On a Dare

On a Dare Cover Art

Tina Grimes. Aka, Death Hunter or Ghost Breaker. Savior to some, devil to others.

Until now, she refused to share her origin story. When asked, she dismissed the question. Not important.

Now she reveals the story, a story that answers few questions, a short answer on how she got started. Flatly, on a dare.

💀

People often ask me how I got my start. I wasn’t always like this.

In 2003, I was twenty-two years old, Tina Grimes. Not the Death Hunter, the Ghost Breaker. Nothing like the hardened and scarred woman I have become now.

Take highway 101 down the Washington coast. A little way past Raymond, in South Bend. A small fishing town along the Willapa River known for its oysters. That’s where it began, on Halloween night, of all things.

I’d gone there with two of my friends, Brianna and Kayla. The dare was Kayla’s idea. She loved horror movies. Her big idea for Halloween was to dare us to watch a horror movie marathon in an actual haunted house. Just the three of us. And we were crazy enough to go along with it.

How different would things have turned out for us, if we hadn’t dared? Since graduation, we’d been drifting apart and I think we all knew it was one of the few chances we’d have to spend together like this.

And it was hard to resist Kayla.

She was a year younger, a petite pixie of a girl with blond hair and blue eyes. She always said she got her mother’s coloring and her father’s short stature, but she didn’t actually know the truth. She’d never known her parents, orphaned on the way home from the hospital after birth when the car was hit by a drunk driver behind the wheel of a heavy duty pickup. Both parents died, and she ended up in an orphanage.

At the time I didn’t understand how she hadn’t ever been adopted. She was impossibly cute, had no end of guys asking her out. She must have been the cutest baby ever, and yet was never at home anywhere.

Brianna, was dark in contrast, with big dark eyes like pools of night. Her hair, too, was a mass of curls that had a mind of their own. She was the tallest of us three, even taller than me at five foot eight. In heels, she might have been striking if she wasn’t so ungainly and awkward, with a laugh like a donkey. Not that we’d ever say that—we loved her and her laugh.

The house Kayla had found stood in the hills above the town, back up a dirt road that switchbacked up the hill. If it hadn’t been surrounded by tall Douglas firs, it might have had a lovely view of the river and the town below. Instead, it was cut off and buried deep beneath the dark branches.

Kayla drove us to the place, hunched up over the wheel of her little red VW Beetle. She kept giggling.

“You’re going to love it,” she promised as we turned into the drive. “It’s perfect. Absolutely perfect!”

At last, she turned up a weedy drive, splashing through puddles from the rain the night before. It wasn’t even five o’clock yet, and already dark with thick gray clouds above and the smell of new rain in the air.

The Beetle’s headlights speared ahead, lighting up only trees and a drive that was looking like no one had been up it in years. A thin tree hung across the drive, hung up in the trees on the sides.

In the passenger seat Brianna, twisted her head, leaning forward as the Beetle passed beneath. Safe on the other side, she slumped back into her seat.

Brianna looked at Kayla. “You realize that this is exactly the sort of place that people always go in horror movies and end up stalked by a crazed killer?”

Kayla’s teeth flashed white in the dim interior. “I know! Isn’t it perfect?”

The trees pulled back, only slightly, and we saw the house. I don’t think it was ever a pretty house. It stood two stories tall, the spine of the roof slumped now, shingles covered in moss, branches, and debris. Windows boarded up. Nothing decorative about the place. It was grayed with age and weather.

“Okay, that’s a spooky place,” Brianna said. “I’ll give you that much. It’s also probably full of black mold and asbestos. How about we go back, find a nice motel room and watch movies there? Motels are scary by default.”

Kayla shook her head as she pulled up in front of the house. “No way! This is perfect!”

“It probably leaks,” I said.

“That’s why I brought the tent, just in case,” Kayla said. “We can set it up inside.”

“Really?” Brianna said. “Why are we doing this?”

“I dared you, and you accepted.” Kayla shut off the engine. Darkness swallowed the car.

Brianna laughed, a hitching, nervous laugh. “Uh, guys. It’s like really dark! How are we going to see anything at all?”

A bright light clicked on, shining in Brianna’s face. She winced and held up her hands. Kayla laughed, waving the flashlight she held.

“They’re called flashlights? I’ve got more in back. Come on, let’s get the gear and get inside!”

💀

I don’t know how Kayla got the key to the place, I never found out. I don’t even know how she found it, but she did.

She let us in with a flourish. She threw open the door as if it opened onto a grand ballroom, while somehow holding onto the sleeping bag and tent that she carried. She had the straps from the camp chairs over her shoulders.

Brianna was right. It smelled like mold. Mold and piss and dust. Cobwebs and dust coated the floor and wallpaper peeled on the walls. The entry way was narrow and as gray as the exterior, everything swathed in dust as our flashlights flitted around the entry.

It wasn’t much of a foyer. There was a small space facing a narrow passage straight ahead, and a staircase rising up to the second floor. Off to our right was closed door, and to the left an archway into a front room.

Kayla bounced in and went straight for the stairs. I stepped in front of her, managing to hang onto the sleeping bags, and camp stove that I carried. It was hard hanging onto all of that, and manage the flashlight at the same time.

“Don’t think of going up there.”

She twisted around. “Why not?”

“How long has this place been empty? Let’s see. The stairs might give away. Or the floor. You could get hurt. We’re here, but let’s stay on the ground floor.”

“We can still leave,” Brianna said, moving into the archway. She carried the bags of food in her arms. Her light moving around the room. “There’s no furniture or anything!”

I joined her. She was right. The room was empty except cobwebs, dust, and some leaves. And pitch black except our lights. Another door stood open in the back corner, past the empty fireplace. Even if it’d been light out the room would have been dark with the boarded up windows.

Kayla joined us. “Look, there’s plenty of room. We can set up the tent, if you want. We’ve got camp chairs and the cook stove. Everything we need.”

The front door slammed shut.

We all screamed. Brianna dropped the food in a heap and rushed to the door, her eyes wide. For a second I thought it wouldn’t open. We’d be trapped.

I didn’t drop anything. Instead I was frozen in place, watching Brianna reach the door.

The door opened just fine, hinges groaning. She went out onto the porch, realized we weren’t following and turned her flashlight back on us.

“Why are you still in there?”

Kayla dropped the tent and sleeping bag. “I dared you. Remember what happens if you back out?”

“Oh, come on! The door closed on its own!”

“The wind,” Kayla said.

Brianna waved her arms. “There’s no wind! Let’s go!”

Kayla shook her head. One of the camp chair bags started to slip from her shoulder. She caught it, hitched it up and grabbed the tent. She dragged it through the dust into the empty room.

Brianna looked to me. “Tina, you’ve got to convince her.”

I couldn’t give a reason for it, but I didn’t want to. Between problems with my parents’ health, the prospect of finding a job still bleak months after graduating college, I wanted a fun night away from everything. I wanted to face imaginary bumps in the night with my friends, rather than another day trying to find a job.

I didn’t say that, even if it went through my head. “We took her dare. And I can’t afford to pay up if we back out.”

“This is seriously messed up,” Brianna said.

I smiled. “Maybe it’ll be fun? We’ve got marshmallows.”

“We can make s’mores!” Kayla was already pulling the tent out of its bag.

Brianna took a step closer. Her voice took on a pleading edge. “Really? We’re really going to do this?”

I looked at Kayla and she looked back. We shared something then, something I don’t think either of us was even conscious of yet. This started on a dare, but neither one of us was going to give it up.

How different would things be if we had?

💀

Thirty minutes later the room looked less grim, as long as you didn’t look away from the circle of light from Kayla’s portable DVD player sitting on top of a camp stool, in front of our chairs. The tent was behind us, the camp stove set up in the fireplace. We wouldn’t build a fire, the chimney was undoubtedly clogged from years without maintenance, but the place was drafty enough to risk using the stove indoors.

Kayla unzipped a DVD case holding a bunch of discs in sleeves. She collected horror movies. “What’s first? Friday the 13th? The Hills Have Eyes? Evil Dead?”

Brianna was huddled up in her sleeping back, sitting on the camp chair like a giant purple worm with only her head exposed.

“Don’t you have anything funny?”

“Evil Dead is funny,” Kayla said.

“It doesn’t sound funny.” The sleeping bag rustled as Brianna huddled deeper.

Kayla laughed. “Wait a minute. You haven’t seen it?”

“I haven seen any of those! You know I don’t like horror movies!”

“I know, but really? None of them?” Kayla laughed again.

I chuckled too, then said. “Let’s go easy on her. Night of the Living Dead.”

“That doesn’t sound easy,” Brianna said.

“Oh, it is.” Kayla flipped through the discs. “And it’s a classic. There’s so many references to it in other movies.”

“Maybe later we can watch Shaun of the Dead,” I suggested. “It’s funny.”

Kayla laughed again and pulled the Night of the Living Dead dvd from its sleeve. She did that with all of her movies, got rid of the packaging and kept them in cases. Easier to move, she said. She’d gotten an iPod earlier that year and had converted her CDs over to MP3s as well. It was only 2003. She never kept much, always ready to move.

Brianna’s gaze moved between the two of us. “You’re tricking me, aren’t you? This is scarier than the others, isn’t it?”

“It’s pretty scary,” I said. I crossed my legs and arms. “If you find being in an isolated old house surrounded by zombies scary.”

Brianna moaned, as Kayla laughed and the movie started.

💀

Half the fun of the marathon was watching Brianna hide her face like a little kid during the movie, and hearing Kayla’s laughter.

We’d watched about thirty minutes of the movie when a board creaked upstairs. Kayla’s laughter died. I sat up in my camp chair, planting my feet on the floor.

“Okay, I didn’t imagine that, did I?” Brianna asked.

We were all quiet. Listening.

“Old houses —” Kayla started to say.

Boards creaked again. The squeak and release of someone stepping on a board, then stepping off again. A footfall echoed through the roof, and another board creaked.

“Ohmygodtheressomeoneupthere!” Brianna said.

Kayla stood up. So did I, and then stopped. The next footstep hadn’t come. We waited, looking at each other in the flickering glow from the player’s screen. The sound effects from the movie weren’t helping.

I pointed. “Pause it.”

Kayla hit the button. The movie froze with Judith O’Dea clutching her head, face twisted.

Quiet settled in around us. I turned away from the light of the DVD player and clicked on my flashlight. The beam lit the dust in the air and hit the peeling wallpaper by the stairs. Nothing moved except those slow-floating motes.

Brianna whispered behind me. “We didn’t imagine it.”

“It’s just the movie,” Kayla said. “It spooked you, that’s all.”

The sleeping back rustled, making more noise than you’d expect. They’re like potato chip bags, except for people. Brianna’s feet were loud on the floor.

“We should go. Come on, it could be some crazy person up there!”

I knot of unease settled into my gut. Maybe there was someone up there. It’d be sensible to listen to Brianna and leave.

“It’s the movie, our imaginations, and an old house,” Kayla insisted.

“Who are you trying to convince?” Brianna asked.

Good question. I twisted around, turning the flashlight on them.

A person walked through the doorway past the fireplace. Walking away_ from us, as if they’d been standing in the room and were leaving. I only caught a glimpse, a bit of a pale arm and a pale leg.

A naked arm. Naked leg. A suggestion of a face with dark eyes, all of it gone before I could move the light over.

My friends saw it on my face when I aimed the flashlight at the doorway. My skin was cold.

“What is it?” Brianna turned on her light, pointing it at the doorway. Her light bounced around as her hand shook. “What did you see?”

“Stay here,” I said.

I didn’t say that I’d be right back as I pushed between them. I at least knew that much.

I also knew we weren’t alone. You’ve all felt it before, the difference between an empty room and one with someone else in it. You don’t have see the person. You can sit in a room with someone else, your backs to each other, silent, and still know that you’re not alone. With the right person, it is comforting.

This wasn’t a comforting feeling. We weren’t alone in the house. If Brianna had seen even that glimpse of what I saw she would have gone running from the house and probably wouldn’t have talked to us again.

She didn’t see it. Neither of them did. Kayla must have suspected something even though she didn’t say anything. She did move over next to Brianna and stood at her side. Both of them had their flashlights on my back so I kept mine down, pointed at the floor.

That’s why, when I turned the corner at the doorway, I saw her feet first. Maggot-pale and dirty, with cracked, bleeding toenails, just the feet at first, caught in the light while the shadows swallowed all but her silhouette standing there in the darkness.

I snapped the light up, catching her square in the face. She screamed into the light, blood-shot eyes wide. Her mouth was a dark, pit lined with bloodied cracked and broken teeth. Stringy hair hung down in mats around her dirt-lined face. The smell was rotten, decayed and thick.

My gut did somersaults and I held my ground the way you stay still when a vicious dog comes at you. Run, and they’ll get you.

“Is there anything there?” Brianna asked. “What do you see?”

The woman ducked her head, reaching up with filthy hands against the light. Her skin was pale beneath the dirt, fingernails as cracked and bloodied as her toenails. Her head twitched and shook. All of her twitched and convulsed with spasms. Her rolling eyes didn’t hold any sanity.

“Tina?” Kayla called. “You’re freaking Brianna out, come on. Joke’s over.”

The woman screamed again, blood-tinged spittle flying from cracked, peeling lips.

No answering screams from my friends. They didn’t hear her. It was obvious. If they had, they’d be screaming too, and running.

I held my ground, holding the light on her. I didn’t know what she was, I was acting on instinct.

“Kayla, Brianna, you need to get outside. Now.”

Kayla laughed. “Come on, Tina. Don’t —”

I turned a hair. Only a bit, still not taking my eyes off the woman, but that was enough. She growled and ran at me, her bare feet slapping the floor.

When she got close enough she shoved me. I reacted too slow to get my arms up. Her momentum knocked my hands aside and hit me low in my chest.

It hurt. My breath exploded out of my mouth. And the force of it knocked me off my feet into the room. I dropped the flashlight.

There was more screaming. It wasn’t me. I couldn’t breathe. Tears stung my eyes. The screams weren’t coming from my attacker, it was my friends.

I rolled onto my side as lights danced in my face. I raised a hand to shield my eyes, trying to see where the woman was.

I didn’t see her anywhere.

“Holy shit!” Kayla crouched in front of me. Her hand touched my shoulder. “Tina? Are you okay? What the hell happened?”

“Please tell me you did that?” Brianna said. “It was a joke, right?”

I sucked burning air into my lungs along with the dust. I started coughing.

“I don’t think she’s joking,” Kayla snapped.

“What are you saying?”

The coughing subsided, but my throat stung. I pushed myself up and found my voice. “You didn’t see her? The woman that hit me?”

“What?” Brianna’s voice rose higher. “That’s not funny!”

“No one’s laughing.”

I got up with Kayla’s help. Brianna’s light hit my eyes again. I raised a hand. “Brianna, not in my eyes!”

“Sorry.” She moved the light.

The woman was standing right behind Kayla. Her eyes locked on mine. She reached around Kayla’s neck like she was going to strangle her.

I grabbed the woman’s wrist.

Brianna screamed. Kayla screamed in my face and jerked away. The woman hissed and grabbed at Kayla’s arm. Her nails raked across Kayla’s skin but didn’t find purchase.

My friends could see her now!

I hung onto her arm. “Who are you?”

She snarled, lips curling in a sneer, and swung at me. I blocked the blow with my arm. Her flesh oozed and split beneath my hand. The smell was terrible. I shoved her away from me.

The woman stumbled back and hit the camp stool with the DVD player. It tripped her and she fell, knocking it over.

Brianna was still screaming. I glanced at her, and when I looked back where the woman had fallen she was gone.

I spun around, searching the dark around us for any sign of her. Nothing.

Kayla went to Brianna and pulled her into a hug. She stroked her hair. Brianna stopped screaming, crying instead into Kayla’s shoulder.

I took three steps to pick up my flashlight and did another sweep with the light around the room. No woman. We were alone.

Kayla looked at me over Brianna’s frizzy hair. “What was that?”

“I don’t know.” I surveyed the room again.

Empty. Quiet.

“Get everything together and let’s go,” I said.

Brianna lifted her head, tears streaking her face. “Let’s just go! Before anything else happens!”

Kayla shook her head. “I’m not leaving without my stuff. Help me.”

“I’ll keep an eye out,” I said. “You two get things together.”

Brianna jumped into action. She grabbed her sleeping bag and shoved it into the stuff sack. Kayla picked up the fallen DVD player.

“The screen looks fine.” She turned it over. “The battery compartment popped open.”

She pushed it back into place and hit the power button.

“What are you doing?” Brianna asked as she scooped food up into the bags.

“I want to see if it’s broken or not.”

“That can wait!”

I was inclined to agree but stayed silent, watching the shadows. The woman had come out of nowhere. It was Halloween night. I didn’t want to believe it, but there was only one explanation I could think of.

She was a ghost.

Brianna pulled the supports free on the tent, letting it collapse in on itself.

“Guys?” She said, her voice quaking. She backed away from the tent.

She pointed her light at the tent. I added my light.

The fabric had fallen down, over the shape of someone lying inside the tent. The bright blue and yellow fabric showed the curves of someone curled on their side.

Kayla still held the DVD player. The screen came to life and O’Dea’s voice rang out, screaming. Kayla hit the pause button and the sound stopped.

A ragged rasping breath noise came from the collapsed tent. The fabric rose and fell with the breath.

Brianna made a high-pitched noise in her throat and broke into her clumsy run. She was making a high keening noise as she ran to the front door.

Neither Kayla or I moved.

Brianna reached the door, opened it and ran outside.

Slowly, Kayla put down the DVD player, closing the lid as she put it on the floor. She pointed her light at the tent as the fabric rose and fell again.

“What is that?” She asked.

I was scared and pissed. Sure, we came out here to have a spooky Halloween night, but this? This was something else.

“Let’s find out.”

“You’re kidding. You are kidding, right?”

I shook my head. “Go with Brianna if you want. I want to know what this ghost or whatever it wants. There has to be a reason for this.”

Another ragged breath came from beneath the collapsed tent. A sound like a sob.

“Maybe we should leave it alone.”

I’d made up my mind. The part of me that was scared was pushed down deep inside.

It only took a couple of steps to reach the tent. I didn’t hesitate. I bent down and flipped back the fabric revealing a pale, dirty foot. A decaying stink rose up and the foot kicked, squirming deeper like a grub trying to get out of the sun when you turned over a rock.

I grabbed the foot and pulled. She screamed then, the ghost. She kicked and came out of the tent clawing the fabric away. She came not at me, but at Kayla. Her nails scratched at the floor as she kicked and squirmed, trying to get to Kayla.

I held on and yanked the ghost back. For a ghost, she felt solid enough. My fingers sank deep into her flesh, parting pale skin into the cold oozing flesh beneath.

Kayla moved around her, staying out of reach, but then she crouched, staring at the woman’s maddened face. “Mother?”

At the word, the woman collapsed on the floor. She sobbed into the floor boards and stopped struggling. I let go of her leg.

She vanished.

The instant I let go, she was gone. Kayla looked up at me, her face pale, and in the dim light, I saw a resemblance there to the ghostly woman.

“Where’d she go?” Kayla asked.

I turned, using the flashlight. I got a glimpse of something by the front door and steadied the light.

It wasn’t the ghost. It was Brianna, peeking in through the open door.

“Guys?” Her voice still had that frightened whine. “Come on, please! I don’t have the keys!”

Kayla stood up, her light on me. “Make her come back.”

“I don’t know how.”

She came at me in quick steps, stopping when she was inches away. “That was my mother. How is that possible? Bring her back.”

“I don’t know how.” I looked right back into her eyes. “Why do you say it is your mother?”

Kayla’s eyes flicked away. “I recognize her. I have a few photos. Well, I did. I don’t have the originals, I scanned those. Digital lasts forever.”

“Why is she here?”

“Guys?” Brianna said. “Please —”

The door slammed shut in her face. She screamed outside.

I looked around with the light and didn’t find the ghost, but she was there. Watching us from the shadows. Listening, maybe.

“This was my house. Our house,” Kayla said. “It sold after the accident. It’s had a few owners since then, but they always left quickly. Eventually, it was bought as a rental, and no one wanted to rent it. Then it sat empty. I don’t remember living here, but I wanted to come back and see it.”

Kayla turned away from me, facing the dark. “Momma?”

Upstairs boards creaked again, the clear sound of footsteps.

Kayla took off running. I acted on instinct and chased after her.

“Kayla, stop!”

She didn’t listen.

She was fast for her small size. She got to the stairs before me and ran up the old steps. About the fourth step up, a board cracked but Kayla was already past it and continuing up.

“Guys?” Brianna called from outside.

I didn’t stop. Brianna was out, I was more concerned with Kayla.

I followed her up, keeping close to the wall and the front of the steps where I figured the wood would be stronger. By the time I reached the top, she’d already gone around the corner and the light from her flashlight was fading.

At the top it was easy enough to see where she’d gone. Light came out of one room. There was a sob from that room. I didn’t hesitate. People think I don’t hesitate to go into these situations because of my experience. I don’t think that’s it. You either have it or you don’t. Some people run toward the emergency, others run away. I’ve known plenty of cops with the same response.

Whatever else was going on, my friend needed me.

💀

The room had been a small bedroom once upon a time, lost now to the past. The only thing that remained was a pale, faded and moldy floral wallpaper. Broken glass lay on the floor from the boarded up window, and long dark streaks ran down the wall from the window like tears.

Kayla stood in the middle of the room, her face in her hands, the flashlight pointing up at the ceiling. Her shoulders shook with the sobs.

“This was your room?”

Kayla dropped her hands and turned around, shrugging. “I don’t know! I don’t remember. I thought maybe I would, you know? If I saw it?”

Her mother came through the freaking wall.

If there was any question of her being a ghost, that cinched it. Ordinary decaying people don’t walk through the solid, mold-ridden walls.

And she wasn’t interested in some sort of tear-drenched reunion with Kayla either. She came at Kayla fast, pulling her arm back, fingers like claws.

Kayla didn’t see her and didn’t react.

I jumped forward, and then Kayla screamed, shrinking back from me.

I caught the ghost’s arm and pointed the flashlight at her face.

She screamed and swung her other arm at me. I blocked her strike.

For a ghost, she was solid enough that the blow was hard and painful. It was like being hit with a hammer.

She tried to pull away. I held on. I didn’t dare let go. The last time I let go she disappeared on me. I wasn’t letting that happen again.

When I didn’t let go she went crazy. She screamed. She thrashed and twisted. The skin on her arm tore and my grip slipped.

I dropped the flashlight and grabbed on with my other hand too, gripping her arm in a two-handed grip. I wasn’t letting go.

She kicked and spun and I hung on.

Kayla screamed. “Why? Why are you doing this?”

Her mother, what was left of her, hissed and lunged for Kayla, clawing with her free hand. She almost got away from me.

I planted my feet and swung her away from Kayla. She slammed into the wall and bounced off. I brought my knee up, hard, into her gut.

Her head snapped up. Her eyes were empty of anything except madness and pain. I twisted her arm around and shoved her at the floor. She fought but she was skinny and dead. She went down with me on top of her.

The stink of dead flesh choked me. She thrashed and screamed beneath me.

I glanced at Kayla. “Get out! I’ve got this!”

For a second, Kayla hesitated, then she ran.

“Mine,” her mother hissed beneath me.

I pressed my knee down into the center of her back, pulling up on her arm. “She’s not. Not anymore!”

The ghost fought to get free. She was strong, slippery and determined. I was just as determined to keep her from following Kayla. Why had Kayla never been adopted? Why did she have such bad luck all the time? Maybe because her dead mother hadn’t fucking moved on?

Sounded right to me. I pulled harder. Bones snapped and the ghost screamed.

Whatever else she was, she still felt pain. My gut tightened. I’d do what it took to stop her from following us.

It took a long time.

Ghost Breaker, they call me. The woman who makes ghosts flesh and fights them. Kayla’s mother was the first one. The first time I touched a ghost and made it solid. Why then? I don’t know. The combination of the house, and Halloween? Whatever the reason, after that night it didn’t go away.

There are no friendly ghosts. Those people, the ones that call me evil? They don’t know. They can’t see, not until I touch the dead. I give the things that go bump in the night substance, and with enough effort, I can break them. Force them to move on.

To where? I don’t know. I don’t see that.

💀

After I was done, tired and sick, I rejoined my friends outside. Kayla wouldn’t talk to either of us. She voluntarily committed herself to a psychiatric facility a week later for nightmares she couldn’t shake. She’s better now. I’ve checked. We haven’t spoken in years but she seems happy now. Married, two children as beautiful as she is.

I lost a friend that night and it was worth it to save her.

Brianna? That’s a different story.

That’s how it started. I’m Tina Grimes, also called the Death Hunter and the Ghost Breaker. I got my start on a dare.

💀

5,094  WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 96th short story release, written in March 2013.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Child of Their Minds.

The Good Samaritan

Cover art for story

Two girls died. Word spread across the whole campus. Don’t go out alone, only with friends. Don’t trust strange guys.

Jane works the late shift at the campus library. That means leaving alone. In the dark.

Not her favorite thing, but she needs the job.

🚀

Jane geared up for battle before she left the safety of the library walls. She had her backpack secure over both shoulders. She kept her hands in her sweatshirt pouch with her keys sticking out between the fingers of her left hand and her small bottle of pepper spray in her left. Around her neck, she wore a whistle on a string. With two girls already dead this month, she didn’t plan on taking any chances.

“You alright gonna out all by your lonesome?”

She took a breath and looked back at the janitor standing beside her cart. Wanda was a tall woman with very wide hips and a beehive of red hair. Each night it was the same. Wanda came in as she closed up to clean the building.

“I’m fine.” Jane smiled. “Anybody mess with me, they’ll be sorry.”

Wanda clucked her tongue and shook her head but didn’t argue. “You be careful, girl. You don’t know some of these guys. They’re sneaky, they are.”

“I know, Wanda. Good night.”

“Good night to yourself.”

Jane pushed out through the doors. Cold October air stung her face. Decaying leaves gathered around the walls. Light posts lit up the square, but a fine chilling drizzle was falling. Not quite cold enough to turn to snow but cold enough. Jane hunched her shoulders and headed out into the mess.

Away from the building the wind blew the freezing mist into her face. Jane huffed and tried breathing through her nose. It was colder than she’d thought. If it got much colder, maybe they’d see an early snow. Too early for snow in Olympia, she thought. But that’s climate change for you. All sorts of crazy weather.

She made it across the square and headed up towards the Loop. A little old woman stood beneath the street light huddled in a yellow parka with bright green flowers. Jane couldn’t see her face, but she saw the breath curling out of the hood. Beside her was one of those wire carts on wheels. It held the old lady’s bag, one of those big black bags that clasped at the top. But if she was waiting for a bus she was going to have a long wait. The last bus left the Loop for downtown a half-hour before Jane closed up the library. She started to walk past, but the thought of the old lady standing out there in the freezing weather made her hesitate and stop. She turned around.

“Excuse me?”

“Yes?” The old lady said, her voice quavering or maybe shaking from the cold.

“Are you waiting for the bus?”

“Oh yes. I think it should be along soon. I hope so.”

Jane shook her head. “Ma’am, the last bus came a little more than a half-hour ago.”

“Oh. Oh, dear. It did?”

“Yes. The last bus leaves just after eleven-thirty.”

“Oh, dear. I fell asleep in the library. I didn’t know it was that late. What am I going to do?”

Jane tried to remember if she’d seen her in the library. It had been quiet, but she could have been in the stacks and missed the old woman. “Is there anyone you could call? Someone that could come get you?”

“No, no one.” The old woman shuffled around and grabbed her cart. She turned back towards the square. “Is the library closed?”

“Yes. We closed before eleven. You should have been able to catch the bus.” The old woman hadn’t been any of the usual stragglers when she’d closed up. She stayed after closing to finish up some work.

“I tried to find some coffee. It’s so cold tonight.”

Jane felt the cold. The wind-blown drizzle was soaking her, and it was icy cold. “You don’t have anyone that can come get you?”

“No, I don’t know. What time is it?”

“Nearly midnight.”

“Oh. Oh, dear. That’s late. I didn’t know.”

Jane shook her head. She had to get home, but she couldn’t leave this old woman out here to freeze. People did that. She wondered if the old woman even had a place to go. She could be homeless.

“Where do you live?”

“The Boardwalk apartments.”

“That’s downtown right? Near the Pier?”

“Yes, dear. That’s right.”

That wasn’t too bad. She had to go near there on her way home anyway. “Come on. I’ll give you a ride.”

“Oh, that’s nice. Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Jane said firmly. “Come on, my car is this way.”

“Okay dear. That’s nice.”

The old woman grabbed her cart and started shuffling towards Jane. She moved as slow as a banana slug.

“Wait,” Jane said. “Why don’t you wait here? I’ll run down, get the car and come around to pick you up.”

“Oh, okay. Thank you.”

“Sure.” Jane took off at an easy jog. The sooner she got this done, got home and into bed the better she’d feel. At least she could say that she’d done her good deed for the day. In the future, she was going to make sure if the old lady came back to the library that she got out to catch her bus.

The car wasn’t far from the loop. She glanced around as she approached the car, one of the few left in the lot and didn’t see anyone suspicious hanging around. She walked like she was headed towards one of the other cars then at the last minute swerved, went to her car and quickly unlocked the doors. She tossed her backpack into the passenger seat, slid in, locked up and started the car. It only took a few seconds to get out of the lot and head up around to where the old lady waited. She stopped and unlocked the doors.

The old lady shuffled to the back door and opened it, letting in a gust of cold and rain. She struggled to get her cart into the back and then slid in after it. The door shut with a thunk.

“You all set?”

“Yes dear, thank you.”

Jane nodded and pulled out. She got the heater going before they left the Loop. Her headlights cut through the icy drizzle and by the time they reached the parkway the interior of the little car was feeling a lot warmer. She looked in the rear-view mirror and saw that the old lady still had her hood up. Jane couldn’t see her face.

“How are you doing? Is it warming up back there?”

“Yes dear, thank you.”

The words sounded exactly the same as the last thing the old lady had said. As if it was a recording. Jane shivered. Now you’re just freaking yourself out, she thought. She looked in the rear-view mirror again. The old woman sat so still she could be nothing but a mannequin back there. Jane couldn’t even hear her breath.

“Cold night. Do you think it will snow?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Snow? Do you think?”

“Maybe. It’s cold.”

Jane felt better just hearing the old woman say something else. It had just been one of those weird things. Nothing to freak out about. It still seemed strange to her that she hadn’t seen the old woman in the library. Or didn’t remember seeing her. She didn’t look like a typical student, but they did get all sorts of people in the library.

She slowed and turned on Kaiser headed towards Harrison. There were few street lights and with the tall evergreens on either side and the constant drizzle her visibility decreased.  Jane leaned forward as if it would help her see better. By doing so, she saw something odd. A dull glow up in the dark overhead. At first she thought it was the Moon behind the clouds. But then it moved. It drifted across her view to the other side of the roadway. The light grew brighter until she could see a cone of light cutting down through the drizzle. A helicopter?

Gravel crunched under her tires. Jane looked down and saw trees coming towards her as the car bounced. She jerked the wheel to try and get back on the road. There was a bounce, and then the car spun out of control across the road. The old lady grabbed the back of the passenger seat to steady herself. Jane tried to correct for the spin, and the car steadied. She braked and brought the car to a halt facing the wrong way on Kaiser. Her breath came in short gasps.

“Oh dear. Oh dear.”

Jane glanced back at her passenger. The old lady released the seat. She wore knitted gloves but her hand looked large, and she’d really squeezed the seat hard. She pulled her hand back and folded them on her lap.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes, dear.”

Did her tone sound mocking? Jane wondered. She felt in her sweatshirt pouch for the mace. “I’m sorry. I thought I saw something and, well, it doesn’t matter. I should have been watching the road.”

“Yes, dear.”

Jane shivered. There was no mistaking the mocking in those words now. And malice.

That’s not an old woman at all, Jane thought. It was a terrifying, horrible thought but as she glanced in the rear-view mirror, she knew she wasn’t mistaken.

The shape in the back seat sat too tall. ‘Her’ grip on the passenger seat when they spun out had been too strong. Jane didn’t know what to do. It had to be a man. But what if she was wrong? This could all be her own paranoia.

“We’re okay. So let’s get going.” Jane surreptitiously dropped the mace in her lap as she pulled her hand out to start the car. She felt tingles along her neck and kept expecting him to do something.

The car started. Her passenger sat still in the back. The wipers thwacked back and forth to clear the windshield. Jane carefully brought the car around in a U-turn and headed on down the road. She kept glancing at the rear-view mirror, but he appeared content to ride along. For now. If this was the same creep responsible for those other deaths she knew this calm wouldn’t last. Sooner or later he’d strike, and she had to be ready.

Outside she watched for the light she’d seen but didn’t see anything.

She felt her shoulder blades tensing in anticipation of him doing something. But every time she checked the mirror he wasn’t doing anything. Sitting back there with his face hidden by the slicker. She couldn’t see him at all. Everything she could see screamed old lady, but at the same time, it was all wrong. The scenery on either side of the road became a blur. They raced down the road. She was speeding, Jane realized. Her foot had started pushing down the pedal as if that would get her away from the man sitting in the back seat.

Light flared in the rear-view mirror. It cut through the wind-blown drizzle to light up the road like a spotlight. She saw it move towards the car. Her passenger twisted around to look out the back window. Jane still didn’t get a look at his face.

“Oh dear,” he said, hardly even making an effort to sound like an old lady now. “What the hell?”

Not very lady-like, Jane thought. She slammed on the brakes and brought the car to a skidding stop. It caught her passenger off-guard, and he fell against the passenger seat.

“Hey!”

The car stopped. Jane hit the release on her seat belt. The guy was leaning forward when she opened her door and tumbled out onto the wet road. Jane kicked and scrambled away from the car. She got up onto her feet and reached into her pouch for the mace canister. It wasn’t there.

It hit her then that she’d taken it out and had it on her lap. It was in the car. She backed away from the car and put the other lane between her and it. The light swept forward along the road towards the car. Jane shielded her eyes with one hand and tried to see the helicopter. She couldn’t hear any sound of rotors. When the light hit the car, it brightened until she had to squint against the light. Then it vanished and left her with only the car headlights against the dark.

He didn’t get out of the car. Jane clutched the keys between her fingers and eased closer to the car. She couldn’t see him in the back seat anymore. She walked a little closer and still didn’t see him. She got to open driver’s side door and saw the mace sitting on the seat. She snatched it up and jumped back. No sign of him. Her keys had a mini-maglight. She turned it on and checked the car. He wasn’t there, but the cart with his bag was still in the back. She got in, started the car and left as fast as she dared.

She started feeling safe when she got home. With the garage light on, she pulled the cart out of the back seat and opened the bag. An anatomy book was inside along with a collection of sharp knives. Jane gasped and dropped the bag. It hit the concrete floor with a clang. She remembered checking that book out to a guy tonight. Sean, something. Her hands shook when she called the police.

🚀

Officer Smith’s thin face looked at Jane intently. She handed Jane a cup of coffee. Jane inhaled the rich scent.

“You recognized him?”

“No. I recognized the book in the bag with the, uh, knives and stuff. The anatomy book. I’d checked it out to him at the library.”

The policewoman typed on her computer then looked up again. “So you didn’t see him leave the car?”

Jane shook her head. “No. I mean the light from the helicopter was too bright. He must have thought it was the police and took off. There’s a lot of trees on that stretch of Kaiser.”

Officer Smith’s fingers tapped on her keyboard. “Are you sure it was a helicopter?”

“What else could it have been?”

“I don’t know, but the weather was too bad for helicopters.”

Jane shivered. “I’m sorry. The light came from above, and after it had gone out, he wasn’t in the car. I didn’t see anything else.”

🚀

2,407  WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 95th short story release, written in September 2009.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, On a Dare.

Commuter

Commuter cover art

Ken loved commuting on his fast three-wheeled recumbent trike. Low-slung, with below seat steering and a bright yellow paint-job.

The drawback?

Drivers! Some drivers just couldn’t stand seeing anyone eschewing a gas-guzzling monstrosity.

💀

Monday.

Ken sat back on the recumbent mesh seat, his legs out front between the two front wheels and pedaled. The trike sped across the lane as if eager to go fast. His right hand slipped down to the twist shifter and shifted up to higher gears. The cycling computer showed his speed move rapidly up to 14 MPH. He glanced to his right, towards on-coming traffic, and saw he had plenty of time. He’d be across all the lanes long before any of the cars reached him. He smiled. Good thing too!

He pushed forward on the right hand-grip and pulled back on the left to turn smoothly into the bike lane. With the turn completed Ken increased his RPM rate and shifted up again. The trike shot down the bike lane with its bright flags waving merrily in the wind. On either side of the rear tire hung his panniers holding his clothes, lunch and other work stuff. This is the way to go, he thought. No passive sitting behind the wheel of a car adding to your carbon footprint. Just the exhilaration of exercise and a sense that he was connected to everything around him. In that sense, he found the trike far more enjoyable — not to mention more comfortable — than any bicycle. He heard the roar of a car engine behind him and checked his left-hand mirror.

A black muscle car with tinted windows roared down the road like the driver thought he was in a drag race. The noise was tremendous. Ken stuck to the center of the bike lane. Drivers like that made him nervous. He couldn’t go over to the right without hitting the cars parked along the street. The lane was bad enough, given that people pulled out without looking or opened their doors in his path.

With a bone-shaking roar, the muscle car came right up alongside the trike. Ken’s heart kicked up the pace. He was sure the car was going to hit him! The gleaming back side of the car was only inches away. It hung there for a moment and then took off with squealing tires. Smoke from the tires and exhaust blew into Ken’s face. He coughed and kept pedaling while glaring after the retreating taillights of the muscle car. The license plate read PAIN.

Who had a license plate like that? PAIN?

💀

Tuesday.

Ken rolled up to the stop sign and came to a stop. Headlights shone in his mirror behind him. The car stayed a good distance back, giving him plenty of space. He appreciated it. After his encounter with the PAIN-mobile yesterday he had stayed a bit shaken but determined that he wouldn’t let the experience sour his enjoyment of riding. He had every right to be on the road. He was saving money, lowering his carbon footprint and getting in shape all at the same time. He wasn’t going to give that all up because some jerk thought it was funny to swerve close.

There was a wide gap in traffic. Ken pulled out and swiftly pedaled across the lanes. He reached the bike lane and settled back to enjoy the ride. The trike cruised along the lane at a steady 20 MPH. He didn’t feel like pushing it too much. Back when the trike had only a three-speed hub doing twenty had been pushing the limit. It just hadn’t been geared high enough but the continuously variable hub had given him a much greater range. It also gave him a shorter commute time. He liked that but lately had taken to riding out longer loops to increase his mileage and extend the enjoyment of riding.

Four miles later he heard the deep growl of an engine coming up behind. He tensed immediately and checked his mirror. It was the PAIN muscle car coming up behind him. Fast. On his right, this time was nothing but a grassy slope down to the barbed wire fence below. He didn’t want to tumble down that slope but the car was coming fast up behind. Its front tire touched the white stripe along the shoulder. Ken eased the trike over until his right front tire was nearly in the gravel. Checking the mirror showed the muscle car riding right up the shoulder with its front tire solidly on the white line – but drifting into the shoulder.

A blast of noise nearly made Ken swerve off down the slope. A horn! The driver blasted his horn again. And again. Ken was both terrified and pissed off.

“Come on!” he yelled but he couldn’t even hear himself over the sound of the muscle car’s engine and horn.

Just as he spied an area ahead with less of a drop and considered bailing off the road the muscle car took off ahead of him. It missed him by inches. The wind grabbed the trike and shook it. One more blast of the horn made Ken’s nerves jump. He braked hard and came to a stop on the shoulder. His heart hammered against his chest. Up ahead the PAIN muscle car turned the corner and vanished from sight. Ken pulled open the Velcro top on his pants pocket and fished out his cell phone. He called 9-1-1.

“9-1-1 operator. What’s the nature of your emergency?”

“A car nearly ran me down.”

“Nearly? Are you injured?”

“No. But they could have killed me! The fucking driver came up behind me blasting his horn and drove onto the shoulder!”

“Sir, I need you to calm down and watch the language.”

“Sorry.” Ken mopped his forehead. “I’m shaken up. This is the second time this driver has done something like this.”

“Why were you on the shoulder?”

“I was commuting to work.”

“By driving on the shoulder?”

“No, I was riding on my trike.”

“Trike? Like one of those ATVs? Those aren’t street legal, sir.”

“No! A trike. Think bicycle but with three wheels.”

“Did you swerve into the path of this vehicle?”

“Excuse me? No! I told you, the driver came onto the shoulder. Look, can’t you just send a police officer?”

“Of course, sir. I’ll notify dispatch as soon as I have your information.”

Ken gave him the information and waited. At least he had a comfortable seat to wait on. He jumped each time a car went past. After a half-hour, he called work to tell them he’d nearly been in an accident and would be late. Finally, forty-five minutes later, a siren whoop behind him made him jump. He looked in the mirror and saw the police officer’s car pulling up behind his trike. Ken twisted his feet free from the clipless pedals and stood up.

A voice came out of a loud speaker. “Sir, remain where you are.”

Ken froze. In the car, he saw two police officers talking. The lights on top of the car were flashing. The doors opened and the officers got out. One still held a radio handset and was talking to someone. The other hook her thumbs in her belt and walked towards him.

“Ken Henley?”

“That’s me.”

She nodded and walked forward looking at the trike. Ken waited. She stopped a few feet away and glanced over at him.

“You ride that?”

A ridiculous question seeing as he was the one wearing a bright yellow bicycle helmet, gloves, and clipless shoes. He didn’t want to antagonize the officer so just nodded.

She laughed and shook her head. She turned back to look at her partner who put down the radio. “Did you see this?”

The guy showed a big buck-toothed grin. “Oh yeah.”

She looked back at him. “Don’t know if you’re brave or just crazy. Taking your life into your own hands, aren’t you? Riding that in traffic? Ever think people might have a hard time seeing you?”

“Not if they’re looking at the road,” Ken said. He immediately regretted the tone. He tried to continue in a better voice. “It’s bright yellow, has flags sticking up in the air and is seven feet long. Most people will see a squirrel in the road or a pothole if they’re looking. I think I’m a bit more noticeable.”

She shrugged and pulled out a notebook. “So what’s this about a car trying to drive you off the road?”

At last. “It’s a black muscle car with tinted windows. The license plate is P A I N.”

“Pain?”

“Right.”

“So yesterday I was riding to work and it swerved close to me while I was in the bike lane. I had no place to go. To my right were the cars parked along Pacific. Sometimes people do stupid things like that to cyclists. I think some of the time they’re just looking and inadvertently swerve. But sometimes it’s on purpose. They think it’s funny to scare a cyclist but it could end up getting someone killed.”

“I thought it was today that you called about?”

“It was.” He told her how the muscle car had come at him today much more aggressively and honked their horn. “That’s why I called.”

She put away the notebook. “Okay. We’ll look into it. But a reckless driving charge is going to be hard under these circumstances.”

“What do you mean?”

She shrugged. “The driver may tell a different story. Unless you have a witness that can corroborate your story it’ll be hard to even file charges.”

On one hand, Ken understood what she was saying but it made him even angrier. “So he just gets away with it? What happens the next time? What if he swerves too close and hits me?”

“Maybe you should think about finding an alternate way to work.”

He couldn’t believe her. “I have every right to ride on the roads!”

She lifted a hand. “I need you to calm down right now.”

Ken bit his tongue before he told her what she could do. He was aware that her partner was keeping a close eye on them both. He nodded. “Okay. Fine. Thanks for the help.”

He didn’t wait for a response. He went back to his trike and sat down. He felt like hitting something or kicking but he didn’t. He got his feet clipped into the peddles and checked his mirror. The police officer was walking back to her car. Both officers were laughing. It might not be about me, he thought. Except he didn’t believe that for a second. He started pedaling in a low gear, just taking his time to get going down the road. Every now and then he checked his mirror. He was nearly to the corner before the squad car pulled out. They quickly got up to or above the speed limit and barreled past him down the road. The partner gave Ken a cheery wave as they passed. Ken felt worn out by then and didn’t wave back. He felt so sick that he wanted to turn around and go home but he had to get into work.

💀

Wednesday.

Ken almost called in sick. He felt twisted up and angry inside. He looked at his trike and remembered how it felt to glide along the road with a clear view of the scenery and the wind in his face. Out on the multi-use trails there weren’t cars. People walking waved cheerfully. Other cyclists nodded or smiled when he passed. It was a much more peaceful ride.

Trouble is the trails didn’t go to work. To get to work he had to go out on the roads. And even with the bike lanes, there were still those drivers that delighted in giving cyclists a hard time. Or just oblivious drivers who acted like they couldn’t see what was right in front of their faces while they made right-hand turns without ever checking for a cyclist. And then there was PAIN. He’d had nightmares about the muscle car. Behavior like that two days in a row. Did he dare go out again on the trike? Maybe he should just walk down to the bus stop and ride the bus.

The thought just made him mad again. He remembered the officer suggesting the same thing. He had every right to ride! Was he really going to let a jerk like that stop him? What would stop them from doing this to another cyclist? He owed it to himself not to back down. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. When the driver saw that he wouldn’t be intimidated he would back off. That’s what bullies do. If you’re not afraid then it isn’t fun for them anymore.

Ken picked up his helmet and put it on. He’d ride to work today.

Out on the road, he felt good about his decision. It was a foggy day but not too much. He had on his lights so he was certainly visible even with the fog. His legs felt strong. Soon he fell into the rhythm of the ride and started to enjoy himself. Yet, even so, he kept looking in his mirror more often than usual. He listened carefully for the sounds of the muscle car coming up behind him. When he realized what he was doing he pushed harder against the pedals. He was angry. Angry with himself for letting the driver get to him. Mostly angry at the driver for making what had been a nice ride so tense.

On the same stretch of road as yesterday, he heard the sound of the muscle car behind him. It was unmistakable. His heart nearly skipped a beat at the sound of it rumbling behind him. He checked the mirror.

It was PAIN.

The muscle car grumbled and growled as it surged down the road toward him. No messing about. It swerved over until it was driving down the bike lane. The engine screamed. He means to kill me, Ken thought. He only had seconds to react. Stay in the lane. Play chicken and trust that the muscle car wouldn’t hit him. Or bail out down the slope. No time to think. It filled the mirror.

Ken wrenched the handlebars and shot down the slope, off the road toward the barbed wire fence below. He bounced and jolted out of control. The muscle car’s engine roared. He heard tires spinning on gravel and then felt gravel slamming into him like a machine gun. He hit the bottom of the slope and bounced towards the fence. He hung on. His fairing hit the barbed wire and screeched as the metal slid along the plastic. He stopped.

Every muscle in his body hurt. He twisted about and saw the fog-shrouded road above was empty. PAIN had gone. Ken yanked his feet free and got off the trike. He felt like he would burst apart. He yelled, wordlessly expressing his rage. It tore out of his throat in an eruption of noise.

💀

Thursday.

Ken gritted his teeth and pushed the pedals. The bruises from the rocks kicked up by the muscle car hurt. He still felt like yelling. At PAIN. At himself for chickening out. The driver wouldn’t have hit him. They’d have to be crazy to do that. And if they wanted to run him over they could have done it any of the times instead of driving past. Probably just some stupid kid that needed his license pulled. No more. Not again. He was staying the course. No way he’d let some idiot like PAIN force him off the road.

He rode down the bike lane alongside the parked cars. As he approached a green Ford Explorer parked on the side of the street he saw the lights come on. He coasted. Would the driver see him? Or even look this way? All he saw was the back of the woman’s head as she stared intently at traffic coming the other way.

Look this way, he thought angrily.

She didn’t turn. He had on his headlamp. He pointed it right at her window. She still didn’t look to the left and he was getting closer. She pulled part way out across the bike lane! Now she was blocking his path and hadn’t once looked in his direction despite the bright light shining in her window. Wiggling the light around didn’t seem to attract her attention. What did he have to do? He coasted right up next to the vehicle. Nothing. She still didn’t pay attention. Ken twisted his feet out of the clipless pedals. He stood up, took a step and rapped hard on her window.

She screamed and jerked in her seat as if he’d electrocuted her. She looked at him with the wide-eyed gaze of a fish.

“You’re blocking the bike lane!”

“I was just pulling out!”

“Yeah,” Ken shouted back. “And not looking in both directions at all! You could kill someone acting like that.”

“You could just wait a second!’

Idiot. No understanding of anything. Ken shook his head and went back to his trike. He sat down and she pulled out. He clipped in his shoes and started moving again. His heart was beating fast in his chest. He felt embarrassed that he had gotten so angry. Whatever else was going on that wasn’t something he liked doing. It was just so infuriating and scary how little thought people gave to cyclists.

He felt better after he got away from that street and the cars parked along the bike lane. Less danger from both sides but then he was getting near the area where he’d twice encountered PAIN. He pushed harder against the pedals and watched his speed increase. He got it up to 24 MPH and held it there. It felt like he was flying along the shoulder. On the one side the drop and the fence he’d hit yesterday. The thought made him burn more. He pushed and pushed. The trike bounced and rumbled over gravel and sped along the shoulder. Then he was past that section and back in a proper bike lane again with a sidewalk on one side and the road on the other. There hadn’t been any sign of the muscle car. He relaxed, slowed his pace and down shifted. His speed dropped.

Up ahead was a driveway into the Safeway parking lot. He didn’t see anyone coming. As he rolled in front of the driveway he heard a roar of an engine behind him to his left. He turned and had just a moment to read the word at eye-level.

PAIN.

💀

The young woman accepted the tissue Mike offered her. She sniffled and blew her nose again.

“I never saw him,” she said.

Mike looked at his pad. “Ma’am, your name please?”

“Emily Pain. I teach second grade over at Pleasant Elementary.”

“I see. I just need to get your statement, Ms. Pain. Can you tell me what happened?”

“I just was going to the store to get some juice before school. I didn’t see him at all, he was so low. I just heard that horrible noise and knew I’d hit something. I stopped right away.”

Mike glanced towards the front of the muscle car. Emergency crews were still trying to extract the cyclist pinned between the muscle car and his recumbent bike. The guy was already dead. Such a shame. He looked back at Ms. Pain.

“That’s all? You don’t have anything else to add?”

She sniffled. “No, that’s it. I’m so sorry. I can’t believe this happened.”

💀

3,300 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 89th short story release, written in May 2009.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Space Monkeys.

Locked Out

Cover art for Locked Out

Lynn Hutchins found the perfect place to escape her husband. Jack couldn’t find this cabin, her, or the kids.

But someone found them. The thick iron-bound cabin door kept the man out. He tried to break in. Claimed he was Jack. He lied.

No way for him to break in. The cold outside leeched the heat from the cabin. The freezing cold kept her and the kids safe.

💀

The inside of the house was just as dark as the outside and nearly as cold. Lynn crouched in front of the sole spot of warmth, right in front of the wood stove. She couldn’t see it, but what little heat it gave off warmed her face and fingers. By memory and feel, she found the coiled metal grip of the door handle and pulled it to the side. The hinges protested a bit, metal on metal, and then the dull red glow from inside spread out around the door and restored her vision.

She blinked and coughed a bit as wisps of wood smoke coiled out through the opening. She reached for the next small piece of wood, moving quickly before the man outside noticed the light.

The remains of the last two logs pulsed and glowed with a deep red light beneath the black and white ash. Flickers of yellow flames danced across the coals and vanished. Lynn tossed in the new log. A cascade of red sparks swarmed upward like angry bees, and eager yellow flames flickered back to life, sipping at the wood with the delicacy of hummingbirds.

Lynn shoved the door closed and grimaced when the metal squealed again. Surely the man wouldn’t hear the noise over the snow storm blowing outside or see the brief bit of light seeping out the cracks between the shutters that protected the windows. By now he must have given up and moved on, realizing that she’d never open the door and let him in.

There came a knock on the front door, dull and muffled by the thick wood. Knock, knock.

Then a voice, faint, but clear. “Please let me in. It’s freezing out here!”

Lynn stood in the dark and turned to face the door she couldn’t see. The stove warmed the backs of her legs. “Go away.”

“Honey, you’ve got to let me in.”

She bit her lip and shook her head. She had already told herself she wouldn’t fall for his tricks. He had shown up after she put the kids down to bed, knocking on the door and claiming that he was Jack, her husband.

But that wasn’t true. Jack couldn’t have found her, and wouldn’t have looked anyway. Whoever the man was outside, he wasn’t Jack, and she wasn’t going to let him anywhere near her children.

Three more knocks against the door, hard and fast, as if he was angry. Lynn hugged her arms tight. The door was thick wood, barred with a four-inch thick wood bar. The shutters on the inside of the windows were also thick and locked tight with iron bars. Whoever this man was he wasn’t going to get into the cabin easily. She felt guilty about not letting him in given the conditions outside but what was she supposed to do? Risk her children? And he was up to no good, trying to claim he was Jack. He didn’t even sound like Jack. She heard his footsteps retreat from the door on the wood porch. Then his footsteps came fast and hard, boots pounding against the planks. A loud thud as he smashed against the door. It held. Between him and that door, she bet on the door. If he kept that up, he’d probably break his bones before the thick planks that made up the door. In the dark, she couldn’t see it, but she knew the massive iron-bound door well from memory. It was one of the things she had loved about the place when she first saw the cabin.

Lynn padded silently through the front room by memory. Past the large leather couch, across the colorful rugs woven from alpaca wool, to the entrance to the dining room, kitchen and the hall to the back bedrooms. She stepped down from the wood floor to the stone floor and turned left down the hall. Through her thin slippers, she felt the cold of the stone against her feet. The air back here was much colder too. Since the generator died, she hadn’t been able to run the fans that circulated air through the cabin and the small fire she kept going in the wood stove wasn’t nearly hot enough to heat the entire cabin up. By feel, she found the first bedroom door.

Michael’s room, the padlock cold beneath her fingers. No sounds from inside. Good, he must be asleep. Next down the hall was Tina’s room. Again she found the padlock and listened for any sign that the man had disturbed her children. Nothing at all. Across the hall, she found Briana’s room. Little Briana, with her dark curls. The lock was secure, her room silent. Lynn breathed a little easier. She shivered with the cold in the hallway. At least the kids were asleep. She went silently back to the kitchen.

After all of these months when the sun didn’t rise she knew the cabin well enough to find her way around without lights. In the kitchen, she went to the stove and reached out for the tea kettle. Her hand brushed the cold hard plastic handle. She lifted it up and shook it. It felt heavy and solid in her hand, no sound of sloshing water. It must have frozen solid again. She put it back down and reached up in the dark for the matchbox she kept on the second shelf. Her questing fingers found the cardboard, and she took the box down, slid it open and selected a match. She struck it on the side of the box, and the kitchen sprang into view as if magic had simply created it out of the darkness. The thick granite counter top with her tea mug sitting beside the stove, the rich wood paneling of the walls and the gleaming dishes on the open shelves above, all formed by the flickering yellow light of the match. Lynn turned the knob for the burner and heard the propane gas hiss out. The smell tickled her nose. She extended the match, and blue flames sprang up around the burner. She shook the match out and slid the tea kettle back onto the burner.

The blue flames cast weak light out from beneath the tea kettle, only enough for her to see dim outlines of the kitchen. Not enough to draw the attention of the man outside, even if he made his way around to the back side of the cabin. At least the propane still worked. With the generator down she didn’t have any power. The pipes had frozen already, leaving her melting snow on top of the wood stove for water. Except now she couldn’t even get snow because of the man pretending to be her husband outside. She had a few gallons of melted snow lined up along the wall by the wood stove. It’d last for a couple of days if they were careful, but beyond that, she’d need to get more snow.

By then she wouldn’t need to worry about the man outside anymore. He was out in the worst of the cold and the storm. He couldn’t stay there and survive. Soon he had to give up and move on if he had any sense. She didn’t dare risk letting him in.

A sharper thud hit the door as if he had used something else to hit the door instead of his shoulder. Lynn went silently to the opening to the front room and listened. Whack! Again he hit the door. It sounded like wood striking wood. He must have gotten a piece of firewood from the pile and was using it as a battering ram.

She stepped up into the front room and walked closer to the door. The meager light from the stove didn’t reach so far. Whack! She jumped a little when he hit the door again.

Whack! “Lynn! Let me in!”

“No,” she whispered.

“Let me in!’

“Go away!” The shout tore itself from her throat. She covered her mouth with both hands.

Several blows struck the door in rapid sequence. Lynn reached up and covered her ears.

He yelled, a wordless enraged cry. It sounded loud even through the thick door and walls. She turned away from the front room and took a couple of shaky steps back toward the kitchen.

The glass shattered behind her. Lynn shrieked and flinched away. Whatever he was using hit the shutters next. The shutters held against the blow, but it sounded much louder than when he hit the door.

Bang! He hit the shutters again.

“Let me in, before I freeze!” With the glass shattered his voice sounded clear as if he had entered the room with her. It certainly didn’t sound like Jack. This man sounded like a life-long smoker with a harsh rasp to his voice, and Jack had never smoked so much as a single cigarette.

Lynn took another tiptoed step away.

“You can’t leave me out here.”

She kept moving and stepped carefully down into the kitchen. The cold felt like it had frozen her clothes and left her bare. She hurried over to the stove and held her hands out above the kettle. The heat felt so good it hurt, but the water wasn’t hot yet. She stayed there and hunched over the kettle for what little warmth the stove produced. She didn’t want to go back into the front room by the wood stove because the man outside might hear her walking across the wood floors.

“I don’t understand,” the man said. He could have been standing in the doorway to the kitchen, hidden by the darkness. “I know what I did was wrong, but you can’t leave me out here. I’m so cold. My car won’t start. Please, let me in.”

No. Lynn shook her head. No, no, no. She had to think about the children. She had locked their doors to keep them safe, but if he got in, he might find the key.

“Let me in,” he pleaded.

No. The kettle started to whistle. She turned off the burner. The last of the light vanished. It didn’t matter. She held her cup and poured by feel. A few drops of water dripped on her hand, but she ignored the brief flares of pain. The drops cooled so quickly that they wouldn’t even burn. She put the kettle back and carried her tea toward the front room. She stopped right at the doorway and sipped the rapidly cooling tea. It wouldn’t have time to steep properly.

“I’m so cold.” His voice sounded weak, defeated. He had to move on now. “I can’t feel my feet or fingers.” He laughed, a hollow, empty sound like air escaping a balloon. “I think my nose is frozen too. Probably going to end up with a hole in my face.”

Lynn stepped carefully into the front room. She took each step one at a time, trying not to make any noise at all. She shivered so much that some tea spilled on her fingers but it had already cooled enough not to burn. Her teeth chattered. Lynn sipped the tea again as she made her way over to the wood stove. She sank onto the floor in front of it and put her mug down on the bricks. It hardly gave off any heat now. If she wanted to keep it going, she needed to add more wood, but there wasn’t much left. Four or five logs lay in the holder beside the stove. Enough to get through the night if she was careful. When morning came, she’d have to risk going out again for more wood.

“Please?”

The question startled her, sounding like a whisper in her ear. She listened, but the only other sound she heard was the wind against the broken window. At least she had the shutters to keep out the worst of it and the snow.

Lynn picked up the mug and drank the cooling tea. When morning came, she’d take a look outside and see if the man was still around. If it looked clear, then she could get more wood and build up the fire. The kids would like that.

💀

Crack! The log split beneath the ax into two smaller pieces that toppled onto the snow lit by the battery-powered lantern. Lynn bent down and picked up one, tossed it to the porch, and then the second. That one rolled against the foot of the man. He didn’t react, of course, he was frozen solid when she peeked out this morning. She’d have to do something about him, but she couldn’t move him. He was a big guy, over six feet tall with a broad chest and a long bristly gray beard. As big as Jack, but otherwise nothing like her husband. She picked up the next log and put it in position.

She heard the whine of snowmobiles and leaned on the ax. Lights danced around in the trees. Lynn watched warily. The snowmobiles were following the drive up to the cabin. Friends of the man on the porch? She picked up the ax and the lantern and ran up onto the porch. She kicked the logs ahead of her into the house. She got inside and shoved the door mostly closed, then turned out the lantern. She’d shut and bar the door if she needed to. It was probably too much to hope for help.

The snowmobiles came out of the woods and coasted up to the cabin next to the cars buried by the drifting snow. Her car and the one the man had driven up to the cabin. In the lights from the snowmobiles, she saw that the men wore the brown of the sheriff’s uniform. A sob escaped her lips. Lynn grabbed the lantern and turned it on.

“You in the house, come out with your hands where we can see them!”

Lynn slipped out the door with her hands out to her sides, the lantern in her right hand. When she walked out past the man, one of the men swore.

“Hold it there.”

Lynn looked down at the frozen man. “He tried to break into the house last night; I don’t know why he didn’t give up and leave.”

“Come on down here, ma’am.” One of the police beckoned.

“Okay.” She walked out across the porch, and down the steps. She stopped next to her chopping log.

The other policeman went past her and up onto the porch. He turned on a flashlight and aimed it at the frozen man.

“Yup, boss. It’s him alright. That reporter from California. Jack Hutchins.”

A deep chill settled into Lynn’s chest. She coughed. “Jack? That’s not possible. It isn’t him. It’s somebody pretending to be him.”

The policeman near her touched her arm. “Ma’am? What’s your name?”

“Lynn Hutchins.” She chuckled. “But that can’t be Jack. You don’t understand. He ran off with some starlet.”

“Mrs. Hutchins? Where are your kids? Are they inside?”

The kids! Lynn started toward the house, but the policeman held onto her arm. She looked down at his hand. “Let go. I need to check on them.”

“We’ll do that ma’am. I need you to wait here with me. Stu, go ahead.”

The policeman by the body, which wasn’t Jack, it couldn’t be Jack, stood up and disappeared into her house. A few seconds later she heard a crash and splintering wood. Then silence. After a moment another crash, more wood splintering and then again. Then rapid footsteps and Stu ran out of the house. “Boss, it’s bad. The bedrooms, she had them padlocked shut. I busted them down, but it’s an icebox in there. The kids, um, they’re all froze up, just like him.”

Lynn shook her head. “What? No. They’re sleeping. You’re all mixed up. What kind of policemen are you? They’re sleeping, and whoever that man is on the porch, he’s not my husband!”

She tried to pull away from the policeman, but he held her tight.

“Get on the radio, Stu. Get a snow-cat up here with the coroner.” She tried to pull away, but he twisted her arms back behind her. She felt cold metal snap around her wrist.

“Let me go!”

The policeman shoved her back to the snowmobiles instead and made her sit. Lynn slumped on the seat with her breath fogging in the light from the other snowmobile. These policemen were crazy! That wasn’t Jack. It couldn’t be. And the kids? She laughed and shook her head. Just sleeping, that’s all. It must be the dark. In the dark, the policeman just couldn’t see the truth.

💀

2,787 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 87th short story release, written in January 2011.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, The Overlap.

This Book is Haunted

Librarian Scott Taylor enjoys the quiet at the end of the day. Picking up the books, straightening up, spending a few minutes to get the library ready for the next day.

Books have a way of capturing memories and feelings. And tonight Scott discovers that a connection to a book lasts.

💀

Librarian Scott Taylor paused at the door to give the library one last look before he stepped outside into the October rain. Lights off, night service on, overdue money locked away in the safe, it all looked good except just then he saw someone slip between the stacks back by the mysteries.

“Hello?” Scott let the door close as he stepped back into the building. “Hello there, the library is closed?”

The Pearce Public Library lacked hiding places. From the circulation desk Scott had a clear line of sight down the fiction aisles to the mysteries along the back wall. To his right, the bathroom and the storage room, but the person he’d seen had been going the other way. And they were small. Like it’d been a kid.

Scott frowned. It wouldn’t be the first time a kid ended up at the library at closing without a ride. But they usually didn’t hide in the library. Most of the time he ended up calling their parents and waiting for someone to come pick them up. How any parent could leave a child alone at the library and not be there before it closed he didn’t understand. Especially not these days.

“Hello? Come on out. I need to close up the building. Can I call someone?”

No answer came from the nonfiction stacks. With only five aisles they didn’t have much of a chance of eluding him. Scott listened carefully but he didn’t hear any noises. After closing the library always was so much quieter. During the day, between the computers, the buzzing fluorescent lights, kids that lacked quiet voices and people on cell phones, he could hardly think sometimes.

Scott reached over past the doors and flicked the light switches up. One. Two. Three. Four. The ceiling tubes came on and lit up the library. He walked around the desk and started walking along the aisles. The kid didn’t have anywhere to go now that he couldn’t see. No one in the aisle with the travel books and poetry. No one in the arts or self-help sections. Cookbooks, dogs and sciences all empty. Scott got all the way up to the first aisle, to UFOs and Microsoft Office books without finding anyone.

He frowned. The only place that left was the kid’s section, but the shelves there were low enough that any kid as tall as the one he’d seen would be visible. Unless he crouched down.

“Come on, now. No more hide-and-seek. I need to close up.”

No shame-faced kid came out of hiding. Scott walked away from the nonfiction sections, past the reading and browsing area by the new books and into the kid’s section. He walked quickly along the aisles of juvenile fiction, looking past the rows of chapter books to the picture books along the back wall. He found nothing.

Impossible. No way the kid got away. Scott walked along the start of the picture books to the back of the juvenile section and made a circuit around the entire chapter book area. No one hiding at the ends of the aisles. But now that he thought of it, maybe that’s what the kid had done in the nonfiction section.

It only took moments to walk up the back aisle. Nothing. He went into the computer section along the front wall and looked beneath the long counter in case the kid somehow got there and hid beneath, behind the chairs. Nothing.

Scott stopped by the display case at the entrance and scratched his short beard. There couldn’t be a kid in the library. But he saw a kid. He was sure of it. He looked over at the restroom and storage room. It didn’t seem possible, but maybe the kid hid at the end of one of the nonfiction aisles, then went the other way after he passed by the first time.

The restroom was empty, except for the faint smell of urine tainting the air.

No one in the storage room either. For good measure, Scott checked his office. No one. The library was empty. Either he imagined seeing a kid, or the kid got out somehow. Scott turned off the lights one-by-one, plunging the library into darkness again. He unlocked the door and pushed it open.

He looked back one last time.

He didn’t see anything. Scott stepped out and shut the door. He got in his car and backed out. He drove around the block to the pharmacy, parked and walked back to the library.

Walking back he shivered in the chilly rain that seeped down his collar. He couldn’t shake the certainty that he had seen a kid in the library and he couldn’t leave without being absolutely sure that the library was, in fact empty.

At the back of the library, he picked his way around the puddles in the parking lot to the front of the building where the windows were low and large. He rounded the corner and peeked into the window.

Light from the streetlight behind him made it hard to see anything except the reflections of the rain-slicked street and the houses across the road. Hopefully, Mrs. Stanfield in the green ranch house across the way wouldn’t notice him and call the police thinking he was trying to break in. He could explain what had happened, but it would be embarrassing.

He cupped his hands around his face and leaned against the glass.

Now he could make out the new books area and the kid’s areas. The only light in the library came from the security lighting up above the circulation desk and those two small lights did little to illuminate the building. It looked empty.

Scott felt relieved. He didn’t know why a kid would hide in the library after it closed, but he didn’t want to take the chance. Now he could go home without a worry.

“What’re you doin’ there?”

Scott jerked and turned around to face the speaker, his heart racing. Mrs. Stanfield stood behind him in a bright red raincoat with a broad yellow umbrella clutched in one liver-spotted hand.

“Oh, Mrs. Stanfield, you startled me.”

“Mr. Taylor? What’re you doin’? Locked out?”

“No, no. Just making sure everything was okay.”

Mrs. Taylor’s perpetually downturned mouth opened, then closed again. She shook her head. “You’d best get out of this rain. Catch your death, you will.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Scott watched her walk off across the street, her blue rubber boots squeaking. Quite the colorful lady.

As he turned to go he saw a blue light flicker in the library, between the juvenile shelves. A lighter? He looked back at Mrs. Stanfield but she was still making her way across the street. He leaned against the window again.

There was a light. He could only see it through the books, not directly, but it flickered and danced like fire. Arson! Scott ran around towards the front of the building, his hand going into his pocket for his keys.

At the door, he fumbled them out, unlocked the door and yanked it open. He ran towards the juvenile section. The light still flickered, dimly but there, on the aisle that started with Beverly Clearly and ended with C.S. Lewis. Scott reached the end of the aisle and saw the girl.

She looked small with long hair that tumbled down her back in waves over her dress. She sat on the floor with her back to him and the flickering light he’d seen came from her. It looked like a blue flame, like burning alcohol. Except it didn’t just sit above her, it seemed to come from within her. Scott shivered and felt cold air flowing away from the girl past him.

He didn’t know what to say, or what to do. He stared at her.

A faint whispery sound and the movement of her arm told him she had a book in her lap. She was sitting and reading a book. A girl that looked like she was made of blue fire.

A ghost. What else could she be?

“Hello?”

She stiffened but otherwise didn’t move. Then slowly she turned her head slightly to the left.

“I’m the librarian.” Scott took a breath, sure she could hear his heart pounding. “Do you need help?”

She twisted around then and looked up at him with deep black eyes. In her lap, she held a copy of The BFG by Roald Dahl.

“I can’t read it,” she said and her voice sounded like leaves blowing down the sidewalk. “It’s my favorite.”

Scott swallowed. He tried not to shake too much as he crouched down in the aisle and extended his hand. “Do you want me to read it to you?”

“Yes, please,” she lisped.

She twisted around to face him and handed him the book. Scott felt tears stinging his eyes as he faced her, recognized her, and took the book. “What happened to you, Noelle?”

In whispers like rain, she told him about the bad man that had come for her after she left the library. His chest felt both heavy and light. He couldn’t have prevented what happened. The police said as much when he had talked to them. Tears dripped from his eyes. He brushed them away and turned to the first page and started reading by Noelle’s light.

The further he got into Sophie’s story tendrils drifted away from Noelle to the book, touching it lightly before sinking into the words on the page. She got fainter and fainter the more he read but the happier she looked. She streamed into the book page by page until he couldn’t see any more.

Scott stood up, ignoring stiff legs and carried the book up to the desk where the emergency lights glowed. He sat down in his chair there and continued reading the story. As he read he felt a joy spreading through his limbs from his hands and through his head from his eyes. It was Noelle’s joy in the story, coursing through his veins. He finished and didn’t resist the urge to hug the book close to his chest. His very favorite book.

💀

The next morning when he opened the library he displayed the book right on the desk. Who should come in first but Mrs. Stanfield herself?

“You ought not be out in the rain,” she admonished.

“I know, ma’am.”

She reached out and fingered the cover of The BFG. “What a sweet book.”

“You can check it out,” he said.

Her eyes widened. “It’s a children’s book!”

Scott smiled. “Maybe, but there’s a child in all of us. Take it, I think you’ll like it.”

“Okay,” she said.

Scott pulled up her record and scanned the book. He felt a twinge of regret when he let it go but she needed the book more than he did right now. Noelle would see to it that she enjoyed the book. Her and anyone else that checked it out. He almost considered a sticker in the cover reading, “This book is haunted.” Except that wouldn’t make sense. Besides, he didn’t support labeling books based on content.

He waved to Mrs. Stanfield as she left then turned his attention to processing the returns from the book drop. The day looked to be a good one.

💀

1,410 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 85th short story release, written in October 2009.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Bone Magic.

Cat Lady

All of those YouTube videos of cats? Part of their evil plan for world domination!

Lisey hated cats. Nasty things, like reptilian aliens wearing fur coats to fool people. They didn’t fool her, and they knew it. They went out of their way to taunt her.

Mrs. Sterling’s place attracted too many strays. Something had to be done—even if Lisey had to do it herself!

💀

That cat sprawled across the sun-warmed concrete sidewalk, right in front of the gate. Fat and black, with white paws. The tail beat a slow tempo on the concrete, counting time. It knew what it was doing. Lisey knew the truth about them.

Beneath the fuzzy exterior lurked a reptilian monster. Probably something from outer space, that had infiltrated Reflection court for its own evil plans. And it was going to make her late for school again.

Another tardy and she’d get detention. That meant listening to Mrs. Berg drone on in her high-pitched nasty voice. Mrs. Berg might be another alien invader. Or maybe possessed by Satan himself.

She pressed against the screen door.

Just open it. The thing would probably run away. Today was one of those rare March days that was sunny, instead of raining all the time. She liked the rainy days better. The cats stayed hidden, mostly, on rainy days.

What if aliens were actually the same thing as demons? She couldn’t ask the pastor, he didn’t like her questions.

“Lisey!” Mom’s voice came out in a sharp whisper behind her. “What are you doing? You’re going to be late! You know what Steve will do if you’re late again!”

A shiver ran down Lisey’s spine, but she still didn’t move. If Mrs. Berg was possessed by Satan, maybe she could take Steve straight to Hell. No passing go, no collecting any of his shit.

“There’s one of them out there.” She hated her voice. It came out all quivery and sounded like a mouse that had sucked helium. It wasn’t how she sounded in her head.

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake!” Mom came up behind her, not much taller now. Lisey was thirteen already. She’d started her period, had about died when Steve found out about that.

Mom leaned past her shoulder and Lisey stepped away from the screen. If it was Steve, he might shove her out, or worse.

“I don’t recognize that one,” Mom said.

As if it mattered. What was she going to do, go over and introduce them or something? Ask it to move?

“We should call animal services,” Lisey said. “It’s a nasty stray. Who knows what diseases it has!”

Mom sighed. “I don’t think it has diseases, Lisey. It looks healthy. It probably lives over at Mrs. Stirling’s.”

Lisey’s gut tightened and she clenched her fists tight around the straps of her backpack, her nails biting into her hands. Mrs. Stirling was the cat lady. That’s what everyone called her. The batty cat lady. Lisey never walked that way to school. No way. Not when there were always cats outside. Watching her. Plotting.

It wasn’t even legal to have that many cats in Tono. She’d Googled it. Not that anyone cared.

“I have to get Steve’s breakfast ready,” Mom said. “I’ll shoo it away from the gate, but that’s it! You have to walk to the bus stop yourself!”

“What if it goes that way?!”

Mom pushed open the screen door. “There’s a whole road, Lisey! You can avoid it. Come on.”

Lisey’s feet might have been sunk in concrete. She didn’t move. With the door open she had a clear view of the cat sprawling in the sun. It’s head turned. So help her, if it looked at her she’d scream.

“Lisey!” Mom grabbed her arm. “So help me, if you wake Steve before I have his breakfast done! Do you want that?”

No. Lisey knew what Steve would do if that happened. Her feet moved.

Mom went out first. Lisey took short, quick breaths, and followed. There was the chainlink fence and the gate. The cat couldn’t reach her, not unless it jumped, which cats —

Don’t think about it. Don’t imagine it. She watched her mother instead. As old as she was, Mom was still pretty. Short, but thin, and she had boobs. Not huge, but boobs all the same. Her short hair was styled around her face, it made her look younger. Not like young, really, but younger. Pretty. Already wearing a nice dress and heels. For Steven, not that anyone called him that. Sometimes Mom called him Stevie when she wanted something.

She could do a lot better than Steve, that fat, hairy computer geek! What sort of a guy was it that worked at home all the time in nothing but boxers?

Mom was at the gate. “Shoo! Scat!”

The monster turned its head. It didn’t look at Mom, it looked at Lisey. Yellow, slitted eyes that revealed its true reptilian nature. They were reptile demons wearing fur coats. They had some sort of mental powers to convince people they were cute or something.

Plus they had the plan to post videos on YouTube, convincing more idiots to take them into their homes. All part of the plan.

Mom flipped up the metal clasp on the gate. “Go on! Get!”

The cat stared at Lisey and Lisey stared back.

“Hon?” Steve’s voice inside.

Mom jerked away from the gate as if someone had pumped an electric current into it. Her heels hit sharp taps on the sidewalk as she rushed back to the house.

To Lisey, in passing, she said. “Get on to school Lisey!”

Then she was gone in a whiff of lavender, the screen door banging behind her.

The cat stretched, claws digging at the concrete, back arching, tail sticking straight up. Lisey swung her backpack off her shoulders, bringing it around in front, strap still over one shoulder.

She took two steps closer to the gate and glanced back at the house. No one at the door.

A check across the street, and to the neighbor’s house. No one visible. That didn’t mean they weren’t watching. Someone was often watching. It paid to be cautious. Like the time she put dog shit in Heather’s diet coke, she’d used Blake Adams to distract her and all of her friends. It was easy enough to arrange the whole thing and it wasn’t like Heather didn’t deserve it, even if she hadn’t meant for her to get that sick. Who knew that it’d give her giardia?

After all, dogs weren’t as nasty as cats.

While walking closer to the gate, her hand dug into her backpack, feeling past papers and her books. She found the rubber band and slipped it around her thumb and index finger. Then the needle from the pin cushion she carried.

The cat hadn’t moved more than two feet from the gate, cleaning its paws. Mocking her. Waiting for her to step outside the gate.

Lisey kept the backpack in front of her and her hand close to her body as if she was using the backpack to shield against the cat.

You had to be cautious, they had everyone brain-washed.

She pulled back the needle as she reached the gate. “Get out of here, nasty cat!”

It raised its head. The hair started rising on its back. The lips drew back from gleaming white fangs. The filthy, nasty, monster!

She let the needle fly!

The cat let out a hair-raising yowl and took off running. It bolted beneath Mom’s Jetta and didn’t stop. It reappeared on the other side of the car, springing up over the white picket fence. And kept going, toward Mrs. Stirling’s house.

Come back and I’ll really show you! Lisey thought. I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget!

She pushed the gate open and stepped out, closing it carefully behind. Not that it’d stop the nasty things from getting in. Her heart was racing so hard, her chest might burst. She slipped her backpack back on and started running.

💀

After school Lisey walked home slowly, thumbs hooked in the straps of her backpack. It wasn’t like she wanted to go home, there just wasn’t any other place to go.

Sleep out on the streets? Gross. She was too smart to end up as some pimp’s sex slave. If they’d even want her, on account that she didn’t really have boobs yet. There were enough pervs and weirdoes out there that they probably would want her, but that was gross. Like the time she’d heard gagging noises in Steve’s “office” and had looked in to see Mom on the floor beneath his desk, between his legs. She couldn’t really see what Mom was doing, but she knew. For one thing, creepy Steve was watching the same thing going on in a video on the computer screen.

Seriously sick. No way she’d be caught dead doing something like that. She couldn’t even tell anyone, it was so sick. Not Dad, on the rare times that they Skyped. He was clear across the country living in Tennessee with his bleached blond redneck girlfriend, Tiffany, which was just as sick. It would have made more sense if Tiffany and Steve had hooked up instead of her parents splitting up.

While she walked, she kept an eye out for the cats. Someone had to do it. They’d take over everything otherwise.

The decaying mobile home three houses down. A skinny gray cat sat on the porch railing. A second cat lurked beneath the rusted bumper of a broke-down Datsun pickup in the weedy yard.

At the gray house, Simpson’s house, a fluffy white cat lounged on the window sill inside. It watched her with lazy insolence as she walked past. Daring her to do something.

Indoor cats were good and bad. Good, because they stayed away. Bad, because there wasn’t anything to be done about them.

The outside cats, the strays, those were the worst. It wasn’t like Animal Services got rid of them either. Why find them new homes? They were taking over!

She reached her house and stopped on the sidewalk. She didn’t want to go in.

The screen door banged open. Steve stepped out, wearing a robe. It wasn’t even belted over his swollen, hairy belly.

“You’d better get in here,” he said. “Your mother’s been worried sick. You’re supposed to come straight home!”

Lisey ducked her head and hurried up the driveway.

💀

Steve worked nights and Mom liked spending the first part of the night soaking in a hot bath.

Lisey paused on the way past the bathroom. “Taking out the trash!”

“Thank you, Lisey,” Mom said from inside.

Lisey went out the backyard, taking the kitchen trash with her.

The shed was one of those prefab aluminum sheds, squatting in the corner of the backyard, smelling of gas and old grass. It held the lawn mower, the rakes, and other tools that rarely got used anymore. That was always Dad’s thing. Since he was gone, it was her place. Like Steve was ever going to mow the lawn. If she didn’t do it, it wouldn’t happen. She pulled the string to switch on the light.

The catcher stood in the corner. Lisey picked it up, running her hands down the smooth plastic. It’d started as a white plastic broom handle. She had taken off the ends, leaving a hollow handle. Then she’d run a length of clothesline through it, to create a loop at one end. At the other, the lines went through two holes drilled through a thick dowel and tied in knots. Pull back on the dowel, and the loop hanging out the end tightened.

She clenched it in her hands until her knuckles were white. It seemed simple, but she’d never had the guts to use it.

The cat this morning. She twisted the handle in her hands. Nasty, dirty things. If animal services wouldn’t take care of them, if no one would, then she’d have to do it.

The thought made her gut tighten like she was sick or something.

It was Mrs. Stirling behind the strays in the neighborhood. She kept feeding them. People dumped them off there. It was too many. Somebody had to do something about it.

It’d have to be her.

She clutched the catcher and went out into the night to fight the alien menance.

💀

Night was the absolute worst. During the day cats tended to sleep a lot. At night they went out, slinking around in the darkness doing who knew what.

Lisey walked quickly, clutching the catcher close. Her heart was pounding so hard it probably was going to scare the cats away.

That wouldn’t be so bad. Except then they’d come back.

Six houses down to Mrs. Stirling’s house. She skirted around the pools of light from the street lights. If people saw her out, someone might say something to Mom.

And she didn’t have much time. Eventually, mom might wonder why she hadn’t come back in from taking out the trash.

The street curved around, and there was Mrs. Stirling’s house, just ahead.

As houses went on the block it was a fairly nice place. A small two-story house, blue, with those fake white shutters on the windows. Not much of a lawn to speak off, a tiny circle in front, surrounded by flower beds and shrubs. A porch wrapped around the front of the house from the garage over and around the side.

That’s where the cats liked to hang out. Some days it looked like there was a dozen or more of them, lounging on the porch, on the railing, draped all over looking fat and satisfied with themselves.

When they weren’t lurking in the bushes.

In the dark, the house looked less inviting. The bushes and the trees along the sides shrouded the place. No lights were on. Mrs. Stirling must go to bed early.

Lisey’s chest heaved. She hadn’t been this close to the house in weeks. Ordinarily, she stayed away, but Mrs. Stirling was the reason that the cats were taking over the neighborhood. They had to be stopped! She had the catcher. That was something.

Her resolve hardened. She took a step out into the street. Then another. Then, feeling exposed, she hurried across the street right up to the picket fence that bordered the sidewalk.

Lisey went still again, watching, and listening.

Glowing eyes appeared beneath the bushes ahead, catching the light from the street light a couple houses down. She swallowed the shriek that tried to escape.

Was there anything creepier!

Glowing eyes regarded her. The shape of the cat itself was hidden by the bushes. It was only two disembodied circles watching her with demonic intensity.

Did they know? Could they tell what she intended? Heat rushed into her face and her courage almost broke. She could run home, put the catcher away and forget the whole idea.

Except, except it was watching her. If she ran now she didn’t think she’d ever stop. They’d have won completely. They already made her walk to school a living hell.

It had to stop.

Lisey walked closer to the cat, slowly. She spoke softly, hating that her voice shook, trying to coax out the beast.

“Here, kitty, kitty.”

The glowing eyes blinked out like fireflies then opened.

Mrewp. The cat rose and stepped out of the bushes.

In the dim light, it was black, with white markings. Was it the same cat that she’d seen this morning? She couldn’t tell.

Lisey jerked the catcher and the cat jumped back away from the loop. She bit her lip, hard. Her heart was hammering so hard in her chest, it was like the time she had run the quarter-mile race at school against Wendy Johnson.

The cat was fast too. It was watching her, wary, poised to dart away, but apparently curious what she was doing.

The catcher shook in her hands. Tears stung her eyes and the loop dropped. The cat watched it move.

Lisey shook the loop more, dropping it down onto the driveway. She jerked it around and the cat crouched. She pulled it back, away from the cat.

The cat jumped.

She snapped it up as fast and as hard as she could. As if by magic the loop went right around the cat’s head. It could have been a trick, the cat jumping through the loop, except the rest of the cat wouldn’t fit.

The catcher jerked in her hands and the cat fell, twisting, already trying to escape.

Lisey grabbed the dowel at her end and pulled. The loop tightened around the cat’s throat. It growled and tried backing up.

She pulled harder.

The cat exploded! It bolted, almost succeeding in yanking the catcher out of her hands!

She yanked it back, flipping it on its backside. The cat’s yowls grew in volume, a nerve-shocking noise that rose into the night.

“Shut up!” Lisey yanked harder on the dowel and twisted it around, drawing the noose tighter. “Shut up, you stupid cat!”

The cat tried backing out again, running in a backward circle at the end of the catcher. Her arms hurt, and still the cat fought!

She twisted the dowel around more and more, drawing the loop tighter. Tighter!

Out of the dark, a woman’s voice shouted. “What are you doing?!”

Lisey looked up, shocked at the sudden appearance of the woman with frizzy white hair, and a dark dress, bearing down on her like an apparition from the grave.

Mrs. Stirling. The cat lady. Lisey shrieked.

“Quiet!” Mrs. Stirling snapped. She snatched the catcher from Lisey’s fingers.

It was all over. Lisey’s chest heaved. She was caught. At the least her Mom would be called. Maybe the police. Word would get out.

What was Mrs. Stirling doing?

She slid her hands down the catcher to the cat, now lying on its side, gasping. Mrs. Stirling gently picked up the cat. She cradled it in her arms, pulling the noose free. The cat’s wide eyes blinked up at her as it sucked air. Mrs. Stirling’s hand soothed the cat, running down its neck.

Bile rose in Lisey’s throat. “I—”

Mrs. Stirling’s hands did some sort of movement, quick and sharp. There was a snap, loud, but at the same time not, like someone popping their knuckles. The cat’s legs kicked hard, twice, like it was trying to escape and then it lay still.

“That’s how you do it,” Mrs. Stirling said. “Quick. Quietly. You don’t draw attention to the whole neighborhood! What’s your name?”

“Lisey.” A mouse-squeak answer.

“Well, Lisey, you’d better come inside. We can’t send you back home in that state, your parents would worry.”

Mrs. Stirling started up the walk. Lisey’s feet carried her along, as if making the choice for her.

💀

A few minutes later Lisey sat on a hard kitchen chair, painted blue, with her feet up on the seat. A mug of untouched hot chocolate was in her hands, the steam carrying the rich cocoa smells into her face while marshmallows melted.

The cat lay dead, eyes half-open, a tiny pink tongue sticking from its mouth, in the center of the table.

Other cats prowled around the room. Their meows echoed. They twined around Mrs. Stirling’s legs as she filled a large enamelware pot with water at the big kitchen sink.

A small white cat jumped up onto the kitchen table, sniffing at the dead cat.

Mrs. Stirling snapped her fingers. “Down!”

Instantly the white cat turned and jumped, vanishing from view. Lisey pulled her arms and legs in closer, wishing she could close her eyes, that she could be back in her room, but closing her eyes would be worse than having them open.

Mrs. Stirling grunted and carried the pot to the stove. She came back to the kitchen table and picked up the dead cat by its hind legs.

“There’s no point being sneaky with cats,” she said. “They’re sneaky devils all on their own. Try that, it’ll never work. They think with their guts. Hook them there, and they’re yours.”

She carried it back to the sink and lifted it up. What was she doing? Lisey couldn’t help but watch. Why was she —

There were two metal hooks in the ceiling, like ones used to hang plants, except sharp. Mrs. Stirling impaled one back foot on the hook on the left, and then the other on the hook on the right.

The cat hung upside down, legs spread, white belly facing Mrs. Stirling.

On the floor, the cats meowed more and paced in circles. A long-haired tabby stood up, paws on the counter. A practiced shove of Mrs. Stirling’s knee sent it away.

Mrs. Stirling grabbed a knife from a magnetic rack at the side of the sink. It was short and caught the light on the fine edge.

“Head has to go first.” Mrs. Stirling’s hand enveloped the head and the knife cut at the neck, pressing hard and fast, two quick tugs and the head came free. Blood poured from the neck, but Mrs. Stirling had already pulled her hand away. She dropped the head with a thud into the sink.

Lisey’s throat was dry. She hardly felt the chair beneath her. Her heart raced.

Mrs. Stirling pinched the fur on the cat’s chest while the blood slowed to a trickle.

“Easy enough to clean ’em. A slice here.” A quick cut across the chest.

Lisey felt dizzy and sipped the hot chocolate. The heat and chocolate spread like a balm through her throat, soothing her.

“Not deep, mind you, just through the first layers. Then cut up, like this, opening the belly skin, as easy as pulling a zipper, but not so deep as to enter the gut.” The knife cut up along the belly of the cat, parting the fur as if there really was a zipper there.

The smell of meat filled the room. The cats on the floor meowed and spun in increasing frenetic circles, pacing around the chairs and Mrs. Stirling. Lisey couldn’t tell how many there were, but a lot.

Lisey sipped more hot chocolate.

“Up the legs, around, and now it all comes off like a glove.” Mrs. Stirling put down the knife and grabbed the fur. She tugged and pulled, quick hard actions and the skin peeled right down the cat, turned inside out and off, until it hung from the naked front feet.

“A good pair of shears works with the feet, or you can do like I do.” She grabbed each of the front legs and snapped the leg right above the foot as easily as a twig. Then she picked up her knife and sliced off the feet, and the fur went with it. The only fur left was on the tail, hanging in a limp curve behind the back.

Mrs. Stirling looked at her, and then the tail. She nodded. “You’ve got the idea. The same thing with the tail, although that you can pretty much pull off.”

She grabbed it at the base and twisted. The sound was soft, popping, tearing and then the tail came free in her hand.

The cats paced all around, bumping the chair. Lisey sipped her hot chocolate and ignored them, entranced by Mrs. Stirling. Her neighbor smiled.

“Almost done. Slit here.” The knife went through the bulging translucent skin over the belly, and slit upwards.

All kinds of guts, squishy and wrinkled, pushed against the opening.

Mrs. Stirling put down the knife and parted the skin she reached in and pinched near the top with her fingers. “Get a good grip here, you don’t want to get any mess on the meat if you can help it. A quick tug, pull it all down and out.”

As easy as that the guts spilled out of the cat, dangling down in brown and grays. Not bloody, really, at all. Lisey wondered at that, and what all those shapes were.

Now the cats went crazy, wails rising in frantic pleas, circling madly around Mrs. Stirling.

“Hook in two fingers down at the bottom and scrape out the rest. The lungs’ll usually break up, that’s okay.” Mrs. Stirling dug in with her fingers and pulled out the rest, the whole mass of stuff coming out, and when her hand came out this time it was bloodied.

She ran the cat’s organs through her fingers and pulled free a large dark mass. “Liver. Very good, organ meats. People don’t get enough.”

Mrs. Stirling placed the liver on a cutting board beside the sink and picked up her knife. With practiced strokes, she chopped it into bits. Then she put the knife down and swept the pieces into her hand. She beamed at Lisey.

“You’ll like this.”

She scattered the liver bits onto the floor like she was feeding birds.

The cats tumbled over themselves to get the pieces. Yowls and hisses emerged from the pile. While they argued and devoured the pieces, Mrs. Stirling picked another organ. It was dark, harder.

“Heart. Kidneys are good too.” She chopped while she talked. “Cat gut makes good string, it was often used in the past. Of course, you can tan the hide and it makes a nice leather. I like to use everything.”

Mrs. Stirling reached up and pulled the cat down off the hooks. Two sharp snaps, a cut of the knife and the rear paws were free. She rinsed the naked pink, emptied out cat—it didn’t even look like a cat anymore—with the tap and then dropped the whole thing in the steaming pot on the stove.

“The meat is tasty, I usually boil it to make a good broth and get everything off the bones. I’ll leave that to shimmer, once I clean the bones they’ll get dried and ground into bone meal to fertilize the garden. Nothing gets wasted.”

Mrs. Stirling clucked her tongue. “Look at the time! You’d best get home. Come by tomorrow, Lisey, and this one will be ready. I think you’ll like it. I grow all my own vegetables.”

When Mrs. Stirling lifted the hot chocolate mug from Lisey’s hands she blinked, startled. Her eyes kept going back to the skin, and a drop of blood that was still hanging on the curved chrome faucet.

“Lisey?”

The cat was in the pot turning into soup. Mrs. Stirling had killed it. Killed it, skinned it, gutted it, and stuck it in the pot. And there hadn’t been anything reptilian underneath the fur. No devils inside. Nothing but meat and bones. Like a chicken, with fur instead of feathers.

Mrs. Stirling’s hand fell on her shoulder. Lisey stirred and looked up at the woman’s kindly face. “Tomorrow?”

“Yes. Soup’ll be on. We’ll have crackers and we can talk.”

“Thank you. That sounds nice.”

Lisey stood up. A pale orange cat rubbed against her legs. She didn’t shriek. She looked down at it and it was just meat. Sooner or later it’d end up on those hooks, skinned and cooked while all of the other cats milled around for its giblets.

She giggled.

“It is funny, isn’t it?” Mrs. Stirling asked, as if she could read Lisey’s mind.

They were walking together now, through Mrs. Stirling’s house. It was nice, cozy, and smelled like cooking. Mrs. Stirling opened the door for her, shooing back cats with her legs.

Outside the cool air was like coming up out of a deep pool and breaking into the air. Mrs. Stirling had saved her from drowning.

“There you go, Lisey. Run on home. I’ll look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

Lisey waved and walked down the sidewalk feeling light on her feet. From beneath rose bushes on the corner, a cat’s glowing eyes watched her, and all that came to mind was all those other cats begging for the guts. She wrinkled her nose. In one way, they were monsters. They ate their own.

💀

Mom and Steve were arguing when she reached the front door, she could hear them all the way from the yard.

“Jeez,” she said, stepping inside. “The whole neighborhood is going to hear you!”

They were both in the living room, facing each other across the coffee table, except Mom was standing and Steve was sitting on the couch, his hairy belly hanging out over his boxers, robe hanging open. He didn’t stand up at all when she came in, thank goodness for small favors.

Mom’s hands fluttered like birds that didn’t have a perch. “Where were you?”

“I told you I was taking out the trash, it was so nice I took a little walk.”

Steve’s fat face flushed. “Oh? Is that what you did? A walk?” He sneered. “By yourself? In the dark?”

Lisey looked right back at him, right into his piggy little eyes. “Yeah, Steven. I did. I went and saw Mrs. Stirling.”

And her voice didn’t quaver or sound mousy at all.

His face darkened. “The cat lady? Now I know you’re lying!”

“I’m not, ask her yourself if you want. She’s invited me over for dinner tomorrow.” Lisey smiled her brightest smile. “I’m sure she’d make room for you if you want to invite yourself.”

Leaving Steve – Steven – with his mouth hanging open, Lisey turned to Mom. “I’m going to head up to bed, Mom. I’m sorry I worried you. I went to see Mrs. Stirling, to ask if she could help me see what she sees in cats. She did.”

With that, final word – she got in the final word! – Lisey walked past Mom and headed to her room.

💀

4,866 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 80th short story release, written in March 2013. This dark twist on the idea of a ‘cat lady’ hits my funny bone. I could see her finding her way into a longer work.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, The Copyleft Heart.

Discards

Aspen Winters loves the library. The books. How organized everything was on the shelves. That it wasn’t her father’s pharmacy.

Her first step to independence. A real job and a chance to get away from her father. Soon she’d get her own apartment.

Plus Tony worked at the library. Two years older, with the cutest dimple, she couldn’t wait to work side-by-side with him.

One day she’d run the library and everything would be perfect. Just perfect.

💀

This was one of those perfect blue sky days that came along too rarely in Grays Harbor, even in June. Today the sunshine brought out the bright reds and pinks and yellows of the roses along the front of the Parker library. The green metal roof sparkled with droplets from the brief rain last night. The rain had stripped the mill-stink out of the air, leaving everything fresh and smelling clean.

A perfect day to start a new job. Aspen Winters rose up on her toes, feet in her white pumps, the ones that she normally only wore on special days. Her heels dropped back down to the sidewalk with a click. If she took that step, if she walked into the library, it’d be real. Today she wouldn’t be going in like it was any other day. Today she’d be going in as someone who worked in the library. Like Ms. Rachel, the librarian, or Tony Hill who was two years older and had the cutest dimple on his cheek. She wouldn’t be a librarian, no, not yet. Not until after she finished high school, college and then got a master’s degree, which was all going to take forever. But it was sort of like being a librarian.

It was her chance for everything. To save enough money to get away from her parents for good. Her own money, not the small allowance that Daddy paid when she worked down at his pharmacy. Eventually even her own apartment.

Aspen ran her hands down her blue dress. Not the robin’s egg blue of the sky, but a rich blueberry blue, almost a purple like the blueberries that Mom used when they made jam. It was one of her favorite dresses and came with a wide orange belt. Mom had complained of course, like always, saying she was too pale for such dark colors. Aspen liked bold, bright colors. She had won on the dress, giving in to Mom on her lipstick, going with a light pink instead of the deeper ruby that she had wanted.

She wasn’t about to let that spoil her first day on the job.

Aspen took a deep breath, there was just a faint hint of saltiness to the air, and took that first step. She walked right up to the staff entrance and knocked sharply on the glass with her knuckles.

The door swung out and Aspen stepped back. Tony Hill leaned out, hanging on the door frame with one muscled arm. A tattoo peeked out of the sleeve of his black t-shirt. Aspen had to look up to see his eyes, deep hazel and gold, and his bright white smile.

“Hey there, Aspen! You’re on time, good move!” He winked. “Got to get on the Dragon Lady’s good side on your first day.”

Did he mean Ms. Rachel? She always seemed so sweet. Aspen tried to think of something, anything to say, but her tongue had curled up and died like a salted slug in her mouth. Her gut clenched.

Tony moved to the side, holding the door and gestured. “I’m kidding, of course. Come on in. I’m supposed to give you the grand tour. Ms. Rachel should get here soon.”

Somehow, Aspen managed to walk past him. She kept her hands clasped together. In all the years that she had been coming to the library she hadn’t been back in the staff areas before. The room was bigger than she imagined. With a couple computers, doors that went to other rooms, and then the short hallway that went out behind the front desk. The door clanged shut behind her.

Tony appeared beside her. “Well, this is the workroom. It’s where we hang out and make fun of the people coming into the library.”

He laughed and bumped his arm into hers. “Don’t look so shocked, Aspen. I’m just kidding. Mostly.”

Aspen forced a small smile on her face, hoping that she wasn’t blushing. God, she probably was. Mostly when she came into the library she didn’t say anything to Tony. She was always tongue-tied around him. He was a senior at Parker High, on the swim team and the cross country team. He didn’t hang out with any one group at school, but seemed to know everyone. He was like totally her opposite. Tall where she was short. He had dark wavy, beautiful hair and her hair was so blond it was almost white. He was tanned and she was a pale fish. Plus he was popular with everyone, and no one hardly knew that she existed.

It was so strange that she was going to be working with him now.

Tony didn’t seem to notice that she was at a loss for words. He pointed at a computer sitting up on a computer desk in the middle of the room.

“That’s the processing station. We check in stuff there. All the courier boxes that come from the other libraries, plus whatever people dump in the book drops. You have to watch the book drops. Sometimes people put all kinds of crap in there. We’ve had needles, used condoms, and actual crap, like dog shit bags and stuff.”

“Really?” Aspen blurted the question, horrified at the idea. Who would put that stuff in the book drop?

Tony shrugged. “Sure. Not all the time, of course, but yeah, it happens. One time we had a guy that put mason jars full of honey in the drops at several of the libraries. No lids, but it was actually pretty smart. The jars rolled into the drop and then the honey just oozed out all over everything in the drop. That was a bitch to clean!”

“That’s awful!”

Tony laughed. “Yeah, it was. Lucky for me, I wasn’t working that day, so I didn’t get stuck cleaning it up.”

He turned and pointed to her left. The corner of the room was taken up with something, she didn’t know what it was. There were handles with three grips that looked like they turned, on tall panels of whatever it was. Some sort of track ran along the bottom.

“That’s the compact shelving,” Tony said. “It’s where we store supplies, weeds, and all that stuff.”

“Weeds?”

Shelving? It didn’t look much like shelving. Tony stepped forward and grabbed the handle on one of the middle sections. He spun it with one hand. The units parted and then Aspen understood. Each section was a bookshelf, but they were on tracks the tracks. As Tony spun the handles, the four units on the right rolled away from the other four and opened up an aisle in the middle. And there were shelves, full of all sorts of books on both sides. The shelving was taller than Tony, rising up almost to the ceiling and it was three sections of shelving deep.

The shelves stopped and shiny red pegs popped out of the side with a loud clunk. “What’s that?”

“Safety lock.” Tony pulled on the handle to move the shelf. It wouldn’t budge. He slammed his hand against one of the pegs, pushing it in. Now spinning the handle moved the shelving unit. He reversed the direction on the handle until the peg popped out again. “See?”

Without waiting for an answer he moved into the aisle and pulled a book down from the shelves, flipping through the pages. He sniffed at it and wrinkled his nose before putting it back on the shelf.

“Smells like cat piss. We get that a lot. Too bad, good book otherwise. Sometimes you get some good stuff that’s being weeded.”

He’d said that before. Aspen took a breath. “Weeded? You mean the books?”

“Yeah. We discard them. They get weeded out when they’re damaged, or if it’s just been sitting around too long and no one wants to read it.” Tony grinned. “Sometimes you get pretty good stuff. Even if you don’t want it, things will sell online.”

Maybe she looked shocked or something because Tony stepped out of the aisle saying, “They’re going to just throw them away. It’s not a big deal.”

Tony hit the safety peg and spun the handle the other way until the shelves came together with a loud clang that made her jump. Tony saw and laughed.

“Hey, don’t worry. I won’t close it with you in there!”

Maybe not, but if she had to go into the compact shelving she was going to make sure to lock it so that no one could turn the handles. Just in case.

“Come on,” Tony said. “There’s a lot more I’m supposed to show you.”

💀

Twenty minutes later Tony was showing her the shelving carts when Ms. Rachel finally showed up. Ms. Rachel didn’t seem all that old, only in her twenties. She was short and fat, with long black hair and was always smiling. She waggled her fingers at the two of them, rings flashing on every finger.

“Are you two getting along okay?”

Tony beamed. “Oh yeah, she’s sharp. She already knows how to put things in order and where all the sections are.”

Ms. Rachel pulled off her jacket, a bright yellow slicker with white polka-dots. “I told you. Aspen has been coming in since she could hardly see over the front desk. I was thrilled that you applied for the job when Jon, well…”

Aspen nodded, saving Ms. Rachel from the awkwardness of saying anything. She knew all about Jon. He had been very old and forgetful. Probably the only reason that he had lived alone in that moldy old trailer was because he didn’t have anyone that cared enough to put him in a home. She didn’t think anyone was much surprised that he had left a burner on. More than once she’d been in the library when he was shelving books and had seen him put the books in the wrong place. Ms. Rachel was probably too nice to comment on it, but it did make things harder on everyone else when they couldn’t find what they were looking for on the shelves. For some reason, people would put up with that from somebody as old as Jon. Not for her. If she messed up that badly, even Ms. Rachel with all her smiles would let her go.

That was something that Aspen didn’t even want to think about. If she lost the job now, it’d make things that much worse at home. She’d never hear the end of it. They’d tell her that she’d have to just keep working in the pharmacy after all, like they’d warned her. At least through high school and probably community college. Maybe even after, if she went to Evergreen and they made her stay at home. The idea of spending the next four to eight years working in Winters Pharmacy, and being stuck at home, was about as appealing as going to prison. If Daddy had his way, she’d keep working for him for nothing except her allowance. Why would she get a paycheck when she got free room and board? They were family, Daddy said. Which obviously meant that he thought she would always work for free.

Not now. She was sixteen and had gotten the job on her own. So what if Daddy didn’t like it? The library was close to school, the schedule was flexible, and they actually paid her. Minimum wage, now, but it was a lot more than her allowance. Not even her mother’s guilt trips over leaving Daddy to work in the pharmacy alone were going to change her mind.

“Just give me a few minutes to get settled, and check my email and then I’ll be out,” Ms. Rachel said.

“No worries,” Tony answered. “I’ll watch the desk. Aspen can start working on her first cart.”

“Great!” Ms. Rachel said.

Then she was gone, disappearing through the door in the workroom that led to her office. It shut soundly behind her.

Aspen looked over at Tony. He tapped the shelving cart. “Almost time to open up. You can go ahead and start putting these away. When you’re done I’ll give you a pull list.”

“Pull list?”

“It’s just a list of stuff that people want at the other libraries. We pull it off and send it to them.”

Of course. She’d gotten holds in before, many times. “Oh, the holds!”

Tony laughed. “That’s right. Go on then, better get those shelved!”

Aspen pushed the cart. It wasn’t hard. The cart was gray, sort of like a small bookcase with three shelves. There was a different one for each of the three sections of the library, and the first she’d picked was the nonfiction section. It also had the teen books on it, labeled with a “YA” sticker. As she walked away from the desk she had the feeling that Tony was watching her. She resisted the urge to look until she reached the shelves and turned down the first aisle. Then she did glance back at the desk and Tony was watching her. She ducked her head and pulled the first book off the cart.

She really enjoyed putting the books away. She knew all about the Dewey Decimal system and everything. It left her mind free to wander. Was Tony watching her because she was new, or because he was noticing her? She hoped it was because he was noticing her, even if the thought made her all shivery inside. She’d noticed him, of course, at school but there was no reason to ever think that he had noticed her at all. More than once, as she  moved through the aisles, she glanced back up at the desk and found him looking her way. She just didn’t know why he was watching.

There was that, and it also bothered her what he had said about the weeded books. Just taking them didn’t sound right. Maybe he was telling the truth, that the books were going to be thrown away. In that case, you could look at it that he was rescuing the books, but it still sounded weird. Why would the library just throw away perfectly good books? Not the ones that stank of cat piss or whatever, but books that you could sell online? That really bothered her. If anyone was going to sell them online, shouldn’t it be the library, and the library getting the money from the books?

Aspen got to the end of shelving the first cart of books without figuring out an answer. It was her first day, after all. Maybe after she’d been working at the library for a while, she’d know more about it.

💀

Three weeks later, on a Tuesday when she was scheduled to work until eight, Aspen showed up at 3:30 and discovered that it was just her and Tony working the closing shift. They were in the workroom when he gave her the news.

“Ms. Rachel had an all-day sort of meeting at the admin building,” Tony said, leaning on the workstation in the back. “Sara’s off at five.”

Sara was an older woman, plump with curly gray hair who spent most of her time with her wide bottom planted in a chair at the desk. She tended to wear baggy shirts and stretch pants to work. And she had one of those mouths that turned down at the corners, which made her look perpetually unhappy. It would have helped if she smiled, but in all the years that Aspen had been coming to the library she hadn’t ever seen Sara smile. Even now, that’s where she was, parked on the chair at the front desk looking at some website on the computer.

Probably Facebook. Aspen had no idea what friends Sara had on there, but usually that was the site she had open.

Working in the library wasn’t exactly the way she had imagined it. Her job was mostly putting away the books, movies and making sure everything was straight and in order. Sometimes she pulled off materials that people wanted. She impressed Tony when she lifted the courier boxes, which were much lighter than the shipping crates used at the pharmacy. Even after only three weeks, Ms. Rachel had noticed how much better the library looked than when Jon was working there and had said as much.

Okay, she hadn’t put it quite that way. But Ms. Rachel did go on about how great everything looked, at how neat all the shelves were, and how much better it looked with books displayed on each shelf. Aspen had done that on her own, because she liked to see the beautiful covers, and figured other people would like it too.

It took work to keep it that way. She hadn’t found any needles in the book drop, but people did make a mess of her shelves. She’d go through a section, like the new book shelves making everything neat and then some old woman would come in and turn it into a disaster area. Books pulled out, falling over, shoved back behind the others.

How hard was it to put things back the way you found them? She wanted  to say that and didn’t. Instead, she smiled and put the section back the way it should look.

By the time Sara left at five, without saying anything, she was just gone from her perch, Aspen had shelved five carts of books. And she had fixed the mess someone had made of the cookbook section and pulled a holds list. Today she was wearing a cream-colored dress and she ran her hands down it, checking for any dust smears. When she had started working at the library the shelves hadn’t looked like anyone had ever dusted them. Dusting all of the shelves was one of the first projects she had tackled. Her dress was fine, including the strawberry-red belt that matched her new red pumps, her nails, and lipstick. She had treated herself with her first paycheck.

The library was empty. Even the bank of computer stations along the wall were empty. Usually there were patrons hunched over the stations, but it was late. Other than Tony, she was alone in the library.

She went back up to the desk where Tony was scanning a stack of DVDs into the computer to see if there was anything else she could do.

He scanned the last movie, Psycho, and then moved the whole stack into a recycled plastic grocery store bag. He smiled at her.

“Hey, Aspen. How’s it going?” His eyes moved as his gaze traveled from her face down to her chest. He did that a lot but still hadn’t asked her out.

Why did he have the movies in a bag? “Do you need me to shelve those?”

“No, that’s okay, I was just going to check them out.”

Aspen moved to the side enough so that she could see the screen. She hadn’t been trained on all the computer stuff yet, but she knew enough to know that Tony wasn’t checking out the DVDs. He hit the ESC key to clear the screen and laughed.

“Thing is, somebody beat me to it. Cleaned out all the discs and just left the cases. I had to withdraw them from the system.”

He was lying. His neck was flushed. His smile couldn’t cover it up.

Aspen’s heart pounded. She still hadn’t brought up what he said about weeds with Ms. Rachel. Usually Ms. Rachel seemed so busy, and Aspen had told herself that she must have misunderstood what Tony was saying. Or at worse, he was saving books from the landfill.

Now, she wasn’t so sure. She had shelved those movies recently and they weren’t empty when she shelved them, she was sure of that.

She found her voice. “Do we call the police or something?”

“No.” Tony laughed. “Like they’d care! It’s a few DVDs. Stuff goes missing from here all the time. Nobody cares. I’m just going to take the cases to recycle them.”

It was true that the library didn’t recycle anything. Ms. Rachel said that was because the city was responsible for that sort of thing, and they didn’t want to pay for recycling.

But she didn’t believe that Tony was taking the DVD cases to recycle them, any more than she believed that the discs weren’t in the cases. She leaned on the counter.

“Is there anything else you need me to do?”

He shook his head quickly. “No, that’s fine. I’ll just put these in the back. Holler if you need help out here.”

Tony hurried to the back.

Aspen walked around the counter, trailing her fingers along the smooth surface. No dust. She saw to it that things were kept clean. The library needed someone like her. Even Ms. Rachel didn’t care about the little things like dusting, but they were important. It made an impression.

This thing with Tony, that was a problem. A serious problem. If she went to Ms. Rachel with accusations would she believe that Tony was stealing things from the library? He could deny it. What proof was there?

Aspen ran her fingers along the keyboard. She knew that the system would show the movies as withdrawn, but that didn’t prove he hadn’t found the cases empty, just like he said. And the books he took off the weed shelf? Maybe if she knew where he sold them online, she could show that to Ms. Rachel. Even if she did, would anyone care? Why would the police care about someone taking books that the library was throwing away anyway?

Except no one was going to throw those DVDs out. Tony was just taking them. It wasn’t right.

Accusing Tony, though, that could go wrong. He could deny it. Or claim that she had taken them! What was there to stop him?

Nothing. Aspen sighed and leaned her elbows on the counter. She stretched her right leg back and rested her pump on the shelving cart.

When she saw movement in the corner of her eye she turned her head and beamed at Tony standing in the doorway staring at her.

“Do you have any plans after work?” Aspen asked.

Tony shook his head. “No, not really.”

Aspen arched her back a bit more. “No one’s going to notice if you don’t go right home?”

“No.” Tony laughed. “My dad’s usually good and passed out by the time I get home. I have a six-pack in my car, you want to go have some fun?”

Aspen straightened up. “That sounds perfect.”

She walked toward Tony, keeping her eyes on his. He took a step back into the workroom.

“I just remembered,” Aspen said. “I was looking at the books back here, but I couldn’t reach one on the top shelf. Could you help me get it?”

“Sure. Yeah, no problem.”

Tony turned and went to the compact shelving. He spun the handle to open the discards aisle enough for him to slip inside. “Which is it?”

Aspen reached the shelves and ran her hand along the long metal handles. “All the way back, on the left. On the top shelf. It’s the one with the blue cover.”

She leaned to peek down the dim aisle. The shelves were tall. Tony was stretching his right arm up, finger running along the base of the books.

Aspen kicked off her shoes and slapped her hand against the safety peg.

Tony turned and grinned. “Funny.”

She winked at him. He shook his head and went back to reaching up to the top shelf. She grabbed the handle on the shelving. She spun it to close the shelving. Tony yelped, still almost laughing, then there was a woof of expelled air as it got hard to turn the handles. With her feet planted, she used every bit of leverage she could squeeze from the handles. Every quarter inch she gained was hard.

Something snapped, like a stick breaking.

A gassy, farting smell leaked out of the aisle.

At one point there was a thrashing sound like a trapped animal trying to escape. Then a thudding, flapping sound as books fell.

A final wheezing, gulping noise.

Then nothing.

Aspen held on until her arms shook. When she finally let go blood rushed into her hands and she had tingles like they’d gone to sleep.

According to the clock, it was already past time to close the library.

💀

On Monday afternoon, when Aspen came into the library, Ms. Rachel was in the work room. She looked pale and washed out. Her fat hands wrung together.

“Oh dear, I have the most terrible news!”

Aspen clutched her small green purse in her hands. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s horrible. The police called. It seems that they found Tony’s Mustang at the bottom of the cliff off quarry road. It was all burnt up.”

“Tony wasn’t in it, was he?” Aspen asked in a breathless voice.

Ms. Rachel nodded. Tears welled up in her eyes. “He was such a beautiful boy. I know you two kids hit it off right away. I’m so sorry. They say he must have been drinking and smoking up there and lost control of the car.”

Aspen hung her head.

“If you need to take the day off, I completely understand. I’ve called admin. They’re going to send over help. Sara was so broken up, she had to go home.”

Aspen sniffled, then shook her head. “No. Thank you. Tony loved the library. I’d rather remember him by keeping it the way it should be kept.”

“Oh, you’re a sweet girl,” Ms. Rachel said. “I feel so lucky to have you here. I expect you’ll be running this place eventually.”

Aspen shook her head slowly. “Oh no, you’ll be around for a long time. Won’t you?”

💀

4,200 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 73rd weekly short story release, written in June 2013. Eventually, I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime, I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point, I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m a bit behind on posting stories but check back next Monday for another story. Hopefully I’ll have it up. Next up is my story Forgotten Opportunity.

This Treehouse is Haunted

Joel returned to start over. Seeing his best friend’s house for sale felt like fate. A new job. A house he remembered from childhood. Even the old treehouse remained.

Almost as if time stayed still here. As if everything had waited for him.

You never forget your first loss. On either side.

💀

For Joel the yellow ranch house represented a homecoming, and yet not, at the same time. The house itself hadn’t changed much since the summer days he had spent here playing with AJ. It was still that same sunflower yellow with the bright green trim. Obviously it had been repainted because it looked just like he remembered it. The stone-walled flower beds out front hadn’t changed at all either, but the satellite dish perched owl-like on the corner of the house was new. Standing on the wood porch everything felt askew and out-of-proportion. He was too big for the porch, and it was empty of the worn nylon patio furniture that AJ’s parents had kept on the porch. Even stranger was looking across the street at his old house, hardly recognizable, with piles of junk and several rusted cars decaying on what strands of grass remained.

Joel knocked his fingers against the sturdy white post beside the steps, just to assure himself that it was real. He was back, in the town that he had never expected to return to, owning his best friend’s old house. He knocked once more on the post and went inside, feeling like a visitor in his own house, to confront the piles of boxes scattered around the house. Kitchen first, he wanted the coffee maker, coffee and his thermos. Fuel for the rest of the day.

Not having to report to work at his new teaching job until Monday, Joel spent the day unpacking and putting away his few belongings. One of the bedrooms became his office with his computer desk in the corner, the glass surface actually having made the move without getting broken. He set up his two computers, monitors side by side flanked by the scanner and the printer. From his tan microsuede chair he could lean back and look out the window at trees across the brown backyard. Surprisingly the treehouse where he had spent so much time with AJ still looked intact despite all of the years. Others must have kept it up in the years since AJ’s parents had moved away. When night fell Joel made himself a plate of spaghetti, with a spicy Italian sausage sauce from a jar, and carried it into the office. He put it down on the clear glass in front of the monitors while he pulled up his latest project on the right computer. TweetDeck filled the screen on the second computer, the constant stream of tweets giving him a sense that he wasn’t entirely alone.

At about nine, long after the sun had set, a light flickering in the window pulled Joel’s attention away from the article he was writing. He leaned back in his chair and looked out the window. A blue light flickered in the distance. It was so dark at first he couldn’t even decide how far away the light was, but then he realized that it was coming from the treehouse. A bolt of fear shot through his nerves. If local kids were playing in the treehouse they could get hurt —

He pushed back from the desk and ran out of the room. The house was dark but he flicked on the light switches as he advanced through the house. First the hallway, then the kitchen and dining room, and last off all the light above the back deck. Joel unlatched the slider and stepped out into the yellow circle of light cast by the fixture above.

Cold air slipped through his t-shirt and across his chest. A loud chorus of frogs filled the night air with their music. Thanks to the bright moon didn’t look as dark outside as it had through the window. The porch light didn’t carry far past the deck but he could see the long overgrown back lawn, the flower beds marking the edge of the lawn, the large square of the garden filled with dried remains of plants and past that the field that was the main part of his property. Across the field stood the trees where he and AJ had built the treehouse.

The blue light flickered and bobbed within the treehouse, shining out of the single window facing the house. Clearly someone was there. Joel rubbed his jaw, stubble rough against his hand. He didn’t want to scare them, but just the thought of kids up in the treehouse made him feel queasy. He walked across the deck, skipped down the few steps to the lawn and started across. He’d have to get out there and tear it down. The treehouse shouldn’t have been left up all this time.

His eyes adjusted as he made his way across the lawn. He saw his faint shadow moving ahead as he reached the edge of the lawn and stepped off into the wilder field beyond. Dry tall grass tickled his elbows. He picked his way through the field, stumbling at times on the uneven ground. The blue light flickered and moved, reminding him of a candle, but what candles gave off that sort of light? Probably wasn’t a candle at all, but some sort of glow stick that the kids were holding.

Joel remembered another time, coming out here on a hot summer night with his sleeping bag tucked under his arm and his heart hammering a thousand beats per minute. The air hadn’t felt so cold that night, but it was cooler at least than his room. It was AJ’s idea that they sneak out to the treehouse and camp out for the night. Of course he couldn’t ask his parents if it was okay, his mom wouldn’t have thought it proper for him to camp out in a treehouse with a girl. At the time he both knew that his parents disapproval had something to do with kissing, and he thought the whole thing was weird because it was AJ. They always hung out together. But camping out together was something new, and exciting because they were sneaking out.

Now, as he got closer to the treehouse Joel still couldn’t make out anyone in the treehouse, just the blue glow coming from the window. The light flickered, dimmed and then brightened. Sort of like what he’d expect from an electronic device. A video game? But the light stayed a deep blue color and didn’t change. About ten feet from the trees Joel heard whispering. He stopped and listened. He heard the incessant croaking of the frogs, the wind rustling through the grass, and in the far distance the sound of a car. Nothing more from the treehouse.

Joel walked closer, almost to the first trees in the clump that held the treehouse. “Hey! In the treehouse! Come on down from there!”

The light winked out.

Joel put his hands on his hips and wished he had gotten a flashlight. “Come on, I need you to get down from there.”

Nothing. Nothing but the frogs and the cold wind that cut through his t-shirt. Bright stars and the moon lit everything clearly, and nobody came out of the treehouse. With the blue glow gone the window was a inky well of darkness. Boards nailed across the curved tree trunks made a ladder up to a trapdoor in the base of the treehouse. He could go around to the other side, there were windows in each wall, but he probably wouldn’t be able to see anything else. He couldn’t tell but they might have hung curtains in the window. It sure didn’t seem like the moonlight was getting inside.

“Listen,” Joel called. “That treehouse is very old. You could get hurt. Come out now, or I’m going to have to call the police.”

He crossed his arms and waited for the creak of the trapdoor opening, but nothing happened. The seconds passed and he started getting pissed. Maybe these kids were used to playing in the treehouse but they had no business being up there. This was his place now, and he and AJ had built the damned treehouse. They had no right to it. Even if they called his bluff about the police he was going to tear it down. He couldn’t have kids up there.

“Last chance, I’m warning you. Come on out now!”

A spark of blue appeared in the window. It flickered and danced but didn’t look quite like a flame. Then it spread out in all directions and thinned. The blue light poured almost like a liquid, tracing cheeks and a nose, swirled around dark eyes and poured over parted lips. She looked out the window at him with eyes that reflected back the moonlight.

Joel’s breath caught in his chest. He thought his heart might simply stop beating.

AJ.

That face, he knew it, the delicate features insubstantially traced in that blue glow, shifting almost like a candle flame, that was AJ. He took one step back and suddenly could move again. He turned and ran across the field toward the distant yellow porch light of the house. He tripped on a clump of grass and sprawled face down in the field. He scrambled up and ran again.

Joel reached the lawn, crossed it in a few strides and sprang up onto the deck. He yanked open the door and stepped inside. Only as he slid it closed did he look back.

The treehouse was dark again. No blue lights. No sign of AJ.

Joel groped for one of the dining room chairs and sat down. He put his elbows on the table and clasped his hands to stop them from shaking. His head hung as he focused on breathing. In and out, just the breath flowing past his lips. When he felt steadier he raised his head and looked out the sliding glass door, dreading what he might see. The treehouse was dark. The porch light cast a yellow circle of light on the red-stained boards of the deck. Superimposed over it all was his own ghostly reflection. A man on the verge of forty with extra pounds showing in his face and around his waist, his sandy brown hair buzzed close to his scalp. Hardly the skinny boy of thirty years ago with a mop of hair always in his eyes.

Slowly, feeling his years, Joel stood up and turned off the porch light. He went back through the house, turning off the lights as he went until he got to his office. There he sat down in front of the computer and with a few clicks opened his pictures folder. He scrolled through and opened the folder with his childhood photos. It took a few minutes to find the one that he wanted, but then he saw it and opened it in the picture viewer.

Two grinning, tanned kids stood waving on a bright summer day in front of the treehouse. AJ looked like a forest sprite with tiny daisies braided into her hair. Her nose had a small wrinkle between her eyes as she smiled, and there was a spray of freckles across her cheeks and nose. It was definitely her that he’d seen in the treehouse. He had hoped that somehow he was mistaken, that his memory was tricking him, but that was her. The picture was taken only a couple weeks before she died.

Joel rubbed his eyes. Had he really seen her ghost out there tonight? That’s what it seemed like, but that couldn’t be, could it? He stared at the picture. He hardly recognized himself, but AJ, she looked mostly the same. More vibrant and alive in the picture, of course. Not made of glowing blue smoke or whatever that was that he had seen, but it didn’t matter. He knew he had seen her.

He shook his head and hit the keystrokes to turn off the computer. Then he turned to the other computer and shut it down too.

Maybe he had seen her ghost. Maybe she came back because he moved into the house. He didn’t know and it didn’t matter, tomorrow he’d work on tearing down the treehouse. It should have happened a long time ago.

Joel turned out the light switch as he left the room. He hesitated and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark. Gradually he could make out the moonlit field and the dark shape of the tree in the distance. Nothing else.

He went to bed.

💀

The sun was almost straight overhead before Joel put aside the latest flattened cardboard box and admitted to himself that he was avoiding go out in the back yard. Even on this bright sunny, but cold, day, he didn’t want to face the treehouse again. But if he put off tearing it down would AJ come back again tonight?

He didn’t want that. He couldn’t face it again. Joel went over to the garage wall were he had been hanging his tools. He took down the long crowbar and headed out the back door into the yard.

The treehouse looked less frightening beneath a clear, sunny sky. The frogs were quiet. A few crows clung to the branches above the treehouse. Joel started across the lawn and the crows took off, flying out across the field toward the woods that ran along the back fence. Joel knew this whole area, which had managed to remain mostly unchanged despite the years. Part of that was the creek that snaked along the west side of the property, causing most of the property to fall under wetland buffer laws. It had kept this area from being developed the way the neighborhoods had taken over the other side of the street where he had lived as a kid. Not that he and AJ ever spent much time at his house. Why would they, when he only had a small yard and AJ had acres to explore? Plus the woods, which seemed to stretch on forever.

His first day back in town he had driven by the houses just to see what the places looked like and he had seen the for sale sign in front of AJ’s old house. It felt like fate when he called the realtor. Now he clutched the crowbar and looked at the treehouse and wondered if he had made the right decision. Maybe he should have stuck to places across town, it would have been closer to work, instead of acting on impulse and buying this place. But the price had been good and most of his memories were positive. All except the end.

Joel tromped through the last of the grass in front of the trees and came right up under the treehouse. The trapdoor was closed. He lowered the crowbar and then leaned it up against the trunk. Before he could question what he was doing he grabbed the boards that made up the ladder and hoisted himself up onto the trunk. It didn’t go up all that high but just being off the ground made him feel slightly dizzy. He looked up at the trapdoor and climbed up, carefully testing each board for any weakness before he trusted his weight to it. He wasn’t a skinny kid anymore.

At the top he reached up for the trapdoor and felt sticky spider webs on his fingers. He jerked back and looked closer. Webbing stretched across the trapdoor and old webs dangled, moving slightly in the faint breeze. A fat spider crouched in one corner, watching the web. Tiny mummified corpses hung from other strands.

Joel swallowed. Clearly no one had been inside the treehouse in a while. But then a ghost wouldn’t need to disturb the webs, would she? He grimaced and reached through the webs to the latch on the door. It had rusted and didn’t move easily but he pried at it until it popped loose and hung free. Then he pushed up, half expecting the latch inside to be fastened as well but the trapdoor lifted, hinges squealing and webs breaking. The spider scurried for safety across the bottom of the treehouse.

With a thud the trapdoor dropped back into the treehouse, shaking loose dirt and debris that rained down on Joel. The smell of dust and mildew filled his nose and he sneezed. He shook his head, wiped his face on his sleeve and peered up at the opening. He could almost hear AJ’s voice telling him to come on up, but there wasn’t really anything except one of the crows calling in the distance. His back ached from clinging to the boards. Up or down, he had to decide.

Joel sighed and climbed up the next couple steps. He put his hands on the floor on either side of the opening, wet slick leaves slipped beneath his fingers. He stood up and was in the treehouse at chest height. It didn’t look like anyone had been in the treehouse in a long time. The leaves piled in drifts in the corners and were matted down against the boards. Small plants had sprung up from the litter, including a small tree growing near the center of the treehouse. There was a gap in the moss-covered roof above. Spider webs hung thick across the underside of the roof, and stretched across the open windows. Up close the treehouse didn’t look all that safe. The boards could easily have rotted so much that they wouldn’t hold his weight.

But his plan had been to climb up inside and start by dismantling the roof first, and work his way down the walls, removing the floor and the ladder last. If he couldn’t stand inside then he was going to have to rethink his plans and get a tall ladder or something so that he could work from the outside. He reached out and pounded on the floor with his fist. Leaves squished beneath his hand but the floor felt solid and strong.

Joel braced his hands on both sides of the trapdoor and boosted himself up. Already into the movement he felt a sharp pain on the right side of his chest and in his right shoulder. He almost collapsed and dropped through the hole, but managed to sort of topple over onto his left side into the treehouse. The floor didn’t crumble beneath him. It felt strong and solid. Joel groaned and sat up, scooting back so that only his legs dangled through the open trapdoor. The boards seem secure enough, but his shoulder burned with pain. He must have pulled a muscle. He cradled his right arm in his lap and shook his head.

So stupid! He was supposed to start work on Monday and now he had hurt his arm. He had to go into work, he couldn’t afford to jeopardize this job. If he minimized writing on the chalkboard he might make it through okay.

Despite the debris and signs of age the treehouse looked very much like he remembered. With the trapdoor closed there had just been enough room for him and AJ to roll out their sleeping bags.

“I wish the ceiling opened up,” AJ said. “Then we could see the stars.”

Joel didn’t move, he didn’t turn to look at her. He cradled his arm and looked down between his feet. From here it looked like a lot farther down, but not too high, just high enough. One slip, and AJ had fallen, her arms spreading out like wings. Then she was on the ground, lying flat on her back looking up at the treehouse. Joel had expected her to move, to roll over, cry, groan or laugh. He kept waiting for her to do something but she didn’t do anything. A freak accident, his parents called it later. If she had fallen an inch or two to the right the fall might have knocked the wind out of her, but there was the branch and she just didn’t move.

“Don’t you wish we could see the stars?”

Then he turned his head enough to see her sitting on the opposite side of the treehouse with her legs drawn up against her chest, her arms wrapped easily around her knees. She was hard to see, the blue light she was made of was washed out by the daylight coming through the windows. She was like a faint blue flame on the verge of being blown out, but he could still recognize her.

“It’s daytime,” Joel said. “We can’t see the stars at all.”

“Oh.” AJ cocked her head at him and squinted. “You don’t look the same.”

Joel nodded, surprised at how calmly he was taking her presence. “Right back at you, kid.”

She laughed, her voice faint and high.

“What are you doing here, AJ?”

“Waiting for you, like always. You’re so slow.”

A shiver ran up his arms and Joel winced.

“Did you hurt yourself?”

“It’ll be okay. I’ll ice it at home.”

“I think we should go see the stars now, why wait?”

“It’s daytime.”

“But the stars are always there.” AJ sprang to her feet and held out a faint hand. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

Joel reached out with his own hand, also blue and faint in the sunlight. He turned his arm, marveling at the way he could see right through to the sapling growing at the heart of the treehouse.

AJ took his hand and, despite the fact that both of their hands looked insubstantial, he felt her warm grip in his. Not only that but his hand matched hers in size. He stood and looked down, realizing that he had changed. His body was his as he remembered the last time he was with AJ, a young boy playing in the summertime.

Far down below he lay on his back beneath the treehouse, looking up with wide open eyes. Joel couldn’t see the crowbar but he knew it was there too, beneath him. A freak accident, people would say. He must have been climbing up to tear down the old treehouse and fell, landing on the crowbar.

Joel looked into AJ’s clear blue eyes that he had missed for so long. “Let’s go look at the stars.”

And they did.

💀

3,708 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 70th weekly short story release, written in March 2011. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Placer Crime.

Dreamstone

Emma’s dreams take reality with the purchase  of her first house. A chance to start over, start fresh with her son Emmett. A new future reborn as she rebuilds the house.

The Plan.

A plan disrupted by unwelcome visitors in the night, turning dreams into nightmares.

💀

Emma rolled out of bed before she was fully awake. Emmett’s cry echoed in her mind. She skidded on the worn wood floor as she left the room and collided painfully with the doorframe.

Her shoulder throbbed as she went down across the hall to Emmett’s room. Moonlight filled the room with a pearly glow but it was enough light that she could see him sleeping peacefully in his crib. Mr. Moo sat nearby keeping a placid watch over the child. In one fat hand Emmett clutched his Ragman doll.

He’s fine, she realized. She had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing out loud and waking him up.

Emma backed out of his room. Her hands shook. On her left was the stone ring she’d found when she moved in, down between the torn up floorboards in the laundry room. She ran her fingers across the worn carvings on the ring. She could almost still hear him crying out. Not one of his normal frustrated cries or an upset cry because his diaper needed changing. The cry she’d heard had been one of pain and fear. Even before she had woken up she’d been sure that something absolutely horrible was happening to her son.

And yet he lay undisturbed in his crib.

She found it hard to reconcile those two different realities. Tears welled up in her eyes and she didn’t know why. Chalk it up to emotional overload. She wiped them away. It was silly. He’s fine. She choked back a sob and headed down the hall towards the stairs. The window about the stairs let in more moonlight. She made herself take deep, even breaths as she reached for the railing. She clutched the old wood and held on as if it were a handhold and she stood on the deck of a storm-tossed ship instead of her hallway.

A pile of boxes stood beside her in front of the railing. Only a half-dozen of the stacks scattered around the house. Their first house, her’s and Emmett’s. It still seemed incredible that she had been able to get the financing necessary to buy this place. It needed work but the house inspection didn’t turn up any show stoppers. It was basically sound but the last owners had originally planned to fix the place up and then sell it for a profit. Only they had several such projects and with the collapse of the market had decided to unload the least profitable houses. They left the place with the paint stripped and an unfinished kitchen remodel.

Emma felt better. Think about the house might stress her out some of the time but right now it helped calm her nerves. Fixing up the place was one of the things that anchored her right now. The Plan. Fix the place up and run a yoga studio out of the first floor. That gave her the upstairs and some of the downstairs rooms to live in. With only her and Emmett that meant they still had plenty of room and that was without counting the basement. A cup of ginger-sage tea. That sounded good right now. And a slice of the pecan pie she’d made before the move. After all, it had to be eaten.

Before going downstairs she went back and looked in on Emmett again. He still looked as peaceful as ever.  Emma took a deep breath and headed downstairs.

She was in the kitchen with her head in the refrigerator when she heard the noise upstairs. She pulled back and listened while slowly setting the pie down on the piece of plywood serving as her counter top. It had sounded like something moving upstairs across the floor of the room above. Or maybe it was the ice-maker, she thought.

Then more scratching noises from the floor above. Definitely something moving upstairs! In the spare bedroom which just had boxes in it that she hadn’t sorted through yet, but that didn’t mean that a raccoon or something hadn’t gotten into the house. Emma shut the fridge and hurried back upstairs. Her bare feet didn’t make a sound on the bare wood steps. She went quickly but quietly up to the hallway so that she could hear if it made any more noise.

As she reached the hallway she heard it again. It sounded bigger now. She heard a box fall to the floor with a heavy thud. The noise brought her up short. Would a raccoon tip over boxes? She thought about calling the police but if it was only an animal how would that look?

The room above the kitchen was across the hall from Emmett’s room. She had to check first. Maybe it would go back out however it had gotten in. Emma reached out and turned the knob. The sound stopped. She held her breath. One, two, on three she shoved the door open with her left hand and reached in to hit the light with her right. Instead of the smooth plastic of the light switch she felt something hard, prickly and it moved beneath her hand.

She screamed and jerked her hand away. She didn’t let go of the door but before she could pull it shut three long hairy black legs thrust through the opening around and grabbed the door around the knob.

Emma screamed again and jumped back.

Seeing those legs against the wood with the bits of white paint still clinging brought back her dream. Her nightmare. She’d forgotten in the panic of hearing Emmett screaming.

She stumbled further back from the door until she hit the wall opposite. On the door the legs flexed and moved. Like in her nightmare. The spider. She’d dreamed about this spider. In the dream it had chased her through the house and now here it was in that room. It couldn’t possibly be real. It couldn’t.

I’m still dreaming.

Except she felt a sick feeling in her gut that she wasn’t dreaming. She considered herself grounded. She practiced yoga daily. She ate right. She practiced meditation. She knew when she dreamed and when she was awake.

This was real. It couldn’t be and was, all at the same time.

In the doorway the spider moved. In the moonlight it looked like a living shadow against the pale wood. Another leg had joined the others as it crawled onto the door. As yet all she could see were the long legs. At least a foot long that she could see and the head hadn’t come into view yet. She could still see it in her memory of the nightmare. A head the size of a grapefruit with dark plum-sized eyes and thick fangs that dripped poisons. Right before she woke the spider had been after her. Not only her, but Emmett!

Her paralysis broke and ran to Emmett’s room. Inside and shut the door. She turned to the crib and saw a dark hairy moonlit body crouching on the edge of the crib.

“Emmett!”

She charged across the room. The spider reared up and chittered at her. She grabbed Mr. Moo from the side of the crib and swung the stuffed cow at the spider. It moved faster than her swing and she missed completely. She didn’t know where the spider had gone. She reached into the crib and grabbed Emmett. She heard a noise and looked around. Movement above her caught her attention and she jumped back as the spider dropped from the ceiling above. It landed in the crib. Emma kept moving away. In her arms Emmett stirred and made fussy sounds but he hadn’t yet woken up. The spider reached out with two legs between the slats of the crib.

At the door Emma turned the knob and peeked into the hallway. The door to the spare room stood open. No sign of the spider. She looked up and couldn’t tell in the dark if there was one above her. What choice did she have? She looked back. The spider in the crib had reached up for the top rail. It might jump from the crib any moment. She opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. She closed the door firmly behind her. At least that one wouldn’t be getting out soon.

She had to get Emmett out of here. She went towards the stairs, easing up to the open spare bedroom. When she got close she took a breath and quickly reached out and grabbed the door knob. She expected the spider to strike and yanked the door back. It slammed shut. Emmett stirred in her arms and made little protest sounds. The spider hadn’t struck. It might be trapped inside now. She hoped it was but she didn’t hear anything moving inside. She looked up but the ceiling looked clear. She couldn’t be sure with the shadows but it seemed safe for the moment. She eased past the door and got within arm’s reach of the light switch. She flicked it on.

Bright light filled the hallway. By that clear light she could see thick strands of webbing covering the ceiling. Beyond Emmett’s room the strands came down to meet more strands on the floors and walls to create a funnel leading back to her bedroom. Emma found it hard to breath. Dark shapes moved in the depths of the funnel. Legs moved into the light and she saw there had to be at least three of the spiders lurking in the shadows at the end of the funnel.  Each one of the hairy monsters was as big as a medium-sized dog but the long legs made them appear even larger.

It’s impossible, she thought. It was her nightmare made real. Except it couldn’t be real. She knew better. She’d read it somewhere, that giant spiders couldn’t really work. Something about the way they breathed.

The spiders crawling towards her down the funnel must not have read that article.

Emma backed to the staircase and found herself looking down into more webs. They crisscrossed the space from the top of the stairwell to the floor below. Two fat spiders were busy working on what appeared to be another funnel. Anchor lines ran from the funnel to the walls across the stairs themselves. The way out was blocked.

The spiders noticed her standing at the top of the stairs and started running up the lines towards her.

A glance down the hall showed three more leaving the funnel to run at her.

Emma ran back to the spare bedroom. She yanked the door open. Hit the light switch. A stack of boxes sat in the middle of the room. One box lay on the floor with photo envelopes spilling out of the open top. She didn’t see anything moving. The spider that had been in here might be one of the ones that had gone out into the hall to construct those webs. She shut the door, knowing that there were at least five spiders loose in the hall. She checked the corners of the room that she could see. No sign of a vicious spider. She circled the pile of boxes slowly, keeping an eye out for anything moving. She made her way entirely around the pile and didn’t see any spiders.

Scratching noises at the door made her jump. Dark legs thrust beneath the door and clawed at the wood floor. Emma looked around the room. There wasn’t anything soft but that didn’t matter at the moment. As gently as possible she lay Emmett down on the floor beneath the window. His brow wrinkled but he didn’t wake. She went to the pile of boxes. The spider kept scratching. She picked up a box containing books and lugged it over to the door. The closer she got the more excited the spider appeared to get. Another leg joined the first two. It wouldn’t be able to fit its bulk under the door.

She put the box against the door. Something hit the other side of the door. It sounded like a spider had jumped at the wood.

Emma released the box. It fell right on the legs beneath the door with a loud crack and crunch. The spider screamed a thin scratchy noise.

“Get out of my house!” she screamed back and stomped down on the box.

Two more heavy thuds hit the door. Emma looked at her son. He was still asleep. A sob escaped her lips. He was amazing.

She grabbed the next closest box and shoved it next to the one she’d dropped on the spider’s legs. Then a third on the other side. She started stacking them after that, moving the pile of boxes up against the door. Most of the boxes were full of books and had a comforting weight to them.

“Let’s see you get through that!”

Something hairy crawled across her hand. Emma screamed and jerked her hand away from the box she’d been about to pick up. She looked down and saw a plum-sized spider fall onto the cardboard where it joined dozens of fellows. A white, egg-shaped web casing had split open at the heart of the pile of boxes and the spiders were spilling out in all directions.

Including over the remaining pile towards Emmett.

Emma ran around the pile. One of the spiders was right in front of her and she danced around it to keep it away from her bare feet. She got to the other side of the room and saw several crawling towards Emmett. She sprinted past them and picked him up.

This time he woke up and looked at her with wide eyes. She kissed his forehead. “It’s okay. Shhh.”

His face turned red and he screamed at her. It was the cry that she’d heard when she woke up. Full of pain and fear.

“Emmett!”

She lifted him up and there, on his leg, she saw one of the baby spiders. She brought him close with one arm and swatted with the other. The spider tumbled away. She lifted him again and looked at his leg. Two bright red spots were on his thigh and the sight of them made her shiver. It had bitten him!

Dozens of the young spiders crawled towards them. She didn’t have on shoes or she’d have stomped them flat. She backed up until her arm touched the cool glass of the window. Emma turned around and looked out the window. It was hard to see through the reflection but the steep porch roof outside looked clear. She looked down. The spiders were close. Emmett sobbed into her shoulder and made muffled ma, ma sounds.

“It’ll be okay,” she told him.

She unlatched the window and shoved it up. There was a screen outside. She hit it and it popped out and clattered down the porch roof, then fell to the ground. She bent, swung a leg through and stepped out onto the roof. Her feet gripped the slate tiles better than shoes. She reached back and shoved the window down behind her. Now she just had to get down. She walked gingerly down the slates until she could see the ground below. It sloped down away from the porch. It looked steep. If she jumped she’d probably fall and roll down the hill. She couldn’t do that with Emmett. She had to find another spot. The porch wrapped around the front of the house. It should be easier to get down to the lawn.

She hadn’t gone far when she heard a scratching noise above her. She looked up in time to see the full-grown giant spider crouching on the eves above her. It jumped. Emma gasped and ducked. The spider missed her and landed on the slates. It slid on the tiles and tumbled off the porch with a hissing noise. Emma hurried along the porch towards the front of the house. That spider would probably climb back up and there could be others. She needed to get down and get to her car. There was an emergency cell phone in the glove compartment. She could call for help and the spiders wouldn’t be able to get into the car.

She reached the front of the house and saw webbing strung across the upper stories. Two of the big spiders turned away from their task towards her.

Emma went to the edge of the roof. The lawn looked clear. She held onto Emmett and turned around facing the spiders as they raced towards her. She knelt and slid her feet off the edge. She could only hold on with one hand. She dropped onto her side, cradling Emmet and slid over the edge. She tensed, fearing that a spider would grab her feet. Nothing happened and the two spiders above were getting close. She slid down, slowing her descent with her outstretched free hand. She was falling. She couldn’t stop it now. In her head she pictured her landing and rolling onto her back to protect Emmett from the fall. As she went over the edge of the gutter caught the stone ring on her finger and painfully ripped it off, taking skin with it. She cried out.

She fell.

Hit hard on her heels and rolled back. The impact almost knocked the wind from her. She lifted Emmett up and looked at his face. He sniffled and wiped at his eyes but seemed okay. Except for the bite marks on his leg. She hugged him close and rolled up onto her knee and pushed herself up. She looked up at the roof for signs of pursuit. No spiders where in view. She didn’t wait for them to show up. She ran across the wet grass, cold against her bare feet, jumped over the marigolds along the driveway and made it to the car. She grabbed the door handle and yanked. It didn’t budge. Locked.

Emmett squirmed in her arms. She readjusted as she ran around the car, keeping an eye out for the spiders. Still no sign of them. The driver’s door was unlocked and she slid in and yanked the door shut. She leaned over and opened the glove compartment. The phone wasn’t there.

Emma bit her lip to keep from crying out in frustration. She hit the steering wheel then leaned forward, checking for the spiders.

None.

From the car she could see the porch roof and it was empty of spiders. More than that the webbing that had been spun across the front of the house was gone. She leaned over to try and see more but still didn’t see any sign of the spiders. How could they have just vanished? She hadn’t imagined it. The bite mark on Emmett’s leg was evidence enough that the spiders were real. She checked his leg and found it hot to the touch. She needed to get him to a doctor. To do that she needed the car keys. They’d be just inside the front door, on the little table. Except that was right near where the web funnel filling the stairwell. If she was fast she might be able to get in, grab the keys and get out. She’d leave Emmett here, in his car seat ready to go.

He started crying as soon as she buckled him into the car seat.

“Shhh.” She kissed his forehead. “Mommy will be right back. I need to run in and get the keys and then we’re out of here.”

He cried harder. She wanted to make it all better but he wouldn’t understand. At least in the car he was safe for now. She got out, shut the door and faced the house. Nothing moved. Her partially-restored Victorian looked perfectly ordinary. She ran silently up the dirt driveway towards the house. Not going fast yet so she could keep an eye out. She slowed the closer she got and then when she was almost to the porch and still didn’t see anything, then she sprinted up the steps. Two strides to cross the porch.

She yanked open the front door expecting to see the thick web funnel hanging down from above, crawling with giant spiders, and instead the stairwell was clear. No web. No spiders.

Emma didn’t move, she was so stunned by the absence of the spiders. She heard Emmett crying all the way out in the car and that got her moving. She grabbed the keys, spun about and sprinted out, slamming the door behind her. She didn’t bother to lock it. She ran full speed down the driveway to the car. Got it. Started it and drove it around the drive and away from the house. She kept looking back out the rear window and checking the mirrors. No sign of spiders. Emmett quieted down now that the car was moving. She put the spiders out of her mind and headed down the road towards the hospital.

💀

Two days later she stood in the driveway again. The sun was shining and the house looked dingy with all the paint peeled off. But no signs of spiders. She’d half-expected it to be covered in webs.

That night still felt like a nightmare. Except Emmett had been treated for an “unusual” spider bite at the hospital and her finger still had scratches from when the stone ring was scrapped off as she slid off the roof. Those minor injuries had been the only evidence she had of what had happened. She didn’t tell anyone at the hospital about giant spiders for fear that they’d lock her in some psychiatric ward. She also didn’t call anyone like an exterminator to go to the house because she didn’t want to put anyone at risk if they didn’t know what could happen.

So instead she left Emmett with her sister and came back to the house to check it herself. She remembered how the spiders had chased her across the roof but then when she got to the car she hadn’t seen them. And the funnel she had seen in the stairwell hadn’t been there when she went back for the keys.

She needed to know what had happened. It was hard to walk up to the house again but nothing threatening moved. She went in, tensing when she opened the door, and found only her house. It didn’t take long to go through the house and discover no sign of the spiders. The spare bedroom was difficult to get into because the boxes were still piled in front of the door but she eventually forced it open, toppling the pile in the process. The baby spiders were gone too, and the egg sack that had been on the boxes.

Emma shoved aside the boxes until she could turn over the one that she’d dropped on the spider’s legs. No legs beneath the box, but the cardboard did looked warped like it had gotten wet. She didn’t find any other evidence.

The house looked safe.

She went to the window that she’d climbed out and lifted it up. The harrowing flight across the roof holding Emmett looked worse in the daylight. She could see how steep and slippery the roof looked. The screen lying in at the bottom of the hill looked very far away. She went around to her room at the front of the house and looked out that window too.

No evidence of the spiders, but in the gutter she could see the stone ring. This had all happened after she put the ring on and the spiders were gone after it got yanked off.

It all happened after she found that ring. She put it on, had a nightmare and then the nightmare had been real. There had to be a connection. The spiders disappeared the instant the ring was off. So what? She had a magic ring?

Emma went back downstairs and out to the garage beside the house. She opened the door and reached over for the light switch. She felt webbing against her hand and screamed. She jerked back and jumped away from the door.

Nothing moved. Carefully, ready to bolt, she moved closer and peeked inside. Nothing but a cobweb across the light switch. No visible spiders.

She flicked on the light and the long fluorescent tubes buzzed to life. Cobwebs up among the rafters but no giant spiders. She went across the stained concrete and took down her adjustable ladder.

Emma carried the ladder over beneath her window and used it to climb up to the gutter. She plucked the stone ring out of the gutter and ran her fingers across the worn stone carvings. It was very pretty but she didn’t dare wear it again. She’d put it away someplace safe. Emma stuffed it into her jeans pocket and climbed back down.

💀

3,969 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 64th weekly short story release, written in September 2009 . Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Sooner Murder.

The Special

Nick knew the road. The motels that blurred into one another, smelling of sex and desperation beneath the cheap cleansers. He ate greasy burgers in more railcar diners than he could count.

The sign said Picket Fences, a railcar diner brighter and more cheerful than most. A place to get a bite before the long drive home.

Nick knew the road. He knew how heat mirages made things look different than they were—he never expected to end up in a mirage himself.

People say beware of what you wish—that includes fantasies.

💀

On Friday afternoon Nick found himself propositioned by a prostitute for the first time in his life.

It happened in what he would have thought was the most unexpected place. He’d been driving for most of the day when he saw a diner up ahead beside the road. Fashioned with two railroad cars painted yellow, with white trim, the sign above proclaimed it as “Picket Fences.” True to the name a small white picket fence surrounded a green lawn out front. Daisies waved in the breeze. The diner looked like an oasis in the barren desert of the highway. The dingy gas station next door looked like it belonged but the diner stood out. His stomach rumbled and before he realized he had decided to stop he had already signaled and was turning into the parking lot along the side of the diner.

As he walked inside a bell rang above the door and he was greeted by the scents of bacon and burgers. He heard the sizzle from the grill. The first railroad car held a bar and a row of tables for two. Through the connecting door he could see that the second car contained larger tables. The only people in the place were a waitress behind the bar and a guy in a blue suit nursing a drink. The waitress looked to be mid-thirties, trim with dirty blond hair tied back. She welcomed Nick with a bright smile as he came into the diner.

“Take a seat. What would you like to drink?”

Nick slid onto a stool one over from the guy in the suit. He glanced over and the other guy looked back with red-rimmed bloodshot eyes. Nick nodded and the guy turned back to his drink.

Nick looked up at the waitress, noting that she had amazing green eyes. “Coffee would be great.”

“Gosh, if you’re that easy to please I’m not even going to have to work here.”

Nick chuckled. Behind her he could see that the back wall of the train car had been removed to allow an addition which contained the kitchen. He couldn’t see the cook but there was a teenage bus boy washing dishes. He looked back at the waitress and saw her name tag read “Janice.”

She set a steaming cup of coffee down in front of him. He met her eyes again. “If it isn’t out of line, is Janice your real name?”

“So my mother tells me. I don’t think she’s the baby-swapping type.” She laughed openly.

“Well then Janice, what’s good in here?”

She put a hand on her hip. “Other than little ol’ me?”

He flushed a bit and couldn’t think what to say.

“Oh quit teasing the guy,” the drunk suddenly said. “Why don’t you just tell him the specials for once?”

Nick was shocked at the guy’s outburst. Janice waved a hand at the drunk like she heard it all the time. She turned back to Nick.

“Our double patty melt is on special today. That comes with fries and a soda, if you like. Plus we’ve got a lemon meringue pie that’s heavenly.”

“And?” The drunk leered.

Janice waved her hand again at him. “Oh shoot, hon. You don’t think he’d be interested in that, do you?”

The drunk eyed Nick. “He’s got a dick, hasn’t he? What man wouldn’t?”

“Maybe you should watch your language in front of the lady,” Nick said. He couldn’t believe the guy. Still, he also couldn’t help but wonder what the drunk had referred to, but he wasn’t about to ask.

The drunk laughed and smacked the bar. “Lady! Haw, do you like that? Lady. She’s no lady, not this one.”

Janice nodded her head happily. “Oh, he’s right. Leroy knows that for sure.”

Nick didn’t know what to do with the information but he was starting to feel like the butt of this particular joke. Worse yet, he didn’t understand the joke. He decided the best course was to ignore it all.

“I think I’ll go ahead with the patty melt. That sounds good.”

“That’s great hon. It’ll be up in a bit. Nothing here sits around under a heat lamp. It’ll be fresh and hot.” She winked. “Like me.”

She spun around and headed to the kitchen with her shoes tapping on the floor and spared him the need to respond. He picked up his coffee and sipped it. Leaving now would seem rude, he thought, but he wished that he hadn’t pulled into the Picket Fences diner. Something about the place seemed odd to him.

Leroy slid over onto the stool beside Nick. That close he could smell the sweat and alcohol haze that clung to the drunk. Leroy turned his head a bit towards Nick but kept his eyes on Janice.

“You know buddy, you really should ask her about the other specials. It’s something alright.”

“I’m good with my order. Thanks.”

Leroy reached up and grabbed Nick’s shoulder. He leaned close. Fetid breath caressed Nick’s face. “Take it from me, you won’t regret it.”

Nick shook his shoulder and Leroy let go. Nick resisted the urge to shove the guy away or get up off the stool. “Look, I came in to get a bite and then I’m on my way. I don’t want any trouble. So why don’t you finish your drink and I’ll have my patty melt.”

Leroy shook his head. “I could do that but it’d be wrong. I’m trying to help you out here, buddy. I know what you see when you look at me. I’m not so far gone that I don’t despise my own reflection. I didn’t spring from that bar full grown as you see me, although the bar stool might disagree. I used to be somebody. I worked on Wall Street up until the collapse. Even that didn’t really bother me. I’d cut my losses and walked away with plenty to carry me the rest of my days.”

“I don’t really need —”

Leroy leaned close. “Listen! I’m helping you out. I could show you. I don’t mind you watching. You spot me the cash and I’ll show you the gash.”

Nick shoved Leroy and slid off his own stool at the same time. “Get away!”

Leroy glared at Nick but then shrugged. “Fine. I’ve done it all anyway. Good luck to you, sport.”

Nick stood aside as Leroy blundered out through the door leaving only the smell and the sound of the bell above the door.

“Leroy took off, did he, hon?”

Janice was back at the bar. She didn’t look as old as he’d thought originally, he realized. No way she was mid-thirties. She had to be younger than that.

“You lost?”

Nick blinked and realized that Janice was talking to him. “Yeah, I’m fine. Sorry, it’s been a long day.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

She smiled. “Why has it been a long day? I thought all these days were pretty much the same length?”

Nick chuckled with her. “That’s true. But when you’re driving all day it seems like the day is longer.”

She snapped her fingers. “You know, I think you’re on to something there. Perception, isn’t that what they call it? How something can be one way but you see it differently?”

“I think so.”

Janice leaned on the counter. She looked to the right and then the left as if to make sure they were alone. They were, except for the cook and bus boy working in the kitchen.

“Leroy might not be entirely wrong. I could tell you about our other special, if you’d like.”

“I’ve already ordered.”

Janice waved her hand as if fanning a bad smell. “That don’t matter. You’d have room for this after you eat.”

“I don’t usually eat pie,” Nick said. He didn’t know what she was getting at, but after what Leroy had said he felt a bit uncomfortable.

“I’m not talking about pie, hon!” She laughed. She leaned closer and her voice dropped. “I don’t make this offer to every customer. Trouble is some people can’t handle it.”

His gut felt tight. “Like Leroy?”

She nodded. “Like Leroy. He hangs around even though I’ve told him to stop. I need to do something about that.”

“I think I’ll be good with the patty melt, thanks.”

Janice shook her head slowly. “You haven’t even heard what the offer is yet, hon.”

Nick didn’t deny that Janice was attractive. And he might be dense but he’d pretty much decided that she was coming on to him. He didn’t have much experience with that sort of thing. He wasn’t unattractive, at least he didn’t think so, but he never attracted that sort of attention from women. Those he’d been with over the years he’d made the advances and each time he’d been surprised when the woman in question responded positively. Then he’d met Melody, his wife, and along with his love and gratitude he felt relief that he was officially ‘off the market.’ Since then he’d never really been tempted to stray.

He held up his hand and ran his thumb across his ring. He didn’t say anything, assuming the hint would be blunt enough.

“Oh hon, that don’t matter none,” Janice said. She took his hand. “This is the special. I can become any woman you’ve ever fantasized about and we can have ourselves a good time. You like Jennifer Connelly? Sandra Bullock? Julia Roberts? Or do you like them younger? Kirsten Bell, maybe?”

Nick shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about and I don’t think I’m interested in your role-playing.”

Besides, as attractive as she might be she didn’t look like any of the women she mentioned any more than they looked like each other.

“Let me give you a taste,” Janice said.

Only it wasn’t Janice standing behind the counter any longer but Jessica Alba with her dark waves of hair and dark eyes drawing him in. He remembered seeing her in Sin City. No sooner than he recognized her and there was a different woman behind the counter. Taller, blond and very attractive but he didn’t recognize her from anything. A moment later it was only Janice standing behind the counter with a smile in her eye. She winked.

“You get it now, hon? We’re not talking dress-up here and games. I’ll actually become whatever woman you’ve fantasized about down to the last mole or birthmark.”

Nick tried to understand what he’d just seen. It couldn’t be possible. How could this waitress in a roadside diner suddenly become all of those women. Guiltily, he realized that he found the idea tempting.

He shook his head. “I don’t know what you just did, but you can’t really become those women.”

A bell rang behind her. She winked. “Saved by the bell, hon. Order’s up. I’ll let you eat and think on what you’ve seen. I’ll heat up that coffee for you too.”

She grabbed the coffee pot and refilled his cup, then went back for the plate. She put it in front of him a moment later. Golden bread, grilled meat and giant fries filled the plate and the air with its aroma. Nick’s stomach growled. He thought he should just get up and walk out of the place. He’d never been propositioned before like this and it finally occurred to him that Janice must be some sort of prostitute. She didn’t care one bit about him beyond what he could pay.

He picked up half the patty melt and bit into the sandwich. Juices exploded across his tongue with almost scalding intensity. It tasted divine. He chewed slowly and took another bite while he worked over the problem in his head.

Look what had happened to Leroy? Drunk or not, according to what he’d said he used to have money. Implying that he spent it all on Janice here. Nick could see it. Janice becoming every actress, starlet or model that Leroy could imagine. The two of them having sex on the bar or with her bent over one of the tables in the next car.

Nick picked up a French fry and bit into it. It crackled between his teeth, hot and crisp on the outside while being soft and even hotter inside. Almost too hot to eat. He blew out his breath and realized that he had started to get an erection thinking about the possibilities. It wouldn’t be anything except sex. The sort of sex that people dreamed about. Some people even had lists for that sort of thing. He remembered watching Friends and they had a show about that, you could have ten people on your list and if you ever got the chance your partner gave you permission to sleep with them. That sort of thing.

He finished the first half of the patty melt feeling more guilty than ever. And there was no denying now that the idea turned him on.

“How is everything?” Janice asked.

The question startled him out of his thoughts. He looked at her. She looked like Janice, the waitress, not some Hollywood actress.

“The food is great,” he managed. He wanted to say something else but he didn’t even know what that might be.

“You’ve been giving thought to that special I mentioned, haven’t you?”

He felt tongue-tied and flushed.

She chuckled. “Oh hon, don’t worry so much about it. A bit of fun is all it is. Perfectly safe, I assure you. And don’t worry about that pretty wife of your’s — how’s it any different than you tossing off while you fantasize? She’s not one of those women who expect you to stop entertaining yourself, is she?”

He had the feeling that it was a lot different than the time he spent by himself by the virtue that he wouldn’t be doing this alone. Not that he was going to do anything, he corrected himself silently. Not if he got out of there now. He pulled out his wallet.

“What do I owe for the food?”

“You’ve only had half your sandwich,” Janice said. “It’s no big deal. You don’t want the special, that’s fine. Why don’t you finish your meal?”

Nick picked up another French fry to humor her. It tasted fantastic. He couldn’t resist trying one more, than another. Remembering how good the patty melt tasted he decided he might as well finish his meal. It wasn’t like she was going to attack him or something. The flavor of the patty melt was wonderful. The hot juices burst across his tongue and blended with the melting cheese. Janice smiled at him.

“Good, isn’t it?”

Nick nodded.

Melody leaned on the counter. Nick coughed, spraying out bits of bread and patty melt onto the counter. Melody smiled at him.

“Really, hon. Do you think I’d mind? I know you’ll always love me. Why shouldn’t you have a little fun? Remember how I looked when we first met?”

She changed. He recognized her, it was still Melody but now it was Melody at twenty-four. Thirty pounds lighter with firmer muscles and better skin. Her hair was cut short back then and styled. She was as gorgeous as he remembered and his erection came back hard, making sitting uncomfortable. She leaned across the counter and took his hand. Her face was only inches from his and he could smell the apple-scent of the organic shampoo she used back then.

“I said I can be any woman you fantasize about, even if that’s just your wife as you remember her being when you met. And I can do all of the things that you never dared ask her to do. How can it be cheating when I’m her?”

Her lips touched his. Only a second but it felt wonderful and sent electricity through his skin. Nick slid backwards off the stool. He shook his head.

“No matter how you change I still know that it’s someone else. Even if you look like her.” He took out his wallet, removed a twenty and tossed it on the counter. “Thanks, but I’ll pass.”

Nick turned to leave but she came around the bar and blocked his way. She smiled nastily, in a way that Melody would never do.

“Haven’t you heard the phrase, ‘Hell hath no fury’?”

Nick backed away.

She wasn’t Melody anymore. Instead Marilyn Monroe stood in his path looking like she had at her best. She stalked towards him. “I don’t make this offer to just anyone you know? I save it for my special customers.”

He walked backwards through the railcar at a faster pace. He looked into the kitchen but the cook and bus boy had vanished.

Katherine Hepburn laughed at him. “Remember what we said about perception? They weren’t ever actually there. You saw them because I wanted you to see them.”

He turned and ran towards the next car. He made it to the connecting door, through and pushed it closed behind him. Through the window he saw Julia Roberts running towards him with a snarl on her beautiful face. He had thought he could jump down but metal bars enclosed the space between the cars. There wasn’t any way out. He yanked open the next door and went through into the second car.

A smell of rotten meat filled the car. Nick gagged and pinched his nose closed. The place was full of mold and lumps slumped at the tables. The pristine dining room he’d seen through the connecting doors was replaced by a decaying slaughter house. He heard a door bang open behind him and saw Jessica Biel step into the space between the cars. Nick ran down the aisle between the tables. His foot slipped on something that squished. He kept going towards the end of the railcar.

A woman laughed behind him. He glanced back and saw Sarah Michelle Gellar in the aisle behind him. She laughed again.

“Where are you going, hon?”

“I just want to get out of here and go back to my wife.”

“Oh, I don’t see that happening. Not now that you’ve seen all that you’ve seen.”

There was something wrong with her hair, he noticed. It looked like it had fallen out in patches. He backed down the aisle. She kept walking towards him. He moved faster then broke into a run for the door. He reached it, yanked on the door and it rattled but didn’t open. He yanked again. Nothing. It was locked.

More laughter behind him but it sounded scratchy. Nick looked back at her. She didn’t look so good now. Her face was a patchwork of different women all mismatched. Different eyes, skin tones, a nose made from several parts, her scalp was largely bald but sprouted tufts of hair in different colors.

“Hon, you might as well give it up now.”

Nick looked around for something, anything that could be used as a weapon. On his left the decayed skeleton of a man lay slumped in a booth. His clothing and skin hung on his bones in rags. Both looked torn apart. Nick bent down and grabbed the poor fellow’s upper leg bone. He yanked on it and pulled the whole body up off the table into the aisle.

The creature that had been Janice and all of the other women laughed at him. “What are you doing, hon? Pulling his leg like that?”

She laughed again. While she laughed he put a foot on the hip bone and yanked up again. With a loud pop and tearing of dried muscles the leg bone came free in his hand. The round knob at the end looked hard. All in all, a serviceable club, he thought.

Janice tsked him. “You shouldn’t be thinking such things. Others before you kicked and hit and fought such as they could but I’m still here, aren’t I? It would have been better you took the special. Then you might have died a happy man at least.”

“I plan to die happy.” Nick swung the leg bone. Not at her but at the window in the door at the end of the rail car. He put his whole body into the swing. He pictured the window shattering apart into sparkling pieces.

The round knob went into the window and got stuck. Nick pulled on the bone but the old flesh slipped in his hands. He heard her running towards him now. It wasn’t far. Any second and she’d have her claws in him. He gave the bone a big yank and it popped free pulling the window with it. He swung it back and hit Janice with the broken window.

She screamed and fell back, batting the glass away with enough force to knock the bone from his hand. Nick didn’t hesitate. He turned and dove through the window. His legs scraped the edge and he tucked his arms up as he rolled through. He hit on his shoulders and rolled with the fall up against the picket fence.

It was gray and weathered with age now. Pickets were missing and weeds grew tall around it. Nick got to his feet and kicked his way through the fence towards his car. He didn’t look back then.

Only after he got in the car and it started up did he look back at the railcars. The whole place looked like an abandoned wreck. For a moment he saw a woman’s face in the broken window looking out. It could have been anyone, he couldn’t tell what exactly she looked like before he pulled out and got back on the road for home.

💀

Three weeks later he ended up out that way again. He hadn’t called the police or told anyone what had happened. Who would believe the story. He hardly didn’t believe it himself anymore except it had taken nearly a week for the scrapes on his legs to heal. He got to the spot only to find the railroad cars gone and no sign of the diner. He saw a man sitting on a chair outside the gas station and pulled in.

The man raised his face when Nick walked up. It was a tear-streaked Leroy that sat on the chair. Leroy waved a bottle at the spot where the diner had stood.

“She’s gone and left.”

“Why’d she let you live?” Nick asked, chilled inside despite the hot sun.

Leroy shook his head. “I’ve never known. I would have given anything for her but she wouldn’t take me like the others. Not completely. I thought maybe she loved me, but she left me here.”

Nick didn’t have an answer for him. He left Leroy sitting in front of the gas station as he’d found him and vowed if he ever saw Picket Fences sitting beside a road somewhere he wouldn’t stop, no matter how tempting it might look.

💀

3,828 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 63rd weekly short story release, written in September 2010 and originally released under my pen name “R.M. Haag”. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Dreamstone.