Spiderwebs. Dead threads of wispy fog frozen in time, long since abandoned by their makers, dangling down from the doorway. I need to bob and weave in order to keep them from touching me, but every bob and every weave seems to put me in the path of a web I didn’t see coming. Now they’re in my hair, on the shoulders of my purple jacket, trying to worm their way into my mouth as though they dream of being floss. I spit on the floor; I swear I hear the loogie hiss once it lands, evaporating from some kind of heat.

“Eww, Cambria, gross.”

Holly scrunches her nose in my direction, a little bandage of skin forming between her thick, brown eyebrows. She’s smiling, though, which tells me she isn’t really grossed out. Then again, Holly doesn’t know how to frown. She’s never frowned. Even when she’s crying, like when she saw Kevin kissing Tara Plum in the self-help section of Barnes & Noble, the corners of her lips still reached upwards, never sinking in between sobs. Always one to look for a silver lining, she said, “I’m sure Tara tastes like her last name, and I’ve never met anyone who could stand plums for more than three minutes, so Kevin’s in for a very lame snack every time she sticks her tongue in his mouth.”

I shoot a smile back at her and say, “Yeah, that’s the grossest thing to happen so far here. Not the spiderwebs. Not the stench of death. My spit.”

“Pretty much, yeah,” Holly replies, smiling even wider. I give her a playful shove.

I’m glad to see there’s still some normalcy between us. It’s feels like it’s been so long since we were in a room together that didn’t involve a teacher and some boring lesson. Long gone are the weekend sleepovers, the sharing of a large Sprite at the movies, the text conversations under our desks while in two different classes. We were always the first to give each other our takes on one another’s haircuts, but she didn’t send me any photos immediately after she chopped almost everything into a coffee bean-colored pixie, and I didn’t send any to her when I first straightened my long and curly black locks. Even though she’s a foot away from me, it feels like she’s on the other side of the world.

I miss my best friend.

“Come on, bitches, keep moving! I wanna see what’s in here!” Melanie pushes through the middle of us like we’re swinging doors. She’s practically skipping as she moves forward through the foyer, something that I might see as impressive considering she’s doing it in wedge sandals. But the feet belong to her, so nothing they do will ever be impressive to me.

She’s the reason I miss my best friend.

She took her away. Sure, Holly and I have known her for the same amount of time and I’ve spent my fair share of time with her, too, but she chose to glue herself onto Holly, chose Holly as the one she wants to chat and giggle and link arms with down the hallway. And that’s fine, as I’ve never been too fond of Melanie to begin with: she’s tolerable, but just barely. But Holly matched the enthusiasm that was being thrown her way. That friendship, this new, exciting thing, it became the most important thing in the world. The thing that needed to be fertilized and watered and pruned and perfected, everything else be damned. Including me.

Three years. Three years. That’s it. That’s how long they’ve known each other, whereas Holly and I have known each other since kindergarten. There’s more history, more affection, more sisterhood between the two of us than she and Melanie could ever dream. And of those three years, it’s only been this last one that’s seen them spending more time together. High school arrives, and suddenly they’re besties, while the old bestie is buried under months-old heart emojis.

The two of them move forward through the house. Melanie is taking it all in like she’s four and it’s Disneyland. She glides up the stairs halfway and says, “This is exactly what I thought it would be.” She comes back down the stairs and Holly immediately starts picking spiderwebs off Melanie’s sleeves. “Oops,” Melanie says. She and Holly share a goofy look and let out little giggles and I want to vomit.

“You coming, Cam?” Melanie asks as she and Holly make their way to a door at the end of the hall. Melanie looks eager for me to join the two of them. She has always been nice to me, never malicious, and we have always gotten along, and I know she isn’t meaning to take Holly away from me.

But she’s taking Holly away from me.

And look where she’s taken us: Happy Jack’s house. A two-story Dutch Colonial condemned and decaying from the inside out. The boards nailed to the front door had long since been pried away before we got here, allowing teenage daredevils such as ourselves to keep our subscription to YOLO up to date. The floor was once finely polished hardwood, but now it’s coated in a thin sheet of dust and dead moths. I look up at the second-floor landing, the chipped paint making zigs and zags through the bannister, mazes with no end. Photographs and paintings hang askew on the walls; pictures of Happy Jack himself, his Don Draper-good looks, with a chiseled jaw and piercing blue eyes and a contagious grin with perfect, pearl teeth. There’s Jack with other kids’ entertainers, like Big Bird or the cast of The Electric Company, and the Happy Jack logo, a “Have a Nice Day” smiley face with an equally big, toothy grin like the man it represents.

It feels like we’ve stepped back in time and everything, even our skin, has been doused in black and white, like when Dorothy first steps into Oz, only backwards and there’s no sepia tone involved. We just had to come in here on a full moon, didn’t we?

The place’s reputation certainly proceeds it. I guess every small town needs to have one haunted house, some location steeped in urban legend or folklore or just overall lies meant to scare the kiddies come Halloween, and Sycamore is no exception. “You all remember Happy Jack?” those who were in on the joke would say. “The children’s show host? Everyone watched Happy Jack’s Funhouse in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He was this town’s claim to fame. Born and bred here, continued to call Sycamore his home even after he blew up into stardom. Wholesome entertainer on the outside… sadistic torturer and murderer on the inside, and this was his real funhouse. Some say the bodies of his victims are still rotting in there, somewhere, probably the basement. That’s why they haven’t torn the place down: there might still be evidence in there, and because they never caught Happy Jack and he ran away to Mexico or Canada or some tropical island under an assumed identity, they need to keep things fresh in case he gets caught or decides to come back to enact more of his perversions.”

It’s actually hilarious when you stop to think about it. That someone might buy into those tales… Just read Wikipedia, people! Yes, this was Happy Jack’s house, but he wasn’t a murderer or a pervert; he was a tax evader and a philanderer, cheating on his wife more times than he cheated the IRS. And he didn’t hightail it to another country: he committed suicide in the ‘80s as to not be sent to some posh, upscale prison. And they haven’t torn the house down not because there are still rotting corpses in the walls or whatever, but because there’s an ongoing dispute between the town and the family of Happy Jack over what should be done with the building, and it’s been in limbo ever since he died, so it’s almost easier to just let it be at this point.

Still, that doesn’t make me any less creeped out by this place, and it doesn’t make me loathe Melanie any less for wanting to come in here, all because it would be “fun” and an “adventure.”

And Holly was into this. Why? Why? I mean, she took her mom’s car without permission or a permit to drive us here. What is Melanie doing to her?

“Are you scared?” Holly asks me, that smile of hers turning joyously devilish.

“No,” I say, smiling back, trying not to think about Holly changing.

“It’s all right to be scared. I’m a little scared, but man, this is exciting,” Melanie says. “I’m so glad you’re here for this.” She gives Holly a little side hug and Holly returns the squeeze, craning her neck up and shutting her eyes, humming with love, letting the moment sink forever into her memory.

I wonder what memory of ours had to be discarded to make room for it.

God, get your hands off of her, Melanie. She’s mine.

I join them at the door. Melanie presses her hand flat against it, ready to swing it open. “You ready to see what’s inside?” she says in her spookiest voice.

“Twenty bucks it’s an old refrigerator and probably a raccoon that’s in that old refrigerator, just waiting to jump scare us,” I say.

“Bitch, where’s your sense of fun?” I know Melanie uses that word as a term of endearment, but it’s blades against my ears every time she says it.

“What would be fun here? Hoping for a ghost to jump out and eat my face?” I ask indignantly.

“Well, yeah!” Melanie says. She growls and chomps three times in my direction. I want to slap her so badly.

Something tells me Holly can sense my urge to slap because she puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes it a little. I haven’t made my dislike for Melanie known to her, but she has to feel it somehow. That’s probably why she invited me on this little escapade: not so much to spend some time together for the first time in forever, but to have some sufficient bonding time with the new BFF in her life and get me on board. God, it just feels like I’m training my replacement.

“Okay, here we go,” Melanie says, and she slowly pushes the door open.

We step into the kitchen, and sure enough, there’s nothing here except more of the same. More noir-esque lighting; more strands of web; more musty, thrift store smell. An island stands in the center, peach tiles frail and hollow like fossils. Various rusted cutlery is spread over the counter, like someone was trying to make a pentagram out of knives but gave up halfway through. There indeed is a fridge, white and with rounded corners, something from a bygone era. Other appliances three steps below “vintage” sit on the counter next to the fridge: a microwave with a cracked door, a blender with a cracked jar, a coffee machine with a cracked pot.

“Yup, this is very fun. Nothing like the most boring horror movie ever—” Something crunches beneath my foot. I look down to see what I’ve inducted into the Hall of Fame of Cracked Appliances, expecting a mixer or an ice tray or even just a sponge that’s hardened over time—

It’s a skeleton.

A dog skeleton.

The bones are splotched with brown, like chocolate chips dipped into a cream cheese frosting. The way the eye socket rests over the floor makes the thing look like a crescent moon. The mouth is agape, like it’s frozen mid-burp; all the front teeth are missing and all that’s left are molars, so it might as well be Pac Man. I’ve stepped on one of the hind legs, the fibula now broken free from the grasp the tibia held on it.

I look up at the rest of the kitchen floor: it’s covered in dog skeletons. Some broken, some intact, all missing most of their teeth. You can barely see the actual floor.

“Okay, that’s enough Happy Jack’s Funhouse for me,” I say, whipping around, but WUNK! I end up bumping noses with Melanie. Mine bends sideways against my cheek. We cover our faces with both hands. “Ow!”

“Sorry,” Melanie says from behind her fingers.

“It’s okay.” I take my hands away from my face. They’re smeared with wide brushstrokes of blood. “Great.”

Melanie takes her own hands away and her nose is leaking blood, too. She chuckles. “Heh, we’re twinsies.”

I hope it hurts for her as much as it hurts for me.

“There’s some Kleenex in the car,” Holly says, backing out of the kitchen. “Wait here.”

“I think this counts as splitting up, which is a bad idea!” I yell after her, all nasally, leaning my head back and pinching the bridge of my nose. My jokey warning doesn’t sway her, though, and Holly’s gone, the door swinging back and forth in her absence.

I tilt my head down a little to get a glance at Melanie. She’s looking up at the ceiling, too. It’s just her and me now. I can feel the tension between us, that awkward silence where neither person knows what to say while the main connecting tissue is away; it’s like a red rubber band that grows tighter and tauter as the seconds tick by. Melanie’s eyes drift down from the ceiling to meet my own and she shoots me a courteous smile.

“Sorry again,” she says.

“No, I’m the one who banged into you. It’s my fault.” Might as well match her courtesy.

“Have you ever seen Happy Jack’s show?” she asks.

Trying to bond, are we, Melanie? “Yeah. I used to watch the reruns on PBS all the time when I was a kid.”

“I just loved how, well, happy he was. And he treated the kids like adults. He was never patronizing—”

“He was a little patronizing.”

“Okay, but not like in an aunt or uncle kind of way when you’re five and they think you don’t know what the world is. Like Jack’s games. There was always a lesson behind them. ‘You Can Do This’ or ‘Pick One’ or ‘Red, Yellow, Green.’ I don’t know, just looking back on it, I think they really helped kids grow up. It’s too bad he was a psycho.”

I snicker, but decide to let her belief in rumors be. “Is that why you wanted to come in here?” I ask. “Nostalgia?”

“Well, that, and it’s a fun thing to do. We’ll get a good story out of it, too. That’s what counts.” She shoots me a quick, good-natured grin.

“That’s what counts?”


That’s what counts?”

Melanie shrugs.

I take my hand from my nose. “There are better ways to collect anecdotes, you know, ones that don’t involve breaking and entering an abandoned house. Like, anything else. We could have taken ketchup shots at Sonic, for all I care. That would at least get some disgusted expressions out of people.”

“That’s not exciting,” Melanie declares.

“And this is? Broken noses and a bunch of dead dogs. There’s nothing here, Melanie, except maybe the remnants of a dog orgy gone wrong. Besides that, just a creeped out feeling that isn’t fun. This is stupid.” I lean against the island, but think twice once my elbow slips on a layer of dust. “That was obvious from the start,” I say.

“Then why did you come in with us?” Melanie asks sincerely.

I have to look away. What am I supposed to tell her? The truth? Do I keep this passive aggression going in order to maintain the status quo? Do I make something up, like, “Oh, I wanted to…” God, I don’t even know what I’d make up. Almost doesn’t seem worth it.

“Where’s Holly?” I ask, changing the subject. “It doesn’t take that long to grab Kleenex from a car.”

“Yeah, true.” Melanie walks through the swinging door. I follow her through the hall and into the foyer where she opens the front door to reveal, once again, nothing. This is a nothing worthy of worry, though: the car is still there, but Holly is nowhere in sight.

She’s gone.

She’s just… not here.

“Um…” My throat tightens, and my chin starts trembling, but I try to keep my cool. “Holly?” I yell. I see a light briefly turn on across the street and a silhouette move to the curtains, but just as quickly as the neighbor got out of bed, they get back in and the light shuts off.

“I’ll call her.” Melanie removes her phone from her back pocket and dials, but the phone is only at her ear for a moment. She looks down at the screen. “There’s no service.”

“Of course there isn’t,” I say, taking out my own phone just to confirm it for myself. Sure enough, zero bars hang over my phone’s wallpaper: Holly and me, nine years old, arms around each other, grinning ear to ear, seemingly inseparable. Where’d she go?

“Did that bitch ditch us?” Melanie wonders.

“No, she wouldn’t do that. And don’t call her that,” I say.

“I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“I don’t care; I hate that word.”

I yell Holly’s name again but am once more answered only by crickets. It’s like that time three years ago when Leo showed me The Shining. He must have been pissed that Mom was making him babysit me while she and Dad tried to rekindle their marriage by going out on a Friday. I don’t usually get too scared at movies to the point of feeling borderline traumatized, but something about that movie wrapped its hands around my neck and I mostly watched it through squints. I kept messaging Holly, over and over, especially when the dad in the movie went crazy with the axe. I needed comfort, reassurance, just her word that everything was okay. The receipts said she had read the messages, but she wasn’t replying, and she never did, so I was left to experience the horror alone. Neither of us brought it up when we saw each other on Monday.

Was that when we started to drift?

I should have held on tighter. Sewn ourselves together. Just something to keep her near me.

I go back into the house and begin looking around. Even if she was cruel enough to play some kind of trick on us, there aren’t a lot of places you could hide here. The living room is empty, nothing but the ghosts of furniture, covered in water-stained sheets. There’s a cuckoo clock hanging crooked on the wall, the bird dangling helplessly on its spring out the tiny door like it froze mid-air bungee jumping. There’s a portrait of Happy Jack over the fireplace, his toothy grin mocking me, as if to say, “You lost her in more ways than one now.” I want to tell it to shut up, but then I’d be arguing with a painting.

“Maybe she went upstairs,” Melanie guesses. “Can’t hurt to look.”

“Yeah, sure.”

Melanie follows me to the stairs. Shards of glass are sprinkled here and there on every other step, as though it was planned. Were those there before? When Melanie climbed the stairs the first time? I don’t remember any crackle of glass beneath her wedges. God, if Holly had some kind of accident, I’m gonna freak.

“Why didn’t you ever say anything? About me saying bit—that word. I would have held my tongue when around you. I’m really sorry,” Melanie says.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s fine,” I say, reaching the second floor. I grip onto the landing and feel splinters dig into my hand. I’m begging, please let her be okay, please let her be okay.

“Do you hate me, Cam?”

I turn to Melanie. Seriously? She wants to talk about this now? “No, I don’t hate you,” I say, moving through the hall. I peek into a cloudy bathroom, porcelain chunks strewn about the floor. There’s another dog skeleton in the gloomy clawfoot tub.

“I just notice you don’t really hang out with me and Holly a whole lot,” Melanie continues. “And when I am near you, you seem kind of, I don’t know, tense all the time? Something. I’m sorry, I’m not accusing you or anything. It’s just—”

“God, Melanie, shut up! Holly’s missing and you want to do… some poor excuse for couple’s counseling?” I peer into a bedroom, where there’s an old bed frame with some mattress springs discarded underneath like dead, shriveled eels.

“Sorry,” Melanie says. I know she’s being earnest, but I wish she’d let this go right now. “I just want to be friends is all,” she says, not letting it go.

“Then stop stealing mine,” I mutter under my breath.

“What?” She wasn’t supposed to hear that. “I’m not… stealing her,” Melanie says, legitimately confused.

I just stare at her.

“We’re just… friends,” Melanie continues. “She’s allowed to be friends with a bunch of people. Is that what you mean by stealing her? She’s not a thing that you own.”

Melanie’s not angry or resentful, but the way she’s looking at me makes my anger and resentment rise. She looks worried. Not worried about Holly or worried what I might say next. It’s a pitying worry, like I just told her I’d never had ice cream or something. Like there’s something wrong with me. I hate it, and maybe I do hate her. I have plenty of reasons to—

Scratching. It’s coming from the ceiling. Like tiny feet tip-toeing ever so slightly in little circles. I stop and hold out a hand to get Melanie to stop moving.

“I just don’t get—”

“Shhh!” I stop breathing. After a few sniffles, Melanie stops breathing, too. The scratching comes back. It’s thick this time. A branch against more wood. It sounds like it’s dragging, but barely making any headway in terms of distance—just small pops around the same spot.

“The attic?” Melanie wonders.

“Better than the basement. In theory.” I scan the ceiling and find the door, a brown cord ending with a white ball swinging from its center. I jump up, catching the cord on my third try. The door comes swinging open and a ladder falls onto the floor with a dull thud. Melanie and I both yelp. A poof of dust flies into the air at the ladder’s legs and seems to hang there much longer than it should, defying gravity.

“Holly?” I yell again. More silence. “Holly!” Please don’t let this be some animal, especially a dog that has yet to meet the fate of its brethren downstairs. Please let Holly be okay. I don’t know what I’d do without her. I don’t want to find out. “Holly!”

More sharp pops hitting the attic floor, and then a bang, followed by a groan, a human groan.

I climb the ladder, Melanie close behind yet again.

The attic is completely empty. No boxes of old belongings. No antiques in the middle of rusting. Not even a space to gather your friends and smoke pot or basically do anything in private, your own little drug nook. Just blank space… and more dog skeletons, all packed neatly in a pile in the corner closest to me, like it’s a throne just waiting for someone to take a seat.

Then, at the other side of the attic, it’s Holly—lying on her side, her back to us, tied to a chair.

“Oh God!” I lift myself up into the attic and pull Melanie up as well. We charge toward Holly. She’s dazed, but other than that, she doesn’t look hurt. There’s a sky-blue surgical mask duct taped over her mouth, though, so no idea what that’s about. Her hands are tied behind her with fraying rope, but it’s not frayed enough to be easily broken as I tug and pick my fingers through the knots, trying to set her free.

Melanie holds Holly’s head up and cradles it. “Oh my God, what happened, what happened?” she says as she smooth’s Holly’s chestnut head like she’s a long-lost pet finally found. Get away from her.

The rope is knotted almost perfectly. Holly’s hands are purpling, so maybe it’s not technically perfect, but I’m still not making any headway. “There’s probably something in the car that can help, right? Like a multi-tool or, I don’t know, something that isn’t my fingers.”

“I hope so,” Melanie says.

“Come on, help me take Holly with us. We are not splitting up again—”

Something tugs at my hair hard and I’m pulled back onto my tailbone.

My shirt rides up and my exposed back scrapes against the harsh wood of the attic floor.

I scramble to get whatever’s pulling me to stop, reaching up and trying to reclaim my hair for my own. I feel an arm. An arm in a thick, wool sleeve. Leather gloves clutch a stream of my hair with no sign of letting go. I dart my gaze and see Melanie is also being dragged by the same person, and she, too, is having no luck escaping.

Holly’s getting smaller and smaller as we’re towed all the way to the other side of the attic. My hair is tugged toward the ceiling and I’m heaved against the wall; the wood is damp against my neck. That sensation quickly disappears as something suddenly latches around my throat, something metallic, smooth and breezy like baby skin. The stranger lets me go and the latch is the only thing holding me up. All the air snorts out of me like the last remnants of toothpaste in the tube. I want to scream for help, scream for Holly, but it’s just vacant gasps. I hear Melanie make similar noises next to me. I claw at my neck, but the latch isn’t moving, it just digs deeper behind my jaw. Why is this happening?

The stranger reappears in front of me. They unveil two plastic chairs, one green, one blue, something for children, crusty, half-peeled stickers on each seat. They place one under me and the air returns to my chest; my eyes leak relief. That relief is short lived as the stranger grabs both my arms. I want to bash this psycho’s brains in. Let me go! He doesn’t hear my psychic pleas and I feel the same cold and pristine metal clamp around my wrists, then my ankles. I’m hanging on the wall in an X, a target. I can only imagine Melanie’s positioned the same way and have to ask myself again, why is this happening?

The stranger shuffles back over to Holly. They are wearing a brown cloak, hood up; it’s as though an oversized Jawa is responsible for all of this. The stranger lifts Holly up in her chair and begins pushing her closer to us. They keep their head down; I swear I see a line of drool slip out from under the hood and land on Holly’s head. She cringes. She looks at me, then over at Melanie. Her eyes are red and moist. Her breathing is scattered from under the surgical mask: two quick inhales, one quick exhale, three quick inhales, one quick exhale, one, one, four, one, two, one.

Finally, the stranger positions Holly dead center between me and Melanie, facing us; she’s our audience for whatever is about to come next. The stranger stands up straight and removes their hood and…



It can’t be. It just… no. NO.

It’s Happy Jack.

Happy. Jack.

He still looks like he did when he supposedly killed himself, no older at all. The same perfect black coif of hair; the same piercing blue eyes; the same cleft chin. Only… only his mouth. It’s been carved away or something. Carved into a literal ear to ear smile. The top and bottom lips have been folded back or maybe just plain removed and the gums are completely exposed and the teeth… He has his normal teeth, but pushed deep into his gums are more, dozens, all canine teeth. Literally, canine teeth, the dog teeth that were missing from the skeletons. The result is a shark’s smile, rows and rows of conic chompers, all off-white or stained with dry blood. Jack adjusts a tooth near his right nostril and ends up picking it straight out. Blood floods the small indentation left behind. Jack makes a slurping sound to suck it back in and he tosses the excess tooth behind him like it’s litter.

Melanie shrieks. “Help! Help! Somebody help!”

Happy Jack stomps on the floor. He holds out a gloved hand and puts up a finger, ticking it back and forth disapprovingly. He tries to tsk tsk, but it sounds wetter, the noise of steps in a shallow puddle. He takes in a deep sigh and looks at all of us. “Itsh sho niesh to have an audiench again,” he manages to say through his grotesque smile. “Itsh been sho long.” He steps forward and looks at me, his head cocked to the side. “Whatch yer name?” he asks. His breath is somehow smoky, a long-extinguished campfire.

I don’t say a word.

“Thatch okay. Holly here already tawld me yer namesh. I wush jush being polite. Itch important to be polite.” Jack saunters over to Holly and puts his gloved hands on her shoulders. She shivers. “You two have a luffly friend. I can feel her heart jush from here. Sho warm and welcoming. And the shmile! Look at the shmile.” Jack crouches and removes the surgical mask. Sure enough, Holly is remarkably still smiling, even though her eyes tell another story. “I don’t know if I’ve ever sheen a more beautiful shmile.” He stands up straight again and gestures to me and then Melanie. “I mean, look whatch happening to all of you, and sheesh shtill shmiling.” A choked chuckle erupts from his throat. A sliver of spit trickles down his chin. Jack wipes it with his sleeve. He draws the back of a gloved finger down the side of Holly’s face. Don’t you dare touch her!

Holly snaps her jaw and bites down hard on Jack’s finger. Jack squawks in pain; if anyone was listening outside, they’d think a chicken just got decapitated. Holly keeps her teeth closed until Jack shakes free, only minus one finger. He stumbles back against the attic window. Holly spits the finger out onto the floor. Once again, I swear I hear a sizzle as it bounces into the shadows.

Jack gets to his feet, holding his hand. “Thatsh jush not niesh. Thish ish not a playche to be mean! Thish ish a playche fer fun!” He trudges over to Holly and puts his hellish grin right in her face. “If your shmile washn’t sho perfect, I’d have to give you a shtern talking to. We need to treat each utter wif kindnesh, wif luff.” He takes his hand off his severed finger and…


It’s back. He has all five fingers again. The glove is perfectly intact. He shakes any remainder of pain away.


Melanie coughs. “Are you dead?” she exhales. “Are you a ghost?”

Happy Jack turns. That choked chortle comes back. “I’m me!” he says.

“Help!” Melanie yelps. “Somebody help!”

Jack jumps up and down like a toddler throwing a tantrum. “Shtop it, shtop it, shtop it! Don’t ruin my gamesh. Didn’t you hear me before? Itch been sho long shinsh I’ve been able to entertain. Itch jush been the dogsh. I’ve had to play my gamesh all by myshelf. But now, lookit!” He twirls around, arms outstretched, head still cocked to the side, a marionette missing a string. “You’re humansh! People who undershtand! People who can play!”

“I’m not playing anything, you freak,” I hiss.

“No, not you. Holly. Holly and her perfect shmile.” He pushes Holly closer. “Theesh dog teef are getting uncomfortable. Time fer an upgrade! But theresh no way I could harm your pretty face, no way, no how. Sho, we’re going to play my favorite game: Pick One!”

“Help! For the love of God, somebody—”

In just one blink, Jack is no longer next to Holly and I hear Melanie gag. Her cries are now muffled. Jack peeks into my line of sight, holding up a surgical mask to my face. “Do I need to giff you one, too?” he asks.

I shake my head.

“Goody!” He turns back to Holly. “Now Holly, my dear. I’m shure you know the rulesh. You can only pick one. One friend. Think about it carefully, becush you only haff ten sheconsh. If you don’t pick one, you loosh bofe. Get it?”

Is this really happening? If it is, then Melanie’s done for. I know she gets on my nerves, but she doesn’t deserve to be tortured by this guy or die. As soon as Holly picks me and Jack lets me go, we need to try and save her.

“I don’t wanna play,” Holly says.

“You haff to,” Jack says back.

“Please, I can’t.”

“The clock shtarts now! Ten, nine…”

I hear Melanie start struggling. She coughs and whimpers. You’ll be fine. I’ll get you out of this once I’m free, I promise.

“…eight, sheven, shix…”

“Please, stop it!” Holly cries. She bounces in her chair; tears hop and skip from her face to the floor. That sizzle keeps happening each time.

Holly, just say my name and we can figure it out from there.

“…five, four…” Jack wrings his hands together as he counts. I still can’t believe that finger grew back.

Melanie’s whines pinch my ears.

Holly, say it already!

“…three, two…”

“Melanie! I pick Melanie.”

Holly, you’re running out of time, say my name and…


“Congrashulayshons! You haff picked one!”

No. No she didn’t. She said…

No. NO.

“Holly?” I utter.

Jack skips over to Melanie; I hear the click and clang of him removing the latches from her arms, legs and neck. “Don’t go after Cambria now,” he says, “or elsh you’re going back on the wall.” She drops onto the floor, runs over to Holly, rips the surgical mask off her face, and squeals, wrapping her arms around Holly and burying her head into Holly’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Cambria,” Holly whispers.


Jack appears and pulls my lips back, gazing at my teeth. “Oh, yesh, theesh will do nichly. Your dentisht musht be proud.”

I whip my head free from his fingers. “Holly!”

This isn’t happening.

“Holly, we’re best friends!”

Jack skips back to Holly and begins to untie her from the chair. As soon as her arms are free, she embraces Melanie back.

No no no no no no no no NO NO NO NO NO NO.

As soon as the two of them stand, in another blink, Jack is back in front of me, guarding me. As if they were even going to try; they’re just standing there, hugging, holding each other, cradling each other, being best friends, doing what I’M SUPPOSED TO BE DOING RIGHT NOW AND FOREVER.

“Holly, don’t! Don’t do this!”

Melanie isn’t saying anything. She weeps into Holly’s neck and that’s it.

“Thank you fer playing, Holly. You may leaf now.”

I want to kick a hole through Happy Jack’s back. I want to tear my arms free and wring them around his neck until he at least appears to die, just long enough for me to run away. Run over to Holly and Melanie in order to kick them. Kick them down the attic ladder. Wring my arms around their necks until their faces look like grapes and the blood vessels pop in their eyes and all they can see is red, red like what I’m seeing now.

“Holly.” It comes out like a ghostly shudder. How appropriate.

She’s at the ladder. She lets Melanie go first. She looks up at me. Her eyes say, “I’m sorry,” but her smile… that fucking smile… even now, it won’t budge. Even as she leaves me, that bitch puts on a good face. Even as she kills me…

It’s the last thing I see before Happy Jack steps toward me with the pliers.