His name was Mr. Rempel.
Jill learned of her seven-year-old’s “new friend” one Sunday afternoon. She had dropped the last dollop of chocolate chip cookie dough on the greased baking sheet. She held out the empty mixing bowl.
Chelsea shook her head.
Jill arched an eyebrow.
“Feeling okay, honey?”
Chelsea considered this, then nodded. “Mr. Rempel says too much sugar is bad for you.”
“Really now? Mr. Rempel is a teacher?”
“Oh no. He’s my new friend.”
Jill stiffened, feeling cold. She didn’t like the sound of that.
“He’s a little man who lives outside, in the tree hollows,” Chelsea said matter-of-factly, and Jill felt the tension begin to dissipate. “We talk sometimes, when I get mad or sad or just feel like talking.”
“A little man? Smaller than me?”
“Way smaller. He’s even smaller than a cat.”
“Really? What does he look like?”
“He’s not good looking, but Mr. Rempel says looks aren’t everything. He knows uglier creatures than him.”
Jill found herself smiling and covered her mouth.
“What else does Mr. Rempel say?”
“People throw out way too much garbage. That makes him angry.”
“He talks about nature, about insects and birds and animals. Once he told me ants talk to each other using chemicals. He also said some male birds have pretty red feathers, but the female is all gray. Mr. Rempel says men are prettier than women.”
“Ho ho! I may have to have a few words with this Rempel fellow about that,” Jill protested. Chelsea broke into giggles.
“Mom, could you make a little cookie for Mr. Rempel?”
“Well, I suppose, though you might tell him next time, in defense of women, that we are the fairer sex.” Her daughter nodded earnestly, and Jill laughed. She peered out the window over the sink. Emerald forest carpeted the surrounding hills.
Jill wanted Chelsea to make some friends. After she and Dean divorced, the child who loved to braid dandelions together and write poems to the moon became lost and withdrawn. When school let out for the summer, Jill envisioned the girl seated before the living room window for days on end, staring at the Vermont forest.
And an imaginary friend—well, that was something.
That night, after tucking in Chelsea, she went out to the porch and called her best friend Laura. They chit-chatted while she watched the fireflies.
It didn’t take long to get to Mr. Rempel.
“Where do you think she got the idea?” Laura asked.
Jill softly swirled the red wine in her glass. “School. You know that age. They all study ecology. Being nice to the trees, animals and Mother Nature.”
“And Father Rempel.”
Jill cackled. “He sounds like a lovable little wood sprite.”
Now Laura laughed. “You don’t sound concerned.”
“It was my idea to move into a fixer upper in the boondocks. Imaginary playmates come with the territory.”
Once the workweek began, Jill forgot about Mr. Rempel. Their old longhair cat, Princess, had to be rushed to the vet. Bouncer chewed up her favorite silk blouse. And at the office, one of her clients turned out to be straight from hell, snarkily rejecting every logo design she created. Twice, she picked up Chelsea late from day care.
The weekend came none too soon. Before noon Saturday, she coaxed her daughter into taking a walk with her and Bouncer, a young mutt rescued from the shelter. Chelsea seemed distracted.
Then the girl said, in a dark voice, “Bouncer better be careful, sticking his nose all over.”
Jill shrugged. “That’s what dogs do.”
“Well, I know what Mr. Rempel does to nosy dogs.”
“And what’s that?” Jill said cautiously.
“Mr. Rempel finds porcupine quills, in the woods sometimes. When he falls asleep inside a tree, sometimes a dog comes sniffing around. He waits until they get up close, then jabs a quill right in their eye.”
Chelsea violently thrust her arm forward.
“Jabs as hard as he can. That quill blinds ‘em good. The dogs cry and run in circles.”
Jill stared at her daughter, horrified. She cleared her throat sharply.
“That’s not funny.”
“You heard me.”
“What do you mean?” Chelsea looked confused.
“That story’s not funny.”
“But that’s what Mr. Rempel said.”
“I don’t want to hear any more about what Mr. Rempel said.”
Her lips were pursed in a tight line. A sparrow hopped between the thick limbs of an old oak. She braced herself for the reaction. She waited for the sulking.
And that was it. Something about the girl’s casual indifference bothered Jill.
No more was said that weekend about Mr. Rempel. But Jill began watching her daughter more carefully. On Sunday, she spied Chelsea sitting on a stump near the treeline at dusk, talking and gesturing. But mostly listening.
This time, after returning to her job at Branded For Success!, she couldn’t get Mr. Rempel out of her mind. She thought about him constantly, usually with a creeping sense of dread.
On Wednesday, she got a panicked call from day care.
“Miss Evans, come pick up your daughter,” a woman brusquely said. “We’re not equipped to deal with situations like this.”
“With what?” Jill asked, her heart quickening.
“This—this—drawing that Chelsea did.” The voice sounded deeply offended. “It’s scaring the other children.”
Jill’s throat went dry. Her hand stabbed into her purse for her car keys, then she rushed out.
By the time she arrived, Chelsea was already standing outside Little Friends Day Care with her Minnie Mouse lunchpail, singing under her breath. Mrs. Redmond, the owner, was waiting too. The stout, normally friendly woman looked shaken.
She held out a crayon drawing.
“Take it,” she hissed.
Jill examined the picture. In the center was something gray and furry that had tiny paws. Half its body was missing, replaced by furious scribbling of red crayon.
“What is it?” Jill asked, bewildered.
“Chelsea can tell you.”
“That’s a mouse,” the girl drawled. “He ran under a lawn mower. He got chopped in half. So Mr. Rempel caught the blood in acorn caps, because if you leave it out overnight, it chills and thickens. Like Jello. Blood has iron in it, and it’s yummy—”
“I’ve heard enough,” Jill snapped. She grabbed Chelsea’s wrist. It was like grabbing a rag doll.
“No more Mr. Rempel, honey.”
She hustled her daughter into the car. They rode home in silence.
The next morning, she begged off a few days from work. She stayed home with Chelsea, resolving to act quickly. She spent three hours Friday night on the Internet. By the next morning, she had reached a decision.
“Honey,” she said sweetly as Chelsea dug through a stack of waffles, “I’ve got great news. You’re going to summer camp.”
Her daughter gave her a blank look.
Chelsea looked disappointed.
At the warning look in her mother’s eyes, she fell quiet.
Packing took less than an hour. Chelsea mostly watched without comment.
All was going according to plan, when Jill made a terrible discovery.
They had just returned from Target with camp supplies—a compass, float board, khaki shorts. She refilled the cat’s plastic food bowl and clicked her tongue. Princess didn’t stir. Jill went over and gently stroked the soft white coat, but got no response.
Tears stung her eyes. She laid Princess in a small box, on an old sweater.
That evening, she saw Chelsea carrying the box that held Princess down to the basement. Her daughter looked like a marcher in a funeral procession.
“I’m sorry,” Jill whispered. “She had a good life.”
On Sunday, they made the hour-long drive to Lake Wannatobee Summer Camp. Registration went smoothly. Afterward, they toured the grounds with a counselor. Chelsea just gaped at the rambunctious children. Then she gave her mother a mechanical hug in parting.
“Call anytime you’re lonely,” Jill said. “I’ll miss you.”
When she got home, she filled a wine glass to the brim with a smooth Cabernet and drank it too fast. Her head ached. As she poured a second glass, she heard a faint noise.
“Bouncer, what are you into?” she called out. The dog bounded into the room, panting dumbly. She kept hearing something though. Small, wet noises.
Jill crept over to the basement door and drew it ajar. She clearly heard an animal chewing. In the shadows at the head of the stairs, she saw a leaf rake and a wooden softball bat.
She slid out the bat, then descended the staircase, squinting into the gloom. Weak light filtered through a narrow, mud-spattered window. The chewing was coming from Dean’s tool bench, behind standing shelves of gardening equipment. She raised the barrel of the bat, slipped around the shelves, and almost cried out.
Princess lay on her side. Her belly was snipped open, apparently by a blood-stained fingernail clipper by her paw. The cat’s intestines had been dragged free and piled in a glistening heap. A dark-red lump—her liver? heart?—rested near her head, showing gnaw marks.
Amid all this, steeped in grue, crouched a small creature who looked sort of like a man. He was less than a foot tall. Something like pubic hair sprouted from his scalp. Veins criss-crossed his scrawny arms. His eyes bulged with a crazy intensity. Scaly patches covered his skin.
He was munching savagely on the cat’s viscera, as if he hadn’t eaten for years. He murmured and gabbled with satisfaction, then spied Jill.
His dark eyes glittered.
“A shame about the cat,” he said. “At least she won’t go to waste.”
“You disgusting piece of—” Jill slammed down the bat, but the little man nimbly jumped aside. His eyes darted back and forth.
He’s looking for a weapon, she thought. This sick little creature is going to try to kill me.
This time, she brought the bat’s yellow barrel down faster, though not as hard. She scored a glancing blow. The creature screamed and clutched its arm, then toppled over. It leaped up, then slipped in the cat’s blood.
“You ugly little bastard,” Jill muttered, and swung again.
She struck him directly. His head crushed like an old peach pit. A little green tongue flew out and he barfed up pieces of her cat’s organs. He didn’t move at first, then weakly held out a hand. So she whipped the softball bat around and whacked him once more.
After that, he didn’t move at all.
“Mr. Rempel, I presume,” she said, her voice shaking badly. “My daughter told me all about you. She got one thing wrong. She said there are creatures uglier than you. I can’t imagine that.”
As Jill stared at the dying Mr. Rempel, she heard a deep, croaking voice behind her that was eerily calm.
“No, she got that right.”
Jill clutched the bat handle tightly, then felt a terrible hammer blow to her back. It felt like something had blown a hole through her. She swayed, feeling sick, and looked down the front of her blouse. She recognized the tip of her gardening shears protruding below her breastplate.
She stumbled into the work bench, pushed off it, and somehow managed to turn around.
Before her stood a muscular creature almost five feet high. Thatches of the same pubic-like hair, except even more wiry and tangled, coiled from its head. It had similar bulging eyes, but laced with bloodshot veins, and a warty eyelid sagged over one.
But what was most horrible were the weeping lesions. Ulcerous craters covered its body. A crimson slime oozed from them. Jill tried to speak, but a pink foam only bubbled from her mouth. She started choking on her own blood. The creature staring coldly at her seemed to smirk.
“Oh, she got that right,” it said again. “Mr. Rempel told your daughter a lot of things. He just never told her about Mrs. Rempel.”
Bio: Rod Karn is a writer living in New York City who enjoys classical horror stories that feature an unexpected, delicious frisson of fear. He counts himself among fans of the “Tales From the Crypt” TV series and is the author of “Fright Ride: Tales of Horror and the Supernatural,” a collection of short stories.