“Listen, I understand that you caught me at my worst, but if we talk this through, then I’m sure we could part as friends.”
Thornton Hollister, Thorn to those who love him and especially to those don’t, knows that his words ring as hollow as the echo from the mostly bare motel walls. In the gloom, the one framed pastoral painting assumes a macabre air, becomes a portal into some dark place where a carriage ride might bring early night, thunder, wolves. Thorn hears no activity outside. Although he is certain that the motel has other paying customers—Someone would hear if I yelled, he thinks—help would never arrive in time. By the look of the place, help may never come at all.
He surveys the room by the glow of the digital clock on the nightstand and ambient light seeping in around the edges of the blackout curtains. His captor looms over the side of the bed, stuffing a collection of Halloween props and costume gear into a black nylon bag. He holds the sack open with one large hand, sliding each item home with a whispered shoop. Thorn watches a convincing mask—an old man’s face—go in. Next goes a complete old woman’s head adorned with gray wisps that might have been real hair. A ghost follows, then some manner of hobgoblin.
Arrayed in neat rows along the length of the bed are also things that are not masks. Thorn’s hands are tied behind his back with what feels like coarse rope, and he has to press against the wall to lift himself far enough off the floor to glimpse the serrated blades and heavy iron chain. He shuts his eyes, thinking, They have to be props.
“Listen,” he says again without slowing the shoop of the last few masks slipping into the bag. He loses his way for a moment, but when he hears the rattle of iron, words pour out in a torrent. “It’s not like I killed anyone. I didn’t put razor blades in children’s candy or drugs…”
His captor freezes, every muscle taut, and Thorn forgets the rest of his sentence. He can only watch as the man seems to consider options. Thorn didn’t notice till now how tall his captor is, or that he wears one of those expensive masks. The details are lost in the shadows, but its horns nearly reach the ceiling. Thorn holds his breath until the man, never looking away from his work, drives a heavy ball of iron chain into the bag with a sharp jangle of links that doesn’t completely drown out the nylon susurrus.
“Professor of History,” the man says. His voice is an avalanche, immense and righteous. Thorn’s mouth goes dry, but he stifles the whimper that almost escapes. “Emeritus. You should know. There has never been a case of razor blades in candy. It’s an urban legend that inevitably will come true through the force of belief.”
Thorn works his mouth but cannot speak. He watches as knives begin to vanish into the bag and is surprised to see dust puffing out. His captor does not bother sheathing the weapons. How he avoids ruining the masks, Thorn cannot guess.
He can only pack for so long, Thorn thinks. Escape now or never, old man.
He scans the room from his low vantage, and his eyes fall upon two things on the floor by the bed. First, he sees his leather wallet, left open so his faculty ID stares back at him. His head thuds with the confirmation, He knows who I am, but there is something else beyond the wallet, under the bed. It is dark and slender, with rounded edges, apparently dropped and then forgotten. Thorn studies this object, amazed, grasping at hope.
“What should I call you?” Thorn asks, not expecting an answer.
The response he gets is as strange as it is unexpected: “Holiday.”
Thank God, Thorn thinks. A name is a tenuous connection, but it’s a place to start. He begins to say it aloud, but Holiday cuts him off.
“You killed their trust, Professor Emeritus. You killed their faith and opened them up to the next zealotry that promises security in a broken world.”
Retirement was supposed to be the end, Thorn thinks. It never occurs to him to disagree. He had assumed there would be no choice in the matter, but then came the semiannual dinners. To Thorn’s surprise, retirement increased the respect students afforded him. These weren’t the rank and file; they were young women with aspirations to change the world. And they got younger (and sweeter) every year. They laughed at his stories, looked into his eyes as they asked questions, and divulged personal details of their own. They saw their dreams realized in his success and allowed him to share his experience with them. He never could resist what followed.
Holiday surveys what remains on the bed. “You’re fortunate in one way,” he says in that voice that booms from the rafters of a much larger room. “Halloween is over. I am forbidden from delivering you any of its more creative rewards.”
Holiday looks down without bending at the waist or shoulders. Vertebrae crack as his neck continues to turn, and for a moment Thorn sees his captor clearly despite the dim light. Thorn’s throat clenches, and he shuts his eyes tight against the vision of horns and those searing eyes, thinking, It’s not a mask, not a mask, not a mask...
His first belief was that he could talk his way to freedom, but he now holds little hope of that. So he needs to seek his escape some other way. Thorn knows he cannot fight Holiday, who has him by no less than eighteen inches and a hundred pounds of muscle, but perhaps he can slip the rope. If it was a zip tie, he wouldn’t have a chance, but if he continues to move his hands, little by little, Thorn has read that he might be able to create slack.
And while he tries that, something else occurs to him. His captor spoke of rules; there might be something valuable there. Maybe talking hasn’t played out yet, after all. Thorn clears his throat and speaks, hating the fact that his usually rich baritone barely rises above a whisper. “Holiday, what are the rules governing Thanksgiving? That’s the next holiday, yes?”
His captor cocks his head, and Thorn sees that the horns are gone. It was a mask after all, he tells himself. And he took it off when I looked away. Still, it’s odd the way Holiday’s facial features are all indistinct, somehow difficult to look at directly.
Thorn licks his lips with his dry tongue. The restored belief that Holiday is a man, after all, emboldens him. If Holiday’s psychosis imposes a set of strictures that can be used against him, then Thorn must say more, but Holiday speaks first.
“Thanksgiving interests me. Agricultural nations have long celebrated the harvest with days of feasting and revels, but Thanksgiving is unique in its involvement of Puritans and the Wampanoag.”
That’s not right, Thorn thinks. He files away the error while Holiday goes on, his hands continuing their work behind his back. Thorn has gotten his captor talking, and that may be the key to his escape, but he has not forgotten the object under the bed.
“I have been intrigued since Thanksgiving’s inception by the notion of Puritans as heroes,” Holiday says. “They go on to murder native people by the thousand, torture young women, drowning or burning them as witches, and yet anyone who speaks ill of them is the traitor.”
Thorn blinks. He knew his captor was wearing large, heavy shoes, but how has he missed the square buckles? He glances up to find that Holiday has donned a black capotain, complete with buckled ribbon. Holiday had a damn Puritan hat in his bag? Thorn stares, thinking, What the hell?
Holiday said he was intrigued by Thanksgiving, which is clearly true, but a keen interest doesn’t make him correct. And his errors are beginning to pile up. Actual Puritans did not wear buckles on their capotains, of course, but Thorn senses that the first error is the crucial one. Assuming Holiday really does obey his rules, what would happen if some of his beliefs began to fray?
“You’re confusing the Puritans with Pilgrims,” Thorn says, pleased by how strong his voice sounds. “The Pilgrims in the Thanksgiving story came to the New World seeking religious freedom, but they were not Puritans. The mutual protection pact with the Wampanoag broke down in bloodshed years later, yes, but Pilgrims never burned witches.”
Holiday shakes the bag, which is made of rough burlap, not black nylon. The sounds inside are of rattling iron, but Thorn also hears a sharp clang, like a hammer swung hard against an anvil. Before he can react, the air is split by the crack of a lash. Thorn winces, but Holiday’s massive hands are empty. Then, faintly, the pitiable cry of a young woman, exhausted and defeated and broken, rises from the burlap sack.
A small voice that Thorn wishes he could squelch whispers, It wasn’t a mask after all. He works his wrists, which are slick with sweat. They rub against one another easily, but has he gained even a little slack? He thinks maybe some, but not enough. The headlights of a passing car brighten the room a little, and his eyes dart back to the object under the bed. He sees the glint of steel behind its slender, rounded handle.
Holiday looks down as the woman’s cry fades, and not at the sack but at Thorn. His eyes are black, with no irises, and he seems to be studying Thorn for any hint of enjoyment. Thorn wants to look away but can only sit there, pinned against the wall. When Holiday speaks again, he seems satisfied by whatever he sees. “You’re the best educated abuser I’ve ever encountered, Professor Emeritus. And you may be right. Holidays rely on belief, and belief is in conflict today.”
Holiday sighs, a deep sound fit to come from the chest of a mythical beast--A minotaur, Thorn thinks—and then he returns to stuffing the bag. He holds the mouth open with one hand, just as he did earlier, and the scent of autumn leaves wafts across the room. The shoop of nylon is replaced with the fffft of the rougher material.
“Best to leave Thanksgiving off the table,” Holiday says.
Thorn stares at the bag, telling himself that the only explanation is that he was too frightened to notice Holiday drop the nylon sack beyond the far side of the bed. It has to be a second bag, and not just because it’s too small to hold everything that’s been stuffed into it.
The packing continues, and Thorn is excited to feel the rope begin to breathe. Better still, Holiday has given no indication that he knows about the object under the bed, which Thorn has convinced himself is a knife. Thorn has never hurt anyone, not physically, but he’s sure that he will find the courage when the moment arrives. He envisions lunging for the weapon, and then stabbing and stabbing and continuing to stab until Holiday stops moving. Then he will run to the motel’s front desk. And he will never attend another student function again.
He senses Holiday staring at him. For a moment he surrenders to the fear that those burning eyes have somehow divined his plan. Thorn may be able to slip a hand free, eventually, but not yet. In desperation he asks a question that he regrets. “What is this really about?”
Again, he receives an immediate response. The name comes out of Thorn’s past, hurled from the ceiling as if uttered from Olympus. “Stephanie Phillips.”
“You know Stephanie Phillips?”
Fear of the supernatural briefly fades in light of a new, practical explanation. Everything Thorn has seen clicks into place, even the dark visage and horns. The military has employed digital camouflage for years, and the private sector sells it through magazines, calling it hunting gear. Holiday simply bought a device that makes its wearer look like a monster instead of foliage.
He’s a pissed-off relative with a next-generation mask, Thorn thinks, working his wrists more vigorously. The man—“Holiday”—is so over-confident that he has spent most of their time together looking away, maybe too disgusted to look down on his prisoner. Soon, Thorn will be ready to dive for the knife, and now that they have something to discuss, he can buy time with ease. He can be embarrassed over imagining demons later. Now he must survive.
Holiday says, “You said you never killed anybody. Does it surprise you to learn that she is dead? Your actions laid one more brick upon her chest, which she accepted willingly. The weight you added crushed her over time.”
Giles Corey, Thorn thinks. Corey was a real man living in Salem, whose death beneath a stack of bricks became legend. He even made it into Nathaniel Hawthorne’s play, The Crucible. The tale is a nexus where fiction and fact converge. But again, Thorn thinks that Holiday is mistaken. He casts Corey as a victim, not a hero.
“I don’t understand,” Thorn says. “Are you the brother? I think I remember Stephanie mentioning you, in fact. Listen: you may not have known your sister as well as you believe. She shared things with me in confidence. I remember them quite clearly.”
The bag changes to dark red. It is difficult to see in the shadows, but burlap becomes velvet, and Thorn watches it happen. Thoughts of brothers and digital camouflage wither as swiftly as they had bloomed.
“If it’s not Thanksgiving, then Christmas is next,” Thorn whispers. He grinds his wrists against the rope, accepting the burns. This is about to end, and the next few seconds will decide whether he lives or dies. He lets his words flow, focused on the weapon that lies less than a yard away. “The rules of Christmas include forgiveness, yes? Saint Nicholas?”
The giant next to the bed laughs, a noise of sundered crags and thunder. His voice is deep enough to rattle Thorn’s ribs in his chest. “You’ve not been listening, Professor Emeritus. You are on the wrong side of the holiday.”
The motel room fills with the scent of alpine trees and brisk air following a snowstorm. The temperature drops, spreading gooseflesh across Thorn’s body. From within the bag comes the cry of raptors—there is no disputing it—and also the tolling of bells and the crack of falling timber. Much nearer is the clomp of hooves, and Thorn realizes that Holiday wears no shoes at all. His legs are furred, and his knees bend the wrong way.
The bag mewls with the cries of children.
Krampus, Thorn thinks, and the creature before him reveals a bundle of birch sticks within the velvet sack. He begins to withdraw them, but the bundle jerks to a halt as if stuck. Holiday’s face contorts. His features imply a beast, but despite the terror, Thorn sees that Holiday’s face, like the birch sticks, is not fully formed. It remains indistinct.
Rules, he thinks, and he believes. Christmas—even Krampusnacht—is not near enough, and so Holiday cannot hurt him. Something in Thorn’s mind cracks with the realization. He may survive, but he will never recover.
Holiday sneers. He releases the sticks, and they vanish as if withdrawn into the sack. At the same time, he seems to release the form of Krampus, affording Thorn the comforting illusion of a tall man once more. Thorn’s eyes flick to the knife handle. He berates himself for potentially betraying his only chance at escape, but his captor does not seem to notice.
“If your cruelty had not led to Stephanie’s death,” Holiday says, speaking with the voice of a man again, “then I may have overlooked you. Petty cruelty is everywhere. But Stephanie could not bear the burden you placed upon her. It wore her down over many years. Her suffering was indescribable.”
Holiday pulls himself to his full height, limbs rigid. His hands extend, fingers splayed, and his face begins to change. When he speaks next, his voice is feminine, and horribly familiar. “They say what you do is a compulsion, that you cannot control yourself.”
“I can change,” Thorn says. He tugs the rope, tearing his flesh. He is bleeding, but he is nearly free.
“You can’t. Neither can I. Halloween is past, but as we floated in its afterglow, I indulged in one last trick. Now I must move on. For all your knowledge, Professor Emeritus, you’ve forgotten that today is another holiday celebrated all around the world. Today, the spirits of the dead return to those who affected them most in life, and you changed one spirit’s course forever.”
Thorn recognizes the face above him. She appears older than when he had her on his office couch, but he cannot mistake her. Her eyes are wide enough that the sclera of each encircles the perfect blue irises. Her hair falls past her shoulders, which are impossibly broad and beginning to move.
Thorn yanks his hand free and dives for the knife. He drops onto his back, brandishing the weapon, and screams when he sees that he holds a turkey leg, dripping gravy and trailing dressing.
A man’s voice, distant and high above, laughs, but Thorn hears the voice of Stephanie Phillips as his mind shatters. She does not crouch so much as swoop at him, shrieking her pronouncement of guilt. There is the ffft of cloth ripping, and a wet shoop that speaks nothing of nylon. The cacophony is limitless, and Thorn screams his throat ragged before he plunges into silence. Help never does come.
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Hi Ray. This story was good and held my attention. Thank you for the read. I saw a few errors during the read, but will not point those out individually since I saw in the previous comments that you are going to edit it and make corrections. And as others have mentioned, great execution and the story did have me drawn in from the beginning. I really enjoyed your descriptions and could just see the gravy dripping!
Thanks, Renda! I'm glad you enjoyed it!
Amazing read, Ray. Very atmospheric and full of dread. One point, The Crucible is by Henry Miller, not Hawthorne. Hawthorne wrote the Scarlet Letter.
Good catch! Thank you! Actually, it's Arthur Miller. I wanted to show that the main character is overconfident, and in the end realizes that he's not quite as smart as he thinks he is. When the contest is over, I need to edit the story to either point out that he had the wrong author or (more realistically) change the name to the correct author. I had Hawthorne on the brain while writing this story. The whole thing came out of some thoughts on how Hawthorne was wracked with guilt over the deeds of his ancestors, which led to Puritans, a...
Of course, Arthur, not Henry. My bad! I hate it when my corrections get corrected. Anyway, I suspected your intent, but thought I'd err on the side of accuracy. Doh! I once met a guy named Nathanial Hawthorne. When I mentioned his namesake, he'd never heard of him. All that said, still a great story.
Thank you so much, John! I totally understand, and thanks for not taking offense when I said it was Arthur. I very much appreciate you pointing it out! And I can't imagine growing up named Nathaniel Hawthorne and never realizing that there was a famous writer...taught in high schools everywhere...with that name! Crazy!
Hey Ray, long time no see! Like Jon said, the concept and execution were great. I was hooked at the description of the painting. And not a word out of place. Good to see you back!
Thanks, A.G.! I'm glad to see another familiar face! I appreciate you taking the time to read through and share your thoughts!!!
Very creative concept, and well executed. The sensory description is great. Nice job!
Thank you, Jon!
Hey Ray, really great story. Your writing is superb as always. You have a real knack for setting the scene. Loved it. I have a couple of new stories on my page that I hope you could look at, most importantly my newest one. I love your commentary and am trying to decide whether or not to submit it to the contest. Thanks!
This story is for Tom.