Thursday, October 3, 2019

Taxidermy Nightmare



By Lisa McCourt Hollar


The sound of children laughing carried down Haller Street as ghosts and witches rang doorbells, screaming out “Trick Or Treat” whilst holding out heavy laden bags to be filled with candy and other goodies, all of which would be inspected by their parents when they went home for the evening.

“My, you look scary,” would often be heard in the voices of young mother’s and old grandmother’s as they passed out the candy. Every single porch light was on this evening, inviting the frightening children to come do their worst, all except one. The Harper house remained ominously dark as it did every year.

Inside Tom Harper watched the small figures as they passed his house.  A few of them stopped and stared, whispering among themselves. He knew what they said about him, the same things their parents had said about him when they were children. They called him a freak and a retard. As a child this had hurt him deeply. While it was true he didn’t look like other children, his nose and eyes being in the wrong places and one of his ears missing completely, Tom didn’t feel he deserved that kind of treatment. He was extremely intelligent and since the other children in the neighborhood wouldn’t play with him, he spent his time reading books, increasing his knowledge and understanding of the world and how things worked.

At 29, he still lived at home with his mother and watching the children running up and down the street opened old wounds. Even though he couldn’t hear them he could well imagine what they were saying. Dropping the curtain he went back into his work room where he was preparing a small bird for a customer. Around him animals of all shape, size and species watched, forever frozen in the pose he had placed them. They were his friends, never judging him for the way he looked. He had just got the bird to set on the branch, it’s wings spread as though ready to take flight, when a loud crash caused him to knock the bird to the ground. Turning he saw the window behind him was broke, the glass shattered all over the floor.

“Tom,” his mother called from the living room, “is everything alright.”
“Some neighbor kids,” Tom said, “playing a Halloween prank. I’ll take care of it.”

“Alright,” his mother said, her voice sounding weary.

Looking out the window Tom caught a glimpse of Bobby Baker running into his house down the road. Tom picked the bird off the ground, finishing the job. When done he looked at the creature and smiled. The bird was a glorious creature and this was reflected in the pose. He was pleased to have honored his death in this way.

Tom glanced at the glass still littering the floor. Sighing, he cleaned it up and put a board in the window. Finishing the task he grabbed his jacket and yelled at his mother that he was going out for a while.

***

Bobby Baker ate 2 candy bars, a bag of M&M’s and a handful of jellybeans before his mother made him brush his teeth and go to bed.

“You’re going to have bad dreams eating all that candy,” his mother scolded.

“Maybe I’ll see Freddy Krueger,” Bobby scoffed, “then I can introduce him to my nightmares.”

Mrs. Baker laughed. She loved Bobby’s imagination. Some of his teacher’s had expressed concern, one going so far as to accuse Bobby of being a bully, but Mrs. Baker didn’t believe a word of it. Bobby was a little angel. If they wanted to accuse someone of being a monster they should take a look at Tom Harper. What kind of a person becomes a taxidermist? It gave her the creeps just thinking about it.

Bobby dreamed he was being carried out of his room by Freddy Krueger. He struggled to free himself, but he couldn’t get away, Freddy just dug his knife like fingers in even deeper. Then Freddy started laughing and his voice sounded like the taxidermist that lived across the street. All around him animals stared back at him accusingly. He recognized Sally’s cat, Fluffy. He’d shot it with his b b gun. He hadn’t expected the creature to die, but it was cool when it did.

There was that dog whose throat he’d slit and then hung up in the garage to watch as the blood flowed out. He’s wondered what happened to it. He’d planned on checking out its insides later but it had disappeared. He’d had a hard time cleaning up the blood before his mom came home from work.

Oh wow, was that Suzie Carmichael. She’d disappeared a few months ago. No one had ever known what happened to her. She looked funny though, her eyes were glassy and she was standing so still.

Slowly Bobby became aware he wasn’t asleep. As he did, he looked around the room and realized he wasn’t in his bed anymore. Animals of all shapes and sizes looked back at him. Many of them were creatures he had killed. Except for Suzie Carmichael, he hadn’t killed her. He’d had a bit of a crush on her, ever since she’d seen him skin that rabbit alive and didn’t get freaked out about it. She’d even shown him an easier way to do it.  Suzie Carmichael was wonderful and if she ever were in his dreams, she wouldn’t be dead.

“Ah, you’re awake,” a voice said. Turning his head Bobby looked into the eyes of Tom Harper.

“That wasn’t very nice of you, breaking my window like that,” Tom said.

“Don’t lie to my son,” a voice said. It sounded like Mrs. Harper and Bobby turned his head, seeing the old woman sitting behind Suzie, only she was dead too, posed in her sitting chair.

“I think I know just how I’m going to position you,” Tom said. Horrified, Bobby screamed as the sound of an electric tool started up.

Copyright© 2011 Lisa McCourt Hollar.  All rights reserved

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Dolly


by Lisa McCourt Hollar

 The girl clutched the dolly her mother had bought her at the market. The rag doll was magic, but no one knew it but her. It talked to her, telling her secrets that no one else knew. They were best friends, her and Dolly.

“Dolly says you shouldn’t yell at me,” the little girl said to her mother after she’d been scolded for not cleaning her room.

“Does she,” her mother said, feeling as though she had reached her last straw.  “Well Dolly is an annoying little brat that should mind her own business, don’t’ you think?”

The little girl put Dolly to her ear and listened patiently. She giggled at what Dolly said.

“Annie,” her mother said, trying to show some of the same patience in her voice, though she was getting ready to lose it.  “Put Dolly down and clean your room.”

“Dolly says you’re a bitch,” Annie said, then slapped her hand over her mouth to hold in the giggle. That was one of Dolly’s secret words that she wasn’t supposed to repeat, but now that she had it felt thrilling, especially seeing the way it made her mother’s eyes pop out of her head.

“Oh did she? Well I don’t think seven year old girls need to be playing with dolls that have such potty mouths!”  Pulling the doll out of wailing daughters hand she put it on the top shelf of the hall closet and marched Annie into the bathroom. “Open up,” she said, holding out a bar of soap.

“No mommy, please,” Annie begged, clamping her hand over her mouth.

Francine pulled her daughter’s hand away and shoved the wet bar in her mouth, mid protest. She held it there while the girl made grunting sounds, her eyes bulging as tears formed in the corner, spilled over and trickled down her cheek. When she was sure Annie’s tongue was coated she pulled the soap out.

Annie glared defiantly at her mother, who handed her a glass of water to rinse with.  It took two glass fulls before Annie could speak. “Dolly says she’s going to get you for that,” she said, making her words sound as threatening as possible.

“I welcome her to try,” Francine said, taking Annie back to her room. “While I wait for Dolly to do her worst, you can clean your room. I will let you out when dinner is ready. It had better be done or you will go right back in after you eat.”

Francine shut the door, wondering when seven year olds had become so obstinate. When she was her age she would have had her teeth knocked out if she’d ever talked like that.

Annie sat on her bed, her tongue still feeling scummy from the soap. She heard Dolly calling to her from under her bed where she’d been hiding so mommy wouldn’t see she’d left the closet.  Annie lifted the bed spread up and looked under.

“Mommy will be mad if she sees you here,” Annie said.  She listened a moment then nodded her head. Lifting Dolly off the floor, Annie placed her on her bed, then started cleaning her room while Dolly told her what needed to be done.
***
“I don’t know what we’re going to do about her,” Francine said to her husband while she brushed her hair. She was sitting at her vanity table and watching her husband in the mirror as she spoke.

“I really think you’re making more of a deal out of it than you should,” Mark said, setting aside his book to read later, when Francine was less talkative.

“Mark, she called me a bitch! Where does a seven year old hear that word from anyway?  And then she snuck out of her room and took the doll from the closet!”

“I don’t see how she did that,” Mark said. “If you really put it on the top shelf like you said.”


“What do you mean IF I really put it on the top shelf?
 Of course I did and I don’t know how she did it, but I know the doll didn’t leave the closet on its own. Honestly, that child must think I’m stupid to try and tell me a story like that.”

“She’s seven,” Mark sighed, trying to placate his wife. What sounds absurd to us, isn’t all that unreasonable to a child with a vivid imagination. Give her some time and she will grow out of it.”

“I don’t know,” Francine said, “you didn’t hear her earlier. ‘Dolly says she’s going to get you for that.’ Mark, she really sounded as though she expects something bad to happen to me, and even more, she sounded as though she hopes it does.”

“She’s only seven,” Mark repeated. “You going to tell me you never told your mother you hated her when you were her age?”

“This was different,” Francine said, giving the doll that now graced the corner of her vanity a troubled glance.  
***
Francine woke with something pressed against her chest. She sat up with a start when she saw the freaky rag dolls button eyes staring at her. How the hell did the damn thing get on top of her?  Flinging the doll across the room, Francine nudged her husband, thinking he was playing some kind of a practical joke on her. “Very Funny Mark.”

Mark didn’t answer so she nudged him harder. He moved a little. Not much, but enough for Francine to notice the sheet under him was wet.  Turning on the light she saw that Mark was covered in blood, the sheets stained with crimson gore.  Screaming, she fell out of the bed, only to find herself at nose level with Dolly who was lying on the floor next to Annie’s bare feet.  Looking up, Francine saw her daughter standing over her, a bloody knife in her hands.

“I told you Dolly would get you,” Annie said and then brought the knife down, slashing into her mother’s  face.

 Copyright© 2011 Lisa McCourt Hollar.  All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Happy Halloween



by Lisa Mccourt Hollar



Covered in mud, Sandra trudged down the road, the hazard lights from her car blinking through the dark behind her. She didn’t turn to look at their mocking blink, imagining each flicker of light a laugh from the car that had mocked her, before sputtering and coughing its last breath out there in the middle of bum fucked Egypt. She had cursed at it, the rain pouring down and thought she could hear the engine, as it cranked trying to start, whirring, “Trick or Treat, Trick or Treat,” at her. She’d gotten out in the rain, kicked the side of the car and was rewarded when her foot slipped on the wet pavement, causing her to land on her back. “Happy effin Halloween to me,” she thought, refusing to give into the huge joke the galaxy was playing on her. 

Pushing herself to her feet, she slogged to the back of the car, lifted the trunk and looked down at George. The hole in his head had made a mess of the sheet she’d wrapped him in and she was glad she’d chosen the one his mother had given them for their wedding night. They were an ugly, unromantic shade of putrid green and Sandra imagined that was why the old bitch had bought them. She’d always hated Sandra and when George had proposed, his fat, pig-eyed mother had the freakin’ nerve to have a heart attack. Three months later and a triple bi-pass surgery, she was dressed in black as Sandra walked down the aisle. That was five years ago and George was still a mama’s boy.

“Well, not anymore,” Sandra had thought, looking down at his bloody head. “Dick head may not have a spine, but he certainly had a brain. God, that’s gross.” Trying to avoid getting grey matter on her, Sandra pulled him from the car and shrieked when his body fell out of the sheet, landing in the mud and splattering it all over her. “Just great George,” she snapped, kicking him in the side and rolling him back onto the sheet. “Always got to make a mess for me to clean up. Fuckin’ pig.”

 Reaching back into the trunk, Sandra pulled out the shovel and laid it on top of her dead husband. Taking hold of the corners, she dragged him off the side of the road and into the woods. She wasn’t worried about anyone coming along and finding her car, one of the reasons she had chosen this route was because of how secluded it was. Once she was far enough out she began to dig a hole, thankful for her headstrong determination to stick with the fitness routine set up for her at the gym. That and how damn sexy Larry, her personal trainer was.

 “Should have brought him along,” Sandra thought, but she knew that wouldn’t have done any good. He had to be seen at the gym so he could alibi her to the police later. It wouldn’t matter if no one else saw her there; chances are they wouldn’t ask anyone beyond Larry. 

Having dug the hole deep enough to keep the scavengers out, Sandra rolled George into the pit and looked down at his lifeless body. If it wasn’t for all the blood, the huge gash in his skull and the unnatural angle of his head, he would look pretty much the same as always. 

“Too bad for you, mama aint around to protect you anymore,” Sandra laughed. God, how hard it had been to stay married to him and pretend to love him, enduring his hands touching her at night as he attempted to fuck her and make an heir for his mama. Of course he didn’t know Sandra was on the pill. She wasn’t about to risk that he might actually succeed at something. Then, finally, mama had died, leaving George all her millions and by default, his wife. 

Of course there wss the problem of the pre-nup, she couldn’t just divorce him. But if her were to disappear…and even if his body were found, she’d been careful enough to make sure she wouldn’t be blamed. 

 Sandra thought she'd heard a noise in the woods, behind her, and turned to look. Nothing was there. Finishing burying her husband, she placed the trunk back in the car and began her trek home. She would clean up, then call the police and report her husband missing, along with his car. She wondered if she should dummy up a ransom note, but then decided against it. 

There was a flash of lightning and Sandra thought she saw someone standing down the road, watching her. Shaking her head, she decided she was losing it; the figure resembled her mother-in-law. Then another flash and the shape was closer, short, fat and wearing a moo moo, just like her husband’s pig mama. 

Sandra stopped, uncertain. She was sure she could hear the woman, who had passed away with a little help from sleeping pills and a pillow that Sandra had held over her face, breathing, her raspy breath from years of smoking filled with phlegm. “It couldn’t be,” Sandra thought. T


Sandra turned back towards the car, now wishing she hadn’t chosen someplace where her cell didn’t work. Maybe she could make a run for it. Maybe this time the car would start. She stopped again and stared, a scream catching in her throat. George filled the void between her and the car, his body looming ahead, his head turned at an unnatural angle. In his hands, the shovel.

“George,” Sandra croaked and he smiled at her, the blood caked around his mouth cracking as he chuckled. “I told you, you’d get my money over my dead body,” his mother rasped. 

“Happy Halloween,” George croaked, then raised the shovel and brought it down over his wife’s head.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Mish Mashed Bear




Claudia stood outside the small store and chewed her lip nervously. Her mind was still reeling from her argument with Howard and she wondered if coming here had been the right decision. Howard already thought she was a superstitious hick. This might just reinforce his belief and drive the wedge between them, in even deeper.

"If only I could get a decent nights sleep. Then maybe I could think rationally."

Claudia felt the baby kick and patted her belly reassuringly. All this drama wasn't good for him and the dreams couldn't be helping. She wondered, not for the first time, if her unborn child experienced the same dreams.

Claudia shivered. The thought of the disturbing images that kept her from sleeping, invading her baby's mind, frightened her. The overpowering feeling pf danger permeated the pregnant woman's senses and she grasped the railing next to the store to steady herself.

Shaking from the feeling of dread she couldn't seem to escape, Claudia looked up and down the empty street. She couldn't shake the feeling that something was stalking her. Looking back to the store, Claudia made up her mind. If Howard didn't like it, she would deal with the fallout later. He wasn't the one that needed to get a good nights sleep. He wasn't the one that was carrying their child. Maybe he didn't understand her fears, but he should at least accept them and be willing to let her do what she needed to do, at least for her peace of mind.

Her decision made, Claudia pushed open the door to Lihua Designs and entered the small store. Instantly she felt a calmness surround her and she knew she had been right to come here.

The room was beautifully designed with a combination of Asian and Western furniture. The earthy colors reminded Claudia of her home in Louisiana, while the sound of water flowing surrounded the room. Claudia breathed in a cleansing breath as the negative energy she had been harboring, left her body. She half expected to hear the trill of birds singing and be serenaded by a chorus chipmunks and rabbits.

"May I help you?"

Claudia turned towards the voice. Even though the woman had come up behind her, she wasn't startled or alarmed at the unexpected intrusion. The woman was Chinese, though her apparel was western. She wore jeans that were ripped in the fashion so many wore these days, and a t-shirt that displayed the logo of a local rock band.

"I hope I didn't startle you. I am Lihua."

"Not at all," Claudia said. "In fact, quite the opposite. Everything in this store makes me feel at peace, including your voice. It's really quite soothing."

Having said that, Claudia felt uncomfortable and looked away from the woman, embarrassed by her thoughtlessness. She considered it rude when her husband's friends pointed out her southern accent, sometimes imitating her 'hillbilly' drawl when she attempted to converse with them. They thought they were being cute. Claudia just felt it emphasized their differences, as they were drawing a line.

Howard told her she was just being self conscious and that she should get over it. Easy for him to say. He was born in Ohio and didn't have an accent that prompted jokes about kissing cousins and inbred marriages.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be rude."

The woman looked confused. "How could that be rude? The art of Feng Shui is to bring peace and harmony. You compliment me with what you say."

There was an awkward silence that followed and Claudia took a moment to look around the room some more. She was deep in thought, worried about what Howard would think, when she realized the woman was speaking.

“I’m sorry,” Claudia said, shaking her head, “what did you say?”

“I asked if you were here to get help with your nursery. I couldn’t help but notice your condition.”

Claudia blushed. “Yes, as a matter of fact I am. I…I,” Claudia’s voice choked up as the memory of the last few months pushed their way into her mind. Lihua took her hand and led her to the couch.

“You have been under a lot of stress,” Lihua said, understanding. “Pregnancy is hard, but there is something more bothering you. Your aura is dark. You are worried for your baby?”

“I’ve been having dreams. I don’t know how to explain it, it’s like something wants my baby. Something dark and evil. My husband thinks I am superstitious, but the feeling gets worse and worse everyday. I was reading about ways to protect my baby and I just felt that maybe Feng Shui…” Claudia’s voice trailed off. She was beginning to feel silly. She was sure Lihua was thinking she was mad.

“This darkness that you think is after your baby, can you describe it to me?”

“I’m sorry, now that I’ve said it out loud to someone other than  my husband, I can see how silly it does sound.”

“Please, I don’t think you are being silly? There are many spirits that would wish to harm a child. Do you have any impressions that have stayed with you when you wake from your dreams?”

“Just bits and pieces…red eyes…fangs.” Claudia shivered, as one image that was especially disturbing pushed its way into her memory. “Sharp, hungry teeth, only it was a woman’s face. Claws. And nine tails.”

“The Huli Jing. The fox spirit.”

“What does it want with me?” Claudia wrapped her arms around her body, protectively and glanced around the shop as though she expected the fox to leap out at her from behind one of the furnishings.

“I don’t know,” Lihua said thoughtfully. The Huli Jing is a shapeshifter, taking on the appearance of a woman in order to seduce men. This is a very evil spirit and loves eating human flesh. For some reason it is stalking you…perhaps it wants your child.” Lihua paused thoughtfully and then continued. “I’ve not heard of any legends where th Huli Jing has hunted pregnant women, but there is another legend.. We must work fast to protect your child. Mother!” Lihua looked towards the back room. “Mother, come quickly!”

An old woman shuffled into the room, a questioning look on her face.

“This woman is being stalked by the Huli Jing. You know what needs to be done.”

The old woman motioned for Claudia to come to her. Hesitating only a moment, she stepped towards the woman. Her eyes were grey, nearly white and she reached forward and touched Claudia’s belly. Sucking in her breath, she made a hissing sound and began to chant, words that Claudia did not understand. Then her eyes opened and she looked at Claudia. Her eyes seemed to look through her and into her soul.

“Can you help me,” Claudia asked.

The woman did not answer. Turning, she left the room. A few moments later she came out, carrying with her a stuffed animal that most closely resembled a bear. The animal, while having the head of a traditional teddy bear, had tusks coming out of its mouth and a body that looked distinctively like a lion. There were also scales on the ‘beast’, that appeared to be reptilian…perhaps a dragon, Claudia wondered.

“It is stuffed with owl feathers,” the woman said, handing it to Claudia.

“I don’t understand…”

“Keep this with you when you sleep,” Lihua explained. “It will protect your child. After she is born, you will need to keep it with the baby when she sleeps.

“What does the Huli Jing want with my baby?”

“To eat it…and you, I think.”
****

Claudia’s dreams were disturbing. She tossed and turned and when she woke up, she was covered in sweat. Howard wasn’t next to her. They had fought when she came home, carrying the stuffed charm the old witch had given her.

“I will not sleep with that thing in our bed,” he had fumed.

“Then sleep on the couch. Our baby needs to be protected.”

The fiery eyes of the Huli Jingi glowered at her from the dark and then vanished. Reaching for the mish mashed animal, she pulled it to her and curled into a fetal position. She didn’t think she would sleep again, but she did, tossing fitfully while icy fingers grazed at her belly.

****

“Please Howard, they will be here any moment. Can’t you do this for me?”

Howard sighed. “You are the one that feels the need to fill our home with superstitious nonsense. Why must I be here for this?”

“They need to see us both, so they can get a feel for what needs to be done. Feng Shui will help bring our home into harmony. To do that, they need to feel your aura.”

“My aura…Claudia, right now my aura is irritated, because I slept on the couch last night.”

“That was your choice, not mine! If you knew what I was seeing in my dreams, you would understand. Why must you dismiss everything I think, as superstitious?”

“Because it is.”

“Then why did you even marry me?”

The question hung heavy in the air. It was true, Howard had known how superstitious Claudia was when he met her. Despite that, he had fallen in love. When he had taken her away from all the hoodoo, hocus pocus, nonsense she had been surrounded with, he had thought she would outgrow it.  Instead, she was embracing superstition all the more.

“Because I love you,” he answered. Then sighing, he added, “Fine. If it makes you feel safer, then I will stop fighting you on this, but please don’t expect me to be happy about it. That…that thing, is just plain creepy.”

“I know,” Claudia agreed, looking at the bear, “but I do think it protected me last night.”
Claudia touched her stomach. The scratch marks she had found covering them this morning still burned. She hadn’t shown them to Howard. She knew what his response would be. He would be convinced that she had done it to herself, while tossing in her sleep. She was more afraid for her baby, now that she had physical evidence that something was stalking her. If not for the charm that Lihua had sent her home with, her baby might well be dead by now.

****

“You keep this over the entrance to your house.” The old woman gave Claudia a stern look, while she tacked the mirror over her door. It was called a Ba Gua mirror and the old woman had explained it would ward off evil from their home. It was the last protection they were placing on her, before leaving for the day. They had spent the last several days placing statues and plants around the home. Incense now burned in every room. The nursery wasn’t finished yet, but Lihua promised to return in the morning.

“It will be done before your child is born,” she promised.

Claudia considered telling her it wasn’t necessary. She seriously doubted she would allow her baby to sleep separate from her. There was too much danger with that. Her dreams were becoming worse with each passing day. The Huli Jing was becoming more and more overt in its attempts to claim her child. And not just her child, but it wanted to kill her too. She had spent the last several days reading everything she could about the Fox Spirit. She knew what it had in store for her, if given half the chance.

The old woman started to walk down the steps, then stopped and turned around, touching Claudia’s face. Fresh scratch marks covered her cheeks. Howard had thrown a fit when he saw them, demanding that she talk to a ‘professional’.

“Mother,” Lihua said, standing at the bottom of the steps, “it is getting late. I am sure Claudia and her husband would like some time together.”

“Take care,” the woman whispered. Grasping her hand, Lihua’s mother gave it a squeeze, placing a paper inside of it. “Take care,” she said again.

After they had left, Claudia looked at the paper. Scrawled across it were the words, THE HISTORY OF WICHCRAFT: Zhao Hede. Heading for her computer, Claudia discovered that Zhao Hede was a consort of Emperor Cheng, who died in 7 BC. It was believed that Zhao Hede may have killed him, as well as some of his other consorts who had given birth to sons. After the death of her husband, Zhao Hede, while stricken with grief, killed herself. Claudia found this interesting, but she didn’t see what this had to do with her and the Huli Jing. She determined that she would ask the woman about it the next morning.

****
“What the hell is this?” Howard held the mirror the old woman had tacked over the door in his hand.”

“It’s to ward off evil spirits. It will protect our baby.”

“It will tell the neighbors my wife is a superstitious freak!”

Claudia cringed at the name, freak and gave her husband a hurt look. “You promised to be supportive.”

“The support stops when the superstitious voo doo spills out onto the lawn. I won’t allow this.” He shook the mirror for emphasis and then tossed it into the trash, shattering the glass in the process.

That night, Claudia dreamed that the Huli Jing was standing over her, knife length, copper claws digging into her and tearing out her liver. The fox ate the organ and then reached into the dying woman and lifted the baby from her womb.

“My daughter and I are reunited, at last.” The Huli Jing spoke, but it was the voice of Lihua that came out. Behind her another woman spoke, her voice chanting words she couldn’t understand. The fox’s eyes shone red and she turned to vanquish the woman from the room. Then the bear rose up, its tusks growing in length. Rising above the Fox Spirit, it roared, before burying it’s tusks into the fox’s fiery fur.

Claudia woke screaming. The bear was sitting on her belly, its body as lifeless as it was when she went to sleep. Turning on all the lights, she sat down at her computer to do some more research. This time she dug a little deeper and discovered that there was a book about Zhao Hede. It was rare, but there was a store near by that boasted rare books. Perhaps she could find it there. She would check it out first thing in the morning, after Lihua and her mother came.

****


“Where is your mother at?” Claudia looked behind Lihua, before closing the door. The old woman had been with her every morning the entire week.

“She is feeling ill,” Lihua said. “She isn’t needed anyway. I just need to finish the nursery.”

“Do you think you will be alright by yourself for a little while? I have an errand to run.”

“I will be fine. Go. Don’t worry about me.”

A few minutes later, Claudia was walking into the bookstore,

“May I help you?” The man that stood in front of her was elderly. His eyes were full of life though and sparkled with youthful curiosity.

“I am looking for a book on Zhao Hede.  It is called, The Life, Death and Rebirth of an Empress.”

“Interesting request? May I ask why?”

“You wouldn’t believe me.”

The man chuckled, “You might be surprised. I do have it, but it is not for sale. You are welcome to look at it here, if you like.”

He led her to a backroom that was lined with bookshelves. Walking to one wall, he reached for a book, without even having to look for its location. “Lienu told me I might be expecting you.”

“Lihua’s mother? You know her?”

“She and I are old friends.” Handing Claudia the book, he turned and left the room. Claudia stared after him and then sat down in at a table and opened the book. The first page showed a picture of the Empress. Claudia gasped, seeing Lihua staring back at her.

The book told of a woman that had been jealous of her husband and his many consorts. She had wanted to provide him a male heir, but had only been able to produce a girl. One by one, she killed his other consorts and their male children, so that her daughter would be the only heir.

The Emperor had caught on to what she was doing and threatened to banish her from the palace. So she had poisoned him. Then, to avoid imprisonment, she had killed herself and her child. Before she had died though, she had vowed to come back one day, along with her child, and reclaim her throne.

“Am I supposed to believe that Lihua is Zhao Hede?”

“If you want to live, you should.” The old man sat down his cup of tea, his eyes meeting Claudia’s. “There is more to the story though. Have you ever heard of the Nu Gui?”

Claudia thought for a minute. She had been studying a lot about Chinese folklore lately. “Isn’t that the vengeful spirit of a woman that was wronged?”
“Yes.”

“So you’re saying that Zhao Hede is a Nu Gui? But how was she wronged? She murdered innocent people and then took her own life.”

“That is the story.”

“The story is false?”

“The story is true, but Zhao Hede may not have been acting of her own volition. Even now she doesn’t know what motivates her. She believes it is her desire to be reunited with her child. But there is a darkness that consumes her, you’ve seen that darkness in your dreams, the Fox Spirit. It is consuming her, just as much as it is consuming you. And this isn’t the first time.”

“I don’t understand.”

Many, many years before Zhao Hede was born lived a woman named Daji. She was just as beautiful as Zhao Hede, maybe even more so and caught the attention of King Zhou. He indulged her every whim and her whims were cruel. She was possessed by the Huli Jing. Over the course of the King’s rule, Daji performed many atrocities. She murdered many innocent people. Eventually the King was overthrown and Daji was killed. But her spirit lived on, forever connected to the Huli Jing. I believe, although it isn’t the common belief, that she possessed the body of Zhao Hede and now possesses that of Lihua.’

“If this is so, why is her mother telling me about this now? And why is Lihua trying to help me?”

“Lihua is a conflicted being. There is the part of her that doesn’t wish to harm anyone, but that is a small part of her and the closer she comes to achieving Zhoa Hede’s goal, the farther she strays from who she is. Lienu has spent her life in fear of her daughter. Only the belief that her daughter would never find a child that contained her own baby’s life force has kept her from acting against her. Now, she believes her daughter intends to kill you and take your child. She wanted to warn you before now, but Lihua has never left her alone with you.”

“So she slipped me that note. But why wasn’t she with her daughter this morning?”

The man’s eyes looked troubled. “If Lienu wasn’t with her this morning, then my best guess is that Lihua knows that she tried to warn you. That means you are in more danger than ever.” Reaching into a drawer, he pulled out a charm. “Where this around your neck. It may offer some protection.”

****

Lihua was gone when Claudia returned home. The nursery was done, painted in soothing colors. Stuffed animals were scattered around the room and the crib placed away from the window.

Claudia considered telling Howard what she had learned at the bookstore, but she decided against it when she saw the smirk on his face. He had caught sight of the charm around her neck.

Getting ready for bed, Claudia picked up the mish mash bear. She had been sleeping with it every night, but her dreams were getting worse. Could the old man be right? Was Lihua making things worse and not better? Making up her mind, Claudia opened the closet door and put the bear inside, burying it beneath a pile of blankets.

****

Red eyes flashed at her through the dark. Fangs bit into her flesh. Something scraped against her belly. Claudia struggled in her bed, trying to fight off the evil spirit that wanted her child, but everywhere she turned, she found copper claws and a taunting laugh.

“My child, I have at last found my child,”

“She is mine!” Claudia reached out, determined to scratch out those red eyes.

“Claudia, Claudia, stop! It’s me. Claudia, stop!”

Next to her, the light came on. Howard was standing over her, scratch marks on his face.

“Oh my God, did I do that?”

“You were having another one of those nightmares.”

“I am so sorry,” Claudia cried. “They should be going away.”

“Well obviously not,” Howard said. Lifting the bear off her bed, he shook his head, “It’s no wonder. This thing gives me the heebie jeebies just looking at it.”

“What is that doing here,” Claudia asked.

“What do you mean? You sleep with the horrid thing every night.”

“I put it in the closet.” Claudia got up and ran across the room to the closet. Throwing the door open, she began searching through the pile of blankets on the floor. “I put it in here, right before I went to bed.”

“I don’t think so honey. It was on your bed when I came in.”

“I am not crazy! I know what I did.”

“Okay, okay,” Howard said. “Calm down. Here, I’ll put it in there myself.” He opened the door to put the bear inside, but Claudia stopped him.

“No, put it in the hall closet. I want it as far from me as possible.”

“Okay. That’s a far cry from earlier, when you kicked me out of bed in favor of this thing. Does that mean I am welcome to come to bed with you.”

“You were always welcome, silly.” Claudia climbed back into bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. “But get rid of that thing, before you do.”

****

“It is time.” It was Lihua’s voice.

“Are you sure? I think she is becoming suspicious.” Howard’s voice. What was he doing with Lihua?

“That is why it is time. My mother tried to warn her, but it is too late. Even that charm she wears around her neck can’t stop me now.”

Claudia opened her eyes. She could hear them speaking, but they weren’t there. They were out in the hall.

“Howard,” she called. “What is going on?”

Howard didn’t answer her. Instead, she heard the bedroom door open. Instead of the shadowy figure of her husband, she saw the Huli Jing slowly stalking towards her.

“Howard!” Claudia pressed herself up against the headboard, willing herself to wake from the dream. This had to be a dream, right?

The Huli Jing continued towards her, its mouth pulled back in a grin, fangs gleaming in the moonlight.  “Howard!” Claudia screamed for her husband as loud as she could, but he didn’t answer.

The fox was nearly on her. Claudia rolled out the other side of the bed, and ran for the door. Her foot slipped. Her ankle twisting, Claudia fell to the ground, feeling the bone snap.

“Please, don’t hurt my baby.” She was looking up towards Lihua, who was now standing over her, no longer in the form of the Huli Jing

“My baby,” Lihua said. “Mine and my husband’s, Emperor Cheng.” She was indicating Howard.

“What? But that is Howard. He is my husband.”

“No, I think you are confused little one,” Lihua said.

Then from behind the Lihua another creature entered the room. The bear, with its patchwork of animal parts lunged towards the woman, seeming to grow in size the closer it got. Somewhere she heard the old woman’s voice as she chanted a spell that urged the creature on. Lihua screamed as the bear grabbed her from behind her his stuffed body pushing up to her.  She began to transform back into the Huli Jing, but the bear’s tusks tore open her throat before she could finish the transformation.

Claudia sat with Howard in the living room, waiting to be told that she could re-enter her bedroom. Howard was still numb from the events that had taken place in his home. The cruel things he had said to his wife echoed in his head as he watched Lihua being carried from their home. Lihua’s mother sat with them, whispering soothing words to Claudia. She had spoken to him too, explaining that none of this was his fault; he had been seduced by the Huli Jing. That didn’t change the fact that his wife had nearly been killed, his unborn child stolen from them.

The police hadn’t been called. As soon as Lihua’s body hit the floor the phone rang. It was the old woman telling them she was on her way with a friend. Howard didn’t know who the old man was, nor the two boys that came along, but they promised to set everything right. They removed the body and cleaned the room. In his head he could hear the old commercial where a woman asked a chines launderer how he got out stains and the answer, “Ancient Chinese Secret.” He wondered how they were going to get out that much blood.

Before leaving, the old woman tacked another mirror up over the door, and then gave Howard a stern look. “Leave it up.”

Word Count: 4,304