29 Nov Frozen Souls
“Frozen Souls”Written by D.J. Montaño Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 53 minutes
Everyone has a moment in life where they claim to have frozen with fear, but unless you have stood in the presence of death, clawing your way out of the grave, the true gravity of that statement alludes you. Death is the master changeling, able to assume any and every form you can imagine. It can be as violent as a cannonball rending a man’s head from his body in a gush of brain, bone, and blood or soft as a pillow pressed upon to suffocate. He came to me as a demon of winter, a demon as a boy. However, I’m getting ahead of myself. In order for you to understand, we must go back to the day I found myself face to face with him.
‘Twas the 22nd of December, and the hustle and bustle of last-minute preparations for Christmas died down. Small glimpses of the evening sky aglow with vibrant orange and purple bands, piercing the tangled mixture of chimney smoke and fog gave beauty to this drab gray city. However, the protective light of day had run its course and was now giving way to the longest night of the year, the winter solstice. It would also be the darkest night of my life. It is under this reaper’s cloak of the blackest night that I am forced to examine the very strength of my soul, and so we begin…
“That pub always has shit ale,” Arthur grumbled as we walked along the snow-dusted sidewalk. “I can’t believe he has the stones to charge a whole penny for a tankard of that swill.”
“Then perhaps you should keep your penny and spend it elsewheres,” Margaret huffed back, rolling her eyes. “I swears it’s always whining and complaining with you. Oh, I don’t like the ale, it’s not good enough for the likes of me, Lord of the Shityard. Duke of dunghill.” She mocked him, gesturing with her hands like someone of royal stock. His face flared red. “If you don’t like then have a tankard of water and shut it.” I coughed out a laugh, trying to conceal it with my hands. He paused for a moment.
“You got somptin to say, kid?” he said, glaring back at me.
“N-n-n no I-I d-d-don’t Arthur,” my trembling lips managed.
“Then keep that hole in your face shut or I’ll fill it with my fist.” He said, shoving his knuckles right up under my nose. I nodded, and he turned around and started walking again. “Why on earth would I drink the water here?” He asked Margaret as though the interruption didn’t occur. Between the shit and piss, rubbish and mud larkers wading through looking for a coin or button, that water may as well be the river Styx. It will ferry you on to your death soon as you drink it. At least ale is a mite cleaner and much tastier.”
“If it tastes so much better then enjoy it and stop flapping your gums about how shit it is.” Margaret retorted. Arthur opened his mouth, but the words must have got lost cause nothing came out. His wit often failed him in moments like this, and Margaret could read it all over his stupid face. She flashed her teeth in a grin ever so quickly, then regained her composure and with that, the argument died.
Arthur, Margaret, and I walked along Leen Side Street with the rest of our treasure, four pennies between us. Not bad for a day as a pure finder and after each having a tankard of ale. The tanners always paid children less than the adults for our haul of dog poo, even if we gathered just as much. They used the dog poo we gathered to purify the leather hide; it was essential to their process. Thus the name pure-finders stuck for this “job.” I had earned three pennies my first day of pure finding. I couldn’t be happier even though I had slipped and fallen in the horse muck once or twice.
Picking dog poo out of the horse crap on the streets sounds bad, but it’s much better than goin up chimneys. I swear to God. Kids are getting stuck in ‘em all the time. A six-year-old got stuck in one last week. He got wedged in so tight they couldn’t pull him out. You could hear his screams bellowing out of the chimney from a mile away for hours. I thought I was going to go mad. When night descended, it left the owners with no choice. They started the fire up and the young chimney sweep’s agony was palatable. His screams cut through the brick and mortar with ease for what felt like a week, but may have only been a couple of minutes. The smell permeated the entire block that night as several people whispered about, still hearing him screaming in the walls in the middle of the night despite the child being dead already. I thank God I was not among those who had sworn they heard him as they slept.
I looked down at my bounty for the day. A whopping 2 pennies and felt so happy that Arthur and Margaret let me help them today. I’m sure I’ll lose one to my aunt and uncle to prove I had gone out to earn my keep, but I’d stuff the other in my shoe. Maybe this time, I’ll actually be able to hold on to it. Last time Uncle Thomas lashed me across the backs of my legs, five with his belt for hiding a coin. While the lashing stung, the pain of having to endure a day with no meals has stayed with me far longer. I hope someone can take me in as an apprentice if I show I will do anything it takes. The tanner has shown interest, but my slight frame and scant muscle make managing the heavy animal hide quite difficult.
“Ay kid, are you there?” Arthur backhands my shoulder. “You never said where you found those buttons you used to pay for yours and Margaret’s ale. With buttons like those, you probably could have got more than two tankards of ale.” He growled in a condescending tone.
“I f-f-found them in the d-d-dust chute outside my aunts h-h-house.” It’s so dumb how scared I am, I hate how afraid I sound all the time. Every morning I tell myself I’m going to stop letting people push me around and stop stuttering, and with one good shove, I revert to my old habits.
“Yer lucky the dustmen didn’t catch you, they would have cuffed you good and reported you to ol’ man Corbyn. That vulture would have taken you to the workhouse and claimed you were a troublesome orphan. He’s done it before.” Margaret said, flat and emotionless.
Our neighborhood in the Nottingham Wharfs teetered precariously between a hub of business brought in by the ferries and becoming overwhelmed by the crawlers. Those poor souls who were so desperate they begged the slightly less poor for money. The ferrymen have even taken up knives or small billy clubs to ward off thieves and protect the cargo from the more aggressive crawlers. Last night, the snow storm formed drifts that filled every corner and crevasse, forcing the homeless to huddle in any doorway or nook they could find.
Arthur and Margaret debated how they would each spend their penny. I trailed behind them, observing the orchestra of our small harbor playing its last notes for the day. The symphony of clickety-clacking horse and carriage teams, crows cawing as their glossy black eyes looked down on every move made, and street barkers competing to pull in the last customers of the fading day filled the air. Night-soil men began pushing carts out onto the streets to empty the latrines, privy closets, and septic tanks. Loose women patrolled our dark alleys, hoping to find a John, which might allow them a warm bed for the night they needed no matter what acts it took to secure it. If they could avoid turning to the workhouse for a meal and bed for the night, it would be well worth it. A deep dong, dong, dong, dong reverberated in my soul as the bell at St. Mary’s Church marked the hour. Four O’clock, it’ll be getting dark rather soon. I wonder if my parents will come home tonight? Tonight marks the 10th day since I last saw them. I push the thought from my head as quickly as it sprung up.
Approaching our street, we find a flock of kids standing on the sidewalk. A long slick patch of ice near the curb created a daredevil slide for any lass or lad with the stones to give it a go. The slide atop Wellington Street, or the wells as we called it, leading down into our overcrowded homes, offered a small reprieve from the day’s hardships. Towering three-story brick homes stood on each side of us, squished together so tightly their door handles might pop off. Un-phased as ever by the smell of piss and shit hanging in the air, kids played carefree. A grin flashed over Arthur and Margaret as they shot each other a look. They ran over to the top of the hill to join in.
The clacking of shutters against the coming night startled me, and the icy breeze sent a chill up my spine. One after another, the kids went careening down the slide. Some on their bums and some daring to make the attempt on their feet. I stood apart from the group, an outsider looking in, longing to be one of them. The fear of being mocked for being clumsy or falling flat on my ass shackled me to the lamppost. The bells tolled half-past four, and like an alarm had shrieked, kids began scattering for home. A dusty, portly woman nearby called down to us, “Get indoors now before ye catch your death. Jack Frost be comin’ soon, and ya best not be out when he gets here!”
“Tha’s a load of bollocks,” Arthur hollered back.
“Yeah miss, save that rubbish for the babies.” Margaret followed up for good measure.
“Well, I never…” The mountainous woman gasped over-dramatically, placing her hand upon her chest, feigning injury. “How dare ye speak to your elder that way. I hope Frost gets the lot of ye. You’ll be the ones frozen in the street, that’cha will.” Turning her nose up with the final shake of a rug, the woman slammed the shutters against the approaching night and latched it tight.
“Quit holdin’ up the line.” Arthur punched the arm of the next kid in line. He had a stocky frame he hadn’t taken advantage of until his kid brother died two winters back. Death was all around us in the wharfs. However, losing his little brother had been Arthur’s first personal encounter with death. It had made him angry; angry at his parents, angry at his little brother for going and dying, angry at himself for not saving him, just… angry. After swallowing that bitter fruit, he wanted everyone to feel his pain. Despite his demeanor, people sought his company and his approval “Who’s next? Come on, quit dawdling!”
“Oh shut it, Arthur,” Margaret spoke louder than her small stature should have allowed. He shot her a look but said nothing. She could always make the boys’ hands clammy with a glance. Every boy on our block wanted to hold her hand, kiss her, hell even get slapped by her. She was perfectly cute with her crystal blue eyes, blond hair, and curves that her clothes could no longer hide. It’s like the dirt and muck of sifting through poo for the tanners or scouring through ash for buttons or trinkets didn’t even stick to her. Plenty of lads already tasted the sting of staring at her chest for too long. Having three older brothers had toughened her up; there wasn’t much that frightened her. She was the flame, and we the moths.
Then there was me; I was a timid, short, stack, clinging to anyone that would tolerate my presence. Scruffy brown hair, brown eyes, dirt-caked skin, and patchy, ill-fitting clothes repelled any potential friends. I was the antithesis of Margaret and Arthur. From the day my parents and I moved here, Arthur and Margaret topped the popularity list. Then there was everyone else, and beneath two feet of crap under that, there was me. I was bred by two unattractive under-achievers, and I was born an unattractive under-achiever.
My father took whatever meager work he could find; sortin’ through rubbish, shoveling shit, anything to make some coin. My mum would sew sacks or pick oakum; on a good day, she might bring home two pennies. Our residency with Aunt Bertha and Uncle Thomas existed on a knife-edge. It wasn’t a proper week without them threatening to turn us out onto the streets. By some miracle, boiling tempers would cool, and the ultimatum dropped. I never knew what magic softened their demeanor and permitted us to stay time and time again. Perhaps they value our kinship more than our worth and more than we deserved.
Arthur, Margaret, and I remained at the top of the cobblestone and chute suddenly all alone. The violet dome of the sky stretching out over us, adorned with tiny silver buttons, stood the sole item of beauty in our dingy corner of Nottingham. I stood there on the sidewalk, pondering my unusual family situation, marveling at the majesty of the heavens, soaking it all in. Interrupting my moment of awe and reverence was a crunch in my left ear and a burst of colors exploding before my eyes. Pain wrecking my left ear in a tidal wave. I glimpsed the stone, skipping down the sidewalk after its assault, making a soft landing in a snow mound. “D-d-damn it Arthur, you arsehole. What the h-h-h-ell was that for?” Blood oozed, and I covered the agitated nerves with a gloved hand.
“When I call you, you answer me, Ollie! Got it?” Arthur bent down for more ammunition. “Now the way I see it, yer not leaving till you reach the bottom of the hill. Oh, and if you call me an arsehole again and the next stone will break yer nose.”
“I d-d-didn’t even hear you c-c-calling me, you a-a-arrrsss.” His nostrils were flaring, and his eyes narrowing and locking on mine—the words seizing in my throat while lowering my eyes and cupping my wound, acknowledging my defeat.
“Oh hell, just let him go home if he wants, Arthur.” Margaret rolled her eyes. “We’ll be here all night if we wait for him to reach the bottom still standing. Plus, we have that other errand, and if I’m home late, I won’t get supper tonight.”
“Fine, I’ll d-d-do it. Just p-p-put down the b-b-bloody stones.” I sighed.
“Well, I’m shocked kid, when did you get a spine?” He smirked.
“D-d-do you see quitter t-t-t-tattooed on me forehead?” I asked.
“No, just loser. I’m surprised it’s not, though, yer always pissing off,” Arthur said.
Shoving my way through Arthur and Margaret, I approached the slope. I’ll make it to the bottom of this bloody hill on my feet, damn it. Swallowing the rock of fear building in my throat, I shoved off. Wanting to prove yourself to yer bully doesn’t magically improve one’s skills though. Halfway down the path, a loud CRACK pierced the still night air, and all went black.
“Let’s get out of here, he’s probably dead.” A boy’s voice said, echoing in my rattled ears.
“If yer afraid, then piss off!” A distorted feminine voice retorted.
“I’m not wearing cuffs ‘cause this fuckwit went ass over tits.” Arthur’s voice came into focus.
What a prick. A labored groan puffed from my lips as a lanky gent looked down on me from atop his ladder, where he opened the glass door and lit the street lamp. Small fireworks exploded all across my vision. My fingers found the golf ball growing out of the back of my head. “Damn slide,” I muttered.
“Shit Ollie. I thought you were halfway across the river Styx,” Arthur gloated. “Yer pretty useless alright, you can’t even slide a hill for God’s sake.”
“Oh shut it fatty, you can’t make it either.” Margaret elbowed his well-cushioned ribs and extended a hand to help me up.
“Call me a fatty again and…” he started.
“Or you’ll do what? My brothers would love to beat the crap out of you,” she said, snapping her head back to me. “Go home kid, before you end up at the coffin makers’ shop.”
“Y’all better be getting home. Jack Frost be comin’ soon and ye won’t escape with your life or yer soul,” the lamplighter croaked as he stepped down. “He freezes your body like a statue and devours your soul. Ya don’t go to heaven or hell, ya go into a black pit of nothingness, forever.”
“Really? Do you find that lot of bollocks at the bottom of yer pint? Dear God, I can smell the ale from here,” Margaret snapped. “You can’t even dress yerself, your buttons are all wonky and mismatch, yet you believe you are so wise you could save us from a boogie man? Sod off you stupid git.”
I thought I was the only one that could pick up the smell of a drunkard that far away. It’s my parents’ favorite choice of cologne and perfume.
“Fine, but it’s your death. If you hear a whistle on the wind, though, it’s already too late. He’s found you, and he won’t stop unless you make it in yer own homes.” The lamplighter hiccupped with a squeal as he mounted his bike, wobbling as he began pedaling away until the shadows swallowed him whole. A cold chill reached down to the marrow in my bones, causing my skin to break out in gooseflesh. It slipped through my last Christmas’s worn-out gloves with little effort. God help me, I need a newer pair that actually blocks some of the cold out. Based on the ale stench last time I saw my parents, a full belly and a new pair of gloves would be a stretch for Christmas this year. My legs began to find themselves again and I blinked, trying to put the world back in place.
“What is with everyone and this Jack Frost crap?” Arthur asked.
“People around here have always been superstitious, ya know that,” Margaret said, “with all the death and illness, but it has been ridiculous tonight.”
“Hey, do you hear that?” I asked, measuring the knot on my head with my palm.
“If it’s you whimpering like a pansy, then yea, it’s coming in loud and clear.” Arthur chuckled.
“No, that’s not it.” I kept my voice low, hoping not to lose it.
“Eh, your marbles are all scrambled who knows what you’re hearing.” He shrugged.
“Shhhhh,” I cut in, turning my ear and listening to the wind.
“I don’t hear anything kid,” Margaret rolled her eyes as she shook her head
“Just…” A faint whistle caressed our ears. Our eyes darted to each other before scanning the empty streets. It came again, a harmonic resonance that hit our bones like a tuning fork.
“Oh, bloody hell! It’s the drunkard on his bike having a bit of sport with us, that’s all,” Arthur grumbled.
“Then how come I hear it coming from the other direction, stupid?” Margaret asked with a tremble.
“That’s weird, I hear it behind us.” My breath left quivering lips in puffs of white clouds.
“Oh, come off it, you two. Quit pulling my leg, you two,” the big brute snapped.
“Maybe it is time to head home,” Margaret said as she turned to head up the street. On a normal night, she would look for any excuse to avoid her dank dwelling. The constricting two-room apartment on the first floor of her building offered her more than most of what the lower class received. She went to bed warm every night and, on most nights, had food to quell her growling stomach, but she was always treated more like a pet than a daughter. She could hear her brothers taunting her now.
“There’s only two rooms in the house, mom and dad share one, and we share, the three of us share the other. You just take up space on the couch and eat up food that the rest of us could split.” Her oldest brother, Tim, would prod her through a smirk.
“Yea, you’re not even our proper sister. Our parents took you out of the arms of a woman who died in the night leaning against our wall.” Her middle brother Bob piled on.
“Ain’t you ever noticed you don’t look like us?” Tim chimed back in.
“When are you gonna run away for good?” Walter, the youngest, would ask. She would stand there biting her tongue, willing the tears back and thus deny her brothers their victory. Tonight felt different, though. There was a pressure to it, a charge in the air making every hair stand on end. All she could think about now was the couch she slept on shoved into the corner of the living room, all her belongings kept in an old lettuce crate. Even though she envied her brothers for the bedroom they shared, it didn’t matter right now. Alarm bells were screaming in her brain, and the pit in her stomach filled her with a desire to curl up on her couch. Sparing no other words, she strode off.
A light crackling started all around us as the slush froze before our eyes. Breathing in stung like inhaling a thousand tiny chilled needles as my water-soaked gloves crystallized and stiffened. My heart leaped to my throat as, for just an instant, my frozen gloves resisted the movement of my fingers before finally giving way with a crunch of ice. The wave of cold dug its claws into my flesh, and I knew it was time to get the hell out of there. “W-w-w-wait up!” I hollered. Then we heard it.
“I’ll be nipping at yer nose…” Came a faint whisper on the wind. Terror lanced into our hearts, and each of our jaws fell open as we gawked in disbelief. The three of us stopped dead in our tracks and began scanning the darkness for the source of the voice.
“Ey, whoever is screwing with us…” Arthur’s lips quivered.
“I’ll be freezin’ off yer toes…” The approaching whisper gained in both clarity and weight.
“Yer not funny whoever you are.” Arthur’s trembling voice continued. “Whoever you are, you got a real dark sense of humor, using the ol’ Jack Frost bit to try scaring us. That shit may work on the littles, but we’re not frightened, you arse!” Arthur shouted into the emptiness, his eyes darting every which way.
“A shiver and some terror let you know Jack Frost is here.” The voice grew heavy and oppressive, bombarding us from all directions, and my knees buckled under its weight. Regaining my composure, I looked up to see two saucer dish-sized eyes streaming tears blur past me. It took another moment to register the whimpering. It took another moment to register that Arthur had bolted with all the terrified speed he could muster.
“If you try to turn around when you hear my icy sound…” unnatural mouths bloom in our shadows, singing in unison with the malevolent voice. “I’m sure to catch your stare, then you’ll know Jack Frost is HERE!”
Glowing blue irises opened on all three of our shadows, causing our joints to lock. Arthur slid to a halt, stuck in his full sprint position. Toothy grins that were much, much wider than they should be, expanding across the shadow forms. They began to peel up off the ground like sheets of paper. Stifled moans and sobbing came from Arthur up the road, and each two-dimensional figure craned its head unnaturally to find the source; the whines grew louder with each set of eyes that locked in on Arthur.
Attempting to move my legs proved to be a fool’s errand. Not wanting to draw the attention of these horrifying silhouettes, I relaxed into their grip, hoping an opportunity would yet present itself. “How truly lucky I must be this night to have three new friends to play with.” The voice sliced through the silence cleaner than a sickle through wheat. It wasn’t the heavy booming voice from earlier. There was something different about it now. A child-like, jovial anticipation. I could almost hear him dancing with excitement. A ripping sound issued from the base of our shadows, followed by a loud pop as each figure inflated and freed itself.
“Woah, ‘ey what the hell-” Arthur said an instant before the crunch of face meeting stone.
“Oly shit, kid. We can move again,” Margaret said, snapping her head in my direction.
“Damn it, Margaret, my name is Ollie. Ollie, for Christ’s sake. Stop calling me ‘kid’.”
Chuckling echoed off the surrounding houses, and the still night air shifted with startling speed. Moving as one, the three shadow creatures turned to look at each other. Their grins widened, showing far too many teeth. Guttural chuckling grew as wind and snow whirled around them in a towering vortex. As their heads elongated and joined with the wind, I could hear the chattering of my teeth under the crazed laughter. My fingers twitched and my leg muscles strained against my fear-frozen joints; every fiber of my being screamed for me to sprint the entire block and a half to my aunt and uncle’s house. Having already felt these dark creatures seize control of my body, the task seemed like a pipe dream; I may as well try running from here to London. I’d probably have the same chance of making it.
Staring into the torrent, I caught glimpses of the three separate beings melting into a single form. “Margaret, where… where can we hide?” I croaked, expecting her fear and survival instinct to overtake her cool-kid persona and provide a genuine answer. It didn’t.
“I don’t know, stupid,” she huffed. A flash of movement in my peripheral vision pulled my attention to my neighborhood bully running down the middle of the street, a dark streak forming down the inner legs of his trousers as he fled. Of the three of us, he was the only one who could see his front door from where we stood. “That arse is going to get himself killed.” The quivering lip and tremble in Margaret’s voice illuminated the fear hiding beyond her veil of bravery.
The hysterical chuckling mutated into an animalistic and primal cry that sent a wave of goose-flesh up my body and I knew right then this… thing standing before me would never let me see the light of day again. Without warning the twister exploded, all sounds fell away, and the snowflakes hung in mid-air. The figure that now stood before me chilled the very marrow of my bones.
What stood before me was the furthest thing from what I expected. A pair of grimy dirt-stained bare feet rested on the frozen cobblestones, each gnarled digit ending with jagged and blackened nails. Tracing up his bare shins, I could see several small wounds with trails of dried blood frozen to his skin. A pair of tattered trousers torn just below his knees, and given their condition, they would provide a little defense against the cold. His shirt bore more holes than a block of Swiss cheese, and the oversized vest passed down from an older relative. Near transparent flesh on his hands did little to mask their skeletal structure and could easily be mistaken for claws. His cadaverous pair of arms attached to the claw hands lead to his hollow-cheeked face. At the sight of that face, my blood ran cold. The visage of this boy matched my own. If not for the bloodthirsty look in his eyes and the impossibly wide smile beneath the tangled mop of hair atop his head, this boy could be my twin.
A soft click… click… click… broke through the trance he held me in, and I caught sight of Arthur still fleeing for all he was worth. “Leaving so soon, Arthur? Where are you going, big brother?” Jack asked, mimicking the voice of Arthur’s little brother. “Come and play, brother.”
A look of horror painted Arthur’s face as he whirled his head around so fast it threw off his balance. Looking back at the adolescent abomination, he was unaware of the curb that would be his demise; the step all but reached up and grabbed his foot. He fought hard to avoid toppling over, but it was too late. The bone splintering crack echoed down the street, chased quickly by cries of agony. Arthur’s shin snapped like a twig after colliding with the corner of the brick wall, bracketing the staircase to his front door. The bone jutted out of the fresh hole in his trousers as he wailed. In his twelve years of life, nothing had ever inflicted the level of pain bombarding his senses right now. Steam rose from his warm flesh into the frigid night air.
Gathering his wits, Arthur used his hands and good leg to shuffle to the base of the landing. Crawling like a wounded crab, he rose step by step, resting his butt on each plateau to reposition his hands. As I watched him reach the top step, Jack craned his head towards me with a series of cracks and pops that made my stomach turn. “Hold still. We shall play together soon.” Jack said in his borrowed voice, licking his lips and fixing his eyes on Margaret. Snapping his head around, locking in on his prey before launching forward so swiftly, the only thing I could see was the trail of ice he left in his wake.
In the blink of an eye, the frigid spirit was standing over his wounded prey. The neighborhood bully lay five feet from his front door, his whimpering filling the still night air. Cold luminous blue eyes now looking Arthur over while Jack quivered with excitement. “Honestly, did your mum and dad neglect to teach you proper etiquette? You don’t run off and leave your little brother. You may give your little brother the wrong impression, hell you may even make him think you don’t love him.” Tears began streaming down Arthur’s face.
“You’re not him, damn it. You’re not my little brother. YOU’RE NOT OSCAR!” Arthur screamed with every ounce of willpower he had left. An icy hand gripped the trembling twelve-year-old’s shoulder as snow flurries rose and encircle the pair. Raised his arm in a final feeble attempt at self-defense, the limb stiffened and froze in its newly raised position. Arthur’s face poised to shriek, but nothing came out of his gaping jaw. “It would appear the responsibility falls on me to teach you some manners,” Jack said through a toothy grin.
A forceful grip clapped around my wrist and yanked me from the patch of cobblestone. I was still too afraid to move from there. “Now is our only chance, stupid! We have to run for it, kid!” Margaret whispered fiercely. I looked from the hand clamped down on my arm up to her, streaks of brown ringlets flowing in the chilly night air. It took me a minute to realize my legs were keeping pace with the frantic girl pulling me along.
“Running won’t save you. I’ll come find for you once your mate here is good and frozen,” Jack chuckled, no longer using the borrowed voice of Arthur’s kid brother.
“T-t-this is the wrong way. We have to save Arthur,” I said, trying to make my voice sound tough. She stopped as we reached the top of the slope next to the beginning of the slide. A slap stung my right cheek.
“You feel like getting yourself killed. Be my guest kid, but I am getting my ass home. There is an alley just over here to the right that runs the full length of the street. It’s sure to have plenty of hiding places too. From the end of the alley I can almost see my door and your aunt lives three doors down. I’m gonna make it. You can head down the slide and go save Arthur if you feel like dying.” An excruciating cry drew my attention back to Arthur. Snow whirled around the landing to his front door. However, the sheen of ice coating his torso creeping outward in all directions made my decision all too clear. Jack looked back at me and aimed his palm my way. My eyes widened and I ducked so fast I nearly fell. An icy ripple whizzed over my head with a whistle and hit the street lamp, shattering the glass and glazing the metal frame in a thin layer of ice.
Margaret yanked me toward the alley with more strength than her slender female frame should have allowed. We ducked into the murky void of the alleyway. The thinly veiled crescent moon did little to illuminate the trail in front of us. Somewhere off in the distance, Arthur’s howling came to an abrupt stop. “Hey, kid, why the bloody hell can’t you pull your head out of your arse? I feel like I’m yanking along a bunch of dead weight,” she snapped at me.
“Look, Margaret, it’s not like I watch kids get frozen to death every day, so sod off!” I shouted back, with no hint of a stutter. Where had that come from?
“You’d be dead already if I left you alone. I’ve saved your skin twice now and you know it!” she said, folding her arms.
“Well then, I better keep an eye open so I don’t stumble over your guilt trip and die.” Her eyes narrowed as my words puffed into the night. Where is this brazen version of me coming from? Might as well keep pushing it. “Now if you’re quite done, we can creep quietly along the wall to the end of the alley and make our way back up the block to our houses.” I gestured as I laid out my plan.
“Fine, but so help me God I’m going to kick your ass if you get us killed.” Her hair whipped around as she snapped her head and marched off.
“Stick to the shadows and maybe he’ll have trouble tracking us down,” I muttered, half hoping she wouldn’t hear and would get herself caught.
“Of course I will, you twit,” she grumbled back.
“I said hunt. He’s on the hunt,” I said, louder than intended. I was grateful she wasn’t Jack. The look she shot at me over her shoulder would have frozen me in place for sure.
“I’m quite sure. You braying ass.” Her retort came just above a whisper. A whistle on the air snapped both of our heads skyward, scanning for any trace of Jack. We refocused on the task at hand and inched our way down the dank hallway. As I stepped around the catch pail for one of the building waste pipes, a fresh wet plop hit the overfull bucket and ran off the mound of human excrement. It hit the ground just before my shoe, sending my foot sliding into the bucket, knocking it over with a metallic ring that echoed like a church bell. Decaying fecal matter spilled out everywhere. The scent filled our nostrils. I lept away from the bucket, trying desperately to create some distance between myself and the beacon drawing the frigid fiend to us. Jack’s whistling came faster and louder as the corner of the alley stood just paces away.
“I’m getting close. I can feel it.” His voice sounded nearly on top of the alleyway opening. A whoosh of cold air came blasting from behind me. I spun around to see if he was there but found nothing. I turned around to find Margaret missing. A pair of specters flashed overhead, and I jumped behind a waste bin. Slowly, I raised my head, hoping I wouldn’t reveal my position. My eyes scanned up the building where I found two of Jack’s shadowy forms perched on the rooftops like gargoyles—twisting their heads sideways, each looking down at me, salivating, as they smiled. “We found you,” they said, giggling in unison.
I swallowed the stone in my throat, my eyes darting back and forth between the two reapers standing over me and down the alley to any viable escape route. “How does he know to hide in the shadows, Jack?” The figures spoke in unison. “I don’t know, Jack.” They answered each other. I cast my gaze on the road beneath me and found myself and my shadow cloaked by the building I braced against. What do they mean? Can they see me? My expression must have made my thoughts very clear since they answered my questions right away.
“Of course we can see you, we have eyes, you dumbarse. We also felt your warmth against our gust of wind. However, we are unable to attach to you if you don’t cast a shadow and we–don’t–like–THAT!” The voices morphed from child-like innocence into a sinister hiss.
The soft click click click of footsteps echoed off the walls behind me as the third shade approached from behind me. His hands tucked where pockets should be, but in the uniform tone of darkness, I could make no distinction. He strode down the middle of the alley as though it was a whimsical walk through a park. “Why do you flee like a rodent from the light?” The question hung in the air. I made no sudden movements, not knowing if it was a ploy to reveal my position. “Oh come now, Ollie. We can have a chat, can’t we?” My eyes went wide in surprise, and my jaw fell slack. How did he know my name?
“Watching you turn the toughest kid in the neighborhood into an ice sculpture seems like a fair reason, wouldn’t you agree?” My lower lip trembled. Half of me was afraid as every alarm bell and whistle inside me was sounding, but the other half was curious. Goose-flesh rippled across my body as I could feel the warmth leaving the surrounding area.
“Fair point, but he was a prick, was he not?”
“Perhaps, but he wasn’t always that way. The death of his brother made him like that,” I said as I stood slowly from my curled posture.
“Or maybe me killing his brother brought his true personality to light. Gave him the excuse to shrug off the cloak and become who he was on the inside. Think about it, did he even once try to help you or the girl you were with?” He asked, finally coming to a stop in front of me. The other two shadows still stood over me, one watching like snakes coiled and ready to strike. The other scanning the streets for Margaret with jittery, frantic movements.
“You killed his brother? Why would you do that?” I sidestepped towards the street slowly.
“It is quite simple. He took his brother’s love for granted, so I took it from him. I took it to make him realize the gift he had squandered.” The only visible feature was his much too wide smile full of crooked yellowing teeth. I didn’t have to see the smile on his face to know he was telling the truth. The giddy tone in his voice said it all.
“You didn’t kill him. He fell through the ice of the river just over yonder,” I said, hoping to distract him from me taking another step.
“I am aware of this.” His grin somehow widening. “I am the one who broke the ice. It annoyed Arthur that his brother tried to tag along with him to the woods. He headed out there to meet your little girlfriend, who has also seemed to run off on you.” He took a step.
“She is not my girlfriend.” I huffed back.
“Clearly. She doesn’t even call you by name. She just calls you ‘kid’. Well, Arthur told his kid brother to wait for him at the river and left him there, alone and cold. I attached myself to him through his shadow, as I did with you. Struggling to yell and scream for his big brother. He thought his hero would come to his rescue, so I indulged him. Oscar cried out to the forest, begging for his brother to save him, and you know what happened? Nothing, absolutely nothing. His hero never came. He was too busy kissing a whore.”
“Well, did it ever occur to you they didn’t hear him?” I proposed.
Pointing to one of the shadowy minions crouching on the roof, he continued. “I dispatched him into the woods to find Arthur. He was hiding right next to them. He watched their faces as the boy’s cries reached them. Arthur told her he had to go see what his stupid little brother had done. She convinced him he was fine, probably a little scared of being alone but still fine.”
“He turned to walk away,” the huddled goblins on the roof said in harmony. “She told him if he stayed he could grope her chest,” the twin voices continued. “Then he turned back to the girl and ignored the last cries for help from his brother Oscar. He traded the life of his kinsman to grab a small lump of flesh.”
“Ey, they aren’t that small, you jerk!” Margaret’s voice broke the silence and snapped all three shadowy heads to the opening to the street. “Oh, shit!” She mumbled and began running for home. The two golems looked down at the figure standing before me. He nodded, and they leaped off the roof after her.
“After a couple of minutes of yelling, I put the child out of his misery and broke the ice, plunging him into the frigid pond below. He gave a valiant effort for his scrawny frame and the scant amount of meat on his bones. When Arthur decided to give a shit and investigate the absence of the cries for help, he found his brother clinging to the ice ledge. The wailing and anguish from the depths of Arthur’s soul as he pulled the corpse from the water was a delicacy I don’t often get to partake of.” The sadistic grin constructed of yellowing pitted teeth in the darkened void’s face hung in the air like a decaying moon and etched itself in my memory forever.
“Why?” White hot rage rose in me and tears rolled down my cheeks. Dropping free off my chin, the droplets freezing solid before shattering on the impact. He snickered in my face. “Why not just kill Arthur and Margret for being arseholes and leave innocent little Oscar alone?” The words slithering through the gaps in my clenched teeth. I balled my fists up so tight they went numb. I wanted to snatch that smile out of the air and break it in two.
“That should be obvious. No one is innocent! Humans never truly give a damn about each other unless it betters their situation. My mum and dad never gave two shits about me after she was born. My little sister Belle became the center of their affections the second she arrived. They cast me to the side like a mongrel, left to pick at the scraps of their love. They would shower Belle with praise and lavish gifts of clothes and toys. My father would box my ears and beat me with a strap for asking for a proper portion of food, a warmer blanket, or any equal treatment at all.” Though there were no features but the floating mouth, I could see the pain and anger. I relaxed my fists as I realized they were tingling, but kept my guard up.
“Years passed in this way. I watched perfect little Belle get doted upon while I got flogged and forgotten. Belle bloomed radiantly while I wilted from being stifled and smothered, eating and sleeping in a dank coat closet with a single tattered wool blanket. I figured out how to bring them to their senses and prove once and for all that they really loved me. I would run away. I fled into the dark, snowy night. After so many nights in that dreary coatroom, it was so invigorating to step out into an entire world shaded in darkness, I felt at home in it.” His wild, toothy grin returned as the memory played out in his mind.
“My plan was simple. It was quite apparent to me they took me for granted and I sought to enlighten them in this fact. For three days, I scraped by and put whatever food I could find into the empty well that was my stomach, but it barely made a dent in my hunger. Every night I waited for someone to come looking for me or the reaper to take me. I huddled in the very corner you are in, teeth chattering to the edge of breaking and cursing my family, cursing my luck. Hell, even cursing God for pushing me to this.” Jack paced back and forth.
“The cold bit deep into my flesh that first night. Once the thrill of striking out and committing to my plan wore off and reality set in, the cold was unrelenting. I didn’t believe I would survive the long, chilly night. I must have passed out since the warmth of daylight breaking over my little alley woke me. A mound of snow covered me completely. I couldn’t tell if I was numb or just acclimated, but there was no shivering anymore. No fingers turned blue or pain in my arms or legs. I really had gotten quite lucky to have pulled through the first night so well.” I stared quizzically at this three-dimensional shadow, telling me its life story when it was trying to kill me. Jack just continued with the story.
“I scrounged what I could for the second day and even searched the bins looking for scraps, not sure why I still wanted to live anymore. The sun felt quite warm that day, and I took refuge in the shadows. After wandering around all day, I returned to this spot. However, a snow mound piled up in the corner, so I used it as a pillow. As the sun sank into the abyss, the winds rose, howling all night. The second night felt colder and reached deeper into me. Winter itself was coursing through my bones. I held on to all the nights spent in that closet, steeling my mind. Gripping my rage as tight as possible. I knew right then that the only thing driving me forward was to return home and see the panic, chaos, and fear my absence had caused. I awoke the morning of my third day out on the streets and the sun’s rays stung like a hornet. My body was acclimating to the cold so well that the light and warmth hurt. Or at least that was the assumption I made. From the safety of the alleyway, I begged for food and drink. Hell, even table scraps would have been welcome. As people often do, they strolled right by me as though I didn’t exist. For all my yelling and hollering for help all day, I never got so much as a glance. At the end of the third day, with the sun safely tucked away, I crept up to the landing to find my ‘family’ enjoying supper, laughing, and making merry. They weren’t searching for me, hell they weren’t even missing me.” The smile had faded and Jack’s fragile nucleus stood exposed in front of me.
I stood before this powerful yet delicate entity, completely torn. The treatment he endured at such a young age was heart-wrenching and my soul ached for him. “As terrible as that is, and believe me, it makes me sick to my stomach. It doesn’t justify killing a small boy who idolized his idiot older brother. Oscar never wronged you and gave no provocation for you to act in the manner you did to him” My fists slacked only the slightest amount confused by my conflicted emotions of sorrow and anger at him. “Your anger rests with your family. Seek them out and perhaps you can reconcile with them and find peace in the afterlife.” It took only seconds to realize this plea wasn’t possible.
A pair of luminescent eyes surfaced from the depths of the shadowy face, and his teeth twisted into a maniacal grin. “Oh, I reconciled my grievances with them. I waited till all was sufficiently dark and everyone in the house was fast asleep. I broke off a long, sharp icicle and crept up to my parent’s room. I stood in the doorway astonished to find Belle laying between my parents, their hands stacked on top of one another resting on her chest. Each with a happy, carefree expression on each of their face, it made me sick. I gripped the icy dagger in my hand tighter, the cold empty feeling in my soul mirroring that of the ice. I plunged the spike through both of their hands and straight into her heart.” His eyes shimmered with glee as he giggled, recounting the details of the night he murdered his family.
I stood before Jack, numb, not from the cold but rather the lack of humanity in the creature he had become. Pure joy radiated off of him as the shadowy arm made repeated stabbing motions in the air. I stood there mulling over whether I could stab another person, let alone my parents or sibling, if I ever had one, and couldn’t fathom going through with it. Despite the horrible treatment, he could have run away and started afresh in a new town with a new name. A parent’s approval and love are king in a child’s heart and they rule with an iron fist, I thought knowing how equally hard it would be to hate my parents for their actions and how their rehabilitation and love would be my most cherished treasure if it ever occurred. Snapping out of my own thoughts, I honed back in on his story.
“I delighted in the symphony of cries filling the room. Shock, panic, pain, and sorrow made for such beautiful instruments, all supporting the lead instrument of revenge. My concerto was a masterpiece.” His eyes locked in on mine again and he walked toward me, waves of frigid air rippling off of him. “I pulled the icicle out and drove it into my father’s heart next. He stared down in disbelief and grabbed my wrist with his good hand, screaming for my mother to run. Her eyes flashed at him, then back at me. Squeezing Belle’s hand one last time, she rolled off the bed in her blood-stained white nightgown and made a run for it. It enraged me she believed she could free herself from the retribution she clearly deserved. She nearly got away, too.” The chill in the air intensified with each step he took.
His grin grew ever wider and threatened to encircle his face if it continued to expand. The pipe in my hand had gone limp while being distracted by the tale. I clamped down on my weapon and readied myself for a potential strike from Jack. He glanced down at my makeshift weapon, paused for only a moment and continued toward me as though I was holding a pillow.
“However, fate was on my side. As she turned to take one last look at my father before stepping out the door, I reached for her and an icicle shot free of my palm and skewered her throat, pinning her to the wall with a loud thud and one final abbreviated scream. We both looked incredulous as she attempted to gasp once or twice, but the chilly dagger blocked her airway. She reached up to remove the icicle, but as her hands landed on it, she slumped forward with eyes bulging from their sockets. My father’s heart surrendered to the icy spike plunged through it, and I peeled my hand free of my murderous device. I had to rip his frozen hand from my wrist. I looked around the room at my gory magnum opus. Frost covered everything on the bed, including my sister’s body. Any blood on the sheets or clothing had turned to ice. Waves of power pulsed within me, and my veins felt like they had ice water rushing through them. I bid the horrific monsters that were my family fair well and left that den of misery. Stepping outside feeling so incredible that night, I replayed the icicle shooting out of my hand and was curious as to how I did it. My new power felt intertwined with the winter cold, the snow and ice. It felt wonderful to have been reborn. The nights I spent curled up in this dark alley hating my family had changed me; my soul became so dark and cold that I became part of winter itself. I live off of pain, fear, and torment but the best part is, I love it!”
For a moment, only silence and tension, but I found my voice and courage. “You’re not alive Jack,” I said, low but stern.
“What are you talking about? Of course I am,” he retorted with his signature too-wide grin.
“I don’t think you are. I think you died under the snow mound the first night, but the anger and hatred you died with in your heart turned you into this malevolent spirit. How else do you explain all the things you can do? No human alive can turn into a shadow person and freeze things with a touch. Why do you think the sun and warmth hurt you during the day?” I gave him a moment to digest this.
“They were just scorching-hot days,” he shot back in a snarky tone.
“Jack, you’re dead. It horrified your parents being killed by some shadowy ghost or demon. They had no idea it was you.”
No. No, no! NO! YOU’RE WRONG!” He shouted at me.
A scream broke through the air, and Jack snapped his head toward the sound. Seeing my chance, I used the moment of distraction. I gripped a broken pipe and swung it over my head and brought it down with all the force I could muster. Using his glowing eyes for a target, I lopped off the right half of his head. I thought the blow would pass right through the shadow, but I connected with something, though I wasn’t sure what exactly. The best way I can describe it is like hitting a snowball with a stick, it’s not definitive, but you know you hit something. A trio of gut-wrenching cries filled the night sky, and I fled around the corner, headed toward the scream.
Sprinting down the street, pipe still clutched in my hand, clinging to the shadows to keep Jack’s shadow figures from anchoring to me. The moonlit cobblestone street where Arthur had the scramble for his life seemed miles across. The next protective patch of shadows lay on the other side, and Margaret was pinned down by the hunter shadows a few paces away. Should I save her? She has most of the blame for the death of Oscar. She saved me though, twice. Fine, I’ll grab her and duck into the shadows. But after that, she is on her own.
I made a mad dash across the road and straight for her. The shadows mirrored each other in anguish with their hands on the sides of their heads, screaming. I extended my arms to pull her free of her paralyzed state. Grabbing her by the elbow, I pulled her with me, and as her feet began moving, a terrible ripping sound accompanied it. Looking back as we ran, I saw the shadows fall flat on their butts. The figure I had been talking to came around the corner and cleared the same distance in half the time. He reached out for Margret’s shadow, half of his deformed shadowy head still missing. I yanked at her wrist and had just managed to get her into the shade of the buildings before he grabbed her.
“Do you truly believe you can escape?” Jack’s mouth ran vertically along the reforming edge of his head. The wound looked like a mass of small black spiders crawling over each other and layering themselves on top of one another to build up his head. The repair process looked to be arduous and slow. Hundreds of glossy black worms seemed to writhe their slimy bodies just below the skin or whatever he has. A sploosh of liquid hit the street as Margret’s stomach ejected its contents at this sight.
“You can’t latch on to us right now, and I presume you cannot join until you are whole again. Is that a fair assumption?” I sneered. Gritting the zipper of teeth that ran down the side of his face, he mumbled something. The hunched-over girl spat out the remnants of vomit and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
“What now, jackass? He is right, you know. We have to make it over one more intersection and halfway down the street, which are both completely illuminated by the moon, you dunce,” she scoffed.
“Well, you stay here and wait to die because I don’t feel like finding out what Jack is doing that for,” I said, pointing at him. Jack’s head rolled back. The chanting became more pronounced, but none of it made sense. “I’ve never heard an incantation before, but that’s what one would sound like to me.” I yelled, trying to be heard over the triad of dark voices. Margaret simply nodded and waited for me to make the next move.
I turned up the street to make a final sprint for home when I noticed rather large snowflakes began falling. Each was the size of a tea saucer and fell so gracefully. I had never beheld such a sight in my life; each had an intricate crystalline pattern unique to the flake. When they reached the ground, dead bodies sprung up from the spot, with a chain fastened to one ankle. A mixture of male and female bodies floated in the air with vacant white eyes, pale blue skin, and drab clothing. There were young and old and everything in between floating here, each with terror etched into the face. The creatures swayed as though they were beneath the surface of the ocean and moving with the ebb and flow of the waves. Every single listless pair of eyes stared at me, waiting for my next move.
A legion of voices spoke as one, “There is no escape.” I jumped back and almost lost my footing on a patch of ice behind me. “We have all met our demise at the hands of Jack Frost. Abandon hope all ye located here.” The timing and flat monotone cadence chilled the very marrow of my bones. I could feel my jugular vein pulsating faster than ever. “I was playing hide and go fetch when Jack grabbed me by the ankle and began freezing me,” a small girl in pigtails with chunks of flesh missing from her hands and face mused as she floated just in front of me.
“Jack Frost grabbed me right after I left a pub. I stumbled across the street and tripped on the gutter curb. He grabbed me by the neck and started dragging me into an alley,” said a strapping young man of about seventeen or eighteen dressed in a fine charcoal gray suit that looked like a bear had attacked him in it. Indents of finger remained around his throat from where he had been grabbed. A dozen more spoke at once, each reciting the moment of their death with little to no emotion. As they talked, more and more bodies would pop up and begin speaking straight away. Soon there were four dozen, then a hundred, then two hundred until all were relaying their brutal deaths in a loud tangled racket.
I crept along the wall, hoping these apparitions were just that and could not touch me. “His hand felt like the bite of a python with hundreds of teeth digging into my flesh, all the floating spirits said in unison now. The ice creeps over you like a python’s mouth, the teeth creep over you, meticulously inching forward and driving through your skin like hundreds of red hot sewing needles.” My mind was fracturing as I listened to the harmonious horror coming from each mangled maw. “Searing pain filled our last moments as the ice devoured our body and soul,” the floating mob said.
“You can sit here on your fat bum if you would like, but I’ll be leaving you here,” I said, glancing over at Margaret.
“Are you daft? What kind of madness makes you believe I am staying here?” She scowled as she folded her arms. I rolled my eyes and looked for the most direct route to the other side of the street and hoped to God that the floating corpses wouldn’t attack as we ran past them. The corpse army began to chant. Thousands of white, glowing eyes focused directly on us.
“The creeping ice will devour yours, too. It will devour yours TOO. IT WILL DEVOUR YOURS TOO!” As they reached a deafening crescendo, the lamented carcasses began flailing around and writhing in agony. A cacophony of wailing bludgeoned our senses like a sledgehammer. I could feel the air vibrating, prickling my skin in waves of goose-flesh. I opened one clenched eye and pointed myself in the right direction.
“Stay behind me!” I turned and shouted, but the meager sound of my voice barely approached a whisper compared to what surrounded us. Thankfully, Margaret nodded and grasped the back of my coat in her hand. I craned my head forward to see Jack leering at me and licking the front of his teeth with a violet shadow tongue. I gripped the pipe with all the strength my scrawny arms could muster. Every ounce of willpower I had went into my swing and nearly took me off my feet. He ducked, not wanting to lose his head a second time. It brought me great joy to see the grotesque smile melt in disgust in quick order.
When the pipe met with his left knee, giving the snowball-crushing feeling, I knew this was our only opportunity. His lower leg dissolved into thin air and he fell, clutching his thigh. I ran like a horse from the master’s whip, slipping past the chained spirits as quick as I could.
“GET THEM!” Jack shouted in a malevolent and hate-filled tone. An old man swiped at us and I swung the pipe at and shattered his chain. Instead of attacking me, he rose towards Heaven, fleeing his eternal torment with all haste. He shot me a wink and a smile before he faded out of sight. I began shattering every shackle I could hit in stride. One by one, the freed souls rose in the air while others just beyond my reach begged to be freed as well. Guilt filled my stomach with a nauseating churning and I began reaching for more and more people.
“What in the bloody hell are you doing?” Margaret yanked at my coat.
“What?” I said, confused.
“If you keep this up, we are going to join them. Forget them and run, damn it!” I stopped and yanked her hand free of my coat. She looked bewildered like she was watching a squirrel juggle acorns and didn’t know what to make of it.
“Are you that big of a bitch that you don’t give two shits about anyone but yourself?” Her face flushed crimson and her jaw went slack.
“How dare you? Who do you think you are, kid?” She moved to slap me, but a ragged translucent hand caught her wrist.
“Ollie, my name is Ollie, damn it! I know I’ve told it to you and I know you know it. I have lived three houses down from you for two years.” Crying out as frost began forming around the apparition’s grasp, the hand was smaller than hers. The apparition clamped down like a vice. The chain anchoring the specter to the street jingled musically as Margaret thrashed and struggled to break the grip confining her.
“Help me, Ollie! Please get me home and I’ll give you whatever you want. Please, I just want to be home with my mum and dad.” Tears streamed down her face, and genuine terror filled her lucent sapphire eyes.
“Will you let him grab your tits if he can free you?” a child’s voice cut in. Margaret looked back, mortified. The small hand locked on her wrist belonged to Oscar. “Ollie, I don’t want to hurt you, so please don’t make me. Just let me deal with this guttersnipe, and we will help you kill Jack.” The tips of her fingers turned black while we discussed her future, or the lack thereof.
“Please, I just want to get home to my couch in the corner, I don’t want to die!” Margaret whimpered and pleaded for her life as the frostbite climbing up her fingers had almost reached her palm.
“You think I was ready to die?” Oscar screeched in his young, high-pitched voice. “I begged for my brother’s help, and you made him told him to ignore me! You persuaded him to choose some dumb girl over his blood. Suffering as one of Jack’s victims is too good for the likes of you; I am going to send you to hell to die a thousand slow, agonizing deaths in a thousand different ways.” The temperature around Oscar was dropping quickly, the dark wave of dying flesh spread faster, even if I stopped him, she would be getting measured for a coffin in the morning.
“Oscar, this isn’t…” I started taking a step towards him.
“Shut it, Ollie!” He pushed me away with his free hand, and for a split second, all of his pain and fear shot through me like a bolt of lightning. “She stole my brother from me, and she let me freeze to death in a pond. She deserves this.” Oscar lurched at her neck, mouth wide to ensure his bite got the most flesh possible. His teeth sank in deep, and her blood-curdling scream pierced my ears and halted everything at that moment. We were at the center of the universe at that moment; he wrapped his arms and legs around her, pulling her against him. Apparitions nearby realized the situation and reached for Margaret, trying to find living flesh to warm their frigid souls.
Violent, uncontrollable shivers seized her, and her eyes darted whenever a new hand grabbed hold of her. “Why aren’t you saving me, kid?” she asked through chattering teeth. Tears welled up and froze on her pale cheek before they could fall.
“I think it takes a very cold person to ignore a child’s cries for help. Not only did you disregard Oscar’s begging for his life, but you convinced Arthur too as well. I could forgive the crap way you have treated me but maybe now you understand what he went through and just what you did that day.” It is too late to save her now. This stain will be on me and my soul, but I think I can live with that. I lowered my head and turned my back to her, waiting for the gnashing of teeth and clawing sounds to stop.
“Ollie…” Oscar’s voice was light and bouncy. I turned to see so many hues of red, pink, and crimson splotched all over his face, hands, and the ground where Margaret had just been standing. I strained not to show fear or disgust, worrying that he may feel that I was judging him and turn on me next.
“Yes, Oscar?” I asked, painting a smile on my face.
“We are ready to help you kill Jack. We are the source of his power, free as many of us as possible, and we will enter you and become your power. In the interest of full honesty, it is going to hurt like bloody hell.” Looking back across the street, I spied the familiar snowy vortex and deduced that Jack was nearly finished pulling the three shadow selves together. He would have his physical body soon, so I ran.
Swinging the pipe frantically, shattering every chain I could reach, trying to gain as many allies as I could. Thudding from my panicking heart in my chest began increasing in both pace and intensity. Half expecting the spirits would all flee rather than face the monster that killed them and the whole thing to be a rouse to set them free, they pleasantly surprised me, they didn’t—each tormented soul floating there, with glossy-eyed vacant expressions as though they remained shackled to the earth.
The vortex around Jack began creating a vacuum, sucking in the souls nearest to him. The catatonic wraith’s eyes grew wide with terror and recognition. Skeletal feet clambering over the faces of other apparitions desperate to flee. Toes plunged into eye sockets, and eyeballs burst in wet pops. Boney claw-like hands raking at legs and backs, tearing through skin like shears through ribbon. Screaming bursting from mouths as those closest reached for any anchor they could find to damn someone else and get further from their tormentor. It was as though each was reliving their deaths and the struggle as it had been before was mostly in vain. Wailing and shrieking combining with gale-force winds to create a force of nature so frightening I pissed down my pant leg.
The torrent of snow blew apart, and Jack stood there in the guise of an eleven-year-old boy. Every fiber of my being tingling, and I felt as though I was standing before a giant waiting to be crushed in one blow. His eyes glowed like a cat in a dark alley; beautiful and frightening cerulean crescents threatened to paralyze me where I stood.
A feral grin spread wildly across his face, drool dripping down over his quivering lip. He stood slouched forward, head cocked sideways, arms dangling from their socket’s limp. His feet shuffled towards me, and the lifeless arms swung like pendulums with each labored step. He accelerated like a locomotive, struggling to get started, but once he gained momentum and traction, stopping him was going to take a massive force. His eyes locked on mine like the great golden eagles that patrol the forests and grasslands beyond the town limits. Like a hare, I looked for the quickest den of safety, but I could find none. He’s going to kill me. I should run…I SHOULD RUN. My thoughts ran on a loop over and over in my mind. He covered the vast distance between us in huge chunks, but everything appeared to be moving as if time had slowed somehow.
Glancing over at Oscar and the other ghosts, I believed they must have cold feet about the potential of facing their executioner. This would be my end, and it would be justice for letting Margaret get devoured. From ten feet away, he leaped at me, arms out and finger ready to hook into my flesh. His eyes were wide and mouth wide and ready. He was the predator and I the prey. This was the way of nature and he, a force of nature, was the top of the ladder. I closed my eyes and breathed in my last breath, hoping it would end quickly.
A bitter cold rush of air slammed against me, knocking the wind from my lungs. I kept my eyes clenched but heaved in my next breath and felt frigid, swirling nothingness pour into me. Sadness, despair, loneliness, and an intense, unrelenting fear; there was so much fear. It was like funneling a raging waterfall into my open mouth. My heart broke, over and over it broke. It overcame me with raw emotion, and felt I could cry enough to fill the English Channel. I noticed growling and howling somewhere off in the distance. Curiosity beckoned me to look, and wary of what awaited me, I opened my eyes to find myself encircled by my snowy vortex. Jack’s eyes never left my face as he paced back and forth outside of the swirling shield, clawing and probing for any weakness to get in. The tormented souls broke away from the vortex and flew straight into my open maw.
Each recent addition sent a ripple through my soul, and I experienced every terrible event of their life compressed into seconds before the next entered me. I wasn’t sure which was going to shatter first; my mind or my body. Each one felt like it was in a full sprint trying to out-pace the other. I can only describe the sensation as though I was holding on to a pair of red-hot pokers and unable to release them. As I was about to give in to the pain, the last half dozen bolted into me simultaneously, and I felt my eyes roll back in the sockets they sat in. The concussive force from all that energy at once sent a shock-wave out in all directions, blowing Jack off his feet.
Jack rebounded to his feet with amazing quickness and took a moment to examine the figure that stood before him. My eyes slid back to their normal location and slowly gained focus. “It won’t be enough, you know? The poultry few inside you can’t hope to match me, mate,” Jack said with a sneer.
“I wouldn’t bet my trousers on it, Jack,” the voices inside me spoke as one. My legs moved forward, and quickly I realized I was not the director of these movements. ‘Ey Oscar, what in the bloody hell is going on? Nothing came from my lips when I spoke, it just echoed like being in a great empty hall. Why can’t I control my body? A wall of faces appeared in front of me wherever I resided inside myself. They were sewn together like some tattered quilt of sorrow, each owning a set of hollow white eyes.
Sorry to have deceived you, Ollie, but we needed your vessel. Each hideous pair of blue frozen lips moved in time with each other. We have seized control of your body and shall either destroy Jack, or you will become one of us if we cannot. Just stay out of the way, Ollie, there is nothing you can do to help. Just like that, the candles illuminating the face wall vanished, and they plunged me into darkness.
I wandered into the darkness, looking for a way to reclaim control of my body. As I drifted, my senses picked up every step, every punch given and taken, the sensation akin to being a blindfolded puppet and the marionette pulling the strings from the inside. I strode forward, meter by meter, unable to confirm I was even heading in the correct direction. When I got tired of walking and the toll of the battle wore on me, I halted my incessant trekking. Lifting my shirt and taking inventory of the fresh bruising, scratches, and bloody gashes, I decided this might be a good place to take a seat. Unhinging my knees, my fanny fell faster than I had planned and hit the ground with a meaty thud. A numbing burn filled my airway, pulling in deep gulps of air while my heart galloped along in quick step.
Something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong. I cannot just sit here waiting to freeze to death like Arthur or get devoured like Margaret. Closing my eyes, I focused on seeing through my bodily eyes. The wall of invaders stood between me and my sight. Straining to peek through any sliver or crack possible without alerting them to my presence, but a soft glow was all that existed beyond my captors. Pain lanced through my neck in waves, and I could see the soft glow getting further away. Struggling to maintain the ground I had gained, I dug my feet and hands into the hard black slab I stood upon. The black void around me offered little aid, and I could feel my neck freezing in a powerful grip.
Am I about to die as a passenger in my own body? The thought astounded me. This is MY bloody body, damn it! Standing before me was the viral infestation of souls that had oppressed me. “Listen up,” I shouted. “You all are bloody awful at this, and you are getting my ass kicked, so you have two options. One, lend me your power and help me try to beat Jack. Two, get the hell out of me. My name is Oliver, and this is my body!”
“Ollie…” Oscar steps forward.
“No, no more, Ollie. No more quiet kid that drifts through life and allows everyone to shit on him. My name is Oliver, you will listen or you will leave.” There was a moment of hesitation by the spirits as they looked at each other, but they finally cleared a path. All at once, I was back in control of my body and came to with Jack’s hands wrapped around my neck, freezing me as agonizingly slow as he could. A crazed lunatic sat perched in his eyes. There would be no redemption story for Jack, no turning him back to a time before his family gave up on loving him.
“Our power is yours to use,” a voice reverberated from the end of some tunnel in my mind. I closed my eyes with the singular thought of making an icicle in my hand.
“Accepting your fate? Ready to become part of my collection and fuel my powers?” the frozen soul that had once been just a human child spoke with a perverse fiendish countenance. The ice creeping across my skin dumped a flurry of emotions straight into my brain. Loneliness, betrayal, vengeance, and rage, to name a few. But I had nothing to feel betrayed or vengeful about. My parents were shite for sure, but I never felt as though I needed to get revenge on them for just being buggers. The ice had spread to my shoulders and my fingers tingled.
“These feelings aren’t yours, they are his,” the inner voice of me spoke up once again. You can put emotions into the ice? Hurling that thought at them with full force. “Of course you can. Why do you think you felt all of our pain and fear when we entered you? Water has memory and it can store memory as well,” they retorted as though I were a simpleton.
I redoubled my efforts, flooding my body with every ounce of love and acceptance I could muster. Accepting my parents despite their many shortcomings, loving my aunt and uncle for giving me a place to come home to, and understanding how challenging it must be. I pour my love out for every bully and neighborhood tough who picked on me, put me in trash cans, and ridiculed me with steadfast resolve; they toughened me and strengthened me for this moment without knowing it, and for that, I am grateful. I now know the reason for the lot life dealt to me. It was to put an end to this boogie man in front of me.
A wave rippled down my arm and a solid icicle exploded into my right hand out of thin air. A faint iridescent shimmer passed through it, sending a chill up my arm. I looked into the demonically contorted face and saw it was void of compassion, love, and all traces of humanity. It was at that moment that I realized all of those traits are what separate us. Without them, we are nothing more than a savage, snarling beast. We become driven by trivial desires like revenge or rage, trying to inflict the very pain we feel on others who have never wronged us. The ice crept further down my arms, quickly approaching my elbow; it had to be done and right quick.
Summoning every scrap of willpower I had left, I gripped the icicle with both hands and drove it into the center of his abdomen. A bestial cry leapt out of his throat, and after whipping his back in pain, he looked down to see the ice shard driven into him. A vacuous sucking sensation swirled inside my arm through the dagger. Everything I was feeling was being injected into Jack. He clawed at his wound and then at his face. The amount of love and acceptance flooding him threatened to destroy his psyche. Panic erased the look of superiority that had been there since he had arrived. He flexed his power and pushed everything into overdrive; the ice coating my body increased its speed despite my best efforts to slow it. Unless he cracked from the emotional assault bombarding him, I would be frozen solid within the next minute or two.
Using my hands and arms was no longer possible. Locked in place like an ice sculpture from the waist up. My siege, however, continued, surging like a river overflowing its banks, and yet I was still losing ground. A large shiver rolled up my ice-coated spine when my twig and berries froze over, and despite feeling it, my body remained motionless. There was no time, no time at all. He would soon overtake me and I would be dead. The ice was spreading up my chest to my neck and it looked like the top of my head and toes would finish freezing at the same time.
My heart pounded against the frozen cage around and my lungs burned with frostbite. I would be an apparition to Jack, never free or able to feel love or pleasure again. Such a hell to endure for any soul would be terrible, but we were just kids, damn it; kids who were fresh in the ways of life. We didn’t get enough time to laugh, cry, fight, shit; we didn’t even get to grow old enough to have a first love. The ice approached the bottom of my jaw and a small crystal flower bloomed in my throat. Wait, that’s it…
“I LOVE YOU, JACK!” I screamed with every fiber of my being. Crunching sounds informed me that the ice shell that had been coating my body fissured in several small places. “I love you, Jack, I love you so much!” I yelled over and over and over, my voice growing horse from the action. Jack began howling like a wolf with a paw caught in a bear trap. He tore his hands away from me and planted his palms fast and firm against his ears. Still skewered on the icicle, he wriggled akin to a worm on a hook. I turned my voice inside and flooded the frozen path into his being with the message. Visible cracks formed on the ice coating me, and I fought to move the thawing muscles within me.
“No, no no no no, shut up. NOOOOOO, damn it, kid. Shut. Your. Mouth!” Jack wriggled and writhed under the overwhelming weight of the incantation. “You don’t love me, kid, you don’t even know me.” His eyes bulged and pure lunacy seized his voice. “You’re just some good for nothing little shit whose parents don’t love him either. How can you spew that load of bollocks?” Chains chimed in wild patterns off in the distance, giving the empty streets a haunting melody.
Gaining some movement in my extremities, I had him backed into a corner and didn’t want to lose the last chance I may have. “I love you because I know how you have suffered, Jack. I love you because we share some of the same pain. Don’t you see, Jack? We are brothers. I love you, brother.”
“NOOOOOOOOO!” Jack’s shrill scream erupted from his shriveling frame. The remaining spirits anchored all around us began thrashing in violent fits, and a cacophony of child and adolescent screams rose to meet the magnitude of their tormentor. The visible ice coating my body had all but melted, giving me a full range of motion again. I moved to gain leverage, icicle piercing his chest, sending jolts of pain through my limbs. I imagined it’s what being struck by a great thunderbolt must feel comparable, too.
The powerful predator who stalked his prey up in urban cities and rural outcropping, feeding off the pain and suffering of others, withered away at the very thing he wanted from his parents for years. He curled into the fetal position around the ice skewer. BOOM! A chain restraining a nearby ghost blew apart, sending bits of shrapnel ricocheting off buildings and whizzing past my head close enough to ruffle my hair. One by one, shackles detonated, freeing the tormented and bombarding my ears with the continuous volley of explosions.
I expected them to make haste and flee while they had the opportunity. However, that’s not what happened. Each soul fixed their gaze on Jack, and all hell broke loose. Spirits dove at Jack like a bunch of crazed vultures, attempting to rend strips of flesh from his body. The ferocity of the attacks as two, three, and even four of the tormented wraiths swooped down at the same time. They squabbled and argued over whom had inflicted the most damage and most important, pain; each one stating their case as though they were the obvious victor.
“You didn’t even leave a bloody mark on him,” one spirit remarked to another.
“Of course I did, you dunce. Where do you think the blood under my nails came from?” the other said, taken aback by the comment.
“Boff you idjets are wurfless, look at this nice bit-o-flesh I ripped off the back of his show-der,” interrupted an older teen spirit with a mangled mouth of teeth jutting in all directions. It’s a miracle the inside of his lips weren’t cut up and raw. Then again, ghost teeth probably don’t cut up the inside of ghost lips. The hoard of victims was no longer afraid of Jack and had risen against their murderer, making a grand sport of his suffering. Standing center stage in a twisted production about the balance between life, death, and the afterlife, I viewed the scene as a spectator instead of the hero. The key elements were here, betrayal, revenge, tyranny, graveling for mercy, and unseating the ruthless monarch; it was a scene fit for a Shakespearean drama and filled my soul with a vile, nauseating concoction.
My stomach wrenched, and I felt the warm digestive juices rising in my throat. Turning my head, I spewed my guts in the gutter with a great heave. Wiping my mouth dry with my free hand, I found the commotion quieted and everyone’s attention locked on me. “Do you not see how disgusting we are even in the afterlife? You all have the chance to be free and fly to Heaven, but you would rather take part in the very pain you experienced before your deaths. You would rather torment than forgive and leave here to your eternal happiness. We are all born with wickedness inside of us. Whether we give into it or worse, delight in it speaks to the measure of who we are. Get out of here, the lot of you. Fly on to your eternal reward and pray that God is more merciful than you have been when given the chance.”
One by one, the malicious looks faded away from their eyes and the icy hate that gripped their hearts melted away. As they floated off to their eternal reward, I could feel Jack’s strength dwindle to a trifle of what it had been. I had won the battle. Jack would soon wither away into nothingness. The spirits inside me found peace, knowing their tormentor was finished. The icicle disappeared from my hand, dropping the frigid soul skewered on it to the cobblestone. Each soul inside me took flight with a wave and joy filling their being. Oscar was the last to go. He embraced me, not in a physical hug but in what I can only describe as a cocoon of love and appreciation, and with tears welling up, he turned and left for paradise.
Wheezing and trembling, Jack lay curled up at my feet, mumbling some sort of gibberish. “Well, looks like it’s the end of the line ol’ chap,” I said, still catching my breath and hoping my heart would return to its normal pace soon. Lifting my foot to step on his throat required more effort than it should have, and I was sure the opposite knee would buckle soon. “It’s not all your fault you turned out this way, Jack. However, I have the chance to slay a monster and save innocent lives and that’s an opportunity a bloke only gets once in a life.” My foot landed on his throat with a squelch jarred from his open mouth. The muscles in his throat strained against my foot, and I felt them moving and writhing like a mass of worms.
“Dear God, forgive me for destroying one of your children, but I truly believe it is for the good of so many more souls. Please look upon Jack with pity and find it in your heart to forgive him and the wickedness he’s caused.” Coughing and choking echoed in the empty street. I could feel the bones in his neck cracking, and I had to resist the urge to yank my foot off out of pure disgust. “I beg your mercy on him, Lord.” My foot hit the road with a quick thud.
“Plead for your soul, not mine, Ollie,” Jack sneered.
My shadow said, staring up at me. I tried to turn my head to look down, but my body had seized in place. “Looks like there is still plenty of tracks in front of me ol’ chap.” His toothy grin almost glowed on the shadow face resting on a cobblestone street. The moon bathed the stretch of road where the battle met its conclusion. Clouds were scarce, and I stood locked in place, swallowing this jagged pill. I missed my chance. I blew it, Jack won.
“Take heart, Ollie, I’m not going to kill you,” he said with a sneer.
“You’re not?” I mumble through the teeth of my locked jaw.
“Heavens no. You’re going to be my puppet. I am going to take a holiday inside of you whilst I build up my strength. Hell, if I like it enough, I’ll stay for good.” His shadow form peeled up from the ground, standing a few centimeters away from my face. His frigid breath washing over my face, sending chills through me in all directions.
“I’ll just keep flooding you with love until you melt away or flee my body,” I retorted in a muddled croak.
“You’re full of shit, Ollie. You can’t keep it up all day, every day. Enough talking, I think it’s time we became flat-mates.” His smile dissolving and spreading out like a drop of ink soaking in a piece of parchment. The shadow taking on this oily slickness as it liquefied in front of me. With the shadow still anchoring itself to my body, he began prying my mouth open and pouring himself into me. The slimy black liquid maneuvered its way down my throat. My body straining with everything I had left to avoid swallowing him but to no avail. “Give in to your sadness, your sorrow, your despair. This wicked world is doomed, Ollie! Allow me in to become the dark of you. There is a seed within you and I will nurture it and help it grow. Mankind will fall. They are greedy, irresponsible, and all-consuming monsters. They poison all the good things in the world, and WE need to be their end!” Jack’s voice echoed inside me.
It felt like I was throwing up into myself. My chest was burning, begging me to breathe in and replace the spent oxygen contained within. My mind thrashed around, screaming back at Jack. “I will do everything I can to save this selfish world! You may win this battle and become the dark in me, but I will do my best to shine an everlasting light on you. The darkness only has power when the candle flame flickers out. My chest convulsed, trying to restrain my lungs, not wanting to inhale a large gulp of Jack’s shadow body. After what seemed an eternity, the greasy fluid’s tail finally slithered down my throat. Jack was inside me.
He has been there for the past seven years. I had to write the full account of my tale as I am wanted by Scotland Yard for the murders he has committed when controlling my body. I fight to keep him suppressed, but my periods of control are becoming fewer and fewer while growing shorter in duration each time. He is growing stronger, and soon, Jack Frost and his power will consume me and I will be resigned to a prisoner, a spectator forced to watch the heinous actions my body carries out under the control of a monster. There is little left of me as I write this, my mind is fractured beyond repair and is dangerously close to shattering. His voice is always there, droning on and on. Even when I sleep, I can hear his perverse lullaby playing on an eternal loop.
“I’ll be nipping at your nose. I’ll be freezin’ off yer toes. A shiver and some terror lets you know Jack Frost is here. If you try to turn around when you hear my icy sound. I’m sure to catch your stare, then you’ll know Jack Frost is here!”
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableD.J. Montaño Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: D.J. MontañoPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: “The Elevator” was inspired by the first part of the Divine Comedy, Dante’s Inferno. Ever since the animated epic was released in 2010, I have been captivated by the story and its vision for the layers of Hell. I felt inspired to put a modern spin on the character and use my writing to immerse people in some of my thoughts on what the layers of Hell would be like if it exists. We see so many powerful or influential people fall from grace through one scandal or another that it has become commonplace. I hope you enjoyed the journey through Hell with Thomas and Lucifer. Thank you also to my fantastic editor, Samantha Milam. Her expertise and approach not only helped improve the story but helped me grow as a writer.
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