And Other Stories



Penny wanted to floor it. She was the only car on the road, and was dangerously close to being late. She had never, ever been late. Okay, no, she had, but never late for work. She didn't usually think about that fact, but now that her record was being threatened its existence had suddenly swollen to a point of pride. But it wasn't in total jeopardy, not just yet. If she stuck to the speed limit, she might still just barely make it in time, especially if the roads stayed so strangely empty. Meanwhile speeding would risk being stopped and ticketed, and that would definitely make her late. The cops would have her wait just to appreciate the novelty of pulling over her colorful little car. Nevermind all the poor little kids they'd disappoint in the process!

She wouldn't actually break the law, anyways. Normally she wouldn't even think of it. But she was getting antsy, and all kinds of thoughts she'd thought unthinkable were thunk, on top of plenty perfectly thinkable thoughts also running through her brain. What if she was late? Would she get paid? More importantly, would the birthday party be ruined? And where was everyone, anyways? The weather wasn't great. It was windy, tall grey clouds were threatening to rain, apparently unaware a fog was rolling in to beat them to the punch. Still, it was a Tuesday. People had to do things on Tuesdays, she was pretty sure.

Well, no use looking a gift horse in the mouth. She needed to ride that horse at a good speed. Or drive the horse, as the case may be. Driving horses was a thing, right? Right. Penny shook her head, and tried to focus on the road again. As empty as everything was, the visibility was a little less than ideal with the fog, and that called for her full attention. Also, driving at all already called for that. Well, driving cars did. Driving horses probably did too, but— Focus. Focus. Penny tried to imagine hitting herself in the cheeks to snap herself back without actually taking her hands off the wheel, but quickly realized the essential counterproductivity in that and stopped.

It was a good thing she did, too. Not for any immediately manifest reason, the roads were still empty. It was just genuinely a good thing to stay attentive while driving. She took a left turn onto what should have been the right road, but was thrown off by the fact she recognized it. The issue was she had never gone down Dawn Street in her life, so the buildings shouldn't have been so familiar. And it wasn't a case of cookie-cutter suburbia, she recognized stores, and there was the sign, it was Main Street again. When and how did she turn herself around? It must have been the fog, but... Penny groaned behind the wheel. But there wasn't anything to do but keep driving and not go in a circle this time.

She couldn't stand the thought of disappointing little Lucie and friends, and it didn't sit right either. She was definitely going to be late now, there were no ifs, ands, or buts about that. But, if she made good time, and things stayed empty, she wouldn't be too late. One of the many nice things about children is that they often weren't sticklers for precise timekeeping, in her experience. Unless they were growing impatient with the lack of the promised entertainment, they probably wouldn't really notice much difference between a performance starting on the hour and one thirteen minutes past. The parents almost certainly would, but that was the smaller problem. Besides, besides, with the weather like this they might even be entirely understanding, even though the weather if anything was helping her time. Still it had apparently chased everyone else off, which seemed a major overreaction, but—

Penny slammed on the brakes. Her car screeched to a halt and blared a horn as inertia jerked Penny forwards and then sharply yanked her back. She almost hadn't noticed in time, but her reliable little car had reliably slowed quick and stopped a little short of the thing that had just run out into the road. She breathed deep, and then it caught in her throat and she coughed hard enough to make her eyes water. She looked up, up, up at what had somehow suddenly bounded out in front of her. Fog seemed to cling onto it, and the tears blurred her vision just a little more, but she could make out a gaunt frame covered in dark fur, with four wiry legs ending in wide, splayed-out paws. It made Penny think someone had tried to make a dog by leaving a bear out to dry. The fog was somehow wreathed around what had to be its head, floating down to the ground and giving her no good look.

She honked her horn. She had been almost spellbound for a moment, but whatever else was going on, a wild animal was in the road. There was a known solution to that. Unfortunately, the creature in the road didn't seem to know that, anymore than it knew the usual size of a dog or how fog didn't stick to things like that, and so didn't budge. It also hadn't been spooked off by the screech of tires or the wind of an oncoming car, but still Penny figured it was worth trying her voice. Authoritative tones didn't come easily to her, but she reached down deep and called out "Hey! Shoo!"

That drew the creature's attention. Unfortunately, it drew it right towards her, and it turned to step towards her car. And then it took another step. And then it took a third, which put its paw on the hood of her car, then through the hood of her car, then through the engine block and onto the ground with a horrible noise of twisting and crumpling metal and hissing steam and the desperate clicks and thumps of Penny unbuckling and thrusting her door open and rolling her way out. It was the sloppiest roll she ever managed to stick, but she stuck it and sprinted off as fast as she could, running through a yard until she reached a chain-link fence. She scrambled her way up and over that, and hurried towards the house whose yard she was now trespassing on.

She barely managed to catch herself before she smacked into the door, then pounded the door with a fist to excuse the way she attempted to blatantly trespass. Which was a successful attempt, the door opening obligingly. Penny counted her blessings that she lived in a safe neighborhood where doors were often unlocked, as she hurried into the stranger's house to escape some massive feral beast. "Sorry! Really, really sorry! There's some weird animal out there and—" Penny's voice died in her throat, as she noticed the house's inhabitant had died in the home theater. It was awful, to see paper-dry skin stretched over obvious bones, a distended gut split open and spilling out offal, and... a tag still attached to the arm of the plastic Halloween decoration sitting in the living room chair. Of course.

Penny laughed nervously as a wave of relief washed over her, stopped halfway, and sank in time with her stomach as she heard a deep guttural growl from the door. Penny couldn't help but shriek as she screamed through the house to the back door that was mercifully where a backdoor should be and back out into the yard. She probably should have just gone around the house, but hindsight was twenty twenty, and behind her she sighted that monster still on the other side of the building. She figuratively hurtled through the yard, clambered up the chain link fence again, literally hurtled over a short picket fence, and floundered her way around another house. She was running out of breath, and the fog felt thicker, almost like it was trying to clog her throat as it blocked her sight.

She got to the roadside and then started panting. She was bending partway over, hands on her knees as she felt sweat beading on her forehead starting to drip down. Thankfully, unlike her, greasepaint didn't run. Once she'd caught her breath a little she looked up and, squinting through the fog, managed to spy a car sitting at a standstill. Looking both ways as much as she could see either way, she hurried over to it only to realize while in the middle of the road that it was her car. Tiny, colorful, with a massive hole somehow punched through its front.

There was no way she got turned around in the fog, not this time. Something was very wrong. Then a warm gust of air blew all the fog aside, despite bogging her down with even more humidity, somehow. Tentatively, she looked over and up towards the dog. Right. Somethings were very wrong. Her eyes trailed up the thing's legs, strangely emaciated, a chest that was showing ribs, and then... Its head was no longer wreathed in fog. It was definitely not a dog. Penny didn't know a word for what it was, but she knew it wasn't anything she had a word for. Its head looked slightly too large for the rest of its frame, and looked much too hungrily at her. Each of its eyes were fixed on her, smouldering red, orange, yellow, white, and blue, boring into her once, twice, thrice, countless times over as she lost count of the eyes dotting its head above its two massive jaws. From the sides of its head curved out two horns, which kept curving, curving in on themselves and across themselves and into great wheels which bore even more eyes to stare her down.

Penny felt small, both as she was stared down by something towering over her, and as though she was staring up at something atop a tower above her in a way she couldn't quite express. It held her spellbound, and then another gust of monsterbreath hit her face and the sublime sublimated to mundane mortal terror. She forced her legs to move in a way that wasn't just quivering, and bolted. Earlier, she'd made right for the left and that left her right where she started, and odds were right wouldn't be right either. But running back down the road away from the thing was a way for that thing to run her down and break her back like it had her car. So instead she made her break straight forward, darting besides its legs and sprinting down the street and into the cover of the fog.

Penny knew that she had absolutely no chance of outrunning some massive four-legged monster. The smart thing, she knew, would be to split off to a side and find a spot to hide and listen to hear it thunder down the road. But that would involve stopping and Penny knew she couldn't stop until she couldn't keep going, not when she could hear those heavy footfalls stomping the pavement behind her. The fog got heavier and thicker, and her mad dash became more and more of a struggle to keep up even as she couldn't see what she was running toward. She was definitely still on the road, from the way her feet smacked against the asphalt. And then one foot planted in a pothole and Penny pitched forwards and put her arms in front of her head as she skidded to a hard stop.

She didn't have the breath to let out a scream or shout of surprise, and the sudden stop forced her to notice the way her heart was hammering in her chest as though it was going to force its way out. She took deep breaths, and then her breath hitched in her throat as the monster bounded over her, massive feet barely missing her prone frame as it galloped down the road. It didn't seem to stop or turn around as it hurtled back out of sight into that omnipresent fog, and Penny let out her caught breath in a sigh of relief.

She quietly picked herself up and brushed off her forearms. She needed to get her bearings. She had been running down that residential street, so... Should be more houses. Or the same houses again, if she was unlucky—and there was really no possible explanation of the present events in which she wasn't monstrously, ludicrously unlucky. But when she wandered off the road to try and spot the shape of her surroundings, as she got close enough to squint through the fog, it wasn't the fuzzy outline of a familiar house. Nor the fuzzy outline of an unfamiliar house. It was the fuzzy but still entirely unmistakeable shape of the old helium processing plant.

Everybody in town knew the place, mainly because old factories weren't the stealthiest things in the world. It had been abandoned though, and not yet repurposed or knocked down. Penny didn't know why. While she always had her finger on the pulse of the consumer helium market, interested party as she was, her interests ran only about as far as the price and current supply. Neither of which had been meaningfully bumped when the local factory shut down, which maybe was a good indication that circumstances were such that the factory might as well shut down. It was an open secret that the place was open to secret and illegal activities, which Penny usually imagined as spraypainting and doing drugs for want of more enriching diversions, but could probably include shelter from impossible monsters in a pinch.

She got up over the fence in a cinch, and then through the nearest door. it wasn't like helium refinement required all that much security to begin with, and even less when the semi-processed natural gas wasn't on-site anymore, and some enterprising delinquents had already dealt with the locks and such. The room, well more of a space, had some equipment left around here and there, litter littered all over the floor, and quite a lot of grafitti on the walls. Penny stuck out her tongue; she usually liked to see children exercising their creative impulses, but usually their chosen subject matters weren't so obscene, profane, or... blasphemous. She canted her head. Amidst the names in fun bubbly letters, dubiously accurate quotes, and actually pretty impressive art of assorted nonsense, was scattered imagery that seemed to depict and extoll some sinister figures. A man with horns (at least she thought those lines were horns, it wasn't the most unambiguous feature on a stick figure), twisted and faceless people, grinning imps, paintings of animals with red messily spraypainted over their necks... It looked like what Penny thought an evil cult might scrawl on a wall, except she expected her thoughts about evil cults wouldn't be very accurate. And on the far side of the space was the most foreboding image, the spitting image of that monster hounding her, a warped hound in inky black and with too many glowing eyes and horns which moved in indescribable and impossible fashions as she gazed on them and no that was just the thing itself in there with her.

In what felt like the most rational course of action at the time, Penny screamed her lungs out, as the thing started barreling at her. She scrambled to dart to the other side and heard an awful smash batter crash clatter as it slammed into something in the corner where she used to be. A quick glance showed it was not the worse for wear, even as it wore worn workshop widgets, worthlessly wasted, worsening Penny's worries, which wit wouldn't— Penny's train of thought was interrupted by the wall interrupting her path, and then the inscrutable hunk of steel sitting in the way of her new path. She had to dart towards the center of the room, which let the thing get even closer to her, and when she cut around that latest obstruction the monster just went through it and into the back wall. The metal went everywhere, or almost everywhere, as thankfully very little pelted Penny as she cowered in a new corner, out of stamina.

Desperate for a plan, or rather for a miracle, Penny shoved a hand into her pocket. It came back out with a handkerchief. She reached back in and pulled out a second handkerchief. She groaned, and reached it one more time to grab a third handkerchief. When she tossed that one aside, the rest went with it, landing on the metal behind her and dangling down. That let her root around in her pocket instead for the... equally useless other things that were in it. What was she thinking? Well, "Oh my god oh my god oh fuck shit help somebody please I am going to be eaten" and so on, mostly, which probably explained the pointless actions. She looked over her external surroundings, at what of the metal equipment hadn't been wrecked by the monster's marauding last pass, and...

The monster started making for a new last pass, which was only going to actually be a last pass if Penny got unreasonably lucky or reasonably unlucky. Once it had closed from dangerously far to dangerously close, she leaped and dived out of the way as inertia did its part to carry the monster into the metal. Penny hit the ground hard, and her ears rang with the impact and the sound of steel screaming then singing, then of something hissing. She rolled over onto her back, as she looked at the monster, face buried in the metal that very face had twisted on collision. The hissing was the helium canisters, punctured and leaking out into the thing's face.

Somehow, as the gas went rushing into the monster, all the air was let out of the scene. It was comical, in concept. An absurd cartoony image, on paper. There wasn't anything funny about actually watching the thing thrash helplessly as it swelled more and more and rose up to the ceiling, twisted metal clinging to it and that chain of handkerchiefs tangled around its neck. It didn't make sense. There wouldn't be perfectly good helium left in a closed-down factory, weathered and unattended containers should have already leaked out all their contents by now, and also, living creatures couldn't inflate like balloons. It was all a dream. A terrible, grotesque nightmare. Penny shut her eyes, and then pinched herself.

She opened her eyes to see a normal birthday party. A little spooky in the decor, but that was par for the course in late October. She had no idea how or why she had zoned out into a terrible daydream like that, but she would just have to roll with it like a professional. (And then see a professional about it, because that couldn't be healthy.) She couldn't quite remember what had actually just happened in real life, but she was holding a balloon animal which a little boy was eyeing. She smiled warmly and handed it over. "Here you go, kiddo! All yours. Do you want to give it a name?"

The child grinned and shook his head. "S'already got a name! It's Ophee." Penny nodded in return. He had on a party hat with the label 'Birthday Boy', which helped in getting back up to speed.

"Well, that's a very nice name you've picked out! You and Ophee and the other kids have fun, now. And once again, happy birthday!" She grinned as he ran off towards his friends, balloon animal in hand. She took the chance to casually sidle over to the nearby adults and speak up quietly.

"Ah, hi there. Sorry, I've had a bit of a moment. Nothing serious, just some... short-term memory loss, hahah." Penny hadn't managed to think of a lie in time. She was awful at lying outside of her act, anyways. "So could you remind me when I wrap up today? And are there any specific routines I still have to do?"

The woman of the pair smiled at her in that way that was probably supposed to look pleasant but really didn't, and replied. "Oh, terribly sorry to hear about that. You should probably go take the rest of the day off to, ah, deal with that little issue. But don't worry, you've about finished up the time slot already, and I'm happy to say your performance was very well-received. Here, darling." She handed over a plain white envelope, which Penny happily took. "The check is enclosed. Made out to Penelope Pleasant, that's correct, yes?" Penny nodded. "Be well, now."

"I'll do my best." She smiled softly, and turned around to approach the kids with a big grin. "Alright, kids! Penny Presto has to go now, but it was an extra-enjoyable time performing for you all. Have a super-duper wonderful day, and one last little time," she turned specifically to the birthday boy, "Happy birthday!" She pulled out her party horn, and made a show of blowing into it, but the paper tube didn't roll out. She made a face of exaggerrated consternation. She did it again, squeezing her eyes tight and puffing her cheeks out and only producing a little 'thbbpt'. She put her hands on her hips, shaking her head, as a couple of the kids laughed. Then she blew into it for real, and the noise was met by a silly little cheer from the small crowd.

Now Penny could leave. She grinned and waved and comically shimmied out of the house, then went to the driveway. Her mood was raising again, although the nagging worry was sitting around in the back of her mind. She swept her eyes over the driveway a couple times. Now... Where was her car?

Back inside, the woman sighed. Her husband patted her on the shoulder. "Look, I know that wasn't how any of us expected the sacrifice to go. But it's fine. After all, look at how happy Lucifer is. He is clearly pleased. And that's really what counts, don't you think?"

The woman sighed, but couldn't help but nod her head. "I suppose you're right. And I shouldn't be so surprised, I did prepare that check after all." She glanced back towards her son, smiling and laughing with the neighbor kids, the dog Ophanim bounding around at his feet. "Maybe the thirteenth birthday was simply too early."