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image for Safe Word Safe Word
by Chris Ringler

She was alone. All alone save for the growing darkness and the sound of birds and wind and animals in the trees. The playground empty but for the huddled shadows that grew by the moment. She sat, eyes cast downward, in a rusted swing, its hinges sighing with every forward or backward motion. She was pretty, from what he could tell, but she was cast in shadow, a vague form carved within the dusk. But it was so perfect. No other children. No parents. No cars in sight. Just her, she, her head bowed, her knees together beneath a pretty blue dress, her legs pushing her slowly forward and back, forward and back. Moving in and out of the darkness like another shadow. It was perfect and this made him smile…almost. He aborts a grin as he lowers the binoculars and drops them to the seat. He looks around him to make sure there is no one else around and seeing he is alone starts his station-wagon and edges it slowly away from the shrubs that had hidden him and moves into the parking lot of the playground and parks before the girl. He turns the engine off and steps slowly out of his car, not wanting to scare or startle her but she doesn’t even look up, just swings back and for back and forth, her head still down. As he makes his way towards her the sound of the woods seems to get suddenly quiet, still, as if in anticipation. Maybe it senses a wolf is near.

He approaches her slowly and is suddenly struck by her beauty, god, she’s wonderful. Her hair halfway down her back, dark brown, her face round and covered in tiny freckles, her knees covered over in scabs, her hands dirty, and in those hands a doll hanging limply. He scans her for something, his eyes scouring every inch of her, leering, and when he sees what he was looking for he finally lets a smile slip through. God it was just so perfect. Her coat, hanging loosely from her shoulders, was all that he needed. Was the key. Because on that coat were two interesting things, the words Flatston Falls and Stacy. Perfect. He gives one more glance over his shoulder, knowing no one is there but feeling paranoid nonetheless, and then turns to her and speaks.

“Uh, hey there Stacy my name is John and I am here to pick you up and take you to your mommy.”

“Huh? I don’t know you, who are you? How do you know my name? How do you know my mommy?”

“Uh, well, I know your mommy silly, that’s why I know your name. You see she had an accident and wanted me to come and get you and take you to her right away. That’s why she isn’t here to get you yet. Understand? We should get going though because she really wanted to see you, so come on hon…”

“I don’t understand. What happened to my mommy? Is she okay? Who are you? Why did she send a stranger to pick me up?”

“Oh, gee honey, she was hurt pretty bad and called me, I guess I must have been the only one home that she called, and she wanted me to take you to her. She must have mentioned me some time or other, John. John. Her special friend?”

“No… No. I would remember that. But maybe she knows you. But I don’t. And if she did send you why haven’t you said it yet?”

“Said what sweetie?”  Hands out towards her, open, wearing his sheep’s mask and praying she didn’t smell the wolf beneath it.

“The word. The special word we have so I know if she really sent you or not.”

“Oh the word…the safe-word… Right. Well, I must have forgotten about it I guess. I was trying to get you to see her as quickly as possible you see. Umm, the word…”

Mind frozen now. Shit. He hadn’t figured on that, having to deal with a safe-word. Fuck. He searches her, his mind, for some clue. Anything that might tip him off to the word. It was always something obvious, something easy for the kid to remember. Images came now of the other time he had been faced with a safe-word. Of the little boy screaming for help, of he running from three teenage boys that were coming for him and he just barely getting away. Having to change states after that, to hide, to return home again. Home where he always seemed to end up, living in the darkness of his father’s basement. Waiting. She was the first since then, since the little blond boy in the tank top and shorts. The first in a while. He had wanted to wait longer, to wait until he was sure that there was no one looking for him (would there be?), no one adding up the bodies and coming up with his name as a suspect, but his hunger was too much now. His need too great. He had to risk it. And so here he was, four hundred miles away from the blond boy and yet back in the same predicament. As if the child had changed but the day had not and the three teens were just beyond the trees waiting for him, anxious to give him chase again. To catch him and beat him. Kill him. These dark thoughts spiraled around and around in his head again and again until finally the word dawned on him and it seemed so obvious, so perfect. It was all so perfect. “Why, the word is dolly, right? Dolly…”

Waiting, feet anxious to be gone before it was too late. Sweat sliding down from his armpits and over his wide belly.

“Uh…” Stalling, she was stalling. Oh god, she was stalling. They were coming, they were coming! And as if to stress this point the woods rustled with the sound of wind, of animals, of the maw of nature. His body a coil, waiting to snap, about to run when…

“Yeah. You got it mister John. You got it. Gosh, I’m sorry I gave you a hard time, I just had to be sure. Mommy said I had to be careful for ummm, preda…predato…”

“Predators honey. Predators. I understand. You have a very smart mommy. And you’re a very smart girl. Very smart, and very pretty…”  His smile genuine now. His lust taking hold, the wolf showing its teeth, letting the darkness fall to hide it. Wanting to do it here. In the woods. In nature with its maw wide. To give sacrifice to the gods of darkness that were coming even now to watch him claim his prey. Wanting to slaughter her here in the open as animals always took care of their prey, but knowing he had to take measures. Precautions. Had to be careful. To remain hidden in plain sight.

“So, ready to go Stacy? My car is just over there.”

“Yup, I’m ready. I sure hope mommy is okay, do you think she’s gonna be okay?”  Her voice shaky, eyes wide, sparkling almost unnaturally, but so beautiful in day’s dying moments.

“I am sure she’ll be just swell Stacy. Just swell. All she needs is to see your pretty smile and that will make all the difference in the world I think.”

“Gee, I hope so…”  Smiling now, smiling up at him as they walk in the darkness to his car. So easy…and as if to stress this point the woods sigh softly.

The car rolls through the darkness slowly, the shining sentries that silently guard the street lighting the car like a strobe, the girl in a different position each time, almost seeming to move in slow motion. As if underwater. Her eyes alive, sparkling in that brief strobe of light, her face hidden, her face still. He was shaking, both from nerves and arousal, wanting it to be done but wanting to savor every moment. Maybe it was time to get a camera. To make the moments last forever. Perhaps a camcorder…

“Oh hey, hey, hey, John, I want to show you something. Now. I wanna show it now.”  And now the sheep is gone and in its place is the wolf again, the dark fire back in its eyes, the lust filling it so that its knuckles are white on the steering wheel, the strobe-light coming faster now as the trees and the sentries flash by.

“Oh I have something I want to show you too Stacy. Something wonderful. I really think you will like it. Do you want me to show you? Ask me to show you… Ask me…”

“I want you to see what I have first mister John. It’s neat-o. I really think you’ll like it. Pleeeeeeeese can I show it to you John?” Her eyes wide, sparkling even in the darkness, her small mouth bowed in a frown, her hands in her lap holding the doll in the darkness there. And below that…

“God…I mean, of, of course honey, of course, just let me pull the car over and we can show each other what we have, ok?”

Shaking now, the wolf hungry, starving, sweat bathing it, spreading its scent. Washing away the scent of Man that had hidden it so well. And now the car stopped under a tree, between the umbrella of the lights, safe in the darkness. Safe for the wolf to take its prey. He reaches down and slowly unzips his pants and then pulls a pair of gloves from his windbreaker and slides them on before turning to look at her. He is startled though at first glance, the sheep suddenly back as he looks towards her and sees only darkness save for her dim outline. As if she is the darkness. Part of it. One with it. The light gone from her eyes. And he feels as if he is alone in the car, or perhaps not alone, but taking company with a mannequin. He can hear her moving in that darkness though, can hear her breathing, but cannot see her face. But that isn’t true. He can see movement, as if the darkness is changing, shifting, writhing. And that disturbs him. Turns him back into the man with the station-wagon; into the man with the part-time job at the library; into the man that still lives in the basement of his dying father’s house. Into not the wolf, not the sheep, but the lamb. And now the sweat is ice running down his back, down his arms, down his face. All he wants now is to be free. Be away. Be back in his basement alone, with his darkness. With himself and his fantasies.

“Do you want to see what I have to show you John? Do you want to see? Ask me to see it John…”

“Please…please show me. Please. Please…”

“Here it is John, here is what I wanted to show you. Look, it’s okay, come closer, can you see it, can you see what it is? Here, come closer…”

And he does, as if hypnotized, drawn towards her, unable to resist her voice, needing to see what she has to show him. While he had been pulling on his gloves, the black ones dad had given him for his last birthday, the ones slick with sweat and stained with blood, she had been doing something. Had, he thought, put her hands to her face and when she had brought her hands down they had held something shiny and brilliant. And whatever that was that had been shining, it was now in her hands. And there, as he moves closer to her, sliding across the seat and next to her, her breath hot on him, in her hands, in her hands the doll. Its body small, dirty, its eyes gone, but something there, something else lying on the doll’s belly, something shiny, calling to him. And he moves closer still, bends closer to it as she continues to speak, continues to call him forward and then there they are, winking brilliantly in the car, her eyes. Those beautiful eyes he had seen sparkling as he had watched her from his car, the bushes, had watched her sit alone on that swing. Sit alone for over an hour. Nothing else in sight save the woods. Had watched her sit still and silent all that time, as if she were waiting for someone. Had she been waiting for him all along? Had she tricked him? No… And he looks up from her hands, from the doll, from her eyes, and looks into the blur that is her face and sees the empty holes where her eyes had been, the sockets like hungry mouths. Sees the dark grin on her face, stretching farther than it should. And suddenly he is aware, is acutely aware of the fact that he had been the sheep all along and she the wolf, the wolf dressed in a little girl’s body. It really had been too perfect.

“I have something else to show you John, do you want to see? Do you?” And he nods, mesmerized.

She leans towards him and grabs his face gently, her nails sinking deep into his flesh, blood dribbling down his cheeks and onto his jacket. He feels drugged, stoned, perhaps made of stone. And he watches from a million miles away as the girl he had called Stacy buries her face in the crook of his throat slowly, kissing his neck softly. The kisses like soft, cold butterflies on him. He wants to smile, maybe he was wrong, but the kisses turn to bites and suddenly she begins feeding there, tearing the flesh away and swallowing it and his life-blood in deep noisy gulps as his life washes down over his body. And slowly, god so slowly, he drifts away into the darkness, beyond the trees, beyond the woods, beyond the stars, to somewhere very dark and very cold. And the last thing he hears is her sweet voice speaking to him from so far away – “John? John, we’re all prey in the end…we’re all prey…”


A cool breeze blowing on the girl from the open door.

“Mommy, how did I do? Did I do good? Did I do good?” The driver’s side door open now, the cool night air washing in, a blurry dark figure standing just outside, seeming to hover somehow.

“Oh yes honey you did wonderfully. Wonderfully. Just like all the other times. Just like we practiced. I followed you, we all followed you, watched from the trees, to make sure he was going to play our game. And you were wonderful. As always. But it’s late and we must get back. Are you ready to go? We have to get him home before anyone comes along.”

“I’m ready mommy.”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?”

“What? Oh, gosh, I almost forgot…” And she takes her hands from John’s still and sunken face and puts them in her lap. She gently picks her eyes back up and pushes them back into place and smiles. Two skeletal black arms move forward and she takes them and is pulled over John and from the car into the night. She looks up and towering above her her mother smiles from the darkness. She shrugs free of the coat she had gotten when she had played with the Stacy girl she had seen at the playground and holds her arms out. The dark arms reach from the towering darkness and lift her high and the girl buries her face in her mother’s neck as they are gone into the trees again, the others following close behind, one of them with John’s body slung over its back, their voices like birds, like chipmunks, like the wind. She closes her eyes and slips into slumber, the blood drying on her face and lips, and she dreams of playgrounds and Johns and of the darkness

. …csr…6.7.00…no, they are not vampires…’we’re all prey…’…

My name is Chris Ringler and the better part, and I do mean better, of my life has been spent writing. The now defunct University Editions published my first book of short stories in 1999 and I have since taken over all the sales and distribution of it. Yikes. I am a die-hard short-story writer and have yet to really do anything of great length save for one series of stories that has decided it wants to be a novel. I have no aspirations to be the next anyone, and do not expect to become rich, I just want to be a good writer, dopey as that sounds. And as always I am desperately in search of a publisher with the desire to publish something different and that is actually looking at manuscripts.



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