From the editor:Get ready for an unsettling Halloween read by Rachele Gabriel. A young woman faces her demons when a gruesome creature comes to her corner of the desert and offers her her heart's desire. An accomplished horror writer in the short and serialized form, Rachele lives with three dogs and a parrot in a haunted house in southern California.
You would probably be surprised at the number of bodies one can find out in the desert.
You would probably be even more surprised at how often people play with the bodies. But I don’t know. Since most of us are tweakers or disadvantaged youth doomed to repeat the mistakes of our alcoholic mothers and abusive fathers, maybe you wouldn’t be surprised at all.
My best friend, Kameron, found last winter’s cadaver du jour: an old man in a dilapidated trailer. A white beard matted with corpse juice hung past his bony knees, so Kameron bought him a Santa hat from the Dollar Tree and christened him “Satan Claus.” Satan Claus was a popular attraction among the high desert’s underbelly until Gidget Gagnon blabbed to her brother, who was a deputy sheriff.
This pissed Kameron off. He didn’t grow up here, so he didn’t understand the rules: there’s always a snitch, there’s always a whiner, there’s always a freak, and there’s always someone who fantasizes about killing you.
Even if he understood, he’d never have believed that I was both the freak and the person who fantasized about killing him.
I’d known Kameron since we were teenage patients at a county psychiatric facility. It was the first time in our lives either of us ever had security or structure. I miss it, honestly.
We moved in together the second we could. For the record, we weren’t lovers. We never even experimented; I couldn’t separate sex from trauma and didn’t particularly want to try, so I was voluntarily celibate.
This enchanted Kameron because he has a Madonna/Whore complex the size of Babylon. I was his pure, unsullied princess. This is why he paid half my bills, supported me emotionally, and asked nothing in return.
That’s not to say he didn’t have sex. Kameron was a bona fide man-whore. That’s the only reason he went to raves and parties: the girls.
We were at just such a party the night I met Daddy.
The party was in a bashed-up warehouse that smelled like roadkill and alcohol. Kameron stayed glued to my side for a while, I guess to make sure no one else swooped in to fuck his Madonna off her pedestal. But it didn’t last. It never does. A girl I recognized vaguely - waist-length black hair and makeup you could scrape off with a putty knife - was eyeing him ostentatiously.
I thought it was disrespectful; to the untrained eye, Kameron and I were a couple, after all.
Now, Kameron was drunk by this point. He gets handsy when he’s drunk, even with me. So I cuddled up and wrapped myself around him. He was enjoying it; cuddling doesn’t break the Madonna pedestal. It just makes him feel special.
But I messed up.
We were sitting in the corner, starting to play around. He was looking at me in a way no one else ever does: bright and warm and hopeful, like I’m the most important person in the world. I could feel myself teetering on the edge of the pedestal. Then he leaned in to kiss me.
I panicked. Before I knew it, I was running.
I pretended I was flying, that I’d dash outside and leap into the air, taking flight among the mad whirl of constellations. I could almost see it: the warehouse shrinking as I gained altitude, the night wind cooling the sick heat inside me. For a mad moment felt the feathers sprouting from my skin, itchy and hard and growing fast.
I made it outside and halted. No feathers, no flight, no night wind scraping the brokenness away.
By the time Kameron found me, the night’s chill had settled into my bones and I was shivering.
Only when he tapped my shoulder did I realize I’d been crying. I wiped my eyes hastily and turned.
The black-haired girl lingered several feet away. She had a small smile, halfway between anxious and satisfied.
“Hey.” Kameron slurred slightly. “Demetria and I are leaving. Will you get home okay?”
“Her name’s not Demetria,” I said in as bored a tone as I could muster. “It’s Britni.”
All at once he looked a lot less drunk. “You know her name doesn’t matter, don’t you?”
We stared at one another for what felt a terribly long time. He was waiting for something, and I knew it. But I couldn’t give it. Even if I could, I’d stop mattering the second he got it.
“Don’t keep her waiting, Kameron.”
His face somehow drew upward, then fell into a flat smile. He gave me a half-assed wave and left with Demetria.
I counted to one thousand, then went back inside.
A humid rush of sweat, piss, and beer burps crashed over me like a wave. The crowd writhed and squirmed like maggots. Music blared. Bargain bin lights spun over everything. It all seemed so pointless. Nothing would be accomplished here tonight. Nothing would ever be accomplished here on any night.
I looked down at the floor. Amid the chewing gum, spilled drinks, gouges, and stains, I saw three words written in black Sharpie:
Come to Daddy
An arrow underneath pointed east.
I looked up at the pointless party and I thought of Kameron, of the way he looked at me. He’d be giving that look to Demetria just now.
I followed the arrow.
Halfway across the warehouse was another message and another arrow:
I followed it to the back wall, to another Sharpie message:
Hurry, Daddy’s Waiting For You
This arrow was absurdly long, and pointed to a bland door I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
I opened the door. Cold, foul air swept over me. I gulped a deep breath; it was preferable to the sweat-heavy humidity behind me.
Before me was a set of rickety metal stairs. I descended and found myself rewarded with another message:
Daddy’s Coming Through The Back
I turned into a low concrete corridor lit by flickering fluorescent lights. Something came into view at the other end: bony, huddled, and terribly small.
Its head lay tilted against the wall, open jaw yawing up at the ceiling. Overhead, painted in streaky letters, was a single word:
An oil drum sat next to Daddy. I withdrew, gagging, when I saw the half-rotten sludge of dead vermin at the bottom. A nightstand sat on his other side, bearing a plastic container filled with Hershey kisses. A hand-lettered sign read:
Give Daddy a Kiss
This crazy bullshit was just enough to salvage the night. Smirking slightly, I unwrapped a kiss and popped it into Daddy’s gaping mouth.
A second later, he shuddered and began to chew. His head lolled weakly. With a heavy grunt, he flopped forward so that his eye sockets were trained on me. Something glinted within, dark and iridescent like dirty oil. He swallowed the kiss, and spoke.
“What do you want from me?”
Terror and mirth whirled together in a mad tornado. “What?”
He lurched forward, desiccated body hitting the concrete with a clatter. “I can give you one thing. Any one thing. What shall it be?”
I thought about it. I really did. If wish-granting, Hershey-loving corpses exist, might as well take advantage of the wish.
Except I didn’t know what to wish for.
I didn’t want to be normal. People like Kameron are normal. People like Demetria are normal.
I didn’t want another life. Why bother, when I barely want to live?
I couldn’t have Kameron; he’d have to turn into something he’s not before that would ever be a possibility.
I didn’t want money. I didn’t want a house. I didn’t want a better job. All of these are changes. At some point, every change causes pain. I’ve had enough pain for a lifetime.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Daddy’s dark eyes flared. “That does complicate things.” He smiled; papery skin cracked and split like porcelain varnish. “But it makes them interesting. Give me a rat.” He pointed to the vermin barrel. “I need protein.”
It didn’t occur to me to resist. This was the first time in memory that I actually felt alive. I snatched a mushy tail from the morass. Only half a rat emerged, melting into translucent rot before my eyes.
I tossed it at Daddy, who lunged like a spaniel and caught it in his mouth. He swallowed it whole, then said: “I can tell you the deepest desire of your heart and give it to you.”
“Because I can.”
This was the only justification I recognized, the only one I believed, the only one that made sense. “Then do it.”
“It’s not that simple. First, I need energy.”
“Well…of a kind,” he chuckled. “But not exactly.” He watched me expectantly. Those sockets glinted madly, reflecting every color under the sun and several I couldn’t describe. Music thumped from upstairs, loosing trickles of dust and reverberating through Daddy’s lair.
“I don’t get it.”
“People. I need people. Or rather, parts of people. Skin, eyes, hair, livers…”
I eyed him suspiciously, wondering just how fast this Monkey’s Paw motherfucker could run. “You could get all of those from me.”
“You’re my client. Clients pay the provider’s price. You pay this provider’s price in bodies. I need two eyes, two lungs, one stomach, one liver, one skin…” He continued, rattling off seeming every organ in the human body. Then he finished: “And each must come from a different person.”
I contemplated this briefly. “You’ll show me what I want -” Something, I added silently, that will make me happy - “and you’ll give it to me?”
“I swear on my name.”
He wagged a finger. “Sorry, darling. Names are power here. But an oath upon my name - spoken or otherwise - is unbreakable.”
I watched him. He smiled widely; the thin remains of his mummified skin split and flaked off like snow. Under the lights, he looked like a cross between a Halloween decoration and a bad photoshop project. Except for his eyes: those dark, writhing masses of nearly hidden color.
I turned around and went back up to the party.
Almost immediately, I spied a long, shimmering curtain of black hair across the floor. For a triumphant moment I thought it was Demetria, but no. She resembled Demetria, though, and that was enough for me. She wandered around nervously, a tragically overgrown little girl lost.
I pretended I was her ride home, and led her downstairs. Daddy warped and shuddered and grew into something that blotted the lights, something I couldn’t look at without panicking, and swallowed her whole.
I kept my eyes closed until Daddy cleared his throat.
He’d grown skin: thick and fleshy, lipless, it reminded me absurdly of a squashily upholstered sofa. Dull, cracked teeth glinted in the recessed mouth. “Will I have more tonight?”
I got Daddy a stomach, two eyes, and a liver before the night was done. I chose dirty, dusty men, the kind that looked as if they’d been sucked dry. Homeless tweakers, people who, for all intents and purposes, have already disappeared.
I know how sick it is, but please try to understand. The only things I ever feel are fear and panic, and that only happens when someone touches me unexpectedly. Can you imagine what it’s like? To be dull and empty like a reptile, except when you’re accidentally triggered into reliving the worst moments of your awful life? I’d have given anything to change that. Anything to have something that would make me happy.
So I fed Daddy people that no one would miss. It’s easy to find them if you know what to look for. Men with sucked-in faces who ride children’s bicycles, women with nice bodies and ancient, haunted faces, dust-caked teenagers and old men sleeping under tarps in the desert.
It took a month.
In that month, Kameron began to date Demetria. She spent more time in my apartment than I did. After I walked in on her blowing him after a long shift, I went to my room started to pack.
I don’t have much, so it didn’t take long. Kameron caught me as I dropped the last bag in the trunk. His eyes were wet.
“She doesn’t mean anything,” he said.
I slammed the trunk shut. “Then that makes you a shitbag, Kameron.”
“Tell me to dump her. I’ll do it.”
“I’m not your mommy.”
He ran his hands through his hair. His lip started to tremble. Loathing exploded through me. “You’re the most important person in my life.”
“Only because I can’t be.”
I climbed into my car and drove away.
After a couple of brutally cold nights under the stars, I moved into the warehouse with Daddy.
He sang lullabies and fed me Hershey kisses from that dirty plastic bowl. No matter how many I ate, the bowl never emptied. Daddy didn’t expect conversation, affection, or any attention at all.
All said and done, it was a relief.
I still went to work, of course. Kameron came in every night. I felt a cruel surge of triumph whenever he wandered in. He still looked at me as he always had: like I was the only person that mattered.
Then Demetria followed him. The fight was a truly spectacular example of a white trash beatdown. He and Demetria were banned, and I got written up.
It didn’t really bother me.
That night I found a raggedy fat man in foul-smelling clothes dumpster-diving behind the restaurant. I told him he could stay at my house if he wanted. He was slow, childlike, and took me at my word.
Daddy ate him quickly and spit the bones into the rat barrel. Then he burped, enormous fleshy cheeks beating like sails in the wind, and sat down. “We’re almost done,” he said. “Only one body left.”
I did a quick calculation. “Two. A heart and a brain.”
He chuckled indulgently. “I’ve had a brain all this time. All I need is a heart.”
By this time, Daddy looked like a cross between Nosferatu, Frankenstein’s monster, and a Picasso painting: pale, fleshy, and muscular, with ridiculous Fabio hair and a thick, indecently red mouth that didn’t quite fit his skin. He had one green eye and one brown eye. In place of whites, that murky, oily rainbow continued to swirl.
“I’ll find it tonight,” I told him.
He hesitated theatrically. “There’s a special rule for the heart.”
My skin tightened as a chill rolled down my back. Silence stretched between us, broken only by the faint, distant echoes that always seem to accompany decaying buildings.
“I need your heart.”
My pulse beat slow and heavy in my throat. “That’s against your rules.”
He laughed. “You misunderstand. I don’t need this -” he tapped my chest - “tired little muscle. I need your heart. Only…it’s inside someone else.”
“What,” I asked levelly, “are you talking about?”
“A heart that is yours is a heart that loves you.”
“You mean Kameron.”
He smiled and nodded. “Yes, I do.”
I almost left.
But why? Kameron didn’t really love me. He loved his illusion. His pure little princess. Someone he couldn’t touch. Someone who was too good to be touched.
It was a paradox. The moment he got what he wanted would be the moment he lost it.
But he could help me get what I wanted. If he really loved me, that would make him happy.
I drove to my old apartment and knocked. Kameron answered the door, smelling like dirty clothes and whiskey. His eyes went wide when he saw me. Then he started to cry.
“She’s gone,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
“You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.” I came inside held him. He got handsy. I let him.
Maybe because I was expecting it this time, or maybe because there was finally a light at the end of the tunnel, it was okay. Not enjoyable; my heart raced and I felt sick and he was too intoxicated to do a whole lot. But he was gentle and careful.
He got what he wanted.
Before he could realize that he’d knocked his angel off her pedestal - before he could take my heart away - I talked him into a drive.
The drive to the warehouse was the happiest I’d ever seen him.
I led him through the empty warehouse, pausing every minute or two for a hug or a kiss. That was fine. It was good to make him happy. Quid pro quo.
Only when he saw Daddy, hulking and grinning under the fluorescent lights, did Kameron realize that something was wrong.
Daddy stood up. He looked awful: nine feet tall and completely wrong, a hybrid of every childhood nightmare.
“Get back,” Kameron told me.
Daddy charged. Kameron shoved me toward the stairs. I felt his hand on my back, felt his pulse beating through his wrist, for a fraction of a second.
Then Daddy grew, blotting the lights, bones creaking and cracking as he exploded into something I couldn’t comprehend.
And then, like all the others before him, Kameron was gone.
My heart began to pound - from grief or excitement, I couldn’t tell. “We’re done,” I said. “So where is it?”
“Where is what?” Daddy stretched luxuriously.
“What I want.” I could feel my blood pressure rising. “The thing I want.”
“You mean the deepest desire of your heart?”
He grinned and dropped to his haunches, posing like a runner about to take off. “Here it is.” He took a deep breath.
The stillness was excruciating, poised overhead like a crushing weight.
Then Daddy opened his mouth and threw up. Bloody and foul, full of shattered bones and flesh, it flooded toward me like a tide.
And floating within it, a pale crown jewel, was Kameron’s head.
Daddy gurked up a final outpouring of viscera and settled back. “There it is.”
My skin prickled and stung. I thought of feathers, small and hard and piercing the skin as they forced their way up.
I turned and ran.
I did not fly through the air, but I flew across the sand. Stars lit my way, a million eyes glazing the desert in silvery darkness.
Sometime around dawn, just as gold and red bloomed across the horizon, I tripped and fell. I remember watching the sunrise.
Then everything went dark.
Kameron found me just after dawn, as the desert birds sang to the rising sun.
When we got home, he helped me into the shower. I sat blankly as dust and dried blood skirled down the drain.
After twenty minutes, he helped me out and put me to bed.
I fell asleep quickly.
I woke around midafternoon. Sun streamed through the window. Kameron slept beside me. His shirt was hiked up halfway over his back, revealing what looked like a tattoo.
I lifted his shirt, half-expecting to see Demetria’s embellished name, and froze.
Not a name. Not even a tattoo.
Just seven words written in black Sharpie:
Give Daddy a little more credit, honey.
This story originally appeared in Nosleep.