's 2017 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by Miranda Johansson

Alison was driving north.

She had spent a week at her parents'place for Thanksgiving. On the second day out of seven she had already begun wishing it was over. Now she was returning home. It was a long drive, a cross-country drive, and she was alone in the car, and enjoying the solitude.

Every now and then, as she drove, she saw religious signs by the roadside. Billboards and the painted, sloping roofs of barns. Alison read them all. Most of them referred to various chapters-and-verses of the Bible, some of which Alison knew, most of which she didn't. One sign, which Alison seriously debated stopping to take a picture of, read: "THERE IS A FOUNTAIN FILLED WITH BLOOD." She wondered if there was a continuation to that phrase that one was expected to know. If there was, she didn't know it.

She had grown up with such signs, had seen them every now and then on road trips and bus rides. Alison's parents weren't fundamentalists, but they were conservative Christians, and they had seemed to accept the signs as a fact of life. Now, as an adult, Alison was as fascinated with the signs as ever, but that fascination was tempered with horror.

At first glance, she thought the advertisement for the roadside attraction was another of the Christian signs. This was a mile or so south of a small town's city limits. The sign was a simple thing, just two hinged plywood boards supporting one another. It was weather-worn and painted with thick, black capital letters. The lettering was expansive on the left-hand side, and squashed together on the right.

"SEE ANCHORHANDS," the sign said. "GOD'S JOKE."

"What the fuck?" Alison mumbled to herself.

There was an arrow at the bottom of the sign, pointing right. "NEXT EXIT." For a second she was tempted to leave the highway, to find out who or what "Anchorhands" was. In the end, she kept going - she was anxious to get home, and she wasn't about to waste any time on a tourist trap, no matter how hilariously weird.

The farms and the forest began to give way to the outskirts of the town. Alison had left her parents'house early in the a.m., so eager had she been to be on her way; she had been driving for a few hours, had crossed one state line already, and the sun was only now climbing towards its zenith. She felt sluggish, the way she always did after early mornings, as if she was still not finished waking up.

She stopped at the first coffee shop she saw.

There were two baristas working the counter, but she was the only customer in there. Both of the baristas looked to be around twenty, and both had dyed hair and piercings. One of them leaned on the counter as she approached. He was tall and lanky and wore a gray beanie. There was a Jackson Pollock spattering of acne up one cheek and on the side of his forehead. "Hey, happy Thanksgiving," he said, though he was a few days late.

"Please," Alison said, before she could stop herself. "I'm so sick of Thanksgiving."

A note of real humor crept into the guy's customer-service smile. According to his nametag, his name was Sean. "Noted," he said. "So, what can I get you?"

Alison ordered a latte to go. The other barista, a short girl with a colorful spray of hair, set about making her coffee, while Sean took Alison's payment. "I know how you feel," he confided, as she punched in her four-digit code. "My parents live in the next town over. I get cabin fever after one night there. Your folks live in town?"

"No, they live south of here. I'm just passing through on my way up," Alison said, tucking her wallet in her pocket.

She warded the receipt off with her free hand, and Sean crumpled it and dropped it in a wastepaper basket underneath the counter. "Well, think of it this way," he said. "One whole year before you have to suffer through it all again."

A year might not be enough, Alison thought. Her mother was manipulative and controlling, and her father and her sister Wendy always got into screaming matches over politics, regular as clockwork. This year, Wendy had brought along her new boyfriend, who was black, and of course that was a situation just waiting to happen. Alison didn't want to be cynical, but she couldn't help but wonder if Wendy had brought him to provoke.

Alison wondered what would happen if her parents ever found out she was gay.

She mentioned none of this. "Yeah," was all she said.

"My dad just talked about profit margins," the other barista confided. The coffeemaker hissed as she worked it. "It was crazy. It was like he thought we were having a board meeting over turkey or something." She turned around and put the styrofoam cup on the counter. "Here's your coffee, ma'am."

"Thanks," Alison said, and took it. The girl barista's nametag read "Melanie." "Actually, maybe I'll drink it here. I could stand to stretch my legs some more, if y'all don't mind my company."

In fact, Alison hated driving one-handed - if she hadn't been in such a hurry to get home, she never would have ordered her coffee to go. Talking to someone not in her immediate family was turning out to be kind of a relief, though.

"Oh, not at all, ma'am," Sean said, and smiled. He and Melanie both seemed starved for conversation; slow day, Alison supposed.

Alison smiled back, and blew on her coffee to cool it down. Then a thought struck her, and she said, "Hey, I saw a weird sign by the roadside. Either of you know what 'Anchorhands'is?"

Sean's face lit up at her words, but Melanie grimaced. "Ugh, God, not that thing," she said, with an exaggerated shudder.

"Have you seen it?" Sean asked Alison. She shook her head. "Oh man, you've gotta see Anchorhands while you're in town. It's, like, the town mascot."

"Is it really?" Alison asked.

"Well, it's not an official mascot or anything," Sean conceded.

"Not an unofficial mascot either," Melanie said. "Everyone hates it. Well, everyone except Sean. The city council has tried to get the exhibit shut down, what, three times now? 'Cause it's in bad taste. The only people who go there are unsuspecting tourists, and it scares the bejeezus out of the kids."

"But what is it?" Alison pressed.

"It's this thing that they... Well, according to the story, they pulled it out of the sea," Sean said. "But that's just a story, obviously. It's this, like, animatronic thing—"

"I keep telling you, there's no way that's animatronic!" Melanie cut in. "The robots they had at the Chuck E. Cheese before they shut down, those were animatronic! The way that thing moves..." She shuddered again.

"So, what, you think it's real?" Sean asked, grinning.

"I'm just saying," Melanie said. "The way it moves..."

Alison sipped her coffee and listened to their exchange. She got the feeling that they had had this exact conversation before. The rhythm of it was natural, familiar. She wondered if Sean and Melanie were a couple, or if they'd just worked together long enough that they were entirely comfortable in one another's presence. "You're making me even more curious," she commented.

Sean turned back to her, all enthusiasm. She thought she knew the type: the kind of guy who spent nights scouring the web for horror films he hadn't watched yet. The more obscure the better. He was obviously delighted to live in the same town as this Anchorhands thing. "Then go see it," he said. "I could give you directions."

"You still haven't told me what it is."

"I don't want to spoil the surprise," Sean said. "You should seriously, seriously go."

"You really shouldn't," Melanie said. "It's dumb and creepy. Save your money." If they were indeed a couple, Alison decided, then Melanie was definitely the kind of girlfriend who patiently suffered her boyfriend's weird obsessions.

"I'll give you the address," Sean insisted. He found a slip of paper, and leaned down to write on it. Melanie rolled her eyes, and Alison grinned. "There probably aren't any people out there now," Sean said as he wrote. "You can get a solo tour with Captain Billy."

Alison had to laugh at that. "And who is Captain Billy?" she asked.

"The guy who runs the exhibit," Melanie said. "He's a creep. I mean, I don't think he's dangerous," she added. "He's just so creepy."

"Yeah, he's definitely weird," Sean admitted with a shrug. "No getting around that. But that's also kind of part of the experience, you know?"

Alison pursed her lips and tilted her head from side to side, considering. "Well, it's tempting, but I've got a ways to drive," she finally said. Seeing Sean's disappointed expression, she added, "Next Thanksgiving for sure, though."

"Well, here," Sean said. He held out his hand and offered her the paper-slip on which he'd written the address. "In case you change your mind."

Alison took it. Then, she knocked back the last of her latte and handed him the empty styrofoam cup. "Thanks. You want to throw this away for me?"

"No, ma'am," Sean said, taking the cup from her. "We'll put it in the dishwasher and reuse it." He tossed the cup into the wastepaper basket underneath the counter.

Alison laughed again and lifted her hand in farewell. "Okay, y'all take care now," she said, and turned to leave. The two baristas'goodbyes followed her out the door.


Out in the parking lot, Alison unlocked her car. Instead of getting in, though, she stopped for a moment and peered up at the sun. Then she pulled out her phone and checked the time, and looked at the address scrawled on the piece of paper Sean had given her.

After a moment, she laughed to herself. Why the hell not? Her hurry to get home was entirely self-imposed, and she was curious to see what it was the young barista was so excited about. Besides, it might turn out to be a good story: an illustration of the kind of weird shit that went on in the backwoods of her youth.

She plugged the address into her phone. The route her phone calculated took her south, back the way she came, in among a tangle of country roads. It was a long drive; the sign she had seen from the freeway had said "NEXT EXIT," but it had omitted the ten or so further steps necessary to reach the Anchorhands exhibit.

Eventually she reached a big, low building with corrugated-steel walls. A repurposed warehouse, by the look of it. It was distinctly uninviting, and such windows as it had were dark. Even with the address, she might not have known that this was the right place, if not for the sign set out in the middle of the parking lot. "HOME OF ANCHORHANDS," it read. "WELCOME."

Alison's car was the only one there. She parked in front of the warehouse and stepped out onto the parking lot.

She was in a run-down industrial area, all cracked concrete lots. Half the buildings looked empty and disused. Further down the road, she could see a vast lot of storage cubicles. It was still and very quiet. There was no sound of cars. She could only hear - not wind, but the noise of air: the sound of a million tiny air currents in concert.

Alison locked her car, and crossed the parking lot to the warehouse's front door. For a second she was certain that it would be locked tight, but it yielded when she pushed.

"Hello?" she called. Inside the door was an incredibly messy hallway. On her left was an old imitation-wood sideboard absolutely covered in junk mail, newspapers and candy bar wrappers. On her right, scattered old boots and drifts of plastic trash bags encroached on the balding carpet.

Nobody answered her, so she called out again. "Hello?"

This time there was a sound: chair legs scraping against floor. "Yeah," came the distant response, not in assent but in simple acknowledgement of her presence. Alison heard steps, and then one of the doors at the end of the hallway opened.

The man who came to greet her could only be Captain Billy. He was a bowlegged little old man with bad posture. He wore faded jeans and a flannel shirt tucked in at the waist, and he had a lined, leathery face bordered with white beard. It was all too easy to imagine him with a pipe and an old-timey captain's hat.

"Hey there, miss," he said, in a cracked old-man voice, and touched his brow in a lazy salute. "What can I do you for?"

"Hi," Alison said. She stood awkwardly just inside the door. "Uh, someone told me not to miss Anchorhands while I'm in town..."

"Ah." The old man grinned. "God's joke, I call 'im. Sure, miss, it would be my pleasure t'give you the grand tour. I'm Cap'n William Flaherty, but ever'body calls me Cap'n Billy. I'm the owner an'proprietor of this fine establishment."

The Southern twang in his voice was almost parodic. It must be an affectation, Alison thought. In fact, all of Captain Billy, from his posture to his Captain-Ahab beard to his goblin grin, was like a caricature. It was part of the bit, Alison supposed. Everything about the old man fit a cultivated image: that of the jolly old likeable sailor.

Everything but his eyes. They were huge and round, shockingly pale in the old man's leathery face, and they never left Alison's face, as if Captain Billy was worried that she would disappear if he looked away.

"Come now," Captain Billy said, gesturing for her to enter. "Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall. As a fine young man from 'round these parts once sang."

Alison didn't recognize the quote, but she followed the old man along the hallway and through the door straight ahead, which opened onto the warehouse proper.

There was an antique cash register on a little folding table right next to the door. Captain Billy walked round behind it, and from a hook on the wall he took a jacket and - yes - a captain's hat, like something straight out of Gilligan's Island. He put these articles of clothing on, then opened the cash register with a satisfying ka-chunk.

A piece of printer paper had been taped to the table next to the cash register. On it was written in permanent marker: "SORRY - WE ONLY ACCEPT CA$H."

"That'll be twenty-five dollars, miss," Captain Billy said.

Alison was momentarily appalled. There was just no way this was worth twenty-five dollars. Captain Billy stared at her. After a moment or two she reached for her wallet and paid up, certain she was being scammed.

It didn't matter - she could live with parting with twenty-five bucks if it meant satisfying her curiosity. Sean and Melanie at the coffee shop had referred to Anchorhands as "it," but Captain Billy had called it "him." So what was it?

The tour began. The warehouse was full of maritime artifacts, and lit with a myriad of colored lamps that bathed the collection in strange light. There was a grainy photograph of a much younger Captain Billy, smiling, on the deck of a ship. There was a map showing fishing grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. There was a beat-up old lifeboat which Captain Billy claimed had belonged to the ship which picked Anchorhands up.

The old man led Alison through the exhibit, pointing out relevant items as he told the story of how he had come into possession of Anchorhands. It was more than a decade ago, he said, aboard a trawler working out of New Orleans. One day, they'd had trouble bringing the net up - it got stuck a foot or two above the surface of the water.

"An'lookin'down, there he was!" Captain Billy chuckled, as if the memory was a dear one. "Had those big ol'hands buried a good six inches deep in the hull. Holdin'on for dear life. Well, I could hardly believe my eyes..."

All through the tour, even when he cracked a joke and his grin made the wrinkles of his face spiderweb, his eyes never left Alison's face, and his smiles never reached them.

When Alison was little, she and her sister Wendy had once amused themselves by cutting a ping-pong ball in half, drawing black dots on the halves, and holding them in front of their eyes to make big bulging cartoon eyes. She found herself remembering that time now.

She decided that Melanie had been right. Captain Billy was definitely a little creepy.


At long last, near the end of the tour, Captain Billy led Alison to the back of the room. Along the back wall there was a threadbare red curtain, like a miniature version of the curtain on a theater stage. Above it hung a length of string, threaded with big golden cardboard letters of the type that can be bought at any store that sells party supplies. The letters spelled out "ANCHORHANDS."

"And now, ladies and gentlemen," Captain Billy said, then grinned at Alison. "Sorry, miss, been doin'this for too long. It's practically automatic at this point... Ladies and gentlemen, the moment y'all've been waitin'for!"

With a flourish, the captain flipped a switch on the wall next to the curtain; there was the whine of an electrical motor, and the curtain slowly and uncertainly parted. Behind it was an alcove. In the alcove stood a tank.

The tank was cylindrical, filled with old water, and big enough to easily accommodate an adult standing while still leaving a foot or so of headroom. The thick Plexiglas was scored and dulled, and the water and the tank's curve distorted the thing inside.

The thing in the tank was bound, by its ankles and by what must technically be called its wrists. It hung upside-down, the way a fisher might display a record-breaking catch. A grotesque joke - it certainly wasn't a fish, though it had been marked by the sea: bone and metal alike was thickly crusted with barnacles.

Anchorhands hung still, only its jaw working, its eroded teeth clicking together arrhythmically. Alison couldn't hear the clicking, with the water and the Plexiglas in the way, but she could imagine it all too easily.

"We had to tie 'is arms up," the Captain said, with good humor. "Kept scratchin'at the glass, didn't 'e?" He crouched down as he said this last part, looking into the thing's face, speaking as if to an unruly pet.

Part of Alison wondered who the old man meant by "we." She had seen nothing to suggest that anybody but Captain Billy worked at this place. Mostly, though, she was transfixed by the sight of the tank and its occupant. Of Anchorhands.

It was hard to tell, with the murky water and the clustered barnacles obscuring her view, but as far as she could tell the two jagged anchors seemed to be part of it. Where the wrist joint should be, the bone instead seemed to fuse seamlessly with the rusted metal, as if it had grown there instead of being somehow attached. The effect was to make the thing's arms look almost comically long.

For some reason, Alison didn't feel like laughing.

"Wake up now," the Captain exhorted. He was still sitting on his haunches, and was addressing the thing called Anchorhands. "Cain't you see we've got comp'ny? No sleepin'on the job!" And he reached out and rapped a knuckle on the tank.

Anchorhands reacted instantly. It jerked violently and struggled against its bonds, its head tossing from side to side. It began swinging itself from side to side to the best of its ability; its cranium hit the tank with a dull thud which made Captain Billy chortle as if it was the funniest thing he'd ever seen. And all the while, its jaw worked, chomping water.

Alison supposed it might not have been aware of their presence up until Captain Billy knocked on the Plexiglas - it could hardly see them standing outside its tank, after all, with its eyes long gone. Then she kicked herself mentally for acting like Anchorhands was alive. It was fake. It was mechanical.

But Melanie at the coffee shop had been right about another thing: Anchorhands didn't look animatronic. There was nothing stiff and jerky about the thing's movements. Alison looked for the strings, but could see none. Water currents, she thought - jets of water might make the thing in the tank move like that. But if so, there should be bubbles...

"Well, miss? What do you think?" Captain Billy asked. "Pretty li'l thing, ain't he?"

"It's... I mean, it's animatronic," Alison said. "Right?"

"Oh, not at all, miss," the old man replied, grinning ghoulishly. "Science cain't explain it. Me, I think this is just that good Lord amusin'himself." The haunted pale eyes stared at her, unblinking.

Alison's mouth felt dry. She wanted to look away, but she couldn't bring herself to. The small sensible part of her told her that she was being stupid, but there was something viscerally unsettling about the struggling, bound thing in the tank, about the way it moved.

"I know how you feel, miss," Captain Billy said, with avuncular good cheer. "I got the shakes myself, first time I saw 'im. He's a real ugly customer."

He wants to be let out, Alison thought. He doesn't like the tank! Captain Billy's way of speaking about Anchorhands was rubbing off; without realizing it, she had slipped easily from thinking about it as "it," to thinking about it as "him." You have to let him out!

But the old man was grinning at her as if her discomfort amused him mightily. She didn't want to give him the satisfaction. Besides, she told herself, it's not real. Just a cheap roadside attraction. Just a magic trick.

Instead she said, "Do you mind if I take some pictures?"

Captain Billy pursed his lips, as if probing at a tooth with his tongue. "Mm... well, usually I don't allow it, but for you, miss, I'll make an exception."

I bet you say that to all the ladies, Alison thought. She got her phone out and snapped a few pictures, but the lighting was poor, and still images did not do Anchorhands justice. She switched over and recorded about a minute of video material instead. Inside the tank, Anchorhands was still struggling, but weakly now. Its teeth still clicked together in that oblique rhythm. If there was a pattern there, Alison couldn't see it. It just looked random, and reassuringly mechanical besides. It isn't real, she reminded herself again.

Captain Billy stood by, hands behind his back. When she put her phone away, he flipped the switch, and the motor whirred once more as the curtain closed. The tank - and the thing it contained - disappeared from view. Once the curtain was fully closed and the noise of the motor died away, Alison could still hear the dull, distant thumping of Anchorhands banging its head on the Plexiglas tank.

"Now, miss," Captain Billy said, "might I interest you in some fine Anchorhands memorabilia? The gift shop is just this way..."


All in all, this digression cost Alison just under two hours of daylight. That night, she had to stop further south to sleep than she would have liked. The next day, she arrived home in the afternoon, rather than late in the morning as she had originally planned.

During the following days, she thought a lot about the Anchorhands exhibit. It had affected her, touched her in a way she hadn't expected. She felt a little sick whenever she thought about the barnacle-crusted thing in the tank, the way she'd felt as a kid when she accidentally saw something too violent on TV or on the internet.

She thought about Captain Billy, too. She wondered if he'd ever actually been a sea captain, or if that was just a shtick for the sake of the exhibit. Most of the things in the old repurposed warehouse could've come from anywhere, and he might just have been a passenger on the boat where the photograph of him was taken.

She showed the video she'd taken on her phone to her friends. A couple of them were fascinated and jealous of what the weirdness she'd experienced. Most of them wanted to know why she would ever waste money on something like that. In hindsight, Alison was at a loss for how to justify it, even to herself; "I was curious" didn't seem to cut it.

If she dared so much as imply the possibility that the thing in the video was a living being, she was laughed at and relentlessly mocked. That was understandable - she had to admit that watching the video on her phone was nothing like seeing Anchorhands in person. After a while, she began to laugh at herself. She couldn't believe she had been so silly, getting so frightened by what was, when you thought about it, really nothing more than a rejected grimdark Chuck E. Cheese character.

She didn't think about Anchorhands for a few months.

Then, one day while cleaning out her phone, she found the video again. She saved it on her computer, and uploaded it to YouTube almost as an afterthought. The video quality was bad, and the video was in portrait mode besides, giving it huge, useless, black borders on the video player. She seriously doubted it would get any views.

She was wrong. Anchorhands.mp4 garnered over a thousand views in a little under a month. Apparently there was a niche market on the internet for videos of weird, creepy animatronics. Fifty people or so left comments on the video, most ranging from "that's so creepy" to "that's so dumb." One person wrote: "WTF I LIVE IN THIS TOWN!" Alison wondered if that commenter might have been Sean the barista.

A month after she had uploaded the video, she received an email alert that someone had posted a comment on it. (She'd been meaning to turn the alerts off, given the unaccustomed volume of people commenting on the Anchorhands video. She just hadn't gotten around to it yet.) She idly checked the comment, and felt a shiver despite herself.

The comment read: "omg i just noticed smth freaky! look at its teeth! thats morse code i think. hard to see cuz its shaky but i think its saying 'help me die'"