“Household Gods” Horror by Josh Hanson

"Household Gods" Horror by Josh Hanson: evil woman sick

October 12th, 1990


When Ethan agreed to stay the night at Jesse’s house that Friday night, he did his best not to read too much into it. On the one hand, at fifteen, they were both a little old for sleepovers. On the other hand, since moving to Finch Point in June, Ethan had been flying solo, and Jesse was the first potential friend he’d found. Maybe. 

Jesse was a bit of a mystery to Ethan. In attitude and temperament, they couldn’t really be any different. Jesse was all confidence and bravado. He talked about girls as if he actually knew something. He had worked last summer as a volunteer fireman. At least that’s what he said. Most of Jesse’s stories were like that: almost believable, but always with some whiff of bullshit underneath. Ethan suspected the stories of his sexual conquests were much the same. He was less troubled by Jesse’s need to embellish–to lie, really–than he was confused by it. What was it about Ethan that led Jesse to believe that he would be impressed by these stories? Why so much effort? 

And then Jesse had invited him to stay over, watch some dumb movies, stay up late, act like idiots, and Ethan was shocked at how much he craved just those things. Not one more Friday night in his room listening to his dad’s old records and copying panels out of comic books. Actually doing things. With people. 

His mom drove him over after work, and pulling to the curb, she looked over the outside of the house with a cool, appraising eye. A single level house, painted a dark green, the branches of tall pines resting on the roof. There was a car in the driveway that looked like it probably hadn’t run in this decade, pine needles piled up at the base of the windshield, rust eating away the wheel wells. 

“I still don’t like not meeting him or his folks,” she said, sitting back. 

“He’s a guy from school. And I’m not a little kid, mom.”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I am just registering my concerns.”

“Received and filed. Now can I go?”


Ethan opened the door and climbed out. 

“Your sister has swimming tonight, so we won’t be home if you call.”

“I’ll manage.”

“Love you.”

“Love you too,” he said, rolling his eyes and shouldering his backpack. He closed the door and walked up the front walk. He knew his mom was still there at the curb, that she wouldn’t move until he was inside the house. He refused to turn and look at her. He knocked, and he could hear movement from deep within the house, see shadows behind the wavy amber glass alongside the front door. The door opened, and Jesse smiled from beneath his fringe of stringy hair. 

“Hey,” he said. 


“Come on in. Quiet, though, My mom’s asleep.”

Ethan followed him in and as he shut the door he broke and glanced out at his mom, car idling at the curb. Still watching. He closed the door without acknowledging her.

The inside of the house was dark with the blinds drawn and the shade of the big trees outside, and the dusk coming on already. It smelled vaguely of freezer-burn and stale cigarette smoke. He followed Jesse through a living room of mismatched couches and recliners, all facing a massive television, down a darker hallway and through a door on the left, all the way at the end of the hall. 

Jesse closed the door quietly. 

“My mom gave me some money for pizza, if you’re hungry.” He flopped onto the bed, leaning against the wall. The bed looked like it was made for a much younger kid, and the table beside it was beat up and covered in stickers that had been peeled off unsuccessfully. The room was dark, with only the last of the daylight filtering through the flannel blanket tacked up over the window. 

“Sounds good,” Ethan said, dropping his bag onto the floor. “I’m pretty hungry.”



Jesse jumped up and vanished back down the hall, into the kitchen, where Ethan could hear him dialing the phone. Ethan stood in the middle of the room, looking around. Dirty laundry piled on the floor. A desk that looked like it probably weighed a ton, with the finish all but worn from the top. Several glasses, half full of mysterious liquids. A boom box with several cassettes piled up around it. A Nike shoebox beside the radio. 

Ethan rifled through the tapes. Anthrax and a couple of Black Sabbath. All bands that Ethan knew only as names on t-shirts. He lifted the lid of the shoebox and dropped it quickly again. Looking toward the door, he lifted it carefully again. A naked woman stared up at him, her legs parted, her face painted and bored, hair teased up into a blonde helmet. He supposed he wasn’t supposed to be critiquing her hairdo. It was a page that had been roughly ripped out of a magazine, and Ethan lifted it to reveal a whole sheaf of such pages. A whole box full. He quickly replaced the lid and moved away from the desk. 

Jesse pushed back into the room and once again closed the door with surprising care. 

“Thirty minutes or less,” he said, flopping back onto the bed. 


“You can put on some music if you want. Just don’t turn it up above three or my mom will kick my ass.”

Ethan moved back to the desk, his eye drawn back to the shoebox. He picked out And Justice for All, just because the cover looked cool. He pushed the tape into the player, checked the volume–pegged right at three–and hit play. The music started with a swirl of weirdly distorted guitars that sounded like they were rising from deep underwater. 

“Fuck yeah,” Jesse said. “I mean, it’s not Puppets, but nothing is Puppets.”

Ethan just nodded, no clue what any of that meant. 

“If you feel like taking a walk in a bit, there are some friends having a thing. We’re invited.”

“Sure,” Ethan said. Am I going to a high school party?

They sat on the bed, listening to the music and thumbing through some of Jesse’s Thor comics. Ethan didn’t read Thor. He didn’t even really know what it was about. Then there was a rap at the front door and Jesse turned off the music as he ran to get the pizza. Ethan followed him out into the living room, and Jesse led him into the kitchen. It was a narrow white room with an old range with dirty trays under the burners. The table was a round formica thing with brass tubular legs. Jesse opened the pizza box and went to the refrigerator. 


“Sure,” Ethan said, taking a slice. 

Jesse poured out two glasses from the plastic bottle and then looked at Ethan with a mischievous smile. 

“Want a little extra?”

Ethan just looked at him. 

“Black Velvet? It’s my mom’s.” He pointed to the top of the fridge where a large plastic bottle of Black Velvet indeed stood. Ethan wasn’t even exactly sure what Black Velvet was, but he nodded. 

Jesse looked down the hall, listening intently, and then took down the bottle. He poured it into Ethan’s glass until the foam all but spilled over the top and then returned the bottle to its place. 

“What about you?”

“I’m good,” Jesse said, taking his drink and the box of pizza and pushing through the back door. Ethan followed. The backyard was a deep stretch of yard with a good half dozen trees looming high up above. There was no grass to speak of, just dirt and pine loam, and some folding beach chairs with tattered webbing. Jesse sat in one of these, put the pizza on another, and put his glass on the ground beside him. 

Ethan took another chair, sipped at his drink. It tasted like soda and cough medicine. It was terrible. He took a long drink and set the glass down. He took a slice of pizza.

“Your mom work nights?” he said. 

“Nah. She’s just not feeling too good. Been sick for a while. It’s fine. She leaves me alone, you know?”

Ethan finished his slice, washed it down with a long drink. It got better the more you drank. Not good, but at least tolerable. He still wasn’t sure what to make of Jesse’s not taking any. 

They ate the whole pizza in silence, and Ethan finished his drink. 

“Walk?” Jesse said.

“Sure. Whatever.”

Jesse shoved the pizza box into a plastic garbage can and went around the side of the house, through a little rickety gate, and soon they were out on the street in front of the house. 

“We can cut through the park,” he said, pointing with his chin. Ethan, feeling a little swimmy, followed. 


The park was a block over, a big chunk of land with a playground on this side and then paths that led down into a dense stand of redwoods, with a filthy little duck pond at the bottom. Ethan had been there a couple of times with his family. It was a cool place, but now the sun was really sinking down, and as they entered under the canopy of the trees the dark deepened. Jesse led them off the asphalt and down through the underbrush, along a well worn trail that cut straight across the main road’s zigzagging switchbacks. Soon they were out of the dark and into the open space of the duck pond. A couple of pickup trucks were parked near the fence, country music blasting from the speakers, and the kids standing around eyed them as they passed, but Jesse didn’t even acknowledge them. He just moved around the edge of the pond and followed a narrow path up the other side. 

“These kids, the one’s we’re going to see? They’re kind of church kids, so maybe just don’t mention the alcohol, okay?”

“Yeah, sure.” Like what was he going to say? And church kids? There was no part of Jesse that fit with any other part. 

At the far side of the park, they walked a couple of blocks, cut through a yard, and Jesse knocked at the door to a nice looking two story. 

The door opened and a clean cut looking girl with a blonde ponytail looked out. She smiled at Jesse and then saw Ethan. 

“Oh, hi. Come on in. I’m Beth.”

Ethan nodded to her as they passed into the house. The entryway gave onto a living room that was broad and open, with high ceilings. A baby grand piano took up one corner, and another girl was sitting on its bench, facing away from the keyboard, drinking a coke. Piano girl had red-blonde curls that stood out around her round face. Three other kids were scattered around the room in various stages of lounging. There was a bag of potato chips on the coffee table. On the radio, playing low: “Nothing Compares to You,” which was almost inescapable but that Ethan secretly thought was kind of great. 

Jesse shoved his hand into the bag of chips and wandered around the room. 

“This is Ethan. He’s new.”

“Hey.” They all nodded or raised hands in greeting. Ethan wasn’t sure if he fit in with the church kids either, but they were certainly a lot easier to read than whatever was going on at Jesse’s house. He still felt a little woozy, a little unsure on his feet, and he was sure that they could all see it, that he was making a fool of himself. 

“What you all up to tonight?” Jesse said around a mouthful of chips, crumbs flying. 

“God, you’re disgusting,” Beth laughed, holding up a hand as if to protect herself. Ethan watched her move, her long-fingered hands. Maybe it was the ponytail, but she seemed like a dancer, scrubbed clean and smooth.

“Nothing much,” the girl by the piano said. “I’ve got to get home soon. If my parents find out I was here, they’ll kill me.”

Ethan looked around. What sinister influence was supposed to be lurking here? 

“We can walk you home,” Jesse said, and piano girl gave him a long, seemingly meaningful look. 

“Yeah, okay,” she said, finally. 


Without even looking at Ethan, Jesse extended an arm, guiding the girl toward the front door again, and before he knew it, Ethan was standing in the living room with several strangers. 

“Well, nice meeting you,” he said. 

“Yeah, see you around,” the boy on the floor said without looking up. 

Ethan nodded to Beth, who was really kind of painfully pretty, and then he hurried out the door, running to catch up to Jesse and piano girl. He kept his distance, trailing behind them as they moved back into the park. 

It was almost full dark now, and it was nearly impossible to see his way under the trees. He just kept his eye on Jesse up ahead and stumbled blindly forward, hoping the ground wouldn’t drop away beneath him. 

At the pond, the pickup kids had their headlights and the bright spots mounted on top of their cabs turned on, reflecting off the algae-strewn surface of the water. Garth Brooks loudly proclaimed how he had friends in low places. Someone threw a bottle into the pond, and it made a hollow plump! Someone shouted something, and Ethan didn’t know if it was directed at them or not. Once again, Jesse paid them no mind. 

They plunged back into the brush, the darkness so deep it was almost palpable, and Ethan was sure that he was going to get lost or fall and hurt himself. And his balance was messed up from the stupid drink.

The other two were a ways ahead of him, and Ethan hurried so he wouldn’t lose them. Jesse was holding piano girl’s hand now. She would sometimes say something quietly to him, and he would give a little laugh and answer in similarly quiet tones. She never acknowledged Ethan’s presence.

Soon they climbed out into the playground area, where streetlights illumined the parking lot. Jesse led them away from his house, and Ethan walked along, a few paces behind the couple, for three blocks. Then piano girl stopped them and told Jesse he needed to go. 

“If my mom saw you,” she said.

“Right,” he said. “Well, later.” And he turned away, heading back toward Ethan. Piano girl walked up the block, not looking back. 

“What was that about?” Ethan said. 

“Heather’s a trip, man. Strict parents, but she’s wild, man. Her sister, too.”

“So, you two?”

“She just does hand stuff,” he said, miming. He laughed a mean little laugh, and they kept on. 

Ethan thought again about walking home. He could always go back to the house and call his mom, but no, he couldn’t. Steph was at swimming. So, yeah, just walk away. Whatever Jesse was, Ethan was pretty sure he didn’t want to be that. Well, he wanted to be with girls, and the picture of Beth’s blonde ponytail flashed through his mind again, and then unbidden the thought of Beth lying down in the pine needle and trash of the park floor. He shook it away. There was something about Jesse’s way of being in the world that just felt… off. 

He also knew he was too much of a coward to go. He’d wait it out. He knew he would. Call his mom in the morning. Make a run for it then. 


Back in the house, they returned to Jesse’s room, where he turned the music back on and dropped once again on top of the bed. 

“Bathroom?” Ethan said. 

“Down the hall. Last on the right.”

Ethan imitated Jesse’s careful opening and shutting of the door and crept down the hall. The last thing he wanted was a run-in with Jesse’s mom.  If Jesse was scared of her, Ethan couldn’t even imagine. 

The bathroom was filthy, with a black coating lining the inside of the toilet bowl and mold growing up the walls. Ethan peed, half-holding his breath, ran his hands under the water, and wiped his hands dry on his pants. 

Moving back down the hall, the door on the right was now open a couple of inches. The mom’s room. He did his best to move silently by, but a voice called out from inside. 


Ethan stopped. He didn’t know what to do. Finally he spoke, standing where he was. 

“No, ma’am. I’m Jesse’s friend. Ethan. I can get him for you.”

“What the fuck do I want with him?” The voice was thin, rough, and sharp as a rusty fishhook. “Come help me.”

Ethan looked down the hall toward Jesse’s closed door. He turned and pushed the door to his right open. The room was dark but for the light from the attached bathroom. That light fell on Jesse’s mother, a skeleton hung with pale skin, wearing a sheer bra and panties. Her legs were covered in half-dollar sized bruises, some green, some blue, some sickly yellow. She was trying to get up from the bed, without much success, and her hair, greasy and lank, hung down over her downturned face. Ethan stepped inside, and took one scrawny forearm in his hands. Her skin was dry as paper, and she felt too light to make up a whole person. He got her onto her feet, and she wavered, unsteady. She smelled of old urine and something vaguely medicinal. Ethan tried not to look at her, offering the modesty that she didn’t seem to afford herself. Instead he looked at the bed she had just risen from and saw sheets stained brown with what looked like dried blood. 

“Just help me in there,” she said, nodding toward the bathroom, and Ethan kept one hand on her upper arm and placed his other hand at the small of her back, feeling the vertebrae standing out like the ridge along a lizard’s back. Glancing down, he saw that the back of her underwear was stained almost black. 

In the bathroom, she swatted his hands away and braced herself on the counter. 

“Shut the door, but don’t go away. I need help back.”

Ethan hurried out and closed the door. Looking around the room, he noticed that in the center of the far wall was a hole in the plaster. Eye-level and maybe ten inches across, it went clear through, darkness on the other side. The edges of the broken drywall were worn smooth along the bottom edge, and the wall was dirty around it, as if hands had worried it often. That would be the last bedroom on the right side of the hall. He watched the hole. It seemed to pull at him, and he wanted to cross the room and look through, but he wanted to be nearby when Jesse’s mom called, so he just watched it, as if something might crawl out of it, or some face might appear on the other side. 

The toilet flushed, she called out, and Ethan opened the door again. She was sick alright, and the smell was truly foul. He held his breath and helped her up from the toilet. She clawed at her underwear with broken nails, not seeming to be able to make her fingers work. Finally, Ethan reached down and tugged them up, quick as he could manage. Bending down brought his face near to hers, and he really saw her for the first time. Her eyes were sunken and black-ringed, and her lips were chapped to bleeding, and there were more bruises on her cheeks. One nostril was caked with dried blood. 

“The bed,” she gasped.

Ethan led her back into the bedroom, nausea tickling the back of his throat. As they shuffled back to the bed, he watched the hole in the far wall. It was like a pupil in some massive eye, focused on him, watching. At the bed, she turned, and Ethan lowered her down. She swatted his hands away again. 

“That’s enough. No more free feels for you. Out.” She waved a hand toward the door and with the other hand picked up the glass beside her. She drank it greedily, some of it running out the sides of the glass and down her chin. 

Ethan pulled the door quietly shut and hurried back toward Jesse’s room. He looked at the door across the hall, the room that neighbored the mother’s. A slide latch had been installed on the outside of the door, the metal bar pushed into a hole drilled into the frame. 

“You get lost, or just take a really big one?”

“Your mom. She was calling.”

He threw his comic book down and swore, starting to rise. 

“No, it’s okay, I helped her.”

He stopped and looked at Ethan. A very long pause. 

“You helped her.”

“Yeah. She seems pretty sick.”

“I told you. She needs a lot of rest.”

“Well, she’s back in bed now.”

He was still holding Ethan’s eyes, as if he were doing some complicated calculations in his head. 

“Well, if she’s up, we can watch some TV. Come on.”

They went into the livingroom and Jesse turned on the big TV. The volume was all the way down, and he left it that way as he flipped through the channels. TBS was playing Beastmaster, and Jesse turned the volume up just loud enough to make out, and then tossed the remote onto the coffee table. 

“So, how do you know those kids from before,” Ethan said. 

“Oh, just from church.”


Ethan tried to imagine Jesse in church. Then he tried to imagine his mother anywhere. 

“We haven’t gone in a while, since my mom got sick, but they’re okay.”

On the screen, Dar and his companions found themselves surrounded by red, bat-like humanoids who closed in around them in an ever-tighter circle. 

“I used to have this on tape. Wore it out,” Jesse said. 

“Yeah,” Ethan said. He didn’t know what else to say. He wondered if his family was back from Steph’s swimming lesson. He could fake sick. Say his stomach hurt. Get the hell out. 

But instead, they watched the rest of the movie, and then MacGyver reruns came on, and they watched that. They didn’t say much, only occasionally commenting on the action. Ethan found himself drifting off in the fake leather recliner. 

Finally, Jesse got up and disappeared down the hall, returning with a couple of blankets and two pillows. He threw a pillow and blanket and Ethan, and took the rest back to the couch. He set up his little bed there, while a Tide commercial flashed bright on the screen. Ethan put the pillow behind his head and covered up with the blanket. It was pretty comfortable, actually. 

Jesse wanted to watch USA Up All Night because he thought the host was hot and the movies were funny, but they didn’t make it even a half hour into the first movie before Jesse was snoring quietly on the couch, the TV still humming away quietly. Ethan punched the pillow, which smelled musty, and settled in. Soon, he drifted off in the blue light of the television. 


He awoke to the sound of scratching and a soft voice calling out. At first, still caught in the gauzy web of half-sleep, he thought it was a cat, trying to get in. But that soft whine was a word. 


He looked across the room at Jesse, twisted in his blanket, back turned toward him. The TV was still on, whispering out the laugh track from Happy Days and casting shifting shadows around the room. 


Fully awake now, he didn’t have to guess. He knew where the voice was coming from. The end of the hall. The last room. Ethan’s mind raced through horror movie images and tabloid headlines. He imagined some little sister, kept chained to the wall, half-starved. But why? And why the hole in the wall? Who did it serve? The mother or whoever was locked up inside? 

He allowed himself a brief fantasy of opening the door, gathering up the emaciated form of the abused child, carrying her–he knew it must be a her–out into the street, as ambulances and police cruisers converged on him, the hero. 

And then the voice shook him back into reality. 


The scratch-scratch like fingernails along the bottom of a hollow-core door. And he didn’t want to be a hero anymore. He didn’t want to open any doors on any secret family horrors. He wanted to run. He could get his bag, slip out the back door, walk home. He’d make it before daylight. Sleep the morning in his own bed and forget about everything he’d seen and heard in this house. 

He carefully folded up the recliner, tangling the blanket in the footrest, and stood up. Jesse slept on, the rise and fall of his breathing barely visible. Ethan moved to the end of the hallway. It was dark, the bathroom door standing open but offering only deeper darkness within. The scratch-scratch seemed terribly loud in the stillness.


 It was the voice more than anything. Childlike and feminine and pleading, as if only for him. He took two steps into the hallway. There was a wet cough from behind the mother’s door, a sniffle, and the sound of rustling bedclothes. Ethan stood statue still. He imagined the mother opening her bedroom door at that moment and finding him standing there in the dark, perfectly still, just staring at the door. She’d probably scream. Jesse would wake up. He’d look like a crazy person. 


He felt a little like a crazy person. 

Two more steps and he was past the mother’s room, almost to the end of the hall. It was deep darkness here. He remembered thinking he was lost in pure dark earlier in the evening, in the park, with Jesse and piano girl. But this was true darkness. Glancing over his shoulder he saw the flickering glow of the television in the other room, but the hallway seemed so long, the light so far away. 

He ran his hands along the smooth wood of the door, feeling for the latch. He found it, and it rattled, too loud. Too loud. He was still again. 


The voice didn’t even seem to come from behind the door. It filled the darkness. He lifted the little hasp and slid the bar to the side. It wasn’t a large lock. A good kick should have been enough to knock it loose. He carefully pushed the hasp back down, and then waited again, listening. 

Sliding his hands down the door, he found the handle, turned it slowly, pushed. 

As the door moved, something skittered away from it, back, away into a far corner. There were two windows in the room, both of them covered in cardboard, held in place by duct tape. The only light came in through the hole in the wall to his right, casting a dim spotlight on the far wall. Devoid of furniture, the room felt over-large, cavernous, the corners dark. 

“Hello?” he whispered, his eyes slowly adjusting to the weak light. 

In the far corner, beyond the hole in the wall, in the deeper shadows, a shape moved slightly. 

“Please,” she said. 

Ethan stepped further into the room, eyeing the hole in the wall. The room beyond, Jesse’s mom’s room, was just an orange glare of dim light and shadow. He passed through that light, approaching the figure in the corner with his hands up. 

From the shadows he could see that she was at least not a child. Her hair hung loose over her eyes, and she seemed to be wrapped in a sheet, or some kind of loose, gauzy scarf-like thing. She stood slightly hunched, with her hands at her sides, shoulders tensed up. 

“I’m Ethan,” he said, not touching her, but holding his hands out so that she could see they were empty. “What’s your name?”

She looked up from under the fringe of hair so blonde it was almost white, big eyes reflecting the faint light, and he thought he saw a smile. 

And then the light was gone, and they were plunged into darkness. Ethan flinched away, turning to the hole on his right, where Jesse’s mom peered through. Her eyes and nose filled the space, her fingers poked through, clutching the bottom of the hole. She hooked her eyes at Ethan, standing guilty in the dark. 

“She don’t talk,” she said, the voice coming through the wall muffled and rattly. “Never talks.”

“Why’s she locked in here,” Ethan said, adrenaline shaking his voice, ready to run. 

“Why you lock something up? So it don’t get out, or so someone else don’t get in. Don’t ask stupid questions. What you really want to know?”

Ethan took a step back, away from both women, the skeletal face peering through the plaster and the grinning woman hunched in the corner. Suddenly, he didn’t know which to be more frightened of. 

“I caught her,” the mother said. “She didn’t think I could. Didn’t think I was strong enough. Didn’t think I had the juice. But I caught her. She’s mine.”

“You can’t,” Ethan said. Just that. He couldn’t find the words to say everything that was wrong with the situation. You can’t keep a person prisoner. You can’t steal people away. You can’t be here, staring through this ragged hole in the wall in the middle of the night. You just can’t.

The mother laughed. It was a broken glass under car tires sound. “That’s what she thought, but look at her. I can. Can’t I, dear?” The eyes moved toward the corner. 

“Who is she,” was the best Ethan could do. He didn’t have the necessary resources for this conversation. 

“Not a who. A what. What’s she look like to you? Tell me what you see.”

Ethan looked back at the girl in the corner. She lifted her hands, long-fingered hands, pale in the dark, and pushed her hair back behind her ears. He knew that face. He’d seen it just today. Jesse’s friend. Beth. Her hair let down from its ponytail. She smiled up at him. 

“Ooh, hoo. What do you see, boy? She look like an angel to you? She looked like an angel when I got her. She ain’t no angel. Sometimes she still tries, but I see through it. Tell me. Tell me what you see.”

“She’s just a girl,” he whispered. 

That laugh again. “A girl. All you boys think about. Girls. She’s no more a girl than I am. Ancient. Older than time, this one.”

“Why are you keeping her in here,” Ethan said, straightening himself. The first waves of adrenaline had subsided enough that he could almost think. 

“That’s what you do with one like her. I like to watch her. Sometimes I watch her all day long. Taken almost everything to keep her here. Almost drained me dry, but I caught her. She’s mine. She’ll be mine until I finally die. Soon now. Then she’ll go. But she’ll remember. She’ll know I caught her. She won’t underestimate the next one.”

“Come on,” he said to Beth. “I’ll take you out of here.” He held his hand out to her. 

The mother laughed again. “I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t do that. Never touched her. Wouldn’t.”

“It’s okay. We’ll get help,” he said. 

The long pale fingers reached out slowly across the darkness, stretching out toward his open hand. 

“Don’t feed the animals, boy. Don’t do it. I wouldn’t. She’s just good to watch. She’ll show you anything you want. Be anything you want. Wouldn’t touch. Just look.” She started to cough, that wet, hacking cough, and her face disappeared from the hole in the wall, once again letting a solitary beam of light enter the room. In the light of that beam: Ethan’s open hand, and the girl’s pale fingers reaching out, almost touching. He held his breath. That touch. Just the feel of her fingers wrapped up in his own. He’d die for it. Just one touch. Her fingers slid into his palm, and he closed his fingers around them. They were so cold. He wanted to take them in his mouth, warm them, keep them close to his skin. She looked at him across the circle of light, so beautiful. Painfully beautiful. Like a fishhook just below his sternum, tugging. 

The mother returned to the hole, peering in, and the room went dark again. 

And Ethan felt his arm jerked suddenly away. There was no pain. It simply wasn’t there any more. He felt at his shoulder with his left hand, at the wet socket, blood pumping warm between his fingers. 

“Oh, my, no. I wouldn’t have done that,” the mother said. “Wouldn’t have touched her. Not for a million dollars, no. Just watch her. Just look.”

Ethan fell to his knees, the blood rushing from his head, gone light, too light. He couldn’t feel his arm. As he fell, he felt those cold fingers on his skin. Painfully beautiful. 

The mother laughed her gravelly chuckle that was half cough, as the mouth closed on the base of his neck. 

“No,” he said, though no sound came out. “Please.”

“Oh, goodness,” he mother said. “I tried to warn you. Look but don’t touch. Oh, look at that. She’s never shown me that before. Yes.”

Ethan felt the warmth running out of him. He felt his body shake as the girl’s teeth tore through his belly, her fingers pulling him open. 

“Please,” he sighed, but he wasn’t sure if he was pleading for help or begging for her not to stop. If she would just hollow him out and climb inside, he’d keep her warm forever. Just so that he could feel that touch. 


“Just look at that,” the mother said. “Just look.”

Josh Hanson is a teacher and a graduate of University of Montana MFA program, and his first novel, King’s Hill is forthcoming from Wicked House. His previous work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sinister Smile Press, BlackPetals, Dance Cry Dance Break, Stoneboat,Fast Flesh, and Diagram

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“Fruits” Dark Fiction by James Hanna

"Fruits" Dark Fiction by James Hanna

And so there grew great tracks of wilderness,
Wherein the beast was ever more and more,
But man was less and less...

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson

After tipping the cab driver, dabbing some lipstick onto her mouth, and taking a firm grip on her Samsonite boarding bag, Molly Groot waddled towards the Hoosier Park Casino.  As she approached the casino, she saw her cab reflected in the glass doorway.  It hadn’t moved.  Had she tipped the driver enough?. Five dollars seemed plenty.  Or had she made a mistake in mentioning the name of Jeb Judson, the man who had answered her online matrimonial ad?  The man who had bought her plane ticket from Iowa to this modest community of Anderson, Indiana.  The man she soon might marry.  He had told her to meet him in the casino where he liked to place bets on the horses.  He had promised to be there by noon.

Molly did not know that much about Jeb—only that he was a Yale graduate, ruggedly handsome, and had once been a member of Skull and Bones, a very elite fraternity.  He also had a PhD in organic chemistry and grew experimental crops for the government on his farm outside of Anderson.  But at the mention of his name, the cab driver, a mealy-mouthed little man, had turned into a positive brute.  “Jeb Judson,” he had sneered.  “We don’t mention that person in these parts, ma’am.  Nobody does.”

    Surely, that cab driver was nothing but a crank.  Jeb Judson seemed the perfect gentleman, having courted her for three months by e-mail before sending her the plane ticket.  And he was better looking than Clint Eastwood if his photo could be believed.  But it was the last of his e-mails that had made her swoon: he had promised her a fancy luncheon on his homestead veranda then a tour of his twenty- thousand acre farm.  And, should they tie the matrimonial knot, a life befitting a manor queen.  And what a wicked sense of humor he had.  Yesterday, she had asked him the title of his favorite book—a question she posed to all her online acquaintances.  His answer, Frankenstein, had made her laugh out loud.  But there was nothing droll about their rendezvous: he was clearly a very lonely man, tiring of bachelorhood and wanting a wife.  And he was interested in her, Molly Groot, an overweight librarian pushing forty—a spinster with nothing to fuel her passion but picketing her local Wal-Mart.  It was truly ironic that they were meeting in a casino.  With a roll of the proverbial dice, her future could well be decided for the better.

Molly paused at the casino door.  Looking over her shoulder, she heaved a sigh of relief.  The cab had vanished.  She was no longer being watched by that ill-tempered man.  

What a depressed little town she had come to.  On the cab ride from the airport, she had seen weedy sidewalks, barren storefronts, and gangs of hoodlums lurking on almost every corner.  But the saddest sight of all was the abandoned General Motors plant and the boarded-up headquarters of the United Auto Workers.  The town seemed to exist as a relic—a ghost to better times.  But wasn’t she a bit of a wreck herself?  Her push-up bra and wobbly pumps made her feel like a truck driver in drag.  Thank God for Jeb Judson.  He would carry her off like a bandit on a steed and bring out the real woman in her.  A woman she was frantic to release.

Molly looked at her wristwatch and felt her face flush.  Her heart began hammering like a rent collector at the door.  It was fifteen minutes to noon.


Entering the casino, Molly suppressed a gasp.  The glitter of wall-to-wall slot machines was truly a symphony of color and light—an utter contrast to the decaying town.  And yet the casino was no less depressing: the hypnotic stares with which patrons watched the tumblers, as though the single pull of a lever might rescue them from food stamps and unemployment checks, hit a little too close to home.  Holding her breath, Molly stood near the doorway and watched nervously for Jeb.

He strode through the door at 12:00 o’clock sharp.  And her heart nearly stopped when she saw him.  He looked exactly like his picture: a lean handsome man in his sixties with a shock of silver white hair.  And his tight squint was positively presidential—in a George Bush sort of way. 

How easy was his stride as he ambled towards her—how snug the fit of his Wrangler jeans.  His sun-browned face and sharp-blue eyes— his aura of rugged individualism—all suggested a marshal in a spaghetti western.  And the political button on his shirt—Keep our troops in Afghanistan—only added to his gunfighter image.  There were so many horrible bombings these days.  Whatever was the world coming to?

He spotted her immediately.  “Molly,” he drawled.  “Molly Groot.”  When his hand squeezed her fingers, she felt her knees tremble.  His palm was warm, dry, and surprisingly smooth for a farmer.  His smile was broad but measured, as though he had been saving it only for her.  As he patted her hand, she felt a stab of long dormant sexuality.

“J-Jeb,” she stammered.  “How funny you were.  Of all books—Frankenstein.”

His laugh was deep but controlled, as though it were something he had borrowed.  He did not strike her as a man who laughed often, and yet he was laughing for her.  “You came anyhow, darlin’,” he murmured.  “I must have done something right.”

“Against my better judgment,” she teased.  “Really, Jeb.  Frankenstein?!  That book is positively baroque.”

He swallowed then looked at his boots.  “I shouldn’t have tried to impress a librarian.  Not with the trash I read.” 

She folded her arms as though cross with him.  But she was trying hard not to smile.  How long had it been since she had flirted with a man?  “Well, you have impressed me, Jeb Judson,” she chirped. “But not with your choice of books.  And not,” she looked critically around the casino, “with your choice of pastimes.”  

He chuckled deeply and gazed across the room.  On a giant television screen above the bar, a cluster of harness racers were jockeying for position along the backside of a track.  “Suppose I let you reform me,” he said.  “Suppose I don’t bet on the nags today?”  He hooked his thumbs in his pockets and smirked.  “There’s nothing but losers in this place anyhow.” 

She looked at him coyly then laughed.  “I’m not sure I want you reformed, Jeb Judson.” 

He arched his eyebrows. “You sure of that?  Give a woman long enough, she’s bound to find fault with a man.”

“Oh really?” she teased.  “It seems the whole town has found fault with you, Jeb.  Just what are you up to on that farm of yours?  A second campaign for Mitt Romney?”

He grinned and shook his head.  “Let’s just say it’s a much bigger hustle.  Let’s just say it’ll make me a rich man.”

“And me a manor queen,” she joked.  “Or will you make me Frankenstein’s bride instead?”

Was he blushing beneath that deep tan? she wondered.  How easy it was to flirt with him.  And how delicious that they now had their own private joke.  But why were his eyes avoiding hers?  And why did his smile seem so out of place?  He must not be used to courtship, she thought.  He must want me to put him at ease.

 She rolled her eyes coquettishly and planted her hands on her hips.  “Just why are you stalling, Jeb Judson?” she asked.  “Didn’t you invite me to lunch?”

He smiled and held out an elbow.  “A lunch befitting a queen,” he drawled.  “Let’s take a little drive, honey.  Whaddya say?”

She hooked her hand on the crook of his arm.  “I’d say you’re a mighty big talker, Jeb.  But I am rather famished—it’s been a long trip.  I hope you’ve prepared a big meal.”


An hour later, she was sitting on the veranda of a rustic Italian-style farmhouse.  Looking out on Jeb’s estate, Molly felt deeply content.  But her surroundings did not seem to merit her mood.  Just how lonely was she to be moved by a place like this?

The estate, if one could call it that, consisted of half a dozen enormous silver barns—the kind that existed on factory farms where swine were force-fed in tight crowded pens, never to see the light of day.  Close to the barns were several massive waste lagoons, gulches so discolored and septic that they looked like huge open wounds.  And what was that smell that tugged at her lungs like an infant demanding attention?  It smelled like a ripe diaper. 

But at least they were sitting upwind from the scent.  And the lunch, a thick stew that tasted like veal, was positively delicious.  She was starting to feel tipsy from her third glass of wine and Jeb, dear dear Jeb, was gazing at her with his clear blue eyes—eyes the color of robin eggs.  What a magnificent hunk he was.  And didn’t he say he was going to be rich?  But how?

“Jeb,” she whispered, her voice thick with wine.  “What is going on out here?” 

Slowly, as though performing surgery, Jeb topped off her glass.  “If I told you,” he joked, “I could never let you leave.  But that might be best for us both.”

A man with a mystery, Molly thought.  What more could a woman ask for?  She took a deep sip of wine.  “Jeb, you’re such a tease,” she said.  “I feel like a heroine in a Charlotte Bronte novel.”  

Jeb shrugged and burped.  “I don’t read that women’s stuff much,” he said.  “Brave New World—that’s more to my liking.  And 1984.”

“Oh really?” she scoffed.  “Such political tastes.  No wonder you’re working for the government.”

He frowned and topped off his own glass of wine.  “A lot of folks work for the government, darlin’.  Gardeners, chemists, animal trainers.  Some of ’em work right here.”  He gestured towards the barns where a handful of Mexican laborers were ambling around, toting shovels and hoes.  To Molly, they looked as charming as Snow White’s seven dwarves.


“Let me guess,” Molly teased.  “You’re growing an army of mutants.  You’ll use them to take over the country next year.  Is that what you’re up to, Jeb Judson?”

“No, darlin’,” Jeb murmured, his voice rich with mirth.  “Next month.”

Is he serious? Molly wondered, a thought she could not totally dismiss.  She remembered the words of the cab driver: “We don’t mention that person in these parts, ma’am,” and a tremor invaded her spine.  Had she come to the home of an eccentric?  Had she thrown too much caution to the wind?  Was the internet really the best of places to seek the love of her life?  But what did she have waiting for her back in Iowa?  A studio apartment, a couple of cats, and a job that barely paid her rent.  And how she ached for the touch of a man—her nipples were harder than bullets. 

As she looked at Jeb’s strong handsome face, a warmth crept into her heart.  He needs me to nurture him, she thought.  He needs me to take his hand. 

But what was that curious sound she now heard?  It was coming from one of the barns—a series of shrieks that sounded like a woman making love.

 “J-Jeb,” she stammered.  “What’s happening in there?  Is somebody butchering a pig for our dinner?”

Jeb answered her firmly.  “We don’t kill creatures here,” he said.  “Not if we can help it.  We think of them like family.”

Creatures?  Family?  Her foolish panic awoke once again.  Was he cloning animals?  Was he tinkering about with genetics?  Was he working with a hunchback named Igor who dug up graves at night?  She put down her wine glass and drew a deep breath.  What nonsense I’m thinkingWhat crazy thoughts.  Thank God I can blame them on the wine.

Jeb smiled at her and her palms began to sweat.  His eyes were so clear—so wise and embracing.  How boorish of her to have doubted him. 

“Darlin’,” he said, “You came out here for a reason.  Let’s not lose sight of that.”

“What reason might that be, Jeb Judson?” 

“I’m guessing you came for an adventure—maybe the first adventure of your life.”

“Do I really seem so desperate?” she snapped.  She pretended to frown, but the effort was useless.  Her eyes were now glittery with tears.

Jeb looked at her reassuringly then cupped her chin with his fingers and thumb.  “Yes, darlin’, you do,” he said matter-of-factly.  “Why do you think I sent for you?  Desperate women don’t judge their men.”

“Oh, really?” she said.  She turned her head away from him.  “With you one might make an exception, Jeb Judson.  Did you bring me all this way because you thought I might be desperate?”

“Times are tough—folks are upset.  A man needs to take comfort where he can find it.”

 “Even from desperate librarians?” she muttered.  “You must have a rather dark side to you, Jeb, if frumps are the best you can do.”

He shook his head sadly and patted her cheek.  “Do I scare you that much, honey?”

“You scare me a little bit, Jeb.  But you intrigue me even more.”  She placed the palm of her hand on his wrist.  “And I have been alone such a very long time.”

Jeb laughed and rose slowly from his chair.  “Come on then,” he said.  “It’s time you met the family.”


As she followed Jeb to the nearest barn, Molly felt as though she were crossing an ocean.  She remembered a line from Julius Caesar, her favorite Shakespearian play.  And we must take the current where it serves…  But how would this current serve her?  Would it lead her to love and good fortune or to something she’d rather not see?  Even Jeb seemed to sense the pregnancy of the moment.  His face had lost its ironic smirk and had hardened into a soldierly resolve.  

When they reached the barn, Jeb nodded to a Mexican laborer.  Slowly, as though cracking a safe, the man unlocked the door.  Molly smelled the interior of the barn before she saw it—a smell so strong that it made her nose itch.  Her eyes began to water, her head began to swim, and she felt as though she were walking in quicksand.  And so it seemed strange, when she entered the barn, that she saw little reason to panic.  Inside the barn was a large shallow field beneath rows of low-hanging grow lights.  And peeking through the ruts in the soil were a few dozen orange balls the size of cantaloupes.  Men in white lab coats were ducking beneath the grow lights, adjusting sprinklers and carefully inspecting the balls.  Is this what had me so worried?  she wondered.  A silly pumpkin patch?  She was not at all impressed.

“Jeb,” she said when she was able to draw a breath.  “You call this an adventure?”

“We call it our nursery,” Jeb replied.  “Here is where we plant the mutants.  Where we let ’em ripen like fruit on the vine.”

He took her by the elbow and guided her onto the field.  The damp earth pulled stubbornly at her pumps, and it was all she could do not to trip.  Releasing her elbow, Jeb paused for a moment then knelt beside one of the larger balls.  He squeezed it tenderly, as though fondling a breast, then began to dig gently with his fingers. “Prepare yourself, darlin’,” he said.  “This is all the adventure you’re ever gonna need.”

Jeb’s fingers blackened from the soil and the ball began to loosen.  As he started to pull it from the ground, Molly suppressed a gasp.  It was not a pumpkin—it was a little head, complete with bulging eyes, a scrunched-up nose, and a wide rather slobbery-looking mouth.  A pear-shaped body followed the head as Jeb continued to tug—a body with a ropey umbilical cord and tiny hands and feet.  It was the size of a  newborn baby. 

“This one’s ready for harvesting,” Jeb announced.  He pulled a box cutter from his pants pocket, pushing out the blade as he did so, then he cut the umbilical cord in two.  A substance that looked like green custard dribbled onto the ground.  After rinsing the creature under a sprinkler, Jeb mopped it dry with a handkerchief and handed it to Molly. 

“The smell will soon go away,” he said.  “But don’t be holdin’ it too long.  We don’t want it thinking you’re its mother.”

Molly clutched the thing with shaking hands, too startled to let it drop.  The creature was cute, in a French Bulldog sort of way, but how ridiculous to think she might pose as its mother.  Its body was cold, its skin was rough, its fingers were wiggling like worms.  And its wide gaping mouth was emitting a sound that set her teeth on edge.  “Eeek, eeek, eeeek,” it went, a noise just like chalk being scraped along a blackboard.  And it smelled so strongly of fertilizer that it was all she could do not to sneeze.   

Molly held the creature away from her.  “Take it!” she said.  “Take it away!  It needs a cage, not a mother, Jeb.”

 As Jeb took the thing back, tucking it beneath his elbow, she remembered a Biblical quote.  Ye shall know them by their fruits.  She was not at all religious—she rarely went to church—and so she now realized the full impact of her shock.  If runts like that thing were the fruits of Jeb’s labor—cold little cretins that smelled like an outhouse, he might not be the nicest of men.

She started to sob.  “J-Jeb, how could you?  It looks like a freak.  It smells like a toilet.”

Jeb grinned sheepishly then shrugged.  “The whole country’s in the crapper, darlin’.  That’s why we need desperate measures.  And desperate women too.”

“You sound like you just made a deal with the devil.”

Jeb flushed like a scolded schoolboy, a sight so touching that she knew she was going to forgive him.  He seemed so lonely, so in need of companionship, that she wanted to pull him tightly to her breast.  But when he spoke to her again, her stomach knotted.  

“You sound like an exorcist, darlin’,” he said.  “Don’t turn away the devil until you’ve heard his offer.”

“W-what do you even feed it?” she asked; it was all she could think of to say.

Holding the podling under his arm, Jeb began stroking its head. “We raise ’em on dog food,” he said with a smirk.  “It’ll reach its full growth in six short weeks.  That’s when we start training them.”

“Training them?” Molly muttered.  “Training them to do what?”

 As she watched the thing squirm in Jeb’s hands, her mind began to rebel.  Was he actually fond of that little gremlin?  Did he think she would find it endearing as well?  But her heart was starting to bleed for him, and she knew she was falling in love.  What a sad and lonely man he must be to regard such a thing as a pet.  How badly he needed a good woman’s love to save him from himself. 

“Darlin’,” he said, “let’s get on with our tour.  I’ve told you the answer already.”

Smiling thinly, Jeb scratched the creatures belly.  “Eeek, eeeek, EEEEK,” it went   like a mouse caught in a trap.


As he walked her to another barn, Jeb took her hand in his.  A chorus of squawks was coming from the barn, as though circular saws were biting into timber.  The squawks were so raw, so primitive and sharp, that they stung the fillings in her teeth.  

Jeb unlocked the door to the barn.  “We’re breaking these in for the auto plant,” he said.  “They get a bit feisty at first, but they go with the program soon enough.”

Jeb’s voice had lost its gentleness and now sounded smug and pedantic.  Has he actually bested the devil? thought Molly.  How could that possibly be?  He’s so clearly a man cut off from the world—a broken, discarded soul.  As Jeb pushed open the door to the barn, generous tears filled her eyes.  

Her tenderness for Jeb vanished the moment she stepped into the barn.  Never had she seen anything remotely like this.  A mob of the freaks, each six and a half feet tall, was standing alongside a long conveyer belt.  Their eyes were glassy, their shoulders were sagging, their bodies were pitted with large crusty sores.  Behind them stood more men in lab coats—men clutching hypodermic syringes and cattle prods.  The men watched closely as the creatures lifted chassis, engine blocks, and tires from the conveyor belt and lugged them to nearby tables.  When one of them deposited its load on a table, it was rewarded with an injection.  Miracle-Gro, Molly guessed, or maybe some kind of sedative.  If one dropped its burden, a cattle prod stung it.  “Rawk, rawk, RAWK,” cried the things when given electrical shocks.  They sounded like angry crows.

 Jeb squeezed her hand and beamed.  “Next month,” he said, “the GM plant will reopen.  We’ll be fitting these fellas with memory chips—they’ll be working the robot arms.  If things work out as planned, the entire auto industry will return to America.”

Molly felt as though someone had punched her and run away with her purse.  How alarming to know she’d been charmed by a man who merited only contempt.  What an elitist.  What a swine.  I must have been crazy to want him.  I must have been out of my mind.  “Those poor, poor creatures…” she mumbled, her tongue so dry she could barely form the words.  It was only a perverse fascination that kept her from leaving Jeb’s side. 

Oblivious to her heartbreak, Jeb continued to lecture.  “Low maintenance would better describe them,” he said. “No more health care to pay, no more strikes to settle, no more pensions to drain away the budget.  These go-getters work eighteen hours a day and make good fertilizer when they die.  The stockholders will be overjoyed.”

“No more jobs for the people in town,” Molly blurted, a remark so reflexive that she instantly regretted it.  Jeb’s attitude had grown so superior, his manner so professorial, that she felt like a child who had scattered her toys and neglected to put them away.  She wanted to cry on his chest, but she felt too stunned to move.

 Jeb sucked a tooth and shrugged.  “The people,” he muttered, “are cattle as well.  This isn’t that big a transition.”

Before Molly could reply, a commotion arose at the other end of the barn.  A few of the freaks—all blazing with sores—were standing in a row.  They were bound to one another with waist chains and watching a cluster of tackling dummies.  They were squawking excitedly among themselves. 

“Watch this,” Jeb instructed.  He removed a whistle from his back pocket, put it to his lips, and blew.  At the chirp of the whistle, the things lowered their heads and assembled into a flying wedge.  Jeb blew the whistle a second time and they lumbered towards the dummies.  The sound of their skulls bashing foam thudded throughout the barn.

 “There’s bound to be demonstrators,” Jeb said.  “Those UAW shirkers who drove the industry abroad.  This’ll send them packing.”

 “And so you’re a strike breaker too?!” Molly cried.  Her mind was reeling, her senses were numb, but she could not tear her eyes from the sight.

Jeb grinned.  “There will be no more strikes—no one’s getting his job back.  Scab labor is going to take over.”

 Molly held her face between her hands.  What a revolting man he was.  What a self-entitled boar.  If he had been born in the eighteenth century, he’d have surely been a slave owner.  “Jeb, take me from here,” she sobbed—it was all she could manage to utter.

 Jeb smiled kindly and cleared his throat.  His face had lost all self-consciousness now and he seemed to be looking at her from a very great distance.  What a child you still are, his eyes seemed to say.  How much you still have to learn.  “Let’s go back to the house, my darlin’,” he said.  “You haven’t had dessert.”


“Devils food cake!” Molly cried.  “You’re serving me devil’s food cake?!”  

Jeb finished cutting the rich chocolate cake and handed her a piece.  There was not a trace of irony in his face.

Konditor Milk Chocolate Curly Whirly Cake

They were sitting at a coffee table inside an enormous study.  The walls were lined with dozens of bookcases, all of them crammed full of books.  There were science logs, history books, manuals on animal husbandry.  There were texts on organic farming, molecular biology, and plant pathology.  There were rows and rows of philosophy books: Spinoza, Kant, Spencer, Nietzsche filled up two whole shelves.  There were endless volumes of literature: Shakespeare, Homer, Chaucer, Goethe—the titles went on and on.  There was even a sagging bookcase devoted entirely to erotica.  Molly’s head began to ache.

Jeb smiled at her reassuringly and took a bite of cake.  “Yes, darlin’,” he said.  “I’ve read every one of them.  Some I’ve read several times.”  He looked at her thoughtfully, took a slow breath, then he spoke as though reading out loud.  “‘Football, films, and beer filled the horizons of their minds.’  That’s from George Orwell, 1984.  I think it describes the goddamn people you feel such sympathy for.”

Molly shook her head and tried to scowl, but could not hide the shock in her face.  “So what does that make you, Jeb?” she snapped.  “An educated monster?”

“Maybe,” Jeb chuckled, his mouth full of cake.  “But at least I’ve impressed a librarian.”

“Have you?” she spat.  “Have you really?”  She did not wish to make that concession to him, and yet she was deeply in awe.  Clearly this man, this very strange man, was far better read than she would ever be.  Perhaps, he was even smarter.  Perhaps, he was a genius.

Determined to puncture his maddening pride, she sniped at him again.  “What good have all these books done you, Jeb, if you treat those poor things like slaves?”

“Darlin’,” Jeb said, “there’s a far bigger picture.”  He burped, rose from his chair, and wandered over to one of the bookcases.  He fingered the books as though tuning a piano then recited some titles out loud.  “Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.  Last Man Standing: The Ascent of J.P. Morgan.  Today and Tomorrow: The Autobiography of Henry Ford.”  He looked at her kindly and folded his arms; his eyes were twinkling like stars.  “These men were monsters—all of them.  But they rose above the horde.  And they took the country to places nobody could have imagined.”

My God, Molly thought.  What an ego he has.  How could I ever have though of reforming this dreadful, impossible man?  “Jeb, there’s cake on your chin,” she murmured.  “Besides that, you sound like Satan.”

“Devils are all around us,” Jeb shrugged—he rubbed the cake from his chin.  “Not all of them can be bargained with.  Not all will bother to court you.  Better we should out-monster them than allow them to eat us alive.”

Oh no! Molly thought.  He’s a Nietzsche nut too.  She had always hated that little German prude.  His rants about apes, man, and the superman to come were so pompous, so smug, so utterly contemptuous.  Why—out of all the books in his study—did Jeb have to quote from Nietzsche?!

 “So you’re the ascender of man,” she joked.  “I always wondered what he would look like.”

Jeb laughed and shook his head.  “I’m not that ambitious, darlin’,” he said.  “I wish only to be a monster.”

Molly felt her skin crawl.  The man was insane, totally insane—no wonder he was alone.  And yet his eyes, his clear blue eyes, were as tranquil as a lake.  It was the accommodation in his eyes—the gentleness with which he now looked at her—that gave her the courage to lecture him.  “The townspeople are all against you, Jeb.  They think you’re a monster already.”

He chuckled proudly and smirked.  “I would only be worried if they were my friends.”

More Nietzsche, she thought; her fists tightened into balls.  “Must you keep quoting that crass, little German?  What are your thoughts, Jeb.  What is inside that head of yours?”  

He returned to his chair, slowly sat down, and picked up the remainder of his cake.  He poked at the cake as though touching up a sculpture then put it back on the coffee table.  It was a minute before he spoke.  “I’m a jaded man, darlin’,” he said.  “I am drunk with power, poisoned with knowledge, callous to all that I touch.  But the people, without even trying, are far greater monsters than me.”

Look into the abyss, Molly remembered, and the abyss will look into you.  Was that vain little Kraut actually right about something?  Was the nihilism in Jeb Judson’s eyes about to seep into her soul?  The thought only made her angrier.  “Oh really?” she muttered.  “Just what is their sin?”

 “Ignorance,” replied Jeb—the word struck her like a hammer.  “Willful, church-bred ignorance.  They breed, they doze, they die—that is all.  Like cattle on a plain.”

 Molly could hardly believe her own thoughts.  Did this arrogant man, this self-centered pig, believe he was some kind of savior?  “You tether innocent creatures,” she stammered.  “You bury their babies in dirt.”

Jeb looked at her sharply and glared.  How quickly his moods changed.  “Knowledge can kill you,” he said with a shrug.  “Nietzsche probably died of it.  But it also can make you a brute.”

 “Just what do you mean by that?” Molly snapped.

“I plan to tether the people as well.  Lead ’em around by the nose.  Their kind of monster we cannot empower—the world is too dangerous a place.”

 He rose from his chair, cracked his knuckles, then turned on a small television.  “Nietzsche had it wrong,” he said.  “Mankind will never ascend.  Not…”  An NFL playoff game was on—a contest between the Titans and the Patriots.  The stadium was packed with fifty thousand people, all of them on their feet screaming.  He looked at the game disgustedly then turned the television off.  “Not,” he repeated, “’til they can get that excited over things that really matter.” 

Despite the condescension in Jeb Judson’s face, Molly felt a stirring in her heart.  Was she, an unstable female, being swayed by this alpha brute?  Your damn bitch is having puppies in my brain.  This line from East of Eden, a novel she adored, flashed like a warning sign through her head.  Utterly ashamed of herself, she buried her face in her hands.   

She felt Jeb’s hand on her shoulder, a gentle protective touch.  “Finish your cake, my darlin,” he said.  “There’s much I still have to show you.”


He led her to a third barn.  The door was sealed shut by a heavy, iron bar and a padlock the size of her fist.  Jeb opened the lock with a thick key and they entered a small sally port.  Beyond the inner door, Molly heard ravenous sounds: chomping, gulping, slurping noises that chilled her to the marrow.  Her fear only increased when Jeb unlocked a gun cabinet and removed a semiautomatic pistol.  He slapped a magazine into the grip. 

“Stay close beside me,” he ordered.  “Whatever happens.”

He tucked the handgun behind his belt then unlocked the inner door.  As they walked into the barn, Molly clutched his elbow and gasped.  In front of them was a deeply-ploughed field—a field fitted with grow lights and harmless-looking sprinklers.  But poking through the topsoil were hundreds and hundreds of fierce-looking orange heads.  The heads were aligned in rows, like troops awaiting inspection, and some of them were devouring the craniums in front of them. 

Jeb shook his head; he seemed to be embarrassed.  “A crop of adolescents,” he said.  “Guess we planted ’em too closely together.”

Molly could only shudder and stare.  What on earth had possessed her to follow Jeb into this barn?

“We’ve injected these with steroids,” Jeb went on.  “They’re going to fight our wars.  Once they’ve reached their full growth, that is, and we’ve put memory chips in their heads.”

“Are they really?” Molly asked.  She wanted to cover her eyes.  She wanted to vomit her cake. “I find the very sight of them revolting.”

“Soldiers should be revolting,” Jeb said.  “One look at these chaps and our enemies will be sweating in their turbans.  It’ll make ’em think twice about taking back their oilfields.”

Molly released Jeb’s elbow and gasped.  She was ready to bolt from the barn, but her legs felt rubbery and spent.  “And so you’re a warmonger too,” she stammered.  “Or is that a war profiteer?”

Jeb shrugged and winked.  “I’m more of a war economist,” he said.  “There’s not much profit in war anymore, but at least we can trim the tab.  These suckers will fight for nothing, and they like to get down in the dirt.”  He chuckled at his own joke and gazed serenely at the heads.  “No more hospital expenses for the wounded,” he said.  “No more military pensions.  No more lawsuits from veterans who have outlived their usefulness.” 

Molly could feel her nails stabbing her palms.  She wanted to claw out Jeb’s eyes.  “So you’re going to replace them with cannibals,” she cried.  “Jeb, I find you disgusting.”

“Do you, darlin’?” Jeb buried a chuckle.  “We’re already fighting our wars by proxy—this isn’t that big a step.  And once we lower the goddamn cost, we can fight our wars to win.”

 Molly clenched her teeth.  He’s a murderer, she thought.  A cold-blooded calculating murderer.  “Those beastly, beastly wars!” she cried.  “I never ever believed in them!”

 “No one believes in our wars,” Jeb shrugged.  “Not enough to fight ’em anyhow.  But our enemies are growing stronger—they want their oilfields back.”  He cleared his throat and spat contemptuously.  “If you don’t want us killing off Arabs, darlin’, give up your goddamn car.  You can’t have it both ways.”

 “You’re disgusting,” cried Molly.  “You’re evil and cold.  Somebody needs to stop you, Jeb Judson.”

“And who is going to stop me?” Jeb laughed.  “Your spoiled and precious people?”

Somebody has to stop you.  This is a crime against God!”

“God’s not as proactive as me,” Jeb shrugged.  “And the people won’t give a hoot.  If we give ’em their gas-guzzling cars, if we give ’em their baseball and beer, if we give ’em their sitcoms and TiVo, they’ll stay happy as pigs in shit.  Hell,” Jeb blew his nose and laughed, “once we’ve lowered the price of gas, we won’t even have to beat up demonstrators…” 

A predatory squawk interrupted Jeb’s speech.  He yanked the gun from his pants.  

“Get behind me!” he ordered.  He quickly racked the slide then went into a shooter’s crouch.  “Behind me!” he repeated.  “Plug up your ears!” 

Only then did Molly realize that one of those vile, little gluttons was loose.  Somehow, while she was scolding Jeb, it had managed to uproot itself from the ground.  It’s eyes were blazing, its jaws were snapping, and it was tottering towards them on newly discovered legs.  “Raaawk!” it cried, a soulless sound like a nail being ripped from a coffin.


The podling kept lumbering towards them.


The beastly thing barely flinched. 


Molly jammed her fingers into her ears.  “Kill it,” she screamed.  “Kill it, Jeb.”  The little brute seemed unstoppable.

Pow Pow… Pow.

As the seventh shot echoed, the thing stopped walking.  Its legs began to liquefy, then it thudded to the ground.  Even so, its jaws, pasty with pulp, continued to gnaw and snap. 

Molly removed her fingers from her ears.   She felt stunned, as though she had just walked away from a car crash.  But her blood still boiled when she looked at Jeb.  “For a war economist,” she accused, “you’re really not much of a shot.”

Jeb grinned.  “They have seven nerve centers,” he said.  “Two are in their ankles, two are in their knees, three more are in their head.  You gotta hit each one if you want to take them out.”  Setting the safety catch, he tucked the pistol back into his pants.  “Once we’ve programmed them properly, they’ll attack only towel heads.  They’ll blow ‘em to bits with grenades then gobble up their brains.  Put the fear of Allah in ’em.”

Please God, make him stop talking, Molly thought.  Can’t he see I’m about to be sick?

With morbid pride, Jeb kept lecturing.  “They make great suicide bombers too.  We’ll wire them up with TNT then detonate ’em by remote control.”

“J-Jeb,” Molly stammered, her knees were shaking.  “If you care for me at all, you will stop this conversation.”

Jeb’s eyes began to soften and he took her by the arm.  “Very well, darlin’.  I’ll say nothing more.  But the tour’s not over yet.”


Slowly, as though walking through smoke, Molly followed Jeb to yet another barn.  Her horror had morphed into an eerie enthrallment—the same captivation she’d felt when she’d first read Dante’s Inferno.  What else did this man have to show her—what new and unprecedented horrors?  She felt as though she were hypnotized.

Jeb unlocked a fourth barn and they walked inside.  There were fifty or so creatures in the barn, all of them full-grown, and they looked like a failed experiment.  Their craniums were uncommonly small and long drooling tongues were hanging from their mouths.  “Quack,” they kept crying.  “Quack, quack, quack.”  They looked as though they were trying to utter words.

“These will be our politicians,” Jeb said.  “They’re on a break now, but speech therapists are working with them ten hours a day.  That’s why their tongues are so big.”

“Politicians?!” Molly cried.  She could not believe her ears.  “Jeb, is this some kind of joke?”

“Mayors, congressmen, senators, you name it.  The politicians in office now pretty much stay in line, but one of ’em gets a wild hair now and then.  Obama’s a perfect example—what with his blocking the Keystone pipeline.  And his goddamn socialized medicine.  He’s forgotten he’s bought and paid for.”

Molly felt laughter welling up inside her—sunless, hysterical mirth.  The creatures looked so comical, she could hardly hold it in. “Jeb, do you hear what you’re saying?” she giggled.  “Who would ever vote for these clownish things?”

“As long as they’re preaching the politics of fear, it won’t matter a damn what they look like.”  Jeb placed his whistle between his lips.  “Listen,” he said.

At the blast of the whistle, the mob began to babble.  “You are under attack,” they cried out in unison.  “Quack, quack, quack.  You are under attack.”  

One of them, apparently better schooled than the rest, parroted several sentences.  “The government will protect you.  The government will make things right.  Just give it all your money.  And give it all your rights.

Jeb put away the whistle and smirked.  “Not a wayward thought among ’em,” he said.  “How about that?” 

Molly covered her ears with her hands.  The Pavlovian clamor—the horrid quack quack quacks—were making her head buzz.  But her palms were unable to shut out the sounds—she could hear yet another voice: a monotonous riveting croak that reminded her of a frog.  “Stop all handouts,” it droned.  “Don’t control businesses.”  One of the freaks, a yard shorter than the rest, was speaking directly to her.  It’s eyes were wide, its nostrils were flaring, its face was a mask of self-righteous composure. 

“What on earth is that?” she screamed.

Jeb stuck out his chest and grinned.  “That is a special project,” he said.  “A Clarence Thomas replica.”  He pushed the dwarf away from her then patted it on the head.  “Clarence Thomas—think of it.  The most conservative, program averse, pull-yourself-up by your bootstraps jurist ever to pass the bar.  If we get eight more like him on the bench, the people—as a class—will be completely disenfranchised.”

Oh judgment, Molly thought, you have fled to brutish beasts!  Was there no limit to this man’s madness—no bounds to his swinish ambitions?  And would the people—the stupid, lotus eating people—really allow him to succeed?  As she looked at Jeb’s face, his crafty intelligent face, she feared that the answer was yes.  The people are cattle, his eyes reminded her.  And cattle should stay in herds.

 “Jeb,” she cried.  “Jeb, this is total insanity.”

“Well and good,” Jeb replied.  “That’ll push things along.  You can’t stop a madness whose hour has come.”

He put his whistle to his lips and blew it once again.  The voices grew even louder.





As she started to faint, Molly heard random laughter—laughter that seemed to arise from a void.  And so, she did not recognize it as her own.


She recovered on a bench outside of the barn.  Jeb Judson was patting her cheek.  “Darlin’,” he said, “the tour is almost done.  But maybe you’ve reached your limit.”

As she stared at his hawkish, attractive face, her eyes hardened with resolve.  “Show me the rest!” she commanded.  Why she said that she did not know.  Perhaps it was the fastidiousness in her soul, her librarian’s need to delimit and define.  Or maybe she needed a complete inventory of the man to totally cast him out of her life.  After all, he was still one hell of a hunk. 

“Show me the rest!” she repeated.  Just one more outrage ought to do it.  Just one more horror ought to kill her affection for him entirely.

“Very well,” Jeb replied.  He helped her to her feet.  Taking her by the hand, he guided her to a fifth barn.  She waited impatiently while he unlocked the door.

As they entered the barn, Molly felt her jaw drop.  The freaks in this barn were hourglass-shaped and their skin was pale and smooth.  With their heroic busts and swelling hips, with their hair tumbling down to their tiny waists, they looked like lewd parodies of women.  They were watching Jeb as he closed the barn door, appraising him like dogs smelling meat.

 “These,” Jeb explained, “are our sex toys.”

This has to be the final straw, Molly thought.  He’s obviously a pervert, to boot.

 Reading her thoughts, Jeb stifled a chuckle.  “They’re for the goddamn people—not me,” he said.  “A gift to make sure they keep out of our hair.”

“A gift for pigs just like you,” Molly said.  “What will the wives say?”

 “They’ll be too busy competing for their men.  Watch.”

Jeb put the whistle to his lips and blew.  Immediately, the things fell onto their backs and began thrusting their hips into the air.  “Baby, baby, baby!” they shrieked.  “Nobody does it like you!!”

Molly could stand it no more.  The vulgarity of the display—it’s utter depravity—blew away the last of her reserve.  “You sexist!” she cried.  “You Stepford pig.  Is that what you think of women?!  Is that what you want me to do?!”

“No, darlin’,” said Jeb.  He took her hand gently in his.  “You I will treat like a queen.”

Snatching her hand from Jeb’s grasp, Molly slapped him across the face.  The creatures, aroused by the sound of the blow, began thrusting their hips even harder.  “SPANK ME, SPANK ME, DADDY!” they cried.  “NOBODY DOES IT LIKE YOU!”

“Why?!” Molly sputtered, her eyes bright with tears.  “Why this, Jeb?!”

Jeb shrugged.  “A little insurance to keep folks distracted.  Beer, films, and sports may not always be enough.  But sex,” he rubbed his cheek and winked conspiratorially.  “Nothing’ll make people dumber than sex.”

“But this is so insulting…”

Jeb laughed.  “The country’s already obsessed with sex.  Films, clothes, commercials—you name it, it’s there.  This will help us secure our power and save our beloved land.”

He clapped his hands twice.  “That’ll do!” he instructed.  The creatures shuddered orgastically then collapsed in exhausted heaps.  But they continued to plead and babble as he walked Molly out of the barn.  “Daddy, daddy, daddy,” they piped.  “Nobody does it like you.” 


She sat silently on Jeb’s veranda, clutching another glass of wine.  The sun had set but an afterglow lingered, and the horizon looked like a bruise.  Molly stared hypnotically at the barns, ignoring the bowl of mangos and pears that Jeb had set beside her. 

“Don’t think the worst of me, darlin’,” Jeb said.  “Have a piece of fruit.” 

Molly put down her wine glass and dabbed her eyes with a Kleenex.  “Just what do you want with me, Jeb?” 

Jeb cupped her hand lovingly in his.  “I want you to be my wife,” he said.  “I want you to give me a son.”

“Those loathsome, loathsome creatures you’re raising.”

He squeezed her hand gently and smiled.  “A towering, godless, unblinking son who will one day manage all this.”  Releasing her hand as though freeing a bird, he pointed towards the barns.  “A son to make Nietzsche proud.” 

Jeb fumbled in his pocket, retrieving a small leather case.  He opened it slowly and showed her the ring.  The diamond was as big as her knuckle and it winked in the cold evening light.  “Marry me, dear, and I’ll make you my queen.”

 As she looked at his face, his strong paternal face, her anger melted like snow.  His gaze was so warm and protective, his eyes so clear and blue.  

She slipped the ring onto her finger and sighed.

“Shall we set a date?” she said.

James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, four of which have won awards, are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/-/es/James-Hanna/e/B00WNH356Y?ref_=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000