The very first volume of the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy series just came out, guest-edited by Joe Hill. It includes stories by Jo Walton, Kelly Link, T.C. Boyle and Karen Russell. We’re proud to present one of the stories from the book, “Skullpocket” by Nathan Ballingrud.
“Skullpocket” was originally published in the book Nightmare Carnival, edited by Ellen Datlow, and it’s a creepy, fascinating story about the ghoul named Mr. Wormcake, the Maggot religion, and the terrible game of Skullpocket. Don’t read this story right before bedtime!
Jonathan Wormcake, the Gentleman Corpse of Hob’s Landing, greets me at the door himself. Normally one of his several servants would perform this minor duty, and I can only assume it’s my role as a priest in the Church of the Maggot that affords me this special attention. I certainly don’t believe it has anything to do with our first encounter, fifty years ago this very day. I’d be surprised if he remembers that at all.
He greets me with a cordial nod of the head and leads me down a long hallway to the vast study, lined with thousands of books and boasting broad windows overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, where the waters are painted gold by an autumn sun. I remember this walk, and this study, with a painful twinge in my heart. I was just a boy when I came here last. Now, like Mr. Wormcake, I am an old man, and facing an end to things.
I’m shocked by how old he looks. I know I shouldn’t be; Mr. Wormcake’s presence in this mansion by the bay extends back one hundred years, and his history with the town is well documented. But since the death of the Orchid Girl last year, he has withdrawn from public life, and in that time his aspect has changed considerably. Though his bearing remains regal and his grooming is as immaculate as ever, age hangs from him like a too-large coat. The flesh around his head is entirely gone, and his hair—once his proudest feature—is no more. The bare bones of his skull gleam brightly in the late-afternoon sunlight, and the eyes which once transfixed an entire town have fallen to dust, leaving dark sockets. He looks frail, and he looks tired.
To be fair, the fourteen children crowding the room, all between the ages of six and twelve, only underscore this impression. They’ve been selected for the honor of attending the opening ceremonies of the Seventieth Annual Skullpocket Fair by the Maggot, which summoned them here through their dreams. The children are too young, for the most part, to understand the significance of the honor, and so they mill about the great study in nervous anticipation, chattering to each other and touching things they shouldn’t.
Mr. Wormcake’s longtime manservant—formally known as Brain in a Jar 17, of the Frozen Parliament, but who is more affectionately recognized as the kindly “Uncle Digby”—glides into the room, his body a polished, gold-inlaid box on rolling treads, topped with a clear dome under which the floating severed head of an old man is suspended in a bubbling green solution, white hair drifting like ghostly kelp. He is received with a joyful chorus of shouts from the children, who immediately crowd around him. He embraces the closest of them with his metal arms.
“Oh my, look at all these wonderful children,” he says. “What animated little beasts!”
To anyone new to Hob’s Landing, Uncle Digby can be unnerving. His face and eyes are dead, and his head appears to be nothing more than a preserved portion of a cadaver; but the brain inside is both alive and lively, and it speaks through a small voice box situated beneath the glass dome.
While the children are distracted, Mr. Wormcake removes a small wooden box from where it sits discreetly on a bookshelf. He opens it and withdraws the lower, fleshy portion of a human face—from below the nose to the first curve of the chin, kept moist in a thin pool of blood. A tongue is suspended from it by a system of leather twine and gears. Mr. Wormcake affixes the half face to his skull by means of an elastic band and pushes the tongue into his mouth. Blood trickles down the jawline of the skull and dapples the white collar of his starched shirt. The effect is disconcerting, even to me, who has grown up in Hob’s Landing and am accustomed to stranger sights than this.
Jonathan Wormcake has not ventured into public view for twenty years, since the denuding of his skull, and it occurs to me that I am the first person not a part of this household to witness this procedure.
I am here because Mr. Wormcake is dying. We don’t know how a ghoul dies. Not even he is sure, as he left the warrens as a boy and was never indoctrinated into the mysteries. The dreams given to us by the Maggot, replete with images of sloughing flesh and great black kites riding silently along the night’s air currents, suggest that it’s not an ending but a transformation. But we have no experience to measure these dreams against. What waits for him on the far side of this death remains an open question.
He stretches open his mouth and moves his tongue like a man testing the fit of a new article of clothing. Apparently satisfied, he looks at me at last. “It’s good of you to come, especially on this night,” he says.
“I have to admit I was surprised you chose the opening night of Skullpocket Fair for this. It seems there might have been a more discreet time.”
He looks at the children gathered around Uncle Digby, who is guiding them gently toward the great bay window facing east, where the flat waters of the Chesapeake are painted gold by the late-afternoon sun. They are animated by excitement and fear, a tangle of emotions I remember from when I was in their place. “I have no intention of stealing their moment,” he says. “This night is about them. Not me.”
I’m not convinced this is entirely true. Though the children have been selected to participate in the opening ceremonies of Skullpocket Fair and will be the focus of the opening act, the pomp and circumstance is no more about them than it is about the Maggot, or the role of the church in this town. Really, it’s all about Jonathan Wormcake. Never mind the failed mayoral campaign of the midseventies, never mind the fallout from the Sleepover Wars or the damning secrets made public by the infamous betrayal of his best friend, Wenceslas Slipwicket—Wormcake is the true patriarch of Hob’s Landing; the Skullpocket Fair is held each year to celebrate that fact, and to fortify it.
That this one marks the one hundredth anniversary of his dramatic arrival in town, and his ritual surrendering of this particular life, makes his false modesty a little hard to take.
“Sit down,” he says, and extends a hand toward the most comfortable chair in the room: a high-backed, deeply cushioned piece of furniture of the sort one might expect to find in the drawing room of an English lord. It faces the large windows, through which we are afforded a view of the sun-flecked waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Mr. Wormcake maneuvers another, smaller chair away from the chess table in the corner and closer to me, so we can speak more easily. He eases himself slowly into it and sighs with a weary satisfaction as his body settles, at last, into stillness. If he had eyes, I believe he would close them now.
Meanwhile, Uncle Digby has corralled the children into double rows of folding chairs, also facing the bay windows. He is distributing soda and little containers of popcorn, which do not calm the children but do at least draw their focus.
“Did you speak to any of the children after they received the dream?” Wormcake asks me.
“No. Some of them were brought to the church by their parents, but I didn’t speak to any of them personally. We have others who specialize in that kind of thing.”
“I understand it can be a traumatic experience for some of them.”
“Well, it’s an honor to be selected by the Maggot, but it can also be pretty terrifying. The dream is very intense. Some people don’t respond well.”
“That makes me sad.”
I glance over at the kids, seated now, the popcorn spilling from their hands, shoveled into their mouths. They bristle with a wild energy: a crackling, kinetic radiation that could spill into chaos and tears if not expertly handled. Uncle Digby, though, is nothing if not an expert. The kindliest member of the Frozen Parliament, he has long been the spokesman for the family, as well as a confidant to Mr. Wormcake himself. There are many who believe that without his steady influence, the relationship between the Wormcakes and the townspeople of Hob’s Landing would have devolved into brutal violence long ago.
“The truth is, I don’t want anyone to know why you’re here. I don’t want my death to be a spectacle. If you came up here any other night, someone would notice, and it wouldn’t be hard for them to figure out why. This way, the town’s attention is on the fair. And anyway, I like the symmetry of it.”
“Forgive me for asking, Mr. Wormcake, but my duty here demands it: are you doing this because of the Orchid Girl’s death?”
He casts a dark little glance at me. It’s not possible to read emotion in a naked skull, of course, and the prosthetic mouth does not permit him any range of expression; but the force of the look leaves me no doubt of his irritation. “The Orchid Girl was her name for the people in town. Her real name was Gretchen. Call her by that.”
“My apologies. But the question remains, I’m afraid. To leave the world purely, you must do it unstained by grief.”
“Don’t presume to teach me about the faith I introduced to you.”
I accept his chastisement quietly.
He is silent for a long moment, and I allow myself to be distracted by the sound of the children gabbling excitedly to each other, and of Uncle Digby relating some well-worn anecdote about the time the Leviathan returned to the bay. Old news to me, but wonderful stuff to the kids. When Mr. Wormcake speaks again, it is to change course.
“You mentioned the dream which summons the children as being intense. This is not your first time to the house, is it?”
“No. I had the dream myself, when I was a kid. I was summoned to Skullpocket Fair. Seventy years ago. The very first one.”
“My, my. Now that is something. Interesting that it’s you who will perform my death ritual. So that puts you in your eighties? You look young for your age.”
I smile at him. “Thanks, but I don’t feel young.”
“Who does, anymore? I suppose I should say ‘welcome back.’”
The room seems host to a dizzying compression of history. There are three fairs represented tonight, at least for me: the Seventieth Annual Skullpocket Fair, which commences this evening; the first, which took place in 1944—seventy years ago, when I was a boy—and set my life on its course in the church; and the Cold Water Fair of 1914, a hundred years ago, which Uncle Digby would begin describing very shortly. That Mr. Wormcake has chosen this night to die, and that I will be his instrument, seems too poetic to be entirely coincidental.
As if on cue, Uncle Digby’s voice rings out, filling the small room. “Children, quiet down now, quiet down. It’s time to begin.” The kids settle at once, as though some spell has been spoken. They sit meekly in their seats, the gravity of the moment settling over them at last. The nervous energy is pulled in and contained, expressing itself now only in furtive glances and, in the case of one buzz-cut little boy, barely contained tears.
I remember, viscerally and immediately, the giddy terror that filled me when I was that boy, seventy years ago, summoned by a dream of a monster to a monster’s house. I’m surprised when I feel the tears in my own eyes. And I’m further surprised by Mr. Wormcake’s hand, hard and bony beneath its glove, coming over to squeeze my own.
“I’m glad it’s you,” he says. “Another instance of symmetry. Balance eases the heart.”
I’m gratified, of course.
But as Uncle Digby begins to speak, it’s hard to remember anything but the blood.
One hundred years ago, says Uncle Digby to the children, three little ghouls came out to play. They were Wormcake, Slipwicket, and Stubblegut: best friends since birth. They were often allowed to play in the cemetery, as long as the sun was down and the gate was closed. There were many more children playing among the gravestones that night, but we’re only going to concern ourselves with these three. The others were only regular children, and so they were not important.
Now, there were two things about this night that were already different from other nights they went aboveground to play. Does anybody know what they were?
No? Well, I’ll tell you. One was that they were let out a little bit earlier than normal. It was still twilight, and though sometimes ghouls were known to leave the warrens during that time, rarely were children permitted to come up so early. That night, however, the Maggot had sent word that there was to be a meeting in the charnel house—an emergency meeting, to arrange a ritual called an Extinction Rite, which the children did not understand but which seemed to put the adults in a dreadfully dull mood. The children had to be got out of the way. There might have been some discussion about the wisdom of this decision, but ghouls are by nature a calm and reclusive folk, so no one worried that anything untoward would happen.
The other unusual thing about that night, obviously, was the Cold Water Fair.
The Cold Water Fair had been held for years and years, and it was a way for Hob’s Landing to celebrate its relationship with the Chesapeake Bay, and to commemorate the time the Leviathan rose to devour the town but was turned away with some clever thinking and some good advice. This was the first time the fair was held on this side of Hob’s Landing. In previous years it had been held on the northern side of the town, out of sight of the cemetery. But someone had bought some land and got grumpy about the fair being on it, so now they were holding it right at the bottom of the hill instead.
The ghoul children had never seen anything so wonderful! Imagine living your life in the warrens, underground, where everything was stone and darkness and cold earth. Whenever you came up to play, you could see the stars, you could see the light on the water, and you could even see the lights from town, which looked like flakes of gold. But this! Never anything like this. The fair was like a smear of bright paint: candy-colored pastels in the blue wash of air. A great illuminated wheel turned slowly in the middle of it, holding swinging gondola cars full of people.
“A Ferris wheel!” shouts a buzz-cut boy who had been crying only a few minutes ago. His face is still ruddy, but his eyes shine with something else now: something better.
Yes, you’re exactly right. A Ferris wheel! They had never even seen one before. Can you imagine that?
There were gaudy tents arranged all around it, like a little village. It was full of amazing new smells: cotton candy, roasting peanuts, hot cider. The high screams of children blew up to the little ghouls like a wind from a beautiful tomb. They stood transfixed at the fence, those grubby little things, with their hands wrapped around the bars and their faces pressed between.
They wondered briefly if this had anything to do with the Extinction Rite the adults kept talking about.
“Do you think they scream like that all the time?” Slipwicket asked.
Wormcake said, “Of course they do. It’s a fair. It’s made just for screaming.”
In fact, children, he had no idea if this was true. But he liked to pretend he was smarter than everybody else, even way back then.
The children laugh. I glance at Mr. Wormcake, to gauge his reaction to what is probably a scripted joke, but his false mouth, blood pasted to his skull, reveals nothing.
Slipwicket released the longest, saddest sigh you have ever heard. It would have made you cry, it was so forlorn. He said, “Oh, how I would love to go to a place made only for screams.” Uncle Digby is laying it on thick here, his metal hands cupping the glass jar of his head, his voice warbling with barely contained sorrow. The kids eat it up.
“Well, we can’t,” said Stubblegut. “We have to stay inside the fence.”
Stubblegut was the most boring ghoul you ever saw. You could always depend on him to say something dull and dreadful. He was morose, always complaining, and he never wanted to try anything new. He was certain to grow up to be somebody’s father, that most tedious of creatures. Sometimes the others would talk about ditching him as a friend, but they could never bring themselves to do it. They were good boys, and they knew you were supposed to stay loyal to your friends—even the boring ones.
“Come along,” Stubblegut said. “Let’s play skullpocket.”
At this, a transformation overtakes the children, as though a current has been fed into them. They jostle in their seats, and cries of “Skullpocket!” arise from them like pheasants from a bramble. They seem both exalted and terrified. Each is a little volcano, barely contained.
Oh, my! Do you know what skullpocket is, children?
Excellent! In case any of you aren’t sure, skullpocket is a favorite game of ghouls everywhere. In simple terms, you take a skull and kick it back and forth between your friends until it cracks to pieces. Whoever breaks it is the loser of the game, and has to eat what they find inside its pocket. And what is that, children?
That’s right! It’s the brain, which everyone knows is the worst bit. It’s full of all the gummy old sorrows and regrets gathered in life, and the older the brain is, the nastier it tastes. While the loser eats, other players will often dance in a circle around him and chant. And what do they chant?
“Empty your pockets! Empty your pockets!” the children shout.
Yes! You must play the game at a run, and respect is given to those who ricochet the skull off a gravestone to their intended target, increasing the risk of breaking it. Of course you don’t have to do that—you can play it safe and just bat it along nicely—but nobody likes a coward, do they, children? For a regular game, people use adult skulls which have been interred for less than a year. More adventurous players might use the skull of an infant, which offers a wonderful challenge.
Well, someone was sent to retrieve a skull from the charnel house in the warrens, which was kept up by the corpse gardeners. There was always one to be spared for children who wanted to play.
The game was robust, with the ghouls careening the skull off trees and rocks and headstones; the skull proved hardy and it went on for quite some time.
Our young Mr. Wormcake became bored. He couldn’t stop thinking about that fair, and the lights and the smells and—most of all—the screams. The screams filled his ears and distracted him from play. After a time, he left the game and returned to the fence, staring down at the fair. It had gotten darker by that time, so that it stood out in the night like a gorgeous burst of mushrooms.
Slipwicket and Stubblegut joined him.
“What are you doing?” said the latter. “The game isn’t over. People will think you’re afraid to play.”
“I’m not afraid,” said Wormcake. And in saying the words, a resolution took shape in his mind. “I’m not afraid of anything. I’m going down there.”
His friends were shocked into silence. It was an awed silence, a holy silence, like the kind you find in church. It was the most outrageous thing they had ever heard anyone say.
“That’s crazy,” Stubblegut said.
“Because it’s forbidden. Because the sunlight people live down there.”
At this, some of the children become upset. Little faces crinkle in outrage.
Now, hold on, hold on. You have to understand how ghouls saw your people at the time. You were very strange to them. Hob’s Landing was as exotic to them as a city on the moon would be to you. People went about riding horses, and they walked around in sunlight. On purpose, for Pete’s sake! Who ever heard of such a thing?
The children start to giggle at this, won over again.
When they came to the cemetery they acted sad and shameful. They buried their dead the way a cat buries its own scat. They were soft and doughy, and they ate whatever came to hand, the way rats and cockroaches do.
“We’re not cockroaches!” cries one of the children.
Of course not! But the ghouls didn’t understand. They were afraid. So they made up wild ideas about you. And it kept their children from wandering, which was important, because they wanted the warrens to stay a secret. Ghouls had been living under the cities of the sunlight people for as long as there have beensunlight people, and for the most part they had kept their existence hidden. They were afraid of what would happen if they were discovered. Can you blame them for that?
But young Mr. Wormcake was not to be dissuaded by rumors or legends!
“I’m going down there. I want to see what it’s all about.”
Back then, the cemetery gate was not burdened with locks or chains; it simply had a latch, oiled and polished, which Wormcake lifted without trouble or fanfare. The gate swung open, and the wide, bright world spread out before them like a feast at the banquet table. He turned to look at his friends. Behind them, the other children had assembled in a small crowd, the game of skullpocket forgotten. The looks on their faces ranged from fear to excitement to open disgust.
“Well?” he said to his friends. “Are you cowards?”
Slipwicket would not be called a coward! He made a grand show of his exit, lifting each foot with great exaggeration over the threshold and stomping it into the earth with a flourish. He completed his transgression with a happy skip and turned to look at Stubblegut, who lingered on the grave side of the fence and gathered his face into a worried knot. He placed his hands over his wide belly and gave it gentle pats, which was his habit when he was nervous.
At that moment of hesitation, when he might have gone back and warned the adults of what was happening, some unseen event in the fair below them caused a fresh bouquet of screams to lift up and settle over the ghouls like blown leaves. Slipwicket’s whole body seemed to lean toward it, like he was being pulled by a great magnet. He looked at Stubblegut with such longing in his eyes, such a terrible ache, that his frightened friend’s resolve was breached at last, and Stubblegut crossed the threshold himself with a grave and awful reluctance.
He was received with joy.
And before anyone could say jackrabbit, Slipwicket bolted down the hill, a pale little gremlin in the dark green waves of grass. The others followed him in a cool breath of motion, the tall grass like a strange, rippling sea in the moonlight. Of course, they were silent in their elation: the magnitude of their crime was not lost upon them. Wormcake dared not release the cry of elation beating in his lungs.
But, children, they were in high rebellion. They were throwing off the rules of their parents and riding the wave of their own cresting excitement. Even Stubblegut felt it, like a blush of heat over his moss-grown soul.
Naturally, Uncle Digby’s story stirs up memories of my own first fair.
The dream of the Maggot came to me in 1944, when I was twelve years old. The tradition of the Cold Water Fair had ended thirty years before, on the bloody night Uncle Digby is speaking of, and Hob’s Landing had done without a festival of any sort since. But though we didn’t know it yet, this would be the year the Skullpocket Fair was begun.
I was the sixth kid to receive the dream that year. I had heard of a couple of the others, so I had known, in some disconnected way, that it might happen. I didn’t know what it meant, except that parents were terrified of it. They knew it had something to do with the Wormcake clan, and that was enough to make it suspect. Although this was in 1944 and they’d been living in the mansion for thirty years at that point—peacefully for the most part—there were still many in town who considered them to be the very incarnation of evil. Many of our parents were present at the night of the Cold Water Fair, and they were slow to forgive. The fact that the Orchid Girl came into town and patronized the same shops we did, attended the same shows we did, didn’t help matters at all, as far as they were concerned.
She’s putting on airs, they said. She thinks she’s one of us. At least her husband has the decency to keep himself hidden away in that horrible old mansion.
My friends and I were too young to be saddled with all of the old fears and prejudices of our parents, and anyway we thought the Orchid Girl was beautiful. We would watch her from across the street or through a window when she came to town, walking down Poplar Street as proud as you please, unattended by her servants or by any friends at all. She always wore a bright, lovely dress which swirled around her legs, kept her hair pinned just so, and held her head high—almost defiantly, I can say now, looking back. We would try to see the seams on her face, where it would open up, but we never got close enough. We never dared.
We believed that anyone married to the Orchid Girl couldn’t be all bad. And anyway, Mr. Wormcake always came to the school plays, brought his own children down to the ice-skating rink in the wintertime, and threw an amazing Halloween party. Admittedly, half the town never went, but most of us kids managed to make it over there.
We all knew about the Church of the Maggot. There were already neighborhoods converting, renouncing their own god for the one that burrowed through flesh. Some people our parents’ age, also veterans of that night at the fair, had even become priests. They walked around town in grubby white garb, talking on and on about the flesh as meat, the necessity of cleansing the bone, and other things that sounded strange and a little exciting to us. So when some of the children of Hob’s Landing started to dream of the Maggot, the kids worried about it a lot less than the parents or the grandparents did. At first we were even jealous. Christina Laudener, just one year younger than I was, had the first one, and the next night it was little Eddie Brach. They talked about it in school, and word spread. It terrified them, but we wanted it ourselves nonetheless. They were initiates into some new mystery centered around the Wormcakes, and those of us who were left out burned with a terrible envy.
I was probably the worst of them, turning my jealousy into a bullying contempt whenever I saw them at the school, telling them that the ghouls were going to come into their homes while they were sleeping and kidnap them, so they could feed them to their precious Maggot. I made Eddie cry, and I was glad. I hated him for being a part of something I wasn’t.
Until a couple of nights later, when I had the dream myself.
I’m told that everyone experiences the dream of the Maggot differently. For me it was a waking dream. I climbed out of bed at some dismal hour of the morning, when both my parents were still asleep, and stumbled my way to the bathroom. I sat on the toilet for a long time, waiting for something to happen, but I couldn’t go, despite feeling that I needed to very badly. I remember this being a source of profound distress in the dream, way out of proportion to real life. It terrified me and I felt that it was a sign I was going to die.
I left the toilet and walked down the hallway to my parents’ room, to give them the news of my impending demise. In my dream I knew they would only laugh at me, and it made me hate them.
Then I felt a clutching pain in my abdomen. I dropped to my knees and began to vomit maggots. Copious amounts of them. They wouldn’t stop coming, just splashed out onto the ground with each painful heave, in wriggling piles, ropy with blood and saliva. It went on and on and on. When I stood up, my body was as wrinkled and crushed as an emptied sack. I fell to the floor and had to crawl back to my room.
The next morning I went down to breakfast as usual, and as my father bustled about the kitchen, looking for his keys and his hat, and my mother leaned against the countertop with a cigarette in her hand, I told them that I had received the dream everyone was talking about.
This stopped them both cold. My mother looked at me and said, “Are you sure? What happened? What does it mean?”
“They’re having a fair. I have to go.”
Of course this was absurd; there had been nothing about a fair in the dream at all. But the knowledge sat with all the incontrovertibility of a mountain. Such is the way of the Maggot.
“What fair?” Dad said. “There’s no fair.”
“The Wormcakes,” I said. “They’re having it at the mansion.”
My parents exchanged a look.
“And they invited you in a dream?” he said.
“It wasn’t really like an invitation. It’s more like the Maggot told me I have to come.”
“It’s a summons,” Mom told him. “That’s what Carol was saying. It’s like a command.”
“Like hell,” Dad said. “Who do those freaks think they are?”
“I think I have to go, Dad.”
“You don’t have to do a goddamned thing they tell you. None of us do.”
I started to cry. The thought of disregarding the dream was unthinkable. I felt that clenching in my gut and I feared the maggots were going to start pouring out of my mouth. I thought I could feel them inside me already, chewing away, as though I were already dead. I didn’t know how to articulate what I know now: that the Maggot had emptied me out and was offering to fill me again. To ignore it would be to live the rest of my life as a husk.
It was a hard cry, as sudden as a monsoon, my cheeks hot and red, the tears painting my face, my breath coming in a thin hiss. Mom rushed to me and engulfed me in her arms, saying the things moms are supposed to say.
“I have to go,” I said. “I have to go, I have to. I have to go.”
I watch the children sitting there in profile, their little faces turned to Uncle Digby and his performance like flowers to the sun, and I try to see myself there all those years ago. The sun is setting outside, and in the eastern-facing window darkness is hoarding over the bay. The light in Uncle’s glass dome illuminates the green solution from beneath, and his pale dead face is graced with a rosy pink halo of light.
I must have seen the same thing when I sat there with the other kids. But I don’t remember it. I only remember the fear. I guess I must have laughed at the jokes, just like the others did.
Skullpocket is, of course, a culling game. It’s not about singling out and celebrating a winner. It’s about thinning the herd.
Jonathan Wormcake does not appear to be listening to the story anymore. His attention is outside, on the darkening waters. Although her name has not come up yet, the Orchid Girl haunts this story as truly as any ghost. I wonder if it causes him pain. Grieving, to a ghoul, is a sign of weakness. It’s a trait to be disdained. The grieving are not fit for the world. I look at the hard, clean curve of his skull and I try to fathom what’s inside.
They were clever little ghouls, Uncle Digby said, and they kept to the outskirts and the shadows. They didn’t want to be discovered. A ghoul child looks a lot like a human child when seen from the corner of the eye. It’s true that they’re paler, more gaunt, and if you look at one straight on you’ll see that their eyes are like little black holes with nothing inside, but you have to pay attention to notice any of that. At the fair, no one was paying attention. There was too much else to see. So Wormcake and his friends were able to slip into the crowd without notice, and there they took in everything they could.
They were amazed by the striped, colorful tents, by the little booths with the competitive games, by the pens with pigs and mules, by the smells of cotton candy, frying oil, animal manure, electricity—everything was new and astonishing. Most of all, though, they marveled at the humans in their excitable state: walking around, running, hugging, laughing, and clasping their hands on each other’s shoulders. Some were even crushing their lips together in a grotesque human version of a kiss!
Here the children laugh. They are young enough still that all kissing is grotesque.
There were many little ones, like themselves, and like you. They were swarming like hungry flies, running from tent to tent, waiting in lines, crackling with an energy so intense you could almost see it arcing from their hair.
It was quite unsettling to see humans acting this way. It was like watching someone indulging in madness. They were used to seeing humans in repose, quiet little morsels in their thin wooden boxes. Watching them like this was like watching a little worm before it transforms into a beautiful fly, but worse, because it was so much louder and uglier.
A little girl raises her hand. She seems angry. When Uncle Digby acknowledges her, she says, “I don’t think flies are beautiful. I think they’re nasty.”
“Well, I think you’re the one who’s nasty,” Uncle Digby retorts. “And soon you’ll be filling the little tummies of a thousand thousand flies, and they’ll use you to lay eggs and make maggots, and shit out the bits of you they don’t want. So maybe you should watch your horrid little mouth, child.”
The little girl bursts into shocked tears, while the children around her stay silent or laugh unhappily.
Wormcake stirs beside me for the first time since the story began. “Uncle,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” says Uncle Digby. “Dear child, please forgive me. Tonight is a glorious night. Let’s get back to the story, shall we?”
The children are quiet. Uncle Digby forges ahead.
So they made their way among the humans, disturbed by their antics. They knew that it was only a matter of time before the humans all reached their true state, the condition in which they would face the long dark inside the earth; but this brief, erratic explosion of life stirred a fascinated shame in the ghouls.
“It’s vile,” said Stubblegut. “We shouldn’t be seeing this. It’s indecent.”
“It’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen,” said young master Wormcake, and with the courage that had always separated him from the others, he strode out onto the midway, arms a-swing and head struck back like the world’s littlest worm lord.
You might be forgiven in thinking that someonewould notice and cause the humans to flee from them in terror, or cry out in alarm, or gather pitchforks and torches. But human beings are geniuses at self-delusion. Let’s be honest, children, you are. You believe that your brief romance with the sun is your one, true life. Our little friend here, for example, becomes upset when contemplating the beauty of the fly. You cherish your comfortable delusions. That evening the humans at the fair just looked at the ghouls as wretched examples of their own kind. Sickly children, afflicted with some mysterious wasting illness that blued their flesh and tightened the skin around their bones. Pathetic creatures, to be mourned and fretted over, even if they also inspired a small thrill of revulsion. So the humans pretended not to see them. They ushered their own children to a safe distance and continued in their revels in a state of constructed ignorance.
Mr. Wormcake leans over to me and whispers in my ear: “Not entirely true. The human adults ignored us, yes. But the human children knew us for what we were. They pointed and quaked. Some burst into tears. It was all such fun.”
What was so difficult to tell my parents, all those years ago, was that I wanted to go to the fair. The summons was terrifying, yes, but it was also the touch of relevance I’d been wanting so badly. I was just like Christina Laudener now; I was just like weepy Eddie Brach. Two other children had had the dream the same night I did, and by the time a week had finished, there were fourteen of us. The dreams stopped after that, and everyone understood that it was to be us, and only us.
We became a select group, a focus of envy and awe. There were some who felt the resentment I once did, of course, and we were the target of the same bullying I’d doled out myself. But we were a group by this time, and we found comfort and safety in that. We ate lunch together at school, hung out on weekends. The range of ages—six to twelve—was wide enough that normally none of us would give each other the time of day. But the Maggot had changed everything.
The town was abuzz with talk. Of the fourteen summoned children, certainly, but also of the fair itself. Hob’s Landing had been without anything like this since the night of Wormcake’s arrival, thirty years before. That Wormcake himself should be the one to reintroduce a fair to the town seemed at once sacrilegious and entirely appropriate. Fliers began to appear, affixed to telephone poles, displayed in markets and libraries: The First Annual Skullpocket Fair, to Be Held on the Grounds of Wormcake Mansion, on the Last Weekend of September, 1944. Inaugurated by Select Children of Hob’s Landing. Come and Partake in the Joy of Life with the Gentleman Corpse!
People were intrigued. That Mr. Wormcake was himself using the nickname he’d once fiercely objected to—he was not, he often reminded them, a corpse—was a powerful indicator that he meant to extend an olive branch to the people of Hob’s Landing. And who were they to object? He and his family clearly weren’t going anywhere. Wouldn’t it be best, then, to foster a good relationship with the town’s most famous citizens?
My parents were distraught. Once they realized I wanted to go, despite my panic of the first night, they forbade me. That didn’t worry me a bit, though. I knew the Maggot would provide a way. I was meant to be there, and the Maggot would organize the world in such a way as to make that happen.
And so it did. On the afternoon the first Skullpocket Fair was set to open, I headed for the front door, expecting a confrontation. But my parents were sitting together in the living room, my mother with her hands drawn in and her face downcast, my father looking furious and terrified at once. They watched me go to the door without making any move to interfere. Years later, I was to learn that the night before they had received their own dream from the Maggot. I don’t know what that dream contained, but I do know that no parent has ever tried to interfere with the summons.
These days, of course, few would want to.
“Be careful,” Mom said, just before I closed the door on them both.
The others and I had agreed to meet in front of the drugstore. Once we’d all assembled, we walked as a group through the center of town, past small gathered clusters of curious neighbors, and up the long road that would take us to the mansion by the bay.
The sun was on its way down.
They rode the Ferris wheel first, says Uncle Digby.From that height they looked down at the fair, and at Hob’s Landing, and at their own cemetery upon the hill. Away from the town, near the coastline, was an old three-story mansion, long abandoned and believed haunted. Even the adult ghouls avoided the place, during their rare midnight excursions into town. But it was only one part of the tapestry.
The world was a spray of light on a dark earth. It was so much bigger than any of them had thought. As their car reached the height of its revolution and they were bathed in the high cool air of the night, Wormcake was transfixed by the stars above them. They’d never seemed so close before. He sought out the constellations he’d been taught—the Rendering Pot, the Moldy King—and reached his hands over his head, trailing his fingers among them. As the gondola swung down again, it seemed he was dragging flames through the sky.
“Let’s never go home again,” Wormcake said. If the others heard him, they never said so.
And unknown to them, under the hill of graves, their parents were very busy setting up the Extinction Rite. Were the boys missed? I think they must have been. But no one could do anything about it.
What’s next, children? What is it you really came to hear about?
It’s as though he’s thrown a lit match into a barrel of firecrackers. They all explode at once.
“The freak show!”
“The freak tent!”
“Freak show, freak show!”
Uncle Digby raises his metal arms and a chuckle emits from the voice box beneath the jar. The bubbles churn with a little extra gusto around his floating head, and I think, for a moment, that it really is possible to read joy in that featureless aspect. Whatever tensions might have been festering just a few moments ago, they’re all swept aside by the manic excitement generated by the promise of the freaks. This is what they’ve been waiting to hear.
Yes, well, oh my, what a surprise. I thought you wanted to learn more about ghoul history. Maybe learn the names of all the elders? Or learn how they harvested food from the coffins? It’s really a fascinating process, you know.
Well, well, well. The freaks it is, then.
The ghouls stopped outside a tent striped green and white, where an old man hunched beside a wooden clapboard sign. On that sign, in bright red paint, was that huge, glorious word: FREAKS. The old man looked at the boys with yellowing eyes—the first person to look at them directly all night—and said, “Well? Come to see the show, or to join it?”
He tapped the sign with a long finger, drawing their attention back to it. Beneath the word FREAKS was a list of words in smaller size, painted in an elegant hand. Words like The Most Beautiful Mermaid in the World, The Giant with Two Faces, and—you guessed it—The Orchid Girl.
“Go on in, boys. Just be careful they let you out again.”
They joined the line going inside. Curtains partitioned the interior into three rooms, and the crowd was funneled into a line. Lanterns hung from poles, and strings of lights crisscrossed the top of the tent.
The first freak was a man in a cage. He was seven feet tall, dressed in a pair of ratty trousers. He looked sleepy, and not terribly smart. He hadn’t shaved in some time, his beard bristling like a thicket down his right cheek and jowl. The beard grew spottily on the left side, mostly because of the second face which grew there: doughy and half formed, like a face had just slid down the side of the head and bunched up on the neck. It had one blinking blue eye, and a nose right next to it, where the other eye should have been. And there was a big, gaping mouth, nestled between the neck and shoulder, with a little tongue that darted out to moisten the chapped lips.
A sign hanging below his cage said, BRUNO: EATER OF CHILDREN.
The ghouls were fascinated by the second face, but the eating children part didn’t seem all that remarkable to them. They’d eaten plenty themselves.
Next up was THE WORLD’S MOST BEAUTIFUL MERMAID. This one was a bit frustrating, because she was in a tank, and she was lying on the bottom of it. The scaly flesh of her tail was pressed up against the glass, so at first they thought they were looking at nothing more than a huge carp. Only after staring a moment did they notice the human torso which grew from it, curled around itself to hide from the gaze of the visitors. It was a woman’s back, her spine ridged along her sun-dark skin. Long black hair floated around her head like a cloud of ink from an octopus.
Finally they progressed into the next partition, and they came to THE ORCHID GIRL.
She stood on a platform in the back of the tent, in a huge bell jar. She was just about your age, children. She was wearing a bright blue dress, and she was sitting down with her arms wrapped around her legs, looking out balefully at the crowds of people coming in to see her. She looked quite unhappy. She did not look, at first blush, like a freak; the only thing unusual about her were what appeared to be pale red scars running in long, S-like curves down her face.
Well, here was another disappointing exhibit, the people thought, and they were becoming quite agitated. Someone yelled something at her, and there was talk of demanding their money back.
But everything changed when Wormcake and his friends entered the room. The Orchid Girl sat a bit straighter, as if she had heard or felt something peculiar. She stood on her feet and looked out at the crowd. Almost immediately her gaze fell upon the ghoul children, as though she could sense them through some preternatural ability, and then, children, the most amazing thing happened. The thing that changed the ghouls’ lives, her own life, and the lives of everyone in Hob’s Landing forever afterward.
Her face opened along the red lines and bloomed in bright, glorious petals of white and purple and green. Her body was only a disguise, you see. She was a gorgeous flower masquerading as a human being.
The people screamed, or dropped to their knees in wonder. Some scattered like roaches in sunlight.
Wormcake and his friends ran, too. They fled through the crowd and back out into the night. They were not afraid; they were caught in the grip of destiny. Wormcake, suddenly, was in love. He fled from the terror and the beauty of it.
It was the Orchid Girl who greeted us at the door when we arrived. She looked ethereal. She was in her human guise, and the pale lines dividing her face stood out brightly in the afternoon sun. I was reminded, shamefully, of one of the many criticisms my mother levied against her: “She really should cover that with makeup. She looks like a car accident survivor. It’s disgraceful.”
To us, though, she looked like a visitation from another, better world.
“Hello, children. Welcome to our house. Thank you for joining us.”
That we didn’t have a choice—the summons of the Maggot was not to be ignored—didn’t enter our minds. We felt anointed by her welcome. We knew we’d been made special, and that everyone in Hob’s Landing envied us.
She led us into the drawing room—the one that would host every meeting like this for years to come—where Uncle Digby was waiting to tell us the story. We knew him already through his several diplomatic excursions into town, and were put at ease by his presence. The Orchid Girl joined her husband in two chairs off to the side, and they held hands while they listened.
I sat next to Christina Laudener. We were the oldest. The idea of romantic love was still alien to us, but not so alien that I didn’t feel a twinge when I saw Mr. Wormcake and his wife holding hands. I felt as though I were in the grip of some implacable current, and that my life was being moved along a course that would see me elevated far beyond my current circumstance. As though I were the hero of a story, and this was my first chapter. I knew that Christina was a part of it. I glanced at her, tried to fathom whether or not she felt it, too. She caught my look and gave me the biggest smile I’d ever received from a girl, before or since.
I have kept the memory of that smile with me, like a lantern, for the small hours of the night. I call upon it, with shame, even now.
The Maggot disapproves of sentiment.
Do you know what an Extinction Rite is, children?Uncle Digby asks.
A few of the children shake their heads. Others are still, either afraid to answer the question or unsure of what their answer ought to be.
On the night of the Cold Water Fair, all those years ago, the ghouls under the hill had reached the end of their age. Ghoul society, unlike yours, recognizes when its pinnacle is behind it. Once this point has been reached, there are two options: assimilate into a larger ghoul city, or die. The ghouls under the hill did not find a larger city to join, and indeed many did not want to anyway. Their little city had endured for hundreds of years, and they were tired. The Maggot had delivered to the elders a dream of death, and so the Extinction Rite was prepared. The Extinction Rite, children, is the suicide of a city.
Like you, I am not a ghoul. I have never seen this rite performed. But also like you, I belong to the church introduced to Hob’s Landing by Mr. Wormcake, so I can imagine it. I believe it must be a sight of almost impossible beauty. But I am glad he did not participate that night. Do you know what would have happened here in town if he had?
He looks at the little girl who talked back earlier.What do you think, dear?
She takes a long moment. “I don’t know. Nothing?”
Precisely. Nothing would have happened. They would have gone back inside when called, just like old Stubblegut wanted. They would have missed the fair. They would never have met the Orchid Girl, or dear old Bruno, or the lost caravan leader of the mermaid nation. I myself would still be frozen in the attic, with my sixteen compatriots, just another brain in a jar. The Extinction Rite would have scoured away all the ghouls in the hill, and the people of Hob’s Landing would have been none the wiser. Their little town would now be just another poverty-ridden fishing village, slowly dissolving into irrelevance.
Instead, what happened was this:
The ghoul children ran out of the tent that night, their little minds atilt with the inexplicable beauties they had just seen. It was as though the world had cracked open like some wonderful geode. They were exhilarated. They stood in the thronged midway, wondering what they ought to do next. Slipwicket and Stubblegut wanted to celebrate; the memory of their unfinished game of skullpocket was cresting in their thoughts, and the urge to recommence the game exerted itself upon them like the pull of gravity. Wormcake thought only of the Orchid Girl, imprisoned like a princess in one of the old tales, separated from him by a thin sheet of glass and by the impossible chasm of an alien culture.
And unbeknownst to them, in the warrens, the Extinction Rite reached its conclusion, and the will of the ghouls was made known to their god.
And so the Maggot spoke. Not just to these children, but to every ghoul in the city under the hill. A pulse of approval, a wordless will to proceed.
The Maggot said, DO IT.
What happened then was an accident. The Extinction Rite was not meant to affect the people of Hob’s Landing at all. If Wormcake and the others had been at home, where they belonged, the Maggot’s imperative would have caused them to destroy themselves. But they were not at home. And so what they heard was permission to indulge the desires of their hearts. And so they did.
Slipwicket fell upon the nearest child and tore the flesh from his skull like the rind from an orange, peeling it to the bone in under a minute. Stubblegut, caught in the spirit of the moment, chose to help him. Bright streamers of blood arced through the air over their heads, splashed onto their faces. They wrestled the greasy skull from the body and Slipwicket gave it a mighty kick, sending it bouncing and rolling in a jolly tumble down the midway.
Wormcake made his way back into the tent, slashing out with his sharp little fingers at the legs of anybody who failed to get out of his way quickly enough, splitting tendons and cracking kneecaps, leaving a bloody tangle of crippled people behind him.
Above them all, the cemetery on the hill split open like a rotten fruit. From the exposed tunnels beneath the upturned clods of earth and tumbling gravestones came the spirits of the extinguished city of the ghouls: a host of buzzing angels, their faceted eyes glinting moonlight, their mandibles a-clatter, pale, iridescent wings filling the sky with the holy drone of the swarm.
People began to scream and run. Oh, what a sound! It was like a symphony. It was just what Wormcake and his friends had been hoping for when they first looked down at the fair and heard the sounds carrying to them on the wind. They felt like grand heroes in a story, with the music swelling to match their achievements.
Slipwicket and Stubblegut batted the skull between them for a few moments, but it proved surprisingly fragile when careening off a fencepost. Of course there was nothing to do but get another. So they did, and, preparing for future disappointments, they quickly decided that they should gather a whole stockpile of them.
Wormcake opened Bruno’s cage and smashed the Orchid Girl’s glass dome, but he was afraid to smash the mermaid’s tank, for fear that she would die. Bruno—who had become great friends with her—lifted her out and hastened her down to the water, where she disappeared with a grateful wave. When he returned to the party, the ghouls were delighted to discover that he was called the Eater of Children for very good reason indeed. The Orchid Girl stood off to the side, the unfurling spirits of the cemetery rising like black smoke behind her, the unfurled petals of her head seeming to catch the moonlight and reflect it back like a strange lantern. Wormcake stood beside her and together they watched as the others capered and sported.
Beautiful carnage. Screams rising in scale before being choked off in the long dark of death, people swarming in panic like flies around a carcass, corpses littering the ground in outlandish positions one never finds in staid old coffins. Watching the people make the transition from antic foolishness to the dignified stillness of death reassured Wormcake of the nobility of their efforts, the rightness of their choices. He recognized the death of his home, but he was a disciple of the Maggot, after all, and he felt no grief for it.
What did the two of them talk about, standing there together, surrounded by death’s flowering? Well, young master Wormcake never told me. But I bet I can guess, just a little bit. They were just alike, those two. Different from everyone else around them, unafraid of the world’s dangers. They recognized something of themselves in each other, I think. In any case, when they were finished talking, there was no doubt that they would take on whatever came next together.
It was the Orchid Girl who spotted the procession of torches coming from Hob’s Landing.
“We should go to the mansion,” she said. “They won’t follow us there.”
What happened next, children, is common knowledge, and not part of tonight’s story. The Orchid Girl was right: the people of Hob’s Landing were frightened of the mansion and did not follow them there. Wormcake and his friends found a new life inside. They found me, and the rest of the Frozen Parliament, up in the attic; they found the homunculus in the library; and of course, over time, they found all the secrets of the strange old alchemist who used to live there, which included the Orchid Girl’s hidden history. Most importantly, though, they made themselves into a family. Eventually they even fashioned a peace with Hob’s Landing and were able to build relationships with people in the town.
That was the last night the Cold Water Fair was ever held in Hob’s Landing. With fourteen dead children and a family of monsters moved into the old mansion, the citizens of the town had lost their taste for it. For the better part of a generation, there was little celebration at all in the little hamlet. Relations between the Wormcake family and the townsfolk were defined by mutual suspicion, misunderstanding, and fear. Progress was slow.
Thirty years later, relations had repaired enough that Mr. Wormcake founded the Skullpocket Fair. To commemorate the night he first came to Hob’s Landing, found the love of his life, and began his long and beneficial relationship with this town, where he would eventually become the honored citizen you all know him as today.
How wonderful, yes, children?
And now, at last, we come to why the Maggot called you all here!
“So many lies.”
This is what Mr. Wormcake tells me, after Uncle Digby ushers the children from the drawing room. The sun has set outside, and the purpling sky seems lit from behind.
“You know, he tells the story for children. He leaves out some details. That night in the freak tent, for instance. The people gathered around the mermaid were terrifying. There was a feral rage in that room. I didn’t know what it was at the time. I was just a kid. But it was a dark sexual energy. An animal urge. They slapped their palms against her tank. They shouted at her. Said horrible things. She was curled away from them, so they couldn’t see her naked, and that made them angry. I was afraid they would try to break the glass to get at her. I think it was only the fear of Bruno the cannibal, in the other room, somehow getting out, too, that stopped them. I don’t know.
“And that bit about me recognizing my ‘destiny’ when I saw the Orchid Girl—Gretchen. Nonsense. What child of that age feels romantic love? I was terrified. We all were. We’d just seen a flower disguised as a girl. What were we supposed to think?”
“I’m curious why you let Uncle Digby call her the Orchid Girl to the kids, when the name obviously annoys you.”
“It’s simplistic. It’s her freak name. But you humans seem so invested in that. She was no more ‘the Orchid Girl’ than I’m ‘the Gentleman Corpse.’ I’m not a corpse at all, for god’s sake. But when we finally decided to assimilate, we believed that embracing the names would make it easier. And the kids like it, especially. So we use them.”
“Is it hard to talk about her?” Probing for signs of blasphemy.
“No,” he says, though he looks away as he says it. The profile of his skull is etched with lamplight. He goes on about her, though, and I start to get a sick feeling. “He would have you believe that she was a princess in a castle, waiting to be rescued by me. It’s good for mythmaking, but it’s not true. She did need rescuing that night, yes, but so did Bruno. So did the mermaid. He doesn’t talk about my ‘destiny’ with them, does he?”
I don’t know what to say.
“Nothing but lies. We didn’t want to go to the mansion. We wanted to go home. When we saw our home spilling into the sky, transfigured by the Extinction Rite . . . we were terrified.”
I shake my head. “You were children. You can’t blame yourself for how you felt.”
“I was frightened for my parents.”
I put a hand up to stop him. “Mr. Wormcake. Please. I can understand that this is a moment of, um . . . strong significance for you. It’s not unusual to experience these unclean feelings. But you must not indulge them by giving them voice.”
“I wanted my parents back, Priest.”
“I mourned them. Right there, out in the open, I fell to my knees and cried.”
“Mr. Wormcake, that’s enough. You must stop.”
He does. He turns away from me and stares through the window. The bay is out there somewhere, covered in the night. The lights in the drawing room obscure the view, and we can see our reflections hovering out there above the waters, like gentlemanly spirits.
“Take me to the chapel,” I tell him quietly.
He stares at me for a long moment. Then he climbs to his feet. “All right,” he says. “Come with me.”
He pushes through a small door behind the chess table and enters a narrow, carpeted hallway. Lamps fixed to the walls offer pale light. There are paintings hung here, too, but the light is dim and we are moving too quickly for me to make out specific details. The faces look desiccated, though. One seems to be a body seated on a divan, completely obscured by cobwebs. Another is a pastoral scene, a barrow mound surrounded by a fence made from the human bone.
At the end of the corridor, another small door opens into a private chapel. I’m immediately struck by the scent of spoiled meat. A bank of candles near the altar provides a shivering light. On the altar itself, a husk of unidentifiable flesh bleeds onto a silver platter. Scores of flies lift and fall, their droning presence crowding the ears. On the wall behind them, stained glass windows flank a much larger window covered in heavy drapes. The stained glass depicts images of fly-winged angels, their faceted ruby eyes bright, their segmented arms spread as though offering benediction, or as though preparing to alight at the butcher’s feast.
There is a pillow on the floor in front of the altar, and a pickax leans on the table beside it.
The Maggot summons fourteen children to the Skullpocket Fair every year. One for each child that died that night in the Cold Water Fair, one hundred years ago, when Hob’s Landing became a new town, guided by monsters and their strange new god. It’s no good to question by what criteria the children are selected, by what sins or what virtues. There is no denying the summons. There is only the lesson of the worm, delivered over and over again: all life is a mass of wriggling grubs, awaiting the transformation to the form in which it will greet the long and quiet dark.
“The church teaches the subjugation of memory,” I say. “Grief is a weakness.”
“I know,” says Mr. Wormcake.
“Your marriage. Your love for your wife and your friends. They’re stones in your pockets. They weigh you to the earth.”
“Empty them,” I say.
And so he does. “I miss her,” he says. He looks at me with those hollow sockets, speaks to me with that borrowed mouth, and for the first time that night I swear I can see some flicker of emotion, like a candle flame glimpsed at the bottom of the world. “I miss her so much. I’m not supposed to miss her. It’s blasphemy. But I can’t stop thinking about her. I don’t want to hear the lies anymore. I don’t want to hear the stories. I want to remember what really happened. We didn’t recognize anything about each other at the fair that night. We were little kids and we were scared of what was going to happen to us. We stood on the edge of everything and we were too afraid to move. We didn’t say a single word to each other the whole time. We didn’t learn how to love each other until much later, after we were trapped in this house. And now she’s gone and I don’t know where she went and I’m scared all over again. I’m about to change, and I don’t know how or into what because I left home when I was little. No one taught me anything. I’m afraid of what’s going to happen to me. I miss my wife.”
I’m stunned by the magnitude of this confession. I’d been fooled by the glamour of his name and his history; I’d thought he would greet this moment with all the dignity of his station. I stand over him, this diminished patriarch, mewling like some abandoned infant, and I’m overwhelmed by disgust. I don’t know where it comes from, and the force of it terrifies me.
“Well, you can’t,” I say, my anger a chained dog. “You don’t get to. You don’t get to miss her.”
He stares at me. His mouth opens, but I cut him off. I grab the mound of ripe flesh from the altar and thrust it into his face. Cold fluids run between my fingers and down my wrist. Flies go berserk, bouncing off my face, crawling into my nose. “This is the world you made! These are the rules. You don’t get to change your mind!”
Fifty years ago, when Uncle Digby finished his story and finally opened the gate at the very first Skullpocket Fair, we all ran out onto the brand-new midway, the lights swirling around us, the smells of sweets and fried foods filling our noses. We were driven by fear and hope. We knew death opened its mouth behind us, and we felt every living second pass through our bodies like tongues of fire, exalting us, carving us down to our very spirits. We heard the second gate swing open and we screamed as the monsters bounded onto the midway in furious pursuit: cannibal children, dogs bred to run on beams of moonlight, corpse flowers with human bodies, loping atrocities of the laboratory. The air stank of fear. Little Eddie Brach was in front of me and without thought I grabbed his shirt collar and yanked him down, leaping over his sprawled form in the very next instant. He bleated in cartoonlike surprise. I felt his blood splash against the back of my shirt in a hot torrent as the monsters took him, and I laughed with joy and relief. I saw Christina leap onto a rising gondola car and I followed. We slammed the door shut and watched the world bleed out beneath us. Our hearts were incandescent, and we clutched each other close. Somewhere below us a thing was chanting, “Empty your pockets, empty your pockets,” followed by the hollow pok! of skulls being cracked open. We laughed together. I felt the inferno of life. I knew that every promise would be fulfilled.
Six of us survived that night. Of those, four of us—exalted by the experience—took the orders. We lived a life dedicated to the Maggot, living in quiet seclusion, preparing our bodies and our minds for the time of decay. We proselytized, grew our numbers. Every year some of the survivors of the fair would join us in our work. Together, we brought Hob’s Landing to the worm.
But standing over this whimpering creature, I find myself thinking only of Christina Laudener, her eyes a pale North Atlantic gray, her blond hair flowing like a stilled wave over her shoulders. We were children. We didn’t know anything about love. Or at least I didn’t. I didn’t understand what it was that had taken root in me until years later, when her life took her to a different place, and I sat in the underground church and contemplated the deliquescence of flesh until the hope for warmth, or for the touch of a kind hand, turned cold inside me.
I never learned what she did with her life. But she never took the orders. She lived that incandescent moment with the rest of us, but she drew an entirely different lesson from it.
“You tell me those were all lies?” I say. “I believed them. I believed everything.”
“Gretchen wasn’t a lie. Our life here wasn’t a lie. It was glorious. It doesn’t need to be dressed up with exaggerations.”
I think of my own life, long for a human being, spent in cold subterranean chambers. “The Maggot isn’t a lie,” I say.
“No. He certainly is not.”
“I shouldn’t have survived. I should have died. I pushed Eddie down. Eddie should have lived.” I feel tears try to gather, but they won’t fall. I want them to. I think, somehow, I would feel better about things if they did. But I’ve been a good boy: I’ve worked too hard at killing my own grief. Now that I finally need it, there just isn’t enough anymore. The Maggot has taken too much.
“Maybe so,” Wormcake says. “But it doesn’t matter anymore.”
He gets up, approaches the windows. He pulls a cord behind the curtains and they slide open. A beautiful, kaleidoscopic light fills the room. The Seventieth Annual Skullpocket Fair is laid out on the mansion’s grounds beyond the window, carousels spinning, roller coaster ticking up an incline, bumper cars spitting arcs of electricity. The Ferris wheel turns over it all, throwing sparking yellow and green and red light into the sky.
I join him at the window. “I want to go down there,” I say, putting my fingers against the glass. “I want another chance.”
“It’s not for you anymore,” Wormcake says. “It’s not for me, either. It’s for them.”
He tugs at the false mouth on his skull, snapping the tethers, and tosses it to the floor. The tongue lolls like some yanked organ, and the flies cover it greedily. Maybe he believes that if he can no longer articulate his grief, he won’t feel it anymore.
And maybe he’s right.
He removes the fly-spangled meat from my hands and takes a deep bite. He offers it to me: a benediction. I recognize the kindness in it. I accept, and take a bite of my own. This is the world we’ve made. Tears flood my eyes, and he touches my cheek with his bony hand.
Then he replaces the meat on the altar and resumes his place on his knees beside it. He lays his head by the buzzing meat. I take the pickax and place the hard point of it against the skull, where all the poisons of the world have gathered, have slowed him, have weighed him to the earth. I hold the point there to fix it in my mind, and then I lift the ax over my head.
“Empty your pockets,” I say.
Below us, a gate opens, and the children pour out at a dead run. There goes the angry girl. There goes the weepy, buzz-cut kid. Arms and legs pumping, clothes flapping like banners in the wind. They’re in the middle of the pack when the monsters are released. They have a chance.
They just barely have a chance.
“Skullpocket” originally appeared in Nightmare Carnival, edited by Ellen Datlow, and is now in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015, edited by John Joseph Adams and guest editor Joe Hill. Top image: Cover detail from Nightmare Carnival.