Mister Gallows [2/2]
If you see a sickly boy in a blue hoodie, please contact me immediately. Your life depends on it.
This is the second half of my interview with young Liam Hanesworth. You can read the first half here.
"Like what?" I ask.
"Like what he had for me."
Ah, yes. ‘I have something for you. Then, I want something for me.’ They were among the first words Mister Gallows spoke to the boy; a bargain, one innocent enough.
Of course, to entities like Gallows, such deals are usually deceptions or a means to an end. They allow the creature to broker for horrors too terrible to put into words.
“What did he have for you, Liam?”
Tears slip down the boy's gaunt face. He raises a sweater sleeve, wiping them away before sniffling. “He had a message.” Liam’s nose is running, and he looks sickly. Unwell. “He said it was from somebody he never wanted to meet.”
How curious. "What was the message?"
"Just some words." Liam’s eyes stare at the floor, and he crumples into a ball of hoodie and jeans. He wipes his runny nose on his knees and makes himself small. “I um, I didn’t understand them.”
Some words. I let that roll around in my head for a while. It doesn't mean much now, but when you've been doing this job for as many years as I have, you learn pretty quickly that strange words aren't to be dismissed. Words have power.
“Were they in another language?” I ask. “Or were they too quiet to be properly heard?”
“A different language,” Liam says. He’s squirming like crazy now. I’ve scarcely seen a kid look so uncomfortable in my entire career. “Maybe Latin?” He shakes his head. “I only know French.”
“That’s alright. What happens after he says those words?”
“Mister Gallows gets angry. He tells me now that I’ve gotten what I’m owed, he wants what he’s owed. 'I gave something to you,' he says, 'and now I want something for me!’
"I ask him what he wants, but I already know. He opens his toothless mouth, pointing at his gums with a long, skeletal finger. 'I'll take some of these, I think.' He laughs a bit, and tips his tophat again, adding, 'Please and thank you.'
“He crawls up in front of me and pushes me against the wall. ‘Open up,’ he says. I try to keep my mouth closed, but I can’t. He’s too strong, and he forces it open. Then he reaches in and…” Liam gets quiet. His mouth hangs open, and he reaches a hand up, feeling where three of his front teeth should be. “He pulls them out.”
“He just wanted three of your teeth?” I ask.
Moments pass, and Liam’s face looks tortured. His mouth is being pulled in every direction, oscillating between frowns and grimaces, and his eyes are blinking erratically. I nearly call a break to the Interview, but he starts talking before I get the words out.
“He reaches back inside my mouth to pull out more, but the kitchen door opens. It’s my little sister, Lacey. She’s bleary-eyed and yawning, and then her eyes adjust, and she realizes what she’s looking at. She realizes the nightmare she just walked in on.”
Liam swallows. “She screams for mom. In the blink of an eye, Mister Gallows stampedes across the kitchen and wraps a hand around her mouth. 'Shh, little girl,' he says, using his other long arm to pet her hair. Then he puts his face close to hers, and he opens his mouth again, showing those toothless gums. He whispers to her to be quiet. He says as long as she doesn't scream again, he won't kill her."
My pencil flies across the clipboard. This is likely the defining moment of the Event, the moment that Mister Gallows murders Liam’s sister. I keep my ears open and brace for the worst.
"He moves his hand from her mouth,” Liam continues. "Lacey’s silent, and so am I. Part of me is hoping that mom heard Lacey’s scream, but another part of me knows better. I think Lacey does too. Heck, even if dad were home, I doubted it would make a difference. Mister Gallows was too big. We needed a SWAT team.”
I offer a consoling smile. “It’s likely a SWAT team would have been equally ineffective. You did what you could, Liam, with what you had. You didn’t want anybody to get hurt. That’s very brave.”
He looks down. His expression is despondent, but he doesn’t wait for me to prompt him. He keeps talking like I never said a thing.
"Mister Gallows opens Lacy’s mouth. He slips a finger inside of it and feels her teeth. He's looking at her through that burlap sack, and he's mumbling to himself, but I can't make out what he's saying. Eventually, he turns to me and asks, ‘These are new, aren't they?'
"I know he's talking about her teeth. She's a year younger than me, but she's gotten most of her adult teeth by now. He taps on them, and it makes a clicking sound, bone on bone, and then he pulls away. He looks back and says, 'These will do,' and then..."
Liam goes quiet. His body quakes, his eyes bulge. It's like he's trying to contain something, whether it's a furious rage or tumultuous despair. Whatever it is, it's desperate to get out. He doesn't want it to.
"Mom appears in the doorway, wearing her nightgown. All the color is gone from her face. She’s looking from me, with my mouthful of blood and three missing teeth, to the monster standing over Lacey. She snaps, snatching a knife from the kitchen counter, and runs at Mister Gallows.”
I chew on my pencil eraser. It’s a foolish gesture, but one I can understand. As a new mother myself, there’s very little I wouldn’t do to protect my baby. “Your mother attacked Mister Gallows?”
Liam nods. It takes him a while to get the words out, like he’s trying to do it without letting something else slip. I feel for him. It’s difficult for children to keep their emotions in check, particularly when recounting traumatic events.
“She runs at him and starts slashing and hacking at him, screaming at him to let Lacey go or she’ll call the police or the church or the FBI. Mister Gallows grabs her by her hair and smashes her head down on the floor. It hits the linoleum with a thud, and then she gets really still.
"I remember thinking she was dead. Then he picks her up again and smashes her down a second time, and I hear something crack, and blood starts pooling on the floor. Her leg is twitching.”
Liam takes a shuddering breath. I want to reach out and give him a hug, but he’s already responded adversely to being consoled. Instead, I pay him a look of understanding. Talking about these things is probably tearing him apart inside. His mother survived, of course, but she was irreparably damaged.
“Mister Gallows turns back to Lacey. She’s crying and shrieking, and he puts his hand into her mouth, and she starts gagging. He starts pulling out her teeth, jamming them into his gums one by one, humming as he goes.”
Liam leans forward and retches, vomiting onto the floor. Yellow-brown bile splatters my shoes. I shoot up out of my chair, indicating to the cameras that we need a cleanup crew in here and that the Interview is on hold.
Liam hurls again, and more throw-up spews from his mouth. I crouch next to him, placing a hand on his back. "It's okay. It's okay. You're safe." I say the words, but I don't know what they're supposed to do. How do you make a kid feel better after witnessing his mom’s skull split open on the kitchen floor? How does anything make that go away?
I whisper affirmations into his ear for what feels like hours but must have only been minutes. “It’s not your fault,” I say. “You’re a good person.”
A knock on the door interrupts me. I rise, unsure why anybody would be knocking. All employees with access should already have a keycard granting them entry.
"Hello?" I call out.
"Cleanup crew," a muffled voice calls back through the thick steel. "Can you let us in?"
I frown, looking from Liam to the door. I move toward the video communicator on the wall, activating it and seeing two janitorial staff on the other side. One of them holds up a mop in exasperation while the other flashes her ID.
"Our keycard isn't working," she says. "Can you open it on your end?"
Something about the situation unnerves me, but I shake it off. We're in a secured government compound. Facility agents are swarming the premises. We're as safe as can be, so I disengage the manual lock.
The door won't budge.
I try again, repeating the process, making sure I did it correctly—still nothing. I press the communicator. "Sorry," I say. "It looks like this room's malfunctioning. Can we get a tech team down here to look at it? I can't open it manually."
They grumble and turn away, leaving their mop and bucket behind them.
I look back to Liam. The smell of fresh vomit is thick in the air, but my focus is singular, on him and him alone. He said Mister Gallows had visited him almost every night for the past year. That had only been the first day.
"Liam?" I say in a small voice.
He's sitting in the chair, head in his hands, weeping with bits of puke still dripping from his chin.
I take a step forward. "If Mister Gallows gave you his message and then got his teeth, why did he keep coming back?"
Liam looks up, and his eyes are murky. Clouded. "He wanted to say sorry." He lifts a sleeve to his mouth, wiping some of the bile off of his face. "He kept apologizing. 'I'm so sorry, kid,' he'd say. 'I didn't know.' "
“Sorry for what?” I ask. “Killing your sister?”
A howl envelopes the room, and Liam breaks into quaking sobs. The lights in the room flicker. There’s a clatter to the right of me, and I look down and see toy building blocks shifting across the floor. On the wall, the cartoon animals aren’t smiling anymore. They’re slowly melting away.
Liam's face is ugly now, and he's crying as hard as I’ve ever seen. "He didn't know who I was,” he chokes out. “He thought I was just another kid." My heart races as steam hisses from Liam’s eyes, and I realize the tears are evaporating even as they form, dying in the smoldering blaze of his pupils.
A wind picks up in the room, and it tugs at my blouse, whipping about in a gale that tears the posters from the walls and casts toys into a tornado of color. Hands behind me, I stumble backward and try the door again. It won't budge.
My eyes drift up to the camera on the ceiling, but the red recording light is off. I'm alone. It's just me now. I take a breath, inhaling the fumes of vomit and sulfur, and I wonder if death is going to be half so bad as all these monsters make it seem.
"Who are you?" I ask, and I'm unable to keep the terror from my voice. “Are you Mister Gallows?” Perhaps the kid is possessed. I’ve seen it before.
"No," Liam whimpers. "I’m a bad person, though. I'm an awful person."
"Why did Mister Gallows--" I'm almost shouting now, as the tempest rocks the entire room. "Why did he feel the need to keep apologizing?" Learning blocks and toy trucks ricochet off the wall, narrowly missing my face.
"He was scared," Liam bawls. "He was scared I would hurt him if he didn't."
"Why?" I scream.
The gale stops. The toys fall with a clatter, and the animals on the wall aren't melting anymore. They’re beaming with the same, fake smiles they’ve always had. My breath heaves in my chest, my legs quiver, and my hair is a mess, but I’m alive. I’m okay.
Liam sits quietly in his plastic chair. He’s staring at Bugs Bunny on the carpet. His small hands are clenched into fists, and whatever fire once burned in his eyes is now extinguished. He’s just a boy again. The broken, trembling boy I promised I would save.
I’m no longer sure I can.
“Liam?” I say, taking a nervous step forward. “Is it okay if we talk?”
He doesn’t say anything, but he nods.
“Why was Mister Gallows afraid of you?” I do my best to maintain a calm tone, but my voice is all over the place. I can barely keep myself from stuttering. “Did it have something to do with what just happened?”
Silence. He’s whimpering again, and his hands are tugging at the strings of his hoodie like his life depends on it. Tears litter the carpet around him. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to.”
“It’s okay,” I say, moving closer to him. My legs feel like jello, and my mind’s still untangling itself from what it just witnessed. “I can tell you’re a good person, Liam.”
Liam turns to me, and there’s fear in his features. He closes his eyes, clenches them shut, and he winces in pain. "It's hard," he says. "It gets harder every day."
I take a few more steps forward, and I'm back to my chair. I sit down in it, brushing frizzled hair from my face and taking a deep breath. My eyes snap up to the camera. It's recording again, and I know they're watching. I wonder if they witnessed the scene that just unfolded.
They probably already knew, I decide. They were expecting it.
"Liam," I say, in a careful tone. "Why was Mister Gallows afraid of you?"
His blue eyes appear, one blink at a time. He looks small in his chair, and when he speaks, his words are faint. I barely hear them.
"He’s afraid I'm here to kill him." A smile plays at the corner of his lips, and he grips his face with both hands. Agony fills his eyes, and his next words leave a mark that no response can fill. They crash around me like a carpet bomb. “I’m afraid I’m here to kill all of us.”
Once more, my eyes dart up to the camera. Is this what my supervisors were after? Is this the real Event? Am I the one experiencing it?
"What makes you think that?" I say, and my words are clipped, breathless. Fear has wormed its way into me.
"I'm one of them," Liam says, clutching a fistful of hair. His eyes pulse with blood, and he groans. "They told me so.” His voice strains against something. It's jagged. Sharp. "They told me I was one of them, that I was born to cast the earth into flame and ash."
"Them," he says, raising his eyes to my own. "The Gods Beyond the Veil." He’s different now. He’s not the boy I knew, and I’m not even sure he’s human. There’s a darkness to him, a suffocating, mighty abyss that’s pulling at me, begging me to join it. “The Eldritch,” he says, and his eyes are crackling again with dancing flames.
I want to run. I want to get out of here, but I know better. The only way out is through. “Your sister…” I say, in an uneven voice.
Police had found Lacey Hanesworth in six pieces. Her arm on one side of the house, her leg on the other. The home was a bloodbath. Liam’s mother had witnessed all of it from her wheelchair, and the scene had driven her mad. ‘A monster,’ she had repeated. ‘A monster killed my baby.’
“Did Mister Gallows kill her?” I whisper.
Liam's eyes flare. “You tell me,” he says.
Agony replaces everything I’ve ever known. I feel my arm lurch to the side, and something invisible is pulling at it, heaving while some other force holds me in place. I shriek for help. I scream at Liam to stop. I do everything I can to move and run, but I’m stuck in place.
There’s a horrible sound of tearing flesh, and my world goes black. I come to a second later, and blood is pouring from a hole in my torso where my arm used to be.
The door crashes open, and six people in robes rush in, casting warding charms and backing Liam into a corner. Somebody jabs a needle into me, and another person starts wrapping me in gauze.
Somebody shouts. "Keep him back! She's in critical condition!"
A blinding flash fills the room, and then the world fades away. Darkness envelops my thoughts, my memories, my mind. There’s nothing to see or hear or think about anymore. It’s just the Void. Unending. Ceaseless. I call out, but I have no voice. I’m drifting, senseless through infinity.
It's wonderful. It's terrifying.
I open my eyes to the bright lights of the medical bay. I’m in a hospital bed, my body is covered in bandages, and there are doctors and people in suits discussing something near me. They don’t seem to realize I’m awake. I try to open my mouth to speak, but it’s too hard. So I just listen.
“He’s the one then, The Conclusion?”
“Seems like it. Didn’t expect him to go nuclear back there, though. Talk about teenage angst.”
A laugh. A woman.
“No kidding. Honestly, it’s a wonder this lady survived. Word is she was right beside the kid when it went down."
"Looking at her, I'm not surprised." Another voice. Male. "I've never seen so much necrosis."
"You remember Jacob? The dickhead from Public Affairs?"
"Oh, yeah. Don't get me started on Jacob."
"Well, he was by earlier giving us all the rundown. 'If anybody asks,the damage was caused by a gas leak, that's all.' But he let slip a few extra details."
"Oh, spill the beans!" There's a clattering sound. Steel on steel. Surgical instruments being sifted through. I'm still too weak to speak. Too weak to move.
"Apparently, they sent in warlocks to deal with the kid, and all of them ended up piles of salt. Now the compound's just a few bricks and a cloud of asbestos."
A woman snorts, then laughs. “What were they expecting? As if warding charms could hold off an Eldritch God.”
“Technically he’s not a god, only a harbinger." A different man. This voice is casual. Teasing. I strain my eyes and see the blurry outline of a black suit. "The Gods come later, Cheryl.”
“It’s a damn shame. I read our patient's file here and if you can believe it, she was the one who sorted out The Boundless Whispers! Smart lady. Great with kids, too.”
“I suppose she wasn't smart enough." The first man again. A doctor, maybe. "It's just like I've always said: most people at Compound 7 are inept."
“That's not fair, Dave." The woman tuts. "They had some duds over there, same as we do here. They were doing important work, though. Pass me the scalpel, would you?"
Steel cuts into my flesh. It hurts, but I can't move. I can't speak. I'm too weak, too absent.
"I should let the two of you get back to it, then." The man in the suit.
"Don't sweat it, Ryan! We're nearly done here anyway."
The steel digs deeper. A piece of me comes free.
"Anyway, I'm not surprised Compound 7 fucked everything up all over again. With The Conclusion’s power, we had a real shot at ending this invasion before it started, didn't we, Ryan?”
"We really shouldn't be talking about this out in the open, Dave. I shouldn't even have mentioned it."
My brain feels mushy. Slow. More pieces of me are sliced free. I hear the wet slap of my flesh dropping into a metal pan.
"This is hardly 'in 'the open,' Ryan. We're well enough alone. Now the kid is too. He's lost in the wind, apparently. Oh, she’s--”
“Jesus, she’s awake!”
There's hurried movement around me. I see the blur of a face, the white of a surgical gown.
Figures swim in front of me, two of them, a woman and a man. Doctors. Surgeons. They’re saying things. They’re telling me I’ve had a bad accident and that I’ve suffered terrible wounds. They’re telling me they’re going to give me some more morphine so I can get some sleep.
I try to tell them no. I try to tell them I want to know what’s going on.
My world goes dark.
The next time I wake up, I’m alone. The hospital room is empty, save for a desk in the far corner, and the buzzing fluorescent light above. I feel stronger now, more conscious. I sit up with some struggle, and my body feels different. Alien. It’s as though pieces are missing.
I glance down, and memories flood me. My arm is missing. It feels like my legs are gone too. I wiggle and squirm, using my other arm to prop me up into a seated position. Weak-eyed, I look around for my belongings. For my phone.
It’s there, on my bedside table. I reach for it. It's too far.
“Erin?” A groggy voice says from behind me. “Oh, sweetheart, you’re awake!”
I glance back and see my mom, her gray hair wistfully dancing in the air conditioning. She puts a hand on my face, and her eyes are filled with tears. She keeps telling me she loves me.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
I tell her it’s okay. I tell her I need her to hand me my phone.
“Because,” I tell her. “I have to tell the world what I just overheard. I need to dictate all of this before I forget it.”
She’s confused, my mother. She’s asking if I’m feeling okay. She keeps talking about things that don’t matter.
“Mom,” I say. “I heard something earlier that I wasn’t supposed to.”
She gets quiet. She recognizes my tone, and she knows I’m not feeling loopy or out of it. She listens.
“I need you to give me my phone. There’s a boy out there with messy black hair, pale skin, and a blue hoodie. He’s the most important person in the world right now, and if we don’t find him, the world might not be around for much longer.”
She passes me my phone. I tell it my story.
Now, I pass that story to you. I’m asking you to keep an eye out for a missing boy with black hair, a blue hoodie, and crackling pupils. His skin is pale, sallow and his body language is small and nervous. He might be upset. He might be agitated.
If you see him, don’t approach. Call the police. Contact me here. Tell an elected official you need to get in touch with the Facility. The boy is important. He’s The Conclusion to everything, and he’ll write the ending to our story one way or another.
Just know that if we don’t find him, it won’t be a happy one.