Download free audiobook version here: http://sebastianbendix.com/audio/
Publisher Sebastian Bendix
Published in Science Fiction & Fantasy
Download free audiobook version here: http://sebastianbendix.com/audio/
The only escape Martin Taper has from his miserable life as a pet store clerk is his diorama, a fantastical playset populated by miniature heroes, villains and monsters. Frustrated with his bullying manager and an unrequited crush on a beautiful co-worker, Martin acts out his fantasies nightly in the diorama, never imagining that any of them will come true. But when he invites a strange young boy into his world Martin's luck suddenly starts to change, and soon finds that the diorama may have a mind, and a vengeance, of its own.
He took the action figure down from its vaunted place upon the shelf and held it before Dennis’s rapturous eyes. He could see the boy’s mind dancing across the contours of the figure, lingering in the folds of the hooded, enveloping cloak, probing at the secrets hidden in that cold, expressionless mask.
“Is he like Batman?” Dennis asked.
“Better,” Martin answered definitively.
He took the figure and went over to the diorama, placing the Shroud on his favorite perch – Forsythe tower; a gothic skyscraper adorned with stern gargoyles and extended outcroppings. There the avenger was in his true element, a shadowy sentinel waiting to strike.
Now all that was needed were wrongdoings for the Shroud to set right. As he often did in these precarious moments of creation, Martin rifled through his mental checklist of torments and injustices to find inspiration. And today, the source of his greatest anguish was Allison and that boneheaded lothario she felt driven to smooch. How he would love to expose Jeremy as a fraud, a coward, unworthy of her pillowy lips. How he would love to tear the wool from her puppy-dog eyes, show sweet, innocent Allison McCarthy who the true hero was.
And like that, the night’s scenario emerged fully formed.
To represent Allison, Martin selected Dr. Millicent Chambers, a plucky archeologist who was the central character in a series of jungle adventure films. The actress who played Millicent looked nothing like Allison, but in the distortion of Martin’s feelings the two were dead ringers, and in truth, the sculpt bore some resemblance if you looked at it right. Cemented as an avatar, Martin took Millicent down from the shelf and placed her on a lonely curbside free of traffic and other pedestrians, but not free from the ever watchful gaze of the Black Shroud.
“She looks so lonely there,” Dennis remarked.
The boy was astute. “Then why don’t we give her a friend?” suggested Martin, his voice betraying a sly hint of knowing. He already had Allison’s companion in mind – a smiling, clear-eyed brute hiding proudly, boastfully even, in the far back of one of the shelves. As if guided by providence, Martin turned back to the display, and reaching behind a row of better loved figures, landed on the exact one he was looking for. He drew the toy out, careful not to topple the others, and presented its stupid, innocuous form to Dennis.
The boy’s eyes lit up. “It’s a fireman!”
That was not the desired effect, Martin inwardly groused. Of course firemen were heroes to most children; he would have expected a worshipful reaction from an average mouth-breather, but Martin had hoped that Dennis, proving himself a kindred soul, would be different. In truth Martin had nothing against firemen – they were heroes, after all – but he had everything against the All-American, beer drinking, nerd bullying archetype that he felt Four Alarm Jim, the fireman figure in question, represented. So what better a stand-in for Jeremy?
“Yeah, he’s a fireman,” Martin conceded. “But he’s a dumb fireman.”
The word worked like a carefully targeted missile. Dennis scrunched up his face as if smelling a dog fart and Four Alarm Jim became plastic persona-non-grata in his easily swayed eight year-old mind. “Yeah, he’s dumb.”
Martin took Four Alarm Jim in one hand and Millicent in the other and forced their faces together, playing out the act of kissing in the most grotesque manner possible, complete with wet lip-smacking noises. This sent Dennis into gales of repulsed laughter, and his disapproval of Jim was finalized with the exclamation of: “Gross!”
With the most of the main cast in place, it was time for the inciting incident, the event that would set the action into motion. Turning back to the display, Martin’s eyes were drawn to a sinister figure that stood hunched in the corner like a rat waiting to strike from the shadows. With a delicate, deliberate hand he plucked up the nasty little character, careful to avoid pricking his finger on its pointed beak of a nose.
“This is Sketchy Crumb,” Martin announced. “He’s a bad guy.”
“Bad guy” didn’t really do Sketchy Crumb justice. He was a low-level thug, a bank-robber, a drug-peddler, a perennial super-villain henchman and all-around scumbag. And of course, in Martin’s mind, Sketchy represented all of Ethan Nulby’s finer qualities. On a normal day he would have been satisfied to have the Black Shroud simply collar Sketchy after a robbery and pound his twisted face into the hard foam asphalt, but today had not been a normal day. Today Sketchy had a greater purpose, a more vital role to play.
Selecting a tiny pistol from a cabinet drawer, Martin put the weapon in Sketchy’s hand and set him down in the diorama in front of Millicent and Jim. He positioned the criminal in an easily readable stick-up pose, gun out, and adjusted Millicent’s arms so they were raised high over her pretty head in helpless surrender. Then, relishing the moment, he did the same for Jim, whose vocation as a firefighter apparently made him no less of a coward.
Now came the fun part. “This is a stick-up,” Martin said in a sandpaper rasp that was meant to approximate Sketchy’s cigarette-mangled voice. He reached into the scene and pivoted Sketchy so that he aimed the gun at Millicent, then Jim, then back to Millicent. “Gimme all yer money.” Dennis giggled, delighting in the mini-mugging.
Switching characters effortlessly, Martin moved to Millicent, twisting her to look at Jim. “Aren’t you going to do something?” she protested in Martin’s girl voice falsetto. “I thought you were a big tough fireman!”
Martin moved again to Jim, jiggling him in a pantomime of cartoonish shivering. “B-b-but he’s got a gun, Millicent!” As interpreted by Martin, Jim’s voice was low and manly, but it squeaked high on the word gun to expose a decidedly un-manly terror. “What am I supposed to do, get myself shot?!”
The fact that Jim’s reluctance to be a hero was a perfectly reasonable real-world response had no bearing on his standing in the world of the diorama – he was now firmly and irrevocably a coward. Martin was pleased to see the judgment settling on Dennis’s face even before Sketchy finished his demands. “That’s right you big baby, now empty yer pockets and make it quick!”
Finally the moment Martin had been anticipating arrived. Leaning his body carefully over the city streets, he snatched the Black Shroud from his skyscraper perch and swept him down on to the scene, allowing his cloak to billow out dramatically. He landed the Shroud directly behind the stick-up man and quickly positioned his muscled arms behind the drop of the cloak’s folds. The hero stood there, calmly iconic, his statuesque readiness announcing him an undisputable badass. Judging from the wowed look on Dennis’s face, the entrance was wholly effective.
“Sketchy Crumb,” the Shroud announced in Martin’s best husky growl. “I thought I put you away for good last time.”
“Curse you Black Shroud,” was the only cliché Sketchy had time to exclaim before the Shroud, guided by Martin’s sure hand, swatted the gun from his molded plastic grip. It was a move Martin had perfected after long nights of play, and he was pleased to see that it met with the boy’s enthusiastic approval. The Shroud’s follow-up move was to knock Sketchy over, and with a quick adjustment to the elbow joint, the hooded avenger slammed the criminal mercilessly into the curb. It was a tad brutal for a child’s game, but Dennis seemed to take nothing from the dispatch but ecstatic, wide-eyed pleasure.
Once the grim but heartily enjoyed take-down of Sketchy Crumb was over, the Shroud turned his masked attention to the young couple, whose frozen, smiling faces wordlessly expressed their gratitude. Not satisfied with that, Martin took Millicent and lowering her arms, shoved her against the Shroud’s molded musculature in the action figure version of a hug.
“Thank you, thank you,” Millicent said with Martin’s octave-pitched voice. “I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t come along.” You could almost see a look of shame assert itself on Four Alarm Jim’s normally oblivious face.
“Glad to be of help, ma’am.” The line was more appropriate for a stalwart do-gooder like Superman or Captain America than a scourge of the night like the Black Shroud, but this show was for the benefit of a less sophisticated audience. “I’d advise you to keep off these streets after dark. You never know who you might run into.”
With that, the Shroud was whisked back to the rooftops, leaving a moony-eyed Millicent in his wake. “There goes a real man,” she said to Jim, his emasculation now complete. It was a fine conclusion to the night’s story, and Dennis clapped with appreciative glee.
A howl was heard outside, the frustrated call of Dennis’s mother looking for him in the back yard. Now there was a woman you did not want to piss off. “I think you’d better get going,” Martin urged his freshly-minted acolyte. Dennis’s shoulders slumped, the respite over, and he heeded his mother with the grim duty of a soldier returning to war.
But before he walked out the door, he turned back to Martin. “Can we play again some time?” he asked with an aching hope.
“We’ll see,” Martin said. Had he been a parent he would have known that those words are the two that all wanting children dread hearing most. But Martin wasn’t a parent nor would he ever be, so that half-hearted commitment was the best he could do. Dennis took the answer with a wistful sulk and closed the door quietly behind him.
The next day Martin was absently wandering the aisles, his mind plotting tonight’s diorama, when he heard the heated sound of Allison and Nulby arguing. The infallible branch manager was admonishing Allison for the way she had handled an irate customer who had come in for a grooming without first making an appointment. Allison called Jeremy over to back her up, to tell Nulby that she had handled the situation as politely as possible and the customer, who had already been placated with a coupon for free dog food, was the one who behaved unreasonably.
“Sorry babe,” Jeremy said with a shrug. “I wasn’t really paying attention.”
This was not the show of support Allison had expected from her new boyfriend. Unable to stomach the look of betrayal that spread across her beautiful face, Martin stepped out from behind the aisle to right this injustice. He stood before them straight and heroic, channeling the grim righteousness of his hero the Black Shroud.
“I heard the whole thing,” Martin lied. “Allison was as polite as could be. The woman was totally out of line.”
Nulby turned to him with his usual contempt. “Woman?” he questioned. “The customer was a man. It was that old guy that comes in here with the Great Dane.”
It then occurred to Martin that he had assumed the troublesome customer was that heavy woman with the yipping Chihuahua and if he had only begun eavesdropping earlier he wouldn’t have made such a blunder. “Sorry,” he said, making a saving play. “It sounded like a woman to me. Anyway, I did heard Allison and she was nothing but nice.”
Allison’s looked to Martin, her face awash with gratitude. It felt like the first time she had really looked at him, seen him for the true strength of his character. Martin would have held that look on her face forever if he could have. It was worth any punishment Nulby could dish out.
But for once, the flustered Nulby was uncertain on how to handle the situation, so he fell back on the tried-but-true default of managerial lecturing. “Look, I don’t know who was at fault and I don’t really care. I’ve been getting heat from the home office about customer service and I need everyone to be on their absolute best behavior. Are you guys hearing me?”
There were nods all around, and then the intercom crackled summoning Nulby to the front. He left in a hurry and without issuing Allison a write-up, which was all thanks to Martin’s heroic intervention. To show her appreciation, Allison drew close and graced Martin’s arm with a touch of her lily-white hand.
“Thank you Martin,” she said. “That was very sweet.”
“Yeah, good looking out Marty,” Jeremy piped in.
Allison turned on a dime, scalding him with her glare. “You were some big help.” The sarcasm dripped from her mouth like sap from a wounded maple. “Thanks for having my back.”
“What was I supposed to do?” Jeremy shot back defensively. “Did you expect me to lie?”
Allison folded her arms in a huff of disappointment as Jeremy continued to stammer out selfish excuses. As much as he enjoyed seeing Jeremy squirm, Martin ducked back into the aisles and left the lovers to play out their quarrel. He could still hear them fighting all the way back at the rabbit hutches, and it gave him a pleasurable thrill that carried through the end of his shift. It wasn’t until he was home, standing before the diorama, that Martin realized that the day’s events had played out much as they had been prophesied in miniature the night before. Not to the letter exactly; Nulby hadn’t attempted an actual robbery (though there was Martin’s suspicion that he was skimming from the registers) and the incident had not, sadly, ended in violence. But still, there were definite parallels to be drawn, and it didn’t take a wild imagination to spot them.
Of course that’s ridiculous, Martin told himself. The diorama has no real power. Still, that night, for the first time in as long as he could remember, Martin fell asleep believing that all was right in his world.
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Sebastian Bendix is a Los Angeles based writer and musician, as well as host of midnight horror film series, Friday Night Frights. He attended school at Emerson College for creative writing and spent his formative years in Boston playing in popular local band The Ghost of Tony Gold. Upon moving to LA he transitioned back to writing, contributing articles for the entertainment site CHUD.com and the print publication Mean Magazine. Stepping into the world of horror fiction, Bendix has found success both online and in print with numerous stories published in the genre imprints Grinning Skull Press, Encounters Magazine, Sanitarium Magazine, Xchyler Publishing and noted podcast The Wicked Library. Bendix self-published his first horror/fantasy novel The Patchwork Girl in 2013, and his second novel, The Stronghold, is a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller that has been published and is available for order. Also an avid film lover, Bendix has a sci fi/horror script that has been optioned and is in development.