A collection of 28 horror and mystery stories from the masters of the macabre!
Barnes & Noble.com
by Carrie S. Masek
Death didn't hurt. One minute, Russ Jenkins was hanging out in front of McDonalds, the next he was dead. He heard an engine roar, caught a split second glimpse of Jack Clayton behind the wheel of his dad's Lincoln Navigator, and felt the slam of the grille. A rush of air. Breaking glass. A scream. Russ hit a table, bounced and rolled. Then nothing. No pain, no light, no heat.
Fumes and a damp, searing heat wrapped around Russ. His skin itched. His nostrils burned. It smelled like sulfur something-or-other from Chemistry last year. A sneeze blew his eyes open, revealing a worm's eye view of a worn linoleum floor. What happened to McDonalds?
"Hey, Russ." Russ scrambled to his feet and turned toward the voice. A thin, balding man peered over the messiest desk he'd ever seen. Piles of papers covered the desktop and most of the floor around it. The man held a phone, his palm pressed over the receiver. "Grab a chair. I'll be right with you."
"What's going on?" Russ didn't like the way his voice shook, but the man didn't seem to notice. He put the phone to his ear and swung his chair to face the wall. His words were too low and fast for Russ to follow.
Where the hell was he? The room was small. Framed photographs covered the walls, but instead of smiling kids or flowers, the pictures showed disasters -- tilting bridges, burning buildings, a close-up of a crying baby. There was no window or door. A shiver ran down Russ's legs. Maybe he should sit down.
A stack of folding chairs leaned against the back wall. Russ grabbed one and opened it. Straddling the seat, he rested his forearms along the back. The metal warmed his clammy skin. After a moment, the man turned and hung up the phone.
"Emergency call. You know how it is." The quick words and nasal tone reminded Russ of his last trip to New York City. The man stood and walked around the desk, hand extended. "Gideon Scratch. Call me Gideon."
Russ reluctantly took the hand. It was chill to the touch. Though the man standing wasn't much taller than Russ sitting, his grip was brutal.
Russ tried to yank free and couldn't. Gideon pulled a thin-lipped smile. He had a long, narrow face and wide-set eyes. The eyes were dark, charcoal gray with huge, gaping pupils.
Just when Russ thought his hand would break, Gideon let go. He turned, took a folder from the desk and opened it. "Russ Jenkins. Seventeen years old, second class jock, first class bully."
Russ was busy rubbing his aching knuckles. It took a moment for the meaning of the words to register. "What?"
"Specialty: intimidating younger, weaker kids. Methods: physical threats and verbal abuse. Actual damage done: minimal, due to lack of focus. Killed by a drunk driver, 11 PM Saturday, April 19. Status: Undetermined."
Killed? Russ remembered the rushing SUV, the grille, and the breaking glass, but . . . dead? He wiped his damp palms on his cargo pants. Dead people didn't sweat. Sweat didn't soak through their old football jerseys and run down their backs. He couldn't be dead.
Gideon slapped the folder against his thigh. "No one knows what to do with you. That's why you're here."
"I don't get it."
"I'm offering you a job." Gideon's smile stretched to reveal small, crooked teeth. "To keep your old friend Tristan Donal company."
"Who the hell . . . ?" A picture formed in Russ's mind before he finished the question. A skinny kid with black hair hunched over an armload of books, running. Russ and his friends slinging taunts after him. "You mean Booger Boy?"
"Tristan Donal is a very disturbed young man. Isolated. Alienated." Gideon pointed to one of the pictures on the wall. The World Trade Center vanished and a photo of a dark-haired kid slumped over a computer terminal took its place. "If it wasn't for the internet, he wouldn't have any friends at all."
"So? What's it to me? I just want out of here."
Gideon shrugged. "It's your choice." He raised his hand, and the office vanished.
Darkness. Russ strained his eyes, but there was nothing to see. Silence cradled him, filled him. He touched nothing, tasted nothing, smelled nothing. He thinned and spread across a sea of nothing. Memories of sticky heat began to fade. Memories of life began to fade. If he disappeared completely, would he be lost forever? His grandfather's sermons had often ended with the threat of hellfire, but Russ would rather face a hundred Hells, a million fires, than an eternity of nothing. "Help!" he wanted to scream, but he no longer had a mouth to scream with. "Gideon, help!"
The office returned along with the heat and stench. Russ was sitting in the same chair. Gideon hadn't moved.
"That was Limbo." Gideon's voice was level, pleasant. "I'm not bringing you out again. Understand?"
Russ nodded, too scared to answer.
"Good." Gideon walked back to the desk and sat down. "As of now, you're on probation. Think of it as a tryout for my team. Do well, and you're in. You'll get an office like this one, more challenging jobs, two weeks vacation every millennium. You've always wanted to be important, Russ, a big man. Stick with me, and I'll give you people's lives to play with." He leaned forward. "Mess up, and you'll wish I'd left you in Limbo."
Gideon smiled and leaned against the edge of the desk. "Now about the job. Tristan Donal's at a crossroads in his life. If all goes well, he'll grow to be an exceptional young man. He's very gifted, you know, and could do a lot of good."
"You want me to help him?"
"Yes, to choose the other road."