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Max shut the old comic. It was getting dark, and though they were starting up the bonfire, his mom would yell at him if he tried to read by it. The whole day, he could barely take his eyes off it. He wondered if there were any more... he'd never seen any anywhere, and there weren't any more at the general store they'd stopped in on the way up.

He poured over every detail, trying to find out just what it was that he had discovered. Year of publication: 1987. Printed locally, put together by local talent. First issue, ongoing, quarterly series. Very, very, very gory.

Splatterhouse.

It was like nothing he'd ever seen. He'd seen plenty of comics, and he'd seen plenty of horror comics, but nothing quite like this. This wasn't like what was laying around the local comic-and-card shop in his town. This was like the horror movies his older brother showed him, dusty tapes from an old shoe box at the top of the closet. Buried with the skateboard stickers, Mad magazines, and all the other near-forgotten relics from when he was Max's age. Movies his brother had had to sneak to watch, double-taped at sleepovers, kept and hidden as quiet touchstones of rebellion.

Those movies hadn't made any sense to Max. They were so crazy, so wrong that he couldn't believe they were even real. Leftovers from a time that was just yesterday, but for Max, a lifetime ago.

Reading the comic felt just like that. Like living a tiny piece of that time. It was exciting.

But one detail in particular caught his eye, one, tiny detail inflamed his imagination... the stories in the comic were all true. Well, at least that's what it said: according to the intro, all the stories were local campfire-and-babysitter stories, 'true' horror tales right from Diamond Lake.

He remembered how, once in a while, like some rare treat, Max's dad and his uncle Pete would get together, and start swapping creepy stories. Soon, everyone would join in, telling about the scariest thing that ever happened, or ghost stories they'd heard, and Max would just sit back and listen. He never really had any of his own to tell, but he always listened, transfixed. It was like some weird sort of magic.

The sun was disappearing beneath the horizon, a yellow-orange glow just above the pines.

He took one last, long look at the comic book.

True ghost stories...

"Hey, Uncle Pete! You know any ghost stories from around here?"

Uncle Pete laughed. "Wow, the sun goes down, and that's the first thing outta your mouth!"

"Well... I heard a really cool one, about like, all these monsters and ghosts and stuff in the woods..."

"Oh yeah, sure. I heard a lot of stories growing up around here, me and your dad..."

Max's dad walked up to get another beer out of the cooler.

"Jeez, you got that right. 'member Uncle Tommy, and the shark in the lake?"

"Oh, man...I used to run to dad and say 'uncle Tommy said there was a shark in the lake! There's not, that can't be true, can it?!' And he'd just say, 'well, Diamond Lake's pretty big...'"

"Or that one that Gramma used to tell that would freak out Ma so much? About the scarecrow..."

"...that you couldn't look at if you were gonna have a baby, yeah. You'd lose the kid. 'Don't walk the woods in springtime'..."

"I think that's half the reason she put Gramma in a home!"

Uncle Pete cracked up, shaking his head. "But yeah kiddo, I've definitely heard a few about the woods here. Not sure if any are exactly the one you're thinkin' of."

"Tell 'em!"

Uncle Pete shrugged, grabbing another beer of his own.

"Well, I could tell maybe one or two..."

"Yeah! Tell 'em, Uncle Pete!"

The family drew closer to the bonfire, settling in to their spots, getting comfortable. Pete's girls, Summer and Jane, quit fidgeting and snuggled close together. Max's mom pulled her night blanket up over the folding chair, Max's dad sitting on the cooler nearby. Aunt Chris sat in the sand next to her husband.

Even Max's brother Allen and his cousin Bobby had come down from the house. It was like something had pulled them in. As if a feeling had been set loose.

Everyone grew quiet.

"Alright, alright."

The lake lapped gently at the sand nearby. A warm breeze blew across it, rustling the trees lightly. You could just hear them. Uncle Pete stood before his newly formed audience, deciding which story to start with first.

He spotted Bobby & Allen eating the last two hot dogs, and got his answer.

"When me and your dad were coming up, there was a camp our folks used to send us to, a summer camp. We loved it, but it kept changing hands, new owners kept coming in, some were decent, some weren't so much. Eventually, our ma & dad just kinda got fed up, and sent us to another camp outta town. Lucky thing. See, there was a cook there, an old grizzled type. Viet Nam guy. Wasn't all there. One year, he just... snapped. Some say there was a big accident, fire at the annual cookout. He got burned. Bad. Had some kinda flashback, just freaked out, killed some of the kids, the staff. It closed the camp down for good. But not before he got his. Some say the kids fought back, some say the accident that cooked him up never stopped burning through the weekend... whatever the case, most of the camp burnt down. Thing is... no one knows what happened to him..."

***

The Butcher

by Mike Wasion

Leslie awoke to the sound of chirping birds.

It took her a moment to even realize that she was outside; she thought that maybe she had been dreaming, was asleep in her bed back at the apartment, but a warm breeze caressing her face quickly assured her that she were outdoors.

Her head hurt. She blinked hard, but couldn't quite make anything out. Her vision was blurry. She tried to rub her eyes, but couldn't.

Pain lanced through her wrists, and she rapidly realized that they were in the air, and something had a hold of them. She tried to look down at her ankles -- she realized with a panic that they were not touching the ground -- but couldn't. It was then she realized something was around her neck.

She squeezed her eyes hard, trying to get control of her breathing, and opened them, regaining a modicum of clarity in her vision. She was able to look up to the left, and then to the right. That confirmed what she had been trying to tell herself couldn't be happening.

She was tied, spread-eagle between two trees.

A quick thrashing put to rest the idea that she was going to escape. This was it.

Suddenly, panic gave way to anger. There was only one thing, one thing that could have happened to her that made any sense - that bitch Sarah got the jump on her, first.

No, not Sarah, not exactly. That stupid cow wasn't strong enough to do the job herself, and she certainly wasn't smart enough to figure it all out and set it all up. Papa Grimaldi must've smelled something in the air, and put a tail on his precious little princess. He must have had goons out here waiting. That meant two things. One, Leslie was going to die. Waking up in the middle of the woods, trussed-up between a couple of trees was already a pretty good indicator of that, but if Grimaldi were calling the shots, and he had to have been, she might as well have been dead already. Grimaldi took lives like it was nothing. All day every day, that's all he did.

And he dealt with people who fucked with his little piglet. Leslie had a shallow grave with her name on it. That much was gospel.

But what it also meant, was that Michael was almost certainly dead already. Or dying, at that very moment. He was the one who betrayed daddy's little girl, led her out to her favorite place in the world to die, under the guise of a date.

They were going to take their time with him.

Leslie, though... Leslie was just trash. Chances are, by the time Sarah and her playmates were done with Michael, she would just have her goons put a couple of bullets between Leslie's eyes and move on with her life. Surely, they'd keep her around just long enough to see Michael's body, just to see that Sarah had won.

God DAMN it...

Leslie's mind raced. Rage poured through her veins like speed-racing lava, supplanting the pain, crushing the fear. That bitch, that stupid bitch just fucked it all up... and Michael was dead... the cunt she was going to kill just killed them both...

Leslie began to to growl like an animal. Spittle frothed from her clenched teeth. Her vision went white.

Ffffffuuuuuuuucccckkkkkk!!!!!!!

Leslie screamed with a wrath that would almost match what awaited her. But nothing answered her call. So she screamed, and screamed some more to fill the bitter emptiness that mocked her.

***

Hours had passed. She was crying now. It was all so pathetic. She was exhausted. Even the pain seemed like a joke, a constant reminder of how fucked up everything had gotten, how utterly they'd failed.

Any moment, Sarah and some nameless asshole would come walking out of the woods and toss Michael's ring at her, or his finger, or his head for Christ's sake, and Sarah would just shake her head, and then bang. Curtain. The very thought of it still enraged her, but at this point she just wanted it done. It was going to happen. It was going to happen. It might as well be over with.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, a rustling in the tree line.

Finally.

A figure appeared at the edge of the trees. Leslie couldn't make out who it was, though somehow, she could see the yellows and oranges of butterflies as they flocked to the figure. She could swear that the fluttering yellows and oranges fell to the earth but a moment later. Her head hurt. There was a buzzing somewhere deep within. She couldn't think straight.

She squinted hard, trying to make out who had come to initiate the end of all this. Her vision would not let her.

As much as she wanted it to all just be over with, the thought that it might be Sarah standing before her, too pathetic to make the move herself brought the rage back into her blood like a final taste of poison before the black. A burning in the pit of her stomach; she thought she might vomit.

"Sarah? Sarah, is that you? Is that you, Sarah? Why don't you come a little closer? Come over here and do the job yourself, piglet. I'm sure you don't know how to use a gun... take... take a rock and club me like a seal, you little fucking bitch... think you could manage that? I bet you could..."

Neither a movement, nor a sound from the figure at the trees.

"Yeah, that's what I thought. Daddy kills thousands every day, and you can't even lift a hand to the woman who stole the love of your life, who planned to kill you with the love of your life. Daddy's a monster... but you're... you're just pathetic."

The figure in the tree line began to move a bit, but seemed to be ignoring Leslie nevertheless.

"Yeah, that's right. You know why you're waiting for your pet goon to show up and do the job? Why you won't even look at me? Because you know even tied up I'd do worse things to you than you could imagine doing to me, Princess."

The vomit finally came, flowing through Leslie's teeth, running down her chin, but it was nothing compared to the poison that flowed forth amidst the bile.

"You know... you know it was Michael's idea to kill you? I just wanted to sell your stupid ass, but no. Michael, he hated you, he hated you, hated your stupid guts...he insisted that he got to be the one that pulled the trigger. How's that for a love letter, you stupid bitch?"

The figure produced from somewhere behind it a large object. Maybe Sarah was going to take Leslie up on her offer. A sickening mixture of terror and bitter satisfaction filled her.

"You know what we were going to do once Michael got finished with you? We were going to cut you into a hundred thousand little pieces and feed you to your daddy's hogs. Michael had already got the apron, the plastic, grabbed an old wood saw from his mom's basement... remember that after you do it, bitch. Remember it for the rest of your life. You didn't win shit."

A hollow, horrible, hopeless laugh bubbled from Leslie's lips.

"You'll never love anyone as much as you loved him, and he was going to cut you up into tiny pieces and put you in bags like cold-cuts. He was gonna dump your pretty remains in a pig-pen and watch you get ate like garbage. Congratulations bitch! Might as well save a bullet for yourself..."

"Shhhhh."

The figure at the tree line finally made a sound, and it was far more horrible, and hollow, and hopeless than Leslie's could ever be.

It sounded like how she felt when her parents got divorced. It sounded like how her mother was never the same. Like how she felt when the neighborhood bully killed her beloved cat Marbles right in front of her when she was nine. And somehow, it sounded like how she felt when she first met Michael.

Her whipped-dog survival instinct forced all the sound out of her, and she just stared at the figure in wide-eyed silence.

"Thank you. Not that we don't appreciate your sentiments. We've all been listening quite keenly. The cancer in your soul interests us a great deal. But there will be time for that. To all things, a season. Right now, we have to find the true you."

A sharp noise, somewhere in the distance.

"We have to paint of you a portrait. And for that we need an artist with the right eye... the right brush."

Another sharp sound, closer this time. Metallic. Metal, against metal.

"But before we can begin, you must pick a song."

For only a moment, the briefest moment, Leslie's vision cleared just enough to make out the figure amongst the trees, and what he was holding. What she saw could not be there. With it's pointed hat and hollow, bone face, like some dime store Halloween decoration come to life. Before her vision faded again, she could just make out the old record player it clutched in it's bony hands.

"Pick a song before you are pruned, my flower. Something for you to think on, while you are celebrated."

The metallic sound again. Shing! Closer, still.

Tears rolled down Leslie's cheek. She did not speak. Did not blink.

"I understand. It's always overwhelming, before. I can make someone relive during for all eternity. But before..."

The figure sighed.

"...before is special. Before only happens once. I try to make it exceed the expectations of my subjects. Make it... more, than they ever thought possible. But somehow it's never, quite, like what they anticipate beforehand. I envy the purity of it... in more years than you could imagine, I've sought for some way to make before last on and on... but it can't, can it? A trick The Father saw fit to plant for me."

The figure cast it's eyes... empty, but still there, somehow, skyward.

"But we have this moment, you and I. The perfection of a thing, is that once it's gone, it's gone forever."

Shing!

"And this moment will be perfect. Now please, pick a song... wait, I know."

Leslie's head buzzed again, and she felt the figure inside her somehow. In her deepest places. In her memories. Pain. A pain she thought she'd forgotten.The needle on the record player dropped.

"The song that danced in your ears when you first bled for the flesh. A bit young, weren't you?"

The song skipped in the beginning, just like it did that night. It was so pretty, she'd thought it was on purpose. Her big sister had blamed her for scratching her record, told her she couldn't borrow it any more. But that night was special.

The song made her feel big. Grown-up.

Picture yourself in a boat on a river...with tangerine trees, and marmalade skies...

She was grown-up now. She'd been a teenager, just like her sister, for more than a month. And Danny had never looked at her that way before... no one had...

Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly...

...and the things he said, and the way he said them, she believed every word...

...a girl with kaleidoscope eyes...

...and they lit candles, and they danced and flickered a bit at the soft summer breeze that blew in through the bedroom window... and the moon looked so big, and bright in the clouds... and so impossibly far away, and so, so close at the same time...

Cellophane flowers, of yellow and green, towering over your head...

...She didn't expect it to hurt so much (shing!), and the mess, she'd had to throw away her bedclothes before any one could see...

...look for the girl with the sun in her eyes, and she's gone.

"If I could make you a dress from those bedclothes, Leslie, I would. But that girl is dead, too dead even for me. I can only work with this one. But rest assured, the woman you've become will be well represented."

Leslie whimpered.

Lucy in the sky with diamonds...

The metallic sound was only feet away now. It seemed so far away only moments before, but now it was somewhere just beyond the figure at the tree line. So close that Leslie could now make out another sound tethered to it; footsteps. Someone else was coming.

Shing!

Someone with something she wouldn't like.

"Our artist approaches. The bristles on his brush are sharp, indeed. The canvas provides the paint. 'Before' is almost over. I'll miss it, too. But what is before, without during? Your celebration is about to begin. Are you excited, Leslie?"

Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain...where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies...

The trees parted, and another figure appeared behind the first. Taller, and slender, and almost as dark -- nothing could be as dark as the first -- something shined in his hands.

When the sun caught the objects, the light stung Leslie's eyes. And as it did so, her vision began to return. Trees faded in with all of their browns and greens, and their swaying in the breeze occurred to her in crystal clarity. The orange and yellow rays of the sun that penetrated the canopy shone as though sent from Heaven itself. As did the oranges and blacks of the butterflies that continued to flutter eagerly to the first figure, only to fall to the ground dead as they did so.

Of all the details revealed to Leslie, this figure's remained void. Her mind would neither accept, nor allow that quite just yet.

The second figure, however, was all too clear.

...Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers, that grow so incredibly high...

"The subject must dictate the artist. Our artist is an employee of Grimaldi's, or had been. You were right about that much. Toiling in his slaughterhouse, until your leaders sent him to another killing floor, a butcher among children protecting a great lie."

...Newspaper taxis appear on the shore, waiting to take you away...

"When he came home, there was too much of the jungle inside him to return to the job he'd left behind... to any job. But Grimaldi is nothing if not loyal. When Sarah fell into the hands of bad men then, he'd turned to his broken butcher to get his little girl back to him safely. And he did. What he did to her captors was never asked, nor told. But when they arrived in Hell, looking like they had already been there... we knew he was one to watch."

The second figure -- this 'butcher' -- held in his black-gloved hands an enormous, shimmering butcher knife, and an equally oversized, silver barbecue fork. They had never been that big anywhere but the panicked minds of his tiny victims, but their undying terror had enshrined them, living silver nightmares. He rubbed them against each other, sliding blade against prong in deliberate, angry jerks. Every time he did so, they seemed to grow sharper. Hungrier.

"Oh, how right we were."

Shing!

...Climb in the back with your head in the clouds... and you're gone.

The man standing before her wore a long, black trench coat that lapped at the edges of his tightly laced combat boots. Torn and dirty camouflage pants disappeared beneath a long, once-white apron that read "Kiss The Cook!" The slogan was just visible under a veneer of splattered, dark-brown stains. The head that erupted from the top...

Lucy in the sky with diamonds...

At first, it looked like a roundish wad of pink, pulled taffy. Then, it occurred to Leslie that the texture was a bit more like bacon, or some profane combination of the two, a skull wrapped in a tangled layer of liquified meat. A pulpy ball of rubbery, human soup-skin. Thin lines ran the length of the 'face' -- maybe they had something to do with the metal spatula that hung at his waist? -- through one reddish eye...standing in stark contrast with the other, yellow one. Eyes robbed of the comfort of eyelids. A 'face' with no nose, no ears, no lips... just a pair of glassy orbs burning beneath the remnants of a hateful, gnarled brow, two gummy, lopsided holes that no longer drew breath, and a pulled-back, sneering rim of scorched, eager teeth.

...Picture yourself on a train in a station...

Amazingly, it spoke.

"Good choice'a song. As appropriate as any..."

His voice sounded like it was forced through a neck full of broken glass.

...with plasticine porters with looking glass ties...

"Now, were it me, it'd have to be 'Helter Skelter.' Ol' Biggy, he'd go with 'She's A Rainbow,' every time."

"He certainly would," the first figure chuckled.

...Suddenly someone is there at the turnstile...

The Butcher walked toward Leslie, scraping the knife and fork together, keeping a beat with the song. An errant butterfly diverted its attention from the record-player man, and fluttered along to inspect this new visitor.

"You know, little girl, you fucked up all my hard work. Brought Sarah here with your cancer, drew us to it like flies. They wouldn't let me save her again, you see. They had plans. They always have plans. Couldn't be helped. The only person I ever saved, and you brought her into my backyard, and got her killed. But you know what? S'okay. There's a bigger picture now. A bigger... war. And this one's not a lie."

...the girl with kaleidoscope eyes...

He leaned in close, smelling like an old campfire, the scent of ham assailing Leslie's nostrils. She tried to shrink away from him. Couldn't. His teeth grazed her earlobe.

The butterfly landed on the shimmering tip of his fork.

"I forgive you."

He thrust the knife into Leslie's abdomen.

...Lucy in the sky with diamonds...

Leslie gasped.The scream refused to come. She simply couldn't believe it was happening to her. The whole time, she'd told herself it was a dream, a sick nightmare, told herself that she wouldn't go through with it, that she would convince Michael to stop, that she, that they would start over... but she felt the knife in her belly. Felt it wiggle around a bit. It was real. These creatures were real.

Finally, she screamed.

Before was over. Leslie had come to now.

He pulled up until he hit the lip of Leslie's breastbone, and out, sending her organs cascading over her waist like a skirt. Leslie couldn't believe the pain she was experiencing... couldn't believe such pain existed, couldn't believe her brain hadn't crashed from the sheer scope of it. But here she was. Her entire body felt like it was on fire.

"Normally I'd grill these, but the folks around here like it raw... whoa, whoa... gettin' ahead of myself."

The Butcher reached into the curtain of entrails, and rooted around for a moment until he found her stomach. He tucked it back into the hollow of her torso, nestled into the nook of her pelvis.

"You're gonna need that much, at least."

Suddenly, he realized that the song had ended.

"Get it goin' again, straw man! She's still bleedin'!"

The song started again, skipping and prolonging its first, beautiful moment.

"Ahh... there we go. There we go."

He pushed her head forward, the thick rope cutting into her neck, and forced her to look at her own insides.

"You see? We're all meat, Leslie. Beasts, and meat. Even our souls are meat for someone. You can't put that in a cage. Shouldn't even try. You're blind... let me show you."

...the girl with kaleidoscope eyes...

He stuck the butcher knife in Leslie's sternum, holding it in place for a moment. Prying open her left eye with one hand, he slid his fork into her eye socket and plucked it out. She screamed like a scalded cat. He did the same to her right. Then he shoved them into Leslie's screaming mouth, and deep into her throat. He grabbed her throat and squeezed, making sure she couldn't spit them up.

...Lucy in the sky with diamonds...

***

Time had passed.

So had Leslie... well, not quite. During... they could make during go on forever.

The Butcher strolled toward the figure at the tree line. He was covered in blood. In another life, he would have been winded.

He held an old Zippo lighter to a splintered rib, still dressed in raw, red meat. He charred it's surface, and took a bite, the meat making a crunching sound.

"Gimme another song, Krollock. I'm not done yet, and neither is she."

Krollock would have smiled.

You say goodbye. I say hello.


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