The Drabblecast is finally reborn with this special two-part Halloween story: “Skullpocket” by Nathan Ballingrud!
It’s been a long year and a half(ish), folks. Death just isn’t what it used to be. Frankly it’s boring. Everyone screaming and crying at each other, the incessant heat, obsessive social media addicts—it gets old, ya know? Can’t we just stop wallowing and enjoy a good story? So we rang the bell of our ratty old safety coffin (cause those are still a thing, right?) and you actually dug us up!
Now this old corpse has some new stories just for you. First up is Nathan Ballingrud’s “Skullpocket” told in two parts. Nathan Ballingrund is a Shirley Jackson Award winning author of horror and dark fiction. It’s a sinister tale about Mr. Wormcake and one terrible game…
Jonathan Wormcake, the Eminent 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.
Our Twabble winner this week—the first of the new Drabblecast— is Eric Marsh on our Drabblecast Forums:
Lab grown meat put human on the table. It was savory and popular. Free range products soon developed a cultic following.
If you’d like to submit a 100-character story to us hit us up on the forums! There’s a really great community of weirdos on there.
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Without further ado—and seriously, it’s been almost two years now—please enjoy a special Halloween return of The Drabblecast. The full text of Nathan’s story has been published below the player.
Drabblecast 387 – Skullpocket: Part 1
Skullpocket Part 1
by Nathan Ballingrud
Jonathan Wormcake, the Eminent Ghoul 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 himself, I am a very old man, facing an end to my life. I’m shocked by the toll the years have taken on him. I know I shouldn’t be; Mr. Wormcake’s presence in this mansion 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 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, which never moves––it’s as still as a walnut––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 is 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, and as the resident priest of the Church of the Maggot, it is my duty to preside over his end of life ritual.
We don’t know how a ghoul dies. Not even he is sure; 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 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 discrete time.”
He looks at the children gathered around Uncle Digby, who is guiding them gently toward the great bay window. 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 mid-Seventies, never mind the fallout from the Sleepover War 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, as well as his imminent farewell to 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. 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. 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, popcorn spilling from their hands as they shovel it 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 confidante 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. Not everyone welcomed the new church, in the early years.
“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 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 Kraken 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 said the dream which summons the children is intense. You sounded as though you spoke from experience. This is not your first time to the house, is it?”
“No. I had the dream myself, when I was very young. 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, what. In your eighties? You look young for your age.”
I smile at him. “Thanks. 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 inaugural Skullpocket Fair, 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, one 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 amongst 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 above ground 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 every October for years and years. It was a way for Hob’s Landing to celebrate its relationship with the Chesapeake Bay, and to commemorate the time the Kraken 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 the 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 the 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 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 adults 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.
And 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 been sunlight 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, glittering 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 ago, on the blood-soaked 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 its replacement, the Skullpocket Fair, was born.
I was the sixth kid to receive the dream that year. I had heard about 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 the Wormcakes had 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 that 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 friends. She always wore a colorful, 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 a shabby 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, us kids worried about it a lot less than our parents or 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, well 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, ropey 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, boneless and weak.
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 familiar 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 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 — 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 still young enough 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 not as nice, 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 amongst 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 for thinking that someone would 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 blues the flesh and tightens the skin around the 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 have given 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 re-introduce 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 Dapper 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. But that didn’t worry me a bit. 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, said 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 to be 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 Cold Water Fair was a bloom 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.