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The King’s Marionette

the kings marionette


Estimated reading time — 8 minutes

The rats scurried and clawed inside the walls. It was one of the few things that frustrated Elizabeth about working nightshift. During the day the rats were smart enough to hide themselves. During the day, she could pretend they weren’t there. Scratching, gnawing, murmuring, constantly out of sight. During the day, she wasn’t alone.

The electronic bell chimed. A new customer. Elizabeth pulled her face into what she hoped was a friendly smile. In the corner of her vision the clock flashed 01:28AM.

“Good morning, and welcome to PetroGo,” she chirped. The energy drinks and No-Doz were helping. A few more hours and that faux-cheer would drain faster than the Boddingup dam in summertime.

The customer stared at her, glazed eyes peering out from a slack face. Elizabeth’s smile faltered. She broke eye contact, tapped away at the console screen, and pretended to be busy.

The rats had gone silent, perhaps sensing danger. She often thought that was why they went silent during the day, to hide from the manager.

Elizabeth risked a glance up, and what she saw made her heartbeat skip. Bleeding train tracks ran up the man’s arms, scabbed over but still weeping a foul combination of pus and blood. Another junkie. Hollowed bags clung under his eyes. The smell wafted across the small shop to assault her nose. Someone needed a shower, or a full decontamination suite at the very least.

“Do you need help finding anything today?” she asked.

“No,” he rasped, “Just here to check out the goods.” Despite this, he didn’t browse the shop. He just kept staring at Elizabeth.

Her hand hovered over the silent alarm button. “If he tries goddamn anything, I’m smashing this button.”

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Those beady eyes drilled into her. They were a cadaverous grey, with swirls or flecks of copper-red. That unnerved Elizabeth the most. “No natural eyes can be like that.”

She glanced at the weeping train tracks on the odd man’s arms. “Probably just some weird heroin thing.”

A clicking buzz came from the man, but his fingers remained motionless. It sounded like mosquitoes or midges, but Elizabeth knew it wasn’t the right weather for them.

“Be seeing you later,” he muttered, almost inaudible. The man waved a hand into the air while turning to leave the shop.

The electronic bell chimed as he left, and the doors slid shut with a quiet thud. He faded from view into the night.

“Christ, at least that’s over,” Elizabeth breathed out. Something had been off about that man. Something more than just the usual Friday-night-junkie-vibe.

She locked the door to the shop. Elizabeth decided to serve customers through the night-trade window.

Across the road, hidden from the dim glow of the streetlights, four men gathered and watched.

Elizabeth flicked through a paperback in the office. She knew that reading at work wasn’t allowed, but it had been a slow night and all the work was finished.

She shivered, and tugged at her cardigan, wishing she had remembered something sturdier. The office was always cold, sitting across from the walk-in fridge. Elizabeth thought about wearing the communal fridge jacket. “But…it hasn’t been washed in the 2 years that I’ve been working here.”

Knock. Knock. Knock. The night-trade window. She tucked a scrap of loose paper into the paperback as a book mark. “Anyone who bends pages for a book mark doesn’t deserve the book.” Elizabeth strolled over to the window but paused once it came into view.

No one was there. The empty forecourt lay outside the window.

The rats had gone silent in the walls. No scurrying or squeaking. Elizabeth could almost feel their eyes watching her from the corners of the shop. She approached the window, glancing outside to see if anyone was crouched down below the window to scare her as part of a prank. Nothing.

Crash! Something made of glass smashed in the walk-in fridge. Elizabeth spun around, but the doors to the fridge had fogged up, and whatever was in there was hidden from view by the rows of drinks.

Her heart thumped a staccato beat. Bang. Bang. Bang. Whatever was in the fridge was going wild.

“That sounds way louder than the rats.” She reached under the counter for the steel emergency torch. It was the closest thing to a weapon within reach.

Elizabeth stalked towards the large steel door of the walk-in fridge. Something was moving around in there. “Maybe a possum? They’re always around, like teenagers with nothing better to do.”

The sound of smashing glass meant she had no choice. Cans could be returned to the shelf, but broken glass would be pinned on her. The manager would claim she was being clumsy in the fridge! Elizabeth gripped the door handle. She yanked.

The door swung open. Mist seeped out of the fridge, lit by the exterior lights. Elizabeth’s eyes adjusted to the dark interior of the fridge. She reached inside for the light. Flicked it up. The bulb flickered and died.

Elizabeth turned on the torch.

The beam of the torch failed to cut through the mist. Elizabeth edged into the fridge, and the mist parted around her.

Whilst the torch couldn’t cut through the mist, Elizabeth could at least see where she was going now. She could feel glass crunching under her boots. Something slithered at the far end of the fridge. Elizabeth imagined it sounded like worms and maggots wriggling through flesh.

The slithering went silent. Elizabeth walked forward and reached the end of the fridge. Nothing was there, except for broken bottles and dented cans. She stooped to pick up the cans and started returning them to the shelves. After a few awkward attempts to grab a couple of cans with one hand, she rested the torch on the floor to free both hands.

A creak came from behind Elizabeth. She clutched the torch on the floor, and spun around to face the door, flashlight swaying. The mist had dissipated from leeching into the hallway.

The beam of the flashlight painted an outline of someone standing in the doorway.

The door slammed shut.

Elizabeth sprinted for the door, almost slipping on the wet floor. She slammed into the door, the metal door refusing to budge. Almost like something was holding it. She punched the door in frustration. It slid open. The hallway was empty.

Elizabeth shivered and rubbed at the goosebumps on her arms. The cold from the fridge stuck into her, tugging at her bones.

No one was in the hallway, so she strained her ears trying to hear anything moving. Nothing. The rats, however, had started again. They sounded panicked, the way they scrabbled and clawed.

Perhaps it had all been a trick of the light, the mist, or something else? Elizabeth certainly hoped so. “Deep breaths. Sit by the phone and stay calm.” She walked back to the service area.

Outside the shop Elizabeth could see dim streetlights and isolated patches of desolate concrete. It was quiet as a graveyard. No cars were pulled up for fuel, and none were driving by on the usually busy road.

Elizabeth checked the locks on the sliding doors. Still locked. “It was probably the fridge jumper hanging on the wall that spooked me,” she tried to convince herself, “Just 3 hours to go until this shift is over,” Elizabeth whispered. She found herself dreaming of a warm bed, a reading light to finish her paperback, and her best friend, Harvey the rottweiler. Her fingers ceased trembling.

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Elizabeth leaned against the counter and flicked on the nearby radio. The rats in the walls had begun to calm down. She cranked the music and tried to relax as best she could.

Outside the shop, neighbourhood dogs began whining and barking. Perhaps if the radio had been quieter, Elizabeth might have known. Something was coming closer.

A knock at the window, this time with someone there. Her second customer of the night! Elizabeth gave a genuine smile, and unlocked the door.

“Hey Josh, how’ve ya been? I’ve got your favourite pie cooking in the oven if you wanna wait,” she smiled at him. He always liked to stay awhile for a chat. She thought it would be good to have company on a night like this.

“Hello Elizabeth,” Joshua nodded, his voice sounded stilted, “That sounds delicious.” Joshua roamed the shop floor like a hungry dingo, head twitching. He picked up a box of Coco Puffs, a bag of sugar, and a large bottle of coke.

“I think you got forgot to get some food with your sugar there,” Elizabeth teased.

Joshua stared at her like a death adder, “Oh,” He laughed, sounding laboured.

Elizabeth was no longer smiling. Her eyes wandered over his body, pausing as she took in peculiar details. His nails were chipped. There was dirt on his knees and elbows. One of his shoes was missing. And his jumper looked like it was damp with spots of…

“Is that blood on your jumper?” Elizabeth pulled back.

“Don’t worry, it is not mine.” Joshua leant over the counter, his face uncomfortably close to hers. The pie and sugary foods lay scattered on the counter.

“Whatever you say. Not impressed Josh, have you been fighting?” Elizabeth wondered if his eyes had always been tombstone-grey. She clenched her teeth.

Joshua leant back and scratched at his arms, “No more fighting for me. I promised.” A trail of crusty blood oozed out from the sleeves. Wriggling things slid out from his jumper. They were…surely not, were those…worms?

“Did you hear about Harlow and Nick?” Elizabeth’s hand shook while packing the bag.

“Yes,” Joshua twitched.

Elizabeth shook her head in dismay, “I can’t believe it. They’d been camping all their lives, and they just go missing.”

“Perhaps it was The King of the Woods?”

“Come-on, you might as well say it was Bloody Mary or Sirenhead that got them.” Elizabeth laughed and slid the bag towards Joshua.

Joshua’s hand darted across the counter, latching onto her wrist with the strength of a spider catching its prey. The jagged nails dug into her skin, and she jerked backwards to free her hand. The grip refused to yield.

His eyes were wild, swivelling in their sockets. Fat worms writhed across the counter.

“Let me go you idiot!” she slapped at his hand.

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Milky pus oozed from Joshua’s train track wounds. The smell of rot assaulted her nostrils. Elizabeth grabbed the emergency torch. Joshua began to wail an unholy sound. The warbling screech echoed in the small petrol station.

Elizabeth swung the torch. She smashed it into Joshua’s skull with a wet thump. The grip on her wrist weakened. She struck again. Crack. Again. Crack! Joshua gurgled. He stumbled backwards, collapsing to the ground. A chunk of skull and hair was matted to the torch. Elizabeth swallowed to keep the bile in her throat.

Joshua convulsed on the floor. His limbs shook and it seemed as if he were having a spasm. A squelch came from his head. A burst of red spread across his chest, and the light behind the cadaverous eyes faded.

Something with too many limbs skittered out Joshua’s crumpled skull.

The abomination crawled from Joshua’s skull. It crawled across the floor of the shop. The thing that was once Joshua’s brain smacked into the glass plate door, shattering it. Elizabeth watched it run out onto the forecourt, before it disappeared into the darkness. She vomited.

Elizabeth could feel the too-many eyes of the creature watching her from the dark. She grabbed her phone, and tried dialling 000 for the police, an ambulance, anything! The phone beeped. The line was dead.

She was on her own. “What can I do? The door is broken.” Elizabeth was trying to come up with a plan. She could see the edges of it, and it clicked into place.

Elizabeth pre-payed the closest petrol pump to her and snatched up a lighter from the tobacco stand. She crawled over the counter, landing on the hard plastic floor. In the darkness, the insectoid legs of the creature could be heard scraping the concrete.

After a quick glance outside, and a flash of the torch to check it wasn’t hiding right next to her in the dark, Elizabeth sprinted for the petrol pump. Skidding to a stop on the forecourt, she picked up the pump and heard it grumble as it activated. The lighter clicked in her hand, once, twice, and gave a quiet rush as the spark caught.

The PetroGo’s lights stuttered on and off. It seemed like more than just one creature was out there. Elizabeth turned, the torch held between her teeth. Something dashed at the edge of the light. And there, another on the roof!

Her fingers twitched on the pump trigger, but she resisted the urge, “It’s too far away for the petrol to reach.”

The creature which had taken Joshua’s body slunk into view. Elizabeth could make out glimpses of the monstrosity. A dozen or more twitching legs covered in needles protruded from Joshua’s brain. Elizabeth felt the bile rising again.

It plunged towards her, legs flailing as it zigzagged across the forecourt. Elizabeth pulled the trigger and a salvo of petrol leapt forth. She threw the lighter into the stream. The petrol burst into flames, and with a ferocious roar engulfed the forecourt in burning death.

Joshua’s brain was caught in the firebomb. The monstrosity screamed as it burned alive, strips of flesh melting into charred lumps. Elizabeth kept her finger on the trigger, yelling and screaming at the creature as she soaked it in burning petrol.

The creature tried to flee into the darkness but was burning too bright to escape. The pump clicked dry. Elizabeth glanced around for a weapon. Her eyes locked on the fire extinguisher. She grabbed it from the holster next to the pump and sprayed a thin layer on the forecourt. Elizabeth was careful to avoid spraying the alien creature.

“You can burn in hell for I care!”

She approached what had once been Joshua’s brain. She beat the abomination with the fire extinguisher. She ground it into pulp. She kept smashing. It twitched once, twice, and stopped. Elizabeth dropped the fire extinguisher. Exhausted, she sat down. It was over.

Clicking echoed from the darkness.

Credit: Aaron Beardsell

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