“Dispassionate” Dark Fiction by Joseph Townsend

"Dispassionate" Dark Fiction by Joseph Townsend: man in bed on phone

When the phone rang Louis came awake with no memory of his dreams and a sinking feeling in his stomach he couldn’t place.  He reached over – wide awake, despite the hour and the sudden pull from sleep – and picked up the handset.

The voice on the other end spoke in a harsh whisper and he sat up with a bolt of animal fear. His hand found his sleeping wife, stroked her thigh beneath the blanket. 

The voice said, “How long until I fall in love did you ever really care what year was it you lost it all how do you feel now is it dead yet are you alone do you feel it—“

He pulled the phone from his ear, looked at it for a moment, and killed the connection.  It beeped and fell silent and he sat still in the quiet dark for an hour with his hand on his wife’s leg.

Then he rose and went downstairs to make breakfast. He was always up earlier and he always made her breakfast, even during the brief time in their late twenties that their marriage had been hanging on by a thread.

Harriet woke to lazy sunlight,  the smell of toast and something frying.  She dressed quickly in a t-shirt and sweats patterned with cats (a random gift from Louis, one of those he would bring home on occasion for no reason at all) and went downstairs.  In the kitchen Louis stood at the stove, frying bacon in a pan.  He didn’t turn to look at her and she yawned, frowned at his back.  “Are you okay?”

“Of course,” he said.  His voice seemed flat.  She sat at the table and watched him, his stiff posture, shoulders bent slightly as he turned the food over.

“Did you sleep okay?” she asked, feeling silly as the words left her mouth – since when did they make small talk?  Louis had always been a somewhat dispassionate man – given more to acts of service than declarations of love – but he was a morning person, it was when his energy was at its’ highest, and this behaviour was out of character.

“Sure I did,” he said, and he turned to her.  His face was as flat as his voice.  Behind his horn rimmed glasses his eyes seemed to float somewhere:  over her shoulder, to the dark expanse of the living room.  She turned, expecting to see something there, and when her gaze returned to her husband the sunlight filtering in bursts through the thin blinds above the kitchen sink triggered her.  She stiffened and her eyes went wide then squinted shut then went wide again and she started to convulse, falling out of the chair, knocking it aside with a splayed foot, and she was aware of it all and the light was so bright and the pain in her locked dancing limbs was excruciating.

*** *** ***

Louis watched until the bacon began to burn.  He turned and slowly shut off the gas, watching the flame recede and go out.  Then he walked past Harriet’s flailing body into the living room, through the hall to the parlour and the second downstairs bedroom. Satisfied that their son Jacob was at high school as he should’ve been, he returned to the kitchen.  Harriet was flat on her back – her eyes filmed over, glassy, following him as he gingerly picked up the kitchen chair she’d knocked over.

“You really ought to be more careful in taking your medication, sweetheart,” he said, dragging the chair to the centre of the kitchen.  He lowered himself onto it and sat with his knees apart, hands dangling, like he was watching a fishing line.

She made a savage noise deep in her throat and he glanced at the iPhone sitting on the table.  His face was expressionless, a wad of putty into which flat blue eyes had been stuck.  “I’ll call an ambulance after,” he said.  “I don’t believe you’ll make it through this one.  They’ve been getting worse.  I’d say that I’m sorry but I don’t know if I feel things like that anymore.”

Her ankle hit the table, sent a salt shaker to the floor with a clatter.

He said, “I got the oddest phone call this morning.”

JP Townsend is a writer of crime, science fiction and horror.  Originally born in Terre Haute, Indiana, he migrated to Australia as a teenager and currently resides in Brisbane, Queensland, with his partner and a very talkative cat from whom he gets most of his ideas.  Currently employed as a motor winder, he has previously been a high school English teacher, a line cook, and an intern editor.  Townsend completed a bachelor’s of fine arts in creative writing at the Queensland University of Technology in 2013, and has been writing since the age of fifteen.

“The Thrill”, a science fiction story set in a post-apocalyptic United States, was published by Aurealis – an Australia speculative fiction monthly – in May 2022.

“Teeth”, originally published on Reddit’s nosleep forum, was narrated here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Go1zvHMXRx8&t=1223s) and currently has over 40,000 views.

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