Aunty Marcia always said I was good at “stayin’ inside”, and right now I’m really hoping that’s true. Not just, like, staying indoors though. I mean, I kinda had to be good at that too; I was sick a lot as a kid – besides the normal infections and sore throats and stuff that some of the other kids dealt with during childhood, my stomach was never quite the same after momma’s sacrament and many of my days were spent in my bed, simply letting my body repair itself best as it could or waiting for the town doc to come around when it couldn’t. Of course, even that would sometimes take days, on account of Aunty’s farm was way out, about six miles outside of Screven and even if the doc’s car could make it out that far without breaking down once or twice, he was so busy with all the railroad guys and their constant injuries that he didn’t have much time to come check some kid with a sore throat and tummy ache, much as Aunty might worry. So, as I said, I spent a lot of time indoors.
But being good at staying indoors ain’t really much of a feat, and Aunty was not a woman easily impressed anyhow. No, she meant I was good at staying inside my own head, which is a hell of a lot tougher for kids – and adults too, now that I’m really thinking about it (and it seems like I have plenty of time for just that). Aunty said when I was little, like two or three, I would sometimes just sit, not saying nothing, not playing with nothing, not necessarily looking at nothing, just kinda sitting and being. At first, she said she thought I was not-quite-right in my head or something but as I grew I was walking, talking, reading, and writing before all my siblings (the ones that made it to walking, talking, reading, and writing age, anyway) and when I could actually make it to school, I did real well in my studies and made friends just fine.
But even at school, during the lunch and recess break, I liked to just sit by myself, imaging different scenarios in my head, pretending I was one of the Wright brothers flying that clunky yet oh-so-futuristic-lookin’ airplane of theirs, or that I was in the War fighting some angry army before they plunged their dagger into the vitals of the Republic, as our fearless leader was wont to say, or simply just sitting and thinking about life and the future, what was and what could be. Aunty says were my daddy around during my latter days of childhood instead of being gone when I was three, I’d be walking around most days with a hide as tanned as a horse’s saddle, on account of he wasn’t exactly what you’d call a contemplative man himself. He was when he was, and he was where he was; a present man was my daddy, and he suffered no fool who would spend large portions of time thinking rather than doing, according to Aunty.
But alas, daddy was the first one to take the sacrament, which I always thought was kinda strange ’cause he was a Presbyterian and far as I know, they believe only a pastor in a church (which momma most certainly was not) could give out that kinda stuff; and now daddy, the man of action, simply isn’t, and I, with all my thoughts, am. Kinda.
My wife Stephanie always abided my stayin’ inside just fine, though. She ain’t much of a talker herself, which is maybe why we ended up together and why we went so well together. Aunty told me later, once we was already married, that the first couple times she saw us spending time together she thought each time was gonna be the last time on account of how quiet we were. We would sit and hold hands and just be silent with each other, enjoying one another’s company in the way that we have, not necessarily needing noise for there to be connection. We talked sometimes, of course, on account of there can’t be a relationship without at least some kinda intentional communication, but neither she nor I ever babbled on about meaningless malarkey and she never asked about momma and daddy besides just asking where were they and once I told her I don’t know where they were but their bodies are right out back buried next to the oak tree she never asked again, and far as I know she never asked anybody else about it neither and that’s just fine with me on account of what I remember from what happened to my family ain’t so nice and is not something I like thinking about; intentionally, anyway… Though the more I stay inside, the more the inside fills with the scent and the sight and the presence of momma and daddy and my brothers and sisters and that cursed sacrament.
But, see, that’s the downside of being good at stayin’ inside; sure, it’s nice when there ain’t much to do and you got nothing but time to think (like I do now) and you ain’t got no problem with doing just that; but the fact is, when you’re stayin’ inside, no matter how good you are at it and how long you can do it, you ain’t quite as in control of the goings on as you might hope. I mean, really; would a person, if they had they choice, choose to be all depressed and whatnot? Would they choose to think on the horrible things that have happened to them? To remember over and over the rejections they’ve faced or the embarrassments they’ve suffered or the times they should’ve said something and didn’t or shouldn’t have said something and did? Of course not! And yet, how much brain space is taken up with all that blather? And why? Because I want to dredge up things that make me feel bad? No way, uh-uh. Crazy as it sounds, I sometimes think I’m not alone up here; it seems like there’s evil little men hiding in the shadows where all the dark memories are stuffed away, just waiting for the right moment to push out some long-forgotten sin or tragedy right in front of me as I meander through my thoughts, tripping me up and making me fall into the pain and leaving me trying to pick back up and push the memory back to its place in the darkness. But of course, simply pushing it back in place is just that; pushing it back in place, back into the domain of the mean-mind-men; it ain’t getting rid of it, just guaranteeing that I’ll trip over it again sometime, just as I have now.
It was Stephanie’s screams that woke me, if it could be said that I had woken at all. From what she said later, she had shaken me and prodded me, but my hearing’s always been better than my other senses anyway and I sleep about as deep as the ‘Lantic, so I ain’t totally surprised the shaking didn’t do it. I was roused out of my sleep pretty much right away when she started the hollering, on account of she has nightmares at least twice a week, real bad ones that make her jump up right outta bed and run around the bedroom like a bat outta hell until I can quiet her down enough to get her back into the bed, so I woke as usual at the sound of her screams (which were pretty well piercing for such a quiet woman, just by the by).
When I tried to open my eyes, it was dark as the spots on a cow– not too strange; as I mentioned, Aunty’s farm, where we live and help tend to all that needs tending to, is way out in the country and there ain’t lights for at least a mile or so (‘course, I didn’t even consider at the time that maybe my attempt to open my eyes wasn’t quite as successful as I assumed). What was strange was that no matter how much I tried, I could not get up. I tried to say something to soothe my wife but couldn’t do that neither. That’s when I thought maybe I was the one having the nightmare this time, one of those ones where you’re stuck in place between sleeping and waking and you can’t fully cross over to either direction, but I wasn’t sure; all I was sure of was that my wife was freaking out and I couldn’t seem to do anything about it.
After about maybe a minute or so, I heard her run out of the room and down the stairs and out the back door. While she was gone I tried to do a mental assessment of my body. Problem was, it didn’t seem to be there, by my mental accounting, anyway. I mean, it must’ve been there, otherwise how else could I be, but I just couldn’t feel nothing. Although, thinking about it further, I guess that’s not completely true; I felt like I had been shrunk down real small, that what I thought of as the real me, the essential me, the one that thinks and feels and loves was the size of a little piece of corn kernel that was stuck in somebody’s teeth; but that wasn’t so much a feeling in the strictest sense of the word as it was a sense that I couldn’t seem to shake.
After a moment, I heard the back door open again and Aunty and Steph walk in. They spoke with each other very briefly, Steph right on the edge of panic and Aunty trying to keep her calm and to keep her own self calm. After a few back and forths as they moved towards the stairs, I heard Steph yell, “HE WON’T WAKE UP, AUNTY!” and then I heard them both running up the stairs. I tried to turn my head and see them come in, tried to tell them to cool down, ain’t nothing wrong but a nightmare, tried to ask why is Steph of all people so freaked out, she has them all the time, but I still couldn’t move a muscle so I just sat there and listened as one of them (I figured out pretty quick that it was Aunty, on account of I could hear Steph in the background biting her nails) climbed onto the bed. I remember thinking then that I didn’t know what all she was doing up there with me on account of all I heard for about a minute was silence and of course I still couldn’t feel a thing. After that very long minute passed, my eyes finally opened for real and I could see around her fingers (which were, I realized, holding my eyes open) that it was indeed Aunty leaning over me, looking directly into my eyes.
Everything looked kinda dim and almost cloudy-like but I was so grateful to be able to see anything at all that I completely missed whatever it was Aunty said next. Whatever it was couldn’t have been good though, on account of as soon as she said it, Steph picked up the screaming again. I tried to roll my eyes that way to see her but once again I was stuck and now I was getting angry, really angry, the way a baby must feel when they’re hungry and trying to reach onto their plate for food but just don’t have the coordination or strength to grab it and they feel like it’s the end of the world. But, see, I didn’t want nothing like food or drink or to be rich or live like the Rockefellers or anything crazy like that; I just wanted to roll my eyes just a little bit, just to look at my beautiful bride and to comfort her and to tell her, even if it was only in our silent without-words way, that everything was okay or that if it wasn’t, it would be with time.
But the anger was replaced in an instant with a terror about a million times stronger when I saw Her in the dark in the corner behind Aunty. She was wearing the same black robe as she was 25 years ago and the same hood over Her face and even the shadow was in the same place as it was then, covering everything above Her upper lip, leaving visible only Her mouth. Her thin white lips were still spread in that nasty grin, Her cracked and yet perfectly white teeth shining dully in the dim light of the lanterns and that’s when the darkness closed back over me and I fell inside, hard.
When I came to, Steph and Aunty weren’t there and everything was dark again. I heard voices distant in the background, muffled like they were on the other side of a wall. Then a door creaked open and I could see light streaming red through my eyelids and I heard two sets of footsteps walking toward me.
“What do we got here?”
“Don’t know yet. Guy didn’t wake up, the wife freaked out, the aunt who lived next door couldn’t hear him breathe or find a pulse and hey, we got a brand-new body to look at. And, your lucky day, he ain’t all mangled like all them railroad guys that come in here.”
To put it lightly, I was a little put off hearing them talking about me like that. Dead?! I thought, I’m still thinking! I can hear you! I can see the lights you just turned on! I’m not dead, you idiots!
But of course, they couldn’t hear me. But surely they knew what they were doing, surely they would be able to check my aliveness with instruments better suited for such things than Aunty’s hands. And hey, if not, my school buddies told me a story once about this guy who hit his head real bad and they thought he was dead and they brought him into the room to cut him up and stuff and right as they were about to do it he got goosebumps (or, in one particularly naughty version I heard, some would say the doctor was a pretty lady and he popped a bone-on while she was examining him) and they took a deeper look and realized the guy wasn’t dead, he was only sleeping real deep. So I figured, either way I’d be okay, probably.
“Now, you’ve watched me do ten of these things so far, are you ready to give it a try?”
The second voice, a much younger voice, responded, “Uh, yeah I – I think so, doc.”
“Well, alright then, that’s my boy. Grab that there scalpel and let’s dig in.”
The older voice laughed at his little witticism and the younger nervously joined and I heard tools clattering around on the tray and I started praying for some goosebumps (hell, I wouldn’t even mind a bone-on myself at this point, as long as they don’t CUT ME OPEN!)
“Beginning first incision.”
I braced myself mentally and waited for the hot, white pain of a knife cutting through my flesh. Had I control over my eyes, I would’ve squeezed them shut as hard as you squeeze your cheeks when you’re in school and feel a real trumpet coming on. It never came.
“Good, good. Remember, stop right down at the pubic region and then comeback up for the arms of the Y, which should go to where?”
“To each shoulder joint.”
They were cutting me up like a Thanksgiving turkey and I couldn’t feel a thing. Pretty soon, if the rumors I heard in the schoolyard were true, they were gonna start taking out my guts and looking at ’em and trying to figure out what killed me even though clearly, nothing did, on account of, hey I was still thinking here, but they were going to if they didn’t cut it out, no pun intended.
“Ok, great job, Billy. Now we’re going to open up the incisions and begin the removal of the innards.”
I tuned out the rest of their exploration as much as I could, which honestly wasn’t as hard as you might think on account of I was trying to figure out how I could be dead but still thinking and still sitting in on my own autopsy. That’s when the thought came to me, not for the first time but certainly for the most serious consideration, that perhaps the nightmare I thought I was having wasn’t over yet, that I was just dreaming all this. Maybe I ate something rotten or undercooked like that guy in the Christmas story thought he did when those ghosts came to visit him.
Of course, I knew it wasn’t true, the way you can’t describe the feeling of reality, it’s just something you know deep down in your heart, and I knew I wasn’t dreaming, though the next couple days passed like a dream.
After they finished up the autopsy, they left me in the room for a while alone until somebody else came and picked me up and brought me somewhere else and did this or that with me, but by that time I was stayin’ deep inside and really had no interest in coming back out, maybe ever. That is, until I heard Steph’s voice.
She sounded empty, hollowed out. She talked about what she wanted to dress me in and what kind of service and would there be a minister and where would I be buried and I was screaming, screaming with all my mental power, screaming that they would hear me, that they would realize I’m not dead, that they would stop this madness. But of course, they didn’t hear me, I was stayin’ inside for real now, and inside was airtight, nobody coming in and nobody going out.
They finished up their arrangements and then I heard Steph ask, “Can I have a minute alone with him?” and they said sure and walked out and it was just us.
I don’t know how I know, there’s no way I could’ve known on account of I’m pretty sure my eyes were glued shut at this point and I still couldn’t feel nothing, but I still I know in my heart that she put her hand on my cheek and that she kissed me and I would give anything in the world to be able to kiss her back and to put my own hand on her cheek. She just sat there for a minute, not saying nothing, just being with me, the way we always did, and for that one minute, the screaming in my brain stopped and it was like it was before, just us being with each other in the way that we have, no need for words. The only place I’m better at stayin’ in than inside is with her, and I could’ve stayed there forever.
But of course, all things end and she said I love you in a cracked voice and she ran out, slamming the door behind her.
The funeral weren’t nothing too special. Everyone always talks about how they wish they could go to their own funeral on account of everyone wants the hear the nice things people have to say that they only say once someone is dead, but the fact is, if someone has to be forced to say nice things by an occasion like this, how seriously can you really take what they have to say? For me, not that seriously. It was nice to hear the voices of old friends and family, but the one voice I craved the most didn’t speak. I wasn’t hurt by it though. She may not have been able to get through any kind of speech, and she was never much of a talkative woman anyway, as I have already mentioned.
Aunty went last. She ain’t sentimental or nothing and she’s never been one to sugarcoat nothing and her speech was short and true and meant the most to me out of anyone. She didn’t cry or scream or go into hysterics, just said how she loved me and why she loved me and that she would miss me and if I could’ve, I would’ve been crying like a baby. But, of course, I couldn’t.
Then came the part I was really dreading. I never been scared of closed spaces or nothing, but when I heard the lid of the coffin thump down and the little bit of light coming through my eyelids was shut out completely (and maybe forever) the weight of the situation hit me again and I started hollering inside myself again. But nobody heard me and they carried me away and after a brief graveside service, they put me in the ground where I am now and covered up my new home with dirt and left me alone with silence for my friend and darkness for my companion.
Only, as I mentioned earlier, I ain’t quite as alone as I now hope. The little men in the shadows are extra lively in the dark and they’re moving around all kinds of stuff and kicking up stuff better left buried (HA get it? Buried, but not dead, just like me) and I can’t stop them and they’re pushing it out, pushing Her out pushing out the time when I first met her and when I’m pretty sure all of this began.
All my siblings were on the ground with the empty cups still in their hands, what was left of the medicine and grape juice mixture spilling into small drops on the hard wood floor. Daddy was laying facedown next to me, his arm draped over my chest, his paper cup right next to my ear, making everything on that side sound as if it was coming over the sound of the ocean.
I had taken it too, of course, I was just as much a part of the family as anybody else in the room, but momma always said I had a hole in my lip on account of I couldn’t never eat a meal or drink something without getting at least a little on my shirt and this was no exception, special as it might be. I also always been the pickiest of the family so I eat and drink pretty peckishly, like a bird, you might say, and if I’m behind completely honest, the sacrament tasted awful bitter, not at all like how momma’s fresh muscadine grape juice usually tastes, and I let a little more spill out than might’ve happened on its own while momma was pouring a cup for my little brother Timmy on account of the awful taste. I had some of the same jiggles and wiggles as my siblings once I finished my cup and got a real bad tummy ache and fell on the floor and couldn’t move, just like now, except then my eyes were still open and unfortunately, now they ain’t and even if they were I don’t think I’d see much anyway.
I looked around the room best as I could, on account of I could still move my eyes a little then and saw momma standing by the table with a cup in her own hand and a whispered prayer on her lips. She finished her prayer, a single tear sliding down her cheek, and then she drank her cup and walked across the room out of my field of vision, probably to her favorite rocking chair where she liked to sit and look out the window. Right as she started to make some awful choking noises, another wave of pain went through my tummy and I got all dizzy and things went blurry for a minute.
When I came to again, She was there. At first, I thought it was Momma, on account of she was about the same size and height and her back was to me and she was standing over my big sister Anna, reaching down towards her face and pulling something I couldn’t see out of her mouth. Then she turned around and my heart turned to ice and I realized this definitely weren’t momma, not unless the medicine did something really awful to her.
Her lips were peeled back over her teeth in a grimace that turned to a grin once she saw me looking at her. I remember thinking that she probably wouldn’t be able to completely close her mouth if she tried, on account of her skin was like old, crinkled paper, both in color and texture and looked like it had withered up to the point where stretching it to cover all those terrible teeth would rip it like ten pounds of manure in a five pound bag.
In an instant, she was beside me. Maybe it was the sacrament still working in my system or maybe it was just Her, but I swear I never saw Her walk; it was like one minute She was standing over Anna’s body and the next She was standing over me. She bent down to get next to me and I could smell something like old cabbage and spoiling meat hanging around Her like flies around a pig’s sty. She smiled that awful, cracked smile at me and said in a voice that was gravelly and yet somehow bouncy and brimming with excitement, “Not yet. See you soon.” And the last thing I remember thinking before blacking out was how strange it was that She was able to talk with those awful, cracked teeth still locked together.
It’s impossible to say how long it’s been now. I don’t get hungry no more and I don’t have no light to judge by and I don’t go to the bathroom or cough or sneeze or get tummy aches or headaches. It may have been days or hours or years or seconds since they left me here, but what does it matter anyway? All I know is that I’m in the dark all alone (for now) and as scary as that may sound, it’s actually a comfort, because as the little men do their wicked work and push more and more out of the shadows, I can see a dull whitish glow through my eyelids, like when you hold your breath too long and start seeing them little dots in your eyes. It’s getting closer and closer with each thought, and I can hear Her voice telling me, “Not yet. See you soon.” And I can hear Her laughing now, laughing to bust a gut, laughing through them closed, cracked teeth, Her paperwhite skin not moving like it should be with such a laugh, Her black robe billowing around her as she draws nearer. I think it’s finally time, that “soon” has come because the light is getting brighter and the laugh is getting louder and I’m so scared. I’m starting to think that maybe stayin’ inside ain’t so bad. Stayin’ inside has got to be better than wherever She wants to take me, so I think I’ll just lock the doors keep stayin’ inside as long as I can. I’ll be stayin’ inside until She knocks down my door and drags me out and takes me to momma.
Josiah Furcinitti lives on the South Shore of Massachusetts with his wife. While he has
always enjoyed reading and been interested in writing, he began studying and delving into the
craft in the past year. He is currently working on his first novel as well as other short fiction.
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