“The New Year’s Gift” by Mary Beth Asaro

Michael Sneezer made his way to the closest cemetery he could find. He needed to get away from the constant reminder of what he didn't have. With dirt filth hands from another year of a homeless living, he unlatched the gate leading to a small, out in the open cemetery. He left a portion of the gate cracked and continued walking. Dead silence was all that welcomed Michael on New Year's Eve in Montrose graveyard. Nothing out of the ordinary caught his eyes or shivered his spine. The yard was just a pile of grass, orangey-brown leaves, and granite headstones. He went close to the middle of a sea of grey headstones and sat down. Michael leaned against an expensive looking headstone with a statue of an Arch Angel chiseled on top of it. His hazel eyes watched the setting of the sun for the very last time of the year. Then he pulled out of his black jacket caked with dried mud an old silver harmonica his father gave to him when he was eight. Staring at the instrument, Michael smiled at the memories of a simple childhood and a prosperous adulthood as an engineer until he was suddenly let go four years ago by the plant simply down sizing. A heavy, irritating cough sensation caused the interrupted memories to fade as he is brought back to his present. After a few moments went by, the cough passed and Michael was brought back to the cold night air and a silver harmonica. Gripping the instrument tightly in his hand, he began to play a free style melody that expressed his frustrated sorrows with only the dead to hear his plea.

Sounds of the gate banging shut made the tragic symphony come to a halt. Michael leaned over until he was on all fours squinting to see the person who had crashed his New Year's party. But there was no sign of another life lingering in the dark crevices of the cemetery. He looked to the black velvet sky for answers and found only a thumbnail of the moon glaring back at him. Then he finally stood up. His hazel eyes wandered through the surrounding area carefully as his body followed. "Is anyone here?"

Footsteps on crunching grass and snapping twigs behind him penetrated his ears. Michael spun around to see nothing, but the night air beginning to mist over and the headstones becoming harder to see as the night wore on. He could see his panting breath before him and felt an icy chill cling to his bones. "Who's there I said?"

A crushed leaf buried in the dark close by him answered.

"I have a gun!" Michael plunged one of his hands in his empty, holy pocket to make his claim look authentic. "And I'm not afraid to use it! So why don't ya just do yourself a favor and come out nice and slow like!" Michael stood there for a good ten minutes feeling his blood racing through his veins against his cold pale skin.

Heavy boot steps emerged from behind him. Michael spun around again ready to fight, but a vague figure in a Civil War uniform vanished before Michael could land the first punch. Frightened by the disappearing image, he stumbled over backward. He wiped his eyes with his dirty hands and stared back into the black nothingness of the graveyard.

"Who is he?" A little girl's voice whispered from somewhere in the dark next to Michael.

Michael jumped up on all fours and started looking rapidly around n a circle for anything moving in the dark. "Who are you? What do you want?" He found himself screaming out.

"What are you doing here?" A voice of an old southern woman asked in his ear.

Michael turned towards the voice that had neither form nor shape, just the misty darkness. Scared out of his mind, he began to weep. "Please... please don't hurt me! I mean no harm! I mean... no harm!" He pleaded on his hands and knees to what ever was out there cloaked by the night.

The air grew quiet again. After a while, Michael laid down on the grass and curled up in a ball praying that nothing would easily harm him in that position. He was too scared to think straight and run for the gate. Moments later, Michael drifted to sleep.

Hours passed by when an owl's hoot woke him up. He hugged himself for warmth. Then he maneuvered himself up off the grass with his legs as he carefully looked at his surroundings for any suspicious characters lurking around the head stones. The cemetery was quiet and ordinary again. Michael glanced at the velvet clouds blanketing the stars letting only the crescent moon shine through. With an exhausted sigh from his visible breath, he proceeded towards the gate.

Michael was relieved to see the gate in plain, reachable sight. His anxiety of the whole atmosphere lifted off of his shoulders. He started walking faster as his paranoia grew about what stood lurking behind him. Before Michael could comprehend what was happening in front of him, his body froze at the sight of a dark cloaked figure pacing back and forth in front of the gate. It seemed to take notice of Michael while it blocked his only exit. Michael took a couple of steps back. Behind him, heavy footsteps came running towards him. He spun around and was immediately pushed down by a bolt of icy air. He landed hard on his back. The impact made him lose his breath for a moment. The night seemed to be a nightmarish dream until he found himself in a conscious state staring up at the moon with an aching back. He slowly sat himself up until a ton of invisible bricks pushed him back down on the ground as if he was a bag of flower. Michael was paralyzed. As his fear grew, the force got stronger and more aggressive.

"You can't leave. I won't let you leave. You're mine now," a deep demonic voice laughed.

Michael felt claws running through his chest and face. He screamed out only to hear other demonic laughter surrounding him. Then as quickly as the beatings began, they stopped. Michael had the sudden urge to cough. He tried to fight it, but the urge was overwhelming and finally won him over. Pinned down, Michael coughed until he was coughing up streams of blood all over himself. The more he coughed, the more the dark figures enjoyed it.

"There will be nothing in death for you," the voice on top of him assured him.

Beyond the sounds of cackling and painful coughing, Michael could hear fireworks in the distance. A moment later, colorful rain like sparks emerged in the sky as a sign of new hope. He could feel the force feeding off his energy little by little. There was nothing he could do, but lay there as road kill while the vultures feed off of him.

A blurry green light appeared far off in the distance in front of him. It rapidly grew closer until Michael could make out the light as a lantern attached to a dark figure behind it walking amongst the headstones. As the figure drew nearer, the fewer demons he heard around him until the very last demon on top of him made a run for it. His coughing ceased and his body was free to sit up.

Michael held his chest with one hand and rubbed his blood stained throat with the other.

"What business do you have here?" A female voice demanded.

Michael looked up to see only the bright green light blinding him. He placed a hand in front of him to block out the excess light, but still he could only see an outline of a dark figure with an old and withered pop hat on.

"It depends. Are you the caretaker?"

"You could say that," the voice responded in an ironic tone.

He felt relieved to hear another human voice besides his own.

"I know you must hear this of'en, but somethin' is not right about this place. It's haun'ed. You see, I was attacked..."

"By skin dwellers," the woman finished his sentence.

Michael paused for a moment as he tried to figure out what skin dwellers were. "'Scuse me."

"What your kind calls Shadow People or... Demons is what my kind calls skin dwellers. They seem to hate ya'll so much that they tend to cling to ya."

Michael didn't know what to make of the figure standing before him. Was it even human at all? Michael could not tell through the dark silhouette.

"Looks like you be needin' some cleanin' done to ya. Cancer's been eaten away at ya good. Couldn't seem to keep away from those tobacco sticks much when you had a home to go to, huh, Michael?"

Michael sat there with squinted eyes trying to find some detail on the figure, but it was no use. It was too dark to see. "Do I know you from sum where?"

"Not particularly." A hand reached out and grabbed him by the hand that was shielding him from the green light in the lantern.

The figure pulled him up. Michael could feel the blood rushing to his numb legs. His eyes hit upon a young woman behind the lantern. At a first glance, the woman look beautiful in a black weathered down trench coat and black trimmed hat on with her ash brown hair dangling down to her elbows. But at a closer look, Michael was shocked to find a pair of bobcat eyes on the woman with cat like teeth smiling back at him. She was dressed in only a trench coat. A portion of her feminine hirsuteness showed revealing some of her chest and legs. The woman wore no shoes and stood on her tip toes. "You seem to be at a loss for words, Mr. Sneezer."

Michael looked at her stubble face and stepped back. "What in god's name are ya?"

The woman gave a high pitched bobcat laugh. Then she placed a hand on his shoulder; her long nails clenched to his jacket loosely. "You have nothin' to fear from me, Michael. The name's Claudia." She pulled him close to her. "You reek of death," her facial expression changed from warm loving to serious. "I give a gift at the start of a new year to the one destine to find it. That is if ya want it bad enough." She stared at him eagerly. "Any requests."

Michael's mind fell into a blank fog. He could not believe what was happening as he stood in awe at the situation that lay before him.

"Very well then. I know just what to get ya." The woman pulled him closer to her and kissed him.

Michael stared into her big cat eyes. He tried to push away, but her strength over powered him. She growled as she sucked the sticky disease from his body. His lungs felt like masking tape was being pulled off of them. He closed his wet, burning eyes and felt his knees give way. Within a couple of minutes, the pain in his lungs eased off. The scratches on his face and chest began to heal until all that was left was a blood stained face and neck. She released him and started to cough violently.

Michael fell to the ground. His whole body was numb. The last image he saw of the woman before his eyes' sight faded into a black veil was of her on all fours coughing up a big black hair ball.

Michael awoke to the sound of whispers. He sat up from the sofa and peered down at two small children staring up at him.

"See, I told you we were gonna wake Dad if we played here!" The boy reminded his sister.

"You did not!" The small girl argued.

"Sam! Kelly! What have I told you about disturbing your father?" An exotic Asian woman came into the room. "Clean this mess up!" The woman pointed at the Go Fish cards scattered on the floor. "...And go play in your rooms!"

"But MOM!" The boy whined.

"Move those butts!" The woman demanded.

The children silently sulked while they gathered all of their cards and stomped out of the room. Michael stood up and looked around the lavished living room.

"How was work?" The woman brought his attention back to her.

Michael was dumb founded by what his eyes were showing him. "Work?"

The door bell rang.

"I'll get it," Michael quickly went to the door and opened it.

A Caucasian woman with ash brown hair pinned up in a bun stood at the door dressed in a UPS uniform. She presented a small package to him. "Here ya go."

Michael held the box in his hands and stared back at her. He gazed at those familiar bobcat eyes winking back at him. Then he straightened up and thanked her with one of those smiles one usually gives to a stranger.

"You're quite welcome, Mr. Sneezer," the woman returned the smile.

"Hun, did you order somethin'?" He called out to his wife before he closed the door on those once familiar eyes forever.