Rank #1: PseudoPod 633: Hippocampus
- Author : Adam L.G. Nevill
- Narrator : Peter Bishop
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
“Hippocampus” was first published in Terror Tales of the Sea, edited by Paul Finch
Narration is by Peter Bishop, courtesy of Christopher C. Payne at Journalstone. JournalStone is a small press publishing company focusing on horror/science fiction/fantasy in the adult and young adult markets.
This story can be found in Hasty for the Dark: Selected Horrors. These terrors range from the speculative to supernatural horror, encompass the infernal and the occult, and include stories inspired by H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Aickman, and Ramsey Campbell.
Hasty for the Dark is the second short story collection from the award-winning and widely appreciated British writer of horror fiction, Adam L. G. Nevill. The author’s best horror stories from 2009 to 2015 are collected here for the first time.
The author’s thoughts can be perused here:Spoiler Inside
I was intrigued by the idea of producing a horror story without characters: a relationship between the reader and an anonymous narrator, with the latter mimicking a roving camera. This roving point-of-view was, in effect, showing the reader a form of found footage: footage of a place in which something terrible had happened. All that was left for the reader was the aftermath and the evidence: the horrors. The reader becomes a witness at a crime scene; the horrors occurred before the story began. This creates a story that only the reader can piece together within their imagination. So instead of using characters as a vicarious medium, I would just show the reader the raw footage with no middle ground. I found this form could not sustain a story much beyond two thousand words and I chose for my subject a vast but derelict container ship. From our local shores and coastal paths, I watch these Leviathans cross the horizon all the time, on their way to Plymouth. Despite their size they have small crew complements. As a location for a horror story, and in my process of getting the sea and coast deeper within my imagination, a container ship was just the ticket.
The Hartlepool Monkey The Hartlepool Monkey graphic novel Sting – The Soul Cages
by Adam L.G. Nevill
Walls of water as slow as lava, black as coal, push the freighter up mountainsides, over frothing peaks and into plunging descents. Across vast, rolling waves the vessel ploughs, ungainly. Conjuring galaxies of bubbles around its passage and in its wake, temporary cosmoses appear for moments in the immensity of onyx water, forged then sucked beneath the hull, or are sacrificed, fizzing, to the freezing night air.
On and on the great steel vessel wallops. Staggering up as if from soiled knees before another nauseating drop into a trough. There is no rest and the ship has no choice but to brace itself, dizzy and near breathless, over and over again, for the next great wave.
On board, lighted portholes and square windows offer tiny yellow shapes of reassurance amidst the lightless, roaring ocean that stretches all around and so far below. Reminiscent of a warm home offering a welcome on a winter night, the cabin lights are complemented by the two metal doorways that gape in the rear house of the superstructure. Their spilled light glosses portions of the slick deck.
All of the surfaces on board are steel, painted white. Riveted and welded tight to the deck and each other, the metal cubes of the superstructure are necklaced by yellow rails intended for those who must slip and reel about the flooded decks. Here and there, white ladders rise, and seem by their very presence to evoke a kang kang kang sound of feet going up and down quickly.
Small lifeboat cases resembling plastic barrels are fixed at the sides of the upper deck, all of them intact and locked shut. The occasional crane peers out to sea with inappropriate nonchalance, or with the expectation of a purpose that has not come. Up above the distant bridge, from which no faces peer out, the aerials, satellite dishes and navigation masts appear to totter in panic, or to whip their poles, wires and struts from side to side as if engaged in a frantic search of the ever-changing landscape of water below.
The vast steel door of the hold’s first hatch is raised and still attached to the crane by chains. This large square section of the hull is filled with white sacks, stacked upon each other in tight columns. Those at the top of the pile are now dark and sopping with rain and seawater. In the centre, scores of the heavy bags have been removed from around a scuffed and dented metal container, painted black. Until its discovery, the container appears to have been deliberately hidden among the tiers of fibre sacks. One side of the double doors at the front of the old container has been jammed open.
Somewhere on deck, a small brass bell clangs a lonesome, undirected cry – a mere nod to tradition, as there are speakers thrusting their silent horns from the metallic walls and masts. But though in better weather the tiny, urgent sound of the bell is occasionally answered by a gull, tonight it is answered by nothing save the black, shrieking chaos of the wind and the water it thrashes.
There is a lane between the freighter’s rear house and the crane above the open hatch. A passage unpeopled, wet, and lit by six lights in metal cages. MUSTER STATION: LIFEBOAT 2 is stencilled on the wall in red lettering. Passing through the lane, the noise of the engine intake fans fills the space hotly. Diesel heat creates the impression of being close to moving machine parts. As if functioning as evidence of the ship’s purpose and life, and rumbling across every surface like electric current in each part of the vessel, the continuous vibration of the engine’s exhaust thrums.
Above the open hatch and beside the lifeboat assembly point, from a door left gaping in the rear house, drifts a thick warmth. Heat that waits to wrap itself round wind-seared cheeks in the way a summer’s sun cups faces.
Once across the metal threshold the engine fibrillations deepen as if muted underground. The bronchial roar of the intake fans dulls. Inside, the salty-spittle scour of the night air, and the noxious mechanical odours, are replaced by the scent of old emulsion and the stale chemicals of exhausted air fresheners.
A staircase leads down.
But as above, so below. As on deck, no one walks here. All is still, brightly lit and faintly rumbling with the bass strumming of the exhaust. The communal area appears calm and indifferent to the intense black energies of the hurricane outside.
A long, narrow corridor runs through the rear house. Square lenses in the steel ceiling illuminate the plain passageway. The floor is covered in linoleum, the walls are matt yellow, the doors to the cabins trimmed with wood laminate. Halfway down, two opposing doors hang open before lit rooms.
The first room was intended for recreation to ease a crew’s passage on a long voyage, but no one seeks leisure now. Coloured balls roll across the pool table from the swell that shimmies the ship. Two cues lie amongst the balls and move back and forth like flotsam on the tide. At rest upon the table-tennis table are two worn paddles. The television screen remains as empty and black as the rain-thrashed canopy of sky above the freighter. One of the brown leatherette sofas is split in two places and masking tape suppresses the spongy eruptions of cushion entrails.
Across the corridor, a long bank of washing machines and dryers stand idle in the crew’s laundry room. Strung across the ceiling are washing-line cords that loop like skipping ropes from the weight of the clothing that is pegged in rows: jeans, socks, shirts, towels. One basket has been dropped upon the floor and has spilled its contents towards the door.
Up one flight of stairs, an empty bridge. Monitor screens glow green, consoles flicker. One stool lies on its side and the cushioned seat rolls back and forth. A solitary handgun skitters this way and that across the floor. The weapon adds a touch of tension to the otherwise tranquil area of operations, as if a drama has recently passed, been interrupted or even abandoned.
Back down below, deeper inside the ship and further along the crew’s communal corridor, the stainless-steel galley glimmers dully in white light. A skein of steam clouds over the work surfaces and condenses on the ceiling above the oven. Two large, unwashed pots have boiled dry upon cooker rings glowing red. From around the oven door, wisps of black smoke puff. Inside the oven a tray of potatoes has baked to carbon and they now resemble the fossils of reptile guano.
Around the great chopping board on the central table lies a scattering of chopped vegetables, cast wide by the freighter’s lurches and twists. The ceiling above the work station is railed with steel and festooned with swaying kitchenware.
Six large steaks, encrusted with crushed salt, await the abandoned spatula and the griddle that hisses black and dry. A large refrigerator door, resembling the gate of a bank vault, hangs open to reveal crowded shelves that gleam in ivory light. There is a metal sink the size of a bath tub. Inside it lies a human scalp.
Lopped roughly from the top of a head and left to drain beside the plughole, the gingery mess looks absurdly artificial. But the clod of hair was once plumbed into a circulatory system because the hair is matted dark and wet at the fringes and surrounded by flecks of ochre. The implement that removed the scalp lies upon the draining board: a long knife, the edge serrated for sawing. Above the adjacent work station, at the end of the rack that holds the cook’s knives, several items are missing.
Maybe this dripping thing of hair was brought to the sink area from somewhere outside the galley, carried along the corridor and up the flight of stairs that leads from the crew’s quarters. Red droplets as round as rose petals make a trail into the first cabin on a corridor identical to the communal passage on the deck above. The door to this cabin is open. Inside, the trail of scarlet is immediately lost within the borders of a far bigger stain.
A fluorescent jacket and cap hang upon a peg just inside the door of the cabin. All is neat and orderly upon the bookshelf, which holds volumes that brush the low white ceiling. A chest of drawers doubles as a desk. The articles on the desktop are held down by a glass paperweight and overlooked by silver-framed photographs of wives and children at the rear of the desk. On top of the wardrobe, life jackets and hardhats are stowed. Two twin beds, arranged close together, are unoccupied. Beneath the bedframes, orange survival suits remain neatly folded and tightly packed.
The bedclothes of the berth on the right-hand side are tidy and undisturbed. But the white top sheet and the yellow blanket of the adjacent berth droop to the linoleum floor like idle sails. There is a suggestion that an occupant departed this bed hurriedly, or was removed swiftly. The bed linen has been yanked from the bed and only remains tucked under the mattress in one corner. A body was also ruined in that bed: the middle of the mattress is blood-sodden and the cabin reeks of salt and rust. Crimson gouts from a bedside frenzy have flecked and speckled the wall beside the bed, and part of the ceiling.
Attached to the room is a small ensuite bathroom that just manages to hold a shower cubicle and small steel sink. The bathroom is pristine; the taps, shower head and towel rail sparkle. All that is amiss is a single slip-on shoe, dropped on the floor just in front of the sink. A foot remains inside the shoe with part of a hairy ankle extending from the uppers.
From the cabin more than a trail of droplets can be followed further down the passage and towards the neighbouring berths. A long, intermittent streak of red has been smeared along the length of the corridor, past the four doors that all hang open and drift back and forth as the ship lists. From each of these cabins, other collections have been made.
What occupants once existed in the crew’s quarters appear to have arisen from their beds before stumbling towards the doors as if hearing some cause for alarm nearby. Just before the doorways of their berths, they seem to have met their ends quickly. Wide, lumpy puddles, like spilled stew made with red wine, are splashed across the floors. One crew member sought refuge inside the shower cubicle of the last cabin, because the bathroom door is broken open and the basin of the shower is drenched nearly black from a sudden and conclusive emptying. Livestock hung above the cement of a slaughterhouse and emptied from the throat leaves similar stains.
To the left at the end of the passage, the open door of the captain’s cabin is visible. Inside, the sofa beside the coffee table and the two easy chairs sit expectant but empty. The office furniture and shelves reveal no disarray. But set upon the broad desk are three long wooden crates. The tops have been levered off, and the packing straw that was once inside is now littered about the table’s surface and the carpeted floor. Mingled with the straw is a plethora of dried flower petals.
Upon a tablecloth spread on the floor before the captain’s desk, two small forms have been laid out. They lie side by side. They are the size of five-year-old children and blackened by age, not unlike the preserved forms of ancient peoples, protected behind glass in museums of antiquities. They appear to be shrivelled and contorted. Vestiges of a fibrous binding have fused with their petrified flesh and obscured their arms, if they have such limbs. The two small figures are primarily distinguished by the irregular shape and silhouette of their skulls. Their heads appear oversized, and the swollenness of the crania contributes to the leathery ghastliness of their grimacing faces. The rear of each head is fanned by an incomplete mane of spikes, while the front of each head elongates and protrudes into a snout. The desiccated figures have had their lower limbs bound tightly together to create a suggestion of long and curling tails.
Inside the second crate lies a large black stone, crudely hollowed out in the middle. The dull and chipped appearance of the block also suggests great age. A modern addition has been made, or offered, to the hollow within the stone: asingle human foot. The shoe around the disarticulated foot matches the footwear inside the shower cubicle of the crew member’s cabin.
The contents of the third crate have barely been disturbed. In there lie several artefacts that resemble jagged flints, or the surviving blades of old weapons or knives of which the handles are missing. The implements are hand-forged from a stone as black as the basin that has become a receptacle for a human foot.
Pictures of a ship and framed maps have been removed from the widest wall, and upon this wall a marker pen has been used to depict the outlines of two snouted or trumpeting figures that are attached by what appear to be long, entwined tails. The imagery is crude and childlike, but the silhouettes are similar to the embalmed remains laid out upon the tablecloth.
Below the two figures are imprecise sticklike figures that appear to cavort in emulation of the much larger and snouted characters. Set atop some kind of uneven pyramid shape, another group of human figures have been excitedly and messily drawn with spikes protruding from their heads or headdresses. Between the crowned forms another, plainer figure has been held aloft and bleeds from the torso into a waiting receptacle. Detail has been included to indicate that the sacrificed figure’s feet have been removed and its legs bound.
The mess of human leavings that led here departs from the captain’s cabin and rises up a staircase to the deck above and into an unlit canteen.
Light falls into this room from the corridor, and in the half-light two long tables, and one smaller table for the officers, are revealed. Upon the two larger crew tables long reddish shapes lie glistening: some twelve bodies dwindling into darkness as they stretch away from the door. As if they have been unzipped across the front, what was once inside each of the men has now been gathered and piled upon chairs where the same men once sat and ate. Their feet, some bare, some still inside shoes, have been amputated and are set in a messy pile at the head of the two tables.
The far end of the cafeteria is barely touched by the residual light. Presented to no living audience, perversely and inappropriately and yet in a grimly touching fashion, two misshapen shadows flicker and leap upon the dim wall as if in joyous reunion. They wheel about each other, ferociously, but not without grace. They are attached, it seems, by two long, spiny tails.
Back outside and on deck, it can be seen that the ship continues to meander, dazed with desolation and weariness, perhaps punchdrunk from the shock of what has occurred below deck.
The bow momentarily rises up the small hillside of a wave and, just once, almost expectantly, looks towards the distant harbour to which the vessel has slowly drifted all night since changing its course.
On shore, and across the surrounding basin of treeless land, the lights of a small harbour town are white pinpricks, desperate to be counted in this black storm. Here and there, the harbour lights define the uneven silhouettes of small buildings, suggesting stone façades in which glass shimmers to form an unwitting beacon for what exists out here upon these waves.
Oblivious to anything but its own lurching and clanking, the ship rolls on the swell, inexorably drifting on the current that picked up its steel bulk the day before and now slowly propels the hull, though perhaps not as purposelessly as first appeared, towards the shore.
At the prow, having first bound himself tight to the railing with rope, a solitary and unclothed figure nods a bowed head towards the land. The pale flesh of the rotund torso is whipped and occasionally drenched by sea spray, but still bears the ruddy impressions of bestial deeds that were both boisterous and thorough. From navel to sternum, the curious figurehead is blackly open, or has been opened, to the elements. The implement used to carve such crude entrances to the heart is long gone, perhaps dropped from stained and curling fingers into the obsidian whirling and clashing of the monumental ocean far below.
As if to emulate a king, where the scalp has been carved away, a crude series of spikes, fashioned from nails, have been hammered into a pattern resembling a spine or fin across the top of the dead man’s skull. Both of his feet are missing and his legs have been bound with twine into a single, gruesome tail.
Rank #2: PseudoPod 636: Hag Ride
- Author : Eden Royce
- Narrator : Rasheedah Prioleau
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
“Hag Ride” was originally published in Steamy Screams from Blood Bound Books (2011), then in the author’s collection Spook Lights: Southern Gothic Horror (2015)
Content warning:Spoiler Inside
Body horror, sexual violence
by Eden Royce
Frieda stood in the kitchen’s dull light with a chopping knife clutched in one hand. The dinner on the table lay untouched, ice-cold and bathing in congealing fat. Her cinnamon coloring disguised the angry flare of heat in her cheeks. Still, she knew yelling wouldn’t get her husband’s attention, so she forced a calm tone into her voice.
“Why aren’t you staying for dinner? I made your favorite.”
“I told you, I got to go out.” Henry came out of their bedroom, buttoning up his good shirt and tucking it into slacks she had taken her time to iron that morning.
“Out where? You can’t stop to eat dinner with your wife before you go? Give me some of your time?”
“Thought I just gave you some.” Henry laughed, his tongue grotesquely pink against his smooth ebony face. He waggled his long, limp penis at her before he tucked it back into his pants.
“Good you put that away. I was going to lop it off.”
“You wasn’t gonna do that to this valuable piece of merchandise.”
“I wanted to spend some time with you. Just us. Like we used to.” Tears threatened to fall from her maple syrup colored eyes.
“A man needs some time to hisself, baby. Told you that long time ago.”
“I know, but…”
He took a pick from his back pocket, a metal one with a balled up fist for a handle and ran it through his short, tight Afro. In the hall mirror, he patted it with both palms to even out the ’do.
“You never said where you were going.”
“Goin’ out with the fellas. Relax and get a couple drinks.”
“You look mighty nice for a night out with Butch and them.” She put the knife down and wiped her hands on her apron. “You promised me no more sleeping around, Henry.”
“I know, baby, I know. Don’t you worry ’bout nothing.” He kissed her cheek and grabbed a pork chop from the platter before heading for the door.
“When are you gonna be home?”
“Late, baby. Real late.”
Frieda parked the aging Chevy at the edge of the dirt road leading to the marsh. She sat in the driver’s seat with the window down and breathed in the sulfurous scent of plough mud and sea grass. Although the marsh teemed with life, loneliness pressed in on her like an unwelcome suitor in the dark.
She walked along the water’s edge toward the small house nestled in the marsh’s protective embrace, unafraid in the blackness. The moon parted the dark in shifting layers as clouds crept across the Carolina sky. As the toe of her shoe hit the porch, the front door creaked open.
“Evening, Big Mama,” she said.
Big Mama stood just over six feet without shoes. Her husky frame held up a massive bosom and her hair, fluffy and cotton white, stood out against her dark skin.
“Lawd, Frieda. You here in the middle of the night? I know what this must be. Get on in here.” The Gullah accent, born on the coastal waterways of the Carolinas, was musical as it fell from her dark, unpainted lips.
Cool marsh breeze broke through the muggy night and the thin curtains fluttered. Frieda sat at the rough-hewn table in the middle of what served as the cabin’s kitchen and dining room while Big Mama bustled around in cabinets and muttered under her breath. She returned to the table with two jelly jars filled with rose-colored liquid.
“Big Mama, I—”
“Drink this first.”
The homemade liquid scorched her throat. She coughed, but the burning cleared her head. The swirling thoughts she’d brought to the cabin solidified into a concrete block of determination. She took another sip while her godmother eased into the chair opposite and lit a cheroot with a blue-tipped match, producing the sweet scents of tobacco and clove.
“What Henry done now?” The wicker chair creaked as Big Mama settled her bulk into it.
“Same old,” Frieda said, turning the jar in her hands, the light from the fire in the nearby iron stove filtering though the glass, causing the liquid inside to shimmer. “Cheating. Staying out all night. I’m tired of it.”
“Mmmph.” Rings of smoke dissolved in the air.
“I’m married. I shouldn’t have to bump around in that house alone all the time.”
“That why you got married? To never be alone?” Her snort forced smoke down from her wide nostrils like an enraged bull. “I got news for you, chile. Alone you come in this world and alone you go out. Nothing gone change that.”
“I got married because I love him. I just want him to love me back.”
“Henry love you in his own way. But that ain’t the way you want, huh?”
“I can’t live like this.”
Her godmother leaned forward and placed a hand on her arm, her scent clean and sweet—peach wine and clothing starch. “You still a beautiful young woman. Find yourself somebody else. Don’t let no man be the death of you. Not like your daddy was to your momma.”
Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. “I don’t want another man. I made a promise before God and everybody and I will not leave Henry.”
Big Mama tapped ashes in a chipped china teacup. “He ain’t worth the heartache. You better off alone.”
“I don’t ever want to be alone again. I hate it.”
“Sure it not his ding-a-ling you missin’?”
“That’s not the problem.” She turned away from Big Mama’s intense gaze.
“No shame in it, girl. You supposed to like going to bed with your husband. That what make him feel like a man. But it seem your man like going to everybody else bed.” A look of sympathy crossed the heavy woman’s face and her tone became gentle. “You can’t change him, Frieda. You married him that way.”
Henry had been late for their wedding. Big Mama and Francis, her fourth husband, had found him drunk in a motel room with a street girl. Only Francis’s cool head had kept Big Mama from killing Henry right then. She’d pulled a derringer from her bra and had leveled it at the naked couple. The girl had screamed, the crusty motel sheet held to her nudity, then she’d run for the door.
As the girl passed by, Big Mama grabbed her arm and whispered something in her ear before letting her go hollering out into the sunset. Then she waited while Francis cleaned Henry up and they headed for the church. Frieda and Henry were married an hour later.
“I know I can’t change him,” Frieda admitted. “But you can.”
Big Mama extinguished the cigar and drained her wine, but said nothing.
Frieda rushed on. “You can fix it so he never strays from me again. You can put him in a jar or something. I’ve seen you work root. That’s why people are scared of you.”
Big Mama laughed, the sound a rich singsong echo. “They scared ’cause they think root worse than voodoo. Ain’t true. They both dangerous, in the right hand.” The chair groaned as Big Mama leaned back and looked at the ceiling of what had once been slave quarters. “Puttin’ his spirit in a jar don’t stop a man from cattin’ no ways. Only one thing can do that.”
“Right. And the Hag ain’t nothin’ to play with. Not even for me.”
“But you can do it.”
“Oh, I can do it. But I ain’t.”
Frieda got up from her chair and knelt beside the woman who’d taken her in after her mother’s death. “Please. I don’t what else to do.”
“What you need to do is leave well enough alone.”
“I can’t. I need him.”
“You ain’t gonna let this go, huh?” The older woman shook her head and let a sigh escape. “Lawd, that man’s thing must jump up and do a dance inside you.” She fingered the damp, pulpy end of the cigar. “I can tell you this: if I send the Hag after him ain’t no telling what gone happen.”
“She’ll take that extra energy of his and leave enough for me.”
“That what supposed to happen. But I just call her. Ain’t no way to control her. She do as she please.” Big Mama’s pause lasted several loping heartbeats before she spoke again. “This ain’t for you. Go home. Pray on it. Accept your man for what he is or leave him.”
“I can’t do that.” Desperation grew in Frieda’s voice, making it higher pitched than usual. “Why won’t you do this for me? Don’t you want me to be happy?”
“More’n you know, gal.”
Frieda picked at her torn and ragged thumbnail. “Do you want me to pay you?”
“Don’t talk foolish. My advice is always free.”
“There’s other rootworkers out there.” She kept her tone even and non-threatening.
“So your mind is made up.” It wasn’t a question.
Big Mama ran her hand through her puffy curls. “When is your woman time?”
“It’s here now.”
The older woman gaped. “You mean to do this tonight?”
The fire sputtered and a length of wood crumbled to ash with a shoosh. “No man ever the same after she done with him, you know.”
Frieda nodded, not trusting her voice to work around the sudden lump of fear in her throat.
The two women sat on the hardwood floor of the cabin with moonlight illuminating Big Mama’s mise en place for the ritual. Two piles of sea salt, a wad of Henry’s coarse hair tied with butcher’s twine and six blood smeared candles sat next to the refilled juice glasses.
“This your last chance, Frieda. Think this through.”
The younger woman’s face remained resolute. “I’m done thinking.”
Big Mama nodded and lit the first candle. Murky shadows danced to its flickering. When the final candle began to glow, she spoke. “Get me a hidin’ man.”
Frieda smoothed her shirtdress and tiptoed out to the marsh, her Keds squishing in the soft, dank mud. The moon was a smile in the darkness as she looked for a stalk of seagrass leaning heavily to the ground. Finding one, she crouched to complete her task, her feet sinking deeper into the cool, black muck. She plucked a conical shell from the crisp grass and hurried back inside.
Big Mama placed the open end of the shell against her neck and hummed low in her throat. The hum filled the small room, vibrated across the floor to imbed itself in Frieda’s chest and infuse her limbs with its eerie, toneless rumble.
She pulled the shell away from her throat and Frieda saw a small, pale crab, stirred by the vibration, peek out of the shell. Big Mama yanked it from its home and pulled a switchblade, slick with sweat, from the depths of her bosom. In one motion, she opened the knife and skewered the frightened crustacean to the floor before it could scuttle away. Henry’s clump of hair covered the crab’s death throes. She took a gulp of the caustic wine, spat it on the gruesome pile and touched a candle to it. It burned, not destroying the wooden floor, while Frieda’s voice joined the humming.
Wind came, strong through the curtains and the hovering shadows coalesced into a swirling ash grey mass.
“She here. Be ready with the salt.”
The grey cloud moved around the calling space, stopping at each candle, before it slunk between the two women to examine its sacrifice. Satisfied, it slid over to Frieda and swayed like a cobra. She could feel its presence inside her mind, inside her chest and she gasped as it probed at her most tender heartaches. Crushing memories rushed to the surface of her psyche: Henry’s countless betrayals, looks of pity from the local women, laughter from the men. Frieda’s heart seized. She gasped for breath as scabs, new and old, tore from each emotional wound. It delved deeper in its search, picking curiously, while tears grew behind Frieda’s fluttering eyelids. Her chest heaved and quivered with impending sobs.
“The salt. Throw the salt!” Big Mama yelled, breaking through the creature’s trance-inducing sway.
Frieda’s arm shook with the effort of tossing a small handful of salt over her left shoulder. While most of the salt found its way down the front of her dress, enough landed behind her to end the Hag’s internal quest. The smoky funnel whirled and spun with its newfound knowledge.
Brought to the surface again, her pain crystallized into diamond hard resolve, but it eased enough for her to gasp her request. “Make Henry stay with me.”
The whirlwind roiled with fervor, covering the wine-soaked crab carcass in its dervish. When it finally moved, only the switchblade remained. The coil of ash rose in the thick, muggy air and hovered above the women. One word came from the twisting center eye.
It extinguished each candle, then dissipated to leave the women surrounded by darkness and the scent of charred sulfur.
“What’s happenin’, my man?” Henry’s palm met his friend’s in an intricate succession of slaps before he sat on the next barstool in the smoky lounge.
Butch Dempsey took a sip of scotch and turned a shrewd eye on Henry. “Same old, same old. Working til I die.”
“I hear that.”
“What you doing here, anyway? Ain’t this your anniversary night?”
“Shee-it. I was wondering why Frieda was so hell bent on having dinner with me. Shoulda known.” Henry ordered a boilermaker from the bartender and rubbed a broad hand over his face. “How you remember my anniversary and I don’t?”
“’Cause y’all got married six years ago on Janey birthday and I never forget Janey birthday.”
“Right, right. How she doing?”
“Janey? Oh, she has good days and bad days.” Ebony circles hung under Butch’s eyes, stark against his pockmarked mahogany skin. “Starting to be more bad days. But her mama’s with her. Give me a few hours rest.”
“I couldn’t be sick like that. You know, live my life sick. I wanna go quick. Don’t want nobody giving up they life for me.” Henry glanced at his friend. “I don’t mean nothin’ by that, what you do for Janey is good, it’s—”
“Yeah, I know.” Butch drained his glass and stood. “I better get on home.” But he no longer had Henry’s attention.
“Uh huh.” Henry’s gaze was fixed on a woman at the end of the bar. He rose from the barstool, picked up his shot glass and the bottle of beer as though she’d bid him.
“Where’d she come from?” Butch frowned at the sly smile on the strange woman’s lips. A chill crept through his bulky frame and gooseflesh grew on his meaty arms.
“Don’t know. But I’m gonna find out.”
“No, I mean, she wasn’t there a minute ago.”
“Then she come through the back door.” He shook off the hand Butch placed on his shoulder and straightened his collar. “You disturbing my groove.”
“You need to stay away from that one. She seems… freaky.”
“Just what I’m hoping. Catch you on the flip side, man.”
But Henry didn’t respond. He had the scent and nothing could get him off the trail.
Butch watched his friend approach the mysterious woman. He started forward to intercept him and the woman looked up, straight into his eyes. Her grey-blue gaze, startling against her tawny skin, held him fast.
All ambient sound from the crowded bar faded. Butch felt himself grow hard and the throbbing ached like a wound. His skin itched like it was covered in dirt. He dug his short nails into his arm with ruthless fervor. Angry welts rose up and still he raked his flesh, unable to get rid of the feeling that she was on him—in him—crawling around.
He yelped when his blunt nails broke skin. The mental hold loosened and he was able to move. Without another glance at Henry, Butch pushed through the throng of people and hurried from the bar.
The woman was chatting with the bartender as Henry strolled up. “Hey man, give the lady here another one of what she drinking.” He gave her hourglass figure a lingering once-over. “I’m Henry. You sure is foxy.”
“And you’re a little cocky.” Her voice was husky with no trace of Southern drawl.
“You got me wrong, baby.” He took a long pull from his beer then pointed toward her with the bottle. “I’m a big cocky.”
She almost choked on a sip of strawberry daiquiri, but it turned into a spurt of laughter. “Now that is one I haven’t heard before.”
“What’s your name?”
“Does it matter? You’ll only forget it afterwards.”
He leaned closer and her fragrance glided over the smokiness of the bar, a tangy mixture of sea air and citrus fruit. “After what, little mama?”
A coy smile accompanied her words. “After tonight.”
“Now, how you know what gonna happen tonight? I might decide to take my time and court you.”
She shook her head and chestnut ringlets brushed her bare shoulders. “It’s my last night in town.”
“You got people here?”
“Nope, it’s a business trip for me.”
“Business? What kinda work you do?”
She ran her tongue over her straight, smooth teeth. “I make people over.”
Henry nodded. “That Avon kinda thing? Cool. Cool.” He downed the shot of whiskey. “So, this your last night, huh?”
“Umm hmm.” She looked up at him, her grey-blues glittering.
“That’s a shame. Guess I’m gonna have to work fast.” He slapped a ten down on the counter and stood.
“Not too fast, I hope.”
“You must make some serious bread. This ain’t no cheap motel.” Henry strolled around the expansive suite, whistling at all the extra touches. Fresh flowers blossomed in a vase on the side table next to an overflowing fruit basket. A corner of the king-sized bed was turned down, revealing crisp sheets.
“I like to be comfortable when I travel.” She tossed her clutch purse on the bedside table.
“This ain’t just comfortable. This is… nice. Real nice.” He stood in the middle of the room, gawking, until the sound of a zipper grabbed his attention. The woman stepped out of the purple satin puddle at her feet and stood, clad in only a black strapless bra and panties, at the foot of the bed. Any thoughts he might be out of his league evaporated.
“Well, don’t stop now.” He unbuttoned his own shirt and tossed it on the floor as he strode over to her. She nudged him toward the bed.
“Why don’t you lie down and watch the rest?”
“Oh, yeah. I like that, baby.”
Henry lay down in the middle of the bed and watched her reach behind her back to unhook her bra. Her high breasts sprang free from their confines and he salivated at the sight of her dark, hard nipples. She climbed onto the foot of the bed and crawled up Henry’s body, her eyes laughing with challenge.
She straddled his waist and ground herself against his hardness as she brushed one breast over his lips. He opened his mouth and sucked on the stiffened tip. Warm liquid flowed into his mouth and after his initial surprise, he suckled harder. He tried to reach up and pull her closer, but his body resisted, seizing up with the effort of movement. His eyes widened.
“No, Henry. You don’t get to touch me.” Her silky voice darkened as her milk soured in his mouth. Lumpy curds drained down his cheeks. He gagged, tried to turn his head and spit, but his thick lips were fused to her slick flesh.
“You asked me what my name was,” she said as her fingers stroked his throat, forcing him to swallow the thick pap. Henry groaned as his stomach twisted, but it refused to expel the foul liquid. Her swollen nipple popped from his mouth when she leaned back to remove her brief panties. “It’s Eldra.” As the silk slid down her thighs, fat drops of her vaginal fluid fell onto the crotch of the panties, bleaching the fabric a sickly yellow-white.
“Don’t ring a bell?” Eldra draped the ruined underwear over Henry’s face, ignoring his gurgled protests as the caustic fabric burned his skin. “No one here calls me that. They call me a hag. Can you believe it?” She slid down to his crotch, her bristly pubic hair like needles in his groin as her nails ripped through denim and exposed the length of him. She squatted, legs wide, her nether lips open to expose two tiny rows of glinting silver-white teeth.
His scream bubbled through the lumps in his throat as she lowered herself onto his stiff penis. Eldra shoved her fingers into Henry’s open mouth, turning the panties into a putrid gag as she rode him with demonic wildness while he lay immobile, unable to stop the flesh-rending fuck.
Hours later, Eldra climbed off his limp, wasted body. She gave an impressed grunt. “Ooh, Henry. You’re still hard.” She took his mutilated penis in her palms and gripped it, holding the flayed pieces together. Her salt and citrus scent filled the room as she lowered her acidic mouth again and again.
“We patched him up the best we could, Miz Frieda.” The young nurse said as she reached for the door to the shared patient room.
Frieda blocked the door and whispered, “How bad is it?”
The nurse hesitated. “It’s… uh… He’s been asking for you.”
“Frieda? That you?” Henry’s voice was high-pitched and weak. “Frieda, please. I need you.”
He sounds exhausted. That witch must have done her job.
“I’ll be at the desk if you need anything.” The nurse made a hasty exit.
Frieda hovered in the doorway, twisting the knob back and forth. The police had found him in an alley, the doctor had said, unconscious. He’d been beaten badly, but his clothes were still neat and pressed, as if they’d been removed and replaced later. They’d wanted to talk to her more, but she said she needed to see Henry first. She put iron in her spine and pulled the door open and strode in. Two beds were inside—the near one cradled an old man and the other housed a hunched figure, turned to face the far window, covered in a thin blanket. No sign of her husband.
She walked toward the window until she heard a rasping behind her. “I’m here. Frieda. Here.”
Slowly, she turned to face the first bed. Her breath caught in her throat as she realized it was her husband, her Henry, small and shriveled in the middle of the bleach white sheets. His face was a mass of blotches, where the smooth dark skin seemed to have dissolved. At the corner of his lips, white chunky crusts formed. I need him, she’d said. Now look at him.
He reached out a shaky hand to her, his flesh slack over the wasted muscle. One of his eyes was wide and pleading, the other a cloudy grey. She stepped toward the bed and pulled back the sheet covering his lower body. No, not that, too. Shriveled to nothing, the skin held together with tiny black stitches.
What you gonna do now, Frieda?
The officers waited for her in the hall, she could see their indigo uniforms through the window. One of them looked up and met her gaze. Absently, she patted Henry’s hand then beckoned the men to enter.
“We’d like to ask you some questions, Mister Cannon. Are up to talking about what happened to you?”
Henry turned his head into the pillow.
“Henry,” she whispered loud enough for both men to hear. “Answer them.”
When he didn’t respond, Frieda closed her eyes and her hand dropped away from her husband’s shoulder. “Officers, I don’t think he’s up to talking to anyone right now. I’m going to get some coffee.”
All three of them left the room and headed toward the canteen. The taller man placed his hand at the small of her back to usher her forward and it sent a thrill through her where it pooled into her core. She looked up into his disarming grey-blue eyes. “It’s gonna be okay.”
Frieda knew that it would.
Rank #3: PseudoPod 635: Last Week I Was Esther
- Author : Deborah L. Davitt
- Narrator : John Bell
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
PseudoPod 635: Last Week I Was Esther is a PseudoPod original.
Last Week I was Esther
by Deborah L. Davitt
Last week, I was Esther. I remember her plump face, pearl earrings, and huge handbag, stuffed with treats for her grandchildren—as stuffed as she was inside, with sweetmeats and perfumed memories of the postwar years. I’ve tended to pursue older people for a while, with their minds full of experiences. Dementia patients don’t work, though. When I’m them, I’m even more confused as to who I am, than I usually feel.
And then we get hungry again.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. People rarely entirely go away even after their life-energy’s been expended. Their echoes join the chorus of voices clamoring in my mind. When I close my eyes, I’m the sea, and they’re the waves. Except the sea is the waves, and the waves are the sea. Sometimes we’re divided against each other. Sometimes they’re me and I’m them, passing like water through water. Once in a while, I can see a tiny bit of flotsam being sucked under a towering whitecap, and I wonder who or what that part of me once was.
Being Esther was a problem. She wanted to see her grandkids, wanted to kiss the tops of their heads and smell shampoo and sweet skin. I could feel myself expanding out to take up her shape—no wrinkles, of course, since I don’t age, but her general size and conformation. I’d been lean and short for the last month, while I was Leon. Now, I could feel my hair growing, brushing my cheeks in dark, glossy waves. Leon had shaved his head to conceal his premature baldness.
Thing is, people don’t usually recognize me. At least, my kids and grandkids don’t. A wedding photo from 1944, browning at the edges, isn’t something that they recognize as real. Grandma or Grandpa, with gray hair and creased faces? Those are just barely more real than photos to the young. And back before photography, not many people could afford portraiture, and it wasn’t as if paintings were accurate. All that artistic license. Back then, I might have encountered a friend who’d known me from the cradle, and they’d have jumped a bit, then laughed nervously and tell me I was the spitting image of someone. And things could be smoothed over.
That’s another reason I usually prefer older people. It’s just easier to walk off as an unknown young person, leaving an old corpse behind.
Old corpses. The thought triggered a flicker of memory from some long-gone battlefield. Not the clean black-and-white images captured by News Parade cameras and shown before movies. Men and women lying dead in a cobblestone street, where a burning sun beat down from behind sere brown mountains. Colorful robes, sticky with the same blood that ran in the gutter. A dead horse, fallen and bloated in its traces. A city wall, breached. The cries of the dying—
Esther’s breath caught in my throat, choked by memories not her own as we followed the chain-link fence outside the school. She fought them down, knowing that they weren’t hers, were no part of her. You don’t get to erase me, she thought, not yet. I’m going to see my grandchildren. My legacy. My testament that I was here on this earth, the only thing that time can’t efface.
The chorus howled, “They’ll scream and run if you walk up to them looking like this and say ‘give Grammy a kiss.’” Other voices yelped, “You’re going to say I could just eat you up, and you’ll do just that, and then we’ll be them. And they’ll be in here with us! Do you want that?”
Esther—I—stood at the edge of the playground, watching. Security guards came to talk to me as her tears streaked down my face. I babbled something about not being able to have children of my own, and they walked me off the property to ensure I wouldn’t do something insane, like stealing one of the kids.
Or eating them. Becoming them.
Not that they knew about that part, of course.
Esther’s loving heart was a liability. She worried about her husband, Tommy, past eighty and alone in their apartment. About how he was taking her disappearance. Her relentless compulsion to make sure he was eating. She’d been a nurse since the war years. Taking care of other people was what she did, and what she did was who she was. Another reason to like older people. Younger people did nothing, made nothing, were nothing but a collection of online tribal identity markers. As hollow as I was myself.
But being her was exhausting.
At her tiny apartment, Tommy stood in the doorframe, shock written on his leathery face. “Esther?” he whispered. “Are you a ghost?”
I gave him a kiss on the cheek, as bashful as a bride, and teased, “Does that feel like a ghost, sweetie?”
Stunned, he let us in, and I put on her apron and made dinner. An old Depression-era standby, corned beef hash on toast. Bypassed his querulous, angry questions as best I could. But Esther’s damned soft heart broke when he growled, “So you get the Fountain of Youth treatment, and I get to die of old age?”
“No, sweetie,” I whispered, her tears springing easily to my eyes again. “I’m going to make sure you get a shot at it, too. I can’t live without you.”
And as Tommy lowered his head over his plate, I leaned down and Esther gave him a kiss at the back of the neck. Just like when they’d been twenty. And then I bit down, tearing through skin, gristle, and bone for the sweet taste of brainstem. He shouted, but couldn’t move, paralyzed instantly as my tongue slid into the hole and split into the thousand filaments of ribbon that infiltrate a brain to let me feed.
And as Esther sank down into the dark abyss of the chorus, and I remembered the smell of grease and diesel exhaust, the drone of a thousand engines lifting off from an airfield in the South Pacific. I took an exploratory first step, the ghost of a limp halting my stride. The memory of old shrapnel in the knee, twisting the flesh tight. Tommy’s anger boiled up inside me even as Esther’s curves flattened into the whipcord-lean body he’d had when rations had been short and he’d been sweating his ass off in the Marshall Islands.
His rage tastes like copper on my tongue as he upbraids his wife silently, “You couldn’t live without me, so you kill me? What kind of messed up romantic bullshit is that, Esther? I’m fine without the arthritis, but I didn’t ask you to drag me down into hell with you. I kind of figured I’d get there on my own.” I straightened my shoulders. “At least when it’s my turn, I’m going to have the courtesy to kill someone that I hate, not someone I’m supposed to love.”
She wept in the chorus, all those tears that have always come so easily to her. A twinge of guilt in Tommy, but at least they weren’t dampening my cheeks as I limped around the house, cleaning up his old body. The chorus, however, roiled in agitation. Tommy was a strong personality. They remembered strong personalities. They knew the trouble we get into, when we’re one of them.
Weaker personalities are easier. Sometimes one of them (not like Esther; her love was so strong it made her dangerous) will crumble and sink into the abyss, leaving no one in charge. And that’s worse than absorbing the mind of a dementia patient. Then I’m just a black hole filled with voices, an automaton that shambles the streets speaking in tongues. I’ve wound up in asylums that way.
Most modern young doctors think it’s a put-on when I talk to them in medieval Italian. But back in the twenties, spiritualists who believed in reincarnation and past-life migration, would try to get me to talk to ghosts. If there’s a god, he must have a sense of humor. I could have let those earnest young spiritualists talk to any number of ghosts just by opening my mouth. But I’d been wary. After all, I’d had too many run-ins over the centuries with equally earnest young priests, with their talk of demonic possession and exorcism.
I wasn’t possessed by demons. I’m possessed by humans.
Sometimes I find it easier to deal with the chorus when I’m a strong personality. The waves of their voices pound against a tough mind like a stone jetty, immobile and fixed. Being them can be a relief. Except when they’re a liability.
Sooner or later, we’re all a liability.
I finished wrapping the old corpse in plastic garbage bags. No emotion in Tommy at the sight of his wrinkled body beyond a thank god that’s over. That disturbed the chorus. No one ever thinks that way about their own body. They swallow their gorge. They shake. They weep. Not Tommy.
With him, it was all is there a furnace in the basement to burn this? Hmm, not like the kids have dropped by in the last year. They’re pictures on a wall to me. Not like Esther, always having to be involved in everything—they saw enough of her, though, that they might notice if weeks go by and she hasn’t pestered them. A month, then. Plenty of time to enjoy this.
The chorus didn’t like that. Too much pragmatism. Too much lust for life, mixed with cold indifference. They’ve sometimes united to pull down someone they found dangerous to our continued survival, and placed an older personality back in charge, burning out the last echo of that person’s life-energy to do so. I hate it when they do that. I hate waking up in a bed and not knowing who I am.
They lunged for his memories, trying to learn him, to discover how to work him, manipulate him. Found images of men dying in the South Pacific, of his own wounding. He fought them, refusing to look, and then they pushed too hard, and I was drowning in them, becoming someone I didn’t know, didn’t remember—
—marching in the line of troops promised by my lord to the Pope, passing through the cities of the Holy Roman Empire. Reaching Byzantium with its smell of olive oil and strange spices, the clamor of voices in a dozen languages. Footsore, boarding ships to take us to the Holy Land. Bright banner flapping proudly from my lords lance, the red cross on the white field reminding us why we were here.
Tommy fought it. I fought it. We all recoiled with the sudden awareness that under the waves of the abyss, darker things lurked.
—Hearing of the massacres perpetrated by the serfs of the Peasants’ Crusade who’d crossed through Europe ahead of us, against Jews who’d been offered sanctuary within an archbishop’s palace . . . hearing them glory in it as they swilled ale in Byzantium? Made me feel unclean. And yet, to take up the Cross meant redemption from any sin . . . .
The chorus dragged the memories back down to benthic depths, and then we stood there in Tommy’s apartment over his dead body, panting. “No more of that shit,” he growled, and I agreed.
We dumped the body in the furnace as he assimilated the information he needed to ensure our survival. With him in us, we’ve got a month before we need to eat again, and suddenly, I’ve got ideas of how to spend those days. I’ve been a miserable old bastard, confined to a dying body for decades. I’m going to make use of how long I’m here.
Instead of surveying old folk’s homes, I cruised clubs to dance with these modern girls and boys. So soft and pretty and filled with high ideals. Stuffed with the conviction that they’re different from everyone who’s ever gone before, just as stuffed as Esther had been with love. I laughed up my sleeve. They’re the same as every other generation. Old insecurities and twitching neuroses hidden behind new names and false pride. When I took them home, back to where I’ve shoved the old twin beds together, I sated appetites that Esther never knew I had.
But I detested these soft young things in my bed, their wide eyes at the furniture that they admiringly called “retro” or “upcycled from someone’s yardsale—awesome.” We wondered if eating them would taste like veal—bland, soft, and formless. Maybe an immigrant instead? Someone with the taste of struggle and sacrifice on them? Or maybe a politician, someone well-seasoned with power? Someone whose life I could lead profitably for a month.
The chorus protested, Esther, especially. “You were a good man,” she mourned as the others shouted, “Don’t feed on anyone who’ll be missed. Do you want to wind up in jail?”
That gave him a little pause. It’d been a while since I’d been anyone who relished living the way Tommy did, and it had made me reckless. I could remember my last stint in a prison, back in 1965, when I was Vernon Freeman, a black man who’d campaigned for equal rights.
The chorus flung Vernon’s memories at us, to try to scare Tommy into submission. Steel-toed boots colliding with our kidneys, the coppery taste of blood in our mouth. Eyes too swollen to open, unable to do more than try to hold our arms up over our head in meager self-defense—
—and then some barrier inside us breaks, and I’m in some Byzantine street, and I’ve said something shit-stupid to a group of drunk German peasants, whose eyes show white all around, because forty thousand untrained serfs encountered trained, armed Turks, and were slaughtered almost to the last man. My words echo in the air: “Maybe God judged you for having murdered those Jews,” and then they’re on me, kicking and punching and I fall to the cobblestones, bleeding—
—and Vernon fell in his cell, dying—
And the chorus howled and dragged us out of it. Made us remember how we’d put on Abigail Blake’s blond hair and cut-glass British accent, demanding through bleeding lips to be released from this American jail forthwith. We’d accused the police guards of all kinds of things, and they were so rightfully terrified of the repercussions to their jobs that they couldn’t get rid of us fast enough.
Vernon had chortled gleefully in the chorus, laughter made of bitterness and delight at once. But once out of the police station, Abigail had been helpless—the last vehicle she’d used had been a respectable landau in Victoria’s reign. She had no idea how to drive a Plymouth. So we’d brought up Francois Deveraux, whom I’d been briefly during the Nazi occupation of France. He knew how to drive. How not to draw attention.
And then I’d had to rest for months, burning through the last echoes of personas, unable to hunt. Rapid body swaps take energy. The chorus had bickered over the decision to be Vernon in the first place all the while. But I hadn’t been able to resist being him, at least for a little while. He’d been so rich with passion and anger, the kind of tangy emotion I so rarely get to taste. It’s safer being quiet souls. The kind who drift, lost, through life.
Vernon had also been a good man. I hadn’t been able to remember the last time I’d been a good person. Probably the same urge that had made me reach out for Esther, come to think of it. The grind of banal lives and petty resentments gets tedious over the centuries. And no era has ever been as petty as the current one. A solid reason to hunger for saints and martyrs, even though I can’t possibly deserve to be one of them. Not even for a little while.
But in spite of all those cautionary memories, Tommy wanted to feel alive again, as he hadn’t for years. When I go out, I want it to be memorable. A monument to my existence. Something better than a slot in a veteran’s cemetery and a funeral that no one attends. You’ll be my living testament. All of you. All of us.
He just couldn’t decide, however, who we were going to be next. His only criterion was that he had to hate the person enough to kill them. And he had too many options. The teenagers down the street with their skateboards and facial piercings, for instance. But they were annoyances, not worth the risk of eating. “They’re a moment on the lips! They have no experience! And that’s what we need, or we’ll have to eat someone else within a week. Pick someone at least forty!” the chorus demanded.
Then one morning, I woke up in a bed that I know wasn’t my own. And I had no idea who I was, or how I’d gotten there.
I got up and stared at myself in a mirror, at a head as bald as a cancer survivor’s, the shape of all the lovely bones underneath the skin visible and stark. I stared into my own eyes, which shifted from brown to green to blue as I watched. Skin? A rather sickly gray—as gray as I felt right now, a cloud hanging where my mind should be. I licked my dry lips and wandered around my room—surely a hotel room—picking up the belongings there. Men’s clothing, too big for my frame. A wallet, with a driver’s license belonging to elderly man, Tommy. . . .
Understanding flickered back, with the first whispers of the chorus. Right. I’d been Tommy, but I wasn’t anyone right now—
“Tommy was a liability.” The voices became louder.
I sat numbly on the edge of the bed. Was this who I was? Was this the base person, or was this an amalgam self, eroded fragments thousands of minds, washing up like sand on a shore? Or was I nothing but an empty shell, filled with the voices of the damned and dead?
Hunger pooled at the base of my skull, the aching longing to be someone. To be filled up by them, if only for a little while. But I couldn’t move. Couldn’t motivate myself towards the room’s wretched door. “You have to eat,” the chorus snarled at me with the voices of Vernon and Abigail and Esther: “When you don’t eat, you turn into a monster, feeding without control. We want no part of it, the wantonness, death after death, with no real choice in who we kill, who we become.” Another set of voices, Leon and Francois and others, hissing: “If you don’t eat, we die with you. We don’t want to die, even though you killed us. Get up!”
I closed my eyes against their demands. Maybe I wasn’t the monster. Maybe their combined drive for survival, the human thirst to go on, was the monster. Maybe they’d . . . been me, as much as I’d been them. Maybe they’d made me what I was, the sum of all their parts.
It was hard to think, with all their voices screaming, my mind hazy as morning fog. I got leadenly to my feet and went to the window. Outside, I saw a twenty-story drop, but of course the casements didn’t open. Safety standards.
The sight triggered a memory. Dim, but somehow truer than anything the chorus had ever shown me. Seeing my hands set colored pieces of glass in lead frames. Setting the finished window in place, my skin dyed ruby and sapphire by the light streaming through the tiny mosaic pieces.
I’d been someone else then. Someone whose hands were calloused both by work and by swords. Someone whose mind shied away from memories of foul deeds done in the name of God. My lord rode for Antioch, and I followed. My sword red-slick—the Turks bled the same color as any other men; their dying cries sounded just as piteous. The stench of open bowel and dying hands reaching for my legs as I helped carry the wounded out of the field. Save us. Save us. Please, god, save us, we don’t want to die.
I blinked, hearing the distant roar of the chorus, clamoring that they didn’t want to die. How many souls had I carried with me in darkness? Was I saving them? Was I damned by them?
My lord dying two years after having claimed Antioch for his own, fighting not the Turks, but the Byzantines and other Crusader lords over who held claim to which lands.
Walking the long roads home. Knowing in my heart that there could be no forgiveness for lives taken in an unjust cause. Understanding that the war had never been fought for God, but for earthly power and riches.
Breath fought for admittance in my constricted throat. My chest burned. Still no name. I’d been someone who wanted to sink into obscurity, to drown in it. Days spent listening to the monks sing their prayers as he made beautiful things for them. The words of God, rendered into glass. Images that replaced the intolerable visions in his head. Labor as penance.
Then I remembered looking through the window as my hands worked, to where the Bishop had some poor altar boy over the altar itself. Remembered shouting down at him to stop. He’d looked up at me, his mouth round with shock And then I’d tumbled through the half-set window, light falling in colored shards around me in the long descent towards the marble floor. My last thoughts before the pain of impact, I should have died before I returned home to find that evil was everywhere. That there was no salvation for what I’d seen and done, no salvation for who I’d been or become . . . .
I looked up, seeing the Bishop above me—reaching down to administer last rites? No, he held my mouth and nose closed, because I’d seen, I knew, and he couldn’t take the chance that I’d speak. As my agonized breath strangled in my chest, I prayed that he’d know what true horror was, the horror he’d inflicted on others.
Then he screamed, and I was him, holding down my first/not-first dying body, panicking because I knew that I wasn’t myself, I wasn’t him, I was something between the two, neither man, nor beast, nor angel . . . .
. . . and then I fell through those memories as if through glass, and I was Ermolao Famizi, and I hadn’t breathed fresh air since the Crusades. I wobbled, backing away from the clear glass and the long fall, staring at all the strange, magic devices in this huge, rich room with its strange smells, and I shook in terror.
It was the voices that steadied me. Voices like angels, like devils. A chorus of the damned. They reminded me of all the wonders I’d seen in the past thousand years. Told me I was one of them. “Don’t be a liability. Get this body moving. Downstairs.” To where there were other people to meet. Other people to be.
Inexorably, their voices moved me forward. Longing for blessed nonexistence, I gave the clear glass of the windows a steady look. I could end it. I could end all of us. But we were being punished; we were all punishing each other, the guilty and the damned. To try to escape our penance might be as much a sin as continuing to endure it. As continuing to inflict it.
No! they clamored, clinging to life. No! We want to live! You took our lives from us once—you have no right to take them again.
But I hadn’t. I’d never taken any of them. My own had been taken from me. And after a thousand years of penance, did I not deserve freedom? Had they not, by putting me back in charge of this body, given me the right to choose?
They clamored and struggled. Tried to wrest control back from me as my fingers sought window latches that weren’t there. And then they rose up as one, overwhelming me like the tide of men rising up over Antioch’s walls on siege ladders. Their dead hands clutched at me like the hands of the men dying in the fields, begging me to save them, too.
And I sank down under them once more, subsumed, but with one last, lingering thought: Someday, we will all be free.
Rank #4: PseudoPod 661: The Happiest Place
- Author : Kevin Wabaunsee
- Narrator : John Bell
- Host : Alex Hofelich
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
PseudoPod 661: The Happiest Place is a PseudoPod original.
A certain mouse-themed theme park has always been an object of fascination for me, and the more I read about it, the more strange an imitation of reality it appears to be. The lengths that employees are required to go to create a seamless fantasy experience for their guests seems altogether dystopian, and it didn’t take *too* much tweaking to imagine a world where such a a place was altogether disturbing. I wanted to think about the folks inside the costumes in such a strange place. How far would a person go to become a participant in this fantasyland? More worrisome, how far would the fantasyland go to keep its hold on them?
The Happiest Place
by Kevin Wabaunsee
Everyone knows the edge of the Kingdom of Fun out near the wall is the riskiest place to work. So of course, that’s where they put me on my first day. But it’s OK, I’ve trained for this. I have been thoroughly tested on my knowledge of the rules and the procedures involved. I’m well-equipped to handle a shift in Cartoon Town or the Forests of Delight, or yes, even Magic Mainstreet. But pulling duty on the ‘street my first time out is really throwing me in the deep end. Magic Mainstreet is out on the edge, and one of the biggest draws of the Kingdom of Fun. When the Mainstreet gates swing open, a throng of guests surge through. They’re here to listen to the barbershop-quartet renditions of familiar top-40 hits and eat butterscotch kettle corn or pumpkin roasted walnuts or the legendary buttered marshmallow dumplings, all those sweet aromas filling my nostrils. And, of course, they’re here to see me and my foam-head compatriots bobble and traipse up and down the bright red cobblestones.
No matter how many smiling faces I see, though, I stay on constant alert. Out here, where the razor-wire walls are only a few hundred yards away (artfully disguised, of course, and never within the sightlines of a guest), there are some special considerations. I’m not just weaving a magical amusement experience for the guests. I’m also doing my damnedest to protect the guests from what the Funventors have termed “the unwanted encroachment of reality.”
So, I keep one eye on the guests, and another on the horizon. Out on the edge of the park, there’s always the risk of certain reminders of the outside world. For an hour or two, I bobble to and fro, delighting children and adults alike with my exaggerated pantomime.
In the middle of my shift, midway through an inspired chicken-dance, I catch the faraway sounds of gunfire. No problem; park maintenance quickly mitigates that with a little bump in the ambient volume. Then, larger caliber exchanges trigger the arrival of an impromptu oompah-band parade.
A few minutes later, strange smells arrive on a gentle breeze. Inside my huge foam costume, and at a distance, it’s hard to tell exactly what it is. It might be the scent of cremation from a rabid-dog cull or a tire fire wafting across the walls. Through the cartoon-dog mask, it smells a little like cloves, actually. Nonetheless, the Funventors mask that with a little more clever sensory artistry – hidden nozzles puff out little spritzes of scent – first lilac breeze and cotton candy, then the big guns: fresh-baked cookies.
I’m still wobbling and dancing on the cobblestone street when something more troublesome arrives: a smudge of oily smoke rising on the horizon. Probably from a burning chemical fire out in the broken zone. That sort of thing isn’t really possible to camouflage. Not that there aren’t plans in the works. Confidentially, I’ve been told the Funventors are working on a huge coordinated balloon release, to literally blot out the sky. But that’s still in the planning stages.
Even as the finger of smoke grows higher and darker, neither me nor any of the other performers are worried about anything actually breaching the walls. The razor wire separating the Kingdom of Fun from the broken zone outside is tastefully camouflaged but also lethally electrified. Still, that acrid smoke isn’t part of the carefully-managed guest experience.
Like everything else in the Kingdom, the emergency cue is disguised. But as soon as I hear “Auld Lang Syne,” I know it’s a code-red situation. That means that I’m one of the performers tasked with discreetly evacuating everyone off the cobblestone paths of the Magical Mainstreet.
Trapped inside a giant foam suit, I need to start moving people out of the area. But I mustn’t tell the guests what’s going on, of course. As one of the big-heads – the costumed performers with the big foam heads (the delusional frog, the oversized panda-bear, and in my case, the most beloved of them all, the goofball dog), I never, under any circumstances, say a word. All my performance is through exaggerated pantomime, including shepherding the guests towards another zone.
My minder guides me. All performers are required to have a minder. Mine wears a bright-red circus-ringleader costume, giant oversize mustache, and has a voice that carries for miles. He’s the one giving me cleverly disguised instructions masquerading as conversation with the guests.
“Kids! Does the goofball dog look tired? He looks tired to me! He’s just not his usual boisterous, jubilant self. I hope he feels better! He’d need to be 65 percent peppier to really deliver on the goofball dog promise, don’t you think, kids? Even when he’s guiding this oh-so-fun conga line out of Magical Mainstreet!”
I don’t really mind the indirect instruction I get from my minder. He’s here to watch out for me as much as to watch me. He makes sure I don’t trip over a distracted anklebiter during the parade-cum-evacuation. And he’s the one who steers me away from a crowd of rowdy teenagers, the sort fond of kicking goofball dog in the testicles during a distracted moment or trying to tear his oversized head off.
That thought sends shivers down my spine. A head-removal, would of course, be the most unthinkable occurrence. From day one of foam-head bootcamp, it was drilled into me – the guests must never see a performer out of costume, especially not one of the more fantastical creatures with the giant foam heads. Such a trauma would be indelibly burned into the psyches of the impressionable guests.
I know the stakes.
As I guide my improvised conga-line parade-slash-evacuation, I think about what these guests have given up to visit the Kingdom of Fun. How each of them has traveled long and far. How they’ve braved overland routes through territories rent and broken, where nothing grows and no one lives, and the fabric of reality itself is torn and shredded. In their armor-plated RVs, the guests have journeyed to make their pilgrimage inside the unshakeable fantasy-reality that the Kingdom of Fun promises. Many of them are veterans of those constant nameless wars. Shattered by guilt, of course, but also by the weapons that break apart soldiers’ bodies and the ever-thinning fabric of reality alike. I know how desperate those poor souls must be for a wholesome, joyful, innocent escape, untainted by even the hint of the real world.
I know how these guests, even as they’re dancing-slash-evacuating, are still recovering from the indignity of strip searches and x-rays, back-scatter imaging, thorough background checks and – only occasionally, they assure me – explorations of a more personal nature visited upon those moderate risk individuals who fall under the suspicion of Kingdom of Fun risk management.
It’s true that, under the watchful eye of the Kingdom of Fun security detail, some of these very guests I’m guiding stood shivering and naked, forcefully deloused and exfoliated. You can tell from the scattered handful of shaved heads in the crowd. But it’s for a greater purpose. The horrors that have been visited upon the outside world must never be allowed to infect, to contaminate the most joyful place on earth.
Trailing behind us, never far away, are the Kingdom of Fun’s elite security forces, the Fun Patrol. They’re probably the best-trained fighting force in the world, but they aren’t performers. Nor, contrary to their name, are they particularly friendly. Their facemasks are a blank expanse of reflective black plastic. The giant rabbit ears are their only nod towards theatricality. And they use live ammo.
So, given all the guests have been through, I remain faithful to the precious – nay, sacred – duty of presenting the most complete, comprehensive and unbroken experience: total immersion in the joyous innocent fantasy land of the Kingdom of Fun, even while I’m gently pushing guests inwards from Magic Mainstreet to the shaded lanes of the Forests of Delight.
It’s hard work, but I love this place. Where else in the world do sugar-plum fairies dance across mossy paths, and princesses in white-and-blue layer-cake castles beckon from the highest tower? Every sight and smell and sound in the Kingdom of Fun is carefully crafted to bring guests, young and old, to a fever pitch of delight and amusement. Including, of course, the charming antics of the goofball dog. And they don’t even know I’m protecting them from the outside world.
It’s hot inside the suit – stifling, really – but I never even think of removing the foam head, or even breaking the seal around to let in a little cooler air, even after the evacuation-slash-parade is finished. I know why I must never remove my head in front of a guest. What could be more the antithesis of the perfectly immersive journey into fantasyland, than a goofball dog who decapitates himself in front of toddlers and preschoolers? Or even those adults with a more rudimentary understanding of the blurred border between fantasy and reality. I must not take off any part of my costume, including and especially the head, under any circumstances.
I think back to my foam-head orientation session. I can still remember that smug fellow, a college graduate from one of the stable provinces, who sneeringly asked about the head-removal policy. He posed a hypothetical regurgitation scenario. If in the unlikely event that there was imminent vomit, that smug fellow said, surely then we would be allowed to remove our heads? I remember the head Funventor’s response was immediate, forceful, and unambiguous. There were no circumstances – vomit-inclusive – that would be grounds for de-heading within the park areas. That the smug fellow washed out of foam-head bootcamp pretty quickly.
But I didn’t. The Funventors have total faith in me. I’ve prepared. I, of all people, know what’s at stake. I came from outside the walls. I grew up smelling the lilac breeze and cookie-dough smells only when they happened to waft outwards when the winds shifted. I picked up the torn pamphlets and discarded memorabilia from the midden-heaps outside the security zone with trembling four-year-old hands. Throughout my childhood, I stared with slack-jawed awe at the pictures of the fairytale kingdom and the smiling faces and more than anything else, at those perfectly sculpted cartoon faces of the foam-headed performers.
After a ten-minute conga parade, we cross the border into the overhanging boughs of the Forests of Delight. Only once all my guests are in the shade can I finally relax. The sight and smell of the looming chemical fire can’t reach the guests here, in the filtered air and artificial canopy of the Most Delightful Forest on Earth. I don’t stop performing, but it’s no longer a code-red situation. Even my minder seems to relax a little bit.
Growing up out there, of course I longed to visit. Doesn’t everyone? But it was different for me; I didn’t just want to experience the fantasy. No, I longed to become a part of the Kingdom of Fun, to meld into the walls, live my life inside the fantasy. Who wouldn’t trade the reality outside for this perfect fantasy?
So, I don’t worry. The Funventors have total faith in me. But I can’t take it for granted. Even after I’ve delivered my guests to the Forests of Delight, I’m still under the watchful eye of the Fun Patrol. Sure, they prevent contraband from entering the kingdom walls, and precious Enchanted Souvenirs from being pilfered, but most importantly, they ensure no performers ever transgress, break character, or endanger the guests’ willing suspension of disbelief.
I’m still technically performing the entire time I’m coming off-shift after the Magic Mainstreet evacuation – bouncing and bobbling through empty hallways, flapping my arms and gamboling around, until I’m safely inside the staff dressing room. The all-clear light switches from red to green, and it’s only then that can I finally peel off the gigantic novelty gloves, an exaggerated parody of a dog’s paw, and hook my fingers under the collar to pull off the giant foam head of goofball dog and –
I hear the voice of my foam-head bootcamp sergeant in my memory. Don’t worry if it doesn’t come off right away, he’d said. It takes a little practice to get the movement just right. My fellow performers in the dressing room try to help. They suggest various ways to get the foam head off. Twist, one of them says. Just pull, another says. One of them wonders aloud if the goofball dog suit is made differently, because they’ve never had any problem getting their shark head off, and right about then, yeah, I start to panic a little. I’m pretty sure my actual head is stuck, actually stuck, inside this oversized novelty dog head. It’s getting really stuffy in there, in fact.
They call in an apprentice Funventor to help out, and he’s even more befuddled than the rest of the staff, who have all stripped out of their costumes, but are watching the apprentice Funventor frown and scowl and harrumph at the goofball dog head, none of which actually gets it any closer to coming off my sweating head.
The apprentice Funventor – I can’t see him past the giant oversized novelty dog snout, is poking and prodding with his fingers and isn’t being terribly gentle about it. I ask him to please be more careful when he’s poking me in the neck, and he skitters away from me, and he asks me to repeat myself and I do, and he goes pale. He says he wasn’t poking me. His fingers weren’t even on my skin –
He stops there and grabs the big red emergency phone on the wall of the staff dressing room. I try to tell him that the red phone isn’t necessary – it’s not an emergency, that sort of drastic action isn’t needed – but I stop myself, because I worry that I’m starting to sound unbalanced. But who wouldn’t, with their head stuck in an oversized foam goofball dog mask?
A pair of senior Funventors march into the staff dressing room, and order all the other gawking staff out, and then it’s just me and the three Funventors, all of whom are staring at me like I’m not even there. They poke and they prod, and eventually their probing fingers start to hurt, and one of them jambs his thumb into a tender spot between my collarbone and my voice box, and I tell him to keep his goddamn hands to himself. They all back away, and I start to sputter an apology. That’s not how a diligent Kingdom of Fun employee would react. That’s certainly not in keeping with the Head Funventor’s dictates for fantasy-making and general decorum.
The junior Funventor whispers into the ear of one of his superiors, and I don’t catch all of what he says, but I hear “happening again,” and maybe that’s a good thing, maybe that means they’ve dealt with this before, that there’s an easy solution –
Then the Fun Patrol arrives. At gunpoint, I’m encouraged to submit to a calming injection and lie down on a stretcher they’ve brought with them. I’m strapped down, and with no warning, I’m wheeled – rushed, it seems like – through the bowels of the Kingdom of Fun. All I see is unmarked hallways and overhead lights flickering past until they blend together into a smear of light. We take an endless elevator ride down – so very far down. I didn’t even know the Kingdom of Fun had sublevels this deep below the ground.
The sedative starts to take effect as they wheel me through an endless stretch of bare concrete hallway. I turn my head and see we’re passing by dozens of rooms honeycombed into the earth. Storage, it looks like. Dozens of foam-head suits in cold storage, hanging from the ceiling. At first, it’s all the familiar characters that I’ve loved and adored since childhood. Multiple copies of each costume.
But then in the depths of those shrouded rooms, I see characters I’ve never seen, never even heard of. A rat with spiral eyeballs. A googly-eyed plant with row after row of thorns and endless flytrap mouths. Something like a squid with adorable doe-eyes and a mouthful of glistening cartoon-tentacles idly twitching and twirling.
As I drift into unconsciousness, I finally feel calm. The Kingdom of Fun is going to take care of me. I just know it. I trust the Funventors. The Kingdom has faith in me, and I have faith in the Kingdom.
Rank #5: PseudoPod 634: Flash On The Borderlands XLVI: The Accursed and the Monstrous
- Authors : Kurt Hunt, Lisa Baldinelli and Paul Alex Gray
- Narrators : Hollis Monroe, Larissa Thompson and Trendane Sparks
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
PseudoPod 634: Flash On The Borderlands XLVI: The Accursed and the Monstrous is a PseudoPod original.
“Ecdysis” was previously published at Kaleidotrope (Spring 2016)
“Viens Jouer Avec Moi” and “End of the Line” are Pseudopod originals.
Music credits for “Viens Jouer Avec Moi”:Spoiler Inside SelectShow Minor Key Music Box – Freesound.org
“End of the Line”: Spoiler Inside SelectShow “In the summer, my daughter and I rode our bikes to the library. She sat on the grass while I returned some books. It only took a moment, but when I came back she was gone, and my heart dropped. I called out her name but couldn’t find her. I shouted louder and she appeared from behind a bush where she was looking at bees. For that brief time however, I felt a terrible, visceral fear. It made me think of how a parent might respond if their child disappeared unexpectedly. Just as she had gone looking for bees, I began to imagine a story where something nefarious tempts the child, spiriting her away and leaving just enough of a lure for the parent to ignore rational thought and to follow her.”
by Kurt Hunt
narrated by Hollis Munroe
Only one rule: do not speak to them.
Even when they crawl into your room at night, their claws gripping the floorboards — do not speak to them. Even when their breath is hot on your tightly closed eyes, their double-jointed elbows braced against the headboard above you — do not speak to them. Even when they chitter about their loneliness — do not speak to them.
You knew the rule. Your grandfather taught it to you before you could read. He tucked you in one night and you breathed the cedar smells of the cabin at the foot of the ridge and asked “when is she coming home?”
Strange, the way he turned his face away.
“She’s not,” he said to the wall after a long silence, then turned back and told you: when they come — and they will come — do not speak to them.
You knew the rule, but you didn’t understand it. Maybe grandfather did, but he’s been gone for many years while your conviction faded and your resolve weakened.
Eventually, the weight of their carapaces became too much, too familiar to bear alone. You felt your lips part one night and you heard your voice rasp at them in the darkness.
And now look at you.
No more grandfather. No more cabin. No more softness. You left those scraps in your bed.
Nothing now but gnawing hunger, that hollowed-out feeling in your armor as your chitinous legs scrape against the others, as you whisper about your loneliness to a succession of faces, all of them closed to you. Sometimes you think one will break, but the lips only ever form the words in silence: “do not speak to them do not speak to them.”
Viens Jouer Avec Moi
by Lisa Baldinelli
narrated by Larissa Thompson
“Mummy,” the young girl asked quietly, “where did you get the music box? I want one for my own.” The mother looked down at her daughter, taking in her alabaster skin, rose-tinted cheeks, and wide innocent eyes as if it were the last time she’d ever see them in person. “It’s so pretty, Mummy. Can’t I please just play with yours?” she tried again.
The mother began to tremble, lips quivering. “Listen to me, Violetta,” the older woman pleaded, “that box is not a toy. You cannot just play with it as you please.” She knelt down and brushed her daughter’s hair behind her ear. Her hands held her head delicately between them as she begged, “Please, Darling, do not touch my music box.” Violetta let out a defeated nod and complied with her mother’s wishes – for the time being.
Day after day she would pass her mother’s expansive boudoir, littered with rich jewels of all colors and fine fabrics of all patterns, eyeing the music box dreamily, and then continuing on her merry way. Day after day she would pass, interest in the music box rising like the tide, her curiosity being further piqued with every view of the mysterious container. Curiosity, that treacherous black widow, spun the young, defenseless cherub in her web, trapping her forever.
“Darling?” her mother’s voice rose from the living room. “Would you be a dear and fetch my emerald scarf? I believe it lies on the top of my bureau.” Violetta nodded, then scurried off.
She entered her parents’ bedroom in search of the item her mother requested. The room was essentially a mirror image of itself in structural layout, with each side occupied by either her father’s or her mother’s belongings (her father’s always on the left, her mother’s always on the right). Her eyes locked on to the accessory on the right side of the room instantly. Within a few steps, the soft fabric was in her hands, uncovering the music box that laid underneath. She stared at the intricate wood carving for a moment, admiring its beauty, and then turned around to return to her mother.
“Viens jouer avec moi.”
Violetta stopped in her tracks, facing the door on her father’s half of the room. While she did not recognize the delicate, enticing voice, she did, however, recognize the words the voice spoke; come play with me.
“Viens jouer avec moi,” the voice repeated, light and airy with a pleasing hum underlying her tone.
The young girl turned around in search of the owner of the voice, but saw no one.
“Violetta,” the voice purred, “viens jouer avec moi.”
She stepped forward, drawn towards the music box once more. The mysterious woman sang out again in her hauntingly melodic voice. Violetta felt an overwhelming desire to answer the voice’s clarion call, despite her mother’s warning sounding off in the back of her mind.
“Viens ici, mon doux enfant,” the voice encouraged.
She nodded at her words—come here, my sweet child—and erased all doubt from her thoughts, thus moving to stand directly in front of her mother’s dresser. Her hand lifted and touched the top of the music box, smoothing her fingers over the edge, then gripped it and meticulously lifted the lid up. A soft tune comprised of twinkling bells emanated from within. The girl peered into the box and looked at the figurine that was twirling to the song. The ballerina was posed in a typical form, one Violetta had seen, and had accomplished herself, many times before; arms above her head, raised up on the tips of her toes, and eyes gently closed as a look of pure serenity washed over her porcelain face. Oh, how she wished to be as beautiful and happy as the graceful ballerina was!
“Violetta…” The voice was louder, but somehow just as gentle as before.
She lifted her small, slender fingers and reached out towards the twirling woman. The music began to swell around her, building in an intensity and drawing the child closer and closer. Finally, her fingers brushed against the head of the ballerina, and she cried out. Her eyes shut tightly as she released her mother’s scarf, allowing it to freely float to the floor.
Everything was dark. The only noise she heard was the song of the music box playing again, back to its soft tune. She tried to move, but found she was unable.
“Darling?” her mother called. “Is everything alright?”
Mummy! She tried to scream. Mummy, please help me!
“Yes, Mummy. I just dropped your scarf on the floor,” she heard her voice explain.
“Well, hurry, dear. We need to leave soon.”
She heard her mother’s footsteps, along with her voice, fade away, leaving her alone. Except, she wasn’t alone just yet.
The dreamy voice she had once trusted spoke over the quiet music, saying only one thing; “Au revoir, Violetta.”
The music stopped instantly.
End of the Line
By Paul Alex Gray
narrated by Trendane Sparks
“Look Daddy, a girl is in there.”
Adam nodded absentmindedly while fighting to unfurl the soggy tube map. Throngs of passengers pushed past, up the stairs and into the rain.
Now were we meant to switch to the Northern? Or the Piccadilly line?
“Jess,” said Adam. “We need to go back to the platform.”
He looked up from the map and looked to the near-empty corridor but his daughter was nowhere to be seen. His heart sank and he gulped.
“Jess?” He said loudly.
He dashed along the corridor and up the stairs. A few commuters were hurrying away as a black cab drove by, spilling water onto the pavement.
“Jess, where are you!”
He ran back through the corridor as a rumbling sound grew, the deep thudding booms of a train moving somewhere above, or maybe below. A gust of air came, hot and tinged with brake oil and smoke. He was just about to check the platform when a flash of colour caught his eye. Turning, he saw a metal grille in the wall, and within it, something moving.
Blue. Her dress.
“Jess!” he cried incredulously.
Adam knelt, grabbing the edges of the grille, pulling in vain.
“Jess stay there!”
The figure turned. A pallid face with eyes like blots of soot stared back.
“No,” gasped Adam.
It was a girl.
She wore a blue dress.
It couldn’t have been Jess.
The girl ran away as Adam’s stomach churned.
Was that Jess? Had she fallen? Wandered somewhere?
“Jess,” he cried.
“She won’t hear ya, mate. Not from out there,” came a raspy voice.
Looking up, Adam noticed a vent set in the ceiling tiles. Within, a pair of eyes stared back. A grizzled man’s face caked with dirt and soot.
“Who are you!?” shouted Adam. “What have you done with her!?”
“She’s come in mate. Come to find someone. Everyone comes in for someone else.”
Another train began to rumble in the walls. Warm air spilled out from the grille, and with it, the faintest hint of a voice.
“You can find her mate,” said the man. “Just come in.”
Adam roared, grasping the grille, pulling so hard he tore the skin. With a crash, the metal door swung open. He leaned in to a dim space, lit by amber bulbs that cast a sickly glow. With bloody hands, he hauled himself into a narrow passage lined with cables and pipes.
“Yeah, that’s right,” came the man’s voice. “The good ones always come in.”
Adam shimmied along, following the passage left, then right. Every turn led to another and soon he couldn’t see the bright light of the corridor. Delving deeper, his clothes began to tear and his skin grew slick with grime and soot.
She must be in here. I’ll find her, I’ll search the whole place.
The tunnels echoed with the noise of trains, booms and thunderous sighs, screeches and somewhere deep within, he was certain, the sound of a girl’s voice.
Rank #6: PseudoPod 648: The Canal
- Author : Everil Worrell
- Narrator : Scott Campbell
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
- Discuss on Forums
“The Canal” was first published in Weird Tales, December 1927 and was later made into a TV episode on Rod Serling’s popular series, Night Gallery.
A surprisingly in depth look at the origin of the Campbell quote Alasdair uses: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/05/23/campbell-treasure/
by Everil Worrell
Past the sleeping city the river sweeps; along its left bank the old canal creeps.
I did not intend that to be poetry, although the scene is poetic—somberly, gruesomely poetic, like the poems of Poe. I know it too well—I have walked too often over the grass-grown path beside the reflections of black trees and tumble-down shacks and distant factory chimneys in the sluggish waters that moved so slowly, and ceased to move at all.
I have always had a taste for nocturnal prowling. As a race we have grown too intelligent to take seriously any of the old, instinctive fears that preserved us through preceding generations. Our sole remaining salvation, then, has come to be our tendency to travel in herds. We wander at night—but our objective is somewhere on the brightly lighted streets, or still somewhere where men do not go alone. When we travel far afield, it is in company. Few of my acquaintance, few in the whole city here, would care to ramble at midnight over the grass-grown path I have spoken of—not because they would fear to do so, but because such things are not being done.
Well, it is dangerous to differ individually from one’s fellows. It is dangerous to wander from the beaten road. And the fears that guarded the race in the dawn of time and through the centuries were founded on reality.
A month ago, I was a stranger here. I had just taken my first position—I was graduated from college only three months before, in the spring. I was lonely, and likely to remain so for some time, for I have always been of a solitary nature, making friends slowly.
I had received one invitation out, to visit the camp of a fellow employee in the firm for which I worked, a camp which was located on the farther side of the wide river, the side across from the city and the canal, where the bank was high and steep and heavily wooded, and little tents blossomed all along the water’s edge. At night these camps were a string of sparkling lights and tiny, leaping campfires, and the tinkle of music carried faintly far across the calmly flowing water. That far bank of the river was no place for an eccentric, solitary man to love. But the near bank, which would have been an eyesore to the campers had not the river been so wide—the near bank attracted me from my first glimpse of it.
We embarked in a motor-boat at some distance downstream, and swept up along the near bank, and then out and across the current. I turned my eyes backward. The murk of stagnant water that was the canal, the jumble of low buildings beyond it, the lonely, low-lying waste of the narrow strip of land between canal and river, the dark, scattered trees growing there—I intended to see more of these things.
That week-end bored me, but I repaid myself no later than Monday evening, the first evening when I was back in the city, alone and free. I ate a solitary dinner immediately after leaving the office. I went to my room and slept from seven until nearly midnight. I wakened naturally, then, for my whole heart was set on exploring the alluring solitude I had discovered. I dressed, slipped out of the house and into the street, started the motor in my roadster and drove through the lighted streets.
When I parked my car on a rough, cobbled street that ran directly down into the inky waters of the canal, and crossed a narrow bridge, I was repaid. In a few minutes I set my feet on the old tow-path where mules had drawn river-boats up and down only a year or so ago. As I walked upstream at a swinging pace, the miserable shacks where miserable people lived across the canal seemed to march with me, and then fell behind.
The bridge I had crossed was near the end of the city going north, as the canal marked its western extremity. Ten minutes of walking, and the dismal shacks were quite a distance behind, the river was farther away and the strip of waste land much wider and more wooded, and tall trees across the canal marched with me as the evil-looking houses had done before. Far and faint, the sound of a bell in the city reached my ears. It was midnight.
I stopped, enjoying the desolation around me. It had the savor I had expected and hoped for. I stood for some time looking up at the sky, watching the low drift of heavy clouds, which were visible in the dull reflected glow from distant lights in the heart of the city, so that they appeared to have a lurid phosphorescence of their own. The ground under my feet, on the contrary, was utterly devoid of light. I had felt my way carefully, knowing the edge of the canal partly by instinct, partly by the even more perfect blackness of the water in it, and even holding fairly well to the path, because it was perceptibly sunken below the ground beside it.
Now as I stood motionless in this spot, my eyes upcast, my mind adrift with strange fancies, suddenly my feelings of satisfaction and well-being gave way to something different. Fear was an emotion unknown to me—for I had always been drawn to those things which make men fear. But now along all the length of my spine I was conscious of a prickling, tingling sensation—such as my forefathers may have felt in the jungle when the hair on their backs stood up. I knew that there were eyes upon me, and that that was why I was afraid to move. I stood perfectly still, my face uptilted toward the sky. But with effort, I mastered myself.
Slowly, slowly, with an attempt to propitiate the owner of the unseen eyes by my casual manner, I lowered my own. I looked straight ahead—at the softly swaying silhouette of the tree-tops across the canal as they moved gently in the cool night wind, at the mass of blackness that was those trees, and the opposite shore, at the shiny blackness that was the canal, where the reflections of the clouds glinted vaguely and disappeared. As I grew accustomed to the greater blackness and my pupils expanded, I dimly discerned the contours of an old boat or barge, half sunken in the water. An old, abandoned canal-boat. But was I dreaming, or was there a white-clad figure seated on the roof of the low cabin aft, a pale, heart-shaped face gleaming strangely at me from the darkness, the glow of two eyes seeming to light up the face, and to detach it from the darkness?
Surely, there could be no doubt as to the eyes. They shone as the eyes of animals shine in the dark, with a phosphorescent gleam, and a glimmer of red! Well, I had heard that some human eyes have that quality at night.
But what a place for a human being to be—a girl, too, I was sure. That daintily heart-shaped face was the face of a girl, surely; I was seeing it clearer and clearer, either because my eyes were growing more accustomed to peering into the deeper shadows, or because of that phosphorescence in the eyes that stared back at me.
I raised my voice softly, not to break too much the stillness of night.
“Hello! who’s there? Are you lost, or marooned, and can I help?”
There was a little pause. I was conscious of a soft lapping at my feet. A stronger night wind had sprung up, was ruffling the dark waters. I had been overwarm, and where it struck me the perspiration turned cold on my body, so that I shivered uncontrollably.
“You can stay and talk awhile, if you will. I am lonely, but not lost. I—live here.”
The voice was little more than a whisper, but it had carried clearly—a girl’s voice. And she lived there, in an old, abandoned canal-boat, half submerged in the stagnant water.
“You are not alone there?”
“No, not alone. My father lives here with me, but he is deaf, and he sleeps soundly.”
Did the night wind blow still colder, as though it came to us from some unseen, frozen sea—or was there something in her tone that chilled me, even as a strange attraction drew me toward her? I wanted to draw near to her, to see closely the pale, heart-shaped face, to lose myself in the bright eyes that I had seen shining in the darkness. I wanted—I wanted to hold her in my arms, to find her mouth with mine, to kiss it…
I took a reckless step nearer the edge of the bank.
“Could I come over to you?” I asked. “It’s warm, and I don’t mind a wetting. It’s late, I know, but I’d like to sit and talk, if only for a few minutes before I go back to town. It’s a lonely place here for a girl like you to live.”
Was it the unconventionality of my request that made her next words sound like a long-drawn shudder of protest? There was a strangeness in the tones of her voice that held me wondering, every time she spoke.
“No, no. Oh, no! You must not come across.”
“Then could I come tomorrow, or some day soon, in the daytime; and would you let me come on board then—or would you come on shore and talk to me, perhaps?”
“Not in the daytime—never in the daytime!”
Again the intensity of her low-toned negation held me spellbound.
It was not her sense of the impropriety of the hour, then, that had dictated her manner. For surely, any girl with the slightest sense of the fitness of things would rather have a tryst by daytime than after midnight—yet there was an inference in her last words that if I came again it should be at night.
Still feeling the spell that had enthralled me, as one does not forget the presence of a drug in the air that is stealing one’s senses, even when those senses begin to wander and to busy themselves with other things, I yet spoke shortly.
“Why do you say, ‘Never in the daytime’? Do you mean that I may come more than this once at night, though now you won’t let me cross the canal to you at the expense of my own clothes, and you won’t put down your plank or drawbridge or whatever you come on shore with, and talk to me here for only a moment? I’ll come again, if you’ll let me talk to you instead of calling across the water. If I came in the daytime and met your father, wouldn’t that be the best thing to do? Then we could be really acquainted; we could be friends.”
“In the nighttime, my father sleeps. In the daytime, I sleep. How could I talk to you, or introduce you to my father then? If you came on board this boat in the daytime, you would find my father—and you would be sorry. As for me, I would be sleeping. I could never introduce you to my father, do you see?”
“You sleep soundly, you and your father.” Again there was pique in my voice.
“Yes, we sleep soundly.”
“And always at different times?”
“Always at different times. We are on guard—one of us is always on guard. We have been hardly used, down there in your city. And we have taken refuge here. And we are always—always—on guard.”
My resentment vanished, and I felt my heart go out to her anew. She was so pale, so pitiful in the night. My eyes were learning better and better how to pierce the darkness; they were giving me a more definite picture of my companion—if I could think of her as a companion, between myself and whom stretched the black waters.
The sadness of the lonely scene, the perfection of the solitude itself, these things contributed to her pitifulness. Then there was that strangeness of atmosphere of which, even yet, I had only partly taken note. There was the strange, shivering chill, which yet did not seem like the healthful chill of a cool evening. In fact, it did not prevent me from feeling the oppression of the night, which was unusually sultry. It was like a little breath of deadly cold that came and went, and yet did not alter the temperature of the air itself, as the small ripples on the surface of the water do not concern the water even a foot down.
And even that was not all. There was an unwholesome smell about the night—a dank, mouldy smell that might have been the very breath of death and decay. Even I, a connoisseur in all things dismal and unwholesome, tried to keep my mind from dwelling overmuch upon that smell. What it must be to live breathing it constantly, I could not think. But no doubt the girl and her father were used to it; and no doubt it came from the stagnant water of the canal and from the rotting wood of the old, half-sunken boat that was their refuge.
My clearer vision of the girl showed me that she was pitifully thin, even though possessed of a strangely attractive face that drew me to her. Her clothes hung around her like old rags, but hers was no scarecrow aspect. I was sure the little, pale, heartshaped face would be more beautiful still, if I could only see it closely. I must see it closely—I must establish some claim to consideration as a friend of the strange, lonely crew of the half-sunken wreck.
“This is a poor place to call a refuge,” I said finally. “One might have very little money, and yet do somewhat better. Perhaps I might help you; I am sure I could. If your ill-treatment in the city was because of poverty—I am not rich, but I could help that. I could help you a little with money, if you would let me; or, in any case, I could find a position for you. I’m sure I could do that.”
The eyes that shone fitfully toward me like two small pools of water intermittently lit by a cloud-swept sky seemed to glow more brightly. She had been half crouching, half sitting on top of the cabin; now she leaped to her feet with one quick, sinuous, abrupt motion, and took a few rapid, restless steps to and fro before she answered.
“Do you think you would be helping me, to tie me to a desk, to shut me behind doors, away from freedom, away from the delight of doing my own will, of seeking my own way? Rather this old boat, ather a deserted grave under the stars for my home!”
A positive feeling of kinship with this strange being, whose face I had hardly seen, possessed me. So I myself might have spoken, so I had often felt, though I had never dreamed of putting my thoughts so forcibly. My regularized daytime life was a thing I thought little of; I really lived only in my nocturnal prowlings. This girl was right! All life should be free.
“I understand much better than you think,” I answered. “I want to see you again, to come to know you. Surely, there must be some way in which I can be of use to you. All you have to do from tonight on for ever, is to command me. I swear it!”
“You swear that—you do swear it?”
Delighted at the eagerness of her words, I lifted my hand toward the dark heavens.
“I swear it. From this night on, for ever—I swear it.”
“Then listen. Tonight you may not come to me, nor I to you. I do not want you to board this boat—not tonight, not any night. And most of all, not any day. But do not look so sad. I will come to you. No, not tonight, perhaps not for many nights, yet before very long. I will come to you there, on the bank of the canal, when the water in the canal ceases to flow.”
I must have made a gesture of impatience, or of despair. It sounded like a way of saying “never”—for why should the water in the canal cease to flow? She read my thoughts in some way, for she answered them.
“You do not understand. I am speaking seriously; I am promising to meet you there on the bank, soon. The water is moving always slower. Higher up, the canal has been drained. Between these lower locks, the water still seeps in and drops slowly downstream. But there will come a night when it will be stagnant—and on that night I will come to you. And when I come, I will ask of you a favor.”
It was all the assurance I could get that night. She had come back to the side of the cabin where she had sat crouched before, and she resumed again that posture and sat still and silent, watching me. Sometimes I could see her eyes upon me, and sometimes not. But I felt that their gaze was unwavering. The little cold breeze, which I had finally forgotten while I was talking with her, was blowing again, and the unwholesome smell of decay grew heavier before the dawn.
I went away, and in the first faint light of dawn I slipped up the stairs of my rooming-house, and into my room.
I was deadly tired at the office next day. And day after day slipped away and I grew more and more weary; for a man cannot wake day and night without suffering. I haunted the old tow-path and waited, night after night, on the bank opposite the sunken boat. Sometimes I saw my lady of the darkness, and sometimes not. When I saw her, she spoke little; but sometimes she sat there on the top of the cabin and let me watch her till the dawn, or until the strange uneasiness that was like fright drove me from her and back to my room, where I tossed restlessly in the heat and dreamed strange dreams, half waking, till the sun shone in on my forehead and I tumbled into my clothes and down to the office again.
Once I asked her why she had made the fanciful condition that she would not come ashore to meet me until the waters of the canal had ceased to run. (How eagerly I studied those waters! How I stole away at noontime more than once, not to approach the old boat, but to watch the almost imperceptible downdrift of bubbles, bits of straw, twigs, rubbish!) But my questioning displeased her, and I asked her that no more. It was enough that she chose to be whimsical. My part was to wait.
It was more than a week later that I questioned her again, this time on a different subject. And after that, I curbed my curiosity relentlessly.
“Never speak to me of things you do not understand about me, or you will not see me again.”
I had asked her what form of persecution she and her father had suffered in the city, that had driven them out to this lonely place, and where in the city they had lived. Frightened lest I lose the ground I was sure I had gained with her, I was about to speak of something else. But before I could find the words, her low voice came to me again.
“It was horrible, horrible! Those little houses below the bridge, those houses along the canal—tell me, are not they worse than my boat? Life there was shut in and furtive. I wasn’t free as I am now, and the freedom I will soon have will make me forget the things I have not yet forgotten. The screaming, the reviling and cursing! Think how you would like to be shut up in one of those houses, and in fear of your life!”
I dared not answer her. I was surprised that she had vouch-safed me so much. But surely her words meant that before she had come to live on the decaying, water-rotted old boat, she had lived in one of those horrible houses I passed by on my way to her, those houses, each of which looked like the predestined scene of dark crime!
As I left her that night, I felt that I was very daring.
And yet, the next day, for the first time my thoughts were definitely troubled. I had been living in a dream—I began to speculate concerning the end of the path on which my feet were set. I had conceived, from the first, such a horror of those old houses by the canal! Much as I loved all that was weird and eery about the girl I was wooing so strangely, it was a little too much for my fancy that she had come from them.
By this time, I had become decidedly unpopular in my place of business. Not that I had made enemies, but my peculiar ways had caused too much adverse comment. It would have taken very little, I think, to have made the entire office force decide that I was mad. However, they were punctiliously polite to me, and merely let me alone as much as possible—which suited me perfectly. I dragged wearily through day after day, exhausted from lack of sleep, conscious of their speculative glances, living only for the night to come.
One day, I approached the man who had invited me to the camp across the river. “Have you ever noticed the row of tumble-down houses along the canal on the city side?” I asked.
He gave me an odd look. I suppose he sensed the significance of my breaking silence after so long to speak of them.
“You have odd tastes, Morton,” he said after a moment. “I suppose you wander into strange places sometimes. But my advice to you is to keep away from those houses. They’re unsavory, and their reputation is pretty bad. You might very well be in danger of your life, if you go poking around there. They have been the scene of several murders, and a dope den or two has been cleaned out of them. Why in the world you should want to investigate them—”
“I don’t expect to investigate them,” I said. “I was merely interested in them—from the outside. To tell you the truth, I’d heard a story, a rumor—never mind where. But you say there have been murders there—I suppose this rumor I heard may have had to do with an attempted one. There was a girl who lived there with her father once, and they were set upon there, or something of the sort, and had to run away. Did you ever hear that story?”
Barrett gave me an odd look such as one gives in speaking of a past horror so dreadful that the mere speaking of it makes it live terribly again.
“What you say reminds me of something that was said to have happened down there once,” he answered. “It was in all the papers. A little child disappeared in one of those houses, and a girl and her father were accused of having made away with it. They were accused of—oh, well, I don’t like to talk about such things. It was pretty disagreeable. The child’s body was found—or, rather, part of it was found. It was mutilated, and the people seemed to believe it had been mutilated in order to conceal the manner of its death; there was an ugly wound in the throat, it finally came out, and it seemed as if the child might have been bled to death. It was found in the girl’s room, hidden away. The old man and his daughter escaped before the police were called. The countryside was scoured, but they were never found. Why, you must have read it in the papers—several years ago.”
I had read it in the papers, I remembered now. And again, a terrible doubt came over me. Who was this girl, what was this girl, who seemed to have my heart in her keeping?
Befogged with exhaustion, bemused in a dire enchantment, my mind was incapable of thought. And yet, some soul-process akin to that which saves the sleepwalker poised at perilous heights sounded its warning now.
My mind was filled with doleful images. There were women, I had heard and read, who slew to satisfy a blood-lust. There were ghosts, specters—call them what you will; their names have been legion in the dark pages of that lore which dates back to the infancy of the races of the earth—who retained even in death this blood-lust. Vampires—they had been called that. Corpses by day, spirits of evil by night, roaming abroad in their own forms or in the forms of bats or unclean beasts, killing body and soul of their victims—for whoever dies of the repeated “kiss” of the vampire, which leaves its mark on the throat and draws the blood from the body, becomes a vampire also—of such beings I had read.
And, in that last day at the office, I remembered reading of these undead, that in their nocturnal flights they had one limitation—they could not cross running water.
That night I went my usual way, recognizing fully the misery of being the victim of an enchantment stronger than my feeble will. I approached the neighborhood of the canal-boat as the distant city clock chimed the first stroke of twelve. It was the dark of the moon and the sky was overcast. Heat-lightning flickered low in the sky, seeming to come from every point of the compass and circumscribe the horizon, as if unseen fires burned behind the rim of the world. By its fitful glimmer, I saw a new thing: between the old boat and the canal bank stretched a long, slim, solid-looking shadow—a plank had been let down! In that moment, I realized that I had been playing with powers of evil which had no intention now to let me go, which were indeed about to lay hold upon me with an inexorable grasp. Why had I come tonight? Why, but that the spell of the enchantment laid upon me was a thing more potent, and far more unbreakable, than any wholesome spell of love?
Behind me in the darkness there was the crackle of a twig, and something brushed against my arm.
This, then, was the fulfillment of my dream. I knew, without turning my head, that the pale, dainty face with its glowing eyes was near my own—that I had only to stretch out my arm to touch the slender grace of the girl I had so longed to draw near. I knew, and should have felt the rapture I had anticipated. Instead, the miasmic odors of the night, heavy and oppressive with heat and unrelieved by a breath of air, all but overcame me. The little waves of coldness I had felt often in this spot were possessing all my body, yet they were not from any breeze; the leaves on the trees hung down motionless, as though they were actually wilting on their branches.
With an effort, I turned my head.
Two hands caught me at my neck. The pale face was so near that I felt the warm breath from its nostrils fanning my cheek.
And, suddenly, all that was wholesome in my perverted nature rose uppermost. I longed for the touch of the red mouth, like a dark flower opening before me in the night. I longed for it—and yet more I dreaded it. I shrank back, catching in a powerful grip the fragile wrists of the hands that strove to hold me. I must not yield to the faintness that I felt stealing over me.
I was facing down the path toward the city. A low rumble of thunder broke the torrid hush of the summer night. A glare of lightning seemed to tear the night asunder, to light up the universe. Overhead, the clouds were careening madly in fantastic shapes, driven by a wind that swept the upper heavens without causing even a trembling in the air lower down. And far down the canal, that baleful glare seemed to play around and hover over the little row of shanties—murder-cursed, and haunted by the ghost of a dead child.
My gaze was fixed on them, while I held away from me the pallid face and fought off the embrace that sought to overcome my resisting will. And so a long moment passed. The glare faded out of the sky, and a greater darkness took the world. But there was a near, more menacing light fastened upon my face—the light of two eyes that watched mine, that had watched me as I, unthinking, stared down at the dark houses.
This girl—this woman who had come to me at my own importunate requests, did not love me, since I had shrunk from her. She did not love me—but it was not only that. She had watched me as I gazed down at the houses that held her dark past, and I was sure that she divined my thoughts. She knew my horror of those houses—she knew my new-born horror of her. And she hated me for it, hated me more malignantly than I had believed a human being could hate.
Could a human being cherish such hatred as I read, trembling more and more, in those glowing fires lit with what seemed to me more like the fires of hell than any light that ought to shine in a woman’s eyes?
At this point in the happenings of that night, my calmness deserted me; at this point I felt that I had been drawn into the midst of a horrible nightmare from which there was no escape, no waking! As I write, this feeling again overwhelms me, until I can hardly write at all—until, were it not for the thing which I must do, I would rush out into the street and run, screaming, until I was caught and dragged away, to be put behind strong bars. Perhaps I would feel safe there—perhaps!
I know that, terrified at the hate I saw confronting me in those redly gleaming eyes, I would have slunk away. But the two thin hands that caught my arm again were strong enough to prevent that. I had been spared her kiss, but I was not to escape from the oath I had taken to serve her.
“You promised, you swore,” she whispered at my ear. “And tonight you are to keep your oath.”
My oath—yes, I had an oath to keep. I had lifted my hand toward the dark heavens, and sworn to serve her in any way she chose. Freely, and of my own volition, I had sworn. I sought to evade her.
“Let me help you back to your boat,” I begged. “You have no kindly feeling for me, and—you have seen it—I love you no longer. I will go back to the city—you can go back to your father, and forget that I broke your peace.”
The laughter that greeted my speech I shall never forget.
“So you do not love me, and I hate you! Have I waited these weary months for the water to stop, only to go back now? When the water was turned into the canal while I slept, so that I could ever escape until its flow should cease, because of the thing that I am—when the imprisonment we shared ceased to matter to my father—come on board the deserted boat tomorrow, and see why, if you dare!—I dreamed of tonight! I have been lonely, desolate, starving—now the whole world shall be mine! And by your help!”
I asked her, what she wanted of me. I knew that there was that on the opposite shore of the great river where the summer camps were, that she wanted to find. In the madness of my terror, she made me understand and obey her. I must carry her in my arms across the long bridge over the river, deserted in the small hours of the night.
The way back to the city was long tonight—long. She walked behind me, and I turned my eyes neither to right nor left. Only as I passed the tumble-down houses, I saw their reflection in the canal and trembled at the thought of the little child this woman had been accused of slaying there, and at the certainty I felt that she was reading my thoughts.
I know that we set our feet on the long, wide bridge that spanned the river. I know the storm broke there, so that I battled for my footing, almost for my life, it seemed, against the pelting deluge. And the horror I had invoked was in my arms, clinging to me, burying its head upon my shoulder. So increasingly dreadful had my pale-faced companion become to me, that I hardly thought of her now as a woman at all.
The tempest raged still when she leaped down out of my arms on the other shore. And again I walked with her against my will, while the trees lashed their branches around me, showing the pale underside of their leaves in the vivid frequent flashes that rent the heavens.
On and on we went, branches flying through the air and missing us by a miracle of ill fortune. Such as she and I are not slain by falling branches. The river was a welter of whitecaps, flattened down into strange shapes by the pounding rain. The clouds as we glimpsed them were like devils flying through the sky.
Past dark tent after dark tent we stole, and past a few where lights burned dimly behind their canvas walls.
Outside a lighted tent she stopped, motioning me back. I saw her dark form silhouetted against the tent; saw it move stealthily toward the door-flap—saw it stand once more against the canvas wall and then grow in size and blur in outline as she moved away inside the tent. I heard her voice speak in those low, thrilling tones that had enchanted my soul at our first meeting:
“I’m so sorry. I lost my way in the storm. Please let me stay awhile; I’m so very tired, and cold.”
I knew the nature of the woman I had carried across the river in my arms. I knew what was to follow. She would kiss him and then—
She had spared me the vampire kiss. She was so eager to use me as a tool, to get her away into the world of living men and women. And so now I might go free. Within this tent, tonight, she would satisfy the long-denied blood-lust. There had been that urgent hunger in her voice which told me so.
The two voices in the tent fell so low I lost their words; yet those low tones spoke for themselves. And there was nothing in the world that I could do in the way of giving an alarm. You can’t bolt into a man’s tent and warn him against a beautiful woman to whom he is about to make love, because she is a vampire. Having myself locked up in an asylum would save no one from the evil I had unwittingly loosed.
Head bent under the rain that fell more quietly now, I climbed down to the water’s edge. The wind had fallen. Reeds sighed along the river bank. The crash of waves subsided to a somber lapping against the rocks. The clouds parted and drifted away horizonward as I stood long in thought, and the gibbous moon shone far and dim behind a mist-veil.
And I knew what I must do. I know, as I write these last words, that it is what I want to do. If love and hate are akin, so, too, are enchantment and horror. When my terrible love crept into the tent of that other man, I knew that, abhor her as I might, I could not live without her.
She has spared me the vampire kiss. But I will have that from her, even as I save others from her curse. I have earned it with my soul. I will know that dark ecstasy, and I will insure that no other knows it after me.
It is strange how life leads one through the happy paths of childhood and of youth to an ordained destiny. I had a young uncle who loved tales of old knighthood, as I have loved the macabre. He made me a sword out of oak, on a happy day in my boyhood. And when he went to volunteer in a war of one of the “little peoples,” he tipped the sword with a point. He fell in his first action, far on foreign soil. The sword hangs on my wall. I have never taken it down since he went away.
The dawn broke at last, sick and storm-washed. I did not see them go; but I know that her victim-lover will have carried her back across the bridge over the rushing water. For since she is what she is, she must go back to the old canal-boat. There she must sleep until tonight.
And there I will come to her then. I will take the tipped sword, and I will hold it behind me in the shadows.
“I have come back to be with you forever,” I will say. “There can be no other woman’s face before my eyes; only yours, heart-shaped and pale and beautiful. I would leave Heaven and go to Hell for your kiss, and be glad. Kiss me now—”
And then I will take the wooden sword, for wood is fatal to all vampires of whatever age, I will take the wooden sword and I will…
Rank #7: PseudoPod 659: Lord Beden’s Motor
- Author : J.B. Harris-Burland
- Narrator : Matt Dovey
- Host : Alex Hofelich
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
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“Lord Beden’s Motor” first appeared in The Strand Magazine in December 1901.
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Lord Beden’s Motor
by J.B. Harris-Burland
A hard man was Ralph Strang, seventh Earl of Beden, seventy years of age on his last birthday, but still upright as a dart, with hair white as snow, but with the devilry of youth still sparkling in his keen dark eyes. He was, indeed, able to follow the hounds with the best of us, and there were few men, even among the youngest and most hot-headed of our riders, who cared to follow him over all the jumps he put his horse at.
When I first came to Upstanway as a doctor I thought it strange that so good a sportsman should be so unpopular. As a rule a man can do pretty well anything in a sporting county so long as he rides straight to hounds. But before I had been in the place a month I attended him after a fall in the hunting-field, and I saw that a man like that would be unpopular even if he gave all his goods to the poor and lived the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Not that he was harsh or even unpleasant, but he had the knack of making one feel foolish and uncomfortable, and there was something in the expression of his eyes that made one unable to look him squarely in the face. His manners, indeed, were perfect, and he retained all the old-world courtliness which seems to have been permanently abandoned by this generation, but I could not help feeling that underneath all his politeness and even hospitality lay a solid substratum of contempt.
It was doubtless this impression which had earned him his unpopularity, for I never heard a single one of his enemies lay anything definite to his charge beyond the fact that his elder brother had died in a lunatic asylum, and that Lord Beden was in some vague way held responsible for this unfortunate event.
But it was not until Lord Beden purchased a 12-h.p. “Napier” motor-car that the villagers really began to consider him possessed of a devil. And certainly his spirit of devilry seemed to have found a worthy plaything in that grey mass of snorting machinery, which went through the lanes like a whirlwind, enveloped in a cloud of dust, and scattering every living thing close back against the hedges as a steamer dashes the waves against the banks of a river. I had often heard people whisper that he bore a charmed life in the hunting-field, and that another and better man would have been killed years ago; and he certainly carried the same spirit of dash and foolhardiness, and also the same good fortune, into a still more dangerous pursuit.
It was the purchase of this car that brought me into closer contact with him. I had had some experience of motors, and he was sufficiently humble to take some instructions from me, and also to let me accompany him on several occasions. At first I drove the car myself, and tried to inculcate a certain amount of caution by example, but after the third lesson he knew as much about it as I did, and, resigning the steering-gear into his hands, I took my place by his side with some misgivings.
I must confess that he handled it splendidly. The man had a wonderful nerve, and when an inch to one side or the other would probably have meant death his keen eye never made a mistake and his hand on the wheel was as steady as a rock. This inspired confidence, and though the strain on my nerves was considerable, I found after a time a certain pleasurable excitement in these rides. And it was excitement, I can tell you. No twelve miles an hour for Lord Beden, no precautionary brakes downhill, no wide curves for corners. He rode, as he did to hounds, straight and fast. Sometimes we had six inches to spare, but never more, and as often as not another half inch would have shot us both out of the car. We always seemed to come round a sharp corner on two wheels. It was certainly exhilarating. But there was something about it I did not quite like. I don’t think I was physically afraid, but I recalled certain stories about Lord Beden’s mad exploits in the hunting-field; and it almost seemed to me as though he might be purposely riding for a fall.
Then all at once my invitations to ride with him ceased. I thought at first that I had offended him, but I could think of no possible cause of offence; and, besides, his manner towards me had not changed in any way, and I dined with him more than once at Beden Hall, where he was as courteous and irritating as usual. However, he offered no explanation, and I certainly did not intend to ask for one. I watched him narrowly when we talked about the motor, but he made no mystery about his rides. I noticed, however, that he looked older and more careworn, and that his dark eyes burned now with an almost unnatural brilliancy.
I met him two or three times on the road when I was going my rounds in the trap, and he appeared to be driving his machine more furiously and fearlessly than ever. I was almost glad that his invitations had ceased. Strangely enough, I always encountered him on the same road, one which led straight to Oxminster, a town about twenty miles away.
One evening, however, late in August, while I was finishing my dinner in solitude, I heard a familiar hum and rattle along the road in the distance. In less than a minute I saw the flash of bright lamps through my open window and heard the jar of a brake. Then there was a ring at the bell and Lord Beden was announced.
“Good evening, Scott,” he said, taking off his glasses. “Lovely night, isn’t it? Would you care to come for a ride?” He looked very pale, and was covered with dust from head to foot.
“A ride, Lord Beden?” I replied, thoughtfully. “Well, I hardly know what to say. Will you have some coffee and a cigar?”
He nodded assent and sat down. I poured him out some coffee, and noticed that his hand shook as he raised the cup to his lips. But driving a motor-car at a rapid rate might easily produce this effect. Then I handed him a cigar and lit one myself.
“Rather late for a ride, isn’t it?” I said, after a slight pause.
“Not a bit, not a bit,” he answered, hastily. “It is as bright as day and the roads clear of traffic. Come, it will do you good. We can finish our cigars in the car.”
“Yes,” I replied, thoughtfully, “or at any rate the draught will finish them for us.”
“Look here, Scott,” he continued, in a lower voice, leaning over the table and looking me straight in the eyes, “I particularly want you to come. In fact, you must come—to oblige me. I want you to see something which I have seen. I am a little doubtful of its actual existence.”
I looked at him sharply. His voice was cold and quiet, but his eyes were certainly a bit too bright. I should say that he was in a state of intense excitement, yet with all his nerves well under control. I laughed a little uneasily.
“Very well, Lord Beden,” I replied, rising from my chair. “I will come. But you will excuse me saying that you don’t look well tonight. I think you are rather overdoing this motor business. It shakes the system up a good deal, you know.”
“I am not well, Scott,” he said. “But you cannot cure me.”
I said no more, and left the room to put on my glasses and an overcoat.
We set off through the village at about ten miles an hour. It was a glorious night and the moon shone clear in the sky, but I noticed a bank of heavy black clouds in the west, and thought it not unlikely that we should have a thunderstorm. The atmosphere had been suffocating all day, and it was only the motion of the car that created the cool and pleasant breeze which blew against our faces.
When we came to the church we turned sharp to the right on to the Oxminster Road. It ran in a perfectly straight white line for three miles, then it began to wind and ascend the Oxbourne Hills, finally disappearing in the darkness of some woods which extend for nearly five miles over the summit in the direction of Oxminster.
“Where are we going to?” I asked, settling myself firmly in my seat.
“Oxminster,” he replied, rather curtly. “Please keep your eyes open and tell me if you see anything on the road.”
As he spoke he pulled the lever further towards him and the great machine shot forward with a sudden plunge which would have unseated me if I had not been prepared for something of the sort. We quickly gathered up speed: hedges and trees went past us like a flash; the dust whirled up into the moonlight like a silver cloud, and before five minutes had elapsed we were at the foot of the hills and were tearing up the slope at almost the same terrific pace.
As we ascended the foliage began to thicken and close in upon us on either side; then the moon disappeared, and only our powerful lamps illuminated the darkness ahead of us. The car was a magnificent hill-climber, but the gradient soon became so steep that the pace slackened down to about eight miles an hour. Lord Beden had not spoken a word since he told me where we were going to, but he had kept his eyes steadily fixed on the broad circle of light in front of the car. I began to find the silence and darkness oppressive, and, to say the truth, was not quite comfortable in my own mind about my companion’s sanity. I took off my glasses and tried to pierce the darkness on either side. The moon filtered through the trees and made strange shadows in the depths of the woods, but there was nothing else to be seen, and ahead of us there was only a white streak of road disappearing into blackness. Then suddenly my companion let go of the steering-gear with one hand and clutched me by the arm. “Listen, Scott!” he cried; “do you hear it?”
I listened attentively, and at first heard nothing but the throb of the motor and a faint rustling among the trees as a slight breeze began to stir through the wood. Then I noticed that the beat of the piston was not quite the same as usual. It sounded jerky and irregular, faint and loud alternately, and I had an idea that it had considerably quickened in speed.
“I hear nothing, Lord Beden,” I replied, “except that the engine sounds a little erratic. It ought not to make so much fuss over this hill.”
“If you listen more carefully,” he said, “you will understand. That sound is the beat of two pistons, and one of them is some way off.”
I listened again. He was right. There was certainly another engine throbbing in the distance.
“I cannot see any lights,” I answered, looking first in front of us and then into the darkness behind. “But it’s another motor, I suppose. It does not appear to me to be anything out of the way.” He did not reply, but replaced his hand on the steering-gear and peered anxiously ahead. I began to feel a bit worried about him. It was strange that he should get so excited about the presence of another motor-car in the neighborhood. I was not reassured either when, in rearranging the rug about my legs, I touched something hard in his pocket. I passed my fingers lightly over it, and had no doubt whatever that it was a revolver. I began to be sorry I had come. A revolver is not a necessary tool for the proper running of a motor-car.
We were nearly at the top of the hill now, and still in the shadow of the trees. The road here runs for more than a mile along the summit before it begins to descend, and half-way along the level another road crosses it at right angles, leading one way down a steep slope to Little Stanway, and the other along the top of the Oxbourne Hills to Kelston and Rutherton, two small villages some miles away on the edge of the moors.
We had scarcely reached the level when a few heavy drops of rain began to fall, and, looking up, I saw that the moon was no longer visible through the branches overhead. A minute later there was a low roll of thunder in the distance, and for an instant the scenery ahead of us flashed bright and faded into darkness. I turned up the collar of my coat.
The car was now moving almost at full speed, but to my surprise, before we had gone a quarter of a mile, Lord Beden slowed it down and finally brought it to a full stop with the brake. Then he appeared to be listening attentively for something, but the rising wind and pouring rain had begun to make an incessant noise among the trees, and the thunder had become more loud and continuous. I strained my sense of hearing to the utmost, but I could hear nothing beyond the sounds of the elements.
“What is the matter?” I queried, impatiently. “Are we going to stop here?”
“Yes,” he replied, curtly. “That is to say, if you have no objection. There is a certain amount of shelter.”
I drew a cigar from my pocket and, after several attempts, managed to light it. To say the truth, I was in hopes that we should go no further. The downward descent, three-quarters of a mile ahead of us, was about one in ten, and I did not feel much inclined to let my companion take me down a hill of that sort.
Then, for a few seconds, the rustling of the wind and pattering of the rain ceased among the trees, and once more I could distinctly hear the thud, thud, thud of an engine. It might have been a motorcar, but it certainly sounded to me more like the noise a traction engine would make. As we listened the sound came nearer and nearer and appeared to be on our left, still some distance down the hill. Then the storm broke out again with fresh fury, and we could hear nothing else. Lord Beden pulled the lever towards him and we ran slowly forward until we were within thirty yards of the crossroads, when he again brought the machine to a standstill.
The noise had become much louder now, and was even audible above the roar of the wind and rain. It certainly came from somewhere on our left. I looked down through the trees, and thought I saw a faint red glow some way down the hill. Lord Beden saw it too, and pointed to it with a trembling hand.
“Looks like a fire in the wood,” I said, carelessly. I did not very much care what it was.
“Don’t be a fool,” he replied, sharply. “Can’t you see it’s moving?”
Yes, he was right. It was certainly moving, and in a few seconds it was hidden by a thicker mass of foliage. I did not, however, see anything very noticeable about it. It was evidently coming up the road to our left, and was probably a belated traction engine returning home from the reaping. I was more than ever convinced of my companion’s insanity and wished that I was safe at home. I had half a mind to get off the car and walk, but he had by now managed to infect me with some of his own fear and excitement, and I did not quite fancy being left with no swifter mode of progression than my feet.
The thumping sound came nearer and nearer, and, as we heard it more distinctly, was even more suggestive of a traction engine. Then I saw a red light through the trees like the glow of a furnace, and not more than fifty yards away from us. My companion laid his left hand on the lever and stared intently at the corner.
Then a rather peculiar thing happened. Whatever it was that had been lumbering slowly up the hill like a gigantic snail suddenly shot across the road in front of us like a streak of smoke and flame, and through the trees to our right I could see the red glow spinning up the road to Kelston at over thirty miles an hour. Almost simultaneously Lord Beden pulled down the lever and I instinctively clutched the seat with both hands. We shot forward, took the corner with about an inch to spare between us and the ditch, and dashed off along the road in hot pursuit. But the red glow had got at least a quarter of a mile’s start, and I could not see what it proceeded from. A flash of lightning, however, showed a dark mass flying before us in a cloud of smoke. It looked something like a large wagon with a chimney sticking out of it, and sparks streamed out of the back of it until they looked like the tail of a comet.
“What the deuce is it?” I said.
“You’ll see when we come up to it,” the Earl answered, between his teeth. “We shall go faster in a few minutes.”
We were, however, going quite fast enough for me, and though I have ridden on many motors since, and occasionally at a greater speed, I shall never forget that ride along the Kelston Road. The powerful machine beneath us trembled as though it were going to fall to pieces, the rain lashed our faces like the thongs of a whip, the thunder almost deafened us, the lightning first blinded us with its flashes and then left us in more confusing darkness, and, to crown all, a dense volume of smoke poured from the machine in front and hid the light of our own lamps. It would be hard to imagine worse conditions for a motor ride, and a man who could keep a steady hand on the steering-gear under circumstances like these was a man indeed. I should not have cared to try it, even in the daytime. But Lord Beden’s luck was with him still, and we moved as though guided by some unseen hand.
“You will find a small lever by your side, Scott,” he said, after a long pause. “Pull it towards you until it gives a click. It is an invention of my own.” I found the handle and, following out his instructions, saw the arc of light from our lamps shoot another fifty yards ahead, leaving the ground immediately in front of the car in darkness. We had gained considerably. The light just impinged on the streaming tail of sparks.
“At last!” my companion muttered. “He has always had half a mile’s start before, and the oil has given out before I could catch him. But he cannot escape us now.”
“What is it, Lord Beden?”
“I am glad you see it,” he replied. “I thought before tonight that it was a fancy of my brain.”
“Of course I see it,” I said, sharply. “I am not blind. But what is it?”
He did not answer, but a flash of lightning showed me his face, and I did not repeat the question.
Mile after mile we spun along the lonely country road, but never gaining another inch. We dashed through Kelston like a streak of light. It was fortunate that all the inhabitants were in bed. Then we shot out on to a road leading across the open moor, which stretches from here to the sea, twenty miles away, and I remembered that eight miles from Kelston there was a deep descent into the valley of the Stour, and it was scarcely possible that we could escape destruction. I quickly made up my mind to overpower Lord Beden and gain control of the machine.
Then we suddenly began to sweep down a long and gentle gradient, and second after second our speed increased until the arc of light shone on the machine ahead of us, and I could see what manner of thing it was that we pursued.
It was, I suppose, a kind of motor-car, but unlike anything I had ever seen before, and bearing no more resemblance to a modern machine than a bone-shaker of twenty years ago does to the modern “free-wheel’. It appeared to be built of iron, and was painted a dead black. In the fore-part of the structure a 5 ft. fly-wheel spun round at a terrific speed, and various bars and beams moved rapidly backwards and forwards. The chimney was quite 10 ft. in height, and poured out a dense volume of smoke. On a small platform behind, railed in by a stout iron rail, stood a tall man with his back to us. His dark hair, which must have reached nearly to his shoulders, streamed behind him in the wind. In each hand he grasped a huge lever, and he was apparently gazing steadily into the darkness before him, though it seemed to me that he might just as well have shut his eyes, for the machine had no lamps, and the only light in the whole concern streamed out from the half-open furnace door.
Then, to my amazement, I saw the man take his hands off the levers and coolly proceed to shovel coal into the roaring fire. I held my breath, expecting to see the flying mass of iron shoot off the side of the road and turn head over heels down the sloping grass. But nothing happened. The machine apparently required no guidance, and proceeded on its way as smoothly and swiftly as before.
I took hold of my companion’s arm and called his attention to this somewhat strange circumstance. He only laughed.
“Look at the smoke,” he cried. “That is rather strange too.” I looked up and saw it pouring over our heads in a long straight cloud, but I did not notice anything odd about it, and I said so.
“Can you smell it?” he continued. I sniffed, and noticed for the first time that there had been no smell of smoke at all, though in the earlier part of the journey we had been half blinded with it. I began to feel uncomfortable. There was certainly something unusual about the machine in front of us, and I came to the conclusion that we had had about enough of this kind of sport.
“I think we will go back, Lord Beden,” I remarked, pleasantly, moving one hand towards the lever.
“You will go back to perdition, Scott,” he answered, quietly. “If you meddle with me we shall be smashed to pieces. We are going forty miles an hour, and if you distract my attention for a single instant I won’t answer for the consequences.”
I felt the truth of what he said, and put my hand ostentatiously in my pocket. It was quite evident that I couldn’t interfere with him, and equally evident that if we went on as we were going now we should be dashed to pieces. My only hope was that we should speedily accomplish whatever mad purpose Lord Beden had in his mind, although by now I began to think that he had no other object than suicide. The valley of the Stour was only two miles off.
But we had been gaining inch by inch down the slope, and were now not more than thirty yards from the machine in front of us. Showers of sparks whirled into our faces, and I kept one arm before my eyes. I soon found, however, that, for some reason or other, the sparks did not burn my skin, and I was able to resume a more comfortable position and study the occupant of the car.
His figure somehow seemed strangely familiar to me, and I tried hard to recollect where I had seen those square shoulders and long, lean limbs before. I wished I could see the man’s face, for I was quite certain that I should recognize it. But he never looked back, and appeared to be absolutely unconscious of our presence so close behind him.
Nearer we crept, and still nearer, until our front wheels were not more than 10 ft. from the platform. The glow of the furnace bathed my companion’s face in crimson light, and the figure of the man in front of us stood out like a black demon toiling at the eternal fires. “Be careful, Lord Beden,” I cried. “We shall be into it.”
He turned to me with a smile of triumph, and I thought I saw the light of madness in his eyes.
“Do you know what I am going to do?” he said, in a low voice, putting his lips close to my ear. “I am going to break it to bits. We have a little speed in hand yet, and when we get to the slope of the Stour Valley I shall break the cursed thing to bits.”
“For Heaven’s sake,” I cried, “put the brake on, Lord Beden. Are you mad?” and I gripped him by the arm. He shook my hand off, and I clung to my seat with every muscle of my body strained to the utmost, for as I spoke there was a flash of lightning, and I saw the road dipping, dipping, dipping, and far below the gleam of water among dark trees, and on the height above a large building with many spires and towers. I idly called to mind that it was the Rockshire County Asylum.
Our speed quickened horribly, and the car began to sway from side to side. I saw my companion pull the lever an inch nearer to him and grip the steering-wheel with both hands. Then suddenly the road seemed to fall away beneath us; we sprang off the ground and dropped downward and forward like a stone flung from a precipice. We were going to smash clean through the machine in front of us.
For five seconds I held my breath, only awaiting the awful crash of splintering wood and iron and the shock that would fling us fifty feet from our seats. But we only touched the ground with a sickening thud an inch behind the other machine, and then a wonderful thing happened. We began to slowly pierce the rail and platform in front of us, until the man seemed to be almost touching our feet, and at last I saw his face—a wild, dark face with madness in the eyes, and the face of Lord Beden, as I had seen a portrait of him in Beden Hall taken thirty years ago.
My companion rose on his seat and grappled with his own likeness, but he seemed to be only clutching the air, and neither car nor occupant appeared to have any tangible substance. Steadily and silently we bored our way clean through the machine, inch by inch, foot by foot; through the blazing furnace, through the framework of the boiler, through bolt and bar arid stanchion, through whirring fly-wheel and pulsing shaft and piston, until there was nothing beyond us but the dip of the white road, and, looking back, I saw the whole dark mass running behind our back wheels.
Lord Beden was still standing and tearing at the air with his fingers. Our car was running without guidance, and I sprang to the steering-wheel and reversed the lever, but it was too late. We struck something at the side of the road and the whole machine made a leap from the ground. There was a rush of air, an awful shock and crash, and then—darkness!
A week afterwards in the hospital they told me Lord Beden was dead. He had fallen on a large piece of scrap-iron by the roadside, and nearly every bone in his body had been broken. I myself had had a miraculous escape by falling into a thick clump of gorse, and had got off with a broken arm and dislocated collar-bone, but I was not able to get about for two months. I said nothing of what had happened, and the accident required but little explanation. Motorcar accidents are common enough, especially on slopes like that of the Stour Valley.
When I was able to get about, however, I visited the scene of the disaster. A friend of mine, one of the doctors at the County Lunatic Asylum, called for me and drove me over to the place. The smash had occurred nearly half-way down the hillside, close to a ruined shed. The ground was covered with gorse and bracken, but here and there huge pieces of rusty iron were scattered about. Some of them were sharp and brown and ugly, but many were overgrown with creeping convolvulus. They looked as if they had once been parts of some great machine.
“A curious coincidence,” said my companion, as we drove away from the place.
“What do you mean?”
“I have been told,” he continued, “that thirty years ago this old shed was used by the late Earl’s elder brother. He was a mechanical genius, and they say that his efforts to work out some particular invention in a practical form drove him off his head. He was allowed to have this place as a workshop, and, under the supervision of two keepers, worked on his invention till the day of his death. It was thought that perhaps he would recover his reason if he ever accomplished the task. But in some mysterious way his plans were stolen from him no fewer than three times, and after the third time the poor fellow lost heart and destroyed himself. I have heard it whispered by one of my colleagues up yonder that the late Earl was not altogether ignorant of these thefts, but this is probably only gossip. All the fragments of iron you saw lying about were parts of the machine. Heaven knows what it was.”
I did not venture any suggestion on this point, but I think I could have done so.
Rank #8: PseudoPod 650: The Detweiler Boy
- Author : Tom Reamy
- Narrator : Andrew Leman
- Host : Alex Hofelich
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
“The Detweiler Boy” was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1977. Thank you to Vaughne Hansen of the Virginia Kidd Agency for helping us secure the rights to this story.
This episode is dedicated to horror hosts in general, and Sinister Seymour in particular.
The Detweiler Boy
by Tom Reamy
The room had been cleaned with pine oil disinfectant and smelled like a public toilet. Harry Spinner was on the floor behind the bed, scrunched down between it and the wall. The almost colorless chenille bedspread had been pulled askew exposing part of the clean, but dingy, sheet. All I could see of Harry was one leg poking over the edge of the bed . He wasn’t wearing a shoe, only a faded brown and tan argyle sock with a hole in it. The sock, long bereft of any elasticity , was crumpled around his thin rusty ankle.
I closed the door quietly behind me and walked around the end of the bed so I could see all of him . He was huddled on his back with his elbows propped up by the wall and the bed. His throat had been cut. The blood hadn’t spread very far. Most of it had been soaked up by the threadbare carpet under the bed . I looked around the grubby little room but didn’t find anything. There were no signs of a struggle, no signs of forced entry-but then, my BankAmericard hadn’t left any signs either. The window was open, letting in the muffled roar of traffic on the Boulevard. I stuck my head out and looked , but it was three stories straight down to the neon-lit marquee of the movie house.
It had been nearly two hours since Harry called me. “Bertram, my boy, I’ve run across something very peculiar. I don’t really know what to make of it.”
For the rest of the text of this story, get thee to the closest used book store and pick up a copy of San Diego Lightfoot Sue and Other Stories.
Rank #9: PseudoPod 645: HORROR COMEDY SHOWCASE: The Undertakers
- Author : Rudyard Kipling
- Narrator : Wilson Fowlie
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
“The Undertakers” was first published in The Second Jungle Book in 1895
Dream Foundry is a new organization helping all professionals, especially beginners, working in the speculative arts. Back their Kickstarter to make sure they last and grow, and to get yourself some nifty rewards.
by Rudyard Kipling
When ye say to Tabaqui, “My Brother!”
when ye call the Hyena to meat,
Ye may cry the Full Truce with Jacala–
the Belly that runs on four feet.
“Respect the aged!”
It was a thick voice–a muddy voice that would have made you shudder–a voice like something soft breaking in two. There was a quaver in it, a croak and a whine.
“Respect the aged! O Companions of the River–respect the aged!”
Nothing could be seen on the broad reach of the river except a little fleet of square-sailed, wooden-pinned barges, loaded with building-stone, that had just come under the railway bridge, and were driving down-stream. They put their clumsy helms over to avoid the sand-bar made by the scour of the bridge-piers, and as they passed, three abreast, the horrible voice began again:
“O Brahmins of the River–respect the aged and infirm!”
A boatman turned where he sat on the gunwale, lifted up his hand, said something that was not a blessing, and the boats creaked on through the twilight. The broad Indian river, that looked more like a chain of little lakes than a stream, was as smooth as glass, reflecting the sandy-red sky in mid-channel, but splashed with patches of yellow and dusky purple near and under the low banks. Little creeks ran into the river in the wet season, but now their dry mouths hung clear above water-line. On the left shore, and almost under the railway bridge, stood a mud-and-brick and thatch-and-stick village, whose main street, full of cattle going back to their byres, ran straight to the river, and ended in a sort of rude brick pier-head, where people who wanted to wash could wade in step by step. That was the Ghaut of the village of Mugger-Ghaut.
Night was falling fast over the fields of lentils and rice and cotton in the low-lying ground yearly flooded by the river; over the reeds that fringed the elbow of the bend, and the tangled jungle of the grazing-grounds behind the still reeds. The parrots and crows, who had been chattering and shouting over their evening drink, had flown inland to roost, crossing the outgoing battalions of the flying-foxes; and cloud upon cloud of water-birds came whistling and ”honking” to the cover of the reed-beds. There were geese, barrel-headed and black-backed, teal, widgeon, mallard, and sheldrake, with curlews, and here and there a flamingo.
A lumbering Adjutant-crane brought up the rear, flying as though each slow stroke would be his last.
“Respect the aged! Brahmins of the River–respect the aged!”
The Adjutant half turned his head, sheered a little in the direction of the voice, and landed stiffly on the sand-bar below the bridge. Then you saw what a ruffianly brute he really was. His back view was immensely respectable, for he stood nearly six feet high, and looked rather like a very proper bald-headed parson. In front it was different, for his Ally Sloper-like head and neck had not a feather to them, and there was a horrible raw-skin pouch on his neck under his chin–a hold-all for the things his pick-axe beak might steal. His legs were long and thin and skinny, but he moved them delicately, and looked at them with pride as he preened down his ashy-gray tail-feathers, glanced over the smooth of his shoulder, and stiffened into “Stand at attention”.
A mangy little Jackal, who had been yapping hungrily on a low bluff, cocked up his ears and tail, and scuttered across the shallows to join the Adjutant.
He was the lowest of his caste–not that the best of jackals are good for much, but this one was peculiarly low, being half a beggar, half a criminal–a cleaner-up of village rubbish-heaps, desperately timid or wildly bold, everlastingly hungry, and full of cunning that never did him any good.
“Ugh!” he said, shaking himself dolefully as he landed. “May the red mange destroy the dogs of this village! I have three bites for each flea upon me, and all because I looked–only looked, mark you–at an old shoe in a cow-byre. Can I eat mud?” He scratched himself under his left ear.
“I heard,” said the Adjutant, in a voice like a blunt saw going through a thick board–“I heard there was a new-born puppy in that same shoe.”
“To hear is one thing; to know is another,” said the Jackal, who had a very fair knowledge of proverbs, picked up by listening to men round the village fires of an evening.
“Quite true. So, to make sure, I took care of that puppy while the dogs were busy elsewhere.”
“They were very busy,” said the Jackal. “Well, I must not go to the village hunting for scraps yet awhile. And so there truly was a blind puppy in that shoe?”
“It is here,” said the Adjutant, squinting over his beak at his full pouch. “A small thing, but acceptable now that charity is dead in the world.”
“Ahai! The world is iron in these days,” wailed the Jackal. Then his restless eye caught the least possible ripple on the water, and he went on quickly: “Life is hard for us all, and I doubt not that even our excellent master, the Pride of the Ghaut and the Envy of the River–”
“A liar, a flatterer, and a Jackal were all hatched out of the same egg,” said the Adjutant to nobody in particular; for he was rather a fine sort of a liar on his own account when he took the trouble.
“Yes, the Envy of the River,” the Jackal repeated, raising his voice. “Even he, I doubt not, finds that since the bridge has been built good food is more scarce. But on the other hand, though I would by no means say this to his noble face, he is so wise and so virtuous–as I, alas! am not–”
“When the Jackal owns he is gray, how black must the Jackal be!” muttered the Adjutant. He could not see what was coming.
“That his food never fails, and in consequence–”
There was a soft grating sound, as though a boat had just touched in shoal water. The Jackal spun round quickly and faced (it is always best to face) the creature he had been talking about. It was a twenty-four-foot crocodile, cased in what looked like treble-riveted boiler-plate, studded and keeled and crested; the yellow points of his upper teeth just overhanging his beautifully fluted lower jaw. It was the blunt-nosed Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut, older than any man in the village, who had given his name to the village; the demon of the ford before the railway bridge, came–murderer, man-eater, and local fetish in one. He lay with his chin in the shallows, keeping his place by an almost invisible rippling of his tail, and well the Jackal knew that one stroke of that same tail in the water would carry the Mugger up the bank with the rush of a steam-engine.
“Auspiciously met, Protector of the Poor!” he fawned, backing at every word. “A delectable voice was heard, and we came in the hopes of sweet conversation. My tailless presumption, while waiting here, led me, indeed, to speak of thee. It is my hope that nothing was overheard.”
Now the Jackal had spoken just to be listened to, for he knew flattery was the best way of getting things to eat, and the Mugger knew that the Jackal had spoken for this end, and the Jackal knew that the Mugger knew, and the Mugger knew that the Jackal knew that the Mugger knew, and so they were all very contented together.
The old brute pushed and panted and grunted up the bank, mumbling, “Respect the aged and infirm!” and all the time his little eyes burned like coals under the heavy, horny eyelids on the top of his triangular head, as he shoved his bloated barrel-body along between his crutched legs. Then he settled down, and, accustomed as the Jackal was to his ways, he could not help starting, for the hundredth time, when he saw how exactly the Mugger imitated a log adrift on the bar. He had even taken pains to lie at the exact angle a naturally stranded log would make with the water, having regard to the current of the season at the time and place. All this was only a matter of habit, of course, because the Mugger had come ashore for pleasure; but a crocodile is never quite full, and if the Jackal had been deceived by the likeness he would not have lived to philosophise over it.
“My child, I heard nothing,” said the Mugger, shutting one eye. “The water was in my ears, and also I was faint with hunger. Since the railway bridge was built my people at my village have ceased to love me; and that is breaking my heart.”
“Ah, shame!” said the Jackal. “So noble a heart, too! But men are all alike, to my mind.”
“Nay, there are very great differences indeed,” the Mugger answered gently. “Some are as lean as boat-poles. Others again are fat as young ja–dogs. Never would I causelessly revile men. They are of all fashions, but the long years have shown me that, one with another, they are very good. Men, women, and children–I have no fault to find with them. And remember, child, he who rebukes the World is rebuked by the World.”
“Flattery is worse than an empty tin can in the belly. But that which we have just heard is wisdom,” said the Adjutant, bringing down one foot.
“Consider, though, their ingratitude to this excellent one,” began the Jackal tenderly.
“Nay, nay, not ingratitude!” the Mugger said. “They do not think for others; that is all. But I have noticed, lying at my station below the ford, that the stairs of the new bridge are cruelly hard to climb, both for old people and young children. The old, indeed, are not so worthy of consideration, but I am grieved–I am truly grieved–on account of the fat children. Still, I think, in a little while, when the newness of the bridge has worn away, we shall see my people’s bare brown legs bravely splashing through the ford as before. Then the old Mugger will be honoured again.”
“But surely I saw Marigold wreaths floating off the edge of the Ghaut only this noon,” said the Adjutant.
Marigold wreaths are a sign of reverence all India over.
“An error–an error. It was the wife of the sweetmeat-seller. She loses her eyesight year by year, and cannot tell a log from me–the Mugger of the Ghaut. I saw the mistake when she threw the garland, for I was lying at the very foot of the Ghaut, and had she taken another step I might have shown her some little difference. Yet she meant well, and we must consider the spirit of the offering.”
“What good are marigold wreaths when one is on the rubbish-heap?” said the Jackal, hunting for fleas, but keeping one wary eye on his Protector of the Poor.
“True, but they have not yet begun to make the rubbish-heap that shall carry me. Five times have I seen the river draw back from the village and make new land at the foot of the street. Five times have I seen the village rebuilt on the banks, and I shall see it built yet five times more. I am no faithless, fish-hunting Gavial, I, at Kasi today and Prayag tomorrow, as the saying is, but the true and constant watcher of the ford. It is not for nothing, child, that the village bears my name, and ‘he who watches long,’ as the saying is, ‘shall at last have his reward.’ ”
“I have watched long–very long–nearly all my life, and my reward has been bites and blows,” said the Jackal.
“Ho! ho! ho!” roared the Adjutant.
“In August was the Jackal born;
The Rains fell in September;
‘Now such a fearful flood as this,’
Says he, ‘I can’t remember!’ ”
There is one very unpleasant peculiarity about the Adjutant. At uncertain times he suffers from acute attacks of the fidgets or cramp in his legs, and though he is more virtuous to behold than any of the cranes, who are all immensely respectable, he flies off into wild, cripple-stilt war-dances, half opening his wings and bobbing his bald head up and down; while for reasons best known to himself he is very careful to time his worst attacks with his nastiest remarks. At the last word ofhis song he came to attention again, ten times adjutanter than before.
The Jackal winced, though he was full three seasons old, but you cannot resent an insult from a person with a beak a yard long, and the power of driving it like a javelin. The Adjutant was a most notorious coward, but the Jackal was worse.
“We must live before we can learn,” said the Mugger, “and there is this to say: Little jackals are very common, child, but such a mugger as I am is not common. For all that, I am not proud, since pride is destruction; but take notice, it is Fate, and against his Fate no one who swims or walks or runs should say anything at all. I am well contented with Fate. With good luck, a keen eye, and the custom of considering whether a creek or a backwater has an outlet to it ere you ascend, much may be done.”
“Once I heard that even the Protector of the Poor made a mistake,” said the Jackal viciously.
“True; but there my Fate helped me. It was before I had come to my full growth–before the last famine but three (by the Right and Left of Gunga, how full used the streams to be in those days!). Yes, I was young and unthinking, and when the flood came, who so pleased as I? A little made me very happy then. The village was deep in flood, and I swam above the Ghaut and went far inland, up to the rice-fields, and they were deep in good mud. I remember also a pair of bracelets (glass they were, and troubled me not a little) that I found that evening. Yes, glass bracelets; and, if my memory serves me well, a shoe. I should have shaken off both shoes, but I was hungry. I learned better later. Yes. And so I fed and rested me; but when I was ready to go to the river again the flood had fallen, and I walked through the mud of the main street. Who but I? Came out all my people, priests and women and children, and I looked upon them with benevolence. The mud is not a good place to fight in. Said a boatman, ‘Get axes and kill him, for he is the Mugger of the ford.’ ‘Not so,’ said the Brahmin. ‘Look, he is driving the flood before him! He is the godling of the village.’ Then they threw many flowers at me, and by happy thought one led a goat across the road.”
“How good–how very good is goat!” said the Jackal.
“Hairy–too hairy, and when found in the water more than likely to hide a cross-shaped hook. But that goat I accepted, and went down to the Ghaut in great honour. Later, my Fate sent me the boatman who had desired to cut off my tail with an axe. His boat grounded upon an old shoal which you would not remember.”
“We are not all jackals here,” said the Adjutant. “Was it the shoal made where the stone-boats sank in the year of the great drouth–a long shoal that lasted three floods?”
“There were two,” said the Mugger; “an upper and a lower shoal.”
“Ay, I forgot. A channel divided them, and later dried up again,” said the Adjutant, who prided himself on his memory.
“On the lower shoal my well-wisher’s craft grounded. He was sleeping in the bows, and, half awake, leaped over to his waist–no, it was no more than to his knees–to push off. His empty boat went on and touched again below the next reach, as the river ran then. I followed, because I knew men would come out to drag it ashore.”
“And did they do so?” said the Jackal, a little awe-stricken. This was hunting on a scale that impressed him.
“There and lower down they did. I went no farther, but that gave me three in one day–well-fed manjis (boatmen) all, and, except in the case of the last (then I was careless), never a cry to warn those on the bank.”
“Ah, noble sport! But what cleverness and great judgment it requires!” said the Jackal.
“Not cleverness, child, but only thought. A little thought in life is like salt upon rice, as the boatmen say, and I have thought deeply always. The Gavial, my cousin, the fish-eater, has told me how hard it is for him to follow his fish, and how one fish differs from the other, and how he must know them all, both together and apart. I say that is wisdom; but, on the other hand, my cousin, the Gavial, lives among his people. My people do not swim in companies, with their mouths out of the water, as Rewa does; nor do they constantly rise to the surface of the water, and turn over on their sides, like Mohoo and little Chapta; nor do they gather in shoals after flood, like Batchua nd Chilwa.”
“All are very good eating,” said the Adjutant, clattering his beak.
“So my cousin says, and makes a great to-do over hunting them, but they do not climb the banks to escape his sharp nose. My people are otherwise. Their life is on the land, in the houses, among the cattle. I must know what they do, and what they are about to do; and adding the tail to the trunk, as the saying is, I make up the whole elephant. Is there a green branch and an iron ring hanging over a doorway? The old Mugger knows that a boy has been born in that house, and must some day come down to the Ghaut to play. Is a maiden to be married? The old Mugger knows, for he sees the men carry gifts back and forth; and she, too, comes down to the Ghaut to bathe before her wedding, and–he is there. Has the river changed its channel, and made new land where there was only sand before? The Mugger knows.”
“Now, of what use is that knowledge?” said the Jackal. “The river has shifted even in my little life.” Indian rivers are nearly always moving about in their beds, and will shift, sometimes, as much as two or three miles in a season, drowning the fields on one bank, and spreading good silt on the other.
“There is no knowledge so useful,” said the Mugger, “for new land means new quarrels. The Mugger knows. Oho! the Mugger knows. As soon as the water has drained off, he creeps up the little creeks that men think would not hide a dog, and there he waits. Presently comes a farmer saying he will plant cucumbers here, and melons there, in the new land that the river has given him. He feels the good mud with his bare toes. Anon comes another, saying he will put onions, and carrots, and sugar-cane in such and such places. They meet as boats adrift meet, and each rolls his eye at the other under the big blue turban. The old Mugger sees and hears. Each calls the other ‘Brother,“ and they go to mark out the boundaries of the new land. The Mugger hurries with them from point to point, shuffling very low through the mud. Now they begin to quarrel! Now they say hot words! Now they pull turbans! Now they lift up their lathis (clubs), and, at last, one falls backward into the mud, and the other runs away. When he comes back the dispute is settled, as the iron-bound bamboo of the loser witnesses. Yet they are not grateful to the Mugger. No, they cry ‘Murder!’ and their families fight with sticks, twenty-a-side. My people are good people–upland Jats–Malwais of the Bet. They do not give blows for sport, and, when the fight is done, the old Mugger waits far down the river, out of sight of the village, behind the kikar-scrub yonder. Then come they down, my broad-shouldered Jats–eight or nine together under the stars, bearing the dead man upon a bed. They are old men with gray beards, and voices as deep as mine. They light a little fire–ah! how well I know that fire!–and they drink tobacco, and they nod their heads together forward in a ring, or sideways toward the dead man upon the bank. They say the English Law will come with a rope for this matter, and that such a man’s family will be ashamed, because such a man must be hanged in the great square of the Jail. Then say the friends of the dead, ‘Let him hang!’ and the talk is all to do over again–once, twice, twenty times in the long night. Then says one, at last, ‘The fight was a fair fight. Let us take blood-money, a little more than is offered by the slayer, and we will say no more about it.’ Then do they haggle over the blood-money, for the dead was a strong man, leaving many sons. Yet before amratvela (sunrise) they put the fire to him a little, as the custom is, and the dead man comes to me, and he says no more about it. Aha! my children, the Mugger knows–the Mugger knows–and my Malwah Jats are a good people!”
“They are too close–too narrow in the hand for my crop,” croaked the Adjutant. “They waste not the polish on the cow’s horn, as the saying is; and, again, who can glean after a Malwai?”
“Ah, I–glean–them,” said the Mugger.
“Now, in Calcutta of the South, in the old days,” the Adjutant went on, “everything was thrown into the streets, and we picked and chose. Those were dainty seasons. But today they keep their streets as clean as the outside of an egg, and my people fly away. To be clean is one thing; to dust, sweep, and sprinkle seven times a day wearies the very Gods themselves.”
“There was a down-country jackal had it from a brother, who told me, that in Calcutta of the South all the jackals were as fat as otters in the Rains,” said the Jackal, his mouth watering at the bare thought of it.
“Ah, but the white-faces are there–the English, and they bring dogs from somewhere down the river in boats–big fat dogs–to keep those same jackals lean,” said the Adjutant.
“They are, then, as hard-hearted as these people? I might have known. Neither earth, sky, nor water shows charity to a jackal. I saw the tents of a white-face last season, after the Rains, and I also took a new yellow bridle to eat. The white-faces do not dress their leather in the proper way. It made me very sick.”
“That was better than my case,” said the Adjutant. “When I was in my third season, a young and a bold bird, I went down to the river where the big boats come in. The boats of the English are thrice as big as this village.”
“He has been as far as Delhi, and says all the people there walk on their heads,” muttered the Jackal. The Mugger opened his left eye, and looked keenly at the Adjutant.
“It is true,” the big bird insisted. “A liar only lies when he hopes to be believed. No one who had not seen those boats could believe this truth.”
“That is more reasonable,” said the Mugger. “And then?”
“From the insides of this boat they were taking out great pieces of white stuff, which, in a little while, turned to water. Much split off, and fell about on the shore, and the rest they swiftly put into a house with thick walls. But a boatman, who laughed, took a piece no larger than a small dog, and threw it to me. I–all my people–swallow without reflection, and that piece I swallowed as is our custom. Immediately I was afflicted with an excessive cold which, beginning in my crop, ran down to the extreme end of my toes, and deprived me even of speech, while the boatmen laughed at me. Never have I felt such cold. I danced in my grief and amazement till I could recover my breath and then I danced and cried out against the falseness of this world; and the boatmen derided me till they fell down. The chief wonder of the matter, setting aside that marvellous coldness, was that there was nothing at all in my crop when I had finished my lamentings!”
The Adjutant had done his very best to describe his feelings after swallowing a seven-pound lump of Wenham Lake ice, off an American ice-ship, in the days before Calcutta made her ice by machinery; but as he did not know what ice was, and as the Mugger and the Jackal knew rather less, the tale missed fire.
“Anything,” said the Mugger, shutting his left eye again–“anything is possible that comes out of a boat thrice the size of Mugger-Ghaut. My village is not a small one.”
There was a whistle overhead on the bridge, and the Delhi Mail slid across, all the carriages gleaming with light, and the shadows faithfully following along the river. It clanked away into the dark again; but the Mugger and the Jackal were so well used to it that they never turned their heads.
“Is that anything less wonderful than a boat thrice the size of Mugger-Ghaut?” said the bird, looking up.
“I saw that built, child. Stone by stone I saw the bridge-piers rise, and when the men fell off (they were wondrous sure-footed for the most part–but when they fell) I was ready. After the first pier was made they never thought to look down the stream for the body to burn. There, again, I saved much trouble. There was nothing strange in the building of the bridge,” said the Mugger.
“But that which goes across, pulling the roofed carts! That is strange,” the Adjutant repeated. “It is, past any doubt, a new breed of bullock. Some day it will not be able to keep its foothold up yonder, and will fall as the men did. The old Mugger will then be ready.”
The Jackal looked at the Adjutant and the Adjutant looked at the Jackal. If there was one thing they were more certain of than another, it was that the engine was everything in the wide world except a bullock. The Jackal had watched it time and again from the aloe hedges by the side of the line, and the Adjutant had seen engines since the first locomotive ran in India. But the Mugger had only looked up at the thing from below, where the brass dome seemed rather like a bullock”s hump.
“M–yes, a new kind of bullock,” the Mugger repeated ponderously, to make himself quite sure in his own mind; and “Certainly it is a bullock,” said the Jackal.
“And again it might be–” began the Mugger pettishly.
“Certainly–most certainly,” said the Jackal, without waiting for the other to finish.
“What?” said the Mugger angrily, for he could feel that the others knew more than he did. “What might it be? I never finished my words. You said it was a bullock.”
“It is anything the Protector of the Poor pleases. I am his servant–not the servant of the thing that crosses the river.”
“Whatever it is, it is white-face work,” said the Adjutant; “and for my own part, I would not lie out upon a place so near to it as this bar.”
“You do not know the English as I do,” said the Mugger. “There was a white-face here when the bridge was built, and he would take a boat in the evenings and shuffle with his feet on the bottom-boards, and whisper: ‘Is he here? Is he there? Bring me my gun.’ I could hear him before I could see him–each sound that he made–creaking and puffing and rattling his gun, up and down the river. As surely as I had picked up one of his workmen, and thus saved great expense in wood for the burning, so surely would he come down to the Ghaut, and shout in a loud voice that he would hunt me, and rid the river of me–the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut! Me! Children, I have swum under the bottom of his boat for hour after hour, and heard him fire his gun at logs; and when I was well sure he was wearied, I have risen by his side and snapped my jaws in his face. When the bridge was finished he went away. All the English hunt in that fashion, except when they are hunted.”
“Who hunts the white-faces?” yapped the Jackal excitedly.
“No one now, but I have hunted them in my time.”
“I remember a little of that Hunting. I was young then,” said the Adjutant, clattering his beak significantly.
“I was well established here. My village was being builded for the third time, as I remember, when my cousin, the Gavial, brought me word of rich waters above Benares. At first I would not go, for my cousin, who is a fish-eater, does not always know the good from the bad; but I heard my people talking in the evenings, and what they said made me certain.”
“And what did they say?” the Jackal asked.
“They said enough to make me, the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut, leave water and take to my feet. I went by night, using the littlest streams as they served me; but it was the beginning of the hot weather, and all streams were low. I crossed dusty roads; I went through tall grass; I climbed hills in the moonlight. Even rocks did I climb, children–consider this well. I crossed the tail of Sirhind, the waterless, before I could find the set of the little rivers that flow Gungaward. I was a month’s journey from my own people and the river that I knew. That was very marvellous!”
“What food on the way?” said the Jackal, who kept his soul in his little stomach, and was not a bit impressed by the Mugger’s land travels.
“That which I could find–cousin,” said the Mugger slowly, dragging each word.
Now you do not call a man a cousin in India unless you think you can establish some kind of blood-relationship, and as it is only in old fairy-tales that the Mugger ever marries a jackal, the Jackal knew for what reason he had been suddenly lifted into the Mugger’s family circle. If they had been alone he would not have cared, but the Adjutant’s eyes twinkled with mirth at the ugly jest.
“Assuredly, Father, I might have known,” said the Jackal. A mugger does not care to be called a father of jackals, and the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut said as much–and a great deal more which there is no use in repeating here.
“The Protector of the Poor has claimed kinship. How can I remember the precise degree? Moreover, we eat the same food. He has said it,” was the Jackal’s reply.
That made matters rather worse, for what the Jackal hinted at was that the Mugger must have eaten his food on that land-march fresh and fresh every day, instead of keeping it by him till it was in a fit and proper condition, as every self-respecting mugger and most wild beasts do when they can. Indeed, one of the worst terms of contempt along the River-bed is “eater of fresh meat.” It is nearly as bad as calling a man a cannibal.
“That food was eaten thirty seasons ago,” said the Adjutant quietly. “If we talk for thirty seasons more it will never come back. Tell us, now, what happened when the good waters were reached after thy most wonderful land journey. If we listened to the howling of every jackal the business of the town would stop, as the saying is.”
The Mugger must have been grateful for the interruption, because he went on, with a rush:
“By the Right and Left of Gunga! when I came there never did I see such waters!”
“Were they better, then, than the big flood of last season?” said the Jackal.
“Better! That flood was no more than comes every five years–a handful of drowned strangers, some chickens, and a dead bullock in muddy water with cross-currents. But the season I think of, the river was low, smooth, and even, and, as the Gavial had warned me, the dead English came down, touching each other. I got my girth in that season–my girth and my depth. From Agra, by Etawah and the broad waters by Allahabad–”
“Oh, the eddy that set under the walls of the fort at Allahabad!” said the Adjutant. “They came in there like widgeon to the reeds, and round and round they swung–thus!”
He went off into his horrible dance again, while the Jackal looked on enviously. He naturally could not remember the terrible year of the Mutiny they were talking about. The Mugger continued:
“Yes, by Allahabad one lay still in the slack-water and let twenty go by to pick one; and, above all, the English were not cumbered with jewellery and nose-rings and anklets as my women are nowadays. To delight in ornaments is to end with a rope for a necklace, as the saying is. All the muggers of all the rivers grew fat then, but it was my Fate to be fatter than them all. The news was that the English were being hunted into the rivers, and by the Right and Left of Gunga! we believed it was true. So far as I went south I believed it to he true; and I went down-stream beyond Monghyr and the tombs that look over the river.”
“I know that place,” said the Adjutant. “Since those days Monghyr is a lost city. Very few live there now.”
“Thereafter I worked up-stream very slowly and lazily, and a little above Monghyr there came down a boatful of white-faces–alive! They were, as I remember, women, lying under a cloth spread over sticks, and crying aloud. There was never a gun fired at us, the watchers of the fords in those days. All the guns were busy elsewhere. We could hear them day and night inland, coming and going as the wind shifted. I rose up full before the boat, because I had never seen white-faces alive, though I knew them well–otherwise. A naked white child kneeled by the side of the boat, and, stooping over, must needs try to trail his hands in the river. It is a pretty thing to see how a child loves running water. I had fed that day, but there was yet a little unfilled space within me. Still, it was for sport and not for food that I rose at the child’s hands. They were so clear a mark that I did not even look when I closed; but they were so small that though my jaws rang true–I am sure of that–the child drew them up swiftly, unhurt. They must have passed between tooth and tooth–those small white hands. I should have caught him cross-wise at the elbows; but, as I said, it was only for sport and desire to see new things that I rose at all. They cried out one after another in the boat, and presently I rose again to watch them. The boat was too heavy to push over. They were only women, but he who trusts a woman will walk on duckweed in a pool, as the saying is: and by the Right and Left of Gunga, that is truth!”
“Once a woman gave me some dried skin from a fish,” said the Jackal. “I had hoped to get her baby, but horse-food is better than the kick of a horse, as the saying is. What did thy woman do?”
“She fired at me with a short gun of a kind I have never seen before or since. Five times, one after another” (the Mugger must have met with an old-fashioned revolver); “and I stayed open-mouthed and gaping, my head in the smoke. Never did I see such a thing. Five times, as swiftly as I wave my tail–thus!”
The Jackal, who had been growing more and more interested in the story, had just time to leap back as the huge tail swung by like a scythe.
“Not before the fifth shot,” said the Mugger, as though he had never dreamed of stunning one of his listeners–“not before the fifth shot did I sink, and I rose in time to hear a boatman telling all those white women that I was most certainly dead. One bullet had gone under a neck-plate of mine. I know not if it is there still, for the reason I cannot turn my head. Look and see, child. It will show that my tale is true.”
“I?” said the Jackal. “Shall an eater of old shoes, a bone-cracker, presume, to doubt the word of the Envy of the River? May my tail be bitten off by blind puppies if the shadow of such a thought has crossed my humble mind! The Protector of the Poor has condescended to inform me, his slave, that once in his life he has been wounded by a woman. That is sufficient, and I will tell the tale to all my children, asking for no proof.”
“Over-much civility is sometimes no better than over-much discourtesy, for, as the saying is, one can choke a guest with curds. I do not desire that any children of thine should know that the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut took his only wound from a woman. They will have much else to think of if they get their meat as miserably as does their father.”
“It is forgotten long ago! It was never said! There never was a white woman! There was no boat! Nothing whatever happened at all.”
The Jackal waved his brush to show how completely everything was wiped out of his memory, and sat down with an air.
“Indeed, very many things happened,” said the Mugger, beaten in his second attempt that night to get the better of his friend. (Neither bore malice, however. Eat and be eaten was fair law along the river, and the Jackal came in for his share of plunder when the Mugger had finished a meal.) “I left that boat and went up-stream, and, when I had reached Arrah and the back-waters behind it, there were no more dead English. The river was empty for a while. Then came one or two dead, in red coats, not English, but of one kind all–Hindus and Purbeeahs–then five and six abreast, and at last, from Arrah to the North beyond Agra, it was as though whole villages had walked into the water. They came out of little creeks one after another, as the logs come down in the Rains. When the river rose they rose also in companies from the shoals they had rested upon; and the falling flood dragged them with it across the fields and through the Jungle by the long hair. All night, too, going North, I heard the guns, and by day the shod feet of men crossing fords, and that noise which a heavy cart-wheel makes on sand under water; and every ripple brought more dead. At last even I was afraid, for I said: ‘If this thing happens to men, how shall the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut escape?’ There were boats, too, that came up behind me without sails, burning continually, as the cotton-boats sometimes burn, but never sinking.”
“Ah!” said the Adjutant. “Boats like those come to Calcutta of the South. They are tall and black, they beat up the water behind them with a tail, and they–”
“Are thrice as big as my village. My boats were low and white; they beat up the water on either side of them, and were no larger than the boats of one who speaks truth should be. They made me very afraid, and I left water and went back to this my river, hiding by day and walking by night, when I could not find little streams to help me. I came to my village again, but I did not hope to see any of my people there. Yet they were ploughing and sowing and reaping, and going to and fro in their fields, as quietly as their own cattle.”
“Was there still good food in the river?” said the Jackal.
“More than I had any desire for. Even I–and I do not eat mud–even I was tired, and, as I remember, a little frightened of this constant coming down of the silent ones. I heard my people say in my village that all the English were dead; but those that came, face down, with the current were not English, as my people saw. Then my people said that it was best to say nothing at all, but to pay the tax and plough the land. After a long time the river cleared, and those that came down it had been clearly drowned by the floods, as I could well see; and though it was not so easy then to get food, I was heartily glad of it. A little killing here and there is no bad thing–but even the Mugger is sometimes satisfied, as the saying is.”
“Marvellous! Most truly marvellous!” said the Jackal. “I am become fat through merely hearing about so much good eating. And afterward what, if it be permitted to ask, did the Protector of the Poor do?”
“I said to myself–and by the Right and Left of Gunga! I locked my jaws on that vow–I said I would never go roving any more. So I lived by the Ghaut, very close to my own people, and I watched over them year after year; and they loved me so much that they threw marigold wreaths at my head whenever they saw it lift. Yes, and my Fate has been very kind to me, and the river is good enough to respect my poor and infirm presence; only–”
“No one is all happy from his beak to his tail,” said the Adjutant sympathetically. “What does the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut need more?”
“That little white child which I did not get,” said the Mugger, with a deep sigh. “He was very small, but I have not forgotten. I am old now, but before I die it is my desire to try one new thing. It is true they are a heavy-footed, noisy, and foolish people, and the sport would be small, but I remember the old days above Benares, and, if the child lives, he will remember still. It may be he goes up and down the bank of some river, telling how he once passed his hands between the teeth of the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut, and lived to make a tale of it. My Fate has been very kind, but that plagues me sometimes in my dreams–the thought of the little white child in the bows of that boat.” He yawned, and closed his jaws. “And now I will rest and think. Keep silent, my children, and respect the aged.”
He turned stiffly, and shuffled to the top of the sand-bar, while the Jackal drew back with the Adjutant to the shelter of a tree stranded on the end nearest the railway bridge.
“That was a pleasant and profitable life,” he grinned, looking up inquiringly at the bird who towered above him. “And not once, mark you, did he think fit to tell me where a morsel might have been left along the banks. Yet I have told him a hundred times of good things wallowing down-stream. How true is the saying, ‘All the world forgets the Jackal and the Barber when the news has been told!’ Now he is going to sleep! Arrh!”
“How can a jackal hunt with a Mugger?” said the Adjutant coolly. “Big thief and little thief; it is easy to say who gets the pickings.”
The Jackal turned, whining impatiently, and was going to curl himself up under the tree-trunk, when suddenly he cowered, and looked up through the draggled branches at the bridge almost above his head.
“What now?” said the Adjutant, opening his wings uneasily.
“Wait till we see. The wind blows from us to them, but they are not looking for us–those two men.”
“Men, is it? My office protects me. All India knows I am holy.” The Adjutant, being a first-class scavenger, is allowed to go where he pleases, and so this one never flinched.
“I am not worth a blow from anything better than an old shoe,” said the Jackal, and listened again. “Hark to that footfall!” he went on. “That was no country leather, but the shod foot of a white-face. Listen again! Iron hits iron up there! It is a gun! Friend, those heavy-footed, foolish English are coming to speak with the Mugger.”
“Warn him, then. He was called Protector of the Poor by some one not unlike a starving Jackal but a little time ago.”
“Let my cousin protect his own hide. He has told me again and again there is nothing to fear from the white-faces. They must be white-faces. Not a villager of Mugger-Ghaut would dare to come after him. See, I said it was a gun! Now, with good luck, we shall feed before daylight. He cannot hear well out of water, and–this time it is not a woman!”
A shiny barrel glittered for a minute in the moonlight on the girders. The Mugger was lying on the sand-bar as still as his own shadow, his fore-feet spread out a little, his head dropped between them, snoring like a–mugger.
A voice on the bridge whispered: “It’s an odd shot–straight down almost–but as safe as houses. Better try behind the neck. Golly! what a brute! The villagers will be wild if he’s shot, though. He’s the deota [godling] of these parts.”
“Don’t care a rap,” another voice answered; “he took about fifteen of my best coolies while the bridge was building, and it’s time he was put a stop to. I’ve been after him in a boat for weeks. Stand by with the Martini as soon as I’ve given him both barrels of this.”
“Mind the kick, then. A double four-bore’s no joke.”
“That’s for him to decide. Here goes!”
There was a roar like the sound of a small cannon (the biggest sort of elephant-rifle is not very different from some artillery), and a double streak of flame, followed by the stinging crack of a Martini, whose long bullet makes nothing of a crocodile’s plates. But the explosive bullets did the work. One of them struck just behind the Mugger’s neck, a hand’s-breadth to the left of thle backbone, while the other burst a little lower down, at the beginning of the tail. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred a mortally-wounded crocodile can scramble to deep water and get away; but the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut was literally broken into three pieces. He hardly moved his head before the life went out of him, and he lay as flat as the Jackal.
“Thunder and lightning! Lightning and thunder!” said that miserable little beast. “Has the thing that pulls the covered carts over the bridge tumbled at last?”
“It is no more than a gun,” said the Adjutant, though his very tail-feathers quivered. “Nothing more than a gun. He is certainly dead. Here come the white-faces.”
The two Englishmen had hurried down from the bridge and across to the sand-bar, where they stood admiring the length of the Mugger. Then a native with an axe cut off the big head, and four men dragged it across the spit.
“The last time that I had my hand in a Mugger’s mouth,” said one of the Englishmen, stooping down (he was the man who had built the bridge), “it was when I was about five years old–coming down the river by boat to Monghyr. I was a Mutiny baby, as they call it. Poor mother was in the boat, too, and she often told me how she fired dad’s old pistol at the beast’s head.”
“Well, you’ve certainly had your revenge on the chief of the clan–even if the gun has made your nose bleed. Hi, you boatmen! Haul that head up the bank, and we’ll boil it for the skull. The skin’s too knocked about to keep. Come along to bed now. This was worth sitting up all night for, wasn’t it?”
Curiously enough, the Jackal and the Adjutant made the very same remark not three minutes after the men had left.
The post PseudoPod 645: HORROR COMEDY SHOWCASE: The Undertakers appeared first on PseudoPod.
Rank #10: PseudoPod 646: Home and Hearth
- Author : Angela Slatter
- Narrator : Robin McLeavy
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
- Discuss on Forums
“Home and Hearth” was originally published in the Spectral Press Chapbook Series, March 2014 and the story won the Aurealis Award for Best Short Horror Story 2014.
Content Warning:Spoiler Inside
Violence against children, race-based violence, psychological trauma
The episode of Faculty of Horror mentioned in the intro:
Hearth and Home
by Angela Slatter
Caroline held the door open, listening to the keys make that gentle clink-clank as they hung from the lock. He pushed past her and she could smell the peculiar odour he gave off now: puberty and a state institution. As he crossed the threshold, his too-small shoes leaving mud on the new welcome mat (she’d thrown out the one exhorting a universal power to ‘Bless this mess’), the house seemed to sigh.
Then again, maybe it was her, but she couldn’t remember the air leaving her lungs.
Then again it might have been the heating system as it puffed out warmth.
‘Coke?’ she asked, following him down the long hallway. ‘Or hot chocolate? Crisps? Marshmallows? I baked your favourite biscuits. They’re not hot but I can warm them in the microwave. There’s a cake, too. Banana. Or—or—what would you like?’
She knew she was overcompensating, had schooled herself not to during the weeks and months, but he was back in the house not five minutes and already she was failing. She reached out and touched his face.
It was a mistake. The feeling against her palm, the slight sweatiness, the burgeoning pimples beneath the skin, combined to make her shudder. She hoped he didn’t notice.
‘It’s fine, Mum. I’m going to my room.’
Simon hadn’t called her that in months, not since the trial started. Not since Geoffrey had his heart attack and told her as she sat by his hospital bed that he didn’t think he could continue with, well, everything. Turning up at the court every day, dodging and weaving reporters and cameras, listening to their son’s legal reps talk and excuse and obfuscate. It was all lies, he’d said. They both knew it.
She could have the house. And the money.
(It’s mine anyway, she wanted to say, but didn’t. It always was.)
He had to go, he’d said. For his health.
Then she had to tell their son what his father had decided—that he was opting out of the family. Men never like to clean up their own mess, she’d thought at the time as she’d watched a light go out in him. His answers had whittled themselves down to monosyllables. He stopped referring to his father. Stopped calling her ‘Mum’, or indeed anything but ‘her.’
Ask her, he’d say to the barrister. Avoiding her gaze.
Caroline thought her eyes should probably be misty, a little heated with some kind of emotional response, but there was nothing. Oh well. Perhaps it would come later, when they got used to each other once more.
‘Okay,’ she said belatedly. He was already gone, disappeared up the stairs, closing the door. She walked into the sitting room, which was directly beneath his room and listened.
A few steps as he walked from one wall to the next, stopped at the desk, the book shelves, the wardrobe (she heard the creak of its hinges), then to his bed. She’d left his presents on the duvet, neatly stacked—he’d missed his thirteenth birthday in all the chaos. There was the whump as he sat down, then the double thud of his shoes hitting the floor. Then a steady series of noises as each carefully wrapped gift followed the footwear. Finally, silence.
She stood beneath him for a while, then turned to one of the front windows and tweaked back the edge of the long cream-coloured curtains. Through the wrought bars of the fence she couldn’t see anything but cars parked in the street, the houses opposite, each like hers, tidy, fenced, tall, manicured gardens, quietly comfortable. No one. No reporters. No yelling at the house, no trying to get into the yard, no knocking at the door, no flashbulbs blinding Caroline before she learned not to open it for them. In a deep, damned part of her soul she was grateful for the bombings that had made her son old news.
She took a deep breath and headed towards the kitchen.
The frozen foods aisle seemed colder than usual. Or maybe it was the collection of eyes boring into her back that were giving Caroline the chills. She reached into the freezer and pulled out ice cream (vanilla), a chicken (medium), then packets of peas, beans, carrots and chips. They all made a metallic sound as they hit the bottom of the trolley.
She’d left Simon sleeping; a note on the table gave him strict instructions not to leave the house and not to open the door to anyone. But she’d had to go out, had to stock up—two days home and he’d eaten most everything she had. That was what he did now: eat and play computer games in his room. Soon she would have to talk to him about school. He’d have to return to the world, but that was fraught with complications. They would have to move, she thought. A new house, a new town, a new life. Maybe she’d dye his hair, have it cut so he didn’t look like the boy on the news reports. Mind you, if he kept eating this way, it wouldn’t be an issue. Her son would disappear beneath layers of fat and be cleverly camouflaged by his own body.
She couldn’t think about all those details now, so she did what she could, which was to reach out and load up on cheeses, yoghurt, custard and milk. As she turned, fighting the trolley’s recalcitrant wheels, she looked up and saw them. The herd.
Twelve housewives, nearly identical: corduroy trousers in greens and browns, sharply pressed collared shirts under v-neck sweaters in various hues, with barely-worn Barbour jackets and scarves hanging loose around necks that showed signs of wrinkling. Caroline knew them—she’d been one of them herself, once.
It wasn’t hatred, precisely, that they were staring at her, nothing so strong, nothing so moral. It was just a kind of intense distaste: her dirty laundry had been aired very publicly. All the nasty domestic worms had poked their heads out of the shit-stirred soil of her home. They could look down on her … but it was something more. She made them nervous. She’d been a carbon copy—her fall made them feel exposed, vulnerable. There but for the grace of God go I and so on. Caroline’s son had made them afraid of their own children.
Now, people stared at them and associated them with her. Their neat, tidy houses, highly financial husbands, over-achieving children, all held up to scrutiny by the lower orders. Caroline almost smiled; then did. Waved and resisted the urge to walk up to them and chatter inanely about scone recipes or some such. She knew she looked manic, the smile pinned to her lips, eyes fever-bright.
She made her way to the junk food aisle and began to stack brightly packaged carbohydrates and preservatives into the trolley. The more she bought now, she reasoned, the less often she’d have to come back.
At the checkout, the spotty teen ignored her for a while, grabbing items in a podgy hand with chewed nails and chipped pink polish and dragging them over the scanner, then tossing them behind where an equally spotty boy jammed the items into bags. Eggs beneath tins of ham and tomatoes, bread beneath frozen things. When the girl finally looked up to mumble the total, Caroline could almost see the cogs in the brain wake and haltingly turn themselves; could almost hear the grinding. She watched as the blood-shot eyes widened and the lips trembled, the bottom one dropping open like a draw bridge on a slow timer. The girl stammered; she fumbled with Caroline’s credit card; dropped the docket; stared and stared and stared.
The bag boy didn’t look up.
As Caroline packed the food into the back of the Land Rover, she felt as if she was being watched. Expecting one of the mums brigade, she straightened and looked around.
A dishevelled figure stood motionless in the corner of the parking lot. Scuffed boots, thick trousers; bulked up by a couple of men’s coats and a disreputable sweater, the figure removed its bright pink beanie only when it met Caroline’s eyes.
It was the woman. The other mother.
Caroline didn’t—couldn’t—budge. She and the Traveller watched each other forever until the woman shoved her hat back over the dark tangled hair and shuffled off. The spell broken, Caroline could shift again, but her joints ached. It seemed every move she made hurt, every bag she heaved was filled with wet sand.
It was a long time before her hands stopped shaking enough for her put the keys in the ignition. She was dripping with sweat in the cold, cold car.
Simon’s voice in Caroline’s ear and his hands on her shoulder shocked her awake. She’d been dreaming somewhere dark, somewhere the blackness was deathly-thick.
‘Mum!! Wake up!’ He was yelling, her son. She could smell fear on him; it came off his skin in waves, mixed with the scent of adolescence. He stank.
Caroline recoiled, trying not to do so, managing to shuffle herself across the sheets without actually seeming to move. Her head felt full of cement. Only the sheer terror of having Simon’s fingers anywhere near her had the power to shock her awake as surely as an icy bath.
She cursed herself for having taken a sleeping tablet—what was she thinking making herself vulnerable?—but there were so many in the bathroom, hers, Geoffrey’s, all the enthusiastically doled-out tranquilisers the doctor had heaped upon them early in the piece. And she hadn’t slept properly in…
She so needed to sleep.
And now her son had crept into her room and gotten close enough to touch her with hands that had—
‘Mum, there’s someone downstairs.’
‘What’s the time?’ She struggled into a sitting position and squinted at the shining digital face on her bedside table. She could hear someone battering at the front door. It was two a.m. Surely not reporters. Surely not at this hour. Nor the police—double jeopardy and all, and he hadn’t been out of the house since he’d been given back to her. He couldn’t have done anything else, not yet.
Simon’s face was white, his eyes huge. My child is afraid, she thought, admonished. His blond hair stuck up at all angles; coupled with his terrified stare it made him look very, very young.
Caroline felt a deep stab of shame. He needed his mum. She wrapped a thick chenille dressing gown around herself and tied it tight.
She crept along the hallway, past the grandfather clock with its regular rhythmic tick-tock, and down the stairs, Simon behind her, his hands holding onto the train of her gown just like he did when little and she was in the kitchen making his buttery toast. Back when he couldn’t bear to be parted from her.
The door was shuddering and shaking under the force of the blows—she thought she could see periodic slivers of the world outside as the wood warped inwards with each hit. She wondered if the leadlight panels would break, but they seemed to bend and curve like rubber. She opened the hall cupboard and pulled out a cricket bat—Simon’s when he was eight. It wasn’t huge but it was hefty and she’d get in a good swing, by God. Caroline pushed her son away so she could have space. As she took the last two steps forward there was one final slam and the door vibrated on its hinges, then all was still.
She flicked on the porch light, wrenching on the doorhandle and pulling at the same time.
Nothing. A pool of yellow light trickled down into the garden like something spilled, and beyond its reach there was the moonlight, giving everything a strange blue tint. The front yard was empty as was the street beyond and there was nowhere for anyone to hide. There weren’t even any desperate reporters staked out in battered Vauxhalls, snoring or smoking or mainlining bad coffee from the all-night service station fifteen minutes away. The cars sparkled with the night’s frost as if someone had scattered diamond chips over them.
Caroline stepped out, her feet cold. A few more paces and something stuck to the sole of her left foot. She bent down and picked it up, glanced briefly at the piece of faded photographic paper.
‘What is it?’ Simon’s voice quavered from well back in the hallway and she couldn’t help, was devastated by, the wave of contempt that washed over her.
‘Nothing. Just some rubbish.’ She pocketed the photo before she turned and went inside. ‘Hot chocolate?’
He surprised her by nodding, by choosing her company instead of retreating to his cave yet again. Instead of making her feel that she was alone in the house despite his presence.
The kitchen was bright and warm and for a while she could pretend everything was normal.
The ground was hard-frosted and the grass crunched and crackled like broken glass beneath her boots. Far behind her were the house and its rear garden backing onto the common, the drunken fence and the squeaky gate that led out.
White mist hung in front of her face and she struggled to breathe in the cold air. Sweat ran its way down her spine. Caroline chided herself: she hadn’t been to the gym in months; her thighs felt like jelly and she couldn’t even manage a brisk walk without puffing. As she reached the top of the incline, she stopped, trying not to gasp for breath, and surveyed the land below.
A curious combination of painted wagons, battered four-wheel drives and campervans were scattered in a loose configuration someone might mistake for a circle. In what passed for the centre was a fire pit, with smoke still rising from last night’s embers. There was a bustle of activity: the Travellers were preparing to move on. This was probably the longest they’d stayed in any one place, she thought, then tried to unthink the reason why.
She took a deep gulp of icy air that made her lungs burn in protest, and started down the slope.
It took them a while to notice her as they packed up like efficient little ants, but she stood at the edge of their campsite and eventually someone spotted her. Looked closer. Recognised her features. Nudged the person next to them. And so on.
Eventually they all gathered around, so many of them, but kept a few metres between her and them, as if she might be contaminated and this was judged the safe distance. Pinned beneath their collective gaze, Caroline felt thin—no, not just thin, but starving, soul-famished, as if nothing good had ever come from or gone into her.
The men looked at her hard, although some seemed to pity her, but the women … the women judged. They peered at her as if they knew what she suspected, that somehow her son’s rot had started with her, begun in the womb and come to fruition months and months ago. She felt as if she were a specimen, an experiment that had gone horribly, openly wrong. Just when she thought she couldn’t take anymore and was about to turn tail and run, the crowd parted, split by a knife of a woman.
Caroline opened her mouth but no words came. Instead she stood there for the longest time, lips parted, tongue wetly visible but mute. Then the other nodded and turned, gliding through the press of bodies. Caroline followed and the Travellers shifted, maintaining the safe corridor as she passed between them.
Without the layers of clothes, she was tall and thin. Her hair, pulled into a black plait, hung down below the waist of a long green skirt. As she walked, Caroline could hear bells and she remembered from all the days of the trial that the Traveller was weighted down with jewellery: bracelets, earrings, necklaces, anklets; her fingers were swollen with rings, silver, gold, with stones of every colour. She led Caroline to one of the painted wagons, up the wooden steps of faded red and into a warm, dark, musty space. The door closed behind them without either of them drawing it shut.
The space stretched forward but seemed smaller than it should have, a dim tunnel stuffed with boxes and books and stray items of clothing. The built-in bed was piled high with blankets and newspapers. An unlikely chaise longue took up space, lying on an angle as uncomfortable as a lizard in a too-small container. The walls were hung with paintings and tapestries, some things that looked like pages from illuminated manuscripts, pendants, misplaced wind-chimes, strands of crystals, strings of dried garlic and flowers and, in one instance, what looked like animal paws.
Caroline glanced away.
A pot of tea sat in the centre of a small table, neatly placed within the edges of an embroidered circle of birds and horses. Two cups. Like the teapot they were once fine porcelain, now crackle-glazed, their floral pattern faded. Caroline thought her grandmother might have had the same set once upon a time. Her hostess sat and waved that she should do the same. Caroline hoped the woman—her name was Aishe, Caroline reminded herself—would speak first but she knew it was her place to do so. She, Caroline, even if not the sinner, bore the sins of her child.
Finding her throat closed, she put a hand in her coat pocket and pulled out the photo, laying it on the cloth between them.
Aishe ignored it, instead pouring tea. The liquorice aroma was strong, the liquid deepest black. Only when she had pushed the cup across the cloth to Caroline’s side of the table did the woman let her eyes stray to the small, sad square of paper.
A little boy smiled up at them. He had black eyes and coal-scuttle curls; his skin was olive and he wore a patched red sweater, worn cord trousers too large for him and boots. He held the reins of a shaggy-looking pony and his joy was like a bolt of sunshine. Aishe’s hand hovered over the snapshot, one finger lowered tantalisingly close to the boy’s face, but at the last minute not touching it. She sat back, resigned, weary, and looked expectantly at her guest. Still she did not speak.
Caroline, never good with silence, scootched forward. She pushed the edges of the photo with the tips of her nails, as if to draw the woman’s attention to it—to make her consider it more seriously.
‘Yours,’ she pushed out of her mouth. ‘This is yours.’
Aishe shook her head, lids dropping heavily.
‘Yes, it’s your son.’ Caroline’s tone was sharp, a touch of desperation, a need to convince the other of what she was saying.
‘No.’ The word, when it rumbled out, showcased how deep her voice was. Caroline sat back; she couldn’t recall ever hearing her speak, not during the whole of the trial. But surely … surely she must have. The no-longer-mother had given evidence, hadn’t she?
‘No?’ she asked.
‘No,’ repeated Aishe. ‘Not mine. Not anymore.’
Caroline shook her head. ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what happened. I’m sorry for your son, but this photograph is yours. Please, please don’t bother us again.’
‘Drink. It will help.’
Against her will, Caroline did, sipping at the black brew.
‘Your son,’ said Aishe, ‘has something inside him. Something wrong.’
‘You think he’s possessed?’ Caroline scoffed. She’d been brought up in a home where religion was politely ignored except at Easter and Christmas, and she’d raised Simon the same way. Geoffrey was an atheist.
‘So are all who do such things. The thing inside makes them so.’ Aishe wrapped her hands around her own cup, ignoring its handle and drinking deeply.
‘So … so you say it’s not Simon’s fault?’ As Caroline wondered at this offer of absolution, the other woman laughed.
‘We still have a choice—free will. We always have the power to say yes or no. Your son has something inside him, yes; but he chose to give in to it.’
Caroline felt the words like a slap. She put the teacup down, her shaking hands clattered it on the saucer. She stood.
‘I am sorry. Sorry about your son.’ She made her way to the door, fumbled with the handle until it gave and let the cold sunlight in. She had her feet on the top step before she heard Aishe’s last words.
‘He’s not mine anymore.’
Caroline stumbled but kept her balance. She tried to leave the rapidly shrinking laager with dignity, but the weight of eyes returning to her and the ringing of the woman’s voice in her ears was a goad. In the end she ran. Ran out of the camp, up the hill and then started down the other side, losing her footing and slipping and sliding on her arse to the bottom. She was up again in a second, running with a limp this time, tears freezing on her cheeks as she hurried towards the rickety gate and the drunken fence and what seemed like safety only in the vaguest of ways.
She’d made it to the entry to the back garden but found she couldn’t go in. Found her hand wouldn’t move to push the gate open, that her feet refused to turn. So, she’d kept going, wandered a while, tried to lose herself in the woods. Stumbling through a stream that sluggishly dribbled along its wintery path, she’d fallen, torn the left knee of her trousers and the skin beneath. Eventually, she’d come out near the local shop and made her limping way home until her front door loomed large. Just as she pushed the wrought iron front gate (unlike the back gate the one in the front yard was respectable—it could be seen), that voice called softly from a car she hadn’t recognised.
‘Hello, Caroline,’ he said again as he unfolded himself from the driver’s seat.
Geoffrey was still tall, but he’d become very thin. And not been-to-the-gym-got-himself-in-shape-thin either. Skeletal thin; not eating thin; heartsick thin and it was almost enough to give her a little thrill of pleasure, to see he was still suffering.
‘What the hell do you want?’ She felt suddenly focused. The pain in her knee, which had been dull at best, burst into vibrant throbbing life. Anger flowed through her veins like molten silver. She was very much alert, alive and she owed it all to the rage Geoffrey conjured in her.
He seemed to realise it and his steps faltered. ‘I … I came to see you. And Simon.’
‘I’m surprised you haven’t let yourself in, made yourself at home,’ she snarled, gloved hands clutching at the gate.
‘You took my key away.’
She’d forgotten that. It had been the same day she’d taken his name off the joint accounts, and cut up his credit card. The same day she’d watched him stuff as many clothes as he could into a big bag on wheels and listened to it thump down the stairs. The same day he’d come home from the hospital and spent a grand total of forty-five minutes packing up the bits of his fifteen year marriage he wanted to keep. He took no photos, no keepsakes; just his thirty-two pairs of argyle socks and his collection of cotton boxers, his jeans, sneakers and sweaters and polo shirts. He’d left his suits and his business shirts and the three pairs of leather shoes, which had given off a stench when Caroline burned them all in the back yard later that afternoon, watching the flames flare and glare and crackle and burst.
Now he was back with a ‘Hello, Caroline’ as if they were meeting for coffee.
‘And anyway, I knocked. I knocked a lot. I could hear music and someone moving around inside— is it Simon? It must be Simon—I kept up with the coverage, so I know he’s home—but no one answered the door. So I thought I’d wait.’
‘Simon doesn’t answer the door. He doesn’t go out anymore, Geoffrey,’ she said in a tone that told him these were important things to know. ‘Our son doesn’t have a life anymore.’
She bit her tongue and stopped herself from adding: We don’t have a son anymore.
‘I thought … I thought I’d like to see him.’
‘You thought? You thought?’ Her voice began to rise. Soon only dogs will be able to hear me. She had to bite down on the giggles that threatened. ‘When did you start thinking, Geoffrey, about anyone but yourself?’
‘Caroline, I’m sorry— I know I did the wrong thing. It was just so hard—‘
‘Yes, it fucking was! It was very fucking hard— for me! You just gave up. You just left, you shit!’
‘Now there’s no need for that sort of language…’
‘You fuck! Fuck you! You leave me to clean up this mess and you’re telling me to mind my language? What!? Do you think I’ll be a bad influence on Simon?’ She let the gate go and turned to fully face him, taking deliberate steps towards him as he backed away.
He paled and she knew he was terrified of her, of this strange new woman who was walking about in her skin. She wondered what he saw in her that made him know she was something different now. She idly wondered if it was the same thing that showed in Simon’s face when he—
‘I’m sorry, Caroline, this was a bad idea.’ She could barely hear him over the sound his keys made as he tried to get them into the car door. She noticed that his vehicle was old, no central locking, no blipping noises from electronic entry—no heated seats either, she imagined. A far cry from the Merc he’d driven away in. She wondered what had happened to it, but guessed that if he was trying to visit, he was trying to come back to the comfort of her money. Caroline smiled at him.
He got the door open and put it between them as if it might keep him safe. But he didn’t get into the car, he seemed to be about to say something else, and that was his mistake.
Caroline gathered herself, drew upon all the saliva she could muster and spat in his face. Pity it’s not acid, she thought, but for his expression it may as well have been. It dripped from the tip of his sharp nose, and slid lazily down his left cheek.
‘Don’t come back, Geoffrey.’
Simon dropped the item in question, startled by his mother’s sudden appearance. Caroline caught sight of herself in the mirror above his desk. She looked wild, angry and sick. She stalked into the room. He hunched down and swept the thing up, trying to hide it.
‘Nothing,’ he grunted. It was the same tone he had used for the last year and she’d thought herself inured to it, but this time she snapped. She swooped on him, shrieking, pushing her face into his until he was almost flat on his mattress as she screamed.
Whatisit, whatisit, whatisit, whatisit?
He threw it on the floor and she stepped back, his movement breaking her tirade. It was a knife. A pocket knife. The one Geoffrey had given him the Christmas before in spite of her objections. The one the police had been unable to find. The one that still had thin brown stains where the blade met the casing.
Time seemed to freeze around them as they stared down at the thing on the blue carpet.
Caroline had steadfastly lied for her son. Yes, he was home that afternoon. No, he had not left his room. They’d had hot chocolate at precisely three o’clock and they had watched cartoons together. No amount of nitpicking or white-anting by the Prosecution had shifted or shaken her, and she’d taken a kind of perverse pride in that.
In truth, Caroline didn’t really know why she’d lied.
To protect her child, yes, but she didn’t understand why she did it when she knew deep down he was guilty. She’d had hope, of course, all mothers have hope beyond hope, a deep abiding belief that a miracle will occur and their child will be proven innocent—because when the guilt is beyond doubt, is known, the world changes irrevocably.
And here it was. Undeniable proof of what he’d done.
Caroline felt something somewhere in her chest give way, cave in and leave a pile of rubble in its wake. Inside, an already hobbling part of her died.
But it didn’t matter. They couldn’t charge him again, couldn’t re-try him. He was out and he’d got away with it. And he was in her house. He’d come out of her. Whatever was in him had come from her.
Slowly she bent down, the cut in her knee reopening, and picked up the knife. Her knuckles turned bone-white around it and she could feel the metal cutting. She squeezed her hand tighter, felt satisfied as the blade cut further and blood began to pool in her palm, then drip out between her fingers. In the cup of her hand, the new blood liquefied the old, mixed with it.
Caroline lifted her fist and shook it at Simon. Red spattered across his shirt, face and the blue duvet. Behind his eyes she saw something stir; something that wasn’t afraid of her. Not yet.
She moved towards him and the thing inside him began to shift, to squirm. Ah! At last.
Then the window shattered, showering them both with glass, and the spell was broken. Time stumbled forward again. She became aware of the clock in the upstairs hallway, ticking and tocking, reliable as ever. On the bed lay half a brick. Tied to it with a piece of twine was a familiar crumpled square of off-white.
Simon didn’t even twitch, still paralysed. Still frozen. Only his eyes swept around, as if looking for escape. Caroline collected the brick, and untied the twine. Resignedly, she pulled the photo away from the rough surface of the concrete carrier pigeon and put it into the pocket of her Barbour. She felt the blood from her hand oozing across the surface smoothly melting away the emulsion. Caroline straightened, cleared her throat.
‘Lunch in ten minutes. If you want food you’ll come downstairs like a human being. No more skulking up here. I’m not a zookeeper to keep bringing meals to your door.’
She turned to leave.
‘It wasn’t anyone important!’
His voice, his words, made her nauseous. She felt hot waves of sick rising, lapping at the back of her throat. She swallowed it down. He wouldn’t see—couldn’t see—any weakness. Caroline kept moving, towards the door, was almost into the hallway.
‘Just a filthy little Rom. Filthy Traveller. Who’d miss him? Mum? Who’d miss him?’
She locked the door of her bedroom that night; thought about pushing a set of drawers in front of it, then decided she was being silly. The rage-invigorated woman who had so scared her husband and son seemed to have disappeared. She couldn’t, she supposed, burn that brightly for too long. She went to sleep quickly, though, as if all her energy had evaporated. She didn’t even take a tablet.
Something woke her in the dark watches.
At first she thought it was Simon and cried out, then remembered he couldn’t get in. Anyway, what woke her was a weeping, a whimpering Simon had never made, not even when he was small.
Her heart clenched when she saw the figure standing solidly black silhouetted on the pale curtains, back-lit by the streetlights.
But she realised the shape, the shadow, was too small.
Caroline sat up slowly and squinted hard into the dimness. Slowly details made themselves known: a patched red sweater, coal-scuttle curls, the dirty marks on his face cut by lines of clean where tears had fallen. She didn’t turn on the bedside lamp for fear he would disappear. She didn’t speak for the same reason.
She offered her hand and held her breath.
He settled beside her under the sheets, beneath the blankets, snuggling into the curve of her as if he belonged there. His skin was so cold she shivered. But she welcomed the sensation—any sensation, any feeling at all that was not despair or contempt or fear or hatred or grief.
The thin little back pressed against her stomach; the little knuckles of the spine stood out and she ran her fingers down them, almost expecting the sound of a xylophone. And he stopped crying. She brushed a hand across his face, felt the still-wet tears and put her fingers to her tongue. They burned, salt and ice, stung her mouth like lemon juice poured into a wound, but she didn’t care.
‘Mum?’ Simon was scratching at the door. ‘Mum, are you okay?’ he paused. ‘It’s just I thought I heard you yell…’
The child beside her stilled like a small animal trying to escape notice and then she smelled ammonia. She gathered her breath, kept her voice steady and said, ‘Yes, I’m fine. A dream is all. Go back to bed.’
She listened as his heavy footsteps receded and his bedroom door closed. She could feel the little boy relaxing.
‘It’s all right,’ she whispered. ‘It’s all right.’
Ignoring the wet stink, the warm damp that was rapidly turning cold, Caroline wrapped her arms around the child and slept soundly.
‘I want to go outside,’ Simon mumbled through his food.
He wasn’t using a knife—she hadn’t put one out—and hacked away great chunks of French toast with the edge of his fork, then shovelled each one loaded with disks of banana into his mouth. Syrup dripped down his chin.
Caroline turned back to the stove and deftly flipped over another piece of bread dipped in egg mix. It sizzled as it hit the pan and the smell of heated butter filled her nostrils. She nodded, as if buying herself a few moments. In truth she felt guilty, guiltier than at any other time in her life. She told herself it was because she’d been a bad mother, because she’d feared him, and because of that fear she’d hated him. But it was worse and she knew it.
She hadn’t simply hated him. She’d forgotten him. For the briefest of hours she had forgotten him altogether and she had loved another child. Another child who was everything Simon no longer was: vulnerable, innocent. A child who’d filled her need for such a short time. But had done so nevertheless, and in doing so had widened the fractures between Caroline and her son.
So she nodded again and said, ‘Where would you like to go?’
‘The park? Just out, Mum. Just… out.’
‘The park it is, when I finish the dishes. Wrap up, it’s cold.’
She could feel, tight by her left leg, the cold weight of the ghost child leaning on her. The small frozen hands gripped her mid-thigh, hampering any movement, but she didn’t shift; didn’t want to dislodge him, just stayed in place revelling in the sensation of being essential.
When Simon finished jamming breakfast into his maw and brought his plate over to the sink, she felt the ghost child dissolve, his presence melt away, leaving only his fear of Simon and a disturbing sense of resentment in Caroline’s chest.
It was okay, she thought. It was going to be okay.
The bench was warm beneath her; an unseasonal burst of sun had burned away the chill and the damp and she was toasty in a bubble of light, hidden from the wind by a stand of trees and the toilet block not far behind her. She snuggled down in her coat and closed her eyes for a moment.
The park had been a good idea. Stiff and formal at first, they’d eventually relaxed. Simon had scraped together a tiny, wet ball from remnants of snow (but mostly mud) and thrown it at her. The mark was still visible on her coat; any other time she would have lost her temper, seen it as mean, but there was a kind of relief in seeing him behave like a child for the first time in what seemed an age.
It made her remember how it had been when he was small. When loving him wasn’t something she thought about, wasn’t something she resented, but something she simply did; something she did not question. So she laughed and made snow-mud pies of her own and threw them until they were both breathless with laughter and covered with cold, dripping brown.
When she sat to catch her breath, Simon played on the swings. The park started to fill up with other children but he didn’t seem to notice them. More importantly, they didn’t appear to notice him. The few parents standing around smoking and watching their own offspring didn’t recognise her son either. He took to the slides, then the roundabout, climbed the tree fort, then told her he needed to go to the loo.
She’d smiled and nodded, touched his arm and squeezed to let him know it was going to be okay.
Now she sat, warm and drowsing, as close to happy as she’d been in … she didn’t know. They would move, yes. Up north, somewhere with a small school, but close enough to a city with good psychologists; Simon would need help. He would need someone to talk to—as she would, let’s face it—someone who could get him to speak about what made him do what he did. Someone who could make him face what he had done, look at it and see it for what it was, and then turn away in disgust—aversion therapy, she thought. He would realise that his choices in future must always turn away from whatever the voice inside him advised. He would recognise his action had been an aberration. He’d acted on a whim, a curiosity. It was hideous, terrible, but he had to be allowed to move on. If he didn’t, her son would be tied to that awful, awful thing forever.
And so would she.
But they could get past it.
They could work together.
Everything would be okay.
The hand was small and frigid on her face. At first she thought it was Simon, but the hand was too small. Too tender. The touch was sad, tentative, but somehow determined. She moaned no, but it didn’t help. Caroline didn’t want to, but the tiny fingers brushed across her lids, made her blink, let the smallest sliver of daylight in and she had to come back to the world.
When she opened her eyes, the ghost child was a few feet away. He wasn’t looking at her, but staring towards the toilet block. She felt as heavy as she ever had, cemented to the wooden bench, but she heaved herself upwards. Every step was leaden, and she couldn’t make herself run. Her legs operated independently of her will and resolutely brought her to the entrance to the male toilets.
The smell of urine assailed her. The floor was tiled and damp. She rounded the corner and peered into the dim-lit rectangular room.
Stalls to the right. A urinal against the far wall. A row of sinks to the left. And in the far corner, her son just visible in the doorway of the furthest stall. Caroline approached quietly, oh so quietly. Behind her she could feel the arctic presence of the ghost child, his little hands holding onto the bottom of her coat. In the moment before Simon sensed her and turned around, she saw into the stall.
An elfin girl this time.
Caroline felt her heart stop, leap, thud like a drum.
The child’s face was pinched and pale but she seemed otherwise unhurt. She was crouched on top of the closed lid of the toilet, curled in on herself like a terrified hedgehog. She looked clean and cared for in jeans with sequins along the line of the pockets, a pink, puffed jacket, and purple gumboots decorated with flower-shaped raindrops and umbrellas held by black and white cows. Not a Traveller’s child this time, not a child Simon might think no one would care about. Caroline couldn’t help the flare of irritation that after everything that had happened he could be so stupid.
The little girl caught sight of Caroline and her mouth opened in a wail of relief and fear.
That was when Simon turned, his eyes widening, pupils dilating, his mouth working like a fish trying to gather breath on land.
‘I wasn’t! I wasn’t doing anything!’ He cowered. ‘I wasn’t going to…’
Caroline had thought her son’s lies had no more power to hurt her. The moment her hand grasped the collar of his jacket and began to shake him, the girl used the chance to dart out, haring through the tight space between their bodies and the stall door. She let loose a steam train squeal as she passed them by.
Caroline had enough presence of mind to drag him outside and to the car before the shouting started, her own and that of the outraged parents gathering around the little girl who’d made her way to the far side of the park with amazing speed.
In her bathroom, everything was arrayed tidily, in the order she needed.
They had to be ground down, she decided; one simply couldn’t swallow so many any other way. Caroline had taken the boxes from the medicine cabinet, popped the pills out of the blister packs, each one making a satisfying metallic crackle as they broke through the silvery packaging. She’d brought the small mortar and pestle up from the kitchen, the one she kept for dry ingredients, and stood it on the white marble of the vanity unit. She dropped the tablets in, absently counting them as if it mattered, then began the painstaking process of turning them into dust.
In the end, the small mound of white powder wasn’t enough. Or perhaps it was, but she didn’t really believe it. She wanted to be certain; didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Next came the bottles—so many bottles!—the pills larger, harder to crush, but she managed it. She could do it. She could do anything, as long as she concentrated on one task at a time. Behind her, cold radiated, a frigid comfort.
Then the stairs, one at a time, carefully cupping the mortar with both hands. Easy. Down was easiest. One thing at a time.
In the kitchen, she poured milk into a saucepan and put it on the stove, the click of the lighter making her flinch until the gas caught with a blue sigh. From the pantry, the canister and the sugar bowl. From the cupboard over the sink, a mug, the biggest, his favourite.
The powders, the mixing of white and brown, until no one could tell the difference; the sound of the milk as it heated, simmered, threatened to boil over.
And finally, she stood at the bottom of the stairs, took a breath, kept her voice steady and called upwards.
Rank #11: PseudoPod 649: Whatever Comes After Calcutta
- Author : David Erik Nelson
- Narrator : Rish Outfield
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
- Discuss on Forums
“Whatever Comes After Calcutta” first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in November 2017, and was included in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten.
This is one of those stories that I think may have accidentally taken on a lot of political overtones that weren’t intentional. I guess that’s for readers to determine; I wrote it mostly in early 2016, well before a lot of what it feels like it’s about actually happened. This story was locked up well before the election.
Nonetheless, when I go to sum up the story in a Big Picture way, I end up saying the same thing that I said about that election:
I totally hear where folks—angry, aggrieved, not-gonna-take-it-anymore folks—are coming from, because I totally agree with them: They are getting screwed. We just totally disagree on who is screwing them, or what is a sensible way to address that.
This story is about that, in a fundamental way.
Whatever Comes After Calcutta
by David Erik Nelson
It was late in the day when Lyle Morimoto saw the hanged woman and almost crashed his Prius.
He was somewhere between Calcutta, Ohio, and whatever the hell came after Calcutta. For hours he’d been sipping warm Gatorade and cruising the crumbling two-lane blacktop that sliced up the scrubby farmland separating Calcutta, Cairo, Congo, Lebanon, East Liverpool, East Palestine—in southern Ohio, apparently, you could circle the globe without ever crossing the state line.
He understood that he was not thinking clearly, but that seemed OK, since it also meant not thinking about his ear, or his wife, or Detective Jason Good, or the gun in the pocket of his suit jacket.
Lyle’s day had begun in court. He’d had every reason to assume it would end there, as would the next day, and possibly the day after that. But midway through jury selection, his client had pled guilty to the charge of fifth-degree arson, despite the fact that she’d demonstrably not set the fire. Before being led away, she had leaned in close to Lyle’s ear and whispered that she hadn’t torched that trash can, but had murdered two girls that no one knew about, so she figured this “evened things up.” She’d looked enormously relieved, almost radiant.
As the court officer led the defendant back to holding, Lyle had struggled to feel something about this—frustration at the System, disgust with humanity, pleasure at escaping the dingy hearing room, hope that an unexpectedly free morning might allow him to make a dent in the mountain of paperwork surrounding his desk, even just relief that he wouldn’t have to eat lunch out of the vending machines again.
At the very least, he should say something—if not to the judge or court officer, at least to his client, who would spend no more than a single year in prison, then walk out having absolved herself of double murder.
But Lyle felt nothing in particular, and so did nothing in particular.
He had only been planning to stop at his house long enough to change into chinos and microwave some noodles. But when Lyle opened his bedroom door he froze, wondering if they’d been robbed. He and Olivia had left the room pin neat that morning: tidy bed buried under a small mountain of varicolored throw pillows, curtains drawn back to let in the morning sun, closet and bathroom doors closed, not a dust mote in the bright air. The room he saw before him was a mess: dim, curtains drawn, bathroom door ajar, mountain of pillows littering the floor, bed in disarray.
But what half-witted burglar left a $3,000 flat-screen TV in the living room in favor of trashing the bedroom?
Then the sheets burst with sudden movement. Olivia scrabbled to cover herself, cowering against the bedside table and lamp. The man with her leapt in the opposite direction, coming to rest as far as he could from the bed, arms extended, palms out.
Lyle riffled through the range of emotions he thought he should feel—rage, wrath, indignation, embarrassment, sorrow—but none of them were there. He didn’t even feel particularly surprised. Not that he’d suspected—he’d suspected nothing—but just that this sort of monumental, senseless slap in the face seemed, in its randomness, entirely predictable. If working in the justice system had convinced him of anything, it was that while there was indeed a System, there was no Justice.
The naked guy who’d just leapt out of Lyle’s bed was remarkably good-looking. Pale, yes, but well muscled through the arms and legs, with Men’s Health abs and pecs, and that little muscular pelvic V-thing all the guys had in that Magic Mike movie Olivia loved. But he had a kind of weird dick. Nothing earth-shattering, just more emphatically curved than Lyle would have thought comfortable. It reminded him of the big Koegel’s hot-dog billboard he passed every day heading into the city, which showed an enormous, bun-less, upthrusting wiener proudly surmounted by the words SERVE THE CURVE.
Out in the kitchen the microwave beeped; his noodles were ready.
“Hey there,” the naked man panted, and Lyle realized he knew him: this was a detective with the local PD, Jason something.
“Jason Good?” Lyle asked, recalling that, the one time they’d met, he’d made some crack about being glad to finally meet that “Good Cop” he was always hearing about. The detective had laughed genuinely at the joke. He’d seemed like a legitimately good guy.
“Yeah,” the Good Cop said, open hands still outthrust. “We met one time, at a fundraising thing. Listen, I know this looks—”
Then the world exploded, a sound so loud that it was more light and heat than noise.
Lyle’s hearing cleared quickly but his head continued to ring like a struck bell. He found himself on the floor, his face numb, as though he’d gotten a dose of novocaine. He felt no urge to move or speak or continue living.
“—SHOT HIM IN THE HEAD, Olivia!” Jason Good cried. “Whyd’ya do that, Olivia?”
“I don’t know!” Lyle’s wife shrieked back.
Bleeding to death in an awkward jumble of decorative pillows, Lyle thought of a number: 4.5. He’d read it on a poster in his doctor’s waiting room: you’re 4.5 times more likely to be shot if you keep a gun in the home. He had scoffed at that number once. Shame on him.
The gun had been in the bedside table. He’d put it there himself. The district attorney had advised getting something for “home protection” immediately after Lyle joined the public defenders’ office. “You’ll be in court,” she snuffled, sounding like a cartoon bulldog. “People end up behind bars—despite your best efforts. People are unhappy. People have family. Doesn’t matter that you were technically on their side. If these people were good at thinking things through, you never would have met them to begin with.”
“Okokokokok . . .” Jason Good’s words floated around somewhere above Lyle. He heard the man drop down and start tossing pillows around. “Get dressed,” Good said, his voice full of both confidence and urgency. “We’ve gotta clear out. Where the fuck is my other sock?”
“What? We have to call nine-one-one!”
“You shot your husband in the head, Olivia! With a stupid hand-cannon as loud as a goddamn A-bomb, Olivia! Some neighbor has definitely already called nine-one-one. Responders will be here in under seven minutes. We need to be as far and deniable from here as possible in seven minutes, Olivia.”
Lyle heard her leap from the bed. The bang of the headboard against the drywall reverberated, as though he was in a long metallic hallway. Oh, he thought. I’m dying now.
“Go where?” Olivia shouted, hangers clattering in the closet.
“I don’t—” Good stopped throwing pillows. “What about that place you share with your sisters, that cottage near Calcutta?”
“What about it?” she asked, her voice momentarily muffled as she pulled on a sweater. “Calcutta is to hell and gone!”
“Exactly—” Good began, but Lyle missed the rest as he finally succumbed to blood loss.
Lyle awoke. It was painfully apparent that he was not dead. There were no cops or EMTs wandering around trying to figure out what the hell had happened, so he assumed he’d been unconscious for under seven minutes. As his vision cleared, Lyle found himself staring under the bed, the dust ruffle tickling his nose. Just inches away lay a detective’s badge on its leather belt-clip placard, J. GOOD emblazoned across the bottom. And on the far side of the bed, just in front of the bedside table, was a nickel-plated revolver, the Taurus .45 Public Defender he’d bought, put in the bedside table, and not thought of since.
He reached under the bed for the forgotten badge, then carefully circled around for the pistol. Lyle didn’t particularly want these things, but leaving them lying there seemed fundamentally wrong.
He caught his reflection in Olivia’s vanity mirror and was astounded by how bad he looked.
There was a long lash-mark across his left cheek where his wife’s bullet had grazed him before mostly tearing off his ear, which now dangled upside down from the still-attached lobe. He carefully reached for the ear with his left hand, then thought better of it and instead vomited on the thick cream carpeting. His face was numb, not the roaring mask of pain he expected. Maybe that was a good sign?
The one time Olivia and Lyle had gone to her family place near Calcutta, they’d attended a rodeo and seen an amateur bullrider almost lose an ear while trying to last eight seconds on the back of a speckled bull named “Hot for Teacher.” The bull had thrown the kid in just under two seconds, hooking the rider’s helmet in the process and tossing it into the bleachers, despite the straps staying steadfastly buckled. The waiting EMTs—neither of whom had looked a day older than the gawky bullrider they were patching up, both of whom seemed ready to puke—had glued the torn ear back in place using generic superglue. Not twenty minutes later, Lyle had seen the dazed kid wandering the midway with his buddies, drinking a large Pepsi from a paper cup, his hat pulled down low at an odd angle so the hatband could hold his ear in place while the glue set.
Lyle stumbled to his kitchen. He pawed through the junk drawer, found an expired bottle of Tylenol 3 with codeine, washed one down with a warm slug of Gatorade, pocketed the bottle, pawed further, came up with a tube of superglue, and went to the bright half-bath just off their entryway.
A week ago, his wife had hung one of those little framed inspirational “Footprints” poems next to the mirror. It was the one about Jesus, where the speaker recounts a dream where she’s walking down the beach, two sets of footprints trailing behind her. But during the worst passages of her life she looks back and there’s only one set of prints, and she feels totally abandoned.
Lyle considered this as he twisted the cap off the glue and leaned toward the mirror. The poem suddenly felt portentous—although he wondered how much of that was due to the cocktail of codeine, Gatorade, and adrenaline stewing in his guts.
To his surprise, reattaching the ear was remarkably similar to reattaching a teacup handle—which was what he’d bought the glue for originally. Afterward he opened the hall closet, grabbed a Toledo Mud Hens stocking cap, and pulled it on, pinning his loose ear to the side of his head so the glue could set.
Lyle heard the approach of distant sirens. He hustled into his Prius and out of his neighborhood. He didn’t want to go to the hospital, or to file a police report. For that matter, he didn’t particularly want to go chasing after his wife and Detective Jason Good.
But he’d walked in on them having sex and, in contradiction to every country or blues song ever recorded, he’d somehow been the one who got shot over it. This felt fundamentally unfair.
Now he had a gun in his pocket and a full tank of gas. It looked an awful lot like the Universe might be trying to give him a nudge in the right direction.
At the very least, he deserved an explanation.
And that explanation was headed to Calcutta.
After several hours, Lyle had finally begun to accept the possibility that the Universe had no particular plan, and he’d likely never find his wife’s family’s cottage.
Then he glanced up from tuning the radio and saw the bucking woman dangling from that neglected field’s single misshapen tree. Arms bound at her waist, she threw herself against the crisp spring air, her spasms both frantic and hopeless.
“Olivia?” he said, absolutely certain—illogical as it was—that he was seeing his wife being hanged in a fallow field next to a slouching barn.
He hit the brakes and veered onto the soft shoulder. The loose gravel sucked at the wheels, but he managed to bring the car to a shuddering stop rather than flip it into the deep drainage ditch. Lyle was out before he knew what he was doing, vaulting the culvert, charging across the stubble, the heavy pistol battering his hip.
It was almost immediately obvious that the woman was not his wife. Even as a distant silhouette, she was clearly too old, too scrawny, her hair all wrong. But Lyle did not flag. He was moving on instinct, and moving on instinct felt OK—or, at least, it felt better than feeling nothing. He’d slowly realized that feeling nothing felt terrible.
Racing closer, Lyle saw the aluminum A-frame ladder tumbled beneath the hanged woman. He poured his last ounce of panic into a sprint, and without thinking—he would certainly have botched it if he had—he vaulted from the ground to the fallen ladder’s side rail, took a wild leap, grabbed hold of the cord a good two feet above the old woman’s head, and held on for dear life. The branch sagged a few inches, landing the woman’s feet firmly on the ladder rail. Then the limb snapped with a soggy crack, dumping them both onto the hard earth.
Lyle immediately rolled on top of the thrashing woman, trying to worm his fingers between the noose and her throat. Her face was a swollen purple caricature. One of her arms had come loose in the fall, but the other remained lashed to her waist by a complicated set of thin leather straps and buckles. Their hands bashed and stumbled over each other as they struggled to loosen the noose. It wasn’t even rope, Lyle discovered, but instead a length of salvaged Ethernet cable, sticky with age.
They finally got the knot to budge a single gasping inch, and then another, and then they were yanking the cord freely. She immediately rolled over and crawled blindly away on elbow and knees, hacking and grinding like an engine full of sand, one arm still bound. Lyle had a single panting moment to notice how clean the soles of the woman’s feet were, soft and seashell pink as a toddler’s, before he heard a throat clearing behind him.
“Pardon me?” someone asked. “No offense or nothing, but what the heck do you think you’re doing?”
Lyle rose slowly, sliding his hand into his jacket pocket as he did so, finding his pistol and the “Good Cop’s” badge. The owner of the twang was clear-eyed and amiable. He wore a filthy mesh-backed Marlboro cap and a similarly grimy work jacket, the cuffs black and chewed up from long years spent elbow-deep in engines. EARL was embroidered over his heart in red floss.
There was a crowd of very surprised people behind Earl, standing or sitting in lawn chairs shaded by the collapsing barn. To Lyle’s eye, they were prototypical rural Ohio: white people, men and women, mostly dressed like they’d just got off from work, mechanics and Subway sandwich girls and schoolteachers and farmers. There were even a few kids, seated cross-legged on a wide, flat board to keep their pants clean. The youngest looked confused by what had been—and was still—happening, but the older kids were keenly, sickeningly thrilled, both by the spectacle of the hanging of the woman and by the action-hero antics that had interrupted the show.
Lyle immediately understood how he’d managed to miss the spectators: he’d been focused on the woman fighting the strangling line in the blazing light of the sunset. They’d been sitting quietly in the barn’s deep shadow, as quiet and watchful and unobtrusive as birds on a wire.
He glanced at his watch. Fewer than five minutes had passed since he’d looked up from his car radio.
Behind Lyle, the woman hacked and retched, dragging her breath down her throat like a blade scraping a dry whetstone.
“You could have killed this woman,” he panted.
“Well, yeah,” Earl said. “Duh. If you hadn’t messed it up. Now we gotta start from scratch. She ain’t even a little dead.” Earl paused, giving Lyle a once-over: rumpled suit, blood-stiff shirt collar, puffy face, mangled ear held in place by a Mud Hens ski cap. “Not to be rude or nothing, but what happened to your face?”
Lyle fought the urge to reach up and check whether his ear had torn loose. Instead, he pulled his hand from his pocket and discovered he was holding the badge, J. GOOD embossed in clear blue lettering across the banner along the bottom of the shield.
Earl squinted at the badge in Lyle’s hand. “Officer J. Good?” He read. “Like ‘Johnny B. Goode’ in that song?”
“Detective Jason Good,” Lyle heard himself say. “I’m asking the questions.”
They waited. And waited. A distant dog barked.
“You said you wanted to ask questions,” Earl nudged, like a preschool teacher encouraging a shy show-and-teller. “Ask away.”
A large bearded man in one of the folding chairs raised a finger. “Um, Earl, shouldn’t we do something about Leighanne—”
Earl answered with a shrug and a shake of his head. “Naw. She’s not flying off anytime soon. Just look at her?” They all looked at her for a moment, including Lyle, who had to turn to do so. She’d stopped crawling, having only made it about a yard, and was resting her head on the dirt. Her jackstraw hair—a dull blonde with dark roots—was snarled in the scrub like dog fur caught in Velcro.
“So,” Earl said, “Detective Good, whatcha wanna know?”
Lyle wanted to know a lot of things: Why had his wife shot him? Why was he chasing after her? Why was Jason Good’s dick so crooked? Why had he just lied about being that crooked-dicked cop?
Earl could help Lyle with none of these.
“What,” Lyle finally asked, “what are you people doing?”
“Executing this witch,” Earl answered. Many of the gathered observers were nodding.
Lyle had no idea what to say to that.
“I’m not a fucking witch,” the woman croaked from the dirt. “Jesus, you dumb fucking bumpkins.”
Earl shook his head and rolled his eyes. “We been through this, Leighanne. Things were no good since you moved out here, and then . . .” His mouth twitched in an involuntary grimace. “All that other stuff. We convened a Common Law Court, tested you, and . . . well, and here we are.”
“Tested?” Lyle asked. He’d returned the badge to his pocket but left his hand there, sandwiched between Good’s shield and Lyle’s revolver.
“Yup,” Earl nodded. “Tested. And she failed.”
“We made a witch cake,” a woman seated in a beige plastic folding chair volunteered. She looked like a generic Ohio schoolteacher: heavyset, dark hair cropped short and teased out, vaguely cat’s-eye-shaped glasses on a beaded neck chain, cardigan sweater with seasonal bunnies-crosses-and-pastel-eggs motif. She looked eerily like Lyle’s own third grade teacher, who would have to be at least ninety now, and presumably still back in Schaumburg, Illinois.
“Which cake?” Lyle asked, feeling like the straight man in a rejected Abbott and Costello routine.
Everyone shifted uncomfortably.
“It’s like a regular cake,” the schoolmarm hedged, “but for testing witches. We used plain box cake from the superstore. Yellow cake. You make it like regular, but mix the batter with the, uh . . .” she girded herself for the next word, “urine of an individual, or individuals, hexed by that witch.”
Lyle stared at her as he reviewed this in his head, trying to find some reasonable way to understand what she was saying.
“I Googled it,” the woman offered apologetically.
Bile simmered at the back of Lyle’s throat. “You made her eat a cake you pissed in?”
The teacher lady grimaced in shock. “Good Lord, no! We fed it to a dog—”
“My dog Chet,” the fat man who had been concerned the witch might slither away interjected.
“—and the witch, Leighanne, got sick,” the schoolteacher continued. “You see, the hex is passed in the urine. Any harm it comes to reflects back on the witch.” She paused, then added, “I Googled it.”
“And that means this woman’s a witch? Because you think she got sick after that guy’s dog ate a cake someone peed in?”
“I Googled it,” the woman reiterated, her mouth firm.
“I had the shits from an expired can of Hormel chili!” the accused witch cried from the ground. “From the goddamn food pantry! Not ’cause Albert’s dog ate piss-cake!”
“What kind of a person—” Lyle began, intending to ask what kind of a person bakes a cake with her neighbors’ pee in it, but he was cut off by a fuming bald man with a white walrus mustache and bright red suspenders.
“Oh, that is it.” The mustachioed man spoke firmly. Earl rolled his eyes, an annoyed martyr with his cross to bear.
“She is not a ‘person,’” the Great White Walrus thundered, pointing at the piss-baking schoolteacher. He then pointed at Earl: “He is not a ‘person.’” He jabbed himself in the chest: “ I am not a ‘person’!” He flailed his pointing hands, indicating the gathered mob. “There are no ‘persons’ here!”
Lyle looked around, bewildered.
“We—” he gestured at the gathered crowd “—are sovereign citizens, not ‘persons.’”
A heavy man in a red MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN ball cap piped up: “Flesh-and-blood asseverated private individuals!”
The Walrus nodded. “Article 4 free inhabitants, fully redeemed via duly filed UCC-1 statement!” The mob nodded and grunted their assent.
Despite being a lawyer, Lyle could follow little of this, even as that phrase—“sovereign citizen”—set off bells in his head. His face and ear ached like a bad tooth; not terrible, but promising more to come.
“For the purpose of this interaction,” the Walrus fumed, “I am the authorized representative of JOHN ROBERT DOE.” He paused, then carefully enunciated, “I am the live flesh-and-blood man Doe: John-Robert, sui juris. That’s Doe-FULL COLON-John-DASH-Robert, sui juris. So don’t hang your straw man B.S. on any of us!” He spat. “We. Are. Asseverated! I did the paperwork myself! And if you federal stormtroopers can’t—”
“Settle down, J-Bob-D,” Earl said soothingly, “he didn’t mean nothing by it.”
“He appears under color of law here!”
“He ain’t under color of law; he just wandered—”
“He presented a badge, Roberts: Earl-James! That’s—”
Earl was holding up his hands soothingly and kept repeating the words “misunderstanding” and “simmer down.”
The Walrus shifted his attention back to Lyle, pointing viciously as though casting a hex of his own. “I do not wish to create joinder with you!”
“He ain’t creating joinder, J-Bob-D; he just wandered in at the wrong time and has misunderstood this entire situation.”
As all this played out, the alleged witch had slowly gotten to her feet, although she was still stooped over and panting, hands planted on her knees.
“Listen, Detective Good, work with me.” Earl locked eyes with Lyle, then continued portentously, “You aren’t here in honor of, or under jurisdiction of, any admiralty courts or their agents, are you?”
Lyle finally noticed that although Earl was not obviously armed, many of the gathered “private individuals” wore guns at their hips. A lone assault rifle leaned against the sagging barn. The phrase “sovereign citizen” finally clicked: he’d come across it while reading a report on domestic terrorism and anti-government groups.
Earl continued, “Nor are you appearing on these privately held lands under color of law to create joinder in any manner?”
The right answer to Earl’s questions was fairly obvious:
“No,” Lyle said, “of course not.”
“Satisfied?” Earl asked the Walrus. The man crossed his arms above his belly, leaned back in his folding chair, and looked away, then nodded once.
“Nonetheless,” Lyle said, “what’s happening here isn’t right. Adulterating a cake with bodily fluids is not right, regardless of intent.” The schoolteacher reddened but held firm, refusing to drop her gaze. Lyle could see the words I Googled it forming in her mouth, although she didn’t dignify his criticism with an actual response.
“That witch-cake business,” Earl said reasonably, “was just the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Whole thing was practically said and done by then. Our Common Law Grand Jury had already issued a True Bill of charges.”
“Of her witchiness. She came here and blighted our whole situation.” Again, grunts and grumbles and head-nods rippled through the crowd.
Lyle glanced at the fallow field around him, the sagging barn, the fact that these many gathered “private individuals” didn’t appear to have more pressing business on a weekday afternoon than sitting in a muddy field and murdering an old woman. He expected he’d now hear tales of failed crops and joblessness and bankruptcy. But that was not the case.
“She made me kill six people,” a frail, elderly woman in a powder-blue camp chair and matching tracksuit offered. Nodding and affirmation again riffled the crowd. “Two big fellas that had broke into my barn in October, and then a family of four in a brand-new minivan last week. They were lost, trying to get back to the interstate. And they were Hindus.” She looked around with mild astonishment as she added this last, although her tone was less I can’t believe I murdered an entire Indian family! and more I can’t believe I ate an entire footlong Subway sandwich!
A hand went up. Lyle shifted his gaze, acknowledging the hand-raiser. It was the heavy man whose red ball cap proclaimed his intent to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. “She made me throw battery acid in some girls’ faces in Pittsburgh.” Again, commiseration throughout the mob like a made-for-TV AA meeting.
More hands were raised, and more voices chimed in:
“She made me poison a bunch of the formula they give out at the hospital in East Liverpool.”
“. . . made me Krazy Glue razor blades all over the playground equipment out in Canton . . .”
“. . . made me mail roadkill to a daycare . . .”
“This is crazy talk,” the woman muttered to Lyle, not raising her head, her moving lips concealed by her hanging hair. “You can see that.”
“. . . burn down eleven churches—Jew and Islam ones, mostly . . .”
“. . . violate graves . . .”
“. . . defile . . .”
“. . . torture . . .”
“. . . corrupt . . .”
“. . . children . . .”
“. . . rode us . . .”
“. . . she rode us hard, rode us fit to make our hearts burst . . .”
“. . . rode us cruel . . .”
“Please,” the hanged woman whispered. “You gotta help me. Please.”
But still the voices continued with their earnest accusations. Not with the enthusiasm of a witch-hunt, Lyle thought, but the oddly resigned admissions of the bewildered and contrite.
“And there was the sex stuff.”
“Yeah. That stuff.”
“A lot of bad, weird sex stuff. Copulations with things you shouldn’t, animals, dead stuff . . .”
“And with things that shouldn’t even exist. Nightmare stuff.”
“Uh-huh. Total nightmare stuff.”
“Yeah.” Earl nodded with finality. “A lot of bad stuff. Me, too. No need to rehash it. All was sworn into the record as testimony before the CLGJ. We didn’t just get up pitchforks and torches, Detective. This is a done deal.”
“You’re saying this woman took control of you all?” Lyle said carefully.
“She rode us,” Earl specified, “like ponies. Came in the night, bridled us, and then rode us off to do the things she wanted done.” Earl frowned. “Nope. That ain’t right, ’cause she can’t just hop on your back and go against your will. It has to be something there’s already a glimmer of in you, even just the dimmest middle-of-the-night curiosity. She finds that glimmer and focuses a bright, bright light on it, making it flash and shine bright in you. Dazzling bright.”
Lyle glanced back at the frail woman, terrified, red-rimmed eyes peeking out from her scraggled hair. He was struck by the absurd image of this woman riding piggyback on the fat man who’ll MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, cackling madly and waving a cowboy hat with glee.
“Once you’re being rode, the shame is gone. It feels good when it occurs to you to do it—when you’re pouring the acid out of an old tractor battery into a Ball jar, or whistling down the aisles at the Dollar Store looking for superglue and razor blades, or twisting the wire around a kitten’s neck. And you feel good doing it. It feels . . .” Earl paused, and Lyle was shocked to see tears pooling in the hard, lean man’s eyes. Earl sniffled, then rubbed at his eyes with one hand, index finger and thumb pinching the bridge of his nose. He loosed a long, slow breath. “It feels wonderful to do it, like it’s the thing you been waiting to do all your life, like sinking a nothing-but-net three-pointer or winning a big prize or sliding into bed with a beautiful pair of gals. But then, after that bitch lets up on you . . .”
He shook his head, grimacing, breathing slowly and with effort.
“It’s like meat that goes rancid in your mouth. It’s fucking awful. You never felt so low.”
Again the nods. Quietly, someone said, “It’s OK, Earl; you tell your truth,” and others murmured their support.
“That’s what’s delicious to her: that you choose to damn yourself. She’s like a fucked-up kid who finds it hilarious when the frog chooses to jump out of the pot and into the fire.”
“You hear how nuts this is,” the woman behind him hissed desperately. “This is nuts. These people are nutbags. My name is Leighanne Halloway. I moved here at the end of October, ’cause it’s all I could afford with my Disability. These people are fucking insane, and they have a shit-ton of guns.”
“Anyway,” Earl said with a sigh, “point is, there’s no problem here, sir. We finally have this situation under control. You can move along.”
“Plus it’s getting late!” a voice added from the crowd.
Earl nodded. “Yup. And she gets damn tricky once the sun’s down. New moon tonight, too. That’s the worst.” Earl was looking up into the tree now. “’Course, you totally trashed the easy branch.” He worked his jaw ruminatively. “Nathanial,” he called over his shoulder. “You figure you can shimmy as high as that one?” Earl pointed into the canopy. “Lash the noose back up?”
A dark-haired boy, his face a spray of freckles, sprang to his feet even as the schoolteacher frowned.
“I don’t know about that, Earl,” she said. “It’s awful high.”
“I can do it, Ms. Everly,” the boy insisted.
“Jack, Ethan, you wanna get the ladder back up?” Earl went on, not acknowledging Ms. Everly’s objection. “And lash Leighanne’s hands again; she got ’em loose somehow.”
“Shit,” Leighanne hissed, grabbing hold of Lyle’s jacket and pulling herself tight to his back, face buried between his shoulders, like a toddler hiding behind Mom rather than meet a new babysitter. “No. No.” Her voice was hot and frantic and awful on his neck.
Lyle had a brief but powerful intuitive flash: this groveling woman was somehow like the badge and the gun, something very useful for today.
“No,” Lyle said, his voice clear and calm. “This woman is coming with me.” All faces turned to him, as though he’d said something unintelligibly absurd—“No, I’m a kangaroo” or “The toilet injured my lunch.” Everyone stopped. Earl looked at him quizzically.
Only the Walrus in Red Suspenders appeared to take it in. He rose to his feet with ponderous rage.
“I told you,” the Walrus announced. “I said he was here under color of law, and you jackaninnies just brushed me off—” Now that the Walrus had risen, Lyle saw the short-barreled submachine gun dangling from a tactical sling circling the man’s beefy neck and shoulder. The Walrus pawed for the pistol grip as he continued his diatribe.
Lyle drew the Public Defender from his pocket, finger already on the trigger, and pointed it at the droopy mustache. Everyone froze. Not a word or breath or rolling drop of sweat even quivered. Not a cicada sang in the field. The dead tree gave no shelter. The setting sun, red and blazing, paused in the sky.
Lyle wondered if the gun had a safety, and if the safety was on. He’d only fired it once, at a shooting range, immediately after buying it. That had been six years ago. If he hadn’t been shot by the gun that morning, he’d have wondered if it was even loaded.
Everyone else was frozen, but Lyle was sweating freely, his palm growing slick on the heavy revolver’s rubber grip.
“So,” Earl said carefully, “you’re taking possession of her, then?”
“Yes. I’m taking her into my custody.”
“Possession,” Earl repeated cagily. “You’re taking her in your possession.”
“Yeah,” Lyle reiterated. “I’m taking her in my possession.”
As soon as the magic words left Lyle’s mouth, Earl stepped back, hands up. “All yours, then, Detective.”
The Walrus blustered, “Just wait a damned—”
“No,” Earl said, “you heard him, J-Bob-D: she is his now. In his possession. Not ours. Not a member of our community. Not our problem.” There was a moment, and then a palpable ease swept through the crowd.
Lyle was already carefully backing up across the rutted field, his free arm out wide to his side, herding the cowering woman behind him in the direction of the Prius, his gun pointed toward the crowd. But this had no apparent impact on them. They were thoroughly desensitized to guns.
“Yeah,” one man marveled, “I can feel it.”
“Yeah,” Earl said. “I think we can rest our case.”
The Walrus frowned, but nodded.
“C’mon,” Earl said, “everyone grab a chair,” then added, “Hope your face heals up quick, Detective Good.”
Lyle tentatively reached up and checked his ear. It screamed when his fingers brushed it but stayed firmly attached.
Lyle kept guiding the woman back, but no one appeared to care. They bustled around like families after a church picnic, folding chairs and hauling them into the barn, wrestling with the aluminum ladder. Before Lyle and Leighanne were even halfway across the untended field, cars were already pulling off, truck springs creaking as they eased along the mostly washed-out gravel driveway. Lyle was still walking backward, gun up but pointed at nothing in particular. The mob had dispersed.
“I think,” the woman offered hesitantly, “this might go faster if you just, like, put the gun away and walk regular. I don’t think they’re coming after us.”
The last of the trucks pulled off with a jovial “See ya!” double-toot on the horn. A lone figure, tall and lean—maybe Earl?—picked his way across the yard separating the barn from the white clapboard farmhouse. Hands in pockets, shoulders stooped, he looked exhausted and unmistakably relieved.
Lyle did as Leighanne suggested, then turned to look at her. She was finger-combing her hair as they walked, running out snarls, catching twigs and grass and hay, pulling these free to flutter to the ground, then smoothing it all down and repeating. The movement was precise and compulsive, like a dog in too small of a cage licking its paws raw. She did not look at Lyle, but instead at their destination.
“What’s your name?” she asked, eyes on the car.
“Lyle Morimoto,” Lyle answered without hesitation or thought.
“Not Detective Jason Good?”
“OK,” she said. “I appreciate your help back there.”
“One good turn,” Lyle said, then trailed off. She did not ask what his one good turn might deserve.
They got in the car. Lyle started it, checked his mirrors, checked his blind spot, turned on his left blinker, and eased back into the roadway.
“Where to?” he asked. In his peripheral vision, Lyle saw her stop worrying her hair. She pulled it back, twisting it at the nape of her neck.
“I have no clue,” Leighanne Halloway said. “They set my place on fire after they arrested me yesterday.” For the first time that day, he wondered about tomorrow, and the day after that. The sun was setting now, garish and cruel. The woman didn’t appear to feel anything about her ordeal, no fear or outrage or sadness. Lyle, for that matter, had been shot in the face just before lunch, and he didn’t feel anything much about that, either. They made a good pair that way.
His face ached, and he considered taking another painkiller, but then thought, “Why bother?”
“Maybe I could drop you off with local law enforcement?” he suggested. “So you can file charges?”
She laughed once, hard as a backhanded slap. “Sheriff’s Earl.”
“Oh,” Lyle replied.
“Where are you headed?” she asked. Her voice wasn’t sounding as rough. That was probably good, he thought. Lyle knew well the havoc smoke inhalation wreaked on the trachea—it had come up when he was prepping for that morning’s court appearance—but had no idea what strangulation with Cat-five cable might do to one’s windpipe. He didn’t imagine it was good.
“My wife’s family cottage,” he answered. “It’s somewhere around Calcutta.”
“I’m not sure,” Lyle admitted. “I thought I might recognize something once I drove out here.”
“Don’t worry, sweetie. I’ll get you there. What happened to your face?”
He glanced over at her. Now that her hair was smoothed back from her face, he saw that she was a good deal younger than he’d assumed, her skin clear and pale in the savage dying light.
“It’s a long story.”
“We got time,” she said.
And so he told it, told it all as they drove into the setting sun. He didn’t particularly want to, but he didn’t particularly not want to, either. The words flowed the way water pours out of a jug. She made conciliatory noises as he spoke, but also occasional suggestions—right, left, turn here, watch this curve coming up—and they wended their way further from the highway, deeper into the darkness that separated Calcutta and whatever came after Calcutta. Every time she made a navigational suggestion, she reached over and brushed the back of his hand with her fingertips. And each time, Lyle noticed something new: the softness of her fingers, the smoothness of her skin, her delicate manicure. When they’d been in the bright field together, wrestling with the ligature around her neck, her hands had felt hard, ground with dirt, the nails chewed to the quick. Now they reminded him of the slender satin gloves you saw in old movies. The image gave him an electric, erotic thrill, embarrassing and enthralling.
When he finished his story, Leighanne said, “So we’re going to visit your wife and the Good Cop?”
“Yeah.” Lyle sighed. He didn’t know why he was so certain the two were still together, let alone in the cabin near Calcutta—nor how Leighanne might now this—but it was clearly true.
Lyle didn’t know. But as he’d told the story, the pain in his face and ear had steadily subsided. He’d begun to feel lighter, almost giddy.
“To kill them?” the girl asked. Had she sounded this young before? He wondered. This fresh? He glanced over, and she was much younger than he’d thought. Not teenager young, but close. Thrillingly so.
“No,” he said, surprised it was true, and somehow disappointed.
“You know—Oh, slow down, left up here.” Lyle obeyed. “There you go. You know, lots of times folks think of killing as a form of taking away. And they don’t like to think of themselves as thieves. Thieves are low things. But maybe we’ve got something to share with your wife and the Good Cop. Maybe there’s some things about the world we can show them, together. Killing them right off would be a waste.”
Yes, Lyle thought. He suddenly had a lot to share. What had been sludgy and cool and dim in him for so long was now kindling bright and liquid and joyous.
“Later on, killing them might prove a mercy. Which maybe they’ll deserve.” She paused, smiling in the dark. “Or maybe not.”
Lyle’d never had an affair, but he’d worked in the public defender’s office long enough. He understood an essentially dark human tendency, not for pleasure so much as for intensity: grappling and pulling hair, a kiss that scrapes teeth, a hard pinch, a scratch, a twisted nipple, a bitten earlobe.
And then there was real intensity: a scream in a locked trunk, a wire coat hanger looped around an elbow or ankle—or somewhere more private—and twisted tighter and tighter with a pair of pliers.
Lyle smiled. He felt Leighanne next to him, a hot summer musk wafting off of her as she leaned close, setting one smooth hand on his hand, and the other on his thin slacks.
“Almost there,” she said.
He thought of blood swelling beneath the skin as the wire wound tight, the ecstasy of release when that skin is finally pricked with a blade. The long scream, screaming the throat raw, then screaming some more, until the voice cracks and disintegrates like a car window in a collision.
Lyle sighed. “I know what you’re doing,” he said, “but you can’t get in my head, because I don’t have what Earl said, not even a glimmer. I really, truly, and honestly do not want to hurt my wife, or even that Good Cop.”
Leighanne looked at Lyle prettily, and did not respond.
Lyle sighed again, then added, “But I sure as hell want to want to hurt them.”
Now she smiled. “That, my buddy boy, we can work with.”
And then, just for a moment, her glamor slipped.
Lyle gasped in shock, and the breath he drew in was choked with the mildewed stink. Leighanne was not a withered crone, nor something young and petite. She was lean and tall and mottled and pale. She hunched to fit in the small car. She was naked, bristle-haired like a boar, her breasts numerous and pendulous as a dog’s that’s whelped countless pups. Her noseless face was many-eyed as a spider, lipless and tooth-full as something from the bottom of the sea.
The witch was awful—in that she filled him with awe—and wonderful—in that she was full of terrible wonders, an ambulatory torture chamber, a lightless and all-swallowing heat.
Lyle threw his arm wildly, reflexively recoiling from Leighanne’s touch. He needed to be much farther from her than the cramped confines of the Prius allowed. He jerked the wheel toward the edge of the road.
This time the soft shoulder got the best of him. The Prius dug in, slewing out to the left. The wheels skidded, screaming against the crumbling blacktop. One side bit in, the other began to lift. The car rose, then came down with a tumbling crunch.
For a long time. Or a little.
When Lyle finally awoke to himself, he was walking toward a small house standing alone in the dark fields. His back was to the road. There was a high metallic tang to the air. Lyle wondered if the car’s big hybrid battery had cracked. He tried to remember what the warning sticker inside the doorframe said. Something about a fire hazard, he thought, but he couldn’t be sure.
Then he smelled burning plastic and rubber, and supposed it didn’t really matter one way or another.
The gas tank burst with a phooooom!
A gout of hot, noxious air washed across his back. Leighanne laughed. Not a crone’s cackle, but a teen’s burst of champagne glee. She walked beside him, and his heart was light. She was everything—the pretty young thing, the old crone, the stooped awful wonder. He felt good and purposeful walking next to her, alive and joyful.
“Here.” She handed him something, a complex arrangement of leather straps and buckles, a brass bar. It was whatever had been lashing her hands to her waist as she hanged, back in the field. He’d never held a bridle before, but had seen them in cowboy movies and museum displays.
“Put it on,” she said.
He did so willingly, placing the brass bit between his teeth. It dug into the corners of his mouth, pulling back his cheeks, splitting his lip where the bullet had grazed him. He tightened the buckles, then tossed the reins over his shoulder. Leighanne grabbed hold of these, planted one foot on his hip, and swung up onto his shoulders. He wasn’t a large man and had never been strong. He should have buckled under her weight. But the weight felt good and solid. He felt good and solid, strong, his muscles flexing and releasing under his skin, beautiful in their smooth inexorability.
He thought about the kitschy poem hanging next to the mirror in his guest bathroom. The last verse hung in his mind:
My precious child, I would never leave you;
during your times of trial,
when you see only one set of footprints in the sand,
that was when I carried you.
At first, it seemed the poem had it dead wrong: maybe during your times of trial, you felt so damn heavy because God was perched up on your shoulders, kicking you in the ribs, driving you forward and cackling all the while.
But maybe that wasn’t it at all. If Lyle was the one doing the carrying, maybe that made him God. He liked that idea quite a lot, as his muscles flexed and the void new moon rose, as he stalked the dark, abandoned fields, steed to this great and unbounded rider.
He liked that because God got to pass judgement, and make that judgement real in the world.
Lyle could see the cabin, his wife’s family place. The windows glowed warmly through the thin curtains. There were two cars in the driveway. The lights switched out, one by one. Bedtime.
“C’mon, big fella,” the witch cajoled, her heels digging into his flanks. “This is gonna be some fun.”
Inside the house, in the shadows under the sink, there were tools: stout wire, pliers, a dull saw, a hammer, a steel nail punch. Lyle didn’t know how he knew this, but he did, the same as a hawk can count the mice in a field by their fluttering heartbeats, the way God knows the content of your heart.
The gun felt inevitable in his hand. And that felt good. That good feeling was all the better, knowing that an awful lot could happen between now and the inevitable.
For the first time in a long time, Lyle Morimoto was really looking forward to something.
Rank #12: PseudoPod 660: Tiny Teeth
- Author : Sarah Hans
- Narrator : Ibba Armancas
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
PseudoPod 660: Tiny Teeth is a PseudoPod original.
From the author: “This story was inspired by and is dedicated to all the people around the world who have been forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, especially those who didn’t survive it.”
Content Warnings:Spoiler Inside
fantasies of self harm, politics (abortion)
by Sarah Hans
I risk walking to the doctor’s office from my workplace, because it’s only a few blocks, and I think the fresh air will do me some good. I don’t tell anyone I’m going alone, or that I’m walking. I know what they’ll say. Outside without an escort, without the safety of an enclosed vehicle, my heart thrums like a tap dancer’s quick steps. I should be scared or thrilled by the prospect of imminent danger, but I’m too frightened of the news waiting for me at the doctor’s office to be worried about much else. As I walk, I become more and more convinced the news reports about the gangs of feral children, with their pictures of mutilated bodies and wide-eyed reporters speaking in quavering voices, are attempts to manipulate us with fear. To keep us inside. My coworkers are fools to walk in groups, to rush from their cars to the office with Tasers and pistols clutched in their fists. There is no danger here.
But then I see the girl, and I know I’ve made a mistake. She crouches behind a bush, and when I spot her, I freeze like a rabbit. She locks eyes with me and rises out of the greenery. She’s maybe four years old, though that’s a guess. It can be hard to tell the age of a child who has been feral a long time, and I’ve never been around many children to begin with, even before the virus made them violent.
She wears a tiny pair of denim shorts and a purple t-shirt decorated with glitter hearts, both caked with gore. Her hair was once styled in pigtails, but one side droops sadly, and the other side is a crusted mass of red-brown scab in place of hair. Her face is twisted into a permanent snarl. Her front two teeth are missing, which would make the expression she wears comical if she didn’t have her hands held at the ready, fingers extended to grab, filthy fingernails ready to claw. A growl issues from low in her throat. Her eyes–bright green, shimmering like beetle wings in the sunlight–are filled with hatred and bloodlust. She smells like stale urine and blood and roadkill.
I fumble the pepper spray from my pocket as she lurches toward me. I hold down the trigger and close my eyes, flinching away from the stream. I remember the instructions: always aim, always look where you’re pointing your weapon. But I can’t look. I make a sound, a sort of squeal, the sound of a trapped herbivore facing a predator.
When I open my eyes, the girl is gone. Eyes squinted tightly shut and breath held against the burning cloud of pepper spray, I run the rest of the way to the doctor’s office.
Dr. Heiss steeples his hands on the desk. Behind him, the nurse flashes me a tight, sympathetic smile. I know what he’s going to say before he says it.
“Congratulations, Hailey. You’re going to be a mother.” He delivers the news as if it’s a pizza: factually, without inflection, without excitement or dread. But at least he has the good sense not to smile.
The tight knot in my stomach unfurls and bile rises in my throat. The nurse, who isn’t much older than I am, brings me water in a paper cup. I gulp it down, my swallows very loud in the quiet room. “How do I get an abortion?”
The nurse stiffens and moves away from me. Dr. Heiss frowns. “Legally, in this state, I’m not allowed to discuss the option. We can make an appointment for you with the gynecologist next door. You’ll like her a lot. She can guide you through the pregnancy.”
My heart hammers and the edges of my vision become ragged. I think of the girl with one pigtail, her depraved expression flashing in my mind, and a shudder ripples through me. “That’s it? You’re handing me a death sentence, just like that?”
He exchanges a look with the nurse, sighs, and leans back in his chair, letting his hands go to the armrests. “It’s not a death sentence.”
I crush the paper cup in my fist and throw it at him as I rise. “Fifty percent chance, Dr. Heiss. Fifty percent chance. I’ve been your patient for ten years and that’s the best you can offer me?”
“I’m sorry,” he sighs, “but you knew the risks.”
I pace the waiting room and bite my nails down to ragged nubs. I feel like I’m going to crawl out of my own skin, so I have to move. I don’t want to risk going outside alone, not with the girl maybe out there, but the waiting room feels like a jail cell.
There’s a woman sitting there with her kid on a leash and I can’t stop staring at them both. The woman is gaunt, hollow-eyed, and her son–it’s hard to tell a kid’s gender through the muzzle, but the t-shirt with a cartoon backhoe is probably a good indication he’s a boy–sits on the floor trying to rip off the oven mitts taped over his hands. Going by his height, he’s maybe three years old. He growls every time someone enters the office, and every time I pace past him. Everyone else in the waiting room sits on the far side, as far away from him as they can get, staring at their phones, pretending he isn’t the most grotesquely fascinating thing in the room.
My phone dings when I receive the text from Tyler: I’m here. I move for the door and the boy snarls and lunges at me, spittle flying. He brushes me with an oven mitt before his mother yanks his leash. I step out the door into the fresh air.
I slide into the passenger seat of Tyler’s sedan. “What’s going on, Hail?” His eyes are intense, frantic. He’s guessed why I went to the doctor.
“We used protection.”
“Urine tests don’t lie.”
“Did you sleep with anyone else?” His voice takes on an edge of panic.
I’m too numb to even be upset he’s asking me that. “No, of course not.”
“I just don’t understand how this could happen.”
“No birth control is one hundred percent safe,” I hear myself saying, echoing Dr. Heiss. “Abstinence is the only way to be sure.”
“Okay, so, how do we get rid of it?”
Seagulls wheel and shriek over the parking lot, looking for dropped tidbits. A couple approach the door to the doctor’s office and the gulls flap away. The man is pushing a stroller. The toddler strapped inside, wearing a pink dress and a muzzle decorated with shiny plastic jewels, screams like a banshee. The sound makes it impossible to think. Her open mouth is pink and red and her teeth are like white needles, snapping at the air. Her father walks robotically to the door, but her mother, for just an instant, meets my gaze through the windshield. In her eyes I see regret and exhaustion and bone-deep sorrow. She turns and goes into the office and the door shuts behind them, thankfully cutting off the screams.
“Can we just go home?” I ask.
“Can you give me a second to process this?” Tyler answers.
I sigh. “Abortions are illegal now.” Nobody would have children anymore if they weren’t.
“There has to be a way.” His hands grip the steering wheel hard, as if he’s imagining strangling his problems away.
“Of course there’s a way. But I can’t exactly google it.” My pregnancy is on record now. If something happens to the fetus, I have to be able to document a miscarriage, or I’ll face jail time. It’s pretty much my worst nightmare. I want to scream at Tyler that this is his fault, because I want someone to blame, and if we sit here much longer, I’m going to do it. Tears sting my eyes. “Can we please go home? We have some time to figure this out.”
“How long do we have?”
I press one hand against my abdomen. It doesn’t feel any different yet. How is it possible there’s a tiny monster in there, waiting to rip its way out of me? It doesn’t seem real. “Dr. Heiss said they can’t test for the virus until the second trimester. I’m about a month along. So we have about two months to figure it out. Obviously I want this thing out of me sooner rather than later, but it doesn’t have to be right this second.” I do want it out right this second, but I need time to calm down, think, strategize. I can’t just tell him to drive to the grocery store and and buy me a gallon of bleach to drink.
But damn, I want to.
My friend Anna knows a woman. For a fee, she’ll make a concoction. “It’s one hundred percent safe,” Anna tells me. “Legally speaking, anyway. It’s all natural, too.”
“What’ll it do to me?”
She shrugs. “Nothing that fetus isn’t going to do to you if you let it get any bigger.”
Anna goes with me. I want Tyler to see this through with me, but I know better than to ask him. He already won’t look at me, his eyes sliding away from mine as if repelled by a magnet. I’m losing him. I need this thing out of me and over with as quickly as possible so we can get back to our lives.
The woman’s house is on Fourth Street, in the dangerous part of town, a place I don’t often go. I glance anxiously at each shadow, jumping every time a bush rustles, but I take comfort from Anna’s confidence. She saunters up to the front door like she’s done this a lot, which she probably has. She’s always been the risk-taker in our friendship. I’m the boring one who stays at home and watches movies in my pajamas while Anna’s out clubbing. Not for the first time, I’m thankful for her resourcefulness, her bravery, and the path she’s blazed ahead of me. The gratitude almost chokes out the fear.
Almost. Down the street, under a streetlamp, there’s a silhouette of a small person, a small person with one pigtail and her hands held up, ready to rip and tear. She’s too far away for me to hear her, but I can almost feel the thrumming of her growl in my bones.
When the woman answers the door, Anna has to speak, because I’m temporarily paralyzed. “Hey, Dee.”
Dee is short, shorter even than I am, with white hair and a nose too big for her face. She narrows her rheumy eyes at us but nods understanding and opens the door, beckoning us in with a casual gesture. I glance back at the streetlamp, and when I’m sure the silhouette is no longer there, I follow Anna into the house. It smells like herbs–every herb except weed, ironically–and cat piss. There are four cats I can see, and I suspect there are more, hiding. My nose immediately starts to itch. I stay close on Anna’s heels, my heart thundering.
We go into the kitchen. Filthy dishes are piled on every surface, and crushed cockroaches cover the floor. There’s a litter box next to the oven, heaped with stinking piles of cat shit. Something foul-smelling simmers on the stove.
“You want the usual?” Dee asks, opening the refrigerator.
“Yep.” Anna places her hand on my arm.
I fish the bills from my pocket and offer them. Dee snatches them from my hand and draws a bottle from the fridge door, slapping it into my palm. I cradle the bottle in my hands, staring at it. My salvation is a gray-brown sludge in an old coke bottle with a piece of cork shoved into the opening.
“Should I drink it now?” I ask.
Dee snorts. “Take it home. Get sick in your own bathroom.”
“Is there anything else I should know before I drink it?”
“Drink it all, if you want it to work.”
So I do. Sitting at my kitchen table, dressed in the old clothes I usually reserve for painting parties and moving day, I drink the contents of the bottle. It has the texture of the sludge they give you for colonoscopy prep and tastes like stale beer. I have to alternate between gulps of abortion potion and soda just to get it all down.
Anna squeezes my hand. “I have to go to work. Just remember, you’re going to be okay.”
Later, as I’m sobbing on the bathroom floor through the worst pain of my life, I hate her for saying that. I’m pretty sure nothing will ever be okay again.
I visit Dr. Heiss early one morning before work a week later. He frowns at my lab results on the computer monitor. “How do you know you had a miscarriage?”
I try to crane my neck to see the computer screen but it’s angled away from me. “There was a lot of cramping and blood. Isn’t that what happens during a miscarriage?”
He nods. “Traditionally. But it appears you’re still pregnant.”
My stomach drops. “Could that be like, residual hormones or something?”
“Afraid not.” His eyes are very cold and blue when he looks at me again. “I’m not going to report you this time, Hailey, because your baby lived, but don’t try this again.”
I swear my heart skips a beat. “What?”
“I know parenthood is scary right now. But a cure for the virus will be found. It’s not fair to murder an innocent child because you’re scared of what motherhood will be like.” He rises and removes his glasses, casually sliding them into the pocket of his coat. As he strides from the room, his parting shot is, “Don’t be so selfish.”
I bite back the scream that rises in my throat. Selfish? He thinks I’m selfish. Selfish because a fifty-fifty chance I’ll survive the birth isn’t good enough odds for me. Because I don’t want to be like the hollow-eyed ghost-people with their snarling, muzzled monsters on leashes, living day by day because humanity’s last best hope is for a cure that might never come. I’m selfish, but he’s the one forcing me to live this nightmare for what? His moral superiority?
I dress myself with shaking fingers, remembering the vomiting, the blood, the cramping, two days of pain and misery and shitting myself, two days of dying from poison, then another week of missed work while I recovered myself, and this parasite is still clinging to life inside me. Rage makes my face hot. I have no idea what to do next. I think about wire coat hangers. I think about throwing myself in front of a car. If I miss anymore work I’ll lose my job. I’m already losing Tyler.
The door opens and I jump. It’s the nurse. At first I think she has my checkout papers, but instead she moves to me urgently and presses a postcard into my hand. “What’s this?” I ask.
“Don’t tell anyone where you got this,” she hisses, curling her fingers around mine and giving them a firm squeeze. She nods once, her expression intense, and then hurries from the room like a phantom.
The postcard is glossy and shows a small yacht, festooned with lights. Visit the Ophelia, it advertises. Contact us now for harbor tours, day or night! Perfect for your next ladies night out. There’s a phone number at the bottom.
I call outside the doctor’s office on the sidewalk. I should wait, or maybe call from a pay phone, but I’m frantic, impatient. While the phone rings, a car pulls into the parking space in front of me. The man driving the car has the empty look all parents have, so I’m not surprised to see the carseat in the back. I register the oddness that the creature strapped into it isn’t wearing a muzzle. I drop my phone in shock when the father steps from the car.
His arms and neck are covered in bruises and fresh scabs in the tell-tale half-moon shape of bites from a small, human mouth.
The screen on my phone is cracked so I have to call the Ophelia from the phone at work after I clock in. A smooth voice answers. “Thank you for calling the Ophelia. This is Kendra.”
“Kendra. I…a nurse gave me a card with…your number…”
“Are you pregnant and you don’t want to be?”
I’m not sure how to answer. All the air gusts from my lungs.
“I’ll take that as a yes. What we do is completely legal and absolutely safe. Can you come in tonight?”
“That’s our soonest opening. Do you have doubts about whether to go through with the procedure?”
Reality snaps back into place. “I just wasn’t expecting it to be so soon.”
“We want to help you get back to your life.”
“How is it legal?”
“Our doctors wait to perform the procedure until we’re in international waters.” Kendra sounds impatient, like she’s answered these questions so many times she has the script memorized. Before I can ask anything else, she says, “You’ll experience a little spotting and possibly a small amount of cramping, but it should be minimal.”
I suck in a shaking breath, my hand going to my sore belly. “How much will it cost?”
“Whatever you can afford. It’s a sliding scale thanks to our donors.”
“You have donors?”
“People who want to ensure women maintain their reproductive rights in these troubled times.”
A sense of relief washes over me. There are people who want to help.
My shift lasts until 7, so we set the meeting for 9 o’clock in the evening. I spend the rest of the day in an excited, terrified haze, getting little work done. When I get home in the evening, I tell Tyler the good news. He scowls.
“I might be cramping again so someone should probably drive me,” I say. “Anna will be at work, so I’d appreciate it if you could do it.”
He won’t look at me as he shakes his head. “I can’t do that, Hail. That’ll make me an accessory to murder.”
“What?” I reel back from him. “Ty, I need you right now.”
He still won’t meet my eyes as he fidgets with the cords on his hoodie. “It’s illegal. We could be prosecuted.”
“I told you, they do the procedure in international waters. It’s completely legal. And besides, what’s the alternative? Do you want me to die?”
“It’s not for sure that you’d die.”
I take two more steps back from him, my pulse thundering in my own ears. “I thought you wanted me to get rid of it. Do you want me to carry it to term?”
He shrugs, pouting. I used to think that pout was cute, but right now it’s making me hate him in a way I’ve never hated anyone. “I don’t know. Maybe. I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week. I just wish you’d let me help you make the decision. It’s our baby, Hail.”
“It’s not a baby, it’s a monster.”
“It’s a little bit of you and a little bit of me–”
“And a whole lot of virus!”
“–and you just want to kill it.”
“It’s going to chew its way out of me in the third trimester, Ty.”
“They have medication for that now, tranquilizers and stuff.”
“And what then? Say I do survive. Now we have a monster child.” I’m shouting, images of the girl with one pigtail swimming in my vision. She’s strapped into a carseat behind me as I drive around town, running errands, hollow-eyed and miserable, a slave to a creature I never wanted to create. I’m so angry, it’s amazing my head hasn’t popped off my body.
“Only until they find a cure.” Tyler gives me his biggest, saddest puppy dog eyes, but it only sends a spike of fury through me.
“Oh my god, you’re delusional.” I’m so loud the neighbors are probably going to call the cops. “There isn’t going to be a cure, Ty. It’s been five years. This is it. Humanity is over. And we can live out the rest of our days together, happy, or we can live them out trying not to be eaten alive by the monster we made.”
“But it’s our monster. We made it. It’s a sin to kill it.”
“You don’t even believe in God!” I grab my jacket and purse from the hallway and head for the door. I need to get out of here. Forever.
“We created it and we should take responsibility for it,” he calls after me.
“That’s exactly what I’m doing,” I retort. His keys are in the bowl by the door and I grab them on my way out. I hope Anna will be okay with me sleeping on her sofa, and maybe also picking up my stuff later, because there’s no way I’m ever coming back to Tyler. I never want to see him again, and I can’t get his DNA out of me fast enough.
It’s been more than a year since I wrecked my car and stopped driving, but I remember how to do it. I can’t bring up GPS directions on my cracked phone but I know the city pretty well, even at night. A driving instructor once told me never to hold in my tears while driving, because they’ll blur my vision, so I let them flow as I maneuver my way through the city toward the harbor. I must look a hot sobbing mess to anyone who glances my way at a traffic light, but it’s not like there are many drivers out after dark to see me, anyway. I try not to think about Tyler, I really do, but it’s like my heart hurts so much, my brain doesn’t even have a say over my body anymore.
I’m not far from the harbor, just after making a u-turn in a parking lot because I’m pretty sure I turned the wrong way, when flashing red and blue lights appear behind the car. I didn’t do anything illegal. Did Tyler let his plates expire? My rage toward him flares anew. Automatically, my foot lifts from the accelerator and the wheel turns to the right, towards the curb.
Then I realize with a sinking feeling that Tyler must have called the cops and reported his car stolen. And he may also have told them where I was headed, what I was going to do. If I get pulled over, there’s a really good chance they’ll arrest me. And if I get arrested, who knows how long they’ll keep me. I’ve read of women being handcuffed to hospital beds until their infected babies were born, because they’d tried to end their pregnancies. It was for the safety of the unborn fetus. To these people, I’m now nothing but a glorified incubator.
Sucking in a breath, I mash the accelerator, twist the wheel to the left, and head for the freeway. Anna once ran from the cops with me in the car; she did it by getting on the freeway, driving like a lunatic, and getting off on the next exit, where she pulled into a parking lot and turned off the lights until our pursuers had passed. It was the most terrifying twenty minutes of my entire life, until I found out I was pregnant. I’m not keen to reproduce the experience, but I also can’t think of anything else to do.
The police car’s sirens blare to life and my heart clenches tight in my chest. A disembodied voice shouts, “Pull over.” Now, in addition to car theft and murder, I can add fleeing the police to my rap sheet. My head spins and I ignore a red light to turn onto the freeway ramp, dodging two SUV’s.
I swerve between cars, speeding more than I ever have before, but I’m not Anna, in the end. I flinch at every honked horn and screech of tires. I’m not fearless enough to drive at a speed that will shake the cops. I take an exit ramp, tear through a mall parking lot, and head again for the harbor. The police car pursues me doggedly. Panic claws its way up my throat and I find myself cussing and shouting and slapping the steering wheel in frustration.
“PULL THE CAR OVER AND GET OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP.”
I direct my car east, toward the harbor, and run three red lights, somehow miraculously avoiding an accident on the first two. On the third, a Prius spins out of my way and I see them, surging toward me from the north side of the intersection: more blue and red lights, more cop cars cars swerving to avoid civilian vehicles but clearly in hot pursuit of me. I scream and curse and gun it through the intersection, hurtling toward the harbor. I nearly clip the fender of a flashy red sports car and the driver rolls down his window to shout curses at me, his words quickly lost to the wind.
Bright light illuminates the road in front of me, and I hear the steady drone of a helicopter’s blades as it hovers above me. There’s more shouting on a megaphone but I can’t make out the words over the revving of my engine and the rushing of my own blood. My rear-view mirror is filled with flashing blue and red lights.
I can see the harbor’s lights, now, and the dark expanse of ocean water just past the docks, smooth like black glass. I’ve almost made it.
A police cruiser pulls out in front of me and comes to a dead stop across both the eastbound lanes. I slam on the brakes, turning the wheel hard. My car slides until it’s parallel to the cruiser, and when they make contact with the crunch of metal on metal, I look over to see the officer staring back at me is a woman about my age. We’re only a few feet apart, separated by a pane of glass–her driver’s side window, as my passenger side window has shattered, the seat filled with glass. She points her service revolver and shouts orders at me.
My car’s engine is still running. “Please,” I beg her, tears streaming down my face. “Please.”
Her lips curl, her nostrils flare. And then she nods, almost imperceptibly, and lowers her weapon. My foot hits the accelerator and I’m off again, skidding around her cruiser and hurtling toward the harbor.
There’s a sharp sound that must be gunfire, and Tyler’s car careens down the dock, the steering wheel jerking and leaping in my hands. Outside the driver’s side window are quaint buildings advertising boat tours and warehouses probably filled with fish and other seafood harvested from the ocean. Outside my passenger side window, piers extend from the dock, each lit by a tall street light. Dozens of boats moored to the piers bob in the water. Everything looks hazy through my panic.
I count the piers until I arrive at number four. I slam my foot on the brake pedal and the car screeches to a halt. Behind me, police cars do the same. Not one, not two, not three–Christ, five police cars, at least. Overhead, the helicopter illuminates my car with a spotlight. I wonder if there’s a camera crew filming this, if Tyler’s at home watching the news right now.
What is happening? When did my life become an action movie?
I want to freeze, all my instincts telling me not to move. But I have to, or I’m going to lose everything. If the police know I’m pregnant, they won’t shoot at me, right? I fling open the car door and barrel out. Behind me, cops yell commands. Time slows to a crawl. To my right, on the pier, a shadowy figure motions me to a dinghy tied in the water.
Shots ring out. A bullet grazes my leg with a sensation like a bee sting and I stumble, going to the ground. The spotlight glares down on me. The air is filled with the thumping of helicopter blades, the shouting of police officers, the screeching of tires as more backup arrives.
I’m going to die. I’m sure of it. They’ll either shoot me now or my monstrous offspring will chew its way out of me in a few months. I wish I’d spent more time traveling. I wish I hadn’t given up playing the guitar. I wish I’d apologized to my mom for that fight we had. I pull myself to my feet and limp toward the pier. A bullet in the back now is better than being eaten alive tomorrow.
But there are no more bullets. The spotlight swings away from me. I turn to look as it glides over the ground and lands on a crowd of children running full-tilt toward me, emerging from behind the warehouses to tear down the dock with reckless speed. Behind me, the cops point their guns in my direction; before me, a horde of feral children approach at a rapid sprint, foaming at the mouth, making terrifying snarling sounds and snapping at the air with their small, sharp teeth. They claw at nothing as they run with fingers tipped in sharp, glinting fingernails. In the bright spotlight, I can see that one of them is the size of a four-year-old and has only one pigtail. There’s something wrong with her mouth, and I realize with an icy drop in my stomach she’s eaten away her lips, leaving only ragged chewed-up flesh around her teeth and gums. And the long nails on her fingers aren’t nails at all–they’re the tips of her fingerbones.
Pity, fear, and revulsion boil inside me. Her eyes meet mine, and for just an instant, I think about her mother. Does she sit at home right this very second, sobbing, wondering whether she weeps out of relief or sorrow?
“Hurry!” The person on the dock yells.
Her voice galvanizes me to action and I dash to the right, toward the boat, leaving the cops and the children to meet where I was standing. The cops open fire. The infected children know no pain, their nerve endings as good as dead. They can only be stopped by a bullet to the brain. Cops don’t want to shoot kids in the head and kill them–these days, that’s a capital offense. They’re taking body shots, and that does little to stop the onslaught. Screams echo across the water as the kids reach the officers, throwing themselves onto their victims with triumphant howls.
I race down the pier and clamber down a ladder into the metal boat. Three other women crouch there, staring at me wide-eyed. The pilot unties the ropes that moor us and jumps down into the boat with a grunt, making the dinghy slosh. She turns and pulls the ripcord for the motor. It sputters.
A child gallops on all fours down the dock toward us, screeching in animal excitement. I steel myself, grabbing an oar out of the bottom of the boat and preparing to defend us. My heart thunders in time with the feral child’s loping steps, hitting the dock with a sound like a rapidly ticking metronome, clomp clomp, clomp clomp.
But the motor starts with a satisfying roar on the second pull and the dinghy leaps from the pier and away with such alacrity it tips me over into the bottom of the boat. The child screams in fury, running back and forth along the pier and howling like a confused, rabid dog.
The other women help me to a sitting position. I turn to the woman steering the craft. “Kendra?”
“At your service,” a familiar voice says, her face invisible with the lights of the pier behind her.
“What did you do to piss off the cops?” One of the other women huddled in the boat asks. We watch until the feral children and the police become too small to see anymore. The helicopter continues to circle with its searing light illuminating the fray, but the sounds of gunfire and the thump of the helicopter blades become distant, like a fading memory. The metallic reek of blood wafts across the open water to us and turns my stomach.
“I told my boyfriend where I was going and took his car,” I answer. My insides feel scooped out and hollow, like there’s only echoing where my organs used to be.
“Rookie mistake,” one of the other women says, her tone sarcastic.
“You’ll be wanted now,” the first woman says breathily.
“Better than dead,” I reply. Tears cascade down my face. My old life is gone. Where will I go now? I wish I could call Anna, or my mom.
“I’m wanted in three countries,” Kendra says, and I can’t see her face in the darkness but I can hear the smile in her voice. “Most of the women on the Ophelia are wanted somewhere. It’s a mark of pride, for us. So, well done. And welcome to the sisterhood.”
My heart does a backflip. As we glide across the water toward the yacht, I have a distinct sense this is the moment where my life will change completely, forever. But as I lower the oar back into the bottom of the boat and look at the terrified women crouching behind me, I think that maybe, just maybe, this might be exactly where I belong.
Rank #13: PseudoPod 655: Black Matter
- Author : Vivian Shaw
- Narrator : Robert C. Eccles
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
- Discuss on Forums
PseudoPod 655: Black Matter is a PseudoPod original.
“I’m an aviation nerd with trainwreck syndrome, so air crash investigation is a subject dear to my heart. Having watched documentaries on (and read NTSB reports about) ever so many crashes, I began to wonder what it might be like if the investigators had one last secret fall-back option when no clear cause for an accident could be found, and what it’d be like to be that fall-back option. I write fiction in which the supernatural and the ordinary exist side-by-side — monsters and magic are real, if not commonly understood — and the idea of a practical necromancer contracted to the NTSB seemed like an obvious conclusion.”
by Vivian Shaw
… when all those legs and arms and heads… shall join together at the latter day and cry all “we died at such a place,” some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left…
—Shakespeare, Henry V
It’s easier if you use a finger. If you have a finger to use. I don’t have fingers, on this one. What I have is a case full of samples, in tubes, and I can already tell this is a complete shitshow: they’re hopelessly garbled, mixed up together in a cacophony of terror and pain that gives me the kind of headache that will last for days. I need to get out to the site.
They don’t like people poking around, of course, during an active investigation, but I’m nominally part of the National Transportation Safety Board – got the blue nylon jacket with the letters on the back and everything, like some overgrown high-school kid who lettered in nerd instead of football. I’m allowed access to the crash site, it’s written down in the rules, and if I pick up fingers that don’t belong to me it doesn’t technically fuck with the chain-of-evidence protocol. Sometimes I get lucky and find what I need right away, soaked into the cockpit: human flesh and bone pulverized at the point of impact to a pink soup which nonetheless is capable of standing up, on this latter day, and telling me a tale. Sometimes I don’t, and it takes longer.
I’m strictly last-resort. When everything else is coming up empty, when both black boxes and the quick-access recorder, if there is one, are useless; when they cannot from the radar track and transponder data work out why the plane did what it did, when there’s no obvious evidence of explosion and the pilots didn’t say anything useful to ATC and all the shreds of aluminum and rubber and plastic are keeping their secrets to themselves – when they simply do not know enough to determine probable cause – that’s when they call me, and it’s always four a.m. when that call comes through. Stacy, we got one. Pack up your crystal ball and shag ass, we need you.
(Stacy, like Stacy’s mom, only it’s my last name: Devin Stacy. I’ve heard all the jokes, believe me. The dead might travel fast, but by and large they can’t come up with original wit.)
This time it’s in West Virginia, just around the first knuckle of the finger it hooks intimately up into western Maryland: halfway along one of the old earth-wrinkle mountains, between a couple of nothing towns. The fact that the nearest burg is called Mount Storm is too fucking Lovecraft for words, so I try to ignore it, even as my little chartered Cessna lines up on short final for the local airstrip. At this point in the investigation the Board is apparently desperate enough to pay for a helo to get me from here to the wreck, rather than a rental car, and I can’t help thinking of that mad static-buzz cacophony of wails and screams that came through when I tried the samples back in my own lab: something terrible happened here, something so far inexplicable and terrible, and it is up to me and the contents of my little black bag to explicate it.
Let me try to put this in perspective. The Board doesn’t like to let on that it occasionally has resort to the services of such as me – understandably, because remember how bent out of shape everybody got when the fucking FBI got exposed for paying psychics for help – and so instead of freelance necromancer my official NTSB consultant title is contingency communications specialist. It means exactly nothing, and that’s the point; when they were still sending up the space shuttle, they had a protocol for contingency abort, which was a cute way of saying something’s gone very badly wrong, the mission is kaput, and everybody on this ship is going to die. “Contingency” in bureaucratese means “probably fatal.”
What I do is I create a certain very specific and controlled metaphysical atmospheric situation, within clearly defined bounds, in which it is possible for the recently deceased to communicate with the living. This in itself isn’t really hard. Kids in their parents’ garages have tried it, with a bit of clear quartz and silver and some blood from a wincing safety-pin stick, a couple of birthday candles, and gotten a wavery ghost of something juuuust long enough to scare them off fucking with this shit for life. I’m all for that. Freak ‘em out hard enough and most will do the mindblock thing where they can honestly swear later in their lives that they never even touched anything occult.
It’s the ones who do come back for more, after the initial terror, that you have to keep an eye on. I was one of them. I know.
It’s a bumpy landing, and the Cessna driver apologizes, once we’re taxiing: “Not among my best, Mr. Stacy. I sure hope you find out what happened to that plane, everyone here is kind of – freaked out, a little bit, if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah,” I say, “I know exactly what you mean, and you did fine, not your fault about the sudden crosswind, you handled it. You get that a lot here?”
“More than we used to. It’s always been kinda rough when there’s wind coming down off the mountain, but I think it really has gotten worse–”
He stops, as if he hadn’t actually meant to say that, and I just nod and unfasten my safety belt. “You did fine,” I tell him again, and look at his nametag, “Cody. Thanks for the ride.”
“Mr. Stacy?” he says, before I can get out.
“They said they don’t know why it happened. Is it – they don’t say that kinda shit when it’s really a bomb, right? This isn’t just like – some cover-up?”
“No. They don’t. That’s the first thing they’d look for, is any evidence of an explosive device – petaled edges on fragments of fuselage, chemical residue, that kind of thing. They have to rule that out first.”
“And they didn’t find that stuff?”
“No. Not so far. It doesn’t appear that there was anything that – went off, and broke the plane apart.” What I do know is that the wreckage of the engines was found with soil and grass deep inside, chunks of earth chewed up and swallowed by the spinning fans, clear evidence they’d been turning when the plane hit the ground.
“But you’d find it, if there was?”
“Oh yeah,” I say. “We’d find it. We’re good at finding things.”
The night air, when I crack the door, is both wonderful on my face – sharp coolness, the touch of rain – and carries with it even at this distance what I immediately recognize to be the smell of a crash site. It’s a sick kind of cocktail: raw avgas, churned soil, the acrid stink of burning upholstery and carpet, rubber, plastic, aluminum, and underneath of that the reek of decay. Of bad death. It’s summer. They’ve been out here for days now, whatever’s left of them. From what I’ve already been told they hit the ground at no less than four hundred miles an hour: some of the sampled remains I saw might have been put through a blender, and others torn apart like pulled barbecue, anonymous pieces. Meat and chemicals, I once heard it described. (How fast it is, that phase-change, from living people with mortgages and children and sales goals and futures, into meat and chemicals. You would not believe how fast.)
I have to be imagining it. There’s no way that stink could be this strong, miles away. I shake my head, and pull my scene-kit bag out from the Cessna’s little excuse for a cargo area; shoulder the bag, give Cody the Pilot a little sketch of a salute, and trudge, head-down against the worsening rain, toward the tiny airport building.
You really don’t get used to the smell. You think you do, and then every single time it rises up to grab you by the throat and try to hoist your guts up your esophagus. It doesn’t help to think of it as just a collection of chemicals, decomp products: butyric acid, methane, organic compounds: it still hits the senses like a blunt-force blow. People have described it as sweet. To me it’s a salty kind of stink, black-green and grinning, ready to surge out of hidden hollows with the roar of a million flies. Here it’s overlaid with the other stinks of burning plane-parts, but it’s still present and unignorable.
It takes me a minute or two to settle, once that smell hits me. I’m used to it. I really am. I’m standing there with my scene bag in one hand and my eyes shut, taking slow careful breaths, and I should absolutely not have shut my eyes because barely twenty yards away someone yells “Hey Stacy, man, nice of you to join us! You got your magic wand and shit all ready to go, cause we’re kinda on a time crunch here!”
I open my eyes. Of course it’s Chief Investigator Wayne Dooley; I knew that, I’d read the goddamn briefing they sent me, but I must have blocked it out of my mind. “Hi, Dooley,” I say. Dools. The Doolmeister. Doolarino. He hates them all. “I hear you guys are stumped, huh?”
Dooley is leaning on a chunk of fuselage, ankles crossed, the picture of casual command. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” he tells me. “Headquarters said they were shipping you out here, that’s all. Guess they want to cover all their bases, the quick and the dead.”
“You found the recorders?”
Dooley’s face changes a little. “Yeah,” he says. “Toast. Both of ‘em. No QAR, either. Can’t get jack nor shit off the tape, and the guys back home have been trying.”
“What happened to it?”
“Lousy luck, I guess; the CVR is in pieces, the FDR chassis is still kinda recognizable but the tape’s just shredded away like confetti, so you better get to work, Mr. Wizard. We need to know what killed this plane.”
I know we do. Because if we don’t figure it out, it might happen again. This was a 757, a workhorse aircraft, reliable as a Honda Civic, not subject to the 737 rudder hardover shit that had been traced back to a second-party manufacturing issue or the 737-MAX’s charming habit of flying itself straight into the ground; there had been zero airworthiness directives issued for the 757 in years, and this airframe hadn’t thrown anything even slightly weird at the last maintenance checks, a month ago. “We got no ground witnesses?” I ask.
“None. Farmer who saw the fireball from miles away called it in, but it took her a while to get somewhere with cell signal. Real patchy ‘round here, a lot of interference.”
“Lovely.” I take off my coat. “Get your guys off the scene, Dooley, for a couple minutes, I gotta do my thing.”
“Yeah,” he says. “You do your thing, Stace. You do that.”
Already I can feel it. Mostly the dead kind of keep to themselves, but at places like this — places where a lot of people died at once, died badly — there’s a kind of high-pitched mental yammering that threatens to do the sparkly-headache thing to me every single time. I don’t even really have to get out my chalk or my crystal pendulum to hear what they have to say — but I do it anyway, for clarity, and because Dooley and his goons are watching me.
The circle, first. I pick my way through the wreckage, some of which is still smoldering days after the crash, and with my eyes shut I can locate what used to be the cockpit by its deeper weight on reality. I get as close as I can before bending over to draw the circle around myself with the special chalk. I do it right the first time, because this shit is expensive, ground-up dead men’s calcined bone isn’t that easy to come by; and as soon as the circle closes I can feel the difference. It’s very much like the moment when you’re climbing or descending in a plane and your ears suddenly pop: an opening, an equalization of a painful pressure differential. Inside the circle I’m safe, and I can do the rest of it without having to watch my back — or to care about being watched. To Dooley’s people I’m no longer visible at all.
There’s a series of little white marks along the side of my left forefinger, like a tiny ladder of scars, one for each scene I’ve worked over the past couple of years. It’s the easiest place to cut that doesn’t put tendons in immediate danger if I get too enthusiastic, but I’m running out of finger — have to use my own, here, not anybody else’s — and it’s with some care that I take out the little folding knife and say the words over it. There’s room for one more cut on this digit, if I am careful, and I am.
The thin shrill pain of the knife-blade is almost welcome in its familiarity, and a line of blood springs up behind it, purple in the mercury-vapor floods Dooley’s people have set up around the scene. I say the words, and touch the chalk-circle marks here and here and here with my bleeding finger, and in my other hand the quartz point grows suddenly first warm and then hot, almost too hot to hold. Yeah, this isn’t going to be difficult. This isn’t going to be difficult at all —
— it’s always weird watching them come up from the center of the circle, as if rising to the surface of some unthinkable lake. First the head, then the shoulders appear. This is the captain. I can tell it’s the captain by the stripes on his shoulder-boards, which is just as well because he no longer has a face. I’ve seen the file photos of the crew, which right now aren’t doing me a blind bit of good: this could be anyone, a churned mass of meat with holes in it, a few scattered white things that look like rice but are what used to be this poor bastard’s teeth. And he’s screaming.
As soon as he comes up through the circle he is screaming, and the sound comes in as if from a long way away, like somebody’s turning up a volume knob in a steady zoom from zero to eleven. I’ve tried earplugs: they don’t do a goddamn thing, this isn’t sound I’m hearing with my ears but with my mind. The only thing you can do is grit your teeth and tell yourself it’s going to be over soon, and try to calm the person down — but these are people frozen in the instant of a terrible fucking death.
Pilots are trained to respond calmly to emergency situations, and part of that is remaining capable of perceiving changes in their environment even in the middle of incredibly stressful conditions. This one goes on screaming for a little while longer before I register on his radar, and the screams die away into a kind of retching gasp. He isn’t seeing me with his eyes, any more than I am hearing him with my ears: he no longer has eyes with which to see, but at this time and in this place he can perceive me. I know what he sees: a shortish, rumpled man, on the tubby side, wearing a blue NTSB windbreaker and a pair of battered rubber boots. The only thing that visually sets me apart from Dooley and his crew is the collection of amulets around my neck which are glowing faintly through the fabric of my T-shirt.
“Sir,” I say. “Captain Warner?”
The faceless head tilts. He’s still making rather unpleasant choking sounds; it will take him a little while longer to discover he no longer actually needs to breathe. “My name’s Stacy,” I tell him. “I’m an investigator with the NTSB. We’re trying to find out what happened to your aircraft. Can you tell me what went wrong?”
Sometimes this part is easy. Sometimes it’s a question of there was a fire and we lost all ability to control the aircraft, or there was a huge bang and the cabin depressurized and then we had no horizontal stabilizer function, which translates to half the tail of the fucking plane came off; sometimes it’s we lost an engine and the shrapnel cut through our hydraulic lines, or we had airspeed/altitude disagree warnings and hit the ground while we were trying to figure out what the fuck was happening — that one’s more common than you’d like to think — but it’s clear already that tonight ain’t going to be one of the simple jobs. Captain Warner is staring right at me with the eyes he hasn’t got, and now he is reaching out toward me with a hand that’s still partially intact, slicked with blood like he’s wearing a bright-red patent leather glove, and oh boy sometimes I wish the Board had more than one tame necromancer on their fucking payroll. Sometimes I wish that quite a lot.
In the circle he can touch me. Outside the circle we’re as substantial to each other as a cloud; in here the planes we’re inhabiting intersect, and his hand is cold as what’s left of it closes around mine, cold and sticky — I can feel the sharp jagged edges of broken bone inside the flesh, and then I am no longer standing on the ground at all.
The cockpit floor beneath my feet is whole, its structural integrity unbreached, and beneath it is the ground, five and a half miles down: a rumpled green blanket in which the wrinkles are not creases of fabric but of rock, old mountains pushed up by the Appalachian orogeny three hundred million years ago. I am standing behind the pedestal that separates the pilot’s and first officer’s seats, looking directly out the 757’s front windows at the classic spreading anvil of a huge thunderhead, and in the seat to my left Captain Warner is looking at it too. The first officer is drinking coffee and has not yet noticed what Captain Warner and I have seen, which is that although the cloud directly in our flightpath must be ten miles wide, black and throbbing with flickers of lightning like bad thoughts in a vast and disturbed brain, it is not showing up on our weather radar at all. The rectangular LED screens underneath the artificial horizon on both sides of the cockpit are clear and black, with no sign of the roiling green-yellow-red fan-shape echo of the storm ahead of us. It’s not the devilishly misleading radar shadow phenomenon, either, implying a clear path through a visible stormcell when in fact the precipitation is too dense for the radar beam to make the two-way trip through it, registering as a blank space on the display: right now there is no reading at all. There is simply nothing there.
We are flying directly toward the storm at better than four hundred miles an hour. It seems to be centered on the very top of the tallest part of the mountain-ridge just ahead. I get the very clear feeling that Captain Warner does not want to fly into it, and this is not just because he is not an idiot, it is because there is something wrong with that storm, something very wrong indeed — why isn’t it pinging on the radar, nothing else is giving weird readings, green across the board —
“Hey,” says the first officer, finally looking up. “The fuck? Where’d that come from?”
And despite the growing urgency of the situation Warner seems frozen, mesmerized, staring at the thing, his hands loose on the control-column yoke. He’s got a class ring on his right hand. The ring won’t make it through what happens next: the finger on which it currently rests is no longer there on the hand that is clasping mine outside this snatch of recorded memory.
“Dave?” says the first officer. “You okay?”
He doesn’t reply, and the airframe creaks around us as the plane slams into the edge of turbulent air surrounding the storm — and it is a heartbreaking eight seconds longer before he seems to snap out of his trance, shaking his head to clear it. In another second he has closed his hands tight around the yoke and wrenched it to the left, sending the Boeing in a steep bank to port in an effort to avoid the storm, but he knows and I know and the first officer now knows that it is much too late because we are now past the fringe and in it — immediately violent turbulence strikes, shaking us like rats in a trap, like dice in a cup, like anything you want to fucking name — behind us the passengers scream, and I can hear luggage crashing down as the overhead bins shake open — the windows are blank grey-black except for the white-violet flares of lightning all around us, it is as if the plane is held in the grip of some terrible hand that is drawing us into the very heart of the storm and still the radar screens are black and clear —
And in the last minute before the final bolt of impossible lightning spears through the 757, frying flight controls and avionics all to hell and starting spot-fires in the insulation of the cabin (it shouldn’t do that, it shouldn’t be able to do that, planes are hit by lightning all the time and they don’t auger into the fucking ground like this one did) I see it. Captain Warner sees it, and therefore so do I, and when the bolt hits and the brilliant explosion of light blanks out the view I am unspeakably grateful.
I open my eyes, and then open them again, and I am still staring into the meat that was Warner’s face, and he is looking back at me. His hand — the remains of his hand — is still grasping mine, and for a moment, briefly, he squeezes my fingers. Then he is gone, and the night springs back up around me, all the smells of a crash site overlaid with the distinctive burned-tin stink of magic. The rain on my face feels like a blessing.
When I scuff out the remains of the chalk circle with the tip of a boot, Dooley’s goons jump at my sudden reappearance. I take a little more time than strictly necessary to wrap a bandaid around my finger and stow all my amulets away, because fuck if I know what I’m going to tell the Doolmeister. What I’m going to put in my report. What I can say.
In the end I go with “Weather,” and he gives me the look I deserve. We’ve walked some distance away from the center of the site, and a little of the horror is fading, but it must still show in my face because he actually asks me if I’m okay.
No, you obtuse fuck, I think. I can’t even tell him this entire mess is another hail-ingestion engine flameout situation like Garuda or TACA, back in the eighties and nineties: he knows as well as I do that both engines were turning just fine when they hit the ground.
“Yeah, I’m okay. It was — a lightning strike. Particularly bad one, fried all the systems and started a fire, immediate loss of control and subsequent crash. I strongly recommend telling the FAA to issue a warning to all carriers to avoid this area, adjust their routes to the north or south by — maybe twenty, thirty miles, because seriously dangerous weather conditions like that are extremely likely to occur.”
“A lightning strike,” Dooley repeats.
“Yeah.” It’s not exactly untrue, either: there had been a lightning strike that fried the plane’s controls, but I’m not telling him the rest. I meet his eyes: you wanna try it, be my guest, let’s see how you like talking to someone without a face, and after a moment he looks away with a little whatever, asshole shrug and cups his hands to his mouth in a makeshift megaphone.
“Lewis, Johnston, Reed,” he calls. “Lightning. Fucking lightning. Quit screwing around and look for arcing and fire damage on the wiring harnesses, and someone get on the horn to HQ, tell ‘em we got a preliminary.”
Just like that, I’m done: out of sight and out of mind. To Dooley I no longer exist. In another situation I might mind how easily he relegates me to background interference; right now I’m intensely glad of it. What the labs will find is not inconsistent with a major lightning strike. It’s good enough for government work, as you might say, and — that’s good enough for me, and possibly for poor bloody Captain Warner. At least the conclusions will show that he and his first officer were not at fault, unless someone wants to play the drove his damn plane right into a lightning storm card, and I know that if they can get anything off the flight data recorder it wouldn’t show a damn thing that Warner should have paid attention to. Those radar screens had been absolutely black.
Act of God. They happen, sometimes. It won’t go over well with some of the Board leadership, but it’s close enough, and it’s better than concluding the accident report without a finding of probable cause. They don’t like leaving things marked undetermined; it’s bureaucratically untidy, a loose end trailing from a file drawer that should have been neatly tucked away.
But as I walk to the waiting helo I think again of what I can’t put in my report: what I saw in that last moment before the flare of brilliance blotted out the world. In that second before the end of it I had looked down at the mountaintop five miles below our feet, and something vast had looked back at me, and seen me. It had seen me very well, and it had smiled.
There’s something in that mountain, something that draws down the lightning to amuse itself. Something that likes to make storms that don’t show up on radar traces, and pull living creatures into them, and close the hand of the storm around the fragile little tubes of metal and the soft parts inside, shake them blind and broken, watch them fall five miles straight down into a distant rose-bloom of white fire. Something that is far older than people, old as the wrinkled rock of the mountain itself, something that has perhaps slept for a very long time — but is awake now, and hungry.
I wonder what has woken it.
I can’t stop thinking about that, even as the pilot beside me twists the throttle, lifting the collective gently, and the brightly-lit field of wreckage – both human and mechanical – falls away beneath us with boneless, weightless ease. How it had looked up at me.
How it had smiled.
Rank #14: PseudoPod 657: Waxworks
- Author : W.L. George
- Narrator : Simon Meddings
- Host : Alex Hofelich
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
- Discuss on Forums
“Waxworks” originally appeared in The Strand Magazine in 1922 under the title “Waxworks: A Mystery”
Sound attribution:Spoiler Inside
Door slam: https://freesound.org/people/DBproductions/sounds/60031/
by W.L. George
Henry Badger rapidly paced the City churchyard; his air of anxiety seemed to overweigh his small, though not unpleasing, features. He was an insignificant little man, dressed in pepper-and-salt tweeds. His hair was cut very close, except where a love-lock, plastered down with jasmine-oil, trailed over his forehead from under his hard black hat. Whenever he completed the circuit of the churchyard he peered towards the gate through which must come disturbance and romance. Henry Badger was in love, and he could not escape the consequences of his share in our common delight and affliction.
Suddenly brightness overspread his sharp features. It was she! She, in a pink crêpe-de-Chine blouse, disconnected rather than connected with her white serge skirt by a patent-leather belt. Above the pink blouse was an equally pink neck, and a rather pretty face, all soft curves. She was bright blue of eye and tumbled in pleasant fairness about the hair, under a large straw hat from which drooped on one side a fragment of ivy that might with advantage have been placed elsewhere. But her name was Ivy, and she liked to live in harmony.
“I’m late,” she said, with pretty-briskness, as they shook hands. “So sorry, Henry. Only the boss got dictating, and he likes to hear himself talk, even if it is only to little me. Still, better late than never,” she added, with a smile indicating wit.
Henry Badger replied “Yes,” and wondered if it would be good policy to attack her for being late. Since he felt at fault, no doubt it would. Only—an argument with Ivy, one never knew what that would lead to.
“Well, you dummy,” she said, “is that all you’ve got to say? Got the tickets?”
“Er—,” said Henry Badger, “no.”
“What do you mean?” said Ivy, crossly.
“What I say,” replied Henry Badger, with feeble determination. “Fact is, Ivy, I’m sorry, but I forgot.”
The blue eyes stared at him, incredulous.
“Forgot! What you been and done that for?”
Henry Badger explained profusely. The night before he’d had an awful headache, and it had slipped his memory to go round to the Imperial Music Hall, and this morning the manager—
Ivy trampled upon these confused excuses. “All I can see,” she said, “is here we are landed on a Saturday afternoon with nowhere to go except the pictures. And it’s so hot in those places. Last time I was fair melted. I do think it’s too bad of you.”
It was then that Henry Badger expressed himself. “Fact is, Ivy, I been thinking.”
“Hope you didn’t break anything,” said Ivy, “but since you done it, what’s the ideer?”
“I been thinking that we don’t know the town we live in. I was reading a book the other day. Strange Sights of London, it was called. And, would you believe it, Ivy? there’s lots of things I got to learn.”
“Ah, I do believe it,” said Ivy.
“For instance,” said Henry, “did you know that the church of St. Ethelburga wasn’t burnt down in the Fire of London?”
“No,” said Ivy, “and now I do know it I don’t seem to be much better off.”
“Ah!”, said Henry, “that’s where you’re wrong, Ivy. It improves your mind to know that sort of thing. And that’s how I got my ideer. I been thinking we might go round to the docks.”
“Oh, I dunno. Just to mooch round. Ever been to the docks? No? Well, why not try ’em? You know, Ivy, people spend a lot of money going to the Riviera, and they never see the place round the corner. See your own country first,” he added, with originality.
“Well,” said Ivy, after a moment, “seeing you’ve mucked up this afternoon, and mother’s gone out and there won’t be any tea, I suppose we may as well.”
The two little people, for neither of them was quite five-foot-six, made their way along the East India Dock Road, where an omnibus had deposited them. For an hour they wandered the tragic land where none live for pleasure, and where slowly the soot falls to obliterate sooty footmarks. They were too tired to be pleased when, behind a long brick wall, they found the docks. They perceived the smell of the East, oil of macassar, piled logs of sandalwood, barrels of copra; at a point against the sky, where now the dark clouds were racing, they saw outlined tall spars, while a funnel striped in yellow and blue threw out a shower of sparks against the sky like a dun veil touched with tinsel. The heat seemed to grow.
They lost their direction, not liking to ask their way of the rough inhabitants, not knowing where they wanted to go. They were astray, unprotected lambs in a land of slender law. Ivy began to drag her feet as loudly as she could, to show that she was displeased. Both were secretly oppressed because that day they had not kissed.
At that moment came rain. Very slowly at first in separate warm drops that made upon the pavement spots as large as a coin. “My!” said Henry, “it’s going to come down like billy-oh!”
“I don’t care,” said Ivy.
“Come on,” said Henry, “let’s see if we can get under shelter somewhere.” But they were still progressing along another brick wall; opposite, the warehouses were closed. They ran, for now the rain was beginning to fall with greater determination.
“Here,” gasped Henry, as he ran, “we must get in somewhere; you’ll be sopped through. Let’s go into a shop.”
They stopped irresolutely at the corner of a side-street. As it was almost entirely occupied by warehouses no living creature could be seen. But just as they prepared to run on through the rain, Henry observed a tottering post, bearing a battered sign. The sign was in the shape of a hand pointing up the lane, and upon it were painted the words: “To the Waxworks.”
“Here,” he cried, dragging Ivy along, “that’ll do. I didn’t know they had waxworks in this part of the world, but it’ll save us getting wet.” They ran up the street, expecting a veranda and a commissionaire. At the end of the lane they had found nothing, and paused irresolute, when upon the door of a three-floored house Ivy saw the word “Waxworks”, with the addition: “Mrs. Groby, Proprietress.” Henry seized the door handle, which resisted for a moment. The door jammed, but with a great effort he forced it open. It made a great clatter as he flung it against the wall. Breathless, and wiping their wet faces, the two stood giggling in the hall. Then, feeling alone, suddenly they kissed. The excitement of the run and of the caress sheltered them against an impression which the place imposed upon them only by degrees. They were in the hall of a house, of a house like any other house. There was no noise, except for a slight sound. It felt deserted. The door handle on the right was covered with dust. Nobody had gone into that room for a long time. An unaccountable emotion developed in them. The house was still except that at last they identified the slight sound: far away a tap was leaking. They found themselves listening to the drip which came regularly from the basement.
“Well,” said Henry, with forced cheerfulness, “here we are.” And as if to reassure himself: “Anyhow, we sha’n’t get wet.”
They stood for a moment looking out at the rain, which now came faster. The effect of this falling water, soft and hot, the dusty silence of the place except for that regular drip far away, combined to cast upon them a sort of uneasiness, an almost physical oppression. Ivy began to look about her with unexplainable anxiety. The darkness of the stairs, the banisters broken in several places, the dusty door handle, stirred in her a vague fear; she looked about her like a cat in a strange place and preparing to flee. As the feeling communicated itself to Henry his manliness revolted. It would be too silly to have the jumps. So he said: “Ive, since we’re here, why not go upstairs and see the show?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Ivy dominated her disturbance and said: “All right.”
They went up the stairs, firmly, but with instinctive slowness, troubled by the sound of their feet upon the boards, followed by the fainter drip of the distant tap. The first floor was like the ground floor. Here, too, the door handles were dusty, and here, too, there came no sound from beyond the doors. They had to make an effort to go up further. The sense that here was emptiness made emptiness frightful. But Henry was leading and still went up. He didn’t know why, but knew he must go up. Perhaps because he was a man and couldn’t run away from anything, not even from nothing. The second floor comforted them, for here was a pay-box, empty it is true, but marked: “Pay here.” Henry released a great sigh. It really was a show. It had a human air.
“Come on, Ivy,” he said, in a loud voice which rang unpleasantly down the uncarpeted stairs. “Since there’s nobody down here we can pay when we get to the top.”
Ivy silently followed him up, and so they reached what seemed to be a large attic. Once again a reluctant door yielded to their hands, and Henry stepped into the doorway with a sort of jauntiness, but Ivy paused for a moment at his back. Waxworks, yes, but, she didn’t know why, at once she was terrified. One couldn’t see very well in the attic, for the dust of years lay upon the skylight, and the avaricious light of the sullen sky hardly penetrated. The walls had been whitewashed, but now were stained black with damp, soiled by the touch of hands, the smoke of lamps. About the door hung rags of dirty red damask. And in the immense silence of the place, hearing not even the drip of the distant tap, they found themselves alone with the wax figures.
Some stood upon little thrones of red-painted wood, here a man in day clothes, staring emptily from a yellow countenance, here a woman spreading crimson nostrils to an absent scent. The two were still in the doorway, not knowing why they did not go in. They were conscious of a secret vileness in these faces. The things stood so still, but sure of themselves, as if they had always stood in the dust and twilight. But at last Henry seized Ivy’s arm more firmly and they went in.
Altogether there were fourteen figures. Three of the men were labeled Charles Peace, Dr Crippen, and Gouffé. The woman with the intense gaze was Mrs. Maybrick, and there were two other women, one with bright red hair over which a spider had built its web. But Henry and Ivy, as they stood before them, did not at once read the legends telling how Crippen had killed his wife and burnt her body in the furnace, nor did they gaze at Gouffé, the bailiff, who had been carved into pieces and packed in a trunk. A little later Ivy read that ticket to the end and shudderingly stepped away from the invitation to draw apart the figure’s clothing and see indicated the lines along which the body had been cut up. At that moment she was cowering against Henry, who instinctively had laid an arm about her shoulders, for the single figures were less terrifying than two groups represented in action. One of the groups comprised a man and a woman in a pink flannelette dressing-gown. With an expression of pinched determination the murderer was forcing the female figure down into a bath, where a sheet of mica, tinted green, represented water. In the grasp of a bony hand, the female figure held the edge of the bath, wildly raising the other arm, while into her distorted mouth floated the green edge of the water that was to drown her. It was a work of art of indescribable horror. It was as if the snake-like fingers moved, as if in another moment the head would disappear under that still green surface.
With an exclamation Henry turned aside to the other group, that stood dim within the shadow, away from the faint rays that fell through the skylight. This represented a very old woman, lying on her face, her white hair scattered and stained with blood, while kneeling over her, a sandbag still half-raised, was a short man in the clothes of the day, his face set and coated with a horrible scarlet flush.
Now a new sound made them start. It was the growing rain, pattering upon the skylight, as if goblins raced across it. In a sudden desire for union again they kissed, quickly falling apart, as if espied.
They turned away for a moment, fascinated, they did not know how, in this gallery of crime; the still things about them seemed to have a motion, a vibration of their own. They found themselves looking sharply into corners as if something were there after all, as if these were not creatures of wax, but actually poisoners, men and women experienced in violence and still capable of evil. The great horror, which always drew them back to itself, was that bath, soiled, chipped, and streaked with black rivulets of dirt, into which the murderer was endlessly pressing down the figure that endlessly strove for life.
So great was the tension that Henry tried to rejoin the ordinary world. He whispered: “We ought to have paid someone,” but while he spoke he looked from side to side, as if begging some material custodian to appear with a familiar ticket and a sounding punch. Ivy did not reply; she was holding his arm in a nervous clutch; once or twice she moved away from him, and then came back, as if her fingers grasped him independently of the processes of her brain. She was opening and closing her mouth, striving to speak and finding her tongue dry. Only at last did she find a whisper: “I don’t like it. Let’s go.”
Henry Badger also wanted to go, but he was so unaccountably afraid that he dared not go. His virility spoke: it told him that if he went now he would be everlastingly ashamed. He was afraid to tell himself that he was afraid. So, in a voice the loudness of which half-startled him, he replied: “Oh, rot! Since we’ve come up we may as well see the lot of them.” So, Ivy still grasping his arm, they circled the attic, stopping in turn before each figure. Ivy did not want to see, but she could not look away. It was as if she must meet material, human eyes. It was always the eyes she looked at. There was a challenge in them. It was the defiance of the dead which she must meet. She must again view the bath, look down through the green surface of the water upon the agonized limbs which twisted in the dimness that was to be their grave. But now there was a change. Perhaps because habit made that first seem less awful, the second group gained in horror. It was not only the sight of the blood coagulated on the white hair, it was something else, something unnamable. The art of the sculptor had gone too far; here was mere and abominable reality. Real hair, and crouching above, with drooping eyelids, the figure of the murderer, ill-shaven and flushed with health. Something twisted in Ivy’s body as she thought that upon the still mask she could discern beads of sweat. They stayed staring, half-conscious that they had been here a long time, though little more than a minute had passed. The beating of their hearts deafened them, and combined with the hissing sound of the rain, as if thin ghosts shod in cloud were racing across the skylight. Her eyes still fixed upon the creature with the sandbag, Ivy whispered again: “Let’s go.”
Then, in the far distance, they heard the front door slam.
At that sound a confused terror seized them both. The contrast between incoming humanity and the unearthly silence here affected them like a blow. Heat and weakness rushed up their limbs, and in Ivy’s ears was a sound like the distant unwinding of an endless chain. Henry was the first to recover; a compound emotion formed in him: the proprietress—of course—he wanted to get out—they really ought to pay—he’d better see. This summarized itself in an inarticulate sound. Turning, he ran to the landing and looked down the stairs. He did not know what he expected to see, but something, and after a few seconds, as he heard nothing, such a weakness overcame him that he let himself go against the balustrade, his head hanging down over the well of the stairs, where all was silence and darkness.
But almost at once he recovered, for suddenly behind him there came a long cry, a cry with a strange, torn quality, like that of a beast in pain, that jerked him to his feet as it dragged from his pores a sheet of cold sweat. As he turned, Ivy came tumbling out of the attic, her arms outstretched before her as if she fumbled for her way. She could not see, for her eyes were so retroverted that only the whites showed under the falling lids. He caught her just as she was going to throw herself down the stairs. As he touched her she flung her arms about his neck with maniacal strength and he could not free himself from that grasp. As they stumbled together down the stairs, he thought that it was like being held by bones. They fell together at the foot of the second landing, and somehow struggled to their feet. There was a moment of incredible effort before they could pull open the outer door, which had been closed by the wind. They halted for an instant upon the steps, close-locked under the falling hot rain, and Henry did not understand what drove him then, what strange relief or exaltation, what insane excitement made him press his mouth to the lips drawn tightly into pallid lines. At the kiss Ivy’s nerves suddenly relaxed. She became a bundle in his arms, something he dragged along, staggering as he fled, he knew not from what. They shared but one idea: to get away. The pavement streamed before them as they ran with downcast eyes. Then, with a shock, they were stopped by two policemen in oilskins, with whom they nearly collided at the junction of the lane and the main road. The policemen stared at these two, instinctively holding them by the arm, not understanding that they were at the limit of terror, and already suspecting that they had committed some crime. Indeed, Henry and Ivy were struggling in their grasp, still dominated by their one desire: to get away. At last, when they grew quiet and stood breathing hard, their mouths relaxed by nervous exhaustion, the elder policeman, who was a sergeant, said: “Now then, what’s all this?”
“I don’t know,” said Henry.
“Come on,” said the sergeant, “you don’t put me off like that. What you been up to, you two?” Henry did not reply. “Mark you, it’ll be all the worse for you if you don’t talk. What’s happened?” He shook his prisoner, suggesting that he’d make him talk yet, but failing to draw a reply he turned to the girl: “You, why were you running?”
Ivy seemed to have recovered more quickly than her companion. Though her eyelids did not cease to twitch, she managed to say: “I saw something.”
“Saw something?” said the sergeant. “Saw what?”
“Oh, I couldn’t,” said Ivy.
“I expect they’re drunk,” said the constable.
“No,” said the sergeant, meditatively, “I can’t smell it on ’em.”
“Oh, no,” cried Ivy, “no, of course not, only it’s the waxworks—the waxworks.”
“Waxworks?” said the sergeant. “What waxworks?”
“I know, sergeant,” said the constable, nodding up the lane. “Mrs. Groby’s place.”
“Oh, yes,” said the sergeant, “I know now. Sort of chamber of ’orrors. Well, you been to the waxworks. What about it?”
“I saw something,” whispered Ivy.
“Saw what?” said the constable. “Saw Mrs. Groby, I suppose. Funny old dame, sergeant. She’s been living in that house all by herself for the last forty years, alone with them things. Used to make a lot of money out of them, and they say she’s got a lot saved up. Between you and me and the lamp-post I’m surprised no one’s knocked her on the head yet and walked off with her money.”
Ivy gave a low cry: “Yes—that’s it—there’s a man in there—he’s killed her—blood all over her head.”
“What’s all this?” asked the sergeant, professionally incredulous. “What’s all this story? And how do you know anything about it?”
“There was a noise,” said Ivy. “The door slammed—Henry ran out. I couldn’t move for a moment—she was on the floor, and the man—” Her voice became shrill: “as I turned to look after Henry I just—he raised his arm and rubbed it—just with the corner of my eye—I—” She gave a heavy sigh, and her head fell back upon the policeman’s chest.
But she had not fainted, and in a moment the policemen were striding up the lane, followed by Henry and Ivy, who clung to the companionship of these tall, loud-speaking men. As they went the sergeant theorized:
“I see the dodge. He did the old woman in; then he heard this pair come up the stairs, and rigged himself up as a wax figure. Got cramp, I suppose, and took the chance to rub his arm when he thought she wasn’t looking. Cheer up, missy,” he added to Ivy, who was crying out of weakness. “We’ll soon get him.” As they reached the door of the museum he winked at her and drew his truncheon. “Better stay downstairs, missy,” he added, as he led the way up. But after a moment Ivy and Henry could not bear their loneliness, and tiptoed up the stairs behind the blue shapes that walked with such assurance, making no attempt to muffle their tread. When they reached the attic, the policeman looked in a puzzled way into the twilight.
“Which one is it?” said the policeman, and instinctively his voice fell to a whisper. Ivy, who was just behind him, pointed at the kneeling shape carrying the sandbag.
“That one,” she said. The sergeant did not understand his own feeling, but he received some dim impression from the grey place. He walked only three feet into the room. Then, in an uneasy voice, he addressed the kneeling figure: “Now then, my man. The game’s up. You better go quietly.”
There was no reply, and the echoes died away, repeating a quivering uncertainty in the policeman’s voice.
After a moment’s pause the sergeant, irritated by the silence, strode into the room; raising his truncheon, he went up to the kneeling figure and touched it on the shoulder. He drew back his hand, touched the body again. Then, suddenly, he burst into a roar of laughter, as with a derisive gesture he passed his hand up and down over the waxen face.
“Wax!” he cried. “Bert! Have you ever seen such a pair of babies as these two? Been here and got the ’orrors, the two of them, and ran out like a pair of loonies to tell us this dummy is Jack the Ripper posing for the Russian bally. Oh, my!”
“Wax!” whispered Ivy, “oh, no. Oh, please don’t touch it. It’s not wax. No, it’s not.”
“Come on,” said the sergeant, kindly, “touch it yourself.”
“Oh, I couldn’t,” said Ivy, quivering, but with a laugh the policeman seized her wrist, and, drawing her towards the figure, forced her to lay her hand upon the waxen coldness of the cheek.
“Wax,” said the policeman, “you silly kid. That’s only wax. And so’s this wax,” he added, as he bent down and negligently laid his hand upon the blood-stained white hair. But, in the same movement almost, the policeman jumped up and recoiled, his staring eyes glaring at his hand. For less than a second did he gaze at it; then, with a cry, as if seized by ungovernable hysteria, he brought down his truncheon upon the head of the kneeling man, which, under the blow, scattered into tiny fragments of tinted wax. Then the other policeman drew back as he saw his comrade’s hand stained with fresh blood.
“A waxwork,” he gasped. “What—how? It isn’t a waxwork. It’s Mrs. Groby.” He laid a single finger on the woman’s head, stared at his own blood-stained hand. “Dead—still warm.” His voice rose high: “Killed—by what?”
In the silence, far below, could be heard the thin drip of the leaky tap.
Rank #15: PseudoPod 658: I Hate All That Is Mine
- Author : Leigh Harlen
- Narrator : Heather N. Thomas
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
- Discuss on Forums
“I Hate All That Is Mine” originally appeared in the anthology, Lost Films, published by Perpetual Motion Machine
Self harm, strong sexual themes
Title card music is “Coagula” by permission of Zeal & Ardor. We learned of this band when one of their albums appeared as a chapter heading for We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix. Click through for our interview with Grady for this book. All of those referenced albums were good, but Zeal & Ardor sunk their hooks in and wouldn’t let go. Their powerful mix of gospel, blues, and metal is mesmerizing. You owe it to yourself to check out at least “Blood in the River” and “Gravedigger’s Chant.”
I Hate All that is Mine
by Leigh Harlen
The beanbag crunched and whooshed as Karla dropped into it. No one older than sixteen should have to sit in a beanbag, but she didn’t complain and did her best to get comfortable. While Hailey set up her movie, she rehearsed what she would say when it was over to cover how much she hated it. The camera work was really good. I loved the way you lit the room. That one shot was really striking. No, I’m not lying, I really liked it.
“This is going to floor you, I swear. It’s the best thing I’ve ever made.” Hailey’s hands trembled almost as much as her voice as she hooked up the cables between her laptop and the flat screen television mounted on the wall of her basement bedroom.
“Awesome, looking forward to it,” Karla said, forcing a cheerful tone to hide her skepticism. Hailey was seriously amped up about this. It didn’t bode well. Hailey fancied herself the next Alejandro Jodorowsky and the more excited she was about a project, the more incomprehensible and bizarre it was bound to be. In recent months, Hailey’s projects had gotten so weird, and occasionally unethical, that even the local film club nerds stopped inviting her to their bi-monthly screening night for local filmmakers. A few of her movies had even made Karla question their fifteen-year friendship. Especially that goddamn movie with the octopus and its somehow even more fucked up homage to Oldboy.
“What’s this movie for again?”
“This film is for the short film festival at Cinemarvelous.”
Karla hoped the dim lighting hid her eye roll. Hailey never made movies, she made films. “Ah, cool. You don’t get enough of that place at work?”
Hailey laughed, high pitched with an off-kilter edge. “I mean, yeah. But it is a pretty well-respected festival. Real producers and shit come out for it.”
At last, the television screen projected the off-putting mashup of Dr. Victor Frankenstein—the pre-code 1931 film, naturally—and David Lynch’s face that was her desktop background. “Okay, here we go.”
The screen flicked to life with a wide shot of the house they were currently inside which Hailey rented with her boyfriend and four other people. It was silent except for music so quiet that Karla wasn’t sure if it was coming from the movie or from somewhere in the house.
The shot narrowed to focus on a dark window on the second floor and the music grew to a soft hum. A pale shape moved in front of the glass, stopped, and squirmed. A chill wriggled up Karla’s back as if the thing in the window were watching her instead of the other way around. She strained her eyes, but force of will couldn’t make the camera zoom in closer and whatever it was remained insubstantial. The camera’s gaze lingered on the window for far too long. It created an unsettling, voyeuristic feeling in Karla’s gut, like she was a trespasser leering into someone’s bedroom.
It was a relief when the camera swung down to the porch with its dingy white, peeling paint and the floorboards that sagged under the molding green couch. The door swung open inviting the viewer into the house and the music grew loud enough that she could make out that it was organ music. Karla almost laughed at the absurd drama of it. Probably Hailey was aiming for old-school silent movie accompaniment organ, but instead it somehow sounded like the Phantom of the Opera was playing a duet with a county fair carousel.
In the living room, Hailey’s boyfriend Thad stood blindfolded, every inch of his pale, bony body on display under the bright lights. Three of Karla and Thad’s housemates stood in a circle with him, also blindfolded and nude. Their voices were hard to hear over the strangely dramatic yet chipper organ, but they were each muttering a litany of sex acts they wanted to engage in. They fumbled about the room, anxious laughter and cursing when they bumped into tables and tripped over their own feet. When at last they followed one another’s voice to the one speaking of compatible desires, they fell to the too-long un-mopped wood floor and fucked.
Karla was no prude and had seen other extreme sex scenes before, but this hollow, joyless copulating wasn’t at all sexy and brought a lump of sadness and disgust to her throat.
The camera zoomed in on each focused, clenched, sweaty face then swept through the room as though disinterested in the orgy. It took the viewer up the stairs, pausing on the face of the one roommate not screwing on the dirty floor. Karla was surprised to see James in this film. She only knew him because he also worked at the movie theater with her and Hailey. Unlike the other housemates, he didn’t have any delusions of being a great actor or filmmaker, at least as far she knew. He wanted to pay his bills and be left alone. He ignored the fucking and gazed with sorrowful longing up the stairs. He turned and looked straight into the camera for a long moment and then ripped out a chunk of hair. Blood and bits of scalp hung from the ends as he slowly shoved the hair into his mouth and ate it like spaghetti.
“What the fuck. No way was that real,” Karla said.
Hailey smiled but said nothing.
Up the stairs. One slow step at a time until the camera took in a narrow hallway poorly lit by a gaudy chandelier with about half its lightbulbs removed. Karla recalled the opening of the film, the room on the far right would be the one whose window the camera had focused on so long. She wracked her brain. Whose bedroom was that? Hailey’s room was in the basement so she had never had much cause to be on the second floor. She’d come up to pee once when someone was showering downstairs and vaguely remembered seeing James come out of that door.
The camera continued towards the far door so slowly that she wanted to scream. They must have been looking at the hallway for five minutes.
Karla realized she was holding her breath and forced herself to breathe.
The shot centered on the door at last. It zoomed in closer and closer until she could see the dark wood grain. The music swelled and Karla wasn’t sure it actually was an organ, but she couldn’t place the instrument anymore. Maybe a Theremin.
Fingerprints and bits of white paint marred the shining silver door handle. Closer and closer the camera focused. Her hand itched and she clenched her fist as if she could reach through the screen and open the door herself.
The music cut off and the screen went black.
Karla sat in stunned silence, her tongue unable to find the generic praise she rehearsed.
“Well?” Hailey prompted.
“I… what the fuck was that?”
Hailey clapped and laughed. “I take it from your lack of bullshit faux compliments that it made an impression.”
“I mean, I wouldn’t—“
“It’s cool. I should have told you to stop faking nice a long time ago. But, whatever. This was good, right?”
Karla chewed her lip. “I don’t know if it’s good. It—well, it’s something. You’re right, it made an impression. I want to know what’s behind the door.”
“That’s exactly what I was hoping to hear. Thank you.” Hailey wrapped her in a tight hug and squealed with excitement.
Karla pulled herself out of the embrace. A hug felt far too wholesome when a blanket of unease and revulsion still clung to her. “Don’t you think it might be a little, uh, risqué for the Cinemarvelous crowd?”
“People come from all over for the festival. I don’t give a fuck what the rubes here think if I can impress someone whose opinion actually matters.”
Karla rubbed her temples. She was getting a headache. One of those really awful ones that felt like it was right behind her eyeballs. She cut their hang out a bit short to go home and sleep. On her way out, she stopped at the foot of the stairs that led to the second floor, the desire to go up and open the door almost overwhelmed her. It would be nothing but a bedroom. Possibly with someone inside sleeping and rightfully irritated. She forced herself to turn around and leave the house. It was just a goddamn movie.
Hailey strode to the ticket counter with a yellow bucket in one hand and a battered mop in the other. “James puked in theater four again. Your turn.”
“Ugh. I cleaned up the last one,” Karla said.
“Nope, I cleaned the last one. Last night. Because you had a headache and I covered your shift.”
Karla groaned, but took the mop and bucket. “Fine. Counter’s yours.”
“And there’s not another show starting until the festival when I’m off.” Hailey pulled a book out of her bag and leaned on the counter.
“I hate you.”
“You love me.”
Karla stuck out her tongue and scrunched her face in what she hoped was a horrifying expression, then turned and walked as slowly as she could to theater four. The air inside smelled like popcorn, sweat, and bile. James was hunched in the front row, his head in his hands. The closer she got, the more the smell invaded her nose until she was in serious danger of adding more puke to the puddle of peppermint schnapps, pills, and half-digested popcorn.
“Sorry, Karla,” he said.
She wanted to yell at him and say that yeah, he was really fucking sorry, but his pale face and dark, hollow eyes stopped her and she sighed. “It’s okay, James.”
She’d worked at the theater for three years, almost as long as Hailey. And both of them combined hadn’t worked there half as long as James. He was helpful and polite even when a customer was screaming in his face. And something was killing him, though he’d never say so. It wasn’t just the booze. Even in his sober periods, which were less frequent now than even three months ago, he was still gaunt and smelled faintly of formaldehyde and rotten meat. The only difference drinking made was that when he puked it was usually in whichever theater he was supposed to be cleaning instead of the hallway carpet just outside the bathroom.
“You see Hailey’s movie yet?” he asked.
Karla shuddered. Whatever spell the film had weaved was broken. She saw it for what it was, just another of Hailey’s wannabe shock art. Though she still wondered how Hailey created the effect of James ripping out and eating his hair. She wouldn’t put it past Hailey to try and get someone to do that on film, but James didn’t seem the type to be so desperate for attention that he’d agree to self-mutilation. Still, she found herself wanting to run her hands through James’ long, greasy hair and push it back to determine if he was hiding a bloody bald spot.
“Yeah, I did,” she said.
“I hope Sylvia will let us off to see it tonight during the festival. Hailey’s really excited about it.”
Karla dumped a scoop of vomit into the bucket. She tried not to look too hard at the chunks of food, but a long clump of hair stuck to the pan and refused to let go. She shook it off and gagged.
“You okay?” James asked.
“I really am sorry.”
“I know, James. Take care of yourself, okay?”
She barely noticed his nod as she searched his head for bald spots.
Karla glanced around the theater. It wasn’t quite a packed house, but the screening was well attended. In an uncharacteristically benevolent gesture, Sylvia had offered half of them time off to go see Hailey’s film. Unpaid of course, so only a handful took her up on it.
The lights dimmed and Hailey squeezed her hand.
Watching amateur short films was like eating really shitty popcorn. It was mostly okay. Each film so short that you could get through to the next one before it was too excruciating. Every now and then you got a nice buttery one that encouraged you to keep eating, like the short about a werewolf girl struggling with the moral conundrum of having been a vegetarian who was now overcome by her craving for fresh meat. She ended up becoming a furry avenger who ate hunters. The writing was heavy handed, but it was funny and charmingly weird. But every now and then you bit down hard on an unpopped kernel. Like Hailey’s film.
Across the screen came the words,
I Hate All that is Mine
A film by Hailey Kandinsky
When the first shot of the house appeared, Karla looked around at the audience. None of the other actors, including James and Thad, were there as far as she could see. James was probably sleeping off his earlier bout of sickness, but Thad never turned down the opportunity to see his bargain bin Johnny Depp face on screen. Hailey hadn’t saved him a seat, so Karla didn’t ask. Maybe they were in another fight.
The door to the house opened and the strange music began, but the scene it opened on was different. Thad and the other three housemates were in position, murmuring their sexual preferences to each other, but streaks of bloody tears dripped down from behind their blindfolds and their legs trembled as they blindly sought each other’s bodies. The laughter and the fumbling was gone and replaced by desperation as if instead of seeking sex they were clinging to a lifeline that was sinking fast.
At the foot of the stairs, James once again did his disgusting hair eating trick, but this time it wasn’t the first bald spot he created. His scalp was riddled with bloody hairless patches.
Up and up the stairs they went to that door. And again Karla longed to open it. When the film ended, she found herself leaning forward with her hand outstretched. She glanced around and saw others in similar poses while a huge grin split Hailey’s face.
The house lights came up on the silent crowd. Someone coughed and then the room filled with angry murmurs. Hailey practically jumped up and down in her seat, delighted by the bits of enraged and scandalized conversation around them.
Karla rubbed at the pressure that had built again behind her eyes. “When did you have time to re-shoot damn near the entire film?”
Hailey shrugged and smiled. “Just wait until the next screening. Everyone will really be talking about it.”
The next day, Karla woke to a text from James asking if she’d be willing to work for him the next day. She eagerly accepted. She would have accepted a shift doing nothing but cleaning up his vomit if it saved her from another obligatory viewing of I Hate All that is Mine. The damn film had haunted her dreams all night with an ever repeating cycle of bloody writhing figures and the silver knob looming larger and larger on a door that never opened.
And her entire face ached. Not bad enough that she couldn’t work. But enough that if she stayed home she’d be sitting around doing nothing, and she might as well get paid for that. It wasn’t a headache. It radiated from behind her eyes. A throbbing, pressure like a blister that needed to pop but wouldn’t and pulled everything tight around its swollen mound of pus. It was uncomfortable and irritating and she wanted to reach her fingers into her sockets and pop the bubble of building pressure.
She should probably go see a doctor. The theater did provide health insurance, but it was the shittiest, cheapest option available and she hadn’t even touched her deductible yet. But, maybe if she was in a tight enough spot, she could beg her dad to cover her utility bills for the month. That would mean having to see him and probably sitting through a lecture about how she was wasting her potential and if she’d finished school she’d have a “real” job that gave her insurance with a deductible she could afford.
Or she could take some pain killers and pray whatever this was cleared up on its own or at least killed her quickly.
She dragged herself out of bed and got dressed. She was moving slower than usual and when she glanced at the clock she was already running five minutes late, so she left her hair wild and sticking up in all directions and ran for the bus.
When she arrived to work, the door was blocked by a hawk-faced man who shoved a sign in her face that read, “Is ten minutes of entertainment worth being damned for eternity?”
As Karla squeezed past him, he glanced at her Cinemarvelous polo shirt and glowered. “I Hate All that is Mine is an abomination.”
Hailey would be thrilled when she found out she had protesters. Not that he was the first protester they’d ever had. The town bible thumpers weren’t all that hard to stir up. When they showed Harry Potter the protest line rivaled the local Planned Parenthood.
The waiting crowd was bigger than the night before which was massive for something as artsy as a short film festival. Karla saw quite a few familiar faces. Not just the pitiful regulars who came to the theater to talk with the employees and escape the silence of their own houses, but people who had been in the audience with her the night before. There were different films shown throughout the festival, but there weren’t that many local filmmakers, even shitty ones, so the segment of locally made films was repeated each time. She hoped they wouldn’t be angry and come out yelling about being subjected to the same collection of pretentious tedium and weird shit a second night in a row.
A tall woman with bloodshot eyes framed by brows that looked drawn on with a pen knife held out her credit card. “Is I Hate All that is Mine playing again?”
“Oh good. I’ve been thinking about it since yesterday.”
“You liked it that much?”
The woman pursed her glossy lips. “Huh. Well, ‘liked’ isn’t quite the right word. Compelled? Yeah. I was compelled by it. Have you seen it yet?”
“I have. Yeah.”
The woman’s cheeks flushed a feverish pink. “Then you know what I’m talking about.”
Karla handed her the ticket. “Enjoy the show.”
The lobby cleared out as the moviegoers finished getting popcorn and candy and entered the theater. There was no reason to subject herself to that fucking movie again. But, her eyes still throbbed and if she stayed here, Sylvia was bound to walk by and notice that she wasn’t doing anything and say, “If you have time to lean, you’ve got time to clean,” in that sing-song chipper voice.
Besides, that woman was right, there was something compelling about Hailey’s film.
She snuck into the theater, careful to open and close the door quickly and avoid letting in light from the lobby. The theater had filled from the front so that the only empty seats were towards the back, which was good for sneaking in late, but it was unusual for the very front rows to fill unless they had a completely packed house.
Thad and the three housemates were already fucking on a floor decidedly dirtier than the first time Karla had seen the movie. Blood, dirt, and a crust of various fluids splotched the dark wood. The camera focused first on Thad’s face. The blindfold was gone and the space where his eyes should have been was a bloody ruin of scratches and ragged cuts.
“The special effects are amazing,” a man sitting in front of her whispered to his companion.
Most of the theatergoers, and every single person in the first few rows, leaned forward in unison. Karla felt herself doing the same thing, but even realizing she was doing it, couldn’t stop herself.
Once again, James sat at the foot of the stairs gazing up with longing, but now blood dripped from his hairless scalp down his neck and face as if he were wearing a blood-soaked hat. Out of hair to rip out, his fingers dug at his scalp until his nails caught skin. He tore a strip from his forehead and sucked it into his mouth.
The camera panned off the spectacle and inched up the stairs and towards the door. With each agonizingly slow step, the throbbing in Karla’s eyes intensified until she thought her eyes might splatter on the seat in front of her.
The camera focused on the door knob and it turned. A space no bigger than a strand of hair appeared and the pressure building in Karla’s eyes burst and warm, wet fluid dripped down her cheeks like tears.
A collective cry of dismay bubbled through the crowd as the screen when black and then credits rolled.
Karla buried her face in her hands. She knew where the house was. She could just go and open the goddamn door for herself.
“Stop it,” she whispered, “it’s just a movie.”
It was a very clever trick for Hailey to swap out the film so that it changed on each viewing. But it was a trick and nothing more. She lifted her head and took a breath to steady herself. Thin smears of red dripped down both of her palms. She touched her still damp cheeks and her fingertips came away bloody.
She wasn’t alone. The other moviegoers were staring at their hands or wiping furiously at their eyes. But there was no panic. Not among the crowd and not ripping through her own heart. Revulsion. Fascination. The same things she felt during the increasingly inhuman sex scene or when she watched James eat his own hair and skin.
It was real. All of it was real. She wanted to believe it was trickery and impressive make-up, but that lie was washed away by the impossibility of a theater full of people weeping blood. They should all be screaming, burning the theater to the ground to destroy that depraved movie.
But what she wanted was to see it again. She needed to know what happened next. The door was opening and she needed to see it.
The next day, Karla went to Cinemarvelous on her day off for the third day of the film festival. The doors to the theater were blocked by a growing crowd waving signs and chanting. They faced off against a herd of people trying to shove them out of the way to get inside the theater. Uniformed police officers stood on the sidelines with batons in their hands and hesitant, confused expressions on their faces. To her right, a news reporter called it a stand-off between moralistic censorship and the defenders of freedom of expression.
Karla joined the people trying to get inside. As the film’s start time grew closer, the crowd became more desperate. The yelling turned to shrieking and the pushing to clawing and punching. Someone trying to get inside struck a protester and drew blood and the crowd erupted into a chaotic mess of flailing arms, fingernails digging for sensitive skin, shrieking, and indiscriminate blows.
An elbow slammed into her ribs and Karla swung her fists like a windmill, hitting anyone in her vicinity. She didn’t care if anyone else ever saw the movie again, as long as she did. A crash of glass and a burning canister went through the window and into the lobby. Smoke billowed and a desperate scream ripped from Karla’s throat. The tape might be destroyed.
A sound like a bomb going off rattled the windows and smoke burned her eyes. The police were yelling and brandishing riot gear, but the crowd ignored them. But then the air turned agonizing as the police pepper sprayed anyone and everyone they could reach. The screaming protesters and moviegoers continued to claw at one another blindly, then a blast hit her and she couldn’t see what was happening. She reached out and ran towards the door, bouncing off people, falling, and trying again until a hard blow caught her in the stomach and knocked her to the ground.
By the time she was able to force her blurry, burning eyes open, the fire was out and the police had managed to separate the groups and barricade the doors to the theater. Many were lying on the ground clutching their eyes, weeping, and moaning, while others made feeble efforts to run or crawl towards the theater only to be thrown to the ground and handcuffed. The protesters crowed and shouted thanks and praises to the cops for closing the theater through their own busted and bleeding mouths.
She took a deep breath of the caustic air. She could wait. She had a key.
Karla’s soft footsteps seemed impossibly loud in the empty theater. The dim safety light buzzed overhead and a plump rat—which management insisted was most certainly not in this theater—scampered past with a kernel of popcorn between its teeth. She crept up to the projection booth for theater four, pulled out the huge noisy keyring, and opened the door.
The projector lens was shattered and there was no sign of I Hate All that is Mine. She dropped to her knees and searched under the chair and the lockers lining the wall.
“It’s not here. I would never leave it here unattended.”
Karla jumped. Hailey stood in the doorway, silhouetted in the dim light.
“Where is it?”
Hailey stepped into the booth. Her eyes were wide and clear, her skin so smooth she looked airbrushed. “Home.”
“Can I see it again?”
She smiled. “Of course. We’re friends, aren’t we?”
Karla squeezed her eyes shut and relieved tears slipped through her lashes. “Thank you.”
The ride to Hailey’s house felt like hours. Karla screamed her frustration each time a light turned red or a car drove below the speed limit. At last Hailey pulled into the driveway and led her through the side door that took them straight down to the basement. Hailey turned on her computer and the television and started the film. When the title crossed the screen, she turned out the lights and left Karla alone, closing the door behind her.
The macabre scene played out. The sex more desperate and vile each time, James reduced further and further to an awestruck, bloody mass. And each time the door opened a little bit more. But still not nearly wide enough to see what was inside.
It could have been her fourth or her four-hundredth time through when James died. Exhausted, and bleeding, but still compelled, he dug weakly at his left cheek until his fingertips pushed through the flesh and muscle and touched the inside of his mouth. He pulled, but he was too weak to tear. An agonized, despairing sob tore from his throat, his fingers twitched, and he stopped moving.
The shock of his death woke up something in her brain. Karla stood and ripped the memory stick out of the computer’s port and the screen went black.
It was light in her palm. She could crush it under her heel. Snap it in two. Burn it with a lighter until everything inside melted. She needed to do something. Anything. When it was gone she wouldn’t think about the door or James’ scalp or the look of needful horror on Thad’s face.
The tiny thing was so delicate. It was revolting and beautiful. That strange, not-quite-an-organ music came from its artificial guts and blood leaked from its unsmiling plastic and metal mouth.
“James saw it first. He was lucky. But he didn’t capture it. That was me.”
Karla jumped. Light spilled into the room through the open door, but she hadn’t noticed it open.
Hailey held out her hand. “Come, I’ll show you.”
Karla stared at the memory stick and then at Hailey’s hand. She thought Hailey’s fingers elongated and writhed, but then they were just fingers. Thin and calloused with red chipped nail polish.
She set the memory stick on the floor and placed her heel on top of it.
Hailey glanced down, but didn’t look alarmed. “Don’t you want to know what’s on the other side of the door?”
Karla pressed her heel down harder.
She couldn’t do it. She had to know. She reached out and took Hailey’s feverish hand.
Together they went up to the living room where the music began to play, soft and playful and powerful. Thad had been replaced by a man Karla had never seen. A blindfold hid his bleeding eyes and his skin was cleaner, less ripped than the others. Thad lay dead on the floor and when the others began to circle each other, they stepped over and tripped on his body, but otherwise ignored it. Requests for violence and death intermixed with demands for sex. When they fell on each other, blood and tears leaked from their eyes and the fingernail gouges in their backs.
They left them to writhe and grunt and stepped over the bloody lump that was James and climbed the stairs. They walked as slow as the camera had moved in the film until they reached the door. Hailey stepped back and Karla gripped the doorknob. It was warm and pliant under her hand and the lock pulled and sucked at her skin like a mouth. She turned the handle and tumbled inside and—
I Hate All that is Mine
A film by Hailey Kandinsky