Ginger Nuts of Horror
When six year-old Evan is kidnapped from his foster home, he is dragged into a world of shadows, monsters, and fire. At first, all Evan can think about is how to escape from his violent captor, a man who calls himself Rook; but Evan quickly learns that Rook is the only person with the power to protect him against a host of more horrible dangers. As Rook’s true nature is revealed through mysterious, magical acts, Evan must wonder if Rook is indeed a person or rather a monster himself.
Pursued across the wintery Southern Ontario countryside, with the baying of police dogs at their heels and deeper horrors lurking in the woods, the orphan boy and the roguish man begin to understand each other. Evan admits that he also has mysterious, magical powers, but doesn’t know how to control them. Rook becomes more intrigued with the boy, and Evan, a child that has never felt at home, begins to believe in a place where he belongs—with Rook.
Stephen Michell is a freelance writer and editor based out of Toronto. His writing has appeared in The Good Men Project, as well as in the Exile Editions speculative fiction anthology Those Who Make Us, with his story “As Worlds Collide.” He has also written many entertainment reviews for Step On Magazine.
“You think you know where Only the Devil Is Here is going . . . and then it goes somewhere else. Super-creepy northern gothic with terrific pace and scares.”
—Andrew Pyper, author of The Only Child and The Demonologist
Excerpt from Chapter 12 & 13 of Only the Devil is Here
Evan woke in a fetal position on a frozen, jagged floor, and at first the distance between dream and waking was hard to cross. He came from a faraway feeling of flowing ice and drifting snow into a sudden, shocking sense of his cold, naked, shivering body. He opened and closed his eyes. A deep impenetrable dark surrounded him, the dark of nowhere and nothing.
In a panic, he sat up and tucked in his legs. The jagged floor scraped his skin, and it felt like he was lying on a metal grate. From beyond, the dark rattled and clanged.
He stuck out his hand and his palm hit a lattice of cold steel. His fingers went through the spaces and grasped it like chain link. The tang of rusted metal came under his nose but even more overwhelming in the air was a rotten stink of death and sodden earth.
He swivelled and in doing so felt his toes scrape against cold lattice behind him. He stuck his hand to his right and felt the steel links and reached to his left where his fingers grasped the same. He put his hands up above his head and they extended in a cramped arc over him before encountering the steel roof of the confinement. He was trapped in a cage.
His heartbeat stopped, or so it felt. Then it started again at a feverish pace. He scrambled. Having swivelled around he had forgotten which way was forward, which way he had been facing when he woke. He felt, trembling, for the nearest wall of the cage and shimmied against it and gripped the links with both hands. He pressed his face against his knuckles like a prisoner peering from behind the bars of his cell into the pitch dark.
For some time, Evan sat still against the edge of the cage. Slowly he began to shiver in the cold. Then he shook harder—his entire body gave way to a violent convulsion and he screamed and slammed his body into the wall of the cage. He rocked back and slammed again, screaming, scraping his shoulder against the jagged steel. Blood ran down his arm.
His energy wore out fast. Weary and hurting, he hung limp against the cage with his fingers gripping the links. His breathing came as a long, crippling whine. He closed his eyes.
The cold sodden stink of the dark clouded around him and he felt numb. It was as if the darkness was inside his head, blotting out all else and leaving him empty. And yet, with a small sense of surprise and pride, he noticed that he was not crying.
It was then Evan heard a voice. His eyes flew open and he lifted his head. The dark rose before him like a blank wall. He saw nothing.
Then he heard the sound again and for a moment he thought it was the hiss of a snake. He drew up his legs and sat with his arms wrapped around his knees. He waited.
The strange sound came again.
Sss . . .
It was faint, but Evan was sure now that it was a voice.
“Hello?” he called.
Sss . . .
At that moment, the darkness split open and Evan ducked his head and covered his eyes from an almost blinding light. He heard the stomp of feet coming down a short set of steps. When he peered from under his arm he saw there had been a door opened from above and a tawny light spread within the room, defining the walls and floor. A man had come down and was lumbering back and forth, his path sloppy. The stinging smell of liquor moved with him, mixing with the chamber’s foul rot. It was Al. Evan could see the man’s green gown hanging past his knees as he staggered around the space.
It was a dirt-dug chamber with rough pinewood boards framed against the walls to keep the earth at bay. Evan saw now the fine steel links of the cage in which he was trapped. The links were rusted and stained. The cage had double-pinned locks on the front gate.
Around the perimeter of the room there were other cages. He counted six of them, each also rusted and jagged-looking. In the centre of the chamber, there was a cylindrical construction of stones, but Evan was at a loss as to what it was.
Most of the cages appeared to be empty, but not all. When Evan saw the first pair of eyes he shrank away in fear, but he crept forward again after a moment and looked again.
There were two other kids, each in a separate cage. Evan was unsure whether they were girls or boys but they seemed about his age. Their hair looked long and dark and matted, and their faces were small and dirt-smeared. Only their eyes were bright. A glossy luminance as if the tawny light was bouncing from them before it could enter. An expression of sheer hopelessness was echoed on both of their faces. Evan wondered how long they had been down here.
All of a sudden, a shadow shifted past Evan’s cage and Al crouched in front of him and stuck his bowl-shaped face up against the links. Evan drew back.
Al peered into the cage, as might a spectator at a zoo. “Hey,” he said. “Don’t be scared.” His breath was rancid, his face haggard, plastered with drunken sweat. He rubbed his forefinger and thumb together, making a soft clicking sound with his tongue against his teeth. “Hey, little guy,” he said. “Come on, don’t be scared. How do you like your new home?”
“Let me out,” Evan said.
Al laughed. Then he steadied his gaze and looked straight at Evan. “I don’t like when you bark,” he said. “It won’t do you any good.”
Evan screamed. “Let me out!”
Al lunged at the cage and grabbed both sides with his hands. His thick fingers wrapped through the links.
“No!” he yelled. “I caught you. By my blood, it’s what I was destined to do. You’re not going anywhere.”
Evan stared out at the man and his eyes burned with a rusty colour as a wave of fury overtook his terror for a moment. Al registered Evan’s eyes with a slight tilt of his head. Then he drunkenly wiped his mouth.
“We have the power to be gods,” Al said. “But we live like animals.” He levelled his thick finger at Evan and said, “You are an animal and animals need to be controlled. When an animal species gets out of control, you know what happens? It gets culled. Intelligent forces come into play. But you don’t kill the adults. No. Killing adults isn’t going to solve the problem. Instead, you have to kill the young.”
Al stood and crossed the room. His walk was crooked, bent forward and turned back to keep his eyes trained on Evan’s. He stopped in front of one of the other cages. The child inside squirmed to the back and the cage rattled.
Al knelt and looked back at Evan again. “This is a great work,” he said. “One to save the human being. Pure almighty human intelligence will become again, and we will reclaim this place. You, I think, will come to understand. Maybe you will even help. Like you said, you’re special. But not all of these little beasts are special like you. No. Most of them are just animals. Most of them are dead already.”
Al turned and pulled up the pins of the gate and opened the cage and reached in. Right away, the child started screaming. Evan shrank away from the sound, but still he heard the cage rattling and the child screaming and crying and kicking and then he glanced up and saw Al dragging the naked, squirming child out by the ankles.
Evan shut his eyes. He cupped his hands over his ears to shut out the awful noises. Al stomped up the wooden staircase. The door closed with a thud and hushed the chamber back into darkness, but still Evan could hear the screaming.
He sat cupping his ears. The cries shot out in bursts, burning horrible images into Evan’s vision in the dark.
When the screams finally stopped, there was another sound that was somehow equally as horrible. Silence. A raw, unbearable silence, in the cold, in the dark.
Whatever length of time passed, Evan had no real way of knowing but for the slowly calming measure of his breath. The cold dark enveloped him and he shivered. His earlier sleep had been short and given him no rest. He felt the pull of his fatigue, and yet he had never in his life been more awake and alert. He sat with his eyes open, his arms wrapped around his knees, watching every tiny shift and ripple in the blackness.
When the door opened again and the tawny light cut through the dark, it was not Al who entered but the young girl, Maeve. Her footsteps sounded on the wooden stair. Evan saw her shadow first, long and thin. Then the girl appeared in the light. In her arms she carried the child, lengthwise as she might have carried a bundle of firewood. The child’s pale limbs hung limp.
She crossed to the centre of the chamber and stood before the stonework construction. Evan still could not figure out what the stone formation was, but the way the girl stood in front of it made him think of churches and candles. A crude altar.
The girl leaned over the stonework, holding out the child’s body. Evan watched her. She lowered her arms, her head bowed, and then in a swift and graceful motion, she dropped the child’s body and it disappeared from sight.
Evan’s mouth fell open, as he realized the truth of the stonework structure. It was the mouth of a deep pit.
There had been a faint whoosh and the tumble of the body falling, and then nothing. No thud or splash when it hit the bottom. No echo. Nothing at all.
The girl turned and Evan saw her face in the light. It was wet. The jagged scar across her nose was livid and her small eyes sparkling with tears.
As she crossed in front of his cage, Evan asked, “Why are you doing this?”
The girl stopped short and turned her head, searching at first, as if ignorant of Evan and his cage. Then she saw him and their eyes met and locked.
The girl said nothing. She had a shocked, almost petrified look on her face. Evan wanted her to speak. He wanted her to tell him why this was happening. He remembered her name and said it in his head: Maeve, Maeve, Maeve . . . why are you doing this?
. . . I was his first, she said.
As if against his will, Evan slid up to the gate of his cage. He had heard Maeve’s voice, but not in his ears. She had spoken right inside his head. He could feel Maeve’s voice moving through him like a small snake slithering up his spine. It was a discomforting sensation. Maeve’s voice—small, terrified, alone—was being drawn to Evan in his special-thinking way.
I hear you, he said in his head.
Maeve’s lips were still, but her voice came clearly.
. . . I was the first he ever took. He said I was unique. He said I was blessed. He said I was destined to help save the human being. He never meant to hurt me. I was the first he saved.
The girl’s eyes narrowed as she felt a faint tingling go up her spine. A warm sensation popped and spread across the left side of her brain.
As a little girl she had gone to play by the river. . . .
I remember the willow trees looked like old witches washing their long hair in the water. They had just cut the grass and it was damp and the loose bits of grass clung to my ankles and in between my toes. There was a hill that went down to the river. All across the water, these little bugs skated making ripples. . . .
Her voice went away and Evan felt a quiet weeping. Then her voice returned.
. . . Obey him. Be helpful. Give him everything. . . .
He told me I had to go with him. My mom was worried and she’d asked him to come get me. He’d take me home. He told me to get in the car.
He can show mercy. One day we are going to die.
Maeve stood still in front of Evan’s cage and stared down into his rust-tinted eyes and then she blinked and shook her head. She looked at the ground as if she had lost something and then she straightened and turned away, crossing the room through the light. She went up the wooden steps and pulled the door closed with a slam.
Evan squatted in the dark. His body was humming and he had a strange, sour taste in his mouth. The girl’s voice lingered in his head, in his whole body, as if flowing in his blood, gathering and revolving in his chest. He wriggled with the discomfort of it but there was no getting away. It felt like someone was digging a hole in him.
He buried his face in his hands. But where a feeling—a compulsion—to cry had once lived in him, there now existed a stark solemnity. He was reminded of the song he had heard in the cave and he cringed and wriggled to get away from the hollowing pain. He saw Rook’s face in the dark and he wanted to scream.
At that moment Evan heard another voice speak.
“Hello?” it called.
Evan lifted his head. He sniffled and listened, doubtful, suspicious.
“Are you there?” the voice asked.
Evan felt his own voice come up like a tremor. He said, “I’m here.”
There was silence. Evan waited. He had heard the voice in the air, in his ears, a real speaking voice. One of the other kids. It had to be real.
A cage rattled. “You can’t talk to them,” the voice said. “It’s not allowed. They’re going to come for you now.”
Evan said nothing. His heart started to race. Rather than fear, the warning had filled him with excitement. An impatient rush. Thoughts of escape.
“Did you hear me?” the child asked.
“I think I can get us out of here,” Evan said.
Silence. Then, “You shouldn’t have talked to her. She’ll tell about it. She always tells. They’re going to hurt you for it. To train you. Just do whatever they say.”
Evan heard footsteps thump across the floor above. He was breathing fast, the cold air like a strange ignition, and he was wondering how long it would be before they came for him. Every moment felt so long in the dark. He wished he could see the other child who spoke to him.
“What’s your name?” Evan said.
The child refused to answer. Doubt flooded Evan’s senses, and he wondered if there had even been a child speaking at all.
The door swung open and the tawny light cut across the dirt floor of the chamber.
Evan looked out to see who was coming down the stairs. The steps were slow and soft on the boards. He huddled against the gate of his cage and took a deep breath.
After a moment, he saw the frail, feeble legs of the one called Kinny emerge at the bottom of the stairs. His small, pigeon-toed feet staggered into the chamber. Evan closed his eyes.
Okay, you can do this.
He said the man’s name in his head, Kinny, and he said it again, thinking Kinny, Kinny, Kinny . . .
He heard Kinny’s slow steps drag across the dirt floor, heard him wheezing and sniffling. It went around in a circle and then crossed to Evan’s side of the chamber. Then Evan’s cage rattled. He heard Kinny groan as he bent down. His knees cracked. The cage rattled again.
This is it.
When Evan opened his eyes, Kinny was kneeling in front of his cage. The man’s patchy-bearded face was eye-level with Evan. He was grinning, his top lip peeling back above his gums.
Evan looked right back. He stared straight into Kinny’s green, murky eyes, thinking Kinny, Kinny, Kinny . . .
And then it seemed as if someone had taken a pair of scissors and cut some invisible stitching from Kinny’s vocal chords, threads that had bound him to silence for a long time, and Evan heard the man’s inner voice pour out. Broken and tormented, Kinny’s words erupted in Evan’s head with heavy sobs.
I’m so sorry, Kinny blubbered.
Evan listened. He felt Kinny’s voice slide along his spine and he followed it, figuring it out, trying to speak back.
I’m so, so sorry. Kinny’s voice poured out. He made me do it. He always makes me do it. I can’t stop him. . . . I don’t know how. . . .
The sense of Kinny’s voice, his fear and pain, swirled in Evan like a rotten stench and it made him gag. He nearly vomited what little he had in his stomach onto the floor of his cage. But he kept his eyes locked on Kinny’s and listened and followed the man’s voice as it slithered through him and then he caught it and he answered.
He spoke slowly at first: Kinny. Kinny, listen to me. It’s okay.
. . . I wish I could stop him. . . . I wish I could make it stop. . . . I want to go back with Miss Tolson. . . . I want to go back. . . .
It’s okay, Kinny. . . .
But the man’s horrid, pained voice flooded out. She was so nice to me. She didn’t make me do the bad things. She was nice. She let me peel the apples in the fall time. I could do them really good in one long peel, round and round. And she’d let me peel one extra and I got to eat it when I was done. It was fuzzy without the skin and it went all brown, but I liked the brown parts the most. Miss Tolson was nice to me. . . .
When she died I didn’t know what I . . . Then Al said I could come with him. I could help him. I didn’t know how to stop it. . . .
Kinny, listen to me. It’s okay now. You can help make it stop. Now’s your chance to make it all better. I want you to open my cage and let me out.
I’m so, so sorry. . . .
Open my cage, Kinny. Now.
Kinny’s hands rose to the double-pinned lock and pulled the topmost pin and then his hands lowered mechanically and he pulled up the second. The door of the cage gave way with a pop.
Good, Kinny. You’re helping. Now go stand in the corner.
I’m so sorry.
Go. Don’t come out until I tell you.
Kinny stood and turned and walked with his arms flat at his sides straight to the corner of the chamber between two empty cages and faced the pinewood boarding. Evan waited and then pushed open the cage door and crawled out. The dirt floor was cold but it felt alive and fresh and he was glad to touch it. He looked up the stairs in the light. The door was open. He couldn’t see much of the room above, didn’t know where it would lead him, but he wasn’t going to give up.
You can get out of here.
He squatted at the edge of his cage for a moment longer and waited. The creak of a chair and other vague noises carried from the floor above, but it was mostly quiet. He crawled farther into the chamber.
Straight ahead of him was the stonework pit. Evan skirted it and crawled across the ground to the other side of the chamber. He passed an empty cage, then came to another and stopped. Inside was the child that had spoken to him. A red-haired boy about Evan’s age.
Evan glanced once at Kinny, who stood still in the corner as commanded, then back to the boy. He put his finger over his lips. The red-haired boy sat on his haunches with his knees up. Evan could smell him but he tried to ignore it as he felt along the frame of the cage for the pins. He drew up the first. It made a dull ping sound.
Evan stopped and looked over his shoulder and waited. Footsteps creaked from above. Nothing crossed in the light of the doorway. He turned back to the cage and reached to the second pin and started pulling it up--
Sss . . .
Evan turned around fast. He looked to the corner, but Kinny stood as before. Evan looked around the rest of the shadowy chamber. There was nothing else there.
The boy in the cage shifted and the cage rattled and Evan turned back. He looked in at the boy and they nodded to each other. Evan reached back to the second pin and started again. Then he stopped once more and glanced over his shoulder. A low, whispering hiss rolled towards him.
Sss . . .
Evan turned his back to the cage, leaving the final pin still locked. The boy inside rattled the gate, but Evan ignored him. He moved in search of the sound, drawn by a will not his own, drawn by a knowledge that what he heard was a voice.
“Where are you going?” the other boy whispered.
Evan knew he should turn back. He should pull up the final pin and let the boy out. He knew it. Go back, he told himself. Stop!
But he moved as if by a power beyond him. Like curiosity coupled with an innate sense of return, blind and mindless as the last few steps taken when arriving home. The voice called to him.
Sss . . . Sss . . . Sss . . .
It led him to the stonework at the centre of the chamber. When he reached it he placed his palms flat on the cold stone rim and leaned over the mouth and looked down into the dark hollow pit.
The sound rose up from below, and Evan heard many tongues speaking at once. He could feel them reaching along his spine, like the voices of Maeve and Kinny. They pleaded.
Such suffering . . . he butchered us and left us to rot . . . avenge us . . .
Entranced by the voices, Evan did not notice the shadow that cut through the light on the stairs. He didn’t hear the heavy tread on the wood boards, and he didn’t hear Al’s rasping breath until it was too late.
“What the fucking hell do you thinking you’re doing?”
Evan turned around as Al’s fist cracked against the side of his head and he landed flat on his stomach in the dirt. Bleary-eyed, he saw Al’s bare feet stomp before his face. A sweaty hand gripped the back of his neck and he was yanked to his feet, trying hard not to scream.