Oliver Kerrigan thumbed the object in his pocket and watched the world go by.
Boarding trains paused the countryside like it rarely did in the city. He had shorted out the appeal of the pastoral in his youth, or had it shorted out for him, but tripped headlong over one of those funny curves of a joyless adulthood into a bout of nostalgia that caused him to long for its gentler pleasures only now that they were out of reach. He was spending proportionately more time on trains to make up for it on his weekends. These were often spur-of-the-moment trips, or so he’d gotten himself to think: while it was true that he never plotted his destinations and usually picked at random from the first available schedule, how spontaneous was a weekly habit?
After the fourth weekend in a row, he began to argue the value of an extended vacation with himself. God knew he had the PTO. But both halves of the argument had flaws. The city was better for him and work kept him busy, which was all he’d ever wanted to be, and returning to those languorous days of smoking in the shade of a tree was a fine daydream, but boredom would inevitably ruin the reality, and leave him with a stiff back and a headache for good measure. Then again, perhaps once he’d thoroughly disappointed himself, he wouldn’t dote so much on “wasted” youth and appreciate that being overworked was simply the cost of good living.
But even knowing this--even, a step further, understanding this--the idealist inside him that he thought he’d sated by moving to the city and starting a career insisted that this vacation was more than a sad salaryman’s retread of adolescence. The city had been great to him, was still great for him, but to forget where he’d started was a mistake and an existential danger to his wellness, which was in turn a danger to his finances. Wellness was the buzzword in business, and he had read all about what happened when it started to decline, and read more about what to do to prevent it. It came down to simple things, easy lifestyle tweaks he could make right away. Exercise more. Drink tea. Take spa days. Explore the countryside! Reconnect with the past! All he really needed was to go back and beat those broken-up streets, rediscover that inescapable stink of manure dyed into every brick and joint and chink of the place. He needed to go back and see where he’d been if he wanted to get a true handle on where he was going. And while he was at it, he could visit his brother. He ran his thumb along the object, squeezing it pensively before letting it, and his thoughts, go.
There had been the faintest whiff of manure when he’d stepped off the train a stop or two ago for coffee, and it had been stronger at the next stop when he’d snapped up a copy of the local paper for the rest of the ride (he had forgotten his headphones on the nightstand back at the apartment and hadn’t had time to read in months, so he was without even the diversion of literature). His inner idealist had been pleased; and in good spirits, he’d left the platform and wandered the area for a bit, perusing overpriced shops and engaging in brief conversation with fellow patrons before moving on to soak up the temperate day and those hints of his hometown’s olfactory signature carried in by the breeze. There was no doubt that it was partly a self-imposed illusion, the result of nostalgia and proximity to the place where he’d entered the world, but he enjoyed it all the same for the memories great and small that it drew out--until the one, of course. When that reared up, all the wanderlust abruptly drained out of him, and he wanted nothing more than to be back on the train, but his former good cheer had made certain that wouldn’t be possible for at least another half hour, until the next train came snorting by. In the time between, well….
He pulled his hand out of his pocket and downed the cold dregs of his coffee, scanning the horizon through the spotty window. There had been a smudge of farmland in the distance, and he was happy to see that it had resolved into a field, bare for now but probably already sown for harvest. Its sowers must be preparing for the weeks of work ahead even now, by Oliver’s estimation. Not that the work ever ended. He allowed himself a wry smile, then put it away as he remembered that it had seemed they were always preparing, always operating in anticipation of the next step, and the next was only ever in the service of the next….
There were bushes and fields closer to the tracks. Oliver watched them scribble by, hoping to lose his thoughts in the blur like trash in a river. Instead, they clung. He reached for his cup but remembered it was empty now. He resorted to studying the fingerprints on the window, but all at once, he and Maurice were eleven again, riding in the back of their father’s pick-up, peering through the dirty back window and pretending one of them was steering. His brother’s voice rang in Oliver’s ears, just out of the full reach of his memory, which was all clogged up with sales and strategies and wellness; but he remembered Maurice’s voice because it had served him so well with Sawhorse and Barb-and-the-Wires and Glory Dugout and who know how many others, now.
He’d had trouble keeping track as a kid, too, chasing the shadow of The Kid, that name his brother had picked up almost without his choosing. Sometimes, Maurice “The Kid” Kerrigan was greeted as such by folks who had never laid eyes on him. If the nickname had ever actually referred to the disproportion between his age and talents, it had eventually outgrown these things to signify more his youthfulness than his youth--his enthusiasm, his ever-radiating cool which itself was more than an aggregate of wit, athleticism, and amiability but his ability to form and keep lifelong bonds with friends, with lovers, and with Ollie Kerrigan, the younger brother who could be spotted not far from the Kid’s side in every picture, at every moment.
And then Summer Marsh. Summer fucking Marsh. Oliver turned his attention back to the window, but he could feel the train beginning to slow down, and his hand reached involuntarily for his pocket again, like an animal after warmth. Oliver stood up before the train came to a full stop, earning him the disapproving glances of some of the more elderly passengers, but he paid them no mind as he stepped out, alert again for the smell of home. It wasn’t there at first, but the breeze reminded him all at once that the purpose of this vacation was to enjoy himself. He slid through the crowd and tossed his empty coffee cup, bought the first magazine he saw and dropped a little more money for a fresh coffee; and having made good time, took a seat on the platform bench alongside a couple of passengers buried in their electronics. He thumbed through the magazine, the breeze whipping the steam from his lidless cup, and ended up absorbing very little of what he read.
Summer Marsh had ruined his brother. It hadn’t been a sudden fall; few are. But she had introduced him to the vices that ruptured the Kerrigan brothers’ relationship, the first and most important friendship either had ever had. Oliver had become estranged from his brother over time, but he’d been there to see the gears of Maurice’s downfall set in motion. He’d known that even then.
Maurice stopped being The Kid and withdrew into a cloud of drugs and louder and louder music. When he wasn’t slogging through his chores he was practicing his drums, but his practicing amounted to assaulting every inch of the kit until he had exhausted himself or broken some piece of it, until eventually, he had broken too much of it to tour with any of projects, and then until he simply had nothing to play. He didn’t have the money for replacements. But the drugs were still there, and the drink always, hardwired into the genes of the Kerrigan lineage; and they manifested swiftly and brutally, until, like their father and his father before them, Maurice truly fell.
Oliver--then Ollie, little Ollie, Maurice’s wide-eyed silent shadow--had been there the night he’d destroyed his crash cymbal. Ollie had heard his brother’s racket stop suddenly and had run down, heart in throat. The scene had never left him. He had walked into the barn area Maurice had sectioned off with rotting bales of hay, all the stuff they couldn’t feed the cattle, to find Maurice holding the cymbal, a black lightning bolt running through it, the stand lying crookedly against his knee. He had been perched on his stool, crimson-faced and rigid, mouth hiked up in a snarl. The broken cymbal rattled his hands, which were themselves rattling with fury he could hardly contain. He understood that Maurice must have had Summer on his mind when he went that night to find comfort in his music, and that it had been some thought, some memory of her, that had destroyed the cymbal. But to see his brother in this way, mired in that sloppiest of emotions, had punctured the esteem Ollie had for him, deflated the admiration--and even some of the love, truth be told--that he had had for him. Ollie had seen something he should not, but more than a decade later, he couldn’t say what.
Ollie had left not long after that. The rest of The Kid’s sad decline he’d pieced together from his gradually more infrequent communications with their mother. Maurice had left at one point, stood up and walked out by the way his mother recounted it, and there had been no word for nearly two years. The widow Kerrigan decided to sell the land she and her husband had tended all their adult lives. Ollie had gotten a call about this and given her his blessing. It was time to move on for all of them. Oliver had certainly had no intention of returning, not really, and not then, but Maurice seemed to think differently: he returned just as their mother was finalizing the sale. But Maurice and his mother’s relationship had so deteriorated by this time that even the firstborn Kerrigan’s miraculous return couldn’t hold her to the land. She ended up selling the entire estate to Maurice at full price, but whether it was a final act of maternal compassion or a petty little vengeance, Oliver had never decided. Somehow, Maurice had paid, and now lived there alone. Oliver had no clue what he might do for money. Their mother lived elsewhere, far away now, and the only person to whom she spoke less than Ollie was Maurice.
Oliver set down the magazine and sipped his coffee, hardly minding when he burned his tongue. Again his hand crept toward his pocket, but he wasn’t foolish enough to pull the little baggie out even here in the countryside; there were still plenty of disapproving eyes lying in wait, and he was beginning to feel as foolish as the decision to seek out, and then accept, this parcel from the smiling girl warranted, all from a bad mood. And with Maurice on his mind now he felt doubly as stupid, but here came the idealist, his inner hedonist under an innocent mask, with a salve for his doubts: he was in the countryside, after all, and the more space he had, the freer he was. Freedom, in large enough quantities, dilutes vice into whim, and whim very nearly into a right. He would be a bigger fool not to use it.
With an excusatory nod to no one, but ostensibly toward his benchmates, he took his coffee and wandered off the platform. He’d miss his train again, but that hadn’t been a problem before and it wasn’t now as he toured the shops, notably shabbier than the last town’s, and struck up conversation with an affable jeweler. To keep his mind off the baggie, a thought that was inexplicably causing him enough anxiety to sweat, he haggled with the old gentleman over earrings for a girlfriend he didn’t have, promoting her to fiance with a well-pretended glance away in embarrassment for not having admitted it sooner. The gentleman was fooled; he congratulated Oliver and instantly began to lather him with discounts, superficial deals, and appeals to grand notions of romance and opportunity, and Oliver did his part to seem at first dubious, then gradually more persuaded, until, on the precipice of appearing to be convinced, he assured the man he needed just be a minute to check his finances at the closest ATM. The man set the earrings aside. Oliver went on his way. He breezed past the ATM. The jeweler slid the earrings back into the display.
The avenue went on. Oliver followed it until he’d left the shops behind and the town’s face of relative poverty began to show. Eventually, the woods that had flickered in the train window slunk into view, and he strolled into their shade, taking his time to let the hush of growing things settle over and sink into him. When the manmade was behind him and he was alone with the edifices of the natural, he extracted the little baggie from his pocket and held it to the light, feeling some of that sense of foolishness creep back in. His suit wasn’t high-end, but it was finer than the jeweler’s, and his shoes were more expensive than at least a third of the trifles he’d seen on display in the old man’s shop; but now here he stood with a crumpled ziplock baggie of weed, a strain he didn’t recognize, purchased from a twig of a girl for whom a crooked smile seemed a resting expression. He hadn’t asked what it was, either. Was he twelve?
Oliver opened the baggie and sniffed. There was nothing unusual about its smell, but he couldn’t shake his misgivings. He’d never trusted smiley people, and his career had taught him his instincts were good, but his hedonist-idealist reached into his other pocket for him to produce the little stack of papers he carried everywhere for these usually sweet occasions. This wasn’t the first time he’d plunged headlong into the unknown, and it was only weed, after all. He felt silly being so dithery and suspicious over a little pot. As the breeze urged the trees into quiet conversation overhead, he sifted the contents of the baggie out onto a paper and tucked the baggie and the extra papers into his pocket. Oliver stared, a little disappointed at the joint-to-be. The twig girl had hardly given him enough for a roll. It had looked like more. But perhaps this was best. He rolled up the joint, practically one-handed--certain habits never die--and sealed it with a practiced lick. He plucked out his lighter from the same pocket he’d kept the baggie, brought the joint to his lips, the flame to its end, closed his eyes, let himself brim with the silence of the woods, and sucked smoke.
The joint lasted him far longer than expected, and got him much higher than imagined. What little the twig girl had given him was potent enough to stretch each tick of his wristwatch out, opening vast and comfortable spaces for him to muse and meander freely backwards to the days of The Kid and Summer Marsh; to those afternoons in the shade with a fat spliff, in the glorious absence of responsibility; to reflect on the first joint he’d ever tried, a singular experience facilitated by Summer Marsh herself in the woods of their hometown. Maurice hadn’t known about this, and that fact had been as much a source of anxiety for Ollie as it had been the very thrill that got him to try. She might have been his brother’s girlfriend, but that didn’t diminish the fact that Ollie, little Ollie, was doing drugs with a beautiful woman in the woods. It still set Oliver’s chest to fluttering. He took another drag; held; puffed out his cheeks as if he was still that nervous, happy child; and exhaled. The smoke drifted toward a canopy of light and ropey shadow overhead.
He had long known about the place in the woods where Summer and her friends disappeared to smoke and drink, a clearing secreted away from even the local police, who wouldn’t bother hiking all that way to nab a teenager or two at best. Sometimes Ollie went out there alone to pretend he was really part of their circle instead of the sentient bauble attached to The Kid’s ankle. He kicked their empties around, crushed out the roaches they strewed about in the dirt. He had set out to repeat this routine one day only to stumble across Summer and her friends already there. Normally, he would have turned back at the sound of their voices, but had brazenly approached them in the clearing, emerging from the trees to a delighted squeal from Summer’s friend, whose name was lost to the passage of time. Oliver, present-day, took another drag and wondered why. Summer’s other friend, Melena, had taken him by the shoulders and steered him into their midst, plunking him down at the foot of the junker.
Oliver snorted, remembering that ancient rust-heap of a car that had lain so long in that place among the trees that its chassis had fused to the earth. The junker. Mount Greenpeace, they had nicknamed it. Nothing budged it. He wondered if it was still there. He remembered its interior, black and foul but scrubbed scentless by decades of weathering, and the way Melena’s split ends had wriggled in a sunbeam, and how that same sunbeam illuminate a galaxy of dustmotes above the corroded seats of the junker, and how that sunbeam had flashed on the little baggie of weed Melena pulled out of her back pocket.
Summer and her friends had already been smoking when Ollie showed up. Oliver remembered that tang in the air, forbidding and sweet. He remembered that Summer hadn’t taken her eyes off of Ollie, not for a second. Perhaps she had been puzzling out the implication of his appearance, wondering how he had found them, wondering how she could take advantage of the moment. Perhaps she had only been high, and Oliver was reading too far into a blank slate decades later. It didn’t matter. What did was that she offered offered him the very joint she was smoking, right from her lips, kissed end first; and it was the weird intimacy of that fact that must have spurred Ollie to take the joint without a second thought, surprising even himself. Melena had raised the lighter to his face. Summer’s other friend grinned and cooed. He plugged the joint into his mouth. The lighter flashed.
Oliver smiled. He had made a rookie mistake and swallowed too much smoke at once, and in short order, descended into a coughing fit that went on until he had feared for his life, and then subsided, leaving a shaken Ollie standing there in the sunlight, trying to save face he’d already lost. He must have been a sight, but he didn’t remember the girls laughing. Maybe Summer’s nameless friend had cooed a little more, but they hadn’t laughed. He was still grateful for that, and for the fact that whatever Summer had been burning, it had given him a clear high, one that didn’t leave him drowsy and inarticulate like later and less fortunate experiences.
These memories were less pleasant, especially once The Kid found out that little Ollie was smoking weed, but Oliver shook those thoughts free. They fell away like leaves, thanks in large part to the twig girl’s gift, which was now over three-quarters gone but lingering sweetly in the back of his throat. The breeze cooled him. He reclined further into the tree against which he’d crouched, no longer concerned about damaging his suit. He closed his eyes. Breathed. When he opened them, he saw crimson in the sky and realized that it was about time he meandered back to the platform. He riffled through his wallet, and satisfied that he had enough to purchase himself another ticket and a fresh coffee, climbed to his feet.
He was nearly knocked back down by a thunderclap of vertigo. It was so strong he had to grab the tree and stand there a full minute before he was able to collect his wits to look around, open-mouthed and dazed. She he was certain it had passed, he took a step and was slapped with an even more powerful wave before he’d quite set his foot down. He screwed his eyes shut. Mistake. In the personal night behind his eyelids, the vertigo took on shape and dimension, cavorting from his gut straight to his brainstem. It sundered every thought and ignited an awful nightmare synesthesia: his fingers reported a purple sweetness that beat in time with his convulsing throat. It sailed up his arms and down the neural freeway of his spine in a festering wail, crumpling among his ribs, silvering brittly outwards until, with a mute cry, his eyes shot back open and he clutched at himself, feeling tears burn the corners of his eyes. His stomach flipped, his gorge rose, and with hardly enough time to turn his head and lean toward the nearest bush, the vomit came, an acid expulsion that relieved nothing and left him rawer and more vulnerable.
The weed. It had been laced after all. This was the first thought to surf intact out of the next roll of vertigo. He held onto the thought, beat the wave, and opened his eyes, unaware that he had shut them again. This happened twice more, until finally he was able to focus on the bush now dripping with the aftermath of his coffee and the bagel he’d breakfasted on. He searched the drippings for signs of contamination, but of course there was nothing to find.
The westering sun popped a vessel, further reddening the sky as Oliver made his slow journey back, pausing to catch his breath and to gag, fighting off tremors. Shadows wriggled out of the grass, from behind the trees, and hung down from their boughs before the retreating sun, but the pain that settled into his skull, a migraine born of exertion and what was probably some low-grade poison, pricked them with stars that wouldn’t go away. The further ahead he looked the more of them there were, a brilliant, sizzling cloud of them all he could see beyond a certain distance. He tucked his head down and tried to take control of his breathing.
He could see the street ahead. He tried to hurry toward it, but his legs spasmed as if something had taken hold of a bundle of nerves in his calves and squeezed. He staggered, crying out, and fell against a tree. Then he crumpled, his head lolling back. The pain in his legs came in excruciating oscillations he could neither predict nor defend against, and so he was forced to lie there, bursting sweat from his pores, until it began to subside. He wouldn’t risk moving for a while, afraid of triggering another bout, and so lay there panting until he peeled his eyes open with the intent of checking his watch.
But he found he could not look at his watch. He was overcome, all at once, with an altogether different vertigo, the like of which he had never imagined or experienced before. It reached deep inside of him, found and took hold of his most vital essence, and held it transfixed with the terrible promise that the unutterable strangeness he was witnessing in the sky at that instant was no drugged hallucination, but a reality from which he had, unwittingly and unfairly, shucked a layer of insulation. That he was seeing something that is not ever to be seen.
His vision trembled in the tremblingly aqueous way it did when he was deep into a well-administered acid trip; as if the face of the world was about to trickle away; but what he saw through the haze were the innumerable strands weaving together the sky, immeasurably long and infinitely delicate, blazing; vibrating as if he had just missed the final strum on the instrument of creation. The stars he had thought to be a manifestation of pain picked up by his retinas were, in fact, grains of sugar rising in steady white streams toward the webbing of the sky. He knew it was sugar as coldly he knew that he was lying against a tree, that the shape in his back pocket was his scuffed genuine-leather wallet, that he would not be seeing his brother or his mother or his apartment ever again. He watched the sugar pour skywards, out of the very tree he lay against, out of the grass and the earth, and felt how each breath he took drew a few of these particles into himself, where they were broken and disseminated into the mysteries of his biology. The rest rose up and collected like moisture in the woven sky, slipping along its blazing strands as if drawn by some infernal gravity toward a sun of poolwater blue, which was not a body in space but a hole in it, leading to a world of matter whose properties he couldn’t comprehend, not with all the knowledge in the world, and whose light was not light but even finer skeins of white thread braided into the sky, skeins that lay upon him and wherever light touched, piling invisibly upon his upturned face; and wriggling, half- or entirely-sentient for all he knew, into each pore of his flesh. Invading him. Nourishing him. Sustaining him as he sustained it.
His legs throbbed and the pain overwhelmed him to the brink of unconsciousness, where this revelation reached its most terrible dimensions. There, in near-darkness, he could feel all the strands of the sun, the threads of existence and the matter of life itself, a thing that ate and fed itself in perpetuation, inside of him, and knew they could not be removed. The pain brought him back just as abruptly as it had forced him away, but it had metastasized into his arms and trunk, and with a shock of horror, realized that he had both lost feeling in his legs and control of his arms: they were twitching like beheaded snakes at his sides, grasping nonsensically at the air and the earth. He saw his foot twitch left, twice, but did not feel it.
He felt a scream evolving in his throat, knew the words he wanted to make his last whether they held meaning or not outside of the ruptured cocoon of the reality he had thought he shared with the world, but when the scream came, it met sealed lips. He worked his jaw until it ached, but something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong. He pushed his tongue against his lips and found the resistance, a thick and alien secretion. His tongue stuck to it. He couldn’t pull it back, though he nearly sprained the muscle in his jaw in his desperate attempts to do so.
A shadow fell over his eye, following by a revoltingly gentle pressure. He was able to blink it away once, twice, and then no more--his eye welded shut and the pressure grew until it was like a soft finger holding the lid. Something had dropped from Oliver’s eye when he blinked the first time, and he searched for it: a single gray drop, there on his leg. It had the consistency of glue from what he could see--
The same shadow fell over his remaining eye. He thrashed as ferociously as he could without the use of his limbs, opened and shut the eye as rapidly as he could, but the pressure followed and the shadow fell again, gray and heavy, and a premature night fell as his lid closed and the finger secured it. In this darkness, Oliver was no more than the rasps of hyperventilation and the hammerblows of his heart pounding blood and adrenaline where it did him no good.
He continued to buck and twist, and felt himself keel over in the dirt, gouging his temple against some protrusion from the earth, a rock or a root. A plan to wriggle in the direction of the street, to crawl until someone happened upon him, was thwarted when he suddenly realized he didn’t know where he was in relation to the street. He thought he had fallen to the right, but he had jumped so much that he might wind up crawling deeper into the woods. But what choice did he have? What more could he hope for?
His legs went first. They shriveled as he crawled, and he felt their husks slithering and knocking about behind him for a while, like a pair of heavy sacks, until they began to wither and deteriorate. When they finally sloughed off, he felt a momentary discomfort as of defecation, and then he was lighter.
His left arm followed in the same manner. Then the right.
By this time, the secretion sealing his eyes and mouth had also clogged his ears. He lost his mind in the dark and shrinking prison of his body, as well as his sense of direction and purpose. He forgot why he crawled, and simply went on crawling. But even in madness, that last protection the human mind offers against such improbable ends, the cognitive ability to understand that he was suffering like no human should remained to him, and he suffered all the more by this damned awareness.
In the darkest part of the night, when the light was furthest from that spot on the earth where the insane thing that had been Oliver Kerrigan came to the end of its futile and arduous travels, the gray secretion that had taken more than half of his senses at last crusted over its nostrils: first the left, then the right. It struggled for life, the moment meaninglessly tracked by the ticking of an expensive wristwatch dropped in the brush nearly a mile back, and then died without further ceremony.
In the morning, a nameless new plant bloomed in the countryside.
It came down from the mountain as a high wind on the first night, a rumor of bad weather that deepened to a warning by the following morning. It seemed to growl from the earth itself, portending worse. Then worse came. Though he tried, he couldn’t ignore it just by turning his cheek. The wind scoured his face with snow and ice, and by the time he lost feeling, the “bad weather” was a blizzard, and he was a morsel in its teeth. It pulled at the trees as if to scalp the mountain and spat sleet across his bared face and fists, clenched so tightly for so long he was sure his fingers would snap off and disappear into the rising snow if he tried to open them. But though all the elements seemed concerted against him, the best the blizzard could do was slow him down. No matter how high the snow climbed, he went on. Ankles. Shins. Knees.
He had to go on.
The head was not far behind.
He had long since ceased to worry about time, having lost track of the hours and the unraveling parameters of days even longer since; but if there had been anyone there in the whirling darkness to press him for an answer, to lay a frozen hand on his shoulder and whisper with numbed lips into his ears, he might have guessed three or four nights since he had embarked, knowing there was something worth reaching beyond the mountains, a place to which he was drawn as a shipwrecked sailor to a light on the shore. But the wind and cold has torn away the what and why, leaving him with little more than crude instinct and the flat crunch of his boots in the snow. He clenched a fist tighter and drove the other deeper into the pocket of his coat. A surging wind rattled its frosted mesh, pressed a blade against the wattle under his chin, and then disappeared.
For the first time since the sun had last struggled through the blizzard--this past morning, perhaps--he raised his eyes, blinked away the snowblind, and appraised the distance still to go. It was, somehow, an even bleaker sight than before, and he realized that he had strayed from his original course. Strayed far. He would have smashed the compass if he’d ever needed one, shredded the map if there had ever been one, in that time before he had embarked; but he only trudged on, adjusting course with the dogged fortitude that had gotten him this far. A lancing pain he couldn’t solely attribute to a rise in the pitch of the wind sliced him from temple to nape, but like a burn, it was gone before it had fully registered. It was the memory that hurt.
He squinted into the trees suddenly, certain he had heard again a noise like the stealthy, stalking crunch of a paw or a foot. Nothing had been there when he’d first caught it so many hours ago, but it wasn’t so this time: there in the wind-tortured darkness among the trees slid a shape, a thing moving low to the ground, but even in his state, he couldn’t let himself believe that what he saw (or thought he saw) could be any more than a branch falling or fallen in the snow, broken by a powerful gale. The wind slashed wildly all around him, and slashed even more wildly in the trees, bottlenecked by their unyielding trunks. There was still room to say that he saw nothing at all. He wanted to see something following him in the snow. That was it. He wanted something to push him up the mountain as powerfully as he was pulled, so his eye forced a shape where there was only darkness and snow and his mind whispered wolves, but there was really nothing there. He climbed alone, silently repeating it to himself until it was true. He climbed alone.
And the head pursued.
There had been days he’d spent off this terrible mountain, days of sunlight that did not fall flat upon snow and wind that did not wound as it cooled his face, but the collected volume of that joy was little more than condensation on the glass of these frozen hours. Somewhere in the world there was a hammock wrapped and tucked between canisters of house paint, a broken rake leaning closeby. The cobwebs seemed to brush his hands (the one in his pocket trembling, the other savagely frostbitten) as he reached for it, the sawdust sugaring his work boots (always in boots was he), the scent of mildew coating his nose and mouth (one stoppered with mucus, the other clamped silent for days), and as he unfurled the faded thing, he peered up in the memory and out through the shed window at the unkempt yard where his father had beaten him at bocce every summer. Beyond that, down the street, was the beach where he had learned to surf. He tried to imagine the wallop of the ocean against the rocks, the gossip of seagulls, but found he could not even remember his father’s name.
An ice-slick beneath the snow caught him unaware and he nearly planted into the snow. Terror kept him on his feet and set him to trudging with renewed haste into the howling maw of the blizzard, toward that place beyond the mountain it guarded. From somewhere in the darkness came that sound of stealthy movement again, a low and slithering sound. He did not turn his head, knowing it would expose his neck once more to the cold, but was aware of its shape just the same as he redoubled his efforts. His chapped lips parted, and he heard himself panting, a sound so small and alien it seemed as if some animal had trapped itself in his jaws. He shook his head, but by the time he realized his mistake, it was too late: he had caught sight of the head, not far behind, reddening the snow in its pursuit.
The sleet picked up. There was no sense in pulling his ice-hardened cap down any further, so he bowed his head. It had been a mistake to try to gauge the distance still to go, because now the sting of ice against his averted eyes and cheeks brought vividly to mind that whirling expanse, and a reminder that some paces ahead, the already uneven ground would begin to steepen. The only warmth left to him was the throbbing fire in his hips and knees, relieved not at all by these ill-fitting boots cramping his step, but he forced himself onward over the broken earth, trying again to summon up his father’s name. It would not come. He tried to remember his voice. It would not come. He tried to remember his clothes, and there was an intimation of wool and corduroy, fleeting as scent. He snatched at it, willing it to open the way to fuller recollection, but it slipped the grasp of his mind and gave way to a confusing mélange of polyester, hard plastic, rubber--
That lancing pain again, cometing from nape to temple in a brilliant instant. He squeezed the fist in his pocket, meaning to inspect the spot where the memory burned, but kept his fist in place. It was likelier and likelier that he would be losing a hand to the blizzard, so it was imperative that he protect the other at all costs. He would need it. This knowledge, too, had lost its context, leaving only an exposed wire of instinct, and though his entire body railed against the injustice leveled upon his frozen hand, he did as he knew he was supposed to do. All would be well beyond the mountain.
He trudged on.
The head pursued.
It was closer to him than he was to the other side of the mountain, but he realized, with a bolt of despair not so different from the lancing pain, that he had no guarantee the head wouldn’t follow him to that place where he imagined all his troubles vanishing. Was it only an imagining? He searched and found no assurance in himself that the head and its red shroud would go away. When had that thought come to him? When had he found the gall to lie to himself? He had no answers for these questions. And, with slow horror, he realized that he couldn’t remember a time he had not been pursued. In a panic, he rummaged for daylight, for sawdust and corduroy, collecting them in his memory like the materials for a lifeline leading back to the foot of the mountain. He pulled himself back along a winding road, back through shrinking townships; back to that summery yard where his father had dozed on the hammock for what seemed like days on end, swinging gently in a perpetual salty breeze. He pulled, but the lifeline had been slashed. Despair filled him. Its frayed end was charred and rank with the stench of hot rubber, burnt plastic, acrid smoke--
That stealthy, slithering sound. He saw its maker now, slinking along. It had been a patient hunter all this time, but hunger is an impulsive master. Its eye glittered like chrome in the dark, its attention divided between his frostbitten fist and the prize of soft meat beneath his oversized snow jacket, the hot liqueur of his blood, the quivering delicacy of his brain. The snow reached much higher on his thighs than the last time he’d checked. It resisted him like the stormy breakers of Half Moon Bay, igniting the pain in his legs, now creeping up his back, into infernos. The blizzard bellowed in his face. He pushed, but he was trapped. Trapped again. His legs pinned not between drifts of snow but the seat and the crumpled dashboard. The wheel wedged against his chest. He clutched again at his lifeline, at the wool and corduroy, touched the seatbelt across his father’s sweatered chest, touched the glass speckling the wool--
He had stopped moving. The snow was too heavy. He could no longer move, but only struggle futilely in place, the cloud of his breath whipped back down the mountain by a razoring gale. The creature, still shaded in the trees, paused anticipatorily. The fist in his pocket clenched and unclenched, stayed by sheer force of will. His other fist, the one exposed to the blizzard, tightened, or seemed to--there was no way to tell anymore whether the command had any power over those dead nerves and blued flesh. The creature slithered forth, waiting for him to keel over. But he was not concerned about it or its chrome-shiny gaze. He was not concerned with the loss of sensation in his hand. The head was behind him, and its red shroud would blot him out if he did not move or fight. The lancing pain retraced its course along his head. He was pinned again, but he did just as he had done before: methodically, single-mindedly, willfully ignoring the pain in his lungs. Ignoring the oscillant scream of an alarm. Ignoring the glass crunching on his father’s wool sweater as he fought for shrinking, smoke-poisoned breaths. Ignoring the patter of his father’s fingers as they scrabbled along his jacket sleeve. Ignoring the idiot shine of his father’s eyes as they ceased to blink, and--
He wrenched free of the wheel. He pulled himself with desperate strength through the mangled window frame, fangs of glass ventilating his jacket as he slid out, dropped into the snow, and--
In the present, he turned to face the head.
It was his father’s. It floated serenely there in the howling blue darkness, staring back at him without recognition, and as if all the world were only thin paper wrapping, red rashed his father’s distorted features and quickly emanated outward, infecting the snow, the trees, the sky they lashed against; flooding the dark and the air itself. There was no time to understand, but before the red reached him and the Others lifted themselves out of the snow, his chapped lips cracked to issue a brittle scream that took the shape of words:
The slinking creature did not slink. Its chrome eye regarded the scene in scarlet silence. The Others freed the rope from the frosty grasp of his hand. Pulled the fist out of his jacket pocket. Pried his fingers from the pair of wallets he had safeguarded all this way. His father’s head watched from its invisible perch, its dispassionate regard indicating as little recognition of his son’s voice as the chrome-eyed creature or the Others as they pulled, their strength an irrefutable suggestion of defeat.
“I’m sorry! It’s not right! I’m sorry!”
He closed his mouth and saw the Others. Their dry eyes. Their dry mouths. When he screamed, though the words were the same, their meaning was not:
“It’s not right! It’s not right!”
The pulled. He fell. The snow enveloped him, compressing the mindless roar of the blizzard and the mad thud of his heart into a hideous grinding that did not end, but deepened as the Others tightened their hold and dragged him down, further and further. The lancing pain cut him, and out welled the memory of his father’s pleading shouts, his hopeless moans. The lancing pain cut him again, and out welled the memory of his father’s last, accusatory gaze, preserved in ice and rot on that terrible floating apparition, reminding him of the weight of his father’s body as he dragged it out of the wreck. Lashed him to the broken door. Knotted two lengths of climbing rope through the mangled window frame.
His father’s mouth, mashing under his palm as he used his face to boost himself out of the car.
It’s not right.
The grinding deepened.
The grinding went on and on, and did not end.
- - - -
From the local newspaper:
Two men, identified as Edgar and Grant Abernathy, crashed an older model rental Ford Focus while driving north on Upper West Pass, said M------ Police Officer Terry Wilde.
They are reported deceased.
Grant Abernathy, driver, failed to negotiate the turn as Upper West Pass turns into the roadway exit and struck a boulder. The vehicle rolled “at least twice” down a steep slope and came to rest off the roadway.
Wilde said officers frequently respond to crashes and collisions on this stretch during the “busy season” which runs from November through January. He admitted the department was not prepared to respond to the report of an accident so early in the year.
The vehicle caught fire after the crash, but Edgar and Grant Abernathy, father and son respectively, were found several miles away from the site of the crash on Mt. Leger, one of a range of popular skiing mountains in the area.
“It looks like [Grant Abernathy] was aiming for [the nearby town of] Novak,” speculated Montana Police Officer Megan Cotten, head of the search party that discovered the deceased Abernathys five days after the initial crash. “There’s a hospital there that [Grant Abernathy] must known was there.”
According to accounts from other members of the search party, Edgar Abernathy was transported on a makeshift sled constructed from skiing apparatus and part of a door from the totaled vehicle.
Grant Abernathy sustained a traumatic head injury during the crash. Edgar Abernathy appeared to have died instantaneously.
In the Home.
That a home of any size is a cage is a lesson Theo Kane and Robby Cowperthwait learned, but not quickly. Both of their families belonged to that rare sort that knows it pays to be polite, and will go to any lengths to maintain the illusion of decency, however high the cost, and no matter how vanishing the reward, if only to say that they came out the more gracious and hospitable in the end. It began when the Kanes could not settle on a house as quickly as they sold theirs to the Cowperthwaits, whose situation was exactly the opposite. Ashamed of their dithering but more afraid of being perceived as deceptive, they were frank with the Kanes; and Arnold and Angie Kane, knowing well the situation of the Cowperthwaits, having gone through the same ordeal before Theo with their first apartment, assured them that it was no trouble at all. They would find a hotel to stay the week until things were sorted.
Jenna and Ben Cowperthwait exchanged significant glances, hesitated, and then suggested a week might not be long enough. Ben had been pink-slipped from his long-time job deep into the house-buying process, when the last thing they needed was to halve their current income, and thus there was a financial element to their inability to close on another house. A hotel would cause so much more inconvenience than the Cowperthwaits could ever be comfortable foisting upon the Kanes, especially when the house they had loved, and that the Kanes would soon, was perfectly capable of holding both families and more. Free of charge, too! So the Kanes moved in the following week, but incapable of taking without giving, Arnold and Angie demanded the responsibilities of dishwashing, laundry, and every other day of cooking, which the Cowperthwaits politely refused. But gradually, at the Kanes’ insistence, they broke down and allowed that each of the listed duties be split between the adults. That seemed to settle it until Arnold, in a fit of magnanimity, offered one night to pay the charges they incurred in electricity, heat, and water for the Cowperthwaits, unwittingly escalating their cold war of little kindnesses to outright blows of selfless charity.
Paying the bills was out of the question, Ben assured the Kanes, and for as long as they were to under the same roof, the Cowperthwaits would count no expense against the Kanes. It was, after all, the Cowperthwaits’s fault they were in this predicament at all, and so it was his belief that the Kanes should suffer no further penalty for mistakes they hadn’t made. But it was precisely for that reason, countered the Kanes, that they would take it upon themselves to help where possible. No one had helped them with their first apartment when it refused to sell, and the least they could do for the Cowperthwaits was what hadn’t been done for them. This was far too kind a sentiment for the Cowperthwaits to ever repay, they assured the Kanes, and so they could do little more than to backtrack to their original agreement of splitting chores. But the Kanes weren’t in it for sentiment, and certainly not for pay. Had the situation been reversed, Angie Kane confided, she was more than certain the Cowperthwaits would do just the same for them.
Cornered, the final blow dealt, the Cowperthwaits conceded at last to the Kanes and shook on it.
In the next room, away from the politics of generosity, Theo and Robby struck up a friendship more easy and natural than their parents prop-grinning at one another over pies and drinks could possibly carry on, and it had formed over the ratty deck of cards Robby filched from his father’s desk the day the Kanes moved in. Arnold Kane had taught his son Go Fish and War, and it had been their pastime in Georgia to play a few rounds under the porchlight, waiting for the lightning bugs to spark in the sticky blue dusk. Robby knew Go Fish and had learned solitaire from his mother, with whom he usually played after supper until the window by the sink got dark, but he had taken quickly to the simplicity of War. He was naturally a speaker and Robby naturally a listener, and so it wasn’t long before Robby was taking round after round from Theo, who was only happy to watch Robby’s skill develop.
Robby was on a hot streak today, and although he demurred whenever Theo dramatically threw up his hands and rolled his eyes, he could see that Robby was enjoying himself. Although neither boy had the words to express their friendliest affections just yet, they had relaxed into the sort of easy rapport and nonverbal cueing that could have gotten them mistaken for brothers one day, able to recount their troubles to one another without fear of reproach. This Theo recognized as the mark of a rare friendship, and yet, though he tried, he could not bring himself to tell Robby about the looks Ben Cowperthwait gave him when there was no one else to see.
He had tried to mention how, in the laundry room two morning prior where Arnold Kane had volunteered him to help while he went for groceries and their mothers palavered upstairs, Theo had noticed that Robby’s father would withdraw to let Theo do the work of loading the dryer, which required him to stoop. Theo, unaccustomed to self-awareness, had trouble under Mr. Cowperthwait’s attentive gaze. It became like a physical pressure, an interference through which Theo had to fight to move. He dropped clothing more than once, and although Mr. Cowperthwait was there to assist with a hand large enough to scoop his shirts and his mother’s jeans in one swipe, he brushed close enough to Theo for him to catch a whiff of the sweat behind his ears. When Theo spilled the detergent, Mr. Cowperthwait produced a rag and went on picking at the laundry, but he could hardly keep his eyes off Theo as he pushed the rag through the suds with his foot.
It’s quicker if you get down and scrub with your hands, Mr. Cowperthwait had said. Theo had hesitated, but confused by the intensity of his gaze and growing hot underneath it, took the advice. He still regretted it, but just as the means to describe his kinship with Robby were beyond his grasp, so the queasy, greasy sensations that Mr. Cowperthwait’s silent regard instilled were his to brood upon, and his alone. Theo could still smell Mr. Cowperthwait’s sweat. He put it out of his mind and returned to the game.
“You’re getting really good,” Theo remarked.
Robby smiled. “I’m just lucky today.”
“Sure thing. You better not be cheating!”
“How would I cheat?” Robby said.
“I bet you’d like to know,” Theo said. They flipped their cards and Robby took both, just as he had the last four rounds. “Ah,” Theo said, throwing his hands up again. “You sure you never played this before?”
“Hey, do you know how to play other card games? Besides Go Fish and solitary, you know any others?”
“You mean solitaire.”
“Yeah, teach me that one.”
“Um, that’s kind of a hard one. It would take a long time.”
“I learn quick. Did I ever tell you I can play guitar pretty good? My uncle’s been in a lot of bands, he gave me his guitar and he said I was the quickest learner he ever taught. I can play ‘Smoke on the Water.’ Probably still could if you had a guitar around.”
“What’s ‘Smoke on the Water’?”
“You don’t know Deep Purple?”
Theo saw a little flash in Robby’s eyes and how his shoulders hunched.
“No, I do,” said Robby.
“But you don’t know ‘Smoke on the Water’? That’s their song.”
“Oh, I know it.”
“How’s it go?”
“I don’t know,” Robby said. Theo had never known someone to give up so quickly and honestly, but where he would have given his Georgia friends hell for it, he felt instead a little sting of pity. Theo mimed the placement of his hands along an invisible guitar as he sounded out the rhythm, and was happy to see how Robby’s shoulders unsprung as he exclaimed, “Oh, I didn’t know that’s what it’s called! ”
“Yeah, they rock,” said Theo, dropping his hands and sweeping the cards back up. “It’s harder to play guitar than it looks because you have to know where the frets are, and then you have to press ’em right when you’re strumming, too. It’s even trickier when you’re doing chords.”
“What’s a fret?”
“It’s like the little, um--they’re like the notes on a guitar, kinda, so you have to press the strings to the frets when you strum to actually get the note.”
“Yeah. But I picked it up quick. You probably could pick it up too, if I taught you right.”
Robby’s face lit up again. “I always wanted to be in a band.”
“My uncle is really good, he’s been in so many.”
“Let’s play solitaire.”
“Oh, yeah, teach me, I’ll pick it up quick.”
It took fifteen minutes before Robby and Theo concluded that Theo would not be picking it up quick, or picking it up at all. He had too little attention span and there were too many nuances to the game, which he found tedious and sterile. The only reason he didn’t say so ten minutes sooner was because he could see that Robby found in the patience and delay of the game what Theo found in rock music and War.
“I’m sorry, man,” said Theo. “I can’t do this.”
“It’s okay,” Robby said, pushing the cards back together. He didn’t seem fazed. “Wanna play Go Fish?”
“Do you have Monopoly?”
“No, I’ve been asking for it, but we’ve got Trouble. We’ve got Sorry, too. I think we have Scrabble, too.”
“I like Sorry,” said Theo.
“I just don’t know where it is right now,” Robby said apologetically. “We packed a lot of stuff and I don’t know which box is which except where our clothes are.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Theo. “Huh.”
They were quiet for a moment as Robby shuffled the deck. Theo started to rise, thinking he would ask his parents whether they might be able to ask for a couple of Capri Suns and sit out back. There was still some light left in the day, and he’d spied a creek nearby with rocks good for skipping.
But Robby snapped his fingers. “Let me show you something,” he said.
“In your room? What’s there I haven’t seen?”
“No, just come on.”
Puzzled, Theo followed Robby down the hall, sucking in the smell of cooking meat as they skirted the kitchen. It was Mrs. Cowperthwait’s day, and he was quietly relieved to see that Mr. Cowperthwait was not assisting, gone on an errand. There was far less to take pleasure in on the second floor, where the bedroom doors seemed grudgingly spaced along the narrow hall, as if the builders hadn’t intended the house to be inhabited by any more than some drifter or recluse. Robby led him past their shared room to the master bedroom at the end of the hall, and exhibiting none of his characteristic reserve, pushed the door open, crept in, and beckoned Theo along, who hesitated in the gloomy corridor. The Cowperthwaits had surrendered the room to Theo’s parents, but it was in his upbringing to respect the private spaces of others, especially of adults, and to not venture where he was not invited. But seeing Robby so fearless goaded his ego, so in spite of his reservations, he slipped in after Robby and approached the closet together.
“Look there,” Robby said, his voice low.
Without meaning to, Theo matched his pitch:
Robby went to the panel in the wall beside the closet and traced its frame in the plaster, but Theo couldn’t make heads or tails of what the panel was supposed to be. There was a small, dark hole where it was evident something had once attached to the wall. “Is it a safe?” he asked, thinking of how rich people in cartoons hid their money behind paintings in little safes. Robby shook his head. A smile went forming on his lips, but the gravity of his expression discomfited Theo as they stood there, speaking in low voices; trespassers in a place of adults.
“There’s a door to the attic in the closet,” Robby said. “I didn’t know we had one for a long time. It’s up there.”
“What’s up there?”
“The thing I wanna show you.”
“What is it?”
“It’s that,” Robby said, pointing to the mysterious panel in the wall. “There’s another one downstairs and another one down-downstairs, in the basement.”
Theo frowned. “Why won’t you tell me what it is? If it’s not a safe or something, what is it? Is it a door?”
“Kind of. Just come to the attic with me. I promise I won’t hurt you.”
The idea of Robby hurting him was so absurd that Robby’s assurance had exactly the opposite effect on Theo: his discomfort peaked, and he began to shake his head, casting glances at the doorway to the bedroom, where he was irrationally certain that one of their parents would materialize at any moment. It was Mr. Cowperthwait in his mind. The sunlight streaming dustily through the bedroom window exposed, but did not warm, a sensation to which he was not accustomed, and which quickly upset him.
“I’m going back downstairs,” he said. “Let’s just go to the creek and skip rocks. I don’t want to be inside anymore. We’re always inside.”
Robby’s face fell. Another sting of pity took Theo in the chest, but he was growing more anxious with every moment they spent before the closet, staring at that panel and its small, dark hole. “It’s a dumbwaiter,” Robby said, and for a moment, Theo hadn’t a clue what he might be referring to, and turned a nonplussed eye on Robby. “This thing,” Robby said, pointing to the panel. “In the attic. It’s a dumbwaiter. I thought…I don’t know. You can push these doors open from the inside and come out. It’s fun.”
“What are you talking about?”
Robby pointed again, quailing. Theo, unsure of how he could reassure Robby that he wasn’t upset with him but rather with himself, managed to grow even more outwardly upset as he worked vainly at the problem. All the while, Robby’s shoulders hunched protectively inwards.
“You can open it up from the attic and go...you know, down, all the way, and it’s...like kind of fun, you know,” Robby mumbled. “I thought it was kind of fun when I did it because you can go fast, pretty fast, if you’re careful…”
“You mean like an elevator?” Theo said at last.
“It goes all the way down,” Robby said, hardly above a whisper now. “Sometimes it even goes lower.”
“What do you mean?”
Robby didn’t seem to know how to answer, but he didn’t want to lose Theo’s attention. “It can go lower than the basement sometimes,” Robby said, and then didn’t know what more to add.
“What’s down there? Is it just another room?”
“Yeah. I mean, kind of.”
“Like a sub-basement?” said Theo. “Mac lives in a house that used to be a funeral home. Mac’s my friend from Georgia. He had two basements because one is where they would display the bodies, and the other one is where they would get them ready. Like embalm them.”
Robby frowned. “That sounds creepy.”
“Not really,” said Theo. “Mac’s parents changed up the whole place and closed up the second basement. You would never know. Was this a funeral home, too?”
“I don’t think so,” said Robby. “It’s old. Maybe.”
“It probably was. That’s probably why it has two basements. How do you get to the second one? I didn’t see any doors when I went in the basement.”
“It’s hard to see, but it’s there,” said Robby, adding quickly, “So you want to try it out? The dumbwaiter?”
“Okay,” Theo said.
“Yeah, show me.”
Robby hesitated a moment longer. Theo conjured up a smile, and that seemed to reanimate Robby. He let Theo slide the closet door open and then parted the clothes hanging inside with a boldness that further discomfited Theo again. But he didn’t act on it. He had already rattled the boy, and it wouldn’t do to drive any further wedge between them, so he let Robby riffle through his parents’ clothes and looked up at the trapdoor to the attic when he pointed it out. Theo tugged the string. It opened slowly on pneumatic hinges. A narrow wooden ladder segmented down, and Robby hoisted himself briskly up. Theo followed, glad and perplexed in equal measure to see him so visibly excited, so much so that he didn’t think it wise to tell Robby what he felt when he saw the chewed-over wood of the ladder rungs, softened and warped by disuse, or about the chill that stole over him when they surfaced into the constricted angularity of the attic. As he crept across the boards and under the rafters, following Robby toward a space to stand, he realized Robby had taught him two things today: solitaire and claustrophobia.
Once dusted and on their feet, Robby turned to the wall. Theo, a little taller than Robby, had to hunch to keep clear of the rafters. There was a narrow slit of a window set low to the floor that provided enough light by which to move around, and just as Robby had indicated, there was a panel identical to the one in the master bedroom. It was a dark and unreflective metal. Beside it was a short peg, and on it was hung a coil of rope.
“That’s it,” said Robby. He was breathy from the climb, and his words sent dustmotes whirling into the sunlight.
“We’re not going to fit,” said Theo.
“One of us stays here to get it going,” said Robby, pointing to the rope on the peg. Theo traced it up and into a hole in the wall, and realized it must connect to a pulley, and the pulley to the dumbwaiter apparatus. Quickly, he appraised his surroundings.
“I’ll do the rope. How do I do it?”
“But I’ve been inside it already,” said Robby. “You should go in.”
“I don’t want to,” said Theo.
“It’s bigger than it looks,” said Robby. “Look.”
Robby opened the panel and showed him the interior of the dumbwaiter, which would allow him to sit almost cross-legged--what still went by “Indian-style” in Georgia, and so in Theo’s mind, but was called “pretzel” here--and had plenty of wiggle room. The notion of sitting in a dark box when the door shut was not especially appealing, but he did feel a little better after examining the admittedly roomy interior, and let Robby know.
“I’ll get you going and then I’ll race you down,” Robby said, beaming. “Look, see that little knob? You can turn that knob when you want to stop so you can get out. Just push hard on the door and it’ll open.”
“You’ve done this by yourself?” Theo asked.
Robby nodded, then shook his head. “My dad helped me. He found it and told me about it.”
“He let’s you play in this thing?”
For the first time, Theo couldn’t interpret Robby’s expression, but his vague glance at the dumbwaiter told him all he needed to know about how often Robby used it. “We’re not supposed to be here, huh?” said Theo. Robby, shoulders hunching, shook his head again, but was surprised when Theo clapped him on the shoulder and flashed him a grin.
“Ain’t nothin’ good as a thing you ain’t s’posed to do,” Theo said, exaggerating his southern patois, and was glad to see Robby smile so readily in response. Theo clapped him again, and with his fears momentarily eclipsed, opened the dumbwaiter door and crawled inside. Robby unslung the rope and wrapped it around his hands.
“How do I know when I’m where I’m supposed to be?” said Theo, crossing his legs.
“You just count the bumps,” said Robby.
“And then I turn the knob?”
“You said this goes pretty fast.”
Robby shook his head. “I’ll make you go slow so it’s not scary.”
“Where are all the doors?”
“My parents’ room, dad’s office, and the basement, and then the--the sub-basement, if it goes through,” Robby said, counting on his fingers. He blinked as if something had unexpectedly brushed against his nose, but cleared up and wrapped the rope between his hands. “Just count the bumps and you’ll know where you are. I’ll race you downstairs.”
“Why wouldn’t it go all the way?” Theo asked, but Robby shrugged. “Sometimes it just doesn’t,” he said, picking at the rope. Theo thought about it, but settled back into the dumbwaiter, clasping his knees. “Send me all the way,” he said, “but you better climb down that ladder fast or I’ll beat you.”
“I will,” Robby said, and shut the door.
In the dark, Theo’s heart thudded at the same volume as the clanking of apparatus keeping the dumbwaiter aloft. With a short, sudden drop, Theo was on his way. He bit his lip as the pulley whined and the box swung inside the walls of the shaft, actively fighting to regain the calm that had come over him at Robby’s smile. He sought out the knob, running his fingers along the smooth wall until he found it, but that relief was small in the face of the growing realization that he had, without much forethought, convinced himself to sit pretzel in a box in a four-story shaft without light or room to stand. The sound of his thudding heart swelled, accompanied by the harsh rasp of his breathing, but he held onto the knob and clenched his other hand into a fist.
Count the bumps, he remembered. He listened, but immediately found himself second guessing. Had he missed one, preoccupied with the clanking and swinging of the dumbwaiter? It was difficult to gauge distance and velocity in the dark. Had Robby already let the rope go? Theo couldn’t hear much past his thudding heart, but the pulley was growing fainter, and he was certain the box was still descending. The knob pinched in his fingers was cold. He could stop and get out now, if he chose--
A small, unmistakable vibration rattled the dumbwaiter and interrupted his thoughts, but it only cast the first bump into further doubt. Had he imagined it? If he turned the knob and stopped where there wasn’t a door to open, would turning the knob in the other direction set him in motion again? And at what speed? There were no ropes inside the dumbwaiter, no means by which to control his descent, as far as he could tell, which was hardly--
Another bump. It was time to decide. If that was the second bump, he was passing Mr. Cowperthwait’s office. He could turn the knob now and get out. If, however, this bump was the third, he should be in the basement now and close to the end of the line anyway, but that didn’t seem to be the case. The bump, he reckoned, would have been more final, and he would not continue to experience the sensation of movement, however subtle--
Another bump. This had to be the third, but he waited, and then--the fourth. He was in the sub-basement! Theo turned the knob. He heard a dry click, and a tremble passed through the box. He caught his breath, but there was no further sound or motion, and with a ponderous exhalation, Theo concluded that the dumbwaiter had reached its terminus. He allowed himself another few seconds’ worth of peace before he remembered that Robby had almost certainly beaten him, making sure the dumbwaiter descended at so leisurely a pace that he didn’t need to race at all--and so, ego inflamed, Theo thrust his hands against the back of the panel.
It opened, and when Theo realized Robby wasn’t waiting for him outside the dumbwaiter, he almost cheered--and then simply stared in confusion across the room. The stairs, the same stairs down which he had lugged his hamper of dirty laundry, were right there. There was the low window that looked out level with the street. Grimy sunlight penetrated the gloom, splashing across their bottommost steps. The light teased out the roundness of the boiler and its geometry of exposing piping. The washing machine. The dryer. He had miscounted after all. Theo crept out of the dumbwaiter and listened for Robby’s footsteps, but after several moments of silence, he approached the stairs and stood by them another moment, listening for footsteps before he began to climb, wondering if Robby might have detoured to the bathroom. Perhaps, Theo thought as he reached for the door, he had stopped in the kitchen to beg a bit of food. He thought Robby would be just as disappointed to hear that he hadn’t made it to the sub-basement after all--
Theo’s hand wavered over the doorknob, but didn’t grasp it right away. In fact, it returned to his side and began to curl as he sniffed once, twice, carefully. Earlier, amidst relief over Mr. Cowperthwait’s absence, he remembered trying to guess what sort of meat Mrs. Cowperthwait might be preparing. He thought now that what he had smelled might have been pork, which cooked pungently and whose scent was slow to disperse once it set in. The basement door was just down the hall from the kitchen, and the smell of pork is not easily mistaken once identified; but as Theo took another, more attentive sniff, he registered a sour note that hadn’t been there before, an unpleasant undertone he could neither name nor stand to hold onto very long. It irritated his throat until, without warning, he coughed into his hand and took a step back down the stairs.
A shadow interrupted the line of light underneath the basement door, and a gust of that same sour smell swept by Theo. He gagged and took another step backwards, but missed the step and went tumbling, the wind leaving him in a rush as he landed flat on the basement floor. He heard movement at the top of the stairs and opened his eyes, but the grimy sunlight filled his vision with tears. Theo threw an arm across his face and used the other to drag himself out of the light, by which time the sounds had evolved into a soft pawing, and another sound that reminded him of the hushing noise a sodden bag will make when dragged across a hard surface. The light warmed his chin, his hair, and then vanished as he sat up. He opened his eyes and turned his head in time to see the door shake through a haze of leftover tears.
Theo scrambled to his feet, legs trembling as he stumbled back to the other side of the basement, heading for the dumbwaiter. Mr. Cowperthwait, he thought, and behind him, the door shook again. He heard its hinges rattle. The pawing stopped suddenly, and he heard the doorknob turn, the door swish open, and that sodden-bag sound again, louder and more detailed. He stuffed himself into the dumbwaiter and shut the door, glancing at the sunlight on the stairs--
Something passed by the window and the light quit as suddenly as if a switch had been thrown. In the half-second of total darkness on which Theo shut the dumbwaiter door in a spasm of panic, he heard the sound reach the bottom of the stairs. “Robby,” Theo breathed in the dark; and then, despite every reservation, he began to pound against the ceiling of the dumbwaiter, rocking the box, unable to say Robby’s name at any volume greater than a terrified sigh. The harder he pounded, the smaller the dumbwaiter became, his knees bumping the walls and his shoulders flattening against the back panel, his blows short and ineffective; but the harder he pounded, the less chance there was of hearing that sound, that wet undulation, as it approached the sheet of metal separating their darknesses--
The dumbwaiter shook and began to rise. Theo screamed, an unrestrained burst that seemed to well from the soul and left him weak and weeping even after it clicked that the dumbwaiter was ascending, not opening or being torn from the wall. He screamed again, in an aftershock of terror, and then crumpled as much as he was able in the confines of the box. He counted two bumps, a third, and prepared himself for the fourth, but the dumbwaiter climbed another floor and came to a stop, pulley creaking. He had miscounted again. He shuddered, collecting himself, and then shoved the door open.
But Robby wasn’t there. The attic yawned, dusty and cramped, as Theo spilled out of the dumbwaiter. He looked around in bewilderment, swiping his tears away, patting the basement dust out of his clothing, and chanced a look at the peg next to the dumbwaiter. The rope was coiled indifferently on the peg, as if it had never been touched. Theo stared, mind racing. Robby must have simply remounted the rope before racing down, but that explanation wouldn’t suffice with that stench still souring his mouth, and that sodden dragging sound still in his ears, seared in with adrenaline. He felt a noise building in his throat and fought it. Theo looked back into the dumbwaiter and thought about the bumps Robby had warned him to count. He thought very hard.
But this is the attic.
Theo’s eye went to the attic window, and he thought of its sister in the basement, of the light and how it had vanished. Had he paused on the stairs, the grimy window would have afforded him a view of the Cowperthwaits’ driveway, which held the street at a distance he knew his parents found comfortably reminiscent of the secluded country life they had always known, but which Theo found reclusive, even standoffish, in cluttered New England. It was as if the house had been built at a intentional remove, perched on a hill in the woodsy part of town. The windows of the house were large and welcoming, but they could only be found in the front and rear, squinting across the prohibitive length of the driveway and surveilling the backyard. There were no windows on either side of the house. One was taken up by a bulging chimney stack and the other had simply been left bare, a naked stretch of siding that went uninterrupted from base to roof peak.
Because Theo could see where the wall wedged into that very peak at the far end of the attic, he understood that the window at his feet must peer over the sloping downhill of the backyard, where he and Robby had made their bashful hellos a week ago while their parents chatted about the challenges such a slope would present to mowing. The yard ended at the treeline, but a little ways beyond it was the creek Theo had invited Robby to explore. He had spied it recently from Robby’s bedroom window, but he would surely be able to see it all from the height of the attic. One eye on the trapdoor at the other end of the room, Theo carefully lowered himself, wiping a coating of dust from the glass with the heel of his palm. He peered through the window.
And would have screamed if he’d had the air for it.
The day was edging toward dusk and the sun was reddening as it fell. As such, there was a sharp delineation of shade where the Cowperthwaits’ yard met the woods, and the woods were themselves growing dark with lengthening shadows; the sort of resplendent New England autumn that had proved irresistible to the elder Kanes. But the shadows were pointing in the wrong direction, defying the light, drawing Theo’s eye into the woods and beyond the creek, where the trees should have thickened and climbed the slope of the land but instead withered, grew scarce, and then gave way to a waste of scorched earth. Seated upon it was an unnamable thing like a mound of smooth flesh, towering far above the treeline, dwarfing the woods and stretching pallid appendages into the earth, multitudinous fingers writhing like worms in the underbrush. This sight alone would have broken Theo’s mind--he was expending so much energy clutching at its unraveling threads that he failed to hear the attic door quietly drop away, the ladder extend--but then, just as he saw it, he realized it had seen him.
And opened its eye.
Theo was able to scream this time, a bleat of primal despair that went on inside him even when his throat could no longer produce it, echoing until it blotted out all memory of language. He made no further sound even when the thing began to drag its impossible girth toward the house on the hill, heedless of the trees that folded beneath it, the snapping of their trunks arriving like the patter of distant fireworks to Theo’s ears. He watched as the shadows licked like black flames along its tremulous flesh. He watched as the eye grew until it filled the window, until it became the world. He tried to wrench his gaze away, and realized that there was someone else in the room with him.
Its fingers had swarmed up through the attic door, bearing a corruption of Robby’s face. It approached, twilit, terrible. The scream inside of him intensified, half his mind already gone to that hideous eye in the window, and when Robby’s face inverted and vanished into dozens of questing feelers, the other half nearly slipped away, too. They reached for him, their stench filling his nose and mouth with clammy salinity, and he might have submitted to them then and there if one of those vile appendages hadn’t knocked the rope off its peg in its eagerness to touch him, to violate the last barrier between himself and madness. A dry husking noise burst from Theo’s mouth and he leapt toward the dumbwaiter, scrambled into its black confinement, and drew the door closed as dozens and dozens of feelers writhed after him, each bearing a little piece of Robby’s face, Robby’s awful smiling face--
Theo grabbed the brake and turned it. The pulley shrieked, the ropes lashed, and suddenly the dumbwaiter was falling. He heard the first and second bump almost as one, and then the third, but he wasn’t fast enough to push the brake. There was the fourth bump, and then a fifth and a sixth in rapid succession, but the dumbwaiter did not hit bottom--it went on, dropping lower than it should go, each bump rattling Theo's teeth, driving another gust of cold terror in his guts--
Sometimes it even goes lower, Robby whispered in his memory.
No, Theo thought, and pushed the knob just as Robby had told him, but the dumbwaiter continued to fall, picking up speed no matter how he protested, no matter how he turned the brake this way and that. Its impotent click was audible even over the accelerating rush of wind along the sides of the dumbwaiter, its dire clanging as it knocked against the sides of the shaft. With an unceremonious twang, the knob came free in Theo’s hand, spilling springs into his lap as the box continued to fall, the wind rising to the same pitch as Theo’s scream, full and unbridled at last, screaming a stark denial at first, and then simply screaming; but the dumbwaiter continued to fall, moving at an ever more uncontrolled velocity, falling, and falling--
Sometimes it even goes lower.
Falling, and falling--
Sleep was the only thing on his mind after a twelve hour shift stacking boxes of assorted goodies. James was a night shift employee for his local toy shop, Knockers. It was 3:00a.m. now, and the only living things were the homeless people and addicts that wandered the dark New Jersey streets at night. He reached into his jean pocket for his phone so he could call what was probably the only Uber driver out this late to bring him back to his stale apartment on the other side of town. 10 minutes for next ride, read his phone, brighter than the stars in the night sky. He waited patiently. The outside of his work smelled of old gym socks and wasted lives. Time passed, and before he knew it, an older greyish car appeared down the street, slowly making its way towards him. Upon investigating his app, he noticed that it was in fact the lady it described. When the car rolled onto the side of the street, James swung open the back door, taking care not to hit the curb as the car was low to the ground. His driver was older, with reddish blonde hair, and her seat was rather straight. Wondering how anyone could drive comfortably that way, James said the proper hellos and slouched back. It was a 7 minute drive home at this time of night and the lady had good taste in music.
Approaching the first red light, he felt a small kick in the back of his seat. Jolting up he asked himself what the fuck that was. “It’s probably nothing..” he muttered under his breath, low enough that the driver didn’t hear. Then it happened again, this time harder, more angrily. “Do you have something in your trunk? I think it’s flying into the back of my seat,” he asked the lady. She glanced up into the rear view mirror and told him that there was nothing back there, he must be imagining things. It was late, it was really fucking late. He was probably just dozing thanks to the lack of sleep, and the car was an older model. If he felt it again, he could pull the middle cushion out and look in the trunk himself. He slid himself over to the left when he heard a faint sound, almost like a whimper.
Fuck, man, what if there’s some animal in there? he thought, pulling at the cushion. It was stuck. He kept pulling. The driver had noticed and was driving cautiously. He pulled again, and it gave a little. If he kept pulling, it would eventually open up. They were stopped at a red light when he managed to pull it open more than halfway before hearing a human voice. It sent a shrill, weak “Help me...” before the driver sped past the red light and pulled over.
“Where the fuck am I?” James said, but the driver laughed and got out of the car. James’s girlfriend was going to be fucking pissed if he wasn’t home on time again tonight. He had taken so much overtime lately, and it was really straining their relationship. The driver gripped the back door of the car and pulled James out. Before he knew it, there was a cold hand on the back of his neck pulling him towards the trunk. Click. The trunk flew open. It was darker inside than the alley they were parked in, and he couldn’t see a damn thing. He tried to grab whatever was crying out to him in the car before his hand touched a damp spot on the carpet inside the trunk. He slid his fingers farther in before realizing that the trunk was more than damp--it was fucking full of liquid. He turned around as he felt the driver’s hand leave his neck. The driver was gone. She vanished into the night like some sort of fucking speed demon. He wiped his hand on his pants and looked at the mysterious fluids. It was a weird shade of orange. Grabbing his phone, out of his pocket he flashed it into the puddle and he turned cold. He was fucking terrified.
There was a young girl of about four. Her throat had been cut side to side. He smelled urine and saw that she had bled everywhere. He wanted to wonder what the fuck was going on ,but he was under so much shock that he had almost lost all sense of feeling. What was he going to do? His DNA was now all over the carpet. They could trace that back to him. Even if he was to tell the truth to police, he could still be charged with being an accessory to the murder of a fucking kid. He took the kid’s pale, limp corpse and flung it over his left shoulder before darting towards the bridge he had passed during the ride. He wanted to dispose of the body fast. He watched his sides, fronts and backs to make sure there wasn’t some fucking weirdo out to see him carrying the dead child. Approaching the river, he stopped and dropped the body, no longer silent. He started to cry. Why him? What had happened that he deserved this?
Then it hit him. Two years ago on this night, he and his girlfriend Danielle were driving home from a late party with some friends from high school. They were drunk, but he had still gotten behind the wheel, swearing on everything that he loved that he was able to drive fine. They left the party. On the ride home, they had hit something and took off without even checking to see what it was, never looking back, but they would never forget. The next morning, when James got up for work, he noticed something on the back right tire of his car. Inside the ridges there was a small patch of human hair. They had just shrugged it off.
Staring across the lake, he noticed two white lights, almost phosphorescent, resembling eyeballs. Someone had seen him. He shouted with all the might he had left in his sleep-deprived body before it happened. Whatever the fuck that thing was, it charged across the water at him and ripped his intestines clean out of his stomach. He dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes. It wasn’t human. Gasping for breath, James made eye contact with the thing. It shrieked louder than anything he had ever heard in his life before it plunged its hands up through his rib cage and pulled out his heart, leaving him sprawled dead with a dead child next to him in the sand.
- Dakota G.
A woman in a red dress at a bar alone is a myth, but that had never stopped him from seeking her out. What had was marriage, and for a long time, Laura was reason enough to set aside his quest and simply be. She had worn a summery green dress to meet him their first time out, but she checked all the other boxes with her black hair, her full laugh, and her endless legs, and she was a good person on top of that, and above all; a nurse-in-training, and a volunteer wherever there was volunteering to do. These things were true even five years and a baby girl into that marriage that he was slowly (never aloud, never outright, except in his most private moments) coming to view as a distraction. The more time she spent away, the antsier he became. Laura would never deny him his hobbies and personal pleasures. She allowed beer in the house and even overlooked his day-drinking, sometimes joined in, but she had to draw a line somewhere. It so happened that she drew it, bold and inflexible, around the bar.
He couldn’t resent her for it, but he could resent her rule as much as she resented his: no lunch with male coworkers. Empirically, this was a fair deal, but they weren’t together often enough to enforce the rules, and so it fell on faith and love and trust to carry the burden of fidelity--things that also, in Hank’s private moments of doubt, were beginning to seem just as fictitious as marriage, as his woman in red. So he didn’t hit bars: he “bowled with friends,” or when he was feeling risky, “caught a local act,” knowing full well the only place for musicians in this glorified backwoods shantytown was the bar scene. He hadn’t gotten a bead on Laura’s go-to lie yet, but she didn’t need one with her days overflowing with lectures, appointments, exams, and procedure days. If she was lying, he would bet it was about the “extra hours,” but he had doubts about this, too. Laura was a good person, better than him by any measure, and the thought of her lying just...didn’t jive.
Hank tried not to dwell on it. Not when he slipped Abby’s babysitter a little more so she wouldn’t mention how he came back stinking of alcohol; not in the car, skipping love songs on the radio; not as he took his seat at the dive, scanning the room; not even ten beers deep, even his inner voice fumbling basic grammar. He didn’t wrestle with the morality of these little escapes, and wouldn’t have to. In six months, not one trip had proved fruitful. Sit long enough at any bar in the world and a woman in a red dress will happen by, but his woman--unaccompanied, uninhibited, wistfully exotic--never came, and Hank was beginning to imagine, perhaps even understand, that she never would. Tonight, in fact, might be one of his last nights out, and as he settled on his third drink, considered that tonight could be the last. He was okay with that. Going out had turned into routine. The thrill was dying. He missed Laura more and more, and he could put off a moral check as long as he liked, but the wrongness of what he was doing would catch up sooner than later.
Hank looked into the depths of his glass, resolved himself that this was it, and then saw her at the end of the bar. He almost didn’t. This was hick country, and when you find yourself at one of the few bars around on car show night in hick country, every bar is a meat shop of sweaty aggro brawn. Hank wasn’t a regular here for that reason, and because it had a pool table to which the local biker gangs laid claim. It was only because one of these hulk-types moved his girth, festooned in faux-Sons of Anarchy insignia, that he caught sight of her, and with her legs primly crossed and her burnished cloud of hair, she was a figure transposed from a dream. The contrast between her and the surroundings was almost painful to behold. He chalked that up to the booze, but he wasn’t sure where to attribute the courage that took him from his end of the bar to hers, introduced himself, and got a laugh out of her within moments. And so far as Hank knew, there was no earthly power that could have made it so that they remained in deep conversation at a table near the door close to an hour later, much of the clientele having long shuffled back out to ogle the Chargers and ’stangs for the umpteenth time.
Maybe it was the booze. It had been his ally through high school and the couple years he spent in college before he threw up his hands, cried fuck-it, and followed in his father’s electrician footsteps. It wasn’t until later, and before Laura, that he got to know that alcohol is no one’s friend. He and it were on uncertain terms still--he could credit it with getting him this far with Julissa, his woman in red, but he could also blame it for bringing up his “roommate” in conversation, a self-laid trap he wasn’t quick enough to dodge. He had to mention the rose trellis. Idiot. Laura had fallen in love with it but it bugged the hell out of Hank. It took more work than he’d ever imagined to maintain--they were down to daily watering and pruning, but it attracted insects, and it was just bad luck the thing led right to their bedroom window, so every time Laura cracked it for air, they were sure to encounter a flock of bees freely roaming their home a few moments later. All this he had already told Julissa, redacting Laura’s name and plugging in “my damn roommate.” He was saying too much, and deflected to her drink when he felt himself losing his footing, gesturing with his glass after gulping from his.
“You’ve been nursing that thing all night,” he said, licking his lips. “Sure I can’t get you something else?”
Her only reply, of course, was that close-lipped smile she had been giving him since he’d struck up conversation. Fine by him, with lips like those; but he wasn’t as fond of her answer after she stole a sip of her drink, too.
“You’re keeping something from me.”
“I can’t reveal all my secrets on the...first,” he said, his mouth doing the work faster than his brain. “Not very gentlemanly of me.”
She eyed him. “First what?”
That smile. Another sip. “Dance around it all you like, Hank. You’re keeping something from me.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’m a man of mystery. You have to work to find my secrets.”
“I don’t think I do.”
“Seems like you’re working pretty hard to me.”
“Lotta guys in here that’d like to buy you a drink,” he said, affecting playfulness. “Didn’t think I’d still be one of them after all this time, Julissa.”
“Have I hurt you, Hank?”
“Just my pride.”
“Nothing to worry about, then.”
“Not at all,” he said, laughing. “How about a martini? Are you a mojito girl? Tell me you’re not a mojito girl, or this has all been for naught.”
“Don’t condescend me, Hank. You’ve been so sweet all night. Mojitos are a fag drink.”
Hank laughed uproariously, and somewhat incredulously, drawing the attention of the barkeep and a couple of guys at pool. “That’s a bad word you got there, Julissa. I’d try not to say it too loud.”
“I know a lot of bad words.”
That took him by surprise. His heart was racing again, just like it had the moment he’d spotted her, and the blood was rushing away from his head where he needed it, now more than ever. He picked up his glass and set it down empty, gesturing again at Julissa’s.
“If you won’t tell me what that is, then, can I guess?”
She smiled. “One guess. Just one.”
“Am I permitted a taste-test?”
“Not at all.”
“I’m going to take away your guess if you keep trying to make it conditional.”
Hank leaned back, letting a smile play across his mouth. She rotated the drink slowly, smiling, letting him get a good look at its murky amber depths, her fingerprints in the condensation. He thought he could see some darker matter floating toward the bottom of the glass. He tried to study it, couldn’t keep his eye from wandering, but made sure to wander no lower than her collarbone. No man’s eye is quick enough to escape a woman’s notice when it roves so far, and even thoroughly drunk, with the dark line of her cleavage beckoning from her plunging neckline, he knew not to chance it.
She snorted. “Try again.”
“Rhetorically speaking, Hank. I gave you one guess. You blew it. Think on your mistakes.”
A little heat shot through his chest every time she said his name, but her inflection on the last word gave him pause. He glanced at her, but her eyes were as closed as her smile when he met them.
“IPA, then,” he said.
“You’ll have to be more specific.”
“Dime a dozen, is that what you think of me?”
“Anything but,” he said.
“You still being rhetorical?”
“Is that your final guess?”
“This is the lightning round, huh.”
She smiled and sipped, maintaining eye contact. She tipped the glass toward her mouth such that her hand shielded the actual act of her drinking, but she wasn’t faking, as he had suspected earlier in the night--there was less in the glass and a shine on her upper lip when she finished. He watched the matter swirl in the drink as her tongue licked the shine away.
“Local craft IPA. Something I don’t know the name of for sure, but it’s for sure more hops than alcohol,” he said, drumming his fingers on the table. “That’s my best and final guess, Julissa you cheat.”
She surprised him with a bark of laughter that turned as many heads as he had with his, and although she covered her mouth with the back of her hand, he could see that she was struggling with a true smile, teeth and all. The timbre of her voice warmed him like an unexpected shot of the whiskey that had started his night. He grinned like a fool. It was all he could do. “That’s it then,” he said, grinning wider.
“Very close, Hank,” she said, letting her hand fall. Her smile had closed back up, but she radiated mirth. “Better than most. I almost want to let you try it.”
“I’m not into consolation prizes so much,” he said, drawing another closed smile out of her.
“You’re after the whole calf,” she said.
“You could say that.”
This is a dangerous game, guy, he thought, especially with that look you just gave her.
Go big, he countered himself.
“You seem like a passionate guy, Hank,” she said.
“You could say that, too.”
“I like what I like.”
It was humming along now, and he could see she felt it, too, but for either of them to articulate what was happening would be a failure on both their parts. It was all in the eyes, now. It took all of his willpower to hone in, and still his gaze strayed toward her mouth, curved in another enigmatic smile. Hank’s stomach thrilled. He waited for her lips to part, but Julissa did him one better: she leaned forward, her neckline plunging further.
“I’m sure your wife likes that as much as I do.”
“I haven’t got one--”
Julissa stood up. Hank leaned forward, mouth dry, knowing it was bad form to give chase now, but the sight of her all at once like that, dream-red and beautiful even in smug triumph, triggered a reaction in him so powerful he almost said something truly damning--but she saved him the trouble by leaning across the table until they were eye to eye. His response had been too quick. His expression had betrayed him before the denial was out. Booze was no one’s friend, not even his, and it had let slip that telling mix of shock and calculation that undoes liars, those who have convinced themselves they’ve got it all together. Julissa’s laugh echoed in his ears. He’d called her a cheat and she had laughed. He understood, now.
“You’re no mystery,” she said, pushing her glass next to his. “Finish your drink and go home.” He could smell the alcohol on her breath and something sweeter, indefinable.
Then she was gone.
Her exit turned even more heads, partly for its suddenness and partly for the liquid swing of her hips, but Hank didn’t notice. Not since he’d been a teenager had he wanted so genuinely to sink into the floorboards or felt his face burn like this, high up on his cheekbones. He stared into the murk of Julissa’s drink and stole a glance around the room. Drink up and go home was sound advice.
Hank picked up Julissa’s glass and tilted it into his mouth, but nearly spat it out the moment it touched his tongue. Nausea rolled over him. No way in hell was this an IPA, and if it was beer, even some local craft swill, it had gone bad long ago. He forced down what he’d already swallowed, spat the rest back, and managed not to slam the glass on the table. He slapped down more money than the night was worth and exited, beelining for his car. Once inside, Hank gave himself over to the anger and a sudden, sweeping despair. He gripped the wheel but wasn’t stupid enough, not even with all that alcohol in his belly, to drive. Laura, he thought, but when his wife’s name sent pangs into his chest, he turned to Abby. Julissa hadn’t guessed about his daughter, at least. He tried to expunge her, the shame and wrath and that terrible, whining voice in the back of his head bemoaning the loss of his dreamgirl, but the booze wouldn’t let him forget. He bent over the wheel with both fists pressed to his temples and his eyes squinched shut. The pangs grew, throbbing with the force of physical wounds, and belatedly, he realized that the pain wasn’t psychological: he was, in fact, in agony. His temples ached in time with the heat spreading through his abdomen, and his hands had clammed up.
Alcohol poisoning? came the first panicked thought, but that didn’t jive. Hank waited, the heat intensifying as it sent acidic tendrils up into his throat, but he wasn’t going to black out. He was just going to suffer. The bile rose on him a couple of times and he tasted Julissa’s foul beer.
Finish your drink and go home.
He gritted his teeth, and against his better judgment, turned the key in the ignition. His pickup shook awake, snorting exhaust. Grimacing, he maneuvered himself out of the bar lot and onto the road, doing his best to stick to the back ways. It was a gamble--there were less cars out, but a better chance of a cop lurking in some bosky recess with his headlights off, where Hank wouldn’t be able to see him before he’d been seen. Better this than the highway, he thought, and then began to convulse. The first spasm sent him swerving into the lane over; the second had him slamming the brake, releasing an ugly mewl from the wheels and a despairing grunt from his throat, where it felt like the bile was eating away at the soft tissue. His mind revisited the contents of Julissa’s glass with greater and greater certainty that whatever it had been, it hadn’t been alcohol. No way. He convulsed, but there was time to brace himself. The truck slowed but didn’t swerve.
In this jerking, agonized manner, guided only by the double cones of his headlights down a distance of winding backroads, he turned onto his street. His shirt and the back of his seat were damp, and his grimacing had turned the muscles in his neck and jaw to rubber, but he could see home--the trellis first, of course, its slats ghostly-luminous in their fresh coat of paint. He had picked one of the roses from the lattice and stuck it behind Laura’s ear when they moved in. There was a photo of it in the living room, taken by Laura’s brother, a year before Abby had been born. With a sharper pang than any yet, overriding even the necessity of medical attention, he yearned for his daughter, for Laura, for that picture. To smell the rose in her hair.
He gunned the engine, nearly plowed through the mailbox in his haste, but there was already a car in his spot in the driveway. He was slow to recognize it as Laura’s because the door was thrown open and so thoroughly twisted it resembled a candy wrapper more than a car door. The window had been shattered, and part of the windshield was caved in. Glass fragments glittered on the tarmac.
In wide-eyed silence, Hank traced them to the steps. They led to the door. Hank killed the engine and plunged it all into darkness, but snatched his work flashlight out from where it was stashed under his seat and swept it beam back and forth as he stumbled out of the car. His fingers trembled as they rifled through his keyring, flashlight arcing wildly until he found the one for the door. He jammed it into the lock but couldn’t turn it. He checked the key, doubled over as a mighty pain seized him by the intestines, but it was the right key. He had used it hundreds of times. Thousands. He trained the flashlight on the lock.
The doorhandle was bent, as if it had been struck with something heavy. His heart leapt sickly into his throat and his mind went to the picture in the living room, and then upstairs, into Abby’s room, Abby’s crib. Don’t panic, he thought, but he had no answers for his rapidly-expanding problem, only cold arithmetic: smashed car and vandalized lock equals home invasion--
“Laura--” he tried to shout, but the contraction of his diaphragm dragged a blade through his innards. He wheezed and fell against the door, and this time it happened: he vomited across the steps, a black and tarry ooze that didn’t look anything like the drunk-pukes he remembered from his youth. Oh, Jesus, he thought again, oh, no--
The back door.
He was already struggling to his feet, the world swaying. He steadied himself, one leg at a time, and shuffled down the steps and around the house, leaning against it for support. He had to skirt around the trellis to avoid getting pricked, fell, but picked himself up, the pain in his gut abating the closer he was to the ground. Night-dew seeped into his clothes, slicked his hand clutching the keyring. He leaned back against the house to catch his breath, craning his head back to peer at the bedroom window at the top of the trellis--
“No mystery at all, Hank,” Julissa said, leaning out of the open window. The still night conducted her voice down to him with eerie clarity.
He flinched. It was as if she had spoken to him from the length of, say, a table at a bar rather than the second story of his home, backlit by the naked glow of his and Laura’s nightstand lamps. Hank felt the cords on his neck bulge as he stared past the raven fall of her hair and into the shadows over her face. “Laura,” he said, and she tossed her hair over the opposite shoulder, revealing the fullness of her smile.
And her teeth.
“No,” Hank breathed, and unable to look at those white needles any longer, huffed around the side of the house, sweat streaming from his pores. He brandished the keys, but dropped them in the grass. He didn’t bother stooping for them. The lock had been smashed, worse than the front door. His blood beat in his ears. How did she get in? he thought, but there was no answer. Instead, the image of her smile, seared into his brain. White needles, uniform as the tines of a comb, sticking out over the plushness of her lips--and had there been blood on her chin?
“Oh, Abby, no--”
Hank turned and looked up, but Julissa wasn’t in the window. The light from the bedroom printed a pale square in the grass. Without thinking, Hank ran to the trellis, grabbed a slat, and had hoisted himself up several feet before the sting of thorns registered and another involuntary spasm shook him to the bone. He climbed, bloodying his hands, his nose throttled with the sweetness of the roses, and with a mighty heave, launched himself at the window. He struck his head on the glass with such force he thought he would wobble off the trellis and plummet back to the ground, but managed to hang onto the slats until his knuckles strained through the skin. He called Abby’s name, Laura's name, blinking away stars, but the horror that gripped him was total when they cleared.
Julissa was seated on the bed. She had Abby cradled in one arm. Half of Laura was hidden in the bathroom, but he could see the crookedness of her legs, the unnatural angle of her feet. Cold nausea swept him, but his eye went to his daughter, taking in detail with heightened clarity. He could hear her whining through the glass. See her struggling against the tight swaddle. He tried to let go of the trellis to grip the windowsill, but the trellis swayed threateningly beneath him.
Julissa lifted her free hand. With a jolt, he realized she had been watching him since he'd reached the window, and now flashed that terrible serrated smile at him as they locked eyes. In her hand was a dark glass bottle Hank had failed to notice before. She wagged it at him. Hank felt himself stop breathing altogether, the only words he had escaping him at a whisper:
“Oh, no….oh, no…”
Julissa tipped Abby’s head up as she tipped the bottle forward. Hank’s world shrank. Black fluid, the same foul stuff she had brought to the bar, ran into his daughter's mouth. He reached for the window. She sputtered and it shot up her nose, slipped down her chin, soaked the swaddle. Hank would have given anything in the world to have closed his eyes, to have turned his head, to have had one of the trellis slats supporting his hands or his feet give way, but he didn’t, and it didn’t.
He heard her squeal. His fingers scraped along the glass.
He saw her thrash. He tried to scream and only wheezed.
He watched her go still.
He watched his child drown.
Only when Julissa returned her empty viper’s gaze to him and barked that same terrible laugh through her needle teeth did Hank’s grip weaken. His fingers scraped along the windowframe again. Clutched. Slipped. Grabbed air. The trellis swayed, and with a cold rush, felt it snap somewhere far below. The world turned over. He saw his ring flash on his finger in the moonlight. The world turned over, and the ground rose to meet him, endless nightfall in tow.
- Brian L.
I had always heard mixed things about dating apps. I had friends who had found amazing relationships from them and some who only found idiots and one night stands. Tonight my dumbass decided I was pretty lonely and needed to find a girl to bring around the family so they didn’t believe I was a total loner. I knew one thing from the minute I made my account for Tinder, I was an “alternative” male from my taste in clothing and music to the way I looked in general, all these preppy AAA college girls in sports bras drinking margaritas with frat boys don’t want me. I steered away from most of the “Sorority” styled girls, but some were too good looking to resist right? It was damn hard to find a good alternative girl on here as well, like probably a 1/1000 chance.
After I made my account, I added a few pictures, some of me selfing but none with snapchat filters. Last thing I want to do is show a snapchat filter in my tinder pictures. I added some of me with friends at local gigs and hangout sessions from the previous months too, that way I don’t look like a complete nobody. I wound up making a bio, which is hard, I’m not good at describing myself. “Video Design, 22, Tattoos, Heavy Music,” that seemed to sum it up.
I started swiping through, seeing your average jane does more than normal, I swiped right on a few really attractive girls, some my age and some a year younger or a year older. Nothing below that and nothing above, I was insanely picky. Some time passed and I got myself off my couch to grab a beer and make some food, I was starving to say the least. I put my phone down on my coffee table while I walked over and reheated some pizza that I ordered last night. Once the microwave finished I was walked back over and turned on the TV before checking my phone and there it was.
You Have A New Connection! - Tinder.
The first connection, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to message back that quick, I’d look desperate right? I opened the app to see who it was at least, it was a girl named Elizabeth, pretty common name. First impression was she big on animals, preferably dogs, that made me happy as I love dogs. Swiping through I saw a few pictures of her and her friends at some concerts at the major venues and one beach photo. “Computer Repair, 23, Dog Lover. I don’t message first” read her bio. Me having to message first was rattling my anxiety, but I’d do it. Maybe after this episode of Archer to be safe. That’s exactly what I did, Elizabeth replied and we carried out the most wonderful conversations for a few days until the inevitable question arrived.
“When do you wanna meet up? Maybe grab a late dinner?”
We were both really busy with our work, her more than me because she had to go to an actual office but that was besides the point. I agreed, we were going to meet up at the local Lynn’s on that friday. Lynn’s was a small italian hole in the wall with cheap greasy chicken parm, who could resist. It was wednesday when we made the plans, so we kept chatting, growing more and more fond of one another until the day arose.
Before I knew it I was outside the restaurant, sweating profusely ruining my attempt at keeping my cool. I walked in and got a table, Elizabeth texted and said she was running a few minutes late due to traffic. I got us a booth, I sat at one end and ordered a hard cider, it was a date night and I deserved this. I got a text saying she was parking and I was almost shaking between the amount of excitement and how nervous I was. I saw a woman walk out of her car, it was clear it was Elizabeth. She was just as beautiful as I had imagined from her pictures, she was in normal casual clothes as was I. When she walked in I waved her over and we ordered our food, she got exactly what I was getting, the chicken parm, of course. The blatant amount of similarity between the two of us really made me think I hit the jackpot, we ate our food and conversed and I was sure everything was going really well. I was right, she wanted to come over after dinner for a nightcap. I was beyond down, she was digging me, or so I thought.
We went back to my house, she followed me in her car and we went up together. I had to piss like a racing horse when we got back so I told her to chill out on the couch until I got back. When I got out she had stripped down to the burlesque style lingerie and was standing in the doorway of my bedroom with her left index finger grazing the center of her bottom lip. I was being seduced and it was working. I followed her in and we got down to the foreplay, but this is when things got extremely weird. We were making out and I could feel the sharpness of her teeth when we kissed, not her incisor teeth, every single one. They definitely were not like this when we were at the restaurant and that was a known fact. Before I knew it she started to kiss me neck, but she bit me, the pain was excruciating. I could feel the blood trickle down the left side of my neck into my shirt, it stung, the bite stung a lot. I threw her off of me and yelled “What the fuck” as my first instinct. The bite was pulsating with a dark yellow tint, I looked over and grabbed a tissue from my nightstand to attempt to place over it. While doing that she got off the ground, this time her nails were growing rapidly, they looked fucking sharp. What the fuck was going on? Was I living some sort of twisted nightmare. I walked slowly back into my closet, I had kept a .40 handgun in a safe in there. When I turned 21 I took my permit test to ensure my safety, living alone and all. I scanned my thumb and grabbed the gun, before I could cock the slide back she was sprinting full force from the other side of the room at me, I picked it up and I shot her.
I shot her 12 times in the head.
I had no clue what was happening so I went back in the safe and grabbed my second magazine. At this point, I had no clue if she was even human so I wanted to be prepared. She didn’t get back up, but my neighbors had definitely heard the shots, I needed to figure out what had happened. I stood up and walked over her pale dying corpse, she had a massive hole the size of a snowball flowing with blood in her forehead, she was dead. I looked down and saw her nails and teeth had gone back to normal, my bite was healing insanely fast.
Nobody was bound to believe this story I was panicking harder than ever before. I heard a knock at the door, it was the police. I was going to jail and if I told the real story, maybe even an asylum.
I jolted off the couch, there was no way that was a dream. I looked up and saw pizza on the table nearly finished and Archer was still streaming from my Netflix account. I grabbed my phone to see the time and I saw it
You Have A New Connection - Tinder
- Dakota G.
FEAR: Short Horror Tales From The Team
FEAR is a new column from the ML team that brings new short fictional horror stories to our readers, enjoy at your own risk