Now that it’s March, we’re edging closer to spring; but around these parts we’re always happy to feel some chill in the air. And this month’s selection of brand new fiction from Nightmare Magazine is one of the coldest yet!
Bundle up because it’s time to meet “Mr. Try Again” courtesy of A. Merc Rustad. If you prefer, you can listen to the podcast version instead.
MR. TRY AGAIN
A. Merc Rustad
Six-year-old Violet Wellington was the only child to come out of the swamp. The boys were gone forever. She sat on the side of a muddied dirt road, digging her nails raw against the gravel; her jeans and pink t-shirt were damp but clean. She had a scrape over her left eyebrow and her hair smelled of mildew. Unharmed, otherwise.
Dogs and professionals and volunteers spent days trying to find the other bodies. Violet couldn’t help. She wouldn’t draw pictures, she wouldn’t answer questions, she wouldn’t be cajoled with sugar and promises that “everything is okay now, you’re safe, no one can hurt you.”
Three families resisted funerals, clinging to possibility.
Violet didn’t talk for seven weeks after her miraculous reappearance. When she did, she just said, “Try again. Try again. Try again.”
• • • •
Violet grew older. The boys were never found. No one knew why four children vanished one day. (No one ever really knows.) Eventually, authorities said there was nothing to be done. No bones, no closure.
I tell you this because it’s not important. What happened in the swamp doesn’t matter. The boys are dead. That’s obvious.
My name was Violet when I went into the swamp. That wasn’t my name when I came out. It’s never been my name again. Violet died with the boys. I thought that was obvious, too.
While the media went into a feeding frenzy for fresh facts, the girl who wasn’t Violet attended therapy and watched her parents divorce and told the cops nothing about Mr. Try Again. Where he was, what he looked like, what he had done to those poor boys. That’s because she never told anyone about Mr. Try Again.
If she told, then someone else would find Mr. Try Again, and she couldn’t have that. The girl who came out of the swamp had not been entirely alive; it makes sense that this part-dead girl would eventually grow up and decide to keep Mr. Try Again’s existence all to herself.
• • • •
“No, Violet. That’s not how you hold the spoon. Try again.”
• • • •
You know the movie Alien? Its tagline says no one in space can hear you scream, but that’s not true. Ripley heard her crewmates screaming. The alien heard. When you watch it on your TV, you hear the people screaming.
I hear the boys’ screams, mostly. Violet didn’t make a sound when the boys died. That’s why she survived, even though she wasn’t alive. But I suppose you’ve seen vampire movies and zombie movies, right? Undead. Not-dead. A corpse walking, talking, breathing. Never smiling, though. That’s for people who are alive.
• • • •
“Ah, my little Judas goat, that is not how I taught you to hold a knife. Try again.”
• • • •
Sixteen years, three months, and twenty-eight days pass since Violet was found. When my parents leave, I stay in the house on the dirt road, the one a mile from the swamp. I can’t move anywhere else. This is the place—with bland gray siding, a patched shingle roof, unkempt hedges—that Violet remembered. It was the house that kept her sane.
In July, a family moves into the long-unsold lot in the unfinished cul-de-sac next to me. A man and a woman and a seven-year-old girl, all white, all fake smiles and false prosperity. The man beats his wife when he thinks no one notices. He yells at the daughter, spills abuse over the top of beer cans and knuckled fists. He’ll kill them both one night, when no one is around to see. Everyone who knew him will say that he wasn’t like that, that it was just a mistake. That’s how these stories go.
The girl might try and tell someone: a teacher, a relative, a stranger. She won’t be believed, because girls always lie.
So I watch the girl. She’s a loner. Quiet, reserved, content to play in the grass behind the house with imaginary friends.
Sometimes she strays.
• • • •
“Dear Violet, my sweet little flower, this one is too small. And this one is too skinny. You know what I need. Try again.”
• • • •
The neighbor woman’s name is Kathy, her husband’s name is irrelevant, and her daughter is called Judith. When the man leaves for work, when Kathy is home from her part-time job at an antiques shop in town, when Judith is exploring the woods that rub up against the swamp, I go over to visit.
We sit on her front porch, awkward, drinking cold tea and remarking on the weather. But I see relief in Kathy’s eyes when I’m there. She isn’t alone, the sole barrier between the man in her house and her daughter. I visit as often as possible, and the man never knows.
I rarely leave my house, so these trips across the cul-de-sac’s cracked asphalt circle to Kathy’s door are cathartic. Grocery delivery keeps me fed, shopping online satisfies other needs, and I live off residual income from royalties earned by the true crime book written about Violet Wellington.
“You’re trapped,” I tell Kathy one afternoon. Thunderstorms bubble in the distance. “With that man.”
“My husband?” She laughs, brittle, and glances over her shoulder as if afraid he’ll hear. The bruising along her collarbone spills down her V-neck shirt and she breathes shallowly, nursing cracked ribs. One eye is swollen purple. She “ran into the door” like she always does.
Judith is sitting beside the porch. She thinks neither her mother nor I can tell she’s there, hidden in half-shadow and gripping a fist-sized rock. She carries that rock with her everywhere; sometimes in the pocket of her jeans, sometimes in a tattered backpack. I imagine it’s under her pillow at night.
“Nonsense,” Kathy says, waving a hand. There are no flies abuzz. Even with the swamps so near, there are never any insects around me. “He’s a good man. He just gets stressed, you know? The economy is tough.”
“He’s going to kill you,” I tell her. “Very soon.”
Kathy asks me to leave. I won’t be invited back to the porch.
Judith watches and I know the girl believes me, even if her mother won’t.
• • • •
Violet Wellington had been missing for eight months, fourteen days, and seven hours total.
In the space of those months, thirteen little boys went missing across the state, all near or around wetland. No one connected the dots.
• • • •
Judith knocks on my door one night in late August, when the stars are limp and listless in the smog-black sky. Mosquitos vanish at the edge of my senses, and Judith scratches at old bug-bite swells on her arms.
“Hi,” she says when I answer the door. She shoves her hand in her pocket, where the rock bulges. “My dad’s shouting again.”
I can hear the man’s loud, gutless bleating. Puffed up lungs full of word-bile and violence.
It’s oppressively hot, over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, with sticky-damp humidity that sucks the patience from saints. There are brownouts all over the grid. No AC. No breeze to calm frayed nerves. I lit candles in my window sills to guide the lost to my door.
Judith grinds her teeth. “Did you mean what you said awhile back?” She has that slow-burn fury in her gut. I smell it like popped blisters. “Is he gonna kill my mom?”
“Yes,” I say. Probably tonight. It’s a murder-night, all sullen air and repressed rage. I think she knows the truth like I do. It’s why she came. “Do you want me to stop him?”
• • • •
Violet didn’t like the swamp. It smelled like bad breath, and the mud sucked at her feet, and her arms itched with mosquito bites. But her new puppy named Peaches had run off into the cattails and brown grassy humps, and she promised promised PROMISED Daddy she’d take care of the puppy. She had to find Peaches or she’d never get another pet again, and that was a terrible thought.
It was getting dark, the scary kind of dark where boogeymen crept out of closets and ghosts jumped out to shout BOO. “Peaches!” Violet yelled. She soft-yelled, though, just in case there were ghosts nearby. “Come here, girl!”
“Are you looking for your lost puppy?” said a voice behind her. “This one, perhaps?”
Violet spun around. There was a tall man in a white tuxedo standing there, not at all ghostly, and he smiled very wide and held Peaches under one arm. His eyes were weird: Violet couldn’t quite tell where they were on his face.
“Y-yes, that’s my puppy.” Violet held out her hands. It was bad to talk to strangers, but it was more bad to go home without Peaches.
“How do you ask nicely, little flower girl?” the man said.
Violet frowned. “Please?”
He laughed. “No, Violet. Try again.”
• • • •
The man has killed Kathy before Judith and I cross the cul-de-sac. She lies broken-faced on the kitchen floor, staining the linoleum red. He’s ransacking the house, looking for the girl.
I make him stop.
I make him into very small, very bloody pieces so he will go away forever.
Judith watches and doesn’t flinch. She’s not the kind of girl who cries, either.
“Sorry,” I tell her. Try again. “I should’ve come last night.” Or a week ago. A month. The day he moved in and I saw Kathy’s shoulder when her sleeve rolled up while she carried a box.
Judith just stares at the pieces of the man. That’s okay. I know how to dispose of bodies.
“The cops will arrest you,” Judith says at last. She looks much older than she is. Time passes differently when you survive. “Won’t they?”
The thing about news stories is that they fade, and soon everything cycles all over again. Reporters will ask questions and forget answers. Authorities will sweep the uncomfortable details into locked case files and redacted testimonies. Statistics will label Kathy a victim and move on. Maybe there will be a funeral and maybe sad coworkers or distant relatives will attend, shake their heads about the tragedy, and forget about it within a week.
Judith sniffs, rubbing her nose with the back of a hand. Her fist is clamped around the rock. “I don’t want to go into foster care. Mom didn’t have any friends or family and . . . and . . . he . . .”
“Don’t say his name.” I pat her on the shoulder. Her back is rigid, muscles taut like guitar strings. “He doesn’t deserve it.”
She kicks the ground. “He used to call me Judy when he wanted to be nice.”
“My name does not mean nice,” I tell her, and when she looks at me, I whisper in her ear the name I’ve called myself since Violet died.
“What do I do?” Judith whispers. Her eyes are burning, hot and bright. “Where do I go now?”
“You can live with me,” I offer. The house is big enough. “But I need your help.”
“Help with what?”
• • • •
Mr. Try Again likes to watch little girls. He only comes out when a girl is alone, made vulnerable by distance, age, fear. He corners her with treats or puppies, and lures her deeper into the swamp.
Into the Dim Place, where time doesn’t pass the right way. Where no one can hear her scream.
• • • •
The next August, when the house across the cul-de-sac is foreclosed upon, when the police believe Kathy has ran off with her daughter to escape an abusive husband—all three becoming no more than files on a basement desk in an underfunded, overworked local department—when the night is unbearably hot and sticky with murder, Judith and I head into the swamp.
We go on the night her mother died, because grief has power, just like rage.
Judith and I spent a year in mostly silence. I told her what happened to me. I told her about Mr. Try Again. She thought about the other girls who’d gone into the swamp, the ones who didn’t come out.
(The boys? Oh, those were just for him to eat. Mr. Try Again didn’t call me a Judas goat for no reason.)
I told Judith what I needed her to do. What I would do, in turn.
“Okay,” Judith said.
In place of a rock, I give her a knife.
• • • •
“What is this, darling Violet? What have you brought me? This isn’t a morsel-boy, not a proper treat.”
“Her name’s Tara.”
“This won’t do, my girl, this won’t do at all! Try again.”
• • • •
There is another reason Violet Wellington told no one about Mr. Try Again. She knew she wouldn’t be believed. Adults would blame her for her own trauma. They would say, “Surely you can remember what this man looked like. What he really looked like. Where he is.”
It would have been her responsibility to point the way, and her fault when the police found nothing. Maybe she had lied. Girls lie, you know. Everyone knows that. If Violet was a boy, someone might have believed her.
If Violet had described Mr. Try Again, this is what she would have said: “He has two faces. One in front, one in back. The front-face looks smiley and nice. The back-face is all teeth. No, he doesn’t have a spine. He’s two sides, and one is scary and that’s the one that eats.”
Violet would have been called a liar.
So she lied. When she talked again, she said, “The man who kidnapped me was short. He had crooked teeth. I don’t remember where he took me. I was blindfolded.”
• • • •
In the Dim Place, Violet could see all the swamps in the world connected like root systems. The tendrils formed a domed roof, which existed nowhere Violet understood. The tip of one root would lead her to the edge of a patch of wetlands, close to human habitat, and she’d clutch a rotting cattail so she’d see the Way Back once she found a new boy.
She always went back. Mr. Try Again told her what he’d do if she didn’t.
She remembered her old house (so far away, so long ago) and kept it painted like a water color masterpiece behind her eyes. She didn’t sleep often. Mr. Try Again didn’t like sleep. Besides, her only pillow was made from Peaches’ fur.
Then, when she went trying again, she found another girl who looked like her: pale skin, brown hair, a house painted behind her eyelids.
Violet came alive and smiled. She had a plan.
• • • •
Judith creeps through brittle grass, the ground sagging under her sneakers. There’s a full moon tonight. It’s sallow and sad, putting in minimal effort to shine yellowed light through scraggily willows and popped cattails. She doesn’t bring a flashlight.
“Biscuit?” she whispers, the name of the stray we set loose as bait. “Here, boy . . .”
Judith’s skin is damp with sweat. She doesn’t want to be out alone. Worries that her dog is gone forever. Is afraid what will happen if her dad finds out she let Biscuit get away.
The tall, white-tuxedoed figure glides from the heat. He steps from behind a clump of sumac, holding Biscuit. (The dog is already dead, but Judith doesn’t know that yet.) “Are you looking for your pet, darling girl?”
Judith freezes. Her heart rabbits in her ribs. Bibittabibittabibbita. Mr. Try Again always appears behind the girls he wants to take.
Slowly, Judith turns around. She swallows, then remembers to nod and force a smile. “Can I have my dog back?”
“You must say the magic word, Judith,” whispers Mr. Try Again.
Judith takes a breath. “Please.”
Mr. Try Again’s second face, the eating-face, has its eyes closed. They only open when he’s hungry. And right now, he’s got a different hunger than the lust for succulent boy-meat. He looks at Judith as if she’s a chocolate-dipped, cream-filled bonbon. So sweet, so delicate, so innocent.
If his eating-eyes had been open, he would have seen what was stalking him.
• • • •
There is no magic word. Nothing Mr. Try Again says is true. He won’t let you live and he won’t let you go home.
• • • •
Judith lets Mr. Try Again take her hand, the dead dog in his other arm, and he leads her through the swamp. She glances over her shoulder repeatedly, and he laughs that soft, pat-pat-you-adorable-little-girl sound. He thinks she thinks they’re lost.
She’s checking to be sure I’m following.
• • • •
Violet took Tara by the hand and led her deeper into the swamp. The mosquitoes and deer flies didn’t bother the girls. No hidden quagmires sucked them down to their deaths (like Tara’s mom believed would happen). The cattails were quiet. They knew this was not how things should be.
When Violet and Tara reached the hole that led to the Dim Place, Violet turned to her scapegoat, put her hands on Tara’s shoulders, and said the magic words. “Try again, try again, try again.”
Then they were inside the Dim Place, with its root-ceiling and the smell of lies. And Mr. Try Again, standing with his eating-face to the mirror so he could pick clean his teeth. His smile-face frowned when he saw Tara. All his eyes were open.
“This won’t do, my girl, this won’t do at all! Violet, try again.”
While Tara stood there, frozen in terror, while Mr. Try Again licked his lips and inhaled the savory scent of girl-fear, Violet grabbed the nearest root and pulled herself up. She scurried into the swamps a hundred miles from where she had snatched the other girl. She ran and ran and ran until she found a dirt road, where she sat down. She wanted to cry. But she wasn’t alive. So she waited, digging her fingers into gravel.
Waited for Mr. Try Again to come find her. Waited for sixteen years. Waited to see if she would ever regret what she did to Tara.
• • • •
You don’t need to know what happened to all the girls in the Dim Place. You aren’t going to be a voyeur to their pain.
• • • •
I remember these trails. The roots that snake, coil, skitter or jump.
I follow, silent and unseen, like how Violet was when she hunted boys.
What the news reports never connected: not all the missing children disappeared in swamps. Some vanished from daycare. Some from school. Some from their beds. In the end, they all ended up in the swamps.
You can’t see all the pieces if you don’t know what the puzzle is supposed to look like. I made ninety-seven children disappear. No one would have believed Violet Wellington if she’d told them. Girls are liars in the eyes of the world. That’s why Mr. Try Again likes them so much. Who will believe her?
Judith’s toes brush the hole where the root leads down to the Dim Place. Mr. Try Again always makes the girls take the first step of their own violation. Then it’s their fault, what happens to them after.
Judith looks back once. I nod to her. I am watching. I am here.
Judith steps into the hole and sinks.
• • • •
The Dim Place is just like Violet remembered.
I have her memories. She slept on that small bed of rags behind the full-length mirror. She sharpened the knives on the butcher-block table in the center of the room. It’s not so much a room as it is a space lit against the gaping darkness all around it. The Dim Place.
Tara is still here—no. Not Tara. That’s wishful thinking. This is another girl, another face, who took her place here long ago. The girl lies on that bed, blank-eyed, whispering, “Try again, try again, try again.”
Now that Judith is here, this girl can walk into the mirror and disappear with all the other ghost-girls. (Even when she banged her forehead and hands bloody on the glass, it would never break for her. It wouldn’t let her through. There must be another girl in the Dim Place before the mirror will crack.)
“Rose darling, this is Judith.” Mr. Try Again pulls Judith towards the rag bed. He’ll make a new pillow from Biscuit to replace the one that was Peaches.
Judith wrenches her arm free of his hold, and that’s when the eating-face opens its eyes and sees me.
Mr. Try Again whirls around, coattails like lightning. Violet would have frozen, caught in that familiar vise of don’t-run-don’t-resist-it-will-hurt-less-if-you’re-good.
I am not Violet.
I lunge at him. “I told you I’d come back.”
Mr. Try Again grabs at me, his hands crooked in smiling rage. “Violet, the one who left, I have missed you, my sweet! Shall we try again?”
I seize his wrists before his fingers curl around my throat and awaken old bruises. “No. Never again.”
He’s powerful, but here’s the thing about the Dim Place: it’s not his any longer. I was here for half my life. For eight months that were fifteen years in his time. Girls stay until they are no longer girls in mind, even if their bodies don’t change, and that’s when he finds a new Judas goat.
I lived here. I remember. And the Dim Place remembers me back.
My feet are roots, sinking into the shadowy floor, into the mud that never sticks to clothes or skin. My hands are sinewy briars; my nails are burrs that dig into his forearms. I hold him. Not the way he held me. The old wounds reappear in scar-shadows along my back and ribs and thighs.
Mr. Try Again hisses through his smile. “Dear Violet, sweet Violet. How do you intend to stop me?”
“My name isn’t Violet,” I say. Violet was the girl he killed. Like Tara, and like all the ones who’d come before. “I’m Knife.”
I can see Judith in the mirror. She pulls out the blade I gave her, holds it in one hand, her rock in the other. When she wandered, she practiced throwing stones across stagnant ponds or hurled pebbles at bug-rotted apples on an old tree. Her aim was spectacular.
She hurls the rock and shatters the mirror.
Mr. Try Again screeches. Now his eating-face can’t communicate with his smile-face.
I can see Judith without the mirror.
She crouches on the table, the table where I learned how to make boys become tiny pieces. Finger food, Mr. Try Again called the pieces. My fingers to put the scraps into his mouth, wriggling and bloody just the way he liked.
She’s tall enough to reach Mr. Try Again now. I shove him towards her. Judith swings her knife with all her strength and cuts off Mr. Try Again’s eating-face.
A billowing wail fills the Dim Place: the screams of all the boys he has ever consumed. His strength goes out as the dead boys vanish, finally free, and I fling him down onto the table. I remember where the heavy chains are kept. I remember how to click locks into place.
Judith breathes hard, white-knuckled grip unflinching on the knife handle. She doesn’t seem to mind the blood on her shirt. “Is that it?”
I stand over Mr. Try Again. His white tuxedo is rotting into gray threads and the maggots roil out of his skin and between his lips. There won’t be any flies around us; insects will touch dead things, but they won’t touch Death.
I put a hand on Judith’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”
She nods. She’s still alive.
I look at the other girl: Rose. She hasn’t moved, but she’s no longer whispering to herself. She can see me. She can have a new story after this.
“How do we kill him?” Judith asks, hefting her knife. Mr. Try Again’s eating-face gnashes its teeth and writhes on the floor by my feet. I kick the face away. It can watch what we do.
I don’t know if he can be killed. But he isn’t going anywhere. The Dim Place is mine now. There will be no more lost boys or final girls. I will dry up those roots that traverse the world, and when I am finished, there will never have been a Dim Place to begin with.
“If one method doesn’t work,” I tell Judith, and watch her eyes brighten.
She smiles a slow, understanding smile. “We try again.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A. Merc Rustad is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota and is a 2016 Nebula Awards finalist. Merc’s stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Shimmer, Cicada, and several Year’s Best anthologies. You can find Merc on Twitter (@Merc_Rustad) or online at amercrustad.com. Merc’s debut short story collection, So You Want to Be a Robot, is published by Lethe Press (May 2017).
Nightmare Magazine is edited by bestselling anthology editor John Joseph Adams (Wastelands, The Living Dead, Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy). This month’s issue also contains fiction from Mary Rickert, Lilliam Rivera, and Stephen Bacon. We have the latest installment of our column on horror, “The H Word,” and of course author spotlights with our authors, plus a feature interview. You can wait for (most of) the rest of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient eBook format for just $2.99. You can also subscribe and get each issue delivered to you automatically every month, for the discounted price of just $1.99 per issue. This month’s issue is a great one, so be sure to check it out. And while you’re at it, tell a friend about Nightmare!