Short Story – Necromantic Abominations Anonymous

Frank slumped into the tired remains of the long-abandoned fast-food chicken restaurant. The fluorescent lights had been repaired and most of the rats scared away, but it still didn’t feel like the best place for a meeting. There was a church across the street, nice old building, but of course, a gathering there would raise all sorts of questions none of them wanted to answer. No, instead, a circle of plastic chairs had been arranged right in front of the old checkout counter.

     “Good evening, Frank. Nice to see you made it back,” called Melinda. She was the leader of the group and certainly dressed the part. While she insisted everyone dress to their comfort level, Melinda always showed up in a fresh-pressed suit. Frank supposed that might have been her comfort level, but also knew it helped project authority over what could be a rowdy group of people.

     “Evening, Melinda,” Frank moaned. Every step he took towards the circle was a step toward a truth he really didn’t want to talk about. He never liked being the first one to arrive, but most of his kind were perpetually late. Something about their brains made it so easy to forget and go chase after a butterfly instead.

     “There’s donuts on the counter if you want some. Bought them fresh this morning.” Melinda smiled.

     Frank knew the gesture was more habit than anything but went over to the donut box all the same. “Thanks.” Sitting in front of the ancient register was a bright pink box filled with multicolored donuts of all shapes and sizes. Variety is supposed to be the spice of life, he reminded himself. Next to the box were two large saltshakers and additional single-use packets.

     Truth be told, for them, variety wasn’t the spice of life at all, salt was. Frank’s taste buds hadn’t worked in a long time, as was true with most everyone else who attended these meetings. As it turned out, salt was one of the few things they were still capable of tasting. So, whether it was stale donuts, pizza, or even a hot cup of coffee, without salt, it was like eating nothing at all.

     Frank picked through the pastries, finding a massive apple fritter. He poured salt on it until the donut was covered in a thick layer of fine, white crystals. From a distance, it could have almost been powdered sugar, and that made him feel a little more normal. After all, wasn’t that why he came to the meetings? Frank took his salty prize and made his way to the circle of chairs.

     Not wanting to sit too close to Melinda, but also not wanting to be directly opposite, he picked a spot halfway between. He hoped to hell she would let him sit in peace for a few minutes before starting. Even as he shoved a handful of fritter into his mouth, he could feel her eyes on him.

     “How’s work?” asked Melinda.

     “Fine,” he said through half-chewed bites of somehow crunchy apple. Frank worked pushing shopping carts at the local grocery store. It was simple, and some days felt like all he could handle. Most people in his situation couldn’t even do that, but Frank had practiced tirelessly. One of the goals for societal reintegration was to be as ‘normal’ as possible. Holding down a minimum wage job that would have starved the average living human seemed close enough.

     “Fine is good.” Melinda smiled.

     Frank stared at the mangled remains of his donut and prayed that others would start arriving soon. Eating delicately was a skill he no longer possessed. No matter how small he started, the process always turned into rips and tears. Staring down at the fritter reminded him suddenly of a brain and hunger stirred within him. He closed his eyes and counted to ten like they had all practiced.

     At that moment, the doors to the Chicken Shack burst open in a display of force that nearly shattered the glass panels. A large woman stumbled into the dim light. The sweatshirt she wore had black blood caked at the wrists and a mottled tear running down one side. Her eyes were glazed over, far away. Frank thought she looked more than a little worse for wear, but then remembered his own condition.

     “Adelaide, remember what we said about the doors?” Melinda’s voice was patient but firm.

     “Quiet,” murmured Adelaide and let out a prolonged groan. “Sorry, forgot.”

     “That’s alright. We’ve got fresh donuts on the counter.”

     Adelaide nodded and shuffled her way over to the counter, barely sparing Frank a glance as she went. That was fine by him, the less interaction, the better. The process of others slamming the doors open continued as the rest of the group filtered in. Melinda maintained her calm demeanor with each admonishment and hardly a hint of frustration. Frank admired her for that.

     Soon, all the chairs were filled and Frank was looking out at a sea of slack-jawed, slowly decaying faces. As a group, they were hard on the eyes to say the least. He thought of all the mirrors he had smashed in his own apartment to avoid his reflection and took some pity.

     Melinda clapped her hands together, the sudden noise drawing the rapt attention of everyone in the room. “Alright, thank you all for coming, as always. This marks the tenth meeting of Abandoned Necromantic Creations Anonymous, name still pending.” She chuckled at her own joke, but the only response from the group was a low moan from Adelaide. Melinda wasn’t deterred. “Okay, Frank, why don’t you start us off? Tell us about your week.”

     Frank’s mouth went dry – well – dryer than usual. “I um.” He faltered.

     Melinda waited patiently.

     Across the room, an overweight man named Bill picked a maggot out of his navel and put it on top of a frosted, pink donut.

     Frank closed his eyes and continued. “Well, I’m Frank.”

     “Hi, Frank.” The sound was like a hundred, out of tune, deep brass instruments playing discordant notes all at once. Surprisingly, it was better than usual.

     Frank continued. “It’s been three years since I was first raised back in New Orleans.” He paused. “Hell, it’s really been three years. Time flies when you’re pushing shopping carts and squatting in a construction site, I suppose.”

     “Brains?” asked Bill, holding up his donut with deep disappointment.

     “God I wish.” The words slipped out of Frank’s mouth with hardly any notice.

     Melinda shifted in her seat. “Bill, I think we all know that’s a trigger word for a lot of people here. What did we say last week?”

     “Brains!” exclaimed Bill, suddenly angry. He dropped the donut on the ground with a melancholy plop.

     “Bill!” hissed Melinda.

     Frank raised his voice. “I think what he’s trying to say is, it’s bullshit. I’ve pushed carts for three years, done my best to blend in, and I still can’t walk into a grocery store without starting a panic. I’ve got ‘monster hunters’ coming after me every weekend with a six pack and shotguns. It’s no way to live.”

     “Brains,” affirmed Bill and then added: “Sorry.” He made a slight bow to Melinda.

     A young woman stood up. “I was happy in my afterlife. I loved my fiancée, but I never wanted to come back.”

     “It’s not uncommon for death to push our loved ones to necromancy. That doesn’t make it right, but we have to recognize it for what it is, an act of love.” A soft smile crossed Melinda’s lips. It was working, people were talking.

     “It’s not an act of love, it’s a mistake, we’re a mistake.”

Frank was sure tears would have run down the young woman’s face if her ducts were still working. He stood up, planning to call Melinda out on the hypocrisy of seeing necromancy as an act of love, but all he managed was: “Brains.” Shit, he thought to himself.

     “Braaaaiins,” moaned a man sitting opposite Frank.

     Melinda raised her hands in an effort to bring calm to the group, but her eyes were wide. She might have been the most well-adjusted out of all of them, but there was only so many times she could hear that word. “I think we all need to breath and count to brains—” Her hand went to her mouth.

     Other members of the meeting were standing and shuffling towards the exit. Frank recognized the situation for what it was but felt propelled beyond himself. “Braaains,” he murmured, barely thinking anymore. The world was getting fuzzy. Warm rain kissed his face as he stepped outside. How did I get outside? They were moving in a group now; he could see that. Some might have called it a horde, but that was another trigger word.

     He held up his hands and found two halves of a donut, no salt, just a regular old donut. In that moment, he wanted nothing else in the world. Shoveling handfuls of the delicious pastry into his mouth, Frank let out an audible sound of delight. Maybe it’s finally working. Sense of taste was something that could come back, right? He closed his eyes, savoring every bite, trying to taste the individual flavors that had been so lovingly crafted.

     Raindrops continued to fall on his skin, heavier now. Dread crept into the back of his mind, slow at first, but building quickly. Frank opened his eyes, returning from his revelry and felt warm liquid dripping down his face. Ah shit. He knew that feeling.

Looking down, he saw a man wearing a visor and a tank top splayed out on the pavement, gurgling out his last breaths and then going silent. The poor man’s brains were spread across the pavement. Frank raised a hand to his lips, knowing exactly what he would find there. Not again. Disgust washed over him as he wiped away flecks of grey matter.

He looked around and saw other members of the horde in similar states of embarrassment. Melinda had a hand hanging out of her mouth, fingers still clenched between her jaws. The perfect suit she had worn was stained red and brown. Regret was plain on her face.

     Frank stood suddenly as the man beneath him moaned.

     “Braiiins,” the man said through a mixture of blood and bile.

     Frank swore. Well done. He held out a hand. “Come on pal, get up.” He pulled the freshly formed zombie to his feet. “I’m sure you’re a bit confused.”

     “Brains?” The man looked down at his bloodied tank top, growing faintly horrified.

     “Yes, unfortunately you’re a member of the undead now. Sorry about that…” He was delicious though… Frank slapped himself in the face. There was little feeling, but the act itself was grounding.

     “Brains!” cried the man, as if to say: ‘Aren’t you the one that killed me, asshole?’ It took the freshly resurrected time to gain any semblance of speech, especially when they were missing a few chunks of processing power.

     Frank put a hand on the man’s shoulder, hoping he wasn’t a biter. “Yes, it’s a lot to take in, but don’t worry, we have meetings!”

The Loveland Frogman – A History of the Mystery

Cryptids Decrypted is back with a brand new episode, and we’re talking about the legend of the Loveland Frogman. Unfamiliar? It might be because this myth has a very focused region of Loveland Ohio, or the fact that sightings have been few and far between. Originally spotted back in 1955, first encounters with this bipedal, human-sized frog only started after the release of a famous film. Got any guesses?

Image result for creature from the black lagoon

That’s right, The Creature from the Black Lagoon released in 1954, just one year before the first sighting of the Frogman. Described as about the same size as a human, but walking on two legs, the Frogman really just looks like a giant frog. There are some particularly weird aspects of these sightings, such as potential magic wand use, and confusion for giant iguanas, but I don’t want to spoil all that here.

No, for the full story on the Loveland Frogman, check out our latest episode of Cryptids Decrypted. It’s my favorite podcast, because – well – it’s got me in it. Give it a listen, and let us know if you like it!

Apple Podcastshttps://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/cryptids-decrypted/id1473505510

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Google Podcastshttps://podcasts.google.com/?feed=aHR0cHM6Ly9hbmNob3IuZm0vcy9jYzZjYmQ0L3BvZGNhc3QvcnNz

Most other platforms can be found through our Anchor page: https://anchor.fm/cryptids-decrypted

Home for the Holidays (4)

Hello friend! If you enjoy my writing, consider checking out my new audio drama, A Man of the Mountain. The first four episodes are available free on Anchor.Fm and most streaming platforms, and the full production is now up for purchase on Audible for $13! If you can’t buy it, no big deal, the best way to support me is to share pieces you like. Every share, like, demonic circle, helps, and I really appreciate it.

Happy holidays!

Links to Catch up: Chapter 1/Chapter 2/Chapter 3

4 – To Hunt a Wendigo

James kept watch with the shotgun while Nick washed his face off with cold water from the sink. Despite his desperate attempts, even a modicum of sobriety eluded him. The room spun gently on its axis and Nick hung his head in his hands trying to process what exactly was happening. James had shown him the page with the Wendigo several times, but none of it was making any sense. “Come on, buddy, come back to me.” Nick slapped himself, hard.

     “Who are you talking to?”

     “My brain.” Nick tried to focus. He remembered the creature from the car again and the radio going all static. “Ha!” he exclaimed. “I was right!”

     “Yes, now quiet down and get a weapon of some type. We need to find the other one before it causes more damage.”

     “I had a weapon.” Nick pointed to the harpoon lodged in the ceiling, then, fishing around in his waistband, grabbed one of the many knives he had concealed. “I’ve got a few of them, because I knew I was right!”

     James rolled his eyes. “We need to find the other one.”

     “Find the other one?” asked Nick. “We need to get the fuck out of here. These are psychic beings, very dangerous, and more importantly, no one is paying us to take them out.”

     “Really? You’re going to bring up pay at a time like this?”

     “Don’t tell me your on about holiday charity? Is there a better time to bring up pay? If we start killing beasties for free, we’re going to be full of good will on an otherwise empty stomach.” Nick felt his guts slosh at the mention and decided to leave them out of future invectives.

     “That’s my family, Nick.”

“They were your family, James. I’m sorry.” Even as he said it, he knew he had been too harsh.

     A tear welled in James’s eye, but he blinked it back. “You’re an asshole, you know that?” He moved out of the bathroom, swinging the shotgun’s tactical light back and forth.

     “Believe me, I know.” Being an asshole was a basic requirement in his trade. Nick stepped forward and picked up the spent harpoon gun on the ground. Carefully, he tucked it under one arm, then pried the harpoon out of the ceiling, sending more plaster to the floor.

     “How is that thing still in working order?”

     “Old faithful,” Nick patted the gun, “will be around long after you’re dead.” He jammed the harpoon back in the barrel. It clicked into place and there was the sound of hissing gas as pressure built up in the firing chamber.  “This will finish what your pea shooter started.”

     James scoffed. “Wendigos hate fire, you ass. This is going to do—”

     A roar from outside cut them off.

     “You ready for this?” asked Nick.

     “Not really.”

     “Yeah, me neither.” Nick pushed the harpoon gun against his shoulder and ran out the open door. The wind whipped through his clothes immediately, bringing a bitter chill and the closest thing he could find to a hangover cure. Snow continued to fall in heavy flakes, making even the neighboring houses seem like ghostly lights floating in a white fog.

     “Why hasn’t anyone called the police?” asked James.

     “My guess is they can’t even hear what’s happening right now.” There were a myriad of reasons Nick hated fighting psychic beings, but altered reality was near the top. He swung the harpoon gun around, looking in the snow for any sign of either creature, but found nothing.

     Two red lights near the top of the house shone brighter than the rest and caught Nick’s attention. Despite the snowflakes between them, the red light did not waver and in fact seemed perfectly clear. “James, there,” Nick whispered and motioned slightly with his gun. “On the roof, and I don’t think it’s Rudolf.”

     James looked up just in time to see the creature shake off a fine coat of snow. The wounds from his initial shot were still there, but if they had impeded the creature at all, it didn’t show it. Lightning flashed through the snowstorm and briefly illuminated its horrifying silhouette. Grisly fur ran down its shoulders, ending abruptly at its mid-section where bones that might have been ribs stuck out at odd angles. The red glow came from deep within empty sockets, just beneath its deadly horns. As the lightning died away, the creature let out another deafening roar.

     The light attached to the end of James’s shotgun and all the lights in the neighborhood flickered.

     “No need to shout,” called Nick. He pointed his harpoon gun to the left of the creature, and without much thought, pulled the trigger. Wind caught the projectile almost immediately, curving the harpoon through the air. There was a moment where he thought he had calculated the trajectory perfectly, but it took a further bend and buried itself in a shingle. Nick cursed. “Sorry James, really thought I had that one figured out.” He went over the mental math he had done, realized there was none, and wished he had more harpoons on him.

     The creature made a sound like barking laughter.

     Nick staggered back. “Shit, I really thought that would work.”

     James pointed his shotgun at the creature. “Don’t worry, Nick, this will finish what your pea shooter started. Come and get a taste, you bargain-bin, zombie, reindeer-looking, fuck.”

     The wendigo’s rotten face split into a grin as it took a step forward, preparing to leap. Unfortunately for it, the tile Nick had hit split right down the middle, and the roof construction in the suburbs was shoddy at best. One-by-one, the other tiles shifted slightly. With the weight of the snow and the creature walking atop them, it didn’t take much. There was a shatter as one of the tiles fell to the driveway. For a second, it looked like that would be it, but then the dam burst, and the whole roof began to move.

     The wendigo growled, but slipped, falling flat on its back. It slid down the side of the roof with the rest of the tiles. On the way, it caught the blinking lights that had been so painstakingly affixed. Falling fast, it was unable to free itself and the strands tangled with its massive form. It cried out in surprise and frustration, but at the same moment, went over the edge of the roof. Some of the light strands broke, exposing ancient wires that had no business being in service, but others held, wrapping around its neck.

     “That was clever,” breathed Nick, watching the creature struggle with the lights. As it tried to escape, arcs of electricity shot across its body in lazy sputters. Wherever the light touched, small fires sprang up and the creature’s skin split. They quickly spread until the wendigo was engulfed in a holiday conflagration. The smell of roasting meat wafted on the wind. The wendigo struggled against its bonds, screaming, but could do nothing.

     Both Nick and James stared up at the house in disbelief. “That worked?” asked James.

     The wendigo gave a final kick and fell still, smoldering.

     Next-door, a portly man stepped onto his porch, illuminated as a silhouette from the warm light within. “Hot damn, Bill! I’m not sure what you’re cooking, but we better get some of the leftovers tomorrow.” He chuckled heartily and shut the door.

     “The fucking suburbs.” Nick wiped sweat from his brow and tried not to vomit.

     “I’m starting to agree with you.” James was about to lower his shotgun when an anguished roar came from inside the house.

     “One down.” Nick spat in the snow. “There’s more harpoons in the trunk.”

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Star Wars – The Re-Review – Episode 8

Here we are, at the end of the Skywalker Saga, almost ready for Episode 9. It’s been a long process with good movies, bad movies, and some that floundered in between. Today, I’m taking another look at Episode 8 – The Last Jedi, arguably the most controversial film in the Star Wars series. Critics lavished it with praise, and yet audience scores told a completely different story. I remember loving Last Jedi when I first saw it in theatres, and it definitely holds up on the re-watch. So, let’s get into it, feel free to fight me in the comments or on Twitter if you disagree, I’ll be waiting.

Here’s a quick refresher on where I scored the other films so far: Rogue One (3.5/5)A New Hope (4.5/5) The Empire Strikes Back(5/5)The Phantom Menace(2/5)Attack of the Clones(.5/5)Revenge of the Sith (3/5)Return of the Jedi (4/5), and The Force Awakens (4.5/5). You might notice, I’ve skipped Solo, but I will come back to it at a later date. I just got busy making an audio drama, a podcast, and writing a holiday story for y’all.

Last Jedi’s opening is incredible. It’s got humor, tension, great space fighting, and feels like it carries some real weight. For the first time in the series, we’re shown the consequences of running in, guns blazing, and staying until every last fighter is gone. The Resistance is nearly broken at the beginning of the film with only a handful of ships left to stand against the ever-increasing presence of the First Order. Despite all that, Poe is still joking with General Hux while he’s stalling for time in their master plan, and I love it.

Poe’s character is delightfully flawed in all the ways you’d expect from a hot shot pilot. Take him out of space and he would fit in easily with Tom Cruise’s Maverick from Top Gun. The only problem is, historically, Star Wars has never shown any consequences for that kind of behavior. In all the previous films, being a good pilot was enough to get you through three movies without losing anyone all that important along the way (unless you turned to the Sith). That’s why it feels so important to watch Poe fail in this movie and fail repeatedly.

About halfway through the film, Yoda says to Luke: Failure the best teacher is. This movie could not encompass that lesson more. From Luke’s failings as a Jedi Master, to Poe’s misguided hatred of Commander Holdo, or the half-baked plan on the Casino Planet, Canto Bight, it’s all about the main characters failing. A lot of people raged against that, and I don’t understand why. Part of me believes they were uncomfortable with so many of the lessons being handed down by women in positions of power, but that’s a rant for another time.  

Fuck yeah, Yoda commits arson, what else did you expect?

The main complaint I hear about Last Jedi is that it doesn’t feel Star Wars enough, and I frankly don’t see it. The thirty minutes on Canto Bight are exactly the kind of side plot shenanigans we’d expect, complete with a sweeping shot of a sweet alien Casino and prison breakouts with loveable rogues. The only missed opportunity there was having horse racing instead of pod racing… I mean come on, when I saw the casino rumble, I was excited and then immediately disappointed. Sure, the b-team spending their time releasing a bunch of alien horses was a bit cliched, but Canto Bight on the whole was such a cool creation, that I’m willing to forgive it a bit.

Now this… isn’t podracing, but it’s still pretty great

Luke’s entire training of Rey is exactly like what Yoda did for him on Dagobah, just extended and adapted for a modern audience. Rey also faces the dark side in a way that’s more real than any character we’ve seen before. That’s right, I mean you, Anakin. Her struggle is palpable and only underscored by her constant, mysterious connection with Kylo Ren. Together, they’re learning more about each other and themselves, and their final meeting led to one of the most epic saber fights I can remember. Is it disappointing to see Snoke go out so quick? Yes. Do I believe he’s gone entirely, no, because as Luke says: No one’s ever really gone.

I mean, this is pretty savage…

A quick aside, my money is on Snoke being some kind of avatar for the nearly-dead Emperor and that we’ll watch that play out in Episode 9. Luckily, if I’m wrong, you can tell me real soon.

 Getting back to my thread, if Luke’s training and Canto Bight weren’t Star Wars, the final ground assault on Crait absolutely is. This last stand against an army of armored AT-ATs and a miniaturized Death Star cannon is excellent and well shot. Watching the speeders kick up trails of red dust as they fly toward their inevitable doom was one of the cooler shots in the film. The resolution of the battle in the form of Luke’s last stand is powerful, badass, and exactly how I wanted him to go out. He’s cheeky to the very end, and still has one last lesson to teach his padawan. IF THAT’S NOT STAR WARS, I DON’T KNOW WHAT IS.

Ranting aside, watching the main characters learn from their own failures and the failures of others sets up the end of the movie perfectly. As The Resistance is starting to rise from the ashes and recover, so too are our beloved heroes. Poe finally gets his command, but he’s learned a valuable lesson, and will make a better leader because of it. Finn’s suicide mission is aborted by the very person who stopped him from running away in the first place. The list goes on, and I love the way Rian Johnson tied all these lessons together.

Overall, The Last Jedi was a very enjoyable breath of fresh air for the series. It would have been very easy to pump out another cookie-cutter Star Wars film, but instead, Johnson gave us something we had never seen before. Once Episode 9 comes out and ties up the story, I think we’ll find more people revisiting Episode 8 and truly appreciating what it set up. It might be rough around the edges, but Last Jedi still holds a spot near the top for me.

Home for the Holidays – Chapter 2

This is Chapter 2 of a little holiday story with my favorite monster hunter, Nick Ventner. If you need to catch up, here’s a link to Chapter 1! Excuse my makeshift cover above, I’m a writer and not much of an artist 🙂

2 – Family Reunion

James pulled up to a house that was covered from foundation to chimney in twinkling, multicolor lights. The thought of the power bill alone was enough to make Nick sick to his stomach. He stumbled out of the car and immediately vomited into the snow. The strong burn of cheap alcohol filled his nose, but the freshness that came after a good vomit was a pleasant counter. “Well, we can rule out a water goblin in the case of my empty flask.” Nick wiped the vomit from his lips.

     “Jesus Christ, Nick. Can you try to compose yourself a little bit?”

     “That was the idea.” The horrible stink of bile filled his nostrils and he ate a handful of snow to wash it all away. If he was to continue drinking in any capacity, he needed to taper off, and vomiting was the fastest way there. Nick stamped his feet and flexed his hands, measuring his new level of sobriety. Satisfied, he straightened up and tried to put on his best impression of a smile. “Alright, let’s go meet these people who are definitely your family.”

     James shook his head. “I knew this was a mistake.” He turned away and walked up the short path to the front door.

     Trying to be clandestine, Nick snuck around the back of the car and opened the trunk. From inside, he pulled out a small collapsible harpoon rifle, a set of knives, and a flash grenade. The rifle was compact enough to fit on an insert he had cut into his winter jacket years ago, and he concealed it there. The grenade went in a pocket, and he put the knives in various uncomfortable positions around the rest of his body. It was a routine he was used to, and had saved his life countless times.

     “You coming?” called James from the porch.

     Nick looked longingly at a pile of holy symbols heaped toward the back of the trunk and reluctantly shut it. “Yup, sorry, almost forgot my book.” He grabbed the tome off the passenger seat and hurried to catch up with James, nearly slipping on ice in the process. He shuddered to think where one of the knives might have gone if he had.

     “You’re not really bringing that thing, are you?”

     Nick looked at James very seriously. “You’re my apprentice and I need you trust me on this one. I bring this with me everywhere and it’s gotten me out of more than a few scrapes.” Nick belched a sickly cloud of bile and stale liquor into the frosty winter air. “Whoo, sorry, that was a nasty one.” He gagged on the words as they came out.  

“You almost had me for a second.” James waved a hand in front of his face, trying to disperse the smell. “Just don’t bring it out at dinner. These people are open minded, but not that open minded.” James rang the doorbell.

Immediately, the door flew open, spilling a beam of cheery light out from the entryway. Standing in the doorway were a man and a woman, both in their fifties, beaming. “My, my, young James, is that you?” asked the woman in a horribly saccharine voice.

“You sure have grown,” boomed the man.

Nick winced at the boisterous volume and tried not to vomit again. If that’s not a wendigo impersonating a human, I don’t know what is. Greetings at the Ventner household were offered in grunts or curses, and Nick preferred it to this jolly crap.

“It’s good to see you both.” James hugged the two of them. “How long has it been?”

Both the man and the woman shook their heads in confusion. “Gosh, I don’t even know,” said the man. “Long time, that’s for sure.” He chuckled and looked past James, seeing Nick for the first time. “And who’s your friend?” he asked.

“Oh, that’s Nick. He’s sort of my boss at my new job.”

Nick put on a plastic smile and tried his best to turn on the charm. “Nothing ‘sort of’ about it.” He laughed and reached out a hand to shake the man’s hand, being sure not to take his glove off. “I’m Nick Ventner, proprietor of the Ventner Agency. Maybe you’ve heard of it?” He watched the man’s eyes as he said it, and swore he saw a twitch of fear there, but it could have just as easily been nothing.

“No, I can’t say I have, but either way, good to meet you, Mr. Ventner. Any friend of James is a friend of ours. I’m Bill, and this is my wife, Marie.”

“A pleasure to meet you both.” Nick scanned every inch of their faces, looking for something he could use, something off, but by all appearances, they were normal.

“Well, why don’t you both come in and we’ll fix you something hot to drink. You’ll catch your death out there.” The woman motioned to hurry them both inside.

     Nick looked at James, hoping to see some sign of reluctance, but there was nothing. Am I really the one going crazy here? He thought back to the creature that had crossed the road and put the radio on the fritz. If they were dealing with some manner of psychic beast, they were already in deep trouble.

     “You coming, Mr. Ventner?” asked the man.

     “Yes of course, sorry. Get lost in my own head these days, running a business and all.” Nick stepped into the house and was surprised to find it wasn’t much warmer than outside.

     “I should have warned you, our heat’s been on the fritz,” said Bob, walking into the kitchen. “But we’ve got hot cocoa and some spirits to warm your bodies, and a couple of space heaters in the bedroom.”

     Nick took off his gloves and looked around the entryway. He exhaled, still able to see his own breath.

     “Terrible timing for the heat to go out in a storm like this,” commented James, beginning to undo his parka and then thinking better of it. “Maybe I could take a shot at fixing it tonight.”

     “Oh, don’t worry about it, dear,” called Marie. “We don’t mind it too much.”

     I’ll bet you don’t, thought Nick, looking at the walls suspiciously. There were pictures of Bill and Marie everywhere, and even one family photo of what appeared to be a young James. Nick approached it carefully as though it might shoot poison darts at him and brushed a fine layer of dust off the frame.

     “Try not to break anything,” muttered James and started off toward the kitchen before Nick had a chance to protest.

     Dust on the photos, Nick noted. Heat’s out. James hasn’t heard from them in a long time. It was all adding up to a suspicious amount of evidence against the allegedly perfect family that had been presented before them. Can’t let my guard down, need to be careful. Nick walked down a darkened hallway, away from the kitchen.

     A voice stopped him dead in his tracks. “Looking for the bathroom?”

     Nick spun around violently, reaching for the knife he had concealed in his waistline. When he was halfway through the turn, he saw Bill, smiling at him from the entryway, holding two steaming mugs. Nick’s heart hammered in his chest, beating a crazy drum beat that no amount of drugs could make danceable.

     “Feeling a bit jumpy?” asked Bill.

     Nick took a deep breath, removing the tension from his muscles one by one. “I’m sorry, it’s just—”

     “You’re feeling a bit hung over.” A wry smile crept across Bill’s face.

     Nick’s eyes widened.

     “Oh, don’t be embarrassed. Saw you puking out front. Figured you might need a little hair of the dog to get you through it.” He held a cup out. “It’s rum with a splash of hot cocoa in it. Nice and warm to get us through this absolutely miserable storm.”

     Nick reached out and took the cup, sniffing at it experimentally. His eyes watered from the steam. Overpowered by urges, Nick sipped at the liquid and felt fire run past his tongue and into the back of his throat. He exhaled, blowing a large cloud of mist. “Holy shit.”

     “Damn right. That’s the good stuff.” Bill took a sip of his own. “Now, I know you must feel like a stranger here, but James told us you don’t have anywhere else to be for the holidays. You’re welcome with us, and you’re not imposing.”

     Nick didn’t like the sound of that. It sounded warm, fuzzy and foreign. “I don’t—”

     “Or, you can think of it as a place where you can get blind drunk in a corner. Hell, that’s what I plan on doing.” Bill held the cup to his lips and drank deeply, draining what was left of it. “I’ll fix us another cup…”

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