January 4th, 2017Stark City, Oregon. 5:53 a.m. "ZOEY!" Daniel Jax screamed as four large security guards began strapping him to a hospital gurney. Lightning cracked the air above him, and black spiders swarmed beneath his dirty clothes. Each of the guards had seized a limb, applying hard rubber cuffs for Daniel's -and the nurse's- own safety. "I HAVE TO SAVE ZOEY!" "Easy, sir," the guard securing Daniel's right arm said. "We'll be done in a second." "IT'S GONNA EAT HER SOUL!" Daniel convulsed, turned to the guard with bulging, bloodshot eyes. He wanted to scream, I'm not crazy! but couldn't find the words. He wanted to tell him about his family, about the beautiful Cape Cod home he'd bought by becoming one of the top insurance salesmen in northern California. But most of all, Daniel wanted to tell him about the lightning. "Man, he stinks!" The guard securing Daniel's left ankle shook his head. "Gotta be wearin' at least three layers!" "Okay," a tired, gray-haired nurse said. "What's the story here, guys?" "Looks homeless," the guard securing Daniel's right ankle said. "Medics found him in an alley downtown, screaming about demons. Seems very dehydrated." "Uh-huh. Name and age?" "I.D. says, Jax, Daniel. Forty-three years old." "Daniel." The nurse laid her gloved hand on his shoulder. "My name's Blanche. There's no demons. You're having a psychotic episode brought on by severe alcohol withdrawal." Having screamed himself hoarse, Daniel turned his bulging eyes to Blanche. The guards had finished strapping him down and he felt helpless. Unable to sit up. Unable to reach out. Unable to do anything but gape and shudder beneath the pale overhead light. "I know it hurts, but I need you to hold still while I insert your I.V." With a sad groan, Daniel shut his eyes, still squirming as thousands of spider legs pricked his flesh. "It took her!" he whispered. "I saw it!" Nodding, Blanche slid the needle into Daniel's arm. Daniel hissed, looked up with fear and pain etched into his face. Another whisper: "I have to save Zoey!" Blanche shook her head. "Alright, Daniel. Now it's fluids, fluids, fluids. I'm gonna order a Thiamine boost, and a heavy dose of Diaxepam to help you sleep." Fists clenched, Daniel strained to sit up. "I have to save her!" "You're gonna be here for a while, so just lie back and ride it out. Once these DTs pass, we'll get you evaluated and outta here. I'll do everything I can to help you, but right now I've gotta go check on my other patients." Daniel flinched from another crack of lightning as Blanche left, shut off the light, and closed the door. They'd put him in one of the rooms reserved for psychotic patients. No T.V., no sink; nothing which could excite or harm him. A beam of light shone through the observation window onto his face. Already, the shadows in the corners had begun to writhe and swirl. But they didn't know. Medics, security guards, nurses; normal people. They couldn't see the true horrors which lived in darkness. Daniel knew because he used to be like them-used to be normal. Then the lightning came, shattering every bit of normalcy he'd ever known. "I'll find her, goddamnit! Before it sucks the life out of her forever!" Still squirming, Daniel took deep breaths. It didn't help. The lightning still cracked. The spiders still swarmed. And he craved alcohol as never before; like a cramp in the center of his being. If not for this mission, Daniel would've killed with his bare hands for a sip of beer. But he couldn't save Zoey drunk. To save her, he had to bear this agony. The agony of Delirium Tremens. "Great news!" Blanche said, pushing through the door. "Got your meds. How are you feeling?" Gasping, Daniel looked at Blanche. How long had she been gone? A minute? An hour? Daniel had no clue. "Still riding it out, I see. Well, this'll help..." As Blanche injected the Thiamine and Diaxepam into Daniel's I.V., Daniel again closed his eyes. The Thiamine didn't matter, but the Diaxepam would be his savior. God's mercy, coursing through his veins. "Alright, Daniel. Nothing left to do but lie back and try to rest." As Blanche left, Daniel twisted in his restraints. Lie back and rest? No way. Not when he had a life to save. A life more important than his own. I'm coming, Zoey! Just hold on a little longer . . . Propelled by his racing pulse, the Diaxepam slammed into Daniel's brain with locomotive force. All at once he ceased writhing and his eyelids began to flutter. His sharp exhalations dulled, becoming deep, almost contemplative sighs. Hold on . . .Zo . . . ey . . . One last sigh, then Daniel went slack. Head turned, eyes closed, lips parted. Not quite snoring. Several minutes of blessed nothing passed before Daniel began to dream. The same dream he's had for the last twelve years: rummaging around his attic on a muggy March evening. His daughter, Caroline, has found a large black widow spider in her room, and he's vowed to cleanse the house of all insects. Outside, the sky has darkened and the wind has risen; very apropos for the impending holocaust. Bug spray in hand, he's found a small infestation of creepy crawlers in a dusty corner. As he advances upon the large, silken web, Daniel hears a clap of thunder. A storm, he thinks, taking aim. And as he pushes the spray button, a bolt of lightning strikes the roof above his head. So fast, so sudden, Daniel doesn't feel the jolt, but collapses beneath the dry explosion-BOOM! "Shit!" Daniel's eyes snapped open. Leaving his sleeping form behind, the homeless drunk's ethereal self sat up and slid off the gurney. He always felt the same after the dream; anxious, drained...and in serious danger of slipping into the bad place. The realm of spirits, shadows, and demons. But this time, he wanted to go. God help me. Standing in the light from the observation window, Daniel watched himself. Despite the disheveled clothes and restraints, his body looked so peaceful, so free of torment. He'd aged quite a bit since the accident, but he took it in stride. Living on the streets will do that. So will drinking yourself to sleep every night. Still, he couldn't wait to slip back inside the now wrinkled bag of flesh he'd called home since birth. On the floor lay a black parka. Beside the parka lay a filthy gray backpack. The backpack contained, among clothes and other assorted detritus, Daniel's lifeblood. Three twenty-four ounce cans of fermented poison. Gazing at the pack, he wanted to grab one and chug it down. The lightning no longer cracked, the spiders no longer swarmed, but still he craved his poison. God help me. After the lightning bolt, Daniel had awoken in a hospital much like this one. The brave firefighters hadn't been able to save his house, but his wife, Ellen, and his children, Alan, Brandon, and Caroline, had all survived. This left Daniel in an odd predicament; wanting to thank the very God who'd thrown the lightning in the first place. Then, after a brief yet severe bout of Tinnitus, Daniel's real troubles began. The lightning. God's lightning. Insurance had helped buy another house, but nothing helped rebuild Daniel's life. Not even the love of his wife and children. That random bolt had done something awful to his brain. Jump-started a new or dormant sense, perhaps. Either way, Daniel began to see and hear things. Insane things. Shadows from the corner of his eye. Whispers in the back of his mind. Ominous. Unsettling. And sometimes, when Daniel felt sluggish or sleepy, a strange sensation would steal across him; that of slipping out of his own skin. Spiritual pulp seeping through porous meat. Of course, like any hardheaded man, Daniel kept all of this to himself as long as he could. And by the time it became evident that he needed help, Daniel had already found a cure: alcohol. An addiction to soothe his affliction. That's when the arguments began. He'd gotten fired due to his need for a constant buzz, and Ellen demanded that he seek help. But after a disastrous week in a psychiatric hospital, Daniel left Lodi on a Greyhound headed north; nothing in his pockets but his wallet and a pint of vodka. And he never looked back. Better get moving. Daniel looked from himself to the dark corner beyond. The shadows moved, but nothing else. Demons tended to avoid sterile places like hospitals. A comforting thought indeed as Daniel passed through the metal gurney, his own warm flesh, and into the very ether itself . . . Catapulted through time and space. Down the freakin' rabbit hole! Still craving a beer, Daniel stepped from a different shadow in a different corner; this time in a narrow alley in downtown Stark City. The same alley he'd stood in when he saw the demon snatch poor little Zoey. Damn my eyes. Daniel's dark, grimy alley faced an even darker and grimier alley across the street. The demon's alley. To the left, The Stark City Cafe; its front window lit by a neon OPEN sign. To the right, a small florist shop; locked and closed. The surrounding morning looked gloomy and cold as Daniel sauntered to the cracked sidewalk. Steeling himself. Hang in there, kid. Gazing across the street, Daniel shuddered. Everything had happened so fast... While scrounging through the trashcans in his alley, Daniel had seen a woman and a little girl standing at the mouth of the demon's alley. To Daniel, the woman had looked snooty. Sunhat tipped at an arrogant angle. Designer sunglasses. Long gray coat. High-heels. Tall and attractive, jabbering on her phone, shopping bags dangling from her left hand. Behind her, the girl had looked bored and innocent. Blonde, wearing a gray coat, black skirt, and gray leggings. She'd seemed so sweet. Nothing, Daniel had hoped, like her mother. Half drunk, Daniel had paused, thinking of Caroline and his wife; not so different than those two. Then, utter shock corrupted the girl's delicate face as two black, wispy arms swept her into the dank alley. So sudden, she didn't have a chance to scream. Horrified, Daniel had blinked and shook his head-trying to erase what he'd just seen. A minute later the woman had turned, frowned, and began searching for her daughter: "Zoey? Zoey! Zoey, where are you?" After venturing into the alley, the woman had grown frantic, hurrying down the street. Daniel watched her go, glancing at the demon's alley every few seconds. That's when he'd decided to save Zoey. Not because he felt sorry for her mother-who should've been paying closer attention-but because no one else had seen Zoey disappear. No one else-that he knew of, anyway-could slip into the ether where the demon lived and preyed. For so long, Daniel had wanted to believe that God had cursed him for a reason, and maybe, just maybe, he'd found that reason. That's why Daniel had sat down in his alley and waited for the oppressive weight of sobriety. And with it, the hell of Delirium Tremens: Thunder. Lightning. Spiders. Demons. And now that I'm here, Lord, I'll try to fear no evil . . . Bullshit, of course. Daniel felt almost paralyzed with fear. But he couldn't stop. Not now. I'll try! A man in a business suit walked through him as he moved to the curb. A metallic green Prius drove through him as he crossed the street. Daniel neither noticed nor cared. He shuffled across the rough asphalt with spectral ease until, at long last, he found himself facing the demon's alley. Lickety-split, Zoey. Here I am. An old woman pushed a stroller through him. The baby saw him, she didn't. Daniel peered into the alley with wide, nervous eyes. Two trashcans stood on either side. Garbage littered the entire walkway. But no rats, Daniel noticed. No pigeons, no curious cats. Not even any fellow winos. Just a cold, desolate place most people went out of their way to avoid. Because of the demon. They can't see it . . . but they sense it. The alley didn't extend to the next block. Staring into this grimy abyss, Daniel faced a dark brick wall. In the center of this wall stood a large gray door. Above the door, a sign read: EMERGENCY FIRE EXIT! in bold red letters. Shit. Where are you, Zoey? If the demon had dragged her off somewhere, then Daniel had wasted her time and his-not to mention enduring needless pain. He'd already ventured further into the ether than he'd ever wanted, and Daniel sure as hell didn't want to find out where the demons went for fun. Come on, man! This can't be happen . . . Looking up, Daniel jerked. Shadows had begun to swarm around him. Behind the trashcans. Along the walls. Everywhere in the periphery. Darkness closing in. And high in the left-hand corner, Daniel saw a large, still shadow; darker than all the rest. Bullseye. The demon. Imperceptible to the sober, human eye. But Daniel saw it; black as death above him. As a mere ghost, Daniel had no blood to run cold, and no heart or veins to pump it. Nevertheless, he felt a deep chill; ice forming on his very soul. He wanted to run. He wanted to turn and rush back into his sleeping, tormented self and forget the whole thing. But again, he remembered that little girl's face; so soft, so pristine. So much like Caroline May Jax that it hurt far worse than anything a demon could ever do. "Zoey? Zoey, where are you?" Fists clenched and shaking, Daniel stepped into the alley. Without warning the demon sprang from the wall. Not at Daniel, but down to the squalid ground. Dead center in the walkway. And in the space where it had perched, Daniel saw something hideous: Little Zoey, lying fetal, bundled in a gleaming silver web. Christ! But Daniel couldn't dwell on Zoey's plight. A demon now crouched before him, ready to spring. To Daniel, it looked as if the silhouette of a gigantic spider had come to life. A bulbous torso with four shadowy legs and two lidless, crimson eyes. Eyes which pulsed with hatred. Looking into them, Daniel felt another chill. He'd interrupted the demon's feast, and now it wanted to kill him. So what the hell do I do? Had he been flesh and bone, Daniel would've grabbed one of the trashcans and bashed it over the demon's head. In this state, however, his hands would pass right through the metal. So, as the demon skittered toward him, Daniel tensed, knees bent as if ready to leap and run. Oh, shit! The demon's hateful eyes narrowed as it sprang. Without thinking, Daniel ducked and barrel-rolled beneath it. The pavement would've taken a heavy toll on his mortal self, but his spirit self tumbled forward without pain. Panicked, Daniel scrambled to his feet and ran to the corner. He jumped, kicking off the far wall, and snagged the gleaming web. There he hung for a frantic moment before pulling with both hands and ripping the webbed bundle free. Then, Daniel and Zoey fell. GOTCHA! The moment Daniel landed, he felt the demon upon him. Weightless yet powerful; clutching hard. Fangs buried in his neck. Legs thrust into his torso like monstrous needles. And it felt cold; glacial. The very absence of life. "No!" Daniel screamed, feeling his strength begin to wane. "You won't get her!" With no adrenaline to spur him, Daniel relied on sheer willpower as he rose and lurched forward with the demon on his back. Groaning, Daniel dropped to his knees and began tearing at the web around Zoey. Layer after layer, flying up, dissipating as if never there. Still, the demon clutched and drank of Daniel's essence. Daniel gasped and wept and tore until he'd uncovered Zoey's pale face. "Zoey! Wake up!" Coughing, the little girl's eyes snapped open. Daniel screamed in agony and triumph, now tearing at the web over Zoey's chest. "You're alive!" Disbelief crossed Zoey's face, then she sat up, shrieking, kicking her feet, and helping Daniel tear the webbing away. "Run, Zoey! RUN!" Still shrieking, Zoey leapt up and ran toward the sidewalk. The demon hissed as she escaped, tightening its grip on Daniel. Daniel, fighting the torment, also stood, watching Zoey disappear into the real world as he reached up and dug his fingers into the black shape hunched over him. "That's it, kid! Go on!" Another hiss as the demon dug deeper with fangs and legs. Zoey glanced back as she stepped across the threshold between earth and ether. Her tender eyes shone with terror, confusion, and fatigue . . . but also gratitude. Thankful to the strange man who'd rescued her from the monster, even as it mauled him in the alley. I don't know what's happening or why, those eyes said, but I'll never forget you. Then, little Zoey vanished. "Thank God!" Feeling cold and faint, Daniel turned to the dark corner. The demon's fangs felt like nails in his neck, its legs like steel spikes in his sides. Still, Daniel smiled, even as he gasped and groaned. He'd saved Zoey, fulfilling his promise, and now he had to save himself. Not that Daniel wanted to live, but to die here would damn his immortal soul for all eternity; perhaps to become a demon himself. Can't . . . give . . . up! It took all of Daniel's waning strength, but he managed to sprint forward, straight into the shadows. Entering another tunnel through time and space; hoping like hell the demon would let go and retreat to its alley. No such luck. An instant later, Daniel and the demon flopped back into the small hospital room where his body lay in bed. Impaled by the black, squirming, blight, Daniel landed on all fours. No sound, just an inner wail from the most intense pain he'd ever felt. Gotta get back in my skin! Quivering, Daniel looked up to see a nurse in dark blue scrubs standing over his body. Not Blanche; younger, beautiful, with long dark hair. Checking his pulse. Checking the I.V. Looking very concerned. And, to Daniel's utter relief, she'd turned the light on. Pale, fluorescent light; raining down. Obliterating the shadows. Oh, thank G . . . "GAH!" The demon convulsed and withdrew its legs, hissing all the while. Daniel felt as if he'd been gutted, and buckled from the strain. The cold thing sprang from corner to corner, desperate for a shadow to hide in; finding nothing-not even a decent crack in the walls. Then it began to evaporate; first its legs, then its bulbous body. Black steam rising into the ether. Baked into oblivion by the merciless glow. Writhing on a floor he couldn't feel, Daniel watched the demon's gradual death with relish, hoping it hurt far worse than what it had done to Zoey. Content in knowing that it would never hurt anyone again. End of the line, boy. As the last of its body faded, the demon's hateful eyes narrowed to sharp red slits. I'd kill you slow if I could, those eyes said, and Daniel stared into them without blinking. The eyes flashed in their final death throes, and Daniel chuckled as the red steam drifted up into nothingness. Good riddance! Once no trace of the shadow remained, Daniel stood and limped to the gurney. The nurse, oblivious to Daniel's spiritual presence, shook her head and left the room. Watching her, Daniel felt grateful. She and Blanche had done everything they could for him, just as he'd done everything he could for poor Zoey. Not a bad deal, I guess. Smiling, Daniel turned to his sleeping flesh. The restraints had been removed and he lay almost fetal on his left side. Again, it struck Daniel how old and withered he'd become. The damage done. Living on the streets for so long. Gulping down booze to keep the demons at bay. Hiding from himself. God forgive me. Ellen, Alan, Brandon forgive me. And Caroline--sweet little Caroline--please forgive me. But as the tortured alcoholic stepped into the gurney and sank into the comfort of his own skin, he couldn't find the strength to forgive the most important person of all: Daniel Thomas Jax. "Hi, Mister Jax," the pretty nurse said an hour later. "I'm Heather." Daniel now lay on his back, awake yet groggy; as if he'd been asleep for a very long time. "Hello, Heather." "How are you feeling?" Daniel glanced around the room, then at Heather. He saw no lightning, felt no spiders; what more could he ask? "I feel okay." "Good. I heard you had a rough morning." You have no idea. "Uh...how long was I . . . away?" Heather frowned. "Away, Mister Jax?" Daniel grinned, shook his head. "I meant out. How long was I out?" "Oh, Well, you were sleeping when I came on shift at eight, and now it's a quarter after five." Daniel's grin melted. "That's nine hours." "And then some." Heather patted Daniel's arm. "Like I said, you were already out when I got here." "Well, thank you for taking such good care of me." Heather smiled. "My pleasure, Mister Jax. Now, if your vitals are good, I don't see why we can't get you released soon." "Okay." Yawning, Daniel sat up and stretched his arms. Would there be any lasting effects from the demon's attack? He didn't know, but so far, he felt fine. Just a bit shaky. "Is there anyone I can call for you, Mr. Jax?" Daniel jerked toward Heather as if stuck with a needle. "Huh?" "Can I call someone? Family, friends? Anyone?" Daniel sighed. Family. Friends. Anyone. Well, sure. Once upon a time, I had all of that. I had everything a man could want. But then God hit me with a lightning bolt and didn't even have the courtesy to kill me. "Uh, no. I'm not from here." "Okay." Heather shrugged. "I'll get started on your discharge papers." "Thank you." As Heather left the room, Daniel looked down, pondering what to do once he left. Maybe hitch a ride back downtown and return to the demon's alley? There he could beg for change before bedding down for the night. And Daniel very much needed some change. Those three cans in his backpack wouldn't last long. He'd already begun to feel that itch in the back of his throat. That vicious, maddening itch. And with it, the depressing knowledge that all the shadows of the world would be waiting.
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A Christmas Carol this one's not - but ghost stories are traditional in some cultures this time of year. Here's hoping you enjoyed this one. In fact, here's hoping you enjoyed all of the tales told on these pages this fine, bright 2018. We've had quite a few good ones and one or two excellent ones. You might find some better than others but, if you're honest, you feel the same way about your presents every year. A Merry Christmas to all of Anotherealm's readers. May your New Year be peaceful, pleasant, and prosperous. God bless us, every one. - GM