You'll scream! You'll cry! You'll beg for more! Don't wait for Halloween! The time to be scared out of your wits is NOW!
The words from the TV resonated in Norman's head and he shook it gently. It seemed like just yesterday he was a scared little boy, lost in a maze. Then his world, his life, his very core was changed, for that morning he had thought that ghosts, goblins, invaders from other planets, all those things that Hollywood loved to haunt people with, were just stories. Sure they scared him silly, but he knew they were just pretend. Twenty-four hours later, he knew they were all as real as real could be. Twenty four hours later, he'd gone from a scared little boy to the keeper of the world's biggest secret. It wasn't that the aliens had landed. It was that the aliens were already here.
Norman turned off the TV and shut the ledger he was working in and glanced over at his reflection in a mirror. He wasn't a scared little kid anymore. He was an adult, a man of twenty-two, so why did he look eighty?
Standing, he walked to his office door. A poster of a flying saucer rustled as he passed and he looked at it longingly. If only they could have stayed images of screen and print. If only he'd kept his sister from the maze that night. If only…
He opened the door and saw her. His sister had once been so full of life and poised on the cusp of womanhood. Now she was tall and exceedingly thin. Modeling companies were always knocking on her door with contracts, but they soon slunk away, terrified of her lumbering gait and odd way of speaking.
"Martha, have you finished the filing?" He winced at the screams coming from the loudspeaker. It seemed just the sound of their terror was enough for her these days. Thank God.
"Yesss." He wasn't sure if she was answering him or celebrating the fear in those disembodied voices. She paused, studying him as if wondering whether or not to attack him. He shook his head slightly and she shuffled away, an awkward limp as if her pelvis had been broken and put back together wrong. No doctor could explain her growth spurt or her speech impediment, but Norman could. Norman knew the truth and it made him cry at times. Those were the good times. The rest of his days were spent fearing her and trying to keep the world safe from her.
She was starting to have more and more trouble with the sibilant letters. It was slight at first, but after the horrible death of their parents, it had gotten progressively worse. The authorities had declared their death some freakish accident, but Norman knew better. People were touched by his attentiveness and apparent devotion to his big sister. In reality, from the moment of his parents' deaths, he locked his sister away when he could and had her watched constantly when he couldn't.
He hadn't been home the day the car caught fire in the driveway. He'd been at school, but Martha had been home. Their parents burned to death while she watched. The fire department found her, watching transfixed from the living room window as the car burned. He still had dreams in which they screamed for help while she stood by, dreams in which Martha pushed their mother back into the car. The doctors said that Martha had been paralyzed in shock by the horrific accident and as a result could not act to help their parents. Norman knew better. He'd left home that morning a happy normal boy and returned an orphan, harboring a secret and a burden that could never be shared.
Norman feared for humanity if his sister were ever unleashed onto it, so, instead, he built her a world where she could exist. He refused to dwell upon what would happen when the fear it generated wasn't enough to feed her. Every year he added more attractions, enticing people in for the scare of their lives. It made him a rich man and kept his sister complacent.
He left her in her room, a reinforced prison of file cabinets and walls.
Norman walked into the planning room. All the blueprints and models were ready for the next big attraction at World of Fear. He was going to create a ride that harkened back to the days of Forbidden Planet and War of the Worlds . Robots shot laser beams at beautiful women, while spaceships twirled and spun as a terrified populace ran in before them. Scaring people was easy, too easy these days, and he did what he had to.
He was staring at a line drawing when he heard a noise and looked over his shoulder. A couple, a slender blonde wearing a startling blue dress, and a stockier man, dressed in steel gray.
"I wondered when you would be back. Is it time? Is the invasion coming?"
"The invasion is here and your sister must die."
ALL IRREGULARITIES WILL BE HANDLED BY THE FORCES CONTROLLING EACH DIMENSION; TRANSURANIC HEAVY METAL MAY NOT BE USED WHERE THERE IS LIFE. MEDIUM ATOMIC WEIGHTS ARE AVAILABLE: GOLD, LEAD, COPPER, JET, DIAMOND, RADIUM, SAPPHIRE, SILVER AND STEEL. SAPPHIRE AND STEEL HAVE BEEN ASSIGNED.
Norman walked quickly to Sapphire and hugged her. "My god, you don't look any different."
"But you've grown up." Sapphire laughed and held him at arm's length. "You've gotten so tall."
"No, I've grown old. There's a difference. I've just learned how to harness my fear and make it pay off."
We have business, Sapphire!
I know, but this hasn't been easy for him. A little kindness might just work wonders.
"Maybe for you." Steel looked around, reaching out to touch a poster of flying saucers. What garbage were they thinking when they decided spacecraft looked like this? "Where is she? And her friend?"
"Leslie? She's dead."
"Oh!" Sapphire released the young man and he took a step back. Steel?
"Well, what happened to her?" Steel asked.
"We never really found out. It was the night of their senior prom… just before…."
"Just before what?"
"Our parents' death. She and Leslie went together and there was a fight - I'm guessing, over a boy. Things got crazy and the police were called. They hauled a bunch of the kids down to jail to teach them a lesson. They put Leslie and Martha in the same cell -"
"And they learned a lesson about confining Skittlebones, I would imagine," Steel finished. "Let me guess, when they returned, only your sister remained."
"How did you…?"
"Skittlebones will often prey on their own in times of need. The party you mentioned –"
"It is short for Promenade. " Sapphire's eye glowed as she accessed information. "It is an elaborate and formal gathering of high school age boys and girls. It is considered a major event in a young person's life. The males traditionally wear tuxedos and the females wear elaborate gowns. There are complex rituals involving photographs, limousines, and corsages. It is considered a rite of passage. It is a time of a great flux of emotions, but not necessarily the fear the Skittlebones need to survive. One or both of them started the fight as a way to increase the anxiety level, but it backfired on them."
"Wait a sec," Norman interrupted her, rubbing his face with his hand. "Are you telling me that..."
"Your sister confronted her friend and your sister won."
"She… ate her friend?"
"More likely absorbed her, but, yes, in essence, the friend was consumed by your sister. This not only fed her, but made her more powerful."
"I'm sorry." Sapphire infused the word with as much emotion as she could. He's shutting down emotionally.
Good, it's what he'll need for the next step.
Steel, couldn't we just…
What? Let her run havoc over humanity? Or, worse, become enough of a force that she attracts her own kind here – again? I had enough trouble with the last invasion.
No, I… never mind. A noise from the corridor made her stop. Here? Already?
"What was that?" Norman was suddenly terrified. "If she's gotten out-"
"It's not her," Steel cut him off. "It's a friend of ours." We are in here.
The door swung wide and a figure filled it, quite literally from one end and one side to the other. Norman had never seen a man as large. His clothes, ill fitting and too small for his frame, reminded Norman vaguely of those of Frankenstein's monster.
"Sapphire!" The man's voice was as big as his body. He walked to the woman and Sapphire disappeared into his embrace. He turned to Steel. "And Steel."
"Hug me and pay the price," Steel warned. The man just laughed and hugged him anyway. "Let go of me, you oaf!" Steel's protest was muffled.
Sapphire laughed and looked back at Norman. "This is another of our agents. Norman, this is Lead."
"Hello… sir." Norman held his hand out and made a face as it was grasped in the baseball mitt sized hand. Yet the handshake was gentle and the proffered smile sincere. "You're here to help?"
"That I am, son. We can't have Steel getting himself into any trouble now, can we?"
"Do you mind?" Steel grumbled.
"Not at all." Lead tipped his head back and laughed.
Can't you be serious? We have a job to do.
I know, little Steel, and we'll do it.
I'm not little.
Everyone is little to me. He looked around. "Where is it?"
"It? Oh, you mean Martha? She's in her room. I had one designed to keep her away from everyone. We call it the file room, but really it's a prison cell." He pointed and the two male agents started to walk in that direction. "Sapphire, what's going to happen?"
"Norman, I'm afraid you know. We'd hoped that by leaving her here, surrounded by her loved ones, she would be able to resist."
"Martha? She couldn't resist anything. It was a common joke." He stopped and sighed. "I know she has to be… stopped. Can I at least say good bye?"
"That would be unwise. As she is now, she is unpredictable."
"She's never hurt me."
"No, you have taken care and nurtured her. You've fed and protected her, which has allowed the Skittlebones infecting her to invade and infest her. The girl you knew as Martha died long ago, I'm afraid. However, if you confront her, she will attack you."
"That night at the maze. I knew it then. I swore I'd take care of her as long as I could."
"Now it's time to lay down your burden and allow us to assume it."
"What are they going to do to her?"
"What they must."
Steel stood before the door, eyes closed as he took his core temperature down almost to absolute zero. That should keep him safe and Lead, acting as a shield, would prevent Steel from growing too weak.
"Are you ready?"
The air around Steel hissed and popped as the blond head nodded slightly. "Are you?"
"I can't rightly say. I've never seen one of these before, but I don't suppose it's much different than any other horror."
"Don't be so sure. And whatever you do, don't be afraid."
Lead laughed at that as he pushed open the door, but the laughter caught in his throat. "Oh…"
"Oh, indeed." The room was a swirl of devastated files and paper. It danced as they pushed through it. Thick mucus strands hung from the ceiling like heavy cobwebs and at the end of the room stood a figure, tall and spindly with long thin fingers. It lurched towards them and Steel took a step in front of Lead.
"Stay behind me, no matter what."
"Fresssh meat… fresssh terror," Martha whispered as she got close, then she stopped. "You! Defiler of our kind."
"You're the scourge of the universe," Steel spoke, his voice hoarse from the cold and the effort to keep himself properly shielded. "Think of me as the janitor, cleaning up the messes your people leave everywhere. I should have killed you that night."
"Hardly, but, in a rare moment of compassion for the girl you once were, I spared you. More compassion than you ever shown for your victims."
"Fresssh meat," she growled and grabbed him.
"Now, Lead!" Steel wrapped his arms around her as Lead took a step back, letting Steel plunge to his temperature even lower.
The Skittlebones screamed, her scream lost among the many others pouring from the speakers.
Or not. From his office, Norman suddenly shouted, "No, Martha!"
"Norman, wait! Don't!" Sapphire shouted as Norman raced from the room. Sapphire was on his heels.
The door to his sister's room was open, but blocked by the bear-like Lead. Norman's feet started to slip. He stopped to look at the floor. It was caked white with ice. "What?"
Lead stepped aside, massaging his hands as if trying to bring life back into them. Steel was kneeling on the floor, too drained to make the effort to stand.
The Skittlebones stood frozen in place and then suddenly a small crack appeared. It grew, split, and then split again. Abruptly, the entire figure shattered and fell to the floor.
"Oh," Sapphire whispered, her heart sad for the boy's loss, but also concerned. She went to Steel's side, not daring to touch him yet. "Steel."
It's done. Collect the pieces carefully, Sapphire. Not a piece must remain, not a chance that they might find a connection to this world. His voice was so weak that she barely kept from wrapping her arms about him, but knew she would suffer the same fate as the Skittlebones if she did. Steel was still far too cold for anyone but Lead to touch.
"I will," she promised.
Norman fell to his knees, tears running down her face. "She's dead."
"She was a monster," Steel managed to whisper.
"She was my sister," Norman muttered. "The only one left." Disembodied voices continued to scream overhead through the speaker until Lead found a wire and yanked. The silence in the room was deafening.
"And none of them will know of your tremendous sacrifice." Sapphire stroked his face gently. "You saved all of humanity."
"And lost my family."
"Yes, and now you are free to begin anew. Start your own family, carry on in a normal, protected world, knowing that it is and will be safe because of you."
"Because of me," he whispered and then looked. He was alone in the room. There was not a hint of the striking blonde or her sidekick. The large black man had vanished. It was just him. Now it would always be just him.
A sparkle of something caught this eye. He moved a piece of damp paper and picked up a nugget of something impossibly shiny and bright. He studied it for a long minute, then tossed it aside. He wanted no memory of this night, no souvenir, and no reminder of a night long ago when the corn grew high, the rows were impossibly dense and concealing, and of when an invader took from him his sister, his childhood, and his life. The nugget bounced as it landed, flared, and then grew dim.
Outside the world moved on and, on a distant planet, a spark was registered.