When his dad is out of town and his mom gets in a serious accident, sixteen-year-old Jake’s life comes to a screaming halt. His Uncle Mark, a horror writer, is the only adult nearby to care for him and his little sister, and Jake begrudgingly agrees to spend the night at his uncle’s house to protect her. Across from his uncle’s home is a huge, abandoned toy factory, one that Jake disregards until he sees a creepy doll skulking around on its own. He sees the doll harassing his sister and she chases it to the old building. Jake pursues them inside the factory, accidentally passing through the Amazing Imagination Machine, bringing his greatest nightmare to life. Jake is forced to find a way to stop his own creation and all the monsters spawned from the machine before they can kill him, discovering some dark secrets that have been hidden in his family tree along the way.




When Jake got his license, there were three things he promised his mother he would never do: take the family car without permission, knowingly break traffic laws, or leave the house after ten o’clock at night. Yet, here he was, breaking all three promises at the exact same time. There was nothing he enjoyed more than gripping the steering wheel, gunning the engine, and barreling down the vacant streets of the neighborhood as fast as his mom’s car could go. Jake glanced across the intersection before running the red light, swerving across the empty road that led straight to the old highway.

His passengers whooped and hollered. Jake saw the side window roll down and watched as Matthew stuck his head out to stare up at the sky, his unruly blond locks whipping around his face. Obviously, the view from the windshield wasn’t good enough for him.

“Ha! Look at the moon,” Matthew laughed. “Looks like a pumpkin.” Jake shot a look at it, noticing the fluorescent orange color that cut through the night.

“Couldn’t be a more appropriate night for that,” Dean said from the back seat, dutifully buckled in. “And, you know Matthew, the percentage of people who die in cars because they don’t wear their seatbelts breaks a little over ninety percent. Just so you know.”

Jake chuckled under his breath, watching Matthew lean back in the car and buckle his seatbelt, smirking at Dean. It was Halloween, not a single cloud blocked out the stars in the sky, and the moon’s autumn glow expertly matched that of a candlelit pumpkin. He rocketed down a straight path of road, watching his headlights illuminate the trees and gravel in front of him. He could hardly see anything past the bright headlights, but that didn’t bother him. He had been down this road too many times for him to count, so he knew exactly where he was going.

“I still can’t believe we’re going to Mitsy’s house,” Matthew laughed. “Like, Mitsy Jackson’s house. How’d you even get us invitations, man?”

With one hand on the wheel, Jake said with a proud smile, “It just so happens that I work closely with her.”

“Really, man? Where?”

His smile faltered. It wasn’t a lie, what he had said, but he didn’t want his friends to find out he worked with Mitsy because they both volunteered at the elementary school. He kind of got roped into it when his little sister enrolled in kindergarten. Even though Mitsy thought it was cool for him to help the little kids, he doubted his friends would. In fact, he knew they would laugh at him, which was the last thing he wanted.

“You know…” he began, trying to think of a plausible explanation. “She was volunteering for the kindergarteners…and my sister’s in that class, so…sometimes she’s there helping out when I pick up April May.”

“Heh. Helping kindergarteners; that’s lame.” Matthew laughed. “What does she do? Read them books and stuff?”

“Um, yeah,” Jake said, thinking about how many books he had read to the little kids before.

“They probably read those baby books,” Matthew commented. “That’s not what any kid wants to hear. You know what I’d read to them if I had that job?”


“I’d read them Mark Rootz,” Matthew said. “Any one of his books.”

Jake felt a pit begin to grow in his stomach. Neither one of his friends seemed to notice the change in his mood.

Dean went on, “Matthew, you couldn’t read any of those books to little kids.”

“And why not?”

“His stuff’s horror. You’d scar those kids for life.”

“No, I wouldn’t. They’d forget about it by the next day. Kids don’t remember nothing. Besides, that would get them to think twice before asking me to read anything again.”

“I seriously doubt you’ve even read one of his books,” Dean guessed.

“No, but I’ve seen the movies based off them.” Jake felt Matthew’s eyes glance his way. “What about you, dude? You ever read Mark Rootz?”

The pit in Jake’s stomach grew larger, but he refused to let it show. “Um, no, I don’t.”

“Yeah? Why not, dude?”

“I just…I don’t like horror.”

“What?” Matthew asked, his eyes widening. “How can you not like horror, man?”

“I just don’t,” Jake replied hastily.

Matthew faced the windshield and slumped in his seat. “It’s not like the monster on the page is going to jump out and really eat you, Jake. Come on, you should read Mark Rootz sometime. He’s the best horror writer that ever lived, without a doubt.”

“But you just admitted you’ve never read his books,” Dean argued.

“But the movies are great!” Matthew replied.

“You’ve got to read at least one of his books,” Dean insisted. “You’ll be more culturally enriched if you read the book before seeing the movie.”

“Culture-shmulture,” Matthew huffed. “Tell that to Jake. He won’t even pick up one of Rootz’s books.”

“I just don’t want to read Mark Rootz,” Jake maintained in return. “Or see one of his movies.”

“And why not, dude?”

“Well, he’s…”

Jake suddenly caught sight of something up ahead on the road. He saw two glowing dots, which only grew bigger as his car hurtled forward.


Jake saw its eyes first, glinting from the creature standing only a few yards away. Soon, the only thing he could see was messy brown fur invading his windshield.

“Jake! Deer!”

Jake jerked the wheel, attempting to avoid the deer that was already collapsing in the middle of the road. His heart skipped as the automobile swerved, the driver’s side of the car now racing toward the paralyzed deer. Jake heard a loud thump as he hit the animal; the door caved in, kicking him back in his seat. The car began to spin, his hands flying off the wheel.

“Jake! Stop, stop!”

Jake slammed on the brakes, but the car rotated even more rapidly than before. He heard his screams mix with Dean’s and Matthew’s as the car spun off the road, the tires finding purchase on the grass, careening backwards until the car’s rear fender slammed into a tree, making them all jolt forward in their seats.

Their screams stopped as the family car hissed. Jake’s head ceased whirling when he heard the passenger door click open, and he turned to watch Matthew crawl out of the smoking car, followed by Dean who practically fell out of his seat. Jake examined his side of the car, determining that with the damage from the deer, there was no way he was going to pry his door open. With trembling hands, Jake unlatched his seatbelt and scurried over to the passenger side, out the door, and collapsed to his knees. He sucked in big gulps of air trying to calm himself down, noticing his friends sitting right beside him, breathing the same way.

“You guys…okay?” he huffed. They both nodded. Jake caught his breath, bracing himself before he dared a look back at the car. “This is bad,” Jake spoke to himself, shakily standing up. He stared down at his mom’s car; it was a wreck. The driver’s side was indented, the rear morphed to the shape of the tree it had hit, and the tires were all shredded, making it look like it had just arrived from a demolition derby. “Mom’s going to kill me.”

Jake’s eyes wandered back up to the highway they had just spiraled off. There was still no traffic; the only thing visible on the road was the unmoving, furry lump, the moon seeming to gracefully spotlight it.

“That deer’s not okay,” Dean said.

Jake, Matthew and Dean glanced at each other before they numbly walked to the carcass, staring down at the deer on the road. Now, it looked like nothing more than a disembodied pile of fur, crumpled into a ball.

“Dude,” Matthew said. “Was there, like…a spike on your car’s hood?”

“Spike? No. Why?”

“It looks like it got stabbed.”

Jake dared another glance down and right in the middle of its chest Jake saw a gaping hole, one that wept with blackened blood. He gagged and stumbled away from the bloody remains, feeling like he was going to hurl. The last thing he wanted to do was blow chunks in front of his friends. He put his hands on his knees and said again, “Mom is going to kill me.”

“It was an accident. That deer came out of nowhere,” Dean said matter-of-factly. “Just tell her that.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Jake moaned. “I wasn’t…supposed to take the car out in the first place.”

He saw both his friends blink and then stare at him, but only for a moment. He turned away when he saw Dean go pale and heard Matthew start to laugh deep in his throat.

“You stole your mother’s car?” Dean asked.

“Uh…I might have.”

Dean shook his head, hands falling to his thighs as his glare tightened. “Why?”

“Well, we couldn’t take Matthew’s car,” Jake exclaimed, rubbing the back of his neck.


“Yeah,” Matthew chuckled. “It is.”

“Call your mom, Jake,” Dean spoke.

“What? No.”

“We can’t stay out here. We have to call someone,” Dean argued.

Jake groaned, trying to think of any other way to get help.

“Just call your mom, Jake.”

“And what good is that going to do?” Jake asked, motioning toward the car. “It’s not like she can come pick us up.”

Dean was struck silent for a moment, realization showing on his face. “We could always call 911,” he suggested, rubbing his chin.

“Are either of you hurt?” Jake asked.

“No,” they both answered simultaneously.

“Then, no way. Last thing I need is for this to be on my record; can you even imagine the insurance?”

“You think Steven would come pick us up?” Matthew asked.

“I doubt it. He’s probably at the party, and there’s no way he’d leave to help us.”

“What about Mitsy?”

“Like we have her phone number.”

Jake tried to think. There had to be someone he could call who wasn’t his mom. When she heard about this, she was going to take away his license. Even worse, she would probably ground him, which meant he wouldn’t be seeing any of his friends for a while. But, maybe if he was honest right away, she wouldn’t be so strict with the punishment. Somehow, he doubted it.

Jake suddenly had an idea, and even though it wasn’t much better than calling his mom, it was still the best option they had. “I could call my uncle,” he suggested.

“Your uncle?” Dean asked.

“Yeah. He lives pretty close to here. He’ll probably help us.”

“Then what are you waiting for, man? Call him.”

Jake had purposefully turned his phone off, and just as he expected, as the screen came back to life, he noticed he had missed at least ten calls from his mom. She was bound to already be in a tongue-lashing mood. Hopefully, at this moment, his uncle would be less frightening to deal with than his mother.

As soon as he dialed the number, Jake regretted it. He didn’t really want to talk to his uncle, but what else could he do? He needed help, but he was also secretly hoping his uncle wouldn’t pick up the phone. Unfortunately, he answered after only two rings.

There was no hello. All he heard was his uncle ask, “Jake?”

“Yeah, hi.”

Jake couldn’t think of a single time he had ever called his uncle, which was maybe why his name had been spoken with such confusion on the receiving end of the line. It took his uncle a second longer to speak, “How you doing, buddy?”

Jake rolled his eyes, glad his uncle couldn’t see him through the phone. “Just awful, thank you.”

“Why? Is your mom hurt?”

“What? No.”

“Oh, okay,” his uncle said quickly. After a few seconds, he added, “So…what can I do for you?”

“Um,” Jake said, “I might have been driving, and—”

“Past ten?” his uncle asked, immediately making Jake frown. How did his uncle know about his curfew?

“Yes, past ten, and I, um…” he said, his eyes scanning the remains of the once-breathing animal. “Hit a deer.”

He heard his uncle’s silence, imagining the look of horror, disbelief, or both on his face. Once the initial statement processed, his uncle asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. We’re all fine.”

After another pause, his uncle asked, “Do you need me to come pick you up?”

“Yes, please.”

“Where are you?”

“Um, on the highway, right past mile post 51.”

“Next to the forest?”


“Great. Don’t move,” his uncle said. As if it were an after-thought, he added, “Wait, are you alone?”

“No, I have two friends with me.”

“Okay,” his uncle said. “Do not go into the forest. Stay by the road. I’ll be there shortly.”

“Okay, thanks.”

His uncle clicked off first, leaving Jake to hang his head and shove the phone back in his pocket. He dared a look at Dean and Matthew, whose arms were folded across their chests, much like how he thought his own mother would look in this situation.

“Well?” Dean asked.

“My uncle’s coming to pick us up.”

They nodded, giving no more of a response as they looked back over at the deer. Jake sunk to the gravel at the side of the road, putting his head on his knees. What was he thinking, speeding like that? He felt his heart pound with anger toward himself.

“You know something,” Dean said, unblinking as he observed the carcass intently, like a scientist hovering over an interesting specimen. “This reminds me of a movie I saw once.”

“Really?” Matthew asked. “Why? Because they hit a deer, too?”

“They got stranded in the woods.” Dean shrugged. “And, unfortunately, there was a mutant man with chainsaw hands that started chasing them, and then killing them.”

“Oh. Sucks for them,” Matthew responded.

“Can we not talk about horror movies while we’re stranded?” Jake asked.

“I was thinking of a different movie,” Matthew said, as if he didn’t hear Jake at all.

“Which one?”

Lawn Shark,” Matthew said, a smile passing over his face as he nodded to himself. He looked at Dean and Jake and must have seen their eyes narrow, because his smile faltered. “What?”

Lawn Shark?” Dean replied.

“Yeah. What about it?”

“Dude,” Dean said, mimicking his friend. “That movie’s awful.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Yeah, it is,” Dean said. “It’s so bad it shouldn’t even be a B movie.”

“Guys,” Jake insisted, forcing them to stop. “Let’s stop talking about horror, okay?”

“Dude, what’s your problem?” Matthew asked. “You think a lawn shark with chainsaw fins is going to come out of the woods and murder us? Ooh, so scary.”

“No, but there’s no reason we need to freak ourselves out either,” Jake said.

“Fine, whatever,” Matthew sighed.

“Hey,” Dean said, stopping suddenly. “You hear that?”

“Very funny,” Jake responded, narrowing his eyes.

“No, really,” Dean replied.

Jake looked back to the forest. Even in the dark, Jake could see just how far the trees stretched beyond the road, eyeing the darkened leaves hanging from tired branches. He listened, hearing nothing unusual. In fact, he heard nothing at all. He strained his ears, trying to pick up any noise from a bird, or a squirrel, or anything, but the forest remained dead silent.

“I don’t hear anything,” he commented.

“Could have sworn I heard something.”

“Dean,” he glared. “If you’re trying to scare me—”

As if on cue, Jake heard a loud crack. He looked back through the barricade of trees, noticing a fallen tree limb close by. He shook his head. A broken branch seemed a normal enough occurrence in a forest.

“Dude…it’s just a tree branch. Let’s check it out,” Matthew said, unexpectedly bolting off down the path into the woods. Before Jake knew it, Dean went after him, and he was alone.

“Hey!” Jake cried, chasing after them, leaving the safety of the moonlit highway. He pulled out his phone before passing the fragile barrier separating the road and forest, turning on his flashlight app to give him some solace about running into the unknown. Even so, he instantly regretted doing exactly what his uncle had told him not to do. What were they thinking, running off into the night, away from the safety of the highway?

Matthew and Dean stopped suddenly, forcing Jake to slide to a halt behind them. He pushed his friends’ backs to get their attention, balling his fists. “You say you watch horror, but you both would be the first ones to die if we really were in a movie,” Jake complained.

“But look at this branch, Jake.”

There was something there, but Jake couldn’t tell what it was. It looked like a blobby mess, as if someone had poured black goo and left it there. Jake gawked at it in disgust, especially when Matthew knelt down in front of it.

“Don’t touch it,” Dean insisted.

“I’m not,” Matthew promised, grabbing the end of the branch. As he stood back up, Jake could see him struggle to lift the tree limb. “Man, it’s heavy.”

With the goo nearer to his face, Jake had an easier time seeing it, half-expecting it to move or slink off the branch toward him, like some cliché monster in an old film. But it remained still. In fact, it didn’t move at all, like it was frozen solid, even though it still looked squishy.

“What is it?” Jake asked.

“I don’t know,” Dean said.

Jake stared at it for a bit longer, then glanced back toward the dead deer still in a crumpled mess on the road. He didn’t dare go back, but the blob looked very similar to the goopy, black blood that seeped from the deer’s chest.

“Is it blood?” Jake asked.

“Can’t be. It’s black.”

“Dude,” Matthew said, dropping the branch. “This reminds me of one of Mark Rootz’s movies.”

Jake shot him a glare, throwing his hands up for a moment as he paced away, mumbling under his breath about horror and how it was the worst subject they could be discussing right now.

“Which one?” Dean asked, completely ignoring Jake.

“The one with the dude who had the red goggles,” Matthew said.

“Oh, yeah. Night Light, right?”

“Yeah,” Matthew agreed. “That’s the one. Where he came in a flash of light, and all that remained of the people were piles of sludge. Oh, that one’s great, man.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Jake yelled, feeling anger in his chest. Before he could complain further, Jake heard a crunch behind him. He spun around, confronting a blinding light shining straight at him from the road. Within the light, Jake saw a man with a black shroud covering a fancy suit. A blood-colored cravat contrasted with his black boots that were decorated with spikes that clanked on the ground when he moved. His skin was pale—almost too pale—and he wore red goggles that shielded his eyes and illuminated the glare of the light behind him. The strange man opened his mouth, and Jake stared straight at two pearl white fangs that glistened as brightly as his marble face. A sense of dread paralyzed Jake.

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