Kristen Houghton is the author of the best-selling series, A Cate Harlow Private Investigation and the novella Welcome to Hell, which was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. Her fantasy YA novel, Lilith Angel, was released in April, 2019.  She is also the author of nine works of fiction and one non-fiction book. She loves writing horror stories which she terms her ‘strange imaginative gift.’


by Kristen Houghton


After listening to Aaron Ralston’s heart, the doctor removed the ear buds of her stethoscope, sat back, patted him on the shoulder, and smiled.

“Nice, strong, steady beat, Aaron.” She looked down at her tablet. “Blood pressure is classic textbook. All blood work is excellent.”

“So, I’m healthy?” Aaron sighed.

The sigh of disappointment made the doctor look at Aaron’s face. She’d just given him wonderful news. At the age of seventy-three, he should be happy and relieved that he was so healthy. Maybe he’s just having a bad day, she thought. Ageing isn’t fun even when you’re healthy.

The doctor patted Aaron’s arm. “Looks like you’re going to live forever, Aaron!”


Live forever? thought Aaron as he walked on the sidewalk, head down and lost in thought. What’s there to really live for anyway? A retired, divorced old man on a lousy pension and social security. He’d once dreamed of traveling, ‘seeing the world’ as some called it. He’d worked hard and put away some nice savings for retirement. Had it all planned out.

But pricey college tuition for his two sons—two young men who rarely had time to even call him, let alone visit, and a nasty divorce from his wife—had all but wiped out his savings. Now the only place he might travel would be to the little shops and the library in his small town. Live forever! His depression didn’t welcome that idea.

Preoccupied with the miserable wonderings of what to do with the rest of his life, he bumped hard into a young woman who was standing near a ‘Ride-Share’ wait sign. The package she had been holding fell to the ground and Aaron bent to retrieve it.

“Excuse me. I’m so sorry. Really, sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was going,” he told the woman.

“No problem. It happens to all of us at one time or another. We just need to really see where we want to go.”

The sound of her voice made Aaron look up at her as he handed back the package but she had turned away from him toward the street and had her hand out to flag down an approaching car.

An Über pulled up to the curb and the driver jumped out to open the door for her. Before she entered the car, the woman turned and stared at Aaron for a long time—so long that the Über driver cleared his throat as if to ask if she were ready to go. She laughed lightly, gave a little wave to Aaron, and got in the car.

But that look, that stare, that voice... her face.

It couldn’t be. She was gone. He knew that she was gone. And yet, this woman, this young woman—and young was the key word here. If he’d had to guess her age he’d say she was about twenty-five, no more than that, so rationally he knew that it wasn’t the same woman he had known for over thirty years before she’d passed on.

But her face and voice! She was the very image of Emmy Johansen, the old woman who had lived a few houses down from him.

Emmy died two years ago in some nursing home.

Aaron sighed with frustration. It had happened before. Last week, while he was driving back from the grocery store, he’d thought he’d seen the orthodontist, Dr. Peter Colson. The man had looked exactly like Colson had looked when he was a younger man just opening up his practice.

God help me, thought Aaron, shaking a bit. Colson had fitted Aaron’s oldest boy with braces when he was a kid. It couldn’t be Colson—he’s been dead for years. Died on some cruise to the Bahamas.

He threw out his thoughts and headed for home. The kid who mowed his lawn was at his door. “Hey Mr. Ralston. How ya doing?” He pointed to the front yard. “Lawn looks good huh? That fertilizer you told me to put on last month really worked.”

“Yeah, it looks good.” Aaron handed the boy an envelope and asked him to put the sprinklers on before he left.

“Sure thing Mr. R,” he said as he counted out the bills in the envelope. “Anything else?”

“No, that’s it.”

“Mind if I shoot a few baskets when I’m done? You’ve got a sweet layout here.”

Aaron nodded yes, then walked over towards his driveway and picked up the basketball lying under the basket hanging over the old garage. The ‘sweet lay-out’ had been put up for his own two sons and he thought about all the pick-up games he and his kids had played over the years. On impulse he tossed the ball to the boy and said, “One on one?”

“Really?” The boy turned from having turned on the sprinklers. “You bet!”

They played for about a half hour until the kid’s phone beeped. “I gotta go. My mom wants me to get my little sister from a friend’s house. It’s goin’ toward four o’clock. Thanks for the game.”

“Sure. See you next week then.”

Aaron faced the basket from a three-pointer position. With one easy move he sent it up and through the net.The kid, standing near the spigot, watched in admiration. “Wow, Mr. R., sweet!”

“Thanks, just a lucky shot.”

The boy shook his head. “No way. You’re really good for an old guy. You could probably play like this forever. Like, ya know? Imagine being able to live forever playing basketball, right? What a great thought. Sweet!”

He watched the boy bike away and shook his head. Live forever to play basketball. Jesus kid, now why would I want to do that? Live forever?  Getting older every day. Bah!

Aaron looked at his house. The thought of going back into those empty rooms all alone made him sad. Live forever? Old and alone? Aaron decided to go for a walk.

The route he took led him toward the Van Patters Old Dutch Pastry Shoppe, a place that supposedly had been in existence since the late 1600s. It was founded by a Dutch settler, a baker whose pastries were made from old world recipes which he had sworn were passed down in his family from medieval times. The pastry business was still owned and operated by one of his descendants. Each owner’s picture was displayed on the walls, from old hand-painted figures from the 1600s up to the present day digital photos.

The building was very old but still sturdy—it had been built, the sign said, in 1692—and inside there were still some Old Dutch words written in half faded script over the shelves where the cakes and pastries beckoned.

Degenen die de grafschendervoeden, zullenvooraltijdleven.

No one knew what they meant. Eduart—the current owner who carried the same name as all of the men in the pictures and certainly bore a strong family resemblance to them all—said that the words were probably an Old Dutch Reformed Church blessing or maybe even just Old Dutch words for pastries

“Who knows anymore?” he said annoyed whenever anyone asked. “I can’t read that language. Who really cares?”

Whatever, thought Aaron. What mattered was that the pastries were excellent, thick with heavy cream, and the over large cups of coffee always strong and hot. The sweet confections seemed to call out to him and he decided to stop and have two of them with a good cup of coffee.

A car stopped at the crosswalk to let Aaron cross the street. As he turned to wave a thank you to the driver, his hand froze halfway into the wave. The young man smiling at him through the driver’s side open window was someone he knew. Or, someone he had known. Carl Rassmussen.

Good ol’ Carl who’d been his golf partner for years. Youth and vitality oozed from the guy in the car.

No, no. This man couldn’t be the Carl he knew. The Carl he’d seen the last few years had been bald, stooped, and suffering from arthritis that had turned his once strong hands into crippled bird claws that made gripping a golf club painful.

He pulled himself together and entered the pastry shop.

“Want coffee?” Aaron’s heart jumped as he turned and saw old Gandy, the small, strange-looking little man who was the chief baker. He had a long, sharp nose and odd features that made him look rather grotesque and frightening. Gandalfir, always called Gandy, usually stayed in the back of the pastry shop with his ovens, rarely venturing forth when anyone was there.  

Gandy had been at the pastry shop forever. He had been there with Eduart’s father and his grandfather before him. He slept in a small room behind the kitchen. No one knew how old Gandy was, but with his pale skin, wrinkled face, and drooping eyelids, he looked ancient.

Eduart seemed to always defer to Gandy, treating him with the utmost respect. He had once told Aaron that Gandy was the best pastry chef around. “He’s damned good. A Michelangelo. What he does with dough—” Eduart had trailed off, a worried look on his face. “Anyway, he’s damned good.”

Dressed all in white with a long apron and his baker’s hat low on his head, Gandy was now standing next to Aaron with a mug and a pot of coffee.

“Yes, yes please, Gandy,” said Aaron recovering quickly and happy to be taken away from his thoughts. “Yes, I’d like some and have you got any of those whipped cream filled pastries with the chocolate topping?”

Bossche bol,” said the baker giving the pastry its proper name. “Sure we got them. I made them fresh today.” He looked closely at Aaron, seeming to study his face. “Wait here, I’ll bring you two of them and a surprise.”

Surprise? Well, thought Aaron, I don’t think I need any more surprises.

He remembered about Emmy and Carl, even Dr. Colson, how age had changed them and then, how one day, they were no longer here. Dead and gone. But, today, he’d thought he’d seen two of them as they were when they were younger. Vital and alive. Delusions. Has to be delusions.

Gandy came back with the pastries and a small bottle. He placed the cakes on the table and said, “Today, I bring you my special magische vloeistof. Good to have in coffee. I make it from an old recipe.”

“What’s in it?’

“Eggs, sugar, chamomile, and a special spring water. Magic liquid, I call the spring water.” He winked at Aaron and smiled a crooked smile exposing sharp broken teeth. “You look like you need this. It’s good for you. Try some.” 

Aaron held out his coffee cup and Gandy poured a small amount of the amber-colored liquid into it. Magic liquid.  He drank it down savoring the lush taste of this magische vloeistof. It tasted like fresh water from an underground spring; earthy, full of natural minerals.

Gandy poured more coffee into his cup and added another generous pour of his special magic liquid. About fifteen minutes after drinking half the coffee, Aaron felt as if the weight and worry of the day had left him. So he was old and still had a long life ahead of him, so his doctor had given him a clean bill of health, so he lived alone. So what? None of that seemed of any importance. What were important at this moment were the delicious pastries and this extraordinarily good coffee.

He looked around the pastry shop and saw that Eduart was going about the nightly business of closing up, counting the money in the cash register, and locking it in a drawer under the counter. How long have I been here? Aaron figured he had come in a little after four in the afternoon and now—he glanced at his watch— it was almost seven at night. Time to leave. Aaron pushed back his chair and began to get up.

“Stay, stay,” Eduart said, pushing his palms down in the universal gesture of telling someone to stay. “Finish your coffee. Relax.  Gandy, uh, Gandy will let you out and lock the door after you right, Gandy?”

Gandy nodded and poured more coffee and that earthy-tasting liquid into Aaron’s cup. “Sure I will. I take good care of him, Eduart, you know I will. He’s a gift.” He smiled his crooked smile again exposing those broken sharp teeth. “I will take good care of this young man.”

Young man? Young man indeed. Aaron laughed a little as he sipped his coffee. Bullshit to that.

“This stuff is good, Gandy.” Aaron looked at the little man standing across from him. Maybe it was the magische vloeistof in his coffee or maybe it was just the glare from the setting sun shining through the windows but Aaron found that the ugliness of Gandy’s face was, in its own strange way, actually kind of beautiful.

“Sit down and have some coffee with me, Gandy. I don’t want to go home just yet.”

Gandy pulled a chair out and sat down facing Aaron. “Something is on your mind, yes? Something that you find strange? Don’t want to be alone in the house, eh? Want to stay here with old Gandalfir?”

Yes, you’re so right, Aaron thought. No. I don’t want to be alone. He began to tell Gandy about seeing people he knew were dead…seeing them as alive and young. How could that be?

“I was a young man full of life, Gandy. I played basketball, I ran track. When did it all go away? My youth, my precious youth. What I wouldn’t give to be young again!”

Gandy nodded as if he understood. Aaron put his head on the table and sobbed as the sun went down and light disappeared from the pastry shop’s windows. The room was warm and dark and peaceful. He closed his eyes.


The whirring noise of the dough machine woke him and Aaron opened his eyes slowly and found himself staring at the ceiling. The last thing he remembered was laying his head on the small table in the front of the pastry shop and closing his eyes for a few minutes. It was so peaceful and quiet that he must have dozed off.

But now he was not in the front room of the pastry shop and he was not sitting in a chair. He was lying on a long table in the kitchen of Van Patters Old Dutch Pastry Shop.

Intense heat seemed to radiate from one of the large ovens. The heat made his eyes water and he tried to lift his hand to rub his eyes but he found that his hands were tied to the thick wood of the board. He tried to move but could feel ropes holding his body down. Ropes were tied around his chest, his waist, and his legs and ankles.

What the hell? Am I dreaming? Some weird nightmare? Aaron blinked his eyes rapidly and ran his tongue over his lips. No, I’m awake, I know that I’m awake. Why am I tied to a baking board? A robbery? That’s it, that has to be it!

Eduart kept cash in that drawer under the counter. He didn’t make a secret of keeping money in the shop. Maybe the place is being robbed and whoever broke in knocked him out, dragged him into the kitchen, and tied him up. And Gandy? Where was Gandy? Did the robbers kill him or is he tied up in the back room where he sleeps?

“Gandy! Gandy are you here? Are you all right? Gandy!”

A distant noise made him stop, hold his breath, and listen carefully. The muffled sound came from the rear door of the pastry shop. It sounded as if the door was being opened and then closed. There were hushed whispers.

Aaron looked around and his eyes saw that someone else was in the kitchen with him. Someone who was asleep, or more likely still knocked out, lay on one of the other tables used to roll out the dough for the pastries. Gandy! He strained his eyes. No not Gandy. The body was long, not bent and crooked like Gandy’s.

“Hey! Hey, you there! Wake up! I need help. I don’t know what has happened but we sure as hell need to get out of here and call the police. Wake up, damnit!”

The figure on the table didn’t move. As Aaron’s eyes became accustomed to his surroundings he saw that the figure was that of a naked man. Where were his clothes? A well-built young man. Dark hair, tall, the muscles of his arms and legs showing that he was athletic. Healthy.

Using all the strength he had and straining hard against the ropes, Aaron maneuvered his body so he could get a better look at the other person. “Hey, hey buddy! Wake the hell up! A crime is being committed and we have to get the cops. Help me! Help—”

Aaron stopped, stared, and gasped. The man on the table! No, impossible. I’m not seeing this! He stifled a scream as he stared and stared at that inert figure. It couldn’t be!

The naked man on the table was an exact replica of himself, Aaron Ralston! Aaron as he had once been, young and strong and attractive.

Aaron struggled with the ropes and strained his neck to look again. It was him alright. But the Aaron lying on that long wooden table was not moving, he was not—the body was not alive! It looked like a sculpture of some type. My God! Aaron screamed and screamed.

“What is all the fuss you make? I see the magische vloeistof  has worked well. It is like a twilight sleep. You fall asleep for a few hours. Gives me time to do my work.”

A small stooped figure came into the kitchen. Gandy! He was alive! Aaron pointed with his chin toward the dough figure and Gandy walked over to inspect it. Then he smiled, his sharp teeth gleaming like spiky shards of broken glass.

“Ah. Yes. Almost ready.” He turned to Aaron. “Good, yes? You like it? I think this is one of the best dough sculptures I have made.” He laughed. Aaron shook his head. What the hell was Gandy talking about!

Gandy dragged a work stool over to Aaron and sat so that he was facing him. He didn’t move to untie Aaron. He looked at the knotted rope that tied Aaron to the board with satisfaction.

“I’m a grafschender. Do you know what that is?”

“Untie me, Gandy.” Aaron tried to make his voice sound strong and demanding. “What’s going on here? Untie me now!”

Ignoring his demand, Gandy continued. “Tell me, Aaron Ralston. What do I look like to you, eh? My face, my bent body.” He pulled off his baker’s cap. “My long pointed ears.”

Aaron stared in horror and disbelief at the small man. He looked evil, not human. Gandy smiled and showed his teeth again then clicked them together like a hungry animal. “Almost time for dinner.”

He pushed the table with the Aaron sculpture near to where Aaron lay tied down and stood between the two figures. “They all come to me, you know. You’re not the first. Whining about their problems, crying about getting old. Your friends, yes they all came here.I tell them they will disappear far from here and they agree. Then I give them what they want. But first I take what is mine. A gift for my gift.”

Hushed whispers were heard again from the back door and the faintest sound of a smothered laugh. “Everything is timing, you see. I have to put the soul from the old body into the new young body, the one made from my special dough. I had a devil of a time figuring that out.”

Gandy laughed. “But then, then I saw that the soul leaves the body just at—and only at—the exact moment of death. It cannot be before or after that moment, no, not by one second even. Then you have to make sure the soul enters the new body quickly, quickly. So I had to plan the throat-biting cut just right.”

He flashed his long, sharp incisors at Aaron. “It was hard for me, Aaron, because I love the flesh that is just under the chin, that soft part of the skin. I just wanted to eat and eat but I had to make sure that the soul went directly into the new body. I had to pace myself. I had to do the carotid cut first.”

As Aaron watched in horror, Gandy bit deeply into the neck of the dough figure leaving a slim opening where the carotid artery would be, then turned to Aaron. “Ah Aaron, tonight I give you what you want! What the people you saw wanted and got.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Aaron saw small bent figures moving toward him, whispering, laughing quietly, their eyes glowing and their teeth gleaming like small knives. Gandy spoke to them in a language Aaron didn’t know and two of the creatures rushed to the table and held Aaron’s head in a viselike grip.

Gandy touched Aaron’s neck with his long fingers checking for the pulsing artery. “Do you know how old Eduart really is? Why he lets me stay here? He is over five hundred years old! And he lets me stay because of those words written over the pastry shelves. I wrote them there a long, long, long time ago. Degenen die de grafschendervoeden, zullenvooraltijdleven. You know what they mean?”

Unable to move, Aaron just stared wildly at Gandy.

“It means: Feed the ghoul and you will live forever. A grafschender is a ghoul, Aaron. I am a ghoul.”

The ghoul bit deeply into the artery in Aaron’s neck and watched as the blood poured forth in bubbling gurgles. At the exact moment of death, the soul left Aaron’s body, hovering over it as if uncertain where to go. Gandy gently blew on the soul, guiding it with his breath, and he and the other creatures watched it float gently into the open throat of the dough sculpture.

Gandy patted the sculpture and whispered, “Soon. In an hour you will leave for your new, young life.”

Then, gathering around Aaron, he and the rest of the ghouls savagely devoured his flesh.


The young man turned the radio up and rolled down the windows of his new SUV. The soundtrack from the movie Fame blared loudly as he roared through the town. I’m gonna learn how to shine. Shine! I’m gonna live forever. Baby, remember my name.

Smiling, Aaron thought, What an appropriate song. He drove away, singing.

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