By Joe Haward

From the December 2021 issue of CHM

Tom vomited into the Barker’s kitchen sink, bile and mucus painting the white porcelain. Initially it was the god-awful stink that made him retch. A deep metallic smell danced along the back of his throat in an unholy alliance with the stench of shit, pulling at his taste buds until he puked. He had read somewhere that when people died they emptied their bowels. He wasn’t sure if that was true, until now. He’d never seen a dead body before, let alone four of them. His head was pounding. It had been all day. He always had a migraine on Christmas Eve. He shook his head in the hope that, when he opened his eyes, everything would be different. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he stood up from the sink and looked again. Ten seconds later the last contents of his stomach swam down the plughole, a brown and yellow river of despair.

He had only come over to drop off Maisie’s Christmas present, as he did every year, before both his family and hers set off for the Christmas Eve church service. He had noticed the front door ajar, which didn’t come as a surprise as he knew they were expecting him. Knocking, and calling out, he walked into the house expecting to find the Barker’s at the kitchen table, finishing dinner. They were at the table, only they were staring blankly and silently ahead, their eyes completely removed.

Tom didn’t think that checking their pulses was going to be of much use. Partly because he had no idea how one did it, but mainly because each of the Barker’s no longer had a heart beating in their chests. Someone had ripped them clean out.

Maisie, like her parents and younger sister, sat upright, her body held in position by the onset of rigour mortis. The bloody black holes where her eyes used to be threatened to swallow Tom, consuming him until everything that he was collapsed in upon itself. He stepped backwards, heading for the door when he noticed his shoes were sticky, as though someone had put glue on the soles. He looked down and saw the bright crimson blood across the kitchen floor. It shined under the stainless steel hanging ceiling lights, an almost luxurious sheen that invited Tom to take a dip and swim in its beauty. He shook his head again.

As he turned for the door, he noticed something in the middle of the kitchen table, which was otherwise completely bare. The dark wood of the table was splattered with blood, swallowing the redness within its own deep brown. Tom stepped closer and saw that it was a cell phone, sitting there, on its own. It was the same model iPhone that he owned. The same case too. And color. Instinctively he reached into his jeans pocket to retrieve his own cell phone. It wasn’t there. Checking his back pockets and jacket he realised he didn’t have it on him.

“Where the hell is it?” he muttered to himself. He never went anywhere without his phone. Ever. After he had patted himself down for the fifth time, he looked back at the one lying on the table.

“It can’t be…” he whispered. He felt his pulse rise with the avalanche of sustained dread. He knew he needed to see the phone properly, but it also meant leaning over Mr. Barker to get it. Slowly, stepping closer, he started to reach for it, trying to hold his breath as the foul odors pummelled his senses, making his eyes water. As he grabbed the phone, images of Mr Barker jumped to life, reaching into Tom’s chest and pulling out his heart to fill the cavity that now sat where his own used to beat.

Quickly stepping back, Tom rushed into the hallway, standing by the front door, breathing hard. Red, green, and white Christmas lights from the street outside flashed in random sequence, beaming through the porch window, lighting the dark hallway in a kaleidoscope of color. Far in the distance he heard carolers lifting their voices in Christmas songs. He wanted to run out of the house, to scream for help, but then he saw his bloody footprints, and his own hands smeared in blood from where he had picked up the phone. Looking at it, he realised that it was definitely his phone. The lock screen had a picture of Daniel Kaluuya’s iconic stare. Get Out was his favorite movie. The slight chip in the glass screen on the bottom left hand corner confirmed what he already knew.

“What the fuck?” Tom quickly opened it and was met with a photo that had been taken and left open before the phone was locked. It was of Maisie, sat at the table, alive and unharmed, her face frozen in fear. He swiped to the next photo. This time Maisie was missing an eye, blood pooling in the socket and running down her face onto her cream sweater. Tom started to feel sick again.

He swiped again. Maisie without any eyes.

Again. Maisie without her heart.

He threw the phone. It hit the living room door and landed on the floor.

Tom felt a wave of panic reach up into his throat and pull him in. He hunched down onto his knees, breathing fast and shallow, trying to control his body as it shook with fear. Cold evening air blew in through the front door that still stood slightly ajar, winter hands reaching in and up his back. After a few moments he composed himself, trying to think about his next move.

I’ll phone the police, tell them I had nothing to do with it, that I just found the Barkers like that. They’ll believe me wouldn’t they? What about the photos? I’ll delete the photos. Yeah, just get rid of them. That will sort this mess out. Get rid of the photos and get out of the house.

As he stood up he noticed a line of light breaking out from under the living room door. Then a shadow moved across it, from inside the room. He jolted backwards. The Barker’s didn’t own a dog, and he knew they didn’t have anyone staying for the holidays.

Get out. Get out. Get out.

Everything in his body told him to leave, to escape this madness. But like a moth to a flame, he found himself edging closer and closer to the living room door. He bent down and picked up his phone, finding his grip on the handle of the door, turning it slowly, so achingly slow, imagining a creak that didn’t exist as he pushed it open.

Sat on Mr Barker’s brown leather armchair, framed by the wooden bookcase behind, was a man. That was Tom’s first thought. It’s a man. His crossed legs were painfully thin, as was his entire body. His pale, gaunt, pointy face was like the lustre of the moon, and his deep-set green eyes shimmered with an unnerving knowingness. His black hair sat disheveled and scruffy, a strange contrast to his immaculate white shirt, charcoal suit, and matching tie. He was holding up a small golden ball with one hand, inspecting it closely, peering at it as though it held a deep and important secret. He looked up and smiled at Tom, thin red lips stretching even thinner as glistening, white, pointy teeth were exposed. It’s not a man. It’s not a man.

“Ah, Thomas, so lovely to see you.” His voice was deep and gravelly, low and forceful.

Tom blinked. He found himself surprised by the sound of the stranger’s voice. It doesn’t match what he looks like. Tom remembered when he was younger and would go and play at Karl’s house. Tom always thought Karl’s dad had a voice that didn’t suit his face.

“Don’t just stand there my boy. Come in, shut the door, take a seat.” The stranger waved his hand towards the beige sofa that sat in the middle of the room.

In a daze, Tom did as he was asked and began to walk over to the sofa, before suddenly stopping and looking down in horror at the pale carpet. Faded red footprints followed him into the room. He had never noticed before how pale everything in Masie’s house was.

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that. Trust me, that’s the least of your problems.” Those thin red lips stretched once more into a smile.

Tom sat down, hands on his knees, looking blankly at the stranger. “W-who are you?” he stammered. “What’s going on?”

The stranger uncrossed his legs and leaned forward. “My name is The Magi, I am a traveller, of sorts, and a connoisseur.”

“A connoisseur? Of what?”

“Why, of people like you, my boy. I see you had a lot of fun with the Barkers.”

Tom leapt up and backed towards the door, scrambling with his phone. “What the fuck are you talking about? I had nothing to do with this! I-I’m calling the police.” Tom’s hands were shaking and he dropped his phone. As he leant forwards to pick it up he felt a colossal blow into his stomach. He collapsed on the floor, gasping for breath, writhing in pain. Through watery eyes he watched as The Magi walked back to the armchair and sat down again.

“My dear boy,” The Magi began, “calling the police would be a monumental mistake.”

Tom crawled to his knees and looked up. “Why?” he painfully choked.

“First of all, I have the ability to conceal myself. It’s an old trick I’ve had to learn over the years.” As The Magi spoke, Tom lost sight of him. The creature faded in and out of view before his very eyes.

“What the hell—” Tom murmured, wiping his eyes in disbelief.

“So,” The Magi continued. “If the police turn up, they would find you, on your own, in the Barker’s house, the family murdered in their kitchen. Second, and more importantly, your DNA is all over the place. It really is… what do you call it? Ah, yes… a forensic slam dunk.” The Magi let out a giggle, seemingly pleased with his choice of words.

“But that’s impossible,” Tom countered. “I wasn’t even here!”

“Thomas, listen carefully. Your fingerprints are all over the crime scene. Your vomit is in the sink. Forensics will find your skin, hair, and blood on the Barker’s bodies, like a flashing signal. And to settle it, your seamen has violated the body of that delightful Maisie.”

Tom stared at The Magi in wide-eyed horror. “T-that’s impossible,” he repeated, the words stumbling and catching in his throat.

The Magi spoke on, “If you call the police you will condemn yourself to a life in prison. And do you have any idea how a young, pretty boy, such as yourself, will fare in prison?” The Magi grinned, savoring each word as though they carried scent and taste. “Why, you’ll be the Riz à l’impératrice, a veritable feast for prison gangs.”

Tom was shaking, shock and anxiety ripping through his body, making his head want to explode. “I don’t understand.”

The Magi stood up and walked over to Tom, crouching down in front of him. Tom winced as The Magi’s breath washed over him, a putrid, acidic smell that burned his nose. The Magi took Tom’s phone from his hand, unlocked it, then swiped the screen a few times. He handed the phone back. Tom stared at The Magi, the creature’s face a mystery to him, and then looked down at the phone. Nausea rattled his body again, cold sweat tracing a line down his back as his world began to tumble down the rabbit hole. The photo was of Tom’s back, his underwear around his ankles as he lay on top of Maisie, her bare legs visible, the gaping holes where her eyes used to be staring back into the camera. Tom dropped the phone and ran his dark hands over his shaved head, trying to remember and make sense of what was happening. “No, no, no…” he whispered over and over, his body unconsciously swaying in the storm of his anguish.

The Magi put his hand on Tom’s shoulder, a gentle, almost fatherly touch. “Come sit back down Thomas,” he said lightly, “and I can tell you how to make this all go away.”

Tom looked up, tears cascading down his cheeks, a glimmer of hope appearing behind the wild, wet, panic that threatened to overwhelm him. “Really?” he said, wiping his nose with the back of his arm. “You can make this go away?”

The Magi nodded and helped Tom to his feet. They both walked over to the sofa and sat back down. The Magi held the golden orb up with his fingertips, turning it in the light. With every turn Tom saw strange markings fading in and out, cryptic symbols and letters that vanished from sight whenever he tried to focus on them.

“This is my Khrusos,” The Magi said. “It enables me to travel from place to place, to move between time and space with ease. But it has its limitations.”

“What limitations?” Tears still tracked a path down Tom’s face.

“I can’t use it to travel on my own. I need a companion, someone who acts as the guide. A star in the East you might say.” The Magi smiled, the sharp teeth making Tom shudder. “You will be my guide.”

“How? I don’t know what to do?”

“Oh, it’s very simple my boy. All that is needed is for you to imagine someone. Picture a girl, a family, sitting around their table, sharing dinner together. Bring them to mind and the Khrusos will do the rest.”

“What do you mean? Picture someone I know? A family I have met?”

“No, no, Thomas, don’t be so dull. This is where you use your inventiveness and artistry. Allow yourself the freedom to picture anyone from the deepest recesses of your insight and ingenuity.”

Tom blinked in confusion. “How will doing that change any of this.” He pointed to the door and the massacre beyond.

“Once we leave here, the Khrusos will endow you with a gift, and make this entire nightmare disappear.”

“And I won’t go to prison?”

“I promise you Thomas, you won’t go to prison.”

Tom looked into The Magi’s green eyes, the way they glistened with a penetrating knowing, as though he knew Tom far deeper than Tom knew himself. “So I just try and imagine someone, a family, and then what?”

“Then all this will be over Thomas.”

The Magi stood up and held out his white, boney hand. Tom looked warily at it, and then took it, standing up. The Magi placed the golden orb in Tom’s upturned palm, and then covered it with his own. “Close your eyes and imagine them. Think about what they look like, the way their home smells, what dinner they are sharing together.”

Tom nodded, disbelief turning to desperation, and shut his eyes. Images of the Barkers flashed across his mind, their bloodied, eyeless faces gawping at him, silently screaming for mercy. He shook his head, the distant throb of his headache increasing in pain with every passing moment. He tried again.

To his amazement he saw the face of a girl he’d never seen before, her light brown hair falling elegantly over her shoulders. She looked at him with deep blue eyes, and smiled. He saw her family, the five of them gathered at the table, holding hands and saying grace. The dad looked worn and weathered, like he had worked too much and seen his family too little. The mom, a kind face that radiated understanding. Twin brothers, around ten years old, praying in unison, a small family tradition that was uniquely theirs. Tom thought of his own mother, how she had always called him Tiny because of how small he had been when he was born. Family idiosyncrasies. He saw them eating together, the smell of roast ham and garlic filling his nose. Tom could feel the joy this small act of sharing brought them, how each person valued this time. But pain had also lived in this home. Tragedy and disappointment has walked with them. Tom sensed its lingering impression. This meal was like a moment of healing, an opportunity for redemption. Somewhere, far off in the distance, Tom could hear The Magi muttering, “Good, good,” over and over.

Like ash in the wind, Tom felt something brush past his face, as though a window had been left open and a winter breeze had kissed his cheek. He opened his eyes and began to let out a cry. The Magi clamped his hand over Tom’s mouth and raised his finger to his lips. They were no longer standing in the Barker’s living room. Tom scanned his surroundings and saw that they were now in a large and unfamiliar hallway, Christmas decorations lining the staircase. The panelled wooden floor shone as the golden orb glowed, before growing dim once again. Tom could hear the chatter of a family, the clink of cutlery on plates, the ting of wine glasses being filled. The Magi stepped back from Tom, and straightened his suit, before walking off in the direction of where the noises were coming from.

There was a scream and a shout before everything fell utterly silent. Tom slowly stepped out of the hallway and through the entrance, into the large, bright kitchen. His mouth fell open in disbelief as he saw the family he had only a moment ago imagined in his mind. Here they sat, around the same table, sharing a meal together. But the scene was now different from what Tom had pictured. The Magi stood behind the dad, his long fingers resting upon the larger man’s shoulders, like white spider’s legs waiting patiently in its web. He was watching with delight as the golden orb spun in the air above the centre of the table. The family sat there, frozen, visibly unable to move, their faces locked in an expression of horror. Tom could hear them breathing hard, straining to find a way out of their invisible chains. The orb somehow held them.

“I don’t believe it.” Tom’s voice cracked as the shock of what was happening dawned upon him.

“Well done Thomas, my clever boy. Welcome to the home of the Hill’s. This is Anthony.” The Magi patted him on the head like a pet dog. He moved around the table. “Here we have mom Ashley. These little rascals are Russell and Bobby.” He squeezed their cheeks as a doting uncle would. “And last, but by no means least . . .” The Magi came to a stop behind the girl Tom had first pictured, the girl who’s face had brought them here. “This is Julia.” He stooped down next to her, resting his folded arms on the table. “Isn’t she delightful,” he smirked, stroking her face with his cold, sharp fingers.

“Where the hell are we? Why are we here?”

“We’re here because you wanted a way out.”

“How is this a way out? You promised to make everything right? How is this making everything right?”

“Think carefully boy, what did I promise?”

“That you’d sort it all out, that I wouldn’t go to prison. So why are we here?” Tom was raising his voice, panic once again setting in.

“And you won’t go to prison. Does this look like prison?” The Magi chuckled, amused by the conversation, like he was speaking with an inquisitive child. “And I distinctly remember, Thomas, that you were the one who gathered us to his place, with this family.”

“But you tricked me. I panicked and didn’t know what else to do, or what I was even doing!”

“Oh, tut, tut my boy. Don’t play that game with me. You wanted a way out, and would do anything to find it. Well here we are.” The Magi stood up, and picked Julia’s fork up from her plate, licking the residue gravy from it. “Now, we haven’t got all day, and I need to eat. Look at me, I’m wasting away!” The Magi let out a sustained laugh, a wild mania settling upon his face. He walked over to Anthony, whose face was fixed forwards, unable to move or even blink. His eyes were turning red as they were bathed in sustained tears. His body shook slightly as he tried to free himself, a small trickle of blood running from his nose because of the effort. Slowly, and with an almost deep sensuality, The Magi pushed the fork into Anthony’s right eye. The man groaned from somewhere in the back of his throat, yet could not scream or cry out. Carefully, The Magi pulled Anthony’s eye out, holding it up and turning his fork to inspect it. He then placed the eye into his mouth, holding it on his tongue as though he were examining the palate from a glass of wine. Quite suddenly he then greedily chewed it, unable to contain himself any longer, swallowing it with a sigh of joy.

“Oh my god. Oh my fucking god.” Tom backed away from the table, fear and revulsion wrecking his insides.

“They say,” The Magi began, licking his lips, “that the eyes are a window to the soul. I can safely say…” He paused, looking up from Anthony, and staring at Tom with a fearsome malevolence. “It is true.”

The Magi forced his fork into Anthony’s left eye, the initial savouring of the moment now lost in a frenetic hunger. Tom watched with horror as The Magi’s face was writ with ecstasy after each bite, his tongue snaking out the side of his mouth, as pointed as the teeth that filled his mouth. As the creature moved to the mom, Tom could stand it no longer. He felt his mind and body losing control, reality giving way to monstrous delusions that threatened to consume him forever. Spotting the carving knife by Anthony’s frozen hand, Tom ran forwards and grabbed it, diving across the table and plunging the blade deep into The Magi’s side. Plates and glass smashed onto the floor, the chime of silverware ringing out as it connected with stone tiles.

The Magi shrieked in pain and fury. He took hold of Tom by the neck, who was desperately trying to roll off the table, and lifted him up, his thin body betraying an enormous strength. Tom swung his arms, trying to break free, his legs dangling in the air as he was restrained with ease. The Magi squeezed Tom’s throat, slowly choking him. His vision began to cloud as consciousness slowly left him, his limbs growing heavy and numb.

The Magi drew Tom’s face close to his own, stretching out his long, pointed tongue, and licked his cheek. “Well done Thomas, that was a fine effort,” He whispered. Tom watched The Magi draw back his free fist, and a moment later, everything went black.

#

He opened his eyes and shook his head, another pounding headache. Why do I always have a migraine on Christmas Eve? Tom glanced down at his hands and saw the Christmas present, and then looked up at the front door, slightly ajar. The snow crunched under his feet as he walked up the steps, the melody of carolers somewhere off in the distance, the moon making the white world glow. Christmas lights flashed all around as he knocked on the door and pushed it open.

“Hey Julia,” he called out. “It’s Tom. I just wanted to drop your Christmas present in.”

End.

*~*~*

Joe Haward is an eighth generation oyster fisherman, ordained Reverend, husband, dad, and lover of cats. The published author of two books, a horror writer, book reviewer, and freelance journalist, his work has featured online and in print across multiple platforms, anthologies, and sites. You can find him on Twitter @RevJoeHaward.

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