my brain!”

Then she turned back to the vegetables and I got busy yanking and kicking at the old wooden bars of the cage. Patrick’s muffled screams covered the noise I made, but it seemed to be no use. The most I could do was bend one of the bars slightly outward at the bottom. It wasn’t even enough to get a leg through. I kept at it though. A bend would eventually become a break. Something was irritating my hip as I kicked and kicked, but I hardly noticed it. I was watching the old hag, and the crystal, and trying to control my fear.

She got all her chopping done, and I’d still kicked only enough away to get an ankle through. I gave up, exhausted, cut, and scraped up. I reached into my pocket to find the source of the irritation. There was the little plastic ear Patrick had given me. I squeezed it in my fist, fearing it would soon be all I had left to remember him by. Then the old buzzard turned back to the crystal to check its progress.

“Still so dull. What a shame. I guess we’ll need a tougher game.” She hobbled over to me and I flinched, readying myself for whatever cruel scare she had for me next.

“Well,” I said. “If the next game is an ugly contest then you definitely win.”

“I was beautiful once,” she answered. “Four hundred years ago, I was the most beautiful prostitute in the city of London. Even the lords coveted evenings with me. But I was abused as well. Men are such pigs, you see. The slightest insult to their precious little manhoods, even a giggle, and they’ll shove your face into a kettle of boiling stew. And then, all your beauty, all your fame is gone in an instant. I was hideous after that, a face to frighten children and make babies cry. But that’s when I met Daenna. She taught me the secret to healing, to immortality. She showed me how I could restore all my beauty as good as new. And all it costs is the soul of a pretty young maiden. Maidens are getting harder and harder to come by these days though. As you can see, I’ve waited a very long time…”

She didn’t notice the section of the bars I’d kicked away. I think maybe she was long gone out of her mind, bat shit crazy maybe a hundred years before I was even born. She seemed to be paying more attention to the crystal than anything else. She kept glancing up at it as she talked, waiting for its flicker to steady.

“But you should have seen the stew we made of that tiny-peckered lord, my dear. Oh it was a work, I tell you. Daenna and I somehow managed to remove his entire skeleton without even killing him. Well, the skull and spine we had to leave of course, but the rest of him… you should have seen the look in his eyes when we showed him his own shin bones. Perhaps I’ll do the same thing to fatty patty.”

“Are you gonna keep on babbling, you ugly old whore? I’ve got a party I’ve gotta get to.”

She didn’t seem bothered by my insult at all, and that kinda scared me a little more.

“Do you know who the stew is for, you insolent little brat? Do you know what makes the magic work? Do you know who gets to feast on your unspoiled flesh after I’ve torn out your soul? Here, let me show you.”

She turned the cage around and faced me toward the back wall of the cellar. There was a waist-high door set in the brick with tiny slit windows in it. It looked like a furnace of some sort. Something glowed from between the slits. Then she shuffled over and began turning a crank on the wall. The door began lifting. Inside, there was what looked like a glowing bear, except it wasn’t a bear. It was bald like a man, with muscles like a man, but it was glowing like hot coals. It had the head of a dog, with horns like a bull, and claws like an eagle’s talons. Its eyes were nearly white-hot fires as it stared up at me. It lunged, and I screamed, but its neck was yanked back by an incredibly thick chain. It snarled, and growled and spat glowing dribbles of molten rock that sizzled into the stone floor when they hit.

“Still trying to resist the fear, child?” the hag said to me. “This is a demon-dog, a Bär-geist. It’s one of the smallest horrors that exist in the hell you’re going to after your soul is drained of its essence. You see, hell is real. It’s oh, so real, and I’m sending you there in my stead. It’s how I’ve managed to survive so long, you see, by appeasing these hounds with much tastier morsels than myself. Now are you ready to scream for me? Ready to finish charging the crystal so I can take your soul? It’s nearly done now. Just a few more screams…”

I fought it with everything I had. But one scream managed to escape me when the dog-thing lunged again. The chains held though, and I simply turned away, grabbing the bars and refusing to look. I looked at Patrick instead. He was glaring at the dog with wild-eyed terror.

“Well, then,” the old hag said. “I’ll just have to finish preparing my stew.” And she walked up and suddenly, carelessly slit my brother’s throat with the dagger. Blood gushed out in a deep red fountain. I stared in terrified shock, but did not scream. The stone brightened anyway. It was pure terror that charged it, not just screams. My brother was laying there bleeding to death, and there was nothing I could do about it, and my soul’s screams were charging the crystal that would steal my soul and make the old hag new again.

She saw the crystal brightening and she threw her head back, cackling her cold cruel soulless laughter. I was shocked. I was horrified. I was helpless. My only weapon was a plastic ear. I threw it at her in a pathetic attempt at retaliation and it spun through the air between us. Her mouth was wide open, gasping for breath to below out another cackle and the ear dropped right down into her throat. Her laughter was cut off. Her hands went to her neck. She twisted and gasped, thrashing left and right, knocking a stool over, scattering instruments of torture this way and that. And then she slipped on my brother’s blood and fell sideways, crashing into the now boiling cauldron and smacking her head on the hearth. The cauldron teetered a moment, and then slopped a great splash of its stew over its rim, splattering her face with the boiling brew. Not a squeak escaped her. She couldn’t even breathe. She thrashed wildly though and in her crazed panic, she grabbed a flaming log from the fire and threw it at me in a pathetic attempt at retaliation. I ducked and it hit the top of the cage, setting the rope holding it to the ceiling ablaze. More stew slopped over the edge of the pot and splashed across her face, melting her flesh away until part of her skull was showing. Still she kicked and thrashed, refusing to die. And then the cage I was in fell. Weakened by my kicking, an entire section of the bars snapped away and it only took one more kick to free myself. I found myself lying on the cold stone floor looking up at the crystal hanging from the ceiling. It was now glowing steadily. The witch’s own terror had completed the charge.

I got to my feet and walked over to what was left of the hag on the floor and pointed at her.

“O-Wem, O-Witch, I’ve got you, bitch. Your soul is mine, O-wem, O-witch!”

There was a flash of light and something seemed to be yanked right out of the old figure on the floor. The light itself was screaming as it zipped through the room and into the crystal. Just then the hell hound snapped free from his chains and lunged at the body on the floor. It dove into the flesh in the same way the light had come out of it and moments later the figure exploded into a puff of dry ashes. Both the dog and the hag were gone. The little plastic ear remained though, laying half buried in the dust.

I lifted the crystal from its little hook on the ceiling. It was swirling and pulsing with light now. I held it by its chain, not touching it and walked over to my brother, who was gasping his last choking breaths. I laid it on his chest and the light seemed to be soaked up by him, like his skin was a sponge. Suddenly, his wounds began to close, his breath steadied. New fingers grew out of the stumps at his knuckles, and even the cut on his forehead mended. I took the dagger and cut his bindings.

“Wha… what happened?” he mumbled, opening his eyes. “The pain is gone.”

“Come on! We’ve got to get out of here!”

The flaming log had lit part of a wooden support beam on fire, and the blaze was now crawling up toward the wood of ceiling. Patrick shook his head, rubbed at his throat, and then sat up. He held up his hand and wiggled his fingers. They were brand new.

“Come on!” I said, even louder, heading toward the stairs.

“Wait!” he told me. “Look!”

There was an old chest at the back of the cave where the dog had been chained up.

“There’s no time! Let’s go!”

But Patrick wouldn’t listen. He never listened to me. He ran into the little cave and began trying to drag the chest out. “It’s too heavy! Help me!”

And since I knew he wouldn’t listen to me anyway, I decided I’d better just help him. I grabbed the handle on one side and he grabbed the other. We lifted it and carried it to the stairs. The flames were spreading across the ceiling now. The smoke was getting thick.

“Heave!” he said. We heaved, and thirty seconds later we got it to the top of the stairs and slammed the cellar door. “We’re rich! We’re rich!” he giggled dementedly. He was pretty damn happy for someone who’d just gotten their throat slit five minutes earlier.

“You don’t even know what’s in here?”

“Why else would she hide a chest in a cave with a devil dog?” he asked. “Total security!”

He snatched up the drill from the hallway floor and buzzed it through the ancient-looking lock. He flipped the lid open and we saw a near mountain of gold coins, gems, jewels, necklaces, crowns, and fat stacks of cash from nearly every era of modern history. There was a very old dress too, thin and faded, on one side of the pile. And on top of it was an ancient painting of a beautiful-looking victorian woman. The caption read: Madam Patricia Wemwick, October 31, 1609.

“You think that’s her?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. And there was a far away look in his eye for a moment.

A billow of smoke wafted from under the cellar door and the hallway was getting hotter. I slammed the lid shut again.

“Come on! Let’s get this thing out of here!”

“Don’t go that way,” Patrick said. “The front door is double bolted.”

“How do you know?” I demanded, dropping my side of the heavy chest again.

“I have no idea.”

We staggered out the back door and down the lane behind the house. We were halfway home before we heard the fire truck sirens screaming down the street.

We heard the next day that the place was completely destroyed. Even the chimney had collapsed. The police reported no victims of the fire and no eye witnesses as to who may have started it. The neighbors were not sorry to see it go, so there wasn’t much of an investigation.

We hid the chest in our own basement and lived pretty happily ever after, carefully buying ourselves things now and then so as not to arouse any suspicions as to where we’d come by the wealth. Not even Mom asked us any questions when that Christmas we got her a brand new iPod, fully loaded with nothing but show tunes from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Other than that, things were pretty much the same, except of course for my morbid phobia of spiders, and Patrick’s aversion to apple pie.

The End

Oh, and PS. We replaced all the little kid’s toys with brand new ones, and Patrick even paid for the repairs to the old man’s fence. So I guess maybe things are a little different after all.