The Chain of Time by Killian Crane
After the disappearance of a little girl in the woods by a Middle School another boy is lured into the woods, the house isn't made of gingerbread but the oven is just as dangerous!
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Produced by Daniel Wilder
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Andrew Leid felt like a freshly poured fountain drink; from his blond curls to his pudgy 12-year-old belly, he absolutely fizzed. He was blind to the children enjoying recess around him on the playground of Pine Hill Middle School. His entire world was a bridge of grass to Claire Ellis. Claire sat in the front corner of his class. Andrew, who would never admit it to anyone, found himself looking at her more often than the white board. She faced away from him, staring into the expansive forest behind the school. She had brown hair held up in a long pony tail by a pink ribbon. He knew he had no business talking to a girl like her, but he decided that morning that he would ask her if she’d like to go to the Gumbo Festival with him. He just couldn’t seem to move his feet.
He finessed past several crinkling snack wrappers and drew his brass pocket watch. Flipped open, it showed there was still fifteen minutes of recess. As he tried to put the watch away, the chain went taught and flew from his hand. Bewildered, Andrew turned to see Thomas Daniels. Thomas jiggled the watch, making it glint wildly. “Whatcha doing, chubber?” Thomas asked. Andrew’s fist clenched. “Thomas, please. Just give it back.” “Oh, I will,” Thomas jeered. He swung the watch evenly. “If you can catch me.” Andrew saw Claire still staring into the woods, and then focused on Thomas. He made a clumsy lunge, and Thomas pulled it taught, palming the watch then letting it fall free again as if he was walking the dog with a yoyo. “Try again, fatty.” Andrew did, but Thomas still held the watch. “Cut it out, Thomas!” The metal grazed Andrew’s fingers before it was pulled free a third time. Children gathered around to watch the spectacle. Thomas, the circus master, led Andrew in a wide circle like a prize animal. “Uh uh uh!” he teased. Andrew’s face grew blood red with anger and effort. He charged, head low. Thomas dodged and stuck his foot out to catch Andrew in an embarrassing trap. The crowd roared approval as he thudded to the ground. He struggled to his feet, his heart limping in his chest. He put his hands over his head, fighting the need to puke.
“Look at those fat titties!” one kid squealed. Andrew, instantly shamed, covered his chest with his hands. “Who said that?” he squeaked, spinning around, trying not to jostle himself. No one answered, they simply pointed and laughed. Thomas spun the pocket watch high above his head, cocking his arm to throw it, when an adult voice cut through the laughs of the children. “What’s going on here?” Miss Minner demanded. The circle fell instantly silent. Her eyes locked onto Thomas. “Office, mister Daniels. Everyone else, back inside. Recess is over.” There was a collective groan as the crowd headed for class. Thomas flung the watch hard into Andrew’s chest. Once the watch was safe, Andrew searched the crowd for Claire. He didn’t see her pink bow anywhere. The tree line, like a storm on the horizon, loomed silent and empty.
Ten minutes into class, Claire still wasn’t in her seat in the front corner. When he saw that Miss Minner still hadn’t noticed, Andrew raised his hand.
In the five weeks after Claire’s disappearance, Andrew gained twenty pounds.
He sat at the dinner table of his mother’s small apartment, watching a man who claimed to be an expert on the occult. The man waved his hands excitedly. “In fact, people back then always kept precious metals on their person. Certain metals were believed to ward off the evil eye.” Andrew’s mother changed the channel to the news. The oven chimed, and soon a baking sheet packed end to end with French toast lay before Andrew. Crispy crusts, buttery middles, and the perfect amount of cinnamon. It was Andrew’s favorite dessert. “Thank you, mama.” Andrew said as he dug in. She tousled his hair. “Love you, gummy bear.” The Leid family hadn’t always lived in a small apartment. Once upon a time, the Leid’s were the proud owners of a successful restaurant. Andrew’s father ran the business, and his mother was head chef. Andrew was the professional taste tester, if he finished his homework. Monday nights, when business was usually slow, they watched Westerns at the bar. Despite great business, Andrew’s father had made many mistakes with the money. The last thing Andrew ever heard his father say was “It’s getting where we can’t even afford to feed him!” The next morning, his father was gone. Andrew’s mother sold the restaurant, their house, traded in her car, and moved them into the apartment. Despite their tight budget, she always made sure that her son was fed. She cooked three hearty meals every day, with plenty of snacks in between. Shortly after his father left, Andrew began to gain weight.
The telephone rang and she quickly answered it. She looked over her shoulder before going out of the room to take the call in private. Andrew wiped his fingers clean, and downed the last of his chocolate milk. On the television, the window over the reporter’s shoulder faded into a picture of Claire sheepishly smiling. A piece of ice lodged itself in his heart, and the reporter’s words drove the ice home. “The search for Claire Ellis, twelve-year-old daughter of James and Olivia Ellis, has been discontinued by authorities. Claire was last seen wandering into the woods behind Pine Hill Middle School. The Ellis family asks that anyone with information involving Claire’s disappearance to call the number below.” Feet pattered from down the hall back into the living room. “A candle light vigil will be held Saturday at six p.m. at the Pine Hill Middle School. On behalf of all of us here at Channel 6 News, -” The channel abruptly changed to cartoons. Andrew’s mother held out the remote, letting out a sharp breath as she replaced the phone. “I’m sorry you saw that, gummy bear. Let’s not think about that tonight, okay?” But Andrew had thought of Claire every night. As far as the police had learned, Andrew was the last one to see Claire. Despite being full, he wanted something to snack on. He flipped open the brass pocket watch. It was only seven. His mother sounded like a cracked china cup as she spoke. “What’s your watch say, cowboy?” The previous year, Andrew and his mother went to the movies and saw a vintage western. When the hero strode into town, two bad guys leveled their guns. The hero
pulled a brass pocket watch from his duster and said “Will ya look at that? It’s high time things changed ‘round here.” He pulled his gun and shot the men down. Andrew had been overjoyed, clapping loud enough to draw a “Shhhh!” from somewhere in the dark. On Christmas day, Andrew had an exact replica of the watch. “Seven. It’s getting late,” he told her, holstering the watch. Though he truly loved the watch, it reminded him of times with his father, watching westerns. They had been a family then, and Andrew, whether he meant to or not, had ruined that. He was the reason his father left. The more he thought about his failures, to his family, to Claire, the more he wanted to eat and forget. He rose and gave his mother a gentle hug. “I’m gonna go to bed, mama. I feel really tired.” She hugged him back, and Andrew remembered a time when she had been able to wrap her arms all the way around him. “Goodnight, gummy bear. I’ll have a big breakfast for you in the morning.” “Sounds good, mama. Love you.” “Love you too.” He drifted to his room, closing the door behind him. He no longer felt nice and full and sleepy. He felt fat. If he hadn’t been fat, he wouldn’t have been picked on by Thomas. He wouldn’t have had a problem asking Claire to go to the Gumbo Festival with him. Claire wouldn’t have disappeared.
The large bag of pretzels he kept in his night stand lay in his lap, open. He sat on his bed watching the pocket watch tick away the seconds, silently eating the pretzels until they were gone.
The next day, the children were allowed on the playground for the first time since the disappearance. Andrew sat at the edge of the forest eating from a plastic sleeve of mini donuts, watching the other kids play. Thomas was occupied humiliating another target. Behind Andrew, the new fence polls stood, but no fence barred the forest. During a lonely lunch two days before, Andrew heard Coach Bart say to another teacher, “those guys building the fence are really dragging butt.” In the distance, Thomas gave some poor soul an atomic wedgie, pulling him off the ground, feet kicking. “I wish I could help you, kid,” Andrew said around a mouthful of donut. A familiar voice hissed behind him. “You could help me, Andrew.” He turned wide eyed to see the back of Claire Ellis. She looked exactly the same as the day she disappeared, down to her long ponytail tied with a pink bow. “Claire?” She laughed. There was a scream from the playground, making Andrew wheel around. Coach Bart, who had taken Miss Minner’s place as Andrew’s teacher, had Thomas by the ear, marching him towards the school. A crowd of kids followed, cheering and laughing. When Andrew turned back to the forest. “Claire?”
The smallest crescent of Claire’s face peeked from behind a tree deep inside. “Claire... people have been really worried about you. Where have you been?” She grinned, saying nothing. The wrapper crinkled in his trembling hand. “You want a donut?” With a laugh, she turned and fled deeper into the woods. “Claire, wait!” he called out as he breached the tree line. She darted tree to tree, far ahead of him. Her giggles seemed to echo. When Andrew slowed, she stopped and watched him struggle to catch up. “Claire,” he puffed, “Please...” He wanted to go back to the playground and get an adult, but he pressed on, heaving and walking when he could no longer run, wheezing pleas for her to stop. She laughed in response, and ran aimlessly deeper into the forest. His heart pumped madly, screaming at him to stop and turn back, but he couldn’t. It was his fault that she got lost, and he wanted to make it right. Pollen danced in low orange rays between branches. Andrew was nervous to see the time. “Peek-a-boo!” Claire said, disappearing behind a tree. He leaned on his knees, crushing the empty plastic sleeve. He had lost all of the donuts running through the forest. “Claire,” he huffed, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but we have to go back now. Your parents miss you.” She beckoned in a low voice, “Save me, Andrew.” Apprehensively, he rounded the tree.
He peeked, not seeing anyone. He called out to her, but only his echo answered. The dancing rays dimmed as the sky continued to redden.
Andrew searched for his trail of donuts, first calling for Claire, then for anyone. When night fell, and the forest stirred with the sounds of things unseen, Andrew didn’t dare call out. A stray branch Andrew couldn’t see gouged deeply into his arm. The pain and the fear and sheer exhaustion forced him to his knees. The harvest moon, large and orange in the sky, was swallowed by an inky sea of clouds. Andrew huddled against a tree, sobbing as total darkness fell. The creatures of the night reveled in the cold void. He curled inward on the itchy forest floor shivering. Somewhere in his tears, time slowed to the pace of a bad nightmare. Then, as suddenly as the forest came alive, it went deathly silent. There was a click in the dark, followed instantly by blinding light. He put his hands to his face and cried out. As his eyes adjusted, he saw that it was a flashlight held by an unseen figure. “Hello?” Andrew called out, still shielding his eyes. There was nothing. Acute panic filled his spine and his voice. “Are you here to help me?.”
The forest floor crunched as the light approached. Andrew pressed against the tree, cornered. An angel gently placed her hand on his head. Her golden hair fell in strands around her white dress. Feeling her hand on his head, his muddy brown eyes locking with her emerald greens, his fear melted away. “My goodness,” she said as she knelt, “what are you doing out here?” Andrew sunk into the angel’s shoulder, trying to speak between loud sobs. “I’m lost, miss! I followed my friend and I can’t find her now! Please help me!” She rocked him in her arms, shushing him. The angel held his face in her hands and wiped streaming tears from his cheeks. “What’s your name, sweetie?” He sniffled. “I’m Andrew, ma’am.” She helped him to his feet, and shined the light under her face, illuminating a wide grin. “My name is Agatha.” She forced him to lock fingers with her. “I heard someone crying in the dark. Children are always getting lost out here.” Andrew wiped his nose on his sleeve. “You live around here?” Agatha leveled her face with his. “Not far at all. Let’s get you in the house and warmed up.”
They walked hand in hand led by the flashlight.
“Ma’am,” Andrew inquired apprehensively, “You said a lot of kids get lost in these woods. I’m looking for my friend, Claire. She went missing a few weeks ago. You haven’t seen her, have you?” “Nope. Sorry, sweetie.” In a clearing ahead of them was a small house. Warm, electric light peeked from behind a curtained window, as well as a familiar cinnamon smell. He brightened. “What is that?” Agatha smiled warmly. “I like to have a late-night treat sometimes.” She led him up the porch steps and opened the door. “After you.” The inside of the house was cozy and warm. In the center of the small room was the dining table with tall backed chairs. The corner had a small reading nook, topped with a lamp that dimly lit the room. Several large volumes lay on the table. Across from the entrance was another door, closed. Andrew assumed that was to her bedroom. The kitchen dominated the room. Everything appeared to be commercial grade, reminding Andrew of his parent’s restaurant. The deep double sink lay in a marble counter. On the counter sat spices of all kinds and a large wooden knife block. The refrigerator and freezer combo was old but well maintained. The oven, the biggest Andrew had ever seen, was a source of warmth and the cinnamon. Agatha locked the door and guided him by the shoulder to the dining table. “Make yourself at home!”
Exhausted, he sank into a chair and settled comfortably like a mound of pudding. She sat at the corner next to him, elbows on the table, hands concealing a smile. “Thank you for helping me,” Andrew said. “Do you think my friend is okay out there?” Agatha’s hands fell, revealing a white, perfect smile. “You have a little something,” she said as she wiped the last bit of glistening blood from the cut in his arm. She stuck the sanguine tip of her thumb into her mouth and sucked it clean.. The oven timer dinged, and she glided into the kitchen. She moved like his mother, he thought. She pulled a single glass from the wooden cabinet, then swung open the fridge and found a carton of chocolate milk. She held the fridge door open with one foot as she poured the milk, feigning lost balance for Andrew’s amusement. Once poured, she replaced the bottle and let the fridge close itself. With much showmanship, she dawned two oven mitts that went to her elbows, then swung a locking latch above the oven’s door open before pulling it open. She fanned the heat like an angry goose. Andrew didn’t remember a latch like that on his parent’s oven. She spun, closed the door with her heel, and marched, chocolate milk in the crook of her arm and a baking sheet in her mitts. She placed both squarely in front of Andrew. “What do you think?” she asked. It was a baking sheet packed end to end with French toast. Crispy crusts, buttery middles, and the perfect amount of cinnamon.
The smell made the fear and the shock and the pain of the night’s events settle onto Andrew’s shoulders. He realized in his soul that he was hungry. “Eat up,” she pleaded. He had wanted to say something, but before he knew it, the bread was eviscerated, staining his fingers with delicious stickiness. He devoured each slice like a starving beast, only stopping long enough to take big gulps of chocolate milk. She grinned at him. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m so rude. You made this for you.” “Oh no,” she whispered. “Please, eat up.” She rose with his empty glass in hand and refilled it. The oven dinged as she adjusted the temperature. Sitting back down, she slid the glass to him, just in time for another big gulp. “I really do like it, ma’am. It’s actually my favorite!” “Wonderful,” Agatha said, eying him up and down. Not long after his third glass of milk, Andrew had finished the entire baking sheet. He sat back, feeling his stomach expand with milk and bread. Lethargic, he sighed. “Thank you. I think I needed that.” She leaned over the table, a glint in her eye. “I’ll say,” she whispered as she playfully pinched his belly. He flinched away from her hand, gently swatting it away. “Please don’t do that,” he said. Smiling, she stood slowly. “Let me prep your room. I’ll be right back.”
She unlocked the back door and stepped into total darkness, slamming the door behind her. Andrew went to the sink to wash his sticky fingers. Clean, he checked his watch. To his amazement, the brass vibrated in his hand. It had never done that before. He put it away, hoping it wasn’t broken, when something at the reading nook caught his eye. His steps echoed as he moved towards it. The cover of the top volume was rough. Andrew could tell that the book was very old. Something colorful marked the ancient pages. He opened the book and saw it was a pink ribbon. The barest edge of one loop was stained with a trace of red. The book was written in a language Andrew didn’t recognize, but there was a graphic drawing that he immediately understood. It detailed how to strip the meat from a human arm. The door to the bedroom popped open. It creaked on its hinges as a gnarled hand led it open. A hunched creature padded barefoot into the room, its back to Andrew. It drew a wicked looking blade from the knife block. Andrew ran for the door, trying for the knob only to find it missing. The window latch was also gone, like neither was ever there. In the kitchen, something that might have once been a woman stood in the dim light facing him. Its crooked nose was too large for its face, and long wisps of hair grew in sparse golden patches.
Pale skin, covered in moles, boils and blisters, sagged and creased from its ancient body. Like it’s skin, its once white dress hung bedraggled. Its eyes glistened like wet, green mold. Agatha’s dry voice strangled Andrew to panic. “I like to have a late-night treat, gummy bear.” He pounded the window as hard as he could, his fist bouncing ineffectively. The witch stalked him slowly. He rounded the table, keeping it between them. “Help me!” Andrew cried to no one. “Someone, please!” Agatha cackled. “No one is coming for you.” Andrew fought back the urge to faint. He tried to call out again but it jumbled into a garbled mess. The witch seemed barely able to contain her excitement. “I’ve seasoned you,” she said proudly. “Not that you need it, my little well marbled chubber. Now Claire, she needed seasoning.” Andrew thought he could feel his heart fall out of his chest at the mention of Claire. “You know,” Agatha confided. “I couldn’t eat her right away. She was all skin and bones. Had to feed her a few weeks, make her ripe. But you,” she trailed off, licking her cracked lips. “So plump and juicy already.” She flashed a saw-toothed grin, showing off every inch of her yellowed gums. Andrew’s fear had been replaced by something primal. If he hadn’t been so fat, Thomas wouldn’t have picked on him. He could have gotten to her in time. He would’ve had the courage to ask. Even if she said no, she’d still be alive.
That primal heat filled his entire being and spewed from his mouth like fire. “You killed her!” With all of his strength, he shoved the table into Agatha. Surprise flashed across her face as she stumbled against the blow. She caught herself, then shoved back twice as hard. Struck, Andrew careened into the oven with a clang, the hot door stinging his cut arm. The latch caught on his ear, slicing him as it unclasped. He pulled himself up with the oven handle, dropping it open with a clank as he stood. The table flew across the room, no longer a barrier. Andrew shuffled backwards holding his bleeding ear. She cackled as her vice like grip siezed him by his blood-soaked shoulder and hauled him to the darkness of the back room. Andrew ducked out of his shirt and tripped over an overturned chair. He was on his back just in time to see Agatha descending, knife streaking towards him. He jerked his head away just before the blade could sink into his eye. As the knife thunked into the floor, the blade bent and shattered. She pinned his arms, her face against his. Her hot breath bathed his senses, making him wretch. “This little piggy went to market,” she whispered into his wounded ear. She licked the length of the bleeding gash, then bit down hard. Andrew screamed at the white-hot pain. She suckled at the pouring blood, moaning with satisfaction. Tears stung his eyes as her jagged teeth sawed and pulled, fighting to remove his ear.
In her moment of delight, he was able to pull his hand free from her grasp. Something hot found its way into the palm of his hand. He held up the humming body of his brass pocket watch. The metal glowed with an inner light. Instinctively, he knew what to do. Like butter on a hot skillet, the watch sizzled into her shoulder. She flew back, red dribbling down her chin, screaming in surprise and pain. Andrew held his mangled ear, trying to peddle backwards. The glowing metal spread through her putrid skin in deep, jagged forks. Her arm, eaten through, fell away from her and thudded sickly on the floor. Her wailing reached a pitch that forced Andrew to cover both ears as best as he could, and the front windows exploded outward. The witch fell to the ground sobbing heavily over her lost arm like a child over spilled ice cream. “You horrible child!” she whined, the brass still spreading along her back. Black sludge dripped from behind her teeth as she coughed. “You’ve mangled me! You wretched, nasty boy!” Andrew stood above her, the glowing innards of the open oven reflecting in his eyes. “What are you doing?” she demanded. She felt frail and powerless as he lifted her. She resisted, pleading with him to stop. He slung her hunched frame head first into the oven. Her cry was guttural and otherworldly as her face sagged and blistered. He lifted her the rest of the way in and closed the door. She kicked, almost breaking free but Andrew held the door fast, burning his palms. He swung the bloody latch closed. The oven dinged madly as he mashed the button to its maximum temperature.
The witch was ablaze inside of the oven, kicking violently. Andrew backed away from the building heat. Dark, stinking smoke flooded the room. She wailed in an unknown, unholy language. Objects inside of the house began to float. Her hand struck the oven window desperately. There was a sucking noise as the flesh of her palm stayed behind as she pulled away. Her skeletal hand struck again, cracking the oven window. Andrew had seen enough. He jumped out of the front window, falling hard enough to knock the breath from him. On will alone, he ran into the night. The house quickly became a roaring inferno, lashing out and striking trees, igniting the rest of the forest. He ran as fast as he could manage, and so did the hungry flames. Animals big and small fled in all directions. They easily passed him in their stampede. When Andrew couldn’t see through the spots in his vision, he collapsed to the ground. Deadly warmth danced towards him, but Andrew was far removed from the heat. All he could think about was his father and how angry he was at him leaving. It had never been Andrew’s fault, he realized. All this time, he had chained himself to his feelings, glancing at them, but never facing them. Between heavy wheezes, he managed to laugh. He hadn’t been a perfect person, but he had done the best that he could. At the very least he had slain a monster and avenged a fair maiden. In the end, he had been brave. Content with that, he sighed. “I got her, Claire. I got her.” As the heat closed in, darkness mercifully overtook him.
A thin droplet of water fell into Andrew’s mouth, and he coughed awake. More light rain fell into his open eyes. The early morning sun hid behind thick, grey clouds. He shook soot from his hair as three men in heavy yellow jackets and hard hats rushed to him. As far as the eye could see in the smoke and dust, the forest had burned to cinders. Charred remains of trees stuck defiantly upwards like great bones. The wind whipped ash and dust in violent swirls. Some of the tall skeletal remains fell prey to the winds and toppled, shattering on the ground, creating more upheaval. Far behind the men, a guardian angel was smiling thankfully to Andrew. She had long brown hair held up by a pink bow. The dead ocean stirred into a frenzy, and she faded into the furious tide just as heavy rain began to fall. Andrew’s ear was treated by an EMT in front of Pine Hill Middle School. His mother, eyes red with exhaustion and tears, ran to him. He jumped from the back of the ambulance and met her halfway. They sank to the concrete, crying in each other’s arms. She held him tightly, careful not to bump the fresh bandages over his ear. The police questioned Andrew about the fire and who attacked him. He told them about Agatha, what she had planned to do with him, and how she had admitted to kidnapping Claire. He did not tell them what Agatha was, or how the fire had started. He told them he couldn’t remember. When asked how he survived being in the middle of a forest fire, he told them the truth. “It was an angel,” he said. “She gave me a second chance.”
Andrew didn’t have to go back to school right away. For two days, he mostly slept; the pain killers made him drowsy. He only woke long enough to eat small bowls of soup. As he ate, he looked up diet plans on his laptop. On the third day, he woke late in the afternoon, just before time for supper. He walked into the living room, a small stack of papers in hand, to see his mother watching the news. The reporter was talking about his story. “Authorities are still combing the burned remains for signs of the mysterious Agatha and her house in the woods. So far they have found nothing.” His mother noticed him, and turned the television off. “Good morning,” she said, crossing the room and giving him a gentle hug. “You ready for some supper? How about a plate of French toast and chocolate milk?” Andrew barely hid a dry heave. He held out the papers in his hand. “Actually mama, I’d like to try one of these.” She flipped through recipes for chicken salad, quinoa chili, and cauliflower rice and chicken. She cocked her head, puzzled. “You okay, gummy bear?” He mimed drawing a brass pocket watch from his imaginary duster and flipped it open. “Will ya look at that,” he said with a smile. “Its high time things changed ‘round here.”
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