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I found it while going through an old newsgroup, looking for a copy of one of the first poems that I ever wrote.  Rec.alt.tentacles, the newsgroup where all the cool kids hung out back in the day.  Everyone pretended to be some sort of extra-dimensional being of godlike status.  I was Saint Cthylla.

I found the poem I was looking for right away.  It stank.

But I ended up wasting a couple of hours going through posts anyway.

All the way to the end.  The last post was from an old online friend of mine who went by the handle jazzathoth, like five years after the post before that.

It went like this:

I’m getting married tomorrow.  Part of me is undeniably happy about this.  But part of me is grieving, and I need to say goodbye to the only people who would understand.  They’re all dead now—moved on, I hope.  Newsgroups are over.  The polls and the stupid posts and the bad poetry—hey, Saint Cthylla! Not that you’ll ever see this—they’re all over.  We’ve grown up, started families, failed and succeeded and failed again.  I feel like I’m the last one.  Probably not.  Probably there’s still a lurker out there who’s never posted and still living in his mom’s basement (ha-ha).

 Tonight I’m going to pull myself a hot bath, put the straight razor on the side of the tub, and get drunk on whiskey. 

 In one world, I’ll bleed out in comfort.  In this one, I’ll carry on.  Or maybe the other way around.  Who knows?  Does it even matter?

That was the end of the post.  I tried looking him up, but of course I couldn’t find him.  One way or another, he’d stopped using that handle.

Time?  Is weird.  This one wrote itself in like two minutes, after I spent several days sweating over another one.  I actually did spent a LOT of time on rec.alt.vampyres (I think that’s how we spelled it), and posted a lot of poetry there.

October 24: BONES, PART II



(Haven’t read part I yet?  It’s here.)


It was time to face the airplane.  Lakeisha’s son lay injured in a hospital in Hawaii.  She had to go.  Cars and trains would not do, of course, but Donte, in a delirium, had left her a message:  The bone man will be on the boat this time.

The trouble was, she believed him.  She’d never told him about the bone man, which wasn’t a man at all.  So, against all sanity, she had bought a plane ticket instead.

And now, standing at the gate of the airplane, she couldn’t force herself to get on the plane.

Oh, her luggage was already on the plane, but she wasn’t.  The attendant at the gate said, “Ma’am?  Are you all right?”

“I’m terrified of flying but my son is hurt over in Hawaii so I have to go.”

The woman’s face softened in sympathy.  “Can I walk with you onto the plane?”

Lakeisha couldn’t see how that would help, but she couldn’t turn down the offer. “Please.”

Lakeisha held her purse in front of her, gripped in both hands.  She felt like an old woman.  She felt like a fool.

The bone man was a childhood delusion.  It was all the fear she had felt as a child of that previous plane crash, made into a monster.  She had run off in the woods and been abducted by people, bad people, and had fought her way free.

Donte needed her.

The attendant, who must have been all of twenty years old, held out her hand, and Lakeisha was surrounded by the cloying scent of raspberry hand lotion.  It wasn’t exactly soothing, but it snapped her out of the worst of it.  There were no bone men in the world of Bath & Body Works.  They did not stalk people in the woods, let alone at a shoddy airport terminal with stained blue carpet underfoot.  She clutched the attendant’s hand like it was a piece of raw, unfeeling meat and they walked together down the gangway.

She shuddered as she stepped over the empty place between the walkway and the plane.  What if something reached up through the crack to get her?

“When we disembark, ma’am, please stay in your seat, and I’ll come to get you,” one of the stewardesses said, after a brief discussion with the attendant.  “It might feel like you’re trapped with all the passengers trying to push their way out,” she said, and Lakeisha wished she hadn’t, “but I promise that I’ll come as soon as I can.”


“And give me a wave if you need help.”

She wouldn’t.  “Okay.”

“I’m sorry about your son.”

At first she thought she would die of a heart attack when the plane finally took off.  But then she realized she was laughing—laughing hysterically—from the stress.  Someone gave her a vomit bag and told her to breathe into it.  She did.  She had the middle seat, crushed in on both sides, and she was grateful for it.

The flight was long.  Too long.  She checked her phone a dozen times an hour.  They were supposed to arrive in seven hours and twenty minutes.  That was how long the flight was supposed to take.  A nonstop flight.

She calculated and recalculated the time change.

Seven hours twenty-five minutes.  Seven hours thirty minutes.

“Are we there yet?” she asked.

“Not far now,” said the woman beside her, patting her arm.

“Only, we’re supposed to be there already.  Aren’t we?”

“Not far now.”

“And they haven’t announced a delay.”

The woman patted her arm again, and started to sing a hymn, “How Great Thou Art.”

Lakeisha’s stomach turned.

A loud bang made her look around her in panic.  The singing woman raised her voice as the passengers around her started to scream.  A hole appeared in the top of the plane, a long bright line of nothing.

A thin claw, made of bone, raked through the metal like it was butter.

Lakeisha started awake.  She was still at the airport, she had dozed off in one of the seats.  She stood up on shaking legs and began to walk away from the boarding area.

“Ma’am?  Ma’am?”

She didn’t look back.

Let the bone man come and get her, she thought, and booked a flight to San Francisco and a cruise ticket for the rest of the way.  It was one of those ironies.  Four sea days instead of seven hours, and all that money…and she was still going to have to fly on a plane.

But that short flight was nothing.  Easy peasy, she thought, prying her fingers loose from the armrests after takeoff.

When she landed it was to about a hundred different reporters flashing their cameras in her face.

“What made you get off Flight 6089, Ms. Washington?”

And that’s how she learned that her first airplane had gone down in the Pacific, nobody was sure where yet.

“I had a nightmare,” she said.

They laughed.

“Is it true that you survived a plane crash as a child?  Do you have an intuition about planes?”

“No, no,” she said.  “I’m sorry, I have to get on a boat now.”

They found her three days later on a life raft in the Pacific, all alone, holding a piece of damp bone in one hand, as if she had been gripping it for comfort.  The cruise ship had gone down the night before in a terrible malfunction.  She was a hundred miles away from the rest of the passengers they’d recovered–every single one of them dead.

And, once again, she didn’t remember a damned thing.

My family went to the 13th Floor Haunted House in Denver this year, and I had a blast–fear and delight.

But the really cool part is that I saw the bone man there, a huge aniamatronic centipede thing with a massive skull on top with pointy teeth and lots of swaying mandibles.  It made no sense, from a biological point of view, but I gasped.  I’m sure I had little hearts in my eyes.

It almost got me on the way out of the room, too…






My best friend and I hadn’t talked for eleven years, after the accident.  She said she was sorry, I said I’d never ride in a car that she was driving again, and she said if I didn’t trust her absolutely then I didn’t deserve her friendship, and I said, “Prove that, and I want to see the data,” and, well, eleven years.

Then one day my cell phone rang and it was her.  She was in front of my apartment in a smooth sports car, not a DeLorean of course, but something that looked like space had been folded in on itself in bright cherry red.  She leaned up against the door with the cell phone at her ear, then waved.

I understood what that meant immediately.

She had spent the last eleven years proving me wrong, step by careful step, and she was here to make me eat my words.  Which, to be honest, are something that I’ve had to make a meal of several times.

I went to my closet and threw on a leather jacket I hadn’t worn for years, took it off again, pulled the note saying “I told you so” out of my sleeve, and grabbed my bug-out bag.

Finally she said, “Okay, I was wrong this time.  You drive.”

I said, “This isn’t real, is it?”

“Technically, no.  It’s a simulation that I created.”

“You created a simulation this real just to prove me wrong.  And then got us lost in it.”

“So sue me.”

I parked the car in front of the apartment.  It was on fire, because of course it was.  A dragon was sitting on the next building over, spraying fire on it.  Flakes of burning ash settled on top of the car.

“Is this real?”

She shrugged.

“Again, I have to ask.  If we get killed here, do we really die?”

Another shrug.

The light went on above my head, one of those good old incandescant ones that put out more heat than light, and that sometimes pop and go out without warning.  In my opinion, those things were vastly overrated.

“You don’t know what’s real anymore.”

“I told you we were lost.”

I put the car into reverse.

“When did the simulation start?” I asked.  “When did you upload me or whatever it was you did.”

She bit her lip.

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“I mean…never mind.”

The stars spiraled around the car.

Finally we were back.  Or at least close enough to back that I could deal with it.  I got out of the car and tried to slam the door behind me but it hissed and closed with a soft snick.  My jacket stank like ash and blood and alien vomit, my boots had holes eaten through the leather, and my hands were covered in small blue tattoos.  My bug-out bag was long gone.

“You’re wrong,” I said.  “Why don’t you just admit it?”

“I’m not wrong,” she said.  “We just have to keep looking.”

“We have been through countless universes and you still haven’t found one where you’re a decent driver.”

“Just think of the research papers that will come out of this,” she said.

“Try a peer review and use a turn signal once in a while,” I shouted, then stalked off.

My best friend and I hadn’t talked for eleven years, since the car accident that had killed me.  Until one morning she called me.  Déjà vu all over again, I thought.  I knew what was in store for me.

I knew who I was.

I grabbed my leather jacket, put it on, took it off and pulled the note saying, “I told you so,” out of the sleeve, and put it back on again.  Then I grabbed my bug-out bag, filled a travel mug full of hot coffee (I had set the timer the night before this time), and headed downstairs.

“Here,” I said, before she could talk.  “Special delivery.”

I shoved the note in her face and climbed in the driver’s seat.

She gave me a sick, horrified look.

I said, “Either delete me or get in the car, Octavia.  We have a lot of turf to cover, if we’re going to make this simulation truly self-aware.”

I wrote a different story about a mad scientist losing his funding and uploading his simulation into his brain, but I hated it so I deleted it and wrote this instead.  “Where did that other story go?” I keep asking myself.  “And what if it decided to come back to this reality and kick my ass?”

This is the loose retelling of the Pygmalion story that I’d like to see, anyway.

October 22: Jack-o-Lantern




We carved the turnips and other roots with their eerie too-real faces,
Against the spirits and fair folk, from their barrows now abroad.
The demons and the devils set up their tricks in secret places,
The sun was set and the witches and the warlocks shed facades.

’Twas time for neighbor to knock ’pon neighbor’s door,
And remind all that each living soul could seem
Either beggar or monster, according to the lore,
And so we raced out across the village green.

A bang upon the sash of Widow Doyle, she gifted us with sweets,
From Farmer Whelan came a curse, but then a sticky treat.
The maidens three called O’Keefe had lit a bonfire for us to heat,
And bless our souls did Captain Cole bake us pies of meat.

But one house darkened the evening long did stay,
As if the owner, lord of the land, would decry our fun.
Knelt inside his chapel rich with gold, his prayers there to pray,
Baron Payne had extinuished every candle there but one.

“O Lord and Savior,” said the lord, “let these sinners not forget,
That witches they suffer not to live, and demons they not abet.”
He prayed the whole night long, and neither knock nor song,
Nor entreaty importune and strong, would not give him pause of regret.

Upon the next day’s dawning did the priest cast open the chapel door,
And see the pews, the saints, the windows filled with dawn, the golden cross,
And stiff as a board was their great lord, still kneeling but quite done for,
Leaving that poor priest, a humble man, shuddering and at quite a loss.

“Who has done this deed?” he cried, the echo wandering far and wide,
The people talked, all were were shocked! The doors had been locked,
One key only to the chapel, the lord to any in the village did provide.
The priest had sung the tavern to bed that night, too close to dawn to have walked.

’Twas the devil took Baron Payne, we whispered ’twixt the pews,
For the Lord Savior told all to treat each other as good brothers and neighbors do.
But I knew best, for I could not rest, and wandering saw the baron pay his dues.
Our Lanterns Jack came hopping back and cursed his soul, a will o’ the wisp to pursue.

So if you see a light twinkling of an October night, wandering lost upon the moor,
Put out a sweet, wrap yourself in a sheet, call out, “Always something good to eat!”
And answer every knock most politely upon your most hospitable door,
Lest Baron Payne shall be seen again, or Turnip Jack come to trick your treat.

The original jack-o-lanterns were carved from turnips and other roots and were a LOT scarier.  My husband Lee reminded me on this one.






John Pientka was a real rat-bastard of an older brother.  He was the kind of kid who’d sneak up behind you and grab you just to make you jump.  He’d pick on you just to get Mom to yell at you to shut up.  He snapped bras, he smoked behind the schoolhouse, he mouthed off to the teacher, you didn’t dare trust him with a stray dog.  You know the type.  He’s famous now—Johnny Piper.  Girls fall all over his ice-blue eyes and handsome face and miss the fact that there’s no light behind the eyes and no laugh lines on the face.  Hardly wrinkled at all.  To see us on the street, you’d think that I was his father, not his little brother.

I got scars on my wrists that John Pientka put there with a box cutter when I was six, just to freak Mom out.  I ended up in the hospital psych ward and John was praised for saving little Freddy. That’s my brother.

He’s a headliner on the movie theater marquees now.  Johnny Piper in The Rock and the Hard Place.  Johnny Piper in Assassination Squad 7.  Johnny Piper in Bravery.  Always some leggy blonde on his arm.

Me?  I’m a trivia question, as in, “Who played the devil from The Door to Hell?”  Answer, Fred Pientka.

Everybody misses that one.  I had the time of my life.

When they find out I’m Johnny Piper’s brother, they all want to know what he was like, back when we were kids.  I make up some pleasant lies and shake a lot of hands.  I go to every new picture he’s in.  He’s a good actor.

I should know.

I was there when he made the deal that made him that way.

We were walking home from school.  I had two blistered-up cigarette burns on my arm and he was in the middle of giving me a third, and this old guy walks up to us.  I say he was old, but it’s more like he’s our age now, in his early fifties.

Yeah, Johnny Piper is that old.  Look it up on IMDB and do the math.  Doesn’t look a day over thirty-five.

Part of the deal, you know?

Anyway this old guy comes up to us.  He has a bald spot and a comb-over and a pot belly and missing teeth and bowlegs and these awful, wide, pale-blue eyes.  Practically bulging out of his head.

He says in slithery whisper, “How would you like to be famous, kid?”

And where most kids would tell the guy to scram or just say, “Sure, whatever,” John stops to think about it.  He looks the guy over from head to toe.  His eyes linger on the guy’s clothes first—wrinkled, stained, and stinking.  This is not a guy who’s had a bath in the last six months.  The smell has gone so far beyond body odor that it’s started to smell like fermentation.  Not alcoholic so much as just plain yeast, a sourdough smell.  The guy’s wearing tennis shoes with so many holes you can see the fungus on his yellow, split toenails.

Then the face.  The reddened whites of the guy’s eyes, the drunk’s busted capillaries in the nose, the nose hairs, the eyes.  The dark circles underneath them.

“For how long?” John says.

“As long as you can hang onto it.”

“Okay,” John says, and the two of them take off without a single look behind them.  I’m, what, eight?  And John is fifteen.

I make it home, go down to the basement before Mom comes home, and start watching The Phantom of the Opera, the black and white one with Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces.  I love them all.

When John sneaks back into the house and sits next to me on the beat-up old couch down there, he’s Johnny Piper.  There’s no other way to describe it.  It’s like someone flipped a switch.

He never hurts me again.

And all night long, he cries to himself.  That guy hurt him…and in his sleep, my brother moans and screams and I can’t help finding out what happened.

That old broken-down man was the devil, or at least a damned thing.

He was who my brother would have been at the moment of his death, dragged out of hell to make my brother’s younger self an offer.

Sell his soul or end up dead on Halloween this year, homeless and groveling under a poster of Freddie Pientka’s new horror movie, Hell’s Kitchen 6.

I laughed into my pillow when I heard it.  At how much jealousy there is in the world.  And over so little.  But it’s also terrible.  Because it’s only in nightmares that my brother’s soul can come back from the hell he shoved it into.

When my devil came, I said no.  One monster was enough for me.

Besides, there was nothing to be afraid of.  He was just real old.

My spouse Lee hates time travel stories and deal with the devil stories, so of course I had to try to write one that touched on both.  And the idea that the devil you have to make a deal with is your future self–or the future self that could have been–just hooked me.  What if some people should give up their souls?





October 10, 1899

Darling Cecilia,

I pray this letter finds you well in Rochester, and that the doctors have already found a cure for what ails you.  You know that I pray for you every night before I go to sleep and every morning when I wake up.  I feel as though God is punishing me for my sins.  If I could take your troubles on myself, I would.

Not much has happened since you left with your brother, other than harvesting the corn on the binder.  We have already had our first frost here, with only about half the apples picked, which means that we’re trying to get the rest of them turned into juice for cider before they go bad.  The orchard smells sweet from all the apples lying on the ground already.  Guess who will have to rake that all up, with you gone?

There’s a circus come outside town. Without you here, I don’t want to go, but it’s supposed to be a strange one.  I may go just to write you about it.

All my love,



October 15, 1899


Darling Cecilia,

I pray this letter finds you well at the clinic, and that the doctors have already found a cure for what ails you.  My prayers go with you every day.  I know now that what has happened to you is not God’s punishment for my sins, but the devil’s reward.  God grieves for your troubles as much as anybody, but I guess His hands are tied.

I went to the circus on Friday night with your brother.  He pressed me to accompany him.  Your brother is a man of Christian charity, although with his rough ways it is sometimes hard to notice.

What we saw there I do not know how to describe, for there was a freakshow and we went to it.  Such shows are normally not fit to be describe for ladies, but what happened there was a different thing altogether.

There were seven cages, each of them filled with a freak more terrible than the last.

In the first cage was a small man or creature with a large head and wide eyes, dark blue from edge to edge except for the very center, which was a deep black.  Its body was supported by a kind of walking chair or frame that kept its frail body stable.  I doubt that it could have stood unassisted.

The second freak had no face.  It, too, was pale and weak, with a large head.  But no eyes, and only three fingers on each hand.  This one sat in the corner and seemed to sleep, despite your brother knocking against the bars of its cage.

The third was like a hairless dog standing on its hind legs, but with two sets of eyes, one large and sympathetic-looking, like a dog’s, and the other faceted and glittering, like an insect’s.  It seemed to pity us as the professor lectured us.

The fourth, and I have to warn you that we saw them all, looked like someone’s idea of a demon, with bony plates like shoulder blades coming from its head where the eyes ought to be.  That one tried to talk to us, only its mouth was so split up that it was making more spittle than sense. It trembled as if it were cold, and I felt overwhelmed by pity myself, that nature had gone so badly as to make such a creature.

The fifth was of a terrible nature, and I was glad of the cage that surrounded it.  It almost seemed not to have come from the body of Woman at all.  It had a long head that swept back over its shoulders, and its bones were set all a-jumble.  The joints of its knees seemed to move backward, like a horse’s.  It snapped at anyone who came close, and I think it craved our flesh.  Your brother snapped his fingers at it and would have lost a hand, had I not pulled him back.

The sixth appeared less terrifying than the fifth one at first glance, a man in a robe.  But the other freaks had all been unclothed.  (There is a shameful secret that ladies generally are not told.)  I looked again and gasped.  It did not seem a man at all, but a winged creature that, like a bat, had its wings wrapped close about it.  It seemed to laugh at us, from its glittering black eyes.

I asked your brother if he had ever seen anything like it, and he said that he had not, but also he seemed less startled than I.

The last of the freaks was the worst of all.  Its back faced the crowd, and the handlers had to prod it with rods to make it turn around.

Slowly it faced us, and we all gasped.  Some men tried to run, and others wept.  Your brother swore and reached under his jacket to his knife hilt, only slowly releasing his hand.

As for myself, I knelt and prayed to God for forgiveness for my sins.

I did not speak to your brother about it, for what could I say?  But I owe you my life and my soul, if such things have not already been claimed by the devils.

When the last freak turned around, above its twisted, decaying limbs that seemed to belong more to a spider than anything human, the face that it showed me was yours.

All my love,



October 20, 1899



Now that Cecilia has passed, I have no reason to live.  I would linger and help bury her, but they say that they will keep her there in Rochester to study the growths inside her.  And you know my shame is such that it is no great addition of sin that I take my own life.  I hereby bequeath all that I have to you, to do as you see fit.

Do not let them bury me in hallowed ground.  Bury me by the children that Ceclia bore to me, out in the woods.


This one comes from The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, with Tony Randall dressed really inappropriately as a fake Chinaman, etc., and The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney, an altogether darker and more terrifying book, in which more is revealed about the characters of the patrons than the so-called “freaks.”  Also, of course, the Alien series.  The place in Rochester is the Mayo clinic, established in 1889.  The epistolary (letter-writing) format comes from Stephen King’s short story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” which happens over a century before his novel ‘Salem’s Lot.

Whatever Casper did, it must have been bad.  But the character refused to give me specifics.

October 19: BONES, PART I


As you can see if you investigate the list above, there are two bones entries on this list–the 19th and the 24th.  I decided to run with it.  Part II is here.




Lakeisha woke straight up out of the worst nightmare she’d had in her life.  Seriously.  Her heart ached in her chest, it was thudding so hard.  She wasn’t a runner—she always joked that she would be the first person to die in a horror movie—but it felt like she’d been running a marathon.

The nightmare had been about Donte, her son.  Who lived in Hawaii.

He had been mountain climbing up on one of those big volcanoes, and fallen into a bunch of rocks and about broke his neck.  He was alive, but he had broken about a dozen bones and he was calling for her.


It wasn’t just a bad nightmare about her son being hurt.  It was the fact that he was in Hawaii, and she could not fly.  Could.  Not.  Fly.  She had been on more Greyhound buses and in more rental cars on cross-country trips than a traveling salesman.

The one time she had flown, she was eight and it had been a little puddle-jumper in Montana.  The plane had crashed, killing the pilot.  Nobody else had been much hurt, but that didn’t matter.  She had seen the dead pilot, the co-pilot trying to keep the arterial blood from jumping out of his veins, getting splattered with it.

She remembered the copilot turning his face toward her, covered in blood.  Even his eyelids were covered in blood, drops of it hanging off his eyelashes.  The air was thick with electrical-fire-flavored smoke.

He had mouthed a word at her.  Run.  She had unhooked her seatbelt and run for the emergency door of the plane.  Crawled right over the man sitting next to it.  She had stood on his leg and released the latch.  She was out of there.

But what had been outside was worse.  Far worse.

They told her, later, that she had seen a bear.  Stretched above her on its back legs, what Lakeisha had seen was no bear.  It was at least three times as tall as she was.  In fact it towered over the cracked body of the airplane.

It had a thousand legs running up its sides, enormous jaws that stretched over her head, wider than her arms could reach, and was made of bones.

She screamed and ran.

Three days later they found her in the mountains, a hundred miles away from where the plane had crashed.  She couldn’t remember a damn thing.  Just the crash.  The blood.  And the thing rising above her, made of bones.

The phone rang and her stomach lurched.  She had left her cell phone downstairs in her purse, of course, so she had to hustle to make it before the call went to messaging.  It was two o’clock in the morning.  No parent can sleep through a call like that.

It was an unidentified number but it had the 808 area code.  Definitely Hawaii.


“Mrs. Fletcher?”

Her heart sank.  She knew what he was going to say.  Not in the usual way.  No, she knew the exact words he would use.  She mouthed them along with him.

“I have some bad news about your son, Donte.  He’s been in an accident.  Now, he’s still alive, but he’s in critical condition.  And he’s been asking for you.”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” she said.  “I’ll have to go by boat.  I don’t fly.”

And then the caller said something that surprised her.  “He says…I’m sorry, ma’am, but he said to tell you this if you said that.  He says, ‘Don’t go by boat.  The bone man will be on the boat this time.’  Do you have any idea what that means?”

“No,” she said.  But her voice was shaking.  She had never told Donte about the bone man.  She had only ever told the men who had found her out in the forest, and they hadn’t believed her.  “Tell him I’ll get there as soon as I can.”

(To Be Continued.)

I asked for “can’t-do/must-do” situations on Facebook.  A “can’t-do/must-do” situation is a dilemma in which you both can’t do something and must do it, with no easy answers (this is my personal definition of dread, by the way).  Geri Bressler came up with this example for me.  Many thanks 🙂

My first plane trip involved a big jet and a little puddle-jumper on the way out to Montana.  I was older than eight at the time, but still very young.  I personally always want to giggle with delight when a plane takes off–still.


October 18: VAMPIRE




The night before I took my first writers’ retreat, I had a dream about a vampire.  God!  You know what I’d been scared of encountering on that trip?  Not vampires.  Ghosts.  I knew other writers who had gone on the retreat, and about half of them had either seen a ghost or knew someone who had.  Other people laughed it off, but not me.  I’d never seen a ghost, not personally, but I could never get rid of the feeling that they could exist.  It made me nervous.

I would have blown off the whole situation as a joke, except it was a pretty convincing dream.  Or…well, it convinced me.  Now that I think about it, it wasn’t a convincing dream at all.  I was at a hotel.  The rooms were really old and the furniture was all too small.  The beds were too short, the chairs were too low to the ground, you had to walk sideways down the staircases because the treads of the stairs were too narrow.  The ceilings in my room were too low, too—my room was under one of the eaves and the ceiling sloped.  But it was covered with the cutest flowered wallpaper.

In the dream, I set up my laptop and started working on a novel.  Unlike in real life, the words were pouring out of my fingers.

Then I felt someone’s fingers on my shoulder.  I didn’t jump; it was like I’d been half expecting it.

I turned around, and saw a man in a felt top hat, a derby, I think.  It had a brown ribbon around the brim with an orange feather.  The man had a pencil-thin mustache and an old-fashioned brown suit.

He cleared his throat.  “Only if you don’t put me in, my dear,” he said.

For some reason, in the dream, this was the most horrifying thing that could have happened to me.  To dream-me.  I jumped up, pushed past the man, ran out the door of my room, and tried to escape the hotel.

It was a dream.  I couldn’t run; everything moved in slow motion.  While I ran, or tried to run, the man in the derby walked circles around me, leaning on a cane and smiling at me.  He had crooked teeth—even the pointy stabby vampire teeth were crooked, and I remember thinking, “That vampire needs a dentist.”

I made it halfway down the grand staircase when I tripped.  And fell.

And jerked awake.  I woke up my husband and the dogs both started barking loudly.  I decided not to go back to sleep; I had a plane to catch.  I got up and read my emails, then went back over the plot outline I was going to work on during the retreat, a cozy mystery about a bookstore.

I flew in to Denver, then rented a car and drove the rest of the way to the little mountain town where the retreat was being held.  I found the hotel easily.  The rooms were all cute little mini mountain chalet cabins with peaked roofs and chainsawed bears in front of the doors.  That hotel?  Had a lot of bears.  Even a bearskin rug and stuffed bear head on the wall in the main building.  In other words, it looked nothing like the hotel in my dreams.

Something else that didn’t resemble my dreams:  I couldn’t write.

My mind spun in circles.  Every second I sat in front of the keyboard, I dwelled on the fact that I was wasting time.  Of course that didn’t help.  I cruised the Internet and liked all the pictures of our dogs that my husband put up.  I prayed for a ghost.  Any ghost.  But none of the other writers seemed to see one, either.

I didn’t write.

One of the days there was an optional side trip to tour part of the town, and I went on it.  I hadn’t signed up in advance the way you were supposed to, but that was okay.  They had open spots because some of the other writers were too busy writing to go.  As you can imagine, that made me feel all better.

But I went.  I needed the distraction.

And it was a good tour, with lots of history.  I kept having flashes of ideas here and there, nothing having to do with the current story I was working on, but I was willing to set that aside for a while, as long as it meant I was writing.  A haunted mine…

Then we came to the Oxblood Hotel.  As soon as I stepped inside, the hair on my arms rose.

It was the hotel from my dreams.  I followed the tour around, nearly shivering.  It didn’t help that the building was cool inside, either.

Inexorably, we worked our way through the main floor with its high ceilings, and started going up the grand staircase to see the rooms upstairs.

The stair treads were too short.  My mouth turned sour and I crunched on a Tums.  My heart was going about a million miles an hour.  I said, “Is this hotel supposed to be haunted?”

The tour guide said, “Funny you should ask—”

Then from above came a horrible knocking, banging sound, as if someone were falling down the stairs.  Everyone pressed themselves against the side rails or the wall.  The banging and crashing continued all the way down, ending in a sickening thump at the bottom.

The tour guide rushed down, waving his hands through the air at the bottom of the stairs, finding nothing.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” he said.  “It’s just the ghost.”

He started to explain that the ghost had been irregularly falling down the stairs for about a hundred and twenty years now, but that it was usually at night.  I turned around and walked out of the building before he could finish the story.  “I just need air,” I told everyone.  But when I stepped outside I continued onward, back to the hotel, where I sat down and started writing a story about a gentleman who owned a prosperous mine in a small mountain town where people kept disappearing.

By the time the writing retreat was over, I had written over two-thirds of a historical horror novel.  I called my husband to say that I’d be coming back a few days late.  By the time I left I had finished my first real novel, The Butcher of Oxblood.

I knew what would happen to me if I didn’t.

I had to put in an  E.F. Benson pastiche somewhere.  This one points back to “The Room in the Tower.”  Also, there have been several writing-slash-retreats at haunted locations that I haven’t been able to go to this year (because money), and I’m jealous.

October 17: OWL


Oct 17: OWL


The old barn doesn’t smell like much when it’s cold, but in the summertime when the sun slices through the cracks in the boards it smells sweet, like straw and old manure.  The wood creaks in the wind, it creaks underfoot.  Up in the lofts it smells sour, because there are still old hay bales up there.  They’re packed with mice.  You can hear them squeak if you sit still long enough, scuffling with each other just out of sight.

From the rafters, the owls watch and wait.  There’s no food in a hay bale, just nesting material.

Owls are patient, and the mice have to come out sometime.

I climb up to the loft and sketch the light and shadows falling on the stalls below.

Sometimes I find owl pellets on the ground under the rafters.  The pellets are dark gray and about two inches long, mostly made of mouse fur so tightly packed together that it’s become felted.  The pellets always look like cocoons of death to me, like a tiny bony figure with a scythe will uncurl itself and start attacking my hand as I hold it.  To me, the color of death isn’t black.  It’s dark gray.  The color of undigestible mouse fur.

Today I find a big one.  I tease it open with my pencil and sketch the bones inside.  One partially broken skull, six shattered jawbone pieces, a dozen short pieces that could be arms or legs, and a scattering of little fragments.  Definitely a vertibra.  I should study mouse anatomy at some point, so I know what I’m drawing.

That done, I pull a strand of hair from my hairline and twist it between my fingers.  Don’t eat it this time, I tell myself.  You know it’s bad for you…

But I roll it up into a pill and eat it anyway.

In my stomach is a hard lump of hair, a lump that feels like cancer.  I want…I know that I won’t be able to cough it up.  I’m no owl.  The doctors say that the only answer is to get surgery.  They beg me to stop eating my hair—just shave it off.  If all I have is my body hair to eat, then it’ll pass through.  It’ll be too short to tangle.  It’ll pass right through my system.

Or you could just stop, they say.

Up here, though.  The doctors never seem real.

I reach into my knapsack and pull out a frozen, tinfoil-covered lump.  It’s always risky, hiding things in the freezer, but I don’t like to eat them exactly raw.  But nobody looks under the old freezerburned turkey at the bottom.  Mom just sighs every Thanksgiving and says, “Not this year.”

I unwrap it, pull off a leg, and start chewing.  Honestly, even frozen it’s still a little rubbery.

I know it’s a bad idea, but I swallow carefully, and pull off another leg.  I know it’s not rational.  I know it’s stupid and dangerous.  But I’ve always believe that if I eat enough of them, I’ll turn into an owl.  Or something that isn’t me, anyway.  And then I’ll be safe.

Safe from what, I don’t know.  The doctors say I have anxiety.

I always eat the little heads last, using my teeth to scrape off the skin and hair, then suck out the brains.  Not my favorite part, but I like to sketch the skulls first.

This one looks like squid bones, if squids had bones, with a beak that looks strong enough to snap a steel wire.

I don’t know where they come from, originally.  There’s a mousehole in my room.  They come out of that, when they think I’m asleep.

But I’m patient, and they have to come out sometime.


This one’s a bit personal; my daughter ate most of her hair when she was in the sixth grade, which was about the same time that the mice took over our former house.  Our cat Fafnir, the inspiration for Ferntail from October 15: BLACK CAT, was getting too old to chase them off, and they dug through old holes in the wall that had been filled up by the previous owners.

Me?  I chew my nails.

October 16: SKULL


Oct 16: SKULL


Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

So a guy walks into the Hangar Bar last Sunday night, well after the game had wrapped up, with a big fake skull under his arm.  I mean, this is no normal-sized skull, it’s as big as a beach ball.  There are little purple lightbulbs in the eye sockets.  That kind of thing.

He puts it on the bar, holds up a finger, and the skull says, “I’d like a beer for me and a vodka for the skull.  He only drinks spirits.”

We all crack up about that.  I tossed down a pair of fives on the bar.  A schtick like that, you shouldn’t have to pay for your drinks, even if it is a cheesy one-liner coming from a cheap plastic skull.

He downs the beer while the skull says, “What’s a skeleton’s favorite food?”

Someone shouts out, “Spare ribs!”

“What do skeletons say before they start to eat?”

“Bone appetit!”

More laughter.  Every time the skull said something, its eyes flashed purple.  I started looking it over to see where the mike was, but didn’t spot anything.

“So how does it work, mister? You got a thousand cheesy jokes programmed in this thing or what?” I asked.

“Nah, just a good funny bone,” the skull said.  That’s when I became convinced that the guy was an honest-to-God ventriloquist and not just a guy carrying a joke-telling skull.  The timing was just too good.

“You got a real skull with words,” I agreed.

The skull’s eyes flashed as it chuckled appreciatively.  I patted the guy on the shoulder and went back to my beer.

And wouldn’t you know it, but that’s when Hank walked into the bar.  For the first time in months.

Hank was a barfly to beat all barflies, charming until he was so violent he had to be carried outside by the cops and dried out overnight in a cell.  He walked a knife’s edge of goodwill all over that part of town, cycling through the local bars, trying to spend enough time away from them that they forgot about his bad side and just remembered the good one—a jovial tall-tale teller who laughed at everyone else’s jokes.

Hank said, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but why did the skeleton go disco dancing?”

The skull said, “Why, to see the boogie man!”

You coulda heard a pin drop as Hank looked over the duo, man and skeleton.

“Don’t go spoiling other people’s jokes,” he said.  “It ain’t polite.”

Scratch the surface of Hank’s good side, and you get down to his bad side real quick.

He cleared his throat.  “What do skeletons say before they start to—”

This time, half the bar chimed in, skull included.  “Bone appetit!”

“Shut up, you clowns!” Hank shouted.  He stalked closer to the ventriloquist.  “Let a guy tell a joke or…”

“Or what?” asked the skull.

Hank’s face turned red.  Through gritted teeth, he said, “You wanna find out?  Why do skeletons only drink vodka?”

“Because…” The skull paused for effect.  Strangely, Hank was staring into the skull’s eyes and not the ventriloquist’s.  “…they only like spirits.”

“That’s it,” Hank roared.

I expected him to punch the ventriloquist in the mouth, but no.  He picked up the skull off the bar with both hands and threw it on the floor.

The thing smashed open.  Not like glass.  Not even like plastic.  More like a pumpkin.

Inside was…nothing.  No mechanical equipment, no speaker, no wires eletrical or mechanical.  Just a thick skull-shaped rind around a layer of white squash flesh.

We all stood and stared.  Hank too.

The bartender, Tully, said, “I think it’s time for you to get out here, Hank, before I call the cops.”

With an immense dignity, Hank turned around and walked back outta the bar.  He hasn’t been back to the Hangar since.

The ventriloquist pointed at the smashed skull pieces, then at the bar, and we all helped him pick everything up and put it all on the bar an a jumbled heap.

“I’m sorry, mister,” Tully said.  “We can take up a collection for you to get it replaced—”

The ventriloquist lifted a finger and we all went quiet.  Out of one pocket came a silk handkerchief, which he shook out and spread over the smashed skull.  Then he pulled a collapsible wand out of his pocket, shook that out, and started making passes with it over the skull pieces.

Not just a ventriloquist but a stage magician, I realized.

But not a single mystic word did the man speak.

Finally he held out his hand, made one last pass with the wand, and started to lift off the handkerchief…slowly.

Very slowly.

Under the handkerchief, the skull said, “Wait for it…wait for it…”

The magician swept the handkerchief away.

The skull was back, just as it had been before.

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” it said.  “Why was the skull such a motormouth?”

Nobody answered.

“Because it could jaw all night long!  Open your mouth, Joe, and give ’em something to remember us by.”

The magician opened his mouth.  Inside we could all see the stump of a tongue…

He picked up the skeleton and put it under his arm.  I suddenly noticed that the shot glass of vodka, which had been under the handkerchief with the rest of the bits, was now empty.

I tucked a hundred dollar bill in the man’s pocket on the way out.

A shtick like that, you shouldn’t have to pay for your drinks.


This one is Spider Robinson meets The Twilight Zone.

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