Bug, having felt so big just a few days before on his tenth birthday, looked so little now beside his father’s bedside. The man underneath the angel’s cloak of white sheets was so pale he nearly matched them in color.
“Dad...” Bug said, voice quavering. The dark circles under his eyes were wet with tears. “If- if you die- what am I gonna do without you?”
The man’s skeletal, weak hand slowly reached up and covered the boy’s smaller one, rested on his chest. He’d been sick for such a long time. It was hard for Bug to imagine him getting any better. Tonight, he was weaker than he’d ever been before.
“Open the drawer next to my bed,” the weak man instructed his son. “There’s something in there I want to show you.”
Bug did as he was told. He reluctantly pulled his hand away from his father and stood up- old decaying floorboards creaking like dying flies under his bare feet- and pulled open the drawer.
The only thing inside of it was a rabbit skull, connected to a string meant to be pulled over the head and rested around one’s neck.
“Put it on, and I’ll tell you about it.”
He pulled it over his dark, scruffy, tangled hair. It didn’t fit perfectly on him, it was rather loose on his shoulders and the skull hung down to his waist.
“You know about magic?” the father asked, voice like dead leaves as he stared at the small boy.
“Yes,” he said softly. He gazed down at the small, cold skull held his fingers. “Is this... magical...?”
The father made a muted, slow nod. “Very.”
“What can it do?”
The older man was quiet for a moment, then said, “You know how we’re not here in this basement... legally.” As if on cue, they were interrupted by the sound of creaking footsteps and voices from the house above, and they both went silent, waiting for them to pass. When they were quiet again, the man went on, “That means the police don’t want us in here.”
“I know, Dad,” Bug reminded him quietly.
“You also know how... our family has always had to steal in order to survive.”
“Yeah...” the child said, running his thumb over the cranium of the skull- a strange insignia was engraved, barely visible, on its surface.
It had always been a fact of life to him that his family were thieves. When he was just five, he had learned how to pickpocket in crowded places, and by the time he was seven, he had lost track of all the treats and jewelry and toys he’d shoplifted from stores or nicked from kids at school (the few times he went). To him, it was just as natural as breathing.
“Well... this magic skull has helped us with that,” his father went on. “It channels very incredible magic. Let’s say that if... we’re in a store, and you’ve taken some food, and a security guard stops you because he thinks you’re suspicious.”
Bug nodded, silent.
“If you will it to, it’ll remove the suspicion from the guard’s mind. He’ll forget why he stopped you, and you can get away. But that’s not all it can do. It can make people do what you want them to. That’s terribly powerful, and extremely dangerous. You could potentially make bank employees happily give you money without any need of coercion.”
Bug’s eyes widened. This idea made his mind run wild with the possibilities such magic could bring him.
“However, as with all magic, these effects will wear off eventually. They’ll realize what they’re doing. In most cases, all it does is bide us enough time to escape. And someone who’s already been targeted by it’s spell will be very unlikely to fall victim again. Understand?”
“Yes, I’m listening very closely,” Bug said softly, holding the skull carefully close, like it was the most precious jewel he’d ever held.
“And there are a few last things they can do. But they are very intense. They involve life and death, son. Do you think you can handle it?”
He nodded again, eagerly, listening with rapt attention.
“It is able to curse people. Terrible curses. I don’t know the specifics- we’ve never used it for such a purpose, because, see... in order to give it the power it needs to put those curses on others, it needs to... to claim souls. Two, in fact, at the very least.”
“Souls, Dad? Does taking a soul... kill people?”
“Yes. Yes... very quickly and painlessly, but it still kills people, and that is not something we’ve ever wanted. Now there is one more thing- perhaps the most powerful thing it can do. If you choose an item- an inanimate item- to possess, it will transfer your soul into it after you die. This also takes soul power, but I believe only one soul will do.”
Like a lightning bolt, hearing this gave Bug an idea, one that he couldn’t help but exclaim. “Dad, Dad, if we claim a soul, and if you don’t get better, then-”
“No,” the father interrupted as firmly as he could in his weak voice, fixing a stare onto Bug that could’ve halted a charging bull. Bug flinched back. “Killing someone, that’s something that the powers that be will never forgive you for. I fear the punishment.”
Bug was quiet, turning his head down, his shocks of dark brown hair falling over his eyes. When his father heard him start to sniffle, he said sympathetically, “Don’t worry, son. I’ll be fine, I promise. Why don’t you go and play? And... keep the skull with you. You can tuck it under the neck of your shirt, yes, just like that. It’ll bond with you, in time. It’ll become like a good friend.”
The boy got up, but didn’t dare open his mouth to say goodbye, fearing it would come out cracked and broken, and he would only sob more. Instead, he waved, then headed off.
The child looked up.
“Whatever you do, don’t break it.”
The firmness in his father’s voice made a cold shiver run through Bug.
“What happens if it breaks?” he asked.
“If it’s cracked, the magic will start to break out and malfunction. If it’s shattered- well, only what’s above knows. But with black magic, the consequences are most likely unimaginable.”
All Bug could do was just nod.
His father watched as his skinny, trembling legs and bare dirty feet brought him through the door and away into the dark, cold basement.
Just two weeks later, his father was found dead. He had died peacefully in his sleep. The boy held on tight to that rabbit skull; the last remaining piece of his dad, and the only friend he had left.
- 10 Years Later -
The toy store was simply the best place on the island. A train track with toy cars that were actually rideable wrapped through the building’s brightly colored interior, whizzing through tunnels and puffing heart-shaped smoke. The halls were stocked to the brim with all the toys a kid could want. Children played, chased each other, and they were all watched over by the kindly and well-loved boss, Major.
Major- who had his own children, two sisters, aged 6 and 14- was a compassionate man who was willing to look past anyone’s flaws to see what was underneath. He adored children and he adored making toys. He was beloved by all on the small island- the toy store had been around long enough that he had helped raise a good portion of the population.
Recently, however, he’d fallen on hard times due to an employee shortage. Major didn’t just hire anyone, after all- he needed people who were just as passionate about toys and were as good to children as he was. And people like that were few and far between.
Major was working in his office one day, when something occurred that would change his life and the fate of the toy store, forever.
The old door was thrown back on it’s creaky hinges, revealing a scruffy, thin man, who had dark brown hair that curled and stuck up all over past the brim of his hat. His eyes were wide, nervous and twitchy, and had large sleepless circles under them. There were several broken patches in his coat that had been hastily stitched up with new fabric. But perhaps the oddest of all was the rabbit skull hung on the necklace over his chest.
“Er- good afternoon!” Major greeted, blinking twice in surprise. He set his pen down to focus his attention on this odd stranger.
“I-I saw the hiring sign- I’d like a job,” the man said, sitting down with a wide grin. Usually, smiles like that were a good sign for Major, but there was something about that grin, and indeed, the man in general, that reminded him vividly of a twitching rat.
“And what’s your name?” Major asked, with some caution. He was always willing to give others the benefit of the doubt, but there was something wild and unpredictable and hungry in those eyes.
“Er- Bug, sir! Bug Glire.” He took his hat off his head and rotated it in his hands nervously.
“Bug, huh? I like it,” Major said with a nervous chuckle. He pushed off his desk, his swivel chair gliding backwards to his file cabinets. He opened a drawer, and took out a paper form. Bug watched with nervous eyes, continuing to fiddle with his hat. “Now, which job position were you looking for, Bug? We have a few openings- toymakers, cashiers, janitor, daycare provider...”
Bug’s lip curled a little bit. As unappealing as all the options were to him, daycare provider sounded like the one he’d hate doing the least. As much as he had come to despise children, he certainly couldn’t make toys, and he would never stoop to what he saw as such an unsophisticated low as a cashier or a janitor. He may have been a thief and a criminal, but he still had some dignity!
“I think I’ll take that last one,” he said, grin not leaving, leaning forward nervously on the desk. He never seemed to stop fidgeting, Major noted internally. That was a bad sign.
“Er- great! Have you ever babysat, or have had any other notable experience caring for children?”
Well, I was a child, once, Bug thought to himself sarcastically. Does that count? “Oh, yes, loads,” he lied.
“Good, good,” Major jotted something down. “Do you have a criminal record?”
“Er- no! Not really!” Bug said quickly. Major blinked in surprise.
“Uh... why do you feel like you’d be right for this job?” he asked. He’d at least try to see this interview out to the end, even though he’d already made up his mind.
“Well, you see- I’ll be honest with you, sir.” He scooted his chair in and leaned across the desk. Major straightened up, slightly, a little alarmed. “I had a bit of a run-in with the law recently- nothing too big, but we made an agreement. If I got a job, they’d let me off the hook. If I didn’t, I’d be thrown in jail.”
“I... see.” Major took in a deep breath. This was always the hard part, but he absolutely couldn’t hire this man. “Well, Mr. Glire, I sympathize with your plight, I really do. But I’m very sorry, I don’t think we can hire you, sir. It’s not anything personal at all, it’s just that we have quite strict hiring standards- again, I’m really sorry- I’m sure someplace else will be very happy to hire you, if you keep looking.” He tried to make an encouraging smile, standing up to escort Bug to the door (after all, it was only polite).
Bug, however, did not stand. In fact, he leaned back into his chair with an aura of confidence. In a quick motion, he’d snapped open the jaw of the rabbit skull around his neck. “I think I can change your mind.”
Major froze. He stared into nothingness for a moment, as though under a trance, before swiftly turning around and happily snatching Bug’s hand in both of his own, shaking it rapidly. “You’re hired!!!” he cried suddenly. “I’ll see you at 8:00 AM on Monday!”
Bug smirked knowingly, shutting the rabbit skull’s jaw. “Thank you, sir. It means a lot to me. See you then!”
“Goodbye!” Major cried in a tone that was much too jovial, even for him. “I can’t wait to work with you, Mr. Glire!”
Being a daycare professional was even more tiring than Bug thought it would be.
The newest toy that all the children wanted to play with- and hence, fought over valiantly- was a large mobile plush bull. The tiny ones would get on, and it would become animated by magic, walking on it’s own in circles. It was the hottest toy of the season- and in the daycare/playtime area, every one of the little brats were hissing and fighting over it.
Luckily, Bug had a co-worker who would do most of the dirty work (the sucker), but yet, alas, he was expected to step in, even though he would’ve much rather laid on the rocking chair in the corner and relaxed his aching bones, the bones that were bruised from a lifetime of being on the run. That was why he’d taken this job, anyway. Under the hope it’d be easy. And, well, relative to the other opportunities on the market, it was.
Yet still, after a long day of breaking up fights and forcing a pleasant voice and encouraging the shrieking gremlins to share, Bug was completely exhausted. He flopped next to the bull toy, staring at the ceiling.
“Must be hard,” he muttered to the plush, feeling a bit sorry for it. “Having to be around those things all day.”
He rested his head back, trying to enjoy the peace and quiet while he had it, but then Bug felt a tug on the too-big sleeve of his uniform. With a sharp intake of breath and a concealed eye roll, he turned his head. “What?” he grunted.
There was a stocky and stout teenage girl standing there, strong arms folded as she looked up at him. She wore a pink flower clip in her brunette hair. “I’m Mary. I’m Major’s daughter. Can I look at your rabbit skull?” she asked. She gave an animated point at the object on his chest. “It’s pretty cool.”
“I’d rather you not touch it,” Bug said curtly, harsher than he’d meant it to sound. It was a struggle to keep the disdain out of his voice at the thought of absolutely anyone getting their filthy little fingerprints all over his precious possession. “My late father gave it to me.”
“Alright. It’s nice to meet you, anyway. My dad is super picky with hiring, you know, so you must be pretty cool for him to consider you!”
“Right,” Bug said. It would have been a fine sentiment that he wouldn’t have thought anything more of, had it not been for that squinting, distrustful look in her piggy little eyes…
“So you must be pretty good with kids? I babysit my little sister all the time. She’s really cute. Wanna see her?”
He couldn’t think of anything he wanted to do less, but before he could answer, she called, “Hey, Gwen!”
A little girl hobbled as fast as she could from behind the tall toy shelves. Mary lovingly scooped her up and held her, the gentlest of smiles on her face as she regarded her sister. Bug had been an only child, and had loved nor taken care of anything or anyone besides himself, his rabbit skull, and at one point, his father. He couldn’t relate to or understand that love in Mary’s eyes.
Mary seemed to take notice of this. “Isn’t she cute?” she said, holding Gwen up higher when Bug didn’t react. “Don’t you love kids?”
Now that was a loaded question if he had ever heard one. “I sure do- she’s very adorable,” Bug said, trying to sound as convincing as possible but just ending up feeling awkward. When it came to deceit, he was an expert at looking like he wasn’t up to trouble while walking out a store with pockets loaded with stolen merchandise- but when it came to feigning emotion, well, he just had no clue.
And at the look in Mary’s eyes- that dreadful, knowing look- he knew she suspected something. “Well, we’ve got to go home, soon. See you later!” Mary said, throwing him an innocent smile, that to his eyes, was that of a cruel and taunting faerie over her shoulder.
A whole week of pretending to care about little annoying kids really wore a man out, it seemed- it was getting late into the evening and Bug was even more exhausted than he’d been before.
His eyes were heavy and dreary as he watched the last few children that remained in the establishment before closing time. They were fighting over that poor bull toy again. He couldn’t even be bothered to raise his head and say “Stop fighting”, much less go in and break up the fight. Damn, he needed a consolation prize, a thrill, something to wake him up. There was no way he was driving home like this!
Suddenly, he sat upright as a devious thought crossed his criminal, thieving mind. The toy store had such a limited stock of that oh-so-popular bull toy, and he’d already decided he would steal one. It was instinct; he’d been stealing things since he learned how to walk, he was a kleptomaniac by nature. How could he resist? And even though he had no real need for it- he just liked the thought of taking something that could’ve belonged to a spoiled brat instead. Besides, it was the only item of any value in this godforsaken store!
He alighted from his post and slipped into the towering isles of toys. He was already formulating an excuse if Major or anyone else caught him; he’d simply lie fluently and say that a customer asked him about a toy that they had in the back. They couldn’t deny him that, now could they?
Finally, he arrived at the door to the back room- and with one quick look over his shoulder, just to make sure no one was watching- he whipped out his employee key and in he sneaked like a shadow.
In the darkness, he crept silently through the rows of boxes, eyes gleaning over each of them, quickly searching to find the one labelled with the toy’s name. Soon, he saw it- Riding Bull. He pushed it open and dug into it. But before he could hoist up his heavy prize and somehow figure out a way to haul it back home-
“What are you doing with that, Bug?”
Bug made a rather embarrassing scream, practically jumping out of his skin.
There was Mary! Standing behind him, those strong arms folded with that evil little impish knowing smile of hers. God, he’d barely known her for a week and it already fired him up beyond reason. “So, guess what? I asked Dad about what he knew about you, and get this- he told me you had a criminal history, mostly for stealing things! And when I asked him why he hired you- and this is the craziest part- he said he couldn’t remember! Do you have any idea why that could be?”
“Alzheimer’s must be getting to him early,” Bug growled, his lip curled. He didn’t care if it sounded impolite anymore. “Now excuse me, missy-” with a hefty grunt, he hoisted up one of the bulls in the box. “I’ve got a customer waiting at the front who very much wants one of these toys and will even pay extra if she can get it as soon as possible-”
“Now hold it right there!” Mary leaped in front of him, getting as much in the way as a small stocky teenager could. “My dad would ALWAYS remember who he hired! This store is my dad’s pride and joy, he would never let it be put into jeopardy by some gross criminal who hates kids!”
“Oh yeah?! And if all of this is true, how am I supposed to have convinced Mr. Major to hire me, anyway?! Your argument is critically flawed, sister. Now leave me be!” Again, he tried to walk past her, but she leapt in front of him again.
“You have black magic on your hands! You know that’s REALLY illegal, right?!” She had a big grin, as if she thought she’d caught him red-handed.
“Alright- I’ve had enough of you!” Bug snarled. His hands flew to the rabbit skull, popping its jaw open. It’s eyes glowed purple, and Mary looked ahead at nothing. Just like her father did, she looked as though she were in a vague, spellbinding trance. But before Bug’s spell could finish, the door to the back room was thrown open with a loud bang.
“What’s going on in here?” Major asked, sounding confused.
Mary shook her head rapidly, clearing away the cobwebs the spell was building around her brain, and cried before Bug could stop her, “Bug’s trying to steal that toy!”
“No!” Bug practically shrieked, dropping the toy and extending his hands out to Major and shaking his head rapidly. “I’m not! I was just trying to help a customer who asked to see one from the b-back, is all!”
Major, however, did not look swayed in the slightest. His expression hardened and he marched toward Mary’s side, his hand resting on his daughter’s shoulder. “Do you think he’s telling the truth, Mary?”
“I highly doubt it!” She crossed her arms and scowled daggers at Bug. “He used black magic to convince you to hire him! It’s got something to do with that ugly rabbit skull around his neck!’
“Tch- ugly?!” Bug cried, cupping his hands over the rabbit skull, protecting it from such harsh words as though it were his baby.
“Is that so?!” He scowled at Bug. “I’ve heard enough. Get out.”
“N-no, sir, please,” Bug begged, practically whimpering. “I need this job!”
“Out!” Major said, doing something he rarely did- he raised his voice.
“I… I… please, i-if I lose this job, I’ll be thrown in jail,” Bug said, wringing his hands nervously.
“That’s not my problem!” Major said coldly, colder than he could ever remember being in his life. Black magic was not something he took lightly. “You’ve lost any chance you could have had working at this establishment! Now don’t make me call the cops on you!”
Bug felt a festering, seething anger building up like a fire inside of his chest. How dare he. How dare Mary. He had done nothing wrong to them! All he’d done was convince them to give him a job when he desperately needed one. Where was the harm in that?!
But, nevertheless, he gave in- for now. “I’ll go,” he said, staring at the ground and blinking back tears.
Poor old compassionate Major couldn’t help but feel a stab of pity. He did for everyone, no matter what, it seemed. “Look… you can take the toy, if you want. More are coming in tomorrow morning, anyway. Just… think of it as a condolence gift.”
And with that, his contempt, and the toy, Bug left.
But, oh, he did not forget.
His father may have been foolish enough to not use the rabbit skull to its full potential, but Bug would not make the same mistake. Why, he was feeling very much like a good old-fashioned curse over that stupid little toy store and everyone involved with it. Alas, that would take two souls.
Although his father may have been above taking lives, Bug had been on the short end of the stick for far too long to be concerned with such moral standards. He had nothing but contempt for the world. He had been living in poverty on the streets since he was born. His family, who’d been the kindest people Bug’d ever known, had been forced to squat illegally wherever they could get away with it and often had to sleep on frozen concrete. He had been kicked, jeered at, had bottles and rocks thrown at him like he was a street dog- like he was nothing but the world’s entertainment- and his parents had both died when he was so young, leaving him with absolutely no one but his instinct and the skull.
And now this. And now, when he was at the very bottom of all his luck, when the one friend he could count on, the only ally he had in this world- the magical rabbit skull- could barely do anything more to keep him free, Major had kicked him out over such a minor little mistake. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
It would be a vengeful curse, yes. Vengeful against Major, but also at the island at large, for treating him so carelessly, like he didn’t even matter, for as long as he could remember.
Two souls. That’s what he needed.
Everything had been taken from Bug, all because of the situation he was born into. And now, it was time to take everything from someone else- let THEM know what it felt like.
Two souls. That was very convenient.
After all, Major only had two daughters.