“Where are we going, Daddy?” the little girl asked. She was about seven or eight, with long brown hair that was always perfectly neat, even when she awoke in the mornings. “Is it part of my birthday present?”
“Why, yes it is, my little lamb,” the tall lanky figure to her right confirmed.
“What is it?” she asked impatiently.
“Oh, I suppose…” He paused, slowing down from a brisk pace. “I suppose it's a party, of sorts.”
“A surprise birthday party?” she squealed, rattling with excitement.
“Why, yes, it is, little lamb,” he grinned, though it was hard to tell in the dark. The little girl gave a brief little cheer, then stopped… as if something was troubling her.
“What is it, love?” the man asked in concern.
“Well, if it's supposed to be a surprise party, then why did you tell me?”
“I think you ought to be just a little prepared for this party.”
“Well, it's because of the present, you see. It's a very unusual gift, and it took a very long time to make it.”
“Is that why we can't have the party at home?” she asked a little sadly. She much preferred their sunny little farmhouse to this dusty old building on the outskirts of town. It was dark, dirty, and - truth be told - a little frightening. The peeling green wallpaper made her think of old haunted mansions on tv, but this was just some run-down building that nobody used anymore.
“Yes. This is the only place I could find big enough to build it, but where you wouldn't find it.”
“Well, what about the garage?”
“Oh, it's much too small. And what if you'd seen it? The surprise would’ve been ruined!”
“Well,” the little girl continued, picking up her pace down the hallway again, footsteps muffled against the moth-eaten carpet, “what about the barn? I never go out there, so you could have built it there.”
“It would have gotten in the way. I need that barn, you know.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” the little girl agreed.
They walked along in silence, finally coming to a green iron door.
“Is it in there?” she asked her father.
“No,” he said, wrenching open the doors. They now found themselves on the landing of a stairwell, with stairs going up on the left, and stairs going down on the right. Above the landing below and opposite them was a boarded-up window with thin strips of light straining to squeeze through.
“Do we go up, Daddy?” she asked hesitantly, if not a bit hopefully.
“Down- down there?” she whispered nervously, leaning over the railing and peering down into the darkness below.
“Yes. Down there, sweetheart.”
“But- but- there might be--” She stopped herself. She had almost said “monsters,” but decided against it because she didn't want to sound scared, especially on her birthday. No, she wanted to be brave like her dad.
“There might be what, love?” The father asked softly.
“Well, there is something,” he teased.
“Oh, can't you just tell me?” she begged, taking her father’s hand as he began their descent into the darkness below.
He didn't answer for a few moments, but right when she thought he wasn't going to answer, he asked quietly, “What’s your favorite party game?”
That was easy.
“Musical chairs!” she cried, not unhappily. “You know that!”
He chuckled solemnly, though he didn't say anything.
“Is that what the big surprise is? Because we can play musical chairs anywhere, we don't have to go to some stupid old basement.”
“That's part of the party, the real present won't be until afterwards.”
“What is it?”
Her father smiled, though the little girl couldn't tell in the dark. “All in good time, my love. All in good time.”
They continued in silence, excitement mounting in both of them. Finally, the man stopped, and so did his daughter. Somewhere ahead, there was a low, deep humming.
“What's that noise?”
“That's a generator, sweetie. Now listen closely. I want you to stay here, okay? Don't come in until you hear me knocking, got it?”
“Got it!” she confirmed excitedly.
Her father opened the invisible metal doors in front of them, and went inside, the doors slamming shut with a loud thunk! She heard him walk away and say something. There was silence for what felt like a hundred years before she heard footsteps coming back to the door.
Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock.
Practically bursting with excitement, the girl threw open the doors and bounced right in, fully expecting lights to blare, confetti to rain, kazoos to buzz, and for a full chorus of “Happy birthday!” to greet her.
But nothing happened.
“Daddy?” she called, scared something had gone wrong. All she could hear was the low humming of the generator. “Daddy?”
“I'm right here, little lamb,” her father whispered gently in her ear. She felt his coarse hand intertwine with her’s, and he whispered kindly, “Just follow me, sweetie.”
Feeling more at ease, though still a little bit nervous, she allowed herself to guided by her father’s cold hands. They walked through the darkness for about twenty feet, and then she was eased into a wooden chair. She was about to speak when duct tape was put over her mouth. She raised her hand tentatively to her her mouth to pull off the tape, but-
-a blinding sharp pain stole through-
-both her arms as her elbows were snapped inwards by her father’s rough hands. She wailed a stifled scream and tried to get up, but she was shoved back into the chair as-
-knees, too, were snapped inwards, disabling any escape on her own behalf.
“Shh-shh-shh…. It's alright, love,” the girl’s father cooed gently, as if he were actually worried about the girl’s misery. “It will all be over soon. Just think: no more pain! No more suffering! Won't that just be absolutely wonderful? What better gift could anyone ask for?”
She just sobbed and shook her head as the man silently slunk away into the darkness. A moment later, somewhere to her right, she heard the sound of bone snapping, followed by a scream that was muffled, just like hers. This happened eleven more times, counter-clockwise, until finally her father had come back around to her.
“You still with us, love?” he asked, lighting a match and holding it up so that he could properly look at her. The little girl didn't respond, but continued to sob in her agony. “I sure do hope so. You wanna know who showed up for your party?”
The little girl shook her head.
“No? But love, you must! You must see who came for your party!” Here he flicked the match on the ground, where it met a trail of gasoline that blazed into a circle of flame inside a circle of chairs. Outside the circle, in the chairs, were freshly crippled bodies, all heaving with sobs, some recoiling from the flames. The girl quickly looked away, eyes shut tight against the horrible reality around her. He roughly grabbed her by the cheeks and forced her head forward, but when she still wouldn't open her eyes, he forcibly pried them open. Through the blaze of light, she could see all of the family she knew: her mother, two brothers, sister, aunt, uncle, grandparents, and two cousins. All of their limbs were broken, like hers, but unlike her, they were also strapped to the chairs, to keep them captive until her arrival.
Her father then disappeared for a moment before coming back with a ladder. He propped it up and pulled down a rope, which thus brought down a circular wooden contraption that was suspended from the ceiling, with rusted meat hooks dangling off of it. He pulled down two and jabbed them through her brother’s shoulders (he was to her immediate right). Her brother screamed, but it was stifled by the duct tape that’d been placed over his mouth.
The monster repeated this, counterclockwise, until he finally reached his daughter.
“I apologize if you don't appreciate this divine gift quite yet, my little one,” he whispered, peering through her eyes and into the very depths of her soul. “You will see the truth when this is all over.”
She screamed, screamed as loud as she possibly could, screaming so loudly that she felt as if her throat were being shredded into ribbons, which wasn't all too far from the truth. Tearing… tearing through her shoulders were those jagged rusty meat hooks. But her pain was silenced by the tape over her mouth.
While his victims shrieked muffled screams of agony, the man strode over to a lever, and when thrust upward, the thirteen bodies were jolted up into the air, dangling there, crippled and helpless, like carcasses waiting to be processed. In the meantime, the man added more gasoline, this time pouring it over the chairs, so that when lit the figures were directly suspended above the flames.
“Don't hate me yet, love,” the man called to the little girl, “the worst is yet to come. But so is the peace and comfort the end brings, which will be so much sweeter after the pain you first experience. Wouldn't you agree, honey?” he asked this not to the little girl, but this time to his wife.
“Oh, that's right, you can't talk, can you? No worries. It'll all be over soon. Then you'll thank me. Then you'll ALL thank me!” he roared at the dangling masses. He then strode back over to the panels of levers, and pulled down another one that sent down the wheel from which the meat hooks were suspended spinning rapidly. At first, the little girl couldn't tell that she was in motion, she was so blinded by the pain, but then she heard something that ran her blood cold.
“Love is a burnin’ thing, and it makes a fiery ring….”
Her father used to play this song all the time. Hadn't he said something about playing musical chairs?
“... I fell into a ring of fire--”
The music stopped, and all of the bodies were suddenly dunked into the flames, the soundtrack to their misery replaced by the maniacal laughter of a madman. Suddenly, and without warning, the meat hooks were jerked back up into the air, and right on cue the music started playing again.
“I fell into a burnin’ ring of fire. I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher….”
The tape on the little girl’s mouth was starting to melt.
“... And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire, the ring of fire--”
Again they were all dropped once more into the inferno below, and though the little girl did not know this, the muffled screaming of her mother had stopped. Again and again this process repeated, the song on a loop, until finally the little girl was the only one on the meat hooks still alive, albeit barely. Here the father stopped the spinning of the wheel, though he did not lower it. The music kept playing in the background.
“It's time, my darling,” he rasped from below, voice haggard from smoke, his expression one of pure delight. “I stopped your play so that I could tell you that I love you and that I'll soon be seeing you on the other side.”
He set the wheel back into motion, put a gun in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.
“... And the flames get higher. And it burns, burns, burns, my ring of fire, my ring of fire….”
Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire