A 2020 Pushcart Prize nominee, 2020 Best of the Net nominee, and 2020 Best New England Crime Stories finalist, John Mara writes lakeside in New Hampshire with the creative input of his wife Holly. They often attract mortified glances in restaurants, where they too often discuss characters and plots. A multi-genre writer, John tends to converse in the genre he’s thinking about and makes better dinner company when it’s humor, not horror.

Besides The Horror Zine, you can find John’s 30-plus short stories published in Liquid Imagination, J.J. Outre Review, Youth Imagination, and other venues.

by John Mara

“It dun happened, Alfred.”

“Who the hell is this?”

“Name’s Jed. I help’round yer Paw’s farm.”

“Hello then, Jed. What is it that done happened?”

“Yer Paw, Alfred. He’s toes up in that barn out back. The one with all them gol’ dang bats.”

“Did a bat bite him or something?”

“Hell no! Yer Paw’s their keeper. There’s got to be a million of them furry devils in that barn. Why, one of ‘em—”

“Enough with the bats already!”

“Ya doan sound too broke up none about yer Paw.”

“We were estranged, my father and I.” College ended for me when Dad fled Boston and bought a lonely farm in northern New Hampshire. Twenty years on, I’m still waiting booths at the Town Diner. I was serving a mountain of greasy bacon when Jed called to sprinkle some green manna from heaven. Finally a break!

“Stranged, was ya?” Jed says.“Either way, are ya comin’ or ain’t ya?”

My grimy apron skids across the counter. “I’m halfway there, Jed.”

I’m familiar with bats.


At the end of an abandoned lumber road, my dusty ’88 Saab turns right across a wooden bridge spanning a creek, the pine guardrails on one side freshly snapped. In the water below—dark as the river Styx—a rusty Ford pickup truck is flipped on its roof. Dried blood cakes the broken windshield, but the cab is empty.

It’s twilight, so a dozen sentinel bats—double the size of any native New Englander—land on my car’s hood and a row of beady eyes peer through the windshield. It’s not too dark yet, so I can see it clearly. With a shudder, I get out of the car and back away with a few bananas for lunch, waiting for the curious bats to leave.

But one monster seems to grin as though marking me forever. Four others land on my shoulders to scent the banana offering. A wriggling bat flutters its wings against my chest, and a dog-nosed fiend nestles its snout in my ear. I make a disgusted sound. The bats snarl when I try to pull away, and to get rid of them, I throw the bananas on the ground.

Smacking lips, the giant bats retreat, but they escort the Saab up to the farmhouse. The darkening sky is silent; no sparrows sing, no mosquitoes buzz. The fields lie fallow, littered with the bleached bones of wild and domestic animals alike. Its clapboards decaying, the farmhouse itself looks dead. A cardboard sign nailed to a porch post is scrawled, UNH:Don’t Feed the Bats!

The porch light is already on. Jed rocks a rickety chair that creaks in time with his knees. He strokes the gray bristle on an array of chins and spurts tobacco juice onto the rotting floorboards. On the rail facing Jed are four of the beefy bats, flapping vampire-like, membranous wings. The group of five strikes me as a legislative body governing this hidden, desolate realm, Jed presiding. With a vacant look and lolling tongue, Jed waves an arm to end the Congress, and the four bats fly away.

“That you, Jed?”

Shirtless in the humid heat, Jed lumbers down off the porch. He reaches deep into bib overalls to relieve the itch in his crotch and then pumps my hand through the open Saab window. “Hello thar, Alfred!”

Bats circle overhead, first a few and then hundreds as the sky continues to darken, the sentinels having spread the news of a newcomer’s arrival. Their droppings smear the Saab’s windshield and plop on Jed’s overalls. “Dang critters!”

Jed blows a modified bird whistle, and the bats fly back to the barn. “Lots o’ bat shit on yer perty red car there, Alfred. Ah he heee!”

“Never mind the car! Where’s my father?”

The gnarly hair on Jed’s chest gets a raking. “Foller me.”

We take the windy path down to the dilapidated barn, where bats fly freely in and out of every crack and crevice in the wall planks, the leaky roof, and the broken windows. The barn and the ground nearby are layered white, like a holiday gingerbread house overdone with frosting.

“Let me turn on the light. Watch yer girly beach thongs, Alfred,” Jed sniggers and lays down a few pine planks. We cross the guano moat and Jed opens the barn doors a crack.“Doan wanna disturb the hotel guests.”

At the threshold, a bat pup supping Dad’s blood-matted gray hair scurries away. Inside, the heat, humidity, and putrid bat shit mix into a miasma that coats my skin and rasps my nostrils. The tee-shirt pulled over my mouth and nose hardly filters the tomb-like stench. But Jed seems immune—no, to thrive—in the dank, dreadful underworld.

The yammering bats withdraw to the white rafters and into every dark, angled corner of the coliseum-sized barn. Rank on rank, thousands of red, vacuous eyes look on.

“Yep, he’s dun dead all right,” Jed says. “Right where I found ‘im.”

“He’s blue. He had a heart attack.” Eyes closed, I wish we’d reconciled.

In a moment, the bats begin to stir once again. A few keen and others follow. The bad news is passed down the line: the bat keeper is dead for sure.

“These bats are bigger than any I’ve seen, Jed.”

“They’re Bow-livian vampire bats. A loony UNH professor paid yer Paw to put some here fer research. But they bred like rats!”           

Around the repurposed barn, pinewood roosts crowd every possible space on the floor and along the walls. Above, the roosts are stacked, layer upon layer, beyond the rafters, so many that they blot out the light.

A new waft of thick air knocks me back. “Aachh, this place reeks!”

Jed swings open the two barn doors. Fresh air rushes in. Jed pulls on a string from the ceiling and another barn light comes in. It casts light on my father’s shirtless torso too, dotted with more red bites than a child with chicken pox.

“Why is my father’s truck in the creek?”

“Two days ago, yer Paw tried to vamoose. The bats covered the getaway truck three-thick at the bridge. That’s when he took a swim.”

“How’d get out of the creek?”

“Yer Paw climbed out and tried to run across the bridge. What I saw was a man wearin’ a furry bat tuxedo, wings a-flappin’ and all. Ah he heee!”

“How’d he get away?”

“That screechin’ bat suit calmed itself when yer Paw, lunatic eyes a-bulgin’, started crawlin’ back towards the farm. Saved hisself, yer Paw did. But he wasn’t the same. He wandered ‘round here like a mumblin’ preacher. Said he didn’t keep the bats no more. Said the bats kept him.”

“Did you feed the bats, with my father laid up?”

“Huh! Didn’t you read yer Paw’s warnin’ sign? Feed them winged devils a morsel and they own you. Won’t let you leave here. Jus’ ask yer Paw.”

“Let’s get him back to the farmhouse.”

“I’ll fetch the wheelbarrow. We’ll give ‘im a royal procession. Ah he heee!”

Jed plods away and the bats study me with their beady eyes. A host of them scamper aside to reveal, in the deepest cavern of the barn, a puppy-sized, bulbous vampire bat. A few others nearby preen the nappy fur of what is surely the queen of the herd. She gives one of her workers a mango, and the worker presents it at my feet. The queen squeaks a soft salute that cascades from stoop to stoop, louder and louder, signaling my communal acceptance: I’m part of their accursed world now.

The induction ceremony ends when Jed returns. “In ya go, ol’ fella,” Jed says, and we hoist my father into the wheelbarrow.

The bats begin to squawk, this time in anguish, and the carping reaches a crescendo.

I light a Lucky Strike with trembling hands. “What’s the chorus for?”

“Can’t ya tell? It’s a funeral dirge fer yer Paw.”

The send off ends when two vampires alight on my shoulders. This time, their talons take purchase in my skin. They smell fear.

Mopping sweat, we coax the wheelbarrow up the path, a two-man chain gang with the bats on patrol. Jed glances at the two guards riding shotgun on my shoulders. “Looks like the inn already hired a new keeper. Ah he heee!”

The farmhouse comes into view and so does the Saab—an escape hatch out of this brooding, mad world. I panic and race to it. The two jumbo guards wail to sound the alarm, and one bites my neck, piercing the skin with its fangs. The other claws through my new Red Sox tee-shirt and gouges the New Hampshire state map into my heart-pounding chest. I beat both bats away with a fist and take refuge in the Saab.

I turn on my headlights and search the glove compartment for my iPhone, a tether line to civilization, to dial 9-1-1 and put an end to this otherworld. But pressed against the windshield are Jed’s puffy jowls, grinding the bacon slabs I left on the dashboard. In front of a greasy smile, Jed dangles the iPhone by its lanyard.

“What are you doing!” I scream. “Get out of the way or I’ll run you over!”

Jed spins away when I floor the accelerator. In the rear-view mirror—a portal into hell—Jed blows that goddamn bird whistle, this time in a discordant tone. The barn disgorges a phalanx of bats that cast a moving shadow behind me.

They’re gaining on me! I reach the bridge, ready to throttle across the boundary of the bat kingdom and to freedom.

Suddenly, the bridge is no longer in sight. An undiluted terror grips me as the shadow descends, and the fastest among the ravening horde blanket the Saab. The bats’ noxious body heat fouls the air vents. The interior of my car shrinks into a dismal coffin. I remember the truck in the creek and know there’s no way to escape this post-apocalyptic world. Retching at the fetid smell, I summon the courage to shift the Saab. Slowly, very slowly, I back up. I’m familiar with bats and know what they want.

In what seems a lifetime—and in a way it is—the bloodthirsty mass senses surrender and the measured attack subsides. Deathly silent, they dismount the car, two by two, but continue to block the bridge. The little beasts cluster beneath the Saab’s front grill to trail the car as it backs up, their yelps trumpeting a prisoner taken and a battle won. Jed, too, registers victory; he blows the bird whistle to call the bats back to the barn. It’s feeding time.

Back at the front porch, Jed rocks in his throne. Hotter than the car engine, I flex both fists. But Jed returns my icy glare witha crazed, sideways grin and shows the butt of a .38 revolver in his overalls. “Feed the perty critters for yer Paw there, Alfred. Like a good boy. Ah he heee!”

Behind the barn, I slide open the garage door of a windowless, pre-fab industrial warehouse. University of New Hampshire is printed on its side in green block letters. Inside, crates of imported fruit—mango, guava, and bananas—reach for the ceiling. I haul out the leaky crates and spread the half-rotted feast, keeping ahead of the gorging black tarp that blankets the barren field.

When the buffet ends, a graybeard bat offers a succulent leftover at my feet, and the seething masses pay heed. I am their keeper now, but in reality, they keep me.

“Good job thar, Alfred. ‘Bout time for me to skedaddle,” Jed says when I return, covered in swill. A full sideways grin frames his glimmering, tobacco-stained teeth.

“What the hell do you mean?”

“I mean yer Paw hijacked my gol dang pickup truck and drove it into the creek!” A spurt of tobacco juice marks his disgust—and my toes. “I never shoulda taken that squirrelly right off that lumber road!” Brandishing the .38 in one meat hook hand, Jed rattles the Saab keys with the other. “Now it’s your turn, city boy.” A thick tongue mops a thin lick of tobacco juice from his chin.

Jed’s blank eyes turn to the sign on the porch post when he climbs into the Saab. “Doan you know how to read? Never shoulda fed them bats! Ah he heee!”As the transmission grinds through its gears, the sky darkens. A legion of bats overtakes Jed and dive-bombs the Saab at the bridge.

I sprint there to watch the heathens blanket the getaway car as they did to Dad and me. But Jed—who knew, at least, not to feed the vampire herd—rambles the Saab across the bridge like a church-goer on Sunday morning.


The next day was calm, but at sunset, a squadron of anxious bats patrols the border against a blood-red sky. A few others watch me tamp the dirt among the marijuana plants in a hippy send off that would make Abbie Hoffman jealous. Then, two guards on my shoulders escort their new caretaker back to the farmhouse. Sliding across the moss-coated porch, I kick aside the remnants of the iPhone that took a beating at the butt end of a .38.

Inside, I settle into my father’s bedroom—the bat keeper’s room. It’s musty, but plenty comfortable. Dad’s clothes fit snugly too. Try on those bib overalls and see if there’s any bacon to fry, dear reader. We’re going to be here awhile.