A punk band performing a live original score to a silent film.
On October 31st no less.
I mean, I don’t really do Halloween anymore, it’s so much work and the pay off hasn’t been there in years. This seemed like a good middle ground. No need to dress up, live music, a horror film. Jon asked if I’d be interested a month ago and I said sure. Mostly, I wanted the excuse to see an old friend but the whole thing seemed cool as shit.
After Jon called, I looked up the band and the movie. I knew of the 1923 German film Voices from the Walls, but it wasn’t one I had seen. Wasn’t exactly an easy one to find either. Same for the band performing the live score, Domain Archaea, a local experimental punk band I vaguely knew from back when I was an active part of my local scene, going to shows every other night. I just never saw them live. The whole thing was happening at a new venue called The Plateau, an abandoned theatre, recently renovated by some intrepid punks to put on shows.
Jon and I used to go to shows like this all the time, the more outlandish and esoteric the better, but we hadn’t seen each other in almost a year. It wasn’t for lack of trying. We worked nights. Jon was a short order cook at a diner. The kind of place people gathered in after the bars closed. I worked in a factory producing processed foods, doing quality testing in the lab, testing samples of each batch for salt content, acidity, viscosity, basically every quality the consumer might recognize as being slightly off and think the product was no good. Lowest seniority meant that I worked the graveyard shift. Those kinds of hours left me with an okay paycheck but absolutely no social life. This show would be a relief. A conscious effort to not retreat. I was alone a lot.
I met Jon outside The Plateau thirty minutes before the start of the show. He had our tickets.
Jon looked great. Dressed in a grey three-piece suit, white shirt, and burgundy tie with a wide full Windsor knot and, my favourite, a pair of brown Chelsea boots with a two inch heal. He looked like a man going out on the town in the 1920s to see a film. I was in skinny black jeans, a white button-down shirt, and a ratty black cardigan I had worn to shreds, all on top of scuffed Doc Martins. I looked perfectly appropriate but if we hadn’t greeted each other with a tight hug, you wouldn’t have guessed we were meeting to go into The Plateau together.
Jon is that guy I always looked up to. I’m actually a few months older but that never mattered. He was always the one who knew the best bands, wore the coolest clothes, knew where to eat and drink with the people who knew all about eating and drinking. When he leant you a book, it came with a lecture on why this was worth your time and instead of coming off as pretentious or self-important, you actually wanted to read the god damn book by the end of it. So much of my cache during our teen years was due to my proximity to this guy and I missed that as much as I missed the guy himself.
While still half in a hug, Jon said, “I’m excited to see what they’ve done with this place.”
I said, “I swear I’ve walked down this street a thousand times and never really noticed it before.”
“The place has been closed since the 50s and they’ve never tried to do anything with the building. But nobody’s knocked it down either.” Jon stepped back to look at me. “Shit, you look great. So good to see you.”
Jon could make you feel that good, that easily.
“Thanks. And thanks for the ticket. You’ll let me buy you a drink?”
“If you insist.”
We walked into The Plateau.
The Plateau could not hide the fact that it was an old theatre. You entered the main room from the side. The shallow stage lined the width of the room to your left. The seats in front of the stage had been ripped out decades ago, leaving an open floor plan all the way to the bar at the back, hidden in the shadow of the first of two balconies. On that night, the balconies were closed, and the ground floor was littered with evenly spaced, mismatched tables, each with a decorative jack o’ lantern spilling sharp toothed candlelight onto their scuffed, stained surfaces. There was no escaping that this was Halloween programming after all.
Jon and I had our choice of several tables and settled on one located right in the center of the room, equidistant from the stage and bar. I sat down hard on the folding chair and felt the legs dig into the soft wooden flooring as I handed Jon a beer and took a sip of my own.
“I don’t suppose the people who opened this place up again have been able to bring it up to code?” I asked, expecting Jon would know.
“Not likely. I’d say we’ve had a successful evening if we’ve only inhaled asbestos and mold. It’s the guys from Domain Archaea doing it.”
“The band we’re seeing tonight?”
“Yeah. Do you remember them? Not a lot of people do. They’ve been quiet the last few years. Their guitarist was hit by a car stumbling out of The Fairmont after a show. Died on the spot and the band kind of just stopped performing. I had a couple of their early CD-R releases. Great artwork on handmade cardboard sleeves. Punk aesthetic with the noise and layers of shoegaze. They had a niche. I wouldn’t be able to name another band like them.”
Jon reached into his jacket and pulled out one of the band’s cardboard sleeves because of course he would.
“What do you notice?” Jon said, handing me the sleeve.
I leaned in close to the little bit of light thrown by the concealed candle on our table and was surprised to see that the cover art was a painting of our current view of the stage at The Plateau. It was unmistakeable. On stage, there was the vague impression of a single person, dark and hunched over, but it was small and hard to make out in the painting.
“So what do you think made them want to start up again? And to do all this?” I asked, pointing to our surroundings and the white sheet taking up most of the stage’s back wall, ready to project the film.
“I really don’t know. But clearly, they know their shit and love this place. The movie they chose is interesting too.”
“All I know about it is the when and where.”
“I’ve only ever seen it described as a hard to find but important silent film. Gothic ghost story, castles, gaunt German women fainting at the unexpected and uncanny for ninety minutes. Should be a good time.”
“I’m excited to see it. But I worked last night and couldn’t sleep today so, between the beer, silent film and ambient distorted soundtrack, there’s almost no chance I don’t fall asleep for part of it.”
“Same. I closed the diner last night, then went over to one of the waitresses for drinks with a few friends. I’m running on four hours of sleep in the last two days.”
“I can only imagine what this table is going to look like in a half hour.”
“Yeah, but I’m still happy to be here.”
As we continued to catch up, having a second, then third round of beers, about two thirds of the tables filled with costumed punks, small groups of hipsters, and a few solitary film nerds, notebooks at the ready. Looking around, Jon and I fit the interdisciplinary bill just fine.
When the already weak and diffuse house lights went out, every table looked like its own island, outfitted with a single pumpkin shaped lighthouse. The people in the room were reduced to smeared shadows, swaying in front of the candlelight. The overall effect was nice.
The band took the stage, grabbing hold of instruments I hadn’t taken the time to notice were already laid out. They were only three: two guys on guitar and bass, and a woman at a laptop. One of the guys walked up to a mic set up on the side of the stage and said, “good evening.”
Polite applause all around.
“We’re Domain Archaea. We’re doing something we’ve never done. We’re going to perform a live score. The movie is Voices from the walls. I fucking love this film. It’s probably the single biggest influence on everything we’ve ever done, and it still scares the shit out of me so it seemed appropriate.”
“So we’re going to get started in a minute. If you like what we’re doing here, tell some friends. We’re trying to program punk and alternative shows here at The Plateau, bringing the venue back a little bit at a time. It’s got some history, some of it fucked up. We’ll see if we can live up to that.”
Jon could see my raised eyebrows in the darkness but all he had for me was a shrug. We’d have to do some research later.
“So if you want another drink now’s the time because seriously, don’t miss any part of this movie. It’s fucking gorgeous. Okay, enjoy.”
More polite applause. Jon and I were good for beer, so we stayed put in comfortable silence waiting for the projector to illuminate the back wall.
The band started in darkness before anything was shown. A slow build to a wall of distortion with a sludgy, galloping beat. Then suddenly, enough to make me jump, the opening image of the film burst onto the back wall, accompanied by faster downstrokes from the guitar and bass. It was a castle on a cliff, seen from a distance. The lighting suggested evening. The flickering light of fires burned in several windows. It obviously looked like a beautifully shot miniature. I was so sure in fact that my stomach dropped when a slender shadow clearly crossed one of the windows. Fuck, these silent film directors were the God damn best. So much creativity with what I assume was so little. This was going to be special.
Voices from the Walls is about a young woman named Gretta. She’s been institutionalized since childhood but has been deemed cured, returning home for the first time in years. She doesn’t recognize her family and they barely recognize her. You get the impression her existence and perceived psychological weakness was a source of shame for her parents, and to her younger twin siblings, she’s a stranger, entering their lives and privilege as though she belongs. They disagree. All of this is established in the first twenty minutes. Her voyage through the countryside, arriving at the castle, the awkward greeting from her parents, the cold aggression of her twin brothers. Her first night at home, alone in such a large space, she’s nervous and sweaty. Despite her palatial room, everything is shot in close up. The room does not matter, she’s trapped in the confines of her mind, holding a tenuous grasp on reality.
Then she hears the voices.
At that moment, about a half hour into the movie, the distorted and disjointed music continued to plod along with unchecked aggression but with high frequency squeals piercing through the noise, perfectly timed to Gretta’s every flinch, almost as if to make us ask ourselves, did we hear something? Was that a scream? A voice? It was truly excellent.
I looked over to Jon. His eyes were closed but he was nodding to the music. As much as I was enjoying the film, the music, I was having a hard time staying conscious. I was drawing out my third beer, taking small sips, using it to try to keep me awake. It wasn’t working. And to make matters even worse, the temperature in the room had shot up. Drops of sweat streaked down my back, soaking through my shirt. The smell of the theatre had changed. When we walked in, the room smelled like burning incense, the fragrant wood smoke I associate with a lot of the shops in the neighbourhood but now, I got repeated wafts of an acrid, metallic smell. Like spoiled raw liver. Or, and this is really what came to mind, the sweat of a person fighting some kind of infection. Salty decomposition. It was distracting but did nothing to help keep me awake. No one else seemed to notice.
The second act of the film put on a clinic in building tension. Gretta continued to hear voices but was now followed by a shadowy presence. A human shape with large antlers, sometimes upright, sometimes acrobatically on all fours. It first appeared to her in a wooded area near the castle. The scene took my breath away. As she stared down the overgrown path, we follow her POV and see the shape seemingly detach itself from a tree. Even if you know to expect it, it’s shocking to see this dark presence, almost absorbing light, open its luminescent white eyes in a dramatic close up. The music reached its first pinnacle at that point. Like getting hit by a wave. Then everything stopped, abruptly, perfectly in time with Gretta fainting.
The room remained dark and quiet for a minute. Many of the jack o’ lanterns had gone out. It was darker than before. More waves of heat and that awful smell. Then the music started up again but instead of coming from the amplifier stacks on stage, the distortion seemed to be coming up through the floor. It continued to grow in volume. I was uncomfortable, cut off from so many senses. I put my hands flat on the table to make sure I could still orient myself in space.
The projector came back on. The image, a burning fireplace, Gretta asleep in front of it. It illuminated the room so suddenly that I had to close my eyes. When I opened them, the scene remained, but The Plateau had changed. Filling every bit of available standing room were perfectly still, quiet bodies. People who appeared in that brief moment of darkness and disorientation. I couldn’t move. I didn’t understand what was happening. This wasn’t possible. Jon was still asleep. And the music was so loud it hurt, vibrating my chest to the point where it confused my breathing. I couldn’t take a deep enough breath.
Was this part of the show?
Some of the bodies, because that’s all they were to me, vague impressions of humanity, turned around, orienting themselves towards our table. From their shaking, open mouths, came awful, thunderous crackling. There was no message, just cataclysmic sound added to the distortion from below. The person closest to us lifted the pumpkin from the center of our table and poured the hot candle wax from the jack o’ lantern’s mouth directly into their open eyes, blinding themselves. Their eyes disappeared through the slowly hardening wax, but I could tell they could still see me. Like a signal, that act of self harm triggered the crowd of bodies to move in rippling waves of moshing, but it was more than that, their collisions were violent. They were tearing each other apart. Ripping out hair, catching arms and bending them at unnatural angles, fingers piercing holes into flesh as easily as shoving sticks into rotten gourds. Breathing hard and unable to move from my seat, I tried to look past the convulsing, disintegrating bodies. The film had moved on. Gretta stood at the cliff, her family’s castle filled the background. She’s distraught, she’s crying. In her face is the misery of thinking she had succeeded in battling her demons, that she could begin to live but really, she would never be allowed to. Slowly approaching behind her are two of the antlered creatures. Just like the one she first saw appear in the woods. They bring their mouths close to either side of Gretta’s head and scream. Their voices no longer just emanating from the walls, it breaks something in Gretta. The Plateau shook at that moment and a calm came over Gretta’s eyes. She steps off the cliff. I felt the vertigo of her free fall. Not imagined but felt it. The scene changes to that same miniature that opened the film. In the distance, we see Gretta fall to the rocks below. Back on the cliff, the antlered creatures turn and face Gretta’s parents watching from the window. The creatures remove their hoods, revealing the twin boys. They gleefully followed their parents’ instructions. They rid themselves of their family’s shame. No one would ever even ask what happened to poor Gretta.
The final scene is a pull away from the castle, backing into the woods. The music in the room grew to a final, shattering climax. The convulsing bodies in the room, bleeding, some torn to ribbons, continued to mosh in figure eights around the tables. I couldn’t take it anymore. In the remaining flickering light of the projector, the movement was disjointed and inhuman. The same person who poured the wax onto their eyes was now spinning fast around our table, their lower jaw was missing but I could still see the edges of what remained of their face turned upwards in the most hideous smile. The noise they made. I needed to leave, I needed to stand.
The screen went dark.
The music stopped.
The noise stopped.
A moment later, the house lights came on.
The room was as it was.
Jon, who looked as pristine as when we arrived, leaned in and said “Fuck, that was fantastic.”
I frantically looked around, turning in my chair. What happened?
Jon asked, “Are you okay?”
“No.” I said, a bit too loud, a bit too fast.
“You were asleep for a minute, didn’t want to wake you, I can fill you in on what you missed.”
“I didn’t sleep. I was awake the whole time.”
“Okay. It’s no big deal, you drifted off for a bit.”
“No, I’m fucking telling you, I was awake, I saw everything.”
“Shit. Okay, you were awake.”
Silence. People walked past our table, noticing my panic, noticing Jon’s concern.
“Why don’t we get out of here?”
“Yeah. Yeah, let’s do that.”
Standing outside, I began to breathe again. Drunken partiers stumbled past, their costumes in various states of ruin.
Jon said, “A friend of mine is having a party right now. She says we wouldn’t need to dress up or anything.”
“I don’t think I’d be good company right now. Hey, did you? Was there? How do you feel right now, after watching that movie?”
“Good. I really liked it. The ending messed with my head.”
“Yeah?” Maybe he did see something.
“Yeah. That she would kill her brothers with the antlers from her bedroom, thinking they were playing tricks on her, that they were the voices. And that we don’t really know in the end if it was them. It’s a lot.”
What was he talking about? That’s not what happened.
“And Domain Archaea showed beautiful restraint.”
“Hey seriously, is everything okay?”
I had to think about it. I decided to nod yes and blame it on fatigue. I was embarrassed. Jon hadn’t seen any of it.
Jon and I parted ways in front of the theatre. We would see each other again eventually. He gave me a tight hug which I held onto a moment too long, taking in his smell and the feel of him, how much he cared. I walked away fast, unable to look back at Jon, or The Plateau.
Patrick Malka (he/him) is a high school science teacher from Montreal, Quebec, where he lives with his partner and two kids. His fiction can be found in Five South’s The Weekly, Nocturne magazine, The Raven Review, Sky Island Journal and most recently at On The Run. He can be found online @PatrickMalka on Twitter and @malkapatrick on Instagram.
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Usually, the skin peeled as effortlessly as string from rotten fruit.
Locked onto the edge of his throbbing thumb, his eyes traced the deep paths of old and new lacerations. His skin split like fissures in the earth: every wound as delicately sculpted as the last. Using the dirt-lodged nail of his middle finger, the boy continued to scrape away the flaking skin which travelled down to the curve of his hand and up his index finger. Each greying follicle fell like frost onto the empty plate in front of him.
Sitting alone at the kitchen table, he fought the hollow twang which echoed through the chambers of his empty stomach. Ignoring its contemptuous calls, the boy only admired the new bloodied crevice carved into his thumb which glistened with a crimson complexion. The brightness of the red contradicted with the deathly-pale outskirts of his flesh which clung to life. To appease the rumbling which erupted from his stomach – a sound which often antagonised his parents – he sank his front teeth into a fresh piece of skin and chewed the slice between his molars. He was starving.
Wailing warily, the extractor fan above the oven spun with his mother’s worry while she methodically stirred the boiling pot on the stove. He struggled to hear anything over it; not that it mattered much. Dinners had become a quiet affair: consisting of cutlery clinking, chairs creaking, words whispered. To put it simply, dinner had become torturous for the boy.
That was, apart from the odd night his father decided to arrive in one of his ‘good moods’ which often came and went as quickly as the mealtimes the boy dreaded. However, in recent months, these occasions had become somewhat of a rarity in the household. So, he waited wishfully with his pacing mother who also considered which version of her husband she would be greeted by today. It was difficult not to pity her. Yet, the boy had always held a soft spot for his mother: always more consistent, more kind, more patient.
Always more tolerant of his ‘challenges’.
Unlike his father.
Glancing through his thick fringe, the boy frowned at the passing time: 6.47pm. Far past their usual mealtime. While the pangs of hunger still tweaked in his insides, the delay of his father’s arrival sparked a small flame of hope that he would bring something edible home. Not another heaped plate of bland food which mirrored the room around him.
Everything in the deteriorating kitchen was the same moulding colour of beige – apart from the faintly green cupboards which faded from their once-vibrant colour like bruises. Grime coated the walls and congealed itself into every nook the kitchen dared to have. Patches of rust flourished like stubborn warts and embellished the exposed pipes like spiralling ivy. On the side of the sink, dishes lay abandoned (some splattered in stains, some chipped and cracked, others merely forgotten). Half-full take-away boxes sprawled over the counters and attracted tiny insistent flies which doubled each day. Their bumbling and lurching movements mocked his parents who danced around each other – using the fat-filled food as a bargaining tool. It was the home that made him sick.
Between his teeth, he held a fragile piece of skin he noticed sticking up like a broken nail in wood from his finger and tugged it backwards – revealing the scarlet flesh beneath. It took a second before the pain kicked in. His nerves pulsed with persistent pleas before numbing to the intensity of the raw pain. Accustomed to this ritual, the boy barely reacted to the feeling. It was his body that pled; not him. There were worse things going on.
His mother heard it too.
Even the fan struggled to mute the sound.
Instinctively, the boy’s eyes fell on the basement door which always sat on the other side of the room to him (where he liked it). He wanted to keep watch on it. Its allusiveness seemed to loom over the mother and son as they waited for his father. What lay behind the door pounded with the same intensity as the pain in the boy’s fingers. It beckoned the boy to open it – something he had still not had the courage to do. Regardless of how much he wanted to, he knew the punishment from his father would trump his curiosity. He swallowed the lump in his throat which slid down to create a tight knot in his stomach.
Breaking his stare, he looked for reassurance from his mother who seemed to either be waiting for another noise, or in a hypnotic trance. The yellowing fabric acting as curtains floated around her like spectres from the open window. With a bolt-tight jaw which highlighted the stiffness throughout the rest of her body, she gazed out into the garden. Eyes haunted and somewhere else. Both mother and son knew what that noise meant.
His father would join them soon.
Removing another layer of ghostly skin, the boy winced as the flesh fought against his pull. With one more tug, it released its stubborn grasp and landed on the table in front of him. In triumph, he almost smiled as the red liquid began to flood the empty space his skin once situated. Wrapping his parted lips around the wound, he devoured the metallic taste which reminded him of old coins, copper, and the end of pencils he chewed at school.
More quickly than expected, the scraping of a rusted bolt bounced the boy’s gaze back to the basement door. A chain rattled against the old wooden door (the splinters dug into his skin just thinking about it). As the final lock clicked open, either anxiety or excitement dropped deeply in the boy’s stomach. It felt as though the floor had been pulled from under his feet. There was no way to be sure of which version of his father he would get today. He crossed his nipping fingers beneath the table.
As the door creaked open with a wince, only his father’s face exited the basement.
Feeling his shoulders drop, his father looked skinnier than the boy had noticed before, his cheeks curved into his skull. Exhaustion nestled deeply into the layers of his skin, making him look permanently bruised. Avoiding the boy’s stare completely, his father searched for the comfort of his wife’s eyes. Turning her head over her shoulder, she met her husband’s purposeful gaze and a silent word passed between them. The boy thought that this may have been the only thing he had in common with his father – they both preferred his mother. As his brow softened, fragments of pale skin accentuated the outline of his frown which he almost permanently wore.
Sliding out the door to deter the watchful eyes of his son, the man’s body appeared section by section as he shut the door behind him. Locking the door with his key (that he always kept in his front pocket), his hand shook as he tried to remove it from the starving mouth of the lock. Finally ripping it from the lock’s teeth, he steadied his breathing while shifting the rattling chains to fully secure the door. Clearing his throat before he turned to face his family, he forced a fabricated smile on the bottom half of his face which didn’t reach his eyes. Hanging from him like cobwebs, his white sleeveless shirt seemed more tattered than usual. Bringing the back of his wrist to his forehead, he only smeared the charcoal dirt which clumped on his face where his sweat gathered.
“Son,” he nodded to the boy and greeted him with a ruffle of his hair before he turned to kiss his wife on the shoulder while she cooked.
A waft of air carried a sweet staleness which permanently exuded from his father after he had been down in the basement. In the beginning, he would quickly excuse himself for a shower to cleanse himself of the stench, but as the visits became more regular, he quickly gave this ritual up. Mostly, the boy had become accustomed to this, and it was still better than the scent of the food being cooked.
The sulfuric smell of broccoli was beginning to make the boy feel ill imaging the cold, watery vegetable that would no doubt be overcooked into a deflated mush. Soon, it would be splattered on his plate by a harsh spoon and would ruin his pile of frosted skin. He swallowed the warm saliva that gathered in the sides of his cheeks in preparation for him to vomit.
Opening the fridge door with a stubborn slurp, his father was illuminated by a mustard light and pulled out a lukewarm beer. Without a flinch, he opened it with his teeth and the glass bottle hissed against him. Holding the neck of the bottle by his index and middle finger, he took a seat at the opposite side of the table from his son. In doing so, he blocked the boy’s view of the basement door which made him divert his gaze back to his plate. Observing him carefully, his father lifted a napkin from the table and opened it to lay neatly on his lap. He always made this kind of show when preparing to eat – and yet, this performance had still never encouraged him to stomach his food.
Leaning over them, his mother plated each of their dinners in front of them. Despite his father’s encouraging hum which indicated his excitement for the meal – all the boy saw was slop. The watery gravy infiltrated the zones where his vegetables and potatoes were positioned. Ruining them before he even had the chance to refuse the food. The boy noticed that at school, the other children watched the steam dance from their inviting plates with wide eyes, but at home, the heavy air of the kitchen only seemed to oppress it.
“He’s not eaten anything today – or spoken. I think it’s getting worse,” his mother informed her husband like it was a bad school report.
While he could feel the thunderous frown of his father above him, he did not remove his inquisitive stare from his thumb which he hid beneath the table. Sitting beside them, the boy could tell his mother was silently pressing his father to say something to fix the situation. Having such a miniscule success rate, the boy wondered why she bothered. Letting out a defeated sigh, his father put down his fork and knife and finished his mouthful.
Each loud chew made the boy’s stomach churn.
“Look at me, son,” his father managed.
Forcing his eyes up, he waited. Rubbing the protruding spikes of his beard, it was obvious the conversation made him uncomfortable. His grey eyes rounder and more worried.
“Is it the dreams again? The ones with the basement?”
The word made the boy’s hands tingle.
He wanted to
but he couldn’t.
Not in front of his father.
The emptiness in his stomach had started to make him feel light-headed – a wave of nausea vibrated through him. Around him, the room started to spin slightly. Beads of sweat began to form around his neck and shoulders and roll down his back.
Moving closer to her son, his mother lifted the fringe from his eyes to feel his clammy forehead. Panic already in her eyes, she looked to her husband for his aid. She held his face between her two hands to make him focus on her turned up eyebrows and wide eyes.
“Does he look okay to you, David? Look at him – he’s starving himself sick. Please, son, why don’t you just try to have a bit of your dinner? Like your dad says.”
Forcing himself out of his dizziness, the boy sipped the water in front of him and shook his head of the spell he was under. Whilst he did not answer, he looked towards his father who was framed by the basement door. The boy knew he was starving, and so did his father.
To appease his parents who watched contentiously, he planted a fork into his mash potatoes. Butter escaped like blood from a stab wound. Inserting the fork into his mouth, it did not take long for it to make the boy physically wretch as the texture hit the back of his throat. The amalgamation of his harsh coughs, his teary eyes, and his hand to his throat caused his mother to jump up from her seat to his aid. He spat the food out onto a napkin.
“Oh David, can’t we please just get him something he’ll eat? Look at him!”
As the father and son locked eyes, his father swelled with rage at the disobedience which danced across his son’s eyes.
“God damn it, no!” He slammed his fist on the table which made the two bounce simultaneously. “He will eat what we make him. He cannot control this whole house!”
A scratching interrupted his father’s outburst.
Despite trying not to, he watched as his mother darted her eyes towards the basement door.
The three paused – breaths held tightly.
It was light, but it was still there.
Looking down at his hands which had made their own way back onto the table, the boy realised that the sound was his. His fingers dug deeply into his skin, scraping vigorously like mice in the walls.
Before he had the chance to stop, he caught the burning stare of his father who scowled at the boy’s thumb which was as red as a stop light. He had tried everything: plasters, gloves, tape, coating his fingers in a clear liquid that tasted like nail polish remover. Nothing worked.
A tight fist found itself around his wrist.
The boy looked at it as if it was completely alien to him.
His father had never done this before.
“That hurts?” His father’s eyes became overwhelmed by a thick wave of tears that he gulped down – the whites of his eyes gaining a pink glow. He tightened his grip. “That hurts?”
His glare turned on his wife – the hair on his eyebrows now hackles.
The laboured breaths in his chest caused his whole to expand and deflate. As if she had pressed a button, he unclasped his grip and let his hand linger over his son’s delicate wrist. Feeling the painful ring that was left, the boy fought the urge to hold onto his wrist and sooth himself.
“I’m just hungry, Dad.”
The words hung like black clouds.
A beat passed between his mother and father.
“We don’t have enough left,” his father spoke to his mother, his voice meek.
“He’s not eaten in days, David.”
“We promised we would try,” his father hissed. “Like I said, we don’t have enough. Look – son – this is fine.”
He shovelled a loaded mouthful from his fork and swallowed despite the lump that was even evident through his throat. His Adam’s apple bobbed.
“Try some,” his father swerved the fork around to his son’s face. The mountainous slop that jiggled made him recoil. He was going to be sick.
He was going to be sick.
Before he had the chance to think, his hand – with more strength that he realised – batted the fork away from him. It flew across the air and to the opposite side of the room.
Clattering with a cacophonous crash, the fork skipped across the tile flooring as if it was running for its escape.
His father’s eyes did not leave the fork that eventually lay as silent as a corpse.
He would regret that.
He knew he was going to regret that.
His mother gave out a deep exhale. Plucking the napkin from her lap and throwing it onto the table, she leaned back in her seat and rubbed her face with her palms.
“You need to get more, David” she said plainly.
Bringing his jaw around to look at her directly, his father sat back down from the previously large stance he took over his son. He watched his throat vibrate with the same intensity as his hands. Running his fingers through his once jet-black hair that had now receded and aged to a speckled grey, the father gripped it with such strength he felt his scalp pull painfully. It was his eyes that made the boy realise he was close.
“I’m hungry,” The boy looked at him with onyx black eyes that glistened with betrayal. His father gazed back as if he was in some kind of trance. He couldn’t help but notice the way his son’s cheeks dipped in like his to show the outline of his skull.
“You can’t let me die.”
Another beat that was louder than the last – without the extractor fan, they were left with only the three pathways of thought between them. Watching intently, the boy smiled slightly as his mother wrapped her fingers around his father’s decimated, working hands.
Forcing the edges of his mouth back up from their shaking pout, his father nodded.
There was no hope in fighting.
He was only waiting for the words which were catching up on him.
“We can use the last of her,” his mother prompted. “Then we can get another one. Like the last time.”
Wiping his mouth with disgust, his father scraped each of the four legs on his seat along the kitchen tiles which screamed with the friction.
“God help us,” he forced from his throat as he lifted the key from his pocket and dragged his feet across the kitchen to the basement door.
Instead of shifting in shyly, his father left the door wide open.
Light flooded the stairs down into the room – a white leg appeared from the darkness.
He licked his lips. So did his mother.
The boy had always liked his mother better.
R. J. Morgan is a dedicated writer who loves reading – and watching – horror. She is a graduate of the University of Glasgow where she studied English Literature & History. While her focus is on writing short stories, she is currently working on her debut novel: Where They Take Us.
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Her distorted face merged with the streaks of soapy foam and the stained purple jacket, until it was just one melting pot of color. Even her own muddy brown eyes were lost in the cycle. The hum of the washer filled the corners of the desolate laundromat. She continued to watch her reflection dissolve and twist with the water. Ten minutes remained on the timer.
The humidity of the laundromat stuck to her skin, weighing her body down to the stiff bench she sat on. She wanted to stand under a running faucet and scrub at her skin until it was pink and raw of any faults. For a moment, she considered climbing into the washer so the floral disinfectant soap would fill her mouth and clean her insides.
A warm hand reached out and rested on her shoulder. It firmly pressed against her body, anchoring her to the seat. She stared straight ahead, the long white talons of her mother’s nails in her peripheral vision.
“It’ll be alright, Samantha.” Her tenacious grip grew tighter against her shoulder.
Samantha glanced over her mother’s nails and noticed the flecks of red as small as a needle point against the stark white paint. It stood out like a coffee stain on a t-shirt to her but would be unnoticeable to any other eye. She whipped her head back around to face the washer door.
Her mother reluctantly loosened her grip and dropped her hand back to her side.
Samantha clasped her hands together as if in prayer and watched as the clothes fell over one another. A pair of jeans. A blue blouse adorned with sleek black buttons on the front. Then the purple jacket broke through, the red stains peeking out before being overshadowed by another article of clothing. Her Dad had bought it for her, three years before the local mall closed. She had worn it every day to school and wore out the zipper so fast he had to replace it with a new one.
She didn’t think she could wear it ever again now. The stains would never wash out, even if she scrubbed at it with a sponge. His blood would still be on it.
She had tried to convince herself it was just paint, a spill from a silly art project. When she blinked, the still image of bodies intertwined on a mattress proved otherwise. She would never forget the lady’s blonde hair splayed out on the bed, like golden silk. And the glint of the knife in her dad’s back, with her mother’s nails wrapped around the handle. The image of their slack-jawed expressions pressed against the bed was forever stuck behind her eyelids.
The shrill sound of sirens could be heard off in the distance, just beyond the deserted parking lot. Samantha unlocked her hands from their death grip on each other and hung her head forward. Her mother’s unshakeable hand reached out and grasped onto her shoulder again. She looked toward the washer door, at the blinking orange light. The buzzer had gone off amidst the sound of the sirens.
The load was finished.
Kira Blake resides in Northern California and is currently working her way towards a BA degree in creative writing. She can be reached through her email@example.com
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As I think back on it now, I’m sure I did the right thing. Who was I to deny him his chosen exit?
The terrible thing about life, Michael used to say, is that it’s occasionally rewarding. I believe he first uttered this gloomy credo one evening in 1981 as we stood on the shore of the reservoir, trying to identify bird songs. Cardinals and chickadees were easy, but every other species remained elusive. Michael mimicked some of their calls on his harmonica, an instrument he always carried in his pocket.
“How deep do you think it is?” Michael asked me that night. I wasn’t sure how to take his question, so I simply swallowed, keeping my own counsel.
As you might have guessed, we were quite young at the time. Callow one might even say. Young women existed only as we imagined them, and so our world effectively began and ended with music and literature. I was smitten with the Beatles and Dickens. Michael’s tastes ran more to Irish folk songs and Goethe.
The reservoir we contemplated that evening had been created a decade previously as the result of a gift by an alumnus of our little college. Though man-made, the body of water looked entirely natural and was popular with undergraduates and other wildlife. One sometimes saw herons there, for instance, and I remember comparing their tenuous legs with various dream girls I conjured in my bed at night.
The object of Michael’s affection was scarcely more obtainable. Siobhan O’Sullivan was an Irish folk singer whose obscurity in America had less to do with the quality of her voice–a gentle contralto–than the fact that she sang only in Gaelic. For a few weeks one summer break Michael had earnestly set about learning the language, but he was the first to admit that his desire outpaced his capacity. And anyway I believe he enjoyed
the mystery of her music as much as anything else. He rarely bothered with a translation, preferring instead to summon up his own meanings for her songs based on their emotional tenor.
O’Sullivan’s recordings were very difficult to obtain, but Michael’s passion and resourcefulness had enabled him to amass an extensive collection of her LPs. Most of the album covers featured dramatic painted landscapes–often craggy Irish trees sagging under the weight of English oppression–but her first recording, released in 1970, portrayed the singer’s face in black and white, and it was this photo which had helped to fire my friend’s devotion.
Her curly hair was fair and cut short, almost like a boy’s. Her nose was small and narrow, almost sharp. It was her eyes, though, that dominated her appearance. In the photo you couldn’t tell their color, but we both imagined they must be blue. I was a bit smitten, too, you see, especially since this debut recording included her own translation into Gaelic of the Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son.”
Though none of her songs featured the instrument, Michael had worked out harmonica accompaniments to many of the tracks, including his favorite, the incomprehensibly titled and impossibly beautiful “Ar Éirinn ni Neosfainn Cé Hi.” We just called it “Ar” for short. Michael had unearthed a translation, and told me that in English its title might be rendered as something like “For Ireland, I’d Not Tell Her Name.” Birds featured in the song, as did waves, and, rather inevitably, the narrator longs for the light of his beloved’s smile. One account Michael found speculated that the lover in the story is a priest, doomed to celibacy, longing for a woman he knows he can never love as man was meant to love woman.
Disciples of Judah’s second son, Michael and I were unfamiliar with love except as it was expressed in the arts. My friend, for example, was fond of speculating what Goethe meant when he expressed that love does not dominate, it cultivates. Michael took it to mean that together, and through their affection, lovers were able to create something new that neither might be capable of experiencing individually. “Or something like that,” he added. Michael’s world was built on such vagaries. He believed that few possessed the talent needed to truly master a skill. The rest of us must be content with our dilettantism and plod along as best we could.
His ability to play the harmonica was but one example. The rudiments of the instrument, he told me, were simple enough to learn, but to truly master it would take years of practice, a sacrifice he was not willing to make. On the diatonic model he favored, it was not possible to produce certain notes without learning a difficult technique called overblowing. Fortunately, there were plenty of tunes, including “Ar,” that did not require this knowledge.
Our senior year had been trying for both of us. Returning from a year abroad in the UK, the small Wisconsin town that housed our college struck me as newly limited and–I was trying out the word–provincial. After seeing Dickens’s London and Strawberry Field in Liverpool, the gentle beauty of sights like the reservoir had begun to pale.
If I suffered from a vague lack or want of something, though, Michael had succumbed to ennui that bordered on despair. Nothing and no one, except for Siobhan, seemed satisfactory or worth his while. His natural ability and a sense of duty to his parents enabled him to earn B’s, but the prospect of graduation was daunting. “I don’t know how to do anything,” he was fond of saying. The fact that this realization stood in bold contradiction to his espoused belief in genial inaptitude apparently made no difference to him.
The simplest manual tasks were quite beyond him. He couldn’t swim, hunted and pecked at the keyboard, had never learned to drive, and couldn’t even change flat tires on his bicycle. Graduate programs struck him as disturbingly esoteric and were, he felt, sure to confirm his view that academe was a recipe for tedium, pursued only by those who were unwilling to confront real life.
I thought it sounded perfect for him.
That year he had decided to reread Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, the embodiment of romanticism that had encouraged a wave of suicides across Europe in the eighteenth century. Taking one’s own life, Michael believed, was not the selfish act many regarded it as, but rather a legitimate choice that one had every right to make. What is the point, he once asked me, of living on aimlessly, merely repeating the tedium of daily life, once an apotheosis has been achieved? Far from being the act of a coward, he continued, suicide was the bravest choice a human could make. Why continue to swim on against the waves once some joyous flood had returned us to the shore? “Or something like that,” he added, with a little smile that momentarily reassured me. In the face of such determined logic, I held my tongue, pondered eternal silence, and reminded myself that all things must pass.
With early April came news that seemed to confirm Michael’s belief that existence sometimes has its rewards. Siobhan O’Sullivan would give a concert at the Conservatory in mid-May, just before Commencement. Our Joyce scholar, Dr. Schaeffer, had convinced Dean Bloom that O’Sullivan’s brand of folk music would contribute “diversity” and prove a stimulating complement to the usual fare of string quartets and chamber orchestras the head of the conservatory favored.
Michael was beside himself. He dusted off his Gaelic grammar books, began an exercise regimen, and invested in a new set of harmonicas that included every major key. Finally, he determined that he would secure a girlfriend who would accompany him to the concert. When he told me his plan, my mien must have betrayed doubt, for he instantly reminded me that Goethe admired those who yearned for the impossible.
And, impossibly, my friend managed to secure a young lady’s consent to go to dinner with him. Mistaking me for someone who might provide useful experience or knowledge, Michael pumped me for advice. Where should they go? In what direction should he steer the conversation? What should he wear? All I managed to tell him was to scratch out the mustard stain on the favorite pair of jeans I knew he would wear. After all, I knew nothing about the girl, not even her name, for he refused to tell me.
For the next several weeks I saw little of Michael. At first I was pleased for him and thought his success might indicate that, I, too was far from a hopeless case. Emboldened, I composed a brief letter that introduced myself and my aims. I contemplated slipping it under the door of the current object of my affection, a fellow senior. I had been observing her for some weeks now, imagining where we might walk, what I might do to secure her regard. Each time I folded the paper, slipped it in my pocket and headed for the door, however, I found sound reasons to delay.
I hugged myself at night, hoarded secret inclinations, and began to take long walks around the reservoir. I think that deep within me I knew how ill-prepared I was for adult life. Michael’s company and our jocular rejection of the norms of college life had kept me buoyant, but now that he had actually embarked on a relationship, I realized how much work lay ahead of me if I wanted to avoid a solitary existence. What did I lack that Michael did not? The question puzzled me, but instead of seeking answers I took familiar refuge in fiction and satisfied my desires à la Portnoy.
The night of the Siobhan O’Sullivan concert I found myself sitting alone in the third row of the subordinate recital hall Dean Bloom had granted for what he deemed Schaeffer’s folly. Sure enough, ten minutes before the event was scheduled to begin, scarcely more than a dozen undergraduates and faculty filled the seats. I was beginning to wonder if Michael’s new experience with flesh and blood had banished his obsession with Siobhan, when in he walked, alone. In one hand he carried his harmonica case. In the other, a canvas bag that threatened to weigh him down. He took a seat next to me but said nothing.
The silence between us was unaccustomed and uncomfortable. I found myself wondering if Michael’s brief excursion into the realm of the living had rendered him newly unfit for my company. His expression of defeat barely changed as Siobhan O’Sullivan took the stage to scattered, polite applause. Though I realized the pettiness of my thought, I couldn’t help but think to myself that the years had not been particularly kind to her. Or perhaps it was merely that the picture of her we had both lingered over had been the result of clever photographic magic. In the flesh, she appeared plain, and already looked tired. Without saying a word of introduction, she began to strum a few chords aimlessly.
As soon as she opened her mouth to sing, however, her face lit up, and I believe Michael and I both recognized that dreams were still worth dreaming, even if, or perhaps precisely because they were merely that. The Irish words she sang were meaningless to us, yet their tone and the story they implied returned us safely to a world of faith. Her voice rose and fell in perfect tune to her guitar, and to say that I was transported does not do justice to the term.
I suddenly found myself thinking of Michael’s friend. Had she declined to come? Was the music not to her taste? Or had she broken up with Michael? I tried to summon a face I might one day love, some similarly detained girl waiting to join life as we all one day surely must. Nothing appeared in my mind’s eye, however, except the barren trees from the singer’s album covers, stripped of leaves and enduring in the face of a tormenting wind.
Lovely song followed lovely song, but still Michael betrayed no emotion and said nothing to me. The performer’s fifth number was “Ar.” As the first familiar chords sounded, Michael opened his harmonica case and took a moment to identify the properly-keyed instrument. He then rose from his seat and walked to the edge of the stage, canvas bag in one hand, harmonica in the other. Raising the instrument to his lips, he began to play. Siobhan O’Sullivan’s head turned toward him, and for a moment I detected anger in her face. Her eyes seemed to will him into silence, and her nose looked newly pointed.
Yet Michael persisted. His first few notes had been tentative, but now he was finding his feet, increasing his tone and asserting his right to join the act. The singer’s face gradually betokened acceptance, and when she turned to face my friend, I knew he had gained her trust. His harmonica
matched her phrasing seamlessly, and aptly reflected the anguish of the piece. As the second verse ended, Siobhan O’Sullivan inclined her head towards Michael, inviting him to take a solo. Taken off guard, he flatted the first note but then began to improvise away from the melody line, playing outside himself and even, I think, including a few overblows.
As the solo ended, and the Irish woman embarked on the final verse of the song, a few members of the audience contributed spontaneous applause. Instead of acknowledging his triumph, however, Michael left the stage, gathered the canvas bag and headed for the exit. At first I thought he might be preparing some additional surprise and allowed myself a smile. My friend had realized some kind of vision, conjured an active triumph so unexpected and total that it beggared the imagination.
After a few moments passed without Michael’s return, however, I began to grow fearful. I knew his tendencies and wondered at the potentially destructive power of life’s zeniths. I left the hall and instinctively headed for the reservoir. As I quickened my pace, I listened for owls and other harbingers of doom, but heard only the distant sounds of thumping stereo woofers and an occasional peel of laughter.
When I found him, he was in up to his neck, still standing, and I knew the weight he carried. I wondered if I should shout something to him but found myself incapable of action. I was waiting for him to take the next step, strangely certain that this was what he would have expected of me and that he would approve of my decision. In that moment I capitulated to his right to do as he chose.
A few frogs were croaking. Their voices were so different from Siobhan O’Sullivan’s, but, I decided, no less powerful in their own way. She was on stage, singing songs both beautiful and incomprehensible, as I listened to notes more ancient still. Or something like that. The frogs croaked, I swallowed hard, and watched as Michael took his next step.
Paul O. Jenkins lives in New Hampshire and increasingly in the past. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Avalon Literary Review, BarBar, and Straylight.
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She’s sitting on an old Jersey barrier on the side of New York Avenue when I first see her. Her tennis shoes are dirty and stained; one’s resting on the reflector embedded in the concrete and the other one’s busy rearranging the garbage at her feet. Her jeans and black T-shirt have seen better days, too. Eighteen or nineteen, I’m guessing. One of those girls nobody cares about and nobody notices when they go missing, at least not for a few days. They’re like bamboo: you cut one stalk down and three more grow to replace it. Just not that valuable. An invasive species.
I double park my beat up blue F150 next to her and roll down the passenger window. She looks at me sideways and tries out a smile. It fades quickly, but then comes back like a shy puppy that has to make sure you’re nice before it lets you pet it.
“You want to get high?” I ask her, and her smile collapses to a frown.
“I’m not gonna blow you if that’s what you’re looking for.”
“No, I’m just looking for somebody cool to get high with. You want to party or not? I got wine, too.”
Car horns are beeping behind me; drivers are shouting, “Go, God damn it, go!” All of them full of hate. Finally she relents, hops down from her perch and gets in. Off we go, and the horns stop beeping and the people stop screaming.
We drive out New York Avenue and New York Avenue turns into 50; we’re leaving the city behind and going past the Arboretum and the shitty hotels. She starts getting nervous because we’re heading out farther than she expected, but I pat her on the knee, letting her know I care and I’m not afraid to touch her.
“We’re definitely going to party. You can smoke some now if you want,” I say. I’m in a good mood, laughing and joking, putting her at ease again. There’s a battered tin box on the seat between us. With the thumb and index finger of my right hand I flip the catch and pull out a joint and a lighter. She sparks it. Ten minutes later she’s as mellow as can be. She offers me a hit, but I decline.
“Nah, I’m driving on a suspended license. I’ll smoke up when we get where we’re going.”
She says, “Where’s that at?”
“Out closer towards Annapolis, I got a cool place on the water.”
She nods and says, “Okay. All right,” and smiles, turning unfocused eyes on the scenery outside.
She’s really looking forward to it, I’m thinking.
“I got to get gas,” I say, and turn into this abandoned gas station where I do a lot of my work; it’s about halfway between my place and the DC line. I make like I’m surprised that the pumps are gone and the windows dirty and dark.
“Shit, this place isn’t open anymore? Oh, damn. The tank’s really low, but it’ll be okay.”
Of course it’s not going to be okay. I mean, okay for me, but definitely not okay for her. I park the pickup in the side parking lot and I kill her right there between the locked bathrooms and padlocked ice chest and the woods. I squeeze her neck until the little bones crack and her eyes are bloodshot as hell and her tongue sticks out like a cartoon. Then boom! Pull her out onto the broken asphalt and weeds and drag her to the bed of the truck. Slide the tonneau cover shut and we’re back on the road without even losing fifteen minutes.
Where I live isn’t Annapolis, and it’s not waterfront. I don’t like to lie, but no way am I telling some whore where I live before she’s neutralized. I head a little farther down 50. I’m spooked for a minute when a state trooper comes up behind me, lights flashing. I pull over to the side like a good citizen and he speeds past. I watch him go, my mouth dry and sticky, then continue on to my exit. Down about a mile I turn right onto a gravel road. That’s my driveway. We take that for about a mile and come out at the old homestead. I can’t keep it in very good repair anymore. The roof on the farmhouse leaks and a lot of the sheds are falling down. I unloaded most of the farm equipment piecemeal and I sold a chunk of the south field to a real estate developer in 2018. The entire north field, right up to the north side of the house, is bamboo. Dad planted it just before he died. Thought it’d be good money, I guess. That was thirty years ago, when I was a kid. It’s a thick forest now except for the trails I clear and the little glades I cut for the girls when I’m finished with them. I have to be diligent about clearing the main path, and I can only bury the girls far out on the north edge because the bamboo stalks are too thick otherwise. I’d need the chainsaw to get through most of them and I’m not breaking out the chainsaw and wasting gas for some whore from DC.
I open the tailgate and she’s all the way at the front of the bed right behind the cab. I heard her hit the wall behind the driver’s seat when I braked too fast coming off the exit. And I guess I drove bad in some other places too because her face is pretty messed up. There’s blood in the truck, too, and that’s definitely some amateur hour shit. But a whore’s a whore, fucked up face or not. So I take her into the house. I promised her we’d party and I don’t like to lie.
After we finish up, I go out to cut a new trail in the bamboo. I leave her in the tub with five bags of ice packed over her. It’s hot—pushing a hundred degrees—and I know from experience when I bring girls home in the summertime it doesn’t take long for them to start to stink like hell. It’ll take me a couple of hours to get the new trail cut and the hole dug, and even with the ice it doesn’t do to procrastinate. I fetch the machete from the tool shed and take a minute to get a good edge on it with the whetstone, grab the hand saw and the shovel, and head out to the bamboo.
There’s a gap in the stalks just past the east side of the house. It’s discreet. It has to be. If anybody shows up, I don’t want them taking a stroll back here. Though I probably don’t need to worry too much: I run the brush cutter over the main trail once a week or so. The bamboo grows so fast, if I wait any longer the job is twice as hard and takes twice as long. Most of the little trails branching from the main trunk are almost entirely grown over now. It makes me laugh to think I’ll probably lose track of where the girls are buried. Once I forget them, they’ll really be gone. The bamboo roots will weave through their bones like new veins and arteries in place of the old ones. But I’m getting sentimental. I’ve got a dead girl rotting and a grave to dig.
Near the north perimeter of the forest the bamboo is younger and more pliable: easier to cut. Of course, to call it the perimeter isn’t quite right. It’s today’s perimeter, if anything. The forest grows a little more every day; sometimes it seems you’ll notice a stump or an old fencepost two or three feet behind the bamboo line that was in the clear just the day before. It’s a hungry kind of weed, bamboo. Or maybe “starving” is a better way to describe it. Bamboo wants to grow like a starving animal in a cage wants to eat: with an angry hunger; a blind ravenousness that won’t rest until it’s satisfied.
I cut the trail easy enough; thirty feet down into the woods and then a circular clearing about six feet in diameter. I prefer to put the girls in the ground in a fetal position. It’s easier that way; digging a grave big enough for a body to stretch out in is hard work for anyone, let alone somebody like me, getting up there in years. I’m not going to do it for these whores.
Half an hour later I’m only about three feet down. The bamboo roots grow thick, thicker than you’d expect from these juvenile plants, and they’re all connected in one big spaghetti nervous system. They’re hampering the shovel’s movement and sapping my strength. And it’s so God damn hot.
Another thirty minutes and it’s deep enough and about four feet in diameter with the ring of removed dirt piled around the edge. I’m sweating so hard it’s like I just stepped out of a swimming pool. My head is pounding and my skin is red. I’m guessing if I had a mirror my face would be the color of a steamed crab. But it’s God damn deep enough. I clamber out of the hole, gather the tools up and set them on the edge of the pit, then turn back toward the main trail. But the new cut is gone. Every direction I turn, it’s all bamboo, encroaching up to the edge of the pit. I can almost feel it growing even as I stand here, rank upon rank like an advancing army, pushing me closer to the hole.
I’m a little bit spooked; I don’t like to lie. I’ve never seen the bamboo grow this quickly before. But it has been raining almost every day and it is hot as hell and those are two things bamboo loves. So I get control of myself and grab the machete to hack a new path back to the main trunk-trail. I sigh with relief that the main trail is still passable and set the shovel by the entrance to mark it: it has a bright red blade—scratched up and dirty, but I’ll be able to spot it when I return. When I’m halfway to the house I look back, sure the stalks I just cut will be regrown. But it’s too far to see anything except the shovel.
“Okay, that’s okay,” I say to the early evening sky, and continue my shuffle back.
“You ready to start your all-dirt diet, girl?” I say when I walk through the door. I expect her to laugh, but of course that’s not something that’s going to happen. It’s hot in the house and I fear the worst, but when I open the bathroom door I don’t smell anything except the mustiness of old leaks and rotting plaster. The ice did a nice job. I pull the plug in the cast iron tub, porcelain all chipped down to rusty spots, and the melt glugs down with hungry sucking noises into the stained drain hole. I have to pluck out the plastic grocery bags I’d used for the ice because they’re clogging the flow, but it’s done emptying pretty quickly. She’s wet, but I’m still not dry from all the sweat, so I don’t really give a damn. I heft her slippery, naked dead weight from the tub and throw her over my shoulder. I get a little excited, but it’s not the time and I’m exhausted anyway. No matter what, my back is going to ache tonight; tonight’s going to be a Motrin night for sure.
We slosh down the hallway and out onto the porch and down the creaking, weathered steps. She fits in the old wheelbarrow—the one with the big tire that goes easily over the soft ground on the main bamboo cut—with some coaxing. I use a bungee to secure one leg that won’t cooperate. We set out on the trail with the sun starting to sink down below the western treeline. The bamboo trail is in deep shadow; a wind picks up and the leaves whisper their secrets to the dusk. I can almost understand their words: We eat the soil now, but we are always hungry. We find no satisfaction in the soil. And I think maybe it’s not the trees—not the bamboo—saying that. It’s the girls underneath; the forgotten girls, forgotten before anyone even noticed them missing. My shirt, damp with the corpse water and my own sweat, reeking of death and life, clings to me and sucks the warmth from my body despite the close heat. I look down at the inert form in the wheelbarrow and think, We got to carry on and get this done with. And I do. It’s dark, but the main trunk-trail beckons.
It’s not hard getting down there. The tire’s good and broad; sometimes one of the bigger stumps of cropped bamboo impedes the wheel and I have to go left or right a few inches. But mainly it’s an easy trek back to the shovel and the new trail. And it’s wide open; it hasn’t grown back in the hour or so I’ve been gone.
We make the left onto the grave-trail; I grab the shovel on the way and nestle the blade into the space between the bowl of the barrow and the girl’s mottled back. It’s easy going; there’s just annoying stubble on the path and then we’re at the edge of the pit. I pivot the barrow on its thick wheel and I dump the girl in. That sound: the dull thud of lifeless meat on soil; the first time a man hears it it becomes part of his soul forever. He either learns to love it or he learns to hate it, and whichever one he does decides a lot about how his life proceeds.
The bamboo on the edge of the trail rustles against my legs and back. The machete’s close by, teetering on the edge of the grave, and I grab for it to cut a little more around the perimeter to give myself some room. But my snatch is clumsy and the blade topples into the pit; I jump in to fetch it. Despite the work I put in earlier, the hole isn’t too deep. I reach under the girl to grab the machete and thrust it into my belt and I catch sight of her face: it’s turned toward me, and her eyes are open. They’re glassy and they’re dead, but they’re open. It happens. For a second I consider closing the lids the way they do in movies, a single hand stroking both eyes at once to a peaceful slumber. But the idea of doing that makes me want to puke. I’m not easily spooked, but the idea of touching her—here, now, in this grave—fills me with dread. I put my arms over the edge of the pit and start to pull myself up, but I’m stuck on something: her arm. Somehow my boot’s gotten caught in the crook of that rigid limb. The dread fills me again, and I use my other boot as leverage to pull my ankle out of her grip. The maneuver unbalances me, and I fall backward onto her; I’m all caught up, my left wrist between her legs and my other ankle caught now.
I’m breathing too fast, so I close my eyes and concentrate, willing myself to inhale nice and slow and exhale the same way, just like they taught me in the Army. Calmer and more in control of myself, I get my feet free, pull my arms loose and move to the side of the pit farthest from her. I catch the top edge of the hole with my elbows and lift myself out backwards, keeping my eyes on her dull brown peepers the whole time. It’s an awkward exit, and something snaps in my right arm. The pain is excruciating. But I’m out. Away from her face.
The bamboo is thick now around the edge of the pit, way thicker than just a few minutes ago. I slither in amongst the new growth because there’s nowhere else to go: the grave is ringed with it right to the edge. The fresh stalks press around me and they’re getting tighter. I reach out and pull myself farther away from the pit and it’s obvious they’re not getting tighter; they’re growing: the new shoots were only an eighth of an inch in diameter at first; maybe a quarter. Now they’re three or four inches: thick and woody and tightly packed. They’re pressing against my face and chest, making it hard to breathe. I’m on the ground and they’re crowding me, crushing me as they grow; there’s only one place to go: up. I grip the trunks of the two crushing my chest and heave myself upward. My feet find purchase on the canes and I’m climbing—actually climbing—this bamboo. The higher I get, the more pliable the stalks: it’s harder to hold onto them, but at least I can breathe again.
But the reprieve is brief.
The limbs overhead interlace and overlap; I reach up to pull myself higher, but my hands catch in the grasping branches. Their movement is chaotic, binding my wrists and releasing, only for another three or four branches to take over: greedy wooden hands with a strength like iron. The hot wind has grown wild and the grasping branches undulate me through the bamboo forest like food through an intestine. And then it stops. My injured arm is screaming bloody murder. I’m as high as I can go, ankles and wrists trapped in lattices of overlapping limbs; my weight is too much for them: they bend and I sink toward the earth. There’s a smell down there: the girl. She’s started to stink. It was only a matter of time. I descend on the springy, bending stalks through the lower branches, and there she is: no longer in a fetal position. The bamboo has grown around her, lifted her, and it springs from her limbs as though she and the grass are one. Her mouth and eye sockets are filled with the wiry roots. She seems to be beckoning, arms raised to my approaching form. I hear the whispering of the bamboo in the wind, the hissing voices from across the grassy forest: all those grave-trails; all those graves, connected by subterranean coils of bamboo roots.
We eat the soil now, but we are always hungry.
I come to rest against her dead form, my face a few inches from hers. There’s corruption there but an earthy smell, too: a plant smell. The stalks of her arms and legs embrace me; they expand, squeezing my limbs and chest. I can breathe, but barely. I’m bound to this dead thing, and the bamboo is slowly crushing. It’s growing, and it will continue to grow all night. Binding me tighter to the dead girl. My breath is a little shallower with each inhale. The bamboo is crueler with each passing second.
I try to scream but the serpentine grass tightens, and all I can manage is a gasp. All around me the hissing emerald is darkening to black; the bamboo girl stares sightlessly into my eyes. The greed of the forest has infected her; I can feel her hunger in the stabbing shoots and crushing stalks.
They are hungry for more than soil, I think. They find no satisfaction in soil. The whispers grow louder, frenzied, on the hot wind as the last light fades, and the blackness becomes complete.
Tim Hoelscher is a lifelong resident of the Washington, DC area. His short fiction has appeared in works from Dread Stone (Tenebrous) Press and The Horror Tree, among others. Tim can most often be found in the Threads writing community at @TimothyHoelscherX.
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The town-folk had found out that Alma was the last person the old coffin-maker had spoken to before taking his own life. As she stood looking over his wake, her name jumped from one mouth to another, the clamor condensing into a thick, oscillating echo at the heart of the chapel. “She admitted it to the police! She said they spoke about his plan to kill himself!” “And she never said anything to anyone before then? What an evil girl!” “She has no right to call herself a Christian.” “The nerve of her to come here! She might just burst into flames!”
She’d decided not to feel guilty about it. They were lies, after all. The coffin-maker had been tending to his collection of potted plants when she had come to his yard, humming a lovely tune which tempted even the birds and the breeze to listen and sing along. He’d welcomed her with a laugh, offered her a glass of water to ease her exhaustion from her walk, and vehemently refused any payment she had offered for crafting her mother’s coffin just two weeks prior.
“Keep it for yourself,” he had said. “You’ll need it. I hear you’ll be off to college soon. You have your whole life ahead of you now. You haven’t much left to do here except make a home for your grief and leave it behind.”
“Thank you,” Alma had said quietly. “But the truth is it hasn’t gotten easier over the past several days.”
“You haven’t been feeling too lonely, have you?”
“It comes and goes. What I have trouble with most are the nightmares.”
“About your mother?”
Alma had nodded. “She’s lost, I feel. I see her struggling every night in this ravaging hole shaped like water. It’s the strangest ocean I’ve ever seen–if the absence of both light and darkness were a liquid. So suffocating, so gloomy yet so utterly shadowless. It tosses her about, crushes her, pulls her apart, enters her, and bursts out of her. And she screams and screams, and the sound wakes me up and lingers in my room. What do you think that means?”
The craftsman had nearly betrayed a laugh when he turned away. His house, which sat alone a few yards shy of the rocks strung along the bay, directly faced the ocean. The death and destruction brought by many floods in the past had prompted half the town to move to uphill, tightening the neighborhoods wedged between the farmlands across the hills, but no matter how much the local authorities had tried to persuade the coffin-maker to leave his home, his obstinance chained him to the shore. The old man had gazed upon the waves like they shared a secret, and the sea mirrored the calm on his face, its blue distinguished from the morning sky only by the light shimmering on its surface. No boats had sailed that day. The tides had risen unusually high at an unusual time of year, and the town’s fishermen, giving into superstitions, feared what the waters may have brought with it.
“She’s not lost, my dear,” he’d said finally. “Your mother is in the waters of a great womb. You mustn’t worry. She may struggle now but she will eventually be reborn as a part of nature.”
“Nature? You mean the circle of life?”
The old craftsman had stretched his arms out wide, gesturing towards the whole bay. “Don’t you think it’s lovely out here, Alma? This is where I wish to die. Nature is its own creator, you know. One day–and I daresay soon–it’ll take back all that it has made and start something new. I have lived the last few years of my life according to its rules, and when I die, I shall be granted the privilege of joining it in its mission.” He’d then paused for thought. “Would you like to see the coffin I’ve made for myself?”
Leaving Alma no room to refuse, he had taken her wrist and guided her eagerly to his backyard. The craftsman’s workshop, a pale, windowless shed drowning amongst tall grass, had resembled a tombstone around which the wind stilled. Alma had quickly found herself sweating as she stepped towards it, and the discomfort of the old man’s grasp had petrified her voice. Its doors opened with a gentle sigh, a kiss from the shadows inside, and curiously, there’d been no tools, a table, or even a light within–only a bier and the gloomy box atop. At the foot of it, the lid bore a small carving of a circle with a strange flower inside, one with petals like tense, stout muscles and a center painted red.
“My mother’s coffin had the same flower on it,” Alma had remarked.
“Its something like an artist’s signature.”
The craftsman had taken the lid off and gestured for Alma to peer inside. Anxious, she’d stepped closer, took a peek, then ripped her gaze away and, clutching her chest, hastened to the door. What the hell was that? Once outside, a sharp glare had pounced on her eyes. She’d squinted. The highest peak of the hills had loomed directly above the coffin-maker’s yard, peppered all over with a maze of mossy tombs and headstones, and at the top sat the town chapel, its spire shining like a second sun. Alma turned back inside.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” the old craftsman had remarked. “The best one I ever made.”
“Are you ill, Mr. Magal?”
The old craftsman had chuckled. “Not at all. It’s a reasonable thing to prepare for considering my age, don’t you think?”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Would you like to try lying in it?”
This time, the words had sprung eagerly from her tongue. “No, thanks.”
But peering over old coffin-maker’s lifeless body now, she wondered what it would’ve felt like. That dense, magnetic black within the coffin, a black like a thousand-foot fall into a tight embrace. A monstrous color that breathed, that could eat a man alive. It looked like water, like linen, like smoke all at the once. Was it a special paint? An effect of the light? Or were Alma’s grief and exhaustion the ones supplying these fantasies?
A heavy hand latched onto her shoulder. When she turned, the crumpled, brooding face of the priest startled her.
“Father Galva. Is something wrong?” she asked.
The priest let out something between a scoff and a sigh. He looked over the deceased sternly. “This is the first time this chapel has ever held a wake for someone who committed suicide.”
“Are you against it?”
“This town is so insufferable I wonder how no one’s done it before,” he said gravely. “But I always thought Samuel was better than that. I’m deeply disappointed in him. True, he was never quite the same after his wife and son drowned many years ago, but I never imagined it would come to this. Absolutely shameful.”
Alma chose not to respond, but unexpectedly a flash of lightning struck the chapel blind as if to speak on her behalf. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The sun streaming from the windows quickly dimmed as a carpet of gray clouds surged over the town. The voices in the pews rattled louder. “What’s all this! The news never mentioned any rain!” “Oh, no, I didn’t bring an umbrella!” “Damn clouds! I hope they aren’t too harsh on the crops!” “It’s just lightning, children. Stop crying!” “The laundry! I’ve got to get them inside!” “Excuse me! Excuse! I’ve got to hammer my roof down! Excuse me!”
“I hope you’re doing okay,” the priest asked. “It must be difficult to be here having dealt with a loss not too long ago.”
Alma looked at the old craftsman’s face intently, noting the amusement remaining in the corner of his mouth. “My mother would envy Mr. Magal.”
“What on earth do you mean?”
She pictured her mother struggling in those somber waters of her sleep, wondering if her soul would ever again find peace as marvelous as that which tucked the coffin-maker snuggly in the arms of a dense, abysmal color. Regardless of how he’d died, Alma thought, he surely hadn’t died in anguish.
The debris of the coffin-maker’s workshop had buried Alma. She grabbed hold of the wooden plank pressing against her back, shoved it aside, and pulled herself out, quickly finding her balance on the shore. The sand, as sheer and blinding as light that had been frozen then shattered, stretched to and from all ends of her vision, the whole horizon burning under towering funnels of white fire. Above her–what is that? Waste? Fire? Electricity? Alma couldn’t tell. A bloodred cataclysm swirled and exploded ceaselessly in the sky, and beneath it, as dark as a hole that had folded into itself a million times over, the sea raged and roared.
“Alma!” someone called.
Recognizing the voice immediately, Alma’s heart raced. She looked around. A woman struggled to free herself from amongst the rocks peppered along the shore. “Alma,” she called again. “Help me, my child!”
Spinting her way towards her, Alma climbed the rocks with explosive strength which melted away immediately upon seeing her mother, thin and pale, trapped between the rocks. The wreckage of her passenger boat scattered along the shore. She marveled at her mother’s incredible resolve–how she’d struggled for so long in the clutches of these harsh waves, how she must have wrung every drop of power from her whole body just to wrench herself away and make it home! She held onto her mother’s fingers sobbing. “Don’t worry, mama. I’ll find you a nice place to rest, okay? I promise!”
Despite her pain, her mother laughed. “My sweet Alma, it’s alright. I’m glad you’re–”
A shrill cry cut her words.
“Mama! What’s wrong?” Alma cried.
A man had appeared behind her mother, hands like shackles around her feet. The coffin-maker’s tongue hung out of his mouth. His eyes, red and bleary, bulged out of his face. A noose hung from his neck like a gold chain, and the sound of choking clawed incessantly out of his throat. He pulled on the poor woman as he inched slowly back into the ocean.
“What are you doing?” Alma cried. “Let go of her!”
The frustration in her voice seemed to fuel his strength, and with one swift motion he ripped her mother away from her grip and ran, dragging the poor woman with him into the ocean, disappearing quickly within the waves.
Desperate, Alma plunged into the water after them. The stark, raging cold of the water dug into her flesh and clmaped down on her bones, and she felt as though the whole universe were collapsing into her. A pulse of force moved through the water, a billow of pure energy emerging from the depths, and broke the surface into a herd of jagged, mountainous waves. Alma struggled to stay above the surface, but her limbs quickly surrendered to exhaustion. The darkness swallowed her. The next moment, the grip of the water warmed and loosened around her body. Thunder clapped intimately close to her ear. Flashes of light pierced through her eyelids. She dared flutter them open. She found herself floating in the midst of a lightning storm, sandwiched between lengths of total darkness and bursts of blinding light. And the whole space swayed and convulsed such that even the lightning bended and curved, and the thunder warped and bounced in all directions. Shock compelled Alma to gasp, but the air felt like water.
Alma began clawing her way upwards, hoping to find the surface, but the thing before her arrested her panic. A ball–a massive, fluid-filled sac–floating gracefully in place despite the chaos around it, stared back, equaling her fear with dignity. The lightning pierced its thick membrane and briefly created a halo around an amalgamation slumbering within it–Alma wondered frightfully if those were truly human hands and legs and faces she discerned, all crumpled and tangled together like a ball of clay. They shifted from one place to another, snapping and disintegrating as they slithered over each other.
Alma longed to call for her mother. Mama! Mama! Are you inside there? Mama, I’m coming! But how, she wondered, could she get her out? What was this thing in front of her? What if it took her too if she drew close to it? She rummaged her brain for a solution, but her heart boomed in her chest. Her lungs burning with pain, she screamed and water rushed into her.
The storm poured well past dusk and further towards midnight, growing exponentially stronger after each hour. A clap of thunder wrenched Alma away from stupor and towards the cold suspended in the room. She wiped the tears from her eyes, glanced at the clock on the wall–a quarter before twelve in the evening. Damn nightmares. When will you end? The storm hammering down on the roof echoed the migraine beating against her thoughts. The wind outside whistled. After a few moments, briefly surmounting the thunder rumbling above, an urgent banging came from her door. Flashlight beams raced across her windows. A long, muffled commotion trudged slowly past her house.
Opening the door, Alma recognized the chief of the town watchmen, his face like a dilapidated house beneath the hood of his raincoat. “Pack your bags right now so we can get you to higher ground. The waves have ripped the seawall apart and this whole place is at risk for a massive landslide.”
Alma looked past him towards the dirt path which had now turned into mud. Almost every family in the neighborhood had already been gathered. Drenched and shaking, small children sobbed as they passed, while their mothers, holding them close, struggled to hold back their own tears. Several men had gathered around a cart full of bags, helping each other push it forward, and others burdened themselves with as much as they could to lessen the weight. Cows, horses, and pigs, all tired and agitated, treaded behind their owners as well, many with their own wagons to pull.
“Where are we headed?” Alma asked the captain.
“The school gymnasium is already full. I’m thinking this group heads for the chapel. Father Galva has already been informed.”
Alma nodded gravely and marched to the closet to collect a handful of clothes along with some food, shoving them all into a backpack. After putting on a hooded jacket and locking the door behind her, she walked out just as some of her next-door neighbors with their own weary and frightened faces stepped into the crowd. The rain felt sharp, a torrent of needles against Alma’s face. The wind pushed against her. Roofs from around the neighborhood rattled like a band of mad drummers. The trees shook. Branches broke and flew past them. Trash and debris–pieces of steel, nails, and wood–swirled about.
The ground grew softer and softer as time passed. Over the course of their journey, several of the town-folk dared to turn back. “Listen! Listen! You don’t understand! I have to go back to watch the house! I’ll lose everything otherwise!” “Idiot! You’ll lose your life! All of the lower neighborhoods are already under ten feet of seawater!” “I’ll lose my business! How do you expect me to feed my family when all this is over?” “My husband is a very good swimmer, sir.” “Surely, the flood won’t rise any higher than this.” “Papa, don’t go! Stay with us!” “Please, for the love of God, will you take care of my child for me while I go back?”“I thought you all had us move up here to avoid all this!” “You think I control the weather?” “Why don’t you deploy some of the other watchmen to go back in our place?”
The crowd tensed at the clamor. Alma kept her eyes on her feet, her sympathy arrested by the sound of crying children. Eventually, the beams of the watchmen’s flashlights hovered over the creaking, rattling gates of the cemetery. A wide, blinding net of current whipped the sky. A groan rolled over the town-folk and a brief panic seized the animals. Here, the lightning struck more intensely and in successive volleys. Each flash revealed a foggy, white-washed snapshot of the gloomy park. Someone screamed.
Beneath the debris peppered all over the cemetery, murky, pitch-black puddles scattered across the cemetery–that deep, marvelous liquid emptiness Alma had seen in the old-craftsman’s coffin and in her dreams–flooding graves which appeared to have been dug up, pouring from stacked tombs which appeared to have been ransacked. Gasps and shrill cries broke out from around Alma as more people saw. Wrought with worry, she tore herself away from the crowd and dove into the somber maze, searching for her mother’s grave. Her foot caught on a fallen branch, and as she plummeted, her head nearly bounced against her mother’s tombstone. Luckily, she put her arms across her face in time. Heaving, she lifted herself from the ground and peered down at the spot where, two weeks ago, her knees had buckled under the weight of her grief and she had sobbed, wrapped around the stench of half-hearted sympathy, in front of the whole town.
The ground had been broken as if with an explosion, and in the hollow beneath, in and around the coffin where her mother should’ve been, stark black waters pooled and stared back at her. It had raged in her dreams but now it laid still against the storm, swallowing each raindrop without a hint of a ripple–a puddle like an open jaw.
“No,” Alma muttered in disbelief. “It was just a dream! You can’t have taken her!”
She jumped into the pool, dipping her hands into its darkness in search for any sign of her mother. The water, which felt as harrowingly cold as it had in her dreams, ate away at her flesh, and soon her feet and fingers numbed into nought. Alarmed, she lifted her hands to check if they’d indeed ceased to exist as her mind believed. They had shriveled to the bone, pale and crumbling from within, but they trembled back to life under her breath. She hastened to pull herself out of the pool, but her feet have lost their strength. A beam of a flashlight ran across the grave and a moment later a watchman took hold of Alma’s arm. “Come now. You have to get inside.”
The sight of the watchman undid her resolve, and against the rain and the breeze, her tears felt like boiling water slicing through her cheek. As they made their way out of the cemetery, they passed many others who’ve found their loved ones’ tombs destroyed and now prostrated by their stones, wailing away into the night.
“What happened here?” Alma asked.
“We don’t know yet–”
“Why my mother?” Alma begged. “What had she done to deserve this? Who did this?”
“Our priority right now is to get everyone to safety. We’ll deal with this incident later, alright?”
The captain of the watchmen, who stood by the chapel gates, yelled directions for everyone to fall in line before they entered, but suddenly, a wide-eyed man, his mouth stretched back to his ears and a guttural screech emerging from deep within him, came running out of the nave. “Go back! Go back! You, all of you! I’m not staying there! You can’t make me! My children! Where are my children! Come, kids! We’ll go somewhere else! I’d rather drown than spend another second within three meters of that horrid, evil display!”
A crowd tumbled after him. Some appeared stunned and dazed, lacking focus in the eyes. Others scurried out huddled into themselves, sobbing and praying into their chests. More ran out screaming. The stern, booming voice of the priest echoed from within the nave, a raging bass beneath the thunder.
The families gathering by the gates grew louder and uneasy. The chaos pulled Alma out of shock and into confusion. The watchman by her side let go and, along with the rest of his crew, scrambled to calm the people down. Alma put herself out of the way of the panic but she grabbed the shoulders of a woman who staggered closely by her. “Hey! Hey! You’ll slip! Calm down this minute!” she demanded. “Tell me what’s happening in there.”
The woman had scrunched her eyes closed with all her strength, her veins straining beneath her flushed temples, but upon hearing Alma’s voice, she opened them wide, two milky moons on a pool of mud, and looked past Alma’s head towards the sky as though the lightning was divining to her some vision. She reached for Alma’s collar and through gritted teeth exclaimed, “The coffin-maker! It’s the coffin-maker! He did this! The devil! We must burn him! We must burn everything! We must get rid of him before it’s too late!”
The woman wrenched herself away from her grip. Alma pondered her words. The coffin-maker…the coffin-maker who took my mother away from me in my dreams.
Alma plunged into the crowd pouring out of the chapel, forcing her way inside. A swell of heat, cries, and cold vapor suffocated her immediately. A flickering row of candles at the altar struggled to light the nave. A number of people had remained, shivering and muttering among the pews, now all in disarray. A few sat utterly still with tears gushing from their eyes. And the rest, apart from the frantic watchmen and town officials, knelt together before the dais at the feet of the coffin-maker’s bier, hands together in prayer. The priest, in a fit of rage, struck them repeatedly with a switch.
“Imbeciles!” the priest cried. “Do not kneel to it, you fools! Do not pray to it!”
A chill from the pit of her stomach weakened Alma’s whole body. The backpack she had carried fell at her feet. She approached the bier slowly, cautious of the cracks splitting the pillars of her mind at each step she took.
From beneath the still, dark waters that now filled the coffin to the brim, the old craftsman’s hands had risen. His fingers, spread like the rim of a chalice, reached forward as if inviting the sky for an embrace. The muscles of his arms, now made of some iridescent, leather-like, crinkled flesh, had bulged and ripped through his clothes. Its wrinkles mimicked flowers and faces and serpents. A rotten, metallic smell hung beneath the cold surrounding the wake.
All at once, the noise around Alma disintegrated. What have you done? she wished to ask the coffin-maker. Is it really true? My mother…this town…what have you done?
“Alma!” the priest’s voice cut through to her. “What are you doing? Don’t come any closer, or it’ll be you at the end of this crop! Go on! Leave!”
All the noise rushed back into Alma’s ears, all the air back into her lungs, and all her blood through her heart. Fresh tears springing in her eyes, she turned and shoved herself into the crowd rushing outside.
Alma nuzzled into the small space she’d been allotted within the classroom. To accommodate everyone, the watchmen had packed nearly sixty people in each one, while the rest slept in the hallways. Using her backpack as a backrest, she leaned against one of the chairs that had been piled to one corner of the room. She wished her mother was with her, or at least, something with which she could distract herself. The walls hardly muffled the thunder. The curtains hardly shielded the lightning. Candlelight flickering amidst murmurs, sobs, and shaky breaths cast a sloppy orange on the faces of the people around her. A few tried fruitlessly to sleep. Others prayed quietly or sang to their young ones. Some time after everyone had settled, a watchman came in with news of people who’d drowned or had been buried under landslides, and the room burst with agitation.
“Those stubborn fools! This wouldn’t have happened if they’d just come along!” someone exclaimed.
“Isn’t it weird that there were no reports of a storm headed this way?”
“There was no news of anything at all! You know TV people only care about the traffic in the big cities! No fodder for us here at the fringes of this island!”
“Surely, there must have been something!”
“If there was anything at all, someone would have heard it and we would’ve been better prepared, see?”
“You’re both wrong!” A familiar voice this time. Alma craned her neck at the people gathered near the chalkboard and found the wide-eyed woman she had grabbed earlier amongst them. “This is the coffin-maker’s doing! The coffin-maker, I tell you!”
Silence rolled over the whole room.
“Why do you say that?” someone asked.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? Killing himself was all part of his plan! He’s turning himself into the devil as we speak!”
“‘The devil,’ you say? How dare you speak of him that way! Be careful or his mighty hands will smite you!”
“Dimwit! You mustn’t worship that thing! In fact, if we want to end this storm, we have to burn it! And the chapel along with it! The whole cemetery! Everything!”
“You’ll only anger him! Besides, no fire will stand a chance against this rain.”
“You’re all idiots! It’s a trick! A prank! Coincidence!”
“How do you explain the cemetery then? They say the only tombs that have been ruined were those for whom he made coffins for! Is that coincidence?”
“And those strange puddles! What sort of acid was that? It nearly tore my arms off!”
“Obviously, this is some sort of large-scale, well-orchestrated joke.”
“This is no joke, my friend. This is the coffin-maker’s will. I see him in my dreams. Every night since his death he rips my late daughter from within my arms and drowns her in dark waters! Now, look what’s happened to her grave!”
“Why, I’ve had those same dreams about my father, too!”
“So have I, of my brother!”
“You don’t think it was him who killed them, do you?”
“What are you saying? My brother died at sea.”
“As did my son!”
“He must’ve cast a spell or something! He must’ve willed it to happen!”
“So this is what they call a mass psychosis! You’re all out of your minds!”
“And you’re in denial! It’s perfectly clear what’s happening to this town but you refuse to believe it because you’re scared!”
“You’re saying that the coffin-maker was some sort of witch? A sorcerer? Do you hear yourself?”
“Power like this doesn’t have to be understood, only obeyed.”
“Nonsense! It should be destroyed! If fire doesn’t work, we’ll cut him up!”
“What did Father Galva make of all of this? Didn’t he warn us not to approach it? He’s had the chapel closed off, I hear.”
“Father Galva is scared. This is beyond his or his faith’s power.”
“Then what is this power? Where does it come from? What did an old coffin-maker have to do with it? Why did he do all this?”
Alma had long lost track of who was speaking, the voices like an anxious tangle of serpents floating in the air. So there had been other people who’ve had nightmares, she noted. As the town-folk rattled away, she couldn’t help but reflect upon her last conversation with the coffin-maker. He had mentioned a womb…rebirth…something about nature…a desire to join in its mission. To her, it’d been nothing more than a synopsis of an eccentric old man’s personal spirituality. It was hard to believe that the coffin-maker had caused all this, but she had now seen the black waters–they were real! Indeed, how could that be explained? Her mother’s corpse was gone, too. What evil pig, if there was one, would play such an elaborate joke?
“You know, don’t you?” A voice tickled Alma’s ear.
She jerked in her seat. “Father Galva! You startled me.”
She wondered how she hadn’t noticed him before, but the old priest had thinned drastically in the span of a couple hours, his thick white hair half-gone. Dark splotches painted his robes. He shivered under his blanket, but the wrath broiling in his eyes outclassed even the sun. “You’re his accomplice, aren’t you?”
“Don’t lie to me, young lady. You were the last person Samuel ever spoke to. Both of you planned this.”
“This storm! This punishment! Undo it all, you wretch!” As he spoke, he rose to his feet. Fearing the switch, Alma scrambled upright, too, but she barely fended off the attack with her arms. Her hands and cheeks burned with cuts.
“Tell me! Tell us all why you’ve done this?” the priest demanded.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
The priest reeled the switch back once again, but several people behind him seized his arms and attempted to calm him down. Alma looked furtively around. People whispered among themselves, the suspicion in their eyes as clear as a red stain on a white canvas. The women beside her inched away. An old man with a decided look on his face approached her cautiously and said, “Alma, my child, perhaps it’ll give us a clue what to do if you tell us about that day.”
“I told people already. I was only there to pay him for my mother’s coffin–”
“She would never admit it if we ask her just like that! We ought to restrain her, not the priest!”
“There’s no need for that! Her own mother’s grave was ruined, you know!”
“We ought to set her on fire now!”
The room fell into argument. Alma determined she should run. Spectators from the halls blocked the classroom door. Her only option was the window behind her. After taking a breath to harden her resolve, she took a chair, smashed the window open, and jumped out.
The rain weighed her down immediately. The lightning blinded her. The thunder reverberated in her heart. Voices chased her. “Get her! Get her!” “Alma, come back! It’s not safe out there!” “You will pay for this, young lady! You’ll be punished for your sins!” “Alma, tell us the secrets! Tell us where this power comes from! How to pray to it!”
A longing for her home redoubled her strength. Reaching the edge of the school grounds, she scaled the locked gates and jumped onto a downhill path towards the lower neighborhoods. She veered left into a grove to keep herself hidden but ran unexpectedly into water.
Alma gasped. Her heart ached, panic like glass shards in her blood. She strained her eyes. It was not darkness before her–it was the waters and the nightsky, now combined into one omnipresent hole closing in slowly to the earth. The sea, now a deep, stark black flood, had completely swallowed the town, extending from beneath Alma’s feet all the way to nought, and inched closer and closer to the school with each volley of waves. The sky, an oppressive expanse of nonexistence condensed into a giant black slab, sunk slowly to the ground, impervious to the lightning. The weight of its descent crippled the trees and the soil. Alma’s head roared with pain. Her core all at once felt heavy and slowed her down. The air pressed against her whole body. The smell of iron caught her off-guard. Swiping her arm over her face, she realized her nose had started bleeding.
Footsteps and voices neared. Her mind raced. Shelter…shelter…where do I go? The chapel? Nobody would dare follow me there!
“Alma!” A call, loud and close, halted her footsteps. She recognized it clearly but was unsure from which direction it came. She lifted a nearby rock and braced herself. A moment later, Father Galva emerged from behind the trees, stumbling and breathing heavily. Blood trickled from his eyes. Alma poised herself to run, but as the thunder clapped the priest pounced at her, and with an explosive swing of her arms, she hit him across the head with the rock. He fell face-up on the ground. The rain pouring over his body slowly turned black and buried him in darkness. Again, Alma gasped. She briefly held out her palms. Each drop, now as dark as ink, felt much colder than a few moments ago, and her fingers immediately started aching.
The flood quickly consumed the priest, and as Alma switched directions and headed for the hilltop, the waters followed her closely at the ankles. She clung to the shivering trunks of the trees to keep herself steady above the quaking ground. She’d held on to the rock in case more of her assailants appeared, but she passed by them with no struggle as they writhed breathlessly on their backs. The school trembled from the pressure of the sky. Cracks spread across the pillars. The people poured out of the windows and doors, moaning and tumbling over one another.
Alma pushed them out of her mind and hurried forward. The thick, dark rain slowly erased the world, and her sense of direction began to escape her. She relied only on the lightning to guide her, which now seemed to bundle together from different parts of the atmosphere to strike a single point. The chapel’s spire, Alma thought. Having found her beacon, Alma quickened her pace. She scaled the gates easily but the doors had been locked. She went round and threw her rock at one of the stained glass windows. After it shattered, Alma pushed herself inside, eager to finally welcome shelter, but upon falling to the floor she screamed.
The coffin-maker had a visitor. A shimmering coagulation of broken matter extending from the nightsky had broken through the ceiling, with a human-shaped appendage slowly descending, its wrinkled, bulbous arms stretched wide, into the coffin-maker’s waiting embrace. The lightning clung to its brilliant, opal flesh, a tangle of explosions which it wore like jewelry. And from its core a steady and powerful pulse of heat, like the heartbeat of the sun, surged outward. Alma remembered her dream–the floating sac beneath the ravaging waves of that somber ocean. Had the darkness closing in delivered it? She shut her eyes, unable to bear the light. The heat within the chapel and the cold of the rain on her skin tore her apart. Outside, the flood roared and smashed the chapel’s doors. The walls crumbled under the weight of the sky, the rubble disappearing into the waters. Alma realized she was standing at the edge of a collision. A bubble of space around the bier quivered–the point where she surmised the sky and the flood would unite.
Alma gradually felt lighter as the flood rose to her waist, half of her disintegrating beneath the waters. At the same moment, her body collapsed from within, a searing warmth spreading throughout her like the tentacles of a beast and pulling her inward as they coiled. Her thoughts crumbled in their clutches. How pretty you are. Who are you? Take me. Let me join you.
As the pain lulled her to sleep, and blood poured from her eyes, nose and mouth, the sight of her mother’s face arrested her consciousness. On the visitor’s shoulder–her mother’s visage, made of glittering, leathery folds, frozen mid-scream. Many other familiar faces adorned the visitor’s back, and Alma remembered all the tombs that had been ruined and all the corpses that had disappeared.
Maddened, she lunged forward with renewed vigor and pushed the bier over. The coffin with its glass cover shattered as it fell, and the old craftsman’s body thudded alongside it on the dais with the altar overlooking the smile, so gentle and so loving, carved onto his face. Alma screamed in her rage. She grabbed a shard from the wreckage, set upon tearing the coffin-maker’s body apart, until a warm finger tapped her nape. When she turned, she equaled gazes with a face shaped like a mouth in which swirled a long, thick muscle, unraveling like a blooming flower. A bright red aperture within it sighed, and all of Alma’s atoms cried and burst.
Zyra Cabugayan lives in a small coastal city in the Philippines and spends her time complaining about the weather. She can be found online @notactuallyzyra on Instagram.
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I live in Brooklyn and occasionally publish book and music reviews for magazines and blogs, but I primarily just blog these days. I have a fine reputation and decent checking accounts, but I survive.
Compared to my old buddies, I might as well have been shooting smack and hustling change at the Port Authority bus terminal. It does not kill you, but it all manages to strip flesh from you slowly, one strip at a time and infrequently, depending on how I feel. I wonder if I can stand it without jumping in front of the subway train, but I manage.
I worked for a weekly newspaper in Texas for several years, snuck into a couple of New York music monthlies. Emboldened, I made my move up here.
After all these years, I still spin in the gravel.
I am working on a novel about this long-dead relationship. I average two sentences a week. One moves slowly when burdened with a sundered heart. I will get the first draft finished by the time I turn 60.
For some reason, I cannot break out of this truck. Each session with this book has precluded all other fictional activities. Sure, I wrote some decent stories, but I wanted this novel out of the way first, so I remain a third-rate freelancer
While riding on the F train home from a freelance copy-editing shift on a Sunday afternoon, it finally struck me. I was reading the New York Times book review and came across the assessment of a novel by my rival in Texas.
Something in my mind snapped.
I cannot really explain how it happened. All I knew was that everything went blank, and I faded out. Then, as I grasped the pole before me, I knew I was getting a second chance at something. I remembered smiling.
I looked out the shuttle bus window and felt like my heart had jumped out of my throat. I was back all right, just like in the movies. It may be a second chance at a beautiful life, but unfortunately, no guardian angel was by my side. I was on my own for this drama.
I pulled the cord and got off at Guadalupe and 24th Street. Judging by the weather, I knew it was early October—the time from when we met. Autumn in Texas is so short that you miss it if you do not pay attention, and I knew from the breeze that this was the first north of the season rolling in. The massive cold fronts are coming down from the Canadian prairies, and with them, the temperature suddenly drops—without warning. I unzipped my black leather jacket open, anyway. The cold is never wrong, and the wind is not too harsh.
I reached into my pocket to light a cigarette, attempting to figure things out. The mural on the wall of the varsity theater was still unfinished. Reynolds Penland still existed, and from looking down the street, I could spot Swenson’s ice cream parlor sign. I worked there once.
I close my eyes and blink out all thoughts in my mind. When I opened them, nothing had changed; I could not believe people still wore flares in 1979. I didn’t rub my chin and look at my clothes. I’m not seventeen in this place, which certainly threw a complication into this affair.
Suddenly, it came to me that I had been illuminated. I was hoping for a more complicated Thomas, for some waggish gadfly to help me along in this situation, or at least receive some realization that this was a sick fantasy stemming from reading the book review. But, sorry, I was out on my own and without a real plan in my head.
I checked my wallet, and all the bills were recent. So much for that and the credit cards I had been useless. But then, I realized my way out.
At the pinball parlor, I jammed every single into the change machine. I wound up with $15 in quarters, which is better than nothing. I figured, just in case, I would change the twenty at a bar tonight. The bartender would never look at the series number in the darkness.
I cashed the quarters in at the bank down the street without fuss. This was a strange feeling, scraping for change again, just as I did when I was seventeen. After leaving the bank, I walked up Lavaca Street toward Guadalupe, feeling the breeze lift me with each step.
The situation I got myself thrown into required a lot of thinking. First, I went into the Cuban deli that would close in two years for a cup of coffee. Sitting in the booth, I figured out a reasonable facsimile of a plan and mulled over my options. Along with the singles and the spare change from my coffee, I had $200 in the twenties from the last check I cashed, though with the inaccurate series numbers, worthless credit cards, and a weird sense of knowing everything yet truly knowing nothing.
I knew that I had to find a younger version of myself. How I was going to approach myself was the question. Somehow, I will sell myself as a long-lost brother or cousin. No, I would not fall for it, and it would’ve been disastrous if I had met myself. I was never that stupid.
Whatever I had to do, I knew I had to break them up initially, and now was a perfect time. So I paid for the coffee across the street and headed down 24th to Inner Sanctum Records, the store I used to hang out at and where we first met.
I flipped my leather jacket lapels when I passed Shannon and me in the atrium. I recognized the shirt before I saw his face. Today was our first date, and I knew they were going to the Clash that evening, skipping school to hang out before Shannon got dressed.
I entered the record store, bought the remaining ticket for The Clash, and walked out. I thought about flipping through the stacks of albums, but in my mood, I felt like I did not want to wax nostalgic, a concept ironic in these circumstances. It was tempting, however. I figured PIL would not bring that copy of the metal box back with me to my time with no cash. Damn.
At least I will get to see the Clash again. Remember the band? Rock n roll’s last great hope, remembering the critics at the time–the only band that matters, they wrote.
I found them painfully pretentious. As for myself, I will take Johnny Thunders, the Buzzcocks, and even The Adverts. But maybe a second crack at seeing them perform again will change my mind. Then again, perhaps not.
I watched them pass by me as I went outside. I was such a geek and so damn thin. I looked like I ate out of garbage cans. No wonder I wasn’t getting laid back then. Shannon did not look much better. Coke bottle glasses and an oversized pair of overalls. If a couple deserved each other back then, we or they. In this situation, I am often confused.
I decided to bide my time and catch my younger self later at the concert. So, I began to walk down Guadalupe Street. Thinking about them or us. I had met Shannon through the Ratman, someone I had met a few weeks before and a classmate of hers at her high school. He gave me her number. I recalled nervously calling her up that night. What was it I was tossing in my hand? Oh yes, a can of Georgia peaches. I hate peaches. In retrospect, this was not a good omen.
I remember meeting Shannon in the stairway behind the record store. No matter her looks, I instantly fell in love with her.
I walked by the Gulf station, where I worked briefly two years later. I sauntered over to the Coke machine and got a thirty-five-cent Dr. Pepper. Even in 1979, it was about $.15 below the price elsewhere, so I could not resist because it was the old taste—they still used cane sugar in those days. The first taste as the soda entered my mouth took me back to less complicated times at the moment when complications ruled my life. Also, I bought two packs of Marlboros inside for .55 each. I might as well play tourist and take advantage.
This was fantastic. I wish I could figure out how to spend two hundred bucks in what was essentially future tender. I bit my lip at the second thought. It would be a lousy plot for some late-night movie, or as if my life was nothing more than a loosely threaded-together series of plot complications. Also, if I return to my time, I would be broke.
It was a sad situation to be clinging to second chances. Too narrow are the parameters of action. Empowered, though powerless, I felt insecure about the entire situation. Something about it did not sit right with me. I walked into Half-Price Books and wandered along with the musty stacks. I found a few things were fine, walked upstairs, and pitched the books out the window.
Jesus, this was so easy, just like the old days. I walked into the alley, collected the volumes beside the dumpster, and walked away, carrying my books down Lavaca Street and heading to the bridge over Town Lake. Unfortunately, the clouds obscured the sun, and it was only 6:30. Another hour or so to kill before the doors opened for the concert.
I walked around, thinking about what had happened on this day. But first, I got a ride from my mother.
I waited for her for over an hour, fidgeting madly in front of the stage. My heart was pounding, and I constantly wanted to go to the bathroom. I don’t believe I was ever excited about anything like those few minutes at the concert hall while waiting for Shannon.
Then, I realized that my memory was incorrect or the situation had already changed. Shannon and I were together before the Clash concert. I did get a ride from Mom, not Clay, and I met Shannon at the door before the opening act, Joe Ely took the stage. However, I had just passed them at the record store, but I knew it was that day.
I looked at my watch again to check the date. It was the day of the concert.
I do not know why, but today is the correct day. The circumstances were becoming all very strange, and the incongruities disturbed me to no end.
A few years before they sandblasted the façade, I had forgotten what a dreary building this was. Better, I forgot what a gloomy city Austin was at the time. The capital was nothing more than an ersatz Greek nesting place for pigeons. I walked by, thinking about all the times I would hang out on the balcony, throwing cigarette butts at unsuspecting tourists and legislators in session down on the floor below. I never got caught. I walked down Congress Avenue and entered Aaron’s, a bookstore with old paperbacks and rotting record albums as dull as I remembered it, but it gave me time to kill. It was no wonder Aaron’s went out of business several years later.
I managed to spend an hour there, and then I crossed the bridge and turned the right corner to Barton Springs Road. The air hangar that was the Armadillo World Headquarters was on the next corner.
I was surprised by my lack of sentimentality; as much of a history buff, I have little use for the good details in the core of my life. This comes from being a nascent Marxist, I guess. I have no idealistic attitude. So, sentimentality leaves a cold spot on my heart. It’s even applied to Shannon, though I felt a bit different.
I handed my ticket to the biker working the booth, and I headed straight for the bar. It was dark enough for me to dare to spend one of the twenties, so I bought a Shiner Beer, and afterward, I felt that maybe I could get caught. Perhaps the bartender would look to see the series number on the note. The whole situation worried the hell out of me. But I saw the crowd at the bar and felt comfortable that I would get away with this.
I leaned back and debated going to the front to see if I had arrived. Looked at my watch before deciding to wait until 8:30. I had plenty of time.
People were streaming in, and I saw a few I knew. Roger Paul walked by. I hesitated. Should I warn him that he would die in an awful accident at the 7-Eleven on Lamar Boulevard? I smirked instead. I love having this kind of power.
David McCall came in with Sharon Walker. The last time I saw Dave, he was fried out and bumming spare change on the Drag. Sharon ended up hanging around with skate punks.
Clay and I arrived. Perhaps my mother did not drive me to the Armadillo, I thought. That was disconcerting. My teenage memory was turning out to be rather piss-poor. But as I watched them, I had an idea.
When they paused by the pool table, I walked over and put a quarter on it.
“You up for a game, boys?”
Clay touched my teenage shoulder and stepped back as he saw me. However, I felt confident that my hairstyle, the goatee, and horned-rim glasses would not be recognized. Maybe it was my voice. Adult, though still me. Perhaps there was a sense of recognition, but that boy was nervous. Strangers don’t just put the quarter on the pool table and ask if you want to play a game.
“Sure,” he said.
I pushed the cue ball across the table and picked a warped stick. I watched that petite teenager like another one and stepped slowly back. I glanced at Clay, pointing to myself, saying he felt like getting out of this. Then, I saw myself taking nervous glances toward the front door. I saw my chance.
“I want to play you,” I said, pointing at myself.
“I’ll rack,” said Clay. I reached down, and I put the quarter in the slot. The relationship between Clay and me constantly pushed me to take chances, minor instead of significant. Still, it reached a totality that comprised a large part of my personality as time passed. Finally, I put my head down, confident enough to crack an unseen smile.
We played the game of losers, eight balls. At the break, I popped the three in. I had every intention of beating myself, defeating this boy, and doing it as slowly as possible.
Before my next shot, I looked at my watch and estimated I had 15 minutes to drive this game out before Shannon arrived. And I intended to make him play again. I knew myself from the time, understanding that I would not give up. Instead, I would try to play this punk rocker again.
In the process, I would then throw up every bit of this small talk I could get those two boys to fall for, and knowing me, he would lap the whole monologue up like vomit. Finally, I would have those two boys so entranced by my intellectual bullshit that though Shannon would not be forgotten, she would at least feel like she was being stood up. I certainly knew Shannon; by the time I would break away, she would be in the front seat of her ugly white Plymouth, crying over this scumbag, standing her up. Shannon was mercurial enough to cut the boy off. She would find someone else soon enough, just now, not later, when I had most needed her.
It would be over. I knew that boy would be depressed for a while, but he would get over it. I would be saved.
I shot an excellent double bank and sized up an easy way to choke on the next shot. Her eyes were burning the back of my head, watching me when I carefully booted the seven just slightly off the corner pocket.
“Shit,” I said. “I hit it too hard.”
I watch the boy lean over, slipping this stick over the knuckles to aim. I saw that my hands were shaking. I knew the boy did not have a bean’s worth of a chance. But, within a minute, he knocked four in a row, each shot as accurate and clean as I had never done except on rare occasions when I was angry. That boy was furious.
I closed my eyes. My memory of myself was more inaccurate than I had assumed.
The game was over in less than ten minutes. I fell behind after that streak and spent the remainder of the match grasping at straws. That was really throwing off the intensity of that teenager. When my teenage self knocked the nine-ball in the left corner with English, he threw the cue stick on the table, and he and Clay walked away with a thank you before I could ask if they wanted another game.
I put the stick back on the rack and saw they had disappeared into the crowd. Suddenly, I flinched. I saw Shannon, and I walked toward the stage. I had failed.
I thought about it. I figured, what the hell? Why should I change anything? Even so, I nevertheless made a mild interference. My seventeen-year-old self had just won his first pool game right before Clay, an outstanding player who eventually became a professional competitor.
Perhaps I added just a tiny mark of confidence to my younger self; maybe this was enough to put me over the top, or I became even more unbearably arrogant. I do not know. I guess I will find out soon.
I returned to the bar and got another Shiner. I turned and watched in amazement as Shannon and I walked past me as the Clash came onto the stage. This was not supposed to happen. However, I leaned back on my stool and enjoyed another sip of beer as Joe Strummer struck out the first cords to London Calling.
Afterward, I went out to the parking lot. Shannon’s white Plymouth was gone. I was not about to guess how the evening for them turned out, but I figured I would not know if that was where I was eventually returning until I got back on the F train.
I sat down on the curb and lit another cigarette. I closed my eyes and pulled my jacket close. When I opened them, I was back in Brooklyn, sitting in my chair before my typewriter.
I am reading these words on the page that I have typed. A sense of unreality washed over me.
Things looked the same, but there were subtle differences. I had lived alone, but I realized this was no longer the case, judging by what I saw.
I gave him just a little bit too much confidence, didn’t I? However, I felt a sense of foreboding. It is never wise to dip a finger into the streams of time.
Now, I have to face those consequences. I rise from my chair and walk into the bedroom. As I look down at the empty bed, I feel my soul descend as fresh memories of the previous decades sweep aside to replace the events of my life that had been there before.
I feel overwhelmed by this change when I press my palm against the bedding. Yes, while circumstances are different, I have remained the same. I forget that the final epiphany is erased when the thought is completed.
Thoughts of suicide begin to cross my mind, lingering. For a moment, I do not understand why I feel this way until the reason becomes clear, striking with unyielding brutality the moment as I forget everything, including Brooklyn.
Mike Lee is a writer and editor in New York City. Work published and upcoming in several journalist and anthologies. A short story collection, The Northern Line, is available on Amazon.
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She was stuck somewhere between purgatory and a dream. “I am not my trauma”, she whispered to herself. “I am not my trauma”. “I am not my trauma” she repeated, until she was jolted by a deafening knock on the door. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. Each knock pulsated like a mangled heartbeat beating itself to a pulp. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. Shooting up her veins and draining down into her throat. “GET UP!’, a male officer shouted. “GET UP YOUNG LADY!” GET UP!” Declining and in his mid-thirties, he was overweight and miserable, complete with a rape stash and treacherous breath. “Let’s go Amber, it’s time for court”, he hollered again, as tiny droplets of spit pranced through the lines engraved on the floor.
Amber leaped up like a frog trying to release its hind legs from the jaws of a fisher cat.
“Yes, Sir”, she stuttered as she stood up and wiped away the sleepies from the corners of her bright green eyes. She yawned and tossed her black oversized hoodie up and over her head, then nestled it down over her rounded bottom. With only her sweatshirt as a pillow and a cold metal cot to rest on, Amber awoke more unruly than usual. Using her fingers as a comb, she carefully untangled the tiny knots created from tossing back and forth throughout the night.
Amber had just turned seventeen and was arrested for the assault the night before. When she first arrived at the station, three police officers removed her black laced boots and confiscated her off-brand eyeglasses. Leaving her unable to see anything besides the striped cotton candy pink, and baby blue toe socks that were covering her feet.
“Protocol” one officer said, when Amber asked why she wasn’t allowed to have her glasses back. This was also the reason she was told; they removed and kept the strings from her sweatshirt. “Protocol”, they said. Protocol.
“Let’s get these cuffs back on ya, kid!”. “Put your hands through here”, another officer said, as he pointed towards the middle of the doorway. Amber sluggishly moved her feet forward and placed her youthful hands directly through the small opening located in the center of the doorframe. She felt one cold metal cuff slide gently under her left wrist, then swiftly SNAP together. She heard a key firmly lock it into place.
The same thing happened on the other hand. One cold metal cuff slid under her wrist, and SNAP! Only the right side was much, much tighter.
When Amber asked the officer if he would “please” loosen her cuff, he let out a Joker type laugh and blatantly ignored her request. He then hollered at her, “Step back while I open the door!”. She obeyed and immediately took three steps back.
She stepped back and watched as the officer opened the door to her holding cell and directed her outwards.
Amber’s feet jiggled like Jell-O, as they trudged heavily underneath her body. Heavier than the anchor her grandfather used to have on his pontoon boat when she was growing up. They dragged her dead-weighted body through the doorway and out into the hallway.
Her grandfather taught her how to drive his pontoon boat when she was just over 8 years old. He sat Amber down in the captain’s chair and placed her tiny hands at “one and two” upon the red and blue steering wheel. He was educated and spoke loudly and confidently with a strong Boston accent. “Look ova at tha dock, right in between those two houzes. That’s straight. Got it?”. “Keep ya eyes on that and go!” “Ya got this!”.
Amber watched nervously as he proudly released his strong, wrinkled hands from her smooth youthened ones, and compelled her to drive. She was scared shitless and desperately tried to quit, but he wouldn’t let her quit. He never did.
“Go Amber” “GO, GO, GO!” he cheered triumphantly, as she drove them perfectly towards the tiny wooden dock. Strategically placed between two homely little lake houses, she continued straight until the boat claimed the dockside.
“See, ya did it!” Oh, Amber I am so proud of ya girl!”, her grandfather boasted. Gleaming with pride, he swooped her frail body up into the air and gave her the type of hug only a father could give. She felt loved that day. She accomplished something. She was proud of herself and most importantly, Grampa was proud too.
She wondered if he would be proud of her now. Escorted without shoes on, handcuffed on her way to court in the same town he lived for most of his life? Would he be proud of her constant panic attacks in high school, that caused her to sneak out of any door and every window she could find? Would he be proud that she had no plans for her future and that she secretly wanted to slice her wrists open?
As she rode in the back of the police cruiser, Amber kept sliding back and forth along the hard, plastic seat. A seatbelt was nonexistent, and she lacked the physical ability to do anything, with handcuffs vehemently securing her hands behind her back. A female officer with gorgeous Disney princess-like blonde hair, drove in complete silence until they entered an underground parking lot, this one belonging to the city courthouse.
Everything was gloomy and the smell of the air was hauntingly unfamiliar.
The cold penetrated her bones while it licked the sweat off her neck.
Misery saturated her flesh, as her eyelids blackened.
“I am not my trauma”, she whispered to herself as she noticed the cruiser door open and finally heard the voice of the attractive policewoman. Her words were direct but gentle. “Come on Honey, it’s time to get out now”. Amber’s green eyes finally connected with someone else’s. Her beautiful baby blues were soothing. Amber nodded a silent “OK” and stepped out of the vehicle.
The kind officer led Amber down a narrow hallway to a large holding area.
She noticed all different types of men awaiting their trials. Most of them looked to be in their 20s or 30s and they all spew “cat calls” at her as she walked by. “Damn, Mami, look at that ass!”, “Mmmm mmm mmm, she looks good!”. Amber stared blankly at the floor while men old enough to be her father, whistled as she walked by.
One man specifically yelled, “Hey Baby!”, while flicking his tongue up and down, in between a V shape over his mouth. This not only petrified Amber, but it simultaneously infuriated her and made her want to vomit, at the exact same time.
The holding area for men, was stationed directly across the hall from where Amber was expected to stay… the holding area for women. A place where the women were much more experienced and much more terrifying than she could ever be.
The women’s holding area was much different than the men’s holding area. Amber wasn’t welcomed by any obnoxious cat calls or extended friendly gestures. Instead, she was given the finger as each one of them stared her up and down. Not one of the women offered up a seat next to them or asked Amber her name.
She claimed a seat next to the least intimidating woman. A tall, youthful, and quiet brunette with badly stained teeth. Amber inhaled a long, deep breath in through her nose, and forcefully out her mouth as she repeated to herself, “I am not my trauma”.
“I am not my trauma”.
“I am not my trauma”.
“I am not my trauma”.
Both the men and women’s holding areas were extremely filthy and unsanitary. The units were enclosed with long metal bars, replacing the large blue doors used at the local police station. There was only one toilet in each holding area with little to no privacy. The wall used to shelter the toilet was pre-pubescent and left everyone’s business fully exposed.
Certain men enjoyed watching women use the bathroom and would howl out the most sickening sexual remarks. An attention deprived dirty girl was watching a man jerk off as she finger banged herself on the jailhouse throne.
She’d “Houdini” the guards by pretending to use the bathroom. Perfectly positioned on the pooper, ready to give the perverts across the hall a prison peep show.
The rest of the women, Amber included, were mortified by the “Pooper Peeper”. But not one of them said or did anything.
That’s the thing in prison. Even junkies, hookers, killers and especially drug dealers, understand when the fun is over and when it’s time to take the game seriously.
It was an unspoken rule that Amber immediately appreciated, understood, and respected. This wasn’t the time to have an opinion and she realized it immediately.
It was crucial to her survival and to her freedom, to be on her very best behavior.
Men would relentlessly banter to the women’s holding area and vise versa. A woman in her late twenties with more track marks and scabs than Amber could count, knew a few of the guys that were detained. When she noticed Amber being cat-called by the same men, she squealed at her like a half-sliced pig, calling her a whore, slut and cunt.
Amber was an easy target, with her 17-year-old baby face and terrorized green eyes, that were instantly spray painted onto the concrete floor.
Those words, whore, slut and cunt did something different to her. They pierced through her gut like a shimmering new knife, ripping through the flesh of a baby buck.
Truthfully, Amber never stood a chance.
At 12 years old, her mother started calling her names like slut and cunt. A virgin and still inexperienced with her period, Amber was labeled as a whore. Trapped with a living corpse, poorly disguised as her mother. A miserable, rotting skin pole, that seeked pleasure in hurting others, as her one and only caretaker.
Although raised by happy, educated and exceptionally nurturing parents, her mother never learned how to love. She resented Amber and held her responsible for everything she could never achieve. Amber was constantly bullied by her mother and was countlessly told she was a “mistake”. Eternally referred to as the “abortion child”. “Should’ve had that abortion”, her mother squawked as her pale blue eyes bulged out of their boned sockets.
Her discolored yellow teeth thumped together like an angry rabbit.
“I am not my trauma”, Amber tried to convince herself.
“I am not my trauma”.
“I am not my trauma”.
But in reality, she was lost in her trauma.
Always “stuck in a fog”, as she often called it.
Caught in a tainted memory, that she constantly floated through and never found her way out of.
“Alright ladies, you four are up next”, a small woman with a round face shouted, as she pointed towards Amber and the three women sitting next to her. One of the women had short black hair and a huge gap between what she had left of her front teeth. She reeked of homemade “rollie” cigarettes. The kind you roll up yourself, with a big ole bag of stale tobacco you copped from Chippy’s corner store, a cheap rolling machine, and some paper tubes. Or if you were a real pro like Mama Sue and Dougie Bounds you said, “Fuck that piece of shit machine” and rolled them all by hand. Amber discovered that the real O. G’s never used a rolling machine. They just pinched the dry tobacco in between two fingers and perfectly caressed it into the center of the rolling tube. They repeated the process while lightly tapping the filter down onto a table or sturdy unit to “pack” the tobacco into place. The opened, exposed tip is then twisted together tightly, enclosing the tip of the cigarette, allowing it be lit and smoked.
Linda sat on the right side farthest from Amber. She was in her mid to late forties and bragged about having been HIV positive for the past decade. She was an alcoholic and pissed her pants when she was caught shoplifting from Cumberland Farms. She was still wearing the same piss-stained blue jeans she was arrested in and stank up the entire unit.
Amber and the other women stood up simultaneously and started moving towards the front of the holding area. Like the first day of preschool, they stood perfectly one behind the other and watched nervously as the guard unlocked the metal lock box and released the long metal poles that were used to restrain them.
“This way”. That’s it”. “Right down here”. The guard casually directed, as she led them down another long and incredibly gloomy hallway. Every wall was painted from top to bottom, in the most depressing shade of navy blue. There wasn’t any artwork or framed photos of respectable officials to admire. There wasn’t a soft, clean mat to carpet their footsteps. The lights above them were so miniscule and dimly lit, Amber could hardly tell if they were even working. Each light had been sluggishly fixated onto a large heap of concrete that hung directly above their heads. She noticed tiny specks of dust fall upon their hair, as the ceiling laid much lower than health violations would have legally permitted.
The officer halted the inmates, as they neared another holding cell. They watched as the guard took a different key out of her pocket and pressed it into the keypad. Instead of long metal poles, this lock was attached to a large metal door. The lights were enormous and oddly bright, compared to the lights in the blue hallway. Although, much smaller than the previous holding cell, the new cell comfortably fit the four of them.
Technically, five of them, since one of the inmates was visibly pregnant.
Her name was Marg, and she was truly breathtaking. Blessed with natural blonde ringlets that bounced perfectly off the tips of her shoulders. A full, voluptuous chest and plump rosemary lips mixed with the most beautiful, chocolate eyes. She couldn’t have been a day over 25 and was at least 25 weeks into her pregnancy.
They spent over an hour in complete silence, until Amber nestled up the courage to strike up a conversation with the expectant prisoner. She took a deep breath, in through her nose and forcefully out of her mouth as she playfully asked Marg if she was having a boy or a girl. Marge aggressively replied, “WHO CARES? I CAN’T KEEP IT ANYWAYS”, as she defensively turned her pregnant body away from Amber and the other inmates.
Marg, busy readjusting her position again, didn’t notice that a large portion of her shirt had accidentally lifted up, exposing most of her massive belly. She struggled to stretch her hot pink tank top, over her protruding uterus before the other girls noticed.
Before they noticed the infected track marks on Marg’s pregnant body.
Amber and most of the inmates tried to look past the infections debilitating throughout Marg’s body. They pretended not to see the self-inflicted wounds that were festering outside of Marg’s body, served directly to the body of her unborn child.
Amber wasn’t sure why she didn’t say anything to Marg or why she pretended like those track marks weren’t on a pregnant woman’s body. Could it be because Amber was still a baby herself? That she still needed her mother? That she too, lost her mother to drugs, disease, and sheer selfishness? According to her young and inexperienced mind, it wasn’t real. People just don’t shoot drugs into their pregnant bodies for their underdeveloped fetuses to feast upon.
The mood changed after that, and they didn’t talk about Marg’s pregnancy anymore.
Morgan Phaneuf is an aspiring poet and author from the Quiet Corner of Connecticut. A proud mother, wilderness enthusiast, and karaoke queen, she strives to bring consolation to those who relate to the uncomfortability expressed in her writing. Focusing on authentic experiences, she re-creates trauma into words of empowerment.
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The first time I spoke with the Devil, I found him surprisingly down-to-earth. He offered me a seat and explained it was a long time since he had a simple conversation. He spoke casually and, I’ll be honest, he was easy to talk to. I always pictured him as synonymous with the eternal, a creature of ethereal existence with enigmatic words and ominous tonality. In reality, the Devil was quite plain-spoken and interested in more mundane matters—especially regarding donuts.
He held high regard to old-fashioned chocolates and confessed he felt that Crispy Creams were the real evil in this world.
He wasn’t boorish or vulgar but had a dash of modesty in his narcissism and wantonness. Frankly, and he told me once himself, he was bored with God and the whole “Eternal Conflict with Divinity” thing. It gave him little comfort from his torpid existence. The donuts helped—that and the rare opportunity for small talk.
During our first conversation, I was actually talking to a young boy whose interest in donuts seemed to give away any pretense of demonic possession. I thought he must have mental health issues or a wicked sense of humor. Being a 25-year-old priest a couple of years out of seminary, I didn’t understand what was meant by pure evil.
The boy lived with his mother in a small house in Pacifica, around fifteen miles south of San Francisco. He’d been in the possession of the Enemy for several months, and his mother had successfully petitioned the Church to have the unwanted guest removed.
While I was doing prayers before Father Bill arrived to perform the sacrament, the little boy introduced himself by asking whether I knew who he was. Being unconvinced that evil manifested in possession, my answer was Emanuel Lopez, though his mom referred to him as Manito. He introduced himself as Lucifer, then asked me about my favorite donut.
I tried not to laugh and instantly was sure that Manito’s mom wasn’t brilliant. Nonetheless, I answered—powdered donuts. He admired my choice but insisted that powdered donuts made a mess and, therefore, he lessened in his ranking.
This began our conversation. We chatted for twenty minutes about the nature of pleasure and how it sometimes became more prominent in life than one’s relationships with friends and family. At the time, I thought I understood better how Manito, both charming and articulate, could fool so many. Father Bill walked in on our conversation and politely asked me to leave the room.
The next day, Father Bill and I had breakfast at a diner next to our motel. The place reeked of the beguiling aroma of fried bacon and cheap coffee. He was a little frustrated and felt it was necessary to debrief me and offer feedback.
“Frankly, Father Jones,” he said after sipping his coffee, “I don’t know if your too young or just plain stupid. Why work with me if you’re unwilling to believe that the Enemy was in possession of that boy?”
“But the boy showed no signs outside of his story that he was in the enemies’ possession.”
“Father,” he said, placing his cup on the table, “Do you expect crap flying all over the room? This isn’t Hollywood. This is Pacifica. And the Devil doesn’t do special effects. He is not belligerent or cruel, nor is he vulgar. His weapons are flattery and charm.”
“Father, Iwasn’t convinced….”
“You don’t have to be convinced. We already had our people conduct an investigation and background check. They certified the possession.”
Iwasn’t sure if this argument should continue. At the time, Iwasn’t ready to admit the direct influence of evil in this world. It was more plausible that the Enemy inspired the little boy to play a trick on everyone. Yet, Father Bill’s zealotry on the subject left small room for an argument. There was little chance of convincing him otherwise.
“Of course, Father Taylor. Please, excuse mynaiveté.”
He wasn’t buying it and grinned. “Father Jones, you’re a nice guy, and so I’m going to give you some advice. When someone’s words are as convincing as their smile, watch out. I’m not telling you not to believe them or take them as false but think about their intentions. I’m sorry, Father, but Ican’t have you work with me. Iam going to have you reassigned to a parish. You’re a good man and will make a good priest.”
“Father, this was my first day. I haven’t had a chance to learn and grow….”
“William, you don’t believe a devil was in that boy, and I’m not sure why you want to be part of this work. It’s time for you to do the will of God instead of your own. I’m sorry.”
“But it was just small talk. I wasn’t interfering with your sacrament or acting outside your authority.”
“You weren’t supposed to have the conversation in the first place,” he said while moving his Denver Omelet with his fork. “And frankly, you weren’t supposed to enter the house until I arrived. Crap, Father Jones, what did you two talk about anyways? He didn’t start talking about breakfast pastries? Did he?”
The Oatmeal rose toward my esophagus. This was the first time that I considered the Devil was real. I had just spoken with him through a small Nicaraguan boy in Pacifica.
* * *
Five years later, I worked for a parish in San Antonio close to the University of the Incarnate Word and decided that my encounter with the Devil was a mishap. I found the root of evil not in possession but the Enemy’s dark suggestions to the human heart—confessions were revealing. At least three affairs were going on, several unwanted pregnancies, alcoholic/drug abuse, horrendous amounts of domestic violence, countless petty thefts, wanton sexual behavior, and at least a dozen fantasied murders, and a cornucopia of foul language.
At the same time, the parish offered a peaceful, simple life. Saint Peter Prince of The Apostles was a small church with a warm congregation. But of course, it didn’t last.
It was a Tuesday in the middle of summer when all of this changed. Father Zamora asked me to meet with him in his office. There was a problem with Patrick Lamott’s mother. She was 76 years old and had been living with her son and daughter-in-law for around three years. Something was wrong with her. I agreed to speak with her and came over the following Monday, around three o’clock.
Mrs. Lamott lived in a small in-law connected to her son’s house. It was a moderately sized room built on top of the house with a view of the university. The room was about the size of a studio with a bed, a small couch, seats surrounding a coffee table, a cage with a half dozen canaries, and of course, a 50″ Samsung flat-screen television. She later told me she occasionally watched the Cowboys, mainly if they played against the 49ers.
She also had two bookcases filled with volumes of philosophy and literature. She had a thing for Cervantes and Flannery O’Connor. Coffee and donuts were waiting for me.
We talked for a while about living in San Antonio and gossiped. She told me about her time growing up in Corpus Christi and her years in Houston before moving in with her son to San Antonio. After all this, she admitted that we had spoken before and was surprised I didn’t recognize her.
“It was a while ago, Father Jones,” she said while stirring creamer into her coffee, “I’m surprised you wouldn’t remember. I’ve traveled quite a bit, and so far, you are one of the most legitimate priests I have encountered. Tell me, have you always been in the ministry? Did you have a wife and family before? You know, so many of these priests only take the cloth after enjoying life; before, of course, they give it up to make good with their God. Is that the case, father? From your experience?”
These odd questions helped me realize why her son was concerned. Of course, I responded with some placating humor, which she smiled at before excusing herself for the afternoon.
* * *
This was the beginning of my frequent conversations with Mrs. Lamott, which increasingly became more intense. We discussed poverty and wealth, the value and the nature of strength, the history of Southern wines, when it’s best to lie for the good of the community, Japanese Kabuki theater, slavery, lust versus love, the futility of marriage, French pastries, and of course politics. Mrs. Lamott was a libertarian.
“You know, William, I’m surprised you still haven’t recognized me?”
“Mrs. Lamott, I cannot remember meeting you in the past.” I was sipping my coffee.
“Well, William, never mind then.” she then paused to slowly pick up her donut and sink her teeth into it.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Lamott, maybe you could remind me where we had met?”
She ignored that and picked up her tea and sipped it gently; then, putting it down, she wiped her lip with a napkin. “Really, think nothing of it, William. It was a little while ago, and Iwas quite a different person.”
I smiled, considering if I should offer an apologetic platitude.
“Let’s talk about something else. Shall we?” she said, “You spent your life wondering how God works in this world. Have you ever thought about how the Devil works also?”
“I’m surprised, William! Well, have you considered that, as you say, if there is inherent good in people, an instinctual desire to live under God’s will that has to be encouraged to grow in their hearts, then there is also an inherent dissidence to be free of this will and harness a liberated consciousness?”
“And if God works through people to enforce his will, then, it goes without saying that the Devil also works through people to resist it.”
Iwas speechless but smiled to at least demonstrate Iwas still listening.
She smiled weakly and leaned back in her rocking chair, belching. “Please excuse me, William. I get a little ahead of myself. Back to my original point, have you ever considered that the Devil and his disciples may use possession of the living as a means of working through people? Furthermore, have you considered that God does the same thing?”
At that moment, I was sure of two things: Mrs. Lamott needed a more clinical-based therapist, and I needed to leave. I excused myself and left.
* * *
Later, I made sure to volunteer as much as possible in the parish. I explained to Mother Rossi that Patrick Lamott’s mother needed professional counseling. I focused my attention on helping Mother Jimenez with the catechism and running errands for Father Zamora. As the weeks passed, Mrs. Lamott was notably missing at mass. My curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to talk with her the following week.
We had just had some tea and talked about mundane yet pleasant topics.
“Mrs. Lamott,” I asked after a while, “I have to ask, as it has come to mind over the last couple of weeks, but I would appreciate knowing when we had met previously.”
“Oh, William, I’m surprised. You seemed so put out when I kept bringing that up that I felt I was a pain. Do you need to know?”
“Yes, Mrs. Lamott, I apologize for my behavior, but I would like to know.”
“Well, William, you don’t want to believe in me, do you?”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Lamott, I don’t understand what you mean?” I smiled warmly to mollify any of her possible frustration or hurt feelings.
She leaned forward on her knees while offering a toothy grin. “Well, William, I’m the Devil, of course.”
I kept my warm smile as if frozen on my face. I was sure Mrs. Lamott was crazy this time.
“You think I’m crazy, don’t you?” she said before biting into her donut.
I picked my words carefully as not to hurt her feelings while maintaining a warm tone of voice. “Mrs. Lamott, I’m sorry, but I wasn’t expecting that.”
“You have an amazing capacity, William, to repress anything you don’t want to hear. I would be careful if I were you. Someone might use that against you.”
I considered what to say while scratching the side of my face and sitting back in my chair before she continued.
“Remember back in California in the coastal community by San Francisco? You were with the old priest, and I was residing in the small Latino boy?”
I kept smiling, processing what she was saying. She began rocking in her chair while starting to eat another donut. It finally sank in. I felt a burning, hostile feeling in my stomach.
The Devil began coughing harshly. “Uh,I think the old bat is coming down with the flu.”
“I’m sorry?” I murmured, not entirely aware of what the Devil said.
“Please excuse me, William,” the Devil apologized, resting Mrs. Lamott’s head against the back of her chair, “I didn’t mean to be crude. Could you be a dear and hand me that box of tissue on the table next to you?”
I looked over at the end table beside me and passed across the tissue. The Devil blew Mrs. Lamott’s nose and excused himself.
I then left, thanking the Devil for his time. The Devil graciously understood and asked me to ask Mrs. Lamott’s son if he could bring up some Tylenol and chamomile tea.
* * *
While processing everything, I reflected on the Devil expressing the idea of possession as a means of enforcing the Enemy’s plans and challenging God’s will, which was both frightening and paranoia-inducing. But the insinuation that God was participating in this strategy seemed absurdly sensible—how else would he work through us?
My anxiety grew as the idea sank in about the Devil using possession as a means to employ people like pawns on a Chessboard. I began seeing the Devil everywhere and quickly began to seclude myself. I avoided both Father Mendoza and Moore, under the suspicion of demonic espionage, and lost touch with the Aguilars.
I began to wonder about Mrs. Lamott. Did the Devil still possess her? Was he still driving her son crazy with his dark and peculiar pontifications? Or was the Devil wasting his time binge-watching Netflix and HBO?
I decided to visit Mother Rossi and ask. It was a busy time. The spring confirmation mass for the parish children occurred in around a week, and the parish office was bustling. Getting to the point, I expressed my fears about Mrs. Lamott’s mental health—it was the best excuse I could think of—and wanted to know how she was doing. Mother Rossi expressed her confusion about why I didn’t pop in and check in on her myself. For lacking anything better to say, I simply said I didn’t think of it.
“What?” Mother Rossi mutters, “Mrs. Lamott’s health, unfortunately, has deteriorated. She has had the flu for some time, and from what I heard, she now has pneumonia. I suggest you visit her, William.”
“Oh, that is sad news. Yes, I should visit surely.”
Mother Rossi smiled warmly and patted my folded hands, which were resting on her table. “Alright then, have a pleasant day, Father.”
Unsatisfied with the Mother’s response, I felt compelled to linger, not knowing what to expect and feeling the Enemy wasn’t through with me. “Mother, if I may ask, what is your opinion of the Devil?”
She answered while scratching her neck and stretching in her seat. She tried to smile but avoided eye contact. “Well, I don’t like him since you asked.”
“Have you considered the Devil’s hand in Mrs. Lamott’s state of mind?”
She tried to smile softly. “Well, William, I do believe the Devil works in our lives just as God does, only as a malign influence, of course.”
I looked into Mother Rossi’s eyes. “How about possession?”
She didn’t say anything for several seconds but look at me politely.
I felt incredibly nervous. No one but Father Zamora knew of my past work with Father Taylor, so I felt safe asking. I realized after asking that the Mother would probably bring it up with Father Zamora. And what if the Devil was telling the truth?
She finally said. “We’re all possessed of some evil in our hearts, William. That is why we pray to God to enter our hearts and possess us instead.”
“Oh, of course,” I muttered.
The Mother smiled, and I excused myself.
* * *
Later, I visited Mrs. Lamott. She was in her bed. Her health indeed had collapsed as sores and jaundice marked her skin. Her hair was beginning to thin. Her lips were arid and chapped. She breathed unearthly with gasps and phlegm. She looked up at me, akin to an animated corpse. Her eyes were a dirty yellow.
“Hello, William,” the Devil said, “Please excuse me for Mrs. Lamott’s ill-begotten condition. I’m afraid that she may pass away soon between her flu and my over-extended visit to her body. Be encouraged, though, that she will not feel a thing and will pass peacefully.”
Anxious, I sat down and kept calm. “Very reassuring, and, if I may ask, what of her soul? Will you free it, or shall it be consumed?”
The Devil laughed at this with Mrs. Lamott’s harsh, infected voice and sat up in her bed. Her eyes were bulging. “Hardly, first of all, I do not consume souls; I recruit them. Secondly, my possession of Mrs. Lamott served a purpose, which is now concluded. Unfortunately, prematurely due to her health.”
I shook my head gently, crossing my legs and leaning back while looking around.
“I have a question, William, why did you not inform your superiors of my presence? It seems the proper thing for a man of the cloth.”
“Who would believe me? Father Zamora is fully aware of my past experiences. I’m afraid it is notorious among some circles in the clergy. Also, I was considering saying something but wasn’t sure how to go about it with any success.”
“That makes sense.”
“You believe me? Don’t you?”
The Devil turned up a full and disfigured smile on Mrs. Lamott’s rotted teeth. “Of course, I do.”
I left briskly and returned to the parish.
* * *
It was soon after that I left the clergy. I found myself on my own with some money to get by while searching for a new vocation. I moved to Dallas, deciding it was too uncomfortable living in San Antonio as a failed priest. I kept to myself, driving freight trucks. I made friends and slowly became another person. About six years later, I partnered with a friend, opened a small delivery company, and bought a house. Life was completely different, and so was I.
It was in the middle of the holiday, right after Thanksgiving. My partner and I were extremely busy. An old flame named Fran called asking for help. She was brief. She was having trouble with her daughter, Ruth, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Because they were Christian and had a vague knowledge of my former life in the clergy, Fran called to see if I could offer my opinion. Fran was frightened of being alone with her daughter, whose behavior changed in ways she couldn’t understand.
When I walked into Ruth’s room, she laid on her bed staring at a wasp nest hanging outside her windowsill. She wore a pair of gray sweatpants and a Cowboys T-shirt. Ruth turned to look at me with jaundiced eyes and putrid teeth.
“Is it you?” I murmured.
Ruth grinned while sitting up in the bed, resting her head against the backboard.
“You have no idea how hard it was to find you,” he said in Mrs. Lamott’s voice.
“How did you know Iwas here?” I said, unnerved to hear the old woman’s voice coming from this teenage girl.
“You have done a remarkable job of getting lost. Ihadn’t had this much trouble tracking someone down in a very long time. Please excuse me for this spectacle, but I didn’t know what else to do. Myimagination is waning in my old age.”
“Will you leave?”
“In time. How are you? I could imagine things are a little crazy during the Holidays. Your friend had mentioned you had your own local delivery business. It must be busy with the holidays. It sounds like a wonderful opportunity for profit, though I understand that Dallas’s traffic is challenging. The cost of gas must be killing your profits.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Well, William, I wanted to finish our conversation. There were still some more we had to discuss, and you left so abruptly.”
“Why are you talking to me with that voice?”
“The voice? I just wanted to make sure you knew it was me. Excuse me for the theatrics. I couldn’t imagine how startling that could be. Regardless, there are one or two things we needed to discuss.”
“Like what?” I leaned against the wall.
Ruth, aside from the aforementioned eyes and teeth, looked somewhat in good health for a teenager. As usual, the Devil maintained a clean-living space. This had been a significant tip-off for Fran. She explained Ruth was a chronic slob.
The Enemy sat Ruth up with her legs crossed. He took a pillow that he hugged against her chest and leaned forward, smiling. “I know it was years ago, but during our last conversation, I had asked you why you had concealed my possession from your superiors. You, of course, said something like you were embarrassed and worried about your position. Then, suddenly, you left.”
“Yes, it was startling, and those were my concerns.”
Discarding the pillow, he laid Ruth’s belly on the bed facing me. Her hands were supporting the chin. “I understand your argument, but you never allowed me to respond. Let’s face it. You were lying. I know a lot about deceit, and yours was obvious.”
I squatted against the wall, feeling weak. “What do you want to say to me?”
The Devil was now playfully kicking the bed with Ruth’s legs as if it was some kind of gossip session. “Nothing too exciting, but I just wanted to remind you, of all people, would know you don’t converse with anyone possessed. It’s in your church’s rules. They’re very concise and direct. So, I can’t help but believe that you wanted to talk to me, get a taste of what evil sounds like. That’s why I asked for you after discovering you were a part of Mrs. Lamott’s parish.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“So it was. Have you spoken with the old priest recently?”
“No, I assumed he’s dead by now.”
The Devil laughed, rolling Ruth over on her back and staring at the wall. “He wasn’t that old, and, yes, he is still alive. He’s been getting into my business again.”
“And I need you to convince him and his people to leave me and mine alone.”
“Because,” the Devil replied, slapping Ruth’s palms against the mattress in exasperation, “You can get close to him. And believe it or not, he likes you.”
“How am I to get him to stop?”
“That is up to you, but you will know what to do.”
“Why would I? What are you going to do?”
The Devil then sat Ruth up and looked me directly in the eyes, grinning with her rotten teeth. “Nothing, I understand your reservations, especially now. It seems you became remarkably successful after our last conversation. And your departure from God. Why would you want to ruin that?”
I didn’t respond to the Devil’s insinuation.
“I don’t want to do anything, I can still get to the old priest, but this would be a lot less trouble for everyone. It would be a favor for me. Think about it.” The Devil cocked Ruth’s head to one side and continued looking me in the eyes.
“In time,” he said, “You may decide that helping me would be for your best interests. Think of our fellowship over the years. And what has the old priest done for you? Think about it. You’ll know what to do.”
I didn’t know what to do but wasn’t seriously considering anything. “But, really, what if he won’t listen?
“The old priest, I want you to kill him. But only if he won’t listen. When the time comes, you will know what to do. Trust me. I know how these things work.”
I left immediately. Fran and I talked days later. Ruth’s behavior returned to normal. I never told Fran anything nor anyone else.
* * *
Soon after that, I sold my part of the trucking business and moved to San Francisco, and my decline began soon afterward. Everything started fine. I started driving a truck and got a room with a couple of other drivers off Geary and Larkin. Soon, my roommates’ behavior began to seem suspicious. No longer attending church,I spent my free time watching TV and drinking myself into a blackout. In the end, I lived in a shelter run by the Catholic Church between moments of sober time. I began volunteering with the local parish, never mentioning my past life as a priest.
It was there that I had a run-in with Father Borromeo, who I had known while a priest when I was in the Bay area. I was suspicious of him until he spoke of Father Bill.
“The father moved here a couple of months ago. I heard he was retiring and would be living with the monks at St. Dominick’s. He seemed like Father Bill for a while. I went and visited a couple of times. I heard he had become maudlin and isolated. He would remain in his bed most of the week and barely ate.”
“It must be hard after fighting the Devil for so many years.”
“That’s not a problem, William. After a couple of weeks of isolation, many others in the community began to have strange thoughts enter their minds. By then, the Father could be heard talking to himself in his room. Eventually, the conversations began to get louder. There were also reports of bizarre accidents and objects moving on their own. Whatever was wrong, the father was in a very dire condition. Your name has come up repeatedly during this time.”
Borromeo wanted me to meet with Father Rizzo, the exorcist, after his arrival. A day beforehand, I decided to see Father Bill and sneaked into his room.
Father Bill was in horrible condition. His skin was dry and cracked, covered in sores and bruises. His hair had begun to fall out. He shook like a drunk drying out and smelled of a sewer pipe. His breathing was shrill and guttural. He spoke with the voice of the little boy he had possessed.
“Hello, William! Sorry for the condition of this room. My associates have been busy.”
I started laughing—full-body belly howls with the smell of Bacardi on my breath. I had to keep my pants from falling while snot rolled down the side of my face.
And then the Devil said unto me, “Are you drunk?”
I had, of course, been drinking. I tried to stay sober but found it impossible. “Yes, so what? Is that a problem?”
“Don’t you think that’s a bit rude?”
We were both quiet for a moment. I could see that the Devil was feeling a little awkward because of mycondition. He rubbed Father Bill’s head and lay against the backboard of the bed.
“Well,” he finally said, “My associates have decided to take matters into their own hands and punish the old priest before he dies….”
“I thought you wanted me to take care of it. Why would you let this happen?”
“What am I supposed to do?” the Devil bellowed in an unholy tone I had never heard nor wish to hear ever again.
There was another moment of awkward silence. Soon, though, the Enemy offered a smile from Father Bill’s emaciated complexion, somewhat embarrassed at his outburst. “It’s their will and desire, and this priest has wronged us. Who am I to hold them back? They do as they want. That is our way.”
“You’re lying,” I said while trying not to fall over, “Why are you here? Did you know that I would be here?”
It was then that the parish Pastor walked in with several others. This was so frightening I thought I was going to pass out. The Devil kept his composure, if not feeling a little embarrassed for me.
“Sir,” the pastor demanded, “You must leave now! Father Taylor isn’t feeling well.”
“Well, William,” the Devil said in Father Bill’s voice, “This is embarrassing. I’m sorry that this seems to have turned into a spectacle. I have to admit I knew you were coming. I was going to surprise you. You see, my request was just a little joke.”
There was another moment of silence—aside from the pastor murmuring to his associates. I just shook my head and tried to keep myself upright. The pastor paid attention to our conversation and used language that I found highly creative, making the Devil scoff offended. The pastor then, with a lot of masculine theatrics, gave a direct order to one of his associates to call the police while the Enemy and I looked on.
“Joke?” I said while the pastor attempted to lecture me on sober living and a good life, “What joke?”
“Well, I didn’t want you to do anything. I just wanted to surprise you when you finally confronted the old priest. I mean, both of you would be surprised. It was supposed to be a joke. You know, like a practical joke. I didn’t realize my associates were preparing to get even with the grimy old fool. Please forgive me, William.”
“You’re lying! Everything you say is a lie! Do you know how much I lost because of your bullshit!”
The Devil looked at me, pained. I knew it was nonsense. After so many years running from his words, I finally realized it was all a joke to him. Maybe he considered me as a friend, and perhaps he didn’t. What does friendship look like to the Devil?
“I rebuke you!” I screamed, “I rebuke you, Satan. In the name of all that is holy and good, and through the grace and eternal love of the one true God, I rebuke you.”
“Okay,” the pastor said, grabbing me, “Enough is enough. Let’s go, buddy!”
The whole ordeal had left me spent. The liquor was starting to fade. My realization was beginning to affect me on an emotional level. I had thrown away so many friendships and half of my life because of this one toxic relationship. And yet, evil maintained his innocence and, frankly, could have been sincere. How does he truly experience eternity?
And then the Devil uttered the last words he would say unto me. “Oh William,” he murmured, “Boring. Very, very boring.”
There are no limits to what we are willing to do for those we love. At the sketchy Motel 8, there sat a man and a woman contemplating that very statement.
Previous guests, left mementos by the smell of smoke in the air, set piss stains in the sheets, and long abandoned needles left around the room. The half-made beds and cockroaches possibly as old as the hotel itself greeting the current guests in passing, scurrying from one corner of the room to the next. Grace and Aidan sat on their perspective twin sides beds facing one another in contemplation, while the clock on the wall ticked with strength more daunting than the summer heat they felt even indoors. The payout will leave one of them and their family set for life if they play their cards right.
“The scar on your face it’s… interesting. where did you get that from?” Grace asked.
“I earned that oversees fighting for our country. My wife Eileen had a reaction like yours when I finished my time with the army and came home. Your finger has a red ring around it, but I don’t see a ring. Are you married as well?” Aiden asked.
“I was. My husband died last year in a hit and run incident, the driver was never caught, but my son Jace and I have been surviving as best as we can ever since. He’s only five years old, too young to understand the ways of the world, but old enough to know pain and sorrow. Sometimes I wear it on my hand, other times I leave it on my necklace, but I always keep it and my memory of him close.”
“I can’t imagine what that was like for him. I’m sorry. My wife is three months pregnant, expecting a boy of our own in January. We planned on waiting until she was in the last month to name him. We lost our previous child six months in. We are both confident that this one will make it.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I can only imagine the turmoil that left both of you in in the aftermath. I pray your wife and child survive and thrive.”
Once again, the tense silence sat between them the clock still ticking in the background reminding them both that this hour would lead to the hardest decision of their life. Grace checked the burner phone they were given sitting on the nightstand between them. They had already been sitting there for almost thirty minutes.
“We have thirty-three minutes left. I almost regret not buying some wine. Wine always makes things a little easier for me to deal with.” Grace said. They both laughed, but there was no joy behind it, only remorse over what was to come.
The clock continued to tick in the background, fifteen minutes until nine pm. They stared at each other, Graces eyes red, Aidan’s face unreadable.
“I’m sorry” he said.
“I’m sorry too.”
In one swift motion he reached for the knife he carried in his back pocket and lunged at her. Grace just barely dodged and pulled the gun from her pocket. He slapped the gun out of her hand and decked her in the face. She fell to the floor. He advanced to stab her on the ground, she kicked him in the groin before he could. She crawled on the floor to reach the gun. He grabbed her foot and yanked her towards him. He went to stab her in the back, but she turned swiftly carrying a syringe on the floor and stabbed him in the chest. He yelped and she again went for the gun.
“You don’t have it in you to pull the trigger, let me end this and I promise to take care of your son.” He said advancing again.
She fired and the first shot hit the wall. The second, straight in his heart. They both stared at one another adrenaline rushing, shock set in. He dropped to the floor dead. With two minutes to spare she picked up the phone.
“it’s done.” Was all she said.
“3 million dollars will be transferred to you as promised, well done.” Said the distorted voice on the other end of the line.
Grace shook uncontrollably and cried. She felt relief for her family, and sorrow for Aidan’s. She swore she would use half of the money to help his family, like she hoped he would have done for hers.
Nagee Powell is a creative type from North Carolina. A jack of all trades when it comes to work. In his downtime he enjoys video games, anime, art, reading, drawing, food, mother nature, and good friends to help keep him upbeat through the roller coaster called life.
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He gazed, transfixed, at the dancing star-filled vault above that crowned these barren cornfields. It was just past midnight on All Hallows Eve and the stars sparkled with urgent brilliance, as if trying to tell him something.
“I shouldn’t have taken that second hit,” Robby heard himself say. The voice seemed to come from somewhere else. As the acid rush overwhelmed him, the whole world began to breathe, shimmer, and dance. The cosmos seemed so vast tonight—so mysterious and alive.
“There are so many stars,” he heard the voice say. It seemed as if he’d never truly seen a night sky before. “And they are so much closer now.”
As he looked at the night-sky, he realized he was peering into infinite space. He recalled that scene in The Misfits where Eli Wallach’s character tells Gable and Monroe that the stars are so far away that their light may have died thousands of years before it ever reaches our eyes. “Are you even out there anymore?” Robby wondered aloud, suddenly realizing what Eli Wallach’s character meant. It was possible that every star in the sky had vanished before Robby was even born, before the first humans stood upright, before the dinosaurs roamed the earth—that the stars were so far away that their dying light was still traveling through the void of outer space to bid us farewell.
Suddenly, his reverie was broken. Somewhere in the dark unlit yard behind him, his friends were yelling excitedly, taking standing positions far from each other in the near-pitch darkness. Robby thought it strange that they were “going to play baseball” in the front yard so late at night. Then he felt a great blast of heat and a bright light flashed behind him, accompanied by a loud whooshing sound as if someone had ignited a giant blowtorch. He turned to look.
His teenage friend and host, Heiki Stevenson, a slim but powerfully built young Swede with blonde shoulder-length hair, stood at the far corner of the front yard of his mother’s home. Heiki and his mother, a widow, had immigrated to America from Sweden a few years before and he still spoke with a pronounced European accent. Girls especially found this charming. He was a painter and guitar player of no small talent, and one of the first hippies Robby had ever known. But more than anything else, his friends knew Heiki as a world-class prankster, and there was no telling what an evening partying with him might lead to.
Across the yard from the mischievous host, about 30 feet away, Robby noticed their friend Bruce in the shadows, screaming at the top of his lungs.
“Shit man!” cried Bruce at Heiki. “You almost scorched me! Now it’s your turn— idiot!”
Robby noticed the can of lighter fluid in Bruce’s hand and realized immediately what was going on. They were playing a favorite game called Dueling Dragons that Heiki had invented the last time they all tripped together on acid like tonight. The game was simple: two opponents stood back-to-back and walked off 10 paces in the opposite direction, just like an old-fashioned duel. Then the duelists turned to face each other, a can of lighter fluid and a lighter, their only weapons. Filling their mouths with volatile fluid, each opponent took turns holding a flame to his lips and blowing hard in the other’s direction.
Bruce leaned forward targeting Heiki, held his cigarette lighter to his mouth and blew as hard as he could. A huge blast of flame arched in Heiki’s direction, nearly reaching him across the dark yard.
“This is crazy!” thought Robby as he watched. “These idiots are going to set someone on fire if they keep this up.” Every few minutes, they blew roaring flames at each other like dragons in combat. But his friends were laughing and dancing about the yard, obviously enjoying themselves. Robby was reluctant to rain on their parade.
“They’re just having fun,” he told himself. “I better cross the yard while I can.” Stooping low to duck under the line of fire, he raced across the yard between the adversaries. A blast of flame erupted from Heiki’s mouth that arched over him as he ran, singe-ing Robby’s hair.
“Heiki, you stupid jerk!” he yelled, now safely beyond the fire on the front steps of the house. Robby could smell the foul odor of his own slightly singed hair. He found it nauseating. Heiki just laughed.
“Too hot fer yeew?!” shouted Heiki. “Den yeew get out of da kitchen. Yah?” Heiki filled his mouth with another shot of fluid, blew a huge flame into the sky, and began prancing about the yard imitating a giant bird, flapping his arms as if they were wings.
With the thought of kitchen planted foremost in his mind, Robby opened the front door, crossed the living room, and entered Heiki’s kitchen. His curiosity gave way to a ravenous hunger as the aroma of freshly baked bread filled the room. Robby opened the oven door and noticed a large loaf of bread sitting there. It was hot to the touch.
He wondered briefly who might have baked the bread, but the delightful aroma distracted him. He barely noticed several of his friends race past him through the kitchen. They disappeared inside the house as Robby lifted the bread gingerly from the oven. He tore off a piece of the rump, at first too hot to hold. His fingers blistering, he tore the loaf quickly into smaller chunks, placed them side by side on the kitchen counter, and blew on them to cool them off. While doing this, he lost track of time.
The next thing Robby knew, he was choking on a loaf of bread. He didn’t recall how it happened. But while coughing up huge chunks of partially chewed dough, he realized that he’d tried to swallow the entire loaf at once. He couldn’t believe he’d been so stupid. At least it hadn’t stuck in his windpipe and choked him to death.
At the sink, his burned and thirsty mouth held open under the running tap, he began to laugh. Robby laughed at how stupid he’d been to attempt this. He laughed at how near he’d come to catching fire when crossing the yard between his friends, the “Dueling Dragons.” Then his laughter was interrupted when he heard a strange voice coming from the front living room.
Curious, he entered the dimly lit room, but it was empty except for the furnishings. He was surprised to find no one there. Robby swore to himself he’d heard someone speaking. He glanced out at the dark front yard through the large plate glass window. The Dueling Dragons were nowhere to be seen. He was completely alone.
“Suzie, Suzie Creamcheese … This is the voice of your conscience speaking” he heard the room say. He glanced about quickly in all directions but couldn’t locate the voice. Was it inside his head? Or was the room itself speaking to him as if it shared his own inmost thoughts? As if it were his conscience.
He surveyed the room, slowly this time. The walls themselves began to breathe in rhythm with Robby’s breathing. In. Out. In. Out. The entire room had come alive, attuned to his breath, as if he and the room were one being. Then the voice continued and bizarre music he’d never heard before began playing. It seemed, somehow, strangely familiar.
Then, in the soft light at the far end of the room, he noticed a revolving turntable. Someone had put a record on. Robby approached the turntable and found the album jacket, a new record by Frank Zappa and TheMothers of Invention.
“Wow,” he spoke aloud. “This is very strange music.”
A sound behind him raised the hairs on the back of Robby’s neck. Something shuffled in the darkness as he turned to face the room. Staring at the far end of the room, his eyes were drawn to the dark central hallway, filled with thick shadows. He turned off the record player.
“Is anyone there?” asked Robby, hyper-alert, his ears straining against the sudden silence. “Where is everybody?” he wondered, wishing someone would make a sound or come into the house so he wouldn’t be so alone.
An ominous hissing sound erupted from the dark hallway, striking terror in Robby’s heart.
“Hey, who’s there?” he demanded. His question was answered with another loud hiss, like that of an angry cat. “Hey, this is really freaking me out!” Robby protested to the hissing darkness. The rhythmic breathing of the room and walls had lost their charm and only added to his mounting dread.
Robby spotted something moving within the dark hallway—a shadow shifting within a shadow. He heard almost silent footsteps creeping forward, approaching him, nearly drowned out by the sound of his own heartbeat, the blood thumping now in his ears. Then a hand reached slowly out of the shadows into the dim light of the living room. Robby instinctively moved back as far as he could until he felt his back bump against a wall.
“At least it can’t get behind me,” he thought, his mind racing to protect himself. “What can I do?”
The hand pointed a threatening finger at Robby and came forward. At first an arm became visible, then a foot … Then the entire front of Heiki’s body slithered forward into the dull light. His appearance had changed. His long blonde hair looked mussed up like the mane of some wild beast. But it was the look in his eyes that frightened Robby most: glowing red like burning coals.
Heiki stepped slowly into the room. He seemed much larger and more muscular than Robby remembered him. Slouching forward, his gnarled hands – held high, revealing sharp claw-like fingernails – threatened as Heiki crept closer.
“Come on man, this isn’t funny,” Robby heard himself plead.
Heiki opened his mouth and hissed in reply. Robby noticed two sharp fangs in his friend’s mouth – a mouth that, on second glance, appeared covered with fresh blood that dripped thickly down Heiki’s chin. Robby’s heart leapt in his throat. He noticed himself trembling.
He struggled to breathe now; his breath released with a shudder. He searched the room quickly for some kind of weapon as Heiki approached. Instinctively, Robby crossed his extended index fingers in the form of a make-shift crucifix, and stretched his arms in Heiki’s direction, straining to hold his finger-cross out in front of himself as far as he possibly could.
Heiki recoiled slightly, covering his eyes, and emitted a loud hiss, angered by the intrusion of the cross. Robby sighed, relieved that his instinctive resourcefulness had worked, that he was no longer completely unarmed and might keep his host at bay.
But the vampire did not give up. Shielding his eyes with a forearm, Heiki edged forward once again. In response, Robby crept slightly forward, extending the faux cross in Heiki’s direction. The vampire hissed angrily, but hesitated.
One step back, one step forward. In this manner, the young man and the creature danced back and forth in a shadowy tug of war, the power subtly shifting moment by seemingly endless moment between them. On and on went the struggle through the long and silent night. Hours passed. Robby’s arms grew heavy. The muscles in his shoulders burned from holding his arms aloft.
“What if I run out of strength and can’t hold my hands up?” Robby fretted. Growing desperate, he considered his options, which were few. It was the middle of the night. Heiki had picked him up earlier and driven him to the party, so he didn’t have his car. If he fled, he’d be out there in the darkness in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by forests and cornfields. He’d be alone, tripping on acid. Easy prey.
In his mind, Robby ran through the stories he recalled from the movies about warding off vampires. There might be garlic somewhere in the kitchen, but he’d have to get past Heiki to find it. He couldn’t count on finding holy water here, or a real crucifix. He knew the Stevenson’s weren’t a Catholic family. That left a stake in the heart, but again, the closest thing to such a weapon was a kitchen knife. He’d still have to get past his vampire friend to find one.
Options narrowing, Robby grew more desperate. His shoulders ached and he struggled to hold his make-shift crucifix up in front of him. Soon his hands grew as heavy as concrete blocks. As the weight of Robby’s hands became more than he could bear, they began to lower slowly of their own accord, despite his struggling efforts to raise them.
Emboldened by his intended victim’s weariness, the nosferatu crept forward again, hissing loudly, baring its fangs.
“Shit!” Robby scolded himself, at a loss for a way out. “What the hell can I do?”
“I’ll have to go for the knife,” he heard himself reply, “while I still can.”
But it was already too late. As his arm strength gave out, Robby shouted: “Heiki! For God’s sake! Enough is enough! I’m not going to do this anymore.”
His plea made no difference.
In the weak light Heiki’s features had slowly grown more ominous. His face had been utterly transformed and had now become monstrous and ugly. His fangs were longer and sharper than before. He resembled that horrifying screen vampire in one of Robby’s favorite but traumatizing childhood B-movies, The Vampire and the Ballerina.
The walls and furnishings of the once familiar home transformed into trees. Where the ceiling had been Robby now saw a black starless sky. From what had been the living room floor now arose a thick malevolent mist. And before him, in the same room, stood the most horrifying creature he had ever imagined, its energy and power growing even as his own diminished.
His last ounce of strength gone, Robby dropped his arms helplessly to his sides.
“Heiki, I’m finished,” he said, his voice weary. “Let’s do something else.”
In reply, the monster leapt forward, landing only a few feet away. With a second great lunge, Heiki fell upon him, holding prey now with crushing, super-human strength. The last thing Robby noticed as the room began to spin was the hot breath on his neck. He felt himself swoon and fall.
Then, unexpectedly, the vampire abruptly released him.
Hissing and shielding his eyes, step by step, Heiki crept backwards across the room towards the dark hallway from which he’d come. Robby opened his eyes and, from the floor, watched in terror and wonderment as the hissing fiend stepped back into the shadows and disappeared. From the hallway’s thick shadows, he heard a final hiss.
Robby listened intensely to the silence with his heartbeat pounding in his ears. He waited for what seemed like eternity. Then he realized that the room had grown familiar once again. There in the far corner, to the left of the hallway, a corner of the dining room table reappeared. He could even see some chairs. On the wall to the other side of the hallway the living room mirror was now visible. The mist on the floor slowly evaporated.
Exhausted, Robby struggled to his feet and glanced to his right. Outside, through the front room window, a bright red sliver of sun crept above the horizon of the late-Autumn cornfields, reduced now to dry dead stalks. Robby knew, then, that the newborn red dawn had saved him—the rising sun, our closest star.
With a parting glance at the hallway, he noticed the shadows had receded to the end — where Heiki’s bedroom lay. For an instant, he felt tempted to enter. But as Robby listened in the dense silence, he was startled by a sudden rustling that sounded like giant wings. The sound seemed to come from Heiki’s room.
Robby bolted through the front door, out into the yard and the safe refuge of daylight. He was still alone in the silent gray dawn with not a living thing in view. He wondered where all his friends had gone as he jogged down the lonely dirt road while the sun crept gradually higher. He wondered if Heiki had killed everyone but him.
Robby glanced behind him at the house receding in the distance. His friends’ cars were still parked in the driveway. “It was just the acid,” he told himself as he turned to face the road in front of him.
“They’re probably all inside sleeping it off,” he concluded, now smiling. “Heiki was just messing with my head.” Then an afterthought arose: “Wow, that was probably a total hallucination!”
Yet Robby ran faster now. His vision was still distorted by the LSD’s lingering affects. He saw trails and after-images as he ran and felt a relentless gnawing dread twisting in his guts. But despite these distorted perceptions, and the curiously alienating gray dawn, the late October landscape seemed comfortingly familiar.
After all, it was daylight now—the early morning of Autumn solstice, when the veil between the worlds grows thinnest—and only a mile or so down the road to reach the refuge of a neighbor’s home. In a few minutes, he thought, his living nightmare would be over.
His relief growing with each stride, Robby smiled now recalling his friend’s cruel but clever trick. And wondered: “Did that really happen?”
He smiled, relieved, in either event, that the ordeal was nearly finished. His smile grew wider as he imagined the comfort and safety of his family home where a warm bed beckoned with the sweet promise of sleep.
Robby barely heard the flap of wings, behind him, as he turned.
Ron Boyer is an award-winning poet, screenwriter, and author of short stories. His story, “The Curse of Black Wolf Lake,” was published in the horror anthology, America, the Horrific. Boyer is a two-time winner in literature from the John E. Profant Foundation for the Arts, including the prestigious McGwire Family Award for first place in literature. He lives in Northern California.
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Denis Burbank double-checked his canvas rucksack embellished with what seemed like a zillion zippers to make sure he had everything he’d need for the trip to the Uyuni salt flats. The rock hammer- check. The reactive strips to measure the levels of salinity in the lake – check. The Ziploc bags and glass tubes to put samples in – all there. The pincers to pick up salt crystals without damaging their snowflake structure were also in place. So was his Canon EOS camera and the notepad with the silver Cross pen Sandra, his wife, had given him for his 50th birthday.
Burbank knew that the Bolivian government routinely barred foreign geologists from collecting lithium samples, a mineral protected by the country’s constitution. So when a group of La Paz academics invited him to speak on the mineral’s potential and offered to pay for his ticket, he booked a Boliviana de Aviación flight that would give him less than 24 hours on the salt flats.
When the airport official asked him about the purpose of his visit, Burbank swallowed, held his breath for a full minute, and then stammered, tourism. He could feel a shiver run down his spine, but the Bolivian officer smiled, handed him back the passport, and shouted, Next!
For the last few decades, lithium had been the scientific and industrial communities’ darling child: researchers talked about it and examined it, but most of the time, the mineral bore the brunt of speculations about its benefits, in which Burbank was an expert. He knew all there was to know about it. It was present in seawater, spodumene, petalite rocks, and brine all over the world but in such small quantities that its extraction was impractical. Only in one area of the so-called Lithium Triangle, where trillions of gallons of brine sloshed beneath the Altiplano, was it abundant enough to be mined at a low cost. All it took was to drill a hole, let the brine sit in ponds for a year, evaporate the water, and then process the sparkling salts, which were subsequently used in batteries of various sizes and capacities.
So there he was, a professor of applied geohydrology and potential future chief of the US Geological Survey, ready to examine the massive salt lake nine times the size of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, he’d only have time to investigate a plot the size of a tiny residential garden, like the one behind his house in Colorado.
He looked out the window of the jeep transporting him to the lake and reflected on the stark contrast between the poverty of the surroundings and the luxury of the Salt Palace, where he was staying. As the off-roader lumbered along the dirt track, decaying adobe structures covered with zinc and weighted down by stones flashed before his eyes like a slow-motion movie. Everything was eerily quiet —no music blasting from transistor radios, no car horns honking, no human conversations—as if time didn’t exist here or as if clocks measured it differently. Only some Quechua women, proudly flaunting their black braids topped by stiff bowler hats, silently cooked steaming concoctions in tin pots on open fires.
Burbank was startled out of his trance when the Jeep came to a halt, the gears grinding. He could see the enormous Salar, as it was known among scientists in front of him, melting into the sky’s cobalt blue.
The driver, a cheerful middle-aged Bolivian with a weathered face and a gold tooth that flashed when he grinned, looked over his shoulder and stated in bad English:
“We here. You stay two hour. I pick up at twelve. Not go far! You get lost or worse….”
His cheerful expression became solemn; he crossed himself and spat out the open window as if releasing a bitter-tasting curse.
“Strange thing happen here, so no cross other side. Strange and terrible. People dead,” he made a sign of slashing the throat, “or missing. So no cross fence. Stay this side road,” he warned.
Burbank nodded repeatedly, mimicking the renowned head-bobbing velvet bulldogs, one of which his father used to keep on the dashboard of his Mustang when Denis was a teenager learning to drive.
The driver was not the first person to warn him to stay away from the part of the lake fenced off by barbed wire suspended between wooden stakes and decorated with bright blue, green, and red ribbons flapping furiously in the wind like prophetic crows.
“Make sure you stay away from Dead Man’s Lake,” the pretty receptionist in the hotel told him in the morning after she’d heard he was going to the Salar.
The badge on her moss-green uniform said her name was Aracely.
“What’s Dead Man’s Lake?” he’d asked, handing her the old-fashioned key dangling from a piece of wood shaped like a flamingo.
“It’s part of the flats no one is allowed to go to,” she smiled sweetly. Burbank noticed that, like most Bolivians, old and young, rich or poor, she sported a gold incrustation between the left canine and the first premolar.
“Weird stuff happens there,” she whispered.
“People either never come back or they come completely changed. Crazy like,” she replied, widening her own eyes wide to demonstrate the lunacy that gripped those who ignored the warnings.
“How do they say it in your movies?” she thought for a while, searching for the right word.
“Waco!” she laughed without joy and shuddered as if a sudden cold draft wrapped around her slim shoulders.
“Wacky,” Burbank corrected.
“Ok, wacky. But make sure to stay on the right side of the road. We want you back safe and sound!” She smiled again and hung the key on a hook behind her.
Burbank was a scientist who didn’t believe in old wives’ tales. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard locals spread rumors to keep tourists away from locations they weren’t supposed to visit. Sometimes, because they were indigenous burial grounds. Occasionally, it contributed to the mystery of the site. At times, the opposite was true— it was meant to attract more tourists. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good mystery? He saw no harm in such stories and ignored the warnings.
Someone or something was moving. At first, the movement was very weak, but it was clear that something was happening. Yes. It came again. An echo. The sound of an engine. Tires screeching. Voices. Human voices. Something smelled like burned petrol. And something else smelled like fresh blood and plasma.
“Two of them,” U thought with a shiver of excitement.
“I can feel them as clearly as if they were right next to me!” But… will they get closer? Will they cross the fence? Will they??!!
U’s excitement grew as he heard the noises getting louder.
He hoped they’d get close enough for him to move. That was all he needed. Get them close enough for one move! He could move fast. He could do it because others had done it before. X had done it. And so had G.
U would be free then! On his way back home.
Burbank saw the jeep drive away, leaving behind a cloud of red dust like a sandstorm in the Sahara. Even though the sun shone brightly, it was only about 5 degrees Celsius at this early hour. He set the backpack down and looked around.
Salt as white as snow and indigo water (or was it already the sky?) winked at him. The place was so big that he was sure it could be seen from space. He saw why it was called the World’s Largest Mirror. The few rolling clouds in the sky reflected in the water, making it look like an enormous looking glass with no apparent limits.
“It could be a landing site for intergalactic spaceships,” he chuckled, then took three steps toward the edge of the Salar. He only had two hours, and he was anxious to get started.
Crack…crack…crack … The salt crunched under his steel-toed work boots. It was like walking on freshly frozen water in his native Colorado.
He walked slowly. At an altitude of more than 3,600 meters above sea level, every step was twice as hard as it would have been at sea level. He took a deep breath, trying to fill his lungs with the thin air, and headed toward a small brine pond that sparkled in the whiteness.
“My first sampling spot,” he decided.
The brine was thick and light blue. It had a lot of salt and possibly also potash, borax, and halite. There was also some red dust from the road that cars driving by stirred up and left there.
Burbank unzipped a pocket on his backpack and took out a rock chisel and two tubes with rubber caps. He would break off a few pieces, collect two samples, and then move on to the next pool that looked bigger and brighter.
“It must have come out with the mist from last night.”
He put the salt water into a syringe and pumped it into a tube.
He couldn’t wait to spend the next two hours in a place he’d heard about but never thought he’d see in person. He would never get this chance again, so he had to grab it with both hands.
U was disappointed. After the initial thrill of hearing voices and sensing human warmth, he realized the sounds had retreated. Even the engine sounds and gear clatter faded as the car moved away. U was not only frustrated but also angry! How long had it been since he last had the chance to leave this place? He could not tell because human time was not something he’d ever learned or cared to evaluate.
U thrashed in anguish. He didn’t want to spend another moment in this damn salt lake where nothing ever happened. He was also aware that his energy was shrinking. If no adequate host appeared, he’d expire like the ship’s engine that had brought him here. That happened to P and K. They just went out like old batteries with no juice.
U couldn’t let that happen! U wanted to live! U wanted to go back home!
Burbank could tell it was nearing noon by the tilt of the sun. The cab driver would be back soon to pick him up. He had 19 samples from different pools neatly arranged in a metal holder. There was still one empty tube teasing him as he considered quitting.
He looked across the Salar and noted the next puddle was about 200 meters away. In this oxygen-depleted environment, it was pretty far. He had time to walk there, get the sample, and return to the road before the vehicle arrived. He was slightly out of breath but confident he could make it. His heart raced as he gazed at the fence with the flapping ribbons. For a moment, he sensed something or someone beckoning to him. Someone was trying to convey a message to him.
“And what if…” a thought flashed through his mind.
“You are a scientist, Denis. A man of facts, so act like one. You don’t believe in that mumbo jumbo about Dead Man’s Lake, do you? You might find something you’ve never seen before. Perhaps this is why locals warn tourists to stay away. All you have to do is go behind the wire and take a sample!”
He zipped up the side pocket of the knapsack and threw it over his shoulder.
There it was again! The vibrato of footsteps. The crunch of the salt. The tantalizing aroma of sweat and human plasma. As the steps approached steadily, U’s exhilaration returned. Without a doubt… They were on their way to him, whoever they were!
“Come on! Come on! “U urged the human, leading him to where he’d spent the last millennium. Or more. Initially, with those who were on the ship when it crashed.
He could still recall X and W, but not T, Q, or Y. They eventually found a host and were able to go. U was the last one in the area known as Dead Man’s Lake.
It could be his last opportunity! U concentrated hard on conveying positive vibrations and sending an invitation to the person who might, just might, become his host and take him out from this damn lake!
“Damn it!” Burbank swore as his khaki shirt snagged on the barbed wire as he went beneath it.
He wriggled his way free, then threw the backpack to the opposite side, where it fell with a bang.
“Holy crap!” he yelled again.
“I hope the tubes are OK!”
The wind picked up, making the ribbons flap frantically as if warning him to reconsider and return to the road.
“Come on, Denis! “You should know better than that!” he chastised himself.
“Legends. Nothing but local folklore. Like the one about the Guatemalan volcano god who craves human flesh. Or the one about Mexican cenote skulls.”
He scanned the horizon for the red dust cloud, signaling the arrival of the Jeep. There wasn’t any.
“A clear sign that I should get a sample!”
To his left, he noticed a shallow pool with exceptionally clear water. It looked more like spring water than brine.
“Interesting,” he muttered, moving closer.
“Low to no saline content.” There is also no cross-contamination. I wonder why.”
He removed the last glass tube, removed the rubber stopper, and then did a double take as he noticed something stirring in the water. Something resembling a little fishtail or a tadpole. He rubbed his temples.
“A trick of the light,” he muttered.
“No living organism could possibly survive in this environment!”
He knelt, extracted the syringe, and prepared the tube.
“I have a feeling this is going to be the discovery of the century,” he said as he whistled David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
That was the last conscious action he took.
He was so close that his smell made U dizzy with want. The aroma was spicy, laced with the iron atoms coursing through his veins. He was the ideal host for him to recharge before deciding what to do next. Attempt to find a landing spot, of which he knew there were many nearby, and return home or continue masquerading as another human. It made no difference now. He’d think about it later.
The ground crackled as the human approached. Only three steps away. Two…one…jump!
The Bolivian driver’s name was Carlos Mamani, a surname so common in Uyuni that it seemed like everyone here was connected. As he got closer, he saw a figure in the middle of the road. He stepped on the gas, revving the engine, which roared with a shriek of straining metal.
“Looks like the guy paid attention to the warning. When they don’t, it usually ends up in tears,” he muttered, then drove the last three hundred meters at a steady rhythm.
The American stood out against the crimson background of the road like a salt statue. He was staring straight ahead, past the Jeep and beyond the horizon. Mamani could see he was hatless; the knapsack was open, spilling its contents. His limbs were stiff, his khaki shirt was missing a button at the collar, and his left sleeve was ripped at the elbow. He didn’t seem to notice the trickle of blood flowing from a shallow flesh wound on his cheek. He just stood there with his eyes glazed over. Blank. Or maybe scared.
Mamani ground to a halt, his fingers firmly gripping the steering wheel. He tried but failed to shift them to the gear stick. The American’s stare enslaved him.
Mamani’s jaw trembled, and saliva dribbled from his lips, but he couldn’t lift his arm to wipe it away. Like the salt in the lake, his muscles had solidified. He could only watch as the foreigner approached and effortlessly yanked him from the car seat through the open window, flinging him onto the red dust.
He didn’t fight back. He knew the man had discovered something in Dead Man’s Lake, like many others before him. He had no desire to find out what it was. He sighed as he watched the Jeep careen down the road towards Uyuni. He was sure it was the last time he’d see the jeep. And then the American. And he was relieved.
Polish by birth, a citizen of the world by choice. JB Polk’s first story was short-listed for the Hennessy Awards, Ireland 1996. She regularly contributed to Women’s Quality Fiction, Books Ireland, and IncoGnito. She was also the co-founder of Virginia House Writers, Dublin, and helped establish the OKI Literary Awards. Her creative writing was interrupted when she moved to Latin America, started contributing to magazines and newspapers, and then wrote textbooks for Latin American Ministries of Education. Since she went back to writing fiction in 2020, 53 of her stories have been accepted for publication.
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Very few people used the bathroom backstage at the Plateau. Like most of the venue, it showed its age and misuse. The warped and moldy floorboards under the toilet made it an unacceptable risk for most and the bucket of tools in the corner suggested you needed basic plumbing skills before locking the door behind you.
Despite the rot, the room was a monument. More than any other part of the venue, it was a catalogue of its misspent punk rock youth. The messages written on the wall ranged from an astounding array of crude drawings to some of the most cutting lyric fragments that never got a chance to exist beyond its walls. It was easy to get lost in the history on offer and difficult not to want to add your own mark. If you entered it at all, you understood how the room fulfilled more than its intended use.
Lon gripped the sides of the sink like it might try to pull away from him, though in reality, he was so drunk, he held on to stop himself falling backwards. His band, Helium Pigs, was fifth up in a lineup of six for an all-night showcase at the Plateau. This was by far the best booking his band had ever gotten and now, eight pints of beer later, he was worried he had fucked his chances at making an impression. Their set was still two hours away.
The biggest challenge was going to be staying away from more drink.
In this private space, and probably only here, he could admit that if he stepped out, there was no telling how much more he would drink. Or worse, embarrass himself by having Elle, the bartender at the Plateau, cut him off for barely being able to stand before his band played.
Something about her he didn’t want to disappoint.
Lon thought to himself, nobody uses this bathroom anyways, I’ll just hide in here.
He would check the time, or they would come find him.
Lon stared at himself in the mirror above the sink. Most of its surface had faded to black so he could see little of his own reflection, even less in the light of the dangling single bulb. He stood up straight and tried to turn his look of incapacitation into one of disaffected nonchalance and although he thought he was pulling it off, he put so much focus into the look, he didn’t notice he was bending forward until he head-butted the mirror and cracked it down the middle, separating it into an upper and lower half.
Lon shook off the impact with a few choice expletives and rubbed his face hard with both hands. A perfect line of blood streamed down the narrow ridge of his nose before beading off the barbell in his septum, dripping into the sink, pooling in the flaky rust of the drain. When he opened his eyes, in the bottom half of the mirror, two people had appeared behind him, a woman sitting on top of the toilet tank, carving into the wall beside her as someone, what looked like a dark smudge in the desilvered mirror, had their hand down the front of her impossibly tight jeans, forcing her to arch her back. Lon was already shouting at them to fuck off as he turned around but when he looked over, the room was empty.
Not trusting his eyes, nor his depth perception, he swung his arm to see if it would catch on something but nothing. The momentum of his arm kept him spinning until he fell backwards onto the toilet. He could swear he had sunk several inches into the soft flooring. The room was empty. He looked beside him, squinting at what was scratched into the wall.
Growing antlers must feel like this.
As he read the words, a low drone rose up from the flooring. It sounded like the threat of inclement weather and made his spins worse. This wasn’t the other bands. The drone was then joined by the rhythmic banging of a kick drum, every blast seemingly shrinking the room a fraction until Lon was forced to stand again, falling against the sink. A human tongue snaked itself out of the drain, whipping around in circles, basting itself in the blood that had fallen moments earlier. It pulled itself back and a chorus of voices spilled from the drain. It was deafening, a harmony of held notes creating a new kind of vibration at Lon’s temples. He felt the skin stretch and grow thin. When he looked in the mirror, his reflection was not there but the woman was back, her heavy makeup smeared across her face and her 12-point spiked hair crushed against the far wall. She was now surrounded by several of the dark smudges, each standing over her, watching her writhe and curl into herself. Lon could only watch. The pain in his head was so intense, his vision narrowed to a singular point. When the woman opened her eyes, her scream was the last note required to bring the cacophony to a mind splitting resolution. Lon fell backwards into darkness.
Elle held Lon’s face in her hands as he woke from his brief coma. He was both happy and terrified that she was the one holding him. The look in her eye was one of calm and care. Sitting up in the narrow hallway, Elle asked if he felt well enough to play to a couple hundred semi-conscious punks in ten minutes.
The only answer was yes.
He stared back at the door of the bathroom. Elle took his face in her hands again, locked eyes with him and said not to worry about her, that he should just go make some noise.
Patrick Malka (he/him) is a high school science teacher from Montreal, Quebec, where he lives with his partner and two kids. His fiction can be found in Five South’s The Weekly, Nocturne magazine, The Raven Review, Sky Island Journal and most recently at On The Run. He can be found online @PatrickMalka on Twitter and @malkapatrick on Instagram.
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I’ve been here before. I’ll be here again. What city or suburb is this anyway? What state? Is this Grand Rapids? Green Bay? I think Rockford, maybe. Rockford feels right.
This one is an anime convention. Teenagers in schoolgirl costumes, monster costumes, ninja costumes, animal costumes… They squeal and giggle when they spot something that delights them: an art print from their favorite show, a particularly accurate costume prop, a toy they’d been searching for, another attendee dressed up as another character from the same cartoon as them. Sales aren’t going well. They’re too absorbed in their own fandoms.
And what do I sell exactly? I can’t tell you. Not just yet.
The other vendors put on good smiles. They engage. They recognize and complement the costumes. These small (tiny) business entrepreneurs do their best to meet these kids on their level. But… the kids in the pink and purple cutesy dog and fox outfit with the oversized paws and glossy eyes? Nobody is reaching them. Certainly, I’m not. Not with what I’m peddling.
“Alright. I give up,” the vendor in the next booth says to me. She’s selling knitted dolls she crocheted herself. Pop culture characters with heads and eyes like babies. I’ve heard her sales pitch a hundred times or more. As much as she’s heard my pitch. Hers are paying off more often than mine, but not by much. She’s young, energetic, and has a constant need to move and do and talk and shuffle. Whenever someone isn’t at her booth, she’s putting her crochet needles to work making another doll. She’s perpetually on the verge of boredom. So, she takes a chance on what I have to offer.
“It’s legit though, right?” she asks. The click and clack of her hooks are a constant background track to her words. “In Dubuque, I sat next to two guys at a fantasy con. They were selling magic dusts, potions, holy water, that sort of thing. The dusts were just sand and glitter. The potions were water and food coloring. I watched them fill the holy water from a bottle of Aquafina.”
A good salesperson doesn’t have to be crooked to be successful. Granted, many patrons wander into one of these events with no intention of making a purchase. It’s the smooth words of a salesman or the glitter of something not quite gold that changes their minds. They might leave the convention center happy, thrilled even, with their new treasure, but with no idea why they bought what they had. Not my customers. Not because they’re not happy with their purchase, and not because they have a firm understanding of why they made their purchase, but because they simply don’t wander back out into the daylight. I don’t know where they go, but I’m convinced it’s further away than the parking lot.
“No. This is legit. And if it’s not, well, we’ll both still be here, and you can get your money back,” I told her. There’s no scam in my game. If there were, it would become immediately apparent. But I’m an honest salesman, and I’ve never issued a refund.
Dubious and curious in equal parts, she sets down her crocheting. Uncharacteristically silent, she taps her credit card to my phone. Touchless payments are all the rage at these events. The payment goes through. Rather than a refund, I provide her a talisman.
“So…” she dragged out the word, holding the small object in her palm. “What now?”
I don’t answer. I don’t have to. She’s already fading from view.
I think this is Ann Arbor, or just outside of Ann Arbor. In a mall. A comic and toy convention this time. A more diverse crowd. Overweight forty year old fanboys intermingle with teenage cosplayers. Innocent and unsuspecting mall walkers squint at the stranger booths. Civilian mall shoppers ask, “What is all this?” Serious collectors rifle through long white cardboard boxes for specific issues missing from their collections. I don’t have to wait long to make the first sale.
I’m next to a pair of brothers who have written, drawn, inked, and printed their own comic book. They sell it as if they are carnival barkers, calling out random passers-by by the color of their clothes or what their t-shirts say. They’re handing out free stickers and buttons. Hard selling, you might call it. For the most part, I ignore them.
“So, what is it?” a big-bellied man with a gray ponytail asks me. “What does it do?”
“It’s escapism,” I select which question of his to answer.
If he bites, this man will be my second sale of the day and of the convention, as far as I can remember. After my first sale, I was certain I’d be gone as quickly as the customer. But I remained, although I had to lean against my table to keep from fainting. I think the first sale wanted to whisk me away, but I was able to stay put, grounding myself here in Ann Arbor by focusing on the feel of my table, the weight on my palms, the smells coming from the food court, and the sound of the brothers selling their comics.
“Escapism from what?”
He pays in cash. It’s a generational difference, I’ve found. The older ones either pay in cash or need you to swipe their card’s magnetic strip through a miniature card reader. Never Venmo or Cash App. Rarely with a tap touchless payment. The younger and hipper you are, the less likely you are to pay with cash, but as the old folks say, “Cash is king.” Before the bills are under the spring-loaded metal keeper in the cashbox, and before I can pull out his change, the man with the gray ponytail has received his token and is gone.
And then, so am I.
The thing about escaping is, if you do it too much, you’ll run out of things to escape from. And what you escape to becomes more and more empty. Nothing like that first high, right? If you’re anything like me, soon you’ll spend all your time and money chasing that Get-outta-Town dragon.
What is it I sell, you ask? Fine. I’ll tell you. Baubles. Trinkets. Tokens. Talisman of Escape. Does that answer your question? No?
In Davenport, it was Davenport, I was sure of it, the Sci-fi convention has the usual blend of obsessed and dedicated disciples who only leave their cupboards for events such as these, and the curious, casual onlookers who recognize prime people-watching opportunities. Who they are doesn’t particularly matter, in my case. Word of mouth travels fast, especially when the word you’re selling is “Travel.” But that’s how it is in Davenport. People come to my table, unbeckoned, unprompted, and they each get theirs. The whole line of them. And as quickly as they make their purchases, the line disappears.
I don’t mean it dispersed. It removed itself from the con and from Davenport altogether. Which begs the question, if a line begins in Davenport, where does it end?
Maybe they go to Des Moines, or Omaha, or perhaps Duluth. To another con? I don’t know where they go. They never follow me to my next stop. As good of business as I’ve been doing, I’ve never had a repeat customer.
I have to fix myself to the conference center floor in Davenport just to get through the queue of eager customers. I hold onto the table and sort of stamp my feet into the thin carpet as if I’m a sailor standing on the deck of a ship in bad weather. Because I have to make the sales. I have to export my own urge to retreat, to run away, to escape, to be anywhere but here. I welcome them. I’m greedy to take their tender, no matter the form, knowing each sale fulfills some internal need while simultaneously knowing that each transaction brings me closer to the edge. So I fix myself to this place because when I leave Davenport, and I’m beginning to doubt I’ll make it through the whole line before I do, I have no idea where I might appear next.
And who I will be when I get there.
When they come and make their purchases, and when they go, eventually, so do I. Early on the tour, it only took one bauble to send me away. To sell out, I call it, even though I have plenty more trinkets to trade. I hadn’t sold out of product. I sell myself out of the city. Out of one place and into another.
At the subsequent locations, it takes a little more. Two trinkets. Then three. Then half a dozen. Each time the other booths, other salesfolk, the attendees, the displays… they all get thinner as I approach that tipping point. Until they’re all gone. Or I’m gone. I imagine the convention continues without me, and without all those who have come and bought what I have to offer.
You know how they say in AA meetings, “If an addict gets on a bus in Boston bound for Chicago, an addict will get off that bus in Chicago”? That’s their way of saying a change in location doesn’t mean a change in the person.
I never imagined that the bus was so crucial to that chain of events. Because when I travel, sans bus, fading out of a civic center in Davenport and fading into a National Guard armory in Lansing, I’m not quite the same self I was in Davenport. I am myself. It’s just the person who was in Davenport isn’t quite me anymore. I am in Lansing. More so than I had been in Davenport. This is a bookseller’s convention. I am beset on all sides by independently published authors of varying degrees of talent, and I have no books to sell. Regardless, when I move a dozen of my talismans, clutching the lip of my table for the last handful of patrons, and I arrive in St. Paul, I am more in St. Paul than I had ever been in Lansing. My present always trumps my past. The here is always more concrete than the there. The moment is always stronger than memories. Consciousness is always more real than dreams.
In St. Paul, it’s a horror convention. There are movie screenings. There’s a costume contest. There’s a class on DIY practical effects for all the budding Tom Savinis standing on the plastic drop cloths the convention center staff rolled out to catch all the corn syrup and food coloring. There’s a “Scream Queen” contest to see which lady can belt out the best banshee wail. There are autographs and Q&As and meet and greets of men whose faces never touched the silver screen because they were always hidden behind the masks and make-up of the monsters they played.
I’m in the vendor’s hall. In artist’s alley. To my right is a taxidermist who takes dearly departed forest creatures and turns them into horror movie murderers. He has a Pinhead porcupine, a Freddy Krueger ferret, a Michael Meyers muskrat, and a skunk in a Friday the 13th hockey mask. The lack of alliteration between Jason Vorhees and the skunk stands out only because it’s so ubiquitous among the rest. Nevertheless, the artistry is impeccable. Not for everyone, but here at this convention? The taxidermist has found his target audience. To my left is a sweet old woman who is selling hand towels and dresses patterned in the Universal Studios classic monster line-up. Dracula. Frankenstein. The Invisible Man. The Mummy. The Invisible Man. The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Wolfman. She had a hip Elvis meets Elvira rockabilly style. Jet-black beehive hair. Over the top makeup. Thick-framed, winged spectacles. Platinum black flats with frilled white socks. Spiderweb patterned leggings. A poodle-skirt with a dancing skeleton instead of a dog at the end of the leash.
My table, in comparison, is as blank and boring as a white cotton bedsheet in an S&M boudoir. I have my cash box. I have a miniature card reader that plugs into my phone. I have a small music box in which I store my tokens. It plays Für Elise if I ever wound it up. I don’t. I have a small sign that reads “Escape for Sale,” and the prices, which I feel are very reasonable. Nothing more. No big banners or displays. Just me, the means of payment, and the product.
It was the third day of the con and both the rockabilly seamstress and the twisted but talented taxidermist act like we’ve already gotten to know each other. Somehow, I’ve already earned their trust. As if I’d been sitting next to them, pitching and hawking my wares, since the con began.
It makes sense in some ways. I don’t remember loading in and setting up. And I never tear down and load out. Wherever I go, my table is set up and ready for business. I appear at each venue as neatly and cleanly as I disappear. My customers come with no prelude, and I leave without epilogue. Nevertheless, my things are here before I arrive. Do they remain after I’m gone? Do I remain, in some outdated, no-longer-precisely-me version of who I had been? Is there already a version of who I will become getting to know the next pair of neighboring vendors at the next con?
My neighbors, all of them, from the restless doll maker in Rockford, to the comic book brothers in Ann Arbor, to the hack novelists in Lansing, to these two eccentric horror fiends, they have known me. And maybe I know them too. I know their products and their spiels. If I tried, if I plunge the memories I have no right to have, I suspect I might be able to conjure up a name or a hometown. That possibility scares me. It feels intrusive for me to try. Like trespassing. And that feeling, that sense that trying to remember things before I arrived here is an invasion of someone else’s land leaves me suspicious that someone else had been here before I arrived. Someone who those memories belonged to. Someone who wasn’t me. Not even a part of me. Until they were all of me. Or I was all of them. And then suddenly I am more them than they had ever been.
After all, the now always wins over the then.
As my customers slip away, into the ether or maybe to another con in Peoria, Kansas City, or Springfield, my neighbors never notice their absence. Even when a large pack of loud Twilight vampires come down the aisle, skip the dresses and hand towels, stop at my table, and never make it to see the Woodchuck Chucky on display at the next table over.
I’m selling more now, lasting longer and longer at each show. I’m remaining more me at each stop. I’m unloading more and more of my escapism on them.
And that leaves me with what? When I truly sell out of my baubles, trinkets, tokens, and talismans, what will I have left? The prices are, as I said, very reasonable, which means the touchless transfers and the cold hard cash in the metal box don’t add up to much. Enough for a few nights in a local hotel and a few meals. I haven’t used the money, not since starting out on tour. Money was never the point. So when I sell out, not out of the vendor’s hall in St. Paul, but sell out of escapes, what will I have to show for it? Persistence? Permanence? Imprisonment? Will I be able to pack up my things and walk out the backdoor like all the other dealers? They, no doubt, have vans and trailers to load up their tables and collections of comics, toys, props, and products to haul to the next stop. I’m unaware of any van or car waiting for me beyond the loading docks. Will I be stranded wherever I run out of inventory, be it here in St. Paul or at the next stop? Where will I go after the convention closes its doors? I don’t remember the last time I wasn’t at a con, when I wasn’t perfecting my pitching and hawking my wares for the tap of a card or a few more paper presidents. My last Monday felt like eons ago. Can I even exist outside of conference halls, strip malls, and community centers? Have I ever? In here, working my table, making sales, I am me. But out there? Suddenly, my dwindling supply becomes all the more valuable. Precious even. Priceless, as in whatever cash or card the next customer presents won’t come close to tipping the scales.
“You’ve slowed down,” the seamstress with the gaudy purple eyeshadow and violent red lipstick tells me. “For a while there, you didn’t have a break!”
“It’s Sunday,” The taxidermist interjects. “It always slows down on Sundays.”
“Clark Kent Day,” I say.
“Huh?” the seamstress says.
“On Friday and Saturday, they come in full regalia. Each one of them dressed as their own version of Superman,” I say. I don’t remember where I picked up on this notion. If I had to guess, I’d say in Ann Arbor at the comic and toy convention. “By the time Sunday rolls around, they’ve scrubbed away their make-up. The big costumes have been traded for sweatpants or pajamas. All the Supermen are gone. Only Clark Kents remain. Still, don’t count Clark Kent out. On Superman Days, Saturdays, or even Fridays if you’re lucky, you make your table back. On Clark Kent Days is when you make your profit.”
My neighbors nod and I know they’ll incorporate my vocabulary into theirs. Sundays will be Clark Kent Days for them for every future weekend spent at a con.
“Your table has been lively though,” the seamstress gestures to my spartan setup.
“Wouldn’t know anything about that,” Stan (Stan! The taxidermist’s name was Stan.) says. “I don’t work with the living.”
We laugh at that, having fun with the idea of this man only interacting with those who have passed on, and those who have passed on being small woodland critters.
I like these two. Quirky, but still relatable and real. Neither too full of themselves or too aggressive with the old hard sale. Amiable. Funny. Kind. I know, even though I’ve never stayed until the end, come the close of the convention, we’ll trade business cards and find each other on social media, and hope to run into each other at the next pit stop along the highway. After all, as Evelyn (The rockabilly dressmaker’s name is Evelyn, of course, it’s Evelyn, it has always been Evelyn,) says, “It’s a small world.”
Her question remains, unasked but waiting for an answer all the same. Why had my sales dropped off so sharply when the two of them were still doing, at least, moderate business?
I pull the unwound and silent music box close to me, away from any potential buyers. Not on display. Not anymore. I peek inside and count the small supply within.
“What is it again, exactly, you’re selling?” Evelyn asks. “I’ve heard you describe it, but I don’t think I quite understand.”
“Nothing,” I lie, too sharply. “Honestly, it’s a sort of participator placebo. A token with the imaginary power to assist the imagination. Snake oil for the overactive mind. Nothing of value.”
“I’ll take it,” Stan says with such affirmation he can’t be denied.
“No. I couldn’t. You guys are–”
“I insist,” Stan says and comes out from his booth to the front of mine. “A mental tool, imagined to help the imagination? How can I say no to something like that?”
“It is very intriguing,” says Evelyn. “Me too. I want one too.”
There were four left when I counted them. If I make this sale, there will only be two left. My fun, funny, quirky, honest, talented, and relatable neighbors will be gone. And will the remaining pair of talismans be enough to send me after them? Or will I be stuck here on the streets of St. Paul to face the dull and drab realities of a Monday morning with no neighbors, no products, no customers, no sales, and no convention? The thought sends my nerves shaking my bones.
Stan the taxidermist drops his cash on my table. Enough for two trinkets. The old school method of contactless payment. And as soon as the money lands on my table, my two new friends and two more of my talismans disappear.
I’m alone, and I’m in dire short supply of escapes.
“So… what are you selling?” a kid in zombie make-up asks. He shows no signs of noticing the empty booths flanking me, or my suddenly estranged previous customers. All he knows is that I have something people want. And if people want it, then he absolutely has to have it.
“Loneliness,” I tell him. “And I’m all out. Now beat it.”
Taken aback, no doubt unaccustomed to the eternally gregarious vendors eager for his weekly allowance, he fades into the crowd. Lost in the masses until I can’t see him anymore, but he’s not disappeared. Only paying customers earned the right to slip through the bars of this cell.
Checking up and down the row, and seeing that, indeed, Clark Kent Day had thinned the crowd, I ease my grasp on the music box. I surely can’t keep the last two baubles in my inventory forever. But I don’t know how to restock. I don’t know where I got my initial supply. My preparation for these conventions was as far away as the last Monday. Eau Claire, Fort Wayne, Cedar Rapids, Dayton, even Bismark are infinitely closer than wherever it was I had begun. Would it end here, in St. Paul? I let go of the music box and crack open the cash box. The tray to the far right, President Jackson’s tray, is moderately full, but not nearly as full as the far left tray where all the Washingtons make their home. And what about the online account? Is there enough in there to buy me a plane or a bus ticket back home? If I can even remember where back home is? I open the app.
Before I can see the balance, a bank card obscures my view. Blue stars like fireflies burst on the display. The tap transfer has gone through, adding a measly amount to the balance. Looking up, I see the already thinning visage of the boy in zombie garb, more ghost than undead now. If his wily smile wasn’t so bright, I don’t think I’d see him at all.
Then he is gone, and my second to last talisman is gone with him.
I all but tackle the music box, clamp it shut with the little hasp, and tuck it on my lap, under the table. I twist the key to the cash box, sealing it from further business. I close the app on my phone and then power it down altogether. Perhaps closing the app was enough. Certainly, airplane mode would have prevented any transfers from going through. But I can’t allow any more sales. Not today. Perhaps never again.
From down the aisle, a mother is calling out for her son. “Joe? Joe! Where’d you go?”
Did Joe arrive on Clark Kent Sunday in full zombie attire? If so, would he arrive on Superman Saturday somewhere else in the same get-up?
And what about me? If I sell my last item to the next enthusiastic patron who wanders up, will it be enough to send me away from this place? If it is, where will I land next? Lincoln? Sioux Falls? Waterloo? Columbus? Fargo? Akron?
There is only one way to find out. I never make any purchases at these conventions. Always been my mission to fill the cash box rather than take from it. The money isn’t really my money anyway. It’s the business’ money. Buying my last bauble with that money wouldn’t really be buying it at all. The few bills in my wallet on the other hand…
I cracked open my old, leather trifold. A single, worn-thin, dollar bill rests in the crevice. Usually, a talisman goes for much more than this, but I think the time is right for a Going Out of Business sale. I pluck the lone bill from my wallet and unlock the cash box. With Washington still clutched tightly in my fist, I lift the metal arm holding all the other singles in place.
Wherever my last token takes me, that is where I will stay. One final escape from which I can never escape again.
“Go ahead, buddy,” I speak to myself, or the person I will have been once I leave here. “Loneliness is on sale.” The dollar drops into the cash box, and I am gone.
Joe Prosit writes sci-fi, horror, and psychological fiction. He has previously been published in various magazines and podcasts, most notably, in 365Tomorrow, The NoSleep Podcast, Metaphorosis Magazine, and Kaidankai Podcast. If you’re an adept stalker, you can find him on one of the many lakes and rivers or lost deep inside the Great North Woods. Or you can just find him on the internet at JoeProsit.com.
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“Hello, this is your Uncle D-. Look, there’s been some problems down here you should know about. I guess there’s been a bad situation existing for a long time and we weren’t aware of how bad it actually was.”
“So, what happened?”
“Well, BJ tried to kill Mama. She’s alright now. She’s pretty banged up: black and blue mostly. I don’t know how she survived it actually. The police have BJ and I guess they’re going to put her back at Pilgrim State depending upon the courts and so forth. It’s a real messy affair.”
“What did she do?”
“Well, I don’t understand exactly how it happened, Mama really doesn’t know either. It was all so sudden. I guess BJ came into her room, which was unusual to say the least, and began hitting Mama. I guess she was screaming something like-‘You’ve always said you lived too long. Well, you’re right and I’m here to help you along. If D- had any sense he would have done this a long time ago.’ At least, that’s what Mama thinks she said.”
“I guess Betty tried to strangle her with an electrical cord or something. Kicked her around quite a bit. It’s really amazing she didn’t kill her; it really is. You should have seen
Mama, it was terrible.”
“When was this?”
“A couple of days ago. I think you should come down here. There’s a court hearing on Monday. They say they’ll decide what they’re going to do with her then.”
“I guess you’re right. I should come. I’ll see you on Monday.”
“I can’t imagine what kind of life they’ve been living together the last few years…
Sleeping late the morning of the first assault, years before the one on Grandma, the morning that would be the last I saw of mother until she was back at Pilgrim State. I was sleeping late following another late night working in the bar. The images of the smoke-filled rooms, the music, the drinks, theirs and mine. floating on an unsteady sea of dreams. A crazy wind blowing the dream thickened night. A heavy, breaking storm-tossed ocean of white capped waves, of ships lost at sea, drinks spilled, smoke. The jagged edges of the grey shore rocks, the wild, black clouds filling the sky. The rain and the wind screaming, my wife screaming, “Help me, help me, please…”
“I’ll fix you, you bitch, leave that child alone. I told you never to touch that child. You’re unfit to have them. You let that so called Doctor touch him and he’ll never be able to hear anything again.”
Our children playing with their building blocks on the living room floor. The oldest adenoids swollen so thick he can barely hear out of either ear. Those four- and five-year-old boys playing on the floor watching as their grandmother and their mother wrestle in the hallway, playing some kind of grownup game.
“I won’t let you; I tell you. No Doctor will touch that child as long as I’m around, I—-“
I twist Mother’s hands away from my wife, my wife’s neck, freeing her from the strangle hold. I turn my mother around and stare into her rage contorted face. I don’t have to think: seems like old times again; it just is. I say, “Slow down, mother, calm it down—-“
But she is kicking out at me. Biting me, scratching at my eyes, pulling my shoulder length hair, gradually freeing herself from my grip. We stumble on alphabet blocks, step over children somehow, and I am trying desperately to hold her, slapping her as hard as I can, trying to stifle her rage saying, “Calm it down, calm it down…” But I am out of control myself, as outraged as she, as unhinged, hitting her as my children watch.
“Get those children out of here, anywhere.” I say to my wife, still wrestling with mother, flailing out, hitting harder now, uninhibited, letting it all go as if, somehow, I had always wished it would end this way, fighting to the death on the living room floor.
“You’re as bad as she is, “Mother says, “You’re going to ruin that child. I’m going to take them away. Take them some place safe where you can’t find them. I swear it, I swear…”
Somehow, I manage to bearhug her close to my body. I have immobilized her, slowed her down physically. I am as afraid as she is by what might happen next, whisper through clenched teeth…”Get out of my house. Pack up and leave and don’t come back. Don’t even think about coming back. You Understand: Get Out Now. Leave. OK…”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Just get the Fuck out now.”
Mother subdued. Crying, noiselessly. Maybe what happened was just a dream for her, maybe absolutely nothing happened for her, maybe she really didn’t mean anything by her outburst at all.
“You can’t throw me out.”
“Just watch me, Mother. I’ll pick you up physically and throw you out if I have to. By the seat of the pants and the back of your shirt. I can and I will. I mean it like I’ve never meant anything before.”
Mother packing her bags, trying to say something I won’t listen to or hear. Maybe she wants to apologize, make amends for everything awful she’s done in her life, maybe she wants me to somehow forget and forgive, to somehow, despite all of this, despite what will come, to love her.
“Mother, please, just get out, now and never come back.”
I never phoned or told anyone what happened after she left. Thought it could, would never happen again.
What was I thinking?
I swallowed two Valium dry, then pounded a couple of shots of white label and watched her drive out of my life, I thought for good.
What a fool I was.
What a fool I am.
Not exactly knowing the horror show of Grandma and Mother’s lives. The lives we couldn’t imagine goes something like this, maybe exactly like this…
Mother sits at the dining room table scratching the open sore at the back of her head. Peeling the layers of clotted scab as she scratches. Feeling the blood and the dead skin coming loose between her fingers. Grinding her teeth as she thinks. Kneading her right-hand knuckles in her thighs as she scratches with her left hand. Organizing her thoughts, always organizing—–
A car backfires on Ocean Avenue. Grandma awakens with a start. Shakes herself to clear her head. Thinks 82 years old and not enough sense to sleep in her bed. She sees the lamp shining on the antique end table. Sees the television glaring, sound down so soft she can barely hear it. Soft so as not to disturb her daughter. She thinks she would like a glass of water before climbing the stairs to her bedroom…
Mother sits in the darkness. Sees her mother moving toward her sitting room. Sees herself grown old, sees all of Them that are out to get her, embodied in that old woman. Sees all the dread arms and hands and dead faces of her life leaping out at her from the walls, the ceiling, from beyond the refracting window glass reaching for her, screaming for her louder than this night, this screaming inside…
Grandma sees the dining room table. The lace cloth draped and hanging as it should. As always. Sees the crystal chandelier, the Currier and Ives lithograph hanging above the dining room mahogany linen chest. Sees her daughter, as always, scratching her head, silent, unknowable, absorbed…
Mother sees the dread beast scattering the strange clutter of her life, hears an air raid siren going off outside, inside, sees the wings of a huge blackbird fluttering before her face, sees a knife in the night, a talon, a terrible, real, death threat…
Grandma sees her daughter. Sees the China cabinet and the gold rimmed plates, the China, the crystal inside. Sees her daughter’s eyes following her as she walks into the kitchen. Feels them inside her as she walks. Every night, every day like this, for years… Mother sits, thinking about getting organized. What to do first? Kill the beast, she thinks, kill it now.
Alan Catlin has published dozens of chapbooks and full-length books of poetry and prose. Among his more recent books is Asylum Garden: after Van Gogh (Dos Madres) and Exterminating Angles (Kelsay Books. Forthcoming this summer is a book based on the life and work of Diane Arbus, How Will the Heart Endure (Kelsay Boks) and Listening to Moonlight Sonata (Impspired)
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Danny Pearl sat in the dentist’s waiting room beside his mother, one leg bouncing up and down as he nibbled on the fingernails of one hand. He anxiously listened to the drilling sounds drifting from a few of the back rooms and the cries of pain from at least one.
Danny hated the dentist.
“Stop that, Danior.” His mother caught his wrist and pulled his hand away from his mouth. “Don’t be so nervous. You have naturally beautiful, healthy teeth. You always have.”
He hated it even more when his mother called him Danior. Sure, he did have beautiful teeth and he’d heard the stories many times before. His mother never let him forget that he had nipped her as a newborn on numerous occasions when she’d breastfed him, not just with his strong gums, but with actual teeth. The entire family, except for his mother, had been calling him Drac since he was little. She had given him a good sturdy name and refused to use anything else.
His heartbeat picked up its pace, pounding so hard it sounded like Phil Collins’ famous In The Air Tonight drum riff playing in his ears when the receptionist called his name.
“Don’t worry, Danior. It’s just a cleaning.” Mom patted his hand before he stood to follow the assistant to one of the back rooms.
The place was clean and well-maintained, yet the familiar antiseptic smells and the sounds of scattered groans convinced Danny he was walking down the hall to a medieval torture chamber and his certain demise.
He couldn’t account for his paranoia.
Aside an impacted wisdom tooth that had to be extracted a year ago when he’d been sixteen, he hadn’t lost any teeth as a young adult. And the extraction had been unremarkable and painless since he’d had IV sedation.
The dentist had been extremely surprised and seemed almost annoyed that his teeth and gums were in such great shape—no cavities, no gingivitis, teeth as white as a Klan member’s sheet and straight as a Republican’s tie. Suffice to say he was an entrepreneurial dentist’s worst nightmare.
The assistant fixed the familiar blue bib around his neck and neatly arranged the evil-looking dental tools on the instrument tray for use. “The dentist will be with you shortly.”
“But I’m only here for a cle—” She was gone before Danny could finish.
He sat back in the reclining chair, took several deep breaths and tried to relax. When this didn’t work, he craned his head to watch the large flat screen above where a daytime talk show
was playing. At least it wasn’t Little Shop of Horrors or Marathon Man. His last dentist had had a wicked sense of humor.
“Danior, how are we today?”
Danny glanced at the masked man with a start, gaze following him around the room as he examined Danny’s most recent X-rays. “I-I’m okay.”
The dentist sat down on the stool and rolled close. “Head back.”
Reluctantly, Danny obeyed, staring at the dentist’s strangely familiar gray eyes. He lowered his gaze to the man’s name tag—J. Alvaro, DDS—then raised them back to the man’s intense expression.
“I tried to tell your assistant, I’m only getting a cleaning.” If he didn’t know better, he’d have said J. Alvaro smiled behind his mask. There was definitely a twinkle in his smoky-gray eyes as he leaned forward.
“That’s what you think.” Then J. Alvaro, DDS raised one hand and blew colorful sparkling dust from his palm right into Danny’s face.
“Wha—” He couldn’t even get the entire word out before his whole world went black.
* * *
Five Years Later
“Over here, please!”
“Can we get your autograph?”
Danny smiled as various items and body parts were shoved in his face.
Paparazzi’s flashbulbs blinded him and fans’ cheers were deafening.
His agent would tell him this was what he had signed up for.
Danny wanted to tell his agent to kiss his ass.
“Over here, Danior!”
He’d gone with the more unique name in deference to his mother but also because it sounded more Hollywood and his agent said it had a catchy cool ring to it. Hearing the still unfamiliar moniker screamed and shouted, however, made him cringe.
Danny signed as many items as he could, smiling all the way to the limousine at the curb and only let out a breath once the door slammed behind Eleanor Blackwell, his publicist.
He leaned back, closed his eyes and sighed.
“You did well, Danny.” She squeezed his thigh then pushed a glass into his hand.
Even after all the Hollywood parties and events he’d attended in the last year, Danny hadn’t acquired a taste for alcohol. Part of his appeal to his fans and his fans’ parents was his clean-cut image, starting with his first gig in a toothpaste commercial, of all things, an image that his agent and publicist had helped him hone as his career took off.
Not that they’d needed to do much honing. Danny wouldn’t know how not to be clean-cut if he tried.
Except for that one slip-up with Ariel shortly after he arrived in California—an act of which he hadn’t been too proud and for which he had been trying to repent ever since—there were no real skeletons in his closet.
He raised the glass to his mouth without sniffing and took a big gulp, pleased that it was only club soda. His people knew him well.
“So, we still have Fallon later tonight, and tomorrow you’re scheduled for The View.”
Danny grinned at the latter. He had interesting memories of that show. It had been playing during his last dental visit. The one he could remember nothing about except sitting in the waiting room with his mother. He’d gone for a cleaning, but could remember nothing after J. Alvaro blew sparkling dust into his face.
As mistrustful as he was of the dentist, he’d never had to be put to sleep for a cleaning and he’d most certainly never been put to sleep in such an unconventional, whimsical manner.
After J. Alvaro he’d stopped going to the dentist. He knew it was self-destructive but since he routinely did all the right things on his own—flossed, brushed, used a Waterpik and had a healthy diet conducive to good dental health—he didn’t think he was doing too much damage.
His parents hadn’t been able to change his mind and once he’d reached his eighteenth birthday soon after that infamous visit, he’d left their home and headed to California, ostensibly to become a working actor, though movie star was a twinkling in his eyes.
From his first appearance on stage in Miss Roddendrum’s second grade class version of Excalibur, Danny had been hooked on performing. Playing Robin Goodfellow for his junior
high’s annual talent contest cinched his passion.
Now he was a regular on one of television’s hottest new hospital drama’s, weekly spouting medical jargon while cutting into dummy chest cavities and having fake blood spurt on him in a manner realistic enough to make him dry heave.
He’d had to get over his aversion to blood quickly, however, once he’d landed the part of medical student Marco Hayes on Mercy Medical.
The press junket today was as much about his co-starring role in an upcoming buddy cop movie with a seasoned and older A-lister as it was about his TV gig. The movie was being touted his big break. It was definitely a breakout role where he shined.
Danny had never expected to hit it this big so soon—what the press called his meteoric rise—especially not since he hadn’t come up through the Disney or Nickelodeon talent mills. He’d succeeded in spite of them.
His first three years in California he’d spent waiting tables and going to auditions. Then he’d landed the toothpaste spot and the rest as they say was history.
Now that he had hit it big, he didn’t know what he was supposed to do with himself besides go along for the ride and become more successful. Yippee.
“Are you listening to me, Danny?”
He nodded and took another gulp of his soda water. “Fallon and The View.”
“Are you feeling okay? We have been running non-stop for weeks now.” Eleanor put her palm on his forehead, reminding him of his mother with her worrying and concern.
His mother whom he had been doing all this for. Sure, passion for the craft had initially lured him in, given him something for which to strive other than a regular nine-to-five, but in the back of his mind he’d always wanted to be able to take care of his parents the way they had always taken care of and sacrificed for him. What was all this for, if not that?
“I’m fine.” Not really. He had a hell of a headache and he had a sneaking suspicion it was caused by a rare toothache and not all the stress from the recent press junket.
Maybe ceasing his regular dental visits hadn’t been such a bright idea.
That’s what you think.
The only thing missing behind that statement had been the evil scientist’s maniacal laugh—Mwah-ah-ah.
Danny searched his mind for that missing gap of time. What had happened to him between that sparkly dust in his face and the assistant tapping his hand to tell him “All done!” with a cheery-assed attitude thirty minutes later? A cheery-assed attitude that had not suited his mood at all, by the way.
What had they done to him besides a cleaning?
Would he know if he had been violated? He hadn’t felt any different and he knew his mother had done her due diligence before bringing him to that particular practice. If there had been any dirt to be found on any of the dental professionals there, she would have found it.
Had he imagined J. Alvaro’s words and the sparkly dust?
“We’re here, sweetie.”
He wasn’t a sweetie. Far from it. He no longer knew if Hollywood had changed him or if he had always had it in him to be…not so sweet.
Someone who would deny a bond that was so clearly what he wanted, it hurt to remember he’d willingly walked away.
A memory of intense smoky-gray eyes in the dim light of his bedroom flashed in his mind. It was a bedroom in the first crappy apartment he’d shared with three roommates, all would-be actors with stars in their eyes like him, and he didn’t think he’d ever forget that gray gaze—strange yet familiar.
It was the first time he had brought someone home, though his roommates had had no such compunctions and brought home friends and lovers all the time.
Not him. Not until Ariel. His person for a short time. Someone just for him. Something. Not someone or something to please his mom and dad who would have surely lost their shit to know their one and only baby boy was gay.
He’d needed the outlet though, needed Ariel. He’d never taken anything for himself, not like that, never claimed his sexuality since he’d become sexually active as a fifteen year old. He’d been too worried about hurting his parents, disappointing them. It was bad enough that he wanted to leave home and be an actor, but for him to be gay, one of “those people”, would have been just too much for them to take.
He couldn’t do that to them.
Danny opened his eyes to glance out the tinted limousine’s window and saw that they had
arrived at his modest brownstone. No more crappy apartments. No more roommates. No more intense gray eyes either. He’d fucked that up.
“We’ll be back for you in a few hours.”
Danny nodded and opened the door, beating the driver to the punch and stepping out onto the curb as he noticed someone standing in the shadows near his front steps.
His heartbeat skipped then sped, thudding painfully hard in his chest. In that moment he wondered why he hadn’t taken Eleanor and his agent’s advice to get a security detail. Not a big one. One bodyguard would have done. He’d, however, thought it a waste of time and money.
What would happen if he became more famous? What would happen if he came out?
The limousine pulled away from the curb, taking all his questions with it as the shadow approached, lowering its hoody to reveal a light-brown ageless face. A familiar face.
“Ari.” The name slipped from his lips in a whisper.
Had he conjured his first boyfriend—or at least the closest thing he’d had to a boyfriend—with his earlier nostalgic thoughts? Was Ariel really standing there before him, smoky eyes as intense as ever and seeming to glimmer beneath the ambient glow of the streetlight?
“Surprise,” Ariel said, a smile creeping up the side of his unearthly pretty face.
Fear suddenly suffused Danny at the sight. Fear and guilt.
“It’s time, Danior.”
It all flooded back to him then and he didn’t need any sparkly dust blown in his face for the many images of Ariel—aka J. Alvaro aka Danny’s own personal tooth fairy—to flash before his mind’s eye and coalesce. From the time Danny had lost his first baby tooth, Ariel had been there—different bodies, different sizes—but he’d been there, shapeshifting and easing his way in and out of Danny’s life like a possessive stalker.
Or was he something even more sinister?
“You didn’t think your good fortune would last forever, did you?”
“Enchantment. Charmed. We have many names for what you’ve been given. But they all come with a price. Free ride is over.”
“Is this because I ghosted you?”
Ariel didn’t even flinch, just smirked, his extra sharp canines seeming to grow as Danny stared. “Don’t insult me. We aren’t affected by petty human emotions. No hard feelings.”
Human? Then what did that make Ariel? “It was all a lie?”
“Oh Danior, your fate was sealed long before I was ever assigned to you. Neither of us had a choice.” Ariel’s eerie smile grew and he proffered his hand.
Danny took a step back. “I have choices.”
Danny frowned, shaking his head as he stayed put. He understood if he went anywhere
with Ariel, his life as he knew it would be over. But that was the point, wasn’t it?
“Come.” Ariel took a step forward, canines glinting.
The low-level headache Danny had experienced in the car swelled, like all his teeth
decided to throb at once. Danny stepped forward, chin-first as if compelled, unable to stop himself until he was standing an inch in front of Ariel, close enough to notice the necklace he was wearing—a graduating row of pristine teeth on a leather cord.
Danny wondered if any were his.
Ariel wrapped his arm around Danny and drew him closed. “It won’t hurt,” he whispered.
Danny shuddered, body beginning to change, shrinking with Ariel’s.
Variegated wings sprouted from Ariel’s back. They looked so delicate, Danny doubted they had the power to hoist them. But they did, fluttering hummingbird-fast as they lifted Ariel and Danny up over the brownstone, toward the moonlit sky. As Danny faded, continuing to transform, Ariel bent his head and finally sank his ravenous teeth into Danny’s throat, drinking deeply and taking them both home
Native New Yorker, Gracie C. McKeever (http://www.graciecmckeever.com) has authored several novels, novellas and series most of which can be found at Siren Publishing under multiple sub-genres beneath the erotic romance umbrella. Her work has also appeared in the anthologies Sensuality: Caramel Flava II and Bold Strokes Books’ In Our Words.
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How many times have I stood here? How many beautiful spring mornings, with gentle sunshine caressing my face? How many hot July nights, in the urgent embrace of a desirable young woman? Even in the icy depths of winter I have come to this place, cloak wrapped tightly about me, to ruminate on the silent falling snow. But now, as the chill of October in the year of Our Lord 1862 settles on this most magnificent of metropolises, I turn from the grandeur of Notre Dame, my soul finding there no solace in its vaulting spires illumined in the hour before dawn. No! My peace now lies only beneath this petit pont, in the swirling darkness of the Seine.
Away on the Rue de la Bucherie, I hear a horse’s insistent hooves and the clatter of a caleche over the cobblestones. Behind me, muffled laughter as a young couple, heady with wine and romance, moves with unsteady gait over the bridge. I am aware of these sounds, so familiar a part of life in the city, yet to me now alien, as if echoing from a distant land. The wind rises and moans fitfully. In my torment it mocks me — I know it!
Soon enough, I will end the taunting and its cruel power over me.
But first, I must recount what has brought me to this fateful moment, not as a memorial to myself but as a cautionary tale, a warning that in my hubris I took too cavalierly.
You ask, “Who is it who comes before me so deep in melancholia, pleading to be heeded?” My name is unimportant. It is the tale I tell that bears remembering.
I am two years past completing my studies at the Sorbonne. After initially enrolling in a progrsm that would have led to a medical degree, I changed my focus to literature. This was much to the dismay of my parents, who had taken the greatest pleasure in boasting that the family was to include a promising young physician. They spoke with no such pride about the prospect of counting their son a penniless writer. Yet, I knew I must chart my own course, and so I left the healing arts behind. Would that I could have foreseen the terrible path ahead!
In my early days at the university, I became fast friends with another medical student. I will call him Gerárd in order to spare him any taint from the story I am about to tell. He and I were opposites in many ways — he, outgoing and adventurous; I, more introspective and timid. His personality was such that it drew people to him, like moths to the flame. He was the center of gaiety, surrounded by friends, especially beautiful girls. Why he took such a liking to me I do not know, but by degrees he drew me out of my shell and into his world. Before long, I found myself reveling in the perquisites of being within his orbit. It was a time demarcated by nightlife, debauchery fueled by la fée verte in the bistros of the Rive Gauche. I should add that Gerárd was a brilliant student whose life of dissolution affected his academic achievements not in the slightest. I, on the other hand, struggled, barely completing the required courses of study to be granted a degree — a further failure in the eyes of my mother and father.
I will be the first to admit that fresh from academe my prospects were not good. But after several months of making inquiries all over the city, I was finally granted a position at small weekly paper devoted to the arts. My assignments were neither very exciting nor challenging — a gallery opening here, a chamber music recital there. Still, I did the best I could to put some zest into my prose. For a time, I was content to hone my skills with the pen; but sadly, the financial fortunes of the paper sank, and it shuttered its doors within six months of my being taken on. It was a truly a jarring development, leaving me with no steady income. I was in precarious straits; yet, though my parents were well enough off, the last thing I wished to do was to go to them hat in hand and plead for money.
That is the moment when Gerárd rode to my rescue. He came from an aristocratic line, a family of great means which he freely drew upon to support his lifestyle. And, when he saw my state of affairs, he immediately took it upon himself to become my benefactor.
“It is a trifling thing, mon ami. What’s important is to keep the wolf from your door,” he declared to me over coffees at Café Lutèce. Then, dropping his voice and smiling conspiritorially, he continued, leaning in. “And I have an ulterior motive.” I narrowed my eyes and looked at him intently.
“And dare I ask what it might be?”
“But of course! Let me explain. What I have is a proposition. You know I have long admired your writing. I believe you are destined for great things — perhaps to become the heir to Dumas, to Hugo.”
“Really, Gerárd!” I exclaimed, laughing.
“And why not?” he declared, genuinely shocked at my demurral. “What is required is a suitable subject for your talent, not recording the meaningless soirées of the sort hosted by my parents. That is where my proposition enters.”
“You know of my keen interest in the medicinal properties of certain exotic flora?
“Well, that interest extends to their hallucinogenic effects. My own modest experimentation in the laboratory has shown that they can be quite pronounced.” This was interesting enough, but I was in an impatient mood.
“But what has this to do with me?” I interjected.
“Patience,” he answered. “I come to that directly.” He paused long enough to relight his pipe before continuing. “I know a man, let us call him the associate of a friend of a friend, if you catch my meaning. This man deals with trade from Africa — curios, exotica of one sort or another. But he has also supplied me with samples of rare plants, some of them proscribed, that he has obtained from native tribes. Of late, he has returned from the Congo — you must consult your atlas to know its precise location — with word of what I believe to be a heretofore unknown species of fungus that has properties unlike any other in the world.”
“What properties?” I asked, my interest now piqued. Gerárd was finding it difficult to keep his enthusiasm in check.
“As it was told to me, ingesting this spore induced all manner of phenomena, including — and you may take this as you like — a complete unfolding of the very universe.” I was taken aback by such an outlandish claim.
“And you believe this?
“Naturally, I am skeptical, and that’s where you enter in, mon ami. I am making arrangements to travel to the region of Africa where this tribe exists and find out for myself. I propose that you accompany me, both to check the legitimacy of these claims and to document the journey in a book. Such a tale of mystery — from Paris to the heart of darkest Africa and back again. Think of it! I could establish my reputation as a pre-eminent ethnobotanist, and you would be hailed for your artistry with words. What do you say?”
“Well, I –“
“Just say yes.”
“But, Gerárd, such an undertaking — do you not fear the risk? In the journey? The drug?”
“There is risk, but of course. What in life that is worthwhile lacks some element of risk? The journey represents a challenge, but one that is manageable.” Here, he paused. I detected a hint of shadow that passed across his face.
“And the drug presents no peril?”
“My friend has recounted certain . . . anecdotes that have made their way out of the jungle.”
“Anecdotes? Of what sort”
“Well, like all the stories surrounding the effects of this plant, you may take these tales with a grain of salt.”
“Go on,” I pressed.
“They warn of grave consequences if the drug is misused.” I looked hard at my friend.
“Such admonitions should not be ignored, should they, Gerárd? Why pursue this quest?”
“Science, mon ami,” he answered swiftly. “Besides,” he continued, leaning across the table and effecting a jocular tone, “Dark sides are important. They should be nourished like nasty black orchids.”
“Not a flower for which I’ve had much affinity, I’m afraid,” I responded. He threw his head back and laughed.
“Now, let’s get down to the specifics,” he said. “The trip should consume no more than three months. You no longer have the ties of employment to bind you here.”
“And not a sou to my name.”
“I have already told you that you are not to worry about money. That is my concern. Your expenses for the journey will be covered, and I will pay you an ample stipend for your time. It is a fair proposition, impossible to reject, n’est-ce pas?” I cannot say that by nature I was an impulsive person, and I had given voice to my misgivings; but at that moment they were brushed aside. What had I to lose that would not be worth the enticing prospect of an exciting tale with which to display my talents as a writer?
“Alright, I shall do it — and damn the consequences!”
So, the die was cast; and, despite my initial apprehension, I found I was suffused with exhilaration. The quest before me, I reasoned, could be opening a fresh chapter in my life that I so desperately yearned for. But there was little time to lose, so I hastily packed a small trunk that evening and joined Gerárd the next morning at the Gare du Nord to board the early train to Le Havre.
By noon, we had arrived and were met at the quay by Gerárd’s trader, introduced to me as Raoul, who saw us to our cramped quarters aboard his two-masted coaster. My seagoing experience was effectively nil, but even to my unpracticed eye, neither the vessel nor her rough-looking crew inspired great confidence as we set off. But whatever their appearance, they seemed to know their business, and we made our way south, past Gibraltar and around the bulge of Africa, smoothly enough.
Gerárd and I kept to ourselves, and, at length, we arrived at the mouth of the great Congo River. Navigating a few miles upstream, we reached the first settlement of any consequence at Boma.
“We go our separate ways here,” Raoul said. “You are on your own. I have ventured where you are going but once; I doubt that any other white man has dared to follow.” He looked hard at Gerárd. “I have told you what the locals say. You have been warned, monsieur. I have made arrangements for a pirogue and a guide to take you upriver. I am assured he is a good man, one who expects a handsome payment for taking on the risk.”
“And he shall receive it,” insisted Gerárd. Raoul went on:
“Here is what you must remember if nothing else: I sail for home on the 17th whether you are on board or not. Do not mistake me. I will not wait.”
With that stark admonition, we parted company with Raoul. It was late in the day, so we secured lodging for the night at a ramshackle inn not far from the dock. We took supper in our room. It was a local dish comprised of what we could not precisely discern and thought best not to inquire about too deeply. And though fatigued from the trip, both of us smoked our pipes and talked long into the night, such was our heightened anticipation over what lay ahead of us.
Early the next morning, with the equatorial heat already throwing its oppressive blanket down upon us, we met our man squatting outside the inn. He introduced himself as Ingare, as angular as a heron and blacker than obsidian. He spoke in broken French, but it was passable enough to communicate. More importantly, he was fluent in the Bantu tongue that would be required once we reached our destination.
“We go soon,” Ingare announced after we had exchanged pleasantries. Raoul had seen to provisioning for our journey, so with the pirogue laden with supplies, we set out.
As foreign as the outpost at Boma was to me, I was hardly prepared for the vast and untamed world we confronted with each mile we progressed upriver. Any semblance of civilization soon enough receded into the distance, leaving us upon a ribbon of dark water, enveloped by jungle and suffocating heat. Ingare’s long, rhythmic strokes at the pole were accompanied by the shrieks of all manner of birds in the canopy above and the grunts and cries of wild things below. I felt as if we had entered a living organism that was defiled by our presence.
And something else, undefined, began to creep into my consciousness. Perhaps it was the completely alien environment, or my conversation with Gerard in Paris, or Raoul’s manner, but I could not banish the feeling.
My apprehensions grew with the setting of the sun. In the late afternoon, Ingare choose a suitable clearing on the river bank, and we made camp for the night. Ingare built a small fire, fed by the dead limbs he gathered at the jungle’s edge, and we ate a meager supper from our provisions. Afterward, Gerárd and I smoked and talked while Ingare sat apart, rocking to and fro while tightly gripping a small, carved figurine and chanting to himself.
“What the devil is he going on about? I asked Gerárd at length.
Que dites vous, Ingare? Gerárd called out. Our guide paused and gazed upon us with the most profound aspect of seriousness.
Protéger les mauvais esprits, bwana. He turned away and resumed his mournful droning.
“Evil spirits?” I said with a slight shudder. My companion laughed, drawing on his pipe.
“Superstition,” he said, “nothing more.” But there was something in his visage, illumined by the writhing firelight, that gave me reason to believe he harbored a flicker of doubt. My sleep that night was fitful.
Two-and-half days into our journey, Ingare poled toward the west bank of the river, to a spot that appeared no different from the rest of the jungle. In fact, after brushing through a curtain of thick, low-hanging branches, we found ourselves at the mouth of another stream. Ingare gesticulated excitedly and began chattering in his native tongue.
“It exists, just as Raoul promised!” exulted Gerárd. “We are nearly there, mon ami.” My response was more muted. I could not dispel the shadow of foreboding that had fallen across me and grown more pronounced the deeper our journey took us into the heart of the Congo.
Another day’s travel brought us to a collection of grass huts barely visible from the waters of the tributary. As our pirogue neared the bank, several men appeared from the jungle, each possessing a fierce countenance and brandishing a long spear. They said not a word, and the usual cacauphony of the jungle seemed to have completely fallen away, save for the piercing shriek of a single chimpanzee. It was odd, indeed, and, I could not help feeling, ominous.
“Inshuti. Turi inshuti,” Ingare called out and repeated.
“What’s he saying, Gerárd?” As if anticipating my query, Ingare turned to us.
“I tell them we friend.” Then he took up again with the natives. “Inshuti. Bwana Raoul inshuti.”
The invocation of Raoul’s name seemed to carry substational weight with the spearmen. Their posture relaxed, and two of them came to the river’s edge to help drag the pirogue up onto the bank. We disembarked, and were greeted by an imposing figure who had stepped from the background. Rather than the crude codpieces worn by our welcoming committee, this older man was attired in an elaborate loincloth, beaded breastplate and ornate headdress fashioned from the plumage of brightly colored birds. He was accorded great deference by the others, and moved with an air of hautiness befitting his station as the tribal monarch.
Ingare showed his respect — and we immediately followed — by bowing low. Wordlessly, the chieftain bade our guide to come forward, which Ingare did, and the two began a palaver. We understood none of what was said save an occasional mention of Raoul’s name.
But after a short time, Ingare broke off the conversation and went to the pirogue. He returned with a small wooden chest, set it before the king and drew open the lid. Inside, the box was filled to the brim with a gaudy array of beads and large faux gemstones, dazzling to the eye, but in point of fact little more than cheap trinkets. Their intrinsic value notwithstanding, the effect on the natives was immediate, generating excited chatter. The tribal elder’s reaction, while not so extreme, was nonetheless visible pleasure. He signaled one of his underlings to remove the chest. Then, with a slight nod to Ingare, the king and his retinue withdrew.
“Well, Ingare?” Gerárd asked with eagerness.
“It good, bwana. Chief, him say Raoul grand ami. Now, we big friends, too.”
“And what of the rest?”
“Him say you meet with tribe umuganga — special medicine priest — tonight.”
The sun was was well along on its transit to the western horizon, so we busied ourselves settling in to one of the huts that had been readied for us. Once completed, we were invited to take part in a feast in our honor prepared by the women of the tribe. There was plentiful food — fish roasted in palm leaves served with a vegetable root ground to the consistency of porridge — and, afterward, a great fire and much dancing and singing. I note these details but only in passing, for I found myself gripped by anxiety as the evening turned to night and we were ushered to a special hut reserved for the tribal shaman. Ingare agreed to accompany us to act as our interpreter but made it clear he would participate no further.
The interior of the hut was unremarkable, plain save for a small altar containing several clay figurines and a small fire at the center of the hut. Directly opposite the altar, the shaman sat in cross-legged fashion on a woven reed mat. To his right, there were three identical matts, and he bade us to join him.
Once seated, Ingare began an earnest conversation with the medicine man, whose mien was somber, made the more so by the whorls upon his face rendered in a chalky white paint. As I studied him, with the firelight dancing in the shadowy confines of the hut, his visage seemed to come alive in a way that set my nerves on edge. I could see that Gerárd had noticed as well, yet, as was his wont, he put on a brave front, no doubt the better to reassure me.
At length, the shaman ended his colloquy with Ingare, who shifted his attention to us.
“Him say big spirits in this place. Many bad. Very strong. Him say bwanas can go back now. After this, no go back.” Gerárd looked at me as if to ask whether my nerves would fail me at this moment. It was clear that the hunger was upon him, and I was not prepared to surrender to fear and cowardice. Gerárd nodded to Ingare.
With a few words to the medicine chief, the proceedings commenced. The shaman arose and began chanting and gesticulating, waving a feathered rattle in the air. He stepped to the fire and threw upon it a handful of granules which sent a burst of smoke and flame into the upper reaches of the hut. Whatever the substance, it gave off a heavy, sweet aroma not unlike that which I associated with frankincense. Next, he placed about the necks of each of us, a necklace of leather ending in a small rough-hewn clay disk. In the dim light I could see they were identically inscribed with the figure of a dancing man. The shaman muttered, and Ingare translated:
“He say these protect us from imyuka mibi — evil spirits.” It was clear that Ingare was becoming more troubled, but to the man’s credit, he did not desert us. “Medicine priest say he give you special powder. Very small powder. Under tongue,” Ingare said, demonstrating by squeezing his thumb and forefinger together. “Then you close eyes. Wait.”
Now the shaman drew close, first to Gerárd, increasing the pitch and pace of his incantations while shaking the rattle above my friend’s head. After a moment, he reached into a small leather pouch cinched about his waist and brought forth a tiny pinch of greyish powder, motioned for Gerárd to open his mouth and slipped the substance beneath his tongue. With a quick sidelong glance at me, Gerárd closed his eyes. The shaman repeated his ritual with me, depositing a bit of the powder in my mouth. I let my eyelids flutter down, noting the acrid taste, and I waited.
I cannot say how long it was before I experienced my first realization that space was shifting within me, becoming elastic, elongating, folding around on itself. And I . . . I became as a bead of mercury, vibrating and gliding over the surface of this shimmering indigo Möbius strip until I reached the place where I had begun and then began again.
Soon, the landscape commenced melting, as if formed from the wax of candle, and the color, by degrees, metamorphosed through the hues of the rainbow to rise and fall in pulsating cascades of crimson. And I had undergone a transformation as well, no longer an object to be observed. Instead, I was the observed and observer alike, inseperable from the color flowing around and through me. At length, as I floated, mesmerized, there came to my ears the music of a dozen flutes, a melody indefinable yet wholly alluring combined with the murmur of mellifluous female voices, how many I could not say. And, as with the music of the flutes, I could not discern the language they spoke nor comprehend the meaning. But it was of little concern, for the import of their message came in the manner of their speech. Each susurration caressed me, seduced me, body and soul. It came in waves that lifted me up and caused my breath to catch in my breast so that I feared I would swoon, only to ebb and then be pushed to a fresh peak of ecstasy, again and again.
I returned to consciousness by degrees, fully regaining my senses to find myself lying upon my back. It must have been quite late, though from what illumination entered the hut from without, I knew dawn had not yet broken. As my senses came to their fullness, I pushed myself up onto an elbow and looked about me. The medicine priest was just as he had been before. My friend was sitting erect, head down as if studying the floor with great intensity. Nearby, Ingare squatted. All about, shadows from the flickering firelight darted across the walls of the hut.
When the shaman took note of my revival, he stirred and spoke a few words in a low tone.
“Him say we go now,” Ingare began. “Keep these,” he continued, lifting the amulet around his neck. “No evil spirit come.” Raising his head, Gerárd said to Ingare:
“Tell him we want powder to take with us.” This Ingare did, bringing an immediate protest..
“Him say no. Bad spirits, evil spirits go from this place.” Gerárd had prepared for this resistence. He had brought with him a small leather pouch. He reached inside of it and produced a diadem comprised of gold leaves surrounding a large opal in the center. I say “gold” and “opal” only as descriptives, for in truth they were of no more value than the trinkets showered on the tribal chieftain. However, the crown looked quite impressive in the dancing firelight. And the effect was just as Gerárd had intended. The shaman’s eyes widened as he gazed with open lust upon the diadem.
Ingare was instructed to tell the shaman that the crown was his in return for a measure of the powder. It took but a moment for the medicine priest to reconsider, and the transaction was complete.
Six weeks have passed since our return to Paris. We did not linger after that first night. In truth, Gerard seemed more eager to depart than he had been to arrive, so we returned to Boma with all due speed. It was not solely Gerárd’s desire to leave the village but the fear that we might somehow be delayed and Raoul would sail without us.
There was little discussion of our experience. Gerárd seemed quite reluctant to talk about it, a veil descending over his countenance whenever I raised the subject. I felt constrained to prod him on the matter, so I confined my ruminations to the journal I had been keeping since the beginning of our trip. The following passage is illustrative of the tenor of my thoughts:
As each day passes that we are upon the sea — nay, as every hour of the clock ticks by — I feel the urge to enter the realm of the mysterious drug again growing more insistent. It is a hunger that gnaws at my insides with no less ferocity than if I were starving for lack of nourishment. I yearn again for the surrender to an unparalleled sensuousness, pleasure unrivaled, made the more thrilling by its enwrapment in the gauze of the forbidden.
These feelings I kept to myself, asking Gerárd in a casual manner only once if he was prepared to grant me a small portion of the few grams of the powder given him by the shaman. His refusal was immediate.
“Certainly not,” he said casting me a look of near-disbelief. “This compound is far too potent for mere recreation. I am restricting it to my scientific research with the macaca mulatta.”
His manner was so brusque and carried such finality that I pursued my request no further. Yet, the desire for the powder did not abate but only grew, troubling my nights and preoccupying my days.
At length, I contrived a plan to obtain that which so obsessed me. On the pretext of completing my writing project about our Congo journey, Gerárd agreed to my request that I be allowed to observe his researches first-hand.
His laboratory was located in the basement of a building that was part of the Sorbonne medical college on Rue Santeuil. I arrived in the late afternoon to find Gerárd focused intently on his work. Our contact since returning had been limited, but he greeted me with a measure of his usual bonhommie.
“Ahh — come in, come in,” he said, inviting me into a sparsely furnished space containing little save a desk, bookshelf and cabinet. In a room beyond, I heard the hooting of one of the rhesus monkeys upon which he was performing his experimentation. “You’re well?”
“Indeed, yes,” I replied,”consumed with preparing the manuscript of our singular adventure.” In this I bent the truth, since I had been able to concentrate on little else save my hunger for the powder. “I am grateful you have spared time from your own work to permit my interruption.” At this his countenance took on a somber character.
“You have come at a most opportune moment, for I am preparing to administer the largest dose of the shaman’s powder yet to one of my primates. What my experiments have revealed thus far is of the gravest import.”
“That the old medicine priest was correct to warn us about the dangers of the drug, its power — if I may be so bold to say — power to seize the very souls of men, so that even while I conduct my researches here, I am never without this. ” He reached beneath the open collar of his shirt and drew forth the leather necklace to which was appended the amulet given us by the shaman. “You are wearing yours, as I instructed?”
“Yes, though I confess I find it a bit extreme”
“It is not, of that I can assure you.”
“May I ask a question, Gerárd?” He nodded his assent. “You and I — we have never spoken fully about our experiences that night in the hut, and — “
“And we never shall!” His retort was of such sharpness that my head recoiled as if I had been slapped across the face. With some effort, he tamped down his anger. “Forgive me. I — “
“Please,” I replied, “there is no need.” He responded with a tight smile and said:
“Now, you’re here to observe my resesrches, so come.” He turned and led me into the inner room of his laboratory.
Along a side wall there was a bench covered in an array of equipment — test tubes, beakers, microscopes and the like. At the back, stacked upon a wooden table were four cages, each containing a monkey. At the sight of us, they launched a chorus of screeching and leaped around inside the cages in a state of what I took to be profound agitation. I expected Gerárd to quiet them with a volley of curses and shouts, but instead spoke in the most soothing tone, going from one cage to the next until the cacauphony ceased.
Having subdued his charges, he lifted one of the cages and brought it to a work table in the center of the room.
“I will now carry out my experiment utilizing a full dose of the powder, and you may judge for yourself the appalling transformation it wreaks upon this creature.” From a cabinet above the laboratory bench, my friend retrieved a small clay container I instantly recognized as the very vessel the shaman had given to us containing the ground fungus. It was all I could do to tear my gaze away, such was my lust for the substance the jar held. Carefully, Gerárd removed the lid, which was secured by two short leather thongs. He next took up a thumb-sized piece of banana and, with a scalpel, made an incision in the fruit. Using a small spoon, with infinite care, he dipped up a tiny portion of the powder and deposited it within the incision, closing the slit with thumb and forefinger.
I had come prepared to implore Gerárd with the greatest urgency to give me a small amount of the powder, though I believed the odds were against me. I waited but a moment for Gerárd to slip the banana between the bars of the cage and into the paw of the monkey, who devoured the fruit without hesitation.
“While we wait for the drug’s fullest effects to manifest themselves,” he said,”I will let you review the notes of my early experimentation.” He began looking around him, growing increasingly agitated. “I was certain I brought the papers in here,” he said. “You’ll forgive me; it seems I’ve left them in my desk.” He moved quickly toward the door, and I seized my glimmer of a chance. From the pocket of my jacket, I removed a small phial, uncorked it —
“Ah, here they are,” I heard Gerárd exclaim.
— and spooned into it what I judged to be approximately one-half gram of the drug. I had barely enough time to return the spoon to its place and the phial to my pocket before Gerárd emerged from his office and placed before me a bound volume of foolscap. “You may peruse this while you are here. I believe you will find evidence that fully supports my belief, made the more fervent by my own encounter with the drug in the jungle and the shaman’s admonition, that this substance, for all of the efficaciousness it may possess, is never to be used without the protection of such as this,” he said solemnly, again touching the talisman he wore. “Behold!” he then declared, gesturing in the direction of the monkey.
Upon my initial glance, the animal appeared frozen, stiff, as if in a state of catatonia. Gradually, I discerned movement, slight at first, then more pronounced, as the monkey came fully to life, reeling about his cage drunkenly, swinging his arms to and fro. These gesticulations became more extreme as the creature staggered and fell repeatedly. After a time, the monkey began to emit a series of whining, chattering, grunt-like sounds and commenced to grabbing his head in both hands and banging it against the bars of the cage. It was quite a pitiable sight, and I implored Gerárd to halt the experiment.
“It cannot be stopped now,” he answered with finality. “There is but one outcome.” This I was soon to observe, as the poor creature suddenly seized up, cried out with a prolonged screech of what I can only describe as utter agony and collapsed, dead. Gerárd looked at me intently. “There, you have observed for yourself. I hope it has convinced you to abandon any thought of ingesting this fungus ever again.”
This scene had left me shaken, to be sure; but the horror of it all was swiftly superseded by an overwhelming desire to return to my lodgings and partake of the powder that was now mine. Nevertheless, for the sake of appearances, I took some time to page through Gerárd’s laboratory journal, going through the motions of jotting a few a notes of my own.
At length, I offered my thanks, explaining that it was necessary for me to take my leave for another engagement. He bade me Godspeed, and I departed.
By the time I had regained my rooms, the autumn evening shadows had begun to nestle upon the city, the descending sun slanting across the majesty of Notre Dame. I made haste to draw the thick drapery over my windows, barring all light from the outside. What illumination there was I provided with a single waxen taper.
Then, with trembling fingers, I removed from my jacket that which I had come to regard as my Holy Grail. I sought a comfortable posture upon the leather chaise longue near the fireplace, carefully removed the cork from the phial and tapped a tiny amount of the ground fungus onto the tip of my right forefinger. Without hesitation, I deposited the powder beneath my tongue, took pains to secure the cork in the phial and, as final preparatory step, touched the talisman, resting securely on my breast.
Next, I reclined my head and closed my eyes.
Again, as I had with my initial experience in the Congo, I sensed a cessation of the flow of time as a process apart from myself as an entity. From deep within me welled up the sensation of a surging torrent that rose with great speed and force to burst through the crown of my head in an exhilarating geyser of rainbow colors. My whole being was transformed into molten scarlet, flowing like thick rivulets of lava. And there came, very faintly at first but with increasing intensity, the thrum of female voices, whispering as if within me, repeating phrases in no language I had ever encountered. But upon these voices I was soothed, titillated and transported beyond my ability to describe in mere words.
I emerged from my altered state slowly.. I knew not what time had passed, though the new candle I had lit was guttering in its holder. And when I drew back the drapery from my window, I saw that dawn was in the first stages of breaking.
Now my tale accelerates.
Time began to collapse in on itself as the life I had led became inconsequential in the face of the fresh imperative I felt to consume more of the powder and with greater frequency. This I did, the experience heightened with every repetition.
Very little of the drug was required to produce its hallucinogenic effects, and I took great pains to apportion what I had purloined from Gerárd’s laboratory carefully. But each time I partook of the powder, I found myself, by increments, using a greater amount on subsequent occasions. This I accepted with a growing nonchalance, even eagerness, such were the effects it achieved.
After a time — I judged it to be approximately a fortnight — what remained of the drug was enough for but two more excursions. Yet by that juncture, I yearned for a more pronounced experience, so I resolved to take all of the powder at once. My judgment was clouded; I gave no thought either to what might be the consequence of such a step or how I would address exhausting my supply of the fungus.
The day I planned for my sojourn seemed well-suited to the occasion. Great banks of clouds had gathered as a shroud over the sprawling precincts of Paris. It was a match for my mood, which was tinged with an unexpected hint of anxiety; I knew not why. So, as daylight waned, I made ready, drawing the drapery, lighting a fresh candle and taking my place upon the chaise longue. Then, the final step before administering the drug, I placed my hand upon the talisman to make certain it was where it should be.
As I did, there came unbidden to my consciousness melodic female voices of unsurpassed gentleness and allure, the very same Sirens who so enthralled me, heightening my passion while under the drug’s influence. But unlike those encounters during which they spoke in a language unknown to me, now they communicated in French of the greatest clarity, bidding me to abandon the protective amulet and come unencumbered into their world. This I initially resisted as the inchoate unease that had hung about me through the day gave way to a more well-defined fear of inner darkness. But my resolve was tested with each reassuring caress and the hypnotic chorus —
“Dark sides are important . . . “
A chorus that kept repeating —
“They should be nourished like nasty black orchids.”
In the end, my resistence was futile, for I was like the man dangling by his fingertips from an escarpment, strength ebbing, until the instant when the inexorable force of gravity triumphs. And at that moment, I seized the talisman, violently ripped it from around my neck and hurled it across the room. That done, I immediately took up what remained of the gray powder and placed it beneath my tongue, closing my eyes and reclining upon the settee.
Swiftly, darkness descended, and the voices hitherto as mellifluous as a brook meandering through a forest glade, underwent a chilling metamorphosis, assuming the evil sibilance of the serpent. Their words again were unintelligible, but instead of the soothing quality they had possessed, now they assailed me as shards of glass needling at my skin, transforming into tiny thread-like worms, wriggling hideously as if dancing and mocking me before burrowing into my flesh. It was torment beyond comprehension! I tried to recoil but felt myself immobilized, frozen in place. I attempted in vain to cry out for help, yet when my lips parted their erupted from my mouth a torrent of black bile.
As the hissing grew louder and I was on the verge of swooning, I became aware of a new and more horrible sensation. It came from below, from the viscous liquid in which I found myself. It was the distinct knowledge and unbearable agony of being eaten alive! By inches, jaws worked at my legs, at last emerging from the depths of the mire, a ghastly mouth ringed with jagged teeth that rent my muscle and bone. And it did not stop, grinding on — higher and higher! I was watching myself disappear into the maw, assailed by a stench indescribable. Again, I made to scream . . .
I sank beneath the cloak of unconsciousness.
Of when next light came into my eyes I cannot say. My rooms remained shrouded, the candle spent and cold upon the table. When I drew back the drapes, the autumn sunshine slanted in, causing me to raise a hand reflexively to shield my eyes. How long had I been absent the world of my fellow beings who crowded the street below me?
I shuddered at the recollection of the horrors I had endured, using the greatest force of will to push the memories from my mind. In the next moment, it occurred to me that I should — must! — find the talisman I had flung from me with such terrible consequence. Nevermore, I vowed, would I be without its protective power. I searched with great diligence, combing the shadowy recesses of the room until, at length, I found it. Or, more precisely, what there was of it. For what remained was the leather necklace that had held it and the clay amulet shattered beyond repair. It curdled my soul, for at that moment I felt entirely at the mercy of the forces unleashed by the fungus.
In a state of profound despair, I again darkened the room and took to the divan, hoping rest would bring surcease. I fell into a fitful sleep, clouded by the presence of formless phantoms in a hellish landscape choked with acrid smoke. I felt myself weighed down, unable to flee, to hide . . . and suffocating.
I awoke, my head pounding, my clothes soaked as if perspiration had sprung from every pore. Rather than the measure of peace I had hoped for, I found myself more fatigued and gripped by anxiety than ever. As I cast about for any alleviation of my circumstances, I decided to leave the oppressiveness of my rooms. But even after bathing and donning a fresh suit of clothes, I realized little relief as I ventured forth into the late Parisian afternoon. The air was bracing to be sure, but the gentle breeze and the quotidian bustle of the city could not dispel my gloom.
For two or three days my life continued in this manner — sleep impossible and wakefullness haunted by unending fatigue. I could find no oasis. I had long since withdrawn from regular intercourse with my family and friends. Gerárd remained immersed in his work and had not contacted me since my visit to his laboratory. In desperation, I weighed whether I should go to him seeking a way out of my purgatory but cast the notion from my mind at last, not wanting to reveal that my state was of my own doing, the result of stealing a quantity of the powder.
And then there opened a grotesque new chapter, the one that has led me to this, my last confession of the soul. As I have said, my nights were no longer hours of refuge. Instead, I fought sleep knowing the terrors it would bring. But three days ago, at first with brevity, then growing longer and more pronounced, there came fresh sensations and periods of hallucinatory delirium during my waking hours such that I can barely any longer distinguish dream from what passes for reality.
I sit alone, quaking upon the chaise longue, the slither and hissing as if from a hundred vipers assailing me. They swarm upon the floor as a roiling, hideous sea. The room itself distorts in dimension, the ceiling pressing down, down, down until I am forced to brace an arm against it. My flesh crawls — I see the hellish tracks of what wriggles beneath but can do nothing to relieve my suffering. And I can cry out to no one for help, for I am rendered devoid of the power of speech.
Oh, for the mercy of God!
And so I take these last, precious moments of lucidity to relate my tale, my cavalier and foolish choices, my abject ignorance and the price I have paid. It is a warning. I pray you do not let it go unheeded!
Now, I feel the awful terror rise within me anew — each sensation more horrifying than the last. A life of utter torment and madness is all that remains.
I cannot let it be so. I cannot!
Liberté . . . !
“Descent” was originally published by Little Death Lit.
Nick Young is a retired award-winning CBS News Correspondent. His writing has appeared in more than twenty publications including the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Bookends Review, the Nonconformist Magazine, Backchannels Review, Sandpiper, the San Antonio Review, Flyover Magazine, Pigeon Review, The Best of CaféLit 11 and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies. His short story “Portrait” appeared in The Chamber Magazine last November. He lives outside Chicago.
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David, who, unobserved, is listening to the two old ladies from a secluded part of the adjacent garden smiles. Nice. He lets the word drift through his mind. Nice. ‘Nice’ is a nice word. His smile has a mild, distant quality. Nice. For a moment or so he dwells on the idea of old ladies regarding him as nice.
“When Tims, lovely Tims went missing, he was SO supportive,” Alice, his neighbour continues. “He printed off posters with my favourite picture of poor Tims on it and stuck them up on lamp posts. He spent SO much time looking for him in places where he might be.”
She paused. David imagines her composing herself, as she represses a tear. Did she dab a small silly handkerchief to her eye, he wonders. It would have been good to check. Checking even in small matters is part of his evolving method – comparing predictions about people’s behaviour against the facts. But, for the moment he accepts that it is better to remain out of sight.
The old lady is talking again. “Cats sometimes seek a solitary place to die – when they feel the end is coming. I imagine him lying down under a bush somewhere… lonely and alone, peacefully drifting away.”
Another female voice – soothing – breaks the momentary silence. “But Tims had such a good life.”
But anything but a good death, David thinks, smiling again as he replays the scene of Tim’s final moments, as it struggled, its head submerged in the tub of water, straining every atom of its cat being against its fate.
David takes a deep breath as, second by second, he replays the joy of destroying Tim.A new thought: Fate had decided that Tims should die. Fate? He decides that he will have to give more thought to ‘fate’.
He re-focuses on the voices in the neighbouring garden.
“You could get another cat,” the visitor suggests.
“David suggested that. Another cat just like Tims. I thought about a kitten, but he said that I should get a cat from a shelter. What do you think?”
“You would give it a good home.”
For a little while! David thinks.
“The pain of losing another cat would be too much to bear,” the neighbour says after a moment.
New possibilities,David thinks. A pain that is too much to bear.
The conversation in the adjacent garden draws to a close and now sure that he would be unobserved David emerges from his place of concealment.
As he sets out on his Saturday walk he reflects again on the need for careful planning. No detail is unimportant. Luring Tims to the tub of water, the execution, concealment of the body, the follow-up – all visualised, rehearsed, refined, again and again. He takes pleasure in knowing that he can plan well.
A new thought emerges. Images and memories are important, his memory of the moments of Tims’ final struggle – so good! But what about the image of the dead Tims? In his mind’s eye he sees the old neighbour surveying the mouldering body and the look of horror and of grief on her face. The image would stay with her for months to come. Perhaps it would be too painful to bear. He quickens his pace, astonished by the speed of his mind as fresh possibilities role into his consciousness.
The following morning, just as the old neighbour is about to go to church, he gravely announces the discovery of Tims’ carcass.
“Oh…oh…oh…” is all that she manages to wail as she almost falls onto a kitchen chair.
“I could bury him, while you’re at church,” David says, putting on what he thinks of as his ‘sympathy’ face. He has endeavoured to perfect that look for many months.
The old lady draws a handkerchief and dabs her eyes. “No,” she says, her voice faint but firm. “I want to be there.” She pauses and looks at David. “Where was he, where did you find him?”
“Well hidden under a laurel bush at the far corner of the garden. I only saw him because the tip of his tale was sticking out. He must have been moved. He was badly … well rats or something.” He observes the look of horror on the old lady’s face.
“I have heard that cats like to go away and hide when they feel that they are about to die,” he adds.
The old lady nods. “That’s often true.”
David retrieves the body and drapes it in the large white sheet which the neighbour provides. He reverently takes it to the designated burial spot, acquires a spade and digs a cat sized hole. In a move, carefully rehearsed he appears to stumble as he starts to lay Tims to rest. Now fully exposed to view, the partially decomposed body rolls unceremoniously into the grave.
“Oh dear, oh dear,” the neighbour wails and sways next to the hole.
Muttering apologies David tenderly covers the body with the sheet, rapidly fills the hole and helps the old lady back to her kitchen where she sits, her breathing laboured, her eyes shutting and opening as though she is battling against sleep.
“I will never forget the sight of Tims,” she whispers. “Never. Not as long as I live.”
Good, David thinks behind his sympathy mask.
Some months later, David, now approaching his fifteenth birthday, is discussing the future course of his studies with the school careers teacher. He nods. “Your grades are excellent.”
“I really like to help people,” David says, smiling his well-rehearsed smile.
The teachermakes a note in his file.
“I thought about becoming a vet,” David adds. “I like animals.” The image of the neighbour being taken to the ambulance drifts in front of his inner eye. “But I think I would like to be a doctor.”
Author is an old chap living in St Andrews, Scotland. He likes to explore themes of ‘limits and longings’.
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A brilliant summer’s morning and David, an introspective, but ever curious, thirteen-year-old child, is walking alone as he often does in the countryside near his home. His preference for his own company sometimes worries his parents as does his remarkable capacity to accept and tolerate pain. Though small for his age he is at school seldom picked on due to his ferocious persistence in a fight despite injury. He is, however, a clever if distant child, and, overall, his parents are content enough with their sole offspring.
David often concludes his excursions in a nearby farmyard, sometimes being given a bite to eat, a scone or a small slice of newly baked cake, by the farmer’s wife who has had her nurturing instincts energised by this strange, solitary, uncommunicative little boy.
Today David is immediately transfixed by the scene. The farmer, perched precariously on a small stool, is drowning kittens in a bucket of water. David quickly, eagerly, begins to anticipate the steps in the procedure: the farmer’s hand searching in a sack, a kitten withdrawn, its head protruding from the farmer’s brown fist, in and out of the bucket the kitten goes, now alive, a pause, now dead; and all the time the mother cat is circling around sometimes pawing frantically at the sack before being brushed away.
The last kitten is out of the sack and is held up with its yellow and white face pointing towards David. The farmer smiles, ‘Do you want it?’
Nice kitten, David thinks, but in the moment of his decision he is engulfed by an exhilarating tidal pulse flooding his body. Life or death. Death, he is immediately certain, will provide the far greater joy.He shakes his head, then mouth slightly open and holding his breath he watches the kitten vanish into the bucket, to emerge moments later, transformed, as it feels to him by his will, into a small limp, sodden patch of fur. As David turns to leave, he sees the mother cat hovering, sniffing at her unwanted contributions to life now lying side by side on the wet cobblestones.
The pulse begins to fade, but David knows he has experienced something new and vividly exciting in his life; and as he heads for home, he repeatedly re-lives and cherishes the instant of his choice.
Tims is a huge, neutered, overfed tom cat much loved by his owner, the next-door neighbour Alice, a frail, single lady well advanced in years. Seeing David back in the adjacent garden, Tims jumps from its vantage point on the garden hut and, tail held high, ambles towards him expecting the fondling and chin tickling that it likes so much. David gently strokes the Tims’ broad head and the cat’s purring quickly deepens to a loud, contented rumble.
Alice, seated by the living room window, looks across the low garden fence at the scene and smiles. “Such a nice boy,” she murmurs. David, who seldom smiles, is also smiling as he briefly tightens his grip at the back of Tims’ head.
“This will take planning,” he thinks.
This story previously appeared in “Dreaming in Fiction” (2020).
A sequel to this story, “Nice David”, follows tomorrow, October 4 at 10:00 US central time (4:00 p.m. in Scotland).
Author is an old chap living in St Andrews, Scotland. Like to explore themes of ‘limits and longings’.
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At precisely 9:35 am on March 21st a blue and white ZipEx van parked in the loading zone of the Mutual Tower on Pine Street. Leaving the flashers on, the driver, dressed in a blue and white jumpsuit and visored cap, passed through security and took the elevator to Grayson, Paulson, and Klein on the seventh floor and handed a slim blue and white mailer to Jason McGiver who was on his way to a budget meeting.
McGiver retraced his steps to his cubicle and unsealed the mailer. After reading the contents, he removed his Employee of the Year Rolex and placed it on the center of his desk. Walking past his colleagues filing into the conference room, he took the elevator to the top floor, pushed through the fire exit, crossed the graveled roof to the parapet overlooking Wall Street, glanced at Trinity Church, then went over the edge.
At ten-thirty the blue and white van parked outside Pace University. The secretary in the business department directed the messenger to the faculty lounge where Amy Tanaka was finishing a snack of carrot sticks and Diet Coke. Smiling, he handed her a blue and white mailer, tipped his cap and left.
After reading the contents, Assistant Professor Tanaka opened her laptop and posted a Blackboard announcement cancelling her eleven o’clock class and reminding students to review chapters 8-12 of Lewison and Harp’s Principles of Marketing for next week’s quiz.
She went to her office, retrieved her coat, and left the building. Flagging a taxi on Park Row, she cabbed it over the Brooklyn Bridge to her flat in DUMBO. She checked the mail, removing her utility bills and a pizza coupon, which she left on the kitchen counter. She opened a bottle of chardonnay, placing the twist off cap next to her mail. She disrobed in the bedroom, folded her blouse and skirt over a chair, then drew a bath. She swallowed twenty-two sleeping pills, consumed the wine, and climbed into the tub. She turned off the water and slashed her left wrist with three deep deliberate cuts. Her right wrist showed no injuries, perhaps, the medical examiner speculated, because she had already lost consciousness.
Half an hour later the blue and white uniformed driver was seen entering a building on Wooster Street. He pressed the buzzer to apartment 3C. Marian Newhouse, who had just washed her hair, wrapped a New York Giants bath towel around her head, and asked the caller to identify himself. She buzzed him in but did not open the door. Security cams showed the driver sliding the mailer under her door and leaving.
After reading the contents, Marian put on a light jacket and called her neighbor to watch her eight-year-old son Gerald who was, as always, watching a science fiction movie on his laptop.
Mrs. Klein in 3F, as always, answered on the first ring. Marian explained she had a family emergency and had to leave immediately. Could she, possibly, watch Gerald? Mrs. Klein quickly agreed. A widow whose children had moved out of state, she was always glad to babysit Gerald. She was convinced the boy was not autistic at all, but just a withdrawn genius who probably would find fame editing music videos for Madonna or that new girl Lady Go Go. She had a key to 3C and let herself in. Marian was already gone. Mrs. Klein made tea and was playing Wordle on her phone when two policemen arrived to inform her that Marian Newhouse had killed herself in a nearby playground. They were puzzled why she hanged herself with a Giants towel.
By that time the ZipEx driver had parked on Ludlow and left a mailer with Luis Castro who had just finished his weekly podcast. A back injury had limited him to working part time at Le Bistro, but his YouTube channel Eating in Apple had picked up ads and sponsors. What had started as a hobby had become a lucrative sideline. After reading the contents of the mailer, he filled his cat’s dish with organic dry food, topped off her bowl with Fiji water, then took the Luger his grandfather brought back from the Bulge, hobbled downstairs to the laundry room and shot himself. Mr. Kim of Madame Choy’s told the police he briefly spoke with Castro that morning about doing a promo for his restaurant. Castro, he said, sounded cheerful and confident as always. He recalled they both discussed the events in Ukraine. He remembered someone saying that he couldn’t watch CNN anymore, but Mr. Kim could not recall whether he or Castro had said it.
Booker Thomas was manning the desk of New Hope Halfway House when the blue and white uniformed driver delivered a mailer for Frank Cassidy. Thomas checked the board and informed the messenger that Cassidy was in group therapy for another hour. He accepted the blue and white envelope and assured the driver that Cassidy would receive it. Mailers were special events in a halfway house, often signaling good news from attorneys, checks from friends, or drugs. Booker signaled the supervisor. Any mailings had to be inspected in front of the recipient.
When Frank Cassidy left group, Booker beckoned him to the front desk. Davina Brown, the supervisor, led him to her small office where he opened the mailer. Glancing inside and seeing a single sheet of paper, she directed him to extract it, shake it, and show it to her upside down. Smiling with approval, she motioned Cassidy to leave. She recalled chuckling. Cassidy was a recovering alcoholic and highly unlikely to consume anything that could be smuggled in an envelope.
She was shocked when his body was found in the second-floor bathroom that evening. He had died of a massive heroin overdose. His arms bore no previous needle marks.
The afternoon bartender at Hooligans on 54th glanced up as the blue and white uniformed messenger entered. Feeling drained from his recent dialysis treatment at the VA, the barman rose slowly from his stool and took the blue and white mailer from the smiling messenger. He fumbled with the pull tap a few times before opening the envelop. After reading the contents, he told the barmaid he was feeling ill and leaving early. She could tend bar until his relief showed up at six.
Two days later police divers recovered his body from the East River. He had weighted himself down with a pair of bowling balls, looping his belt through the handles of their bags. The Purple Heart he had received in Desert Storm was pinned to the collar of his jacket.
An hour later the blue and white van appeared on West 125th Street. The messenger slipped through the revolving door to the Academy of African Dance and ascended the wide staircase to the rehearsal hall where Diane Jackson was carefully stretching. Still recovering from recent knee surgery, she was testing her right leg carefully when she was handed the blue and white mailer. She read the contents, nodded to the driver, and left the room without a word. Not bothering to change, she donned slacks and a sweater over her Danskins, slipped on her shoes and left the building.
Returning home by bus, she took the elevator to her fifth-floor apartment, emptied a bottle of pain pills, washing the capsules down with a pomegranate energy drink. Feeling cold, she crawled under her comforter and quickly fell asleep. She breathed deeply for more than two hours before her heart finally stopped.
Helen Bowman had dozed off watching an afternoon movie when the buzzer rang in her Castle Village apartment. She sat up, muttering. A neighbor’s loud party had disturbed her sleep the night before. She shook her head to rouse herself and waddled to the door. Pressing the button, she told the messenger she would meet him in the lobby. She wanted to check her mail. After fluffing her hair in place, she opened the door, and took the elevator to the first floor.
She accepted the mailer, squinting in the afternoon sun. Opening the envelope, she walked to the mailboxes. But after reading the contents, she froze. She blinked several times, then sighed. Leaving her keys dangling in the mailbox, she went outside and made her way to Henry Hudson Parkway. Noticing an orange construction truck speeding toward her, she ran in front of it before the driver could stop.
Each body was discovered and reported separately. It took some time before the police, operating from different precinct houses, pieced together the chain of events. Eight suicides in a single day was a record for Manhattan. A special team of investigators was assembled, collecting evidence and reaching out to the FBI and Homeland Security for assistance.
Witnesses agreed the messenger wore a blue and white uniform and sunglasses. The Mutual Tower security guard estimated that he was in his early twenties. The Pace secretary remembered him as being a bit older and recalled that he had a moustache. Both stated he was of medium height and build with blond hair. Booker Thomas did not remember the driver having a moustache and estimated his age to be twenty-five. He had a nice smile, Thomas told detectives.
Two of the mailers were recovered, the others having been discarded or recycled. Jason McGiver’s bore only his fingerprints. Frank Cassidy’s mailer retained his fingerprints and those of Booker Thomas and Davina Brown. The mailers themselves were standard, as were the labels bearing the names and addresses of the dead. Both mailers had barcodes and ribbons containing matching combinations of numbers and letters. Unable to make sense of the numbers and letters, the police forwarded them to the FBI for further analysis.
Extensive searches failed to produce a surviving copy of the contents. Davina Brown was interviewed by city, state, and federal authorities. She repeatedly stated the mailer contained a single sheet of paper. She had examined the mailer carefully, looking for contraband. Having no interest in the message itself, she directed Cassidy to hold the sheet upside down and shake it. Scanning the paper for signs of powder, Scotch taped pills, or lines of coke embedded between sheets, she did not recall if the paper contained a letterhead. Holding it up to light, she detected nothing hidden and told Cassidy he could leave.
A blank sheet of paper was found on Cassidy’s night table, leading some to speculate that the message had been printed in disappearing ink. But the blank sheet’s watermark matched that of a tablet in the drawer.
Albany informed the investigators that no messenger service named ZipEx was registered in the State of New York. The license plate, clearly visible in the Mutual Tower surveillance video, was counterfeit. The van itself provided a further puzzle. It was determined to be a 2020 Skåpbil Eco 200 manufactured by Svenska Motors in Malmö, Sweden. The model had proven unpopular and had been discontinued after a three-year production run and was never exported to the United States. Shipping records failed to show any deliveries of a 2020 Skåpbil Eco 200 to North America. License plate cams and surveillance videos only produced additional images of the van’s Monday route. Examinations of bridge and tunnel videos did not show the vehicle entering or leaving Manhattan for the previous three months. Homeland Security, after prompting by the Mayor’s Office, shared the results of its study, supplying high resolution videos and static shots of the van on March 21st. The van apparently appeared on the streets of Manhattan that Monday for eight hours and vanished. Investigations of car dealers, trucking companies, repair shops, garages, parking structures, custom shops, and chop shops revealed no trace of the Swedish van. Asked to assist, the public became fascinated. The white and blue van became the great white whale. Bar owners, tailors, music stores, hat shops, and retirees reviewed their surveillance and doorbell cams for images of the mysterious Eco 200. Bored parking lot attendants and gas station jockeys replayed hours of unseen recordings without luck.
The van’s appearance and disappearance remained a mystery. Some suggested it must have rolled out of and returned to a larger truck. But photos and videos of large trucks in Manhattan that day revealed no evidence of the blue and white Eco 200. Supernationalists discussed shapeshifting, black holes, and alien teleportations. The host of a History Channel car show racked up five million hits on YouTube demonstrating how quickly a van could be disguised. Alighting from a mockup of the Eco 200, he smiled, then peeled off the vehicle’s adhesive outer layer, revealing the truck underneath to be a green and gold airport shuttle bus with passengers waving from the windows. The Eco 200’s distinctive snub nosed hood with its slanted chrome Trapezium grille and diamond logo was nothing but a plastic cover hooked to the front of a Chevy Express. The “mystery van,” he declared, was probably back at work carrying passengers or delivering pizzas. If nothing else it could have easily escaped detection and been driven out of state to be sold, chopped, or dumped in a lake.
A Harlem podcaster branded the mysterious van and uniformed messenger a hoax. He was convinced the police had simply woven together a string of unrelated suicides with photoshopped pictures to divert attention from the systematic oppression of people of color. He was about to announce a demonstration in Columbus Circle when a black Muslim cabdriver called in, claiming he bumped into the van on 186th just before it disappeared. He had just dropped off a fare and was checking his phone. Letting his foot slip off the brake, the car rolled forward into the ZipEx van waiting at the stop sign. Both drivers got out to check for damage. Finding no dents and scratches, they both shrugged. “No harm, no foul,” the cabbie remembered the van driver saying. Asked if he recalled anything else, the cabbie noted that the messenger said it had been a long day and that his shift was almost over. Pressed further on the encounter, the cab driver remembered the messenger said something about it being a Monday.
The elusive blue and white van drew national attention. A St. Louis nonprofit contacted General Motors to change the paint scheme for the fleet of step vans intended for Elder Care to green and yellow. Federated Foods in Dallas added a red stripe to its blue and white trucks. The lines “the van blue and white/is coming tonight” were spraypainted in scores of high schools on the West Coast. DJ’s in Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston, Atlanta, and San Diego offered cash awards to anyone who could verify seeing the van in their town. People joking about killing themselves told friends they were ready to “take a Zip trip” or simply “Zip it.” The suicides themselves were dubbed Zippers.
A team of investigators, psychologists, and researchers was assigned to each of the eight suicides. The departed were of different races, ages, incomes, occupations, and lifestyles. Phone and email logs showed no contact between them. Photos and home videos were studied for faces of the other eight. Friends, neighbors, and coworkers were interviewed. The public was asked if they had ever seen two or more of them together. Searches of government, corporate, and personal files yielded a single thin connection. Frank Cassidy and Helen Bowman had attended the same high school but had graduated two decades apart.
Suicide experts examined their lives for the usual clues. Friends, coworkers, neighbors, and family members reported no mood changes, despondency, depression, withdrawal, or mentions of “ending it all.” None had records of previous suicide attempts. Those with underlying medical issues were in stable condition. None were in financial distress. Two, in fact, had reported elevated income from side hustles and Covid checks. None were in legal trouble. No one had outstanding warrants. Several misdemeanor charges against Frank Cassidy had been dropped when he agreed to treatment.
Speculation fueled suggestions of conspiracies, cults, alien abductions, and mass hysteria. Radio hosts fielded calls. Tip lines were flooded with messages. The van driver, someone suggested, hypnotized his victims. But Marian Newhouse and Frank Cassidy never saw the driver. A following caller suggested the mailer contained some kind of suicide drug. When the mailer was opened a powder or gas was released that drove them crazy. But Frank Cassidy opened his mailer under the nose of Davina Brown who inspected it closely and was not affected. A podcaster in Newark was boycotted after reminding viewers that the death van was blue and white, like the Israeli flag. Apologizing profusely the following day, she claimed she was only sharing what her hairdresser had told her. Numerologists weighed in, noting that Monday’s date was 3-2-1. Speaking from his megachurch, a Dallas televangelist pointed out that by adding the first three digits of their Social Security numbers and dividing by eight, you arrived at the Demonic 666. QAnon referred to the eight as “The Taken.” Psychologists and sociologists appeared on cable; psychics and astrologers appeared on podcasts. Everyone had questions. No one had answers.
Interest in that Monday tapered off before the month ended. Dr. Phil reminded Joe Rogan that families of homicide victims want action. They seek justice and demand the truth. Their grief turns to anger. They press the police to find the killer, they offer rewards, and hire private investigators. They arm themselves. They want revenge. They don’t want people to forget what happened to their loved ones. Families of suicide victims want peace. There is a shame to suicide. Their grief turns to denial, regret, and sometimes guilt. They don’t want to know the truth, fearing that investigations might reveal something untoward about the deceased. They want people remember their loved one’s life not their end.
As the weather warmed, attention turned to baseball and other important matters. The van was never seen again. The messenger was never found. The names of the eight faded from the airwaves. Investigators ran out of clues, and podcasters ran out of conspiracies. There was simply nothing left to say about that Monday in March, so like the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the last school shooting, it was soon forgotten.
Mark Connelly’s fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, Milwaukee Magazine, Cream City Review, The Ledge, The Great American Literary Magazine, Home Planet News, Smoky Blue Arts and Literary Magazine, Change Seven, Light and Dark, 34th Parallel, and Digital Papercut. He received an Editor’s Choice Award in Carve Magazine’s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest in 2014; in 2015 he received Third Place in Red Savina Review’s Albert Camus Prize for Short Fiction. In 2005 Texas Review Press published his novella Fifteen Minutes, which received the Clay Reynolds Prize.
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My older brother and I sit on the playground swings. It’s night and the icy wind shrieks, cutting through us. Tree branches rattle like bones, withered autumn leaves cling to twigs, rustling like dry skin.
Around us translucent children play.
My brother and I sway to and fro in time with the rhythmic creaking of the swings’ rusted chains.
One ghost child wears a Luke Skywalker T-shirt. It is our brother, also called Luke, and my heart breaks when he weeps. I long to reach out to help him, but my older brother tells me to stay on the swings.
“We’re safe here. She won’t find us.”
And so I dream endlessly of my baby brother’s shuddering sobs.
* * *
The playground in my dream is the same raggedy playground I played in as a child in a large, depressed city a world away, living a less-than-idyllic childhood.
There is a park at the end of the street where I live now too, established on farmland gifted back to the city that grew up around it. The paintwork on the playground equipment is new. Soft artificial turf lines the areas around the climbing frames. Wood chips, rather than the gravel pits we grew up playing in, mark out the paths. Everything gleams new except for one out-of-place relic.
As a tribute to the park benefactor, Farmer Wilton, an old tractor is fixed in the corner of the playground. Children clamber on to it to twist levers and flick switches. There is a local petition to have it removed because of the danger it poses. The mothers in this suburb are not keen on old farm equipment scratching knees. Nor are they fans of tetanus vaccinations.
My ex-husband lives somewhere more tropical with his much more presentable new wife. Unburdened by children, their immaculate, architecturally designed house is nowhere near a playground. I am inclined to think that is in no way an accident.
His leaving unwound me into a tangled mess. He communicated his loathing and dissatisfaction not just for me but for the life he felt he’d been trapped into. When he was through I was fragmented and broken, without the resolve to glue myself back together.
We coped because my brother Jimmy moved in with us.
Jimmy’s rehab counselor was under the illusion we provided Jimmy with support, but all I gave him was a place to sleep and sank back into guilt and the panic that I was now alone with three children. Jimmy made sure we were fed and washed, and walked the boys to school. At night he would pad around the house with the baby, who echoed my grief at our abandonment, howling relentlessly. Jimmy patted her back and reassured the two of us that it would pass.
He looked after our basic needs, giving me time to duct-tape my psyche together again. We never discussed how long Jimmy would stay, but it was understood he would be there for as long as we needed him. Jimmy filled a chasm for my children, who felt their father fade away from their lives.
It is a lie that children are more resilient than adults. Jimmy understood that.
I’ve cheated Jimmy of his own family.
Or maybe he assumes it is safer not to invest in a family of his own. Advice I would have taken, had he shared it. Jimmy has taken care of me since he was a teenager and by now it is habit, and, regrettably, Jimmy tends to succumb to bad habits. Sadness woos him like a lover, so perhaps he has no room for anything else.
Survival is my suitor. That is why I accept my brother’s support without guilt at what he has given up.
If I was in a lighter mood, I could imagine this living arrangement as the bare bones of a hilarious sitcom. I kiss my sleeping children good night and whisper “sweet dreams” outside Jimmy’s room.
There is not much humor to be found in this material, but all the same I imagine a laugh track over my sad life. Pouring another shot of vodka to take to bed, I hide the bottle from Jimmy and hope for more restful sleep than the dream ghost children will allow.
* * *
Somebody told me once there’s nothing sadder than a beach resort in winter. Galveston excepted, I would argue a children’s playground at night is still more depressing.
During the day I have no issue walking past the playground on my way to work. Usually, at that early hour, there is just one boy at the playground, Oliver. He is severely autistic and the thing that brings him joy is to run barefoot from his house to the playground. He scrambles up the climbing frame with the grace of a cat, but his favorite piece of equipment is a spinning spike. He stands on a disc-like platform, spinning it in synchronicity with the Earth.
I raise my fist to the sky and Oliver whoops a greeting. More power to you, honey. It gives me a small jolt of happiness to watch this boy every day, disconnected to the world, oblivious to everything but the pleasure it gives him to reach the height of giddiness.
On my return journey I choose a different route, so I approach home in the opposite direction of the playground. I tell myself it is because my Fitbit counts more steps, not that I might be too scared to walk past a playground at night.
I am not the only person who senses tragedy haunts all playgrounds when darkness falls and the ghosts of children play. I sometimes hear Oliver’s mother calling him in at twilight to make sure he is safely inside by dark. I have also taken steps to ensure my children know better than to chance fate in the deserted space of a playground at night.
At least I thought they understood this. But no, Jimmy stands anxiously at the end of the driveway, waiting. My daughter stands next to him, dressed in her Wendy Darling nightdress, eyes sleepy, clutching a teddy bear in her other hand.
“The boys aren’t here.” Jimmy’s panic spreads to me. His fear is cold, freezing my being; my heart stops beating. “They downloaded an inappropriate movie, and when I wouldn’t let them watch it, Jayden got angry. He ran off and Conor followed. I’ve lost them.”
Jimmy searched all over the house and the yard. His guess is they are hiding out at the playground.
“They wouldn’t go there,” I say with such firm certainty, he could take it to the bank.
The bedtime tales I told Jayden and Conor when they were children usually involved tales of ghost children luring live children into playgrounds where the child catcher lay in wait.
In the best tradition of German fairy tales, I described in detail how the child catcher’s long, sharp fingernails clawed flesh from little bones. Arriving each night in a death-black carriage drawn by fire-breathing stallions, her carriage was filled with runaway children by dawn. The final destination for those lost boys and girls was most certainly not Neverland.
Jimmy has always been a little judgmental of my hands-off mothering, but he makes no effort to hide his disapproval when I explain why Conor and Jayden would never go to the playground at night.
“Jesus, you couldn’t just read them Winnie the Pooh?” His expression is aghast.
“Uncle Jimmy,” says Daisy very seriously, “you must never go to the playground at night. Everyone knows that.” She recites the poem I read them so often they know it by heart now:
“You must never go down
to the end of the playground,
if you don’t go down with me.”
“James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree,” says Jimmy, recognizing the A.A. Milne poem “Disobedience” because I copied it out for him when I was in grade school, thinking he was the James Dupree of the poem.
“Little Luca-Luke took great of his mother though he was only three,” I respond.
Although she took little care of him and even less of me.
Luke died when he was only three.
A.A. Milne is dark, no question. It’s not all about Pooh and Piglet and control-freak Rabbit. If you read carefully, you hear that the man is still in the trenches at Somme.
“Jayden’s not frightened by ghost stories,” says Jimmy.
“He should be,” says my clever girl, Daisy. “They are real.” She nods emphatically. “Yessir, you don’t want to mess with ghost children.”
“I’ll take her to a neighbor,” says Jimmy firmly. He uses the tone that big brothers get when they are bossing their little sisters around. “You go to the playground and I’ll catch you up.” I shake my head resolutely. “Go!” he says. “Jayden is nearly thirteen. The teenagers have secret drinking parties there.”
Jayden is nearly thirteen? He was nine when my husband left. Has it really been that long? That explains the surliness, I suppose.
“I’ll take Daisy to the neighbors. You go to the playground and I’ll meet you there.”
“You don’t know any of the neighbors,” says Jimmy. “And Jayden won’t listen to me. You have to be the one to go get him.”
“Of course I know my neighbors,” I snap. “Down that driveway is the lesbian couple with the dog. Jude and Liza.”
“They moved six months ago. Reuben and Natasha live there now. And incidentally, Jude was the dog’s name. Liza’s partner was Molly.”
He only knows this because he keeps a spreadsheet of the neighbors’ names so he can pretend to be a good neighbor and greet them by name.
“I’ll meet you at the playground,” Jimmy says. “Go. Jayden won’t do a damn thing I tell him these days.” He pauses. “It’s a different playground. You don’t need to be afraid.”
“Yes, she does,” murmurs Daisy as Jimmy leads her down the driveway to whoever lives next door to us now.
* * *
Oliver stands barefooted at the end of the street, waiting for me. He leaps onto a small retaining wall and recites:
“LOST or STOLEN or STRAYED!
JAMES JAMES MORRISON’S MOTHER
SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN MISLAID.”
It turns out Oliver is quite articulate when he chooses.
“Bad.” He jumps down from the wall. He hugs himself and sways back and forth. “Bad, bad, bad, bad.”
Yep, buddy. I am certainly picking up that vibe.
His mother calls him to come inside now. He cocks his head and scampers toward his house, pausing at the gate to let loose a yodel of encouragement.
The empty swings creak as the wind blows them to and fro. The spinning rod rotates against the Earth’s axis, turning, turning. Things are most definitely falling apart. A rumbling engine noise comes from the decaying tractor. The anti-vax mothers haven’t succeeded in having her towed from the playground yet, but as ghostly mist spreads from the antique exhaust pipe, I have half a mind to sign their petition tomorrow.
I call to Jayden and Conor. The wind whips through the trees on the hill behind the playground. The leaves rustle and fat black birds perch in the branches. An aroma of dead leaves—dead birds?—wafts downhill.
The playground is lifeless. Even the homeschooled teenagers who gather here to rebel have found an alternative location to spray-paint graffiti and drink cheap red wine. Nobody is foolish enough to go to the playground at night. Jimmy is wrong.
You ripped your shirt. You messed up again, you dumb ass.
The child catcher shouts and screams and bellows. Her rough hand heaps heavy blows upon small heads. Sometimes she uses a belt. Once she swung a baseball bat at me, but I hid under a neighbor’s house until Jimmy came home.
The knot in my stomach swells.
This is not my life now, I remind myself until the world comes back into focus.
“Mommy.” Jayden scrambles down the hill and flings himself toward me. His voice is deep. He really is nearly thirteen. His face is covered with dirt. Dirt. Not blood. My stomach knot twists tighter. He hasn’t called me “Mommy” for years.
“Where’s Conor?” I demand.
Jayden’s voice slides between boy and man. I cannot follow his words. My stomach churns with impatience. I grip his shoulders tightly.
Jimmy vaults the playground fence. Horrified, I step back from Jayden. What have I done to my baby?
“I’ve hurt him,” I stutter. “I’m just like her.”
“No, no,” Jimmy says. “You just squeezed a little tight, you didn’t harm him.”
But I might have. Jayden is trembling. I tentatively reach out to him, and he throws himself into my arms.
Jayden’s words finally take coherent form. “Ghost children. Look.” Still clinging to me, he points wildly. Twins sitting on the seesaw, solemnly soaring up and down. Their heads turn toward us as they continue seeing and sawing in metronomic precision. Another child sits at the top of the slide, watching us intently.
Luke is suddenly beside me. “Conor’s easily scared, like me,” he ghost-whispers.
Jimmy’s eyes bulge. He is looking right at Luke. He sees the long, ringleted hair and wide brown eyes with an expression of constant surprise that just when you think the world couldn’t get worse, it does. It’s unmistakably Luke, he’s just a little faded now. The ripped Star Wars T-shirt confirms it.
“You see that too?” I ask.
“No,” Jimmy says with the certain tone of somebody who has spent some time in rehab convincing themselves their demons do not really take form. Then he groans, “Yes,” because our mother appears.
A murder of crows caw a warning as she approaches from the woods, dragging Conor behind her. He is bruised and scratched and bleeding.
Jayden squeezes my hand fearfully but his voice is strong. “Leave my brother alone.”
The same words Jimmy used. Like an evil spell has been cast, we’re back in her vintage ’60s kitchen.
The room is a nightmare palette of lime-green countertops and saffron diamond floor tiles. Behind yellow frosted glass pantry doors, she stores fake crystal glasses and an ugly, heavy dinner set missing a couple of plates that she flung in my direction.
Luke stutters so badly sometimes he’s incoherent. He is frozen to his mark. His nonresponsiveness drives her to a state beyond anger. She grips his shoulders tightly and shakes him hard. Your teeth really do rattle if you are shaken hard enough. Seizing the chance to run, I sprint barefooted to the basketball court at the end of the block, yelling for Jimmy to help us.
“Leave my brother alone.” He bursts through the door.
Mother aims her wrath at Jimmy for disrespecting her as he shields Luke from her blows, shepherding him out of her reach.
I see it before he does. I try to warn them, I really try. Horror dries out my throat, and I can only manage a whimper. Mother snatches the knife, slashing at Jimmy’s face and arms until he finally retreats, bleeding from the cuts she inflicts.
She mutters about ungrateful piglets and hits Luke in the chest. He takes the blow silently, as he’s learned to do. Jimmy folds his bleeding arms across his chest and screams the kind of shriek that heralds the end of the world.
I can’t deny what my eyes are seeing but my brain won’t process. She stabs Luke again and again.
It’s our fault. Always our fault.
Jimmy picks me up and runs out of the house to the park, making for the area where kids have smashed the streetlights throwing rocks to relieve boredom. He shoves me under a bush and covers me with his body, telling me for God’s sake stay quiet.
I hear her calling to us, just like the other mothers in the neighborhood call to their kids to come in after dark. But she is not like other mothers. Jimmy’s breathing hard and I wonder how she doesn’t hear him as her footsteps pass right by us.
“We’re safe here. She won’t find us,” Jimmy whispers to me.
He tells me to close my eyes. Waiting to be sure she’s gone, we huddle together like stray kittens until dawn. By the time we venture out it’s too late for Luke, and Mother has gone.
We left Luke behind. I dream of our betrayal every night now.
Conor whimpers and the sound of his brother’s terror triggers Jayden into action. I try to hold him back, but he marches up to Mother and wrestles Conor away from her. Mother grabs him by the shoulders. She tries to shake him, but he stands his ground and shrugs her off.
“You are a bad boy.” It was always her words that wounded us with more lasting effect than any of the beatings. “No wonder your father ran away from you.” She stares at me, although her eyes are dead, devoid of light. “He ran away from you too. You two are no good for anyone.”
I burn with anger at the expression on Jayden’s face. I push her away from my boy. He runs to Conor and Jimmy. Jimmy puts his arms around their shoulders and pulls them close.
I summoned her with my relentless nightmares and resurfacing fear. This is my fight and I’ll deal with it.
She is unchanged. The same raspy voice, dripping with nicotine and vitriol. Her hair stretched into a tight bun, facelifting any wrinkles. Ageless.
I realize she looks the same because she is a bad memory. A nightmare taken form. She isn’t real and she doesn’t belong in my world. Her time is over.
“You have no power over me. Or my kids. Lady, they don’t even know who you are.” I gesture toward Jayden and Conor. Jayden stands tall, hands on his hips, backing up my claim that her words can’t hurt him as they did me. “You died years back, forgotten, and you deserve to suffer just like you hurt Luke.”
“And the others,” murmurs Jimmy.
The ghost children close in on her, and she releases a high-pitched wail. Long overdue.
“Time to melt, witch,” I tell her over my shoulder as I walk toward my family and home.
My home is furnished in warm colors, reds, browns. No imitation mahogany. Certainly no lime-green counters. Wooden floors, not saffron-yellow tiles. My crystal isn’t fake and we eat off plates the kids have painted in community art classes.
Jayden is too old to share a bed with his little brother, but he makes an exception for tonight, and they hug each other as they sleep in my bed. Daisy curls up in my lap as I watch over the three of them. Daisy purrs like a kitten when she snores.
Jimmy brings me my not-so-secret bottle of vodka.
“You know I’m in recovery, right?” he says. “You shouldn’t have this in the house.”
“I’m a bad sister as well as a bad mother.”
“You are a good mother.” His words warm me more than a slug of straight vodka. Perhaps tonight I will pass on the booze. Maybe I’ll pour it down the drain tomorrow.
“I thought I’d grow up to be our mother. I worried one day I would be her,” I tell him the secret I never told anyone. Not even my husband when we were married. In retrospect I am kind of glad I didn’t tell him. He would have only used it against me.
“She wasn’t our mother. She was our foster mother,” Jimmy says, although she was the only mother I knew. He had several by the time he was unfortunate to have his case assigned to her. “We were just three of I don’t know how many kids she took in. They lost count. Luke wasn’t the first kid who went missing.” He shrugs philosophically so I guess he’s had a while to process this. Maybe he researched it. I, on the other hand, turned my memory rock over and made sure never to turn it over again. The occasional nightmare still managed to crawl out from under it, but I would not revisit or research that time for anything.
“There were other kids who disappeared before Luke,” Jimmy says warily, as if he knows not to share too much.
The other children visited me night after night with Luke, so no surprise to learn that.
“You’re a good big brother,” I tell him, and I should tell him that more often. Jimmy was only sixteen but his birth certificate was lost, and he convinced the social workers he was old enough to look after me. Nobody argued because I was one less kid to worry about in an overburdened system. “Is she really gone?” I ask.
“Texas has the death penalty, and child killers aren’t treated so well in prison,” Jimmy shrugs. “You’re safe.” Just as he promised that night.
All the same, I plan to take the longer route home, avoiding the playground at night.
* * *
The others are still asleep when I leave for work the next morning. The sky is clear and the sun is too bright. Oliver is already in the playground. This morning he’s not scaling the climbing frame. Instead he is in the midst of a light-saber battle with another kid.
I squint into the sun and blink. It’s just Oliver galloping around the playground alone, barefooted, doing a hundred happy things before bedtime.
Just as children should.
Maria Wickens’ work has been published or is forthcoming in Allium, Apricity Magazine, Cobalt Review, Press Pause Press, and Slab. She won the 1993 Reed New Writers Fiction Award with her novel Left of Centre (Secker & Warburg 1994). She lives in New Zealand with her husband and two sons.
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Ryan O’Shaughnessy is standing in front of The Pink Panther, a strip club in downtown Sydney. His gaze is narrow, like a cop’s, and complements his close-cropped hair and walnut-sized knuckles. The fact that he is a street thug in no way belies his sense of proprietorship. His mission is sacred, after all, for tonight he is hunting bear—not the grizzled variety, but a snitch who badly needs killing, a tall, bearded jerk who fingered him to the cops after selling him a bag of meth. The cops had tried to make Ryan an informant as well but Ryan, a man of real character, had told them nothing. And so he had been forced to spend another year in the city jail. And a damn hard year it was.Even buggering the Nancy boys had not kept the walls from crushing in on him. It seemed as though the jail had swallowed him alive.
But tonight he is back to living in Hyde Park. And tonight he is hunting for bear.
His gaze remains steady as a cop car rolls past him, its black body shivering in the bright lights of the strip. This time Ryan refuses to flinch. Fuck the cops—he has served his time and now has comeuppance to collect. The fink he is going to kill is named Stork—if that’s what he’s still calling himself. Street names are usually changed every month—if not, it’s too easy to get snitched out. Ryan has had over fifty different street names and so he has gotten snitched out only once. And tonight his name is Hunting Bear, kinda like the Indian brave in that movie he saw last night—the guy who apologized to a deer after killing it. But Ryan is not going to apologize for wasting Stork.
What was the name of that little twitch—the cute little junkie he’s going to marry tomorrow at the Wayside Chapel? Her street name is Miss Muffet, but what’s her real name? Probably it’s Berta or Frieda or something god-awful. She’s only marrying him for citizenship papers—so she won’t get deported if she’s caught shooting heroin—but what the hell: she has promised him fifty bucks and a bang. And money is money—crotch is crotch. That boy who was with her—probably her pimp-to-be—had told him she was a hard lay. Hymen like leather. “If you can bust her, you can have her,” he had joked, and Ryan had laughed heartily. “I’ll bust her,” he said. “Busted me a thousand cherries.”
And so his itinerary is set: First ice that canary. Then bust himself a cherry.
Another squad car rolls by, gliding to a halt when the street light changes to red. The city is thick with cops tonight. Ryan catches his reflection in the rearview mirror of the squad car: he is a broad-shouldered man with thick horn-rimmed glasses and a rather menacing harelip. And his triceps, swollen from fifty daily pushups on the cell row, threaten to rip through his short-sleeved shirt. Fifty-five years old and he can still lick his weight in wildcats. Ryan doesn’t even need the pistol—the .44 Auto Mag that is hidden in his crotch. He could strangle that canary with his bare hands.
Ryan studies the street as the cop car speeds off. The hit should be easy—a piece of cake. He has already killed off a hundred snitches—iced them just to keep in shape. His life as an outlaw—his thirty years of breaking into cars, dropping meth, and getting into fights—has turned him into a rock-hard terminator. Even the cops don’t intimidate him. Only yesterday, after getting out of jail, he wrote eat shit on the back of a squad car. Wrote it in his own shit just to press home the point. That’s what they get for throwing him into the meat wagon every chance they get. How many cops has he punched?—he’s not sure. Maybe he’s got Alzheimer’s—that’s what the jail shrink told him. Or maybe he just forgets things now and then. But he hasn’t forgotten that crotch of a jail—the scurrying roaches, the stench of stale socks, and the pulsating racket.
The sidewalks are crowded with tourists and hippies, but Ryan is quick to identify the tall gaunt figure on the opposite side of the street. Stork—it’s got to be Stork. Only Stork could be so dumb — strutting around in a bright red jacket when he should know there’s a price on his head. This is going to be even easier than he thought. Ryan takes a deep drag on his cigarette—exhales a silvery stream. With a flick of his finger, he fires the butt at a passing truck. Bull’s eye.
Slowly, stealthily, Ryan eases himself into the stream of pedestrians. He is forced to walk slowly since a bunch of Hari Krishnas are blocking his way—shoeless kids with tambourines and halfwit expressions. What a way to end up: banging on tambourines, singing like sin. And there’s not a real bang in the whole bunch. He had attended one of their feasts only yesterday after getting out of jail. Some feast—raisins and brown apples on a dirty tray. There oughta be a law against serving that crap. He had nibbled a piece of apple—politely—and then left. Let them serve him pork chops if they want him back—and maybe some Bristol Cream Sherry. And let them wash their feet.
“Hunting Bear” somebody shouts—Ryan tenses. It’s one of the fucking Krishnas: a sunken-chested boy with blazing acne. One day out of jail and Ryan has already been recognized. The boy slaps his tambourine. “Rama,” he bleats. “Rama Rama.” Krishnas are all around him now, laughing and singing—praising him like he’s some kind of elephant god. Ryan dances along with them, hoping that by doing so he will avoid greater scrutiny. He is careful not to dislodge the gun. Ryan dances the twist while the Krishnas leap about aimlessly. When the dance is over, he slips back into the crowd.
Stork is still standing on the opposite side of the street. Ryan pats the magnum-powered pistol in his pants. The word is go. Sooner or later we all gotta pay—and Stork’s gotta pay tonight. But the job needs to be done in a vacant alley: there, Ryan can take his time about it—there, Stork can see the bore of the gun pointed leisurely at his chest. Let him grovel a bit before taking the slug—otherwise, he won’t have paid enough. Be a waste of a good hollow-point bullet to dust him on the street.
Ryan crosses the street—hops to the curb. He pauses when Stork looks in his direction, but the boy’s wooly face remains calm, benign—kinda like the face of Jesus. Clearly, Stork has not recognized him—probably he doesn’t even remember dropping the dime. But just wait until he goes into an alley to make a drug deal. Ryan will have a chat with him there—bring him up to speed. Ryan laughs at his joke then ducks into a doorway.
Ten minutes pass and Stork does not budge. Ryan decides to wait him out. Can’t make it too obvious though. Ryan glances at a flock of transsexual prostitutes who are also soliciting on the street. He had better pretend that he’s one of their johns or Stork may start to get suspicious of him. Ryan winks at one of the prostitutes—an invitation that sets his teeth on edge. It is against his ethics to pay for ass. Hell, woman ought to pay him.
The hooker hesitates before approaching. She’s a willowy kid with wary eyes and she knows he’s not a regular. Ryan pats the bulge created by the gun. “I’m loaded for bear, sister,” he says.
She smiles thinly then bites her lower lip. She is young, remarkably young, and her front teeth are smeared with lipstick. She looks like an adolescent who has stolen her mother’s makeup kit. “Do you really date?” she scoffs.
Ryan nods. “I mean business, sister.”
“It’s twenty for head.”
Ryan opens his wallet and rummages about. Thankfully, he still has his gate money from jail. He makes a show out of handing her the twenty dollars. “Dinner and a movie,” he jokes.
Ryan grimaces as she takes the money. What a waste. The only consolation is that she won’t bother him after the sex. After sex, all women ought to turn into pool tables.
He follows her into an alley and waits patiently while she adjusts her dress. When she kneels at his feet, he can only feign interest: her teeth are so small, her eyes so vacant, that she reminds him of a dead fish. Ryan takes off his shirt and flexes his biceps. Maybe this will get him a discount. He needs to delay matters anyhow—bide his time until Stork comes into the alley. A good Indian brave keeps his mind on the hunt.
The tranny stares up at him. “Don’t take all night about it, mister.”
Ryan balls up his shirt then stuffs it into his rear pocket. “Twenty minutes of your time—that’s all I want, sister. I’m hunting for bear.” He opens his wallet and hands her another ten dollars. “Just keep outta sight.”
Her eyes flash. “You ashamed to be seen with me, mister?”
“Gotta be careful. Tomorrow, I’m getting married.”
She jumps to her feet and snatches the money from his hand. She then crumples it up—throws it on the ground. “Who’d marry you—weirdo?”
Indignant, she sashays to the back of the alley—probably to take a leak. When she doesn’t return, Ryan lets the money lie. A deal’s a deal. He waits for twenty minutes, but Stork does not appear. Nor does the tranny.
Loud voices force Ryan to peek from the alley. The sidewalk is now crowded with demonstrators: a bunch of hippies, longhaired freaks, are yelling at a group of soldiers. The hippies look young—the soldiers even younger; the exchange is tritely familiar. Baby burner … I’m proud to have fought … You’d fight for any cunt.
Ryan listens attentively. If a fight should break out, he wants to be part of it. Pop himself a few longhairs—maybe even a soldier or two. He hopes the cops don’t show up too quickly.
The judge should have sent him to Nam instead of jail. He’d have killed a thousand of those little gooks then chopped off their ears and used them for fish bait. Hut two three four—dust a foe and look for more. Plenty of good weed there too.
A cop car arrives. The hippies scatter while the soldiers walk away. Stork is no longer around, but Ryan is not worried. The fucker will soon be back, and he can watch for him from the coffeehouse across the street. Ryan needs to piss anyhow and only bums piss in alleys.
Ryan crosses the street and struts toward the coffeehouse. A street urchin watches him approach—an elfin teenage girl who is panhandling in front of the glass doorway. Her face is so thin that she looks supernatural—like maybe she’s a vision of some kind. Ryan doesn’t like visions; he’s seen too many of the damn things. But that doesn’t make him a schizo—or whatever that jail shrink called him. Ryan just notices things.
To make sure she’s real, Ryan hands her five dollars. She takes the money and pockets it in her jeans. “Thank you, dear sir.”
Ryan thumps his naked chest. “I’m hunting bear, Dolly. You’d better get out of here.”
She titters. “Then why are your pants still on?”
“Stork I mean. I’m gonna plug Stork.”
She giggles again. “Storks deliver babies.”
Ryan shakes his head. Maybe she’s an angel. He gives her another five dollars then pats her on the head. Never know when you’re gonna need an angel on your side.
Ryan puts on his shirt and enters the coffeehouse. A beak-nosed woman behind the counter watches him as he strides towards the john. Once he has relieved himself, he returns and makes his purchase: a latté and two chocolate donuts. The woman’s eyes remain fixed on him—even after he sits at a table and starts to sip his coffee. Ryan watches for Stork through the glass doorway of the shop. The girl is gone.
The coffeehouse is pleasant, the coffee sweet, and Ryan feels good for the first time in months. What more could he wish for than a cool summer evening, a snitch to kill, and sprinkles on his donuts? He does not bother with further reflection: his boyhood in that flea-pit orphanage, those bull dyke nuns that whipped him daily—catching their switches in their holy beads—and his many internments in jails and mental institutions. Had he burned down that orphanage?—fuck it, who knows? His memory is unreliable now—just like those freaks that keep popping up: dog-faced midgets, glowering mimes, hags with painted faces. Only the gun, the hard press of metal in his crotch, can be counted on.
Stork is now back on the other side of the street. He has changed into a denim jacket, probably to confuse off the cops. Ryan nibbles a donut—slowly. Dry Puss is still watching him from the counter. If he greases Stork now, she’s gonna call the cops on him. Big mistake—coming into the coffeehouse. Ryan is still sitting at the table when Stork, accompanied by one of the trannies, ambles into the alley to make a sale. It’s the same damn tranny he paid good money to.
“Ahem.” The voice is calm, gentle—like water chuckling in a stream. A gentleman is standing by his table—an elegant man in a gray pinstriped suit. His eyes are soft, his hair silver white, and he is wearing a pink carnation in the lapel of his jacket. He isn’t a cop—probably he isn’t even a ghost. Probably, he’s just a tourist visiting the city. Plenty of cruise ships in Sydney Harbor. Plenty of easy pickings on those ships. “Ahem,” the man says. “Who might your trainer be, sir?”
Ryan flexes his biceps. “Got ’em hoisting beer bottles.”
The man smiles. “Would you like a bit of sherry?”
The gentleman sits down. He places two mugs on the table—probably got them from Dry Puss. He removes a slim bottle from inside his jacket and empties it into the mugs.
Ryan sips his sherry then glances toward the counter. Dry Puss, preoccupied with another customer, is no longer eyeballing him. Ryan looks back at the gentleman and winks. He has decided to string him along; that way she’ll think he’s a hustler—not a hit man. Anyhow, it’s against his principles not to roll a faggot.
The gentleman is now boring him with drivel about his family: a dog named Spook, a daughter in college, a wife from whom he’s estranged but still loves. Ryan puts down his sherry. “Don’t miss the boat, Pops.”
The gentleman nods profoundly. His eyes are so soft that they look like poached eggs. “You’re very astute, my good man.”
Ryan laughs heartily. “That’s me, Pops. I go deep.”
Ryan takes the gentleman by the arm—guides him towards the door. The man stumbles as he walks. As they stroll along the street, Ryan keeps his eyes on Stork. He is standing alone on the opposite sidewalk. He is smoking a cigarette—his last damn cigarette—but, thanks to this faggot, he will have time to finish it.
Ryan walks in the direction of Hyde Park. His shadow, emboldened by the streetlights, intermingles with the shadow of the gentleman. The gentleman is singing. “Hoo rah, hoo rah. The Campbells are coming. Hoo rah.”
The punch, when Ryan delivers it, is swift, scientific—the gentleman grabs his stomach. “Ooof,” he says—his carnation pops off. Ryan catches him as his knees begin to sag and sits him down in a doorway. He searches the man’s pockets, finds his wallet, opens it up. Only forty dollars—hardly worth his time. But principle is principle. Ryan pockets twenty dollars and leaves the rest in the wallet. The coot will need money for a cab. “Let that be a lesson to you, Pops.” He tosses him the wallet. “What would your wife think?”
Leaving the gentleman in the doorway, Ryan marches back towards the coffeehouse. He knows from experience that the man won’t call the cops. And he has bigger matters to worry about. It is late—nearly midnight—and Stork is still alive.
Ryan lurks outside of the coffeehouse. Stork is not around. While he waits, Ryan swallows a hit of meth—a capsule that he smuggled out of jail. Twenty minutes pass, but Stork does not appear. Fuck it—there’s no sense in hanging around all night just to kill off another snitch. He may as well party instead—have himself a ball. In case the cops get lucky enough to nab him.
Ryan walks two blocks downhill to the classiest nightclub in town. The sign on the Marquee—Whiskey A-Go-Go—flashes then fades, flashes then fades. Ryan sucks in his belly as he walks towards the doorway. No sense in advertising the bulge from the gun.
A burly bouncer waves him in, and Ryan strolls into the club — unsearched. The club, a cavernous place, is filled with servicemen, cigarette smoke, scantily dressed women serving drinks. The lights from a chandelier force him to squint. His pupils, dilated from the meth, are probably bigger than saucers now.
A hostess approaches him—a pencil-thin woman in her fifties with stiletto heels. Her silvery dress clings like cellophane to her tits and spits back the light from the chandelier. Her cheekbones have the windswept look of a bad facelift. She is looking at him with exaggerated concern. “Are you hungry, my dear?”
Ryan grins. “I could eat.”
She points towards an empty booth at a far corner of the club. “Have a seat, poor sir. A waitress will bring you something. It’s entirely on the house.” The woman’s eyes are tender, her voice is softer than silk, but there is an unmistakable putdown to her offer. Behave and we will feed you—just like a dog.
Insulted, Ryan takes a seat at the far end of the nightclub—a corner so dark that his eyes have to readjust. A half-naked waitress brings him his bribe: a hamburger on a paper plate. Ryan orders schnapps with a beer chaser and pays for it with his own money.
Ryan takes a bite out of the burger. It is soggy—practically raw. What do they think he is—a vampire? He spits the mouthful out and shoves the plate to one side. He then downs the schnapps quickly to wash away the taste of the burger. He finishes his beer in several gulps.
The room is now glittering like a diamond. A faggot band is beginning to play. A tight-butt woman is singing a Beatles song—something about Mother Mary and letting it be. Ryan gets a hard on listening to the woman. He’d nail her a good one if he wasn’t getting married tomorrow—show her what a real man can do. And after he had her begging for more, he’d turn her into his squaw. Ryan closes his eyes and listens to the beat of the ballad. There’s nothing like a bit of music before icing yourself a snitch. Helps put a man in the mood.
The music fades as Ryan begins to nod off. He wakes up abruptly. The room is now dotted with flashes of light. They mingle with the band, the couples on the dance floor—even with the bouncers standing like sentinels near the doorway.
A towering nun, obscured by the jumping lights, is drifting from table to table. She seems to hover like a bird of prey. What the fuck is she up to—trying to pluck souls? Nuns don’t belong here and that’s for sure. It’s bad enough when they show up in jail.
Ryan slips from the booth and struts towards the dance floor. Screw that skinny hostess. Ryan came here to party and he’s going to party. Time to show the women here his moves. The band is now playing “I Shot The Sheriff”—which has put him in the mood for a war dance.
Standing in the middle of the dance floor, Ryan struts his stuff. He hops nimbly from foot to foot while singing. “Hiii yah yah yah yah.” The bouncers are watching him intently while the women are checking him out. When the song is over, the room is spinning: an aggravation since Ryan needs to piss—badly. His bladder has swollen to the size of a medicine ball. Slowly, as though navigating a carousel, Ryan makes his way towards the men’s room.
The door to the men’s room is hard to find. When he finally spots it, it seems as though an hour has passed. Ryan enters the room judiciously as though walking into a church. It is empty—thank god—and a shiny urinal sits before him like a shrine.
Ryan throws back his head as he urinates. The relief is so great that he closes his eyes. He sighs like a hound when he has finished and shakes himself for several seconds. A good strong piss is better than sex. Lasts longer too.
The door to the bathroom bangs open.
Instantly, Ryan crouches. His shoulder is turned towards the door, his fists are balled and ready to strike. A jailhouse stance.
His muscles relax when he sees the intruder—a beetle-browed man with a pork pie hat. He couldn’t be more than five feet tall and he’s scuttling into the bathroom like a centipede. The man halts when he sees Ryan. He yelps and then scuttles back out. That cocksucker better run. He deserves a good ass whipping—just for looking like a bug. And he might have knocked.
Ryan stumbles to the sink—turns on the faucet. Time to wash up and get the hell out of here. Time to get on with his mission. When he presses the liquid soap dispenser, he pauses. The soap is red and irresistibly glossy. Ryan covers his fingers with the soap and then combs four streaks onto each of his cheeks—bear claw marks. It looks like he’s wearing war paint now. He admires his reflection in the mirror as he finishes washing up.
Ryan strolls back into the clubroom. The lights are still jumping—popping all around him like flash bulbs—but he can still make out faces. The women are watching him, mouths agape—the men are applauding him loudly. Ryan bounces as he walks and chants, “Woo woo woo.” It’s about time they paid homage to a true Indian brave. Even the hostess is looking him over, her eyes growing wider than doorknobs.
The hostess is in front of him now and her tits are heaving with excitement. Let her wait her turn—she’s a little too skinny for him to fuck first. He should have brought a rubber hose just to beat off some of the women in here. When she speaks to him, she is still gulping for breath—so much so that it sounds like she’s uttering a single word. “Siryou’reindecent.”
Irritated, Ryan thumps his chest with his fist. “I’m Hunting Bear, woman. Show some respect.”
She is wringing her hands as though ridding them of ants, but her voice is now measured and stern. “That’s just the problem, sir. You’re a little too bare.”
Ryan bows his head, notices his exposed willie, and sighs. It’s not a good day for meat. Still, she didn’t have to call him indecent. Twelve inches on the slack is pretty damn decent.
Reluctantly, Ryan shakes his head. She has forcedhim to even the score. Not that he wants to upset her, but honor is honor. No one talks that way to Hunting Bear. Especially, when he’s on the warpath.
Ryan grabs the front of the woman’s gown—yanks. The fabric tears—her breasts spring free, wobbling about like water balloons. Not a bad rack for so skinny a broad. The woman gasps. “The cleaners,” she says. “This dress just came back from the cleaners, sir.”
Ryan takes off his wristwatch and hands it to her. It’s gotta be worth thirty dollars to a pawnbroker. “That oughta cover it, sister” he says. “Save me the bill if it costs any more to fix.”
She doesn’t accept the watch—instead, she clutches her dress to her breasts. Her voice is now shriller than a police siren. “Get this tramp out of here. We fed him and look how he acts.”
Ryan shakes his head. Some hostess she is—can’t handle a little tit for tat. Hell, the bitch is lucky he didn’t spank her.
The bouncers are on him now: a hand grabs his collar, yanking him backwards—more hands pin his arms to his sides. “Zip it,” a voice cries, but Ryan cannot move. There’s got to be four of them, at least—that’s how many it takes to handle Hunting Bear.
‘WE EVEN FED HIM,” the hostess cries. “We even fed him. We even fed that boar of a man … ” Her voice grows fainter as the bouncers frog march him to the back door of the club. Bouncers and cops—they’re all the same: too chicken shit to fight him one on one. And they always take the woman’s side.
Although Ryan struggles mightily, they throw him into an alley behind the club. His hands—quicker than a serpent’s tongue—break his fall as he hits the pavement. The door to the club slams shut behind him.
Remarkably, Ryan can still feel the press of the pistol in his crotch. He could have popped all four of them but fuck it. The bouncers were just doing their job—even if they were gutless about it. It’s that goddamn Stork who needs popping.
Ryan rises to his feet, dusts off his knees, and eases his tallywhacker back into his pants. Oughta have a pulley to reel in that baby. Zipping his pants up, he steps from the alley back onto the sidewalk.
A street clock reminds him that it’s two o’clock in the morning. It may as well be noon, high noon, like that movie he saw a year ago with Gary Cooper as the sheriff. Now there’s a real man: he popped off four bad guys who all needed dusting. Slaughtered them like hogs. Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’, on this our wedding daaay. The theme song from the movie runs through his mind as he marches back to the coffeehouse.
The streetlights are floating like jellyfish; the storefronts sweep by him as though borne upon a current. He has all but forgotten the incident in the nightclub; like a piece of flotsam, it will soon be lost in the swampland of his memory. Ryan is grateful his memory is shot—the streets are no place for a cluttered mind. Stick to the basics and the basics will take care of you. And so hussies you hump, snitches you kill, faggots you roll, and angels you guard—that is if you can find an angel. The streets are practically empty now.
That he still has the gun means his mission is sealed. It is in the stars that he rid the world of scumbags. And a man can’t be arguing with the stars. The sanctity of his mission grows clearer still when he sees Stork standing alone at the top of the hill. With his back pressed against a storefront wall, his eyes staring blandly ahead, he looks like a prisoner awaiting execution. Stork turns his head slowly in Ryan’s direction. He slowly looks away.
Ryan slaps the clip into the gun. The clip has four rounds in it, but he will only need one. Ryan, an expert marksman, can hit a dime at fifty yards. Too bad for Stork that he had to go and drop one.
Since his mission cannot fail, there is no point in putting things off. He will lure Stork into the alley himself. He will use the pretense of making a buy. Stork did not recognize him, after all. He does not know that Ryan, heaven’s avenger, will be the last person he sees on earth.
Ryan pulls back the slide, chambers a round, and puts the gun back into his pants. The time is now.
Stork’s face softens as Ryan approaches him. His smile is warm, infectious, and utterly disarming, but it is a smile of solicitation—not recognition—much like the smile of a supermarket clerk. Sample our cheesecake, the smile seems to say. The first piece is free. That asshole would need plugging even if he wasn’t a snitch. It’s too bad he has to look like Jesus.
Stork keeps smiling as Ryan plants himself in front of him. The fucker still doesn’t know who he is. Ryan snaps his thick fingers. “A buck’s worth of speed.”
Stork’s eyes crinkle warmly as he looks Ryan over. He seems amused by the red soap streaks on Ryan’s face. Obviously, Ryan is not a narc. “Might I see the money, my friend?”
Ryan dips into his pocket and pulls out a wad—a roll of one-dollar bills wrapped up in a twenty. Stork seems convinced that he is holding a hundred dollars. “Come into my office, sir.”
Ryan follows Stork into the alley. The alley is darker than he remembers and smells of piss. When Stork turns to face him, Ryan is pointing the pistol at his chest.
Stork shows no alarm—only benign interest. His smile seems chiseled upon his face. “Do you do hits?” he asks.
Ryan shakes his head. The cocksucker still thinks he’s in charge.
“Do you do hits?” Stork repeats. “I could use a man with courage. Now you can rob me for chump change or you can earn some real money. And I’ll give you that buck’s worth for free.”
Ryan extends his arm. The gun is now six inches from Stork’s chest. So the fucker wants him to kill for drugs and money? That’s not a bad idea, but Ryan has justice to perform. And Stork needs to know that his hour has come.
“I hittin’ you, asshole—let’s get that straight. You dropped a dime.”
Stork’s smile remains frozen upon his face. “My friend, I don’t know you from Adam.”
“Get a clue, asshole. Adam wears a fig leaf.”
“I see,” Stork replies. “That must be him behind you.”
Ryan looks over his shoulder—no one is there. When he looks back at Stork, the cocksucker is fifty feet away and running. The oldest damn trick in the book.
Ryan wraps both his hands around the pistol grip. Anticipating the kick, he presses one hand against the other—the old push-pull. Can’t ice a snitch if the gun isn’t steady. He pulls the trigger—twice—and the gun starts bucking like a bitch in heat.
Ryan’s ears are humming—he should have put plugs in them. He lowers the pistol to finish Stork off, but the fucker is still sprinting like a deer. Impossible—he’s got to have two slugs in him. Ryan fires again—the sound splits his eardrums. Pavement explodes near Stork’s heels.
Ryan kneels down to steady his aim. The gun is kicking too much, and Stork wasn’t hit at all. He raises the pistol. “I’ll pay you,” Stork shouts, but his voice is practically buried by the ringing in Ryan’s ears.
Stork is zigzagging as he runs, throwing off Ryan’s aim. That fucker’s been shot at before. Ryan squeezes the trigger—g-r-a-d-u-a-l-l-y. POW. Stork stumbles the instant he fires and falls down, but Ryan hears the slug ricochet off the alley wall.
Stork is back on his feet—running like a greyhound and not even wounded. His footsteps echo hollowly as he disappears down the alley. He should have taken his punishment like a man. Now Ryan is really pissed.
Ryan rises to his feet. He does a quick war dance. No one gets the better of Hunting Bear—not even when his gun is empty. He will track Stork down and beat him to death with his tallywhacker, if necessary. Ryan can track an ant across a desert.
For now, Ryan needs to get out of here. A police siren, wailing like a banshee, challenges the ringing in his ears. Ryan picks up the shell casings, hotter than live coals, and shoves them into his pocket. He plunges the gun back into his pants.
Ryan’s belt snags the trigger.
The gun bucks and roars.
A blow knocks his leg out from under him.
Ryan tries to run but can only stagger. Hunting Bear is hit. He must have miscounted the bullets.
Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, Ryan quickly wraps the wound. The handkerchief reddens instantly—no matter. Ryan has survived a dozen wounds.
Dragging his leg behind him, Ryan peeks from the alley. The street is empty—he can make his escape. If he can make it to Hyde Park, just a half mile away, the police will never find him. Like a true Indian brave, he will vanish among the trees.
Ryan depresses the clip from the gun. Catching the clip, he tosses it into a dumpster. He throws the gun back into the alley.
Moving gingerly, Ryan hobbles in the direction of Hyde Park. His leg feels transformed—it is now a dead log—but it is not the leg that is slowing him down. A fat clown, juggling water balloons, is blocking the entire sidewalk. The clown’s mouth is crimson, like an open wound, and he is calling cadence as he tosses the balloons. “One, two, three, faw. One, two, three faw.” His concentration is so intense that he may as well be throwing up grenades.
Ryan veers too sharply to avoid the clown. He falls to the ground—pain shoots through his knee. Another damn rip in his pants. Scrambling to his feet, Ryan continues to stagger toward the park.
That clown needs an ass whipping—hogging the entire sidewalk—but Ryan hasn’t got time to do it. Hopefully, the circus will take care of him.
The police siren is growing louder, but the street is still empty. Ryan limps on, his leg dragging with every step. The wound starts to thaw as he approaches an intersection. His thigh is now aching like a bad tooth.
The street light changes. A towering mass, dumped in the center of the crosswalk, is bathed in a scarlet glow. The mass takes shape as Ryan draws nearer. It’s that fucking nun again.
The nun turns toward him and he can now make out her face. Her lips are pursed, as though she is preparing to kiss him, and her jaw is moving mechanically. She is holding a small pig, stroking it behind the ears. The pig grunts affectionately, unaware that it has been stuck—that one of its intestines is dangling like a dick.
The nun nods as Ryan approaches her. She is looking at him possessively, a dominion not born out of reverence—not even concern for his injury—but from the tacit understanding that he will be her next meal.
Ryan dashes past the nun and finishes crossing the street. Fuck that bitch—she will have to catch him first. And no one catches Hunting Bear.
The park is now only a block away. The trees, the lamp posts, the bushes emerge—much like soldiers advancing through a fog. Ryan staggers on—only fifty yards to go—but the siren is growing louder.
Distracted by the fog, Ryan practically trips over the elfin girl—the waif he gave money to earlier that night. She is sitting upon the sidewalk, giggling loudly and polishing an apple. Her feet are bare and her naked toes are wiggling like newborn mice. She is wearing a pink dress.
Ryan stares at the girl. “Beat it, Dolly. I told you that once already.”
She laughs merrily. “Storks deliver babies,” she chirps.
Ryan shakes his head. He’s seen geese with better sense. If she gets herself shot, she can’t say he didn’t warn her. And the police are just about to close in on him.
Ryan staggers on—only thirty yards to go. The park grows fainter with every step he takes, as though he is approaching a mirage. It is not until he feels the grass beneath his shoes that he realizes how far he has come.
The siren is deafening now but Ryan, crouched behind some bushes, knows he has made his escape. His wound is now pounding like a war drum, a tribute to his triumph. Ryan closes his eyes, stretches out on the grass, and allows the fog to deepen.
Ryan awakes to a popping sound. It is morning, he is alive, and a bunch of Nancy boys are playing cricket. Ryan hobbles to his feet, unimpressed by the contest. He doesn’t have to worry about Nancy boys. Dressed in white and scuttling around a green, they look like a bunch of geese. The fuckers don’t know what real sport is. Real sport is dodging cops, rolling drunks, and icing snitches. If it wasn’t his wedding day, he’d go and have a talk with them.
Ryan rummages through the bushes, locates his backpack, and pulls out a change of clothing. Kneeling behind the bushes, he peels off his ruined pants. When he inspects the wound, he is pleasantly surprised. Although his thigh is splotched with gray and yellow bruises, the bullet holes are scabbing over. The slug went clean through his leg—didn’t even touch an artery.
Ryan tears up a tee shirt, rewraps the wound, and slips on a clean pair of pants. He shaves by running a straight razor over his dry face. Only Nancy boys need soap and water.
Ryan quickly puts on a fresh shirt and a tie. A subtle joy has caught up with him—he is not in jail, his wound is only a scratch, and tonight he will finish off Stork. And this morning he is getting married.
Ryan’s happiness grows as he limps from the park, rests upon the sidewalk, and then hops on an eastbound bus. His heart remains full when he gets off the bus and hobbles the four remaining blocks to the Wayside Chapel. Even when he spots Miss Muffet, a skanky little broad sitting on the chapel lawn, his chest can only swell. Her greasy hair, her flinty eyes, the needle bruises on her forearms all seem endearing to him.
She looks at him impatiently. “You ready, mister?”
He nods, accepts her hand, and follows her up the chapel steps. He can feel his wound starting to bleed, but fuck it. Get that blood into his pecker and he won’t have to worry about seepage.
At the chapel door, they are met by a plump minister with a lazy eye—a saint of a man who, after examining the forged blood tests, walks them to the altar and guides them through their vows. Placing a ring on the girl’s dirty finger—a ring she had slipped into his pocket—Ryan repeats, “Until death do us part.” Not much longevity there, Ryan chuckles. How about until a better piece of ass comes along?
When the ceremony is over, Ryan accompanies the girl down the steps of the chapel. A taxicab, paid for by her pimp, is waiting to take them to a suite at the Holiday Inn. The girl hands him a package of rubbers—he smiles. Nothing like a bit of cherry busting to get him into the mood for a hunt.
Following Miss Muffet to the taxicab, Ryan whoops like a rustler. The day is young—the cops are nowhere in sight. And his life, for all good purposes, has unfolded like a bouquet of roses. Before him lie further adventures. Behind him lie wanton red blots.
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/-/es/James-Hanna
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“These any good?” asked Henry, holding up a package of brushes. I hope he doesn’t think I’m stupid.
“Oh yeah,” said the clerk. “That’s the 24-Piece Jon Ross Artist Paint Brush Set. Remember him? He was that guy on TV. This set has got your professional all-purpose synthetic brushes. Ain’t nothing you can’t paint with these babies.”
“You’re in luck. Everything here at Beale’s Bargain Art Supplies is fifty percent off.”
“How much?” Just answer the freakin’ question.
The clerk picked up a calculator and punched in some numbers. “Ten bucks.”
“Deal. You take plastic?”
Henry fished his card out and tapped it on the card machine. While he waited for the authorization, he said, “Say, I’ve been looking for a small studio to rent. You know of any available?”
The fewer who have my email, the better. Henry selected ‘print.’ A small slip of paper glided out of the machine.
“Need a bag?” asked the clerk.
“No thanks. Save a tree and all that crap.” Henry picked up his brushes. He turned, nearly running into a small man dressed in a gray, wrinkled suit. Unruly white hair peeked out from under his fedora. “Sorry,” blurted Henry. Where the hell did you come from? Why do idiots have to stand so close?
“Perhaps I can be of help, Mr. Faylen.” said the man with a mild eastern European accent. “My name is Josip Vouk.”
I didn’t ask who you are. Henry smiled, holding up his brushes. “I’m fine. Didn’t see you come up behind me. You okay?” He furrowed his brow. Wait, a minute. “Say, how’d you know my name? Have we met?”
“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I heard you ask about a studio. Perhaps I can help.” Vouk pulled a business card from his coat pocket and held it out to Henry. It read: Josip Vouk, Art. Underneath, a handwritten note was scrawled: Anything you need.
Henry wrinkled his brow. What kind of crap is this? “I’m not sure I understand.” He looked at the clerk. “You know this guy?” The clerk shrugged, raising his hands palm up.
Vouk continued. “I maintain a small art gallery in the old Nally factory building on Poydras Street. I also deal in special paints, brushes and canvases—anything you need to create the exceptional,” said Vouk.
“I have no doubt your stuff is exceptional,” said Henry. What the hell is your angle? “However, I can barely afford supplies on sale—starving artist, etcetera, etcetera.”
“I understand,” Vouk said. “I also have a studio which I would be willing to rent at a very reasonable rate. It has nice large windows with a northern exposure. And I will promise not to try to sell you anything.”
Yeah, I bet. Henry shrugged and took Vouk’s card. Time to blow this guy off. “Maybe I’ll come take a look, but mind you, I’m not agreeing to anything.”
Three weeks later, Henry was sitting in his studio above Vouk’s art gallery, staring at a canvas. How the hell did I let him rope me into renting this dump? A few dabs of paint stared back. I’m kidding myself. I’m no artist. Outside, the sun had fallen below the rooftops. The door buzzer rang. He swirled his brush in a jar of water and gently squeezed the excess out on a paper towel. The doorbell rang again. “Hold your horses,” he grumbled. Don’t people understand the principle of privacy? Trudging over to the door, he looked through the peephole. Crap. It was Vouk, looking like a cartoon character with a large head perched on a tiny body. The old man was wearing the same fedora and crumpled gray suit he always wore. He held what appeared to be a large canvas tucked under his arm. Leaning forward, Vouk stared back through the lens with a single, waggling eye. Henry winced. You’re the last person I want to see. He cracked open the door.
“Hello, Henry. I see you are working late this afternoon. I thought I would pay you a visit.”
Henry rubbed his forehead, drawing a deep breath. No, no, no. “I’m kinda busy right now.”
“Yes, of course, but I will only stay a minute. And no attempt to sell you anything as I promised.”
Henry sighed. You’re not going away, are you? “Okay.”
Vouk waited patiently for a few moments before saying, “May I come in?”
“Oh, of course,” said Henry, stepping aside.
Vouk walked over to the canvas, studying it for a moment. “I brought you something.” He leaned the blank canvas against Henry’s easel. Then he swung a large leather satchel from his shoulder and set it on a card table cluttered with painting supplies. A package, wrapped in craft paper and tied with twine, protruded from its side pouch.
Here it comes. Lowering his brows, Henry asked, “What’s all this? You said you wouldn’t try to sell me anything.”
Vouk smiled. “Of course not. These are a few small gifts.”
Gifts always come with strings. I hate strings. Henry shook his head. “Oh, I can’t accept this. It’s way too much.”
“Don’t worry, no strings attached. May I?” Vouk asked. Not waiting for an answer, he took the canvas from the easel and replaced it with the one he brought. “This linen,” he said, caressing its surface, “is the finest quality Belgian flax, made specially for me by an old craftsman in Holland. Such canvases will last hundreds of years. Already primed, it awaits only your imagination.”
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. “Really, Mr. Vouk, I can’t accept…”
Vouk bowed his head while holding up a hand to halt Henry mid-sentence. “Certainly you can. Please, humor an old man.” He withdrew the packet from the satchel’s side pouch.
“Now, these are cat’s tongue brushes. Not real cat tongues,” Vouk chortled, unwrapping the package carefully. “No, these are made of pure kolinsky red sable from the Tobol River region in Eastern Siberia. And, last but perhaps most important,” he whispered, reaching deep into his satchel, “are the oils, pigments ground by hand in stone and mixed with cold-pressed linseed oil.”
“I mostly do acrylic,” said Henry. I hate oils. They’re too hard to work with.
Vouk stepped back, looking at the canvas he had set aside. “I see you do. Perhaps it is time to try something new. Oh, I almost forgot, I have something else.” Reaching into his satchel, Vouk produced a bottle of liquor and two hobnail tumblers. “Come, let us have a drink. Shall we?” He walked across the room to a futon and sat down. He pushed a layer of magazines on the coffee table aside to make room for the bottle and glasses.
Henry eyed the green bottle. Finally, something I can use. He couldn’t read the foreign language on the faded label, but did detect the faint image of a dragon lurking under the lettering. But, I’m not too keen to drink anything I don’t have a clue about. “I got a couple of cold brews in the fridge,” he offered.
“That is very kind of you, but I would like you to try some of this,” Vouk said, uncorking the bottle and pouring the pale amber liquid. “This is Salamander Brandy. You will not find it on the shelves of local liquor stores in this country. It is privately distilled in parts of Slovenia. This comes from my hometown of Bevoc, located in the Julian Alps. He held out a tumbler.
The scent of lime flowers and anise filled Henry’s nostrils. “Well, maybe one,” he said, joining Vouk on the futon.
Vouk raised his glass. “Za novo življenje—it means: For a new life.”
“Okay then. For a new life.” Or death. Henry took a tenuous sip. The sweet, earthy fluid tingled his mouth and throat. “What’s in this stuff?” he asked, downing the rest.
“Oh many things,” said Vouk. “There is a basic recipe. However, each distiller will add his own special ingredients.”
“I think I’ll have another, if that’s all right.”
“Of course,” said Vouk, pouring another glass. “In my country, we say the best way to get the full experience is to sip it slowly with good conversation.”
They spent the evening with Vouk speaking of his youth in Slovenia, his emigration to America, and painting. Henry listened as he sipped. He barely finished his third glass before falling asleep.
…he found himself in a wooded glen, sitting by a meandering creek, among the sedges, cattails and occasional flowers that lined its shore. Beyond those on either side grew thickets of trees. An iridescent aura enveloped everything—every flower—every leaf—every blade of grass. It even enveloped the ripples of syrupy water flowing over the creek stones. Vibrant globs of yellow sunlight seeped through the treetops, coating each leaf before drooling off to find the next. Everything he saw—the grass, the insects, the birds hovering in an iridescent sky—absolutely everything seemed new and strange. Yet, deep inside, his ever present state of apprehension lurked. For what seemed an eternity, he stayed at the water’s edge, watching the flora and fauna.
Finally, far upstream, a sailboat appeared from the rushes. It was manned by two black salamanders, dappled with yellow spots, as if the globs of sunlight had finally found their destination. Henry watched them tack back and forth, catching the breeze and avoiding the rocks as they sailed toward him. They were singing sea shanties. As they sang, misty green swirls flowed from their mouths and drifted up, evaporating in the sunlight. Soon, the amphibian sailors were close enough for Henry to see tiny iridescent blue orbs emerge from the green mist. They flitted about the glen, finally swarming around his head before bursting like soap bubbles. The salamanders watched Henry with interest for some time before calling out, “And what manner of being are you, for you are surely no salamander…”
Morning light poured in the studio windows, waking Henry from his dreams. He stared at the bottle which Vouk had left, while the remnants of his dream meandered through his mind. Looking up, he saw the white rectangle of canvas Vouk had placed on the easel. He tore across the room and grabbed his palette, brushes, and oils.
Late in the afternoon, Henry collapsed on the futon. Having worked nonstop through the day, he rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, then assessed the painting. A sylvan setting had materialized on the canvas. A brook bracketed by lush vegetation flowed through the foreground. Dense woods crawled up either side of the canvas and a brilliant blue sky floated overhead. He focused on the composition. Stunned, he realized it was the setting of his dream—down to the last detail except for the salamanders and their boat.
An annoying bzzzz broke Henry’s concentration. Dragging himself off the futon, he trudged to the door and peered through the peephole. Vouk. Not you again. Can’t you leave me in peace? Henry swung the door open.
“I see you have finished painting for the day,” said Vouk. “Perhaps you would let an old man see what you have accomplished?”
A knot grew in Henry’s stomach. Why? Like everyone else, you’ll only criticize me. “I don’t usually let folks see my works in progress.”
“I understand, I just thought…” Vouk let the words trail off with a heavy sigh.
Henry’s stomach remained tight. You won’t give up, will you? “Sure. Come in.” Stepping back, he motioned for Vouk to enter.
Henry’s neck stiffened as Volk made a beeline for the canvas. Now it starts.
Vouk studied it for a long time before saying, “You have made a good start. Tell me, did you leave the salamanders out intentionally?”
“What did you say?”
“It’s just that salamanders like wet or damp environments. It seems reasonable to expect one or two to be found around a creek. But I’m sure you have much more work to do before this work is complete.”
Henry glared at Vouk. I knew it. Nothing I do is ever good enough. “What do you mean by that? I think it’s pretty good as it is.”
“I meant no criticism. What is here is done well, but it is in no way complete. What is it but some rocks and trees? You might as well have gone to the park and snapped a photo. What is here that captures your soul?” Vouk paused. “I will tell you. Nothing… yet. To complete the painting, you must put yourself into it. Not until then will you be finished.”
How dare you say that, you old bastard, even if it is true? I ought to kick your ass out of here. “I’ll admit there may be a few finishing touches needed before it’s done,” Henry growled. “But, I also want it made clear I poured a lot into that painting, and I think it’s pretty damn good as it stands,”
“Ah, I apologize,” Vouk said. “I have upset you. Let me make it up. There is a nice restaurant around the corner. You’ll feel better after eating something. My treat.”
After what you said, do you really think I want to eat with you? “No, I don’t want anything to eat. I’m tired.”
“As you wish. But please, I would like to come back once you complete those finishing touches.”
You’ll come no matter what I say. “Yeah sure. Look, no hard feelings. You prying old bastard. I’m just worn out.”
“Of course, I will…see myself out.” With that, Vouk left.
Henry studied the canvas for a few moments, then grabbed the Salamander Brandy.
…he found himself once again sitting in the glen, everything aglow, listening to the pleasant commotion of the insects and birds. His eyes searched the wooded glen. So intense was his search that he failed to notice the same two salamanders, wearing backpacks and carrying walking sticks, had climbed up on a stone next to him. They were sharing an ornately appointed hookah shisha. One spoke. “I am Bor and my companion is Blaz.” Pale cyan-tinted smoke curlicued from his mouth as he spoke.
Bor’s voice startled Henry. Regaining his composure, he took a calming breath before he asked, “Weren’t you in the sailboat yesterday?”
“Indeed,” said Blaz.
Henry scanned the shore. “Where’s your ship?”
“Yesterday was sailing day,” said Bor, holding out a silver clad flask. “Today we are hiking. Care for a drink?”
“What is it?” asked Henry.
“What else? Salamander Brandy,” said Blaz.
“I don’t know,” said Henry. “I think drinking that stuff is how I got here.”
“Is that a bad thing?” asked Bor.
Henry shrugged and took a sip. A warm sensation swirled around inside his head. It lingered a bit, then passed. “Not bad, but no more. I want to keep my wits about me.”
“Why is that?” asked Blaz.
“Waiting for what?” asked Bor.
“I don’t know for sure, but I know something is coming—something beautiful, yet terrifying. I yearn for it and fear it in the same instant. I have no idea what I’ll do if—no—when it comes, but…” The ground shivered beneath him, interrupting his train of thought. All activity in the glen froze. On the opposite bank, a curtain of fog drifted out from trees. It stopped a few feet from the water’s edge.
“Ahh…, that would be for you,” said Blaz. He and Bor slipped off the rock and disappeared in the rushes taking their hookah shisha with them.
“Cowards,” Henry whispered, taking a raspy breath. His chest tightened.
Everything remained silent and still until a small rift materialized in the fog. Within the rift, glowing tendrils began to coalesce. A face, dazzling and unnerving, took shape. The sight of it made Henry tremble. Struggling to his feet, he tried to move his legs—to run into the safe darkness of the forest—to flee until he was hopelessly lost, completely hidden. However, he remained rooted to the earth. Then, fog welled up around him in a black, suffocating oubliette…
Late in the afternoon, Henry awoke, head reeling. He looked at the canvas, cursing under his breath. Globs of paint smeared on a bit of cloth stared back at him. Damn your smug ass, Vouk! No passion, nothing to touch the soul. That describes me to a tee. Images from his dream crawled through his thoughts. A face in the rift came into focus. Forcing himself over to the canvas, he picked up his pallet and a brush. Please, please let me get this one thing right.
The sun was fading as Henry lay down his palette. Exhausted, he stepped back and eyed the canvas.
“She is quite beautiful.”
Henry’s knees buckled at the sound of Vouk’s voice. Goddamn. He turned around to find Volk behind him. “How the hell did you get in here?”
“I apologize. I came up to check on you and found the door open. You were standing here, so I came in.”
Prying jerk wad. “You could’ve knocked. It’s only polite.”
“Yes, of course, you are correct. But as long as I am here, may I see?”
Don’t play dumb. You’ve already looked. “Yeah, go ahead,” said Henry, stepping aside.
Vouk studied the canvas. “You have made progress, indeed. Her face stirs something within me. Does she do the same for you? No need to answer. The answer is in your painting. Yet, I believe you have more to discover.”
“Everyone’s got an opinion.” Henry rubbed the back of his neck. Jerk. You have no idea what I’m doing.
“Perhaps. None-the-less Henry, you look tired… and lost. Get some rest.”
The last residue of Henry’s angst melted away. It’s no use. “As much as I hate to admit it, maybe you’re right. I am…” His voice trailed off as he picked up the Salamander Brandy. He studied it for a moment. “You know, the salamanders had some of this in a silver flask. I know this ain’t polite, but…” He snickered, then drained the bottle with a single swig.
Vouk smiled. “Those two are indeed tricky fellows.”
How’d he know about them? Forget it. The old bastard is pulling my chain. “You got that right,” said Henry, sagging to the futon. The bottle fell to the floor, rolling to Vouk’s feet. He picked it up and set it on the card table.
“Well, shall I leave you to it?” asked Vouk. Henry, already asleep, didn’t answer.
…he found himself standing at the edge of the creek. Waiting. The gray fogbank loomed at the treeline. The rift cracked open. His pulse raced. A woman stepped out. The sight of her scorched his soul. There was an aura of malevolence about her, yet he was inexorably drawn to her beauty. Long flaxen hair flowed to her waist in a cascade of soft curls. Smoky quartz eyes called to him. Smiling persimmon lips stoked his desire. She remained motionless for the longest time. Then she held her arms out, beckoning him.
Henry, abandoning all his fear, ran headlong into her embrace…
The cop looked at the ripped canvas on the easel. “What would make Faylen punch a hole in his painting?’ He reached out and touched its surface. Drawing his hand back, he studied his finger tips. “You know, he was covered head to toe with this stuff. How could that happen?” He picked up the empty bottle from the card table, examining the label. “Do you know what this is?”
“Oh, that is Salamander Brandy,” said Vouk. “I think Mr. Faylen was fond of it. Perhaps too fond for his own good.”
The cop walked over to the smashed window and looked down at the body sprawled on the sidewalk, surrounded by shards of glass. “Looks like he ran right through it. Why you think he did that?”
“He did seem like a troubled man.”
“Well, I guess I’ve seen all I want. We may ask you to make a formal statement, Mr. Vouk.” “Oh, certainly, officer. Anything you need.”
Paul Stansbury is a lifelong native of Kentucky. He is the author of the four volume Inversion Anthology Series; and Down By the Creek – Ripples and Reflections. His speculative fiction stories have appeared in a number of print anthologies as well as a variety of online publications. Website: http://www.paulstansbury.com
They’re called Venus Rings. They were supposed to fix us.
It was his idea for us to wear them together. How could I say no to something like that? How could I say no to anything he asked of me? That was the problem. Usually what he asked me for was forgiveness. Forgiveness for this thing or that. I don’t feel the need to sit here and spell out every lie and cover-up.
For once it seemed like Sam was asking something of me for the benefit of me. Of us. It felt so sincere this time. How could I say no?
“This isn’t for sex, it’s for the feeling of your breath on my neck in the morning,” he said to me as his body sent comforting heat into mine one chilly February morning, “It’s for you to know when I jump in the water, and how deep I’ve gone, and the moment I come back to the surface. That’s why we want this.”
Some days, when he would call full of excuses for being late or explanations for the days he’d disappeared, I would listen to him, mumble in agreement, and hang up always humming the same song to myself. Christine McVie begs for a break from the inevitable over classic ‘80s synth chords and one of her ex-husband’s melodic basslines. It wasn’t my favorite song before my 6-year relationship, but Sam made it my favorite song. “Tell me lies,” I ask him, and he never fails to deliver. He sings them so sweetly. How could I say no?
So I don’t deny him, and a day later there’s a box on the coffee table with a slogan on the side in a seductively cursive font reading “To be dirty at any distance…”
It’s gaudy and feels like something we would make fun of other people for doing, with dressing like a porno back when they could still be rented on VHS.
The rings are pitch black and surprisingly slim considering what they can do. Each contains two opal stones that poke out of the top like eyes, or maybe antennae sending information to the matching stones on the other hand. Both opals are like a war of color, with hundreds of hues fighting in spots and stripes for dominance as it turns in the hand. One had black at the center and the other was more of a golden yellow. That’s the one Sam took. He knew I was barely up for this plan and having to wear the more conspicuous of rings to top things off would have made me want to take it off in public. One of his whimpering attempts at coming off as considerate following all of his previous actions that proved the contrary.
From then on he could have me whenever he wanted me. From then on we played and teased like we were still the 20-somethings who met at a crowded pub in Krakow during coincidentally shared semesters abroad. I had to begrudgingly admit my ring had grown on me after some time.
The Venus Rings combine the sense of touch from two individuals into one. The manufacturer calls any set of two rings a “couple”, and any two people wearing connected rings will feel every physical sensation their partner feels. I could be watching a movie at home and feel the water running over Sam’s hands in the bathroom sink at his office, followed by the heat from the air dryer blowing them off. Most importantly, I could feel if he was being touched by someone else, or by himself.
The rings are marketed for pleasure, if it wasn’t obvious from the slogan, although a Google search reveals some conspiratorial social media posts accusing the original technology of being invented by the US military as a torture and interrogation device. The marketing for the rings makes it very clear that the only physical sensation not communicated through them is pain, so if they were ever used for such things, it’s long since been removed. I’d just as soon save some of the more intense details of how Sam and I used them for the sake of sparing my story from coming across as one written by a hot-and-bothered housewife with an eye for the pool boy.
The first day of having the ring curled around my hand left me with particularly uneasy feelings and sudden sensations from all around with no visible reference for why they were happening. There was a natural panic at first, followed by a gradual familiarity that came with interesting experimentation, like when we tried to figure out how to send messages to each other using just touch. We learned We could pat our bellies to tell one another we’re hungry and I would hold my thumb and pinky to my head in the shape of a phone to say “Call me.”
It became like a game as much as it was like a toy. A random cold on my right arm could be Sam leaning on the metallic Metro pole during his commute to Union Square, or maybe leaning on a streetlight outside while waiting for his morning coffee. Every feeling is a new question and a slew of guesses. Of course, the more titillating feelings weren’t so much a guessing game. They were a sign that he was thinking about me.
Naturally, I’d return the favor when I was thinking about him.
I was content with that. I was content to pack the dirty laundry, still rank and begging to be washed, into tight suitcases with broken latches and focus on playing in this new world Sam had created purely from desire and an ad he found on the internet. It felt like the future and the past, like something I could have and something we once had.
It was a dream of perpetual embrace. The moment when his arms are around you in pitch-black darkness, and the feeling right then like nothing could pierce those sheets or that hold you have on each other, stretched to every moment of the day. No one is between you and him in that embrace. You are together in the purest possible sense. Of course I was willing to deny the well of emotions I sat on top of, the betrayal and the woeful dread knowing Sam couldn’t help himself but to return to his previous ways again, to live in this dream for a time.
April 29th is the date of the dream’s abrupt end. April 29th is the day an earthquake struck San Francisco that came just shy of outdoing the infamous 1906 quake on the Richter scale. Sam’s office building didn’t just collapse, it fell into the earth. I’m terrified of the idea that the Earth can open up and swallow a building with floor after floor of people going about their day. The people aren’t even the point, the Earth just wants to swallow the building, and the people happen to be inside. Sam happened to be inside. To this day, he’s still listed as one of the “82 missing/unrecovered” of the nearly 400 casualties from his office building alone.
We buried an empty casket at his funeral, right next to the plots that already held his father and mother. I remember, in a way that made me feel sick, wondering why we even bothered burying anything at all. He was already in the ground, just not the way most people end up there.
I escaped the earthquake with just a concussion courtesy of hitting my head on the pavement while out for a run. Everything felt like mush in the heat of the moment. The ground rumbled, my head spun, and my skin tingled. There’s no way to know which feelings were my own and which, if any, were the last that Sam felt as he tumbled into dust and fate, discarded like waste. Concussions strip memories away and throw layers of ambiguity over the ones that remain. It’s hard to remember what exactly I felt in those moments.
I woke up on the pavement with an ambulance medic overhead asking me questions that I answered in a fog of slurred words. Everything happened in sporadic and loosely-knit moments I could barely connect. Questions followed confusion followed someone rubbing cloth over my face which touched my skin blue and came away red. It took me a long time to realize that all of my senses were singularly my own again.
Nothing came from the other end of the Venus Ring. I waited to feel even something simple, like Sam adjusting in his office chair, or the heat of warm coffee touching his lips, or the way he rubs his fingers together when he’s nervous. Nothing came.
I do remember feeling his hand rub over my stomach in the final moments before everything began to shake. I told him early on, way back in Poland, that I loved the feeling. His fingers running softly along the tender skin on my torso, tracing imaginary lines and filling me with goosebumps. It was the final genuine communication we had. From wherever he was sitting, at his desk, or in the foyer where he liked to eat during his break, he said with no words that he was thinking about me, and about those times when we would tell each other the things we enjoyed.
In the moment, though, it made me think about January 10th. Four weeks before we’d decided to get the Venus Rings. The day I got a text from a mutual friend saying things like “It’s none of my business” and “I’m sorry if I’m misreading the situation” but that she thought I should know, with the attached picture of Sam alongside a girl he told me he has a class with at the gym. Only they weren’t at the gym together, they were at the Hightower, a bar down the street from the gym. Sam wasn’t wearing his ring then, either. Not the Venus Ring, of course, or the other ring that was supposed to mean something more significant to partners.
Sam’s last touch came across my belly and I thought about the reason we were doing this all over again. The fact that those were only the latest pictures in a recurring series I’d received of him with somebody else. The fact that when I got those last pictures I wasn’t even surprised, just so, so ready for everything to be over.
It was the show that could never be canceled, and every time somebody told me they finally put an end to that piece of shit program, more episodes magically appeared on my phone, or in my e-mail, or they just walked up to my door and said, “He told me the relationship was open.”
So my last memory of his touch isn’t a happy one. It was a reminder of what he’d done to bring us to that point. All of his touches felt like apologies, even if I enjoyed them. All of his sweet words felt like they were in constant expectation of the day I would finally say “I forgive you and I’ve forgotten it ever happened.”
I don’t think that day was ever going to come, but I was clinging to the idea that maybe it would just as much as him.
My last memory of his touch isn’t a happy one, and I don’t need to feel guilty for that, because he did it to himself. But I do. Every day.
For the first couple of days after the earthquake, I never took off my Venus Ring. The rescue crews searched around the destruction for anything, dead or alive, and I kept the ring on in hopes that I would eventually connect with sensations that weren’t my own again. I sat completely still in the middle of the living room where I’d cleared a large space, trying to touch as little as possible, trying to get any sign of a feeling from the other end of the ring. I could use it to find him somehow, no matter how deep he’d fallen. All he needed to do was feel something, to make any movement.
Once the denial phase was over, I just kept the ring on as a tribute. It was a strange tribute, of course. Some people saw the ring and knew what it was, and what it was typically used for. I didn’t care. It was a memory of embrace. A memory of a good dream.
Nine days after the earthquake, a feeling began to come through the Venus Ring again.
I sprang up in the dead of night throwing the covers off of myself as quickly as I could manage. Something was on my body, slithering and writhing all over my skin. I ran over to the light switch, sloppy and barely awake, to see what could have possibly gotten into my apartment and worked its way into my bed in the darkness. Only, the light revealed nothing but my naked body on the edge of my bedroom. I was alone. But still, the feeling remained.
There is no more accurate way to describe it that I’m aware of. It was a slithering, in thousands of places all at once. It covered me from head to toe and felt like it was trying to drag me in all directions.
It felt alive, moving from side to side, like the inside of a serpent’s throat, but I struggle to get more specific as I grow more certain it’s a feeling not meant to be experienced by the living.
It stopped when I removed the Venus Ring. I couldn’t believe it was the source of that feeling, but I didn’t dare to put it back on for certainty in that moment. The feeling was repulsive and alien. It was unnatural in every way.
I left the ring on the floor by the light switch, and then picked it up the next morning imagining to myself that the feeling from the night before must have been some grief-induced nightmare. I slipped the ring back on and once again felt the embrace, not Sam’s embrace, I was surrounded by the slithers and its pulls. This time when I took the ring off, it was with such a force that it clattered down beneath Sam’s old dresser in the opposite corner of the room.
It’s still down there, too. It’s been 50 days. It’s still down there. I stew on its meaning more than I stew on my grief at this point. Maybe this is my grief. Maybe it’s impossible for the two not to intersect. Maybe it doesn’t fucking matter.
What matters is what I felt. The feeling from the other end of the ring. I sent e-mails to the manufacturers, I posted anonymous threads in message boards, I tried to find anybody talking about a feeling coming from the other end of a Venus Ring worn by a dead loved one. I got excuses in return. Explanations of malfunction and placebo and whatever other things I’m frankly not interested in reading anymore. I don’t want to keep running through possibilities and options. Theories have been keeping me from sleep for weeks since I threw that ring under the dresser.
I don’t dare approach it. I don’t understand what the feeling means. I’m scared if I touch it I may feel all of that again, or maybe worse, I may feel something else, something even further from any sensation living beings were meant to feel. What else could be transmitted from the other side? The other side of what? Is that where you are, Sam? Does it hurt? The ring doesn’t transmit pain, so I can’t tell if it hurts, only that it slithers, and that Sam may be pushed and pulled by those feelings forever. I could put the ring back on and find out, but I’m not sure I will.
I may have to feel it again one day. When the earth swallows me, like it does everyone, I may feel it just as Sam does, with the sights, sounds, and pains that complete the picture of exactly what’s on the other side.
I hope I can find him there. Maybe I’m stupid for feeling that way after everything, but I’d love to feel his embrace again wherever he is, among what slithers. If he reached out his hand to me and offered me to take it, I think I’d be with him again there. How could I say no?
Saz is a writer and musician from Asheville, North Carolina currently situated in Brno, Czechia. He has multiple options to escape but spends too much of his focus on the way the road splits. He can be found @sazbeats on Instagram.
Pop Alston’s death was pending, so pending in fact, it was impending. Norm Swanson, Pop’s son-in-law was sitting vigil. His wife, Connie, Pop’s daughter, was nowhere to be found and she wasn’t answering Norm’s calls. Finally, he left a message, “Pop won’t last much longer; you better get down here.”
As Norm hung up, Pop stirred a little, causing Norm to reach for the cup of ice chips. “Here Pop take a couple of these, but only a couple.” Pressing the button to elevate the hospital bed, he held the cup to his father-in-law’s lips. The old man sucked in a couple of chips. Norm wondered if Pop would last long enough for Connie to arrive.
The hospice nurse had warned him, “He may get physical or say some crazy things. It’s a sign the end is near.” So, when Pop grabbed Norm’s arm saying, “There is something you need to know about Connie and your garden,” Norm, while not surprised, was curious. He leaned in closer to the old man.
“Take it easy, Pop. I’m here. Do you want more ice chips?”
With a negative shake of his head, the old man, his voice barely a whisper, repeated, “Listen, it’s important. Connie is like my Grandma; you have to be careful.”
Norm knew Connie and Pop didn’t get along. The old man always sensed there was a darkness about her. When Norm tried to find out the source of the problem between them, all Pop would say is, “She’s not my kind of people.”
Now, Norm had a chance to find out. “What does your grandmother have to do with Connie or our garden?” He had heard stories that the grandmother was “odd” but that’s all he knew about it.
“Look in the garden. That’s where you’ll find them.”
“Find who?” Pop didn’t say.
Norm and Connie lived in the house once owned by Pop’s parents. It was an older, well maintained, two-story, situated in a quiet neighborhood. Its most prominent feature was the large, raised garden space in the backyard.
Accessible by a crushed stone path from the patio, a tall wooden fence surrounded the garden. It was short enough that sun got in to warm the soil during the summer months, yet high enough to keep out prying eyes. Each season it produced a fine crop of vegetables and sunflowers.
Connie never told Norm why she didn’t want people to see inside the garden. Only she had the keys to the double locked wooden gate. Being particular about who entered that space, not even Norm got in unless she wanted him there. That never bothered him though since he preferred not to be out in the summer heat and humidity. If asked, he would help her move things to the garden, but what went on in there was up to her.
Pop started to speak again, “When I was a boy, Connie’s great grandma ran a tourist house where you now live. Back then, the neighborhood was rundown. Your house was close to rail yards and the wallpaper factory, in the High Bank area, next to the Niagara Gorge. Now that the factories and trains are gone, your neighborhood is much nicer.
“Grandma took in the transients who ‘rode the rails.’ They weren’t tourists and didn’t come to see the wonders of Niagara Falls. They were bums, hobos and drifters.”
Even this little bit of talking exhausted Pop and was causing him pain. Norm said, “Pop, hit the morphine button.”
As the drug took effect, Pop was quiet for a few minutes. Once rested, he said, “My grandfather was one of the bosses at the wallpaper factory until he died. That left Grandma with a big house and no money. That’s why she decided to run the tourist house, to make ends meet.
“She always had borders. No one knew how she made any money from these guys. They were broke, but she always seemed to have clothes and small items of theirs to sell once a border moved on.”
In-between coughing jags, Pop said, “Grandma was a killer, I’m sure of it. The borders made perfect victims. They had no family or connections, no real friends, they were not missed. When they left stuff behind she claimed she was selling it to cover the unpaid rent for the rooms. Nobody asked any questions.
“She didn’t kill them all, just the ones that got on her nerves and it seemed like a lot of them did.”
Norm thought, “That morphine button must work pretty well. Poor Pop, this is crazy talk, just like the nurse said.”
Starting to speak again, Pop said, “From time to time, my mother left me with Grandma while she ran errands. I loved playing in her garden. I used to dig in it, until one day, Grandma caught me. She didn’t raise her voice; she lowered her glasses and bathed me in her icy stare. It was unnerving. She made it very clear I couldn’t play in there.
“Worried I’d keep going back, she had one of the borders build a sandbox for me. She could be nice to me like that, but when it came to the garden, it was off limits. Grandma was very strict about that, and you didn’t cross her.
“She didn’t get many new things, but I remember when she had new linoleum put down in the kitchen. She was so proud of the selection she made. The pattern looked like little rectangular mosaic tiles of different sizes. They were off white, light brown, and orange. There were these blue-green lines running between the rectangles. They looked like the leading in the stained glass windows at church.” Pop took a moment, then continued.
“Not too long after the floor went down, the guy who built the sandbox dropped a cigarette and melted a hole in the linoleum. The fool thought it funny, Grandma didn’t.
“The next time I came over, he didn’t live there anymore. All Grandma said was, ‘He left, wanted to see the red clay in Georgia.’ Back then, I didn’t know dirt came in different colors.
“Later that day, Grandma was standing in the kitchen, exhaling the smoke from the last puffs on her Lucky Strike, waiting for the timer to count down to zero. I remember the kitchen being hot, but soon she took a cherry pie out of the oven. I never saw such a funny looking thing.
“Instead of the normal crisscross lattice crust on the top, it had rounded pieces of crust floating on the surface of the pie filling. The crust almost looked like parts of fingers.”
I asked her, “How come it looks like that?”
“She told me she laid the fluted crust dough on the pie filling to give it a different look. Grandma broke off a small piece of crust and let me have it. She said the pie was for the borders only and I was not to eat any of it.
“I remember saying, ‘That pie looks rugged.’ From that time forward she called each of those pies, Rugged Cherry Pie.
“She didn’t make them often, only whipping up one when a border left who hadn’t paid his rent. When one of them took off, it was a sure bet Grandma was gonna make one of those pies. Each time she did, she buried something among the sunflowers out back in the garden, but I don’t know what.”
Pop’s pain returned. He labored to form words and to speak. Reaching out a bony hand, he grabbed Norm’s arm, “I’ve always worried Connie’s like my Grandma.”
Now Norm was sure the old man was delusional and close to death. As Pop tried to keep talking, laboring with each breath, Norm listened but he didn’t want to hear anything bad about his wife. He tried to change the subject.
“Pop everything’s fine. You’re worrying about nothing.”
As Norm said those words, Connie showed up at the hospital carrying a bag. She walked over to Pop’s bedside, leaned down and kissed his forehead. Connie’s presence seemed to upset him.
“Hi, Dad. How are you?” Pop mustered a weak smile.
Norm asked, “What’s in the bag?”
“I’ll get to that, but first, I need you to move a large black garbage bag out to the garden when you get home. It’s in the kitchen. I’m going to put some scraps from baking in my compost pile. All you have to do is get the bag out there by the gate. I’ll handle everything else.”
Since he often moved heavy things to the garden for her, he said, “Sure.”
Connie lowered her glasses and cast an icy stare toward Norm. A little surprised, he figured she was on edge with her father this close to death. Since Connie could get into “a mood”, he was always careful not to provoke her. At the same time he resented walking on eggshells around her, something he seemed to be doing more of lately.
“Okay, I’ll do it when I get home.”
When Pop heard this he became agitated again. Norm thought about what Pop told him. He then looked over at Connie. She said, “So, tell me, what did you two talk about?”
Thinking, “I can’t tell her Pop thinks she’s a killer”, Norm dodged the question. “Connie, he’s been in and out, not making much sense.”
Smiling at Pop, she said, “Guess what I found, Dad, your Grandma’s old recipe card file. She used to make something called Rugged Cherry Pie, so I made one last night to bring to you.”
Norm’s eyes widened. He read an article in the morning paper about a person that had gone missing in their neighborhood the day before last.
“Where’d you get the ingredients? We don’t have any cherries; they aren’t in season, and I didn’t see any cherry pie filling in the pantry.”
“I was able to whip up something from what I scrounged from around the house. It’s an interesting recipe. I brought the pie in for Pop, but it doesn’t look like he’ll be eating any. Since Dad can’t eat, I expect you’ll have a piece. You won’t believe how hard this was to make. Here Norm, try some.”
Having placed the bag containing the pie on the table next to Pop’s bed, as she went to lift the cherry pie from the bag, the old man reached out and with the last of his strength, knocked the pie to the floor. It was the last thing he ever did.
Startled, Connie said, “What the hell, Dad.” Connie yelled for the nurse who came in and checked the old man’s pulse. He was dead.
Connie flashed another angry look at Norm. He tried to deflect things by saying, “I’m sure it was an accident. He’s been out of his head for a while now.” But Norm knew the old man was trying to protect him.
Looking at the mess on the floor, Connie said, “It figures Dad would ruin it. He always ruined everything. Now I have to find the ingredients again to make another pie. Damn.”
As Norm looked at her, then to Pop’s lifeless body, for the first time since he married Connie, he felt unsafe. Suspecting the old man was right about his wife, he thought, “Maybe Pop’s the luckiest person in this room, he’ll never have to find out what’s really in a Rugged Cherry Pie.”