Pynchon yanks up the floorboard with a crowbar. “The cat still ain’t doing his job. The mice chewed the electric wire. Are you boys setting up traps like I told you?”
“Yes, sir.” Eddie holds up a bruised set of fingers.
Pynchon nods. The older man looks at Nelson.
“I’ve set more traps than clumsy Eddie.” Nelson cuts a length of insulated wire to replace the damaged section of the knob and tube array.
“The trap was defective; I wasn’t clumsy.” Eddie twists the ends of the new wire with the existing line to make the electricity work again.
“Eddie trips over his own shoelaces while wearing slip-on shoes,” Nelson sneers as he takes the floorboard from Pynchon to reinstall it.
“Your joke makes no sense. Both of you are chuckleheads.” Pynchon blows his nose with a kerchief. “The ghost hunter show will be here filming on Thursday. We must ensure this room, which we now call Pickett’s Bedroom, and the other rooms stay haunted.”
Archibald Pynchon overpaid for the run-down Pickett Hotel in Deadwood, South Dakota, with borrowed money collateralized by his slumlord rental properties. Like many places in town, the thirteen-room hotel was said to be—and advertised as—haunted. Three rooms were promoted as being haunted; the same ones that, before Pynchon bought the hotel, had been hard to rent due to numerous complaints that were too expensive to fix.
“I had to sprinkle a lot of manure to leapfrog the line of other haunted places in town to get them to come. Simple tricks only work on imbeciles, but these show producers are more discerning; they crave pizzazz. Both of you will be pulling late shifts in our theatrical department.” Pynchon smiles at his wit as he pushes the kerchief back into the pocket of his overalls.
Pynchon does not tell Eddie and Nelson that he bribed the local historical society to back up his fictional claims that the hotel had once been a hospital where an unethical doctor performed ghastly medical experiments at the direction of the U.S. War Department. Pynchon figured he needed a juicy conspiracy angle to his hauntings; the old cowboy tropes of an angered outlaw or a lonely widow of a gold prospector were tiresome.
“I’ll blast the rooms with smells,” Eddie says, “and drag chains in the hallway.”
“Your last blast smelled like boiled rags. People thought we cleaned the floors with a dirty mop,” Nelson heckles. “It’s gotta smell like formaldehyde or rotten eggs from hydrogen sulfide. That’s the stuff they use in a morgue.”
“Nelson is in charge of smells; community college is paying off.” Pynchon realigns the frames of the creepy daguerreotype photos he bought at an estate sale. He tells guests the picture of the middle-aged man with a rifle is the fictitious, maniacal Dr. Hammond Pickett.
“I’ll dress up like Pickett and stand under the window at night.” Eddie intentionally moves closer to Nelson to stake his claim because he is taller by four inches. Nelson is not intimidated because he considers himself the alpha among them.
“Let’s make this competitive. I’m offering a five-hundred-dollar bonus to whomever between you two knuckleheads does the best job haunting the ghost hunters crew.”
“Why are you offering extra money, Mr. Pynchon?” Nelson asks.
“Because if the ghost show creates buzz, and attracts paying guests, then I will finally get out of debt. You’ve got to spend money to make money. I want both of you boneheads to compete like hell to put on a good show to those woke, snowflake, California types, especially the show host, Davin Puskin.” Pynchon shoulder-slaps Eddie and Nelson, driving his point home as they leave the room.
Eddie hopes to use the bonus to buy his buddies several rounds of beer at the bar. Unlike his friends, he has never been able to play the big man because he is forever broke.
Nelson will buy video games and upgrade his Xbox.
Eddie corners Nelson in the hotel’s garden shed after lunch. “Let’s work together; whoever wins will split the money with the other.”
Nelson shoos Genghis Cat away from a bag of mulch he suspects the feline has used to deposit his bodily waste. He hands a set of hedge shears to Eddie. “You trim the front bushes for me, and I’ll think about it.”
At the end of the workday, Nelson declines Eddie’s offer. “Nice try. I don’t particularly appreciate when people try to glide on my hard work. We each should do our own tricks.”
Eddie is irritated at having been hoodwinked into working on the bushes in the hot sun. It was Nelson’s assigned duty that day. After Nelson rides his bike home, Eddie returns to Pickett’s Bedroom and the other haunted guest rooms and undoes Nelson’s ghostly work completed that afternoon. It is not very difficult for Eddie to loosen wire connections to hidden eerie lights or add paint thinner to the fake blood meant to ooze through the wood paneling. As a final act of restorative vengeance, Eddie takes sulfur powder from the storeroom and mixes it with Nelson’s concoctions in the canister that pumps smells into selected air vents.
His skullduggery against Nelson complete, Eddie stays late into the night to craft his trick for the film crew. Genghis Cat follows him wherever he goes. Eddie plumbs rope from the roof to a hallway closet. Loosening the rope unleashes a hangman dummy to fall from the rooftop and sway outside the Pickett Bedroom window.
After a late-night kitchen raid, Pynchon catches Eddie tying a noose around a cowboy creation stained with fake blood. The older man grins like the Cheshire cat before retiring to his room for the evening. “Here I thought you were a bigger lunkhead than Nelson. Nice work; don’t disturb the guests while you scurry about.”
After his boss’s bedroom door closes, Eddie smiles at what he considers kind words from Pynchon. Then his smile fades at the hiss of Genghis Cat, who crawls under the hangman doll. He strokes the cat and asks, “Are you the master of the Pickett Hotel?”
Years before Pynchon bought the hotel, Genghis Cat had been the cherished companion of its then-widowed owner, who believed the cat held the reincarnated spirit of her husband. Upon her death, nobody bothered to find another home for the cat. Genghis Cat stayed, wandering about more or less unassailed. Eddie could not recall seeing the cat eat, and near as he knew, no one bothered to feed him.
The next day Nelson holds off much-needed roof repairs that Pynchon asked him to do. He rigs a wire-framed bedsheet to fly up the stairs of the two-story lobby when a pressure plate on the stairs is triggered. Nelson struggles to balance the counterbalance sandbag in the shadow of the hall ceiling’s trusswork.
Pynchon approaches Nelson as the younger man puts away the ladder he just used. “Did you finish up the roof patch?”
“Tight as a drum,” Nelson lies. He does not want to waste time on his usual work stuff when he can make five hundred dollars playing at Halloween.
Later in the day, Davin Puskin and his two-person film crew pull up to the hotel in a four-door jeep. The TV host jumps out and spots Nelson moving around in the bushes, unspooling audio wire. “Young man, we need help with our equipment. And tell your boss, Mr. Pynchon, that Cowboy Ghost Hunters are here to see ghastly ghosties.”
Nelson tells Eddie to help the crew with the heavy boxes while he alerts Pynchon to their new guests.
Pynchon meets Puskin on the driveway. After Puskin gets Pynchon to sign a nondisclosure statement, the TV host says, “We understand that ghost sightings can be hard to produce on demand. Feel free to stage reenactments of spectral activity for the benefit of our cameras. And remember, please don’t ask for help from us; integrity dictates we don’t direct your actions. We’re just documentarians.”
Pynchon nods at Nelson, who suddenly appears to give Eddie perfunctory help with hauling equipment. Pynchon assumes Nelson will recognize his conspiratorial affirmation to turn up the spook factor. “Davin, we are honored that you picked us for your show. Around here, we consider our spirits as reliable as Old Faithful.”
Unexpectedly, as they head to the hotel entrance, Davin Puskin pitches toward the gravel driveway in a stumbling trip. “That cat snaked between my feet out of nowhere!”
“I’m so sorry, Davin,” Pynchon says as he reaches to help the TV host. He snarls at Nelson, “Do something; grab it. Lock that cat in the basement while they’re here.”
Nelson stammers, “It never lets me close enough to catch it.”
“I’ll nail it.” Davin grabs a handful of gravel and throws it at Genghis Cat. But the cat is too fast and already under the nearby front porch.
Pynchon whips out his kerchief and offers it to Puskin, who has a visible bleeding cut on his forearm. Puskin snatches it from Pynchon and dabs the wound. Without another word, the TV host storms into the hotel to join his crew.
“Oh, that’s gross,” Nelson says.
“What is?” Pynchon asks.
“Is that the same kerchief you used to blow your nose the other day? You’re wearing the same overalls,” Nelson observes.
“Stop being a numbskull and get going with Eddie to prepare for tonight,” Pynchon says.
“Tonight is Eddie’s night to produce a haunting. Tomorrow night is my turn,” Nelson says. “This way, you know who is responsible for what when awarding the bonus.”
In the dining room the next morning, Pynchon sidles over to the Cowboy Ghost Hunters’ table while they sip coffee in stern dialogue. He asks, “Did you get good footage of our evil Dr. Pickett’s midnight shenanigans last night?”
Without answering, Puskin’s crew leaves the table, seemingly agitated. The TV host offers Pynchon a chair. “Last night was worse than community theater, maybe tied with the efforts of a middle school drama class. We heard chains rattling outside our windows, and when we looked outside, that guy was dressed in a peacoat from Old Navy over a pair of Kansas City Chiefs sweatpants.” Puskin points at Eddie, who spoons scrambled eggs onto the plates of two hotel guests, an older couple from Minnesota. “Filming through a glass window into the moonlight produces horrible results. And remind him that ghosts do not do the chicken dance.”
Pynchon is humiliated. “That kid’s wheel is spinning, but the hamster’s dead.”
“Never mind, I’ll take care of it,” Pynchon tells Puskin.
“If you waste another day, which costs my show more money, I’ll ensure the Deadwood community drives you out of business. The other haunted places will slit your throat for stealing their shot to be on Cowboy Ghost Hunters.”
Under the table, Pynchon can feel Genghis Cat brush against his leg.
Later, Pynchon shoves two hundred dollars into Nelson’s hands. “Not a word to Eddie. He blew it big time last night. I’m counting on you tonight. This cash is extra motivation on top of the five hundred you will win if Davin Puskin is pleased. Make sure your tricks happen in the hotel with enough light for filming. Put that community college education to work, and make sure that your haunting does not look amateurish.”
“You can bank on me like a squirrel banks acorns.” Nelson tucks the roll of twenty-dollar bills into his back pocket.
After dinner, Pynchon sits in a hard-backed chair in the hotel lobby and waits. He makes Eddie keep him company as a precaution against further stupidity. The young man alternates his attention between being on his phone and watching Nelson, who has positioned himself in the trusswork of the lobby ceiling so that he can orchestrate his tricks.
A few hours later, when it seems that all the guests are asleep, it begins to rain hard. Pynchon mentally applauds himself for getting Nelson to fix the roof before the storm surge from Canada blew in. A flash of lightning lights up the lobby seconds after thunder cracks.
Eddie breaks the silence by whispering, “Do you smell that? What has Nelson done? It smells like a giant skunk got loose upstairs.”
Pynchon agrees and shines a flashlight beam at Nelson up in the ceiling.
Nelson’s expression reflects confusion at Pynchon’s probe. He thinks maybe he forgot a prearranged signal for something. Anyway, he had already triggered the oozing walls of blood in the Pickett Bedroom a minute after the smells started. He plans to haunt the TV crew rooms next.
From Pynchon’s vantage point, he notices a new red light through the Pickett Bedroom’s door gap. The light flickers erratically. A muted conversation starts up. Pynchon guesses the TV host is alerting his crew to film the effects Nelson has crafted. Pynchon gets excited. He tells Eddie, “You messed everything up yesterday, but Nelson saves our bacon tonight.”
Eddie points his flashlight beam at a growing puddle of water on the lobby floor. “Or he burns our bacon.”
Up in the ceiling, Nelson also sees the growing puddle of water. He drops down from his hiding spot and sprints up a set of stairs that leads to the attic and then the roof. Along the way, he grabs a toolbox and a tarp. Nelson hopes he can stop the rain from leaking through the roof before too much inside damage is done. Because he lied about doing the repair, he fears Pynchon might keep the bonus money.
Pynchon gets up from his chair and motions for Eddie to follow him up the main stairs. He worries that any neglect from staging the haunting effects could be disastrous. At the top of the stairs, he directs Eddie to the far side of the interior balcony. “Get up there in Nelson’s spot to keep the tricks going.”
Eddie shakes his head. “I’ve no idea what order he planned things. Tonight is his night.”
Pynchon lets out a long, angry hiss that sounds like a bike tire with a nail puncture to Eddie. Since they are only steps away from Pickett’s Bedroom, Pynchon whispers, “I saw you the other night setting up a hangman cowboy dummy that falls from the roof. Do that one now.”
Eddie rolls his eyes and chuckles. “That would have been awesome to do last night; I forgot.” He opens a closet door nearby and unties a knotted rope that leads to the roof.
Before Pynchon has the chance to debase Eddie further for his perpetual incompetence, Davin Puskin screams the word fire!
The door to Pickett’s Bedroom is thrown open; behind the TV host, the carpet and curtains are ablaze. Later, the fire marshal will write a report that the fire started from poorly connected knob and tube wires that ignited a mixture of paint thinner and red dye.
Before the fire company arrives, Pynchon responds to the emergency by grabbing an extinguisher that is bolted to the wall as part of mandated life safety. Racing toward Pickett’s Bedroom, he pushes Puskin aside to get a handle on the flames. Eddie follows Pynchon. Pynchon knows that if the hotel burns to the ground, he will be bankrupt; he has purposely undervalued his property to pay less on the annual fire policy.
Suddenly, the window of Pickett’s Bedroom breaks inward, shelling the room with shards of glass. The cowboy dummy in a hangman’s noose dangles on the other side of the damage, rocking back and forth. Pynchon cries out at the sight of a prone Nelson facedown on the carpet. Later, after emergency surgery, Nelson will tell the police he was knocked off the roof by the catapulting dummy and only by the grace of a higher power managed to hold on to the rag-doll cowboy and go for a ride.
The violent crash of Nelson through the glass triggers both Davin Puskin and Eddie. Each reacts differently—Puskin heads for the stairs down to the lobby, while Eddie drops to the floor and cowers. As Puskin rattles down the stairs, he triggers the floor pressure plate (which Pynchon and Eddie were instructed to avoid) and releases Nelson’s spring-loaded ghost, which vaults upward, accompanied by a bloodcurdling scream from hidden speakers.
Puskin screams in fright and jumps backward. The scream startles Eddie, who bolts to his feet. Puskin and Eddie collide, resulting in Puskin pitching over the hallway balustrade. Eddie hears a sickening crunch and a pop. Looking over the railing, Eddie sees the TV host’s body twisted and bent in the light of his flashlight. Blood pools around Puskin’s head.
Several doors in the hotel begin to open, one after the other. The guests are panicked.
The screaming speakers suddenly begin to play something else. The next track isn’t stopped because Nelson is unconscious. Bobby Pickett’s “The Monster Mash” fills the lobby.
Eddie sees Genghis Cat scamper from the shadows to the corpse of the TV host. The cat hungrily begins lapping up the blood, working a trail from the floor spatters to Davin Puskin’s head wound. Morbid curiosity compels Eddie to watch. He is reminded of when, as a child, a hawk snatched his puppy and took her to the heights of a tall tree to become a meal.
Finally finished, Genghis Cat looks up and affirms Eddie’s presence with a meow. Then the feline retreats to the kitchen, swishing his tail to and fro.
Rob Armstrong’s book Daddy 3.0: A Comedy of Errors won the 2017 Independent Author Network Award for Best Comedy/Satire Novel. He attended several writing workshops, including the International Thriller Writers’ Workshop. His work is forthcoming in El Portal, Euphony Journal, Evening Street Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Perceptions Magazine.
I watched the fog creep along the ground and through the treeline at the edge of the property in a daze. I had been staring for a while, slowly realizing that I was still tightly gripping a mug. My hand trembled as I brought the tepid coffee to my lips, almost causing it to spill. I closed my eyes, taking a sip; the contrast of the warm liquid to the chilly morning instilled a slight, temporary sense of relief. As I opened my eyes, the feelings of fear and uneasiness began to re-emerge.
My other hand was still clinging to my phone, the screen now black from timing out. I knew that I needed to unlock it and keep watching the camera footage from last night, that I had to check and see if anything else happened, but the overwhelming feeling of dread was paralyzing. Eventually, I managed to push through and open the video, gulping down another swig of coffee before pressing play.
I slowly tracked through the few hours of familiar and utter stillness that always permeates the house after Magdeline goes to sleep. The recording showed the hallway, adorned with portraits of her loved ones passed; my door, the bathroom door, and the door to her bedroom at the end of the hall. Her door had been left ajar, just like it always was. Then it happened; the old, heavy oak door began to slowly open. The squeak of the hinges sent shivers down my spine and stirred a wave of anxiety in anticipation for what I knew was coming next.
Through the darkness, a figure started to take shape in the doorway, making its way toward the camera. It appeared to be walking backward, hunched over forward towards the doorway, with its arms hanging limply. The floorboards creaked steadily with each slow, lumbering step. As it drew near, I could now begin to make out the floral pattern of a nightgown. I began to press backward into the old porch chair, almost as if instinctively trying to get away while it continued to approach the camera, my heart drumming intensely as I prepared myself.
Now only about ten feet away, the upper half of the figure began to move into a straight, upright position, almost as if being manipulated externally, its arms still dangling freely. It then started to convulse slightly and contort backward in a jarring, unnatural way, accompanied by the gut-wrenching sounds of cracking and popping. The limp arms adjusted accordingly with the angle of the torso, again hanging towards the floor. I could now see its long, stringy, extremely thin & patchy white hair dragging along the floor between its legs as it continued to move toward the camera, never skipping a beat. It was now face-to-face with the lens. A faint, ominous voice crackled forth, almost inaudible, like the sound of the final escaping breath of death, “I know you’re watching.”
A shriek escaped my lips, and the coffee mug slipped from my hand and shattered across the concrete porch. My eyes were still locked on the terrifyingly gruesome face, the head convulsing as it slowly swung from side to side like a pendulum. Viewing the footage again confirmed that this was real, that I hadn’t imagined it.
“Cheryl, are ya alright, deary?” Magdeline asked through the screen door.
“Ye- yes, I’m fine,” I replied without looking in her direction, hitting the lock button on my phone as I stared off into the distance. I heard the old spring on the door creak as it opened a little, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see a small section of a floral print nightgown gently swaying in the breeze.
She spoke again, “oh my, so that was the commotion. Well, once ya get it cleaned up c’mon in and we’ll get ya another.”
“Okay, Magdeline. I’ll get breakfast started too, but it’s awfully chilly out here this morning I don’t want you to catch a cold.”
“Yer sweet, deary, don’t know what I’d do without ya heh heh.”
She retreated inside, the rickety screen door closing behind her with a dull thud. I took a moment to collect myself as best I could before picking up the shards from the mug, and reluctantly made my way inside.
I’ve been Magdeline’s live-in caregiver for the better part of a year now. She’s been a close friend of my family for many decades, starting with my late grandfather and great-grandparents when he was just a young boy, and over the years has always been an all-around kind, reliable, and supportive neighbor. I use the term neighbor loosely, as even though her property was the closest to ours, it was still almost a half mile away.
I look back fondly at my memories of playing in the woods with my brother, and always seeming to somehow end up on her property. We were always invited inside for fresh cookies and stories of the “good ol’ days,” but I digress; we have all always had a close relationship with her, and would do anything we could to look out for the old widow with no family of her own… which brings us to the topic at hand.
When my mother informed me that Magdeline (now ninety-six years old and in a progressed state of dementia) needed someone to look after her, but was unable to afford professional services, I didn’t hesitate to volunteer for the job. My mom would have readily taken the position herself if she wasn’t the main source of income for our household, and was elated that I chose to do so. We wanted nothing more than for her to be able to live comfortably in her own home until it was either “her time,” or until she reached the point that she required admittance into a nursing home.
I may not be professionally trained, but I know how to cook, clean, and sort medicines, and my mother taught me how to check vitals using the devices she was able to procure for Magdeline. I also have nothing going for me in my own life; no husband nor children of my own, no career, no attachments. I’ve basically just been going with the flow my entire life, and felt that some routine and purpose may help me to figure out a path in life.
Magdeline is one of the sweetest old ladies you could ever meet, and I wholeheartedly believe the woman has never felt a single ounce of hate or malice toward anyone in her life. I fully expected her to not recognize me, or at the very least not be able to remember my name, but she never seemed to have issues recognizing who I am. Being a caregiver is in no way an easy job, and progressively takes its toll, but to me, it was worth doing for her. Everything was going smoothly until a few weeks ago.
Late one night, after what I refer to as her “bedtime mumbling” had ceased, signifying that she was now fully asleep, I laid awake in the dead silence, thinking about life. All of a sudden, I heard what sounded like the steps of bare feet passing my bedroom door and going towards her room… only there was something off about them; it sounded as if the feet had long nails that were clacking against the hardwood floor with each step. I quietly sat up in bed, now listening closely.
It wasn’t at all uncommon for her to get up and go to the bathroom on her own during the night, and her dementia hadn’t progressed to the point of having to worry about her wandering off just yet… but I knew it wasn’t her. Not only had I not heard her get up and leave her room (the creaky door as well as dragging her feet always being dead giveaways), but I also had just clipped & painted both her finger & toenails earlier that day.
The footsteps approached the door to her room, and were followed promptly by the sound of her door creaking open. I was slightly startled, but admittedly I was also curious, and obligated to investigate. I slowly moved the thick hand-made quilt to the side and quietly crept towards my bedroom door, placing my ear against it in an attempt to better hear whatever may be happening on the other side…
Silence. Utter stillness. There was no doubt in my mind that whoever was walking around was still standing in that doorway, as I hadn’t heard any more footsteps after the door opened nor the sound of Magdeline getting back into bed. I hesitantly wrapped my hand around the doorknob and began to turn it, trying my best to not make a sound. After opening the door just a crack, I peered out into the darkness towards her bedroom.
Against the pale light of the moon beaming in through the gap in the curtains adorning her old bay-style window, I could make out what appeared to be the silhouette of a tall, brooding figure, stooping down as if looking at Magdeline. Her bed was situated beneath the window, with the headboard against the adjacent wall. The shape wasn’t beside her bed, nor was it on it; it appeared to be hovering above Magdeline. I could see her laying there in bed, still sleeping.
“Everything alright, deary?” I heard Magdeline call out, followed instantly by the click of the lamp on her nightstand turning on. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
There was Magdeline, now sitting straight up in her bed, her eyes locked onto mine as if she had been awake and watching me the entire time. The silhouette seemed to have disappeared.
I stared at her for a moment, mouth agape, before finally responding, “oh, um, yes, everything is fine. I thought you were asleep, I was just checking on you.”
Magdeline smiled, that same genuine smile that never faltered even without her dentures in, “I’m quite alright, don’t ya worry. Ya better go on and get yerself ta bed, I’ma do the same heh heh.”
“Alright. Goodnight, Magdeline.”
She turned off her light and laid back down as if nothing had happened. As for me, I returned to my room and tried to reason away what I had just witnessed as my tired mind playing tricks on me.
A few days of the typical routine of housework, doing check-ups and answering Magdeline’s repetitive questions passed without anything strange or noteworthy occurring. That is, until the night before my mother was due to stop by for a check-in.
I had put Magdeline down for bed a few hours prior to this occurrence. Her nighttime mumbling had already ceased, and I was finally at ease enough to call it a night myself. That’s when I heard it; the sound of her mattress squeaking and bare feet hitting the hardwood, shifting under the weight. This, of course, roused my awareness and I began listening intently.
Those footsteps… I recognized the sound. Not only were they Magdeline’s lumbering steps, but they were accompanied by that same sound of long nails striking the floor. I sat straight up in bed as quietly as I could, a sense of uneasiness beginning to overtake my body. I heard the old oak door creak open, and now the footsteps were steadily coming closer… closer… and closer still, until they stopped right outside of my bedroom door. My eyes wide, ears sharp, I took in a breath and held it, listening intently for any noise that may pierce the now dreadful silence. I was waiting for what felt close to an hour when all of a sudden…
*Tap. Tap. Tap.*
The noise, though barely perceptible, was enough to make me jump a little, and sounded as if someone was tapping on the door with a rigid object.
“Ma- Magdeline?” I finally managed to call out through the darkness… but there was no response.
*Tap. Tap. Tap.*
I didn’t know what to think or what to do. I knew in my mind that Magdeline could have simply progressed to a new stage of dementia, maybe something akin to a wandering stage. I’ve been told that the condition of individuals with dementia can change suddenly (even overnight in some cases), but the anxiety that was now beginning to afflict my body would not allow me to investigate. So, I continued to listen, and that’s when a new sound emerged…
Mumbling. It was reminiscent of her bedtime mumbling, though something seemed off about it. Normally I could make out a few of her murmurings here & there… but now, even though she was just on the other side of the door, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It was more difficult to discern than her speech when she was laying in bed, further away.
*Tap. Tap. Tap.*
Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the mumbling ceased, and the house again fell dead silent. I continued to listen for any more patter, murmuring, or footsteps for what felt like an eternity, before finally mustering the courage to investigate.
I made my way over to my door as quietly as the floor would allow, held my breath, and opened the door… nothing. All that was looking back at me from that hallway were the faded old portraits. I stuck my head out and looked towards Magdeline’s doorway, which had been left wide open, and there in the bed… was Magdeline. Sleeping peacefully just as I had left her, although I had never heard her return to her room.
The next day, my mother came to visit and drop off some supplies. Magdeline had just laid down for a nap a couple of hours prior, so we decided to have some coffee on the porch to avoid disturbing her.
“Everything alright, Cheryl? You look exhausted, baby,” My mother asked, bringing her mug up to her mouth.
“Yeah, just tired I guess. You know it hasn’t exactly been easy, but it could be much more difficult. I think that Magdeline may be getting worse, I fear she may have started the wandering phase last night.”
“Yes. Sometimes she’ll get up to go to the bathroom, then go right back to bed, but that’s not what happened. I heard her moving about after bedtime, luckily she didn’t go too far. She stood outside of my door for a while murmuring to herself, then eventually went back to bed.”
“Awh, the poor thing. I know it’s hard watching this happen to someone so dear to us, but you’re doing a good thing here and I know she appreciates everything you do for her.”
“Yeah, I know. But what can we do about the wandering, what if I’m asleep when it happens?”
Mom finished her coffee, gently sitting the mug down on the old rusty table situated between us, “hmm… I think I have an idea.”
“Tripwires and tin cans?” I replied jokingly.
“Hahaha don’t be silly. No, I think I’ll order you two of those motion cameras like the ones we have outside to keep watch on the chickens, and you can set them up in the house at night before bed. That way, she’ll never even know that they’re there and it won’t disrupt her routine.”
“That IS a good idea, mom, but there’s one problem; Magdeline doesn’t have wifi.”
“You won’t need it, they can run off of your mobile hotspot. Just make sure that your phone is charged at night.”
“That Jodie I hear out there? Heh heh. Ya want some coffee, dear?” We heard Magdeline call to my mother from the screen door.
“No that’s quite alright, honey, I was just about to leave. How are you?” My mother replied.
“Oh, I’m fine just fine thanks to yer girl here, heh heh. Don’t know what I’d do without ‘er. Ain’t no use runnin’ off so soon now, would ya like some coffee?”
My mother and I chuckled to each other, “alright, Cheryl, be good, I’ll bring those to you as soon as I can tomorrow. Call if you need anything.”
The rest of the day proceeded as usual, utterly unremarkable and monotonous… until night fell. Magdeline was in bed, now fully asleep as I laid wide awake, the previous night still replaying in my mind. Then, it happened again.
The bed creaking, feet hitting the floor, the tapping of nails; exactly how it happened last night. Only this time, the footsteps didn’t stop at my door. Instead, they continued down the hall. As they passed, I heard what sounded like fingernails being dragged across my door, accompanied by that same low, almost inaudible mumbling… and what sounded like an impersonation of Magdeline’s signature chuckle, “heh heh.”
The footsteps continued down the hallway, seeming to stop in front of the stairs to the second floor. Magdeline hadn’t been able to ascend them in many years due to her weakened state, and I only did so on occasion for cleaning and to store or retrieve supplies. Lo and behold, they began to creak as if supporting someone’s weight.
It sounded like whoever was ascending them had stopped after three or four stairs, as if they were just standing there midflight. As unsettled as I was, I knew I had to get out there and see what was going on, that Magdeline’s safety may be at stake. Not wanting to potentially startle her and cause her to fall, I made my way out into the hall as stealthily as I possibly could.
I leaned against the wall opposite the stairs in an attempt to take some of my weight off of the old floor, and it helped considerably in reducing the creak of the boards. I then made my way towards the stairs, making sure to avoid knocking any of the old portraits off of the wall.
I continued my approach, slowly and methodically. I heard no sounds coming from the stairs themselves, only the same low murmuring that I had heard as the footsteps passed by my door. I almost gasped as the stairway finally came into view.
Standing not midflight as I had assumed, but on the middle landing, was Magdeline, bathed in the light of the full moon. Her dark silhouette was a stark, eery contrast to the pale brilliance. I couldn’t fathom how she managed to get to that point in her feeble state, as well as without me hearing anything, but that was the least startling aspect of the situation.
Magdeline was facing the window of the landing, almost completely erect instead of taking her perpetually hunched posture. It appeared as if something unseen was steadying her, holding her up. Her head was still drooping between her shoulders, slowly rocking from side to side, almost in rhythm with the mumbling. All of a sudden, I heard a sickening pop accompanied by the sounds of bones crackling.
She was no longer hunched over whatsoever, now arching slightly backward, arms back and bent at the elbows as if being restrained. Her head snapped back, almost as if forcefully pulled, and I could see the light from the moon now streaming through the thinning hair on the top of her head… then I saw it.
It was extremely faint, but I could now make out the shape of the same silhouette I saw in her room, towering over her like a giant. I threw my hand over my mouth to prevent myself from screaming, but in doing so I accidentally knocked one of the portraits off of the wall, sending it toward the floor with a crash that pierced the silence. The mumbling stopped.
I was frozen in place, absolutely horrified and cursing myself internally, eyes locked onto her in anticipation. I watched as the shadow seemed to swirl and dissipate into her body, then I heard it again; the gut-wrenching popping, the crackling, and watched in total disbelief as her upper half began to fold backward, facing me.
I darted back to my room faster than I had ever ran in my life, slamming the door and locking it with the old barrel skeleton key I kept on the table next to it. I waited and listened, fully expecting to hear footsteps followed by Magdeline trying to get through the door — but I heard nothing. It was dead quiet, and I stood there in the middle of my room frozen, my heart about to burst through my chest. It felt as if time was standing still…
*Tap. Tap. Tap.*
The sudden noise and the realization that she was there outside of my door, that I hadn’t heard any indication of her approach, sent me stumbling back onto the bed, blood running cold, and trying my best to steady my breath.
*Tap. Tap. Tap.*
I stayed awake nearly the entire night, long after the tapping had stopped, and long after I was sure that she had returned to bed even though I never heard her do so. Eventually, I gathered the strength to venture out of my room. I looked over through the crack in the door into Magdeline’s room, and to no surprise, she was still fast asleep.
Before venturing down the hall, I inspected my door; there was no evidence of the scratching I had heard. “Maybe I’m just losing my mind, or having vivid nightmares…” I thought to myself. Although relieved at finding no evidence, I was still fairly shaken.
I made my way into the kitchen, brewed myself a pot of coffee, and went to sit on the porch, awaiting my mother’s return. I almost jumped with glee when her car finally rounded the turn at the end of the old dirt driveway.
“Hey hun, just got off work. Anything new happen since yesterday?” She asked as she handed me a couple of brand-new motion cameras, still dressed in her scrubs.
“Mom, I… I think something is wrong with Magdeline.”
“What do you mean by that?” She replied as she lowered herself into the empty chair.
“She’s been acting very strangely at night. I know you wouldn’t believe me even if I told you.”
I didn’t want to tell her what I thought I had seen, I knew she’d think that I was off my rocker, “Well… it’s not only the fact that she’s wandering at night now, it’s that there’s something off about it. Almost as if it’s not her at all, like something is making her, forcing her to behave in a way that’s, I don’t know, kinda scary,” I answered, still staring off into the distance.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” My mother asked, placing the back of her hand against my forehead.
“I’m not sure. I feel like I’m losing it.”
“Perhaps the stress of doing this every day is wearing you down. Taking its toll on your mind and causing you to misperceive the situation. Maybe you need a break?”
“Maybe you’re right…”
“Tell ya what. If you can hang on for about another week or so, I’ll put in for a vacation from work and take over for you for a little while so that you can rest.”
“That’d be great, mom. Would you mind staying here for a couple of hours so that I can get some sleep? Last night, it just… it really messed with me, I could hardly rest at all.”
“Of course, dear, that won’tbe a problem,” she responded, leaning in to kiss me on the head, “I should visit with Magdeline anyway, but I can’t stay too long because I have to work tonight. I have to get some sleep myself eventually.”
My mother spent several hours with Magdeline as I slept, heading out in the late afternoon.
“Remember, Cheryl,” she said as she was getting into her car, “they work off of motion by default, so place them somewhere they will see her. It will send a notification to your phone if it picks up anything so keep your sound on. You’ll be able to see the feed right away.”
I deduced that the end of the hall facing towards her door would be the ideal spot for one, and decided that placing one beside the front door facing towards the stairs after what had happened last night was the other obvious choice. There was no way she could get very far without alerting the cameras.
Nightfall was once again descending upon us, and the fear of reliving what happened last night filled my body with dread — but nothing happened. Perhaps having the cameras had somewhat put my mind at ease, and kept me from conjuring up another scenario. Magdeline was asleep, utterly quiet… but I was still absolutely on edge. I waited and listened with anticipation, eventually managing to drift off comfortably to sleep, receiving no alerts from the cameras.
The next morning, as I made my way toward the kitchen to prepare my coffee, my phone began to ding as the cameras observed me. “Good to know that they’re working,” I thought. As I stepped into the antiquated kitchen, I noticed that the coffee maker had already been set up. There were grounds placed in the upper chamber and the appropriate amount of water in the tank, as well as my favorite mug sitting beside it. I never prepared it at night, always waiting until morning for absolute freshness, and there was no way for Magdeline to have gotten passed the cameras (especially after just confirming that the motion sensors worked).
With no other explanation, I begrudgingly wrote it off as a lapse of memory, assuming that I must have prepared it the night before; maybe I simply forgot in the midst of my mental turmoil. I proceeded to brew my coffee and made my way to the porch to ponder the entirety of the situation I found myself in over the past week. Perhaps I really was at my mental limit. Maybe none of what I’d experienced actually happened. Was my subconscious projecting, twisting Magdeline into some kind of monster from the months of building tension with no real breaks? Probably so.
I proceeded through the day as usual. Magdeline’s constant chipper demeanor acted as a kind of reassurance that my mind had been playing tricks on me. There’s just no way that this sweet, mostly incapacitated little old lady could have possibly done those things… right? If everything had actually happened, her brittle bones would have been broken from the contortion I witnessed, but she was absolutely fine. The cameras also didn’t pick up any movement from the night before, so there was nothing to corroborate my suspicion that someone else had set up the coffee maker.
The setting sun was now disappearing behind the trees, the light slowly receding through the dingy glass of Magdeline’s old, bay-style window.
“Did ya make sure to turn the oven off, deary?” She asked me.
“Yes ma’am, I did. Heading to bed a little early tonight?”
“Figured I might as well, need my beauty sleep heh heh.”
I chuckled, “No way, you’re the most beautiful lady I’ve ever known. Goodnight, Magdeline.”
“Yer too sweet. Goodnight, deary. Oh! Did ya turn the oven off?”
Magdeline had now been asleep for a few hours. There wasn’t a sound to be heard, and no alerts from the cameras, so I decided to try to get some rest myself. I was almost asleep when I heard it…
*Tap. Tap. Tap.*
I shot straight up in bed, “not again,” I thought to myself. This time I hadn’t heard a thing before the taps; not her bed, no footsteps, nothing. I figured I had to be imagining it.
*Tap. Tap. Tap.*
I picked up my phone — no alerts. The camera hadn’t picked up any motion at all. I turned the brightness down on my phone, unlocked it, and opened the motion camera app so that I could watch a live feed of what was happening outside of my door.
Once it connected, I could see Magdeline standing right in front of my door, in that same strange pose that looked like something was holding her up. I pressed record.
*Tap. Tap. Tap.*
I could see her outstretched finger, her hand making the motion of the tap — but her finger wasn’t connecting with the door. I heard the mumbling start and instinctively turned my head toward the sound for a brief second. When I looked back at the screen, I saw that Magdeline’s head was now laying back on her shoulders, limply swaying from side to side. I couldn’t make out any of her facial features as they seemed to be obscured by the darkness.
All of a sudden her head snapped forward, and she began tapping again. I zoomed in so that I could see her hand more clearly. She wasn’t making contact with the door, but I could see what looked like a shadow protruding from the end of her finger, almost like a claw. Then something new happened, something that she hadn’t done before; she reached for the doorknob and attempted to turn it. Shivers crept down my spine as my eyes darted back & forth from the knob to the footage, thankful that I had remembered to lock the door.
I could tell from the video feed that she – it – was getting frustrated at being unable to open the door. She began forcefully banging upon it, and I became petrified at the thought that Magdeline might just bust her way through. Then I heard the mumbling again, only this time I could understand it. I was being directly spoken to through the door, but the voice was not Magdeline’s; it was male, ominous, and sinister. Even though I could make out the words, they sounded like little more than a forced groan, “Let me in, deary. I can’t do it myself with this old body heh heh.”
I have no idea what came over me, but before I even realized what I was doing, I was standing at the door screaming in response, “Get out of here and leave us both alone! Go back to whatever hole you crawled out of!” Everything was still for a moment, and then it said to me, “I’m the one that gives orders, pulls the strings around here. You’ll see soon enough.”
I watched the feed in utter disbelief and horror as Magdeline was lifted a few inches off of the ground, almost as if attached to a pulley system. She was then turned away from her bedroom door facing towards the camera, her right arm out to the side. She began floating backward, fading into the darkness of her bedroom, the shadow nails on the tips of her fingers scraping along the wall. Her door slowly creaked closed, slightly ajar like I always left it. I dropped my phone and held my face as I began sobbing uncontrollably, falling back into my pillow as I sank into a sea of fear. I eventually managed to cry myself to sleep, relieved that it seemed to have stopped for now.
The following morning as I stepped out into the hall, I looked over to the left for the scratch mark… Again, there was nothing at all as if it had never happened. Though shaken and bewildered, I went on about my usual routine of coffee on the porch. I stared at my phone, reluctant to unlock it and watch the footage from last night, although I needed to. I was frightened that I was going completely insane and imagining it all, or even worse still, that this was all actually happening. I knew that I had to, as it was the only way to know what was really going on, so I proceeded to unlock my phone and play the video…
The scene was depicted exactly the way I remembered it happening. I felt a brief sense of relief knowing that I wasn’t insane, but tears began to well up in my eyes as the realization set in; something was controlling my sweet Magdeline, and it was trying its best to get to me. It then occurred to me that the camera had never stopped recording, that I still had footage from the rest of the night. I wasn’t yet ready to look through it, so I began staring off into the distance, attempting to mentally prepare myself. By the time I came back to reality, my coffee was almost cold and my screen had timed out, but it was now or never. Trembling, I unlocked my phone and played the video.
Hours of stillness, silence; then I saw it emerge from the darkness of Magdeline’s room. It walked backward down the hallway towards the camera, contorting its upper body backward mid-stride, until its now upside-down face was almost touching the lens. The once warm & familiar face had been twisted into a sinister grin, gums exposed, and was made more unnerving by the black, emotionless eyes that were now set way back into that aged and decrepit face. There were concave black streaks, almost like extended crow’s feet filled with tar, lining the sides of her face & cheeks. “I know you’re watching.”
I shrieked, my mug slipped from my hand and shattered across the porch. Unbeknownst to me, Magdeline was now awake and had heard me. She popped out of the screen door to check on me, beckoning me to come back inside. After she was out of sight and I was sure that she could no longer hear me, I attempted to call my mother — my phone wouldn’t dial out. I tried to send her a message but to no avail. I couldn’t get anything to load on the internet browser, but somehow my hotspot was still functioning, and the cameras were still connected… how could this be? Did it want me to keep watching?
After collecting myself, I went back inside and proceeded through the morning routine as best I could. Magdeline was back to her old cheery self as if nothing was wrong, just like she always was throughout each day that this was going on. “Maybe whatever it is has no power over her in the daytime,” I thought to myself.
After lunch, Magdeline made her way to her room to take a nap, just like she always did.
“Hey, Magdeline, I wanted to ask before you fell asleep; is it alright if I use your landline to call my mom? My phone isn’t working.”
“Well of course deary, tell her to come over and see us while yer at it heh heh,” she replied.
I waited until she fell asleep and then proceeded to use her phone, but it also wouldn’t dial out. “Maybe mom will come to check up on us after not hearing from us for a while, I hope,” I said to myself as I set the phone back on the receiver, and went on my way with chores in an attempt to occupy my mind.
Nighttime was almost upon us once again, and the dread of what may come began setting in heavily. After I got Magdeline into bed, I made myself another pot of coffee so that I could keep myself awake. There was no way that I was going to allow myself to be caught off guard by this thing. After I finished my coffee I headed back towards my room, jittering all the way. I locked myself inside and set the cameras to begin recording.
Almost the entire night went by without so much as a peep. The pot of coffee was now taking its toll, my bladder felt like it was about to burst. Leaving my room was the last thing that I wanted to do, but I didn’t have much of a choice. Since the night had almost entirely passed without any occurrences, I prayed that it would remain that way. I gathered every ounce of remaining fortitude left within me, checked the camera feed and unlocked the door, then slipped the key into the pocket of my robe before heading out into the hallway.
I made my way to the bathroom as silently as I possibly could, my heart pounding relentlessly the entire way. I had to avoid alerting whatever had a hold of Magdeline at all costs; I didn’t know what would happen if it managed to get to me, but I had no desire to find out. I finished my business, checked the cameras, and quietly stepped out into the hallway.
“Your heart betrays you, heh heh.”
I froze. Panic began to wash over me, my blood turned to ice; it was up and about. I had alerted it, and it had managed to approach without me knowing. I slowly turned my head to the right, and there stood Magdeline — her body again contorted backward, face horrifically warped — between me and my bedroom. The bathroom door didn’t have a lock, so I had to think fast.
I turned left and sprinted towards the stairs, practically throwing myself up both flights. I rounded the top landing and bolted into the closest upstairs bedroom, slammed the door behind me, and began fumbling with the key in the hole. “C’MON, LOCK!” I wailed, tears rolling down my face. Upon hearing the lock engage I fell back onto the floor and scurried my way backward until I hit a wall, quickly pulling my phone out of my pocket. It took all of my might to get my shuddering hands to cooperate, but I finally managed to open the camera feed that was focused on the stairs.
Magdeline came into the frame from the left, still misshapen and floating a few inches from the floor. She was again seemingly suspended in the air by something unseen. I could see the large window in the middle landing from the feed, and that the sun was beginning to rise. Instead of ascending the stairs, Magdeline was led into the middle space of the stairwell. I could see the shadow figure begin to take shape in the low light, towering above her and facing the window. It was holding its hands at a downward angle, slightly spread apart. Dark tendrils were coming from its fingers and going straight into Magdeline, attached to her head, back, arms, and legs.
I watched as it began to slowly raise its hands, pulling Magdeline’s entire body upwards as it did so, high into the air. All of a sudden I heard a knock from the front door, “hellloo, are you guys okay?” It was my mother, I knew she’d come to check on us!
“Mom, help! It’s got Magdeline and it’s coming for me!” I screamed at the top of my lungs but got no response.
I watched my phone in absolute terror as the shape seemed to turn its head towards the camera positioned by the front door, and heard it emit a malicious cackle. The once defined silhouette became shapeless, swirling again, only this time it didn’t go into Magdeline; it made its way towards the camera before vanishing completely. Magdeline then plummeted to the floor, meeting the hardwood below with a nauseating thump. I heard my mother scream, “oh my god, Magdeline! Cheryl, where are you?!”
I unlocked the door and ran down the stairs, throwing open the front door. “Mom!” I exclaimed in relief, wrapping my arms around her, “I knew you’d come for me!”
“Oh my god, honey, I saw Magdeline hit the floor, why was she upstairs? What happened, were you trying to help her down?” She asked as she broke away and ran over to Magdeline’s crumpled body.
I knew that she didn’t have a good view from the front door, and most likely had only seen Magdeline as she struck the hardwood.
“No mom, it wasn’t her fault! Here, just let me show you, I told you that something was wrong!”
I raised my phone and proceeded to search for the footage, but it was gone… and so was the video from the night before. “What? No, this can’t be! It was right here, I had everything on video!” I said shakily. Defeated, I dropped my phone and collapsed onto the floor, sobbing uncontrollably.
“Don’t worry, dear,” my mother called to me, “I’ll call 911. You go outside and wait, get some air.”
Magdeline was already gone, well before my mother called for the ambulance, and I returned to my mother’s home following the events of that morning. My room was still exactly how I’d left it, and it brought me a sense of peace & comfort that I had desired for so long.
The ordeal was determined to be an accident, chalked up to a combination of her frailty and dementia culminating in a nasty fall over the top banister, resulting in her death. Although I knew that wasn’t the case, I never tried to tell my mother or anyone else otherwise. They wouldn’t believe me if I did, as the only evidence that I had disappeared. We all took it extremely hard, such a tragic end to such a beautiful human being. We held a small funeral service for Magdeline, laying her to rest beneath her favorite tree on her property.
Afterward, everything returned to normal for the most part. Regardless, I’d lay awake at night wondering if whatever it was that had manipulated and eventually killed Magdeline was gone, haunted by the memory of all that I had witnessed. As time went on I became more at ease about the situation, even though I still had no understanding of what it was, where it came from, or where it went. I slowly but surely gained confidence in the idea that it wasn’t coming back for me…
…until last night when I heard it.
*Tap. Tap. Tap.*
This story first appeared in Creepypasta.com in November, 2022.
Caleb notes: “I’m Caleb Foster, an aspiring writer and lifelong horror fan from Charleston, WV. As with any work of media birthed from heart & soul, I believe that horror can have a profound way of touching us on deeper levels than just fear alone and is also a great form of release.”
Heather’d been thinking about killing herself long before Old Croak showed up. It’s just, y’know, the direction the world’s heading. Living life out until the end could be even worse than having Croak’s eldritch flock pick the flesh off her bones.
Even before Croak crawled from god-knows-where, waking up was like taking a heavy stone and resting it on my chest, but if I die; I’d never gaze upon her olive skin, or her smokey green eyes again. If only she—if I could only say… Farrah, I would die for you. Then, would I be able to live with myself?
She blew a wet raspberry through pinched lips. Her eyes shifted from one place to the next, scanning for Croak, staring out the window, waiting for The Dorm’s next care package. She glimpsed her pigeons perched on a railing. Not hers, but the pigeons she’d been feeding for weeks now.
“At least you’d miss me,” she mumbled to herself.
The survivors could ask for anything in their deliveries. Oreos, espresso machines, her favorite slime-green lipstick, but even from way up here, a single glimpse of Croak spelled the end. Only the bravest volunteers left The Dorms to retrieve their much needed food, hygiene supplies, and personal requests.
Heather double-checked for signs of Croak, triple-checked, then opened the window.
She tossed the pigeons a handful of cornflakes and they replied with delightful cooing. The stagnant air outside tasted acrid, metallic, rotten. She slammed the gateway shut and crossed her arms.
Open no windows.
A commandment here.
But I really wanna pet one of those stupid birds. Guess I’m delusional.
“Heather, you spacing again?” Farrah asked, peeking through her cracked doorway. Her voice was low and breathy, like an old movie star’s. It tickled the inside of Heather’s eardrums. Whenever Farrah spoke, she could shut up a city block.
“Birdwatching, well, pigeon, pigeon watching, pigeons are birds.” Heather chuckled as heat filled her cheeks. “Croak doesn’t bother them. Shawn says they see me as a protector. Their favorites are Little Debbies. He was get-getting us more.”
Yeah, delusional. She isn’t even gay. Why do I torture myself? I’d do anything for her. Is that why fate’s kept me here? What if my fate is to die for her? Why else?
Farrah stepped closer, bergamot Versace wafted from her neck, making Heather’s nose twitch and her legs squirm.
“God damn,” Farrah sighed. “Imagine if we could fly like them?” She turned and smiled, revealing the symmetrical gap in her perfect teeth.
I’ll kiss her, one day I’ll kiss her. Heather thought, and gulped way too loud. She lifted her feet onto her seat and laid her forehead on her knees.
“Something on your mind?” Farrah asked. “Heather? Earth to Heather?”
I’d die for her, dive straight into hell for her. I’d throw myself to Croak, let his rusty flock have me. Metal cages, red eyes and razor beaks ripping through my pale flesh like pizza dough. If I told her I loved her, would the weight of living still be this heavy?
“Babe!” a stoner’s harsh rasp came from down the hall. “Baby, Daddy’s home.”
“Sammy’s back.” Farrah swooned. She took Heather’s hand, hers soft as satin. “I won’t have to mug you for your snacks, not today.”
Sammy Jeong, Latino-Korean gym monster; chiseled, handsome, and a fucking asshole.
The dark-skinned giant stepped into Heather’s room. He wore a tank-top with a jacked shark on it, displaying his thick bordered neck tattoo reading, “Wrekt”. He held a crate of snacks in his arms and grinned.
“What’s up, Head?” he asked and winked.
“We were checking out the pigeons,” Farrah said, gesturing to the window.
Sammy raised his eyebrows, his lips curling in disgust.
“Rats with wings, huh? Thought you lesbos were supposed to be into werewolves and like, trucks ‘n’ shit, seriously, pigeons? I knew you weren’t gay. That’s why you’re always hanging with Shawn, he’s totally porkin’ you, huh?”
“Heather, no.” Farrah’s giggling turned Heather’s heart into jelly. “Are you two really?”
Sammy’s machine-gun: hahahahahaha, obliterated any embarrassment manifesting in Heather’s chest.
Okay, I absolutely should just die.
“CODE RED!” Peter’s scream echoed from his watch post.
Sammy dropped his crate. Eos Shave Cream and Coke Zero clattered onto the floor loud enough to wake a drunken frat.
Heather gazed outside. Birds that weren’t birds appeared atop the walkway guardrails. They had wings and beaks, but made up of jagged metal and rusty orange razor-wire.
“HEEEEEEEAAAAAAWWWWWWW!” a scream erupted from above.
Peter belly-flopped on the asphalt with a bone shattering crunch. Heather’s vision darkened. She nearly fainted.
Peter tried crawling, and Croak’s blood and shit stink seeped under the windowsill. Flesh tore and bone ground. Heather couldn’t look away. Sour bile filled her throat, and she choked it down.
“Crrrrrr-ooooa-ah-ah-ah!” Old Croak laughed, accompanied by the rattle of his toothed cage.
Peter’s shrieking was drowned by the deafening roar of Croak sucking down his soul, like an elephant crossed with a train horn. His metallic flock descended and consumed whatever remained of the stripped corpse.
“Come on!” Heather shouted, gripping Farrah’s hand. Farrah yanked herself free, and took off alone.
The prom king and queen were long gone, but Heather’s shorter legs never stopped churning—heading towards the gym in the center of The Dorm. Haven.
She collapsed into the heavy double-doors, landing in front of a pair of Vans and Timberlands. Wade and Shawn picked her up with ease and clanked the doors shut behind them.
Her heart slammed in her chest. She hadn’t ached this bad since she’d played softball. Her legs became noodles and lungs froze stiff. She dragged herself into the corner and shamelessly unleashed a gush of rank vomit, ignorant that her regurgitated breakfast sandwich would inspire the same out of Goth Maggie.
Heather collapsed. There was a scrabbling at her side, struggle? Panic.
“Where is she?” Sammy growled.
Fading, lightheaded, on the edge of passing out; rolling over, she saw the meathead being held back by Gordo and Shawn. Fighting a sharp pain in her chest, she stood to her feet.
“She was with you,” Heather gasped. “You both ran ahead. She was with you.”
“Bitch, you stupid bitch,” he barked, and punched Gordo square in the face. That prompted Gordo to tackle and muzzle him.
“Heather,” Shawn said, going to her, meeting her with kindness in his brown eyes. “You good, need anything?”
“Everything is ending,” she said, but not directly to her friend.
I’ll never see her smile again, never hear her speak. What would I have without her? Rats with wings? I’d have to die.
Knock! Knock! Knock!
A rapping at the double doors. Not Croak smashing his head into their walls, but a steady pulse. Wade rushed to the door and slowly cracked it open.
Farrah stumbled into the room; her lustrous skin unharmed, tear streaks drying on her cheeks. Heather stepped toward her, but Sammy was already there, squeezing her tight in his monstrous arms.
It wasn’t until later that evening that The Dorm heard what happened. Farrah had been the first to cross paths with Croak and live.
She said she hid under a trashcan and Croak jangled his cage right up beside her. She prayed to God, raising her voice over Croak’s bullfrog rumble. Croak ignored her completely. Her claim, and only explanation, was that God had protected her.
“Under normal circumstances, I’d separate myself from a Jesus-freak, as far as I could get. Christianity is a plague,” Heather had explained to Shawn after things started to get weird. “But Farrah Kassis isn’t normal circumstances.”
From that day forward, it had become impossible to speak to Farrah about anything unrelated to Leviticus. In their next care package, she ordered stacks of Bibles and began preaching at every opportunity. Heather was the only one that actually sat with her and listened.
“Just don’t keep chasing after her for the wrong reasons. You’re too smart for that, Head,” Shawn warned.
“Whatever makes us happy these days, right?” she said and shrugged.
It really didn’t matter. She’d be happy just keeping Farrah away from Sammy, much to his chagrin.
Okay, so Shawn’s right, it’s a possession thing. Does that make me sick? I’m the sick one? At least I’m trying here.
Sammy was a different story.
He was hitting the gym harder than ever and somehow growing.
“Avoid him,” Shawn had said. “He’s definitely juicing again. They’ll deliver anything on these waivers.”
That same day in the gymnasium, Sammy pulled Farrah away from their Bible session.
“You were never like this. Jesus totally got it on. It’s natural babe, come on, my balls have never been this blue. I’m dyin’ here.”
Farrah slapped him hard across the face. She seethed words too quiet to hear and Big Herman, The Dorm’s voted leader, football coach, and resident brick shit-house, stepped between them.
“Sammy, what’s gotten into you, boy? Croak and the whole damn county can hear your got-damned horn doggin’. Get your bony ass to your room, lock-down, son.”
“Do not take the Lord’s name in vain,” Farrah snapped.
“That’s bullshit, Herm, what the fuck. I gots needs, man.”
“Sammy, you make this into a bigger deal than it is, and my foot goes up ya’ ass. Showers, now, we’ll be talking tonight, for sure.”
Sammy’s eyes bulged. He wouldn’t test Big Herman, although he definitely seemed to consider it, but it was the way he glared at Farrah that chilled Heather’s blood.
Like a dog drooling over a piece of meat. Why does this- She closed the Bible in her lap. Feel like it’s my fault?
“He’s such an asshole.” Farrah moped, dropping her head into Heather’s lap. “He was fine until I said he’d have to wait.”
“All men are the same, Farrah,” Heather said, despite her tongue’s dryness. “Every one of them just sees us as meat.”
“It’s not their fault,” Farrah said, wiping a crystalline tear from her eye. “God made them this way. It’s only right. It’s why we’re here.”
Heather tilted her head so hard her neck cracked.
“That’s some dark ages bullshit, Farrah.”
“Is it? If Croak moved around more often, we’d have to repopulate.”
“You’re saying—our only purpose is breeding?” Heather palmed her forehead, hard.
She was screaming on the inside; however, Farrah’s hair was so smooth in her hands. That and the way she hugged her.
This will only end badly for you, Head, you know she will never have you and you’re only digging this hole deeper. Why can’t you just be honest?
Farrah slept in Heather’s bedroom from then on out, just so she wouldn’t be alone.
I don’t care. It’s what I need. If I could hold her every night, I’d live forever.
The night Sammy came to them, Heather had been staying up late. Farrah was sleeping with her head in her lap. By lamplight, Heather had nearly blasted through the short novel Invisible Monsters in one sitting.
He kicked her door open, so hard the knob buried itself into the wall. Her book flew out of her hands and Farrah stirred.
“Sammy, what the fuck!?” Heather managed, voice cracking.
His eyes were cocaine-crimson and a strong piss and sweat odor filled the confined space. He stomped forward, shifting his weight with each step.
“This’s why I never see you any more babe, fucking muff diving with Head?”
“Fuck off Sammy, are you wasted?” Heather spat. She shot up and immediately saw stars as Sammy backhanded her with all the force of a professional tight-end.
She tasted ammonia? blood? and dropped like a sack of ouch. Farrah was screaming, and Sammy had her backed into a corner. He expelled a quiet speech into Farrah’s ear. Tears welled in her eyes.
Heather booked it, shouting down the hall.
“Shawn, Wade, Trevor, help!” She burst into the bedroom with the door ajar and interrupted the boys’ Street Fighter tournament. Bright lights flashed in every corner, a stink of stale beer and jalapeno cheese had all the waking effects of a fresh brewed Americano.
“Fucking Sammy’s gone psycho, he’s got Farrah pinned down in my room.”
Controllers and arcade sticks flew. Michelob Ultras spilled over as the room emptied into the hall. Shawn stayed back to check on her.
“I’m fine, I can take care of myself,” she said and cracked her neck.
“No shit, I know that. What I meant is, if shit starts getting weird, Head, if you need anything, I’ve got your back, okay?”
“What are you-”
Farrah’s shrieking filled the dark corridor, and they both hurried through the gathered crowd.
Big Herm and a displeased Gordo had Sammy pinned ballsack-naked on the floor. His erect penis between the two of them. Farrah was in the corner, shaking. Sammy had ripped her shirt in half and she hid her breast behind her arms. Heather grabbed a double-X pajama shirt from her closet and draped it over her. The boys zip-tied Sammy’s arms and legs together and left him squirming on the ground.
That’s when Farrah said it. She didn’t go into details, and Heather’s heart sank into her bubbling guts.
She’s hurt because of me. I couldn’t protect her. There were two crimes, intolerable, unmentioned in the dorms. I don’t care. If they give me the knife right now, I’ll castrate him myself.
“Samuel’s given himself to cardinal sin. And committed an act of treason. His crime is intolerable,” Farrah seethed, gripping everyone’s attention. “He pays with his life.”
“You fucking bitch, you fucking dumb lesbian bitch,” Sammy grunted until Trevor shoved one of his socks into his mouth.
Herm rubbed his forehead, disheveled, sweating. He grabbed Heather’s sheet off of her bed and covered Sammy’s penis with it.
“We have to. We don’t even need to vote, but Farrah, I don’t have the stomach for it. He played ball with my boys.”
Cutting off Sammy’s dick is one thing, but what about next time? Heather thought. I’d be in charge of chopping off hands, or, god knows what.
“We give him to Croak,” Farrah said.
Herm looked exhausted. The pressure of leadership was getting to him, or something else? He seemed frightened by the speculation. He gaped like a fish until Farrah spoke again.
“This is God’s will,” she said, hugging her Bible to her chest.
By sunrise, they had Sammy duct-taped to a board. He thrashed, groaning through his gag. His skin glistened with sweat. Broken blood vessels showed in his eyes. He glared with murderous intent at anyone who’d meet his stare. Wade, Gordo and Big Chris carried him to the sealed doors of the front office.
“Why would they actually pack ecstasy in our care packages?” Farrah asked at Heather’s side, resting her head on her shoulder.
“Same reason he gets pre-workout and porterhouses, because he asked for it,” she said. “They’d give us anything. They feel bad for us. We’re gonna die anyway, right? That, or rot here forever.”
“It doesn’t matter. He will pay for his sin.”
Her fashion-model eyes turned callous, reptilian and cold.
The only real difference between us is that Sammy acted on his lusts. If I was brave, I’d have told her. What difference is there to Farrah and her god? If I was honest, would she kill me, too?
When Old Croak’s flock showed up, Sammy’s muffled screams made Heather sick.
“This is God’s will,” Farrah chorused, then grinned.
Yup, she sure would.
Croak shambled up to their sacrifice. His stilted, oxidized legs contorted as if he had chiggers and his ragged, hairy face violently bobbed up and down as no human’s would. His chest, a bloody rusted cage with a ball of darkness for a heart.
Sammy’s black soul tore screaming from his eyes and mouth. Croak kept true to his namesake. His flock of mechanical birds descended, croaking as loud as a thousand, ripping and grinding every inch of Sammy’s flesh away.
Heather’s pigeons didn’t show up that day, not even for Little Debbies.
They were down a man for supply runs. And the pilots were either growing more frightened, lazy, or indifferent. This drop landed an extra two miles from the usual sight.
When Herm asked for fresh blood, Heather volunteered. She wanted to escape.
The only thing still keeping me here is my cowardice. Odds are Farrah’s flock is a burning bush away from gutting me.
After Sammy died, everything changed. Farrah gained disciples. Sheep gathering around the Prophet of Croak. When Herm came forward and confessed he had joked to Sammy about mixing drugs with pre-workout, and wished to repent for his sins, Heather knew it was over.
If she’d ever learned one thing from true crime podcasts, it was how gurus and group-think end.
If I die, I die, that’s one thing. But if a bunch of fanatics are going to tie me to a board and feed me to Old Croak? Then this same fear will inspire me to live. If I could have Farrah, maybe then. No, she’d never be with me. The only thing left’s to see what Old Croak is hiding from us.
Shawn and Trevor were both in the care-package party. When they got out of earshot, around the time she got used to the stench outside, she brought up the fanatics.
“Heather’s right,” Shawn whispered as they crept through a foggy alleyway. “It’s like The Mist, one crazy chick spouts off about God, next we know, boom, snakebite, venom spreads and we’re all done-skis. They’ll sacrifice us for a damn zucchini harvest. We gotta talk with Herm, put a kibosh to this. Fuckin’ religion or politics ruining every damn party, man.”
“Herm’s in on it. I bet he asked for the blood of Christ on this waiver, guaranteed,” Heather said and froze.
They huddled together as a small mechanical bird landed thirty feet away. It pecked at rotten brown flesh on the ground and tilted its head in their direction.
What if I just took a peek beyond the curtain, to see what death is hiding from us on the other side. That barrier not unlike a waterfall. If life is only lust, this harrowing chase and suffering, then is that not better?
She took a step forward and Shawn placed a hand on her shoulder. They locked eyes and Shawn shook his head.
The bird disappeared without alarm.
A row of pigeons greeted them at the care package near a deserted Best Buy parking lot. Heather listened to their soft cooing as she stuffed her pack. She dug for a Little Debbie and tossed it to a happy couple.
They returned at dusk. Goth Maggie was on door duty.
“Bring back any klonopin?” she asked while unlocking the gate. She had decorated her bouffant black hair with feathers and smooth red-stones.
“No, why, for you?” Heather chuckled.
She shook her head grimly—even for her.
“Victoria Secret’s gone off the deep end. She’s been preaching all morning, putting people into correction groups. I took door duty, and honestly, I might take my chances outside. Better than Big Herm pinning me down and making me one of Farrah’s broodmothers.”
Trevor glanced at Shawn, then at Heather. “You called it, Head. What do we do?”
“They’ve already got Connie and Paul locked up,” Maggie sighed, cleaning under her black nails. “Spring them first?”
“Should we take our chances?”
Heather gazed over Shawn’s shoulder, and back out into the streets. Her pigeons waited outside, still with oatmeal crumbs sticking to their beaks. They flew closer, pulling a string in her heart.
They need me. What if they actually love me for who I am? Then, I’m not alone.
“Yeah,” she said. “But I’ve got to talk to her. It isn’t right, what’s it been? Two weeks since she got the damn Bible and she’s already onto human sacrifices?”
“Avoid Farrah,” Maggie said, actually serious for a change. “You’re the smartest person I know, but she poisons that.”
Heather offered her a knowing smile.
“Keep the supplies down here,” Heather said, “While they’re distracted, break the others out and grab anyone else who wants to leave. If it looks like things are going to hell, don’t look back.”
Trevor and Maggie made moves to swipe whatever they might need. Shawn tagged along as Heather’s backup. Big Herm’s preaching bellowed down the dark halls.
“And thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body, the flesh of thy sons and of thy daughters, which the Lord thy God hath given thee, in the siege, and in the straightness, wherewith thine enemies shall distress thee!”
“Shawn, if things get bad in there, leave me behind. If they’re full old-testament, I’d be walking into an execution.”
“Sorry Head, you go down, I’m going with.” He chuckled. They stopped outside the gym doors. “You’re as sharp as can be. If they’re gonna crucify you, they’re taking me too. Kill us for being the only sane people here, goddamn. Not like we’d get far without you.”
“I came out when I was nine. I’ve got green lips ‘n’ fuckin’ combat boots, Shawn. You’d do fine without me.”
“And I hate ice cream. Who gives a shit? You’re our Team Captain.”
She hugged him and it was genuine.
A real veritable god damned friend in this lost, dying world, she thought, and opened the gym doors.
Big Herm repeated his verse with coked-up eyes bulging in their sockets. He wore a white sheet over his giant shoulders, turning him into a perfect Sunday morning televangelist.
At his side was Farrah. Their queen sat in a fold-up camping chair with Cynthia knelt beside her. The twiggy-blonde cut into Farrah with a knife and peeled away a square of flesh. She placed it on Daniel’s waiting tongue. He bowed, kissed her feet, and walked away. A line stretched around the gym; waiting their turn, Farrah’s arm resembled a checkerboard of dark skin and crimson meat.
“Aw, man, what the fuck,” Shawn said, throwing his hands in the air.
“Lots are missing,” Heather mumbled.
“I’ll find them.”
“I’ll figure out what’s going on here,” she said, stepping into the gym and raising her voice. “Herm, what the fuck? We leave for twelve hours and you start a fucking cult?”
Big Herm looked at her with a frenzied glare, his eyes threatening to pop out of his head.
“How dare yoooooouuu,” he howled, pelting the polished maple floor with slobber. He closed the book and looked as if he wanted to use her to redecorate the walls.
“Wait, Herman, I haven’t explained to her. She is still ignorant,” Farrah said and stood from her throne. “While you were collecting precious supplies, Old Croak separated us once more, and again, I prayed. Croak ignored me himself, but I never stopped praying. I saw why he wouldn’t dare strike me, for I am the daughter of God.”
The gym fell silent; Heather glanced around with palms splayed outwards.
“Did anyone else see this?” she asked and crossed her arms. This got others mumbling. A couple were moving towards the door. Shawn had disappeared.
“Micheal was with me, unfortunately he did not have my faith. Therefore, we must consume the flesh of our Lord, for protection.”
Heather sucked her teeth.
“It is because of your lack of faith that Croak persecutes us! Once the seed of heresy’s planted, there is nothing else we can do. You’ve doomed us all with your sin. My Lady God, this heathen lies with other women. A broken thing, unfixable. She only muddies our faith.”
“What were you and Micheal doing alone, Farrah?”
Farrah raised her perfectly plucked eyebrows and tilted her head.
“Oh, so you don’t trust me after all?”
“Of course I don’t. You’ve been an easy slut for good jawlines your whole life.”
Herm threw his Bible down and charged.
“No!” Farrah commanded. “If we answer her with violence, there can be no salvation.”
It was too late; he hit Heather upside the head with his meaty palm. She saw black and managed to stand before her vision returned. Hot copper coated her tongue. She cleared her throat and spat blood.
Drool leaked from Herm’s lips. His eye twitched as he backed off.
“Show us then,” Heather said and sucked her teeth. “If Croak won’t scratch you, if your faith is so strong, and your talk isn’t cheap.”
Farrah raised her head high, looking down her nose.
“Of course,” she said, and marched away. Her slippered feet glided like ice skates. The entire gym emptied. Big Herm kept his eyes on Heather. The sea of witnesses gathered around Farrah. A hand gripped Heather’s arm and tugged her away.
“What happened?” Shawn asked.
“Farrah is showing us she’s Jesus.”
“Seriously? Fuck. Eric and Lindsey said she’s gone totally nuts and got Micheal killed. We gotta get out of here.”
The queen addressed her disciples now, kissing her Bible. Heather went to her.
“Farrah, I was wrong, ok. There’s no point.”
They locked eyes.
“I loved you like a sister,” Farrah said. “Now gaze upon my greatness, unclean one.”
She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, ethereal in her white gown stained with droplets of crimson.My heart strains.
Croak descended before his flock arrived, and Farrah screamed for mercy. His congregation rained upon her with gore crusted razors. They shredded skin and meat from her bones, leaving her long hair and face untouched.
Between pieces of sharp bird cage and chicken wire, she reached out to Heather. Her eyes, perfect everglade opals, had turned to murky swamps. She cursed God and Jesus loud enough for all to hear. Croak took her face delicately in his finger-knives and sucked her black soul through the gap between her teeth.
“Nooooo,” Big Herm cried, “Our Messiah!” he threw open the doors and charged Old Croak.
Croak screeched and sent his flock out in a roaring torrent. It was like opening a door beneath the sea, thousands, millions of blackbirds engulfed Herm and flooded into The Dorms.
Shawn gripped Heather’s hand, and together they ran. She fell, but he picked her up. They sprinted through the halls, weaving through The Dorm like it was a great river. Eventually, they ended up locked in a broom closet.
Hours passed, there was the rare scream, but more croaking than anything. It wasn’t until nightfall that they ventured out, and gazed at the carnage of Croak’s feeding frenzy. Severed limbs and drying blood painted every corner.
The only survivors they found were Wade, Trevor, Lindsey and Maggie. They were all that remained.
Poe once said that the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world. Well, I’m sure he never saw one get turned into bisque.
The next few weeks were spent cleaning. That and Heather used all her extra spare time with her pigeons. Despite their dwindled numbers, the government still wouldn’t risk a rescue mission. This was Croak’s place until he decided to go to another. No matter if he left tomorrow, or in a hundred years.
“What are you planning?” Shawn asked one day, after a pigeon returned with a small note attached to his leg.
“Did you know that carrier pigeons can fly up to seven-hundred miles in one day?”
“And an email can do that in seconds, what’s your point?”
“The government regulates every message that we send out. Any mention of Croak gets censored. These pigeons; however, are a different story. I’m thinking once word gets out about Old Croak, maybe his ears will start burning. He might take off sooner, rather than later.”
“If he goes, wherever he lands will be a massacre.”
“Shawn, there’s only five of us left. That’s all I’m worried about. That and telling the world what happened to the others.”
“I think we should take a vote, at least talk things over.”
“Of course,” Heather said, nodding her head and still scribbling onto her parchment. “And it is beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are those of bereaved lovers.”
O.R. Black is a student of English in the depths of southern California. Urban legend has it you may find him skulking the streets after dark, portraying all things macabre and always willing to share his scary stories… for a price.
It’s usually bus fare.
His horror short story ‘Anko Nabe’ was published by Schlock Magazine January 2023
‘Molting Daughter’ by Ghost Paradox Press February 2023
‘The Break Vein Game’ by NoSleep Podcast upcoming in 2023
Inside, the lights flickered and went out. A chorus of gasps and disgruntled moans erupted from around the dining room.
“It’s okay,” Walt said, pushing his chair away from the head of the table. Barely visible in the firelight, he stood up, “This sort of thing happens now and again out here, it’s nothing to worry about.” His voice had the soothing timbre of a kindly grandfather.
Dim firelight crept in from the lobby, but it was light from smartphone screens that pushed back the darkness enough so everyone could see each other’s faces again. Joss and Nikki, sitting next to each other and across from Charlotte and Natalie, shared one phone.
“No signal here,” Joss started.
“Me either,” agreed Natalie.
Charlotte tossed her hands up in uncertainty, “Guess we’re stuck?” she teased. “I hope there’s more wine.”
“I’m sure we have something back there in the kitchen,” Walt answered.
“Oh, we sure do.” Eliza, Walt’s diminutive wife and fellow innkeeper volunteered as she walked in from the kitchen. In one hand she held a flashlight, and in the other a plate of freshly cooked brownies. “Not to worry,” she shined the flashlight on her face from below her chin and raised her eyebrows feigning spookiness, “we’re prepared for a little – lights out.”
Natalie rolled her eyes, “Great. Just what I was hoping for.”
“I don’t like sitting in the dark. It freaks me out.” Nikki’s fork clanked on her plate. She scooted her chair out and grabbed Joss’s hand, squeezing it tight. “But I do like it when a big strong man protects me,” she snuggled close to him.
“A man?” Joss questioned.
Nikki shot him a provocative grin.
Joss deepened his voice, “It’s okay babe, it’ll be fine,” he proclaimed with false authority. “They usually get things back online fast,” he passed a hopeful glance at Walt and Eliza, “…don’t they?”
“Sometimes these things can take a while.” Walt pushed his chair in. “Depends on how bad the storm is and why it went out. All this rain could’ve washed-out roads. And these high winds probably downed power lines. They’ll have trouble getting out to fix things tonight in a storm like this.” Walt didn’t seem concerned. Calm and confident, he walked away from the table, “We just don’t know.”
“They’ll get around to fixing it,” Eliza waved her flashlight signaling everyone to follow her, “so until they do, why don’t we all gather around the fireplace in the lobby?” Eliza’s matronly demeanor was almost commanding. “We can have some brownies and a little chat. The fire’s warm and lights up the whole room. How about that?” Thunder struck again, closer this time, rattling the windows harder.
“Something smells good!” Natalie took the napkin from her lap and tossed it on the table. “I’d love a brownie!”
“Sounds good to me,” Joss and Nikki spoke at the same time.
“Same here,” Charlotte pushed away from the table and stood, “I love chocolate.”
“Everyone, grab your wine glasses and follow us.” Walt picked up his and walked through the double doors into the lobby. Everyone followed.
While keeping its old-world charm, the parlor, and foyer had been made into a lobby and front desk area when the old house was converted into a bed and breakfast many years ago. It was still adorned with all the late 19th-century touches, and furniture to match. The high ceilings, detailed wood trim, beveled glass doors, and picture rail, all harkened to an era long past. The original hardwood floors creaked beneath footsteps as they all walked into the room.
Built-in cabinets and mahogany paneling surrounded the lobby with comfortable elegance, greeting visitors entering from the front door. A hand-carved banister next to the front desk led up the stairs to the guest rooms. The many windows all around the Inn, though beautifully original, provided little in the way of insulation from the wind and rain.
Centered between two large windows at the opposite end of the lobby, a magnificent fireplace was the focal point of a plush velvet couch, two wing-back chairs, and a coffee table. A giant gold framed mirror hung above the ornate mahogany mantle, reflecting the red-orange glow of the fireplace back into the room. Inside, above the old stone hearth, a roaring fire cast dancing shadows about the room.
“This should be cozy,” Walt stood next to the fire rubbing his coarse hands together, “there’s plenty of seats. Sit anywhere you like.”
Joss, Nikki, and Natalie took the couch, and Charlotte, one of the two wingbacks, while Eliza sat on the stone hearth next to Walt.
“There. Now isn’t this nice?” Eliza pushed the brownie tray around the table, gesturing for everyone to help themselves. “Walt, dear, why don’t you get your portable radio?”
“I can do that,” Walt replied. “Be right back.”
“We don’t usually get to be so cozy with our guests all at once,” Eliza began, probing the group’s level of anxiety, “usually people all do their own things.” Smiling, she put her hands on her lap. “So, what brings you all here?”
Joss reached for the plate, grabbed two brownies, and handed one to Nikki. “We’re on a little romantic getaway.”
“I found you guys online, saw the reviews, and just had to book it,” Nikki said as she chewed on a brownie. “It’s so nice to just turn the world off sometimes, ya know?” She swallowed the rest of her mouthful.
Everyone agreed. Natalie raised her glass. “To the happy couple! May your romantic weekend be full of fun in the dark.” She laughed and raised an eyebrow.
“Cute,” Charlotte brought her glass close to her mouth, “but I prefer to have the lights on so I can see who I’m having fun with.” She took a sip, sucking in air to aerate the wine before swallowing.
“Wine connoisseur?” Natalie turned to Charlotte with a twinkle in her eye.
“No, I just like the stuff.” Charlotte licked her lips, “takes the edge off. Loosens me up.”
Another crash of thunder. This time, it shook the windows and doors even harder. Startled, everyone scanned the room to see if anything had broken.
“That was close!” Nikki squeezed Joss’ hand harder.
“I’ll say.” Joss pretended not to be startled.
“This old house does snap, crackle, and pop when there’s a storm like this,” Eliza confirmed.
“I need more wine.” Natalie lifted her glass hoping someone would fill it.
“I’ll get it.” Charlotte volunteered. “I think there are still unopened bottles in the dining room.”
Just then, Walt made it back to the lobby with a small portable radio in one hand. He set it on the table and turned it on. “Now, let’s see how bad things really are.” Popping static cut the air as he spun the dial trying to get a better signal.
Kshhft… “record-breaking storm hitting all over the northern” …krnklsht… “rain and flash floods have washed out bridges and roads” kzzshh… “trapping many residents” …zzkshh… “In other news, the Sheriff’s department is” …khspffsh… “officials are warning everyone to shelter in place” …pffkshh… “do not attempt to” …kshhzzff…
“Well, I guess that answers that,” Walt let out a tsk and lowered the volume to a pleasant background level when music began to play again.
“Let’s see now, where were we?” Eliza invited Natalie, “Ah yes, and how about you?”
“Me? I’m here despite myself.” Natalie set her almost empty glass in front of her. “I was supposed to be here with a girlfriend. You know, having a girl’s weekend in the country,” she tilted her head and fluttered her lashes at Nikki, “but things don’t always work out how they’re planned. Sometimes life, and husbands, get in the way.” With an eye roll and a sigh, she reached for a brownie.
“Oh, well, yes, I suppose sometimes they do, at that.” Eliza smiled at her husband, “But not my Walt, he’s always a love.” She patted his hand.
In sync with another boom of thunder, the front door burst open. Wind and rain blew in, scattering the flames in the fireplace, startling its audience. Shocked by the sound, and the rush of cold wet air, everyone turned to the doorway.
“Holy shit!” A loud voice shouted from the darkened foyer, “It’s fucking pouring out there!” The young man slammed the door shut behind him. He leaned forward and shook his head like a wet dog after a bath, spraying water in all directions.
“Can I help you?” Walt stood up and walked toward the front desk.
“Yeh, I gotta get outta this storm. You got a room?” The young man was wearing a black leather jacket, jeans, and motorcycle boots. He made muddy tracks on the floor where he entered and left puddles of dirty water where he passed.
“I’m sorry, we don’t have a room available tonight. But you’re welcome to join us by the fireplace for now and dry off.” Walt grabbed a card from the desk, holding it out to the young man. “There’s another Inn a few miles back. I could call—”
“I don’t think so, brah. I’m gonna stay right here.” The young man walked in further. “I’ll just stay on that couch right there,” he said pointing to where Joss, Nikki, and Natalie were seated. He scanned the room and everyone sitting around the fire, “unless one of you pretty ladies want some company tonight, eh?”
His wry smile beamed over a cleanshaven face revealing perfectly straight shiny white teeth. His black hair, wet and tousled from the rain, framed sharp and attractive facial features.
“No way am I driving anywhere in this storm.” The young man walked toward the fire holding his hands out hoping to catch some of the fire’s heat. “You guys got any food?”
Perplexed, Walt looked at Eliza, “Well, I guess we can’t just throw you out in the storm, so—”
“So here it is then, eh?” He shrugged his shoulders and tilted his head to the side, checking out the reactions of the others.
“W-w-would you like a brownie?” Eliza pushed the plate toward him.
The young man grabbed a brownie and sat in the empty chair. He shoved half of it in his mouth. “Name’s Kilo.” He said, chomping on it as if he hadn’t eaten in a week.
“Kilo? You mean like the weight?” Natalie rolled her eyes and chuckled.
Smacking as he chewed, “yeh, as in—it weighs a kilo. Wanna see?” He gave her a groin thrust and laughed.
“Well, hello Mr. Kilo,” Eliza adjusted herself on the hearth, “I’m Eliza—”
“And I’m Walt. Walt Bernard.” Walt put his hand out to shake. “We’re the owners of the Cozy Cottage Inn.”
Kilo watched Walt’s hand reach toward him but left it hanging, turning instead toward Charlotte, who just entered the lobby carrying an open bottle of wine in one hand.
“We have wine,” wide-eyed, Charlotte looked at Kilo quizzically and cleared her throat. She turned toward Natalie’s empty glass and began pouring. “Anyone else?” Natalie regarded her with a smile.
The yeses were silent, but unanimous by gesture.
Leaning in, Kilo’s eyes undressed Charlotte as she continued filling the glasses. As she bent over to pour, he stopped at her top, which was open three buttons below the collar. She could feel his eyes reaching into her shirt.
“So how about you, kitten? What’s your name?” He ogled her with bedroom eyes.
Standing straight, she adjusted her blouse before closing one of the buttons. “Charlotte.” She pursed her lips and gave Natalie a pensive glance.
“Well hell-o, Charlotte.” Kilo’s voice was smooth and deep. “Ooo, how I’d like to get stuck in your web.” He snickered. “Nah, I’m just teasing, I know you’re a kitten, too.”
Natalie sat forward, “Relax, pal, there’s no kitties for you to play with here tonight.”
“Really?” Kilo surveyed the room. “I count three,” he regarded Eliza, “no offense Nana.”
Eliza blushed with nervous contempt and turned her whole body sideways away from Kilo.
Lightning flashed outside followed close by another crash of thunder. Now just another layer of white noise, the sound of rain pouring outside, melded with the crackling fire.
“Shh.” Hearing a voice on the radio, Walt shushed everyone with a finger and turned up the volume, …
“as major pile-ups are preventing emergency services from accessing rural areas” …kffhht… “meanwhile, county residents have reported,” …khffpt…pffkhht… “stay tuned for more updates.”
“Damn, we missed most of the broadcast, but it sounds like a mess out there.” Walt frowned.
“Oh, it’s a mess out there all right. Ain’t nobody else getting through tonight,” Kilo snickered, “it’s real nice in here though.”
“Not that nice now,” Natalie murmured. She reached out and put her hand on the chair next to her, signaling Charlotte to have a seat. Charlotte sat and crossed her legs.
“Oh, I see how it goes. Okay.” Kilo shot a sly glance at Natalie and leaned back in his chair. “You don’t have to be jealous, kitten, there’s enough of me to go around.” He laughed.
There was an awkward moment of silence. “Why don’t we change the subject,” Eliza broke in, “the guests were all talking about why they’re here.”
“Oh, I see,” Kilo chuckled, “I interrupted something here.”
“We were just all getting to know each other and talking about why we’re here.” Walt lowered his hand and sat next to Eliza on the stone hearth. “We want to keep things warm and friendly.”
Ignoring Walt, Kilo was checking out Nikki, “Hey girl, you with that guy?” he asked, tipping up his head toward Joss.
Before Nikki could respond, Joss intervened, “Yes, uh, we’re together. I’m Joss, and this is my wife, Nikki.” Nikki scooched closer to him.
“Oh, wife!” Kilo smirked, taking a seat. Nodding, he put his hand up for a high five, “She looks hot, brah. I can see why you married her. I’d put a leash on that chicka too. Fo sho!” Kilo’s laugh was like a fuse.
Natalie’s jaw dropped, and before Joss could respond, Walt stood up, “Okay, okay, Mr. Kilo, that’s about enough of that kind of talk. We’re having a nice time here and if you’re going to be rude, storm or no, I’m gonna have to ask you to leave.” Walt’s voice was as stern as his deep-set eyes were serious, “We’re all having a tough enough time with the power out and all, we don’t need a troublemaker in our midst.”
Nikki slapped Joss on the thigh. Her eyes flared and her jaw clenched. Joss shrugged, “Yeh man, th-that’s pretty rude. Uh, you should—”
“Apologize. I know.” Kilo put both hands up, feigning surrender. “You’re right, gramps. I’m being kind of an asshole,” he admitted. “Just bustin’ in here and mouthing off like that. I’m just kidding around. I’m just tryin’ta have some fun in the middle of this shit storm.”
“Okay. Let’s try keeping things nice then, shall we?” Walt grabbed the fireplace poker and stirred the logs. He grabbed another log from the stack and threw it into the fire. Sparks popped and flew as it hit.
“So, where were we? Charlotte, would you like to tell us why you’re here.” Everyone looked her way. Grinning, Kilo cocked his head her way.
“I’ve been traveling around the country, just looking for a place to land.” She eyed her empty wine glass. “Life’s too short to hang around places with people you don’t want to be with.” She could see Kilo smirking derisively in her peripheral vision.
“Amen,” Natalie took another drink of wine and put her glass on the table next to Charlotte’s.
The storm continued to rain down on the Inn. High winds, rattling windows, and pelting raindrops on the roof became an ambient background to the conversation, now and again, highlighted by the crash of thunder or a loud pop from the fire.
Walt cleared his throat, “And how about you, Mr. Kilo? What brings you out tonight?”
There was a moment of silence. “It’s just Kilo.”
Walt shuddered apologetically. “Oh, yes, of course.”
Kilo stared into the fire, “I’m looking for someone.”
Another pause. “Oh.” Eliza scooted closer to Walt.
Kilo’s eyes narrowed. He turned to Eliza. “And when I find her, there’s gonna be trouble.” His voice sounded grave.
There was a pregnant pause as rank discomfort hung in the air like a rotten egg. A couple of seconds went by and Kilo let out a robust laugh, breaking the tension, “Hah!” his vibe relaxed, “Nah, I’m just out looking for my girl.”
Squirming in place, everyone let out a silent breath of relief as their uneasiness waned.
“So, let’s hope it all works out okay then.” Nervous, Eliza’s kind voice faded to a mumble.
“Well, that was fun”, Nikki rolled her eyes, “now what? Charades or something?”
“No, I’m not doing that,” Natalie shook her head and started to get up, “how about we just wrap this up and all go to our rooms and get some—”
“No,” Charlotte cut in, “I really think we should stay together.” She touched Natalie’s arm, “at least for a little while longer?” she appealed, tilting her head with a persuasive grin. “Just until we know more about what’s happening out there.”
Natalie considered Charlotte’s pleas, and with a deep breath, sat back down. “I suppose I could do with another glass of wine.”
“Well, let’s check the radio again and see what’s going on.” Walt turned up the volume. The announcement was distorted with intermittent static.
Kzzshht… “efforts of local authorities” …khhppfft… “are being thwarted by the severity of the storm” …kshhzrt… “are urged to” …khhzzt… “doors and windows…”
“Still raging out there,” Walt turned the volume down again. “And the signals no better.”
“Hey, I got an idea.” Kilo moved closer to the coffee table. The fire cast flickering strands of light over his face. “How about a little game of strip poker.” He leered at Natalie and Charlotte.
“Ew, no!” They both exclaimed in unison.
Uninhibited by the rejection, Kilo tilted his head toward Joss and Nikki. Joss turned away, nervously avoiding Kilo’s gaze. Disappointed, Nikki shook her head, noting Joss’ reluctance to stand up to the bully.
Charlotte blurted out, “Stories. How about scary stories?” She looked around the room for a response. “I mean, it’s a dark and stormy night. The power is out. We’re all stuck here.”
Everyone regarded each other waiting for the other to respond.
“You mean like things that scared us?” Nikki asked.
“No, I mean scary stories. You know, as in urban legends we heard when we were kids. The kind from camp or whatever. The kind that scared us!” She waited a moment and spoke again. “Well, whaddya think?”
Mumbles and sighs rode atop the noise of the storm and the sputtering fire.
“Sure, that could be fun.” Eliza hesitated, “But nothing too crude or violent.” She watched Kilo roll his eyes and shake his head.
“That kinda takes the scary out though, doesn’t it?” Joss put his hand to his chin.
“I don’t like scary stories.” Nikki fumbled with her necklace. “The real world is scary enough on its own. I say we just tal about our favorite vacations or what you’d do if you won the lottery or something.” She started, “If I won the lottery I’d have—”
Kilo interrupted, “I’ve gotta go last.” He grinned like a Cheshire cat.
“And why is that?” Natalie held up her empty glass sending a queue to whoever would pour her more wine.
“Cause mine’s guaranteed to be the scariest. It’ll make you shit where you sit.” Kilo’s demeanor shifted to a serious tone. “So, who’s gonna go first?”
The room went quiet as everyone contemplated. They searched their memories for a tale to tell until Joss finally spoke up.
“Okay. I’ve got one, but I’m outta wine.” He peeked at Nikki hoping for enthusiasm.
“Whatdya looking at me for?” Nikki pushed back.
Charlotte got up, “I’ll get another bottle. Go ahead and start, I’ll be listening.” She lit her smartphone and walked to the dining room.
“Okay. I heard this one when I was a teenager and it always creeped me out.” Joss set his glass down, narrowed his eyes, and lowered his voice. “So, there’s this young woman who goes out for drinks one night with her girlfriends and gets really, really, drunk. She’s worried about driving home so she decides to take the back roads to avoid the drunk driving checkpoints.”
“Who drives drunk these days? She should just Lyft home.” Nikki cut in.
“Yeh, well this was before all that, okay?
“Still, they had cabs.”
“Okay, but she didn’t get a cab, she drove!” Joss waved his hand as if shooing away a fly. “Okay, so, she’s driving along the back roads and hears on the radio that an escaped serial killer is on the loose somewhere in the area. Suddenly, she sees headlights in her rear-view mirror coming up fast. As the car gets closer, she sees its blinkers go on like it’s gonna pass her. It gets right up on her tail. Then suddenly, it swerves back behind her and gets right up on her rear, flashing its lights and honking!
She doesn’t know what’s going on or what she did to piss this guy off. Maybe this is the serial killer from the radio! So, she puts her hand out the window and tries to wave a friendly ‘its ok to pass me’ message to the guy. He’s toggling his lights on and off, still honking and flashing his brights, and getting dangerously close to her rear end.”
“I’d have slammed on the brakes and made him crash.” Nikki made a defensive gesture with her hand. The others muttered in the background.
Joss continued, “She runs every light and stop sign just hoping a cop will be there to stop her, but of course, where’s the cops when you need em? Right?”
“At the donut shop, arresting donuts?” Sardonic sighs followed Walt’s comment. He shrugged. Eliza grabbed his hand and they smiled at each other.
Joss continued, “So, she’s really scared now, but she’s close to home. She takes a couple of fast turns toward her house hoping to lose the guy, but he’s still following her, honking and flashing his brights.
Finally, she makes it home and screeches into the driveway. She throws the car door open and runs to the front door as fast as she can. The car speeds around the corner and skids into the driveway behind her. She’s standing there fumbling for her keys when the driver jumps out of his car screaming, ‘Get in the house! Lock the door and call the police!’
“Oh my, this is scary,” Eliza’s shoulders rose, “What did the poor girl do?
Joss acknowledged Eliza’s fear with raised eyebrows, “she makes it into the house and calls the cops. They arrive a few minutes later and tell the lady that the guy in the car chasing her saved her life!”
Eliza gasped, putting one hand to her mouth. “What? How?”
Joss’ tone intensified, “because when he first pulled up behind her on the road, his headlights lit up the inside of her car and he saw a man holding a butcher knife in the back seat, ready to stab her! When the cops got there, the only sign of him left was a butcher knife laying on the back seat!” Joss folded his arms on his chest and sunk back into the couch.
Just then, Charlotte returned with two bottles of wine. “Anyone?” She gestured around tipping the bottles slightly toward them.
“Took you long enough,” Nikki held her glass out immediately.
Everyone but Kilo grabbed their glasses and held them up for a pour. “How about you?” Charlotte tilted the bottle toward Kilo. “I can get you a glass.” Charlotte encouraged.
“Nope, I’m good,” he swiped his hand to the side like a pass signal at the blackjack table.
“You sure?” Charlotte pressed, “It’s good wine. Seems like you could probably use something to help you—”
“I said no.” Disregarding Charlotte, he gave Joss a pathetic look, “Dude, that was lame. Not even scary.” He shook his head and laughed. “My baby sister tells scarier stories than that. You guys are gonna have to do way better than that.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Natalie was annoyed.
Kilo whispered a hissed response, “If you want to scare someone.”
Walt cleared his throat, “Well, I think it was just fine. It was creepy. And who wouldn’t be afraid of someone hiding in the back seat with a butcher knife? How about we check on the storm?”
Nikki agreed. She grabbed her glass and another bite of brownie.
“I’m bummed I didn’t hear the whole thing.” Charlotte poured more wine into Natalie’s glass and passed the other bottle around.
“You should tell one, Kitten.” Kilo insisted.
“I’m more of a performance artist,” Charlotte paused. “Not really a storyteller.” She filled Nikki’s glass with the remains of the second bottle.
“We’ll, I’d love to see you perform sometime,” Kilo leaked. “So, what’s scary to you, kitten?” Black as coal, the reflection of the fire danced in Kilo’s eyes as he stared at her.
The wind rattled the windows harder and in a ‘saved by the bell moment,’ Walt cut in, “Wait a sec.” He turned up the radio.
…Kffzzhht… “of several people in a remote gas station” …shhkft… “local law enforcement has” …fshhkt… “to the north county area, warning residents” …khhsst… “Hospital authorities are”…pkhht… “strongly suspect a” …khhzzt…
Frustrated, Walt turned down the radio.
“I have a story,” Nikki said. “It’s a folk tale I heard from my cousin when I was a little girl. It’s kinda creepy, but kinda sweet too.”
“This should be good,” Joss rolled his eyes. He flinched and laughed. Nikki smacked his thigh with one hand and shushed him with the other. “Seriously though, Nikki is such a great storyteller.” Everyone responded with nods and ‘uh huh’s.
Nikki raised her hands, palms down as if calming the water in a bathtub. “It’s nearing sundown. Driving alone down an old two-lane country highway not too far from here, a traveling salesman was looking for a cheap motel to stay in for the night. Just before getting into town, he comes to an intersection. Across the way sees a beautiful young girl in a lavender gown standing alone on the side of the road. He thinks, this is a strange place for a teenage girl to be standing alone at this time of night.”
“Girl on a corner?” Kilo laughed, “Not so strange.”
“Funny.” Natalie faked a silent laugh, “douchebag.” she muttered under her breath.
Nikki continued, “So, worried she’s out there alone, he stops and asks if she needs a ride.
Happy to see him, she gets in the car and tells him she’s been waiting there for hours. Her date to the senior prom ditched her and just wants to go home. It’s pretty cold out, and she’s been standing there shivering, so the guy tells her she can put his coat on to warm up.
She tells him her address and how to get there. They don’t talk much while driving, except for directions and stuff. When they arrive, he drops her off. She thanks him and walks up the walkway to the house. Glad she’s home, he goes on his way. After about ten minutes he remembers she was still wearing his coat when he dropped her off. So, he decides to go back and get it. When he gets there, he rings the bell.”
“I wouldn’t answer the door that late,” Natalie shook her head and glared at Kilo, who was staring hard at Nikki as she spoke.
“So, a woman opens the door. It’s the girl’s mom. The guy explains who he is and why he’s ringing the bell this late at night. The girl’s mother begins to cry. She tells him that exactly one year ago tonight, her daughter was killed by a hit-and-run driver while waiting for a ride home from her senior prom, at the very spot he said he picked her up.”
“Ooo,” now that’s creepy, “Eliza shivered and cozied up to Walt.
Nikki started, “Wait, here’s where it gets creepy.”
“So good, so far.” Charlotte poured Natalie, Walt, and Eliza another glass of wine.
Nikki continued, “The guy doesn’t believe the mom, and insists she’s mistaken. So, to prove it, she tells him where her daughter is buried.”
“What? Now that’s ridiculous,” Joss interrupted. “No one’s gonna do that.”
“It’s a folk tale, Joss!” Nikki pushed at him.
“Anyway, he’s curious. So, he makes his way to the local graveyard and searches for her grave. Finally, when he finds it, chills run up and down his spine, because neatly folded and set atop the gravestone, was his coat.” Nikki finished with a satisfied grin, clasped her hands, and sat back.
“Not bad,” Kilo made a temple of his fingertips and cracked his knuckles, “sweet, and eerie, but not scary.” His eyes darted around the room. “Anyone else?”
The fire crackled and popped as Walt tossed another log on top. The wind and rain pounded against the doors and windows, rattling the glass in their old wooden frames.
“Hold on a sec,” hearing a voice on the radio, Walt turned it up.
Kzhht… “efforts of local authorities are being thwarted by the severity of the storm” … khhfft… “making further investigation all but impossible” …khhkt… “Area residents are urged to shelter in place and keep their doors and windows locked.” Stay tuned for updates.”
“Still nothing new.” Walt turned the radio down and took a deep breath, “Okay, I guess I may as well join in. You’ve probably already heard this one.” He shook his head.
“Tell us anyway, darling,” Eliza insisted.
Walt nodded. “Okay. There were two teenage lovebirds out on a date one night at make-out point, having a French kissing session—”
“I don’t think that’s what they call it anymore dear,” Eliza giggled.
“I’d call it a skull session.” Kilo laughed.
“Ahem,” Walt continued, “well, whatever you call it, they were doing it out in the middle of nowhere in the pitch-black of night in the front seat of the car. The boy is eager to get things rolling and get past first base, so he turns on the radio to help set the mood. After a few compliments and soft massaging touches, he leans over and starts kissing the girl.
The mood’s a-goin’ and the juices are a-flowin’. But halfway into the song, the music is interrupted by a news bulletin. They’re warning everyone in the area that a crazed murderer has just escaped from the high-security state asylum for the criminally insane, which is very near the make-out point. They’re warning everyone to be on the lookout for a strange-looking man lurking about with a hook in place of his right hand, and if spotted, not to approach him and to notify authorities immediately.”
“Don’t they usually take the hook off their hand when they put them in there?” Natalie mocked.
“Oh, right, well I guess it maybe wasn’t an escaped convict. So, I guess it was just a serial killer who had struck in the area very near the make-out point.” Walt went on, “So, the boy tells her it’s ok, but the girl is very frightened and wants to go home. Trying to impress her, he assures her they’ll be safe and locks all the doors. He tries to keep making out, but the girl isn’t going for it. She gets mad and pushes him away, demanding that he take her home.”
“Bummer,” Kilo chuckled, “I’da kept makin’ out wit her anyway, haha.”
Charlotte regarded Kilo with a frown. “Are you sure you don’t want some wine? It might help you relax.”
“Nah, I’m good.” Smiling, Kilo put his arms up, clasping his hands behind his head.
“Okay, so, bummed out, the boy sits back in his seat and starts the car, spinning its wheels in the dirt as he drives away. When they finally get to the girl’s house she gets out of the car. When she goes to close the door, she starts screaming in terror. The boy runs to her side to see what’s going on, and dangling from the passenger door handle is a bloody hook.”
Walt’s eyes scouted the room. Faces barely nodded in the flickering light. Walt stretched, letting out a dull moan. “I’m feeling a little achy.”
“Me too,” Eliza whispered.
“That was scary,” Natalie yawned and sipped her glass. “I hate the bloody-hook thing, so gross.”
“If you think that was scary, wait till you hear mine. It’s gonna scare the shit outta you!” Kilo’s eyes were excited to see discomfort spread around the room. “That is unless you wanna go first, kitten?”
Charlotte shot back a dull smile, “Go ahead, see if you can make anyone jump.”
“Okay,” he started. “Here’s something urban. Maybe a legend, maybe not. I don’t know. When I’m finished, you tell me. Maybe it really happened.”
Everyone remained still, looking at Kilo.
“These two college girls roomed together in a dorm. One night there was a frat party and the two decided to go. They figured they’d meet some guys to hook up with, you know. So, they get there and start dancing and drinking, having a good time and all, until one of ‘em starts to feel sick. The sick one tells her friend to just hang at the party. She says she’s gonna go back to their dorm to sleep it off. Thing is, heh, heh, to get back home, she has to go through the woods. And there’s been this rumor going around that some crazy dude just escaped from the looney bin for the criminally insane—”
“Oh, great, and so you ended up here instead of staying in the woods?” Natalie chided and looked away.
Ignoring her, Kilo’s eyes widened, the glint from the fire reflected in his pupils. He continued. “Like I said, rumors were going around that a crazed killer might be lurking around the woods, but she didn’t know. She felt bad but didn’t want to spoil it for her friend, so she told her to just stay at the party and enjoy herself. She’d get someone to walk her home. But she didn’t. Nah, she just went on her own. So, the party goes on and the friend hangs out a bit and parties some more. But then she figures, hey, I better go check on my friend. So, she leaves. When she gets to the woods, she’s walking, and she hears rustling in the trees and heavy panting coming from somewhere in the dark, behind her.”
Kilo made heavy panting sounds to illustrate.
“Kinda freaked, she starts walking faster, but the panting gets heavier, and the rustling gets louder. Now she’s scared. She bolts. But all the way, the panting, and rustling is right behind her. She’s not wasting time looking back. She just runs to the dorm door and up the stairs. When she gets to the top, she hears the door open downstairs, and footsteps and panting again. She jets down the hall to her room and locks the door. Soon, she hears the panting, louder now, just outside the door! The lights are off. She hears the doorknob begin to rattle and shake like it’s about to break open. Freaked, she runs into the closet because there’s nowhere else to hide. She hears the door bust open. The panting is loud now and in the room. Then—scrape, scrape, scrape like claws scratching on the closet door trying to get in. And heavy, heavy, breathing, and panting, too. She screams and screams. The panting stops. She’s still screaming. Heh. Pretty quick, one of the dorm staff busts into the room and yells for her to come out.”
Kilo lowered his voice to a hiss, “And you know what? Laying there dead on the floor throat slit ear to ear, is her roommate.” Kilo’s expression became excited, “The dude followed her from the woods when she was on her way home. And she was afraid to let her friend walk home alone. Dumb bitch.” Kilo laughed and sat forward.
The room was quiet but for the snapping crackle of the fire, the raging storm outside, and the low static crackle of the radio. Everyone was still, staring at him, wide-eyed, with blank, mannequin-like facial expressions.
“And you know the worst part?” A crazed look came over his face, “I didn’t get ‘em both.” He pulled a large hunting knife from his jacket and stabbed it deep into the wooden table in front of him, “but the other one won’t get far.” He stood suddenly.
No one moved or even flinched. His smile was ear to ear as he scanned the room. “What the fuck is wrong with you people? Didn’t you hear what I just said? I said—”
“Oh, they heard you,” the sudden swipe of a straight razor flashed in the firelight from behind Kilo. His hands went up in a futile attempt to stop the blood from pouring out of his neck. Gushing red rivers of warm life spewed between his fingers as he fell, twitching, into the wingback. “it’s just that, it wasn’t very scary, dickhead.”
Charlotte emerged from the dark and stood by the fireplace. Everyone sat quietly. The howling wind rattled the windows, making its way into the lobby through the flawed nooks and crannies of the old building. Invisible tendrils of air gently caressed the crackling fire. Short gasps and bloody gurgles spilled from Kilo as he continued convulsing in the chair. The wine glasses, mostly empty and left on the table, flickered reflections of the waning firelight. No one moved. Everyone remained perfectly still in their places, silently flitting wide-eyed glances at one another. A few more moments went by.
“I know I said I was a performance artist, but I guess I’ll give storytelling a try,” she pronounced. “If any of you have heard this one, stop me.” She chuckled. “I think it’s scary. It happened not too long ago out in the boonies at an old bed and breakfast,” Charlotte began, “a bunch of people stranded together taking shelter from a storm, found themselves bored with nothing to do. Everyone gathered around the fireplace drinking wine and telling scary stories.” She paused, “Except of course, for this one dumbass,” she raised her foot and pushed Kilo’s limp, blood-soaked body off the chair.
No one moved. Silent as statues, they all stared at Charlotte.
She continued, “But what they didn’t know is someone poisoned their wine! Not with the kind of poison that kills. No. Something much more exotic and interesting. This poison just paralyzes the body so nothing can move but the eyes.”
Smiling, Charlotte drew a deep breath. “It takes a few sips, and a little while to take effect, but—once—it—does,” she sang, “—no more moving.” She winked and pranced toward the fireplace, putting a finger to her lips, “Shh, not even a sound. Lungs and all the other stuff keep going, but just enough to stay alive—for now.” She grinned. “So just relax and enjoy the show. Don’t you love audience participation!”
She walked along the fireplace holding the straight razor at eye level, gently gliding it across Eliza’s face. It cut her just enough to open a thin line of blood on her cheek. Unable to move, Eliza’s pupils widened as her eyes shook in their sockets. She stared wide-eyed at Charlotte.
“Anyone scared?” Charlotte licked Eliza’s blood from the razor. “Enough storytelling, now it’s time for some performance art!” And like the maestro of a gruesome orchestra, she raised her arms to introduce her crescendo. Smiling and swinging in a wide arc, she danced around the table. The twirling blade glinted in the firelight like a blood-spattered flash of lightning—slashing left—then right—then left again. The crackling fire and storm outside fused with Charlotte’s snickers and the screeching static of the radio in a grim cacophony of death. She paused, “by the way, I call this one, be still.”
Greg Beckham has been writing dark fiction stories and poetry since the early 1980’s, though his first published work was a non-fiction book in the arena of human excellence. Though, as an author his true love has always been dark fiction and horror. When not writing, Greg expresses his dark creativity as the singer of a heavy metal band, where he brings his dark verse to life through music. You can read more about Greg at www.DarkFiction.org.
“I can’t stand it anymore, I mean really,” Sasha said to Veronika and pulled back in her chair.
“And it happens every day?” Veronika asked.
“Almost always,” Sasha replied.
They both sighed. The two sat in Veronika’s backyard, staring at Jay-Jay, Sasha’s two-year-old black-and-white pointer, playing with Veronika’s five-year old daughter, Emilia. For some reason Emilia enjoyed grabbing Jay-Jay by the tail, and Jay-Jay, in turn, would escape her grip and run around the yard until the two would fall to the ground, lying down on the welcoming grass.
“You are such a mama-bear,” Veronika laughed.
“Well, you are too. You have your kid. Jay-Jay is my baby.” As she heard her name, Jay-Jay ran toward Sasha. “Such a good girl! Playing so nicely!” Emilia then ran into Sasha’s arms as well. “Both of you! Such good girls!” Sasha exclaimed.
“I have to do something, I have to protect her.” Sasha turned to Veronika.
“What can you do?” Veronika scratched her head. “Report them?”
“There’s an idea,” Sasha said.
“You should talk to Bobby.” Veronika stood up.
“Bobby?!” Sasha seemed puzzled.
“Bobby Hader, from high school.” Veronika went inside the house and came back with a couple of water bottles. “He works at city hall now, maybe he can help.”
“Bobby Hader,” Sasha repeated.
“You don’t remember him? I think he had a little crush on you back then,” Veronika continued. “From what I hear he’s not married.” She winked at Sasha.
“Vee, please,” Sasha smirked. “I have enough on my plate right now.”
“Hang on.” Veronika pulled her phone from her jacket pocket. “There’s a barbeque tomorrow afternoon at the mayor’s house, you know, to celebrate the recent elections.” She scrolled on her phone. “You should go, I’m sure Bobby will be there. Just sent you the email.”
Sasha pulled up the email on her phone. “I’ll think about it, thanks.”
“I mean, what else can you do? Even reporting them might not do much…and it’s just bad for the dog in general, to be out there by itself day in, day out. I feel bad for it,” Veronika said.
“True. But I am more worried about my girl,” Sasha said, “and myself… When they go at it, I get really scared.” Sasha shivered.
“There you go then, that’s a valid argument, public hazard,” Veronika replied.
“Sometimes I don’t know what I would do, what lengths I’ll go to. All I want is to keep us both safe, you know?” Sasha had tears in her eyes. “She is my world.” She looked into Jay-Jay’s eyes.
“You won’t go too far though, will you?” Veronika questioned.
“Whatever it takes,” Sasha said decidedly. “Too much has been taken away from me already.”
Sasha then rose and walked into the house.
“I’m sorry, what is it exactly that you want me to do?” Bobby asked Sasha as they both headed over to the picnic table with their freshly made burgers.
It was a rare warm November afternoon, and the sun was shining brightly. Many local officials had gathered at the mayor’s house for a celebratory barbeque. Sasha wore a green, flowy midi dress that, according to Veronika, matched her eyes perfectly. Bobby dressed in jeans and a light-blue, button-down shirt that he had tucked in, perhaps to seem more professional. This was only his second year working at city hall, and these were the first elections he had participated in publicly. Despite being well-trained and experienced in his field, Bobby often still felt like a newcomer.
“I want to report my next-door neighbors for animal abuse.” Sasha put down her plate and sat down next to Bobby. “See, they have this dog. They keep it in the yard all day long, it barks at every bystander. I can’t take my dog out because they are just so vicious to each other, and—”
“Let me stop you right there,” Bobby said and cracked open a can of soda. “You need to speak to animal control. This is not exactly my area of expertise.” Bobby took a sip from his soda can.
Sasha sighed, disappointed.
“Look.” Bobby put down his soda can. “I can try to put in a good word, but I can’t guarantee anything.” He looked at Sasha.
“Okay,” Sasha smiled, “that’s a start. Hopefully something will come out of it, otherwise…”
“Otherwise what?” Bobby took a bite of his hamburger.
“Otherwise…I don’t know what I’d do.” Sasha swallowed heavily. “I have these thoughts,” she came closer to him, almost whispering in his ear, “about doing something, something bad,” she continued slowly.
As Bobby listened to Sasha, a memory from their high school days came to mind. He remembered the tragic loss of Sasha’s brother, Jacob, to a terrible illness, and how their teacher had asked the whole class to be kind to Sasha during that difficult time. Veronika had taken on the role of Sasha’s protector, always making sure she wasn’t alone and supporting her through the grieving process. At the time Bobby found Sasha to be vulnerable and fragile, but as he watched her now, he saw a strong and confident woman who just wanted to protect her dog.
“How the heck are ya, Hader?” A man slapped Bobby’s backside all of a sudden, and the gesture made him turn around quickly.
“Phil!” Bobby called out and reached his hand for a handshake. “Good to see you! This is my…friend Sasha,” he mumbled.
“Good to meet you, Sasha,” Phil said. “Hey, have you heard about the construction that’s going to start next week? There’s something a bit off with the plans, I’d love to—”
“Forgive me, gentlemen.” Sasha stood up and Bobby stood up as well. “I’ll leave you to it.”
“We’ll continue this another time, then?” Bobby asked. Sasha nodded and began to walk away.
As he continued speaking to Phil, Bobby couldn’t help but keep an eye on Sasha as she walked farther and farther away. She seemed to float on air, her movements graceful and mysterious.
Bobby couldn’t shake the feeling that she was up to something, and his thoughts raced as he tried to anticipate what she might have said next.
Bobby found himself lost in a sea of speculation and anticipation. What was Sasha planning? Should he get involved?
DAY 3—The Neighbors
“Leaving the dog out like this,” Sasha pointed at the neighbor’s dog from her side of the fence, “all afternoon long,” she continued, “I mean, it’s not very good for it, and frankly it is very disruptive.” She crossed her arms.
The neighbors looked at each other and then at their dog, who was sitting quietly by their side.
“Doesn’t look very disruptive now,” the man said jokingly.
“Of course not, because you are both there. But what I’m saying is when the dog is out here alone,” Sasha sighed, “I can’t take my dog out because they fight. Now I don’t want either of them to get hurt, so all I’m asking is for a little consideration.”
“Look, we are allowed to use our yard in any way we see fit,” the man continued.
“We understand your concern, though,” the woman interrupted him and grabbed his arm. “We will do our best to minimize the disruption.” She smiled at Sasha.
“It might help if we can come up with some sort of schedule,” Sasha suggested.
“What do you mean?” the woman asked.
Sasha pulled out her phone and opened her calendar app. “For example, I usually come home from work, say, around three p.m.” She scrolled up and down her screen. “It would be helpful to have the yard freefor an hour so I can let Jay-Jay out to play.”
The man took off his baseball cap and scratched his head.
“I think we can make that work.” The woman nodded in approval at the man.
“Good.” Sasha placed her phone back in her jacket pocket. “I appreciate it. I’ll be letting her out in a few minutes then.”
“Aha,” the woman said and smiled again.
After her talk with the neighbors, Sasha went upstairs to her apartment, ready to give Jay-Jay some dinner. But just as Jay-Jay was finishing up her meal, Sasha heard the neighbor’s dog barking outside again.
Furious, Sasha stormed to the window and looked down at the neighbor’s yard. It seemed as though they had completely ignored their earlier conversation and were allowing their dog to roam around freely once again. Sasha couldn’t believe it.
“Those motherfuckers,” she muttered to herself.
Turning to Jay-Jay, who was staring at her with a confused tilt of her head, Sasha sighed.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” she said, determined to find a way to solve this problem once and for all. She just wasn’t sure what that solution might be.
“There is just no reasoning with them, you know?” Sasha said to her neighbor John, whom she bumped into while on a walk with Jay-Jay the next morning.
“I talked to them, I asked nicely,” she sighed, desperate. “I just don’t know what else to do.” She looked at Jay-Jay, who was sniffing around John.
“I’m this close to reporting them to the city,” she whispered, “but I don’t really want to do that. I just wish…” she continued, “I just wish they both got along, you know?”
“I know exactly what you mean.” John nodded. “I’ve had dogs my whole life. It’s tough.”
John lived a few houses down from Sasha’s apartment building. He was a retired police officer and lived with his sister, Sheila, who was a retired nurse and a few years older than he. They also had a well-behaved brown Labrador named Bruno.
“You know, Bruno gets really anxious when he hears fireworks,” John said.
“Jay-Jay is afraid of loud noises too. School buses and trucks especially freak her out.” Sasha petted Jay-Jay’s head as she sat down on the curb next to her.
“Can I give her a treat?” John pulled out a small dog treat from his pants pocket. Sasha nodded and he gave the treat to Jay-Jay. “I always have some for Bruno,” he laughed.
“You know, when he gets really anxious, my sister gives him something,” John continued. “I think it’s like pot for dogs.” He smiled. “It calms him very quickly.”
“Interesting,” Sasha commented.
“She puts a little bit in my tea sometimes when I can’t sleep,” John chuckled. “Makes me fall asleep very quickly, no bad dreams.” He looked at the ground, focused.
“Sometimes I think…” she hesitated, “it’s really bad, but I just want that dog to be gone from our neighborhood, you know?” She looked down, embarrassed.
“I get it.” John shrugged his shoulders. They were both silent for a moment.
“I’m having surgery tomorrow,” John suddenly said. “It’s my liver, it’s not so good.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Sasha said. “I hope everything works out for the best. We’ll come see you when you get back.” She pointed at Jay-Jay and herself.
“I would love that.” He smiled and gave Jay-Jay another treat.
“Maybe I can help you two,” he kept talking. “I have a friend, an ex-cop, who might be able to…solve your problem.”
Sasha raised her eyebrows. “Oh?”
“Let me see what I can do,” John said and turned on the leaf blower he was holding. “I’m gonna do the whole street if I have the energy,” he yelled as Sasha and Jay-Jay stepped back.
“Don’t work too hard,” Sasha yelled back. “Take care! And good luck!”
Sasha began to walk away with Jay-Jay as the noise from the leaf blower grew louder.
It was the first morning in a while that Sasha didn’t wake up to the barking sound of her neighbor’s dog. As she got out of bed and rubbed the sleep from her eyes, she glanced out the window at the back of the house. The neighbor’s dog was nowhere to be seen.
That’s strange, Sasha thought, she is always out there in the morning.
A feeling of dread washed over her. Did John take her words too literally? Did he do something to the dog? Sasha’s heart began to race as she tried to shake off the cobwebs of sleep and the memories of the previous night. She picked up the phone and called Bobby.
“What happened last night?” Her voice was shaking.
“Good morning to you too,” Bobby said with a yawn.
“Ha-ha. Seriously, what happened?” Sasha paced back and forth in her kitchen. “Where is it?”
“Where is what?” Bobby yawned again.
“The dog! The neighbor’s dog! Where is it?” She was nearly shouting now.
“Not in the yard, I gather.” Bobby sat up in his bed.
“What did we see last night? Did we see anything?” Sasha’s head was spinning.
“Calm down. We didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, I don’t think…” Bobby scratched his head and put on his eyeglasses.
“We went out to dinner to talk about the problem with your neighbors,” he recalled. “We had a few drinks so I walked you home, and then we ran into your neighbor John.”
“Yes, I remember that.” Sasha bit her nail.
“You introduced me,” Bobby kept talking. “He was carrying a shovel in the middle of the night, which I thought was strange; when he noticed we were staring at it, he said something like, it’s for all the leaves. I guess he had been shoveling all day and needed it for something.”
“Yes, I remember I told him to take it easy because of his health, but he said that he likes the work, it makes him forget, or something…?” Sasha sat on a chair by her small dining table.
“And then…” Bobby continued.
“And then what?” Sasha’s eyes widened.
“I was just about to kiss you good night…” He smiled to himself.
“Oh, you were?” Sasha smiled to herself on the other side of the line.
“I was…but then we heard a loud thump, like something fell over, or…?” he wondered.
“Like something got hit?” Sasha was shaking again.
“Don’t jump to any conclusions. We didn’t see anything, it was so dark,” Bobby said.
“What a politician you are,” Sasha said sarcastically. “But the last thing you remember is John walking away with a shovel and a loud thump?” She got up and began pacing again.
“I cannot confirm or deny,” he laughed.
“This isn’t funny. What if he…? I don’t even want to think about it.” She shivered.
“Relax.” Bobby spoke softly. “Why don’t I come over and we can think about what—”
“I got it.” Sasha cut him off and started opening her kitchen cabinets frantically. “I’ll make him a pie!” she exclaimed and hung up the call with Bobby abruptly.
Later that day Sasha walked up to John’s house, her steps measured and determined. She had been thinking about this visit all morning, and she was determined to get some answers. As she approached the door, she could hear the sound of barking from inside.
Sheila opened the door with a friendly smile on her face. “Sasha, how nice to see you!”
“How is John doing? He told me about his surgery,” Sasha asked, trying to sound casual.
“He is still in the hospital. The surgery went fine. I just popped back to get a few things for him,” Sheila explained.
“I made him a pie.” Sasha held up her homemade pumpkin pie, a broken smile on her face.
“Well, that was very thoughtful of you,” Sheila said, taking the pie from her hands. “I’m sure he will love it. Thank you.”
“I just…” Sasha began to speak but couldn’t find the words.
“What is it, sweetie?” Sheila asked.
Sasha took a deep breath and tried to steady her nerves. “I just wanted to talk to you about something,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “It’s important.”
As Sheila moved out of the way to let Sasha enter the house, she noticed that Sasha had started sobbing.
“I’m afraid…” she hesitated, “I’m afraid John did something, something bad, because of me…”
Sheila led Sasha to the kitchen, and they both sat down by the round kitchen table.
“See, I had told him about—” Sasha started.
“The problems you’ve been having with the neighbors,” Sheila finished her thought.
“That’s right, how did you know?” Sasha stared at her.
“He told me,” Sheila answered.
“Okay. So you might also know that he offered to help,” Sasha continued.
“Yes,” Sheila nodded.
“Well, last night we saw him walking around with a shovel, and then we heard a loud sound, and I don’t know,” Sasha was frantic, “I don’t know what to think!” She got up from her seat, her heart racing.
“Okay.” Sheila did not seem disturbed by this information. “And what do you imagine happened?” she asked.
“I hate to think about it, but maybe he did something to the dog?” Sasha wondered.
“No,” Sheila said without hesitation. “John would never do anything like that.”
At that exact moment Bruno showed up from inside the house and came to sit by Sheila’s feet. Sheila petted him softly and he looked up at her adoringly. As she watched this scene, something clicked in Sasha’s brain. It was as though the answer had been right in front of her eyes the entire time.
“John wouldn’t,” Sasha repeated, “but you would?!” she questioned.
Sheila turned slowly and looked at Sasha. “To help you.”
“To help me?” Sasha’s eyes widened.
“You’ve been so kind to John ever since you moved to our neighborhood.” Sheila stood up. “He told me how every time he sees you walking Jay-Jay, you always ask him how he’s doing.” She began to move closer to Sasha, who had started moving away.
Sasha and Sheila were now standing on opposite sides of the kitchen island.
“You even made him a pie.” Sheila pointed to the covered pie that stood between them on top of the kitchen island. “I mean, what a sweet gesture. You are just a sweet kid, and I wanted to help you. I know about your brother,” Sheila continued.
“How did you…?” Sasha shook her head.
“Your last name was familiar to me the first time I heard it. I then remembered it from my time at pediatrics.” Sheila came closer to Sasha. “I am so sorry for your loss.” She attempted to embrace Sasha but she pulled away.
Sasha began to tear up. “So this is the solution? Killing the neighbor’s dog?” Sasha asked.
“Don’t concern yourself with that,” Sheila said. “It’s done and that’s that. Sit down now.” Sheila directed Sasha back to the chair. “I’ll make you a warm cup of tea, it will help you relax.”
Sheila walked over to the stove and filled up the kettle. She turned on the gas and placed the kettle on the burner, ready to bring the water to a boil. Sasha watched her intently, still standing in the same spot. As the minutes ticked by, Sasha was at a loss as to what she should do or say next.
The kettle shrieked.
“Milk and sugar?” Sheila turned around to face Sasha, but, to her surprise, she was speaking to an empty room.
Sasha had disappeared. The front door of the house was wide open.
Orit Yeret is a writer, artist and teacher. Born and raised in Israel, she currently lives in the U.S. She enjoys photography, painting, and writing short prose and poetry in both English and Hebrew. Her work recently appeared or is forthcoming in American Writers Review, The Borfski Press, Drunk Monkeys, Euphony Journal, Ink Pantry, Crack the Spine, Blue Lake Review, Steam Ticket, Avalon Literary, Evening Street Review, (mac)ro(mic), The Magnolia Review,October Hill Magazine, Think Journal, Voices de la Luna, Whistling Shade and Isele Magazine. Read and view more of her work at http://www.orityeret.com.
Bryan hadn’t been back to Seneca in years, but the small South Carolina town, nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains and once renowned for its fall foliage and lake resorts, seemed remarkably unchanged at first glance. Perhaps there were fewer people on the streets, and the tiny historic district looked a little shabbier than he remembered, but other than that, you’d never know that the town had been the site of one of the worst nuclear reactor incidents in US history.
It had been almost four years since a partial core meltdown at the Oconee Nuclear Station caused everyone within a five mile radius to evacuate the town, his sister Belinda and her family among them. The disaster was quickly contained, but it was two months before the EPA lifted the evacuation order and allowed residents to return to the area. Clearly, not all of them had; upon closer inspection, there were closed storefronts on every block, and, on the edges of town, abandoned houses and trailers were being overtaken by cathedrals of kudzu. Belinda and her son Owen had returned; her asshole husband Dave had not. He now worked at a Kia dealership in Chapel Hill, paid child support sporadically, and saw his son perhaps twice a year.
The Fairfield Inn where Bryan and his family were staying had certainly seen better days. The rooms were shabby, the staff listless. Seneca had once been a town largely supported by tourism. Now, despite the EPA’s assurances, tourists were afraid to venture near this corner of the state, and the town, even as it tried to maintain outward appearances, was slowly falling into poverty and disrepair.
Bryan, seated in a sticky booth at the waffle house adjacent to the hotel, looked up from his lukewarm coffee as the bell over the door dinged. His sister entered the establishment, looking tired and thinner than the last time he’d seen her. But her face lit up when she saw him, and she hurried over to embrace him before settling into the booth.
“How was the drive down?” Belinda asked, as a silent waitress with thin gray hair plopped a menu down in front of her.
“Oh… long. We left around six o’clock this morning, and we just got into town an hour ago.”
“Claire and the kids doing alright?”
“They’re fine. All settled in. Claire wanted to see you, but the kids are exhausted. She decided to just stay in the room with them.”
This was a lie; his wife, a nurse at Johns Hopkins, did not care much for Belinda or any other member of his family. Their home in the Baltimore suburb of Columbia, where Bryan chaired the history department at Howard Community College, was only an eight-hour drive from Seneca, but culturally they were light-years away. Claire, originally from Boston, used to tease Bryan about his “hillbilly” roots.
“I can barely understand her when she talks,” Claire remarked after meeting his mother for the first time. About his sister, she was even less enthusiastic: “1980 called. They want their turquoise eyeshadow back.”
It did not help that Belinda, an aide at a local nursing home, tried to find common ground between her employment at Shady Elms and Claire’s work at one of the premier research hospitals of the western world. In his wife’s presence, Bryan felt ashamed of his family, where previously he had merely felt indifferent toward them. His father had died when he was young, and his mother had worked two jobs to keep food on the table. She was a hard and distant woman, seldom present at home and not given to displays of affection when she was. Belinda had mostly been responsible for Bryan’s care, but by the time she was in high school she was a lot more interested in smoking pot and running around with boys than in babysitting her kid brother. So Bryan spent a lot of time unsupervised during his formative years.
Still, Belinda was all the family he had left now. Their mother had died of congestive heart failure just a few days before the reactor meltdown at Oconee. Belinda had to postpone the funeral and burial until after the government scientists finished their investigations and declared it safe to come back. After she and her son returned to Seneca, now minus the absconded Dave, she had contacted Bryan about money for their mother’s burial. Bryan had been more than happy to comply. It assuaged his guilt at not attending the service. Claire would not hear of it- “Over my dead body are you going to drag my children into a radioactive zone!”- and Bryan didn’t want to go anyway. He and his mother had never been close. It wasn’t a convenient time to leave work. He was more than happy to finance the burial from afar and allow his sister to take care of the details. He was a little surprised by what she ended up with, however.
“It’s called Tree Pod Burial.” Belinda told him over the phone, a week after the evacuation order was lifted. “It’s cheaper than a casket. And it’s, like, environmentally friendly. I’ll send you a link.”
“Do you think…I mean, is this something Mom would’ve wanted?” Bryan asked. He honestly had no idea. His contact with his mother had basically dwindled to mailing her cards for Christmas and Mother’s Day.
“There’s a place right outside town. It’s called the Forest of Remembrance. It’s a cemetery where they do tree pod burial. Instead of depressing old gravestones, it’s got a bunch of nice trees.”
“Have you actually been there?” Bryan asked.
“I’ve driven past it, on my way to work. It’s nice!”
“Okay. If that’s what you think Mom would’ve wanted. I don’t mind paying for a more traditional burial.”
“Well, what if… “Belinda began, then broke off.
“Well, a regular burial is around eight thousand dollars. This tree pod thing is less than four thousand. What if you let me keep the difference?”
Deeply embarrassed, Bryan said of course, of course she should keep the extra money, and call him if she needed more. He knew she was struggling now that Dave had left her, even though rents and property values in Seneca had no doubt taken a steep nosedive since the reactor meltdown and subsequent evacuation. After they hung up, he clicked on the link his sister had sent him and was treated to a disturbing description of what awaited his mother’s corpse. It would be interred in a fetal position, inside a biodegradable “pod”, along with a tree sapling (choice of trees available). In a few years, a majestic oak, elm, or birch would shade his mother’s final resting place, ostensibly nourished by her decomposing remains. The idea repulsed him, but he supposed it was no worse than her lying underground in a box, pumped full of chemicals. It was the picture on the website that disturbed him the most: an illustration of a human body curled into a fetal position in its underground pod, surrounded by tree roots. It reminded him of mice, moles, and other small animals that hibernate in underground burrows, waiting for Spring so they could emerge.
Anyway, that was years ago. He’d never visited his mother’s resting place or seen her tree, nor had he seen his sister and nephew since before the meltdown. When Claire suggested Disneyworld in Orlando for their summer vacation, Bryan countered with a suggestion that they drive down instead of flying, stopping in South Carolina to visit Belinda and Owen and pay their respects to his mother’s tree. He was surprised when Claire agreed easily, but then again she was a nurse. She knew the dangers of radiation, and was no doubt satisfied that the danger in Oconee County had passed… or was, at least, negligible, for visitors just passing through. She did insist they bring their own bottled water to drink, and not use any of the tap water in Seneca while they were there, not even to brush their teeth. This seemed like a reasonable precaution, so the trip was planned. It was a day’s drive to Seneca. They planned to spend the night, visit Bryan’s mother’s memorial tree in the morning with Belinda and Owen, and be on the road by noon, arriving in Orlando around dark.
“So how are things with you and the kiddo?” Bryan asked, as the elderly waitress leaned over to refill his coffee. He couldn’t help but notice a large purplish-black mass on the back of the old woman’s hand, and two smaller ones on her scrawny forearm. His eyes recoiled from the sight, and he busied himself with packets of artificial sweetener as the woman took his sister’s order and retreated.
“Same old. He’ll be starting seventh grade soon. He’s supposed to go spend a week with his dad in August. I told him not to get too excited. You know Dave. He’ll probably cancel at the last minute.”
Bryan made a noncommittal grunt. In fact, he did not know Dave very well at all, but he was willing to take his sister’s word for it.
“And your work?”
“Same as always. Still plenty of old people around here needing their asses wiped.”
The waitress returned with a cup of coffee for his sister, and Bryan averted his eyes, but not before observing that she had one of those purple-black spots on her chin as well, and that it had two coarse gray hairs growing out of it.
Shuddering inwardly, he stared out the window until she was gone.
“How’s the town? You know, since the….”
“The nuclear disaster?” Belinda smirked, blowing on her coffee to cool it. “Oh, we’re doing okay. Most of the babies are born with two heads these days, but that just makes em twice as smart.”
“I’m sorry, I’m just….”
“You’re just a little chickenshit. You always were. I can’t believe you didn’t even come to Mom’s service.”
“Well, I thought about it, but Claire….”
“I know, I know. She wouldn’t let you. I’m surprised you’re here now. And that she’s not forcing you to wear a hazmat suit.” Belinda chuckled, and Bryan saw that she was only teasing him.
“She is making us all drink bottled water,” he offered, allowing himself a tentative laugh at his wife’s expense, although he was generally happy to defer to Claire’s medical expertise.
They drank their coffee in companionable silence, staring out the window at Seneca’s darkened and deserted historical district.
“So, seriously… everything’s okay here?” Bryan asked after a few minutes.
“Well, the economy’s tanked, obviously. A lot of people left town, or never came back at all, after the evac. Lots of local businesses have closed down. But, I mean… radiation-wise? I haven’t noticed any real problems. I know some people who have cancer, but what do you expect? I work in a frigging nursing home. Old people are always gonna have cancer.”
Conversation ran dry after that. They finished their coffee and made plans to meet up in the morning and visit their mother’s burial site. Bryan headed across the mostly empty parking lot toward his hotel. Several emaciated cats, startled by his passing, emerged from behind a dumpster and darted down the alley behind the waffle house. They were momentarily illuminated by a streetlight, and Bryan noticed that one of them appeared to be losing its matted gray fur in patches and had oozing sores all over its head. Shaken, Bryan picked up his pace and hurried back to his room.
The following morning, Bryan pulled into a gravel drive next to a low stone wall. A tasteful plaque near the entrance read “Welcome to the Forest of Remembrance Memorial Park”.
His sister was already there, seated atop the wall, dressed in shorts and a halter. She grinned and waved, swinging her bare legs insolently. Claire, in the passenger seat, withheld comment, but Bryan could feel disapproval radiating from her in waves. Claire was wearing low heels and a tailored black suit. In the backseat, their daughters Grace and Ava were also wearing dresses.
“Why do we have to wear church clothes?” Grace had whined on the drive over.
“To show respect to your Grandma Sarah.” Claire replied. “She loved you both very much.”
“I don’t think I remember her,” said Ava, who was nine and had been only four the last time she’d seen Bryan’s mother.
“I do,” said Grace. At twelve, she was growing like a weed, her legs long and skinny as a colt’s beneath the hem of her proper navy blue skirt. “She was fat and smoked a lot.”
“Grace Ann!” Claire exclaimed.
“Well, it’s true.” Bryan shrugged. “It’s her own fault the girls didn’t really know her. She could’ve made more of an effort.”
“Regardless. I will not encourage them to speak that way.”
With that, Claire put on her sunglasses, the girls put in their earbuds, and Bryan, chastened, drove on in silence.
“Hey, y’all!” Belinda called out, hopping down from the wall. On her feet, she wore sandals with plastic flowers on them. Her toenails were painted purple.
“It’s so good to see you, honey,” she said, approaching Claire.
“Hello,” Claire said, then stiffened as Belinda swept her up in a quick hug. Bryan stifled a grin. His sister was leaning hard into her Southern twang, specifically to annoy her sister-in-law.
“And there are my beautiful nieces!” Belinda gathered the girls into her arms. “You’ve grown a foot since I last saw you. And Gracie, my God, girl! Are you getting boobs already?”
“Aunt Belinda!” Grace squealed, secretly pleased but pretending to be mortified.
“Where’s your boy?” Bryan asked.
“Owen? Oh, he ran off already. He’s in there somewhere.” She waved her arm vaguely toward the cemetery.
“Well, then.” Bryan locked the car and pocketed his keys. “Shall we?”
The five of them made their way through the gates and into the memorial park. There were certainly trees, but it did not much resemble a forest; the trees, in various stages of growth, were spaced in perfectly even rows, with footpaths between them. Bryan tried not to think about the peculiar soil from which these trees had sprung, or about the rows of corpses curled in fetal positions beneath their feet, roots protruding from their bodies like tentacles. He shivered, although the day was warm, almost uncomfortably so. He’d forgotten how humid it was here, how the air felt somehow thick. He noticed that Claire was sweating- possibly regretting her choice of attire, although she’d never admit it- and that Grace was fanning herself with the cellophane-wrapped bouquet of carnations she’d talked Bryan into purchasing at a gas station on the drive over. Ava skipped along cheerfully behind her, holding the string of a mylar balloon (another gas station purchase). Bryan, dressed in a short-sleeved polo and cotton slacks, was beginning to perspire as well. The gray sky clamped down over them like a pot lid, and not a breeze stirred.
“I haven’t been here in a couple of years,” said Belinda, leading the group. “I don’t remember which row she’s in, but I remember it’s way back in here… we need to read the plaques.”
Looking down, Bryan realized there was a bronze plaque set in the ground at the base of each tree. These were partially obscured by grass and weeds. Bryan gingerly pushed the vegetation aside with the toe of his loafer and read one of them.
“This one says Robert Nash, let’s see… died in 2016… there’s a number on here, F-17?”
“Okay, F is the row, 17 is the plot,” replied Belinda. “Mom’s in H-12. This way.”
She headed down the path to the left, and the rest of them followed.
Eventually, she came to a stop in front of a spindly tree with twisted limbs and white bark. She squatted down to read the plaque, her shorts riding up alarmingly as she did so.
“Found it!” she cried triumphantly. “This is it. This is Mom’s tree.”
Suddenly, a dark figure leaped down from the branches of a nearby oak with a terrible roar, startling the adults and causing the girls to scream. Grace dropped her phone. Ava let go of her balloon string. The mylar balloon drifted away above the treetops and disappeared into the sky.
“God damn it, Owen!” Belinda yelled, slapping at her grinning son. “You about gave us all a heart attack! Is that any way to treat your cousins?”
“Sorry, Mom, but that was funny,” the boy smirked. He was about the same age as Grace but looked older. “Y’all shoulda seen your faces!”
Ava, still staring after her vanishing balloon, began to cry.
That was for Grandma Sarah,” she sniffled. “I was going to tie it to her tree.”
“It’s okay, honey.” Belinda pulled her into a comforting embrace. “You know what? Grandma Sarah is taking that balloon right up to heaven.”
After checking her phone to make sure the screen wasn’t cracked, Grace stepped up to the tree and laid the bouquet of gas-station flowers at the base of its trunk. She stepped back and bowed her head solemnly. There was something performative about her actions, Bryan thought, mildly annoyed, as if she were role-playing for some hidden camera. He had noticed this about his daughter before, and wondered if it had something to do with the amount of time she spent on social media.
“What kind of tree is this?” Claire asked.
“It’s supposed to be a birch. Silver birch, white birch, something like that.” Belinda replied, her arm still wrapped protectively around Ava. “I picked it because they said it would grow fast. Like, two feet a year or more.”
“But it’s only been, what, four years since it was planted? This tree has got to be twelve feet tall.” Bryan stared at the tree. He couldn’t help thinking about the fact that it was devouring his mother’s earthly remains for nourishment. He supposed that was the point. Still, it gave him the creeps.
“Well, plants grow faster around here, since the Oconee thing. That’s for sure. Did y’all notice all that kudzu when you were coming into town? And like, the sunflowers in my yard? Jeez, they’re like eight feet tall, as big around as dinner plates. And the grass grows fast. My neighbors all complain about how often they have to mow now.”
“What are all those black spots on the tree trunk?” Claire said, to no one in particular. “Is that normal? It looks like the tree is diseased.”
Bryan took a closer look, and he had to admit Claire was right; the tree definitely did not look healthy. Its white bark seemed unnaturally smooth, and the entire length of the trunk was pocked with wet-looking holes of various sizes, some of them oozing black sap.
“Maybe that black stuff is Grandma, rotting.” suggested Owen. Bryan wanted to punch the boy. Belinda, as if reading his mind, released Ava and reached over to smack her son upside the head.
“Don’t you talk that way about my momma!” she cried indignantly. “Are you gonna talk like that about me when I’m dead?”
“Well, no, but I love you,” Owen responded, rubbing his reddened ear, his eyes filling with tears. “I didn’t love Grandma. She was a mean old bitch. You said so yourself.”
“She was a mean old bitch, but I loved her anyway.” Belinda said, pulling her son in for a quick hug and planting a kiss on his ear. “And I love you too, baby.”
Mollified, Owen wandered away to examine the tree more closely. Touching the oozing black sap, he first sniffed it, then reached out for Ava as if to rub it on her. Ava squeaked in alarm and darted off to hide behind Claire. Watching his nephew made Bryan grateful he had daughters. Grace might be performing for some imaginary camera half the time, but at least she knew how to behave properly. Claire wouldn’t put up with anything less.
Owen was now pretending to lick the sap from his fingers, causing Grace to make gagging noises and look away. Owen’s mother ignored him, focusing on the plaque at the bottom of the tree.
“Bryan, did you ever know Mom’s middle name?” she asked. “It was Jane. Sarah Jane. That’s pretty, isn’t it?”
Bryan was about to respond- he had not, in fact, known that- when suddenly Owen screamed.
At first Bryan wasn’t alarmed. He assumed the boy was up to some inappropriate new caper. But the screaming continued, rising in volume, until the adults rushed over to him and found him with tears streaming down his reddened cheeks.
“Something’s got me!” he screamed. “Something’s biting my finger!”
Bryan looked down in confusion and saw that Owen had stuck his index finger into one of the black holes in the tree, and could not pull it out.
“Maybe it’s just stuck?” Bryan suggested, feeling dazed and useless.
“It’s biting meeee!” wailed Owen. Belinda grabbed her son’s wrist and yanked his hand away from the tree. A great gout of blood arced from the stump of his missing index finger, splattering the entire stunned group. Ava began to whimper, and Grace let out a shrill scream.
Claire, good and efficient nurse that she was, suddenly swung into action. She ripped off her tailored suit jacket and wrapped it around the boy’s hand. “Belinda! Hold pressure on this! Grace, call 911 from your phone! Bryan, try to get the finger out. They might be able to reattach it if we hurry! Let’s go to my car, I have bandages and a tourniquet in my first aid kit.”
“Get the finger…?” Bryan repeated numbly.
“Yes, Bryan.” Claire snapped. She had never looked more beautiful to him than she did at that moment, with her stern face and her hair in disarray, clad in a blood-spattered silk camisole. “Get your nephew’s finger out. It must be stuck in the hole in the tree. Now hurry!”
Then the whole group was gone, hustling the wailing boy off down the path to the car. Bryan stared at his mother’s tree, feeling punch-drunk.
“Well shit, Mom.” he said.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket, turned on the flashlight, and shined it into the now-bloody hole in the tree, hoping to see the amputated digit. What he saw instead was a set of teeth. Bryan gasped and dropped his phone. Suddenly, a bearded man in a long-sleeved green t-shirt and a sun visor materialized beside him.
“What’s going on here?” the man asked.
Bryan pointed to the hole in the tree. “The, the tree, it… wait, who are you?”
“I’m Jeffrey. I’m a groundskeeper. I work here. I was over there weeding when I heard screams. What’s going on? Are you hurt?”
Bryan took a deep, steadying breath and explained to the man that this was his mother’s memorial tree, that his nephew had stuck his finger in a hole in the tree, and that his nephew had lost his finger.
“Jesus Christ.” Jeffrey muttered. “Where is he now?”
“My wife is a nurse. She and the rest of the family are taking my nephew to the hospital. She asked me to try and retrieve the finger. But when I looked into the hole, I didn’t see it. Instead I saw… teeth.”
“I was afraid of this.” Jeffrey said darkly. Pulling a slim flashlight out of the toolbelt around his waist, he peered into the hole. Bryan stared off into the distance, unable to bring himself to look into the hole again. “Oh, man. This is bad.”
“What… what is it?” Bryan asked shakily.
“Arboreal teratomas,” the groundskeeper said, pronouncing each syllable carefully. “The EPA guys already know about them. Yep, they’ve been out here with their hazmat suits, their little geiger counters. I’ve seen teeth before. A lot of these trees have teeth in them. Teeth, bone fragments, eyes, partial ears, fingernails. One of the elms over there had a big old clump of gray hair hanging out of it. Looked like Spanish moss. I cut it out, of course.”
“Yeah, they’re those really gross tumors with teeth, hair, other body parts. Teratomas are made of germ cells, and germ cells can develop into various body parts. The EPA guys explained it all to me. Anyway, here at Forest of Remembrance, the trees have been developing what’s called Arboreal Teratomas. At least, that’s what the government calls it.”
“And what do you call it?” said Bryan, eyeing the dark hole in the tree.
“I call it Hell.” Jeffrey replied simply. “We opened a gateway to Hell with that Oconee reactor, and this is what came through.”
Bryan had no response to that.
“You know,” Jeffrey continued, “I’ve seen random teeth in these trees before, but never a full set. You say this is your mother’s tree?”
Bryan nodded dumbly.
She had all her teeth when she died?”
“My mother didn’t have a tooth in her head,” Bryan replied. “She got dentures in her thirties. Full upper and lower plates.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.” Jeffrey whistled, shining his flashlight into the hole again. “That’s exactly what’s in this hole. Dentures. Full upper and lower plates.”
It was midafternoon by the time Bryan got to the hospital. Owen was still in surgery. Belinda was asleep in a chair. The girls had gone to the cafeteria for snacks.
“I couldn’t get it. The finger.” Bryan told Claire. There was more he wanted to say, but somehow he couldn’t get his mouth to form the necessary words.
“We almost hit a deer,” Claire replied dully. “On the way to the hospital. It wandered out of the woods, right out in front of the car. It had a huge… a tumor, or some kind of abscess, on the side of its neck. The deer was starving, it was so thin.”
“Sweetheart.” Bryan said, folding his wife into his arms. “I’m so sorry about all of this.”
Claire leaned her face against his neck, put her lips to his ear, and whispered, “Get me the fuck out of this place.”
They went home, and they never spoke of it again. Not until years later; eight years, to be precise. By that time, Claire was dying of breast cancer which had metastasized to her liver and lungs. They were divorced by then, but Bryan still came to see her. Of course, he did. She was in hospice at Gilchrist House, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins, where she had spent so many years as a nurse.
She had fought for as long as she could, but now she was near the end. She was mostly free of pain, thanks to whopping doses of Fentanyl and Oxycodone. She slept most of the time, and even when she was awake, she was in a dream-state. Bryan sat by her bed and held her hand.
One afternoon, he sat by her bedside, dozing. He was dreaming about mice and moles and other small animals that live in burrows, curled up underground. When he opened his eyes, he found his ex-wife gazing at him, and her eyes, for the first time in days, were lucid.
“I never drank the water,” she said.
Still fuzzy with sleep, he thought she was thirsty and reached for the water cup next to her bed. She batted it away impatiently.
“I never drank it,” she said. “I only drank bottled water. The whole time we were there. I even used bottled water to brush my teeth.”
“I know you did, sweetheart. I know.” Bryan replied.
“So it isn’t really fair,” she said.
“It really isn’t,” Bryan agreed, stroking her hand, which by that time was just bones covered with dry skin.
“You should try to sleep, sweetheart,” he said to her. And she did.
Belinda called him after Claire’s funeral. They hadn’t spoken much in the years since Bryan visited Seneca.
“How are the girls?” Belinda asked.
“Well, I mean, they’re torn up about their mother. We all are. But they’re doing fine. Grace is at Loyola. Ava’s a senior this year. How are you? How’s Owen?”
“Oh, same as always, I guess. Owen dropped out of school, but he got a job down at the auto repair shop on First Street. Finch Automotive. He seems real happy there. He’s got a girlfriend. And he’s in a band. He plays bass.”
“Wow. That’s great, Belinda. I’m really glad to hear it. It’s great that he can do all that, without… you know.”
“Hold on. I’m gonna text you a picture.” said Belinda. Bryan’s phone pinged. He opened the text. It was a picture of his sister and his nephew. Owen had grown into a giant of a young man, over six feet tall and broad shouldered. In the picture, he’s standing behind Belinda with his arms wrapped around her. Both of his hands are visible. On each of his hands, there are five fingers.
“I don’t understand.” Bryan said. “How…?”
“It grew back,” Belinda said simply.
“That’s impossible. I mean, isn’t it?”
“The doctor says it happens sometimes. It’s rare, but not unheard of. Kids, especially, can sometimes regrow a finger, even down to the fingernail.”
“Well, that’s amazing. Strange, but amazing.”
Bryan looked at the photo again. His sister, dwarfed by her enormous son, looked younger than he remembered, younger and happier than she had looked in a long time. In fact, she looked impossibly young, more like a teenager than a fifty-year-old woman.
“Well,” she said. “Strange things do happen around here.”
Heather Webb is a teacher and a writer of dark fiction. Her work has appeared in several publications including Eldrich Tales and The Chamber. She lives in Texas with her son.
“The electric chair is made of oak and was constructed by Corrections Department personnel in 1998. It was installed at Florida State Prison in Starke earlier this year , replacing the chair constructed in 1923. It should be noted that the only aspect of the current electric chair that is new is the wooden structure of the chair itself. The apparatus that administers the electric current to the condemned prisoner is the same that has been used in recent years. It is regularly tested to ensure proper functioning.” from Wikimedia Commons. Photo credit: Florida Department of Corrections/Doug Smith
The worst part of execution duty was cleaning up the shit on the chair afterward, all the guards agreed. They used to be able to force the condemned man to wear a diaper, but some liberal judges declared doing so was a violation of privacy. So now, the indignity of gingerly removing a freshly “cooked” body from Old Sparky was made all the worse by cleaning up warm shit afterward. And it was always warm.
As they waited in the adjacent cell, two of the veteran guards recalled the execution of Ned Blundy, the man the press dubbed “The Vampire Killer” because he drained his victims of their blood. Blundy was so evil there were crowds outside the prison gates with frying pans.
The guards readied themselves. Executions were always hard, but the execution they were about to carry out was an anomaly of the first order. The crimes committed by Grady Smiles rivaled Blundy’s. Smiles was being executed for the murder of his wife but he was suspected of killing many more.
It wasn’t just his horrible crimes that made this execution front page news, though: It was the criminal himself. The execution of Grady Smiles would be remembered for as long as those who carried it out would live.
The guards walked in formation to Grady’s cell. He was there, sitting on his bed, just like all the others. He’d been crying but had stopped. Warden Ball stepped into the cell and read the death order. “Grady Smiles, you have been condemned by a jury of your peers for the murder of Kathy Lacey. You have been sentenced to be executed by a judge in good standing in this state. Please rise.”
Grady waddled from his cot toward the cell’s exit. The guards planned to carry him if need be, but Grady it was obvious had resigned himself to die. He turned the last corner and entered the execution chamber.
Using the extraordinary upper body strength he’d developed over the years to accommodate for his disability, Grady climbed into Old Sparky by himself. Only the arm straps were used, of course, and they required a few extra holes to accommodate his form. The guards observed that the monster before them could have easily squirmed out before the switch was thrown. He didn’t though: Grady wanted to die. Grady Smiles, courtesy of the state of Florida, got his wish just a few seconds later.
Karen woke Jerry. “You were screaming again, dear.” Jerry thanked his wife and tried to go back to sleep, though he could not. After so many years of the same nightmare, Jerry knew the only thing to do was stay awake until morning.
Jerry believed in monsters, for he met one once. The monster’s story, and the proximity Jerry felt to the monster, haunted him as he slept. Jerry’s night terrors never failed to feature the monster’s claws clamoring for his throat. Until he knew for certain the monster was dead and buried, Jerry firmly believed he would meet his end via those horrible claws.
Jerry met the monster only once. It was on a Saturday, the last night of the county fair. Jerry’s father had dropped him off at the Fair’s entrance, telling him he could walk back to the farm afterward or perhaps hitch a ride if he could find one.
Before Jerry’s older brother Dean died in Korea, his parents would never grant such a request. Now that Dean was gone, the pain was so ever-present and inescapable, they couldn’t muster enough to be concerned much anymore. Lately, Jerry found Dean’s death more tolerable when he played his own mental game: In his head, Jerry named everyone he met. It was simple, really: A classmate he crushed on was named Beauty in his head, a teacher he despised was Assmouth, etc. Jerry found solace in never telling anyone his game.
The Fair was something farm families anticipated all year. Jerry screamed with rapture on the midway rides, ate ice cream from the dairy barn, and finished off blueberry pie from the Methodist tent.
It was in the “Up and Coming” barn that Jerry first saw television. No one Jerry knew actually owned one, but Jerry had heard about it. He approached a growing crowd around what appeared to be a small gray box perched on a display table. He gazed in wonder at the ghostly, moving figure within the model. The program was “Texaco Star Theater,” and Jerry laughed out loud when a middle-aged man named Milton Berle appeared onscreen dressed like Little Bo Peep. Jerry wished his father would buy one but knew there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening. TVs, as some people called them, were a luxury no farm family could ever hope to afford. Besides, Jerry’s family had a radio and, as his mother constantly reminded him, a radio was entertaining enough for any family.
After viewing the wonder that was television, Jerry decided to try The Spook House. He loved the stories in EC Comics and figured the Spook House would be worth it. It was not, though. Plastic skulls and fat carnies wearing Tor Johnson masks were not frightening for a nine-year-old farm boy.
As Jerry rounded the last corner of the Spook House, he grew afraid. Not from the Spook House, but from the older boy in wait. He was looking for victims, like a spider spinning its net.
Jerry recognized his bully as a townie. He was wearing cords, a bomber jacket, and a duck’s ass haircut. Jerry stared at him momentarily, knowing exactly why the townie was hiding behind the last corner. Jerry was told to ignore bullies and tried to do so. It didn’t work, of course. The hood was upon him in seconds. He held Jerry to the floor, his cackles joining the sound effects of the attraction. As he winced in pain, Jerry again wished Dean were there. In his mind, Jerry named the bully The Jerk. Jerry reassured himself The Jerk would never have touched him if Dean were still around.
Jerry pleaded with The Jerk to let him go. The Jerk held Jerry’s arm behind his back until he got what they wanted: Jerry’s tears. When he finally had enough fun with him and readied himself for his next victim, The Jerk threatened to beat Jerry even harder if he told anyone about his little game. Jerry left shaken, pretending it never happened.
As he wandered the Midway, Jerry thought of Dean again. It had been three months since the horrible day two uniformed men came to their farmhouse with a telegram announcing Dean’s death.
As he was thinking, some commotion diverted his attention. A crowd of teenagers was gathering under an enormous banner reading “See The World Famous Sights & Wonders Show” Under the banner were smaller, hand-painted freak show signs advertising each act. The signs embellished freaks weird enough to spark enough curiosity for fairgoers to fork over their hard-earned cash. With a warbly microphone, a carnival barker in an ill-fitting suit and string tie enticed the crowd. “Come in and see, friends! The World Famous Sights & Wonders Show! See the mechanical man! The snake lady! See Chief Iron Tongue! See The Human Lobster!”
Jerry had heard about these shows before. Dean told him they were all fake. That wasn’t a reason to skip them though, Dean advised: Part of the fun was figuring out how they did it. And sometimes the shows included the parts of women only married men ever saw. That last piece of advice was enough for Jerry to spend his final quarter to buy a ticket.
Jerry looked around and saw he was at least five years younger than everyone else in line. The rest of the audience were high schoolers, with some college students from town mixed in. The teens towered above Jerry, as he’d not yet sprouted, and was short for his age. The only adult in the crowd was a creepy man about 5’ 6” with very bad acne, a crew cut, and a button reading “Impeach Earl Warren!” Jewrry played his mind game again, dubbing him “Bad Acne.” Bad Acne began whispering to the crowd as they moved toward the entrance. He leaned down to Jerry and said, “You should get your ticket to the show! It’s the real deal!”
Jerry wished Dean were there. He would have joined the crowd alongside Jerry. Last Spring, one week after they found out Dean was dead, the Principal of Anderson High School called an assembly. Jerry sat on stage with his parents next to a picture of Dean in his uniform. The Principal called Dean an American hero who died fighting for freedom.
Jerry knew the real story, though. He’d heard it when the two men told his parents how Dean died. The truth wasn’t glorious, at all: Dean was killed because he got drunk at the company PX, took his jeep around a corner, and smashed into a telephone pole. He lingered for a few days before giving up the ghost.
Everyone in and around Anderson knew about Dean. His parents never corrected anyone when they called Dean a hero, so neither did Jerry. Living the lie was easier than the truth. Jerry filed into the tent with the rest of the rubes. The smell was vile, as vile as the pig farms Jerry could smell when the wind shifted. Inside the main arena, there were two stages, one marked “Stage I” on the left side of the tent and one marked “Stage II” on the right. The stages were separated by a large, filthy brown curtain. Jerry intermingled with the older kids near the entrance until the barker entered and welcomed them “Ladies and Gentlemen! Welcome to the Greatest Sights and Wonders Show! You are about to see some of the strangest sights known to man or woman, child or beast! Our show begins at Stage II!” The curtain separating the two stages was lifted, and the crowd gathered on the left side of the large tent. Before Jerry was a stage, bare except for a single chair and an alarm clock.
The lights dimmed and someone offstage played a snare drum and high hat. The barker spoke from behind the stage. “Our first act, ladies and gentlemen, the Mechanical Man!” The barker went into a story about finding a meteorite in the fields of Kansas. The meteorite popped open and The Mechanical Man was born from it, etc. It was a rip-off, obviously, as everyone was already familiar with Superman’s origins.
The Mechanical Man walked out from behind a curtain on Stage II. He turned out to be about 5’9”, wearing a marching band conductor’s uniform. Nothing was special about him, except his face. It was grease-painted with a color resembling the mercury Jerry played with in science class.
Standing downstage, The Mechanical Man said nothing, just pretending that his joints were stiff. The barker went into his spiel. “Ladies and Gentlemen! I have a proposition for all of you! The management has been trying to make the Mechanical Man’s lips move. If any one of you can make him smile within the next minute, we will award you $100!”
A stagehand set the alarm clock for one minute. Jerry recognized him as Bad Acne, the same man with the “Impeach Earl Warren” button and unfortunate craters on his face. With the promise of easy money, the audience of teenagers went wild. The boys started doing armpit farts and shouting dirty words, the girls rolled their eyes. Laughter is infectious, so the crowd began laughing at itself. The Mechanical Man just stood there, unaffected. His lips never moved. The alarm clock rang. Bad Acne came out again to turn it off and, as he did, nodded to the Mechanical Man.
The Mechanical Man bowed to the crowd, turned, and exited through the curtain. Jerry overheard two teens whispering to each other. They had figured out why The Mechanical Man’s lips never moved despite the hilarity before him: The Mechanical Man was probably deaf, and working as a freak was the only job he could get. The giveaway, one of them explained, was the stagehand: The Mechanical Man needed the stagehand to tell him the minute had passed because he couldn’t hear the alarm ring.
The barker began a new cadence. “Prepare yourselves, friends, for our next act! Approximately 30 years ago, a sacred union was made between a King Cobra and an Amazon Woman. Their offspring, ladies and gentlemen is….The Reptile Lady!” Jerry knew enough about anatomy to know this wasn’t possible.
The crowd approached Stage I through the filthy curtain. A snare and high hat again signaled the act was about to commence. From a spotlight pinned on the right side of the stage, . a woman in a bikini smoking a cigarette stepped out.
Her breasts, enormous, nearly fell out of her suit. This may have been purposeful, as it distracted the teens from the lit cigarette The Reptile Lady wedged in the gap her missing front tooth created. The crowd was fascinated.
Without a word, The Reptile Lady pointed downstage. The spotlight followed her finger to a six-foot pine box with chicken wire windows cut into the sides. The barker continued his hustle, listing all the species of snake that were slithering in the box before the audience. “Asps, ladies, and gentlemen! Cobras! Rattlers!”
The Reptile Lady opened the crate and, smiling, lay down among the serpents. After a few long seconds, the barker encouraged the crowd to come closer to the pine box. They peered in. The woman lay motionless, her cigarette burning, as snakes slithered across her body. A few of the smaller ones even went in and out of her bikini!
While the rest of the audience stared in wonder from the top, Jerry’s vantage point allowed him to peer into the box through the chicken wire slates. The “asps” and “cobras” were identical to the garter and bull snakes he’d pocketed from cornfields for years. Perhaps the town kids didn’t know it, but Jerry knew The Reptile Lady was in no danger whatsoever. Not that it mattered: Dean was right about the fun of figuring out the ruse.
Eventually, she withdrew from the pine box and retreated behind the curtain. The barker ushered the crowd’s return to Stage II: “Ladies and Gentlemen! You’ve seen the Reptile Lady defy death with lethal venomous snakes! Please now adjourn to our other stage for something even more terrifying, even more treacherous!”
Back at Stage I, the barker began, “Ladies and gentlemen, I was once traveling in the western United States when I came across a man with skills so incredible I hand to bring them to you, right here in Indiana! Ladies and gentlemen, Chief Iron Tongue!”
A man clad in head feathers and a leather tunic with red lipstick stripes on his cheeks walked out from behind the curtains. He stood at center stage, silent with his arms folded before him. Bad Acne appeared again, dragging the blacksmith’s anvil with a chain, and visibly straining under its weight.
Gently placing the anvil before Chief Iron Tongue, Bad Acne clasped the end of the chain with a grappling hook. Then he took a small flashlight from his pocket and stood directly behind Chief Iron Tongue.
The house lights went dark as a single blue pin spot illuminated The Chief. Bad Acne reached over The Chief’s shoulder with the flashlight and pointed it under the Chief’s chin. The Chief opened his mouth and extended his tongue.
The flashlight’s glow illuminated a hole in the Chief’s tongue big enough to drop a nickel right through. The house lights returned as Bad Acne behind the Chief stepped away.
His tongue still wagging and his arms still folded in front of him, The Chief bent at the waist. The stagehands came forward and hooked the contraption through the hole in his tongue, making it hang. The barker reminded that silence was needed for The Chief to prepare himself.
Jerry watched in fascination, fully expecting to see the man before him rip his tongue from his mouth. Gasps emitted from the audience as The Chief closed his eyes and jerked with all his might. The anvil was lifted and, for a few silent seconds, floated at his waist.
The crowd stood transfixed. The Chief then swayed his head back and forth, making the anvil swing in circles. At first, the circles were barely noticeable but then became larger. Finally, The Chief swung the anvil over the heads of the audience! It was glorious.
Eventually, he stopped winging the anvil was brought it to a stop. As it rested, the stagehands came forward to remove the hook from the Chief’s tongue. The crowd roared approval with screams and applause.
The barker began again, directing attention to the other stage. As the crowd left, Jerry poked his head between the separating curtains. Bad Acne removed the “anvil” with one hand. He just picked it up and carried it like a comic book. That was the trick, Jerry determined. The anvil wasn’t made from forged steel: It was something light, maybe balsa wood.
Jerry’s attention returned to the barker at the other stage. “Ladies and Gentlemen! Prepare yourselves for our grand finale! I was once sport fishing on the coast of southern Florida. I’d netted the world’s largest lobster, or what I thought was the world’s largest lobster. In fact, in my net, I’d found a half-boy/half-lobster. Ladies and Gentlemen…The Lobster Boy!”
The curtain parted. Jerry half-expected to see a man in a lobster suit walk out. He was wrong. “Lobster Boy” was, in fact, a severely disabled man about 45 years old. He was barely three and a half feet tall. At first, Jerry thought he was a dwarf, but then saw he simply had no arms or legs. Lobster’s fingers are toes were fused together to form claw-like extremities. Lobster propelled himself forward with nothing but his upper body strength. Unlike the other acts, this was no trick. Lobster Boy was an authentic circus freak.
Unlike the other acts, too, Lobster didn’t need the barker to sell him. Instead, he spoke directly to the crowd while waddling about the stage. Jerry’s skin crawled. Then Lobster Boy waddled to the edge of the stage, right before Jerry’s eyes. Jerry noted he smelled like the distillery he passed on Saturdays, reeking of cheap booze.
The act of watching Lobster Boy simply propel himself across the stage would have been worth his money, but apparently, there was more to his act: Lobster Biy used his claws to retrieve a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. The “show” included watching him maneuver his cigarettes out of his shirt pocket. The audience was amazed at the man’s dexterity, especially Jerry.
As he smoked, Lobster Boy looked down and noticed Jerry’s fascination. Jerry guessed Lobster rarely saw children as young as he was in the audience. Lobster broke the fourth wall, gently asking Jerry his name and grade.
When Jerry told him, Lobster offered a kind smile. It occurred to Jerry that Lobster’s questions were the first he’d heard from an adult that didn’t involve his brother since Dean died. Jerry felt a strange kinship with the freak before him.
An instant, sharp pain in the back of Jerry’s neck interrupted their exchange. Jerry turned and saw a familiar figure: The townie who had tormented him in the Spook House was in the audience, and he was dead set on making Jerry as miserable there as he made him before. He had slapped Jerry’s neck with his sweaty hand, and it hurt as badly as Jerry’s arm hurt when the bully was pinning him. Jerry rubbed his neck and turned his attention back to the stage. Ignore bullies, he’d been told. He tried.
It didn’t work, of course. The bully slapped his neck again, this time harder. Jerry turned toward him. The townie was standing before him, a sick grin on his face. Jerry knew the townie wouldn’t stop until Jerry cried. And crying in front of the audience would only make it worse.
Jerry heard a voice from the stage. “Leave that boy alone, young punk!” the voice commanded. Jerry joined the crowd in looking back at the stage.
The words had come from Lobster Boy, who had been watching. Jerry’s bully was surprised at first and almost followed the circus freak’s order. Then it appeared the bully realized he had nothing to fear. “Fuck you, freak,” the bully replied. He slapped Jerry’s neck a third time in defiance.
Lobster’s face reddened, changing his effect almost instantly. Seeing his face, many in the audience thought this was part of the act, that perhaps Jerry and the bully were plants in cahoots with the barker and Bad Acne.
As soon as he spoke, though, everyone knew this was no act at all. “Who the hell are you?” Lobster Boy shouted at him. The freak became belligerent, swearing left and right. “Don’t ignore me, you dumb, motherfucking cunt! I’ll beat your fuckin’ ass! I’ve got a cock that would tear you new assholes! You’ll be my bitch, just like my bitches in stir!” Lobster Boy removed his cigarette out of his mouth with one claw and pointed at the bully as he spoke, angrier with every word.
The crowd murmured in collective discomfort. Jerry had seen fights before but had never heard language like this. He wanted his tormenter to get his comeuppance but never imagined anything like this.
The barker came on the PA system and thanked everyone for coming, hoping to end the scene. He must have known his efforts would be fruitless, though. No one was going away with such a show right before them.
Lobster’s challenges grew more descriptive. “I’ll give this audience a show they’ll never forget, you little cocksucker. Do you see the calluses on my claws? I got them from killing punks like you! I’ll put my claws right around your puny neck and take the life right out of you until you’re dead. C’mon! Let’s see what you got.”
The townie gave as good as he got, telling Lobster he would beat him up right there in front of the audience if he weren’t a cripple. The house lights went down, and the barker’s voice returned over the PA system.
“Friends, our show has concluded. Please show yourselves out the main entrance.” The flaps of the tent opened to the carnival lights. Having nothing else to do, the crowd, including Jerry and his bully, returned to the Midway. Jerry was able to distance himself from the townie in the commotion. He hitched a ride home on a flatbed Ford and immediately went to bed.
The next morning at breakfast, Jerry’s father read the lead story in the Anderson Courier News: BODY OF LOCAL TEEN FOUND NEAR FAIRGROUNDS.
The body of local boy Robert “Bobby” Meister, 17, of Anderson, Indiana, was found this morning near the outskirts of the county fairgrounds. Police have announced that Meister was strangled to death but have no leads at this point. Please contact the Anderson PD if you have any information about the death of Robert “Bobby” Meister.
The article included the high school photo of Jerry’s bully. In it, Robert appeared clean-cut, with a button-down shirt and neatly combed hair. If you didn’t know him, thought Jerry, the picture would make you think he was a nice kid. One who most certainly didn’t deserve to die at the hands of a circus freak.
The evening, for the first time since his death, Dean was absent from Jerry’s dreams. Jerry’s nightmares were solely consumed by the images featured in the only authentic act of the World Famous Sights & Wonders Show.
Jerry would never tell anyone about the incident at the Fair. Over time, his parents’ grief from Dean’s death would subside and they were able to enjoy Jerry again. When he was 17, Jerry fell in love with a sophomore named Karen. They married after graduation. Jerry got a job at the EV microphone factory and Karen worked part-time as a hostess. They had two daughters. The nightmares subsided.
In 1978, they returned. In August of that year, Jerry and Karen dropped off Cathy, their second daughter at FSU. On the return trip, they stopped at a greasy spoon for breakfast. When Ksren excused herself to use the ladies’ room, Jerry glanced at a stack of local papers. The Tampa Bay Times included a story detailing a string of murders by strangulation within the area.
The story reported all of the victims were teenage boys and died of strangulation. Strangely, the report noted, no fingerprints were ever found at any of the crime scenes. The murders had left the local cops clueless as to the perpetrator, and they had asked the FBI to assist them.
Reading the article, Jerry knew all too well who murdered the teenage boys. He called the local FBI office and reported what he’d seen all those years ago at the Fair. Due to his tip, Jerry’s monster was caught. The freak’s real name turned out to be Grady Smiles, and the combined horrific nature of his crimes and physical malformation made him front-page news all over the country.
Reporters were quick to inform the public. Smiles suffered from a rare genetic anomaly called “ectrodactyly,” which fused his fingers and toes together. Grady was the fifth, and last, in his line to inherit it. As if to accommodate for his disability, Smiles had grown near super-human upper body strength and flexibility and toured with The Sights & Wonders Roadshow.
Smiles freely admitted his crimes to the judge. At his murder trials, he showed no remorse whatsoever. He pointed out that his disability kept him from being imprisoned: The state could not handcuff him like the other prisoners, and he could squeeze through the bars of any prison easily. Grady told the judge he wanted to die and, if not sentenced to death, would kill again. The state obliged him and sent him to the electric chair. Smiles, the murdering monster freak, died sitting on Old Sparky in 1993. Jerry, reading the news, slept soundly.
Dr. John D. Van Dyke is an academic and failed rock star. His articles have appeared in Skeptic, Reader’s Digest, and Michigan History. Dr. Van Dyke lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and son.
The sky is lead and our faces are red,
And the gates of Hell are opened and riven,
And the winds of Hell are loosened and driven,
And the dust flies up in the face of Heaven,
And the clouds come down in a fiery sheet,
Heavy to raise and hard to be borne.
And the soul of man is turned from his meat,
Turned from the trifles for which he has striven
Sick in his body, and heavy hearted,
And his soul flies up like the dust in the sheet
Breaks from his flesh and is gone and departed,
As the blasts they blow on the cholera-horn.
Four men, each entitled to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, sat at a table playing whist. The thermometer marked—for them—one hundred and one degrees of heat. The room was darkened till it was only just possible to distinguish the pips of the cards and the very white faces of the players. A tattered, rotten punkah of whitewashed calico was puddling the hot air and whining dolefully at each stroke. Outside lay gloom of a November day in London. There was neither sky, sun, nor horizon—nothing but a brown purple haze of heat. It was as though the earth were dying of apoplexy.From time to time clouds of tawny dust rose from the ground without wind or warning, flung themselves tablecloth-wise among the tops of the parched trees, and came down again. Then a-whirling dust-devil would scutter across the plain for a couple of miles, break, and fall outward, though there was nothing to check its flight save a long low line of piled railway-sleepers white with the dust, a cluster of huts made of mud, condemned rails, and canvas, and the one squat four-roomed bungalow that belonged to the assistant engineer in charge of a section of the Gaudhari State line then under construction.
The four, stripped to the thinnest of sleeping-suits, played whist crossly, with wranglings as to leads and returns. It was not the best kind of whist, but they had taken some trouble to arrive at it. Mottram of the Indian Survey had ridden thirty and railed one hundred miles from his lonely post in the desert since the night before; Lowndes of the Civil Service, on special duty in the political department, had come as far to escape for an instant the miserable intrigues of an impoverished native State whose king alternately fawned and blustered for more money from the pitiful revenues contributed by hard-wrung peasants and despairing camel-breeders; Spurstow, the doctor of the line, had left a cholera-stricken camp of coolies to look after itself for forty-eight hours while he associated with white men once more. Hummil, the assistant engineer, was the host. He stood fast and received his friends thus every Sunday if they could come in. When one of them failed to appear, he would send a telegram to his last address, in order that he might know whether the defaulter were dead or alive. There are very many places in the East where it is not good or kind to let your acquaintances drop out of sight even for one short week.
The players were not conscious of any special regard for each other. They squabbled whenever they met; but they ardently desired to meet, as men without water desire to drink. They were lonely folk who understood the dread meaning of loneliness. They were all under thirty years of age—which is too soon for any man to possess that knowledge.
‘Pilsener?’ said Spurstow, after the second rubber, mopping his forehead.
‘Beer’s out, I’m sorry to say, and there’s hardly enough soda-water for tonight,’ said Hummil.
‘What filthy bad management!’ Spurstow snarled.
‘Can’t help it. I’ve written and wired; but the trains don’t come through regularly yet. Last week the ice ran out—as Lowndes knows.’
‘Glad I didn’t come. I could ha’ sent you some if I had known, though. Phew! it’s too hot to go on playing bumblepuppy.’ This with a savage scowl at Lowndes, who only laughed. He was a hardened offender.
Mottram rose from the table and looked out of a chink in the shutters.
‘What a sweet day!’ said he.
The company yawned all together and betook themselves to an aimless investigation of all Hummil’s possessions—guns, tattered novels, saddlery, spurs, and the like. They had fingered them a score of times before, but there was really nothing else to do.
‘Got anything fresh?’ said Lowndes.
‘Last week’s Gazette of India, and a cutting from a home paper. My father sent it out. It’s rather amusing.’
‘One of those vestrymen that call ’emselves M.P.s again, is it?’ said Spurstow, who read his newspapers when he could get them.
‘Yes. Listen to this. It’s to your address, Lowndes. The man was making a speech to his constituents, and he piled it on. Here’s a sample, “And I assert unhesitatingly that the Civil Service in India is the preserve—the pet preserve—of the aristocracy of England. What does the democracy—what do the masses—get from that country, which we have step by step fraudulently annexed? I answer, nothing whatever. It is farmed with a single eye to their own interests by the scions of the aristocracy. They take good care to maintain their lavish scale of incomes, to avoid or stifle any inquiries into the nature and conduct of their administration, while they themselves force the unhappy peasant to pay with the sweat of his brow for all the luxuries in which they are lapped.”’ Hummil waved the cutting above his head. ‘’Ear! ’ear!’ said his audience.
Then Lowndes, meditatively, ‘I’d give—I’d give three months’ pay to have that gentleman spend one month with me and see how the free and independent native prince works things. Old Timbersides’—this was his flippant title for an honoured and decorated feudatory prince—‘has been wearing my life out this week past for money. By Jove, his latest performance was to send me one of his women as a bribe!’
‘Good for you! Did you accept it?’ said Mottram.
‘No. I rather wish I had, now. She was a pretty little person, and she yarned away to me about the horrible destitution among the king’s women-folk. The darlings haven’t had any new clothes for nearly a month, and the old man wants to buy a new drag from Calcutta—solid silver railings and silver lamps, and trifles of that kind. I’ve tried to make him understand that he has played the deuce with the revenues for the last twenty years and must go slow. He can’t see it.’
‘But he has the ancestral treasure-vaults to draw on. There must be three millions at least in jewels and coin under his palace,’ said Hummil.
‘Catch a native king disturbing the family treasure! The priests forbid it except as the last resort. Old Timbersides has added something like a quarter of a million to the deposit in his reign.’
‘Where the mischief does it all come from?’ said Mottram.
‘The country. The state of the people is enough to make you sick. I’ve known the taxmen wait by a milch-camel till the foal was born and then hurry off the mother for arrears. And what can I do? I can’t get the court clerks to give me any accounts; I can’t raise anything more than a fat smile from the commander-in-chief when I find out the troops are three months in arrears; and old Timbersides begins to weep when I speak to him. He has taken to the King’s Peg heavily, liqueur brandy for whisky, and Heidsieck for soda-water.’
‘That’s what the Rao of Jubela took to. Even a native can’t last long at that,’ said Spurstow. ‘He’ll go out.’
‘And a good thing, too. Then I suppose we’ll have a council of regency, and a tutor for the young prince, and hand him back his kingdom with ten years’ accumulations.’
‘Whereupon that young prince, having been taught all the vices of the English, will play ducks and drakes with the money and undo ten years’ work in eighteen months. I’ve seen that business before,’ said Spurstow. ‘I should tackle the king with a light hand if I were you, Lowndes. They’ll hate you quite enough under any circumstances.
‘That’s all very well. The man who looks on can talk about the light hand; but you can’t clean a pig-sty with a pen dipped in rose-water. I know my risks; but nothing has happened yet. My servant’s an old Pathan, and he cooks for me. They are hardly likely to bribe him, and I don’t accept food from my true friends, as they call themselves. Oh, but it’s weary work! I’d sooner be with you, Spurstow. There’s shooting near your camp.’
‘Would you? I don’t think it. About fifteen deaths a day don’t incite a man to shoot anything but himself. And the worst of it is that the poor devils look at you as though you ought to save them. Lord knows, I’ve tried everything. My last attempt was empirical, but it pulled an old man through. He was brought to me apparently past hope, and I gave him gin and Worcester sauce with cayenne. It cured him; but I don’t recommend it.’
‘How do the cases run generally?’ said Hummil.
‘Very simply indeed. Chlorodyne, opium pill, chlorodyne, collapse, nitre, bricks to the feet, and then—the burning-ghaut. The last seems to be the only thing that stops the trouble. It’s black cholera, you know. Poor devils! But, I will say, little Bunsee Lal, my apothecary, works like a demon. I’ve recommended him for promotion if he comes through it all alive.’
‘And what are your chances, old man?’ said Mottram.
‘Don’t know; don’t care much; but I’ve sent the letter in. What are you doing with yourself generally?’
‘Sitting under a table in the tent and spitting on the sextant to keep it cool,’ said the man of the survey. ‘Washing my eyes to avoid ophthalmia, which I shall certainly get, and trying to make a sub-surveyor understand that an error of five degrees in an angle isn’t quite so small as it looks. I’m altogether alone, y’ know, and shall be till the end of the hot weather.’
‘Hummil’s the lucky man,’ said Lowndes, flinging himself into a long chair. ‘He has an actual roof-torn as to the ceiling-cloth, but still a roof-over his head. He sees one train daily. He can get beer and soda-water and ice ’em when God is good. He has books, pictures—they were torn from the Graphic—and the society of the excellent sub-contractor Jevins, besides the pleasure of receiving us weekly.’
Hummil smiled grimly. ‘Yes, I’m the lucky man, I suppose. Jevins is luckier.’
‘Yes. Went out. Last Monday.’
‘By his own hand?’ said Spurstow quickly, hinting the suspicion that was in everybody’s mind. There was no cholera near Hummil’s section. Even fever gives a man at least a week’s grace, and sudden death generally implied self-slaughter.
‘I judge no man this weather,’ said Hummil. ‘He had a touch of the sun, I fancy; for last week, after you fellows had left, he came into the verandah and told me that he was going home to see his wife, in Market Street, Liverpool, that evening.
‘I got the apothecary in to look at him, and we tried to make him lie down. After an hour or two he rubbed his eyes and said he believed he had had a fit, hoped he hadn’t said anything rude. Jevins had a great idea of bettering himself socially. He was very like Chucks in his language.’
‘Then he went to his own bungalow and began cleaning a rifle. He told the servant that he was going to shoot buck in the morning. Naturally he fumbled with the trigger, and shot himself through the head—accidentally. The apothecary sent in a report to my chief; and Jevins is buried somewhere out there. I’d have wired to you, Spurstow, if you could have done anything.’
‘You’re a queer chap,’ said Mottram. ‘If you’d killed the man yourself you couldn’t have been more quiet about the business.’
‘Good Lord! what does it matter?’ said Hummil calmly. ‘I’ve got to do a lot of his overseeing work in addition to my own. I’m the only person that suffers. Jevins is out of it, by pure accident, of course, but out of it. The apothecary was going to write a long screed on suicide. Trust a babu to drivel when he gets the chance.’
‘Why didn’t you let it go in as suicide?’ said Lowndes.
‘No direct proof. A man hasn’t many privileges in his country, but he might at least be allowed to mishandle his own rifle. Besides, some day I may need a man to smother up an accident to myself. Live and let live. Die and let die.’
‘You take a pill,’ said Spurstow, who had been watching Hummil’s white face narrowly. ‘Take a pill, and don’t be an ass. That sort of talk is skittles. Anyhow, suicide is shirking your work. If I were Job ten times over, I should be so interested in what was going to happen next that I’d stay on and watch.’
‘Ah! I’ve lost that curiosity,’ said Hummil.
‘Liver out of order?’ said Lowndes feelingly.
‘No. Can’t sleep. That’s worse.’
‘By Jove, it is!’ said Mottram. ‘I’m that way every now and then, and the fit has to wear itself out. What do you take for it?’
‘Nothing. What’s the use? I haven’t had ten minutes’ sleep since Friday morning.’
‘Poor chap! Spurstow, you ought to attend to this,’ said Mottram. ‘Now you mention it, your eyes are rather gummy and swollen.’
Spurstow, still watching Hummil, laughed lightly. ‘I’ll patch him up, later on. Is it too hot, do you think, to go for a ride?’
‘Where to?’ said Lowndes wearily. ‘We shall have to go away at eight, and there’ll be riding enough for us then. I hate a horse when I have to use him as a necessity. Oh, heavens! what is there to do?’
‘Begin whist again, at chick points [‘a chick’ is supposed to be eight shillings] and a gold mohur on the rub,’ said Spurstow promptly.
‘Poker. A month’s pay all round for the pool—no limit—and fifty-rupee raises. Somebody would be broken before we got up,’ said Lowndes.
‘Can’t say that it would give me any pleasure to break any man in this company,’ said Mottram. ‘There isn’t enough excitement in it, and it’s foolish.’ He crossed over to the worn and battered little camp-piano—wreckage of a married household that had once held the bungalow—and opened the case.
‘It’s used up long ago,’ said Hummil. ‘The servants have picked it to pieces.’
The piano was indeed hopelessly out of order, but Mottram managed to bring the rebellious notes into a sort of agreement, and there rose from the ragged keyboard something that might once have been the ghost of a popular music-hall song. The men in the long chairs turned with evident interest as Mottram banged the more lustily.
‘That’s good!’ said Lowndes. ‘By Jove! the last time I heard that song was in ’79, or thereabouts, just before I came out.’
‘Ah!’ said Spurstow with pride, ‘I was home in ‘80.’ And he mentioned a song of the streets popular at that date.
Mottram executed it roughly. Lowndes criticized and volunteered emendations. Mottram dashed into another ditty, not of the music-hall character, and made as if to rise.
‘Sit down,’ said Hummil. ‘I didn’t know that you had any music in your composition. Go on playing until you can’t think of anything more. I’ll have that piano tuned up before you come again. Play something festive.’
Very simple indeed were the tunes to which Mottram’s art and the limitations of the piano could give effect, but the men listened with pleasure, and in the pauses talked all together of what they had seen or heard when they were last at home. A dense dust-storm sprung up outside, and swept roaring over the house, enveloping it in the choking darkness of midnight, but Mottram continued unheeding, and the crazy tinkle reached the ears of the listeners above the flapping of the tattered ceiling-cloth.
In the silence after the storm he glided from the more directly personal songs of Scotland, half humming them as he played, into the Evening Hymn.
‘Sunday,’ said he, nodding his head.
‘Go on. Don’t apologize for it,’ said Spurstow.
Hummil laughed long and riotously. ‘Play it, by all means. You’re full of surprises today. I didn’t know you had such a gift of finished sarcasm. How does that thing go?’
Mottram took up the tune.
‘Too slow by half. You miss the note of gratitude,’ said Hummil. ‘It ought to go to the “Grasshopper’s Polka”—this way.’ And he chanted, prestissimo,
‘Glory to thee, my God, this night, For all the blessings of the light.
That shows we really feel our blessings. How does it go on?—
If in the night I sleepless lie, My soul with sacred thoughts supply; May no ill dreams disturb my rest,—
Or powers of darkness me molest!’
‘Bah! what an old hypocrite you are!’
‘Don’t be an ass,’ said Lowndes. ‘You are at full liberty to make fun of anything else you like, but leave that hymn alone. It’s associated in my mind with the most sacred recollections——’
‘Summer evenings in the country, stained-glass window, light going out, and you and she jamming your heads together over one hymnbook,’ said Mottram.
‘Yes, and a fat old cockchafer hitting you in the eye when you walked home. Smell of hay, and a moon as big as a bandbox sitting on the top of a haycock; bats, roses, milk and midges,’ said Lowndes.
‘Also mothers. I can just recollect my mother singing me to sleep with that when I was a little chap,’ said Spurstow.
The darkness had fallen on the room. They could hear Hummil squirming in his chair.
‘Consequently,’ said he testily, ‘you sing it when you are seven fathom deep in Hell! It’s an insult to the intelligence of the Deity to pretend we’re anything but tortured rebels.’
‘Take two pills,’ said Spurstow; ‘that’s tortured liver.’
‘The usually placid Hummil is in a vile bad temper. I’m sorry for his coolies tomorrow,’ said Lowndes, as the servants brought in the lights and prepared the table for dinner.
As they were settling into their places about the miserable goat-chops, and the smoked tapioca pudding, Spurstow took occasion to whisper to Mottram, ‘Well done, David!’
‘Look after Saul, then,’ was the reply.
‘What are you two whispering about?’ said Hummil suspiciously.
‘Only saying that you are a damned poor host. This fowl can’t be cut,’ returned Spurstow with a sweet smile. ‘Call this a dinner?’
‘I can’t help it. You don’t expect a banquet, do you?’
Throughout that meal Hummil contrived laboriously to insult directly and pointedly all his guests in succession, and at each insult Spurstow kicked the aggrieved persons under the table; but he dared not exchange a glance of intelligence with either of them. Hummil’s face was white and pinched, while his eyes were unnaturally large. No man dreamed for a moment of resenting his savage personalities, but as soon as the meal was over they made haste to get away.
‘Don’t go. You’re just getting amusing, you fellows. I hope I haven’t said anything that annoyed you. You’re such touchy devils.’ Then, changing the note into one of almost abject entreaty, Hummil added, ‘I say, you surely aren’t going?’
‘In the language of the blessed Jorrocks, where I dines I sleeps,’ said Spurstow. ‘I want to have a look at your coolies tomorrow, if you don’t mind. You can give me a place to lie down in, I suppose?’
The others pleaded the urgency of their several duties next day, and, saddling up, departed together, Hummil begging them to come next Sunday. As they jogged off, Lowndes unbosomed himself to Mottram—
‘. . . And I never felt so like kicking a man at his own table in my life. He said I cheated at whist, and reminded me I was in debt! ’Told you you were as good as a liar to your face! You aren’t half indignant enough over it.’
‘Not I,’ said Mottram. ‘Poor devil! Did you ever know old Hummy behave like that before or within a hundred miles of it?’
‘That’s no excuse. Spurstow was hacking my shin all the time, so I kept a hand on myself. Else I should have—’
‘No, you wouldn’t. You’d have done as Hummy did about Jevins; judge no man this weather. By Jove! the buckle of my bridle is hot in my hand! Trot out a bit, and ‘ware rat-holes.’ Ten minutes’ trotting jerked out of Lowndes one very sage remark when he pulled up, sweating from every pore—
“Good thing Spurstow’s with him tonight.’
‘Ye-es. Good man, Spurstow. Our roads turn here. See you again next Sunday, if the sun doesn’t bowl me over.’
‘S’pose so, unless old Timbersides’ finance minister manages to dress some of my food. Goodnight, and—God bless you!’
‘What’s wrong now?’
‘Oh, nothing.’ Lowndes gathered up his whip, and, as he flicked Mottram’s mare on the flank, added, ‘You’re not a bad little chap, that’s all.’ And the mare bolted half a mile across the sand, on the word.
In the assistant engineer’s bungalow Spurstow and Hummil smoked the pipe of silence together, each narrowly watching the other. The capacity of a bachelor’s establishment is as elastic as its arrangements are simple. A servant cleared away the dining-room table, brought in a couple of rude native bedsteads made of tape strung on a light wood frame, flung a square of cool Calcutta matting over each, set them side by side, pinned two towels to the punkah so that their fringes should just sweep clear of the sleeper’s nose and mouth, and announced that the couches were ready.
The men flung themselves down, ordering the punkah-coolies by all the powers of Hell to pull. Every door and window was shut, for the outside air was that of an oven. The atmosphere within was only 104 degrees, as the thermometer bore witness, and heavy with the foul smell of badly-trimmed kerosene lamps; and this stench, combined with that of native tobacco, baked brick, and dried earth, sends the heart of many a strong man down to his boots, for it is the smell of the Great Indian Empire when she turns herself for six months into a house of torment. Spurstow packed his pillows craftily so that he reclined rather than lay, his head at a safe elevation above his feet. It is not good to sleep on a low pillow in the hot weather if you happen to be of thick-necked build, for you may pass with lively snores and gugglings from natural sleep into the deep slumber of heat-apoplexy.
‘Pack your pillows,’ said the doctor sharply, as he saw Hummil preparing to lie down at full length.
The night-light was trimmed; the shadow of the punkah wavered across the room, and the ‘flick ‘ of the punkah-towel and the soft whine of the rope through the wall-hole followed it. Then the punkah flagged, almost ceased. The sweat poured from Spurstow’s brow. Should he go out and harangue the coolie? It started forward again with a savage jerk, and a pin came out of the towels. When this was replaced, a tomtom in the coolie-lines began to beat with the steady throb of a swollen artery inside some brain-fevered skull. Spurstow turned on his side and swore gently. There was no movement on Hummil’s part. The man had composed himself as rigidly as a corpse, his hands clinched at his sides. The respiration was too hurried for any suspicion of sleep. Spurstow looked at the set face. The jaws were clinched, and there was a pucker round the quivering eyelids.
‘He’s holding himself as tightly as ever he can,’ thought Spurstow. ‘What in the world is the matter with him?—Hummil!’
‘Yes,’ in a thick constrained voice.
‘Can’t you get to sleep?’
‘Head hot? Throat feeling bulgy? or how?’
‘Neither, thanks. I don’t sleep much, you know.’
‘’Feel pretty bad?’
‘Pretty bad, thanks. There is a tomtom outside, isn’t there? I thought it was my head at first…. Oh, Spurstow, for pity’s sake give me something that will put me asleep, sound asleep, if it’s only for six hours!’ He sprang up, trembling from head to foot. ‘I haven’t been able to sleep naturally for days, and I can’t stand it! I can’t stand it!’
‘Poor old chap!’
‘That’s no use. Give me something to make me sleep. I tell you I’m nearly mad. I don’t know what I say half my time. For three weeks I’ve had to think and spell out every word that has come through my lips before I dared say it. Isn’t that enough to drive a man mad? I can’t see things correctly now, and I’ve lost my sense of touch. My skin aches—my skin aches! Make me sleep. Oh, Spurstow, for the love of God make me sleep sound. It isn’t enough merely to let me dream. Let me sleep!’
‘All right, old man, all right. Go slow; you aren’t half as bad as you think.’
The flood-gates of reserve once broken, Hummil was clinging to him like a frightened child. ‘You’re pinching my arm to pieces.’
‘I’ll break your neck if you don’t do something for me. No, I didn’t mean that. Don’t be angry, old fellow.’ He wiped the sweat off himself as he fought to regain composure. ‘I’m a bit restless and off my oats, and perhaps you could recommend some sort of sleeping mixture—bromide of potassium.’
‘Bromide of skittles! Why didn’t you tell me this before? Let go of my arm, and I’ll see if there’s anything in my cigarette-case to suit your complaint.’ Spurstow hunted among his day-clothes, turned up the lamp, opened a little silver cigarette-case, and advanced on the expectant Hummil with the daintiest of fairy squirts.
‘The last appeal of civilization,’ said he, ’and a thing I hate to use. Hold out your arm. Well, your sleeplessness hasn’t ruined your muscle; and what a thick hide it is! Might as well inject a buffalo subcutaneously. Now in a few minutes the morphia will begin working. Lie down and wait.’
A smile of unalloyed and idiotic delight began to creep over Hummil’s face. ‘I think,’ he whispered,—‘I think I’m going off now. Gad! it’s positively heavenly! Spurstow, you must give me that case to keep; you——’ The voice ceased as the head fell back.
‘Not for a good deal,’ said Spurstow to the unconscious form. ‘And now, my friend, sleeplessness of your kind being very apt to relax the moral fibre in little matters of life and death, I’ll just take the liberty of spiking your guns.’
He paddled into Hummil’s saddle-room in his bare feet and uncased a twelve-bore rifle, an express, and a revolver. Of the first he unscrewed the nipples and hid them in the bottom of a saddlery-case; of the second he abstracted the lever, kicking it behind a big wardrobe. The third he merely opened, and knocked the doll-head bolt of the grip up with the heel of a riding-boot.
‘That’s settled,’ he said, as he shook the sweat off his hands. ‘These little precautions will at least give you time to turn. You have too much sympathy with gun-room accidents.’
And as he rose from his knees, the thick muffled voice of Hummil cried in the doorway, ‘You fool!’
Such tones they use who speak in the lucid intervals of delirium to their friends a little before they die.
Spurstow started, dropping the pistol. Hummil stood in the doorway, rocking with helpless laughter.
‘That was awf’ly good of you, I’m sure,’ he said, very slowly, feeling for his words. ‘I don’t intend to go out by my own hand at present. I say, Spurstow, that stuff won’t work. What shall I do? What shall I do?’ And panic terror stood in his eyes.
‘Lie down and give it a chance. Lie down at once.’
‘I daren’t. It will only take me half-way again, and I shan’t be able to get away this time. Do you know it was all I could do to come out just now? Generally I am as quick as lightning; but you had clogged my feet. I was nearly caught.’
‘Oh yes, I understand. Go and lie down.’
‘No, it isn’t delirium; but it was an awfully mean trick to play on me. Do you know I might have died?’
As a sponge rubs a slate clean, so some power unknown to Spurstow had wiped out of Hummil’s face all that stamped it for the face of a man, and he stood at the doorway in the expression of his lost innocence. He had slept back into terrified childhood.
‘Is he going to die on the spot?’ thought Spurstow. Then, aloud, ‘All right, my son. Come back to bed, and tell me all about it. You couldn’t sleep; but what was all the rest of the nonsense?’
‘A place, a place down there,’ said Hummil, with simple sincerity. The drug was acting on him by waves, and he was flung from the fear of a strong man to the fright of a child as his nerves gathered sense or were dulled.
‘Good God! I’ve been afraid of it for months past, Spurstow. It has made every night hell to me; and yet I’m not conscious of having done anything wrong.’
‘Be still, and I’ll give you another dose. We’ll stop your nightmares, you unutterable idiot!’
‘Yes, but you must give me so much that I can’t get away. You must make me quite sleepy, not just a little sleepy. It’s so hard to run then.’
‘I know it; I know it. I’ve felt it myself. The symptoms are exactly as you describe.’
‘Oh, don’t laugh at me, confound you! Before this awful sleeplessness came to me I’ve tried to rest on my elbow and put a spur in the bed to sting me when I fell back. Look!’
‘By Jove! the man has been rowelled like a horse! Ridden by the nightmare with a vengeance! And we all thought him sensible enough. Heaven send us understanding! You like to talk, don’t you?’
‘Yes, sometimes. Not when I’m frightened. Then I want to run. Don’t you?’
‘Always. Before I give you your second dose try to tell me exactly what your trouble is.’
Hummil spoke in broken whispers for nearly ten minutes, whilst Spurstow looked into the pupils of his eyes and passed his hand before them once or twice.
At the end of the narrative the silver cigarette-case was produced, and the last words that Hummil said as he fell back for the second time were, ‘Put me quite to sleep; for if I’m caught I die, I die!’
‘Yes, yes; we all do that sooner or later, thank Heaven who has set a term to our miseries,’ said Spurstow, settling the cushions under the head. ‘It occurs to me that unless I drink something I shall go out before my time. I’ve stopped sweating, and—I wear a seventeen-inch collar.’ He brewed himself scalding hot tea, which is an excellent remedy against heat-apoplexy if you take three or four cups of it in time. Then he watched the sleeper.
‘A blind face that cries and can’t wipe its eyes, a blind face that chases him down corridors! H’m! Decidedly, Hummil ought to go on leave as soon as possible; and, sane or otherwise, he undoubtedly did rowel himself most cruelly. Well, Heaven send us understanding!’
At mid-day Hummil rose, with an evil taste in his mouth, but an unclouded eye and a joyful heart.
‘I was pretty bad last night, wasn’t I?’ said he.
‘I have seen healthier men. You must have had a touch of the sun. Look here: if I write you a swinging medical certificate, will you apply for leave on the spot?’
‘Why not? You want it.’
‘Yes, but I can hold on till the weather’s a little cooler.’
‘Why should you, if you can get relieved on the spot?’
‘Burkett is the only man who could be sent; and he’s a born fool.’
‘Oh, never mind about the line. You aren’t so important as all that. Wire for leave, if necessary.’
Hummil looked very uncomfortable.
‘I can hold on till the Rains,’ he said evasively.
‘You can’t. Wire to headquarters for Burkett.’
‘I won’t. If you want to know why, particularly, Burkett is married, and his wife’s just had a kid, and she’s up at Simla, in the cool, and Burkett has a very nice billet that takes him into Simla from Saturday to Monday. That little woman isn’t at all well. If Burkett was transferred she’d try to follow him. If she left the baby behind she’d fret herself to death. If she came—and Burkett’s one of those selfish little beasts who are always talking about a wife’s place being with her husband—she’d die. It’s murder to bring a woman here just now. Burkett hasn’t the physique of a rat. If he came here he’d go out; and I know she hasn’t any money, and I’m pretty sure she’d go out too. I’m salted in a sort of way, and I’m not married. Wait till the Rains, and then Burkett can get thin down here. It’ll do him heaps of good.’
‘Do you mean to say that you intend to face—what you have faced, till the Rains break?’
‘Oh, it won’t be so bad, now you’ve shown me a way out of it. I can always wire to you. Besides, now I’ve once got into the way of sleeping, it’ll be all right. Anyhow, I shan’t put in for leave. That’s the long and the short of it.’
‘My great Scott! I thought all that sort of thing was dead and done with.’
‘Bosh! You’d do the same yourself. I feel a new man, thanks to that cigarette-case. You’re going over to camp now, aren’t you?’
‘Yes; but I’ll try to look you up every other day, if I can.’
‘I’m not bad enough for that. I don’t want you to bother. Give the coolies gin and ketchup.’
‘Then you feel all right?’
‘Fit to fight for my life, but not to stand out in the sun talking to you. Go along, old man, and bless you!’
Hummil turned on his heel to face the echoing desolation of his bungalow, and the first thing he saw standing in the verandah was the figure of himself. He had met a similar apparition once before, when he was suffering from overwork and the strain of the hot weather.
‘This is bad—already,’ he said, rubbing his eyes. ‘If the thing slides away from me all in one piece, like a ghost, I shall know it is only my eyes and stomach that are out of order. If it walks—my head is going.’
He approached the figure, which naturally kept at an unvarying distance from him, as is the use of all spectres that are born of overwork. It slid through the house and dissolved into swimming specks within the eyeball as soon as it reached the burning light of the garden. Hummil went about his business till even. When he came in to dinner he found himself sitting at the table. The vision rose and walked out hastily. Except that it cast no shadow it was in all respects real.
No living man knows what that week held for Hummil. An increase of the epidemic kept Spurstow in camp among the coolies, and all he could do was to telegraph to Mottram, bidding him go to the bungalow and sleep there. But Mottram was forty miles away from the nearest telegraph, and knew nothing of anything save the needs of the survey till he met, early on Sunday morning, Lowndes and Spurstow heading towards Hummil’s for the weekly gathering.
‘Hope the poor chap’s in a better temper,’ said the former, swinging himself off his horse at the door. ‘I suppose he isn’t up yet.’
‘I’ll just have a look at him,’ said the doctor. ‘If he’s asleep there’s no need to wake him.’
And an instant later, by the tone of Spurstow’s voice calling upon them to enter, the men knew what had happened. There was no need to wake him.
The punkah was still being pulled over the bed, but Hummil had departed this life at least three hours.
The body lay on its back, hands clinched by the side, as Spurstow had seen it lying seven nights previously. In the staring eyes was written terror beyond the expression of any pen.
Mottram, who had entered behind Lowndes, bent over the dead and touched the forehead lightly with his lips. ‘Oh, you lucky, lucky devil!’ he whispered.
But Lowndes had seen the eyes, and withdrew shuddering to the other side of the room.
‘Poor chap! poor old chap! And the last time I met him I was angry. Spurstow, we should have watched him. Has he——?’
Deftly Spurstow continued his investigations, ending by a search round the room.
‘No, he hasn’t,’ he snapped. ‘There’s no trace of anything. Call the servants.’
They came, eight or ten of them, whispering and peering over each other’s shoulders.
‘When did your Sahib go to bed?’ said Spurstow.
‘At eleven or ten, we think,’ said Hummil’s personal servant.
‘He was well then? But how should you know?’
‘He was not ill, as far as our comprehension extended. But he had slept very little for three nights. This I know, because I saw him walking much, and specially in the heart of the night.’
As Spurstow was arranging the sheet, a big straight-necked hunting-spur tumbled on the ground. The doctor groaned. The personal servant peeped at the body.
‘What do you think, Chuma?’ said Spurstow, catching the look on the dark face.
‘Heaven-born, in my poor opinion, this that was my master has descended into the Dark Places, and there has been caught because he was not able to escape with sufficient speed. We have the spur for evidence that he fought with Fear. Thus have I seen men of my race do with thorns when a spell was laid upon them to overtake them in their sleeping hours and they dared not sleep.’
‘Chuma, you’re a mud-head. Go out and prepare seals to be set on the Sahib’s property.’
‘God has made the Heaven-born. God has made me. Who are we, to enquire into the dispensations of God? I will bid the other servants hold aloof while you are reckoning the tale of the Sahib’s property. They are all thieves, and would steal.’
‘As far as I can make out, he died from—oh, anything; stoppage of the heart’s action, heat-apoplexy, or some other visitation,’ said Spurstow to his companions. ‘We must make an inventory of his effects, and so on.’
‘He was scared to death,’ insisted Lowndes. ‘Look at those eyes! For pity’s sake don’t let him be buried with them open!’
‘Whatever it was, he’s clear of all the trouble now,’ said Mottram softly.
Spurstow was peering into the open eyes.
‘Come here,’ said he. ‘Can you see anything there?’
‘I can’t face it!’ whimpered Lowndes. ‘Cover up the face! Is there any fear on earth that can turn a man into that likeness? It’s ghastly. Oh, Spurstow, cover it up!’
‘No fear—on earth,’ said Spurstow. Mottram leaned over his shoulder and looked intently.
‘I see nothing except some grey blurs in the pupil. There can be nothing there, you know.’
‘Even so. Well, let’s think. It’ll take half a day to knock up any sort of coffin; and he must have died at midnight. Lowndes, old man, go out and tell the coolies to break ground next to Jevins’s grave. Mottram, go round the house with Chuma and see that the seals are put on things. Send a couple of men to me here, and I’ll arrange.’
The strong-armed servants when they returned to their own kind told a strange story of the doctor Sahib vainly trying to call their master back to life by magic arts—to wit, the holding of a little green box that clicked to each of the dead man’s eyes, and of a bewildered muttering on the part of the doctor Sahib, who took the little green box away with him.
The resonant hammering of a coffin-lid is no pleasant thing to hear, but those who have experience maintain that much more terrible is the soft swish of the bed-linen, the reeving and unreeving of the bed-tapes, when he who has fallen by the roadside is apparelled for burial, sinking gradually as the tapes are tied over, till the swaddled shape touches the floor and there is no protest against the indignity of hasty disposal.
At the last moment Lowndes was seized with scruples of conscience. ‘Ought you to read the service, from beginning to end?’ said he to Spurstow.
‘I intend to. You’re my senior as a civilian. You can take it if you like.’
‘I didn’t mean that for a moment. I only thought if we could get a chaplain from somewhere, I’m willing to ride anywhere, and give poor Hummil a better chance. That’s all.’
‘Bosh!’ said Spurstow, as he framed his lips to the tremendous words that stand at the head of the burial service.
After breakfast they smoked a pipe in silence to the memory of the dead. Then Spurstow said absently—
‘Tisn’t medical science.’
‘Things in a dead man’s eye.’
‘For goodness’ sake leave that horror alone!’ said Lowndes. ‘I’ve seen a native die of pure fright when a tiger chivied him. I know what killed Hummil.’
‘The deuce you do! I’m going to try to see.’ And the doctor retreated into the bathroom with a Kodak camera. After a few minutes there was the sound of something being hammered to pieces, and he emerged, very white indeed.
‘Have you got a picture?’ said Mottram. ‘What does the thing look like?’
‘It was impossible, of course. You needn’t look, Mottram. I’ve torn up the films. There was nothing there. It was impossible.’
‘That,’ said Lowndes, very distinctly, watching the shaking hand striving to relight the pipe, ‘is a damned lie.’
Mottram laughed uneasily. ‘Spurstow’s right,’ he said. ‘We’re all in such a state now that we’d believe anything. For pity’s sake let’s try to be rational.’
There was no further speech for a long time. The hot wind whistled without, and the dry trees sobbed. Presently the daily train, winking brass, burnished steel, and spouting steam, pulled up panting in the intense glare. ‘We’d better go on that,’ said Spurstow. ‘Go back to work. I’ve written my certificate. We can’t do any more good here, and work’ll keep our wits together. Come on.’
No one moved. It is not pleasant to face railway journeys at mid-day in June. Spurstow gathered up his hat and whip, and, turning in the doorway, said—
‘There may be Heaven—there must be Hell.Meantime, there is our life here. We-ell?’
Neither Mottram nor Lowndes had any answer to the question.
Joseph Rudyard Kipling (30 December 1865 – 18 January 1936) was an English novelist, short-story writer, poet, and journalist. He was born in British India, which inspired much of his work.
Kipling’s works of fiction include the Jungle Book dilogy The Jungle Book, 1894; The Second Jungle Book, 1895), Kim (1901), the Just So Stories (1902) and many short stories, including The Man Who Would Be King (1888). His poems include “Mandalay” (1890), “Gunga Din” (1890), “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” (1919), “The White Man’s Burden” (1899), and “If—” (1910). He is seen as an innovator in the art of the short story. His children’s books are classics; one critic noted “a versatile and luminous narrative gift.”…[Wikipedia]
DISCO FEVER: SNOW BLACK AND THE SEVEN DWARFS PERFORMING HERE TONIGHT
flashed the red and yellow neon marquee/holograph, hovering above the squat, and darkened building in Sydney’s far western suburbs. Over its door, a smaller sign flickered dark red:
It was about two hours until show time.
Bored, Chops, and Smolley slumped lazily on their low-slung go-bikes parked nearby.
Chops, petting his laser, grumbled: “Matee, I dunno about yer, but I didn’t sign on with Salo and his Convict Nation team to be a bloody club security guard… “Yawning, he stretched his artificial legs; his real ones had been blown off at the Battle of Broome just before the surrender of Australia to the invading Indo-Chinese military. Gawd, Chops murmured, shaking his head. That was a bloody five years ago!
Squinting at the paper delivered to them earlier by a Salo messenger, Smolley nervously replied, “Chopo, yer know da Salo oft means more that he sez… Suppoz dat der messenger had gotten caught with dis,” he motioned toward the paper, “we’ee be boiled in hot beer by the bloody Force if it exposed the real story.” Smolley then reread the message’s text:
Great new shipment of toys arriving tonight after 7 p.m. Go to 1031 Devlin Place and get your jollies as the guards. See the manager there for further details.
“So you really dink it means more than it sez?” Chops asked.
Smolley nodded: “Bloody A, mate, Salo always duz. We just have to wait… “
A car door slammed: a short man, with a long, well-groomed beard and nattily attired in a white leisure suit, and sparkling dancing shoes, bounded gracefully from a rusty Holden sedan a few feet from them. Smolley nudged Chops, and whispered “Da manager, I bet”.
Smolley, gripping his concealed laser, scurried toward the man, who, frightened at Smolley’s sudden approach, loudly farted.
“Not a nice way to greet some mates,” Smolley joked.
“If you want to rob me, I ‘ave no cash,” stuttered the manager.
“No, mate, we are here becuz of dis,” said Smolley, pushing the message paper into the man’s face.
“What’s your ID?” mumbled the manager neutrally, worried about the police.
Straining mightily, Smolley hooked his stumpy wrist in front of the manager’s eyes, flashing a helix-shaped tattoo. The manager touched his heart, nodded, and whispered, “All praise to Salo. Follow me then if you want to get your jollies.” They quietly moved toward the club’s premises, Chops’ artificial legs humming peacefully in the dark.
The manager, who identified himself as Mullet Blackstone, flicked a pocket-held unit as they approached the entrance; the door unlocked automatically while the interior was instantly bathed in whirls of darkish-silvery shapes radiating from a massive, spinning disco ball—a retro-crafted shrine to the traditionally popular 1970s party scene. The manager led Smolley and Chops across the squeaky dance floor, littered with streamers and trash, past the bar, into a dingy, rear receiving area.
“So what ‘new toys’ are goin’ to give us ‘jollies”?” asked Smolley amid the smells of musty boxes, oily machinery, and rat bait.
“Too right,” assented Chops, still irritated at running mere admin errands better assigned, he thought, to one of Salo’s sex slaves.
Mullet frowned, waved one hand, missing three fingers—Smolley duly noted—and said: “Your new ‘toys’ are a top-secret shipment of killer Involuntary Transgenders arriving in about an hour from the Western Deserts.”
Chops whistled softly. Smolley’s little eyes simply went wide.
“Yeah, nobody thinks ITs,” Mullet went on smugly, “can lift a freakin’ butter knife, let alone a gun, to the Occupation. But the bloomin’ IC fascists are about to face a new enemy. ITs can always get service jobs inside their headquarters or domestic positions in the mansions of the fat-cat IC arse-lickers, because the Force thinks they don’t have a violent gene in their entire body. But the Great Salo is about to prove their cruddy science wrong, by God!”
Chops and Smolley simply stared, mouths gaping stupidly.
“Yes, our mighty Salo is opening a new chapter of liberation,” Mullet’s beard bobbed with such frenzy that it seemed madly alive, “in the history of the persecuted transgenders’ valiant struggle against our repressive IC invaders. Even ITs are now being empowered to destroy the evildoers through the genius of Salo the Magnifico.” Now Mullet’s entire body violently shook as if controlled by aggressive, loud music: Another CN True Believer was ranting, thought Chops wearily.
Finally, Smolley weakly stammered, “How da we know dis will work?”
Bristling and swelling so proudly that his hunched back seemed to engorge itself in itself, Mullet gleefully declared, “Have you not, my mates, heard of the Col Wallop story ?”
Smolley and Chops allowed that they vaguely remembered seeing something on the tellie a few years ago, but Mullet waved his two-fingered hand dismissively. “Bugger that, mate; you know we can’t rely on Occupation-run media for the straight dope. Let me tell you the real story: Convict Nation’s street intel learned that Col Wallop, a drinking pal of some IC Force hotshots, had a sexual hang-up about ITs. In fact, in disguise, he used to cruise pubs and bars like Club Big looking for ‘action’. He’d pay ITs for sex and take ‘em home.”
“When Salo learned of this, well, he was so happy he creamed his jeans. During the war, a resistance brigade stole a DNA Reconversion Systems Kit from an Old Gov lab, and later the brigade’s chief sold the package to Convict Nation for a pile of cash. The Occupation has never known that Salo has built some super gene recode labs. You know, you’d be bloody well amazed at the smart scientific arses he has on his team… “
“Ok, Ok mate, get to the bloomin’ moral of da story,” Chops pleaded, his eyes glazed with boredom.
“Salo had been looking for a ‘test’ case, so to speak. So boy, did he jump on the Col Wallop chance. He ordered his mob to kidnap an IT and recode the thing to kill: they kept the bugger hold up in a retraining camp until it was screamin’ for blood. Then they sent the IT to Club Big to pick up Col Wallop… well, the rest is history; after sex on the floor in a storage room, the IT ran a butcher knife through old Col’s gullet and then chopped him up like sausage… “
Faintly queasy in his stomach, Smolley squeaked, “What happen’ to da IT?”
Mullet indifferently clicked his tongue. “The poor bugger later went crackers; Salo had it shot and ground up at that dog food processing plant Salo and the CN manage on the sly.”
As Chops and Smolley goggled their eyes, Mullet glowered darkly, his beard thrusting like a sword: “You keep this info secret, mate, or that is where you will end up: as a bloody dog’s breakfast.”
Mullet suddenly cocked his head. “Someone’s outside. Cover me”.
Flanked by Smolley and Chops, their hand lasers pulled, Mullet furtively slid up to the service door and breathed gruffly through his teeth: “Solo, Salo, me, Oh my-Oh.” The melodious voice outside rang out like a bell, in reply: “Salo, Salo, my Oh, my-Oh.“
Mullet nodded. “We’re golden; the shipment is here.” He flicked the security alarm off and opened the door. A pair of drooping, fleshly jowls molded themselves into a bold smile. Sully O’Sullivan, Certified DNA Lab Tech for the Force’s Forensic Section and the secret team captain of the killer IT consignment, had arrived. Bowing gracefully, his shapely hands folded into a prayerful greeting.
Sully was feeling very pleased with himself. Earlier, a security agent for the Force had enlisted his confidential assistance in an effort to rat out traitors to the Force within their ranks. Jwan, the agent, had even paid for the beer.
However, little did he know—Sully’s bold smile got even more brazen–that it was actually Sully who was the traitor, not only leaking useful information on Force staff sexual-hormonal problems to Salo but also deeply involved in the Killer IT Project.
If Salo wanted to use genetics to subvert the IC Force’s Occupation, Salo needed Sully’s help. Data on the sexual lives of Force staff, especially those who were undergoing natural, involuntary sex changes or a secondary puberty (Midlife Reversal), was invaluable to Salo.
Drastically mutating hormones, Sully well knew, meant unstable, angry emotions and (usually) unstable, malleable DNA. Emerging changelings were perfect targets for genetic conversion into assassins and subversives working against the hated occupiers.
Moreover, they would liberate themselves and their communities—via the Sully-Salo team—from threats to their future posed by the occupying bullies. However, Sully was not only helping persecuted changelings help themselves but also serving his own ambitions.
The “team of Sully and Salo”—yeah, that had a nice sound—but even better, Salo was a bit of an old geezer now, while Sully was much spunkier, younger. Hell, he could even be the top bloke in Convict Nation’s insurgency in a few years if he played his cards right… Get rid of the religious nutters, maybe… go more mainstream, become legit… Maybe Salo was not so important after all. Sully’s eyes were dreamy as he fantasized of great power.
“Well, don’t just stand there blocking the bleedin’ doorway,” snapped Mullet humorously.
Sully bitterly detested this worm, Mullet Blackstone. It was well known in Convict Nation/insurgent circles that Mullet was currently one of the most active of Salo’s sexual partners. What was it about some bloody CN nutters that made them so sexually randy and politically aggressive?
“I am trying to keep the rain from blowing on your beard,” replied Sully sarcastically.
The manager coldly chuckled. “You’re a real mate.”
Sully bowed again, slightly. “At your service,” he said coolly.
Chops interrupted: “Hey, we didn’t come here fer a lovefest or tea-time chat. Where’s da IT meat?
“Well, Matees, Sully replied, “we have a little problem with that. All four of our new killer trainees got road sick coming back from the West. They have been throwing up like ill babies for the last five hours. Agro, their driver/handler, has taken them to a safe house where somebody is feeding them weak soup and honey…” Sully shrugged apologetically.
Mullet’s face reddened. “Ain’t that a kick in the head?” Then he whined, “Gawd tonight is our special half-price night for Force/IC Occupation staff. They’ll just show their ID and get a deal on the cover charge plus some free drinks… ITs could have picked up some top Occupation blokes and snuffed them good… Salo had it all planned… Hell, we even had some top brass-level officers who had made reservations…”
“Well, I guess the perverts in the Occupation will have to wait to get their bit of IT arse another night,” joked Sully.
“Mate, it’s not funny,” replied Mullet, his beard bristling.
“I can’t do a thing about it; you want me to bring a gang of ITs here to projectile vomit all over your dance floor—and on your high-flying customers’ fancy threads?” demanded Sully, peeved by Mullet’s amazing stupidity. Gawd, does Salo know what a fool this clown is?
“Dis is getting too heavy, mates; dare is no reason we can’t still party,” Chops said, suddenly laughing, twisting and spinning on his artificial legs, his toothless mouth drooling. “I am freakin’ tired of all dis IT/Salo sex stuff.” Smolley, with a little smile, did a few mincing steps in agreement.
Mullet wagged his deformed hand again: “OK, stick around, but you gotta pay a full cover charge. No concessions, even for Salo’s team. Sorry, mate, I run a business.”
All Sully could think as he turned to leave was, “What a wanker!
* * *
A towering 6’7″ mutant with massive biceps, a ghostly complexion, and flaming orange-red hair was both the bouncer and ticket collector. Chops and Smolley, wearing party masks to conceal their identities, lingered in the lobby shadows, watching curiously, as patrons drifted into Club Big.
Most of them wore costumes. Because of this club’s risqué reputation, discretion here was the better part of decorum, so it was often impossible to tell a human from a changeling. A tallish person strutted in in high heels, with a grizzled chin, lipstick, heavily caked make-up, and a frilly dress—a man in drag or a transgender?
There were swarms of obvious mini-mutants, though some of the taller ones may have been just short humans, while some of the hunched changelings were actually stout persons with prosthetic humps stuffed in their blouses and shirts.
Then followed a sudden, noisy rush of customers garbed in a wild assortment of fake “deformities”—flabby noses, gaping nostrils, twisted chins, lazy eyes, flapping ear lobes, club feet, mottled skin—a parade of clubbing fanatics masquerading as Street Wilders. Tonight was the night for Multigenetic Chic, real or make-believe.
Mullet Blackstone, rocking on his heels, stood by the entrance, acknowledging with fawning smiles those who flashed Occupation or Force ID badges while merely grunting at those (Salo True Believers) who did not. After the stream of customers had seemingly ended, Mullet, wanting to lock up before the show began, peered out the door for any latecomers.
Stepping briskly around the corner came a figure in a hood, cloak, and billowing robe, face behind a black visor that vaguely reminded Mullet of that character out of the old “Star Wars” films. Not speaking, the figure scuttled quickly through the lobby and paid full price admission. Followed by the towering bouncer’s odd looks, the strange patron strode aggressively into the bar area, clearly on a mission.
Mullet slipped over to Chops and Smolley, and whispered, “Make yourself useful. Follow that strange bloke around, but keep your distance.”
Chops replied, “Then, mate, giv’ us free admission. We take orders only frum da Salo. We don’t work fer you; besides, we’re off duty.”
Snorting disgustedly, Mullet waved for them to pass.
Sheets of Narco-Cig smoke were starting to fog in the bar. Barely able to breathe, let alone see, Chops and Smolley, choking, crept slowly between the tangled knots of chattering, costumed bodies. The weird, hooded customer was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps, they thought, he/it/she had popped into the toilet.
A grotesquely obese, mottled-faced woman, swathed in furs and sequins and giggling hysterically, blocked their way. She was chatting with an impassive, thin man in tight blue trousers who exhaled Narco-Cig smoke in shreds from a mouth without lips.
“Did you hear the one about the IT who wanted to make love to a dwarf?” The big woman wheezed, tears of mirth pouring from her piggish eyes.
Thundering cheers and applause went up from the crowd, drowning out the women’s joke. Above, swimming around the massive disco ball, was a writhing, techno-colored stream of faces, mouths, torsos, and intricate sexual organs.
These holographic images then exploded into a kaleidoscopic whirlpool of copulating humans, ITs, dwarfs, and hunchbacks, each morphing into the other, often in mid-act. Almost simultaneously, the ancient disco hit “Stayin’ Alive” blared out, and couples — sometimes multiples — rushed the dance floor, where they too became a confusion of sweaty, violently pumping bodies.
Bursting from a side door, behind the dancers, were seven dwarfs in pleated cheerleader skirts, followed by a galloping drag queen, pseudo-tits flopping, and regal in an elegant black nightgown and pink slippers: This, the featured act, Snow Black and The Seven Dwarfs, was greeted with another thunderous ovation. The performers started swaying wildly, moving their lips to the lyrics.
Just then Chops and Smolley saw the masked figure lurking in the now near-empty bar area occupied by only a few malingering ITs, guzzling from shot glasses, and the large mottled-face woman alone, but still bouncing and shrieking with laughter at her own jokes.
From his robe, the strange figure pulled a laser pistol and fired at the woman; the weapon’s green streak drilled a tidy hole in her forehead. Almost as if deflated, the woman shriveled on her bar stool, lumbered backward, and crashed on the floor. Her last breath sounded like a drunken giggle.
Ripping off his mask and hood, the killer glared triumphantly around the hushed dance floor with his bloody, pulsating eyes. Salo had avenged the Convict Nation against one Ms. Mabis Mallow, who, though supposedly a CN True Believer, had actually been an informant for the Force and, as such, was responsible for the capture, torture, and murder of her lover, the elderly insurgency recruitment agent Ian Crumpet. Salo enjoyed a hands-on snuff job occasionally, rather than always sending his hit team. Tonight, however, due to cock-ups by his staff, he had had no real choice but to do it himself.
Doing this in front of some Force-employed patrons was admittedly very audacious, he thought. However, most of them, on the Convict Nation bribe anyway, had already compromised themselves by being in this joint–a place widely suspected as being an insurgency meeting joint. They would never report the murder; that would mean revealing where they were partying. And that could lead to a nasty investigation for possibly consorting with subversives — these days, an act of high treason is subject to immediate execution. Salo smiled at his own cleverness.
Moreover, he had learned through his top spies within the Force that Ms. Mallow had become a burden and embarrassment: she was demanding sex with both female and male Force staffers, including the powerful Sub-Commander June Soon, as a condition for her continued employment—a prospect that was revolting, to say the least.
Further, he had learned that Force management felt that her lavish stipend was not really worth the quality of information she was providing, which, despite the Ian Crumpet success, had been rather scanty. In short, he had actually done the Force—and himself—a favor by exterminating this greedy parasite. He was now their hero.
Of course, he had originally planned for one of his new killer recodes to do the job. But then that was why he knew he was not only respected, but also revered: his powers of creative management allowed him to overcome the miserable failures of minions, such as that bungler Agro, who had failed properly to care for his IT cargo.
(Speaking of a need to get rid of dead wood, maybe he would have the Killer ITs snuff Agro once they were feeling better. No great loss; the fool should’ve taken a basic medicine kit on the processing trip to Fort Helix. Didn’t he know that all IT recodes were notorious for vomiting unpredictably? In truth, there were many in his ranks that should be ground up into dog food. Yes, indeed, next week he had to start a major personnel review.)
Haloed by virtual freaking, the disco ball, like a pseudo-star, still glittered cheaply.” “Stayin’ Alive” blared anew. Ignoring the dead woman’s body, Club Big’s customers, Force staff, and CN True Believers alike, were getting down and dirty again. Salo‘s eyes, softening to a gentle pink, watched cheerfully as Snow Black and the Seven Dwarfs whipped the dancers into even higher frenzies. The Great Salo, the father of the insurgent Convict Nation, had won another cosmic victory over conscience and the Force. Mouths gaping, Smolley and Chops gazed in wonder.
This story first appeared in Bewildering Stories.
Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. He blends horror, noir, and sci-fi with philosophical and theological themes. A Belgium-based magazine, the Sci-Phi Journal, honored by the European Science Fiction Society with its Hall of Fame Award for Best SF Magazine, recently accepted one of Mr. White’s stories.
His other poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines including Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. In addition, he has presented his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio.
If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.
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I WAS SITTING on the porch when my grandfather hobbled out and sank down on his favorite chair with the cushioned seat, and began to stuff tobacco in his old corncob-pipe.
“I thought you’d be goin’ to the dance,” he said.
“I’m waiting for Doc Blaine,” I answered. “I’m going over to old man Garfield’s with him.”
My grandfather sucked at his pipe awhile before he spoke again.
“Old Jim purty bad off?”
“Doc says he hasn’t a chance.”
“Who’s takin’ care of him?”
“Joe Braxton—against Garfield’s wishes. But somebody had to stay with him.”
My grandfather sucked his pipe noisily, and watched the heat lightning playing away off up in the hills; then he said: “You think old Jim’s the biggest liar in this county, don’t you?”
“He tells some pretty tall tales,” I admitted. “Some of the things he claimed he took part in, must have happened before he was born.”
“I came from Tennesee to Texas in 1870,” my grandfather said abruptly. “I saw this town of Lost Knob grow up from nothin’. There wasn’t even a log-hut store here when I came. But old Jim Garfield was here, livin’ in the same place he lives now, only then it was a log cabin. He don’t look a day older now than he did the first time I saw him.”
“You never mentioned that before,” I said in some surprise.
“I knew you’d put it down to an old man’s maunderin’s,” he answered. “Old Jim was the first white man to settle in this country. He built his cabin a good fifty miles west of the frontier. God knows how he done it, for these hills swarmed with Comanches then.
“I remember the first time I ever saw him. Even then everybody called him ‘old Jim.’
“I remember him tellin’ me the same tales he’s told you—how he was at the battle of San Jacinto when he was a youngster, and how he’d rode with Ewen Cameron and Jack Hayes. Only I believe him, and you don’t.”
“That was so long ago—” I protested.
“The last Indian raid through this country was in 1874,” said my grandfather, engrossed in his own reminiscences. “I was in on that fight, and so was old Jim. I saw him knock old Yellow Tail off his mustang at seven hundred yards with a buffalo rifle.
“But before that I was with him in a fight up near the head of Locust Creek. A band of Comanches came down Mesquital, lootin’ and burnin’, rode through the hills and started back up Locust Creek, and a scout of us were hot on their heels. We ran on to them just at sundown in a mesquite flat. We killed seven of them, and the rest skinned out through the brush on foot. But three of our boys were killed, and Jim Garfield got a thrust in the breast with a lance.
“It was an awful wound. He lay like a dead man, and it seemed sure nobody could live after a wound like that. But an old Indian came out of the brush, and when we aimed our guns at him, he made the peace sign and spoke to us in Spanish. I don’t know why the boys didn’t shoot him in his tracks, because our blood was heated with the fightin’ and killin’, but somethin’ about him made us hold our fire. He said he wasn’t a Comanche, but was an old friend of Garfield’s, and wanted to help him. He asked us to carry Jim into a clump of mesquite, and leave him alone with him, and to this day I don’t know why we did, but we did. It was an awful time—the wounded moanin’ and callin’ for water, the starin’ corpses strewn about the camp, night comin’ on, and no way of knowin’ that the Indians wouldn’t return when dark fell.
“We made camp right there, because the horses were fagged out, and we watched all night, but the Comanches didn’t come back. I don’t know what went on out in the mesquite where Jim Garfield’s body lay, because I never saw that strange Indian again; but durin’ the night I kept hearin’ a weird moanin’ that wasn’t made by the dyin’ men, and an owl hooted from midnight till dawn.
“And at sunrise Jim Garfield came walkin’ out of the mesquite, pale and haggard, but alive, and already the wound in his breast had closed and begun to heal. And since then he’s never mentioned that wound, nor that fight, nor the strange Indian who came and went so mysteriously. And he hasn’t aged a bit; he looks now just like he did then—a man of about fifty.”
In the silence that followed, a car began to purr down the road, and twin shafts of light cut through the dusk.
“That’s Doc Blaine,” I said. “When I come back I’ll tell you how Garfield is.”
Doc Blaine was prompt with his predictions as we drove the three miles of post-oak covered hills that lay between Lost Knob and the Garfield farm.
“I’ll be surprised to find him alive,” he said, “smashed up like he is. A man his age ought to have more sense than to try to break a young horse.”
“He doesn’t look so old,” I remarked.
“I’ll be fifty, my next birthday,” answered Doc Blaine. “I’ve known him all my life, and he must have been at least fifty the first time I ever saw him. His looks are deceiving.”
Old Garfield’s dwelling-place was reminiscent of the past. The boards of the low squat house had never known paint. Orchard fence and corrals were built of rails.
Old Jim lay on his rude bed, tended crudely but efficiently by the man Doc Blaine had hired over the old man’s protests. As I looked at him, I was impressed anew by his evident vitality. His frame was stooped but unwithered, his limbs rounded out with springy muscles. In his corded neck and in his face, drawn though it was with suffering, was apparent an innate virility. His eyes, though partly glazed with pain, burned with the same unquenchable element.
“He’s been ravin’,” said Joe Braxton stolidly.
“First white man in this country,” muttered old Jim, becoming intelligible. “Hills no white man ever set foot in before. Gettin’ too old. Have to settle down. Can’t move on like I used to. Settle down here. Good country before it filled up with cow-men and squatters. Wish Ewen Cameron could see this country. The Mexicans shot him. Damn ’em!”
Doc Blaine shook his head. “He’s all smashed up inside. He won’t live till daylight.”
Garfield unexpectedly lifted his head and looked at us with clear eyes.
“Wrong, Doc,” he wheezed, his breath whistling with pain. “I’ll live. What’s broken bones and twisted guts? Nothin’! It’s the heart that counts. Long as the heart keeps pumpin’, a man can’t die. My heart’s sound. Listen to it! Feel of it!”
He groped painfully for Doc Blaine’s wrist, dragged his hand to his bosom and held it there, staring up into the doctor’s face with avid intensity.
“Regular dynamo, ain’t it?” he gasped. “Stronger’n a gasoline engine!”
Blaine beckoned me. “Lay your hand here,” he said, placing my hand on the old man’s bare breast. “He does have a remarkable heart action.”
I noted, in the light of the coal-oil lamp, a great livid scar in the gaunt arching breast—such a scar as might be made by a flint-headed spear. I laid my hand directly on this scar, and an exclamation escaped my lips.
Under my hand old Jim Garfield’s heart pulsed, but its throb was like no other heart action I have ever observed. Its power was astounding; his ribs vibrated to its steady throb. It felt more like the vibrating of a dynamo than the action of a human organ. I could feel its amazing vitality radiating from his breast, stealing up into my hand and up my arm, until my own heart seemed to speed up in response.
“I can’t die,” old Jim gasped. “Not so long as my heart’s in my breast. Only a bullet through the brain can kill me. And even then I wouldn’t be rightly dead, as long as my heart beats in my breast. Yet it ain’t rightly mine, either. It belongs to Ghost Man, the Lipan chief. It was the heart of a god the Lipans worshipped before the Comanches drove ’em out of their native hills.
“I knew Ghost Man down on the Rio Grande, when I was with Ewen Cameron. I saved his life from the Mexicans once. He tied the string of ghost wampum between him and me—the wampum no man but me and him can see or feel. He came when he knowed I needed him, in that fight up on the headwaters of Locust Creek, when I got this scar.
“I was dead as a man can be. My heart was sliced in two, like the heart of a butchered beef steer.
“All night Ghost Man did magic, callin’ my ghost back from spirit-land. I remember that flight, a little. It was dark, and gray-like, and I drifted through gray mists and heard the dead wailin’ past me in the mist. But Ghost Man brought me back.
“He took out what was left of my mortal heart, and put the heart of the god in my bosom. But it’s his, and when I’m through with it, he’ll come for it. It’s kept me alive and strong for the lifetime of a man. Age can’t touch me. What do I care if these fools around here call me an old liar? What I know, I know. But hark’ee!”
His fingers became claws, clamping fiercely on Doc Blaine’s wrist. His old eyes, old yet strangely young, burned fierce as those of an eagle under his bushy brows.
“If by some mischance I should die, now or later, promise me this! Cut into my bosom and take out the heart Ghost Man lent me so long ago! It’s his. And as long as it beats in my body, my spirit’ll be tied to that body, though my head be crushed like an egg underfoot! A livin’ thing in a rottin’ body! Promise!”
“All right, I promise,” replied Doc Blaine, to humor him, and old Jim Garfield sank back with a whistling sigh of relief.
He did not die that night, nor the next, nor the next. I well remember the next day, because it was that day that I had the fight with Jack Kirby.
People will take a good deal from a bully, rather than to spill blood. Because nobody had gone to the trouble of killing him, Kirby thought the whole countryside was afraid of him.
He had bought a steer from my father, and when my father went to collect for it, Kirby told him that he had paid the money to me—which was a lie. I went looking for Kirby, and came upon him in a bootleg joint, boasting of his toughness, and telling the crowd that he was going to beat me up and make me say that he had paid me the money, and that I had stuck it into my own pocket. When I heard him say that, I saw red, and ran in on him with a stockman’s knife, and cut him across the face, and in the neck, side, breast and belly, and the only thing that saved his life was the fact that the crowd pulled me off.
There was a preliminary hearing, and I was indicted on a charge of assault, and my trial was set for the following term of court. Kirby was as tough-fibered as a post-oak country bully ought to be, and he recovered, swearing vengeance, for he was vain of his looks, though God knows why, and I had permanently impaired them.
And while Jack Kirby was recovering, old man Garfield recovered too, to the amazement of everybody, especially Doc Blaine.
I well remember the night Doc Blaine took me again out to old Jim Garfield’s farm. I was in Shifty Corlan’s joint, trying to drink enough of the slop he called beer to get a kick out of it, when Doc Blaine came in and persuaded me to go with him.
As we drove along the winding old road in Doc’s car, I asked: “Why are you insistent that I go with you this particular night? This isn’t a professional call, is it?”
“No,” he said. “You couldn’t kill old Jim with a post-oak maul. He’s completely recovered from injuries that ought to have killed an ox. To tell the truth, Jack Kirby is in Lost Knob, swearing he’ll shoot you on sight.”
“Well, for God’s sake!” I exclaimed angrily. “Now everybody’ll think I left town because I was afraid of him. Turn around and take me back, damn it!”
“Be reasonable,” said Doc. “Everybody knows you’re not afraid of Kirby. Nobody’s afraid of him now. His bluff’s broken, and that’s why he’s so wild against you. But you can’t afford to have any more trouble with him now, and your trial only a short time off.”
I laughed and said: “Well, if he’s looking for me hard enough, he can find me as easily at old Garfield’s as in town, because Shifty Corlan heard you say where we were going. And Shifty’s hated me ever since I skinned him in that horse-swap last fall. He’ll tell Kirby where I went.”
“I never thought of that,” said Doc Blaine, worried.
“Hell, forget it,” I advised. “Kirby hasn’t got guts enough to do anything but blow.”
But I was mistaken. Puncture a bully’s vanity and you touch his one vital spot.
Old Jim had not gone to bed when we got there. He was sitting in the room opening on to his sagging porch, the room which was at once living-room and bedroom, smoking his old cob pipe and trying to read a newspaper by the light of his coal-oil lamp. All the windows and doors were wide open for the coolness, and the insects which swarmed in and fluttered around the lamp didn’t seem to bother him.
We sat down and discussed the weather—which isn’t so inane as one might suppose, in a country where men’s livelihood depends on sun and rain, and is at the mercy of wind and drouth. The talk drifted into other kindred channels, and after some time, Doc Blaine bluntly spoke of something that hung in his mind.
“Jim,” he said, “that night I thought you were dying, you babbled a lot of stuff about your heart, and an Indian who lent you his. How much of that was delirium?”
“None, Doc,” said Garfield, pulling at his pipe. “It was gospel truth. Ghost Man, the Lipan priest of the Gods of Night, replaced my dead, torn heart with one from somethin’ he worshipped. I ain’t sure myself just what that somethin’ is—somethin’ from away back and a long way off, he said. But bein’ a god, it can do without its heart for awhile. But when I die—if I ever get my head smashed so my consciousness is destroyed—the heart must be given back to Ghost Man.”
“You mean you were in earnest about cutting out your heart?” demanded Doc Blaine.
“It has to be,” answered old Garfield. “A livin’ thing in a dead thing is opposed to nat’er. That’s what Ghost Man said.”
“Who the devil was Ghost Man?”
“I told you. A witch-doctor of the Lipans, who dwelt in this country before the Comanches came down from the Staked Plains and drove ’em south across the Rio Grande. I was a friend to ’em. I reckon Ghost Man is the only one left alive.”
“I dunno,” confessed old Jim. “I dunno whether he’s alive or dead. I dunno whether he was alive when he came to me after the fight on Locust Creek, or even if he was alive when I knowed him in the southern country. Alive as we understand life, I mean.”
“What balderdash is this?” demanded Doc Blaine uneasily, and I felt a slight stirring in my hair. Outside was stillness, and the stars, and the black shadows of the post-oak woods. The lamp cast old Garfield’s shadow grotesquely on the wall, so that it did not at all resemble that of a human, and his words were strange as words heard in a nightmare.
“I knowed you wouldn’t understand,” said old Jim. “I don’t understand myself, and I ain’t got the words to explain them things I feel and know without understandin’. The Lipans were kin to the Apaches, and the Apaches learnt curious things from the Pueblos. Ghost Man was—that’s all I can say—alive or dead, I don’t know, but he was. What’s more, he is.”
“Is it you or me that’s crazy?” asked Doc Blaine.
“Well,” said old Jim, “I’ll tell you this much—Ghost Man knew Coronado.”
“Crazy as a loon!” murmured Doc Blaine. Then he lifted his head. “What’s that?”
“Horse turning in from the road,” I said. “Sounds like it stopped.”
I stepped to the door, like a fool, and stood etched in the light behind me. I got a glimpse of a shadowy bulk I knew to be a man on a horse; then Doc Blaine yelled: “Look out!” and threw himself against me, knocking us both sprawling. At the same instant I heard the smashing report of a rifle, and old Garfield grunted and fell heavily.
I scrambled up, hearing the clatter of retreating hoofs, snatched old Jim’s shotgun from the wall, rushed recklessly out on to the sagging porch and let go both barrels at the fleeing shape, dim in the starlight. The charge was too light to kill at that range, but the bird-shot stung the horse and maddened him. He swerved, crashed headlong through a rail fence and charged across the orchard, and a peach tree limb knocked his rider out of the saddle. He never moved after he hit the ground. I ran out there and looked down at him. It was Jack Kirby, right enough, and his neck was broken like a rotten branch.
I let him lie, and ran back to the house. Doc Blaine had stretched old Garfield out on a bench he’d dragged in from the porch, and Doc’s face was whiter than I’d ever seen it. Old Jim was a ghastly sight; he had been shot with an old-fashioned .45-70, and at that range the heavy ball had literally torn off the top of his head. His features were masked with blood and brains. He had been directly behind me, poor old devil, and he had stopped the slug meant for me.
Doc Blaine was trembling, though he was anything but a stranger to such sights.
“Would you pronounce him dead?” he asked.
“That’s for you to say.” I answered. “But even a fool could tell that he’s dead.
“He is dead,” said Doc Blaine in a strained unnatural voice. “Rigor mortis is already setting in. But feel his heart!”
I did, and cried out. The flesh was already cold and clammy; but beneath it that mysterious heart still hammered steadily away, like a dynamo in a deserted house. No blood coursed through those veins; yet the heart pounded, pounded, pounded, like the pulse of Eternity.
“A living thing in a dead thing,” whispered Doc Blaine, cold sweat on his face. “This is opposed to nature. I am going to keep the promise I made him. I’ll assume full responsibility. This is too monstrous to ignore.”
Our implements were a butcher-knife and a hack-saw. Outside only the still stars looked down on the black post-oak shadows and the dead man that lay in the orchard. Inside, the old lamp flickered, making strange shadows move and shiver and cringe in the corners, and glistened on the blood on the floor, and the red-dabbled figure on the bench. The only sound inside was the crunch of the saw-edge in bone; outside an owl began to hoot weirdly.
Doc Blaine thrust a red-stained hand into the aperture he had made, and drew out a red, pulsing object that caught the lamplight. With a choked cry he recoiled, and the thing slipped from his fingers and fell on the table. And I too cried out involuntarily. For it did not fall with a soft meaty thud, as a piece of flesh should fall. It thumped hard on the table.
Impelled by an irresistible urge, I bent and gingerly picked up old Garfield’s heart. The feel of it was brittle, unyielding, like steel or stone, but smoother than either. In size and shape it was the duplicate of a human heart, but it was slick and smooth, and its crimson surface reflected the lamplight like a jewel more lambent than any ruby; and in my hand it still throbbed mightily, sending vibratory radiations of energy up my arm until my own heart seemed swelling and bursting in response. It was cosmic power, beyond my comprehension, concentrated into the likeness of a human heart.
The thought came to me that here was a dynamo of life, the nearest approach to immortality that is possible for the destructible human body, the materialization of a cosmic secret more wonderful than the fabulous fountain sought for by Ponce de Leon. My soul was drawn into that unterrestrial gleam, and I suddenly wished passionately that it hammered and thundered in my own bosom in place of my paltry heart of tissue and muscle.
Doc Blaine ejaculated incoherently. I wheeled.
The noise of his coming had been no greater than the whispering of a night wind through the corn. There in the doorway he stood, tall, dark, inscrutable—an Indian warrior, in the paint, war bonnet, breech-clout and moccasins of an elder age. His dark eyes burned like fires gleaming deep under fathomless black lakes. Silently he extended his hand, and I dropped Jim Garfield’s heart into it. Then without a word he turned and stalked into the night. But when Doc Blaine and I rushed out into the yard an instant later, there was no sign of any human being. He had vanished like a phantom of the night, and only something that looked like an owl was flying, dwindling from sight, into the rising moon.
Robert Ervin Howard (January 22, 1906 – June 11, 1936) was an American writer. He wrote pulp fiction in a diverse range of genres. He is well known for his character Conan the Barbarian and is regarded as the father of the sword and sorcery subgenre.
Howard was born and raised in Texas. He spent most of his life in the town of Cross Plains, with some time spent in nearby Brownwood. A bookish and intellectual child, he was also a fan of boxing and spent some time in his late teens bodybuilding, eventually taking up amateur boxing. From the age of nine he dreamed of becoming a writer of adventure fiction but did not have real success until he was 23. Thereafter, until his death by suicide at age 30, Howard’s writings were published in a wide selection of magazines, journals, and newspapers, and he became proficient in several subgenres. His greatest success occurred after his death…
“Old Garfield’s Heart” was first published in Weird Tales in December, 1933.
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North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.
The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing-room. Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms, and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old useless papers. Among these I found a few paper-covered books, the pages of which were curled and damp: The Abbot, by Walter Scott, The Devout Communicant, and The Memoirs of Vidocq. I liked the last best because its leaves were yellow. The wild garden behind the house contained a central apple-tree and a few straggling bushes, under one of which I found the late tenant’s rusty bicycle-pump. He had been a very charitable priest; in his will he had left all his money to institutions and the furniture of his house to his sister.
When the short days of winter came, dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses, where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness. When we returned to the street, light from the kitchen windows had filled the areas. If my uncle was seen turning the corner, we hid in the shadow until we had seen him safely housed. Or if Mangan’s sister came out on the doorstep to call her brother in to his tea, we watched her from our shadow peer up and down the street. We waited to see whether she would remain or go in and, if she remained, we left our shadow and walked up to Mangan’s steps resignedly. She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door. Her brother always teased her before he obeyed, and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body, and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.
Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning. I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.
Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.
One evening I went into the back drawing-room in which the priest had died. It was a dark rainy evening and there was no sound in the house. Through one of the broken panes I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds. Some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed below me. I was thankful that I could see so little. All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: ‘O love! O love!’ many times.
At last she spoke to me. When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer. She asked me was I going to Araby. I forgot whether I answered yes or no. It would be a splendid bazaar; she said she would love to go.
‘And why can’t you?’ I asked.
While she spoke she turned a silver bracelet round and round her wrist. She could not go, she said, because there would be a retreat that week in her convent. Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps, and I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.
‘It’s well for you,’ she said.
‘If I go,’ I said, ‘I will bring you something.’
What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening! I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days. I chafed against the work of school. At night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read. The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me. I asked for leave to go to the bazaar on Saturday night. My aunt was surprised, and hoped it was not some Freemason affair. I answered few questions in class. I watched my master’s face pass from amiability to sternness; he hoped I was not beginning to idle. I could not call my wandering thoughts together. I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.
On Saturday morning I reminded my uncle that I wished to go to the bazaar in the evening. He was fussing at the hallstand, looking for the hat-brush, and answered me curtly:
‘Yes, boy, I know.’
As he was in the hall I could not go into the front parlour and lie at the window. I left the house in bad humour and walked slowly towards the school. The air was pitilessly raw and already my heart misgave me.
When I came home to dinner my uncle had not yet been home. Still it was early. I sat staring at the clock for some time and, when its ticking began to irritate me, I left the room. I mounted the staircase and gained the upper part of the house. The high, cold, empty, gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing. From the front window I saw my companions playing below in the street. Their cries reached me weakened and indistinct and, leaning my forehead against the cool glass, I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discreetly by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railings and at the border below the dress.
When I came downstairs again I found Mrs Mercer sitting at the fire. She was an old, garrulous woman, a pawnbroker’s widow, who collected used stamps for some pious purpose. I had to endure the gossip of the tea-table. The meal was prolonged beyond an hour and still my uncle did not come. Mrs Mercer stood up to go: she was sorry she couldn’t wait any longer, but it was after eight o’clock and she did not like to be out late, as the night air was bad for her. When she had gone I began to walk up and down the room, clenching my fists. My aunt said:
‘I’m afraid you may put off your bazaar for this night of Our Lord.’
At nine o’clock I heard my uncle’s latchkey in the hall door. I heard him talking to himself and heard the hallstand rocking when it had received the weight of his overcoat. I could interpret these signs. When he was midway through his dinner I asked him to give me the money to go to the bazaar. He had forgotten.
‘The people are in bed and after their first sleep now,’ he said.
I did not smile. My aunt said to him energetically:
‘Can’t you give him the money and let him go? You’ve kept him late enough as it is.’
My uncle said he was very sorry he had forgotten. He said he believed in the old saying: ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’ He asked me where I was going and, when I told him a second time, he asked me did I know The Arab’s Farewell to His Steed. When I left the kitchen he was about to recite the opening lines of the piece to my aunt.
I held a florin tightly in my hand as I strode down Buckingham Street towards the station. The sight of the streets thronged with buyers and glaring with gas recalled to me the purpose of my journey. I took my seat in a third-class carriage of a deserted train. After an intolerable delay the train moved out of the station slowly. It crept onward among ruinous houses and over the twinkling river. At Westland Row Station a crowd of people pressed to the carriage doors; but the porters moved them back, saying that it was a special train for the bazaar. I remained alone in the bare carriage. In a few minutes the train drew up beside an improvised wooden platform. I passed out on to the road and saw by the lighted dial of a clock that it was ten minutes to ten. In front of me was a large building which displayed the magical name.
I could not find any sixpenny entrance and, fearing that the bazaar would be closed, I passed in quickly through a turnstile, handing a shilling to a weary-looking man. I found myself in a big hall girded at half its height by a gallery. Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service. I walked into the centre of the bazaar timidly. A few people were gathered about the stalls which were still open. Before a curtain, over which the words Caf Chantant were written in coloured lamps, two men were counting money on a salver. I listened to the fall of the coins.
Remembering with difficulty why I had come, I went over to one of the stalls and examined porcelain vases and flowered tea-sets. At the door of the stall a young lady was talking and laughing with two young gentlemen. I remarked their English accents and listened vaguely to their conversation.
‘O, I never said such a thing!’
‘O, but you did!’
‘O, but I didn’t!’
‘Didn’t she say that?’
‘Yes. I heard her.’
‘O, there’s a… fib!’
Observing me, the young lady came over and asked me did I wish to buy anything. The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty. I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall and murmured:
‘No, thank you.’
The young lady changed the position of one of the vases and went back to the two young men. They began to talk of the same subject. Once or twice the young lady glanced at me over her shoulder.
I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941) was an Irish novelist, poet, and literary critic. He contributed to the modernist avant-garde movement and is regarded as one of the most influential and important writers of the 20th century. Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) is a landmark in which the episodes of Homer’s Odyssey are paralleled in a variety of literary styles, particularly stream of consciousness. Other well-known works are the short-story collection Dubliners (1914), and the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Finnegans Wake (1939). His other writings include three books of poetry, a play, letters, and occasional journalism. [from Wikipedia]
I am requested by the Council of the —— Association to return to you the draft of a paper on The Truth of Alchemy, which you have been good enough to offer to read at our forthcoming meeting, and to inform you that the Council do not see their way to including it in the programme.
* * * * *
I am sorry to say that my engagements do not permit of my affording you an interview on the subject of your proposed paper. Nor do our laws allow of your discussing the matter with a Committee of our Council, as you suggest. Please allow me to assure you that the fullest consideration was given to the draft which you submitted, and that it was not declined without having been referred to the judgement of a most competent authority. No personal question (it can hardly be necessary for me to add) can have had the slightest influence on the decision of the Council.
Believe me (ut supra).
* * * * *
The Secretary of the —— Association begs respectfully to inform Mr Karswell that it is impossible for him to communicate the name of any person or persons to whom the draft of Mr Karswell’s paper may have been submitted; and further desires to intimate that he cannot undertake to reply to any further letters on this subject.
* * * * *
‘And who is Mr Karswell?’ inquired the Secretary’s wife. She had called at his office, and (perhaps unwarrantably) had picked up the last of these three letters, which the typist had just brought in.
‘Why, my dear, just at present Mr Karswell is a very angry man. But I don’t know much about him otherwise, except that he is a person of wealth, his address is Lufford Abbey, Warwickshire, and he’s an alchemist, apparently, and wants to tell us all about it; and that’s about all — except that I don’t want to meet him for the next week or two. Now, if you’re ready to leave this place, I am.’
‘What have you been doing to make him angry?’ asked Mrs Secretary.
‘The usual thing, my dear, the usual thing: he sent in a draft of a paper he wanted to read at the next meeting, and we referred it to Edward Dunning — almost the only man in England who knows about these things — and he said it was perfectly hopeless, so we declined it. So Karswell has been pelting me with letters ever since. The last thing he wanted was the name of the man we referred his nonsense to; you saw my answer to that. But don’t you say anything about it, for goodness’ sake.’
‘I should think not, indeed. Did I ever do such a thing? I do hope, though, he won’t get to know that it was poor Mr Dunning.’
‘Poor Mr Dunning? I don’t know why you call him that; he’s a very happy man, is Dunning. Lots of hobbies and a comfortable home, and all his time to himself.’
‘I only meant I should be sorry for him if this man got hold of his name, and came and bothered him.’
‘Oh, ah! yes. I dare say he would be poor Mr Dunning then.’
The Secretary and his wife were lunching out, and the friends to whose house they were bound were Warwickshire people. So Mrs Secretary had already settled it in her own mind that she would question them judiciously about Mr Karswell. But she was saved the trouble of leading up to the subject, for the hostess said to the host, before many minutes had passed, ‘I saw the Abbot of Lufford this morning.’ The host whistled. ‘Did you? What in the world brings him up to town?’ ‘Goodness knows; he was coming out of the British Museum gate as I drove past.’ It was not unnatural that Mrs Secretary should inquire whether this was a real Abbot who was being spoken of. ‘Oh no, my dear: only a neighbour of ours in the country who bought Lufford Abbey a few years ago. His real name is Karswell.’ ‘Is he a friend of yours?’ asked Mr Secretary, with a private wink to his wife. The question let loose a torrent of declamation. There was really nothing to be said for Mr Karswell. Nobody knew what he did with himself: his servants were a horrible set of people; he had invented a new religion for himself, and practised no one
could tell what appalling rites; he was very easily offended, and never forgave anybody; he had a dreadful face (so the lady insisted, her husband somewhat demurring); he never did a kind action, and whatever influence he did exert was mischievous. ‘Do the poor man justice, dear,’ the husband interrupted. ‘You forget the treat he gave the school children.’ ‘Forget it, indeed! But I’m glad you mentioned it, because it gives an idea of the man. Now, Florence, listen to this. The first winter he was at Lufford this delightful neighbour of ours wrote to the clergyman of his parish (he’s not ours, but we know him very well) and offered to show the school children some magic-lantern slides. He said he had some new kinds, which he thought would interest them. Well, the clergyman was rather surprised, because Mr Karswell had shown himself inclined to be unpleasant to the children — complaining of their trespassing, or something of the sort; but of course he accepted, and the evening was fixed, and our friend went himself to see that everything went right. He said he never had been so thankful for anything as that his own children were all prevented from being there: they were at a children’s party at our house, as a matter of fact. Because this Mr Karswell had evidently set out with the intention of frightening these poor village children out of their wits, and I do believe, if he had been allowed to go on, he would actually have done so. He began with some comparatively mild things. Red Riding Hood was one, and even then, Mr Farrer said, the wolf was so dreadful that several of the smaller children had to be taken out: and he said Mr Karswell began the story by producing a noise like a wolf howling in the distance, which was the most gruesome thing he had ever heard. All the slides he showed, Mr Farrer said, were most clever; they were absolutely realistic, and where he had got them or how he worked them he could not imagine. Well, the show went on, and the stories kept on becoming a little more terrifying each time, and the children were mesmerized into complete silence. At last he produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own park — Lufford, I mean — in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn to pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly. Mr Farrer said it gave him one of the worst nightmares he ever remembered, and what it must have meant to the children doesn’t bear thinking of. Of course this was too much, and he spoke very sharply indeed to Mr Karswell, and said it couldn’t go on. All he said was: “Oh, you think it’s time to bring our little show to an end and send them home to their beds? Very well!” And then, if you please, he switched on another slide, which showed a great mass of snakes, centipedes, and disgusting creatures with wings, and somehow or other he made it seem as if they were climbing out of the picture and getting in amongst the audience; and this was accompanied by a sort of dry rustling noise which sent the children nearly mad, and of course they stampeded. A good many of them were rather hurt in getting out of the room, and I don’t suppose one of them closed an eye that night. There was the most dreadful trouble in the village afterwards. Of course the mothers threw a good part of the blame on poor Mr Farrer, and, if they could have got past the gates, I believe the fathers would have broken every window in the Abbey. Well, now, that’s Mr Karswell: that’s the Abbot of Lufford, my dear, and you can imagine how we covet his society.’
‘Yes, I think he has all the possibilities of a distinguished criminal, has Karswell,’ said the host. ‘I should be sorry for anyone who got into his bad books.’
‘Is he the man, or am I mixing him up with someone else?’ asked the Secretary (who for some minutes had been wearing the frown of the man who is trying to recollect something). ‘Is he the man who brought out a History of Witchcraft some time back — ten years or more?’
‘That’s the man; do you remember the reviews of it?’
‘Certainly I do; and what’s equally to the point, I knew the author of the most incisive of the lot. So did you: you must remember John Harrington; he was at John’s in our time.’
‘Oh, very well indeed, though I don’t think I saw or heard anything of him between the time I went down and the day I read the account of the inquest on him.’
‘Inquest?’ said one of the ladies. ‘What has happened to him?’
‘Why, what happened was that he fell out of a tree and broke his neck. But the puzzle was, what could have induced him to get up there. It was a mysterious business, I must say. Here was this man — not an athletic fellow, was he? and with no eccentric twist about him that was ever noticed — walking home along a country road late in the evening — no tramps about — well known and liked in the place — and he suddenly begins to run like mad, loses his hat and stick, and finally shins up a tree — quite a difficult tree — growing in the hedgerow: a dead branch gives way, and he comes down with it and breaks his neck, and there he’s found next morning with the most dreadful face of fear on him that could be imagined. It was pretty evident, of course, that he had been chased by something, and people talked of savage dogs, and beasts escaped out of menageries; but there was nothing to be made of that. That was in ‘89, and I believe his brother Henry (whom I remember as well at Cambridge, but you probably don’t) has been trying to get on the track of an explanation ever since. He, of course, insists there was malice in it, but I don’t know. It’s difficult to see how it could have come in.’
After a time the talk reverted to the History of Witchcraft. ‘Did you ever look into it?’ asked the host.
‘Yes, I did,’ said the Secretary. ‘I went so far as to read it.’
‘Was it as bad as it was made out to be?’
‘Oh, in point of style and form, quite hopeless. It deserved all the pulverizing it got. But, besides that, it was an evil book. The man believed every word of what he was saying, and I’m very much mistaken if he hadn’t tried the greater part of his receipts.’
‘Well, I only remember Harrington’s review of it, and I must say if I’d been the author it would have quenched my literary ambition for good. I should never have held up my head again.’
‘It hasn’t had that effect in the present case. But come, it’s half-past three; I must be off.’
On the way home the Secretary’s wife said, ‘I do hope that horrible man won’t find out that Mr Dunning had anything to do with the rejection of his paper.’ ‘I don’t think there’s much chance of that,’ said the Secretary. ‘Dunning won’t mention it himself, for these matters are confidential, and none of us will for the same reason. Karswell won’t know his name, for Dunning hasn’t published anything on the same subject yet. The only danger is that Karswell might find out, if he was to ask the British Museum people who was in the habit of consulting alchemical manuscripts: I can’t very well tell them not to mention Dunning, can I? It would set them talking at once. Let’s hope it won’t occur to him.’
However, Mr Karswell was an astute man.
* * * * *
This much is in the way of prologue. On an evening rather later in the same week, Mr Edward Dunning was returning from the British Museum, where he had been engaged in research, to the comfortable house in a suburb where he lived alone, tended by two excellent women who had been long with him. There is nothing to be added by way of description of him to what we have heard already. Let us follow him as he takes his sober course homewards.
* * * * *
A train took him to within a mile or two of his house, and an electric tram a stage farther. The line ended at a point some three hundred yards from his front door. He had had enough of reading when he got into the car, and indeed the light was not such as to allow him to do more than study the advertisements on the panes of glass that faced him as he sat. As was not unnatural, the advertisements in this particular line of cars were objects of his frequent contemplation, and, with the possible exception of the brilliant and convincing dialogue between Mr Lamplough and an eminent K.C. on the subject of Pyretic Saline, none of them afforded much scope to his imagination. I am wrong: there was one at the corner of the car farthest from him which did not seem familiar. It was in blue letters on a yellow ground, and all that he could read of it was a name — John Harrington — and something like a date. It could be of no interest to him to know more; but for all that, as the car emptied, he was just curious enough to move along the seat until he could read it well. He felt to a slight extent repaid for his trouble; the advertisement was not of the usual type. It ran thus: ‘In memory of John Harrington, F.S.A., of The Laurels, Ashbrooke. Died Sept. 18th, 1889. Three months were allowed.’
The car stopped. Mr Dunning, still contemplating the blue letters on the yellow ground, had to be stimulated to rise by a word from the conductor. ‘I beg your pardon,’ he said, ‘I was looking at that advertisement; it’s a very odd one, isn’t it?’ The conductor read it slowly. ‘Well, my word,’ he said, ‘I never see that one before. Well, that is a cure, ain’t it? Someone bin up to their jokes ’ere, I should think.’ He got out a duster and applied it, not without saliva, to the pane and then to the outside. ‘No,’ he said, returning, ‘that ain’t no transfer; seems to me as if it was reg’lar in the glass, what I mean in the substance, as you may say. Don’t you think so, sir?’ Mr Dunning examined it and rubbed it with his glove, and agreed. ‘Who looks after these advertisements, and gives leave for them to be put up? I wish you would inquire. I will just take a note of the words.’ At this moment there came a call from the driver: ‘Look alive, George, time’s up.’ ‘All right, all right; there’s something else what’s up at this end. You come and look at this ’ere glass.’ ‘What’s gorn with the glass?’ said the driver, approaching. ‘Well, and oo’s ‘Arrington? What’s it all about?’ ‘I was just asking who was responsible for putting the advertisements up in your cars, and saying it would be as well to make some inquiry about this one.’ ‘Well, sir, that’s all done at the Company’s office, that work is: it’s our Mr Timms, I believe, looks into that. When we put up tonight I’ll leave word, and per’aps I’ll be able to tell you tomorrer if you ‘appen to be coming this way.’
This was all that passed that evening. Mr Dunning did just go to the trouble of looking up Ashbrooke, and found that it was in Warwickshire.
Next day he went to town again. The car (it was the same car) was too full in the morning to allow of his getting a word with the conductor: he could only be sure that the curious advertisement had been made away with. The close of the day brought a further element of mystery into the transaction. He had missed the tram, or else preferred walking home, but at a rather late hour, while he was at work in his study, one of the maids came to say that two men from the tramways was very anxious to speak to him. This was a reminder of the advertisement, which he had, he says, nearly forgotten. He had the men in-they were the conductor and driver of the car — and when the matter of refreshment had been attended to, asked what Mr Timms had had to say about the advertisement. ‘Well, sir, that’s what we took the liberty to step round about,’ said the conductor. ‘Mr Timms ‘e give William ’ere the rough side of his tongue about that: ‘cordin’ to ’im there warn’t no advertisement of that description sent in, nor ordered, nor paid for, nor put up, nor nothink, let alone not bein’ there, and we was playing the fool takin’ up his time. “Well,” I says, “if that’s the case, all I ask of you, Mr Timms,” I says, “is to take and look at it for yourself,” I says. “Of course if it ain’t there,” I says, “you may take and call me what you like.” “Right,” he says, “I will”: and we went straight off. Now, I leave it to you, sir, if that ad., as we term ’em, with ‘Arrington on it warn’t as plain as ever you see anythink — blue letters on yeller glass, and as I says at the time, and you borne me out, reg’lar in the glass, because, if you remember, you recollect of me swabbing it with my duster.’ ‘To be sure I do, quite clearly — well?’ ‘You may say well, I don’t think. Mr Timms he gets in that car with a light — no, he telled William to ‘old the light outside. “Now,” he says, “where’s your precious ad. what we’ve ‘eard so much about?” “‘Ere it is,” I says, “Mr Timms,” and I laid my ‘and on it.’ The conductor paused.
‘Well,’ said Mr Dunning, ‘it was gone, I suppose. Broken?’
‘Broke! — not it. There warn’t, if you’ll believe me, no more trace of them letters — blue letters they was — on that piece o’ glass, than — well, it’s no good me talkin’. I never see such a thing. I leave it to William here if — but there, as I says, where’s the benefit in me going on about it?’
‘And what did Mr Timms say?’
‘Why ‘e did what I give ’im leave to — called us pretty much anythink he liked, and I don’t know as I blame him so much neither. But what we thought, William and me did, was as we seen you take down a bit of a note about that — well, that letterin’—’
‘I certainly did that, and I have it now. Did you wish me to speak to Mr Timms myself, and show it to him? Was that what you came in about?’
‘There, didn’t I say as much?’ said William. ‘Deal with a gent if you can get on the track of one, that’s my word. Now perhaps, George, you’ll allow as I ain’t took you very far wrong tonight.’
‘Very well, William, very well; no need for you to go on as if you’d ‘ad to frog’s-march me ’ere. I come quiet, didn’t I? All the same for that, we ‘adn’t ought to take up your time this way, sir; but if it so ‘appened you could find time to step round to the Company orfice in the morning and tell Mr Timms what you seen for yourself, we should lay under a very ‘igh obligation to you for the trouble. You see it ain’t bein’ called — well, one thing and another, as we mind, but if they got it into their ‘ead at the orfice as we seen things as warn’t there, why, one thing leads to another, and where we should be a twelvemunce ‘ence — well, you can understand what I mean.’
Amid further elucidations of the proposition, George, conducted by William, left the room.
The incredulity of Mr Timms (who had a nodding acquaintance with Mr Dunning) was greatly modified on the following day by what the latter could tell and show him; and any bad mark that might have been attached to the names of William and George was not suffered to remain on the Company’s books; but explanation there was none.
Mr Dunning’s interest in the matter was kept alive by an incident of the following afternoon. He was walking from his club to the train, and he noticed some way ahead a man with a handful of leaflets such as are distributed to passers-by by agents of enterprising firms. This agent had not chosen a very crowded street for his operations: in fact, Mr Dunning did not see him get rid of a single leaflet before he himself reached the spot. One was thrust into his hand as he passed: the hand that gave it touched his, and he experienced a sort of little shock as it did so. It seemed unnaturally rough and hot. He looked in passing at the giver, but the impression he got was so unclear that, however much he tried to reckon it up subsequently, nothing would come. He was walking quickly, and as he went on glanced at the paper. It was a blue one. The name of Harrington in large capitals caught his eye. He stopped, startled, and felt for his glasses. The next instant the leaflet was twitched out of his hand by a man who hurried past, and was irrecoverably gone. He ran back a few paces, but where was the passer-by? and where the distributor?
It was in a somewhat pensive frame of mind that Mr Dunning passed on the following day into the Select Manuscript Room of the British Museum, and filled up tickets for Harley 3586, and some other volumes. After a few minutes they were brought to him, and he was settling the one he wanted first upon the desk, when he thought he heard his own name whispered behind him. He turned round hastily, and in doing so, brushed his little portfolio of loose papers on to the floor. He saw no one he recognized except one of the staff in charge of the room, who nodded to him, and he proceeded to pick up his papers. He thought he had them all, and was turning to begin work, when a stout gentleman at the table behind him, who was just rising to leave, and had collected his own belongings, touched him on the shoulder, saying, ‘May I give you this? I think it should be yours,’ and handed him a missing quire. ‘It is mine, thank you,’ said Mr Dunning. In another moment the man had left the room. Upon finishing his work for the afternoon, Mr Dunning had some conversation with the assistant in charge, and took occasion to ask who the stout gentleman was. ‘Oh, he’s a man named Karswell,’ said the assistant; ‘he was asking me a week ago who were the great authorities on alchemy, and of course I told him you were the only one in the country. I’ll see if I can catch him: he’d like to meet you, I’m sure.’
‘For heaven’s sake don’t dream of it!’ said Mr Dunning, ‘I’m particularly anxious to avoid him.’
‘Oh! very well,’ said the assistant, ‘he doesn’t come here often: I dare say you won’t meet him.’
More than once on the way home that day Mr Dunning confessed to himself that he did not look forward with his usual cheerfulness to a solitary evening. It seemed to him that something ill-defined and impalpable had stepped in between him and his fellow-men — had taken him in charge, as it were. He wanted to sit close up to his neighbours in the train and in the tram, but as luck would have it both train and car were markedly empty. The conductor George was thoughtful, and appeared to be absorbed in calculations as to the number of passengers. On arriving at his house he found Dr Watson, his medical man, on his doorstep. ‘I’ve had to upset your household arrangements, I’m sorry to say, Dunning. Both your servants hors de combat. In fact, I’ve had to send them to the Nursing Home.’
‘Good heavens! what’s the matter?’
‘It’s something like ptomaine poisoning, I should think: you’ve not suffered yourself, I can see, or you wouldn’t be walking about. I think they’ll pull through all right.’
‘Dear, dear! Have you any idea what brought it on?’ ‘Well, they tell me they bought some shell-fish from a hawker at their dinner-time. It’s odd. I’ve made inquiries, but I can’t find that any hawker has been to other houses in the street. I couldn’t send word to you; they won’t be back for a bit yet. You come and dine with me tonight, anyhow, and we can make arrangements for going on. Eight o’clock. Don’t be too anxious.’ The solitary evening was thus obviated; at the expense of some distress and inconvenience, it is true. Mr Dunning spent the time pleasantly enough with the doctor (a rather recent settler), and returned to his lonely home at about 11.30. The night he passed is not one on which he looks back with any satisfaction. He was in bed and the light was out. He was wondering if the charwoman would come early enough to get him hot water next morning, when he heard the unmistakable sound of his study door opening. No step followed it on the passage floor, but the sound must mean mischief, for he knew that he had shut the door that evening after putting his papers away in his desk. It was rather shame than courage that induced him to slip out into the passage and lean over the banister in his nightgown, listening. No light was visible; no further sound came: only a gust of warm, or even hot air played for an instant round his shins. He went back and decided to lock himself into his room. There was more unpleasantness, however. Either an economical suburban company had decided that their light would not be required in the small hours, and had stopped working, or else something was wrong with the meter; the effect was in any case that the electric light was off. The obvious course was to find a match, and also to consult his watch: he might as well know how many hours of discomfort awaited him. So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being. I do not think it is any use to guess what he said or did; but he was in a spare room with the door locked and his ear to it before he was clearly conscious again. And there he spent the rest of a most miserable night, looking every moment for some fumbling at the door: but nothing came.
The venturing back to his own room in the morning was attended with many listenings and quiverings. The door stood open, fortunately, and the blinds were up (the servants had been out of the house before the hour of drawing them down); there was, to be short, no trace of an inhabitant. The watch, too, was in its usual place; nothing was disturbed, only the wardrobe door had swung open, in accordance with its confirmed habit. A ring at the back door now announced the charwoman, who had been ordered the night before, and nerved Mr Dunning, after letting her in, to continue his search in other parts of the house. It was equally fruitless.
The day thus begun went on dismally enough. He dared not go to the Museum: in spite of what the assistant had said, Karswell might turn up there, and Dunning felt he could not cope with a probably hostile stranger. His own house was odious; he hated sponging on the doctor. He spent some little time in a call at the Nursing Home, where he was slightly cheered by a good report of his housekeeper and maid. Towards lunch-time he betook himself to his club, again experiencing a gleam of satisfaction at seeing the Secretary of the Association. At luncheon Dunning told his friend the more material of his woes, but could not bring himself to speak of those that weighed most heavily on his spirits. ‘My poor dear man,’ said the Secretary, ‘what an upset! Look here: we’re alone at home, absolutely. You must put up with us. Yes! no excuse: send your things in this afternoon.’ Dunning was unable to stand out: he was, in truth, becoming acutely anxious, as the hours went on, as to what that night might have waiting for him. He was almost happy as he hurried home to pack up.
His friends, when they had time to take stock of him, were rather shocked at his lorn appearance, and did their best to keep him up to the mark. Not altogether without success: but, when the two men were smoking alone later, Dunning became dull again. Suddenly he said, ‘Gayton, I believe that alchemist man knows it was I who got his paper rejected.’ Gayton whistled. ‘What makes you think that?’ he said. Dunning told of his conversation with the Museum assistant, and Gayton could only agree that the guess seemed likely to be correct. ‘Not that I care much,’ Dunning went on, ‘only it might be a nuisance if we were to meet. He’s a bad-tempered party, I imagine.’ Conversation dropped again; Gayton became more and more strongly impressed with the desolateness that came over Dunning’s face and bearing, and finally — though with a considerable effort — he asked him point-blank whether something serious was not bothering him. Dunning gave an exclamation of relief. ‘I was perishing to get it off my mind,’ he said. ‘Do you know anything about a man named John Harrington?’ Gayton was thoroughly startled, and at the moment could only ask why. Then the complete story of Dunning’s experiences came out — what had happened in the tramcar, in his own house, and in the street, the troubling of spirit that had crept over him, and still held him; and he ended with the question he had begun with. Gayton was at a loss how to answer him. To tell the story of Harrington’s end would perhaps be right; only, Dunning was in a nervous state, the story was a grim one, and he could not help asking himself whether there were not a connecting link between these two cases, in the person of Karswell. It was a difficult concession for a scientific man, but it could be eased by the phrase ‘hypnotic suggestion’. In the end he decided that his answer tonight should be guarded; he would talk the situation over with his wife. So he said that he had known Harrington at Cambridge, and believed he had died suddenly in 1889, adding a few details about the man and his published work. He did talk over the matter with Mrs Gayton, and, as he had anticipated, she leapt at once to the conclusion which had been hovering before him. It was she who reminded him of the surviving brother, Henry Harrington, and she also who suggested that he might be got hold of by means of their hosts of the day before. ‘He might be a hopeless crank,’ objected Gayton. ‘That could be ascertained from the Bennetts, who knew him,’ Mrs Gayton retorted; and she undertook to see the Bennetts the very next day.
* * * * *
It is not necessary to tell in further detail the steps by which Henry Harrington and Dunning were brought together.
* * * * *
The next scene that does require to be narrated is a conversation that took place between the two. Dunning had told Harrington of the strange ways in which the dead man’s name had been brought before him, and had said something, besides, of his own subsequent experiences. Then he had asked if Harrington was disposed, in return, to recall any of the circumstances connected with his brother’s death. Harrington’s surprise at what he heard can be imagined: but his reply was readily given.
‘John,’ he said, ‘was in a very odd state, undeniably, from time to time, during some weeks before, though not immediately before, the catastrophe. There were several things; the principal notion he had was that he thought he was being followed. No doubt he was an impressionable man, but he never had had such fancies as this before. I cannot get it out of my mind that there was ill-will at work, and what you tell me about yourself reminds me very much of my brother. Can you think of any possible connecting link?’
‘There is just one that has been taking shape vaguely in my mind. I’ve been told that your brother reviewed a book very severely not long before he died, and just lately I have happened to cross the path of the man who wrote that book in a way he would resent.’
‘Don’t tell me the man was called Karswell.’
‘Why not? that is exactly his name.’
Henry Harrington leant back. ‘That is final to my mind. Now I must explain further. From something he said, I feel sure that my brother John was beginning to believe — very much against his will — that Karswell was at the bottom of his trouble. I want to tell you what seems to me to have a bearing on the situation. My brother was a great musician, and used to run up to concerts in town. He came back, three months before he died, from one of these, and gave me his programme to look at — an analytical programme: he always kept them. “I nearly missed this one,” he said. “I suppose I must have dropped it: anyhow, I was looking for it under my seat and in my pockets and so on, and my neighbour offered me his, said ‘might he give it me, he had no further use for it,’ and he went away just afterwards. I don’t know who he was — a stout, clean-shaven man. I should have been sorry to miss it; of course I could have bought another, but this cost me nothing.” At another time he told me that he had been very uncomfortable both on the way to his hotel and during the night. I piece things together now in thinking it over. Then, not very long after, he was going over these programmes, putting them in order to have them bound up, and in this particular one (which by the way I had hardly glanced at), he found quite near the beginning a strip of paper with some very odd writing on it in red and black — most carefully done — it looked to me more like Runic letters than anything else. “Why,” he said, “this must belong to my fat neighbour. It looks as if it might be worth returning to him; it may be a copy of something; evidently someone has taken trouble over it. How can I find his address?” We talked it over for a little and agreed that it wasn’t worth advertising about, and that my brother had better look out for the man at the next concert, to which he was going very soon. The paper was lying on the book and we were both by the fire; it was a cold, windy summer evening. I suppose the door blew open, though I didn’t notice it: at any rate a gust — a warm gust it was — came quite suddenly between us, took the paper and blew it straight into the fire: it was light, thin paper, and flared and went up the chimney in a single ash. “Well,” I said, “you can’t give it back now.” He said nothing for a minute: then rather crossly, “No, I can’t; but why you should keep on saying so I don’t know.” I remarked that I didn’t say it more than once. “Not more than four times, you mean,” was all he said. I remember all that very clearly, without any good reason; and now to come to the point. I don’t know if you looked at that book of Karswell’s which my unfortunate brother reviewed. It’s not likely that you should: but I did, both before his death and after it. The first time we made game of it together. It was written in no style at all — split infinitives, and every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise. Then there was nothing that the man didn’t swallow: mixing up classical myths, and stories out of the Golden Legend with reports of savage customs of today — all very proper, no doubt, if you know how to use them, but he didn’t: he seemed to put the Golden Legend and the Golden Bough exactly on a par, and to believe both: a pitiable exhibition, in short. Well, after the misfortune, I looked over the book again. It was no better than before, but the impression which it left this time on my mind was different. I suspected — as I told you — that Karswell had borne ill-will to my brother, even that he was in some way responsible for what had happened; and now his book seemed to me to be a very sinister performance indeed. One chapter in particular struck me, in which he spoke of “casting the Runes” on people, either for the purpose of gaining their affection or of getting them out of the way — perhaps more especially the latter: he spoke of all this in a way that really seemed to me to imply actual knowledge. I’ve not time to go into details, but the upshot is that I am pretty sure from information received that the civil man at the concert was Karswell: I suspect — I more than suspect — that the paper was of importance: and I do believe that if my brother had been able to give it back, he might have been alive now. Therefore, it occurs to me to ask you whether you have anything to put beside what I have told you.’
By way of answer, Dunning had the episode in the Manuscript Room at the British Museum to relate.
‘Then he did actually hand you some papers; have you examined them? No? because we must, if you’ll allow it, look at them at once, and very carefully.’
They went to the still empty house — empty, for the two servants were not yet able to return to work. Dunning’s portfolio of papers was gathering dust on the writing-table. In it were the quires of small-sized scribbling paper which he used for his transcripts: and from one of these, as he took it up, there slipped and fluttered out into the room with uncanny quickness, a strip of thin light paper. The window was open, but Harrington slammed it to, just in time to intercept the paper, which he caught. ‘I thought so,’ he said; ‘it might be the identical thing that was given to my brother. You’ll have to look out, Dunning; this may mean something quite serious for you.’
A long consultation took place. The paper was narrowly examined. As Harrington had said, the characters on it were more like Runes than anything else, but not decipherable by either man, and both hesitated to copy them, for fear, as they confessed, of perpetuating whatever evil purpose they might conceal. So it has remained impossible (if I may anticipate a little) to ascertain what was conveyed in this curious message or commission. Both Dunning and Harrington are firmly convinced that it had the effect of bringing its possessors into very undesirable company. That it must be returned to the source whence it came they were agreed, and further, that the only safe and certain way was that of personal service; and here contrivance would be necessary, for Dunning was known by sight to Karswell. He must, for one thing, alter his appearance by shaving his beard. But then might not the blow fall first? Harrington thought they could time it. He knew the date of the concert at which the ‘black spot’ had been put on his brother: it was June 18th. The death had followed on Sept. 18th. Dunning reminded him that three months had been mentioned on the inscription on the car-window. ‘Perhaps,’ he added, with a cheerless laugh, ‘mine may be a bill at three months too. I believe I can fix it by my diary. Yes, April 23rd was the day at the Museum; that brings us to July 23rd. Now, you know, it becomes extremely important to me to know anything you will tell me about the progress of your brother’s trouble, if it is possible for you to speak of it.’ ‘Of course. Well, the sense of being watched whenever he was alone was the most distressing thing to him. After a time I took to sleeping in his room, and he was the better for that: still, he talked a great deal in his sleep. What about? Is it wise to dwell on that, at least before things are straightened out? I think not, but I can tell you this: two things came for him by post during those weeks, both with a London postmark, and addressed in a commercial hand. One was a woodcut of Bewick’s, roughly torn out of the page: one which shows a moonlit road and a man walking along it, followed by an awful demon creature. Under it were written the lines out of the “Ancient Mariner” (which I suppose the cut illustrates) about one who, having once looked round —
walks on, And turns no more his head, Because he knows a frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread.
The other was a calendar, such as tradesmen often send. My brother paid no attention to this, but I looked at it after his death, and found that everything after Sept. 18 had been torn out. You may be surprised at his having gone out alone the evening he was killed, but the fact is that during the last ten days or so of his life he had been quite free from the sense of being followed or watched.’
The end of the consultation was this. Harrington, who knew a neighbour of Karswell’s, thought he saw a way of keeping a watch on his movements. It would be Dunning’s part to be in readiness to try to cross Karswell’s path at any moment, to keep the paper safe and in a place of ready access.
They parted. The next weeks were no doubt a severe strain upon Dunning’s nerves: the intangible barrier which had seemed to rise about him on the day when he received the paper, gradually developed into a brooding blackness that cut him off from the means of escape to which one might have thought he might resort. No one was at hand who was likely to suggest them to him, and he seemed robbed of all initiative. He waited with inexpressible anxiety as May, June, and early July passed on, for a mandate from Harrington. But all this time Karswell remained immovable at Lufford.
At last, in less than a week before the date he had come to look upon as the end of his earthly activities, came a telegram: ‘Leaves Victoria by boat train Thursday night. Do not miss. I come to you to-night. Harrington.’
He arrived accordingly, and they concocted plans. The train left Victoria at nine and its last stop before Dover was Croydon West. Harrington would mark down Karswell at Victoria, and look out for Dunning at Croydon, calling to him if need were by a name agreed upon. Dunning, disguised as far as might be, was to have no label or initials on any hand luggage, and must at all costs have the paper with him.
Dunning’s suspense as he waited on the Croydon platform I need not attempt to describe. His sense of danger during the last days had only been sharpened by the fact that the cloud about him had perceptibly been lighter; but relief was an ominous symptom, and, if Karswell eluded him now, hope was gone: and there were so many chances of that. The rumour of the journey might be itself a device. The twenty minutes in which he paced the platform and persecuted every porter with inquiries as to the boat train were as bitter as any he had spent. Still, the train came, and Harrington was at the window. It was important, of course, that there should be no recognition: so Dunning got in at the farther end of the corridor carriage, and only gradually made his way to the compartment where Harrington and Karswell were. He was pleased, on the whole, to see that the train was far from full.
Karswell was on the alert, but gave no sign of recognition. Dunning took the seat not immediately facing him, and attempted, vainly at first, then with increasing command of his faculties, to reckon the possibilities of making the desired transfer. Opposite to Karswell, and next to Dunning, was a heap of Karswell’s coats on the seat. It would be of no use to slip the paper into these — he would not be safe, or would not feel so, unless in some way it could be proffered by him and accepted by the other. There was a handbag, open, and with papers in it. Could he manage to conceal this (so that perhaps Karswell might leave the carriage without it), and then find and give it to him? This was the plan that suggested itself. If he could only have counselled with Harrington! but that could not be. The minutes went on. More than once Karswell rose and went out into the corridor. The second time Dunning was on the point of attempting to make the bag fall off the seat, but he caught Harrington’s eye, and read in it a warning.
Karswell, from the corridor, was watching: probably to see if the two men recognized each other. He returned, but was evidently restless: and, when he rose the third time, hope dawned, for something did slip off his seat and fall with hardly a sound to the floor. Karswell went out once more, and passed out of range of the corridor window. Dunning picked up what had fallen, and saw that the key was in his hands in the form of one of Cook’s ticket-cases, with tickets in it. These cases have a pocket in the cover, and within very few seconds the paper of which we have heard was in the pocket of this one. To make the operation more secure, Harrington stood in the doorway of the compartment and fiddled with the blind. It was done, and done at the right time, for the train was now slowing down towards Dover.
In a moment more Karswell re-entered the compartment. As he did so, Dunning, managing, he knew not how, to suppress the tremble in his voice, handed him the ticket-case, saying, ‘May I give you this, sir? I believe it is yours.’ After a brief glance at the ticket inside, Karswell uttered the hoped-for response, ‘Yes, it is; much obliged to you, sir,’ and he placed it in his breast pocket.
Even in the few moments that remained — moments of tense anxiety, for they knew not to what a premature finding of the paper might lead — both men noticed that the carriage seemed to darken about them and to grow warmer; that Karswell was fidgety and oppressed; that he drew the heap of loose coats near to him and cast it back as if it repelled him; and that he then sat upright and glanced anxiously at both. They, with sickening anxiety, busied themselves in collecting their belongings; but they both thought that Karswell was on the point of speaking when the train stopped at Dover Town. It was natural that in the short space between town and pier they should both go into the corridor.
At the pier they got out, but so empty was the train that they were forced to linger on the platform until Karswell should have passed ahead of them with his porter on the way to the boat, and only then was it safe for them to exchange a pressure of the hand and a word of concentrated congratulation. The effect upon Dunning was to make him almost faint. Harrington made him lean up against the wall, while he himself went forward a few yards within sight of the gangway to the boat, at which Karswell had now arrived. The man at the head of it examined his ticket, and, laden with coats he passed down into the boat. Suddenly the official called after him, ‘You, sir, beg pardon, did the other gentleman show his ticket?’ ‘What the devil do you mean by the other gentleman?’ Karswell’s snarling voice called back from the deck. The man bent over and looked at him. ‘The devil? Well, I don’t know, I’m sure,’ Harrington heard him say to himself, and then aloud, ‘My mistake, sir; must have been your rugs! ask your pardon.’ And then, to a subordinate near him, ‘‘Ad he got a dog with him, or what? Funny thing: I could ‘a’ swore ‘e wasn’t alone. Well, whatever it was, they’ll ‘ave to see to it aboard. She’s off now. Another week and we shall be gettin’ the ‘oliday customers.’ In five minutes more there was nothing but the lessening lights of the boat, the long line of the Dover lamps, the night breeze, and the moon.
Long and long the two sat in their room at the ‘Lord Warden’. In spite of the removal of their greatest anxiety, they were oppressed with a doubt, not of the lightest. Had they been justified in sending a man to his death, as they believed they had? Ought they not to warn him, at least? ‘No,’ said Harrington; ‘if he is the murderer I think him, we have done no more than is just. Still, if you think it better — but how and where can you warn him?’ ‘He was booked to Abbeville only,’ said Dunning. ‘I saw that. If I wired to the hotels there in Joanne’s Guide, “Examine your ticket-case, Dunning,” I should feel happier. This is the 21st: he will have a day. But I am afraid he has gone into the dark.’ So telegrams were left at the hotel office.
It is not clear whether these reached their destination, or whether, if they did, they were understood. All that is known is that, on the afternoon of the 23rd, an English traveller, examining the front of St Wulfram’s Church at Abbeville, then under extensive repair, was struck on the head and instantly killed by a stone falling from the scaffold erected round the north-western tower, there being, as was clearly proved, no workman on the scaffold at that moment: and the traveller’s papers identified him as Mr Karswell.
Only one detail shall be added. At Karswell’s sale a set of Bewick, sold with all faults, was acquired by Harrington. The page with the woodcut of the traveller and the demon was, as he had expected, mutilated. Also, after a judicious interval, Harrington repeated to Dunning something of what he had heard his brother say in his sleep: but it was not long before Dunning stopped him.
“Montague Rhodes James (1862 – 1936) was an English born medieval scholar and provost of King’s College, Cambridge from 1905 – 1918 and then moved on to Eton College from 1918 – 1936.
“Best known for his ghost stories, M.R. James invigorated the genre by using more realistic and contemporary settings than his predecessors. He is known as the originator of the “antiquarian ghost story.” James published his first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, in 1904. Most of our favorite stories featured here are from this collection.
“Although he is famous for his ghost stories, M.R. James was a formidable scholar and his medieval scholarship is still held in high regard in today’s academic circles.”
As we walk to my house after school, I try to focus on the few positive features of Jennifer’s appearance. Blonde curly locks, decent bone structure, sharp cheekbones and strong legs – probably from being in the hockey team. Her shrill laugh prevents me from finding any more, and I can’t help feeling she uses plurals far too often for someone with a lisp. We approach what I consider to be the walk’s halfway point; a large oak tree growing from Mr Wesham’s garden, its wiry branches curling over his fence and casting shadows onto the pavement like talons. I groan at how lengthy the journey is. When my parents are in a good mood, they drive me to and from school. For the past few years, I’ve walked every day. We cross the street and I catch myself checking behind me, wary of bullies who frequently ambush me around this point. Jennifer looks as though she might ask about my nervousness, so I steady my breath and try to ignore the pain in my side from yesterday’s beating. She’s now talking about the rock patterns she learned in geography, and I’m so disinterested I pretend to see a squirrel.
At the front door, I notice Jennifer’s arms fold around her small chest. I try my best to smile encouragingly, but she is looking through me, biting her nails like a rat. I’m aware my parent’s house isn’t overly impressive, but it’s better than the majority of dumps in this neighbourhood. I consider the possibility that her parents own a mansion, in which case entering our house could be an intimidating step down for her. It dawns on me that I don’t know anything about Jennifer, apart from we have science together and she always offers to do my homework. I cough to get her attention and she looks up pathetically, swooning. Jennifer is quite possibly the least popular person in our secondary school, but given my own social standing isn’t much higher, she was the only classmate I was confident wouldn’t refuse coming over for dinner. She’s also fancied me since we were pre-pubescent. Before we go inside, I insist she takes her glasses off.
The first guest I remember was a boy, seventeen maybe. I was just a child, watching him enter our house wrapped around my mother. They were both stumbling, bellowing an old rock song while my father entered behind them and locked the door. Mum got the guest comfortable in the living room, while Dad took me upstairs and instructed that I was to stay in my room for the night. After he left, I pressed my ear to the dirty carpet and listened to laughter for hours, until all went silent.
I take Jennifer to the kitchen where Dad is chopping vegetables. His beard is unshaven and the bags under his eyes tell me he probably spent the night on the sofa. Jennifer introduces herself awkwardly, and Dad waves without letting go of the knife. I explain that Jennifer will be staying for dinner and his shoulders immediately tense. The chopping stops and he faces me, slowly. My cheeks heat up. I love my father, but his violent outbursts have kept me terrified of him from a young age. Fear wraps around my throat, keeping me silent. The knife glinting in his hand, Dad speaks through gritted teeth:
“I haven’t made enough.”
Jennifer takes a step back. The awkwardness seems to suck all oxygen from the air. I suggest tentatively to my father that as the classmate I’ve brought home is ungodly skinny, half of my portion should be enough to satiate her needs. I’m also fully prepared to spend the remainder of the evening hungry, if needs be. The oven suddenly beeps, dissolving some of the tension. Dad’s cold eyes hold my gaze as he mutters, “Fine.”
He turns round and continues chopping. I’m not sure if I expected more resistance to the suggestion, but Jennifer looks as though her heart is clawing out of her chest, so I invite her to come upstairs.
As we proceed to the second floor, I run the plan over in my head. It is essential that when my mother meets Jennifer, she likes her, if there’s not an immediate spark between the two females, then I am sceptical tonight’s events will even be possible. I approach her bedroom door and hear crying emanating from inside. Dad’s demeanour makes more sense – they’ve been fighting again. Jennifer asks if everything is alright. I ignore her and knock, pretend the sobbing is inaudible. Mum disregards the rap on the door, so I reach out verbally instead.
“What is it boy?” she shouts through the wood.
Jennifer is going at her fingernails again. I respond that I’ve got a visitor with me, a girl from class and, in quickly describing her, even opt to use the word cute, which makes Jennifer pick at her nail polish. There is a beat of silence, after which my mother demands me to leave with the use of several expletives. She also states that she will not be down for dinner, as a sort of rotten cherry on top. I expected more surprise from my parents that I’d brought home a friend, a girl no less, for the first time in my life, but they both seem intensely indifferent, which frustrates me. I retreat from the door and feel my arm touched without consent. Jennifer suggests she go home, maybe we try dinner another time, her house perhaps. My anger is quickly directed towards her, and I speak through gritted teeth that it has to be here, and it has to be tonight. I take her wrist and give a quick tour of the rooms she hasn’t seen, concluding in the living room. I get her comfortable, turn on the TV, and instruct her to watch while I get some things ready.
The second guest arrived a few months after the first, whilst I was asleep. Their drunken debauchery woke me, and I laid in bed listening to muffled sounds of merriment until all went silent like last time. I crawled out of my room and peeked down the stairs, just in time to see my father, shirtless and red, pouring himself a drink in the kitchen.
I head upstairs to the bathroom and raid the medicine cabinet, finding multiple brands of opioids, anti-depressants and muscle relaxers. Some cases are nearly empty, while others still have the plastic wrapped round them. I was hoping it would be obvious which pills were used, perhaps they would be labelled or marked, but it seems I’m going to have to guess. I play it safe and gather several from each case before going downstairs. Dad has left the lasagne cooking in the oven, so the kitchen is clear. I empty the stolen pills onto the worktop, the dozen or so tablets rattling against the marble like Skittles. Attempting to mash them, I grab a fork from the cutlery drawer, and push the metal prongs into the pills. This technique fails, making several shoot across the worktop and fall to the floor. I search the kitchen further and find a rolling pin, and with a bit of force, crush them to a fine powder.
In my peripheral, I note Jennifer watching me from across the hall. I pay her no attention, hoping she’ll lose interest, but her damn curiosity compels her to get up from the sofa and head towards me. She is dangerously close to spoiling everything so, turning my back to her, I quickly shuffle the powder into a pile, and push it towards my cupped hand waiting at the counter’s edge. I feel Jennifer behind me and, in my frantic haste, miss my palm, spilling most of the powder on the floor, right in front of Jennifer’s shoes. Looking up at her, I laugh, in a way I think sounds normal, and am relieved to find naive Jennifer is laughing back.
“Need some help?”
It takes everything in my power not to roll my eyes. I thank her, but insist she stay in the living room. Reluctantly, she obliges, and after she turns, I collect as much of the scattered powder as possible and store it in a drinking glass.
I put the spiked glass back in the cupboard, tucked behind the others. Jennifer is still glancing at me from the other room with a puzzled expression, so I grin and shoot her my first ever wink. Mr Mitchell, the PE teacher, winks at girl students a lot and they seem to like it. Her acne-riddled cheeks turn slightly rosy, and a feeling of panic smothers me like a wet bedsheet as I consider the possibility Jennifer is too ugly for the game. The removal of her glasses was definitely an improvement, but her pointed nose and oily skin is something that can’t be fixed as easily. I think about doing all this for nothing and the pain in my side flares up again.
The third guest I watched arrive from my bedroom window. Dad parked the car while Mum escorted her to the front door. Though it was dark, and rain smeared the glass, I could tell this guest was particularly beautiful. I waited until the silence came, at which point I crept downstairs and peeked into the living room. The guest looked a similar age to the first, sporting luscious blonde hair that looked like it would fall between your fingers like sand. I watched in awe as she moaned and curled her toes, intensely pleasured by something. It turned out that something was my mother, kissing her neck and fondling underneath her shirt. My Dad, sitting on the armchair with a tumbler of whiskey, was too engrossed in the eroticism to notice me. I was nine years old and stupid, so I spoke up, startling all three of them. My Dad didn’t hesitate. He dragged me upstairs and beat me senseless.
Dad, Jennifer, and I are sat around the table eating lasagne in painful silence. Dinners have been like this for months, but a guest being present makes me aware just how awkward the environment really is. Typically, when Mum cooks, Dad doesn’t attend dinner, and vice versa. Normally, I don’t mind their absence, as on the rare occasion they both sit down together, the fighting gets so vitriolic I completely lose my appetite. Tonight however, the three of us were supposed to eat together as a family and marvel at the guest I had brought home. Mum staying upstairs does mean Jennifer and I both get full portions, but the lasagne is poorly made, and I find myself picking at it with my fork.
Jennifer compliments Dad on the meal and he thanks her half-heartedly with no eye contact. I look at the oven clock: 18:30. Jennifer will head home soon. I put my cutlery down and take a gamble, suggest fetching Mum from upstairs. Dad instructs me not to, but I am already on my feet, rambling about leftovers. Dad slams his fist on the table, sending a loud crash throughout the house and knocking over Jennifer’s cup of water.
My cheeks get hot again. I inch back to my chair, too frightened to even glance at him. I briefly consider how uncomfortable Jennifer must be feeling amongst all this, before reminding myself I’m not supposed to care how the guest feels.
As we clear our plates, Dad departs to the living room without a word, leaving me to clean up. It’s now 18:45 and I can read Jennifer’s mind through her expression, as though I’m predicting her words before they destroy the evening. Before she has a chance, I propose she wash the dishes while I make us a special beverage. She looks irritated, but runs the hot tap anyway, enquiring as to what’s so special about the drink. A warm feeling develops in my stomach and spreads through my limbs. The game isn’t over yet. Attempting to come off as suave, I ask her if she’s ever tasted alcohol before, knowing full well the answer is no.
When the fourth guest arrived, I had already hidden myself at the top of the stairs to watch events unfold from the beginning. My parents stumbled inside, manhandling a boy this time, muscular, with a leather jacket. I noticed Mum immediately head to the kitchen and return with drinks for everyone. They had their usual party, filled with dancing, laughing, and kissing, until the muscular guest began getting sleepy and eventually collapsed. My parent’s drunken manner disappeared as though it had never been real, and together they carried him to the dining room, out of view. I sought to follow, but my father’s beatings kept me paralysed at the top of the stairs, where I could only listen to strange sounds echo through the house.
Jennifer is doing her best to scrub old grease from the baking tray, whilst I am standing on a chair in order to reach the top shelf alcohol. So far, my parents have shown no interest in the game I have attempted to set up for them. However, there is still one more opportunity to set affairs in motion: the drinks. The strange purple drinks my mother concocts, are a staple of every rowdy game my parents have played. It seems to awaken something within them, as well as make the guest more visually appealing. From the slits of the banister, I have watched the back of my mother make this drink many times, always with an extra ingredient in the guest’s glass.
Grabbing random bottles, I’m hit with the realisation that I’ve never observed closely enough to learn how the drink is made, I don’t even know what it should taste like. I clamber down, take two glasses, and set about pouring, guessing at the measurements. If the drink isn’t flavoured correctly, will the game still be the same? Mum and Dad may simply roll their eyes if I offer them swill. I open a bottle labelled tequila and am assaulted by its vile smell. Jennifer is now washing her hands behind me. Acting fast, I pour some but not too much. The schnapps isn’t much better, so I add even less. I know Mum uses grape juice to get the purple shade, so I grab it from the fridge and pour a generous amount. My parents’ drinks completed, I grab the glass placed behind the others and make a similar beverage for Jennifer. I learned in school that alcohol dulls your senses, and since that’s more important for the guest, I double the amount of tequila and schnapps.
Jennifer is drying her hands with a ratty dishcloth as I place her drink on the table. Hesitantly, she brings it to her nose, and I watch as she tries her best not to grimace. Jennifer is too naive to realise that her overly polite nature is now putting her in danger, and I decide, definitively, that she was a good choice. She asks what’s in it and I respond that it’s a secret, though I can sense her patience is wearing thin. I take my parents’ drinks in each hand and leave the kitchen, yelling that I’ll be right back. Entering the living room first, I place Dad’s drink on the coffee table. I try get his attention, in the hopes he’ll notice the colour of the beverage, but he ignores me, engrossed in the TV. My dad will only watch films featuring topics he is fanatical over, Formula 1 or gambling usually. Tonight, he is watching Saw. I cut my losses.
Heading upstairs, I decide I have been too coy regarding my intentions and it’s time to enact an alternative approach. Once I present the drink to my mother, I will reveal all of what I have planned and pray, finally, the evening will begin. However, upon approaching my parent’s room, I hear the shower running from the bathroom across the hall. My heart shatters like stain glass. I can’t help but feel Mum’s impromptu shower is the final nail in this plan sized coffin. Jennifer will head home any moment, and I will be left alone, like always. The prelude to the game was an opportunity to bring my parent’s closer together, yet they haven’t said a single word to each other all evening. I trudge down the stairs, still carrying my mother’s poorly made beverage.
I enter the kitchen and am unsurprised to find Jennifer wearing her coat, arms folded and foot tapping impatiently. I shoot her my second ever wink, but her frustration has created a forcefield around her, and she appears to no longer be endeared to my awkwardness. I expect her to shout at me, possibly hit me, but her facade softens, and she thanks me for the evening. I must hide my surprise poorly as whatever my expression becomes causes her to giggle. I laugh back, more normal than last time, and thank her for coming. She invites me over to her house for dinner next week, and as she talks, I notice her teeth are so white and straight, yet she doesn’t wear braces. She strokes her undeniably nice hair behind her ear and for some reason I accept her invitation. There is a loud visceral splat from the TV behind me as someone’s head is crushed between the jaws of a homemade bear trap, yet I find myself disinterested. Jennifer reaches into her coat pocket and puts on her glasses, which magnify her eyes comically. I am about to compliment their deep shade of blue, when I see her pupils have dilated to roughly three times their original size. Alarmed, I look past her and notice the glass on the table is empty.
I eventually lost count of how many guests my parents brought home. Instead, throughout my upbringing I sat at the top of the stairs and paid attention to the constants. The guests were always teenagers. They were always beautiful. Dad always showed them around the house while Mum made drinks comprised of alcohol, grape juice and, for the guest, crushed pills. Dad always sat in the armchair, whereas Mum shared the sofa with them so she could get nice and close. Depending on how long it took for the pills to take effect, my mother’s playful kissing with the teenager sometimes evolved to intensive dry humping. After the guest fell unconscious, they were always carried to the dining room where the game proceeded out of my view. I never saw any of these beautiful guests again, and as I grew older, rumours surrounding disappearing teenagers became more frequent around town. However, I paid little attention to these rumblings and focused on the one constant that mattered to me: for the few days that proceeded the game, my parents were nothing like their usual selves. They smiled for no discernible reasons, included me in their conversations, and rarely laid a finger on me. In those fleeting moments of post-game bliss, I tasted the nectar of a happy childhood, and the more games they played, the more I hungered for the next one.
Jennifer’s face has changed to one of worry. She is speaking directly to me, but her words are so mumbled and gravelly I can’t understand her. I hold her by the shoulders, lie that she’ll be fine, but I can see how scared she is by her trembling lips. She pushes past me and begins stumbling her way out of the kitchen, leaning against walls for support. I follow closely, racking my brain to come up with a solution, a cure, but all I can think is the purpose of the guest’s drink is to knock them unconscious, and I’ve never seen anyone wake back up. She climbs the stairs, heading for the bathroom I presume, clutching at her neck like she’s gasping for breath whilst also trying not to vomit. I watch from below as she ascends the steps like they’re a stormy mountain ridge, clinging to the banister for dear life. Just as she nears the landing, her muscles give out from under her and, in what feels like slow motion, she tumbles backwards, falling heavy through the air until her spine collides with the bottom steps and her head splits open like a melon.
She’s still alive. I think. Her eyes are closed, but the index finger of her left hand is twitching like a panicked family member trying to wake her. A small pool of blood begins to form around her head, dyeing her nice blonde hair a sticky, unpleasant orange. In this lighting, I see Jennifer is prettier than I originally thought. Mum appears first, fresh out the shower and only wearing a towel. She gasps upon seeing the blood and starts shouting to me about Jennifer’s parents, though I’m not really listening. Mum’s raised voice brings Dad through from his film. Like me, he stares at Jennifer’s body as though he’s seeing her for the first time. I’m suddenly aware of Mum watching me, my hand specifically, still holding the purple drink I made her. Her words begin to trail off until we are left with silence. There is an energy in the air, fizzing between the three of us, and it’s not an awkward feeling like the dinners we’ve grown used to. It’s something instinctual, an unspoken understanding between kin. Mum looks down at Jennifer and then turns to Dad, gazes at him in a way I haven’t seen since I was a boy. She descends the remaining steps, crouches, and runs her right hand through the pool of Jennifer’s blood before standing back up and caressing the liquid across his cheek. My Dad tenses up and shuts his eyes, shuddering as the blood-soaked hand is caressed across his body. I stand there, chewing my fingernails like a rat and longing to be on the upstairs landing, out of sight. I consider calling an ambulance for Jennifer, but the way my parents are connecting paralyses me. This was the plan, wasn’t it? Mum remembers me and halts her passionate movements. She takes the beverage from my hand and drinks, scowling at the taste. Her voice now smooth as lustrous silk, she asks my father:
“Do you think he’s old enough?”
My dad looks into my eyes in the same terrifying way he does before he hits me.
Before Jennifer, it had been years since my parents had brought a guest home. I know now that’s why their marriage was failing. It wasn’t about the killing or the mutilation, it was about the pleasure of experiencing those thrills together. Re-living their youth through these teenagers while indulging in the power of robbing it from them. That night, my Mum made us all purple drinks which tasted infinitely better than mine. Afterwards, as a team, Mum and I carried Jennifer to the dining room, while Dad brought up a large sheet of tarpaulin from the cellar to lay her on. Jennifer woke up briefly, giving me an opportunity to thank her for everything she was about to do for our family, at which point, the game began. For the first time, I was more than an observer, I was a participant. My parents were happy and more in love than I had ever seen. My mother’s natural beauty radiated, and was brought out all the more by the blood smeared across her face. While my father, who had always been an aggressive man, showed a softer hand to both women than I knew he was capable of.
Matt Anderson graduated from Falmouth University with a First Class Honours in Creative Writing in 2023. He has written and directed two well-received plays: Shotgunned (2023) and Diagnosed (2018). He has enjoyed writing short horror stories for several years and is yet to be published.
Trigger warning: child death, sexual abuse, suicide
This time the house made the headlines. It’s gone too far, I thought.
They found the body of a woman. The purple marks on her throat blended with the light falling through the stained-glass window—green on her cheeks, red on her forehead. She was lying on her back a few steps from the heavy, wooden front door, arms outstretched on the porcelain tiles with an elaborate geometrical pattern—black diamonds, orange squares, and blue florettes matching the irises of her open, bloodshot eyes.
That’s how the ghosts welcomed her.
The title read Unexplained Death at Site of Gruesome Family Tragedy. Below the first paragraph, there was a top of her head—a selfie she posted before going to the house. I scrolled down. Shit. I’ve seen her before. Of course, I did.
It’s none of my business—none, I told myself, not believing that for a second. There was nothing I could do, sitting in a tiny restaurant in Brussels, chewing on a luscious piece of grilled fennel, a glass of white wine in hand, with my phone ringing—perhaps a hearing in Paris, a summit in London, a conference in Rome—anything, anywhere. At last, I was in demand.
“How are you holding up?” It was just Iona, actually.
“Oh, don’t give me that!”
“We’ve made some excellent progress with that dick, Richards.”
“Dick Richards? Like Richard Richards?”
“What? N—no, Iona, are you just being a pain now?” I chewed a little, knowing she hated the sound. “We’ll push through. He’ll sign on. We’ll have an official consultant, and Mary will win her case.” I chewed some more. “Maybe.”
“Yeah, not what I was asking about.”
“Oh, sorry. You don’t care that Mary will put her piece-of-shit husband behind bars?”
“No, that’s great, hun, more power to you. I’ve seen the articles, though. You know, about the house?” She paused and the sounds of the restaurant around me grew louder for a moment. “I—um. I talked to Mark, and he says there’s more the press hasn’t gotten a hold of yet. They—eh—found a child too, a girl in the—”
“Yeah, yeah.” I waved at the waiter, squeezing the phone between my chin and shoulder and finishing up the wine. “Gotta go.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Bye, miss you,” I drawled. “Take care.”
I hung up. A child. Perhaps that was inevitable. I should have known. Her mother should have known. What the fuck was she thinking?
It was on them, I told myself. It was on them.
It was strange that I hadn’t thought about the house in days, but this morning, I woke up remembering the warm light flooding the bedroom in May, the leaves dancing behind the glass. There was that armchair in the corner, a perfect spot by a bookcase. It was hard to believe that sitting there on the day, you could see his body hanging from the beam by the door—head tilted, muscles loose, a ragdoll of a man.
I blame photographers—they make cursed moments last.
And the girls were beautiful—feet light on the wooden floors, laughter filling the rooms. That’s how they should be remembered. But he stuffed them into the large chest in the corridor like an old pair of shoes. That sight was impossible to forget—always the first image that came to mind.
I looked up at the waiter. “I’m just—just paying?” I said, voice breaking. I cleared my throat and pushed the card towards the man.
“Yes, that’s a—” he leaned forwards to take a closer look “—a subway card. Glasgow, I believe?”
I blinked and stared. “Ah, so it is. Sorry.” I reached into my bag. “I’m—”
“That’s perfectly fine,” he said in warm tones.
“Is it? So you don’t actually need to be paid?” I chuckled, but the gasp on the inhale was sharp and wet. Maybe with a better delivery the joke would have worked. “Sorry.”
“Should I come back later?”
“No, it’s alright.” I found the bank card and tried to hand it to him. “Some bad news.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” He motioned me to tap the card on the machine.
“Yeah, well—nothing much, really.” I tapped, heard it beep, and really wanted to shut up. “I’m—well—I guess I’m—” The right word eluded me. “—done.” I let out a nervous laugh. “It’s all fun and games until people start dying.”
He began to look distressed.
“It’s fine, you know. If you—when you—live with something long enough, it becomes a part of you and it’s alright. Fine, to a point.” What? “It’s—”
I stared at him. “Yeah. Yeah, sure, why not?”
He handed it to me with a polite smile, and tears started to prickle my eyes.
I scratched my forehead to hide my face. “Th—this?” I pointed at the empty plate. “Delicious, by the way. One of the best meals I’ve ever had.”
“Oh, thank you.” He nodded.
I was doing great. “Yeah,” I said, reaching for a napkin to wipe my eyes. “I—I love Brussels. That square? A fucking delight.”
“Sure,” he said, tone measured, gaze flicking around the restaurant—only four tables around us, some people already staring.
“Sure, yeah.” My eyes burned again, and I let out a few pathetic wheezes. “All good, uh.” I raised my hand to reassure him. “I’m leaving, don’t worry. You don’t have to—” I wasn’t sure what he didn’t have to do. “Almost ready, I swear.”
Back at the hotel, I scrolled through the forum again. The photo of the dead woman on the floor was still on top. The number of responses tripled. Some stupid kid set up the page after staying at the house for the night years ago. That was while the place was first empty—before it was sold, resold, and resold again. Before it was left alone—again, because it had to be. His story went almost-viral—viral enough for Iona to send me a panicky text when she came across it, anyway.
A surreal experience, to read his description of the hall—the bare, wooden steps, the iron balusters, a broken key sitting in the door of the old cupboard—exactly where I left it. My hand shook as I scrolled down to the bunch of images he uploaded—old furniture, dimly lit rooms, time standing still. And then there was the story itself. When the sun began to set and the low, orange light drifted down the handrail until the darkness settled in, he heard little feet running down the stairs—light, then louder. “Mum, Mum’s here,” my children sang, as if they expected me where he stood. Two tiny shadows froze halfway down the stairs, heads tilting at the sight of him. The sound of them crying kept him awake all night.
The speculations about “the mother” kept the forum alive—a mysterious disappearance, a victim of unusual circumstances, a selfish monster, whatever they liked. “He probably offed the girls after the missus left his sorry ass,” GhostWhlore23 wrote under the photos she found in the attic—my husband in the armchair, my girls under a blanket by the fireplace, and me, planting new bulbs amongst a bunch of daffodils. My smiling face featured in top posts for months.
“Why won’t you do something?” Iona asked back then.
I was sick every time I opened the page, yes. But I soaked up every word. I read and reread every story. I liked to pretend they were made up. That’s what ghost stories are, after all—pure fiction.
A dark-haired woman reported seeing a little girl in the garden—a shadow over the grass, nothing more. But then, as she walked along the path, a cold, tiny hand slipped into hers.
“Come back home,” the girl pleaded. “Come with me.”
What woke her up at night was not a sound, nor a feeling of somebody being in the room, as was commonly the case, but a hand running up her thigh, a movement underneath the duvet, a freezing tongue sliding into her mouth, muffling her scream.
She tried to fight him off, pushing against an unmoving chest, a hard weight pressing down on her. He moved away, an outline of a man sitting on the bed.
“There were no eyes,” she wrote. “He was nothing but a dark stain. But I knew he was staring at me. His shoulders dropped. He wanted her. But it was just me. A stranger.”
“What we’re doing here is no better than playing a tourist at somebody’s funeral,” she wrote later. “Actual people died. Let them be.”
“Or not be,” Cursed_Starburst_69 added in his reply.
Those posts sure made rounds. They attracted even more visitors.
The police shut down the forum after the murder. They found the photo of the woman on the floor—uploaded before any emergency numbers were called. The woman, a frequent poster, was wearing my clothes and make-up, whatever was still left at the house. Everybody felt like children caught smoking at the back of the school.
If other groups started, I couldn’t find them. The house stood there—unobserved, alone.
More would come. More would always come.
And that meant one thing.
“You’re going back there, aren’t you?” Iona asked when I showed up at the door. It was early. My bag weighed on my shoulder. “You won’t even stay?”
“No, I—” I peeked at our bright, Glasgow flat, the tall bay windows blinking at me from behind her wavy hair.
“You want to say goodbye?” Her jaw was clenched, chest pushed forward—ready for battle. I appreciated that.
“What can I say?” I shrugged. “It’s—it’s unfortunate. Mary deserves better, for once.”
“Yeah, she does.” She nodded with suppressed fury. “And what about you? Not to mention—I don’t know—me?”
“You’ll be fine,” I said, looking away. “Keep track of her for me, ok?”
“Yeah, I know.” I moved closer, expecting her to step back, but she didn’t. I hugged her—a fluffy jumper, the smell of morning coffee—and held on. And then I kissed her, with feeling, as someone who considered staying with her surely would. And, for a second, I did consider it. Staying with her would have been so, so easy. I fought hard to hold back the tears. “We had a good run,” I managed to say.
“Fuck you. Seriously, fuck you,” she whispered into my ear.
The winding path was overgrown, but not unlike what I remembered. The gate was broken. That’s how they got in, through a narrow gap between the iron bars, then blocked by the council with a fence panel, soon ripped off again. Police tape waved in the wind.
Behind another turn, the house emerged—granite shimmering in the evening light, three steps leading to the door, barren stone urn planters on each side.
A deep breath. My legs refused to climb, throat dry, heart pounding. Whispers behind the door grew louder. I squeezed the round handle, hand slippery with sweat.
The door opened with a creak—the corridor shrouded in darkness, windows covered by thick curtains, air heavy with dust. The light from the stained-glass window was shining bright, colours changing at the back of my hand—red, green, red. My shoes clicked on the porcelain tiles with an elaborate geometrical pattern—black diamonds, orange squares, and blue florettes. I pushed a strand of my dark hair behind my ear and waited as the sound of small, running feet grew louder—on the floor above me, then down the stairs.
“Mum!” they shouted. “Mum’s here.”
And the heavy steps of a man followed, a dark stain in a slow descent.
I smiled with effort, wondering if it even made a difference at this point.
My children grabbed onto my legs, and my husband stepped towards me, hugged me so hard—hands squeezing, the hall shrinking—I could no longer breathe.
At last, we were at peace.
Hana Carolina is a pseudonym of an Edinburgh-based creative and academic writer. She studied Scottish and English literature, Film and Television for many years, and wrote a thesis about the psychology of emotional responses to fictional characters. In love with the gothic atmosphere of Scotland, she moved out of Poland as a teen and now balances her old and tired Polish identity with a messy mix of Scottish and British. She worked as a tutor, interpreter, researcher, and published academically while dreaming of writing dark stories about horrible people.
Basking under the rays of the hot Mediterranean sun, Marina stretched out her browning arm and sighed in contentment. She couldn’t stop herself from admiring the new, diamond-encrusted band on her finger joining the much bigger glittering rock. If only her mother could see her now, toned and taut in a bikini on the pristine pink sand, a glamorous married woman. How her mother would seethe and rage with jealousy.
But Marina’s mother wouldn’t ever see her daughter living it up with her new husband at the swanky all-inclusive resort. Marina had seen to that.
Frank returned a few minutes later, tropical drinks sweating in his hands. “There was a line at the bar. Some entitled prick insisted on Grey Goose, and the bartender had to run inside for it.” His handsome brow furrowed at the retelling.
Marina thought that Frank himself could act pretty entitled, insisting on changing rooms when they arrived due to the whine of the air conditioner when that’s just what air conditioners sounded like, but she nodded in sympathy. “Thanks for this,” she said, taking a dainty sip and closing her eyes at the rush of sweetness. It was a slippery slope between acting fun and drinking cocktails while maintaining her hard-won figure. She estimated that she could consume this one indulgence and maybe a vodka tonic during the day and remain within her calorie limit as long as she stuck to a dry salad for dinner. Frank said he liked seeing her eat heartily, but he also hadn’t known her as a teenager, back when her mother disciplined her if ever she strayed from a restrictive diet. Back when her thighs chafed together on a hot day and her belly strained against her jeans, threatening to burst them open.
“You’ll never be beautiful, Marina, and you’re far from clever. The best you can hope for to get a man is to be thin,” her mother always said, as if getting a man was the only goal for which Marina should strive. In spite of her mother’s dictum, Marina gorged herself whenever she could, stealing money from her mother’s purse and running down the street to the bodega, where she’d load up on pints of Ben & Jerry’s and potato chips to binge secretly in her room.
How she had hated her mother’s punishments after being caught. Her mother installed a lock on the outside door of her room in their small apartment, and Marina would survive for days on nothing but tepid diet ginger ale and saltine crackers, forced to use a cut-open gallon jug as a toilet.
When she disobeyed, her mother wouldn’t even allow her to go to school, so Marina fell further and further behind in her studies. She barely graduated from high school for all the days she missed, but her mother had won: Marina was thin.
As they lay listening to the crash of waves, Frank stroked Marina’s arm. “I was thinking you could wear that red dress to dinner tonight.”
Marina knew he wanted to strut her around, a piece of arm candy, letting all the other men in the resort ogle her and envy him. She suspected Frank married her for what he believed she represented: youth, beauty, and privilege. He didn’t know how hard she worked to project these qualities, from lying about her age and background to how much time she spent on her beauty routine. He was pushing forty, and she was only twenty-eight, but her forged driver’s license claimed twenty-three. The story that her parents died in a car accident after she graduated high school was far more palatable than the truth, that she left her mother in a bathtub in rural Pennsylvania, half a bottle of prescription pills crushed into her wine glass, before fleeing to California.
Her mother got it wrong—Marina was clever, after all.
Later, long after they’d lain down in the mahogany four-poster bed for the night, Marina awoke in darkness. They’d left a window open rather than use the AC, and the cool breeze fluttered the gossamer curtains. Frank, glutted with Ouzo and rich food, snored away, but Marina ate little that night, her tight dress allowing only bird-like portions. But Frank had dug in heavily, sweating away, tearing into the souvlaki and moussaka with a vigor that matched the way he ripped off her dress. He’d torn the fabric in his frenzy, but he said he’d buy her another. That’s what men like Frank did: destroyed what they believed belonged to them without any thought to their carelessness.
Marina briefly entertained the idea of leaving Frank in a bathtub, all that booze and a handful of Oxys in his system. Frank knew he shouldn’t mix, but he complained often about his old football injury and wasn’t always careful when self-medicating. If she just helped nature take its course… but he didn’t deserve that, not like her mother had.
She pressed her eyelids shut, willing sleep to return, to wake up to another relaxing day on the beach with little to do other than look good for her husband. This is what she wanted, wasn’t it? She had triumphed; she had reeled in her big fish, and now she could reap the fruits of her labor.
But she couldn’t shut her mother’s voice out of her head, the years of criticisms.
She sat up, her eyes popping open. That voice wasn’t in her head; it seemed to be coming from outside.
But it couldn’t be. She was on her honeymoon, and her mother’s voice had been stilled long, long ago.
Louder now, more insistent. Marina knew what happened when she kept her mother waiting.
Silently, she crept to the bathroom, pulled on the lush hotel robe over her silk nightgown, and opened the sliding glass door.
Marina, I’m warning you. Come now.
She stepped onto the sand, cool now under her bare feet, and looked around for the source of the noise. Maybe it was a prank somehow. But who would prank her? Who even knew her former life? All that remained were awful memories and her first name. She liked her name, the one blessing her mother had bestowed amongst everything else.
The stars glittered in the blackened sky, crisper and brighter than they did back home. Marina glanced behind and saw she had traversed the sand maybe thirty yards from her hotel room, yet she had hardly noticed that she kept walking, searching for the source of that beckoning call.
Come to me.
How many times she had heard her mother’s demands over the years, and how many times she had been forced to answer, until that one final night. Her mother enjoyed a relaxing bath, and Marina had made it an eternal one, no longer able to cope.
She’d never looked back—never googled the aftermath, just paid the man she met through a coworker for her new identity and moved on. In the years since she’d left, she worked every job she could find and squirreled away the money she made, living in cramped apartments with several roommates, saving up to afford the breast implants, hair extensions, lip fillers, skin treatments, and designer clothing, transitioning to the glossy version who could catch a rich husband.
A jot of ice hit her as a wave lapped her ankles; lost in thought, Marina had wandered to the coastline. She walked a step closer, up to her toned calf muscles, to see what she could stand, to feel the power and wrath of the sea, and that’s when frigid fingers clasped onto her ankles, pulling her farther from shore.
Come back to me. Her mother’s voice permeated the air around her, seeming to come from all sides, as water filled her mouth. She kicked her legs, trying to right herself, only to be slammed back down by another crushing wave before she could raise her head to gasp for air.
No longer turquoise and charming, the inky sea closed over her. She couldn’t scream, cry for help, or breathe; Marina inhaled salt water through her mouth and nose every time she tried. Despite her rigid exercise regime, her muscles couldn’t overpower the fury of the churning waves.
Her face smashing repeatedly into rocks and shards of shells on the seabed, her skin scraped and chafed. Marina tasted blood in her mouth along with other sour, familiar flavors, ones she hadn’t tasted since Pennsylvania: diet ginger ale and saltines.
Her dead mother was here somehow, exacting her revenge. Marina inhaled more and more saltwater, her lungs burning and her stomach filling as she prayed for a savior that would never arrive. When she killed her mother, she sealed her own fate.
Marina’s heart slowed and stopped, and the blackness of the water enveloped her last shreds of consciousness. Her final thoughts were of her mother and the mistakes they both made.
One night long ago, satiated on wine and flush with money after a successful insurance scam, her mother had stroked Marina’s hair tenderly, the only time Marina remembered a soft touch. “Your name means ‘from the sea,’” she told her.
And to the sea Marina returned, her bloated, decomposing body washed up and discovered weeks later by local children under the blazing sun.
Cassandra O’Sullivan Sachar is a writer and associate English professor in Pennsylvania. Her horror writing has appeared in publications including Ink Stains: A Dark Fiction Literary Anthology, The Horror Zine, The Stygian Lepus, Wyldblood Magazine, and Tales from the Moonlit Path. Read her work at https://cassandraosullivansachar.com/.
There’s a market for just about everything when you get right down to it. People sell cars, kidneys and corneas. Though seldom legally and not always their own. Time, integrity and credibility – there’s a market for all of these; sad reflections of supply, demand, desperation and greed. You could even put a price on even the kind of goods that governments hadn’t paid much attention to since the Inquisition gave religion a bad name.
Toby took another swig from the bottle of Cristal 2008, wondering if Louis Roederer had made the same deal he had. The stuff was so good.
“It’s high enough, if that’s what you’re planning. And you are.”
He flinched – the too familiar voice was reassuring in all the wrong ways.
“What are you doing here, Leza?”
“My job, Toby. I’m doing my job.” The olive-skinned young woman separated Toby from the bottle, sipped and handed it back. “Over chilled, but one must make allowances.”
She’d brought two more bottles with her and placed them on the ground a safe distance from the edge. Dom Perignon and Bollinger. Vintage, of course.
Leza smiled, exposing perfect teeth and a delight in his too-late awareness. But it was the eyes that made Toby shiver. Even in the moonlight the emerald-green irises and the vertical slits of a predator were unmistakable.
“Dibs on the car if you go through with it. Though the odds are you won’t.”
If Toby looked back over his shoulder, he’d be able to see his yellow Murcielago parked illegally in the bus stop. When he didn’t say anything, she asked what he was thinking about. “I wish … I wish I’d read some of the classics at school … it’s bit late for that now, isn’t it?”
She asked if anything in particular had caught his attention. It was a rhetorical question and they both knew it. The wind played with Leza’s wavy black hair. It was hard but he managed to pull free from the temptation.
“Nice view,” she tried a more conventional conversational gambit.
Indeed, the view from Cape D’Aguilar overlooking the South China Sea was very nice. Toby wasn’t the only nocturnal visitor. Couples holding hands and gazing at the full moon or watching huge container ships entering or leaving the Fragrant Harbour. A bearded man with a big tripod and a bigger camera searching for an image he could call his own. An addict pushing a needle into his arm. The junky was in a better mental place than Toby.
Eventually, Toby told Leza he could have learned something from the experience of the good Doctor Faust but literature was never his strong point; he was more of a Minecraft and cocaine kind of guy. At least he had been until the great seduction of ’06.
Leza dropped the pretence she wasn’t getting it. She understood the Faustian reference better than any English literature professor. Of course she did. “So, you made a deal with the Devil?”
“Yeah, though more like with his sales force.”
“I didn’t force you to agree to anything – ”
“But you made it so damn hard to say ‘no’.”
She seemed amused. Irritated too. Toby tried a more direct approach. “Have you tried living without a soul?”
“You’d know if you had. The worst part is the emptiness.”
Leza must be thinking Toby was a few clowns short of a circus. With Tanya off shopping in Milan he could do as he pleased with his nights. Such was the nature of deals with the Devil – scrupulous adherence to the terms of the contract. Along with everything else, Leza had even given him the body and sexual stamina of a man two decades younger than his official forty-three. And the ethics of an alley cat.
“You’ve heard of a Faustian bargain?”
“A strange tale though not entirely accurate. It was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who made the deal. With one of my brothers if you must know. When Goethe realised what he’d done, he wrote the story of Doctor Faust and tacked the bit on the end about getting out of the deal on a technicality. I suggested it, giving him and every other gullible fool who read the story false hope.” The grin spreading across Leza’s face made her look like a mischievous child. She was serious again in an instant. “When you work for the big guy we always deliver on our side of the bargain. We always collect too.”
“A lot of people mispronounce my name. Leza’s not hard but they will insist on calling me Lisa. You were one of the few who got it right from the beginning.”
Toby said nothing for there was nothing to say. No matter how superficially wonderful the rest of his human life, he would spend it anticipating an eternity of damnation. Far too late, Google had led Toby to the truth. Rather than give her the satisfaction of a big reveal, Toby spoke next.
“Leza? Let me guess, Lezabel?” Another rhetorical question. The night was full of them. He polished off the last of the Cristal.
Leza picked up one of the new bottles, Dom Perignon this time. Careful not to shake it, she removed the capsule and loosened the muselet. The cork made a satisfying pop as it came free. After taking the first mouthful she passed him the bottle.
“The wonders of the Internet. Used to be a time when people would spend weeks pouring over dusty books in the library to get to the same point.”
Toby drank deeply and let her talk.
“Succubus if you must know.”
To himself he conceded that sex with Leza had been good, mind-blowingly good, but it had been a one-time deal. Once she had his name on the contract there was nothing else she wanted from him. So she’d disappeared leaving Toby to rattle around Hong Kong getting rich, getting laid and not getting the important shit until too late.
“They all say that but I’ve never understood what you mean by –”
“Emptiness? It’s like a part of me is no longer here, that … I’m no longer touching life.”
He picked up the empty bottle and tossed it into the night, unable to tell if he’d pitched it far enough to reach the ocean instead of the jumbled rocks at the base of the cliff. “I could have walked out. I should have. But, if I recall correctly, Faust escaped.”
The sound of the bottle hitting the rocks was lost in the noise of the surf breaking against the land.
Toby sat down on a flat piece of stone. The night breeze took the edge off the summer heat and humidity making it quite pleasant until Leza squeezed her perfect body in beside him. Now he cringed from the contact he’d once craved.
“You know what Camus said. That famous quote of his?”
Toby didn’t, so she told him.
“Guess I’ve got that one solved then.”
“Being bitter won’t change anything.”
“Why do you care?”
She was silent for so long he thought she was going to refuse to answer. “Care? I don’t care for you. Of course I don’t. You’re just another greedy selfish human, another project, but I do care about my reputation. And my boss’s. We deliver. All the things you were promised you’ve got and will continue getting right up until the end. It’s bad for business if people decide not to hang around long enough to collect in full.”
That was pretty cold and he said so.
“Says the man who took twenty percent off the earthquake relief fund as an ‘administration fee’.”
“I’d give it all away for a new deal.”
She laughed then, peal after peal of delighted amusement following the late bottle into the night.
“The boss doesn’t do refunds. It’s not like the contract comes with a cooling off period – once you’ve signed on the dotted line it’s a done deal.”
“Faust got out of his bargain.” Toby came back to that, clinging to the illusion of hope. “I don’t suppose you’d tell me how. The story was short on detail.”
“I’ve already told you. Goethe was bullshitting when he wrote that nonsense about Faust getting into heaven – it was just a ruse to get more people to sign their afterlife away. Leaving the skybayers with a delusion that piety will save them. Works too,” she said with a quick grin. “Watching people scramble for false hope is entertaining, though it gets tiresome listening to lawyers trying to pick the contracts apart.”
Her phone pinged and Toby caught a glimpse of a happy face emoji. After reading the message Leza directed Toby to look further along the cliff to the southeast. He turned just in time to watch someone take a step into emptiness. The man didn’t scream on the way down and he definitely didn’t clear the boulders. The mess would have been horrible but Toby’s thoughts were on the not-woman he was sitting hip to hip with.
“How did you –”
“Andariel. One my sisters. It’s always good to see the family handiwork. Reminds me why I’m alive but she’ll be boasting about it for weeks.”
“So why aren’t you –”
“Giving you a metaphorical push? Not my style. Not ethical either.”
“An ethical demon.”
“Succubus,” she reminded him. “Demons are something else as you’ll find out eventually. Or sooner if you choose.”
Toby thought Leza would walk away after she’d enjoyed his misery and look for another soul to harvest. He wasn’t expecting so much as a smile or a backward glance. Why would she waste time on a man whose humanity had already been reaped?
“Faust wasn’t lucky. He was fiction, Toby. Fictional characters don’t go to Hell, but you will. You can take the leap and make the trip now or hang around enjoying yourself until your liver calls it quits. Your call. I won’t stop you but you’ll be missing out on whatever pleasure you can wring out of your remaining existence on this side. There’s no compensation on the other.”
Having done the research, Toby knew that ‘Faust’ meant ‘fortunate one’. The punch-in-the-gut irony wasn’t lost on him. Toby could pray for the nothingness of metempsychosis when his heart stopped but everything he’d learned suggested that would be a waste of whatever time was left to him.
“Jump if you want. If you don’t care nobody else will. So go ahead, make the journey a bit sooner, but think about what you’re leaving behind.”
And he did. All those zeros at the bottom of the bank statement, the mansion on the Peak, the Swan yacht at Monaco, the trophy wife, trophy mistresses in three cities and all the rest of that shit … But they didn’t mean much. He was rattling around in a gilded cage, going though the motions. He’d traded away the only thing he could take with him beyond the grave for trinkets.
They sat watching the full moon sliding its way across the night sky until the last bottle was empty. When he got up she followed him back down the hillside to the waiting car.
“Give me a lift?” Leza was slipping into the bucket seat and rearranging the rest of the bottles before he could tell her to get lost. As he stabbed the ignition button, she put on some music; AC/DC. “My theme song,” she shouted.
Toby loved the roar of the 6.5 litre V12. And the kick as he was pushed back into the hand-stitched leather seat. Even more, Leza’s squeal of delight as he accelerated through the corner aiming straight at the retaining wall.
At least the wretched succubus wouldn’t be getting his car.
Simon Berry is a recovering lawyer who calls Hong Kong home. His short stories have been published in CultureCult, Mystery Tribune, MetaStellar and numerous Hong Kong Writers Circle Anthologies. His novels A Wasting Asset, and A Debt To Pay are available on Amazon. He is working on his next novel.
Victor played the aliens every night, partially to make me upset.
He never said as much to me, but it was easy to tell from the way he smirked at me when I walked in; sitting in front of them on his little stool, he would watch as my face became distorted in discomfort when I heard him hit the next note. I was too tired to hide it. But it was all I gave him for months. I learned the joy of being silent.
The worst part was that he was marvelously good, and there wasn’t enough room in the shack for me to not listen. Lying exhausted in my bed, I heard the sounds through the thin wall, punctuated with Victor’s laughter. At first, to distract myself, I made up histories for him: a gifted marimba player, spoiled by his parents, teachers and friends. A manipulative musical prodigy who had used his talent to get out of tricky situations. A man with a knack for rhythm as his only redeeming factor.
That one was more a fact than a history. I would sit outside and watch the sand dunes on my day off. Watch the little scorpions crawl, the few vultures circling above. Watch the smoke and exhaust from the mines drift up to meet the piercing blue sky.
Try to think of anything else, when there isn’t much to think about.
Before the aliens, Victor used to toy with me for a little while. I’m not sure whether I managed to spoil his fun by no longer reacting to finding a tiny scorpion in my meal, finding a giant spider in the outhouse, or other such sophomoric tricks, or whether he bored of it on his own. Mercifully, he wasn’t home in the evenings for a little while. I slept better, even drew up some plans for improving our one source of running water. Not something Victor would let me do, but if he kept being away, I might be able to do it in two nights, or even over one if my day off was after. Of course, the aliens arrived soon after, and Victor was home again every night with his new torture opportunity.
Do all sentient beings, or even some non-sentient ones, have the concept of dignity? Perhaps it overlaps quite a bit with survival factors, and not appearing weak or wounded. I think the aliens were conscious of dignity, though. Even chained all together like a prison gang, it wasn’t long before I no longer heard the snuffling sounds that I registered as crying, the sounds that evoked such pathos in me. Nor did they utter the cries of pain that clashed with the soft notes of the sticks bouncing off their skulls. Victor did not let me alone with them, but kept them locked in his room, and brought them out to the tiny “living room” space that abutted the front door. A few times I had stopped in the room to watch, as if perhaps bearing witness would make such difference. Their faces were slightly wider than tall, and they had what looked like short snouts for noses. They were only about a foot tall and very hairy. Almost like a teddy bear, with such striking brown fur. It was fortunate they could breathe our atmosphere, but they couldn’t really exert in it. I imagine they must have had even more trouble with the heat than we did. Victor had tried anyway and they had wheezed and fainted. I had wanted to examine their crashed ship, but Victor had lit it on fire: fairly ineffective to the exterior, but efficiently destructive of the interior. He had made them watch. The hollowed-out thing stood next to the shack as some perverse trophy of his possession.
You have to understand, being enslaved and depending on someone to provide your needs wears you down. Especially when you’re fairly isolated. It was hard to communicate with anyone else when you worked the mines, since the foremen took glee in watching you suffer, screaming at you to shut up. Of course I had fantasized endlessly about killing Victor. I disgusted myself with how soon I turned toward desires to behave like him. Grinding his genitals under my feet while he screamed, stopping only when they were unrecognizable. Tying him down and flaying him, slowly, as if with loving care, draping myself in the bloody flaps of his skin. Making him cry and beg, watching his eyes go wide in terror, soiling his pants in autonomic abandon. But I knew how quickly that would be turned around on me. If he didn’t report for work one day to the job he loved for allowing him to terrorize and maim others, suspicion would be turned on me. I was not ready to die. It had been nine months, but I still held out hope for rescue. It was theoretically possible, but extremely unlikely. The way our ship had crashed, it killed everyone else on board. From afar, one would think no one had survived it. But I had wedged myself under the console, shaking, and the odds had landed in my favor, as I pushed my hands out hard to hold myself in the little square space as the ship landed at nearly a 45-degree angle. I watched them slide and scrabble, their hands hitting the floor uselessly and finding no purchase on the smooth material. I couldn’t hold my hand out to save them without knowing I would slip down with them and die too. The survivor’s guilt and the nightmares might have done me in, but even in their panicked eyes, I saw them see me, take reassurance in their last moments that I might live. Or that’s what I told myself. Hardly a way to know. But after three months of watching and hearing Victor’s abuses of the aliens, I felt the fire of rebellion beginning to warm the edges of my cold, tired soul.
As I heard the music drift through the shallow wall each night, I became caught in its web, like a spider’s prey. I tapped along, became lulled into an almost drugged sort of state. I hadn’t heard music in so long. We were not allowed to sing when we worked the mines. My brain flooded me with chemicals and I desperately clung to the small joy of hearing harmony and rhythm, syncopation and composition. When Victor stopped, I drifted back into myself. I became terribly nauseous as the full weight of remembering how the music was made slammed back into me. Sometimes at first I vomited, but I learned to stop myself, since I wasn’t getting much more food. Choking on bile and self-disgust, I returned to my Victor-killing fantasies, soothing myself to sleep with the idea of one day using his skull as a cup.
And then came the day number 32 died.
Names were for people. Names were for the foremen, smacking their batons into their soft palms, breathing rancid air down your neck. For the men who saw an exhausted worker, his breath coming in wheezes, as an opportunity to exert his power. A man who had been sick for a week, who stopped to sit for a moment because he could stand no longer; his head in his hands, hunched over, heaving with effort to breathe.
“Hey!” The foreman walked up to him and yelled. Startled, the worker’s head snapped up, a strangled noise coming from within. The foreman locked eyes with him; in a movement so swift it seemed surreal, he cracked the worker’s skull with his baton, his arm swinging down from on high. Then it is over; the worker has fallen over, does not stir. The foreman slips his baton into his belt loop. He laughs aloud, looking down at the pitiful emaciated pile of flesh and blood in front of him. He picks up one of the body’s thin arms in his huge hands and drags it out of sight, disappearing briefly into the horizon, before he returns an hour later, boozed up and cackling, wielding the baton to watch the workers jump when he approaches.
I was shaking with adrenaline when I came home, and I heard a note or two as I opened the door. Victor swiveled his head around, boasting his usual shit-eating grin, and my blood boiled. I ignored him, and calmly walked into the small kitchen area to pick up the iron skillet. I was just around a small corner where he could no longer see me. I wrapped my hand around its handle, used the other to run my fingers over its worn surface. How strange, the way I could wield this tool of life, of nourishment: how I could bend its unyielding shape to my will, make it an instrument in opposition of its purpose. I only hesitated a moment before I shot out from behind the corner. Victor turned his head, and the pan collided with his face. I heard the sick crack of his nose breaking. I dropped the skillet, panting, flinching at the thud it made hitting the ground. Victor was still alive, but his eyes were closed and his head dropped, a groan of pain escaping him. I kicked him in the chest to lay him out flat, backwards. He wheezed in a way eerily similar to number 32, and bile rose in my throat. He opened his eyes to look at me, and tried to move his body; I put my foot on his chest. He fell back obediently. Blood ran from his nose and from his mouth. I saw it pooled in there when he opened it just slightly enough to say “fuck you.”
“It’s my turn, fucker,” I said, and stamped on his nose, his anguished cries becoming their own music in my ears. Each cry a punctuation of sound; each cry a beautiful counterpoint to the notes he played on the aliens’ heads. I moved my foot and stomped on his genitals as a high-pitched whine escaped him, and he began to shake with sobs. After my leg tired, I went back into the kitchen, grabbing the prep knife. He was only making small, pathetic, mewling sounds now. I knelt down and opened one of his eyelids. A bloodshot brown thing, iris swollen, but when I held the knife out so he could see it, he made a louder moan, and once again tried to move. I raised my arm up high and arced it down into his belly, the satisfaction of the feedback of the flesh filling my body, as he yelled. I laughed. I started laughing maniacally, losing control of myself, reliving the kitsch horror movies I’d seen to distance myself from the reality, while sucking the joy in like a vampire as I stabbed him relentlessly, sinking the blade into his torso over and over, until it was a bloody mess tangled with his shirt and he lay still. I put my ear to his bleeding lips to satisfy myself that he wasn’t breathing. Exhaling, I put the knife down, shaking my arms to get rid of excess blood. I looked over at the aliens, who sat watching me in their chains. Eight pairs of eyes steadily trained on me, but they had not made a sound.
I rose to my knees slowly, shakily, and braced myself against the wall until I reached the small kitchen table. I grabbed Victor’s keyring from the table and knelt back down slowly to unlock their chain. Once free at the end, as each one stepped out of it, it freed the next one. The eight of them, an octave of suffering, shook themselves and looked up at me, and the door, which I threw open. I gestured around the apartment. “You’re free,” I said. “Take what you want.” I picked up a packet of the gruel mix Victor had been using to feed them, and tried to hand it to one. It saw it, then looked away. I placed it on the floor in front of it. It stepped over it carefully, looking at its comrades, and then it walked to the door. Each one of them followed, but one after another, mirroring the line they had been held in in captivity. Emotions churned inside me; I reminded myself that they may have no meaningful way to communicate their thanks, and they were deeply traumatized. I let my spirits lift at knowing I had freed them. Then the last one in line turned around and met my eyes. Held my gaze for a moment. Then, in an expression it must have learned from Victor over the months, it spat with vituperative abandon in my direction, a small bubble of liquid from its dehydrated mouth landing only inches away. It held my gaze a moment more, then turned around and shuffled after its comrades.
I watched them walk out of camp, heading west. Still in their straight line, they strode off as if they knew where they were going, as if they’d find food and water before the desert wore them down. I knew little about their physiology, but I knew walking would take two days to the nearest other camp, which I had never bothered to try; in the hot desert sun, I’d get near death, and there was no reason to believe anyone in the next camp would take pity on me or share a resource as limited as potable water.
I realized I had started to shake violently.
Bracing myself against the door, my mind exploded in on me. My initial thoughts of what the fuck, I freed you, I didn’t expect anything other than your thanks – were interrupted by a deeper understanding unfolding itself, forcing its way up from my subconscious. As if they had finally communicated by telepathy, I heard them speak to me, like light washing over the dark glass. Mind to mind, face to face.
You are no hero. Our freedom was an afterthought. As though such catharsis could be anything more than temporary; as if making us bear witness to the perverse cycle of violence could make us feel whole again.
My heart was racing. My anger rose within me, pushing back at the sanctimonious sentiment. I walked over to Victor’s body, unbuttoning my shorts, and urinated on his corpse, watching the yellow stream mix with and run over the drying blood.
It was only after I lie down to sleep that sobs wracked me, erupting out of me like a wracking cough. I caressed Victor’s prize pistol, molding my hand around its shape. I begged sleep to come; the oppressive silence weighed down on my chest, heightened the stifling heat. A strange knife of regret twisted within me before piercing my heart completely. There would be no more music.
Sarah Klein is a queer disabled poet and fiction writer whose previous flash fiction has been published extensively at 365tomorrows.com. When she’s not reading or writing science fiction, she is caring for her two cats (named after sci-fi characters of course) or participating in mutual aid work.
The ship on which Theseus sailed … was preserved by the Athenians down to the time of Demetrius Phalereus. They took away the old timbers from time to time, and put new and sound ones in their places, so that the vessel became a standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel.
–Plutarch, “The Life of Theseus,” The Parallel Lives
We had just buried Nora Naughton. My heart ached at her loss and for the loss suffered by her father, my friend and former teacher, Professor Theodore Naughton. Many had come to Nora’s grave, and several had followed to Theo’s house, but at half past eleven it was only Theo and I who remained. We shared a brandy at his kitchen table, always the Naughton center of activity, and mourned the wonder who was Nora and the way of life she had taken with her. Gussie nuzzled my leg and looked up to me with sad eyes that I assumed were begging for her mistress’s return.
“Poor Gussie,” I said.
“Nora loved Gussie,” said Theo. “And the Gussie before her.”
I chuckled. “What breed is she?” Gussie looked like a cow; she was white with big black patches over her body and another crowning her head.
“Mutt of some kind. Sweet disposition. You see hundreds of dogs look just like her, but they’re only Gussie once the Naughtons get a hold of them.” Theo bit his lower lip and inhaled deep from his nose to stifle his tears. “Ah, shit,” he said.
“I’m sorry, Theo. I’m not here to upset you.”
“Never mind me, Fred. Just realizing that there isn’t any plural form of Naughton anymore.”
I smiled miserably, unable to think of any reply. I had met Theo in ‘33, when chance placed me in one of his European history classes. Cancer claimed Beatrice, Theo’s wife and Nora’s mother, within a year of my knowing him, and the Naughton house became our shared sanctuary through my schooldays and beyond. Nora was six when I met her, fourteen when I enlisted, and the sweetest little girl one could ever wish to see grow up in the years in between. I was Uncle Fred, even when I was still her father’s student, and especially when I remained in town after graduation. My folks were my folks, back home and I liked it that way; Theo and Nora were my family, and I cherished them.
Was only the war that broke me away, and that was nobody’s fault but time and circumstance. Nora wrote me often, as often as any of my best mate’s sweethearts penned them, and Theo usually added his own short note to her envelope. Nora told me about her friends, her education, her first date and first dance. She was like a favorite niece—no, a little sister even—and I was missing her most complicated years. Theo’s letters continued in the vein of our discourse just prior to my shipping off to war: leave town, find a city, get a job, start your life. My uncomfortable pause now steered him back in this direction.
“Any plans?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I had hoped to spend some time with you and Nora before trying anything more productive.”
“You’re an ass, Fred. It’s time you leave me be.”
“Theo, you can’t be serious. Between the time I read her last letter in France and my arrival home, our Nora has left us. I’ve barely got my uniform off, and you’ve barely spent an evening alone.”
“See here, Fred.” He patted the top of my hand and looked me hard in the eyes as he spoke. “I need time alone now. It may sound selfish, but I need to mourn Nora alone. I can’t share that with you.”
“I … I never thought of it that way, Theo.”
“You wouldn’t.” He smiled. “You’re good people, Fred. Your only thought is for me. Well, hate to be selfish, but so’s mine at the moment.”
“This is your opportunity, Fred. Go to some city. Philadelphia, New York, hell, Washington even. Find yourself a career, build yourself a nest egg. I’ll write you.”
Gussie nudged me from under the table and I sneaked a biscuit into her mouth. “I’ll try, Theo.” I was surprised at how my throat tightened. “But I’m sure going to miss Gussie.”
So I took Theo’s advice, went to New York, took a room on West 22nd in Chelsea, and fell into an entry level position in advertising at one of the monthly magazines. I put in my time, secured my position, and exchanged letters with Theo all the while. After a year at my desk I had earned a week off and I knew exactly where I was going to spend it. Theo was teasing some great surprise: I suspected he had found a friend, if not for himself maybe just for Gussie, but I never could have guessed what he had really found.
I journeyed with hope for it was Theo who had sent me away and Theo who now called me back. I recalled how well he had handled the death of his wife, but he was a younger man then and had little Nora at his side cheering him. I did my best to squelch images of squalor and loneliness. I made sure Theo knew exactly when I was to arrive, so that if he had gone to the devil he could spruce up—not for my benefit, but to avoid any embarrassment himself. My mind busied itself the entire journey, by rail and then foot when the familiar white wood-sided cottage finally presented itself before me. His yard seemed well maintained, reasonable lawn, manicured bushes, a good sign. I glanced up at the little window over the front door—Nora’s window—stepped in under the gabled roof, took a deep breath, and knocked at Theo’s door.
Yes, I knew it wasn’t Nora, except that the little golden blonde-haired girl was her spitting image of a few years ago, right around the time when I had joined the army. I was speechless as she curtsied before me, a lifetime and another whole life crammed between years that had suddenly swept away.
“Who might you be?” I asked.
“I am Nora,” she said in no more than a whisper, hesitantly adding, “Uncle Fred.”
At that point Theo rushed towards me at the door, one hand on his pipe, the other extended to steady me.
“Come in, Fred, come in, and have a nip to restore your color. Nora, dear, would you bring us the bottle?”
I waited for the girl to leave the room before grabbing hold of Theo’s shoulder and whispering through gritted teeth, “What have you done?”
Gussie nosed between us, wagging her tail and waiting for my greeting. My mind went blank as I reached into my pocket to retrieve the treat I had brought special for her.
“You gave me the idea last time I saw you,” Theo said, beaming as he did so. “Well, you and Gussie.”
“I don’t understand.” I really didn’t.
“Come in, Fred. Get your coat off, get yourself to the table and have a drink. I’ll explain all.”
“Well,” I said, following Theo into the kitchen. “You seem well.”
“I am, Fred, now I am.” He patted the kitchen table, prompting me to take my seat as he swung around and took his normal position.
“It took many months,” he said. “Thinking of Nora, our Nora, it breaks my heart and will until I lie beside her out on the hill.”
The little girl returned with the bottle of brandy as Theo spoke. He wiggled his fingers over our glasses and she filled each with a small pour.
“I understand,” I said, reaching for my drink. “I’ll always remember her, Theo.” Then, raising my glass: “To Nora.”
“Yes, to Nora, indeed.”
The little girl, this new little Nora, raised her eyebrows at my toast, sucked her bottom lip and refilled our glasses before departing the room with a trailing sigh.
“You see, Fred, I was recovering, bit by bit, day by day, but then I’d find myself away from the house. Going to town, to the bank or barber, to the grocer, and I’d see a little child and that child would snap my heart all over again.”
“I think I understand.” I did. Every little blonde girl in New York stirred my memories of Nora.
“So, I adopted her. It took quite a bit of shopping around, but …”
“Theo, dammit, this is Nora we’re talking about.” At the sound of her name the girl, this stranger, reappeared and filled my glass again. I gave her the side eye until she fell back out of the kitchen, then I leaned across the table, grabbed Theo by his shirt sleeve and whispered, somewhat ferociously: “This isn’t another Gussie, Theo. This is Nora.”
“And so is this.”
“No, Theo.” And again: “What have you done?”
I stayed five days, each of them awkward. I discovered that Theo had adopted this Nora at twelve, though the girl had recently celebrated a birthday. She was obedient, but not without a dark streak that revealed itself once or twice per day. I twice caught her rifling through my belongings, saw her sweep away the remnants of one of Beatrice’s treasured old vases before Theo could notice the accident, and one evening after dinner, as I edged towards the back door for some fresh air, I overheard her using salty language in the company of a neighbor boy with whom she shared a cigarette. There was none of the honeyed whisper she used in Theo’s presence, nor any resemblance to the late Nora’s sweet lilt, as she talked to Chollie about what, or I should say, who, her favorite film starlets were doing. In Theo’s presence she was a fawning little doll, but when he excused himself she dropped all pretense and gave me the feeling that I was unwelcome or at least interrupting something.
The morning of my departure the house was more chaotic than usual and that’s when I caught her slipping a bill from Theo’s wallet. Luckily, Theo had taken a moment to use the wash, so I confronted her.
“What business is it of yours, Uncle Fred? Maybe Papa asked for me to run some errand for him?”
I bristled at her familiarity with Theo and myself. Uncle and Papa.
“Did he?” I asked.
The glint from her eyes as they narrowed behind her mischievous smile sent a shiver down my spine.
“Did he?” she replied.
I said nothing to Theo before I left, and I never would. Theo and I still wrote, but the time between letters lengthened. Theo would update me about Nora’s accomplishments and I responded with single page replies that went out of their way to never mention either Nora.
I knew I should have been happy for them. My best friend had lost so much, was so lonely, and in response he had offered some unfortunate girl a life of comfort that she could never have imagined before coming into his house. The new Nora, whoever she was, would certainly emerge a much better person than she would have under less charitable circumstances. And Theo, either blind to her imperfections or willing to overlook them in order to relive his true daughter’s youth, snuffed out way too soon, was happy. He had made the Naughtons plural again. So why wasn’t I happy?
I visited less often as the months and years passed. I advanced at my job, fell in love with a secretary from Brooklyn, married, moved to Long Island, and we were working at having a child of our own. Nora drifted to the corner of my mind reserved for cherished children’s stories and yesterday’s sports legends. Theo remained my oldest friend, one whose friendship could withstand the passage of time through the ether. I knew he’d be there if I ever needed him, though I realized that every time I did see him, I’d have to come to grips with Nora—both Noras—all over again.
Still, I planned a visit to the Naughtons and, give her credit, my wife was willing to remain behind, allowing me the freedom to live out my past on its familiar terms. Two weeks before my scheduled arrival I received a telegram from Nora informing me of Theo’s death.
I was devastated. I told my wife that I had to move up the timing of my trip and she understood. She offered to accompany me, but did not flinch when I said it was still probably best for me to go alone. I had never actually explained the finer points of Nora to my wife, only because she hadn’t reacted well to the story of Gussie’s background. I thought about this on the train to pay my respects to Theo and decided that I would tell all when I returned home. I think I had restrained myself till now because I didn’t want her to think any less of Theo, who she already found eccentric without even having met him.
I’ll likely recall it as a dreary miserable day, but truth was it was a beautiful spring morning when I arrived at Theo’s house. Once again, the property was well-groomed and the house looked fantastic, somehow something both past and present. Memories place rainclouds over the Naughton home, but in reality the sun brightened the premises.
It had been nearly two years since I had seen Nora, who must have been about eighteen or nineteen now. While I never truly grew fond of the girl, I was curious to see what she looked like, especially since the war had denied me the privilege of seeing my Nora at her age. I knocked at the door and braced myself for the appearance of what would surely be a most beautiful young woman, but the door of Naughton house always opened with surprises.
Here I’ll admit that this is the closest I’ve ever come to fainting. My character had hardened during the war when two Germans fell by my hand and a half dozen of my friends before my eyes. I was far from squeamish. But this?
Then I noticed: Theo’s ear lobes hung a bit too low, possibly a sign of age, but his blue eyes were now brown, and that was impossible, and now that I think of it, he seemed a little taller than I remember from the last time he greeted me.
“That will be all, Papa.”
The Theo-like man turned to Nora and nodded his head. He smiled at me and walked away, a mute automaton for all I could tell. Nora, more beautiful than I even expected, entered and extended her arms, palms up, in what may have been an invitation to a hug, but which I took as a confident expression of voilà!
“I suppose you understand,” she said.
I shook my head in the negative and searched for words. “Understand? No, but I know what’s happened.”
“I had been looking for years,” she said. “This one was the best I could find, and I think he’s rather close, don’t you?”
“Fooled me,” I said. “You didn’t waste any time.”
“He was all picked out. He helped me with Papa’s arrangements last week. Now I’ll only say this once, Uncle Fred, but his name is Silas Wheatley and he ran the general store a few towns over. He answers to either Theo or Papa now.” She smiled. “I’m afraid you won’t find his conversation nearly as stimulating as Papa’s was. Poor fellow barely made it through grade school.”
“But what’s he doing here?” I asked.
“Oh, I married him.” She winked, then turned. “Won’t you come in, Uncle Fred?”
Gussie leapt at my pocket on my way to the familiar confines of the kitchen. I fetched her treat and slid it between her jaws.
“We can speak freely, Uncle Fred. I sent Papa out for groceries. He should be awhile.”
I was still speechless as I fell into my chair. Nora poured me a brandy from the familiar dust-coated bottle before sitting down across from me and smiling. Wantonly.
“It’s unseemly,” I said, my tone hushed despite the promised privacy.
She laughed, shamelessly. “He doesn’t touch me, Uncle Fred. I’d never permit that.”
She shrugged before changing the subject.
“Have you thought of me, Uncle Fred?”
“Really?” she asked. “Really, truly me? Or that goody-two-shoes old and dead Nora.”
“I … I don’t even know anymore.”
She ran her finger along the edge of her glass and smiled, this time without any sense of mockery. “That’s good, I suppose.”
What was I doing here?
“You knew about Nora’s journals, didn’t you?” I nodded. She had turned journaling into a hobby. “She loved you, you know.”
I glanced up from my drink wanting to strike her. This impostor.
“She saved all of your letters from the war. And kept carbons of the letters that she wrote to you. Oh, Fred, she wrote,” my teeth grinding as Nora reverted to her whisper, the tiny voice that approximated her predecessor. “You don’t mind if I call you Fred in my letters, do you? Under the circumstances it sounds so much more natural than Uncle Fred—”
“Stop it,” I demanded.
“Daddy says I should marry, Fred, but I’m not interested in boys—”
“Unless I could find a boy that reminded me just of you.”
I stood so quick that my chair nearly tipped over. Gussie uncharacteristically emitted a low growl. Suddenly I found myself using my shirtsleeve to wipe a tear from my eye.
This one chose the moment to laugh at me.
“Grow up, Fred,” she said, reverting to her unpolished voice.
“Bitch,” I said, under my breath, but audible. The curse only drew more laughter.
“Calm down at least. It should make you feel good.”
I sat back down and composed myself, finally staring across at the impersonator, this charlatan, only when I was sure I would not break down.
“It makes me …” I paused to find the words. “Feel shattered.”
She didn’t laugh.
“She was a hard act to follow,” Nora said of Nora. “You and Theo loved her so much, I was bound to resent her.”
I appreciated Nora’s shift away from mockery. Her words, true words, finally made me consider her side of the story. I reached out and took Nora’s hand.
“Was he a good father, at least?”
“Yes, he was. I wasn’t easy, but he made life better for me. I like to think I improved over time.” She pulled her hand away. “Fewer secrets. Less rebellion. And no more money gone missing,” she added.
I nodded. “What’s your true name, Nora?” It was the least I could ask. I wanted her to understand that I could appreciate her for who she truly was.
“Elodia Conover.” She giggled and I let out a laugh. “A bit much, right? I’ve come to prefer Nora Naughton.”
We shared memories of Theo until the new Theo, Silas, returned. He dropped an armful of brown bags on the counter, kissed Nora’s forehead, and then smiled at me on his way past before making himself scarce. Nora leaned forward to say something, and I bent towards her to hear.
“He simply obeys me,” she said. I was dumbfounded. She saw how I’d been unnerved, and so she added: “You asked me why. Because he obeys me. And while he’s not the brightest match from the box he’s much better at cards than old Papa ever was.”
I departed having made up my mind never to return. I wasn’t sure if I could hold myself to it though. These people were not Nora and Theo, they were strangers. Like a sports team where the players change but the uniforms remained the same. I was visiting Team Theo and Team Nora, Team Gussie even, and I should add that shortly after she growled at me I realized Gussie was now male. Never had been before, but then what did I expect: a twenty-year-old dog?
I recalled the old story of the axe whose head and handle had been replaced over time—was it still the same axe? All of my favorite Naughtons were now gone, but then I still rooted for the Yankees even after DiMaggio retired. And I still appreciated DiMaggio, even out of the public eye, while rooting for his replacements.
At least the kitchen furniture remained the same.
Cliff Aliperti is a Long Island-based writer, who has blogged about classic film for several years at his site Immortal Ephemera. His fiction has appeared in After Dinner Conversation, the Under Review, Fleas on the Dog, and elsewhere. You can find more about Cliff at cliffaliperti.com. Twitter: @IEphemera.
Don’t worry, I’m a doctor. Or at least, I’m becoming a doctor. Though it’s dark in the underground storage of the Ronald Aesthetic Clinic, the starchy fabric of my scrubs and the cold weight of my stethoscope around my neck all remind me that in the light, I look the part. My supervisor, Dr. Ronald, tells me this is half the battle.
Speak of the devil. A small rectangle of green glow bleeds through my pocket. That’s my cue. I stand from the metal folding chair that had been warming under my ass for two hours. Stacks of moldy documents and towering rusted filing cabinets populate the dingy room as I maneuver out to the adjoining stairwell.
“Don’t worry, I’m a doctor” is the mantra I recite to myself on the first day of my unique residency training. Nerves stimulate sweat and jitters I try to shake out as I go up the six stairs to the clinic’s main floor. Before and after pictures line the long hallway to the double doors of the operating room. Faces transform into my professors from med school, my parents, and the patients I will see once I receive my degree. Disdain pulls at their features as they tell me I’m not good enough when I pass by. I stop at the end of the hall and turn back to face them.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “I’m a doctor.” I smile.
The faces transform back to the unrecognizable celluloid compendium of Dr. Ronald’s past patients. Through the OR doors, a newfound confidence floods over me.
“There you are,” Dr. Ronald says. He’s already pulling off his gloves.
The heart monitor beeps steadily and looms over the patient on the table. White, female, late twenties. She is restrained and inert, placid as a sleeping princess. Retractors rest on her cheeks and hold open the skin of her nose, exposing her cartilage and nasal bone like thin strips of fatty steak. I marvel at the red and white of her anatomy.
“Basic rhinoplasty,” Ronald says. He gestures to an instrument stand with a sterile blue covering draped over it like a tablecloth. “Anesthesiologist is down the hall prepping the case for this afternoon. Try not to ask for him. Nurse will be with me for a quick consultation in the office, but I’ll be back to see your progress in twenty minutes.” He leaves.
“Alone at last,” I tell the patient.
My hands run over the tools and I choose a scalpel and forceps. When I speak, I mimic Dr. Ronald’s voice.
“Your file tells me that you opted for the special offer during our consultation,” I say. “Before I begin, I’d like to point out that this operating room has no cameras. This means that no CCTV footage will be taken of your surgery.”
I slice along the lower cartilage on the left side of the patient’s nose and discard the excess tissue into the emesis basin.
“What is the significance of CCTV footage, you ask? It’s a surveillance video that you have a right to access following your surgery should you suffer from any complications post-op. Sometimes, it even is used in legal cases when a deceased patient’s family or loved ones claim the surgeon of negligence.”
Her heartbeat quickens as my scalpel breaks through the upper cartilage into the nasal bone. The hard tissue is too solid to break easily. I trade the knife for a mallet and chisel.
“We’re doing each other a favor.” I sound just like Dr. Ronald. If I look hard enough in my blurry reflection on the stainless steel of my tools, I’d see Dr. Ronald’s face mirrored back at me.
“I get to be in two places at once.” My chisel is lined up with a tough part of her nasal bone. “While I perform your little nose job, I can see a new prospective client at the same time.”
Three leveling pre-strikes of the mallet to the end of the chisel mark the impending fracture. I pull back a little farther the fourth time. Just as the chisel breaks the delicate bone that forms the bridge of her nose, the patient’s eyes open. Wide. She screams, but the respirator down her throat dampens the sound. I don’t worry that she sees me, because I’m no longer an insignificant, unpaid med student who isn’t supposed to be there in the first place. I’m Dr. Ronald.
“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “I’m a doctor.”
Isabel Grey is a writer of speculative fiction, essays, and poetry. Her work has contributed to Ample Remains, The Gay & Lesbian Review, and the upcoming WordCrafter Press anthology, Midnight Roost.
Dennis hurried along the corridor as fast as his overweight frame would carry him. In one hand he held a handkerchief, which he used to dab at the sweat gathering on his forehead. In the other he clutched the briefcase tightly, trying not to think about what was inside.
Dennis was a liquidator, the representative of a firm brought in when organisations failed and their assets needed to be rapidly converted into cash to pay off their creditors. Sometimes this was challenging, for example when a company’s tax-dodging owners had fallen foul of the law and had their assets frozen. For Afterlife Cryonics, its assets being frozen was kind of the whole point.
From the very first moment it had landed on his desk, Dennis had known this would be an unusual assignment. The start-up had been almost entirely funded by the estate of Andrew Carmichael, the deceased animation mogul whose millions had transformed Afterlife from a rather laughable refrigerated shed into a sprawling, state-of-the-art facility. His corpse had been the very first one preserved in the new premises (‘vitrified’ was the correct term, apparently, a flash-freezing process that prevented the formation of ice crystals that would damage the brain and other organs – Dennis liked to understand the organisations he was shutting down, if only out of a sense of guilt). This had attracted a great deal of publicity at the time; but crucially, fatally, not enough new clients.
Then the human trafficking scandal had engulfed the Carmichael family and its coffers had been drained by court costs and settlement fees. Afterlife had found its main funding source had suddenly dried up; the deceased animator had no ink left to sign the cheques. Peterson & Peterson was brought in, and they deployed Dennis to unravel the whole sorry mess, a nightmarish legal tangle that involved transferring dozens of frozen bodies to other cryonics providers or, in the case of those that had encountered financial difficulties, back to their families for burial or cremation.
Carmichael, a legend whose name was synonymous with classic children’s movies like Hansel & Gretel and A Squirrel’s Tale, was one of the many that could no longer afford to stay in the cooler.
Dennis realised he had crushed the handkerchief in his fist, his nails digging into his palm. Ellie loved A Squirrel’s Tale. Watching it with her was one of the few memories of her childhood that was really vivid to him, a precious moment of fatherly connection amidst the blur of work, missed birthday parties, work, skim-read report cards, work, forgotten clarinet recitals, work work work. And what had it all been for? Now his thirteen-year-old daughter was in the clutches of ruthless criminals, and if he ever wanted to see her again, he must pay their grisly ransom.
He thought again about the briefcase, and hurried on.
Carmichael was entombed in Afterlife’s largest ‘long-term care suite’, a chamber the size of a luxury hotel room. At its centre was the gleaming, computer-controlled sarcophagus in which the celebrity’s body had been stored in liquid nitrogen. Dennis thought about the upright metal tanks into which other, less financially endowed customers had been crammed, four complete strangers crushed into an intimate circle until some future civilisation conjured the means (and the desire) to revive them. In the interests of efficient space utilisation, the centre of these tanks housed the clients that could only afford the budget end of Afterlife’s product range, their severed heads stacked inside metal containers the size of wastepaper bins.
Dennis looked at the similarly proportioned, collapsible canister he had removed from the briefcase, and at the diamond-tipped bone saw alongside it. His gaze moved to the cadaver he had unceremoniously ejected from its frozen repose, laid out on a gurney with its eyes peacefully closed and a dusting of ice crystals in its perfectly preserved moustache. Carmichael was oblivious to the fact that his fortune had evaporated like the nitrogen now dissipating around him, and equally unaware that he too would soon be slumming it in economy class.
Dennis picked up the saw and got to work.
It was surprisingly easy to slice through the solidified strata of Carmichael’s throat: flesh, sinew, even the layer of spinal cord at its centre like the filling of a gruesome cake, all yielded to the saw’s serrated teeth. Still Dennis found himself nauseated, pausing repeatedly as he gagged and retched.
When the ghastly operation was finally complete, he sealed the head into the ice-packed canister, twisting the lid to secure it just like the hoodlums had instructed him, once they’d been sure he was paying attention. The sight of his daughter gagged and tied to a chair had affected his concentration for a while; the pistol one of them had held against his kneecap had proved a remarkably effective way of restoring it.
Trying to apply a similar focus to the job in hand, Dennis gripped Carmichael’s now-headless body beneath the armpits, grunting as he began to hoist it back into its hi-tech coffin.
He froze as he heard the sound of approaching footsteps in the corridor outside.
‘I don’t fucking know where it’s gone! Someone must have got here before us.’
In his panic, Dennis had stuffed himself under another gurney, beneath the tarpaulin that had been dumped on it along with various pieces of medical paraphernalia. He could see the woman through a small tear in the fabric; she was talking on a cellphone, and looked like she was having to take great care not to crush the device in her massive, gloved hands. She was colossal, well over six feet tall and built like a professional wrestler, dressed in a terrifyingly professional looking all-black outfit. Dennis was so scared he was worried she’d hear his bones rattling.
‘You tell me! Maybe there’s another streaming service that thinks they can hack someone’s ideas from their dead brain?’
He could hear only her side of the heated conversation. She sounded British, or maybe Australian. She also sounded so angry that she might be about to tear off one of Carmichael’s legs just to cheer herself up.
‘Yes, I can take care of it,’ she snapped. ‘But my fee didn’t include taking out a rival operative, so if I don’t see another hundred Gs hit my account in the next thirty seconds then the deal’s off.’
She hung up, and Dennis’s heart felt as frozen as Afterlife’s clientele as she glanced around the room, listening intently. At one point she seemed to look straight at him, her eyes a shade of blue as piercing as laser sights. He could barely suppress an immense sigh of relief when she stalked out into the corridor.
Moving faster than he’d ever done in his adult life, he squeezed out from under the gurney, carrying his macabre trophy under one arm. He left the bone saw behind, instead snatching up a scalpel from on top of the trolley as though it might offer some protection against a giant hitwoman who probably knew a hundred different ways to (literally) disarm him.
He’d visited the facility several times since being granted special access privileges, but his knowledge of its layout was limited; the only way he knew back to the exit was the same way the woman had gone. He headed in the opposite direction, perspiration dripping into his eyes, trembling so violently he could barely hold on to the scalpel and the plundered cargo. He reached a T-junction, staring in desperation at a signpost that helpfully directed him towards Administration to the left, or to Liquid Nitrogen Storage to the right. He gawped, quaking, unable to decide, breath coming in ragged gasps.
He blinked. Sometimes one’s brain played tricks, and the sound of a rattling radiator or a mewling cat sounded exactly like someone speaking. Pattern recognition, the skills that had helped humans thrive, making sense of the chaos into which we were born without any–
‘I said go right.’
The voice was male, muffled, and seemed to be coming from inside the canister.
Oh god, I’ve finally snapped, thought Dennis. Then he heard footsteps behind him, and a different voice, shouting. ‘Oi, you!’ This voice was unmistakably the woman’s, and the footsteps were suddenly hastening towards him.
‘Just bloody do it, fatso,’ hissed the canister.
He went right.
Liquid Nitrogen Storage turned out to be a very long room, made narrow by the pair of enormous metal tanks along each of its sides. At its other end was a fire exit. Dennis, utilising the closest approximation of a sprint he could muster, had completed about three quarters of his dash for freedom when a gunshot boomed behind him. He yelped and fell forwards, somehow managing not to impale himself on the scalpel as it fell beneath his midriff, the canister rolling away to rest against one of the tanks at his side.
‘Get up.’ He gaped at the black mark the bullet had made on the floor, inches from his staring eyes. He rolled himself awkwardly onto his back, labouring into a sitting position. The woman was striding towards him, a pistol aimed at his face. ‘This body bag was supposed to be for Carmichael,’ she said, nodding at the roll of fabric she was carrying in her other hand. ‘Hopefully it’ll be big enough for you instead.’ She gestured with the gun at the canister. ‘That his head you’ve got there?’
Dennis nodded wretchedly. He knew he should at least try to reason with her, to explain that he wasn’t some sort of enemy agent she needed to eliminate, that he was just an overpaid liquidator who’d been preyed upon because he had access to the facility, knew how to disable its security systems, and would be a convenient scapegoat if the operation went as badly wrong as it was threatening to.
‘Pick it up,’ she said, stopping metres away from him, dropping the body bag on the floor so she could aim the gun with both hands. Dennis’s bowels undulated alarmingly. He was fairly sure she already knew he wasn’t an enemy agent. He was also fairly sure she was going to kill him regardless.
‘Pick up the scalpel instead,’ the canister whispered to him.
Evidently the day’s trauma had unravelled Dennis’s mind. He ignored the imaginary voice as he began to haul himself to his feet.
‘Pick up the scalpel, then take me out of the container.’
When Dennis had been a child, he’d been a huge fan of magic tricks. His parents had bought him a book, which had come with little bits and piece of magical apparatus, like bogus cards and loaded dice and even a top hat. He’d been so excited to show his friends, practising for weeks before he finally presented his magic show in the school playground. They’d all laughed at him, of course, especially when his fat fingers had somehow fumbled the cards, sending a whole deck of identical aces scattering across the asphalt.
One day he’d taken Ellie to a magic show, and she’d loved it. His heart had felt so full and happy it might have burst. He’d even started practising again, hoping to delight her with some sleight of hand of his own. Now he deftly picked up the scalpel as he rose, secreting it in his palm as moved towards the nitrogen tanks. Scooping up Carmichael’s head, he turned to face his assailant.
‘Now give it to me,’ she said, with menace. Her trapezoid muscles were so big that her bulging arms looked as though they were attached directly to her jawline.
‘Don’t you dare,’ snarled the canister. ‘Take me out and put the scalpel against my temple.’
Dennis embraced his insanity. Twisting off the lid, he grabbed a fistful of Andrew Carmichael’s brittle, frozen grey hair, and yanked out the head. He jabbed the scalpel close enough to its skin to draw blood, or whatever cryoprotectant fluid had been pumped into the body in its place. The cannister fell to the floor, scattering fragments of ice around their feet.
‘Don’t move, or I’ll turn his precious brain into a shish kebab,’ Dennis barked.
The woman’s glacier blue left eye twitched, once. Visibly quivering with rage, she replied slowly. ‘And I’ll turn your brain into Swiss cheese if you don’t give that fucking thing to me, right now.’
Dennis paused. Ellie. What am I supposed to do?
‘Press the button on your right,’ said the head calmly. ‘It’s an emergency pressure release valve for the tank.’
If the woman could see the head speaking, she showed no sign. But its voice, a Texan drawl that matched the rare interview footage Dennis remembered seeing of the reclusive Carmichael, was as clear and unequivocal as a Liquidation Notice.
Dennis glanced at the control panel.
‘The big red one,’ said the head witheringly.
Dennis jabbed a pudgy finger into the button, and the woman screamed as a fountain of liquid nitrogen erupted into her face. He stared, horrified, as she staggered backwards, the deadly fluid still gushing into her as though spewing from a hire hose. It vapourised almost instantly, filling the room with swirling gas, mercifully obscuring his view of her as her skin froze, peeled, cracked and split like old parchment, as her hands twisted into beseeching claws as though she was begging the laws of thermodynamics to work differently.
‘Put me back in the container you idiot,’ rasped the head. ‘And get the hell out!’
Dennis scooped up as much of the spilt ice as he could without venturing too close to the still-gushing chemicals, shovelling it into the canister before he stuffed the head back into the makeshift chiller. As he did so he saw that Carmichael’s eyes were closed, the former millionaire’s moustachioed face a mask of tranquility.
If Dennis’s life had been a movie, the head would have carefully laid out its plan to take out the bad guys and recover his daughter safely, asking only that he reunited it with its body in payment. It would have explained how it was able to speak, perhaps that Carmichael’s real body was stored in an underground bunker beneath his mansion, and that the head was in fact a clever robotic fake designed to draw out his enemies.
In a different type of movie, Dennis might have found his daughter already dead, and he and the head would have embarked upon an odd-couple revenge mission, his disembodied companion slung from his gun belt.
But it wasn’t a movie, and the head didn’t speak again while he drove to the meeting point, a seatbelt carefully strapped around the metal capsule. The two thugs honoured their end of the bargain, and brought his daughter along alive and unharmed, wearing a hood over her head. They released her when Dennis handed over the ransom, and he never heard from them again. That was a good enough ending for him, and the greatest magic trick he could imagine.
Jon Richter writes dark fiction, and is the author of four crime thrillers (Chains, Rabbit Hole, Never Rest and Deadly Burial) as well as three collections of short horror fiction (Jon Richter’s Disturbing Works: Volumes One and Two, and his latest release DARK FICTION), cyberpunk thriller Auxiliary, and psychological techno-thriller The Warden.Jon lives in London and loves immersing himself in all things dark and sinister, whether they’re books, films, video games or even board games – any way to tell a great story!
Are you bored with your unlife? Robbing the same cemeteries? Eating the same stiff, over preserved bodies every night?
We have a message for you: You are hot, you are fierce, and you are a goddamn lich lord of the night. It’s time to stop skulking around feeling sorry for yourself. Sharpen your teeth and put on that sexy little number you’ve been saving for a special occasion. You’re about to go out on the town for the best evening of your living death.
Here’s the perfect cocktail recipe to enjoy during your night of debauchery.
Serving Size: 1 (you’ll make sure everyone else is dead soon enough)
3 ounces brain juice
1-ounce fermented toe fungus
A blast of necrotic energy
(Optional) maggots on the rim
Eyeballs for garnish
A splash of club soda.
Step 1: Squeeze juice from a freshly harvested brain into cocktail shaker.
Step 2: Add toe fungus. The more pungent the better.
Step 3: Cover and shake vigorously while invoking necrotic energy from the Dark One. This will chill the beverage with the ice-cold emptiness of death. Or do some doomscrolling on your phone. That works too.
Step 4: Strain mixture into a martini glass. Add as many maggots to the rim as you desire. (Treat yourself!)
Step 5: Poke straw through eyeball to garnish.
Step 6: Top off with club soda.
Step 7: Lounge by the River Styx and drink up, lich.
Tombstone Traveler Weekly (aka Jessica) is a non-profit writer, cancer survivor, and fibromyalgia survivor. She has traditionally published seventeen short works of fiction, one work of poetry, and has won two Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future awards. Website: storiesfromtomorrow.com
His name was Tim, and we met online. After exchanging a few emails, we graduated to text, developing a rapport. He sent me pictures of his fish tank. I sent him links to my favorite memes.
Then a week into texting, my cell phone actually buzzed, sending goosebumps down my spine. Tim was calling in real time. It was a Thursday night in October, and I lay in bed flipping through a copy of Vogue.
Outside, the rain pelted bullets.
When I answered, he said, “Hope you don’t mind my calling without warning, Shazia.”
“Not at all.”
“What are you up to?”
“Um…reading,” I said.
“I like a woman who reads.”
He spoke with the intonation of a hotel concierge, self-assured yet diffident. We drifted easily between subjects. He told me about this documentary he’d recently seen on penguins. I told him about my undergrad days at U-Dub, how I loved the rain.
Tim said he liked the rain but didn’t enjoy driving in it.
My laptop lay open on my bed.
As he spoke, I gazed at his profile pictures on the dating website. His skin was fair, and his green eyes bright. In some pictures he wore glasses. In others, a baseball cap. I clicked through the images and pictured us holding hands. I was short with long hair and a diamond stud in my nose. I squinted at his profile picture again. Would Tim and I match?
We talked about the shows we’d been watching on TV. He asked about my childhood trips to Pakistan, and I told him my memories were vague now. I hadn’t been back in years. Tim grew up in Ohio but he said he’d traveled through Asia in his twenties.
Suddenly Tim said, “So who’s your favorite author?”
Outside, the lightning roared. “Chandler,” I said at last.
“The crime writer? What do you like about his writing?”
Chandler’s stories captured alienation with poetry and depth, but I felt I shouldn’t say this. So instead I said, “The voice.”
We decided to meet for dinner on Saturday at Lemongrass, a Thai restaurant in Santa Monica.
That evening, I watered the plants in the apartment twice, even the ones in my roommate’s bedroom. Sitting in the living room, I watched the news, listening to the story of a girl who’d recently been found strangled in her Encino apartment. The police hadn’t released details about the crime, but it happened just miles away.
Later, I sifted through my clothes anxiously. Finally, I settled on a black dress and sneakers. I added a denim jacket embroidered with orchids that I’d purchased from a thrift store.
Lemongrass was a twenty minute drive from Sherman Oaks.
Driving down the 405, the city’s strange duality hit me again: how it wavered somewhere between a ritzy hotel and a forgotten junkyard.
Exiting on Olympic, my shallow breathing assuaged. At last, I turned into a lot sporting two golden tigers. I walked into the restaurant and found Tim sitting at a corner table. When he stood up, I noticed he was much taller than me and more attractive than I’d anticipated. He wore a black shirt over khakis.
My posture immediately improved.
“Well, you’re a lovely sight,” he said, as I took a seat across from him, lobbing my tote beside me.
“Love your embroidered jacket.”
“I’m into flowers.”
Later when the waitress, a slender woman with long hair and a butterfly tattoo on her wrist, brought out our food, she set the dishes on the table amicably.
“Thanks, Melanie,” Tim said. He gazed at the nametag pinned to her shirt. “You must be new.”
She nodded. “Just started this week.”
“I’m a regular. Get used to seeing me.”
She bowed her head with politeness before stepping away.
Tim spooned a helping of curry onto his plate. “Do you like Thai food?”
“Yes. Maybe even more than Pakistani food.”
I drizzled some hot sauce on my rice while Tim forked the carrots on his plate.
We talked about our hobbies. I shared my passion for knitting and sketching. I wasn’t brilliant at either, but I found these activities soothing.
Tim pulled out his cell and showed me pictures of these balloon sculptures he’d been building at home. Magenta monkeys, rabbits, and elephants lined a bookshelf.
“How’d you get started with this?”
Tim shrugged. “My therapist recommended that I use a creative outlet to release stress. Next thing I knew I was buying a balloon pump. It’s fun.”
Suddenly, Tim produced a pink balloon from his pocket and waved it in the air between us. Then he inflated it with his mouth, and with a few quick twists, turned it into a sculpture.
He handed it to me. “A three-petaled flower for the lady.”
When Melanie placed a check between us, Tim insisted he’d pay.
Peering at me he said, “You do have a lovely face.”
“Thanks,” I said, but a wave of unease coursed through my body.
The front door blew open and a couple wearing matching blue sweaters strolled into the restaurant. They moved so lithely they seemed like ghosts.
It felt as though the room were spinning a little.
“Excuse me. I’m gonna use the restroom.”
Nodding, Tim pulled out his cell again as I reached inside the tote for my make-up pouch.
In the restroom, I glanced at my reflection in the mirror. My face appeared serene but my stomach was in knots. Tim was charming, so what was this resistance I was feeling? I unzipped my pouch and reapplied lip gloss, hoping this gesture would center me.
A moment later, I heard a flush. Then the woman I recognized as our waitress, Melanie, slipped out of one of the stalls.
She smiled at me. Then washing her hands, she said, “Your boyfriend’s cute.”
Startled, I said, “Thanks.”
Glancing at her reflection as she dried her hands, I peered at her silky locks. Her forehead was wide, but she had a babydoll face. Despite my passing unease about Tim, I felt a sudden wave of possessiveness.
Grabbing the pouch, I hurried out the door.
When I returned to the table, Tim was gazing at his cell.
“Rain seems to be clearing.” A moment later he said, “How far along are you on your dissertation?”
“Just wrote a draft of my third chapter.”
“What’s the topic?”
“Progressive expressions of the Islamic veil.”
“You said you traveled through Asia. Have you ever been to the Middle East?”
“Dubai and Cairo.”
Then I said, “How do you like working in a library?”
Soon we headed into the parking lot. The stars blinked in the sky, and I could taste the ocean just a mile away.
“Well this is me,” I said, stopping beside my Nissan.
Suddenly, Tim placed a hand on my waist and leaned in to kiss me.
Startled, I turned my head away.
“Sorry. I thought you wanted me to.”
“I’m very flattered. It’s just that—”
“You don’t find me attractive?”
A lump formed in my throat as I struggled to respond. But the beep of a car unlocking in the distance interrupted us. We turned our heads simultaneously, and there stood Melanie holding a green handbag. Seeing her glance at us curiously, I tugged at Tim’s shirt and pulled him towards me, urging him to kiss my mouth.
When I gazed back in Melanie’s direction, she was slipping inside a white Honda.
Tim’s hand grazed my cheek. “Let’s do this again.”
I nodded. Despite the knotted feeling in my stomach, the evening had been agreeable.
That night, I sat in the living room and annotated a book on veiling. As a child, I once visited Saudi Arabia with my family, where we strolled through the markets amid seas of veiled women. Over the years, I’d learned much about this custom. Yet this practice still seemed as elusive to me as it did during those walks through Jeddah.
Closing the textbook, I reached for my sketch pad and penciled a tree in the foreground of the castle I’d drawn that morning. Shading in the trunk, I thought about looking for love in Los Angeles. At twenty-nine, I wasn’t in a rush to meet Mr. Perfect. I had a dissertation to finish. So why hadn’t I stepped back from the dating game?
When my wrist grew tired, I placed my notepad on the coffee table and reached for my cell. Scrolling through the news, I saw an update on the murder of the girl in Encino.
I clicked on the link, which took me to a picture of the vic–a woman with long hair and dimples. Her teeth gleamed against her pale skin. I could’ve passed her in the market sometime, she’d lived so close. I learned that her name was Stephanie Evans, and that she’d come to California from Arkansas to pursue medical school. In the picture she wore a fitted mini dress, giving the appearance of a woman who didn’t mind a bit of fun.
A wave of anxiety rose inside me reading her story. It made me feel vulnerable, learning that she’d lived so close. To distract myself, I made tea, then strolled into my bedroom.
Changing into my nightdress, I heard a scratching noise outside my window. My roommate, Lydia, worked the late shift at the hospital today and wouldn’t be home until midnight. Feeling my aloneness, I shuddered. I turned off the lightswitch and crept toward the window to peek through the blinds. But hearing a long meow, my whole body shook with relief. My neighbor’s Russian Blue, Benny, sat perched on our patio railing. The little wiseguy had found his way outside again.
The next morning I found Lydia having breakfast at the dining table. She wore a peach kimono, her blond hair tousled. Zach, her fiance, was out of town visiting family, so for a change, she was home on a Sunday.
I poured myself coffee then flopped onto the chair across from her, placing my cell on the table.
“How was the date, Shazia?”
“He’s nice enough.”
She raised an eyebrow. “And the problem was?”
I shrugged, taking a sip. “He just gave off this weird vibe.”
“I thought you guys hit it off on the phone.”
“We did. But he showed me pictures of these strange animal sculptures he’s been building for fun. When he tried to kiss me in the parking lot, I turned my head away.”
“We ended up kissing.”
“How was it?”
“No real sparks.”
Lydia gazed at me absently.
On the table, my cell vibrated. I saw a message from my dissertation advisor confirming our appointment for the next day.
Lydia said, “Interestingly, you said the same thing about Richie, Brad, and Anil–that they gave off a weird vibe.”
It took me a moment to process what Lydia was suggesting, and when I did, I felt a wave of annoyance. Maybe I’d described these guys I’d dated similarly, but they’d all been legitimately off-putting. Richie clipped his toenails in the car at the end of our second date; Brad kept a casual stack of porno magazines in his kitchen like they were copies of The New Yorker; and Anil asked me if I’d consider getting a nose job. I didn’t give these guys a second chance, but who was Lydia to judge me?
“They all sucked.”
“Yeah, but this guy sounds awesome.”
“That in itself is weird.”
Lydia rolled her eyes. “You’re just not ready.”
I took a deep breath and remembered that Lydia’s enthusiasm to find me a mate was a reflection of her longings, not mine. Sitting at her vanity, she loved flipping through bridal magazines.
So I said, “If I seem non-committal, it’s because my dissertation’s hanging over me.”
“Maybe I’m being crabby because Zach’s been quiet since he left town.”
Lydia’s fiance was a yoga instructor whose curly gray hair fell down his back. He’d been an underwear model before he met Lydia, back in the 90’s, and now he was an aging hippie learning to play the Sitar. He wasn’t an Einstein. Sometimes he just forgot things.
“He’s probably busy with family.”
“Sure. But I’m starting to feel like Zach should cut his hair.”
“He told me at our barbeque last week that his hair is a physical manifestation of his growing spirit.”
“Well his spirit needs some conditioner then,” she said, a smile creeping to her lips. “But don’t tell him I said that.”
I laughed as my cell lit up again. This time, the message was from Tim.
Good Morning, gorgeous. How are you?
I should’ve been delighted, but I shuddered.
Later that day, I knitted in bed while listening to Matt Gross, a psychoanalyst whose Youtube videos I sometimes watched. He analyzed current events–especially true crime. Today his post was about the Stephanie Evans case. He summarized what he knew: the vic was a twenty-five year old, single girl pursuing a medical degree. She’d died of strangulation and traces of latex were found on her neck. The police had interviewed her ex-boyfriends, but no viable suspect had emerged, though one of her exes, Brad, had a record for petty theft and bar fights, and Stephanie had once called the police claiming he’d gotten physical with her.
Then I almost dropped a stitch when my cell phone buzzed. It was another message from Tim: a photo of a huge balloon flower captioned, An orchid to match your jacket.
I raced into Lydia’s bedroom.
She sat at her vanity. “Hey lady.”
I told her how Tim complimented the embroidered jacket I wore. Then I showed her his text.
“Creepy, don’t you think?”
She wrinkled her nose. “He just likes you. That isn’t a crime.”
“I don’t trust it. He didn’t seem entirely sincere last night.”
“Who’s sincere on a first date?”
I shrugged. “This balloon feels like a clue to his psyche.”
“Stop playing detective. Enjoy it.”
I gazed at her pleadingly, but this wasn’t the first time she’d accused me of overthinking. A few weeks ago, I’d suspected one of our neighbors, Francesca, the petit Italian beauty with long dark hair, of stealing clothing out of washing machines. She often lingered in the laundry room, complaining about not having a job. I lost a blazer. Then Lydia’s red cardigan mysteriously disappeared. I thought Francesca could be to blame, but Lydia said I had no evidence. Then one day I saw Francesca leaving her apartment in a red cardigan, and I followed her out of the building and accused her. But she vehemently denied it.
Running home I called the landlord.
He said, “I heard about the laundry thefts. It was Gwen, the cleaning lady. The maintenance guy caught her opening a dryer.”
I didn’t buy it. I told him it had to be Francesca.
“Have you lost anything in the last couple of weeks?”
To be fair, I hadn’t.
After that, I tried making smalltalk with Fransesca. But any banter we’d cultivated could not be restored.
Monday morning, I searched for Tim’s Instagram page, wondering if he had a profile. There were plenty of Tim Grubers, but when I found his page, only a few recent posts were visible: a photo of a cake with the caption, “So yummy. Run!” as well as a throwback of Tim kneeling beside a tree on some hiking trail with the caption, “I looked happier here than I feel now.” It made me wonder who took the photo. But scrolling down, another post, dated four years ago, provided an answer: Nastya left me and I’m heartbroken.
It only took a few clicks to determine his ex’s full name was Anastasia Sokolov. She appeared in some old photos: a petite girl with long hair and bright eyes. In every photo I saw of them together, Tim had his arm around her, but she seemed to lean into him awkwardly.
I didn’t find her Instagram page, but there was a profile on Facebook. I couldn’t see much beyond Nastya’s profile picture. It seemed she’d turned her settings to private, a quality of reserve consistent with how she came across in her photos. But under occupation she’d listed “bank teller.”
After breakfast, I drove to campus wondering if Tim had dated much since his relationship with Nastya. I hadn’t yet responded to his texts from the previous day, but learning about his heartache made me feel for the guy. If he hadn’t dated much since the break-up, it explained why he might seem so eager to please.
Should I let myself go on another date?
Exiting on Sunset, I felt myself considering it.
By the time I pulled into the parking garage, I’d talked myself into it.
Turning off the engine, I reached into my tote and retrieved my cell.
Scrolling through my text exchange with Tim, I remembered why I’d agreed to go out with him. He was funny and considerate.
At last I typed, Nice orchid sculpture. How are you today?
Clicking send, I sighed in relief. The unease I’d been carrying around seemed to dissipate.
In Arabic class, I tried focusing but struggled.
Tim’s habit was to respond immediately. But the phone had been silent.
Other students were reaching into their bags and pulling out pens. Coming out of my reverie, I copied. These days I felt a bit suffocated around undergrads. Soon I’d turn thirty. Others my age seemed to be moving forward while I lived frugally from month to month, feeling further behind.
When I’d told my parents I was losing interest in the Ph.D, they’d urged me to finish, asking what I’d do instead. I’d told them the truth: I wanted to become an attorney, focusing on crimes against women. But they went quiet when I said that.
These thoughts circled through my head as Dr. Abdi, our instructor, passed out a worksheet. Then Vivian, who sat beside me, leaned in saying, “Shazia, can I borrow a pen?”
Her lips, like her nails, were painted black, and over her jeans she wore a tee with the words, Bite me, etched across the front.
I suppressed a sigh. Vivian borrowed pens often and rarely gave them back. I was tired of being her stationery supplier. “I’m sorry, I said. “I only have this ballpoint.”
“That sucks tits,” Vivian said, frowning. The frizzy cloud of her hair shook as she fell back in her seat.
I pressed the side of my cell. No new messages. Just some alert about a missing woman in Santa Monica. It seemed as though the stories about women who’d been killed or gone missing were endless. It stirred in me a kind of rage.
Shuddering, I glanced out the large windows to my left, which overlooked the courtyard. The sky appeared cloudy and the trees hung limp. I spotted a tall man in a tie treading across the lawn. For a moment I thought it was Tim, which gave my heart a jolt. But when I blinked and looked again, the man had turned away.
On impulse, I unlocked my phone, wondering if Anastasia Sokolov had a Linkedin page. Within moments, I discovered she’d been a teller at Pacific Coast Bank since 2018. I looked up the bank’s phone number and took a screenshot. Then I looked up the library where Tim mentioned he worked. But when I entered his name into the search bar, there wasn’t a match. Before I could try again, Dr. Abdi walked by, asking me to put my phone away.
At home that afternoon, I called Pacific Coast Bank. A woman answered on the third ring saying, “Tasha speaking, how may I help you?”
“Could I speak to Anastasia Sokolov, please?”
For a moment, all I heard was the cacophony of phone static and background noises. Then she said, “Huh?”
“I mean, Nastya?”
“Oh Nastya doesn’t work here anymore.”
“When did she leave?”
“A few years ago.”
“Do you have her contact information?”
“Do you mind telling me why she left?”
“Um, she kinda just stopped showing up.”
After getting off, I changed into comfies. Later I gathered some clothes and headed to the laundry room. The door was locked. I slid a key into the knob, twisting it open. The vacant room reeked of lavender.
After I got back to the apartment, I started making dinner. I chopped onions with the television on, only distantly listening to the day’s news. Lydia would be home soon. Tim still hadn’t responded. I wondered if he’d received my text at all.
I tossed the zucchini into the pot with some garlic, thinking of my dissertation advisor, Dr. Wadud, and our conversation in her office earlier. When she handed me my edited chapter, I noticed she’d crossed out one section with a note in the margin to “delete.” It was my summary of a new dating app that catered to women who practiced some form of veiling. The app was called “Habibi” and it removed the stigma from dating by letting women, not men, make the first move. I told her my instinct was to include it, but she said that the app might be obsolete by the time I published it.
As I prepared the salad, I let myself fantasize, for a moment, a life with Tim, cooking dinner together and talking books. I imagined us sitting beside each other on the beach and kissing as the waves crashed onto the shore. Maybe, in time, we’d have settled into a romance that blossomed into a serious relationship.
But my tentativeness may have sabotaged that.
Placing the salad in the fridge, I uncorked a bottle of red and checked my cell once more. I wondered if I should text Tim again, but conventional dating rules advised playing it cool.
The timer on my phone chimed, so I headed back to the laundry to chuck things into the dryer. When I got back, I collapsed onto the couch.
At last my cell phone buzzed.
The message was from Tim.
My body shook with relief. Immediately I typed, Hey handsome and clicked send.
We texted back and forth, chitchatting.
How was your day?
Long. I met with my advisor.
The grad school life.
Yep. How was yours?
The library was hectic.
I could see the three dots flashing for a moment before he sent a longer text.
Just met a friend for coffee at Crave. Heading home to have dinner. I’ll text later.
I felt a wave of excitement.
Crave Cafe in Sherman Oaks?
Yeah. Near Van Nuys.
You’re down the street from me!
Right. You live in Sherman Oaks!
I barely hesitated before I sent the next text.
Wanna join me and my roommate for dinner? Saves you cooking.
A minute passed, then another, as I held my breath.
He responded, Sure it isn’t an imposition?
I texted him our address feeling reckless. He texted back a smiley face. See you in twenty. I need to get gas.
I gazed at the television flashing its circus of local news images, feeling giddy. But just as I was riding the waves of anticipation, Stephanie Evans’ face flashed across the screen. Since the modus operandi of this murder resembled the unsolved murder of a Berkeley student weeks ago, police stated, there was a chance a serial killer was involved. Her ex, Brad, had been dismissed since his alibi checked out. Moreover, he was a short man and the partial shoeprint they’d found in the vic’s apartment indicated the perp was likely tall.
I gulped, picturing Tim’s towering frame.
To squelch this thought, I clicked the television off.
A moment later, the front door blew open and Lydia entered wearing scrubs.
I watched as she immediately stepped into the kitchen and poured herself some Shiraz from the bottle I’d left open.
Strolling into the living room, she took a huge gulp of wine before she lobbed her bag on the ground and took a seat beside me. “Thanks for making dinner.”
“Crazy shift today. We restrained an Alzheimer’s patient who was trying to escape the hospital. Then this woman checked in saying she gets an orgasm every time an I.V. is started on her. The other nurses didn’t want to do it, so I had to. Of course, granny started moaning, and I ran out of the room so fast, I bumped into another nurse carrying a tray of food. We cleaned up the mess with granny flying high in the background.”
“How was your day?”
“Grad school’s a drag, but I just invited Tim over for dinner.”
“Yes! Glad you took the plunge.” Then she grimaced. “Please tell me you plan to change.”
Glancing down at my wrinkled sweats, I nodded.
In my bedroom, I searched through my closet with anticipation, trying to quell my anxious mind. This sudden train of thought seemed outrageous. Tim was tall, sure, that didn’t mean he was a killer. Why was I even entertaining the thought?
Hopefully, they’d find the bastard who was responsible soon.
I changed into a pair of jeans and a navy sweater. Then as I reached inside my tote, digging around for my lipgloss, my hand brushed against a circular object. When I pulled it out, I found a keychain with a metallic coin-shaped center. The word “TAFA” was etched across the middle. Tossing the gadget onto my vanity, I wondered how it got into my bag. Maybe Vivien, the cliche millennial, accidentally dropped it in when she leaned my way searching for a pen. It was the sort of cruddy thing she’d own.
As I sat applying mascara, Lydia strolled in. Standing behind me she reached for my brush. “Much better, but may I style your hair?”
Peering at her reflection in the mirror, it dawned on me that Lydia was teetering to the side. Had she downed that entire glass?
Lydia burped delicately. “I’ll sober up. Now sit still.”
Glancing at the weird keychain gadget on my vanity, I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket.
As Lydia teased my locks, I typed “TAFA” and “metallic keychain” into a google search engine, discovering that the gadget was a tracking device. TAFA stood for Track And Follow Anyone.
I shuddered, wondering if Tim could have dropped this into my bag during our date. Maybe when I was in the restroom. Is that why he was conveniently “having coffee” nearby?
As though to answer my question with a punch, a KTLA news alert suddenly popped up on my phone. I winced as the headline sank in: Missing Thai Waitress Found Strangled Near Santa Monica Pier.
Gasping, I clicked on the link. There was a photograph of Melanie Changtai, whom I recognized as our waitress. When Melanie never made it home after work on Saturday, her parents had reported her missing. Her Honda was found abandoned near the ocean, and later, her corpse on the beach. A close-up photo of Melanie’s neck with the bruises at her nape popped up on the screen. The caption read, Traces of a plastic magenta substance, likely related to the weapon used to strangle her, were found along Meleanie’s neckline.
The article linked this murder to Stephanie Evans’ death since they found rubber traces around her neck as well.
These details pointed too plainly at Tim and his balloons.
I turned around and grabbed Lydia’s hand. “He’s a murderer!”
I explained how the Lemongrass waitress was found dead. Then I showed her Melanie’s photo.
Lydia said, “So you think Tim’s responsible because of the rubber traces?”
“Magenta rubber traces.”
Suddenly, she laughed so hard she was crying.
“Sorry. It’s just so far-fetched.”
“But look at the evidence.”
“What evidence? A stranger you crossed paths with unfortunately gets murdered, and you jump to Tim?”
“He could’ve used the balloon to strangle her. He had one with him that night. And he made smalltalk with the waitress.”
“Of course he talked to her! How else would he order?” she slurred. “Don’t date the guy, fine. There’s no need to invent some crazy narrative to justify it.”
“That’s not what I’m doing!”
“He’ll be here any second. What’re you gonna do? Not let him in.”
Before I could speak, the alarm I’d set on my cell earlier went off.
“Shut, I need to get my laundry.”
“What about Tim?”
“If the buzzer goes off while I’m outside, don’t answer it.”
“Someone else could let him in the building.”
“I know.” I left the room and went into the kitchen where I grabbed my keys and a small bottle of mace, which I slipped inside a pocket of my jeans, along with my cell. Then I got a glass off the dishrack and filled it with water from the tap. Returning to the bedroom, I handed it to Lydia. “Down this. You need to sober up.”
She grabbed it reluctantly and took a sip. I headed toward our entryway where I slipped on some sneakers. Approaching the front door, I peered through the peephole, but the hallway was deserted.
Surreptitiously, I unlocked the door and stepped outside. Then I walked down the corridor, which reeked of chili. Turning around the corner, I prayed that I wouldn’t stumble upon Tim.
But when I approached the laundry room, the door was ajar. My heart fluttered in my chest. I crept slowly towards the entrance. Peering inside, I saw a short dark-haired woman who stood facing the dryers. She wore my embroidered denim jacket. It almost looked like me, but I knew it was Francesca. Then something rustled in the corner by the drying rack. Turning to look, I spotted a figure in a baseball cap that lurked in the shadows near the door. With a shudder, I realized it was Tim. He hadn’t noticed me yet, but he seemed to be peering intently at Francesca’s back. In his right hand, he clutched a magenta balloon.
Did Tim think that was me standing there in the embroidered jacket?
Soon he’d know he was wrong.
A nerve in my right eye twitched.
There wasn’t any time to think.
With the stealth of a ninja, I grabbed the heavy bottle of detergent that sat on the washing machine by the door. Mustering all the strength I could, I tossed it at Tim’s head. He howled in surprise as it thwacked against his shoulder.
“Francesca!” I called.
She spun around at once, though her face sported guilt more than worry.
“Get out here now! You were about to get attacked.”
Following my pointed finger she gasped, seeing Tim crouched in the corner. He placed a hand against the wall to steady himself.
“Come on!” I yelled.
She moved toward me as a weary Tim quickly recovered from shock. To my horror, he lurched forward and reached for Francesca’s ankle, latching onto it. She screamed.
“Not so fast,” Tim spat, as the baseball cap slid off his head.
“Help!” Francesca called, struggling to maintain her composure.
Stepping inside, I kicked Tim’s hand twice, and he cursed as his grip went slack. Then reaching inside my pocket, I sprayed his face.
“You skank!” he yowled, as he staggered backwards, rubbing at his eyes.
When Francesca finally escaped into the hallway, I shut the laundry door fast, using my key to lock it as the tube of mace fell out of my shaking hand.
Inside I heard Tim moaning. I felt some relief knowing the old fashioned door needed a key to be unlocked from the inside too.
“I’m so sorry, Shazia,” I heard Francesa say. She was crying.
I placed a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’m calling 9-1-1.”
After I’d spoken to the operator and confirmed that police were coming, I sighed.
A moment later, Tim was furiously twisting at the doorknob. “Unlock this damn door!”
“Not a chance, you freak,” I said.
He pounded harder. “My eyes are burning.”
“Good. Burn in hell, and sleep the big sleep!”
By Wednesday night, news reports were spinning with Tim’s backstory. He’d met Anastasia Sokolov on an international dating website six years ago. Soon after she arrived in America, they got engaged. But police had discovered that Tim had a violent streak as neighbors reported hearing fights between them that seemed to turn physical. Nastya had unexplained bruises and sometimes she wouldn’t show up at work. Eventually, it seems, she escaped, and Tim couldn’t find her. But a few months ago he’d learned that Nastya had returned to Moscow and married her high school sweetheart. This triggered all the rage that led to him killing a Berkeley student, Stephanie Evans, and Melanie Changtai, along with a couple of other women in northern California whose unsolved murders could possibly be linked. The weapon he used to kill these women had been a magenta balloon. He had inherited some money and didn’t work. But he spent a lot of time at the local libraries, checking out books relating to tech gadgets and guns.
Sitting on the couch with Lydia, I shuddered, thinking how I’d kissed the killer and almost let him enter our home.
“You were right about all of it,” Lydia said. “Sorry I doubted you.”
I shrugged. “Turns out Tim was a liar-brain, and Francesca was the laundry thief.”
“Do you plan to tell the landlord?”
“And your jacket. Did you get it back from Francesca?”
“Yeah. I’m hanging on to that.”
“Won’t it creep you out to wear it now?”
“Not with its Chandler-inspired orchids. Besides, I see it as kind of a uniform.”
“You know, for the future criminal lawyer.”
Lydia laughed. “Did you email your advisor yet and tell her you’re dropping out?”
I nodded. “One of the best things I’ve ever written,” I said. “A work of art.”
Mehnaz Sahibzada is a 2022 Jack Hazard Fellow in fiction writing for her first novel in progress, Jaani, a coming-of-age story set in Pakistan. Her writing has appeared in Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen, Jaggery, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. A high school English teacher and author of the poetry collection, My Gothic Romance (2019), she lives in Los Angeles. For inquiries, contact Mehnaz through her website at www.poetmehnaz.com
Once in a while I muster the courage to look up at the thin slice of night sky that is visible over the cliff. For a few moments I let myself imagine that extraterrestrial life is, after all, just what its naive name suggests: something that exists out there, at a safe distance from Earth, and belongs squarely in the realm of biology. Then comes the familiar surge of terror; I snap out of my delusion and crash back onto the hard surface of reality. From here I can only envy those who still don’t know the truth. I, too, used to be one of the blissful ignorants—until that dark day when the director summoned me to his office and gave me the task to go undercover as a novice in the Order of the Depths.
At first I thought he was joking. The Order was the antithesis to everything we stood for. We were trailblazing scientists at the most prestigious institute of space exploration in the country; they were a semi-criminal cult that worshipped the past, hated the present, and wanted the future dead. People like us couldn’t possibly want to have anything to do with people like them.
But the director was serious. In its most recent propaganda the Order was claiming to have made contact with a hostile life form, which it called the gravest threat ever faced by humanity. It wasn’t the first time they had talked like that, but this case was different. Instead of their usual bluster, now they sounded downright frightened. There were other troubling signs that something real was going on, and we had to look into the matter. I, as the youngest member of our department, was the natural choice for this thankless job. But according to the director, what had really sealed my fate was the fact that I, unlike the rest of my immediate colleagues, was bald—and therefore didn’t need to lose any precious hair to become one of those skinhead monks. This part had to be a joke, but he said it with a straight face and just stared at me, carefully studying my reaction. And I, taking my cue from his blank expression, didn’t even dare to smile.
The monastery I was sent to from the Order’s recruitment center was located near the edge of a desert, in a region of rocky hills that were ebbing and yellowing on their way down to the featureless flatness of the sands. When I arrived there I could only see a fraction of the sprawling compound, which extended up to the ridgelines and spilled over into the surrounding valleys. There were no walls and no gates; the trail simply ended abruptly at the massive front door of one of the buildings. Such a conspicuous disregard for security, so unusual in these times of wholesale social erosion, was the clearest warning to any would-be intruder that the locals were not ones to feel fear but to inspire it in others. I tried knocking on the door, but the metal was so dense that my puny fist hit it without making a sound. I sat down on the ground and waited. The yard was deserted. There was no sign of the urgency I had expected from an organization that was, by its own words, mobilizing for an epic struggle. It took more than an hour for someone to appear and let me in.
What I saw on the other side of the door looked nothing like the interior of a building. It was a web of cold, damp catacombs carved into natural rock and lit with dim lanterns. Monks were moving about slowly, gracefully, as if the walking itself was their purpose rather than any definite place they needed to go to. Their manner of carrying themselves stood in stark contrast to their physiques: large frames, coarse faces, shiny scalps with scars and bulging veins. None of them stopped to ask who I was. When I had had enough of moving in circles I finally addressed one of them and introduced myself as a novice. Without saying a word he led me to a vacant chamber, pointed at the floor, and left me alone. I let my backpack slide down from my shoulder and looked around me. The walls were covered with ornate inscriptions. I couldn’t recognize the script and assumed it to be meaningless, just another pseudo-mystical prop for impressing newcomers.
Then the monk came back and told me to follow him; the overseer who headed the monastery wanted to see me. The walk there was an unbroken movement upward, far longer than seemed physically possible within the height of the building. Finally we reached a cavernous hall in which monks were sitting on the floor here and there, all busy doing some kind of manual labor whose nature eluded me in the weak lighting. Then I noticed another figure standing apart from them. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and squinted hard to make sure I wasn’t misperceiving the details because of the distance.
“How come there’s a woman in a monastery?” I whispered in the monk’s ear. “Isn’t this place supposed to be only for men?”
“Of course, only men,” he said. “But she is how we test who deserves to be called a man.”
He warned me not to look at her directly, not right now, or else I wouldn’t stand a chance. Before I could ask what he meant he grabbed me by the hand and dragged me all the way to the woman. I kept my eyes fixed on the floor, and could only see her bare feet and the ends of her very long hair dangling in front of me while she talked. That also prevented her from seeing my expression of astonishment when she said she was none other than the overseer.
In the evening she came into my chamber, like she had promised earlier. I was expecting her around that time, and was already sitting in the corner with my face turned to the wall so that I wouldn’t catch a glimpse of her by mistake. I could hear the bed creaking behind me as she sat down on it. She asked me if I had anything special I wanted to talk about, and I said I didn’t. So she simply started asking me about mundane things such as my work and hobbies. The lantern cast her moving shadow on the wall above me, and even that was too vivid for comfort.
She frequently interrupted the conversation to remind me of the objective: I must not let myself fall for her. I was allowed to look away only as a crutch to ease me into the challenge and help me build some sort of resistance. Sooner or later I would have to see her face, and at that moment we would know what I was really made of. Yes, normally it was too much to ask of a young man like me, but these were not normal times, and the Order could not afford to be anything less than ruthless in its requirements. Only the rarest few had what it took to fight the enemy we were up against.
Mercifully, she didn’t stay overnight—although that too, she said, would come if necessary. After she left I made the mistake of switching off the lantern and lying down in my bed straight away. Her scent was still drifting there, and I could also feel the spot that had sunk under her weight. A heat wave suddenly flashed through me, and I nearly lost my nerve and gave up on the whole mission. Then I began rationalizing: these pathetic games should be beneath me, and I have more important things to do. Perhaps it was time to leave this place and go back to my actual work. But then I remembered the monks and changed my mind. If such thugs could control themselves so well around this woman in their midst, surely I could too.
My daily routine was entirely in the overseer’s hands. She came every morning and took me for a walk around the catacombs, chatting with me along the way. She walked behind me, not only to keep herself out of sight but also to enable me to witness up close how the monks reacted whenever they saw her coming. As far as I could tell they really were unmoved by her, and the more I saw of their coolness, the more I admired them for it. I could appreciate the difficulty of maintaining this attitude, now that more pressure was brought to bear on me: the overseer was beginning to let her attractiveness seep into our interactions and showed me more of her body. It all made me painfully aware that I was, indeed, a novice at this strange martial art of dodging female charms. I desperately wanted to become a better fighter, to be more like the others, but I didn’t know how.
It was purely as a distraction from this pain that I reluctantly decided, one night, to bring up the issue that was the secret reason for my being there. I casually asked the overseer—who was now sitting so close behind me that her warmth radiated on my body—if she could tell me anything about the life form that the Order had discovered, and perhaps explain what made it so dangerous.
“I won’t tell you a thing about the enemy,” she said. “You have not yet proved that you are worthy of our trust. But I can let you see for yourself what the enemy has done to men who were too weak to pass the test.”
The following day, at twilight, we left the building for the first time. The overseer, shrouded in an opaque garment without any noticeable openings to see or breathe through, took me to the remotest part of the monastery grounds. It was a deep gorge that cut its way between two almost vertical cliffs. The cliff on one side was dotted with uniform square holes. When we descended into the gorge I could see that the holes were all covered with thick metal bars. Faces soon appeared behind the bars, faintly lit in the afterglow that filtered in from the sky above the opposite cliff. The prisoners followed us with piercing eyes as we stepped onto the dry riverbed that ran down the middle of the gorge. The overseer asked me to look away from her and keep my attention on the holes. I couldn’t see what she was doing, but the men reacted to it like sharks to a bleeding swimmer. The whole surface of the cliff erupted into deafening howls that ricocheted all around me with nauseating reverberations. Hundreds of hands reached out from the cells with fingers angrily clutching at thin air. Then the overseer said we should leave before things got out of control. We left the riverbed and began the ordeal of climbing out of the gorge through the incessant frenzy. Later, back in the chamber, I asked her what had happened to those people. Her terse reply was: “The enemy happened.”
When I woke up in the morning I was overwhelmed by the feeling that time was running out fast. In panic I stormed out of the chamber and looked for someone to talk to. As soon as I ran into a monk I grabbed his arm and pleaded with him to teach me how to pass the test. How had he done it? There was obviously some method that could bring me success if I applied myself to it with enough determination.
The monk laughed. No, he said, there is no method. That’s exactly the fallacy that has ruined every aspirant to holiness: the obsession with finding an invariable formula for liberating anyone, anywhere, from the tyranny of the senses. The history of human spirituality is nothing but a gigantic heap of such failed attempts to standardize and mass-produce a unique, one-off personal experience—but that heap has given the Order a steady peak to stand on and see the truth that couldn’t be discerned from a lower position: the universe was impregnable to humans in the plural, but sometimes, unexpectedly, it yielded to a human in the singular.
“What I want to say,” he concluded, “is that I don’t know how I did it, because I didn’t do it—I simply was it. I happened to be the thing the Order needs so badly. And I hope you are that too, because it’s certainly not something you can turn into.”
His words plunged me into a gloomy resignation. I spent the rest of the day propelled by inertia alone, mechanically doing my best around the overseer without giving any thought to the outcome. When a pair of monks appeared late at night to escort me to the overseer’s hall, I was mostly happy that the test was about to end one way or another.
The ceremony was simple enough. I stood in front of the overseer, looking at her feet like I had done on our first encounter. She was flanked by the same two monks, and after a long silence, one of them told me to raise my eyes slowly. I looked up and gasped when her face came into view. She was the woman I had always dreamed of, straight out of my deepest desires and fantasies. Or, at least, that was the involuntary thought that seized me at that moment of defeat. The overseer smiled, and the monks, who were watching me intently, immediately relaxed their postures. We all knew it was over, and I didn’t bother resisting when a few other monks held me from behind and started coiling heavy chains around my body.
With great haste they carted me off to the gorge. Now I was one of those faces behind the bars, with nine cellmates who were sleeping at the time I was thrown inside, a sleep so tight that neither the monks’ blazing torches nor the slamming of the door behind my back did anything to disturb it.
In the morning, when enough light entered the cell and the prisoners began waking up, I could see that most of them looked quite similar to the monks, with the same type of physical features. Also similar was the fact that they deliberately ignored me. The only one who acknowledged my presence was much younger than the rest. He got up toward noon—unlike in the monastery, here there was nobody to enforce discipline—and was happy to see the latest addition to the group. He offered me some food and asked me about my background, only to interrupt my story before I could finish the first sentence.
“Who cares what we used to be, right?” he said and waved his hand. “It all went down the drain when the alien possessed us.”
“I don’t recall being possessed by any alien,” I said with an amused frown.
“You have a really bad memory if you can’t remember something that happened last night.”
“What do you mean, last night? Did it come while I was sleeping?”
“No, no. It came when you looked at her. When you fell in love. The same way it came to all of us.”
It clearly had something to do with that mysterious life form; but he spoke so chaotically that I had trouble understanding what he was driving at. Had our feelings for the overseer been induced by an alien? Was it some kind of mind control? I was beginning to feel immensely relieved that this might be the case. There was nothing unusual about such mental powers, and we knew of at least two dozen extraterrestrial races that regularly used them as a weapon. It was a scary but well-documented danger against which humanity had developed effective countermeasures. Hardly the existential threat that the Order had made it out to be.
The prisoner gave me a look full of pity and said I couldn’t have been more off the mark. It’s not that the hostile life form caused us to feel something; the life form is the feeling itself. What a man feels when he sees a beautiful woman, that sudden attraction celebrated by myriads of poets and singers since the dawn of time, is actually a subtle being whose mode of existence defies every single conception we have of the natural world. This devil, this horror of horrors, is not merely entrenched within its victims: it constitutes a large part of their ordinary, so-called healthy psyche. Indeed, most of us wouldn’t recognize ourselves as human without this contamination of the soul. The monks are the lucky ones who don’t have the vulnerability that allows the enemy to invade in the first place, and it is their moral duty to save humanity from those who do have it. To find any hope of destroying the enemy they must first purge us, its unwitting allies.
This gorge, which I first saw at twilight, is where I now spend the twilight of my life. My cellmates are fairly recent arrivals, but information travels fast in the gorge and they have had enough time to learn what awaits us in the near future. The monks will keep us here until our emotions subside somewhat; it’s far too dangerous to let us out while the enemy is at its most intense stage of activity. As soon as we become more tame they will march us off into the desert and abandon us to the elements. There, under the scorching sun, we will perhaps dream of the overseer one last time—before thirst and hunger finally deprive the enemy of our complicity and bring the world a step closer to everlasting peace.
Dan Bornstein is a language specialist in Japanese and a writer of speculative fiction, poetry, and essays. His work in English has appeared, among other places, in Daily Science Fiction, Star*Line, and the anthology book Lay Buddhism and Spirituality. His personal website is danbornstein.com.
I flashed a look of recognition and took out my phone.
It felt weird to flick through gmail in such an antiquated space.
Wooden beams held the structure, a healthy looking fire cast an orange glow across the green and blue patterned carpeting.
I showed Mickey our booking.
‘Standard or premium?’
‘The booking? Oh, I’m not sure. My parents sorted it for us.’
Mickey took my phone and began to scroll.
‘Premium. That includes a meal on us. It’s steak or lobster tonight – that OK?’
I eagerly nodded, trying unsuccessfully to mask my pathetic gratitude.
‘Yours is room 6. Drop off your bags and we’ll see you back down here.’
Our room was simply put together, tidy, cosy, structured with the same wooden beams I’d seen downstairs.
Sabrina put her rucksack down on the freshly made bed and let out a sharp exhale.
‘Well, this is nice.’
‘Ah, so she does talk.’
She raised a caustic eyebrow.
‘Don’t try your luck, mister.’
After letting my own bag sprawl across the carpet, I gently lowered Sabrina onto the bed.
We cuddled, lapping up the comfort of each other’s tired body.
‘Steak dinner, ay. How about that?’
Sabrina grinned from ear to ear.
Just when everything seemed to sweeten, ensconced in our intimacy, a chilling creek sounded from the floorboards.
‘What was that?’ Said Sabrina.
‘I’m sure it’s… nothing.’
The creek sounded again, cutting through the stillness of the air.
Sabrina sat up, listening for more.
I did the same.
The sound seemed to have abated.
‘Come on, let’s eat some steak.’
We returned to the toasty dining room.
Charlie was sitting by himself, nursing a pint of ale.
Sabrina and I made easy conversation, me over a beer, her over a gin and tonic.
After a short wait Mickey bought us two steaming plates of steak with roast potato, shallots, stem broccoli, and pools of dark brown gravy.
We fell into silence, indulging in the sweet morsels of tender meat.
By the time we’d finished my core was adorned with a satisfying warmth.
‘Well… that was pretty damn good.’
‘Why did you say it like that? Pretty damn good. You sound like you’re in a Hollywood movie.’
I shrugged and hit Sabrina with a goofy grin.
A rasping cough sounded from the corner, reminding me of Charlie’s presence.
I lowered my tone.
‘We should say hi to Charlie… just to say thanks.’
‘Urm… Ok. Don’t you think he’s a little scary?’
‘Don’t be rude. Come on, we have to.’
I pulled up a couple chairs next to Charlie and introduced myself.
‘Hiya… Charlie, was it? I’m Ezra and this is Sabrina. I just wanted to thank you for your help.’
‘No worries at all. It’s quiet around here. It’s nice to see some young faces now and then.’
‘What’s that accent, if you don’t mind me asking?’
‘London. I’m from Millwall. Never spent much time there though.’
Charlie swigged his beer again before letting out another rasping cough.
‘… I was a van driver my whole life, y’know. Never spent much time in any one place.’
Mickey came over and placed another frosty lager on our table.
I took a sip, the beer tasted cool, hopsy, and refreshing.
‘Wow. Sounds like hard work.’
‘Hard work it was, son. That’s how I found myself here. I appreciate the… quieter side of life.’
‘Those singers outside were quite a sight, no? What was all that about?’
‘Morris dancers, they were. We’re actually in the middle of the summer celebrations. Today was shanty day. All shipwrecks and fair skinned English lasses. Not really my thing, but it makes them happy… you like football?’
‘Sure. Villa till I die.’
Charlie placed a hand on the top of his vest and pulled down the hem to reveal a faded lion tattoo roaring from the white carpet of his aged chest.
‘Millwall boy. As I said, never spent too much time there, but I know where I’m from.’
I glanced over at Sabrina.
She was absently gazing into the darkness of the window.
We went silent.
‘Wow… that’s quite a tattoo.’
An element of awkwardness settled in the air.
I readied myself to leave, but before I could get up that same creaking sound came cutting through the air.
Mickey, who had been polishing pint glasses behind the bar, looked up at the ceiling, an unnerving look of concern plastered on his fat face.
Charlie chuckled to himself again.
‘Wanna know what that is? I bet you do.’
‘Yeah, we heard it up in our room… I thought it was nothing.’
‘Nothing? That’s far from nothing young man.’
Mickey was still looking up at the ceiling.
‘That, that is what we call The Final Terror.’
Sabrina, for the first time since joining Charlie, looked in his direction, holding back laughter.
I felt embarrassed for Charlie, but he seemed unperturbed.
‘You must think I’m silly… a mad old man. I’m not. Everyone knows about The Final Terror ‘round here.’
‘What is it? What does it do?’
‘It doesn’t do much. It just sits. It follows. It’s inescapable.’
‘What is it, though? A poltergeist or something, a ghoul?’
Charlie drained the last of his ale.
‘It’s not a poltergeist. It’s The Final Terror. Nothing more, nothing less.’
Charlie’s face had soured into something of a scowl.
‘… not nice, is it? That creaking. You wouldn’t understand, just staying here for the night. But that creaking is everywhere, all ‘round Lizareth. It’s constant. Nobody can place it. No one has found the source.’
Sabrina placed a gentle hand on my shoulder.
‘Come on, baby, I’m tired, let’s go back upstairs.’
I looked back at Charlie one more time.
‘Nobody knows what it is? Surely somebody has some kind of idea… some suspicion.’
His expression was impenetrable, not particularly resentful, but not friendly either.
‘Ezra… please.’ Sabrina tugged my sleeve.
‘Well… not everybody seems as bothered by it… it affects some worse than others. If you’re of a particularly vulnerable… temperament… it can be bad. Troubled nights, son… very troubled nights.’
‘How often does it happen? This creak… this ‘Final Terror?’’
‘I suppose you’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you?’
I focused on Charlie’s glazed eyes, trying to glean some kind of insight into his motives.
Was this all some kind of hoax? The bored ramblings of a retiree with nothing left to live for?
Mickey rang a hand bell behind the bar, sending a metallic jangle echoing into the pub’s shadowy corners.
‘Last orders folks! Last orders now!’
‘Well… it was nice to meet you two. You sleep well now… try and sleep well.’
Sabrina was already halfway upstairs.
I gave Charlie’s clammy hand one last squeeze.
‘Thanks… for everything. Sleep well.’
I sprawled out on the bed.
The plump duvet felt impossibly soft underneath my tired back.
Sabrina emerged from the bathroom, her hair up in a bun, dressed only in a green kimono.
Metal piping was still hissing furiously from the heat of the shower.
She strolled up to the side of the bed and dropped the gown, giving me a flash of her naked body before burying herself under the covers.
I nuzzled my face in her hair, pressing myself into her.
My hand rested on her knee before slowly drifting up the roundness of her thigh.
I guzzled a greedy breath and kissed her on the cheek.
My hand continued to rise, lingering just next to the area between her legs.
‘Not tonight. I’m tired.’
I let my hand fall back to her knee.
‘… and no sulking either. We can do it another night.’
‘Wouldn’t dream of it.’
I laid onto my back and stared up at the wooden beams on the ceiling.
Sabrina reached for a paperback on the bedside table and started to read.
We laid in silence as I lost track of time.
Eventually she lent over and turned off the bedside lamp, leaving us in darkness.
‘Night, hun. I love you.’
I took in the room’s heavy atmosphere, static and unflinching.
‘Do you think it’s true? The Final Terror.’
Sabrina didn’t respond.
‘Ezra. I’m trying to sleep.’
Soon, my girlfriend was deep in slumber.
I just lay there.
Staring into the darkness.
Dylan notes: “I am a young short fiction writer from the UK. My writing utilises the natural idiosyncrasies of UK culture to create narratives engaging in their weirdness and offbeat tone. I am influenced by Marianna Enriquez, HP Lovecraft, and Brian Evenson. I am writing constantly, my main ambition being to share the colour of my vivid imagination with anyone who cares to listen.”