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  • It wasn't his fault.

  • It wasn't his fault.

  • It. Wasn't. His. Fault.

  • She had seen the closed sign on  the front door to the toy shop.  

  • She'd been the one to try to scam him, claiming  her toy was 'defective'. Demanding a replacement.

  • Defective?!

  • His toy?! Unbelievable. His toys were perfectmasterpieces, sought out by young and old alike.  

  • They were works of art, and the nerve of that  tiny little witch coming in here and claiming  

  • his toy was... he couldn't even bring  himself to say the word to himself.

  • It was all her fault really, and now, as  usual, he was left to clean up the mess.

  • Someone would come looking though. There'd  be a missed supper and angry parents,  

  • gradually becoming more and more concerned  as the hour became later and later,  

  • and eventually, there'd be questions and  investigations. Heaven forbid she actually  

  • told someone where she was going, on her  ridiculous mission to return a 'faulty' toy.

  • She'd have to go, but somewhere she wouldn't  be found. Not until he could find a more...  

  • permanent means of disposal.

  • Jason racked his brain, avoiding the accusatory  stares of the dozens of handcrafted puppets  

  • and dolls that adorned his shop. All of  them were works of art, truly remarkable  

  • examples of the finest craftsmanship. Jason  wasn't just the best toymaker in his town,  

  • he was likely the best toymaker in EuropeProbably in the whole of the world.

  • And now you've gone and ruined all that for me!”

  • ...but there was no response from the corpse,  

  • just more slowly spreading crimson across  the shop's floor. Then, an idea struck him.

  • He moved his unwanted guest to the workshopreturning to hastily mop up the trail left  

  • behind. With a reaffirming tug on the front door's  deadbolt, he retired to the workshop. There was a  

  • lot of grim work to be done, and the last thing  Jason needed was another unwanted interruption.

  • Days earlier he'd been working onlarge puppet in the shape of a snake.  

  • He'd had plans to adorn the puppet with colorful  bead work, which would make the toy snake's scales  

  • sparkle in emerald greens in the sunlightIt would've been a thing of beauty, but now  

  • it would become a tool of necessity. The handsaw  would make for quick, if macabre, work, and the  

  • remains would go inside the snake. An imperfect  solution, but it only needed to be temporary.

  • He'd cried at first, surprising even himself. It  truly was grim work, and whatever small piece of  

  • him that wasn't yet angry at the world had opened  a rather uncomfortable pit deep in his stomach. As  

  • he progressed however, he began to fill the pitstop it up with anger. Resentment. Indignation.  

  • And as he filled the pit inside him, he  likewise filled the snake on his workbench.

  • Just a few small cuts left, then some turpentine  to overpower the acrid smell of blood,  

  • and any investigator searching  his shop would be none the wiser.  

  • Once the search had died down, he could  arrange for more permanent disposal.

  • How did he get here, mused Jason,  

  • fouling what would have been one of  his greatest masterpieces with his sin?

  • Amelia. That's how.

  • Toys were forbidden in his childhood homeJason's parents believed frivolity was waste,  

  • especially when one could be using that time to  better prepare oneself for a successful future.  

  • If no homework was assigned at schoolthen rest assured there would be much  

  • study waiting for him upon returning homeIf homework was assigned, well, one couldn't  

  • receive too much instruction in subjects that  would one day make Jason a great success.

  • For his part, Jason earnestly tried his best  to please his unpleasable parents. At school  

  • he earned top marks in all subjects. He may have  been very shy and had great difficulty socializing  

  • with the other children, but his behavior was  ever exemplary. His parents often received  

  • notes of appreciation from his school teachersto which his mother was fond of replying with,  

  • One shouldn't be congratulated for merely doing  what is expected of them in civilized society.”

  • Children, no matter how strictly raisedare always prone to minor rebellions,  

  • and Jason was no different. His took the form  of crafting and hiding small, wooden dolls,  

  • which he'd use to play with when he could stealfew minutes away from under the ever-watchful and  

  • disapproving glare of his parents. He cherished  those times, and as he grew older and his rough  

  • wooden dolls took ever more fanciful and skillful  shapes, he realized he enjoyed creating them  

  • just as much as playing with them. They were  his treasure, and he guarded them jealously.

  • Sweet, little Amelia. She'd always been so  pleasant, since the day Jason met her. Well,  

  • the truth is Ameila had always sort of been  there, but he'd never made any effort to  

  • approach her- nor her, she. Jason was after allthe strange, silent, and very curious child,  

  • who everyone knew secretly played with  and spent hours whittling small dolls  

  • while the other children played together.

  • In truth, it had actually been a concerned teacher  who encouraged the two's formal introduction.  

  • Some kind soul had noticed Ameila's kind, warm  heart, and taking pity on Jason's lonely plight,  

  • pushed her into befriending  him. She hadn't been wrong,  

  • but her misguided act of kindness would help  usher in yet another dark terror into this world.

  • The two became fast friends, even  helping socialize Jason more to his  

  • fellow classmates. He showed her- and  only her- his secret doll collection,  

  • and other toys too. He even made some  for her, all whittled away in secret,  

  • becoming ever more complex and detailed  as the years passed and Jason's skill  

  • grew. Ameila was his best friend, and  he wanted to share everything with her.

  • But he refused to share her with anyone else.

  • The first incident was with Jonathan- or was it  Lucy, on the swing set? Jason couldn't remember,  

  • but he did remember the intense hot flash  of jealousy when Jonathan grew a little too  

  • interested in Amelia's set of colored pencilsHe'd pushed him down the stairs, and Jonathan  

  • had even fingered Jason as the culprit. But Jason  was good at remaining... and acting... unseen,  

  • and nobody could prove the accusation. Jonathan  had gotten the message clear enough however.  

  • Amelia, and her colored pencils were off limits.

  • The truth is it was easy to remain unseen  around Amelia. Or at least, unnoticed,  

  • which suited Jason's goals perfectlyShe was always the brightest smile in  

  • any room- warmth, like the radiance  of a pleasant summer afternoon sun,  

  • radiated from her, and she always had a kind  word for everyone- much to Jason's chagrin.

  • Jason finally had a friend, someone to confide  in, but the truth is Amelia was a lonely girl.  

  • Pretty and ever-pleasant, even as  they grew older she'd mysteriously  

  • been without any other close friendsAs she entered her teenage years there  

  • were certainly suitors, but they always  seemed to quickly become disinterested.  

  • Jason though was always there, and she  loved him as one does a dear brother.

  • Jason in turn loved her as best he couldwhich was to say less than he loved himself.  

  • But certainly more than the mindless fools of the  world. He expressed that love by protecting her,  

  • even when she took no notice. Especially from  anyone who might take Amelia's attention and  

  • affections away. The world was dangerous, and  people couldn't be trusted. But Jason could be.

  • Only him.

  • Amelia had been especially important to  him when he was kicked out of his home.  

  • His parents had insisted on his attendance  to one of England's great universities,  

  • places where some of the age's greatest  thinkers and titans of industries had  

  • been forged. But Jason had refusedHe didn't want to become a coal baron  

  • or great philosopher- he wanted to be  left alone to tinker and make his toys.

  • A simple toymaker carrying forth the family nameNonsense. His father hadn't even wasted his breath  

  • on disapproving words, he'd merely pointed with  a very stern finger to the open front door.

  • But he'd done it, all by himself. The  world had taken notice of his talent,  

  • just as he always knew it would, and his  toy's popularity grew and grew until he  

  • finally had his own shop. And now children  came from miles around- collectors too,  

  • looking for another finely handcrafted piece of  whimsy for their carefully groomed collection.  

  • There was even rumors that toymakers from  Austria were interested in meeting him!

  • None of it mattered much to Jason. He already  knew he was great, he didn't need the world to  

  • tell him. If anything, the crowds of dirty, noisy  children and gawking collectors were a bothersome,  

  • yet necessary distraction. They kept the  coin flowing, but Jason would much rather  

  • have been left alone to work on his toys. All  he needed was the daily visit from sweet Ameila,  

  • her approving nod or giggle at some  fantastical new toy he created.

  • If the rest of the world liked it, good for them.

  • But Amelia changed. It had  started with an argument,  

  • she'd come to visit him in his  workshop after closing time as usual.

  • You seem happy, Jason.” He didn't even look up from his  

  • tinkering on the workbench. The puppet he  worked on was still in its initial stages,  

  • but already was beginning to  take on its serpent shape.

  • Of course I am. Shop's closed  and I can finally work in peace.”

  • “I meant in general. I know your parents were  really hard on you. I'm glad you found this.”  

  • She motioned at the workshop around her, shelves  stuffed with finished and unfinished toys.

  • He continued his work, nonplussed as usual.  

  • “I wouldn't have gotten here without you. You  were a good friend, always encouraging me.”

  • Though he didn't look up from his workAmelia smiled. As far as Jason was concerned,  

  • this ranked amongst the greatest  compliments he'd ever given her.

  • That's why I've always been a good  friend to you too, protected you.”

  • The smile wavered on Amelia's  lips. “What do you mean?”

  • Do you remember the pink letter?” Amelia's ears  still burned in shame at the memory, almost a full  

  • decade later. She'd been fifteen back thenand written a letter to a boy she'd developed  

  • a crush on. Lacking the courage to give it  herself, she'd entrusted a close friend with it.

  • Jason, sensing the opportunity to kill two  birds with one stone, had acted instead.

  • The letter wound up posted on the chalkboard  of the boy in question's classroom,  

  • its overly romantic and cringe-inducing amateur  adorations read aloud by the boys of the class.  

  • They'd howled in laughter, but the name signed at  

  • the bottom of the letter hadn't been  Amelia's. It had been her friend's.

  • The jeers and the taunts proved  so great that her family had  

  • been forced to relocate her to a different school.

  • “I tried to teach you back then that you  can't just open up to people like that.  

  • People can't see all the places you're  weak. Needy. You didn't learn your lesson,  

  • so I had to keep repeating  it, time and time again.”

  • Cold, hard realization slowly dawned  across Amelia's face. All those friends  

  • who'd mysteriously drifted away. All the suitors  who'd stopped calling on her. Did Jason really...?

  • How could you do that...” Unconsciously, she  was already inching towards the shop's door.

  • “I protected you! I've always protected  you! You have no idea what people are like,  

  • but you kept putting yourself out there likesilly little dolt! What was I supposed to do?!”

  • Amelia had rushed out of the workshop  then, tears streaming down her face.  

  • That persistent, aching loneliness in her heartalways surrounded by people yet none ever wanting  

  • to draw too close. Now it all made sense. Now she  knew what- or who- had been keeping them away.

  • A month had passed without Amelia's  daily visits, and despite his pride,  

  • Jason began to doubt himself. Had he really done  something wrong? Wasn't he just protecting Amelia,  

  • who clearly was unable of protecting herself?

  • More to the point, how could she be ignoring him?  

  • He'd worked so hard to make sure that  he was the one always there for her.

  • He'd put the toy snake and its brilliant emerald  scales aside and began working on something new.  

  • A gift, something to prove to Amelia that he was  sorry. Something so wonderful, so delightful,  

  • that she'd have to see that he was the  only person she could truly depend on.

  • The small music box quickly took shape in his  hands, elegantly and exquisitely designed as  

  • always- but different too. Even the most casual  observer could quickly tell that this was truly  

  • shaping up to be one of Jason's finest pieces  yet. He worked diligently day and night on the  

  • box and its many delicate gears and moving partspouring his very heart and soul into the labor.

  • But the box would hold a surprise  inside, what would become without a  

  • doubt his finest piece to date- even more  astonishing than the music box itself.  

  • A gift within a gift, an incredibly detailed  hand-crafted doll resembling Jason himself.  

  • Despite its miniature size, the doll borestriking resemblance to Jason, each lock of  

  • hair and minor bodily detail carefully etched  onto the soft wood with painstaking care.

  • Admiring his work, Jason began to fit the doll  into its resting place inside the music box.  

  • He smiled thinking about how delighted  Amelia would be upon receiving it,  

  • surely everything would be forgotten the  moment she received her wonderful gift,  

  • only to open it and discover  yet another gift inside!

  • ...but what if she didn't? What if she remained  angry at him or... what if she didn't like it?  

  • What if his work wasn't good enough, what  if she secretly thought Jason wasn't very  

  • talented at all! What if she threw the box on  the ground in disgust, dashing it to pieces?!

  • Jason pushed the black cloud of  thoughts away. No. Of course she'd  

  • like it. She always liked his work. Everyone did.

  • Amelia isn't interested in  your friendship anymore, Jason.”

  • The words hit him like a sack of bricksAmelia's mother stood on the doorstep to  

  • their small, modest home. Through  the slightly open door behind her,  

  • Jason could see Amelia on the  inside, tears in her eyes.

  • That's... can I just talk to herplease?! I made her a present!”

  • Her mother had never cared for JasonShe remembered the canary incident.  

  • It had been a gift from her father, a small  songbird that she quickly grew to adore. Then,  

  • one day while Jason was visitingthe canary went abruptly silent.  

  • He'd claimed that the bird had  suddenly gone limp and fell over dead.

  • Amelia's mother always knew better,  

  • but couldn't prove it. Now she barred Jason  from entering her home, determined to end  

  • the parasitic grip he'd maintained on her  life since they'd met as small children.

  • Amelia! I made this for you! I'm sorry!”  Jason held the box aloft, towards Amelia  

  • through the half-open door, but she simply looked  away. An icy cold hand gripped Jason's heart,  

  • and he nearly dropped the delicate  music box. Was this... rejection?

  • Jason didn't remember returning to his shoptightly clutching the music box to his chest and  

  • desperately trying to avoid weeping on the open  streets. He must have forgotten to lock the door  

  • behind him as he stormed into his shop, because  that's how the little girl found her way in.

  • He hadn't meant to hurt anyone. But she'd  been so demanding. She called his work flawed.  

  • She said it wasn't good enough.

  • The sound of his name being called  out broke him out of his reverie,  

  • and he hastily put the finishing  touches on the now overstuffed snake.  

  • Could someone be looking for the little girl  already? Could someone know what he'd done?

  • It took him a moment to recognize  Amelia's voice. Damn it,  

  • he forgot he'd given her a key long ago. He  rushed out of the workshop, almost running into  

  • her as he passed through the back door behind the  counter customers were not normally allowed to go.

  • “I- I'm sorry to bother you, I  just... I think we should talk.” 

  • x “There's nothing to talk about.”  

  • Whatever emotions Jason had been feelinghe'd stuffed and buried them. He'd done  

  • nothing but protect her, and now he regretted  that she'd seen him in his moment of weakness.

  • No, Jason, you have... you've done things in  my life that-” Amelia paused, smelling the air.  

  • The strong smell of turpentine rolled off  Jason in waves, but underneath, something else.  

  • Something she'd often smelled at the butcher's  shop. “Jason, why are you sweating so hard?”

  • Jason's shoulders slumped. “There was an  accident. With a little girl. I'd just gotten  

  • back from trying to give you my gift and say  I'm sorry and I left the door unlocked I guess,  

  • and she barged in here complaining her toy  was defective and demanding a replacement  

  • and saying my toys were no good and just... I'm  not sure what happened. She fell. Hit her head.”

  • Amelia's eyes slowly widened.  “Jason... what did you do?”

  • “I... I didn't want to go  to jail. It was an accident,  

  • Amelia. But I didn't want to go to jail.”

  • Jason. What did you do to... where is she  now...?” Her voice was barely a whisper,  

  • as if she was afraid to even ask  the question. Or of the answer.

  • “I cut her up. Put her in a puppet. Until  people stop looking! Then I'll... I'll...  

  • give her a good burial! I just don't want to  go to jail... it was an accident, Amelia!”

  • Jason, you have to turn yourself inYou have to explain what happened!”

  • Are you crazy?! Do you have any idea  what they'll do to me?! I'll lose my shop,  

  • I won't be able to make toys anymorethey'll throw me in a cell to rot alone!”

  • Amelia had already begun to inch back  towards the front door and away from Jason.  

  • If you don't turn yourself in, I will...”

  • Jason laughed, a harsh, grating sound. Amelia had  never seen him like this before, but strangely,  

  • she wasn't surprised. It was as if some part  of her had always known what he was capable of,  

  • what lay lurking just below the