Copyright © 2008 by Chris Sirn.
All Rights Reserved.
Andy Buckler was five years old and sick with the flu when he dreamed about the Bagman. It was a cozy January morning on Ahrendt Street, where Andy had spent much of his childhood either shooting hoops or playing Sonic Drift on his father’s Sega Game Gear, but there was nothing amusing about the dream world that held Andy prisoner.
In his nightmare, Andy was alone in a dark building looking for his mother. His ankles were tied together with a rusty length of chain that gave him just enough slack to walk but not enough to run, and his hands felt like they were holding invisible suitcases packed with every toy Andy had ever owned. A hallway stretched out before him. It seemed to go on for miles. A hazy thought passed through Andy’s head: “It’s so dark, oh God, why does it have to be so dark?”
There were doors on both sides of the hallway, spaced out at equal distances from each other like the glasses in Momma’s cupboard. Andy knew in his heart that pure darkness waited behind every door, and that each room had its own surprise to offer. In the distance, a clock was ticking in a deep and sluggish manner, and there was a funny smell in the air, like the time Mr. Hamster had crawled through a—what was it called? a mouse house? a mouse door? a dormouse?—a mouse hole and died in the walls.
“Momma!” Andy cried. He was walking towards one of the doors now; he had little control over his body. It was suddenly very difficult to breathe. (Meanwhile, in the real world, Andy’s mother had just finished making breakfast and was coming down the hallway to ask her boy if he wanted a bite to eat. She paused outside his bedroom, remembered Andy’s flu, and then went to the bathroom to wash her hands and maybe start the new load of wash.)
Andy pushed the door open.
The dead hamster smell was much stronger now. Instead of finding darkness, Andy saw the room was illuminated with a faint light coming from an unseen source. A pallid bed set dominated the center of the room, facing away from Andy and towards a broken television. The bed sheets were stained with a dark substance Andy could not identify.
Someone was lying in the bed.
“Momma!” Andy cried again, waking that which had lain sleeping.
The cruel light began to fade. The sheets stirred. A discolored hand arose from the bed, and suddenly the person in the bed jumped to the floor. Andy turned around to run, but the chain binding his ankles had grown shorter, tripping his feet, and suddenly Andy was falling, falling, falling.
He hit the floor in a confused heap, now unable to breathe at all. The Dead Hamster Man’s approaching footsteps were loud and aggressive, suggesting their owner had worse things than murder on his mind. And just before the light went out, Andy looked up and caught a glimpse of the Dead Hamster Man.
The man was so skinny he was practically genderless, and he was wearing a plastic bag over his head like a mask. The bag was partially transparent, revealing some of the man’s facial features but leaving his ugliness and identity to the imagination. Andy could see a nose smeared against the plastic, as well as two dark spots that probably represented the eyes. The man’s hands were extended towards Andy… body language that translated into I’ll catch you, I’ll catch you.
And now those hands lashed out from the darkness and seized Andy by the shoulders. Andy could smell the reek of the Dead Hamster Man (Andy stopped using this name after the following day at school ascribed meaning to the plastic bag) and just like that, Andy was out like a light.
He sat up in bed with a shriek.
Silence. Sweet January sunshine fell across Andy’s face. He was sweating profusely. From the kitchen his father asked his mother, “What was that?” with a sharp snap of the newspaper.
Andy Buckler, who had never met a night of sleep he didn’t like, had literally scared himself awake.
“Andy, I have something bad to tell you about your friend, Marcus. Please don’t be upset.”
Miss O’Shaughnessy, the principal of Sweet John Elementary, was watching Andy with tortured eyes. In front of her, the corners of her desk were littered with the G.I. Joes and Ninja Turtle action figures that had been confiscated from the student body over the past week. Behind her, the books and picture frames that had once been on her desk were now tucked neatly into boxes. Apparently the school was getting a new principal.
Andy tried to play the role of the apt pupil, but there was a sinking feeling in his belly that had nothing to do with colds or stomach viruses. “Is he moving away?” he asked.
“He has already left us,” Miss O’Shaughnessy said delicately. “He’s living with his mother in Scappoose Township. His father passed away last week while you were out with the flu. Do you know what it means when someone passes away?”
The hole in Andy’s stomach grew deeper.
Most of the kindergarteners simply called the principal, ‘Miss O.’ “You see, Andy,” said the principal, as a tear spilled from one beady eye, “sometimes adults do very bad things. That’s part of the reason why I’m leaving you today, and that’s a big part of the reason why Marcus’s father is gone forever. Do you understand?”
Andy understood there were lots of people who didn’t like Miss O, the least of them students. There was a rumor that Andy’s own teacher, Mrs. Cindy, whose husband taught music a few rooms over, hated Miss O’s guts because Miss O walked around with the top two buttons of her shirt undone. Andy had no idea why someone would hate another person just because of the way she dressed, but oh well, grownups were weird. Grownups yelled at you when you spilled your milk, but then acted as if it were nothing when they spilled their own drinks.
Miss O sighed. “I wanted to talk to you because you were Marcus’s best friend. You’re going to hear a lot of rumors about what happened with Marcus Browne’s father, and most of them aren’t true. I’m asking you not to spread these stories. It’s cruel when people… exploit another’s misfortune.”
She reached out and took Andy’s hand. Andy tried to pull away. She was kinda hurting him.
“Please don’t be one of those people, Andy.”
Andy swallowed his Adam’s apple. He was about to ask what had happened exactly to Marcus Browne’s father—anything to make Miss O take her chubby hand off his freckled one—but he never got the chance. Mr. McCammon, the gym teacher, came bursting through the door loud enough to make Andy jump.
Mr. McCammon never lost his temper, at least not in front of the kids, which was what made his current emotional outburst so frightening. On the surface he seemed like a harmless Smokey the Bear-type of teacher, the opposite of Miss O, who always waddled down the hallways like a tank preparing to engage in battle. Now his face was flushed and angry as he looked at Miss O’s hand, somehow knowing she was clutching Andy too tight.
“Let go of him,” he said in a just-between-us-adults voice. “I need to talk to you about what you said the other day.”
Miss O pushed herself away from the desk, holding her hands in the air as if McCammon had said ‘stick ‘em up.’ Tears began to roll freely down her cheeks. She got up and disappeared through the door behind her desk, which led to God knows where—to the office behind the office, teachers always have their secret rooms where they hold their private grownup conversations—and slammed the door hard enough to make the glass rattle.
McCammon sighed, then turned to Andy with his regular sunny face. “Hey there, sport! How’s your flu doing?”
“Okay, I guess.”
“Good! Say, I’ll walk you back to class real quick. I have some good news.”
The hallways were empty and quiet. Mr. McCammon was quiet, too, walking slowly and thinking about whatever occupied his grownup thoughts. It wasn’t until they reached the door leading to Mrs. Cindy’s room that McCammon finally gave Andy the good news he had promised him.
“Guess what, buddy? You guys are all going home early today! Weatherman says there’s a snowstorm coming our way, the worst one since the blizzard of ‘01. You might even get the day off tomorrow. Isn’t that great?”
Andy arrived in class just in time to enjoy the remainder of his morning recess, but as Miss O’Shaughnessy had predicted, almost everyone had a story to tell. The milder ones were about Miss O herself; the worst ones were about Marcus Browne’s father.
Miss O, according to popular rumor, was being fired because she had called Marcus Browne into her office and told him flat-out that his father was dead. Apparently school workers were supposed to let the family members break the bad news to the student. There were probably other “reasons” Miss O was losing her job—even Mr. McCammon’d had a bone to pick with her—but as Miss O herself would have worded it, last Friday was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
The story of Mr. Browne’s death was harder to puzzle out, because Andy’s classmates had all presented different versions about what had happened last Friday. But by the end of recess, Andy had liberated the following facts about Marcus Browne’s father.
Mr. Browne’s wife had found a new boyfriend. She left her husband a Dear John note on the kitchen table, along with a bouquet of flowers. The note (which was actually a really nice sympathy card, according to one questionable source) said that Mary Browne was very sorry for hurting her husband, but she was in love with another man. She apologized a thousand times. She said Mr. Browne had the sweetest heart in the world, and she even left him her brother’s phone number. Her brother was a respected psychiatrist.
Mr. Browne did not call the number. He trashed the house instead. Then once he was finished, he went into the bathroom, drew himself a bath, and lay down in the water with a plastic bag over his head. Apparently putting a plastic bag over one’s head was a method grownups used to kill themselves. There was a rumor that Mr. Browne had also slit his wrists, but Andy assumed someone had made this up to make the story more bloody. Why would anyone cut his own wrists?
All of this had taken place last week, while Andy was out with the flu. All of this had also taken place last Friday, which just happened to be the thirteenth of January.
Because the school bus had dropped Andy off at his driveway two hours early, Andy’s mother would not be home from work for another ten minutes. His father would not be home until later that night. Andy’s bus driver was a guy named Mitch, a high school dropout whose whole wardrobe fell beneath the school dress code. That day Andy was the last kid off the bus.
Before Andy could descend the steps off the bus, the bus driver spoke from behind him. Today was the first and only time Andy ever heard his bus driver speak.
The boy turned around. He heard the metal doors scream shut behind him. Mitch was glaring at him with unblinking eyes—one brown, one blue, and a scar underlining them as if for emphasis.
“It wasn’t nice of you kids to be singing that song about Miss O’Shaughnessy. Them other kids are bad, but I always expected more from you.”
Andy struggled for something to say, but there was no excuse for what he had done. Miss O had never done him any harm, but he was a kindergartener, after all. Principals were your enemy; it was common sense. He was vaguely aware there was something wrong with celebrating a man’s death just because it meant your principal was getting fired, but Andy couldn’t say what.
Mitch asked, “Are your folks home?”
Andy told him yes, they were. He didn’t want Mitch to know he was home alone. Mitch was a stranger, a bad stranger, and he gave Andy the creeps.
“The reason I ask is because I drove down this road not two hours ago, dropping off them high school kids. There was a man on your porch. I didn’t get a good look at him, but he didn’t look like your dad.”
Did he have a plastic bag on his head? Andy thought, and he looked out the window. It was starting to snow.
“Probably just a salesman,” Mitch reflected. “Although I didn’t see no car. Funny weather to be out and about without no car.”
Next he’ll ask where my parents’ cars are at, and I’ll say in the garage, thought Andy, but Mitch didn’t ask. Instead, he said something that put an awful train of thought in Andy’s head.
“You’d better get out of here, kiddo. Storm’s coming, and I need to get to the grocery store while I still can. The store’s going to be mobbed, what with the snow coming and all.”
Andy and his bus driver exchanged goodbyes, and a few seconds later, Andy was walking down his driveway with the snow raining down all around him. He listened to the bus as it roared away down Ahrendt Street, releasing exhaust fumes.
The grocery store, Andy thought. Andy’s mother always stopped at the grocery store just before a snowstorm, and she often didn’t get home until just before Andy got off the bus. Andy’s mother, who did not know her son had got off school early today, would not be home for another two hours.
A house of darkness was waiting for Andy. He closed the front door behind him with a soft thud, but otherwise he would not move, not even to turn on the pole lamp. Instead, he listened.
The living room clock was striking the hour. Was this the same clock Andy had heard in his nightmare? When the house was quiet, the ticks would echo—had Andy been dreaming about that relentless ticking sound the night he saw the Bagman? And on those rare nights when Andy still wet the bed, he often dreamed he was lying in water… so when Andy had smelled the stench of the Bagman in his sleep, could it be his nose had detected a similar nearby odor?
The telephone in the kitchen rang—once, twice, a third time. Andy made no effort to answer it. The answering machine came on, and a strange voice left a message in a muffled tone. Andy could not make out the words, but the machine did pick up on one distinct noise: a receiver being slammed back into its cradle.
Ignoring this, Andy turned on the pole lamp and flooded the room with light. His book bag dangled from one shoulder. Andy’s book bag, a girly-looking thing with a picture of the pink Power Ranger on it (Uncle Duncan had bought the stupid thing without really looking at it first) slid off his other shoulder and hit the floor where it lay forgotten. Andy didn’t even hear it hit the floor—he was too busy staring at his living room with trembling eyes.
The living room had been trashed. Sofa pillows lay askew on the floor. Books and DVDs had been pulled from the shelves. A small cyclone seemed to have made its way through the garbage bags by the side door. Someone had gone on a violent rampage through his living room, and deep in Andy’s chest, his heart began to shudder.
This can’t be what it looks like, Andy told himself. Mr. Browne’s dead and the Bagman’s make-believe, why would Mr. Browne come back from the grave just to kill me, anyway?
Why did the teachers at Sweet John Elementary hate Miss O’Shaughnessy? Why did grownups do any of the things that they did?
Andy listened to the wind hissing at the windows, and suddenly he hated grownups. He hated their fake personalities. He hated the way they abbreviated their stupid last names because they didn’t think children could say the whole thing. Mostly it was their secrets he hated; their teachers’ lounges and their offices behind their offices where the children wouldn’t hear their private conversations, or the way they turned the channel when “certain subjects” came on the news. All of it suggested there was another world hiding beneath the one you normally saw and heard; an underworld no child could comprehend until he passed into the dark realm of adulthood.
And as the wind outside reached a deafening pitch, sounding like the wolf blowing down the house of the first little pig, Andy had a horrible thought.
Suppose the dead hated the living the same way Andy’s teachers harbored an unexplainable hatred for Miss O’Shaughnessy? Suppose once the brain died, the mind was freed from its physical barriers and graduated into a more brutal existence, one where thoughts and motives were impossible for less evolved minds to understand? Suppose all the creaking floorboards and whispered noises were really the voices of the deceased, discussing their unspeakable plans behind STAFF ONLY doors?
That made Andy think about the message on the answering machine, but only for a second. Because suddenly the wind picked up stronger than ever, there was a crash of thunder, and the power went out.
The room was swamped with darkness. Andy knew beyond a doubt that he had returned to the building from his nightmare. It was his home, yes, but the darkness transformed it into that place of horror. Didn’t all places look the same in the dark?
The lights flickered a little, went out, and then came back on and stayed on. The messy living room was worse with the lights on. Ugly things were always worse when they were in plain view; how could Andy have ever thought otherwise? He wanted to run to the kitchen and call his mother’s cell. That dreadful message would have been erased by the power outage, thank goodness. But wouldn’t he, in a sense, be searching for his mother just like in his dream when he met the Bagman? Even if Andy left the house now… then what? Wander the country streets alone, looking for his mother’s approaching car? There was no where he could go where this world of darkness was not; he was as helpless as when those rusty chains had robbed him of most of his strength, and so Andy ran to the phone anyway.
He jumped over the askew pillows and DVDs, entering the kitchen with the sunny-day wallpaper his parents had selected just for him. He wanted to cry and tell his mother he was afraid, but he froze halfway through the kitchen.
The phone was ringing again.
Once, twice, a third time, and the machine came on.
The recorded voice played itself out, there was a beep, and then a voice said, “Andy?… Andy, are you there?”
It wasn’t Andy’s mother. It wasn’t even the Bagman.
It was Andy’s best friend, Marcus Browne. He spoke sporadically, and with a newfound maturity.
“Andy, listen to me. My father. He’s there. He’s coming to kill you.”
The house creaked in its joints, as if nodding in agreement. Andy suddenly felt very lightheaded.
Marcus went on. “Listen carefully. I know you won’t believe this, but you have to try. Andy, I’m a ghost. I’m not alive, I’m dead. My father killed me with a sledgehammer just before he killed himself. That’s why Miss O’Shaughnessy got fired. She told the kindergarteners I moved away to spare you guys from the truth. The grownups got mad because you guys would find out what happened eventually anyways, and she only complicated things.”
There was a funny feeling in the air, the knowledge that something was coming, was rushing, and would be here in the next second.
“He’s on his way now. Come find me upstairs in your parents’ bedroom. I can help you there.”
The message ended.
Andy stared at the answering machine. His jaw hung open in a distorted grimace, his legs were shaking, his hands were shaking, his mouth was drooling. His worst fears had just been confirmed. He staggered away from the phone, unable to speak, unable to believe, and that was when he saw the shadowy man outside the window.
The man was running from the woods towards Andy’s house, yet his feet did not leave tracks in the fallen snow. He ran with a supernatural speed that was eerie to watch, and although Andy could not make out the man’s characteristics from this distance, he could see one thing clearly.
The man’s ghastly hands were extended, as if to reach through the window and snatch Andy.
The boy fled.
He stumbled through the living room that had once been very beautiful and was now very ugly. He climbed the stairs on all fours, crying and screaming, certain he would not escape… but there was a voice calling to him from the protection of his parents’ bedroom, an angelic voice full of the wisdom of adults. And so Andy kept going, and once he reached the blue carpet of the second floor, he ran all the way down the hallway and burst through the door of his parents’ bedroom.
He came to an abrupt halt.
There, lying on the bed where Andy’s parents had conceived their only son, was the Bagman.
There was no angelic voice. No feelings of mercy or protection. Only the growing dread that came with the realization that he had been tricked somehow, that he had played right into the nightmare’s prophecy, and from behind Andy there came a hideous sound—the bedroom door slamming shut by itself, and locking.
The Bagman, who had died on Friday the Thirteenth and was brought back to earth to commit more murders, reached up and removed the plastic bag from his head. The man stood up, and the bag fell to the floor with a soft crinkle, like discarded skin.
The Bagman was not Marcus Browne’s father. The man’s face was pale and sullen, the face of a dull student who refuses to learn, and he winked at Andy with one blue eye. Andy recognized him immediately.
Although the ghost had died when he was five years old, the immortal soul of Marcus Browne had manifested itself at the neutral age of twenty-five years. There was a bloody cavity in his chest from where his father had struck him repeatedly, but it was the blue eyes that gave him away. He was grinning at Andy hellishly.
“Marcus,” said Andy. “You’re the monster from my nightmare?”
“Shocked, aren’t you? Thought it was my old man because of the plastic bag, huh? Because my father was the killer and I was the victim? Don’t you know that most criminals were victims once upon a time?”
Marcus stepped forward. His grin widened, baring his small teeth. It was those teeth Andy’s attention kept coming back to—not the bloody hole in Marcus’s chest where Mr. Browne had shattered the ribcage and exposed the heart within, nor the blue eyes that were filled with too much knowledge, nor even the shaking hands unfolding the blade from a ghostly pocketknife—it was those teeth, not the teeth of a wolf but those of Little Red Riding Hood.
Footsteps were coming down the hall. Fists were suddenly pounding on the door. The latch shook and rattled but would not release.
“He can’t get in here,” said Marcus. “It’s your parents’ bedroom. Only you have power over the spot of your creation, and now I hold dominion over you. Even the greatest pieces on the chessboard must submit to slavery once their king has been checkmated.”
“But why, Marcus? Why are you doing this to me?”
Marcus’s demonic face filled with an emotion that was almost human. “Because I loved you, Andy. You were my best friend when my parents were fighting. So this is what the dark spirit wants. My king wants you dead, not to harm you per se, but to harm me. Then the act of violence that was begun during the holiday of evil will have been completed to the fullest, and the dark king will have murdered my soul as well as my body.”
Andy was beginning to cry again. Wonder of wonders, so was Marcus.
“Marcus,” said a man’s voice at the door. “Open the door, son. The Demon hasn’t won yet.”
“Shut up!” said Marcus, and now he sounded afraid as well as angry.
“It’s true,” Andy said. “It hasn’t won yet. Look at your teeth—”
“There’s nothing wrong with my teeth.” Marcus was now holding the knife as if to ward off a blow.
“Look in the mirror,” Andy said gently. “You still have your baby teeth.”
Marcus looked in the mirror beside the nightstand. He touched his reflection with trembling fingers. It was true. He even had the gap where he had lost a tooth on Christmas Eve.
“It’s not too late,” said Mr. Browne from behind the door. “That’s why you look the way you do. The soul is a reflection of the self. The Demon and its dark wisdom have transformed you into something older and meaner, to better serve its own purposes. But it hasn’t changed you completely, not yet. You can still change back.”
Marcus screamed at the door, “You killed me!”
“That’s right, I did. I lost my mind and the Devil found it. But after we died, he stuck with you instead of me, because your mind was still young and weak.”
“Don’t call me weak!”
“I’m going to suffer a horrible punishment for what I did. But I’ve been granted this chance to come back and save Andy’s life… and to rescue you from a fate even worse than death.”
“I can’t be saved. I don’t want to be saved. I want to die, I want to die and it’s all YOUR FAULT!”
“Yes, you do want to be saved, Marcus. Now open the door.”
Marcus tightened his grip on the knife. He was beginning to smile. “Yeah. Okay. Sure. I’ll open the door. Get out of the way, Andy.”
Before Andy could move, Marcus reached out and jerked him away from the door. Andy tripped and fell, hitting the nightstand headfirst, wailing in misery. Marcus took no notice. He pulled the door open without bothering to unlock the bolt—he almost ripped Mr. Buckler’s paneling off the wall. Andy heard the door slam open. Marcus screamed once in victory and again in terror.
It is here that Andy’s memory grows dim. The trauma to the head would prove severe enough to send Andy to the emergency room for several hours, and the doctor would pronounce it a clinical miracle that the boy hadn’t bled to death. It was during those final seconds before passing out—it’s just like the end of my nightmare, thought Andy, I’m passing out, only I’m not surrounded by darkness, I’m surrounded by white light—that Andy heard two things distinctly.
He heard the screams of the Marcus-devil, begging for mercy. The screams were soft and subtle, muffled in the way only great distances can change a sound. Below this, he heard something much more powerful. It was a gentle sound, and yet Andy wanted to scream in fear, because in his gut he knew this was the same sound that crushed mountains and moved galaxies.
Andy thought one word—Marcus—and then the light swallowed both conscious and unconscious thought.
Andy awoke several hours later. He was looking up at a man he first mistook as a dentist. But he could still hear the voices of the angels singing softly, like the echoes from a dream he was already forgetting.
“Andy?” asked the man who looked like a dentist. “Can you hear me?”
The world melted away as Andy shut his eyes again.
The stroke of midnight is a punch that can knock a grownup unconscious but leave a child seeing stars. When Andy opened his eyes again, he wanted more than anything to be awake. “No more nightmares,” he told himself, “I’ll stay awake until dawn if it means no more nightmares.”
But he was not awake.
The hallway was very dark. Andy recognized his surroundings well. It was the place from his bad dream. The doors now hung open on broken hinges, and distantly Andy heard a clock chiming.
There were grownups everywhere. They were alive, but none of them were breathing. They were huddled in the hallway, watching Andy with yellow eyes, and some were shrouded with cobwebs.
All of them had fangs.
“You were right about the teeth,” said a voice kindly.
Andy turned around.
Marcus was smiling down at him. His chest was no longer bloody, and he was dressed quite well for someone of Marcus’s upbringing. He wore a backpack stuffed with books, and he even had on a pair of glasses.
But he still had his baby teeth.
“I have a lot of learning to do,” said Marcus. “But at least I’m not starting the new semester as a total failure.”
“What is this place?” asked Andy.
“It’s a school, of course! And these are my teachers. I know they’re a little ugly, but life teaches us through ugliness sometimes, doesn’t it? The good news is that I’m being given another chance.”
“Hope you do well.” Andy even managed a smile.
“So do I,” laughed Marcus. “So do I.”
With that said, Marcus turned around and disappeared into the growing darkness with the others. The setting grew hazy once more, and the last thing Andy saw before waking up was a plastic grocery bag rolling across the hallway, as harmless as any old thing found in the gutter of a parking lot.