Montana was God’s country. It was one of the many reasons why Caleb Crown chose to settle there. Popping the last tender bite of fish in his mouth, he rested his empty plate on his lap, moving his folding chair closer to the blazing fire to aid in fighting off his mild arthritis. So far the weekend spent camping with his son and two grandchildren had been perfect. Getting up at dawn, it hadn’t taken long for the fish to come a’knocking on the Crown family’s door. Listening to the forest’s serenade, he liked communing with kindred spirits since he shared a wild spirit. It was a little too wild if his wife Abigail was to be believed, but he didn’t. He insisted that it only made him unique.
“Ethan, that’s the best damned trout I ever tasted. I can say that since you learned how to cook from your old man.”
Caleb stretched out his legs; his son took a moment to answer. Ethan was waiting to swallow first, but he’d never thought twice about talking with his mouth full before he married Millicent. The ceremony had taken place nine years ago, and ever since, the demanding girl considered his son akin to a prized art project. She'd turned the quiet mechanic into something featured on the pages of GQ. The repackaging clawed at Caleb’s insides like a cat at a frayed carpet. He resented the power that woman exerted over his only male child. His rebellious nature kicked in. A smirk appearing, it was a signal that he was just itching to get back at the bossy wife.
“So true, dad. Nothing beats eating in the great outdoors. Right, Donald and Doodles?” Ethan asked.
Addressing his kids, Doodles was the nickname for his little girl, Gracie. Always sketching, the name fit. The pair nodding their heads, Caleb wasn’t having any. While he loved his grandkids more than life itself, he hadn’t gotten over the fuss Milly had put up over this trip. That woman had a thing against him. Claiming he was a bad influence on her precious children, her need to control only egged him on.
“Everybody finished?” Ethan asked. “Good. Then I’ll take these dishes down and soak them in the river.
“Don’t want to attract bears,” Caleb added.
“Bears?” Gracie asked, gulping back a healthy dose of fear.
“Yeah, big nasty ones!” Caleb teased. “And they just love the taste of little girls!” Letting out a series of guffaws, there was nothing better than his own humor to put a stitch in his side.
“Daddy!” she whined, holding onto the arm of her older brother.
“Your granddad meant teddy bears. Isn’t that right, grandpa?” he sternly cautioned. “Seven- and eight-year-olds are too young to be hearing about carnivores.”
“What’s a karn-ee-ver?” Donald queried, a solemn look overtaking his all-American good looks. A natural athlete, he loved shagging fly balls more than breathing.
“Never you mind, Donny. And I think pops had something to say … about teddy bears roaming the woods?”
Caleb cleared his throat. Twiddling his thumbs, he leaned back relaxing. There was no sense getting his son riled up—it was Millicent he was after.
“Yeah, that’s what I meant, doll face. Nice teddy bears. They’ll lick your face clean if you let ‘em!”
Letting out a huge sigh of relief, Gracie exchanged a look with the brother she adored. The black Labrador, Buster, wagging his tail, Donald protectively swung a major-league-quality arm over her slight frame, matching her grin.
“Now as I was saying, I’m going down to the lake. I’ll only be a shout away if you need me.”
“Why would they be needing you? I’ll be here,” Caleb countered.
“That’s the point!” Ethan answered sharply. “You know that Milly doesn’t like the kids upset so why don’t you be a good granddad that acts his age and help them with making s’mores. Otherwise, it just may be the last camping trip we take, if you get my drift.”
“I do indeed.” Going with the flow, he ripped open the bag of marshmallows. “Okay, kids gather round. Grandpa has his leash on.”
Ethan shook his head only wishing the leash came with a muzzle.
“Now we’ll put the graham crackers on this rock so that the chocolate will melt. There! Do you kids know what comes next?”
“Sure do! We put the marshmallows on the sticks that daddy made for us!”
“That’s right, Donny.”
The children snatched up two long skewers. The ends whittled to points, they were sharp enough to spear through the malleable puffs of sugar. Donny penetrated his on the first try, but Gracie’s unsteady hands were having trouble coordinating her movements. Her brother noticed, holding the unwieldy stick for her. Her fingers pressed into the fleshy sides, Caleb waited until she finished sliding it on.
“You sure you wanted to do that?” The kids glanced at one another, not sure what he was referring to. “Uh-oh! Don’t tell me that your mom never told you about the curse of putting things you like on sticks?”
Gracie checked with Donald. Shrugging his shoulders, they shook their heads.
“No, mom didn’t say anything, grandpa,” Donald answered.
“Oh, isn’t that just like her to be forgetting! It was her job, but never you mind. Grandpa will tell you. You see, there’s a monster living in these woods. A monster called ‘Things on Sticks’.”
“What?” Donald retorted, dismissing the claim with a severe wrinkling of his nose. “What kind of name is that for a monster?”
“A good one, and don’t you be making fun of it because he won’t like it.”
“What’s he look like?” Gracie asked.
“Good question, Doodles. He’s huge! A foot taller than me, and about one hundred pounds heavier! His arms look like tree branches, and he always wears gloves. As for his face, no one knows because he wears a big black hat that covers it. But you can see his eyes because they’re yellow like an owl’s and glow in the dark like flashlights. Makes it easier to see him hiding under your bed or in the closet—and that’s where you’d better look from now on!”
Breathing through her mouth, Gracie’s eyes blinked rapidly. Shriveling, her limp hand allowed her stick to touch the ground.
“But why? What’s he going to do?” Donald pressed, his composure eroding as the details emerged.
“He’s going to even things out, that’s what he’s going to do. You see, he keeps count. So when you put something you like on a stick, he’ll put something else you like on a stick—but it won’t be something you choose.”
The stubble on Caleb’s face made him appear sinister. The kids weren’t sure they liked this monster—or their granddad.
“I, I d-don’t understand, grandpa,” Gracie mumbled as Donald draped his free arm back around her. He did his best to comfort her by giving her a squeeze.
“It means that he’ll pick something you like … something living. That means it could be a friend, or a favorite teacher, or even your dog!”
“Buster?” Donald yelped. His sister too paralyzed to do anything other than quiver, the faithful companion’s ears perked up at the mention of its name.
“That’s right, Buster! Things on Sticks carries this knife. Sometimes he uses it to filet a spine, like your daddy did to them fish, but sometimes, he uses it to cut off a head,” he hissed, mimicking plunging a knife into the side of his throat. “But it’s a small knife, so he has to dig and dig to get it in there. And it can take hours, but when you awake in the morning, you’ll see it propped up on a stick right outside your window!”
“Noooooooooo!” Released from her cataleptic state by the horror of the imagery, Gracie screamed. Letting her dessert fall, she dashed towards the shelter of the tent. Donald joined her. He wanted no part of hearing about his dog’s head pierced by a wooden stick.
The sound of heavy footsteps and twigs crunching, in another second Ethan appeared. The cleaned dinnerware in his hand, he glowered angrily at his father.
“What’s going on here?” Tossing the plastic dishes to the side, he scooped his hysterical daughter up in his arms. His son grabbing him around his knees, he placed a firm hand on the back of his head. “Thought you were supposed to be making s’mores?”
“Nooooooo, daddy, noooooo!” Gracie shrieked hysterically. “We don’t want to! If we do then Things on Sticks will take Buster’s head!”
Gawking at his daughter, her brother championed the cause.
“She’s right, daddy! Mommy didn’t tell us about Things on Sticks, but grandpa did! We don’t want a monster getting Buster all because we put something we like on a stick!”
Flashing a look of abject disgust at his father, Ethan grabbed his son’s arm. Taking them both over to the fire, he picked up the discarded sticks, placing them in their hands.
“Look, your granddad was only trying to scare you. There is no monster and nothing is going to get Buster. You two understand?”
Unsurely looking at one another, they turned their attention to the source of their discomfort. The innocence shining in their faces had been slightly tarnished by the grisly tale, Caleb shifted uncomfortably. While he didn’t feel good about what he’d done, the unruly part of him didn’t want to back down. His non-responsiveness got to Ethan. He charged his old man.
“I said that you made the story up to scare them! Isn’t that right?”
More of a dare than question, Caleb surrendered.
“Yes, it was only a story.”
Ethan wasn’t finished. Clamping his hand around Caleb’s arm, he pulled him to the side. Smelling the morning’s coffee on his father’s breath, he was furious about what he’d done.
“You’ve gone too far! If Milly finds out about this, she’ll be the one collecting heads—and it’ll be yours and mine! What the hell were you thinking?”
“I don’t know. I get rambunctious sometimes, but I didn’t mean nothing by it and …”
“Yes, you did—and that’s the problem! You were getting back at Milly for objecting to this camping trip by getting to those kids! I’ve always stuck-up for you, pops, but not this time. It’ll be a cold day in hell that you’re allowed within twenty feet of them!”
“Don’t you think you’re exaggerating just a bit? I mean, I know she doesn’t like ‘em to be scared, but she’s not going to …”
“Ha! Just you wait and see, old man. Just you wait and see.”
* * * * *
“Honey, I’m home!” Caleb shouted upon entering his tidy home. Abigail came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on the gingham towel that matched the new décor. No greeting other than a sharp tsk and a reprimanding shake of her head, he knew the kids had spilled the beans.
“Before you say anything, I can explain,” he started.
“Don’t explain anything to me. I’ve been married to you for too long not to know you’re an old fool! Really, Caleb, Milly is furious and, frankly, I don’t blame her!”
Throwing his fishing cap on the dining room table, he ran his hands through his greasy hair. He needed to shower, but it would have to wait until he put out this fire.
“But how did she find out this quickly? I mean, I only dropped them off a few minutes ago. Those little rugrats just couldn’t wait to blab!”
“Don’t you dare blame them for this! They had a right to ask their mom about a monster that lives in the woods and kills dogs just because kids make s’mores!”
“Is that what they said? No, no, that’s not accurate!” His wife folded her arms over her chest, treating him to an icy stare. “Okay, maybe a little accurate. The part about the monster is right, but the dog thing—there’s way more to it than that.”
“Caleb Crown, I swear sometimes I wonder why I married you! You coming to bed?”
“No, I’m too worked up to sleep. Think I’ll check on my boat. Want to take you and the kids out to the lake next week.”
“The lake? Haven’t you been listening? She’ll never let you! Oh, talking to you is like talking to a brick wall! Well, I’m turning in. I’ve had a long day.”
Leaving her to mount the stairs, he headed to the garage. Feeling unloved and misunderstood, he put on his headphones to shut out the world while tuning the motor. Losing all track of time, he stretched, wondering how two hours could have passed so quickly.
Certain that his wife was asleep, he wanted to keep her that way. He’d had enough of her yapping for one night. Slipping off his shoes, he climbed the stairs, tiptoeing into the pitch-black room. Gingerly making his way to the bathroom, two bright dots of yellow stopped him in his tracks.
“What the …?” he expelled, stupefied by the twin orbs of fire.
“It’s me, Caleb. Things on Sticks.”
Rising to its full height, the folds of darkness concealed its features. Running to the light switch, he snapped it on. Immobilized by terror, the creature was identical to what he’d described. Standing on his wife’s side of the bed, it held her severed head in its gloved hand, a bloody comforter covering her mutilated body.
“Abigail?” he whispered. “I don’t understand. You’re not real!”
“I am now.”
“No, you can’t be! There are no such things as monsters!”
“Yes, there are. We live in the deepest, darkest parts of imagination. We wait for someone like you to tell a story, and the children? They provide the spark with their belief. Don’t you see? We exist because of you.”
Tossing his wife’s head to the side, Things on Sticks closed in. The serrated knife still grasped in one huge hand, Caleb tried backing away. Pinned against the wall, the fight was uneven. Screaming as the point penetrated the side of his neck, the blade began to saw away.
* * * * *
The sun peeked over the horizon as Things on Sticks fastened the two heads to Ethan Crown’s deck railing—the bird’s sweet twitters in sharp contrast to the grisly lollipops. Placing a third stick in between, it was topped with a toasted marshmallow. Satisfied with the touch of whimsy, the dreadful sight was there to greet the two children at the beginning of their day.
The dog scratched furiously at the patio door. His barking rousing the household, Things on Sticks scrunched its hat down over its ears. Readying to slip into the woods, he paused in gratitude before the morbid face frozen in a twisted grimace. Acting like a set designer, he centered the tongue lolling out of the open mouth.
“Be proud, daddy,” he said as he patted the unshaven cheek. “You created a legend.”
Named one of the Top Ten "New" Horror Authors by Horror Novel Reviews, she has six self-published novels. Book trailers for many of her works may be found on her official website:
Her next planned projects are Thrill, The Witch's Stone, The Virgin, and ZaSo, a Gothic tale of horror. Please subscribe to her mailing list for updates and giveaway information.
In her spare time, she loves to go for long walks, drink Starbucks Apple Chai Lattes, make devotional offerings to her cat named Persephone and be stilled by the grace, beauty and magic of ballet.
Please visit her author page at: