Free Stuff

“Rawhead”

She heard the monster under the stairs grunting through his latest meal. Snap, suckle, slurp, growl. There was a routine to it, a particular way the leather-faced creature enjoyed his fare. That lumpy, hulking body squatted above his bounty, the meat still fresh on the piled-high bones. He’d root through the ribs, the legs, the arms until he found a particularly plump piece, sniffing it from one end to the other, wide-set nostrils flaring. A too-pink tongue—like a slithery piece of moving taffy—would plunge out to tease the ragged chunks. Then the eating began, the bone cracked in half, the marrow sucked from the middles, the gnashy teeth tearing at that soft, not-so-innocent flesh.

Or as not-so-innocent as children could be. He only ate liars, after all. But even good boys and girls sometimes lied.

Cam encountered the hobgoblin the first night he moved in beneath the stairs. She’d just put her son to bed, Evan asking a hundred and one questions about his missing friend, Jacob. Cam had said that they’d pray for Jacob on Sunday—that they’d put their faith in Jesus that Jacob was safe and sound. The hollow assurance was the best she could muster. Watching Evan turn his pink, befreckled face into his pillow to sob, she knew it wasn’t enough, but what could she do? She wouldn’t lie to him. Especially not now. But that didn’t mean he didn’t cry himself raw. So she stayed by his side, stroking his mud-colored hair and humming lullabies she hadn’t sung since he was a baby.

“I wish Daddy was here,” Evan whimpered, his slender arm with its robot pajamas reaching for his favorite rabbit toy and pulling it close.

Cam’s hand stilled in his hair, her tongue sticky in her mouth, like a ball of spider silk. “I know, baby. I know. But you have me and Nana and Papa, right?”

Evan’s face spasmed with pain. “I guess.”

Fuck you, Joe. Your kid’s in danger and where are you? We’ll get through this without you just like everything else, but Fuck You.

She continued her stroking, Evan continued his weeping. He fell into soft, baby bear snores right as her hand began to cramp. She needed a drink, more whiskey than sour, doubled. She had enough on her plate without Rawhead and Bloody Bones snacking on local kids, but Nan always said Jesus only gave us what we could handle. By that logic, Jesus thought Cam DeLorey was a goddamned superhero.

She plugged in the nightlight, checked the horseshoe above Evan’s door, and made her way into the hall, her fingers skimming along the whitewashed wainscoting. Passing the windows opposite the bath, she paused to check the salt lines. She’d placed all the proper apotropaic items when she’d first heard about the disappearances—scissors nailed to the doors in Evan’s bedroom, bells on the doorknobs, oatmeal in his pockets. Tomorrow, she’d find some potted daisies to put by the window. If McMurphy’s was still sold out, she’d find clover outside and plant it herself, but she doubted it’d come to that. The McMurphys knew the need. They were Chanawooga born and had likely already filled their youngest daughter’s room with fresh blossoms. She was under ten, after all, and ripe for the plucking.

Three boys, six girls taken from the county so far. The police talked on the TV about serial murderers and perverts, but the valley’s old blood knew their monster. Even the damned sheriff knew what was going on so any real searching he did was for media lip service. The Appalachians’ favored atrocity was part of this land since it’d been settled three hundred years ago. The stories were passed from generation to generation, the young taught to keep their souls clean before Jesus and never lie because lies were laced with the bad magic. Too many twisted words and the creature would rise again to feast on their sins.

And he preferred his sins in smaller bodies. Children. Rawhead liked children, but only the freshest meat would do. Over ten and he lost interest for reasons no one really knew. Under, though . . . well. He didn’t stop eating until he’d taken a baker’s dozen at the least.

Cam just turned the corner for the stairs when she heard the scuttling inside the walls. She paused mid-step, her hand clutching the railing so hard, it looked like her knuckles would burst through the skin. Mice, maybe. Or the cat. The cat sometimes toyed with the drapes downstairs, and when she did . . .

Grunt. Thud. Snort.

“Oh, no. No, not here, you son of a bitch.”

She glanced back at Evan’s door. He was there, safe within his wards. The crusts of bread were on the bureau. The primrose was hung above his bed, the verbena sprinkled across his carpet. But all her preparations felt inadequate when the thing was inside her walls. She wheezed for air, the panic coming fast. Her ribs felt like they were being crushed by two great, invisible hands squeezing her from chin to gut. Her heart jumped inside her chest like a bird on a livewire.

Get a grip. You need to focus.

She swiveled her head around, searching the hall for something steel. Or iron. Iron was better. Nan said it was the strongest deterrent, that the fair folk didn’t like weapons molded from the earth’s black. Back in the forties, a dozen men cornered Rawhead in his borrowed den, stabbing him with pokers until he resembled a bloodied heap of pudding. He’d disappeared for the night only to come back the next day, continuing his grim work with no lingering trace of their assault. But fending him off that once meant one less Chanawooga child had died.

That’s all Cam wanted now– a chance to keep Evan safe.

“Hobgoblin. Hobgoblin. Hobgoblin,” she chanted, the synapses in her brain firing like rockets. Escape, fight, protect—too many fear-born instincts scrambled for purchase inside her skull. A snap and a string of groans from under the stairs sent her running for the hall closet. She rooted through the boxes of organized chaos, bypassing Evan’s baseball bat, a hammer, a screwdriver. Hell, Joe’d left his Glock under a pile of winter sweaters in the master bedroom, but she didn’t want it. She required something specific. She found it in the form of a cast iron candle sconce that used to hang in the family room, the top filed to a fine point, the bottom sculpted into filigree swirls.

She wrapped her fingers around the middle and crept toward the stairs. A crunch followed by a squish from below. Cam’s body tensed, her jaw quivering. Her back pressed to the wall, shoulder bumping against Evan’s school portrait and sending it swinging on the nail. She reached up to steady it, but she fumbled her grip and it fell forward, smashing off the railing and raining glass over the steps.

The thing beneath her feet went silent. If she thought a feasting hobgoblin was terrifying, a silent one lying in wait for her approach was doubly so.

She dared another step. Glass snapped beneath her footfalls, shards impaling the rubber soles of her sneakers and screeching against the pine boards. She could go upstairs, stand sentry beside Evan’s bed until morning when the hobgoblin faded into the shadows that birthed him, but she needed to know—to see. Because the monster you see is easier to handle than the monster you don’t, and she was safe enough. Rawhead didn’t want her flesh. Only the boy she’d labored for twenty-two hours to bring into the world.

You can’t have him. He’s mine and you can’t have him.

She held the iron sconce aloft and crept toward the kitchen. Silence save for the cadence of her breaths. The door beside the cellar opened into the crawlspace under the stairs. Joe had used it for storage, piling his golf clubs, football pads, baseball equipment—anything that fed his manchild existence was sequestered away inside. Cam sold off all his shit at a yard sale a few months back, the space now used for the recycling bins.

They lay strewn across the kitchen floor, some upended on their sides, others upside down. It seemed the new tenant didn’t appreciate trash littering his borrowed home.

Cam whirled around, her back to the kitchen cabinets, her sconce held to her chest like a sacred relic. The closet was ajar, the inch between door and frame revealing nothing except a strip of black. She fumbled behind her for the light switch, hoping the track lighting would put an end to the mystery of what lurked in the darkness, but nothing could penetrate those particular shadows. Because he was there and didn’t wish to be seen. Every monster had a little bit of magic to call its own.

“What do you want?” she demanded, her voice cracking. She had no idea what she’d do if he answered. She used to think Nan’s hobgoblin prattling was overbearing, the stories and warnings and hearthside knowledge pouring from the old woman’s mouth like a faucet once she’d gotten into her moonshine, but having the monster here quickly changed that perspective. Cam’s knowledge of Rawhead could be poured into a thimble. Yes, she knew what called him and a few ways to ward a room, but it wasn’t adequate.

Cam edged closer to the closet, nearer the kitchen island, her hip striking a barstool and sending it teetering. She slapped a palm down on the seat, her attention drifting from the hobgoblin for just a second. That was long enough for the spindly fingers to emerge from the darkness to wrap around the door front. They resembled enormous spiders, both in shape and the way they moved, and she whipped her head around, gasping as another set of finger joints crept out to join the first.

These were not human hands. Six fingers on each, the skin the color of tree bark but tinged grayish blue at the creases. The flesh was cracked leather over a series of knobs and twigs. An additional finger bone at the ends created a bend that tented the fingers, not allowing them to lie flat upon the wood. The nails were serrated and yellow, the nail beds crusted bloody, dirt and muck and other unfathomable miseries polluting the undersides of the tips.

Cam’s breath erupted in a whoosh as the door swung wider, the hinges squealing through every pained inch. Rawhead was careful with his reveal. Darkness still, but beyond the hands on the door she saw thick, corded forearms and a quartet of glowing, red eyes peering out from the black. They were ovular except at the outer edges where they tapered off to feline vees. And they never blinked. Once they fixed on her, they stayed fixed, the hobgoblin’s attention unwavering.

“Why are you here?” Her voice was strong despite the way her throat closed, like it did whenever she ate peanuts. For that, there was a shot. For this, there was only a sconce and the assurance that Bloody Bones had no appetite for adults.

The shadows thrummed, a black membrane of magic bowing out toward her before sucking back inside as if caught in a vacuum. Rawhead’s hands glided away from the door, giving it a gentle push so it opened in full. It rapped against the adjacent wall. Cam shook so hard her teeth chattered, but she refused to flinch, facing that nightmarish rectangle with the iron gripped between her hands. Oily tendrils of darkness squirmed out along the edges of the closet, the roiling tentacles weaving a lattice that climbed the wall to tickle the ceiling.

His voice slithered out then, high-pitched and nasally yet full of gravel, too, his words adopting the musical lilt of a child’s skipping rhyme.

She who told the wicked tale,
Fat with malice, grief, and ale.
Wonders what it is she’s sown,
Her boy is reaped before he’s grown.

Cam had to repeat the rhyme to herself a few times before it penetrated, and when it did, every muscle in her body furled, ready to flee. But she couldn’t go anywhere. Evan was safer inside his bedroom than anywhere else. There was some consolation in that, but not much—especially hearing that this wasn’t just a happenstance squatting place for the marauding hobgoblin. Rawhead had come for her boy because of something she’d said.

Except she knew better! Rawhead’s name was bandied about since Cam was old enough to walk, the threat of the mountain monster so ingrained, she couldn’t imagine a life without him lurking over her shoulder. She could still remember Nan’s warbling voice at suppertime grace, her liver-spotted hands clutching her granddaughters’ smaller ones as she reiterated over and over again the importance of truth. Cam wouldn’t even lie to Evan about Jacob—she knew the boy wouldn’t be back and refused to make false promises for fear of Chanawooga’s monster.

She shook her head, her mouth pinching into a flat line. She thrashed out with the sconce, swinging it around like a baseball bat in a mockery of threat. “You’re wrong. I don’t lie.”

The shadows twitched with a cold energy that made the hairs on her body stand on end. Her nipples hardened beneath her t-shirt, her toes curled inside her sneakers. A stuttering laughter spilled from the darkness as the eyes moved closer to the threshold. Layers of blackness peeled away, not enough to give her an unadulterated view of the monster, but enough to hint at an outline. Five feet or so, stooped over, a lump on his left side like he had a hunch. Broad across the shoulders, enough to nearly fill the space from left to right with his girth.

The boy nigh-drowned with salty tears
Riddled by doubt, plagued with fears.
“Soon,” she said, to quell his ire.
“Soon you’ll see the wretched sire.”

Cam’s jaw set. Evan asked about Joe so much, the tearful nights bled together. She was mindful with her words, but something the hobgoblin said—something about “fat with ale”—worried her. She did like her nightcaps. A glass here, a glass there. It helped with the stress of the last six months—the abandonment, the solo parenting, the bills. But there’d been a few nights where Evan awakened after she’d put him down, after she’d cracked her whiskey and wept into her glass. She’d had to coax him back to sleep with eyes so blurry, she could barely see. It was possible she’d slipped up then, that she’d made an empty promise to buy herself a respite from the guilt and misery.

Oh, God. That can’t be why he’s here. That’s not fair.

“That shouldn’t count. It can’t c—he doesn’t deserve to die because I wanted to make him feel better.”

Giggles echoed through the closet, the red eyes bulging wide inside the darkness.

Now she sees what did her in,
The lie, the bluster, the vile sin.
Intent means nothing, null, and naught.
She must live with what she’s wrought.

The goblin mocked her, repeating the last line over and over again. Sometimes he sung it, sometimes he whispered it, voice dripping sinister delight. That squat, black shape rose and fell in a strange dance, his legs kicking out from his pile of . . . something. She glanced down at his taloned feet, unnerved when another red eye opened where it ought not, an eyelid peeling back from the front of his ankle to peer at her. Another blinked on his calf, yet another up near his thigh. They dotted his body like red stars, their pupils black, sometimes yellow, and all fixed on her—at least a dozen, maybe as many as two dozen.

Rawhead whistled with delight and jumped, his arms slapping out to strike the walls to either side of him, hard enough the calendar in the hall shimmied off its nail to drop to the floor. When his weight came down again, a bone skittered out from his heap, the knobby end clicking against the tiles as it rolled. It came to a stop halfway between Cam and the closet. She stared at it. It was almost bleached clean, so very white, except the other end hadn’t been quite as attended and she could see a few strings of moldering pink dangling from the end like meaty, fraying rope.

It’s a rib bone. No, it’s not arced enough. It’s an arm bone? But it’s so small. Sweet Jesus. That could be Jacob. Sandy haired, green-eyed Jacob from the baseball team with his missing front teeth.

“You son of a bitch!” She punted the bone back at him. Rage swelled in her chest, stealing sense, breath, and words as she charged at the nothingness with the sconce held over her head. This was desperation—the loss of those children, the threat to her own son. She lunged at that misshapen body, the pointed end of her iron hungry for whatever fleshy piece it could find. The shadows scrambled with her approach, the tendrils along the wall slurped back inside the closet as Rawhead’s laughter cut short. Out went the sconce, stabbing into the densest blackness. There was a shriek as she met solid hobgoblin.

The flesh refused to give but another hard push, and she broke through. Smooth. Soft. Easy once she was past all that leather, like a knife through cake. Rawhead screamed, unleashing a torrent of frozen, fetid spittle at her face. She wrenched the sconce from his body only to stab it in again. Her skin burned where he’d sprayed her, gobs of his saliva dripping down onto her shirt in plops of cold jelly. She felt like she’d stuck her head into a nest of fire ants, but she refused to give quarter, gritting her teeth through every wet jab.

On the fifth plunge, the shadows faltered. There was no great explosion—nothing magically punished her when the inky blackness puffed apart like a dispersing cloud. But with its retreat came vision, the overhead light of the kitchen penetrating the tight confines, and for the first time, she beheld the creature in all his hideous glory. He’d retreated to the far corner of the space, an arm raised to ward off her blows. He was more apelike than not, his skin creased by wrinkles of brown fat. The lump she’d mistaken for a hunch was actually a second face, or at least a part of one, a half-developed nose with crusted nostrils jutting up from his shoulder. A guppy mouth opened its rubbery lips near his bicep to scream but no sound came.

The one in his actual head did, though, keening one shrill screech after another. Probably on account of the wounds gaping at his ribs and stomach, the holes oozing a yellow gook that perversely reminded her of Evan’s favorite citrus drink.

“You stay away from my boy, you hear? He’s mine. Go on home, Rawhead. You’re done or I’ll sic the whole fucking town on you,” she rasped, stepping back from the closet and nearly slipping in the puddle oozing across the floor. She glanced down, a grimace twisting her lips. The blood was so dark it looked black as it seeped into the grout between the tiles, stretching its longest tendrils toward the refrigerator. There hadn’t been blood before, nor had the closet smelled like old pennies and death before, but both phenomenon played out now in horrifying measure.

It must be magic, like the shadows that hid him away hid the evidence of his crimes, too.

The monster quieted to hiccups and snivels. Cam held the sconce to her chest, watching the thing shuddering in the corner of the stairwell and waiting for . . . she didn’t know what. Quiet stretched between them until the door to the closet flew away from the wall to slam closed of its own volition, hiding Rawhead from her view. The clap of thunder startled her enough that she slashed at the air with the candleholder, but he didn’t come after her. She could hear his labored breathing inside, and a soft tapping upon the walls as he moved around on his nest of bones.

“Go away, Rawhead,” she repeated. “Leave.”

His voice, when it came, was whisper soft.

Tell them all that he is last,
See them turn so very fast.
To save them all, you give up one,
Your boy for theirs, the feast is done.

“You can’t have him!” she snarled, stepping toward the closet only to skid through the thickening puddle of viscera. She grabbed a barstool, dizzy thanks to the cloying stench of rotting meat. A long time ago, before marriage and Evan and mortgages and secretaries with long legs, she and Joe had moved into a little apartment above a printing press. The third week there, a stench wafted down from the chimney chute that they couldn’t mask no matter how many candles she lit, no matter how often the windows were opened. Joe’d had to use a broom to prod up into the shaft, and when he delved real deep, a nest of dead squirrel babies had fallen down onto his face.

This smell was like that except fifty times worse.

Cam reached for the doorknob, fingers trembling as she lifted the sconce in preparation for another go. Silence on the other side. She steeled her nerve and wrenched the door open, ready to dive back into the fray, except there was no fray. There was nothing. The blood was gone, the rot was gone, the space was empty. The only evidence the hobgoblin had been there at all was the dislocated boxes strewn over the kitchen floor and the burn in her cheeks and brow. She glanced down at the sneakers that were splashed with rust a moment ago, but they were back to ratty white canvas.

Where’d he go? It’s too good to believe he’d just leave.

She had her answer when she heard the bells ringing from upstairs, the jingle-jangle light and airy compared to the thing that stirred them. How he leapt from one shadowy place to another, she didn’t know, but it wasn’t important either. She screamed Evan’s name and ran, pumping her legs as fast as they’d go. Her sneakers crunched through the broken glass of the picture frame as she flew upstairs. She took the steps two at a time and leapt up the last three to clear the hall. She dove for Evan’s bedroom door, twisting the knob and thrusting the sconce out in front of her like a sword in case Rawhead loomed on the other side.

The bedroom was as she’d left it, complete with the little boy asleep in bed, his arm wrapped around his bunny. She swallowed her sob of relief, her eyes teary for reasons that had nothing to do with the burning pain in her face. She sidled Evan’s way, checking the salt along the window panes, the horseshoe, the bread crumbs. The verbena and primrose were undisturbed. She’d heard the bells, she knew she heard bells, and those were on the double closet doors. She sank onto the corner of Evan’s mattress, the sconce laid across her lap as she peered at the slatted doors.

Only to see the slatted doors peering back. A single brown finger with its extra joints wormed its way out to wag at her, teasing. Threatening. Both. She curled her upper lip and slid in beside her son, her arm draping over his back.

And then she waited for a monster that never emerged.

Evan slept through the night, Cam didn’t get a wink. She didn’t dare, not until the sun was full in the sky. It gave her time to think—to plot. Rawhead said that Evan was the last before he “was done.” Did that mean he’d linger until he’d reaped him? Would he starve if she denied him his meal? Or would he find stand-in flesh until he’d sated his preferred hunger? She considered calling her parents, but that last bit the goblin said about others finding out, about others wanting to sacrifice Evan for the good of the rest of the children lent her pause. If she had to make a decision between her son and someone else’s, she would pick hers every time. Good or not so good, she didn’t care. And while she loved her parents, she didn’t need them incriminated by her decisions, nor did she want them saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. One hobgoblin she might be able to handle. A fearful, enraged town she could not.

So for now it was her and Evan, as it was since Joe left. And that’s how it’d stay until she was sure she could get him through this.

It was quarter to six when the sun peeked over the jagged peaks of mountains to the east, bathing the world in liquid gold. Only then did Cam ease from the bed to approach the closet, her lower back screaming in protest from sitting propped against the headboard all night. The sconce was deadweight at her side as she pulled open the doors, revealing clothes and shoes and a dearth of monster. Rawhead didn’t come during the day. They had twelve hours of safety before it started again.

She raked a hand down her face, her skin warm, like she sported a summer sunburn. She slid back into Evan’s bed, worming her way next to him and hauling him close, on top of her, so he nestled against her chest. Her chin dropped to the top of his head, and she squeezed her eyes closed, her arms wrapped around his waist. He didn’t wake, just sighing and wriggling in until he was comfortable against her body. She stared into the closet. Eventually, she dozed.

The alarm woke her from the dreamless reverie. She darted up, her baby still clutched to her bosom, her fingers searching for the makeshift weapon by her side. Her fingers closed around it as her bleary eyes swept the room. Everything was as it ought to be, in its special place. Evan glanced up at her, his mouth stretching into a tired smile as he smushed a kiss to her chin.

“What are you doing here, Mama?”

“Long story, sugar pie. You hungry? How about pancakes?”

“Okay! You want me to get dressed now or after?”

She slid her fingers through his silky hair, her heart hurting at the thought of him gone, just another scattering of bones in the hobgoblin’s pile. Just thinking about the bloody heap made her tremble. She pulled Evan close, forcing his face into the crook of her neck, his breath warm against her skin. “Stay in your PJs. No school today. Think of it like a vacation, okay?”

He asked her why, and she deflected best she could, not lying but not telling him the full truth of it either. It was what she’d done when she’d placed his wards. It was what she’d been doing through all of this Rawhead business and what she’d continue to do for as long as she could manage it. How did you tell your son that the monster in the closet was real and had every intention of eating him?

I’ll figure it out. We’ll get through this. For now, prepare for tonight.

She left him off in the bathroom while she attended the glass in the hall from the broken frame. She’d just bagged the last of it when she spotted the toppled calendar. It was open to July, a big red box around the sixteenth and filled in with a star. Evan’s birthday party. It was at his favorite place with the huge ball pen, batting cages, and a putt-putt course with a waterfall at the top. Miranda told her to call at least six months early, that the kids all wanted parties there so the competition was steep, so Cam reserved the date the week after Christmas just to be sure.

Now to make sure Evan made it to July. She replaced the calendar on its nail, glowering as it swung back and forth like a papery pendulum.

Breakfast was served in the kitchen, the stairwell open so she could see inside. Empty still, but not empty when she strung bells over the doorknob and sprinkled verbena in the corners on the off chance it was enough to keep Rawhead away. Evan settled in to watch cartoons while she went at the closets of the house. She didn’t have enough bells for every doorknob, but she was able to get the bulk of the upstairs with herbs. The trip to McMurphy’s would wait until tomorrow.

She napped a few times throughout the day, doing her best to catch up on the sleep she’d lost. She stayed in the living room with the TV and the video game console so Evan had no reason to leave her side. After lunch, they weathered a spring shower to tear up clusters of clover from the hillside, sinking the plants in clay pots and distributing them around the house. If Rawhead wanted Evan, he would have to get past both Cam and her obstacle course of fairy wards first.

Dinner came, bringing with it the gloomy haze of dusk. Seeing the sun clawing for the western sky, Cam grew twitchier, her gaze darting from closets to darkened corners and window panes. The fireplace poker was propped on the chair next to her, ready and waiting. Evan was a smart kid, remarked on the unrest, asking her if she was alright and, “Why are you carrying that stick around all the time?”

“Because eat your peas, that’s why,” she said, motioning at his dinner plate. “If you do, we’ll watch a movie before bed.”

He did, and they curled up together beneath a blanket, Cam never more aware of her surroundings despite the cartoon blazing in her eyes and ears. She felt better prepared to handle Rawhead tonight, though the countdown to his resurgence left her feeling ill. She’d popped her first antacid before dinner and took another pair right after. She was tired, but she’d brewed a full pot of coffee and the fridge was full of energy drinks.

You’re going to have to take me down before you take my son, you ugly piece of crap. If I have to stab you forty times tonight, I will.

Eight was bedtime. She scouted the room while Evan put on his pajamas, thankful that Evan’s bed had a solid frame on the bottom with no convenient creep spaces for capitalizing hobgoblins. A pair of sheets covered the slatted doors so no fingers or eyes could menace her boy. As she tucked her son between his sheets, she stroked her fingers down the side of his face, her lips skimming his soft, warm forehead.

“This is important, sugar pie, so crack your ears. If you see or hear anything strange, don’t get out of bed. Call me. All of this is to keep you safe, but do not leave this bed. It’s safe. Gotta pee, you call, too, okay?”

Evan peered at her for a long time, his hand reaching for her face. A single finger traversed the curve of her nose, down over her lips, and pressing into the divot of her chin—the same divot he had in his smaller, paler chin. “You’re all burny, Mama. And peely.”

She batted his hand aside with a smirk. “It’s nothing for you to worry about. Now go to sleep. Say your prayers, and I love you best.”

“Love you, too.”

He rolled away from her to face the wall, the rabbit back in his nine-year-old custody. It was almost normal for a minute, the routine of nightlight, lights out, the door pulled closed with a click. Small blessings that this wasn’t a cry night for Joe or Jacob or any number of hardships in his young world.

Alone now, she stood in the hall with the iron poker in her grasp, head tipped forward, eyes fixed on the Oriental carpet running from his room to hers. The house that she’d lived in and loved in for nearly five years had become a prison, every nook and cranny a breeding ground for Rawhead and Bloody Bones. How long she remained in her stance, legs braced, jaw clenched, oily hair fringing the corners of her vision, she couldn’t say. She started only once, when the cat jumped off the counter downstairs and forced a flinch, but as soon she identified the sound as a non-threat she was back to her maternal vigilance.

She waited. And waited some more.

Click, click, click.

Click, tap. Tap, tap, click.

These were not the same sounds as last night. This was not feasting or stomping or arms flailing, but something altogether more delicate. It came from the same place, though, originating beneath the stairs and compelling her forward, her fist clenched around the poker’s handle. She paused before the steps, listening, and sure enough the rat-a-tap-tapping returned, sending her downstairs. She wasn’t quiet with her approach, letting her weight pound every board as she stalked toward the kitchen. As she turned the corner, poker propped against her shoulder in iron promise, she had to stop short because she was hit with the stench. The threshold acted as a magical barrier between her and the ripe, meaty death wafting through the air. She gagged and lifted her arm to cover her face, willing herself not to vomit up her antacids.

I’ll never get used to this.

She thought she’d succumb to the gurgling nausea in her gut, but then something white skittered across the floor, rolling and clicking to a stop near one of the barstools. The distraction was enough to keep her settled—focused. A red streak stained the tile, crimson splashes marking out the white thing’s trajectory. There were six similar streaks, creating a fire burst pattern that resembled a macabre star just in front of the stairwell’s closet door.

She edged closer with her poker in hand, ready for her next bout with the hobgoblin. As she took position beside the kitchen island, another white thing shot out from under the door to bap against her sneaker. It was so small. She stooped forward, squinting. It gleamed on one side with pink tendrils of flesh dangling from the other, the latter the cause of the blood smears.

Teeth. She was looking at teeth. Baby teeth at that, none of them any bigger than her pinky nail.

Knowing her monster made her braver than she’d been this time yesterday. She charged the closet, tearing the door wide and twisting her poker into the darkness in a ferocious stab. No flesh, only air with the strike, though she could see the hobgoblin glued to the opposite side of the closet, past his pile of bloody bones. He had his back to her and his shoulders hunched. Hearing her arrival, he snickered and craned his head to peer at her. A hand lifted over his shoulder in offering, a pile of children’s teeth soiling his palm with blood. She could see it dribbling from the sides, raining down onto the rancid pile between their feet.

Her for him, to feed my gut.
One a day to save your mutt.
A feast for kings, this pile of dead.
How many souls upon your head?

He splayed his fingers to let the rest of the teeth fall, adding to his so-called “feast.” When she didn’t immediately react, unsure of what to say or what to do, he jostled something in his arms, something mostly hidden from sight—not because of magic but simply because of his hulking width. Though she didn’t want to look, she couldn’t help herself. It was hard to make out much detail which was a kindness in a way, because once she spotted the dangling arm with its pink fleece shirt and the tangle of matted red curls, she started to weep. The hobgoblin liked her tears. He snorted, his mouth opening wide to reveal meat-laden fangs. The red eyes erupted over his body, all of them widening with obvious delight.

How many souls upon your head?
How many souls upon your head?
How many souls upon your head?

Every time he asked the question, he shook the tiny prize in his arms. She watched it—no, her—flop about helplessly, too limp to be anything other than dead. “How many souls upon her head” indeed? How many children could she relegate to this fate? How many had to die so her boy could live?

The answer, she realized, was in the calendar she’d placed on the wall just that morning. July sixteenth—Evan’s tenth birthday.

Three and a half months away.

Her whine was so high, so shrill, that it sounded like a teakettle’s whistle. Her temples pounded, stabbing pain ricocheting through her skull and shredding at her brain. Rawhead would eat because that’s what Rawhead did. He’d pluck children from their homes and tear them apart beneath her stairwell. And she’d be responsible for that because it was her lie that brought him here. Well-intentioned or not, it was her lie.

But even knowing that, she wouldn’t relinquish Evan. She wouldn’t sacrifice for the greater good because fuck the greater good. She’d survived Joe’s loss. She couldn’t bear another so quickly on his heels. There wasn’t enough whiskey in the world to fill that void.

So she’d foist that burden on the rest of Chanawooga instead.

“One hundred and four,” she finally managed, her voice ragged. Her eyes drifted back to those red curls, hot tears streaking down her cheeks. The poker in her hand slipped, clanging against the tile and rolling toward the center of the room. She shuffled away from the closet, baby teeth sailing off into the far corners of the kitchen with every step.

He’s taken his fill tonight.

“No. A hundred and three.”

2 thoughts on “Free Stuff

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