by Jeff Chapman

You’ve heard it said, “Don’t give up the ghost?”

~*~

“Hey, Jimmy. Are you coming?”

“James,” he muttered. “My name is James.”

His sister Alicia stood in the doorway to his bedroom, slapping her red wool gloves into her palm.

“No thanks.” The Facebook game spread across his monitor flickered at him. “Scout or attack?” it asked, awaiting his command.

“Dad and Mom are going to be pissed. Did you even get dressed today?”

James shrugged.

Alicia sniffed twice, exaggerating. “This place stinks. Did you leave a moldy sandwich up here? I feel sorry for Tiger.”

“I haven’t heard any complaints. Tell Mom to bring me some spaghetti and meatballs.”

“Don’t expect any dessert.”

Alicia closed his door, tromped down the hall and then the stairs. He listened to her muffled voice through the heat ducts, reporting what he had said, and imagined his father rolling his eyes and his mother shaking her head. The backdoor slammed and the garage door rolled open.

Alone at last, he thought. He hadn’t left the house in two weeks since the holidays began. With nowhere to go and no one he wanted to see, why should he? So what if he abandoned ship on the way to some stuffy restaurant? Those places bored him to sleep and he could hear the same family prattle at home. Out the west-facing dormer above his desk, the last of the yellow gloaming faded to black.

A chill swept over his bare feet beneath his desk and then a brush with fur, the tickling guard hairs that protected the softness beneath.

“Been in the window, Tiger?”

He lifted his foot to caress her back, but his toes met nothing but cold, a numbing chill that stung his bones. He jerked his foot away and pushed back his wheeled office chair. Nothing crouched in the shadows, nothing but empty space and electrical cords and a herd of dust bunnies.

Must be a draft, he thought. He glanced to his right. His cat sat on her haunches in the window seat, rigid, staring in his direction. Her amber eyes bore through him and her tail whipped back and forth, thumping against her carpet-covered hideaway house.

“Did you see something, Tiger?” She paid him no attention. He peered beneath the desk again. “Hope it’s not a mouse,” he muttered and debated flipping on more lights to do a proper search. A forty-watt bulb in a standing lamp and a street light filtered through the branches of an oak tree cast more shadows than they chased away. “You’ll ruin your eyes,” his mother was always saying.

He swung his foot through the draft. Gone now. No breeze. No temperature change. His toes ached as feeling crept back through his nerves. Maybe Alicia’s right, he thought. I am going nuts.

A moaning growl–fear and aggression, fight and flight stirred together–preceded a hiss. Tiger’s hair stood on end along the ridge of her arched back. All the hair on her tail bristled, swelling to the thickness of James’s forearm. Tiger stood sideways with her teeth bared, living up to her name. James followed her line of sight and then leapt toward the window seat, stumbling backwards from the horror behind his chair.

A molten, human face perched on the neck of a scrawny cat’s body. The hairless head undulated, bulging and shrinking and wriggling like maggots sealed in a bag of gray skin. Bald patches marred its threadbare fur. Dr. Seuss fused with The Scream.

Tiger leapt onto a bookcase, growling and hissing as she skirted the wall.

Eye sockets as black and fathomless as a deep well shifted from the cat to James, wrinkling the surrounding skin with their movement. A chill like fine sleet peppered his face. James scooted backwards until his neck thumped the cold glass. The creature blocked the door and it took two hands to unlatch and slide the window open and a fifteen foot drop followed. He didn’t dare turn his back. Tiger’s hutch was the only thing at hand to throw.

The creature’s mouth contorted, reminding James of a toothless old man masticating oatmeal, and then the mouth cracked open. A noise somewhere between a meow and a whine oozed forth. “Trrriiimma. Tttriiiimme. Tttiiiimmme.”

James gripped the edge of the round opening of Tiger’s house. The creature rose from its haunches and sauntered toward him out of the shadow of his chair. He shrieked at the sight of four gray digits and a thumb sticking out of the thing’s paws. He kicked against the slick linoleum, pressing his shoulders against the window, willing it to break. Something woven and red wrapped one of the thing’s hands and trailed across the floor behind it.

He launched the hutch at the creature’s face. For an instant the house eclipsed it, striking it square in the forehead. The thing yelped as it flew backwards, thumping against the door, and then groaned in a heap on the floor. James stood up, looking from side to side for anything to swing at it. He tossed a book and then another but the thing was up and running and dodged them.

It sprang onto Jame’s chest, toppling him into the window seat. Tiger leapt from the bookcase to his desk, knocking over the standing lamp. The bulb shattered with a pop. The room went dark save for the street light.

Cold numbed his chest, stabbing deep through his ribs like a thousand icicle daggers. Inches from his nose, the worms squirmed beneath the bag of skin that passed for the thing’s head. Its cold breath blew across his face, stinking of molded chicken. It slipped a red scarf with a slipknot over his head and yanked it taut. White snowflakes and snowmen decorated the muffler.

James smacked the creature’s furry body and leathery head with his fists, using up the last gulps of air in his lungs. Its eyes and mouth belied nothing, neither joy, fear, nor hatred. Snuffing his life warranted no emotion. His fingers touched the cold brass of the fallen standing lamp. With one last burst of adrenaline, he jabbed the broken bulb into the creature’s side. The room lit up as the creature exploded toward the window and shattered the glass.

James pulled the scarf loose, gasping the winter air that poured through the broken window. The creature crawled onto the street, down the gutter, and melted into a storm drain.

“A sluagh. That was a sluagh. They steal abandoned souls,” he muttered, recounting the description he had read weeks ago after encountering one in a game. “Abandoned. Abandoned,” he repeated. Tiger pawed at the door, meowing. James flung the scarf out the window. He raced to the door and let Tiger out, following close on her tail. He slammed his bedroom door so hard that he swore the frame shook. The orange cat streaked down the hallway toward the stairs. James darted after her.

~*~

James huddled on the white love seat in his family’s living room, his legs pulled up to his chest, and a brown and rust afghan wrapped around his body. His insides quivered against his ribs but not from cold. Every lamp in the room blazed at full strength. Tiger crouched on top of the armoire that served as a television cabinet. Her amber eyes peered from behind a miniature Christmas tree decorated with miniature bulbs and miniature nativity figurines.

A key turned in the back door. James squeezed his arms tighter to his ribs. He had no plan. Nothing to say. He didn’t believe the truth himself.

“Did we leave all the lights on?” said his mother from the kitchen.

Alicia entered the living room first. “Hey, Jimmy. What’s the matter? You look like crap.”

“Alicia,” scolded his mother as she followed her daughter.

“Well, he does.”

“Are you sick, Jimmy?” His mother clapped her palm across his forehead. The garage door groaned, echoing through the breezeway and into the house.

“What’s wrong, Tiger?” Alicia reached to stroke the cat’s forehead but Tiger backed away. “Not coming down?”

“I’m fine,” said James.

“You don’t have much of a fever if you do. But you’re awfully pale.” His mother stared down at him, pensive, pulling on her lower lip. “I got your spaghetti and meatballs. And garlic bread. If you want it.”

“Maybe later. I’m not very hungry.” He felt the mothering weighing on him like a pile of down comforters and for the first time since leaving the age of single digits a decade ago, he wanted to curl up under those blankets.

“You’re coming down with something. Time for bed and no buts about it.”

“It’s too cold upstairs.” At least he had anticipated that one, he thought.

“I told you you needed curtains up there. Sam,” she called to his father. “Come in here.”

“Ah, Jimmy. Decided to crawl out of the cave and join us?”

James averted his eyes and frowned.

“He’s sick,” said his mother. “See if you can hang a blanket across his window.”

His father stomped up the stairs. James waited. He knew what was coming.

“Something warm? Hot cocoa?” said his mother.

James shook his head no.

“Jimmeeeeee!” came a booming voice from upstairs. “What the hell happened?” Footfalls crashed across the ceiling and down the stairs. “There’s a bloody hole in the damn window.”

“What?” said his mother.

Alicia stared at James, her mouth agape.

“Your stupid son put a hole in the window the size of a tire,” said his father glowering over James. “What were you doing? You know how much those damn windows cost?”

“Jimmy,” scolded his mother.

“Uhm. I … I was messing around and I kind of threw something. By accident.” He looked from one parent to the other, one face as dark as a spring storm on the verge of a tornado, the other a fog of confusion. “I think. I really don’t feel very good, Mom.”

“He can’t sleep in his room. It’s freezing up there.”

“You can’t fix the hole?” said his mother.

Alicia, standing behind and to the right of his parents, mouthed “What did you do?”

James buried his face in the afghan.

“Not tonight. I can put some cardboard and duct tape over it but that won’t keep out the cold.”

“Well, Jimmy. I guess you’ll have to sleep on the pull-out in the basement. I hate having you sleep in the cold damp when you’re getting sick. Unless Alicia….”

“No way,” said Alicia. “I am not giving up my clean bed to Jimmy.”

James rolled his eyes. If he wasn’t already in so much trouble he would have questioned Alicia’s hygiene. She’s the one who left plates and glasses in her room for weeks.

His mother fixed the bed in the basement and left a glass of orange juice and his garlic bread on the end table. His father tromped upstairs to patch the hole, grumbling as he climbed the steps. Alicia took a shower. Tiger remained perched on top of the armoire, her eyes wild and ears twitching.

“Now don’t stay up all night watching TV,” said his mother.

James nodded, his back reclined against the back and arm of the couch, his legs spread across the bed under a quilt. The remote rested in his right hand with his thumb poised over the red power button. Sleep? With that sluagh thing on the prowl? Staying up was precisely what he intended to do.

His mother shook her head. “I can’t tell if you’re sick but you sure don’t look very good.”

“I’m sorry about the window. Will you tell Dad I’m sorry?”

“He’ll get over it.” She turned to ascend the stairs. “Do you want the light off?”

“No. Leave it on, please. And don’t latch the door.”

“Okay,” she said, already half way up the stairs. When the children were toddlers, she insisted her husband put a latch on the basement door. The hook-and-eye latch had long since outlived its utility but it never came down and everyone used it out of habit. James’s mother always latched that door and with a broken window, an angry husband, and a strangely sick child addling her mind, tonight was no different. The hook slid into the eye with an unremarked clink.

~*~

James opened his eyes to a blazing overhead light and scrunched them shut as he turned away. The bulb’s image lingered in his vision, fading from purple to black. The television aired an infomercial, a blonde in a black sports bra and stretch pants, demonstrating a rowing machine on a sun-drenched patio while an Australian voice droned about the all-over-body benefits of rowing. What woke me? He held his breath, listening, desperate for another moment to pass hearing nothing.

A wooden screech sounded from the laundry room. James sat up. His fingers darted beneath the blankets to grip the aluminum baseball bat at the edge of the bed, hidden for fear his mother would check on him. He had explained enough tonight. He clicked off the television.

Another screech set his heart racing. “God, no. Not again,” he whispered. The familiar sound piqued his memory. Again it scratched the silence, but louder and sharper, metal against wood, bending, pulling nails out of wood. James swung his feet to the floor and holding the bat cocked over his right shoulder, crept barefoot across the cold concrete. With the head of the bat he tapped the laundry room door, which spoke with a raspy squealing as it swung open.

A room of black and grays from light from a streetlamp filtering through a single basement window yawned before him. Nothing moved. Nothing focused his attention. He no longer thought of dying or fear but fight or flight and mostly anger. A screech gave way to the clatter of a board falling on a hard floor. He clenched his teeth, stepped inside the doorway, and flicked on the light, letting go of the bat for an instant and no more.

He didn’t know where to look, and then he caught sight of a board flying up from the floor, a piece of the cover his father had built over the sump pump, secure and childproof, another vestige of his toddler years. The white one-by-four clattered and then lay still atop the first board, their bent nails sticking up.

The sluagh squeezed its head through the gap, the fetid bag compressing and expanding like a water balloon. Bile scorched his throat as his stomach lurched. Fingered paws gripped the sides of the opening, another red muffler curled among the left paw’s digits. Their eyes met, the hunter and its prey. For a moment, neither moved. Even the worms in the sluagh’s head stopped wriggling.

“I’m gonna fight this time,” said James. “I’ll smash that bag of brains if you come closer.” He shook the bat, banking his hopes on a show of force.

The mouth resumed masticating and the worms wriggling. The mangy back arched above the broken cover.

James charged across the floor and swung the bat down with the force of several men. The sluagh ducked beneath what remained of the cover as the bat split every board into splintered spikes pointing down into the hole.

“Damn you,” he cursed.

The sluagh stared up at him from the pit. The broken boards casting shadows across its head, jagged bands of black and gray.

James dashed toward the door and pulled it closed on his way out. His father owned a gun, a revolver secreted in a dresser drawer. He wedged the bat against the door frame between the floor and the knob. Paws and hands slapped the floor behind the door and then a thud shook it and the knob rattled. Doesn’t have to hold long, he thought, just long enough to get the gun.

He sprinted up the stairs and pushed the door as he turned the knob. The door opened a sliver then refused with a metallic clink as the hook strained against the eye.

“Open the door,” he screamed. He beat the door with his fist. “Open the door.”

At the bottom of the stairs, the laundry room door rattled under the sluagh’s assault. The bat turned every time the sluagh shook the knob, ever so minutely slipping out of position.

James launched into the door with his shoulder. Once, twice, until the eye ripped out of the frame, another vestige of childhood destroyed. He stumbled onto the landing as the door knob smacked the wall, cracking the plaster which fell to the floor in chips and dust. Below, the bat clanked against the concrete and rolled to a stop at the base of the stairs.

“Jimmy? What are you doing?” Alicia stood in the kitchen in lounge pants, a long-sleeved t-shirt, and a pink, terry-cloth robe draped over her shoulders.

James glanced down the stairs long enough to see the sluagh bounding upward, stretching its legs and body to take two steps with each leap. “Come on,” he said, brushing past her.

Alicia leaned past James to peer down the stairs. She screamed as shrill and piercing as a smoke detector.

James grabbed her arm through the terry cloth and pulled his shrieking sister through the kitchen and past the dining room table with the sluagh in pursuit, clicking and slapping across the linoleum, only two steps behind.

He flung his sister into the living room. Still gripping the robe, he wheeled about to face the creature which skidded to a stop. “Get Dad’s gun,” he said. Tiger hissed and growled over James’s shoulder from her perch on the armoire.

“Jimmy,” shrieked Alicia. “Mom! Dad!”

“Get the gun,” James repeated.

The sluagh advanced, rocking its head from side to side like a cobra with its hood spread, preparing to strike. Its back legs tensed, ready to leap.

James snapped at the sluagh with the robe to keep it off balance. His mother screamed behind him. He focused on the sluagh, aiming for the eyes, the fathomless black opals that belied nothing.

“The gun, Sam,” cried his mother. “Get the gun.”

The sluagh grabbed the robe with its hands, attempting to pull James off his feet.

A gun exploded behind James’s left shoulder. The first bullet burned a hole through the dining room table. The second shattered a window. The sluagh continued to jerk on the robe, its viciousness undeterred in the tug-of-war with James.

“Don’t shoot Jimmy,” shouted Alicia.

“The police. Alicia,” screamed his mother. “Call the police.”

The next shot ricocheted off the dining room floor into the kitchen. Heat and pain seared through James’s shoulder as if someone had stabbed him with a red hot poker. His left arm lost all its strength. He let go of the robe, crumpling forward and rolling onto his back.

A thousand chilled knives stabbed his chest when the sluagh landed. James’s vision faded in and out, gray then clear, back and forth, like a drowning man caught in the troughs and crests of waves. The shrieking and shouting waivered and spilled as if bubbling through water. The sluagh yanked the muffler, cinching it around James’s throat. For an instant, he clearly saw the now familiar red yarn decorated with snowmen and snowflakes, a happy vision of winter and Christmas. How the sluagh got it around his neck, James had no recollection.

The tightening scarf raised James’s neck and tilted his head back at a sharp angle. His sister launched something, that old crystal angel with the spread wings that his parents had warned him and his sister since childhood to never touch. The missile from heaven flew for the first time and thumped the creature in the shoulder, knocking the sluagh off James’s chest. The angel careened into the floor, shattering on impact.

Something flashed above James. A sound like a rock splashing through water-saturated mud accompanied a plume of greenish-gray gel erupting from the sluagh’s head as it snapped backward. Like that comet hitting Jupiter, James thought. Sirens whined outside. “Get it,” someone said. “Oh, Jimmy.” A gray mist fell across his vision, obscuring his mother’s face, and then the cloud darkened to black.

~*~

“Are you awake?”

James opened his eyes to Alicia peering down at him, a white tile ceiling above her and white curtains behind. Something above and behind his head beeped incessantly.

Alicia repeated her question.

“Where am I?”

“The hospital. Just a second.”

It seemed that Alicia disappeared. There and now gone. His right elbow felt stiff. An IV tube with the needle buried in his arm covered with tape ran from his elbow to somewhere behind him. The curtains parted as Alicia returned with a young woman in burgundy scrubs.

The nurse smiled. “You’re finally awake.” She studied a monitor behind him of which he could see the edges if he tilted his head back. “I’m Jessica. I’ll be taking care of you for a few more hours. How’s your pain?”

“I don’t feel anything.”

“Nothing in your left shoulder?”

James shifted his upper body and winced from an explosion of pain.

“Let me know if it gets to be too much. Okay?”

James nodded. “What happened?”

“You were in surgery for a few hours,” answered Jessica.

“Dad shot you,” said his sister.

Jessica’s attention snapped to Alicia.

“It was an accident,” said Alicia.

“I hope so,” said the nurse. “See if you can get him to drink some water.” The curtains parted and closed with Jessica’s exit.

Alicia stood beside him at the head of the bed. “That was really brave of you to fight that thing. I didn’t know you had it in you. What was it?”

“A sluagh, I think.”

Alicia stared at him without a hint of comprehension.

“It steals abandoned souls.”

“Oh.” Alicia paused. “I think they gave you a lot of morphine or something. Dad told the police it was a rabid raccoon.”

“I guess that’ll work. Where are Mom and Dad?”

“At the police station. Our driveway looked like a Christmas tree with the ambulance and all the police cars flashing their lights.”

“What happened to the sluagh?”

Alicia laughed. “It sounds like you were attacked by Mom’s coleslaw. The raccoon, or whatever it was, ran downstairs. Dad and I barricaded the door. Oh, no,” she said, covering her mouth with her hand. “We left Tiger.”

“It’s not after Tiger. It wants me.”

“I’ll call Mom and tell her to pick up Tiger. Maybe the police are still there. Drink some water first. Your voice sounds awful.” Alicia held the cup so he could sip from it. Moving his neck and back caused another explosion in his shoulder.

“I think I could use some more pain medicine.”

“I’ll tell the nurse, Jim…. I mean James.” Alicia grinned.

“Thanks, sis.”

She moved the curtain aside.

“Alicia,” said James.

She turned, standing between the parted curtains.

“Would you stay with me here tonight? I don’t want to be alone.”

“Absolutely.”

Original Fiction © 2012 Jeff Chapman