By Ian Wilson (Rated G)
The barn door opened with a loud creek, as Larry Wankle showed me into the dark structure. He flipped a lightswitch, revealing an old Cessna sitting idle in the middle of the barn.
“Well, there she is,” said Larry. “I call her Mable.”
I looked at the aircraft, then back at her pilot.
“Call me Larry.”
“Larry, I ain’t a mechanic.”
“Well, I am,” said Larry. “And I have no explanation for why she’s acting up. I figure it’s gotta be gremlins.”
Gremlins. Of course. I’ve never seen one myself, but I’ve heard of them. They’re little miscreants who like to create havoc in machinery such as planes, automobiles, and electronics. They’re a sub-type of boggard; when humans started using machines, the boggards adapted. Keep them happy with porridge or bread, they’ll leave you alone. Irritate them, you’ve got a big problem.
“Found ‘em a lot in the Sandbox,” continued Larry. Larry had been an airforce pilot during the first Gulf War. He had since retired, and started a successful crop-dusting business here in North Fork, West Virginia. “The little critters would eat through our engines something awful!! Some days it was all I could do to keep them A-10 Warthogs in the air.”
“Any idea how they’re getting in?” I inquired.
“Not a clue,” replied Larry with a shrug. “I thought you’d know.”
I wished I had brought Conrad with me, but I figured it was such a small job I could handle it myself. I looked around the barn, watching, listening for the vaguest hint of life. I switched off the light, allowing my super-human night vision to take over. I heard something behind me. I turned around, slowly, drawing my pistol. Suddenly, a small, black, winged form pounced on me, sinking its tiny fangs into my flesh. It hissed, having come in contact with the holy oil Father Steve had anointed me with that morning.
I tore the gremlin off me, and threw the little fiend away. I tried to shoot, but the gremlin darted into the darkened corners of the barn. I heard tiny, raspy giggles floating up in the rafters. A shot rang out, ending the creature’s mirth. The gremlin fell from its perch. I fired a silver bullet into it just to be certain it was dead. The body disintegrated into a pile of ash. I swept it away with my boot. I pivoted and looked at Larry, who stood in the doorway holding a rifle.
“Looked like you were in a bad spot,” he said.
I shook Larry’s hand and thanked him for his help.
“Make sure Father Steve comes by to bless the place and hang a horseshoe over the doorway.”
“Roger that,” he replied, grinning. “Thank you kindly, Walt!”
With that, I mounted my motorcycle and rode back to the farm.
The invariably grumpy expression of Uncle Jimmy was the first thing I saw as I rode up the gravel drive to my shed-turned office.
I opened the door to see my partner, Conrad, and my cousin Katherine painting the newly installed drywall. Three young kids, about eleven years old, stood near the desk I’d made out of scrap lumber and some elbow grease.
“You look like crap,” said Katherine.
“Gremlins,” I mumbled, taking my seat at the desk.
The kids stared at me; a red-haired girl, flanked by a dirty-blond boy and a dark-haired boy. The red-head eyed me with an expression I normally associate with Sheriff Donne or Deputy Julia. The dark-haired boy looked at me with a mixture of fear and wonder. The dirty-blonde looked under impressed.
“Is there… something I can help y’all with?” I asked the kids.
“Are you really a werewolf?” asked the dark-haired kid.
“I thought you’d be taller,” said the dirty-blond boy.
“I’m Willow,” said the red-haired girl. “These are Nate and TJ,” she gestured to the dirty-blond and the dark-haired boys, respectively. “We’d like to hire you.”
I looked at Conrad. Conrad looked at me. Katherine went back to painting.
“We don’t have any clients right now,” said Conrad.
“Hire us with what money?” I inquired.
Nate placed a jar of coins on top of the desk.
“Twenty-five dollars and thirty-three cents,” he said. “And this trading card. I’m sure it’s worth some money.”
I looked at Conrad again. He shrugged.
“Do your parents know about this?” I inquired.
“Our parents won’t believe us,” said TJ.
I sat back in my chair and scratched my beard.
“Why do you want to hire us?” asked Conrad.
“There’s a monster in the McGruder house on Twigg Ave,” said Willow.
“It ate my cat,” said TJ.
Conrad looked at me, I looked at him.
“That place has some history,” I replied. “What makes you think there’s a monster?”
“We saw it,” replied Willow.
“What did it look like?” asked Conrad.
Nate produced a drawing of a black, hairy creature that was vaguely humanoid.
“What time did you see it?” I asked.
“About ten o’clock,” said Willow.
“What the Sam Hill were you doing out at ten o’clock at night?”
“Technically, we weren’t supposed to be out at all…” said the little girl with some hesitation.
I let the matter pass. I was young and rebellious once.
“Well, kids,” I began. “I don’t know how to tell you this but OW!”
I felt the blunt object impact the back of my head. I spun around. Katherine glowered at me, one hand on her hip, the other grasping her long-handled paint roller.
“Gimme a sec.”
Kathrine escorted me outside.
“What was that for?” I asked, indignant.
“Walter, look at those kids!” said Katherine, equally irate. “You owe them the decency of checking this out at the very least!”
“You said my business idea was stupid!” I said.
“I did, and I still think that, but they believe you’re the real deal, Walter, and if you have any decency at all, you’ll at least have a look around.”
“Fine,” I said, turning on my heel.
“We’ll take the job,” I said to the kids.
The red haired girl smiled and stuck out her hand. I shook it.
“Let’s see this house.”
My partner and I stood outside the decrepit edifice, gazing on its vine-entangled walls and unkempt garden. The place definitely looked like something out of a horror movie, and it lived up to that reputation, or so I’d been told.
“Well, no sense standing around,” I said. “Better have a look-see.”
I grabbed hold of the wrought iron fence surrounding the property and climbed over. Conrad met me on the other side.
“The gate wasn’t locked,” he said.
“I knew that,” I lied.
We approached the house. The windows were boarded up, and we assumed that the doors were probably locked. We managed to gain entrance through a broken basement window. The basement smelled like mold and mildew mixed with animal feces and urine, though it wasn’t intolerable. Old newspapers and magazines littered the floor, along with other bits of garbage from decades of druggies getting high down there. An old CD player sat in the corner; it looked like it was from the 80s or the 90s. I opened the deck to be greeted by a welcome sight.
“Well, shucky-darn!” I exclaimed.
“What?” inquired Conrad.
“The Black Album!” I said, holding the coveted Metallica album aloft. “An original! I’ve been looking all over for this!”
Conrad rolled his eyes at my heavy metal obsession. “Come on, we got work to do.”
I shoved the disc into my jacket and we ascended the steps.
“Well,” I said, looking at Conrad, “you getting anything?”
“I’m getting serious vibes,” replied Conrad. “Something in here doesn’t want to be here.”
I scanned the room, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Something caught my eye; an old horseshoe nailed to the doorframe. I noticed that every door and window had a horseshoe similarly nailed above it. Most of the older houses in this area had a horseshoe over the doorway, so it wasn’t all that noteworthy at the time. However, typically the horseshoes are nailed to the outside of doorways, not the inside, and there was usually only one.
A floorboard squeaked behind us. We spun around to see the three young’uns I thought had gone home.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“We’re just trying to help,” said TJ. “Would it hurt you to show some gratitude, wolf-boy?”
“How did you get in?” asked Conrad.
“Door was unlocked,” replied Willow.
We both felt pretty stupid for not even checking the door.
“What are ‘vibes’?” inquired Nate.
“My brain is… special,” said Conrad. “I can sense things going on in the spiritual dimension.”
“Cool!” said Willow, obviously enthused.
I lit a cigarillo and examined the cluttered main floor of the house.
“Smoking is very bad for you,” said Nate.
I took a long puff. “Kid, in my line of work, if I die from lung cancer, I’ll consider it a win.”
“How many monsters have you killed?” asked TJ.
“More than I’d like to repeat.”
“Do monsters really live under the bed?”
“Some do,” replied Conrad.
“What do they look like?” asked Willow.
“Lots of things,” I answered. “Most of ‘em look just like people.”
Nate looked alarmed.
“How do you know if someone is a monster?” he inquired.
“There are ways,” replied Conrad.
Willow looked quizzical.
“Where do they come from?”
“A place I call the ‘outside’,” I replied.
“An alternate reality,” explained Conrad. “Like a shadow world to ours.”
“How do they get in?” asked the girl.
“They get in through hell-holes,” I explained.
“What are hell-holes?” asked TJ.
“Imagine our reality is like a piece of cloth,” began Conrad. “Someone on this side can cut a hole through to the other side of the cloth, and whatever is on the other side can get into our side.”
“Sometimes when the cloth gets worn,” I said, “it starts getting more holes in it.”
“What happens then?” asked Willow.
“More monsters get in,” I said.
Nate’s eyes widened.
“That’s why we’re here,” said Conrad. “Too many holes in this part of the fabric. We’re here to patch them.”
“I got the lay of the land, Conrad, let’s get outta here and we’ll come back after dark.”
We made for the door and left the McGruder house.
“I’ll bring snacks!” said Willow, as we walked down the old, cracked walkway toward the street.
“No, you won’t,” said Conrad, sternly.
“You’re going to be home, in bed, where you kids belong.”
“You are no fun,” said Willow.
“Tried having fun once,” I remarked.
“What happened? You enjoy yourself too much?” said TJ in a snide tone.
“Got in a fistfight,” I paused. “It was fun, though.”
“Sometimes I question my association with you,” said my partner.
It was then that North Fork’s only postman came strolling down the lane, mailbag in hand.
“Howdy, Walt, Conrad, kids!” he said amicably.
“Howdy, Perry,” I said.
“Hi, Mr. Wankle,” said Willow.
“Heard you fixed my brother’s gremlin problem,” said Perry. I nodded.
“Whatcha up to, now?” asked the postman.
“There’s a monster in that house,” said Nate, pointing.
Perry visibly shuddered. “The McGruder house.”
“You know what happened there?” asked Conrad.
“I wasn’t alive when it happened,” said Perry. “But they say something horrible happened back in the 30’s. What actually happened is up for debate. Some say old man McGruder was doing black magic. Some say it was Mrs. McGruder. Some say the whole family had a curse. Some say Mrs. McGruder was crazy as a road lizard.”
“Is there anyone alive who’d know for certain?” I asked.
“Maude O’Feeney,” said Perry pointing to a small house across the street, surrounded by bare rose bushes interspersed with lawn gnomes. I remembered O’Feeney from my youth. She was a formidable old woman who got a perverse joy out of frightening Perry Wankle.
I felt a hand grab my jacket as I started across the street.
“You’re just gonna walk over there and ask?!” he said, startled.
“Yeah,” I replied. “She’s just a harmless old lady.”
“Maude is anything but harmless!” exclaimed Perry.
“Is she a witch?” asked Nate.
“No,” I replied.
“Yes!” said Perry.
The kids looked confused and horrified.
“I’m a big boy, I can take care of myself, Perry.”
We crossed the street, and knocked the old door knocker. A short, very wrinkled elderly woman opened the door. Her long silver hair was braided on the back of her head.
“Walter,” she said. “I heard you were back in town.”
“Howdy Mrs. O’Feeney,” I said, smiling. “May we ask you a few questions?”
“What about?” asked the old lady.
“We are investigating a possible infestation of preternatural entities at the McGruder house,” said Conrad, in a studious voice.
“Why didn’t you lead with that?” said O’Feeney. “Come in! Come in!”
She ushered us into the little, old house, which was populated with assorted artifacts, old books, magazines, all stacked neatly on shelves and tables. An immense hairy cat lay on the recliner, looking through lazy eyelids.
“Conan!” scolded O’Feeney. “Get off the chair! We have guests!”
The cat did as it was told, which surprised me. That’s just the power that O’Feeney has; she can command anything. I took the cat’s seat, Conrad sat in an old wicker chair, and the kids took up the sofa.
“I’ll go get you something to drink,” said O’Feeney as she went to the kitchen.
“Well?” I asked, looking at Conrad.
“She is incredibly powerful, but benevolent,” replied Conrad.
“Tell that to Perry.”
O’Feeney returned with a pitcher of lemonade and some cups.
“Now,” she said, pouring the liquid, “where are you from, Conrad, and how did you find Walter?”
“I’m from Louisiana,” replied Conrad.
“Oh, parlez-vous français?” asked O’Feeney. They then proceeded to converse in French way faster than I could keep up.
“Hold it!” I said, putting my hand up. “How long have you spoken French?”
“Since always,” replied Conrad.
“He has a heavy Creole accent, but easy enough to understand,” said O’Feeney smiling.
“What can you tell us about the McGruders?” I inquired.
“Not much,” said O’Feeney. “Happened before my time. But I heard the tales.”
O’Feeney sat down in an old rocker with her cup of lemonade.
“They say Chester McGruder did black magic. That’s not true. Old McGruder was a deacon at the Presbyterian church and an upstanding member of the community. His daughter was the rebellious one. She’d been spending time out in the hills and hollers with the cunning folk, learning their craft against her father’s wishes.”
Conrad and I looked at each other knowingly. We’d heard the story before.
“You mean like witches?” asked Willow.
“Yup!” answered O’Feeney.
“Like in Hansel and Gretel?”
“Well, they don’t typically eat children, but they’ll do other things. They’ll make your life miserable if you cross ‘em. They consort with heathen gods and such.”
The kids looked at each other like they couldn’t believe what they were hearing.
“One day she and the old man had a falling out. McGruder restricted his daughter to the house, but she escaped one night and went out to one of the hollers. There, she summoned a bugbear.”
“A what?” asked Willow.
“A sort of a boogeyman,” I said.
“Nearly all these hill towns have at least one wandering the woods,” said O’Feeney. “Anyhow, the bugbear had quite a supper that night, it devoured both Mr. and Mrs. McGruder and their daughter, but not before she put a binding spell on him, binding him to the house. Ever since then, he’s been occupying the place.”
“It ate them?!” inquired Nate, horrified.
“Something like that, yes,” replied O’Feeney as she nonchalantly took a sip of lemonade. The kids stared at her, mouths agape, eyes like saucers.
“If you’re taking on the bugbear, you’ll have quite a fight on your hands,” said O’Feeney.
“I killed the Goat-Man, how bad could it be?” I said, shrugging.
“Worse than you could imagine, sweetpea,” said O’Feeney. “Now, you’d best be running along. Probably about supper time for these young’uns.”
The town was dark and quiet as our jeep puttered down Twigg Ave on our way to McGruder’s. A strange musical noise waylaid us as we exited the vehicle. It seemed to be coming from O’Feeney’s. We sneaked up to the six foot solid wood fence and peered over.
The lawn gnomes had become animate and danced around the garden, playing mountain music, with Maude O’Feeney dancing along with them. Conrad and I slowly ducked behind the fence.
“Well… That was weird,” I said.
We cross the empty street to the McGruder house. Conrad turned on his flashlight and we slowly searched the place. We crept up the creaky steps to the upper floor. Why do they always have to creak?
The upstairs was much the same as the downstairs; cluttered, dirty, and crawling with spiders. I hate spiders. Something stirred among the cobwebs. We drew our weapons. I heard a noise from the ground floor and motioned for Conrad to follow me. We crept back down the stairs, slowly and carefully.
We scanned the room again. Conrad’s flashlight illuminated the three kids I’d told to stay home. Willow stood in front, armed with a baseball bat. Nate and TJ stood behind her, grasping a crowbar and a big stick, respectively.
“Willow! What the heck?!” I exclaimed. “I could’ve shot you!”
“But you didn’t!”
“Wipe that smile off your face and get outta here! I told you to stay home!”
“We opted to ignore that,” said TJ.
I rubbed my face with my hand. “Why do I even bother?”
“Just go home, we got this,” said Conrad.
“What was that?” said Nate, looking in a darkened corner.
“What?” I asked.
“I… saw something move,” answered the frightened boy. Willow brandished her bat, prepared for action. TJ’s eyes widened. He pointed at me; his mouth opened, but he was speechless. I saw, from the corner of my eye, a huge shadow looming over me. I spun around, but the bugbear vanished. Suddenly, black hands reached out of the shadows and took hold of Nate, dragging him into the dark. He screamed. I dared not fire, for fear of hitting the boy.
“Nate!” cried TJ.
Conrad and I chased the beast into the shadows, ripping through cobwebs and dodging debris. I followed the sound of metal hitting flesh into the kitchen. The bugbear disappeared into the darkness once again, leaving Nate standing alone, wielding his crowbar.
“Nate!” said TJ. “You’re alive!”
The two boys hugged each other.
“You OK, little dude?” asked Conrad.
“I’m good, I just need a minute.”
The boy ran over to the sink and vomited. Not an unexpected reaction.
“Why didn’t the bugbear eat him?” asked Willow.
I didn’t have time to ponder her question, though, because a big black fist reached out of the shadows and grasped my leg. The bugbear dragged me into the dark. I drew my pistol and shot several bullets at it. The silver seemed to have little impact. Crap.
I could hear Conrad and the kids running after me yelling and screaming. Conrad shot holy water from his squirt-gun at the creature. It hissed and retreated into the shadows once again. Conrad helped me off the ground. I patted the dust from my clothes.
“Well, that was fun. Let’s do it again.”
“You kids need to get out. Now,” said Conrad, pointing to the door.
“We should probably do what he says,” said Nate.
TJ nodded in agreement.
“Fine!” said Willow with a huff.
They marched toward the front door, but the bugbear had other ideas. It rose up from the floor, blocking their way. I fired my last two silver bullets at the thing, to no effect. Conrad took his crucifix out of his coat, and fired his holy water. Nate repeatedly whacked the thing with his crowbar. It shied away like a startled horse, dissolving into the dark.
“Iron!” cried Conrad. “That’s it! It’s the iron!”
Two hairy arms wrapped around me, enveloping me in darkness. I struggled to get free but the bugbear was too strong. It bent its head low to my ear and spoke in a low, hoarse whisper. It said only two words: “release me.”
“The horseshoes!” I cried as loud as I could. “Take ‘em off!”
Quick as a flash, Nate tossed the crowbar to Conrad. He immediately commenced prying the horseshoes from the windows and doors as quickly as he could. Meanwhile, I was still locked in a life and death struggle with the bugbear.
A loud “whack” assailed my ears.
“Let him go!” yelled TJ, as he smacked the bugbear with his stick.
Another whack came from Willow’s baseball bat.
“That’s for Duffer!”
The creature, distracted by the continuous assault, weakened its grip enough for me to get a hand free. I reached into my coat pocket and pulled a vial of blessed salt. It howled in pain as I threw contents in the creature’s face. It finally let me go and escaped into the night.
I stood silently in the middle of the room, sweating and panting.
“You okay?” asked Nate.
“Yeah,” I replied. “I’ll be alright.”
A creaking rattling noise reached my ears. The floor heaved and shook.
“We should leave,” said Conrad.
“Yup!” I agreed.
We all high-tailed it out of the McGruder house as quick as we could. Just as we left the threshold, the whole structure collapsed.
“Well… crap,” I said.
Willow began to giggle. She was soon joined by the nervous snickering of TJ and Nate. Even I cracked a smile. Until the sheriff arrived.
It wasn’t too much later that we found ourselves at the sheriff’s office answering questions. Julia glowered at us from across the table in the interrogation room.
“So you had no idea they were on the property?” asked Julia.
“Nope,” I replied. “Not till they showed up.”
“We told ‘em not to come,” said Conrad.
“Yet they claim they hired you?”
“Well, they kinda did,” I replied.
Julia raised her left eyebrow. Under other circumstances I would’ve found it alluring.
“It was a charity case,” said Conrad. “We’re basically working pro bono.”
“We’re still trying to get our names out there as a private I’s,” I said. “Gotta do some freebies here and there.”
“For kids?!” exclaimed Julia.
“Yeah, why not?”
“I don’t know, it just seems… underhanded.”
“If I can’t help the most vulnerable in North Fork, who can I help?”
Julia sighed. “…You have a point.”
“Look, we were in no way intentionally endangering those kids. They just showed up like they weren’t supposed to. Weren’t you ever a kid once?”
Just then the sheriff entered.
“You’re free to go,” he said. “Their parents ain’t pressing charges.”
Conrad and I stood up to leave. Sheriff Donne caught me by the arm.
“I had to do some tall talkin’ to get you off the hook, boy,” he said in a low growling voice. “Don’t make me do that again.”
It was a clear Saturday morning. I walked over to my office to add some new improvements and a second coat of paint, when I found the door already unlocked; I figured Conrad must’ve gone in early with the same idea. I found him, Willow, TJ, and Nate painting the walls, while Conrad supervised.
“What the Sam Hill?!” I exclaimed.
“Good morning, Walter,” said Willow.
“Good morning,” I returned.
“We figured that since we couldn’t pay you what you’re worth,” said Nate, “we’d help you out in other ways.”
“Well, thanks, kids. We really appreciate it.”
I sat down at my desk and reached for a cigarillo, then decided against it.
“Will the bugbear come back?” asked Nate.
“Probably not,” I replied. “Bugbears live out in the woods; they don’t like living in town.”
“If he comes back we’ll handle it,” said Conrad. The kids looked relieved. I considered it a job well done.