Ambrus Sanguine’s Final Show

It was an elaborate set, as far as small television stations go. For over thirty years this faux Old World dungeon laboratory nestled within Studio 6 had been host to the Midwest’s longest running weekly hosted B-movie matinee. Antiquated beakers, cages, and sparking contraptions sat revealed by the stark brightness of house lighting; some of the magic was lost. The show’s lone curator during its historic run was Dr. Ambrus Sanguine, an aged Hungarian who never broke character.

Sanguine, looking part wizard and part undertaker, stared at three decades of precisely arranged clutter being displaced by careless strangers. For the first time in the lab’s existence, cardboard boxes and rolls of packaging tape outnumbered bubbling beakers and rubber rats. The end had come. The realization of this finality made Sanguine feel the weariness of time weigh upon his body. However, he looked no more or less advanced in age than he did on the first broadcast, so many years ago.

Fans relished that Sanguine never appeared to age. This fact had been perennially debated at conventions, in fanzines, and more currently, online. Had the tiny television station hired a stage makeup savant? Were the episodes filmed and stockpiled, perhaps even being aired posthumously? Or, as a small fringe of wild-eyed fans claimed, had Sanguine made an unholy bargain with the things that lurk beneath beds and in darkened closets? Regardless of the source, Sanguine was indeed an ageless icon of horror television.

Of course his age wasn’t the only feature of the show that invoked mystery. Easily evident to any clever viewer was the fact that the set looked too functional. Where rival “monster matinee” shows around the Midwest had fog machines, bats on strings, stuffed ravens, and prop coffins, Sanguine’s lab looked quite authentic. Its elaborate system flasks and condensers moved effervescent liquids from one end of the set to the other. Racks of test tubes displayed colorful contents and utensils of unknown intent littered benches and shelves.

Among these mysteries Sanguine sat dejected, flicking a long fingernail against one of the petri dishes growing rainbow-colored fur. Around him men in matching navy blue uniforms moved about, breaking as much equipment as they preserved. His patience too had broken.

“Can you orangutans manage anything without obliterating my possessions?”

“Shove it grandpa,” said Tate, obviously the brains of the moving company.

Stephen, Tate’s toady, continued for him, “Yeah, this ain’t your stuff no more anyways. Mr. Fitch said. He’s paying us to box it all and stick it in storage, or maybe the dump.”

Not content to miss out on the chorus, Lou chimed in with, “I got a box you’d fit in pops, you wanna be hauled off with the rest of this worthless junk?”

The four movers laughed while Sanguine fumed.  He stood to his feet and swung his cane over his head with deadly intent. Luckily for the moving crew, the sculpted iron raven that made up the cane’s handle didn’t connect with anyone.

“Get out, get out! Leave me in peace, you simpletons!”

The moving crew exited laughing. The tantrum, while brief, had exhausted the old man. He slumped back onto his lab stool and let out a defeated sigh. Scanning the set, he could barely believe that the end had come for his precious show. It seems his entire life was spent finding the right horror movie to air, writing informative and entertaining bits, last minute editing the good parts when regulatory received angry letters, and most importantly, responding to every piece of fan mail.

No one would ever accuse Sanguine as being famous, but to the show’s small dedicated viewership he was idolized and revered. In the years before cable television, word of his show somehow spread from coast to coast. Monster magazines sought to interview him and tiny fan conventions begged him to visit their meager gatherings as the guest of honor. By the time poor quality video tapes were being traded by fans, Sanguine found himself known in faraway lands. When the internet arrived, his show again gained new life and soon he found himself syndicated.

Despite his niche stardom, he remained a mystery to all who sought to know him beyond the show. In the history of the show there as but one incident where the enigmatic Hungarian let a fan cross into his world. In the early 1990’s, middle-aged Inoue Tadao had flown to America for the sole purpose of meeting Sanguine. The host was surprised to find him standing on set an hour before broadcast, yet Sanguine remained patiently gracious.

Tadao radiated absolute joy on-screen. The Japanese fan merrily suffered the playfully grumpy host’s abuse, even when subjected to numerous on-screen gags.  During the episode’s penultimate segment, Tadao was seemingly murdered; pulled through the widely spaced bars and into the dark cell; the home to the great beast Igor. Tadao was never mentioned, or seen, on the show again. Fans raved about the episode, and it became a cult classic. “Where’s Tadao?” became an instant in-joke among the dedicated viewership, as bumper stickers, t-shirts, and hashtags continue to demonstrate.

As for the cage, even in the harsh house lights the stage-right set piece was impossibly black. Igor was fabled to be part werewolf and part Frankenstein’s monster. The beast was only revealed by growls, glowing red eyes deep within the cell, and the occasional appearance of his massive clawed arm. In the 1980’s an Illinois toymaker labored to make Igor dolls; only, the host refused to cooperate with what the monster might look like. Igor remained a large part of the show’s legacy. One of the most common uses of Igor on-air was when Sanguine would throw things through the rusty bars, only to have them return in slobbery shreds. It seems that Igor had no fondness for disco records, Cabbage Patch Kids, celebrity biographies, fedoras, or iPads.

One devoted fan who didn’t need to travel internationally to visit the set was Joel B. Weinstein. Weinstein was the host of the science fiction based comedy show on the area’s only other TV station and had grown up watching Theater Macabre. Weinstein and his talent team of writers fashioned their show as homage to the legendary program. However, Space Station Torgo was filled with slacker humor and pop culture references; where Theater Macabre delivered sardonic humor, the other was played for sophomoric laughs. Weinstein had always been afraid that Sanguine saw his endeavor as mockery, and continually fretted about his reception. Still, seeing his favorite childhood program come to an end was weighing heavily on Weinstein’s mind, so he decided to ignore his apprehension and peek in one last time to say his goodbyes.

“Umm, Mr. Sanguine?”

“Joel, my son, please do come in! It is nice to see you again,” Sanguine said as he rose to meet Weinstein with an enthusiastic two-handed handshake.

Put at ease by his genuine warmth, Weinstein wondered how Sanguine was handling the cancellation. The selling of the small local station was small news, but the new owner fashioned himself to be an up and coming media mogul. Fueled by GQ magazine and cocaine, Van Coffey tore through the halls of the station yelling into his cell phone, stopping only to deliver grim news about “the numbers.” Coffey had a particular dislike for Theater Macabre, and was bent on eliminating it from the programming.

Weinstein’s own show had been a surprise hit, and was being syndicated in major markets. The lucrative success for the rival station burned at Coffey’s mind. Rumors swirled that he planned a hostile buyout of the rival station. The plan was replace his own station’s horror show with a rebranded Space Station Torgo, one with his name front and center as producer.

Rumors gave way to likelihoods when the cancellation notice was made. News was delivered abruptly a week before, right after that week’s broadcast. In effect, this robbed Sanguine of a farewell episode. This had been a source of stress for the team at Space Station Torgo, who hated to be involved with negative energy, let alone any affecting Theater Macabre.

“I just came from shooting, I… uh… I’m… I’m really sorry about this,” he said as he motioned to his sparkling silver jumpsuit. Outside of the show’s context, Weinstein’s jumpsuit looked terribly chintzy.

“Never apologize,” Sanguine’s voice was stern and full of correction, “the audience relies on you to create reality. When you question the magic you cast, you’ve exposed yourself as a fraud and have let normalcy strangle the art from life. Live by your premise.”

Stunned silence followed the chastisement. Weinstein dug his toe into the ground, suddenly feeling small and self-conscious. Sanguine let the moment linger so that the lesson would take root, then broke the silence.

“How have you been, son?”

“I just find this end, um, your end… upsetting, sir. We’re all so shocked and saddened by the news.”

“These things happen, it’s a rough business my boy. I’m surprised I’ve avoided the guillotine this long. How is your show doing?”

Weinstein swelled with pride that Sanguine would inquire about his show as a peer. The two men chatted like old friends, sharing a few laughs and grim observations. It was hard to imagine that Sanguine was anything but the detached, contemptuous fiend that hosted the weekly show. Fifty-two shows a year and he rarely broke from his character on-screen. Yet now he was a kindly grandfather, appreciative and humble. Weinstein could sense that the Hungarian was special; something charismatic and enchanting lurked beneath his haughty exterior. Sanguine harbored within him qualities that seemed almost inhuman.

“It really bothers me how they handled you, after all these years. I mean, this Thursday is Thanksgiving! Your live holiday special is a tradition, right up there with football and can-shaped cranberry sauce! They couldn’t have let you go out with a bang?”

To this Sanguine offered only a sad smile. His wet eyes sparkled for a moment, and he reached over to pat Weinstein upon the shoulder. Left without words, the two just sighed and shook their heads in the silence until Sanguine spoke.

“It’s yours, boy. Take the torch and run with it. Do it for me, Joel. Keep the Turkey Day tradition alive. I know it may be hard to imagine, but even I own a television. I enjoy your show. There is a spirit that needs to exist in this world, and in many ways you are helping to preserve it. We must remind the masses to not be too enamored with their faulty understanding of reality.”

Weinstein opened his mouth to reply just as a great commotion drew the men’s attention off set. Coffey had arrived with the four movers in tow. He was rapidly shouting commands into his cellphone, and did not stop to look up until he was mere inches from the two men. From behind the movers came two security guards, looking apologetic and holding long looped zip-ties.

“I want this man off my property before I have him arrested for trespassing!” Coffey shouted as he pointed an accusatory finger at Weinstein.

Weinstein threw both hands in mock surrender, “Loud and clear, mein fuhrer!” He stopped to clasp Sanguine’s elbow and to say, “I’ll do it. I promise. You’re going to be missed.” As Weinstein left, threats and lewd accusations followed from the team of surly movers. He could scarcely hear them over the zip zot sound made by his sparkling silver jumpsuit.

“You disgusting Philistines, I have the mind to…” started Sanguine, only to be interrupted by a violent outburst.

“Shut up! You stupid, ancient nobody! Get out of my station, and never come back! OUT!”

A tense moment passed before Sanguine stood slowly, unintimidated by the rage Coffey was in. Unshaken and dignified, he stared hard into the station manager’s eyes. Something stirred within the old man, something animal and unpredictable. There was no mistaking the intensity behind Sanguine’s eyes, something that shut the mouths of the movers and caused Coffey to take a full step back in retreat.

Sanguine took a deep breath, and with full composure, straightened his jacket. The mob’s eyes followed him as he moved without comment to the end of the table to where a strange engraved rock was held suspended between two electromagnets. One of the favorite props of the show’s younger viewers, the stone spun and bobbed; sometimes increasing its activity parallel to the tension of the movie or skits. It was a wonderful stage effect, and one that many similar shows had unsuccessfully tried to mimic. One Kansas City show had tried to spin a stone fixed to a thin fiberglass rod, itself attached to a router. It worked too, for half of the broadcast. The rod broke, the rock flew, and Uncle Eddie wore a patch until he was eventually fired.

With his eyes holding Coffey’s own stare, he extended one long, skeletal finger and flicked an aluminum toggle switch at the base of the contraption. Immediately its pleasant humming ceased and the stone fell to the baseplate with a clank! The noise of the crashing rock startled the men who intruding upon the set. The startle caused Coffey to fumble his cell phone, retrieving it quickly with a curse. In one demure motion, Sanguine scooped the rock into his palm and placed it within his pants pocket.

“Good day,” and with that Sanguine left the studio through the darkened artists’ corridor, never to return.

Embarrassed that he was just cowed by an elderly man, Coffey exploded into a flurry of commands for the rest of his subordinates. He swung at a stack of cardboard boxes and threw a roll of tape into the rafters. The crew was instructed to dismantle the set by morning, and to leave no one stone atop another.

“I have a huge merger meeting tomorrow so I don’t have time to oversee you morons in person! Get it done, and be done with it before dawn. I don’t care about overtime, just do it! When I get back into town there had better be nothing here but an empty soundstage and the fresh scent of Pine-Sol. Do you understand me?!”

Coffey stormed off the set while checking his precious cell phone for damage. The security guards had already slunk out of the room, never fully committed to the task to start with. They had grown up watching the icon, and did not relish having to forcibly remove a legend from his fabled lab. That left four men standing before the disheveled laboratory. The studio remained quiet for a spell as the movers looked around at the work before them.

Everything in the lab was functional; only the electromagnet had been shut down. Liquids representing every wavelength of the visible spectrum bubbled and dripped; some spirits, some viscous sludge. Gauges and meters twitched and hummed, precisely measuring unknown data. Stacks of sample plates, racks of test tubes, corked flasks, and many mysterious containers populated the counter tops. Tongues of flame licked at the air as burners idled, waiting for their next task. Vacuum pumps hissed their disapproval at the encroaching movers.

“Everything goes in the dumpsters. We’ll never get it cleared out if we take time to pack it. This place is weird anyway.”

Having delivered that poetic speech to rally his men, Tate left then returned dragging a large wheeled receptacle. To model expected behavior, he started chucking anything he could lift into the bin. Soon the men were working in teams of two, engaged in the synchronized but careless disassembly of the beloved set. Piles of bound papers, some cracked and brittle with age, were dropped into the containers then saturated fluids spilling from discarded lab ware. Each glass cylinder and beaker was spiked into the bin, with hopes of a noisy report as it shattered. The movers had made a game of it.

“Guys there’s a real coffin back here, check it out!” cried Gaylen with a child’s glee.

Indeed there was a real coffin; it was situated next to an overstuffed bookshelf and leaning against the back wall. In front of the coffin was a skeleton hanging from a tall pole bolted to a wheeled base. Propping the coffin upright on its left side was a huge was a bulky wooden pedestal, atop of which sat an ornate bronze sculpture of a cat. The feline was bejeweled and looked fit for a pharaoh’s tomb. Inset for eyes were opaque black gems that locked the statue’s face in a menacing, soulless stare.

Casters squeeked as Gaylen pushed the skeleton towards the dumpsters. He passed Lou, who didn’t bother to look after him. Lou was busy throwing chemicals into the aluminum trashcan he drug behind him. He had developed a methodical rhythm to his labor and made a game of it; lift the container, open the container, smell the container, then slam the container into the receptacle. Scents of grape, compost, tannin, bleach, iodine, and rot tickled Lou’s overgrown nose hairs.

It was remarkable how many containers had amassed atop lab tables. Reagents, acids, diluents, emulsifiers, buffers and solvents lined the two rows of tabletops; all brandishing timeworn labels. Like all of the props, the chemicals appeared looked functional; their placement either the work of an obsessive mind or of one intending to actually to utilize the lab.

One particularly interesting specimen was revealed after Lou removed several pungent flasks. In a squatty glass jar, not unlike a miniature cookie jar, was a violet-blue substance that seemed to be pulsating and moving on its own. The jar’s lid fit snug into the flared opening, and was further sealed tight by some sort of grease applied around the lip. With no apparent access for air or wires, it was a wonder to see the substance breathing and shifting in the jar under its own motivation.

Lou’s voice betrayed honest bewilderment as he hoisted the jar to eye-level and said, “Well, would you look at that…”

Stephen and Tate were making short work of the set, not hesitating to demolish anything offering resistance. Together they had hoisted a roll top desk and dropped it into a cart; its contents exploded into the air as the impact obliterated the furniture. Lithographs of vivisections, sheets of calculations in alien mathematics, and handwritten journals fluttered about the room like autumn leaves. Each man gathered armfuls of paper and dumped them into the bin, and together pushed the full cart outside to be emptied.

“Lou, check this out,” called Gaylen, who had cleared the clutter that obscured the coffin’s face.

The coffin itself looked beyond antiquated. The box looked unfit for modern interment, even appeared used. Its coarse wood was stained an oily black and pocked with chips and splinters. Rugged exposed nails, a brass latch, and a pair of crude mismatched hinges were its only ornaments. Gaylen held his breath, fumbled with the latch, and then swung the coffin lid wide open.

The casket protested with a scraping creak that caused both men to wince and shiver. Lou began a halfhearted mosey over to the coffin, subconsciously timid of what might be revealed within. The lid swung wide to reveal… nothing. The coffin was empty but for its disintegrating cloth lining, whose original color was lost to the currents of time. Both men snorted and shook their heads at the sight.

“I got a great idea! Lou, I am going to hide in here. Play stupid when the boss comes back and make them come this way. I’ll give them a scare for sure!”

“The boss’ll kick your butt,” said the smarter of the two men, “if you don’t give him a heart attack first.”

Lou’s protest managed to strengthen Gaylen’s resolve for his ornery plot. Clumsily he turned and backed into the standing casket, ripping what fabric remained attached within and disturbing eons of grey dust. He leaned back; the coffin seemed to fit him quite well.

With a child’s glee, Gaylen crossed his arms over his chest and chuckled, “Lou, shut the door. Hurry!”

The laborer was more than willing to comply. Again, the hinges screeched as the lid closed. The coffin seemed to suck the lid into place, sealing it shut as if magnetized. Lou, eager to make Gaylen to look like an even larger ass in front of the boss, fashioned the latch together, trapping his coworker within. Smiling as he heard his friend’s clueless giggling within, Lou returned to the laboratory bench to fiddle with the blob in the jar.

The gelatinous curiosity continued to churn within its container, which now seemed a tighter fit than before. Lou noticed that the color of the blob had changed to soft, inviting lavender. It continued to churn, but with a rhythmic ebb and flow against the jar’s sides. The oscillation caught ambient light and revealed a translucent sparkle; colors changed and swirled in a wondrous visual display. Soon Lou found himself transfixed, unable to form even a simple thought beyond the dancing goo before him. His fingers were gingerly feeling the rim of the jar and wandering to explore the spherical knob atop the lid.

Lou’s mesmerized gaze was broken by an echoing belch, sounding as if a dozen bullfrogs croaked in unison. Tate had returned, and now stood in front of the producer’s office. Old habits die hard; the movers still superstitiously entered and exited through the light trap rather than the artist corridor. This brought them through the gutted production booths; past the ancient monitors, enormous tube amplifiers, nicotine stained mixing boards, and finally out onto the now-empty studio floor.

Already the deconstruction was erasing the enchantment from the set. For decades the set had been untouched by any living thing, save Sanguine himself. When the floodlights bore down from the lighting bridge and Camera One was prowling the floor, hanging on Sanguine’s every cue, it was difficult to believe the tiny cluttered set was anything but on-location. Now after being invaded and battered by Coffey’s goons, it looked like a dilapidated theme park attraction.

Stephen erupted through the door, chasing a free rolling trash bin. The noisome entrance succeeded in startling both Lou and Tate, which drew a laugh from Stephen. Lou had nearly dropped his jar, a fact that made him inwardly furious. He could feel his cheeks redden and ears burn with anger. Clutching the jar safely to his chest with two hands, he partially turned as if to shield his treasure from burglars.

“Whatchyu got there, Lou?” asked Tate with a measure of covetousness.

“Nuh-nothing. Just some, uh, goo I found. Didn’t want to have to find a MSDS binder in this dump if it broke… that idiot couldn’t have made more noise.”

The ruse paid off, and the attention was diverted momentarily away from the glass jar and back on Stephen. Tate crossed back onto the cement floor to harass Stephen whilst Lou retreated. He moved to the rear of the set, near the false window that peered into an eternally dark and stormy night. Crude effect rigs, unchanged from the earliest days of the show, still functioned to create rain and the illusion of lightning in front of a painted countryside. In Sanguine’s world, life just outside the lab was in perpetual autumn; besieged by the things that go bump in the night.

Lou sat on the sill, which was a convincing approximation of sturdy stonework, and reached behind the set to flick the lightning effect on. Like most locals, Lou had watched the show as a kid. While he had little nostalgia for the Theater Macabre, Lou had always loved the lightning illusion. After activation a muffled hum rose from below, and soon intermittent strobes of blue-white light harried the static Old World countryside.

The bright flashes also illuminated the contents of the glass jar, which Lou had raised in front of his face to study. The colors had changed again, this time to a royal purple. The motion of the blob heightened with each flare of light, feeding off the loosed energy and dancing to its beat. A smile crept across Lou’s face as he sat, absorbed once again by the show within the jar.

Sheepishly returning to disposing of the set after being scolded, Stephen worked his way up stage left. Murmuring protests as he chucked black candles, a human skull, frail dusty books, and assorted metal contraptions, he soon found himself in the back corner at the foot of the coffin. Off to its side sat the pedestal, its feline denizen staring silent threats in Stephen’s direction. A sense of unease swept over him, encouraging him to break the tension with conversation.

“Um, wasn’t Gaylen going to throw this crap away? Where is that loafer?”

Tate looked up from sweeping a lab bench’s clutter into a trashcan with his arm to reply with an insightful, “What’d you just say?”

Once the question was rephrased, the foreman was on a mission.  He stood tall and peered about as if he might have just overlooked the presence of Gaylen. His search took a moment or two longer than what would seem prudent. Unable to decipher the riddle on his own, he shot a dissecting glare at Lou. Now completely vexed by the kaleidoscopic treasure he had found, Lou gave Tate a disinterested brush off in the general direction of the coffin.

Seething with rage, Tate stomped thunderously across the wooden floor to where Stephen stood slack-jawed. The two minds were going down similar paths yet each was failing to reach the destination as they faced the casket. A faint gurgle rose in Stephen’s throat which seemed to signal a victorious end to the mental race, only for it to die out; the two men twin obelisks of blunted cognitive ability. Validating his role as team leader, it was Tate who reached the finish line first.

“Gaylen, I swear to God if you are hiding in that coffin I am going to beat you to a bloody pulp! I’m opening this door on the count of three. If you come out on your own before I hit three, I might not kill you.”

Nothing stirred from within the narrow wooden box. The only noises within the lab were the electric buzz of the lightning effect, Stephen’s throaty gurgles, and the bull’s snort that rushed from Tate’s flared nostrils as he prepared to raise his voice and speak.

“Awright dammit. One…”he was answered with nothing but stillness.

“Two,” Tate growled more than spoke.

“Three!!!”

The enraged foreman waited a full extra beat before swiping at the coffin lid. The wood jerked into motion, then just as suddenly ceased to advance and snapped back shut. The metal latch halted the lid from opening, leaving Tate to ball his fists until his nails dug into his palms. His chest rose and fell heavily, not unlike a steam locomotive preparing to mount a hill. Tate refused to acknowledge the latch, and instead doubled his effort. The fastener broke and sprung into pieces as Tate’s left hand ripped the lid wide open. The latch pieces were still in flight as his right shot into the coffin to strangle the life from the hiding Gaylen.

His thick fingers were wrapped around something unexpectedly solid and narrow. Tate realized it was not Gaylen he was choking, but instead a yellowed skeleton; its jaw hanging open in either a mocking laugh or hellish scream. The skeleton appeared to be of a cadaver long passed and picked clean, yet it was wearing a navy blue Dickie’s shirt; an American flag patch sewn over the left breast pocket and “Gaylen” embroidered in red over the right.

The dry bones clattered together as Tate tore the skeleton from the coffin and pitched it over the two rows of countertops. After a comical display of aerial acrobatics, the twisted clump of cloth and bones landed on the cement floor. The skull rolled in a semicircle and finally rested upright. It’s eyes were trained on Tate and its jaw was still locked wide open.

Tate’s exploded, “Where is that jackass? Stephen, move this statute out of the way!”

Lou chimed in, “He was in there. I even locked him in as a joke.”

Tate paused to consider this new mystery, but anger had already set his course. He screamed at the other men as he leaned into the coffin, pushing at the interior and peeling back the remaining lining, “There has got to be a false door or something. When I find that moron I’m going to rip him limb from limb! Stephen! Move! This! Statue!”

Fearing for his own wellbeing, Stephen jumped into action. He squatted to wrap his arms around the pedestal and found it heavier than he anticipated. After a long tug the display failed to move. Stephen stood and scratched absentmindedly at his belly, surveying the possibility the prop was bolted to the floor. The feline’s black eyes stared down at him, its face still wearing a sinister grin. The mover knew better than concede defeat when his supervisor was in this mood, so he decided to give it one more attempt.

This time circling around behind the pedestal, Stephen leaned in tight and gave the wooden podium his patented bear hug and counted off three. Bearing into it like a tackling dummy, Stephen strained with all his might before it budged. The pedestal did not scoot as planned, but instead toppled forward. The laborer looked up to see the statue falling down upon him, twisting as it dropped. As it neared the off-balance mover, the cat licked its lips, bared its front claws, and hissed.

The idol fell upon Stephen, whose reverse scramble was too slow to avoid the blow. Stephen screamed and thrashed about while the pedestal landed with an authoritative smash. Tate pulled his head out of the coffin and Lou turned to face the scene. Stephen’s hands were clamped over his face as he continued to scream and writhe.

“Stephen! What’s wrong! What happened?” Lou shouted after his partner.

Muffled from behind his palms, Stephen replied, “The cat bit me! Bit my face! It attacked me!”

Tate couldn’t help an involuntary chuckle, “What the hell are you talking about? Get up.”

Lifting Stephen to his feet by his elbows, Tate stood the worker up in front of him. Lou craned from his sill perch to see what was going on, but only had a view of Stephen’s back and Tate’s beefy face. Tate reached in, impatient with the shameful display, and pried Stephen’s hands away. All the blood left Tate’s face, which twisted into a look of revulsion as he stepped back and released Stephen’s hands. Lou stood and stepped forward, propelled with morbid curiosity.

“What? What’s wrong? How bad is it?!” pleaded Stephen.

All Tate could do to answer him is shake his head and raise a hand to ward the injured man away. Stephen felt blood running down his forehead and over his lips, his entire head screaming with pain from the crushing impact. Remembering the statue, he looked down to see it lying on its side but appearing to be spying him from the corner of its eyes. In its sneering maw was most of a human nose.

Stephen’s hands returned to his face and frantically sought to take inventory of expected landmarks. What he found seemed impossible; so much so that he continued to prod and knead in spite of the searing protest of the raw nasal cavity. Indeed, his nose had been torn from his face, leaving a gory, sputtering wound that completely drew attention from the four deep parallel slashes that ran from brow to chin, rendering one eye useless and likely unsalvageable.

Once the horrible truth was confirmed, Stephen let out a hellish scream that tore at the composure of his coworkers. Something deep within was triggered at the sound, urging them to run; to flee the danger without stalling to understand it. Tate did just that. Rather than escaping away from the screaming man, he charged head-on and shoved his way past him

In the span of nine heartbeats poetic chaos was unleashed with exceptional efficiency. Tate’s sweeping left-arm lifted the smaller Stephen just high enough, and with enough momentum, that the table’s edge acted like a fulcrum where it met just below his hip. The still-screaming man was upended and slammed hard onto the vials and implements that remained atop the bench.

Tate was still moving past, now reaching forward with a right armed swim move. His hand was just making contact with Lou’s chest, shoving him backwards into the false window as behind him a fireball ignited. The chance combination of unknown chemicals with the flames dancing atop unattended Bunsen burners engulfed the thrashing Stephen in a cloud of fire.

The sudden wave of heat emanating from the burning man caused Stephen’s body to involuntarily guard itself; the flinch causing just enough of an interruption to his running rhythm to cause a stumble. Lou was already midway through the window and trying to regain his balance with one hand when the expanding thermal blast singed at his face, burning his eyes with heat and fume. He reached to defend his face with his other hand. Falling parallel to the tripping foreman was his treasured glass jar.

Tate rolled his ankle trying to prevent his inevitable fall with a short step. The pain buckled his knee and forced him to land awkwardly on his side. The steel bars of the darkened cell stopped his slide with a clang. His ankle protested as he strained to push himself upright. Leaning against the bars he saw the nightmarish scene still unfolding before him.

Lou had prevented himself from falling behind the set, but had indeed dropped the jar. The glass shattered, and the gelatinous contents were splattered about floor. The color of the fluid had changed with the exposure to air, and it was now the devil’s crimson. The droplets and globs were pulling themselves slowly back into a singular mass. At the center of this regrouped mound the goo bopped and bubbled, growing with each pulse. Meanwhile, Stephen had stopped screaming and was lying motionless; the fire slowly receding to a low blue aura dancing around his charred corpse.

Suddenly a tremendous racket rose from every direction. Stuffed ravens in hanging cages came to life, cawing and screeching while trying to beat their way out of captivity. The few remaining clusters of glassware erupted into geysers of multicolored fluids while burners exploded into pillars of flame. Furniture rattled, utensils spun, and electronic equipment vomited showers of sparks. On the cement floor Gaylen’s skeleton was standing and dancing about, waving its limbs wildly to the symphony of pandemonium.

The scene had become so noisy, so anarchic, that Tate hadn’t realized that Lou had tried to scoop up the living fluid, only to have it encase both of his arms up to his elbows. The ooze was inching up his limbs and tugging him down into a growing puddle. Lou called for help and screamed as the blob ingested his flesh. Already within the deep red translucent slime Lou’s fingertips were eroded to raw bone and strands of ligament.

“Tate! Tate, Help me! Taayyyyaarrrgghhhh!” screamed Lou and he strained to free his arms, the puddle now inching over his boots.

“Lou… uh, Lou,” Tate stammered as he pushed with his remaining good foot to stand himself upright against the bars. He shook his head and rubbed fists into his eyes to erase the hallucination that refused to yield. Lou had fallen onto his rump, and his screams became more panicked and desperate. Only his head and shoulders remained free of the now enormous mass of pulsing red gel.

The cacophony rose to a crescendo and the entire set trembled, climaxing with the explosion of every bulb present in the studio. Then all fell quiet. The only light illuminating the lab was the strobe lightning rig, the imaginary storm still raging beyond the window.

The surrounding scene revealed itself in frozen tableaus with each strobe flash. The timpani bass of Tate’s racing heart beat filled his ears to the company of the whistling treble from his quick, uncoordinated breaths. The flickering light revealed Lou had been completely folded into the blob’s shimmying body. Fearful it had not quenched its appetite, Tate trained his eye on the mass.

So distracted by the would-be predator, it came as a tremendous shock when the next lightning strike unveiled not an advancing blob but Stephen’s body now sitting fully upright. On the subsequent flashes mortal terror gripped Tate when Stephen’s head rotated to face him, opened its mouth, and gurgled, “Taaaaaaaaate.”

“Nooooooooooooooooooo!” Tate screamed and made to run, only to fall headlong toward the ground.

Tate’s face never met the floor; he instead hung suspended, his clothes pulling tight against his chest and belly. His shirt and belt were snagged by something with enough strength to not only hold his weight, but also able to pull him back against the cage. The lightning ceased to fire, leaving Tate to only imagine at what horror had emitted the long guttural growl from beyond the iron bars. A strong, furry arm shot out, grabbed him by his lower jaw, and pulled him fiercely into the cage. Crunching, popping, and squishing noises punctuated by muffled grunts and yelps were all that echoed across the pitch black set…

Just before noon on Thanksgiving morning, Coffey burst into the empty television station. The day’s broadcast was being fed from satellites and managed by computers; a well-paid third party service that allowed the station’s skeleton crew to be home with their families for the holiday. It was an expensive concession that Coffey planned to remedy in the years to come.

Anxious to inspect if his wishes were executed, Coffey charged into Studio 6 and flicked the on the house lights. Engrossed in an inner dialog, planning his reprimand for the lazy movers, he forgot to enter through the light trap. Instead, he continued down the corridor to the artists’ entrance and swung the double doors wide open. He took two steps into the studio and stopped dead in his tracks. An involuntary loss of dignity and composure struck for a moment as his mouth dropped wide open.

His wide eyes drank in the set as he said to himself, “Oh my god.”

Before him was a completely empty studio, sparkling clean. There wasn’t a cobweb, mote of dust, paint chip, or floor scuff to be seen anywhere. Every nook and cranny was free of any evidence that it had once been the horror show set. He walked about in a short circle, filled with pleasure that he had inspired such a response from his subordinates.

He couldn’t help chucking to himself, “Ha ha, they actually did it!”

With a spring in his step he marched back towards double doors, only to be distracted by something behind the control booth glass. Rooms behind the windows were dark, but there seemed to be something glowing within. His shoes clip clopped on the cement floor as he stormed into the producer’s room, and pushed aside the dividing curtains to reveal an old TV set, broadcasting a live Thanksgiving themed episode of Space Station Torgo.

On the television’s tube Weinstein , in his sparkly jumpsuit, waved a rubber turkey about and said, “Happy Thanksgiving out there in tee vee land! It’s time to feast!” Coffey’s hand plunged into his inner suit pocket to retrieve his cell phone. The display flickered to life, and as angry fingers stabbed at the touchscreen; at first forceful and fast, then slowly and less intentional. In his jealous irritation he hadn’t realized that the television wasn’t sitting atop anything. Rather, it was being held; hoisted by something large and hairy, obscured by the velvety darkness. From somewhere behind the blinding brightness of the rival channel’s broadcast came a long guttural growl…

 

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