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Be afraid

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Joe knew all the people round the dinner table: his mum, his brother, and the man with a face like a skull. The man had been there for some time, and he wouldn't go away; Joe had asked, then begged, then cursed. He’d given up, now, but that hadn't worked either: the skull man still sat at the table whenever Joe came for food.

“Tonight,” the man with the skull was saying. “It will happen tonight, and there's nothing you can do.” He sounded disinterested, in the way that adults do, like how his father would talk about stock markets or events in a distant war. Joe sighed, disguising his gnawing terror. “Mum,” he said, “the skull man says it’s tonight. Whatever he’s been planning, whatever he’s waited for. Tonight's when he's going to kill us all.”

His Mum sighed in a different way from Joe, a sigh that was exhausted and angry at once. “Stop it with your skull man, Joe! I can't take it now, not with the whole of today. I'm not buying it, it's not an excuse. ‘There's no point studying ‘cause the skull man will kill us all!’ It’s more inventive than the dog eating your homework, but it's still just as bloody annoying.”

Joe’s brother grunted assent from behind his giant book. Invisibly, the skull man rose from his chair.

“Can't you see him?” Joe said weakly. “It's not exactly like he’s small.” The skull man now nearly filled the kitchen with his wispy body, expanding like gas as he moved towards the flaming hob.

“They can't see me, Joe,” said the man with a face like a skull. “There are few of your people who can. That’s why I'm here, I suppose. That’s why your family has to die.” His wispy body moved over the hob, and flames licked up and over him until he was just fire wreathed round a bone-dead grin. Joe’s courage collapsed, and he began to cry. His mother, anger forgotten, stopped what she was doing and came down to his side.

“It's okay, honey,” she said. “The skull man isn’t real. It's just us here, okay? With our skulls all safe in our heads. There’s nothing to be frightened of.”

The flames spread up to the roof, and down the walls. The fire alarm failed to go off, and melted off the ceiling instead. Smoke filled up the tiny room, and at the centre of it was a single grinning skull.

“There’s nothing to be frightened of,” repeated Joe’s mother, as fire dripped down and ignited her hair. “N’thn to be frightened of,” grunted his brother, as he read from a book that burned and burned. It was hard to see it now, but it was almost as if the skull was grinning even wider…

...Joe screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed.

Fire continued to fill up the burning room.