Gemma loves to read horror stories, and one Halloween she finds out where they come from.
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The door moaned as Gemma peeked into The Bloody Quill. The new bookstore had opened only a block from campus, and as far as she could tell, no one else had noticed. The air hung heavy with the scent of cloves and wood chips, and a quiet that pressed in on all sides like the walls of a coffin.
She snuck inside, and couldn't see a soul in the place, although with hundreds of fat tomes stacked on the shelves and floor that wasn't surprising. Despite the emptiness, she felt someone's gaze on her back. Elongated fingers that hooked into claws circled her throat. She whirled around, her straight, dark hair flying. There was nothing.
“Stupid!” she muttered to herself. Gemma burrowed her pink cheeks into her fluffy orange scarf in embarrassment. It was just the season for foolishness; Halloween was tomorrow and it always made her jumpy. Usually, she adored tales of terror and haunted mazes. She ate them up. But she didn’t like to be scared so much when it was real, and she couldn’t quite tell if this was.
Gemma skated her ballet flats along the glossy walnut floorboards and explored one of the stacks. At the edge of each set of shelves sat a lumpy and discolored pumpkin. Each face was more grotesquely distorted than the next, lit from within by orange flame. She grinned at the sculpted decor, though she was certain that open flame in a bookstore was against fire code. One of them even had a pool of red liquid congealing at its base and dripping from its fangs. Delicious. She had to meet the owner of this place.
The shelves went up to the ceiling, disappearing into the darkness of the rafters, and carved all over with little creatures. She couldn’t quite decide if they were goblins or fairies. Reaching out, she stroked her fingers down the cheeks of one of the figures and jerked back as she felt a sharp pinch. Her finger showed a ring of bloody pinpricks on its tip. Gemma's dark eyes snapped back to the carving, but it was motionless upon closer inspection. Of course, the wood was just rough. She scoffed in disbelief at her own imagination. She was going crazy from all the scary stories she’d been reading and writing.
Gemma smoothed her fingers along the spines of the leather volumes, hoping to find some old horror story she'd missed. Why had she come in here, anyway? She wouldn't need books for the party tonight, although the decorations here were better than most haunted houses. Besides, Gemma would rather read a Stephen King novel than try to make small talk with a bunch of literacy-challenged jocks. She'd tutored most of the football team, and it hadn't exactly made her want to spend more time with them. She could see it all now; the boys would stagger and shout boo. Maybe they'd toss a few plastic spiders around, and the girls would trip over themselves, pretending to scream. It had been the same for all three years of college before this, and it would be the same afterwards. Perhaps they’d pass a bowl full of grapes around and pretend they were eyeballs and a rotten tomato could be brains. Throw in a white sheet and some toilet paper mummy costumes and it would be just right for Megan, Gemma's roommate, and every other girl on campus. Just once she'd like to meet someone a little more like herself.
“Can I help you?” a voice purred right behind her ear.
She jumped and then laughed apologetically.
“I’m just looking,” she said with a shrug. Then she scrutinized the person standing in front of her, and the tiny hairs on her neck shot up. He was about six and a half feet tall with dark, tangled hair, and a hungry build. She guessed he was about three or four years older than her, and he was dressed in a rust-colored, three-piece-suit.
“A-a little early for costumes, isn’t it?” she stammered, feeling stupid. She wanted to inch back but managed not to make a complete fool of herself.
The man cocked his head to the side as though puzzled, but his eyes were cold and clear. “No one comes here just to look around. Everyone wants stories.” Behind his spindly, gold glasses, he peered at her with completely black eyes surrounded by doll-like lashes. It looked like his pupils had swallowed all the color in his irises.
“I-uh. I’m sorry. I’m just browsing,” she said, gripping the edge of a shelf. “I can leave-”
“No!” he said, making her jump again. “You can’t leave until you have a story. Tell me, which one would you like?”
Gemma swallowed and watched him crack the knuckles of his long fingers. “What kinds do you have?” There was something very wrong with this man, and she needed to stall. The way he was looking at her made her think he was either going to try to ravish her or devour her whole.
Her question made him grin, and he revealed gleaming white, jagged teeth. It was a little too perfect a costume. Normal people definitely didn't take it this far.
“Oh my, we have all kinds. Whatever you like. Stories about vampires and ladies' necks, about houses that eat you up, stories about dead creeping things ... and my favorite: stories about wolves and little girls." He smiled wider at this.
Gemma slid back a step. “What about love stories or comedies?”
His smile disappeared and his face pinched in, making his eyes look inhumanly large. “No. We don’t have stories like that. None at all.”
“Oh, well. I’ll just be leaving then. Sorry!” she panted and waited for him to move. He didn’t stir. He didn’t even blink. She tried to take a step towards him, but her body refused. Instead, she shuffled backward down to the ends of the shelves and went up the next one. Her pea coat felt too tight and warm, and her scarf was choking her, but she didn’t stop until she reached the front of the shop where the door…wasn’t. The windows had gone, too.
“What the hell?”
The black-eyed man hovered only inches from her face.
She gasped and backed up into the wall.
The man toyed with the tassel on her scarf. “Red would be a better color on you,” he murmured. His breath cooled her face, and it smelled like damp soil and decay.
“Please, let me go. I have a p-party to plan and my roommate will kill me if-” She bit her lips against the rest. Why did she say kill?
“Tell me, Gemma, is this the good kind of scary?” he asked, looking amused again.
Gemma felt her heart stop for a moment. No no no no no no no. It wasn’t possible. She really had gone crazy.
“Who are you?” she whimpered.
“You know me!” he exclaimed with joy. His eyes, charged with electricity, burning into her. “I’ve been with you since you were a child! Every time you opened a terrifying book or watched a slasher movie, I was there. Or did you think those stories just came from nowhere?” he asked.
“I don’t understand,” Gemma whispered. “You’ve been watching me?”
“Watching you. Oh yes. I’ve been watching you all your life. You invited me in, my darling girl. I loved how you ate up those stories like a hungry little beasty. You have such an imagination! I could use an imagination like that. Business has been pretty dry for me lately,” he said with a smile and gestured around him at the empty room.
There was dust an inch thick on the floors, the books, and even the pumpkins. She couldn't have missed that. “How are you doing this?” Gemma demanded, fear making her angry. “Stop it!”
“Not yet,” he ground out, grabbing her arm with his long fingers. “ Not until you tell me what story you want. You’re my biggest fan, Gemma. You’ve read it all and watched it all. You’ve gone to all the graveyards and haunted houses. You’re the only one who I haven’t grown bored of. I’ve even read your writing, and do you know.. I liked it.” his breathing was uneven now. A drop of blood rolled down his forehead like sweat.
Gemma thought back to her computer, which had her latest horror story attempt pulled up on the screen. “Is this a test?” she asked, shaking. “If I pick the wrong story are you going to …” She shut her mouth, but images of axes and basements rolled across her mind.
“Chop you up and hide you in the walls?” he offered.
Gemma nearly fainted.
“Don’t be ridiculous. They’re crowded enough as it is. There isn't much space left in this place. I've had to start storing them in books, you see." He wiggled his fingers before her eyes and she noticed they were stained red. “I want you to pick a story no one has asked for yet. Ask me for a story that no one has ever asked for before, and you can go. Not only that, but I’ll give you what you always wanted!”
He dragged her across the store to some dusty old cushioned chairs and plopped her down like she was a child. On either side of her sat a drooping skeleton with its clothes and hair still intact. Both were girls of about her size. One of them was dressed in a long, old-fashioned skirt and the other in fishnets and leather. Suddenly, she saw that the room was full of skeletons of all shapes and sizes, wearing all periods of dress. They were choking up the aisles and were crammed into the wooden shelves, empty eye sockets all pointed at her. Gemma pressed her fist to her mouth.
The man, or creature, sank into the chair opposite her and crossed his legs. He waited. Gemma quivered and looked around at the walls. This was either really happening or she’d had a psychotic break.
“I like psychotic stories,” he offered.
“I'll just bet you do,” Gemma murmured without thinking. She glanced up to see if he’d dropped his smile, but it was wider instead. Unnaturally wide, literally stretching from ear to ear. Dark blood dripped from the corners of his lips. She focused. He wanted her to pick a new story.
A ticking noise split the air. The man-creature checked a golden pocket-watch from his vest. He turned it towards her and where its face should have been was a bright, lidless eyeball. She was going to fail, and he was going to kill her. She started to hyperventilate.
“Gemma, please don’t be so disappointing," he begged, followed by a long sigh. "I thought this year Halloween was going to be interesting. You’ve been the most promising pupil since that King fellow.”
So her favorite author had been a victim of this creature as well. Gemma wondered what he'd done to escape. It probably had been a cinch for King to come up with some obscure horror tale. His brain was just wired that way. What would King do, she wondered, and then choked down a frantic laugh. She mentally flipped through the library in her mind of all the scary stories she's ever savored some late night while everyone else in her dorm was asleep. She thought back further to when she'd been a child reading Goosebumps with a flashlight under her quilt.
Frustrated, she tried to recall stories she might only have heard about but never read. Folktales, ghost stories.. a little light clicked on in her brain.
“Your story!” Gemma gulped. “Tell me your story. I don’t know that one.”
The monster straightened like someone had wound a screw in his back and let go. His smile fell away and his eyes bugged out at her. “My story?” he asked.
Gemma braced herself for his fingers on her neck. She’d picked wrong. She wondered how he was going to do it. It was a pity no one would ever know because she was sure it would make for an interesting tale.
“No one has ever asked me for my story before,” the monster murmured.