Welcome to the second week of Short Fiction Wednesday, in which I feature the first 1.5-2k of a story from my ebook collection Night Bird Soaring and Other Stories, which features 17 different reprint selections ranging from fantasy to horror to alternate history. If you enjoy what you read here, you can purchase the full collection at Amazon or B&N for $2.99.
This week’s selection is a horror piece that first appeared in the premiere issue of Shock Totem: Curious Tales of the Macabre and Twisted; in fact it was the first story they bought and they originally commissioned cover art based on it, but in the end they decided to go another direction in that department (which I think was smart because the cover art they decided on in the end was awesome). The story, called “The Music Box”, is about stuffed animals, those toys that were your best friends at bedtime when you were a wee child. We all had our favorite, so it should be no surprise that our toys have their favorite child as well…and are willing to kill and maim to keep them for themselves….
(warning: strong language)
The Music Box
Kevin tucked Rodney’s favorite stuffed elephant, Snowflake inside the diaper bag. Snowflake got comfortable, leaned back on a pile of diapers as if they were pillows, then wrapped his worn trunk gently around Kevin’s fingers, to show his appreciation. Kevin gave him a secret smile, which immediately vanished once Cheryl came clicking into the kitchen with her high heels, complaining of the time.
“We should have been on the road a half hour ago,” she said.
The telephone rang, and Cheryl snatched it up.
Snowflake poked his head out between the open zippers just in time to see Rodney come in after her, sucking his fingers and dragging a stuffed teddy bear that wore a blue shirt that had “Boo!” written across the front in black letters. Snowflake cursed under his breath. No doubt Cheryl would insist Rodney take Boo Bear instead of him.
“The little whore, for you,” Cheryl told Kevin, not bothering to cover the mouthpiece as she held the phone out to him.
Kevin grabbed the receiver and covered it with his hand. “What is wrong with you, Cheryl? Are you trying to get me fired?”
Of course she is, Snowflake wanted to say. She’s always doing crazy crap like that. But he remained very still, just incase Cheryl looked in his direction.
“She has no reason to call you about work on Thanksgiving,” Cheryl snapped.
“We’re in the middle of a big project—”
“I’ve heard it all before, Kevin.”
He sighed and took the phone into the living room. “And hurry up,” Cheryl called after him then she turned to Rodney. “Would you let Buster in so he can eat his breakfast before we leave for Grandma’s?”
Rodney pulled up with all of his strength on the wooden slat covering the dog door. The Golden Retriever puppy squeezed through the half open slot, knocking the boy aside in his excitement. He then he covered Rodney’s face with slobbery licks.
“Go eat your food, Buster.” Cheryl picked up the bear Rodney had left on the floor—her favorite childhood stuffed animal—and took it to the diaper bag. She cringed though when she saw Snowflake, with his messy patchwork of mismatched fur and cloth stitched together with black thread.
Numerous times Snowflake had overheard her trying to convince Kevin to throw him away, but Kevin adamantly refused; as Boo Bear had been Cheryl’s childhood companion, Snowflake had been Kevin’s.
And just as Snowflake expected, she pulled him out and said to Rodney, “You can only take one with you, okay? You’d rather take Boo Bear, right?”
“I want to take Snowflake.”
“But he’s falling apart, Sweetie. Look—his legs are barely holding on,” she said, though Kevin had, in fact, just reinforced the worn stitching on them last night, after Rodney nearly tore off one of Snowflake’s legs swinging him around by one foot. From any other child, Snowflake might have begrudged such rough treatment, but he knew Rodney loved him, just like Kevin had when he was a boy.
“I want Snowflake!” Rodney stomped his foot.
Cheryl rolled her eyes. “Okay, you can take both then.” She put Snowflake back into the bag and set Boo Bear next to him. “Now let’s get your coat on.”
Once the kitchen was quiet, Boo Bear turned to Snowflake and sneered. “Always ruining everything for me, aren’t you, Frankenstein?”
Dim light filtered into the open diaper bag. Snowflake glared at the bear and said, “Bite my ass, Velcro-paws.”
Boo Bear narrowed his shiny black marble-eyes at him then climbed down under the pile of diapers Snowflake sat upon. “We’ll see who’s going to be doing the biting.” He shoved upward and tossed snowflake out of the bag, onto the kitchen counter.
Snowflake clambered for hold but he’d already slid over the edge. He bounced off the trashcan lid and landed butt-first in the dog’s water dish. He raised his trunk to trumpet an insult at the crafty old bear but then he noticed the oafish Golden Retriever pup staring at him from across the room, his ears perked and tail fanning. Oh no! Snowflake wondered if he should try to run.
The puppy trotted over and snapped him up in his wet, shit-smelling mouth—what does that dog do out in the yard all day? Buster checked over his shoulder, to make sure no one had seen—yes, the mutt was as smart as he was smelly—and slipped quietly out the dog door with his prize.
But within minutes, Snowflake heard Rodney screaming and crying for him, and soon enough Kevin came out into the backyard to have a look around. Buster had managed to tear Snowflake’s left eye out with his needle-like teeth—oh, how I wish I had teeth like that, Snowflake had mused while the dog worked on his head. When Buster saw Kevin, he tried to hide in his doghouse. It took Kevin a couple more minutes to pry Snowflake from the dog’s mouth.
“He’s bleeding, daddy!” Rodney bawled when he beheld his favorite toy oozing stuffing-brains out of its head.
“It’s going to be okay, pal,” Kevin promised him. “The Toy Fairy will fix him, just you wait and see.”
“You should just throw it away, Kevin,” Cheryl said. “It’s ruined, and just disgusting.”
“I’m not throwing him away,” Kevin snarled, and Cheryl stepped away from him as if he were a beast. He glared at her and she returned the look. “He’ll be fixed. Just you wait and see. We’ll come home and he’ll be good as new.” He said it just as much to Cheryl as he did to Rodney, though his angry stare was fixed on her.
Ignoring him, Cheryl told Rodney, “You can hold Boo Bear instead, dear.” She held out the blue-shirted teddy bear.
But Rodney wrinkled his nose and sniffled. “I don’t like him. He smells gross.” Both of her parents were chain smokers and no matter how much she washed him, the smell remained soaked into his stuffing.
“Stop trying to force the damn bear on him,” Kevin said. He grabbed Boo Bear from her and handed him to Rodney. “Why don’t you take Boo Bear to the basket and get a different toy to take with you?”
Rodney snatched the bear and hurried into the living room. Snowflake couldn’t help but let a faint smile come to his worn face.
“Always have to have things your way.” Cheryl stormed after her son, but returned a few second later to add, “When you stop with the fucking elephant, I’ll stop with the bear.”
Kevin opened his mouth to respond but she was already gone. He looked down at Snowflake, checking the patchwork of his body; the yellow fur joined with purple denim, which was sewn to electric-blue chenille, all of it salvaged from other stuffed animals over the years. There was nothing left of the original Snowflake on the outside; only on the inside, deep in the stuffing: a little music box—Snowflake’s heart—filled with years of love and friendship and devotion.
Kevin flicked away some leaf fragments from the polyester fuzz bleeding from Snowflake’s face. “It was that damn bear, wasn’t it?” Snowflake didn’t need to answer; Kevin already knew. That’s how connected they were. “An eye for an eye, pal,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. He placed Snowflake’s trunk in his hand and smiled at the gentle, reassuring movement he felt against his palm. He set Snowflake down on the table and left with his family for the holiday meal at Grandma’s house.
But as soon as the door lock clicked, Snowflake looked over his shoulder towards the living room where the basket and Boo Bear were. The worn fur around his one remaining eye bunched over the black marble in a dangerous glare.
Snowflake rummaged through the pile of stuffed animals with his furry trunk, raising the protests of those he tossed out of the basket in his one-eyed search. The newer toys murmured their displeasure while the older, wiser toys moved out of Snowflake’s way. Some even pushed the newer stuffed animals into his path, perhaps hoping he’d accept their offering, but he wasn’t interested in any of them. He wanted Boo Bear, and as clever as the old bear might be, he couldn’t hide forever. Snowflake would find him. Oh, yes, he certainly would.
But the old bastard wasn’t there. Snowflake had cleared every toy from the whicker basket and Boo Bear wasn’t among them. Snowflake crouched on the edge and squinted down at the blurry sea of toys below him, his head bleeding aged yellow stuffing. He jumped down to the floor and jabbed his trunk at a shivering tiger doll. “Where is that fucker Boo Bear?” he demanded. The tiger shook its head, covering its eyes with its bright orange paws.
Snowflake turned his fixed glaring black marble eye on the rest of the animals huddled against the basket. Some were missing parts; bits of fur or skin which Snowflake had taken as needed to repair himself. As a baby, Rodney had been hard on his toys, and he was only getting harder on them as time passed.
But that’s how boys were…well, except Kevin. Even as a child he’d always been very careful with Snowflake, for the elephant was the first and only Christmas present Kevin had ever gotten from his parents, who died a few days later in a car wreck. No, it was the other kids who damaged him, pulling his legs in tug-of-war, or using him as a football. But Kevin and Snowflake got their revenge; they rigged tree house ropes to come untied or left gates ajar so the most feared dog in the neighborhood chased the other boys home from school. Kevin even learned to sew, so he could repair the damage everyone did to his favorite toy. He had so few friends growing up and even fewer people he could talk to; that was why Snowflake had chosen to break the unspoken rule and reveal to Kevin that he was more than just thread and stuffing. He and Kevin had been through so much together, for so many years….
And Snowflake wasn’t going to let some hand-me-down rag-bear get one over on him now. He and Boo Bear hadn’t gotten along from the beginning—Snowflake thought perhaps it was jealousy because Rodney preferred him and his music box to the stinky bear—but he had to admit: Boo Bear was much cleverer than he’d first thought. After years of trying to hide Snowflake from Rodney or pushing him out of the wagon at the park, the new dog must have seemed like a miracle. What better way to get rid of the competition than by feeding him to a slobbering beast?
If you enjoyed this excerpt and want to know how the story ends, consider picking up a copy of the anthology at Amazon or B&N. (for non-US editions, please visit the Novel and Collections page for links)