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It’s an ordinary office building. That’s what you tell yourself every day. Ordinary sidewalk, with scraggly bits of green growing between the cracks and water pooling in unexpected places when it rains. Ordinary walls, stained with bird shit and dust and car exhaust. Ordinary windows, caked with layers and layers of fine dirt, so the world outside is a brown, grimy blur. Ordinary floors. Ordinary stairs. Ordinary elevators. Except…

There’s an elevator on the south side of the building. No one uses it. No one says why.

It’s closest to the front doors, just a turn and step away. The floors are brightly polished, never scuffed by shoes or marred by mud. The lights shine softly above its doors, beckoning, welcoming.

But no one uses it.

Use the north elevators, they say. It’s to the right, around a corner, tucked away. The lights flicker weakly above it. There's a haze of dirt on the chipped tile floor. There’s always a line of people waiting, waiting. It’s a guessing game if you’ll all fit, or if you’ll have to wait another five, ten, fifteen minutes to catch the next one. It always smells of stale food, yesterday’s donuts, Tim’s smoke break, Cathy’s perfume, even worse than the rest because you can smell it long after she’s gone. The smells stick in your nose, haunting you throughout your day, assaulting you just when you thought they were finally gone.

But still you use the north elevators, knowing they’ll be crowded, packed with sullen people heading to their grindstones, their backs bent from stooping over their keyboards, their eyes watery from staring at screens, their minds dull with endless work. Still you line up with them, waiting, waiting, packing inside, trying to breathe as the car lurches from floor to floor and disgorges its contents.

You don’t know why you don’t take the south elevators. No one does. It’s just a whisper, a habit, a thought formed so long ago that no one knows its origin.

Don’t take the south elevators.

It’s the first thing they say to you, when they send you the orientation materials, when they tell you what ID to bring and what to wear and where to park. Don’t take the south elevators, they say. Turn to the right, go around back, take only those.

You listen, though your eyes glance to the left as you walk in, to the shining floors and bright light, the clean scent, free of office pollutants. You avert your eyes and walk around back and line up with the rest.

But every day, you wonder. Why? Why can’t we take the south elevators?

You’re cautious. You don’t ask outright. You don’t walk up to your boss and hand him the week’s sales reports and say, “Oh, by the way, what would happen if I took the south elevators?”

You google it first. The building, the address, the city. You scan through old news reports and blogs, digging back years, years. If something happened, it must be on the internet.

You find nothing. No hint. No whisper. No sudden, unexplainable catastrophe.

You work up the courage to go to the library, to hold yellow newsprint your hands and search back for decades. But there’s nothing. No mention of the elevators, the office building, the workers. No deaths during construction, no desecrated burial grounds, no strange happenings in the area. Nothing to tell you why you shouldn’t take the south elevators.

It’s more unnerving than finding something would have been.

Still, you walk inside, and your eyes glance to the left. They linger longer every day, taking in the shining tiles, the gleaming steel of the doors.

One day, instead of going right, you go left. You don’t take the elevator. You just walk past, as if you’ve done it a thousand times. The air feels fresher here, lighter, as if it’s untainted by the humanity around it, clean as the air after a rain. You take a deep breath, and walk by.

No one notices. No one comments.

So you do it again. And again.

You linger longer each time, breathe deeper, your eyes closing in bliss. None of Cathy’s perfume here, none of Tim’s cigarettes, or the break room’s stale, tired food.

Every day you take the north elevators. And every day it wears on you. The stray elbows in your ribs from the crowd pressed close. Your back against the wall as the man from the third floor edges into your space. The stench of sweat and too-hot air fills your lungs. Their voices echo in your head, whispered complaints about bosses, sighs over children, bitching, bitching, bitching about work and life and lovers and enemies and everything in between.

One day, one day after a long, sleepless night, you take a step inside your building. You turn left. And you don’t walk past the elevator. You stop. You glance around, wary still. But no one is here to see. You came too early for the crowd to spot you. You press the button. It lights up, a pleasant white glow, and chimes gently.

The doors slide open. You step inside.

The doors slide shut. You turn and see yourself as a vague, wavy reflection on the shiny steel. You press your number. The elevator hums to life, and your stomach drops.

You know something’s wrong. The light isn’t quite right. It’s too soft, too yellow. The air – it’s cold, sharp, cutting into you.

Your hands grip the railing. Your knees tremble. This was a mistake. You don’t know how, yet, but the warnings ring in your head.

No one takes the south elevators.

You squeeze your eyes shut and hope the world will be right again when you open them. You’ll never take this elevator again, never defy the command. You’ll chat with Tim and smile at the man from the third floor and throw your arms around Cathy in simple gratitude. You’ll wait in line and breathe the stale air and squint in the flickering light. You’ll love every minute.

The elevator slides to a halt. Your stomach catches up with your body. You let out the breath you’ve been holding. The doors slide open, and you stumble out. You laugh. You’re on your floor, of course, safe and sound, and what did you think would happen?

You curse yourself for a fool and trot to your office as if you’re late, even though you’re more than half an hour early, and who knows if the office will even be open yet, or if you’ll have to wait for Barb and give her a joking smile and a shrug, so eager to get to work…

You round the corner and slam to a stop, because this is not your floor, these are not your walls, this is not your building. This is not your world.

You scream. You turn and run, dashing for the elevators you know, the ones you trust, the stinky, shaky, sweaty place you scorned. But the north elevators aren’t there, and as you stand and stare, something takes your arm. Its grip is cold, hard, unbreakable. You can’t run now, it whispers. You can’t go back.

You took the south elevators. And no one takes them more than once.

A gargoyle grins

A stone gargoyle sat atop a courthouse in a quiet downtown square. He’d been perched there for centuries, placed there by the settlers as a nod to their old-world homes. For 364 days of the year, he sat on his corner, grinning and immobile.

But this was Halloween.

With an ear-shattering crack, the creature sprang to life — or, more accurately, leisurely stretched his wings and yawned. The grackles beside him cawed and flapped in annoyance. The gargoyle grinned.

“What a lovely night,” he said, as he always did when he awoke.

The moon hung high and bright overhead, and the streets below were decked with lights and glowing pumpkins. A few late-night stragglers walked about, weaving and unsteady on their feet.

The gargoyle flapped his wings, took a deep breath of fall-fresh air and leaped off the edge of his perch. He plummeted toward the ground, waiting until the last possible second to extend his wings and soar over the head of an unfortunate drunk. A muffled yelp told the gargoyle he’d been spotted, and he chuckled as he flew away. The man might tell a story the next day about a flying stone creature — but who would believe him?

The gargoyle let the wind catch his wings and carry him aloft. He savored the feel of the air, the scent of pumpkin and spice and fallen leaves and the sounds of revelry below. He was alive again at last.

He didn’t know why he lived. Perhaps a witch had blessed him. Maybe a wizard had cursed him. Or maybe the craftsman who carved him had just been extraordinarily talented. Either way, he lived — for one night every year he could eat and drink and fly and laugh. It was better to have just one night than to sit stationary on the courthouse ledge for all eternity.

He shifted in flight and took in the city below. It glowed beneath him, full of light and life. It had changed immensely over the years, transforming from a tiny speck of a village into a sprawling city. In just the last year, more buildings had been added to his domain. One new place caught his wandering eye. It was sleek and shiny chrome, with bright splashes of red and yellow, and it smelled of meat and smoke. His rumbling stomach reminded him that it’d been a year since his last meal.

He circled the building. A bright neon sign flickered and glowed: Valkyrie Burgers. He liked the sound of that. Humans sat outside, munching on piles of golden fries and sipping drinks — but it was the big, juicy cheeseburgers in their hands that had his mouth watering. He loved a good burger. It was one of the humans’ best inventions, along with rock ’n’ roll and drive-in movies.

Yes, a burger would be the perfect way to start his night. He soared up, preparing to dive down among the unsuspecting patrons below. He’d be in and out before anyone even noticed their food was gone.

He reached the apex of his climb, turned, spotted his target below — and was knocked horns over tail out of the air.

“What the — ”

He tumbled toward the ground, spinning and twisting in the air. He righted himself just feet from the pavement. He rose back into the air, looking for his assailant. An over-eager vulture, perhaps? If so, the feathered fleabrain would soon learn the peril of —

“Halt, foul beast!”

He checked his flight, blinking. “Foul? Really? I don’t smell that bad.”

He turned toward the voice — and every thought left his head. Hovering there before him was a glorious, shining Valkyrie. Her silver robes streamed behind her, flapping in the wind. Her hair was long and braided, her eyes were fiery and fierce, and her wingspan was magnificent. She wasn’t stone, but she was clearly a statue — just like him.

“Hello!” he said, grinning. “Is this your first Halloween? I remember my first — it was a special night — ”

“I said, halt, creature! Do not dare to threaten my domain, for you shall meet your doom!”

“Er, right … about that,” he said, glancing down at the tempting morsels below. “Look, I just want a bite to eat. I won’t hurt anyone. I’m not that kind of gargoyle.”

“I warned you, creature! Now you will pay.”

“Oh, hell,” he muttered as she hoisted her spear and shot forward.

He darted out of the way and dove. He twisted and turned and shot back up. She stayed close behind. He executed a great soaring loop. She was right with him. She was an impressive flyer, but he had a slight edge. His smaller size made him just a tad more maneuverable.

He did a tight series of spirals and shot around behind her. She turned to him, outrage etched on her face.

He grinned.

“Look, this is fun — ”

She wacked him with the spear. He’d forgotten about her longer reach. He tumbled a few feet, puffing.

“Was that really necessary?”

“I will protect my domain at all costs, beast!”

He rolled his eyes. “The burgers can’t be this good.”

Still, he didn’t flee. He just circled and spun through the air, careful to keep out of her reach but not venturing too far from the burger shack. This little chase was the most fun he’d had in years — and it was nice to spend time with another cursed creature.

“I will slay you!”

He grinned. Charming woman.

He looped higher and higher, then paused to hover just above her. Far below, there was a commotion. He cleared his throat.

“Um, excuse me. Those humans there seem to be threatening your domain.”

She glanced down. Two men in masks with weapons bullied the young cashier into passing over money while the patrons silently handed over their wallets. The Valkyrie roared as the masked men scrambled out the door of the shop and into a waiting automobile.

“They will suffer for this!”

The gargoyle didn’t doubt it. Forgetting him completely, the Valkyrie soared after the speeding car.

The gargoyle paused, considering. He could seize the moment to grab a burger — but that seemed a bit unfair now. He could go on his way and find an unguarded place to eat. Or …

He swooped after the Valkyrie. Punishing wrongdoing was far more exciting than pilfering a meal.

It took some effort to catch up to the Valkyrie — the woman could move. The car swerved below them, winding through the streets at what had to be an unsafe speed.

“Tsk, tsk. They’re going much too fast,” the gargoyle said. “We should do something about that.”

“I have not forgotten our feud, creature,” she said.

“I hope not.”

Cracking his knuckles, he eyed the car below. He had an idea.

“I’ll slow them down for you, my dear,” he said. “Be ready to slay their steed. Its heart is in that front end there.”

She nodded. He grinned and dove.

He landed with a heavy crunch on the car’s roof. Metal creaked as he dug his claws in. The startled shouts below made him chuckle. Baring his fangs, he hung his head over the windshield and glared at the men inside.

They squealed and screamed. The car slowed and veered wildly from side to side. The gargoyle held tight, laughing and waging his tongue at the men.

The Valkyrie skimmed overhead and hurled her spear at the car. It landed with a solid thunk in the car’s hood. The engine hissed and sputtered, and the car rolled to a stop inches from the outraged Valkyrie’s robes.

The gargoyle waited. A door swung open, and a masked man sprang out. He pointed his shiny human weapon at the Valkyrie. The gargoyle pounced, his claws sinking into the human’s scrawny shoulders.

“Gah! What the hell is this?!”

The gargoyle laughed as the man spun and flapped his arms, throwing his weapon to the ground. When the gargoyle finally released him, the man ran, screaming and babbling about demons in the night. The gargoyle chased him for a bit, flapping and cackling for good measure, before finally letting the poor creature go. The humans could deal with him now.

The gargoyle turned back to the car. The other man was passed out on the pavement with a solid lump coming up on his head. The Valkyrie stood above him, glaring.

“They’ll never steal from your domain again, I would think,” the gargoyle said as he rested on the car.

“I would hope not,” she said. She looked at him, and her glare softened to a smile. “You are quite brave, creature.”

“I have my moments.”

“Perhaps I can reward you for your service?”

“I would love a good burger.”

She laughed and nodded, and they soared into the air together, heading back to the burger shack for a Halloween feast.


When the manager of Valkyrie Burgers opened up the next morning, he received a bit of a shock. Perched at the feet of his six-foot-tall chrome Valkyrie was a grinning stone gargoyle.

The police could never figure out how — or why — the gargoyle ended up there. It took city workers more than three months to get the statue re-installed on the downtown courthouse.

When it happened again the next year, they put it down as a high school prank and once again moved the gargoyle back to the courthouse.

No matter how often they moved it or what precautions they took, every November 1, the grinning gargoyle would be perched at the feet of the Valkyrie. Eventually, everyone agreed to leave him there. He seemed to like it that way.

Fog cloaked the city. Grackles cawed in the gathering dark as the Birdwalker stalked the banks of the river. He was looking for someone to punish. It didn’t matter if the crime was big or small — real or imagined. What mattered was the retribution he would bring to the wrongdoer.

Finally, he heard a plea. The water carried a voice to him, clear and sharp through the misty fog.

“Those damn kids have been at it again. Every fucking year, they come out here and destroy my property. I’ve had it with those little bastards!”

The Birdwalker cackled softly and disappeared into the night. The grackles followed.


George, Layla and Robbie lounged on their back porch. Empty beer bottles were scattered around them. Crusty bits of orange pumpkin guts were caked on their trousers, and mud was drying on their boots. Dirty white sheets with crude eyeholes — costumes they’d discarded early in the night — flapped in the breeze.

“The look on the old bastard’s face. Gets me every time,” George chuckled.

“You’d think he’d know by now to lock his gate on Halloween,” Layla said.

Robbie frowned. “Then how would the kids get candy?”

The others laughed at this — no one trick-or-treated at the old man’s house. He kept a bucket on the porch, but no one went that far out into the country on Halloween. Except George, Layla and Robbie.

For years now, they’d snuck out there at night. The first time, they’d stood and stared in awe at dozens of glowing pumpkins and spooky decorations.

When they were 12, they’d finally managed to work up the nerve to journey beyond the gate — armed with a dozen rolls of toilet paper. It’d been a messy job, but well worth it. They’d howled for hours at the look of outrage on the old man’s face when he saw his trees covered with miles of messy tissue.

They’d been 15 before they started smashing the pumpkins and slashing the decorations. They’d been 18 before they started stealing the candy and knickknacks on the porch.

At 20, they knew where the old man kept his stock of beer for fishing trips — and they’d cheerfully taken that along with the bucket of candy after their spree of destruction was over.

George unwrapped another Snickers and tossed an empty can toward the trash — he missed by a foot.

“Nice shot,” Layla mocked.

“Shut up,” he grumbled.

She laughed and he glowered, and Robbie wondered how long it would be before the two of them wandered into the house and started grappling with each other.

A grackle cawed. Robbie looked up. Their yard backed up against a tangle of oak and mesquite. Deer and coyotes and grackles were common. But he could swear this grackle was looking right at him. He blinked. The grackle cocked its head and cawed again. Shrugging, Robbie threw his beer can away and reached for another. When he looked back, the trees were covered with birds, hundreds of them, sitting on every branch and staring at him.

“Guys,” Robbie said, slowly. “Do the birds seem weird to you?”

George glanced at the trees. “They’re birds.”

“Yeah, but … I think they’re watching us.”

Layla laughed. “You’ve had one too many, Robbie.”

Robbie grunted.

“They’re nothing but grackles, Rob,” George said. “We’ll throw out some poison feed in the morning, see if that’ll scare the stupid things off.”

Robbie didn’t think that was a good idea, but he kept it to himself. He sipped his beer and watched the birds. They were chattering softly, hopping from branch to branch — and, he swore, they all watched him, their bright little eyes fixed on the group on the porch.

They were coming closer.

He opened his mouth to say something when a half-dozen birds landed on the porch railing. One big grackle regarded Robbie, then stared at George.

“Get!” George said. The bird didn’t move. George tossed his beer can at it. The birds scattered. “Fucking nuisance.”

There was a flurry of movement in the trees. Robbie went still, holding his breath. George and Layla seemed blissfully unaware of the birds — until the creatures descended in a sudden swarm, flapping and spinning around them.

“What the fuck!”

Robbie scrambled for the back door, bumping hard into George as they tried to run inside. But there were dozens — hundreds — of the black birds between them and safety. Robbie fell to the ground. Layla’s boots crunched over his hands, and he cursed as he crawled across the blistered wood porch. He tumbled down the stairs and landed face-first in the dirt. Grunts told him George and Layla had fallen beside him.

Robbie backed away and sat up. Hundreds of grackles settled on the railing and the porch, staring at them.

“What the hell,” George whispered.

The birds took to the air — and swooped down upon Robbie, George and Layla. Claws and beaks ripped into flesh and tore at hair. Robbie jumped to his feet, clapped his hands around his head and ran. The grackles flocked around him, pecking and scratching and cawing in delight.

He dashed into the woods. The others followed, cursing and crying. Robbie tripped and stumbled and tried desperately to escape the birds. But the grackles stayed close, their black wings beating against him as he ran. Tree branches lashed him. Roots tripped him. And grackles tortured him. He kept moving, hoping the creatures would leave him alone if he could just get far away fast enough.

He fell. His breath whooshed out of his lungs, and he gasped. Dust stung his eyes. Blood poured from a hundred gashes across his chest and back. Layla tripped over him, and George tumbled into the heap. Robbie curled into a ball and braced himself for the stabbing and scratching of beak and claw.

Nothing happened.

Slowly, he peeked out. The grackles were settled once more in the trees, watching them. Trembling, he got to his knees.

That’s when he saw the Birdwalker. Bile filled Robbie’s throat and piss trickled down his thighs as he beheld the thing before him. It was as tall as a man, covered head to foot in glossy black feathers. A wicked, glistening beak curved out from its face, and black, oddly human eyes regarded Robbie.

“I answer a plea tonight, humans. It is time for you to pay for your sins.”

Robbie swallowed. He couldn’t look away from the creature before him. He heard George sputter and stammer, and Layla was whimpering and rocking next to him.

“What — what sins?” Robbie said.

“You’ve been torturing an old man for years. He’s had enough. It’s your turn to suffer now.”

The Birdwalker clicked his beak at the grackles. The birds launched into the air and descended on the trio. They screamed as the Birdwalker exacted his retribution.


The police found the bodies three days later. There wasn’t much left. They saw no sign of the Birdwalker. He was on the riverbank, waiting for the water to bring him another voice.

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