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.

So Little Time

Veronica’s Ma warned her about dead men. Stay away. It don’t matter how pretty—stay away!

When the Craven Wench pulls into dock with a cargo spoiled by fire Veronica jumps at the chance to earn extra money cleaning the ship.

She didn’t count on meeting Nathan—the sailor who died in the fire.

A story about loves missed and final chances.

💀

My Ma always said that you can’t trust dead men. They’ll steer you wrong every time.

So why is it that I had to go and fall in love with one? It isn’t like I don’t see them all the time. They’re like the cries of the gulls, the shouts of the men unloading their catches, the stink of fish guts, the chill of ice and the grit of salt in your skin and clothes. It’s part of life working down on the docks. Sometimes men go out alive and come back dead. In Seatco death doesn’t stop them from doing all the things they’ve always done. But sometimes it changes them.

I knew something was up the minute the Craven Wench limped back into the harbor. Black smoke pumped out of the hold and that wasn’t normal. The smell of it was a mix of burnt oil and fish. I stuck the fillet knife into the cutting board, shucked my gloves off and left the table. The other gutters left their tables too. Too pale Marjorie with her flaming red hair came over to stand next to me. She rubbed her bony fingers together. Working with the fish and ice all day you get frostbit if you’re not careful. She didn’t have enough meat on her to keep a babe warm, much less a full-grown woman.

“What do you reckon’?” She nodded at the Craven Wench.

“Some sort of accident.” I pointed at the starboard smoke stack. It was a couple feet shorter than it ought to be. “Stack fire, maybe. Looks like they lost some there.”

The crew scrambled about on the decks while dock handlers caught ropes and brought the ship in. Hoses were dragged across the boards and soon water was being sprayed down into the holds.

“A fire.” Marjorie cracked her knuckles. “That’ll be a mess.”

“Sure will.” That’s when I hatched an idea I’d regret later. “Probably need someone to help get the boat cleaned up. Might pay decent.”

Marjorie arched an eyebrow. “Might at that.”

I took the lead and headed over to the Craven Wench. We stayed back out of the way of the crews working. Captain showed up on deck covered in soot. Mackenzie, don’t know his first name. Don’t know anyone that does. He’s a swarthy little toad of a man known for his fierce temper. I’ve heard stories from the girls at the taverns about him that make me glad I spend most of my days gutting fishes rather than deal with the likes of him. But a job like this would pay well and it’d only be a one-time thing. I wouldn’t have to deal with him long. He stomped his way down to the dock and shoved past the crews.

“Get that fire out!” He shouted at them. “Stop mucking about.”

He came towards us with a face like a cross between a storm cloud and a toad if such a thing were possible. People practically dove into the water to get out of his way. Marjorie nudged me. I took a breath and stepped right into his path.

He came up short and swore. His breath smelled of alcohol and fish. “What the hell do you want?”

“My mate and I can clean up your boat for you. We’ll do a good job.”

His normally bulging eyes seemed to shrink back into his head a bit. “You’re volunteering to clean my boat?”

“No, sir.”

He scowled.

“We’ll clean it but we expect fair pay for the job.”

The scowl melted a bit. “I didn’t think you’d offer to do it for nothing! Can’t pay much. Fire ruined the catch.”

“It’ll be more than that catch if you can’t get back out. We’ll do the work.” I named a figure I thought was high, equal to a month’s wages as a gutter.

Captain Mackenzie spat in his filthy hand and stuck it out at me. “Deal.”

I didn’t grimace as I spit in my own hand and took his grimy paw. He squeezed, as all men do, to show off his strength. I handle ice and fish for a living. I squeezed right back. His eyes opened up and he showed me all four of his teeth. He laughed and let go before stomping off.

With him gone Marjorie did a little hop and clapped her hands. “Wow, a month’s wages!”

“We’ll meet on board after our shift. I’ll bring the cleaning supplies.”

“I’ll get food,” Marjorie said, but I hardly heard her.

I’d turned to take one last look at the Craven Wench. No particular reason for it, but I did and that’s when I saw him. He’d just come up from below. You could tell he was a dead man right away. It wasn’t just his burned clothing hanging in tatters on a body muscled from fighting the sea. The dead are beautiful. Whatever they’d been in life, in death their flaws melt away. That’s only one of the reasons that my Ma warned me away from them as soon as I was old enough to notice that boys weren’t the same as girls. This dead man wasn’t large but his chest was defined and bare. He had that sheen about him that all the dead have. Like phosphorescence on the ocean waves at night. His dark hair dropped in waves about his shoulders. While I watched a surviving member of the crew came up to him and obviously offered his condolences. They shook and as the survivor left the dead man’s eyes met my own.

You know that electric feeling when you lock eyes with an attractive man? Well, this was a lightning bolt. My heart skipped a beat or too. My tongue seemed to swell to a size that would cut off my air and my limbs tingled. My Ma’s warnings were like the distant call of thunder in my head.

Then the fire crew got in the way and our gaze was broken. I turned away immediately. I tucked my hands into my apron and hurried back towards my table. Ma always said that you shouldn’t even notice dead men. Stay away from them as nothing good can come of it. I picked up the next fish, slit its gut and pulled out the insides. For the first time I wondered why Ma warned me so much? Did it come from first-hand experience? I wished she was still around so that I could ask. It isn’t like my life has turned out all that wonderful anyway. I tried to set those thoughts aside. I had fish to gut now and later a boat to clean. I didn’t need to be thinking about a dead man. Unfortunately gutting fish doesn’t do much to keep the mind occupied.

💀

Marjorie and I met at the boat when we’d planned. I showed up carrying bucks full of brushes, rags, soap and mops. She had a couple paper wrapped parcels in a net bag along with a couple bottles. It was already late and activity had died down on the docks. Most of the fishermen were off turning their wages into alcohol or sex or both. Those fortunate enough to be married had headed home. That didn’t leave many people about. We sat down on the edge of the pier to eat the fish and chips Marjorie had picked up from Rick’s place. Some of these fish might have been ones that we’d gutted earlier in the day. Someday I’m going to eat something other than fish, I tell myself. And not chicken because even the chicken around here tastes fishy from all the fish guts that they eat. We washed it down with the beers and kept the bottles to turn back in. Then it was up onto the Craven Wench.

I noticed right off that she sat low in the water. Too low if her holds had been emptied and pumped. We headed towards the hatch when he stepped out, the dead man I’d seen earlier.

It was dusk and the shine about him looked even more pronounced than before. He hadn’t bothered changing out of the charred rags he wore. He looked at us both and then his eyes fixed on me with an unsettling stillness.

“Captain Mackenzie hired us to clean the boat.” I lifted the mops by way of illustration.

“And you’d be?” His voice sounded clear and almost normal. You couldn’t put your finger on it but there was something about his voice that made it feel like it echoed deep inside your bones.

“Veronica.”

“Hi! I’m Marjorie!”

His eyes hardly left mine. “Nathan. I died today.”

“Ah, yeah. Sorry about that. I’d noticed. Why are you hanging around here?”

“Thinking about things. Everything that I didn’t do when I was alive.”

I managed to look away. I lifted the buckets. “Everything sounds like a lot. I’m sorry, but we don’t have time for that. We’ve already done a full shift and we have this boat to clean. If we get finished in time for a couple hours of sleep before our next shift we’ll be lucky.”

“I’ll help you,” Nathan said.

“No thanks,” Marjorie said. “No offense, but we’re not looking to split our pay.”

Nathan shook his head and again hardly looked her way. “Not interested in money. Maybe we can talk while we work?”

He clearly meant his words for me. I knew what my Ma would say if she was here but he was so pretty. If we had help we’d be done that much faster.

“I’ll listen,” I told him. “Can’t say that I’ll talk much. I don’t usually.”

“That’s true,” Marjorie said.

“This way.” Nathan ducked back down into the hatch.

We followed him down. The reek was even worse in the hold. Burnt fish, wood, oil and sea water all mixed up with fish that hadn’t gotten on ice to create an eye-watering stink. Nathan reached the bottom first and plunged waist deep into water filled with floating much and debris. I stopped.

“You got to be kidding.”

He turned and looked back up at me. With his sheen I could see his features clearly. “Captain Mackenzie didn’t get the hold pumped yet. I can help get the pumps going but we’re going to have to watch the intakes or it’ll get clogged.”

“This is why he agreed so quickly,” Marjorie said. “He gets off cheap by leaving it to us.”

It was a cheat, plain and simple. But dealing with a man like Mackenzie you couldn’t help but expect something like this. Trouble is, walking away now he might prove to be more of a problem.

“It’s fine. Let’s get it done. I want to see the look on that gap-toothed fucker’s face when he sees the boat cleaned.” I stepped off into the water beside Nathan. He steadied me and my body reacted to his touch despite our surroundings.

“Do I have to?” Marjorie whined.

Nathan took down a lamp and lit it. He sloshed off into the boat. I followed and, making noises of disgust the whole time, Marjorie did as well.

Nathan showed us the pumps and the intakes. We left Marjorie at the bow to watch that one while we took the stern.

“I was down here when the fire broke out.” It didn’t seem that he spoke loudly but I could see him over the noise of the pump. “Someone dropped a lantern. There were oiled rags that hadn’t been properly stowed. The fire spread fast. It was the smoke that kept me from getting out. I couldn’t breathe. The heat melted the ice so I couldn’t get low enough to get under the smoke without putting my face in ice water.”

I could imagine it standing hip deep in water cold enough to chill my bones. The sharp scent of burnt wood and fish mixed with the smell of the ocean. It would have been dark even with the flames. My eyes hurt thinking about how it would have been. I took a brush and shoved fish bits and charcoal away from the intake. I felt the suction of the pipe. The water was getting drawn down.

“So I died. I tried to get out but I got dizzy. I lost my sense of direction. I tried getting away from the flames but that drove me deeper into the ship. My clothes caught on fire. I don’t remember passing out. The next thing I knew I woke beneath the water and it didn’t matter. I didn’t need to breathe. I stood up and knew I’d died. I’ve worked with others who had died.”

“I don’t know anyone who hasn’t,” I offered. I swept the intake clean again. “What’s your reason?”

Nathan looked at me with clear eyes. I won’t say they glowed but almost. Glimmered, maybe.

“You,” he said.

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Why did it have to take a dead man to say something like that? Why’d he have to be so pretty? Truth is I knew this man. I’d seen him around enough. Nathan Whedon. All easy smiles and charm when the luck was on him and hard drinking when it wasn’t. Seatco isn’t that big a place that a single woman doesn’t have some idea of the prospects.

“Me? I think being dead has addled your brains a bit. You sure aren’t thinking clearly.”

“I’m thinking more clearly than ever. Truth is I’ve seen you. Veronica Bell, keeps to herself and until last spring took care of her Ma. Works with the catch as a gutter where it’s known that she is as quick and clean as they come. Captains want you working their catch because it gets to the market faster. Your supervisor knows this and charges a premium to get you on their catch.”

Really? That came as news to me. George and I would have to have a talk after this.

“If you noticed so much how come you’ve never said as much as a hello to me?”

“A down-on-my-luck fisherman like myself? One too quick to fold and too quick to hit the bottle? What chance would I have had with the prettiest woman in Seatco? No matter that she tries to hide it beneath a slicker and hood?”

I flushed a bit, him saying that, and hid it by shoving the intake deeper into the draining hold. As more water left the hold the thicker it became so we were standing in knee-deep burnt chowder. I shoved away a half-charred flounder. I didn’t give a carp what he said. Ma’s advice still rang true in my ears.

“Not much,” I answered.

Nathan nodded. “Just so. I’ve thought about that these last few hours since I died. Everyone says that the dead have a reason for sticking around. I don’t know if someone living can really understand what it’s like. Death changes your perspective. Your life is over no matter how you stick around. You see everything about your life from a different perspective and from that you figure out —”

“Your reason. Right.” I didn’t want to hear this. I brushed the intake clear and stomped it down into the ankle deep water remaining. “Everyone knows that. I don’t know that I buy it. I mean I see plenty of dead folk carrying on as if nothing at all changed by their dying. They don’t seem to have any particular insight into their mistakes. They just keep drinking, whoring, or gambling, same as they did when they were alive.”

Nathan killed the pumps. “Could be they can’t face their reason. Or maybe it is impossible for them to resolve.”

“Yeah, in other words the same excuses they gave when they lived.”

“It isn’t that way for everyone.” His voice sounded soft now that the noise of the pumps had died. Waves lapped against the gently rocking ship.

“No?”

He appeared right in front of me the way the dead can. He stood so close that when I brought my hands up they touched his chest. He put his hands on my arms. Not holding me. Touching.

His breath was like a cool sea breeze on my face. “Most die and aren’t moving around. Even those that stick around often don’t for long. They take care of things and move on. Otherwise we’d be overrun in the dead.”

It was hard to think with him so close. “Seems like we are, sometimes.”

I stepped back and my foot slipped in the muck and fish parts. I started to fall but Nathan did another of those movements where he somehow was instantly behind me. He caught me in strong arms and held me fast. I looked up into his face. My eyes followed the long line of his jaw. His hair hung down above me. His eyes were a mystery.

“You’re my reason.” His lips grazed against mine like a hint of ocean spray. My heart hammered in my chest and not only because he was dead.

I stood up and pushed him away. “I don’t get any say in this? I’m your reason and that’s it? What if I don’t want to be your reason? Have you thought of that with your new clarity?”

I didn’t want to give him a chance to answer. I grabbed my gear. “I’m going to go give Marjorie a hand. If you think you have the answers then you can start on this end.”

I couldn’t run in the muck but I made my way as fast as possible. I found Marjorie in one of the holds at the end of the walkway. In the lamp light her face looked even more pale and ghostly. Almost more than Nathan.

She quirked her lips at me. “What are you doing down here? Shouldn’t you be back with that dead gorgeous man?”

“Dead being the operative word.” I shoved a mop against the muck. “Do you want to use the mop or hold the bucket?”

Marjorie wrinkled her nose. “I’ll mop, if that’s okay?”

“Fine my me. I’m getting used to the stink.”

A shovel would have been better but we managed to shove the burnt and rotting fish into the bucket with the mop. Which then one of us had to take up topside and pitch over into the bay. The gulls were going to go crazy when they caught on to what we were doing. It was hard work. Even at a month’s wages, Captain Mackenzie wasn’t paying us enough. I would have been tempted to quit except that I wanted to see the look on his face when he saw his holds cleaned out. I didn’t worry about how Nathan might be getting on.

“I’m tired. Let’s take a break for a few,” Marjorie said.

I didn’t bother saying anything. I up-ended the bucket and sat down. I leaned forward with my elbows on my knees and closed my eyes. The gentle rocking of the boat threatened to send me off to sleep. It might have worked if the place didn’t stink so bad. Better than smelling salts. Just when I thought I’d gotten used to the smell something would change and it’d hit me with full force again.

“So what’s going on between you and him?”

I barely lifted my head. Marjorie sat on the other buck, her legs outstretched and back against a support beam. “Nothing.”

“You didn’t come back here with nothing on your face.”

“He says that I’m his reason.”

Marjorie sat up. “His reason? And you’re back here?”

“He’s dead.” I shook my head and looked at my fish-stained, pruning hands. I remembered him calling me the prettiest woman in Seatco. “What’s his reason to me?”

“You’ve got eyes. You’ve seen him. What more do you need?”

“There ain’t no future in it! My Ma —”

Marjorie waved her hand. “Your Ma. Blessedly she didn’t stick around when she died. Not in the least because you didn’t give her a reason. But she wasn’t one that should talk about dead men.”

I glared at her. “What are you trying to say?”

“I hear things. I’m not completely detached from everything, the way some might be. While you were off taking care of that poor woman people talked. They’d say things.”

“I can imagine.”

“Most admired you for it. But it led to them talking about her too and you know how stories get told.”

“So you’re saying there was something between her and a dead man?” I stood up and flipped over the bucket. “Let’s get back to slopping fish. The sooner we’re out of here the better.”

Marjorie picked up the mop. “You’re his reason. Until you figure that one out I don’t think you’ll be happy.”

Lacking anything witty to say I just went back to work. What was the point in arguing? We were soaked, stinking and tired. Even if I wanted to find out what it meant this wasn’t the time.

We mucked up the mess, gradually working out way towards midship. By the time we got there we found Nathan hard at work. The hold past him was spotless, except those parts of the containers that had been burned by fire.

“How’d you manage that?” Marjorie asked.

“I don’t talk to myself,” he said. “With the three of us working on the remaining half we should finish quickly.”

I wanted to argue but I also wanted the job done. It was getting late. I didn’t even know if we’d finish on time. “Fine.”

Nathan was true to his word. He worked. Nothing fancy or magical about it. He couldn’t crook his finger and make the mops clean the place on their own. He put some of that shimmering muscle into it and moved with purpose. I didn’t see him waste any motions. Marjorie and I weren’t nearly so regular in our approach and I think we felt the effects of the hour more. I didn’t dare let him get ahead, though, so I worked harder than ever to clean my portion. He still finished first, but not by much and even then he didn’t stop. He moved over to Marjorie’s section and started cleaning back to meet her. I finished and together they finished the last spot soon after.

I leaned on my mop with the filthy bucket beside me. “I think that does it.”

Marjorie leaned on Nathan. “Thanks for your help, Nathan.”

“My pleasure,” he said, but he looked at me when he said it. “I’ll slip out after you. We wouldn’t want Mackenzie to know someone on his crew helped. He’d just want to cut what he owes.”

“Let him try,” I said. “He set us up and is under-paying as it is.”

“It’s fine.” Nathan handed me the mop. “I don’t need the money anyway.”

“Don’t you have gambling debts?”

He seemed to consider that for a while. “I guess I do, but I’m dead? What more can they expect? At least I came back so there’s a chance they might get paid. Otherwise they’d just be out the money. No widow or family to try and get it out of. It isn’t like the captain is going to pay them.”

“Okay.” I gathered up the supplies. “Thank you for the help. We’ll be going.”

Marjorie tried to protest but I didn’t listen. I was sick of the Craven Wench and I wanted out. Coming out on deck was fantastic. The sky was already lightening out over the ocean. The air tasted crisp and cool with the flavor of rain on the wind. Later today, I thought. It would be a downpour.

We waited on the docks no more than half an hour before Mackenzie came staggering back to his ship. With a couple equally intoxicated companions. It took his beer-blurred eyes a second to focus on us.

“You owe us.” I cited the figured promised. “Your holds are cleaned.”

“Snots possible,” he said with great deliberation.

One didn’t have to check his nostrils to know the truth of that pronouncement. Nonetheless. “Captain. We cleaned the holds. The Craven Wench is pumped, empty and ready for more. So pay up what you promised.”

He looked at the tall brunette on his right and then the smaller red-haired wench on his left. I knew just what he must be thinking. In front of these ladies of the night how could he appear not to be a man of his word? It might go badly for him. He dug into a greasy wallet and pulled out a wad of bills. Both women made happy noises and clung even tighter to him. Captain Mackenzie staggered and gave them his best gap-toothed grin.

“Captain?”

He blinked and looked at me. It took him a moment but then he laughed. He peeled off bills and thrust them at me. I knew without counting he’d taken too much and that was fair so far as I was concerned. I pocketed the wad and picked up the cleaning gear.

“Thank you, Captain. Marjorie?”

She followed me away from him while he went off in search of the Captain’s cabin. I felt badly for Nathan. I couldn’t imagine being stuck on that ship.

💀

We split the money, and yes, he had over-paid. I wasn’t about to return the difference. There wasn’t time to do much more than stash the gear, get rinsed off and into dry clothes before I had to be back down at the docks again. Fat seagulls sat on the piers stuffed from the ruined catch we’d tossed overboard. My eyes wanted to close. I felt as though I could sleep while still working. My fingers knew what to do whether I stayed awake for it or not. I shook my head. I couldn’t do that. For one, I might slit my hand open instead of the fish. Even if I avoided that fate I could still get in trouble with the boss over my apparent absence. Although I still wanted to have a talk with him about charging extra for the catches that I processed. If he was doing that I might as well go into business for myself and save him the trouble. I thought maybe I’d get a raise out of it inside. I’d have to thank Nathan.

That thought gave me pause. I couldn’t thank Nathan without seeing him.

“So what are you doing later?”

I nearly jumped out of my skin. I know both feet left the dock. Nathan was leaning against the pier behind me. He held up a basket. He asked, “How about another picnic?”

In the daylight it was both easier and harder to identifying him as a dead man. The sheen was harder to see, but he still looked as pretty as ever. It’s more than the sheen to his skin or the fact that he looked flawless that identifies him as dead person. There’s something about a dead person that makes them seem not quite a part of the world. It isn’t that you can see through them or anything, it’s a feeling you get in your gut facing dead person. I’ve never heard of any of the dead passing themselves off as the living. Even with make-up and everything else there’s something that can’t be hidden.

“Sleeping, if I get the chance,” I said.

“You can sleep when you’re dead.”

I stared at him.

His smile wilted. “It’s funny if you’re me.”

I picked up the next fish and slit the belly open. “I’m not. I’ve got work to do. I’d thank you to shove off. Oh, and thanks for your help last night.”

“Don’t mention it.” Nathan was standing on the other side of my table. “I’ll see you around, Veronica Bell. Like it or not, you’re still my reason for being here.”

I didn’t answer. He left. I don’t know if he walked or just wasn’t there anymore. I told myself I didn’t care.

💀

In the native tongues Seatco means evil spirit or devil. I don’t know about the devil part, but I was beginning to think Nathan had been a worthless gambler while alive and was an evil spirit after he died. It seems like I saw him everywhere. I’d go to work and he’d be working at a table two stations away. He’d walked away from the Craven Wench. He told Mackenzie that he didn’t want to work on the ship that had killed him. That might be true, but why did he take a job as a gutter? Most other ships would have taken him.

I go into a bar only to find him sitting nearby. He didn’t try to talk to me. I didn’t walk down my street in the early hours only to find him following me. I couldn’t even say that he was paying any attention to me at all. When I did see him someplace like a bar he might be keeping company with someone or not, but either way he never said so much as hello to me. Maybe he’d changed his mind about me being his reason? It didn’t make sense, but that made me a little sad.

Three weeks of this after the night we cleaned out the Craven Wench and I’d decided that I couldn’t stand it anymore. The next time I saw him was when I went to get some fish-and-chips. Like so many of the other gutters he was there. You’d think we couldn’t stand fish after gutting and cleaning them all day but it was close and cheap. I always found it satisfying to think that something fresh caught and cleaned on my table might end up in my basket. But that day Nathan was in line two people ahead of me. The sight of him infuriated me.

I charged past the other people in line. “What are you doing here?”

Nathan looked down at me. “Getting some lunch. Why don’t you join me?”

“You’re following me!”

Nathan raised an eyebrow. “I was here first. Maybe it’s you stalking me?”

“Everywhere I go you’re there. You even took a job cleaning fish!”

“If I’m already someplace when you get there, again, it sounds like you’re following me. Although I’ll grant that you were cleaning fish before I started. But I needed a job.”

A sailor who’d replaced his hair with a tattooed crown of mermaids tapped Nathan’s shoulder. “Bud, she can’t cut the line.”

Nathan looked at the sailor with his dead eyes. It seemed for an instant that they flickered like the dark depths of the sea itself. “The lady is my guest. She isn’t cutting.”

“I —”

“What will you have?” Nathan asked.

I looked at the stand and realized we were next. “The special. I always get the special.”

“You could splurge today,” Nathan said.

The sailor was back, shoving me aside. “Bud, I’ve always wondered if the dead can die a second time.”

I saw the flash of the knife. It never hit. Nathan was behind the guy with his own knife pricking the sailor right above his left kidney.

“The answer is no,” Nathan whispered in the sailor’s ear. “But you could always join us.”

I thought I heard waves breaking in his words. The sailor swallowed and held up his hands. “My mistake.”

“That’s right.” Nathan wasn’t behind him anymore. His eyes looked like storm clouds above the ocean now. I thought I almost saw flickers of lightning in their depths.

The sailor put away the knife and looked down at his feet. Nathan turned back to the bored looking matron sitting in the booth. He placed our orders. She served them up quickly and we walked over to one of the tables. I sat down opposite Nathan. He slowly ate a chip.

“You think I’m following you?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know but you seem to be around all the time.”

“I’ve respected your feelings.” Nathan picked over his food. Then he looked up at me with troubled eyes. “I haven’t bothered you. You’re my reason, but I’ve given you space. Now you’re telling me that even seeing me in Seatco is too much? I should leave? Go somewhere else?”

Put that way I felt like gull droppings. Even worse when he mentioned leaving Seatco I felt a wrenching in my gut as if an undertow had grabbed me.

“No.” I hardly whispered the word. “I don’t want you to leave.”

“What do you want?” Nathan’s tone was as smooth and warm as a summer breeze. “Should I tell you want it means for me, that you’re my reason?”

I caught my breath. I didn’t dare speak. I picked at my fish and didn’t look up. But I nodded.

“Veronica Bell.” The way he said my name made me look up and meat those eyes again. He smiled and reached across the table. He took my hand. “In life I missed opportunities. All sorts, but the one I regretted the most was never being the man I could have been. A man worthy of you. I told you I noticed you. I knew I didn’t measure up. I could have given up gambling. I could have saved and bought a nice little house up on the bluff. The sort of place right for a family.

“One night at sunset I saw you after you got off work. You’d left your table and walked out on the pier to the very edge. You took off your hood and opened your slicker. The setting Sun and wind caught your hair. You spread your arms and took it all in. It was only a moment and then you buttoned up and headed into town.

“But that moment stuck with me. I wanted to say something to you but I didn’t and you walked right past. Our eyes met for a second. I had my chance and I didn’t take it. I let my fears and self-loathing get the better of me and then I proved it all true by going out and getting plastered.”

Nathan gave my hand a gentle squeeze. “I could have been a better man. I could have said you were beautiful. I didn’t and of everything in my life I regretted that the most. That I didn’t ever tell you. That’s the reason, so I could tell you. Thank you.”

Tears stung my eyes. I snatched my hand back. “No! No, Nathan. Don’t say that! There has to be more to it.”

There wasn’t and he couldn’t answer me anymore. His eyes were clouded and lifeless. His skin was pale and ashen in death now. Truly dead.

Ma told me the truth. You can’t trust dead men. I didn’t want to fall in love with Nathan. Somewhere in running away from him I did and now I regret that I never got the chance to tell him that. I only hope that I live my life well enough so that I don’t come back. I don’t want him to be the reason for me coming back. I’d be trapped, unable to ever get rid of that regret. That’s no way to live. Or die.

💀

5,880 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 57th weekly short story release, written in July 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 Hidden Nests.

Hauntlet

You know that moment when you’re standing outside the worn down Victorian house, it’s night, and Friday the 13th?

Thomas does and he knows he shouldn’t go inside. Except his best friend lives there and Percy might need help.

For readers who enjoy a little spooky with their eggnog. Happy Holidays!

December thirteenth was colder than a witch’s tit, a fact that Thomas knew very well as he coasted his mountain bike to a stop outside the worn down Victorian house his best friend, his only friend, Percy had leased as the headquarters for App-aration.

Percy’s idea of a pun. He designed independent apps and games for the iPad, iPhone and whatever else Apple decided to come out with.

It was almost five already, which meant that it was pretty much dark already and in the gloom the house suited the name. The light on his helmet cast a circle across the front of the house as he studied it. Peeling paint, cobwebs, and missing shingles were just details. No lights, that was another point, the only light, beside his helmet light, came from the nearly full moon already up casting pale shadows across the yard from the skeletal fruit trees rising above the patchy grass. The house suited the name of Percy’s business very well, it was just the sort of place to send children running by in fear.

Not that children would come out here. The house sat pretty much by itself at the end of a dead end street just outside Rainier. It had taken Thomas the better part of an hour to ride out the Chehalis-Western trail, then find the street and get to the house. All because Percy had promised to show him something really cool. After which Percy had also promised a movie marathon with eats and drink. And tomorrow was his mid-week day off so he didn’t have to bike it back until later. After it warmed up.

Still, the place looked dark and empty. He didn’t see any lights on in the house, which wouldn’t have been unusual for Percy but there should have at least been the glow of his computers. Percy always had at least three monitors on his primary machine, not to mention his other machines, game consoles and HD TV.

But there was none of that. No lights, not so much as a candle flickering in a window.

The longer Thomas stayed outside with his bike the emptier the house felt. He had a strong urge to get back on the bike and ride home. If this was a haunted house in a horror film this was the point when the audience would be screaming at him not to go into the house. What sort of person did that?

An idiot? Maybe, he’d been called worse. And if it didn’t matter he would have left but the house was very isolated and Percy had a lot of expensive stuff. What if someone had broken in and Percy was hurt? Was he supposed to ride off and just leave his only friend on the floor bleeding or worse?

That was bad enough, and probably ridiculous to think, but there was also the fact that it was freezing. He his breath fogged in the moonlight. Even with his shoe covers his feet were freezing. His fingers almost felt numb beneath his outer shell and the gloves he wore underneath. Leaving now would mean at least another hour of riding in the dark and cold all the way home.

It was insane to even think about that when he hadn’t even tried the door. He could go that far, at least.

He rolled the bike up the cracked and weedy walk. The grass coming up through the broken concrete was covered in glittering frost and crunched beneath his feet. The house needed lots of work. Percy had been excited about the deal he got on the place, but seeing it Thomas could understand why he got such a deal. The roof of the porch sagged and one of the posts was at an angle. The board at the bottom of the steps was cracked in half and needed to be replaced.

Thomas carefully stepped over the broken board, lifting his mountain bike up with him onto the porch. No way he was leaving his bike out on the porch, given the state of the place.

The front door might have been lavender at one time but now it looked more gray than anything. There was a nice frosted oval window in the door, but it was crusted with grime, spider webs and desiccated bug corpses. There was a brass knocker, a simple bar weighted with a ball at the end but Thomas just knocked with his hand.

“Percy? Are you in there?” He didn’t hear any response to his cry. He stripped off his outer glove shell and cycling glove to knock with bare knuckles on the wood. The door felt solid. He wasn’t sure how much the sound got through the heavy door, so he grabbed the knocker and smashed it down once, twice and three times. “Percy?”

The door handle, an actual long handle instead of a knob, turned. Thomas jumped back, startled because he hadn’t heard anyone coming to the door or seen a light.

Hinges screeched as the door swung open. A pale face, thin with haunted dark eyes and wet hair plastered to his scalp, swam up out of the darkness and squinted against the light from his helmet. It was Percy. He looked terrible, but it was Percy.

Percy raised a hand to shield his eyes from the light. “Thomas, man, what are you doing here?”

“You invited me. Remember? I’m off tomorrow? We were going to watch movies, plus you said you had something to show me.”

Percy scratched at his wet hair. His clothes were wet too, it looked like he had been sweating with large wet circles under his arms on the white t-shirt. He had on faded blue jeans, no shoes or socks, despite the cold.

“Can I come in?” Thomas asked. “I’m cold.”

“This isn’t a good time, man. Sorry I forgot about, you know, but really, it isn’t so great.”

“What’s wrong? Are you sick or something? Maybe I should come in while you tell me about it.” Thomas leaned forward with his hand on the door frame. “It’s a long ride home in the cold and dark.”

“I’ve been so hot,” Percy said. “I like the cold and dark.”

“I don’t. Let me in, Percy. Then you can tell me what’s going on.” Thomas moved forward and Percy stepped back out of his way.

Percy tucked his hands beneath his arms and backed off. Thomas came in, wheeling his bike in with him, then shut the door to keep in the heat. Except there wasn’t any heat! It didn’t feel any warmer inside than outside, just darker without the moon.

There really wasn’t any light in the place, except for the light from his helmet. Percy was standing at the edge of the light and just beyond him Thomas could see the dark shape of Percy’s old leather couch that he’d bought with his first app release.

“Some lights, maybe? Heat?”

“No,” Percy said, drawing it out. “I don’t think that’d be good. I think you should go, man. I’m really sorry for bringing you out here, but it’d be better.”

Thomas was really worried. This wasn’t like Percy at all. Something had to be seriously wrong. He turned around and found the light switches himself and flipped them on.

“Hey!” Percy cowered back from the light, shielding his eyes. “That’s bright!”

Except it wasn’t. A light had come on in the fixture above the door but it was a weak yellow light that just cast a pale circle of light on and around Thomas and his bike. He leaned the bike against the wall beneath the light switches.

The other lights on were the two lamps on either side of the couch. They both looked like they had twenty-watt bulbs at best. But over in the front alcove Christmas lights had come on around Percy’s Christmas tree. It was a thick Douglas fir, not much taller than Thomas, sparsely decorated with ornaments but a string of lights blinked on and off in red, green, blue and yellow. It should have cheered the place up but the tree leaned a bit to the side and the needles looked dry. When Thomas’ light hit the stand he could see that it was bone dry.

“Man, you forgot to water your tree. We should do that before the lights start a fire or something.”

“Just turn the lights off,” Percy groaned. “I don’t feel good.”

“Yeah, I get that, but it’s not good to sit here in the dark.”

Thomas went around the corner and found a thermostat on the wall. The needle was pushed all the way over to OFF. He pushed it back up until the needle hit the seventy degree mark. Something thunked downstairs and rattled. Then he heard the faint hum of air blowing through the vents.

“There.” Thomas took off his helmet and switched off the light.

Percy crawled onto the couch and lay in a fetal position with his hands up over his head.

Thomas hung his helmet on the bike then crossed over to the couch. There was a knitted afghan in faded green and yellow crumpled on one end. He picked it up and pulled it up over Percy.

“Yeah, just stay there. I’ll go get you something to eat. You’ll feel better. Trust me.”

Percy didn’t answer but he also didn’t complain anymore.

Thomas didn’t know which way to go but he made his way back to an entry leading out and that led to a hall, and across the hall, through a passage beneath the staircase, he could see the kitchen. And there was a smell coming from it that made him hesitate. He didn’t want to go in there and turn on the lights. But what choice did he have? Percy was in a bad way, he probably needed food.

The kitchen was as bad as Thomas feared. It was like sedimentary layers. The bottom layer, still visible from the side, were dishes and utensils in the sink and on the big oak kitchen table. Then on top of that was a layer of paper plates and plastic utensils. The final layer was pizza boxes and fast  food wrappers from the espresso and pizza place in town.

Flies crawled in bloated agony across the piles, gorged on the stomach-churning mess. The stink made Thomas’ eyes water and his stomach clench. The very last thing he wanted to do was go into that kitchen, but it just confirmed what he had feared. Percy was in trouble and this was as good of a place as any to start.

Thomas took a minute to go back to the living room with its pathetic Christmas tree and check on Percy. It looked like Percy had fallen asleep. That was good, it’d give him time to clean up and find out if there was anything edible left in the house. If not he could call the place and have them deliver something. With one last look at Percy’s pale, sweaty face – even sleeping his face was drawn in like he was in pain or having bad dreams – and Thomas went back to the kitchen.

 

Cleaning that kitchen would haunt his nightmares. He’d wake up some nights clenching his gut with the memory of that night.

By the time he finished the kitchen was stripped down and cleaned. The dish washer was running the last load of dishes, and the rest were put away. The cupboards turned out empty of anything except mouse droppings, dusty spider webs and lots of old cartons and boxes.

Thomas returned to the living room and sat down in the recliner that faced the alcove and Percy’s pathetic Christmas tree. He took out his cell and called the pizza place. Some guy answered, sounded bored and asked what he wanted.

“Large pizza, Canadian bacon and pineapple, extra cheese on a thin crispy crust. Not soggy, okay?”

“Yeah, no problem. What’s the address?”

Thomas told him and there wasn’t anything else on the other end except he could still hear the guy breathing.

“Hello?”

He heard the guy whispering to someone, then the guy came back on the phone. “That’s the big spooky place, right? You don’t sound like the guy that lives there.”

“Yeah, that’s the place. I’m a friend of his.”

“Right.” More whispering and the guy came back on the line. “I’m sorry, sir, but we’ve told him we’re not delivering out there anymore.”

Thomas laughed. “Come on, seriously?”

“Sorry, but you’ll have to tell him that having someone else call isn’t going to change anything. We’re not allowed to deliver out there.”

Thomas felt his neck redden. Despite the mess in the kitchen he was still somehow hungry and Percy was clearly sick. They couldn’t do this! “Look, my friend is sick. I don’t know what’s been going on but there’s no food in the house. I just spent an hour cleaning up his kitchen!”

“Sorry man, we can’t.”

The line went dead. Thomas rose up out of the chair clutching the phone. He had his hand back, ready to throw it and he stopped himself. He took a breath in and blew it out. Then he looked over at Percy. The guy needed something to eat. And if they weren’t going to deliver then he had to go get something.

Thomas slipped the phone into his jacket pocket and zipped it closed. He looked at Percy sleeping. “Dude, sorry. I’ll go get something to eat. Just rest until I get back.”

Percy didn’t give any indication that he had heard.

Thomas went over to his bike, put on his helmet and gloves, and pushed the bike outside. He reached up and turned on his light again. The beam shot out and illuminated bright white snowflakes floating down from the sky. His breath fogged in the beam. He took a breath, so cold that it felt like it was freezing his lungs. Best get it done.

The only thing worse than going into the haunted house in the first place was returning again. Thomas stood outside Percy’s house with fresh snow crunching under his numb feet. His fingers felt stiff and unwilling to move. He hadn’t expected it to get quite this cold or he would have bundled up more. But then he had also expected to stay inside the house tonight.

The lights were off again. The house looked as empty and as dark as it had the first time Thomas arrived. Percy must have gotten up and turned off the lights. Or the power had failed, but they still had power back in town.

He really didn’t want to go back inside. If it wasn’t so cold he would have considered going back home, except he couldn’t leave Percy in the state he was in. And riding back now, in this cold, threatened frostbite. He had to go inside.

And it was Percy. Sick, true, and catching something would suck, but it Percy. It wasn’t like Percy was a deranged killer or something.

Standing outside in the cold wasn’t helping. Thomas pushed his bike back up the porch, lifted it up and stepped over the broken step. He didn’t even bother knocking this time. He reached out and tried the knob. He expected it to be locked but it turned easily and the door opened.

His helmet light splashed across a pale figure sitting on the stairs. It startled Thomas but he was too cold to react much. A second later he recognized Percy, sitting with his knees up and head down. It looked like he was cradling something on his lap.

Slowly Percy raised his head. His expression was pale, drawn and his skin still glistened with sweat. His hair clung to his scalp like a wet towel. His lips spread in a jerky, uneven motion into a parody of a smile that bared his teeth.

He slowly lifted the thing in his lap. The shiny, techy screen caught the light from Thomas’ helmet.

“I’d forgotten.” Percy’s voice sounded faint, distant and in a way mechanical. It could have been someone pressing play on a tape recorder. “I wanted to show you something.”

Thomas realized he still had the door open. He pulled in his bike, bags from the store banging into the door frame. He leaned it against the wall and closed the door. The heat was still on, he felt the difference in the air.

“Yeah man, that’s one of the reasons you invited me over.”

Percy lifted the thing he held higher and tipped it toward Thomas. It was an iPad. Percy always had the latest gadgets.

“Your app? You finished it?”

Percy nodded but it was more like a convulsion than a normal nod. His breath hissed between his teeth. It took Thomas a second to realize that Percy was laughing through his clenched teeth.

“That’s cool.” Thomas took the bags off the handle bars. “Look, I ran to the gas station store and got a bunch of chicken noodle soup. They didn’t have many options. I also got some frozen breakfast stuff. Why don’t I fix us some soup, and then you can show me?”

“No. No.” Percy moaned, shaking his head. His hands holding the iPad trembled. “No! No!”

It scared Thomas. He really thought maybe he should call someone, but he couldn’t do it while Percy was freaking out. So he put the bags down and pulled off his gloves. After he stuffed them in his pocket, he stepped forward and extended his hand to Percy.

“Okay, man. It’s alright. I can take a look now.”

Percy stilled but a shudder ran through him. He gave Thomas another one of those broken grins with his head cocked oddly to the side. “Take a look.” More hissing laughter through his clenched teeth. “Yes, that’s it. Take a look. If you dare!”

Thomas took the iPad. He was half-afraid of dropping it with his frozen fingers but humoring Percy now might make him more willing to eat something. “What do I do?”

“Push the home button, at the bottom.”

He pushed the button and the screen turned see-through. Or not exactly see-through, it was a camera app. He’d seen the camera app before on the iPad and this looked very much the same with buttons to switch to the front or back camera, between still and video.  There was another setting on the slider. It showed a cartoony ghost icon.

Thomas’ finger hovered over the icon. “What happens if I hit the ghost icon?”

More hissing laughter and Percy rocked back and forth. “Take a look!”

Still Thomas hesitated. The way Percy was acting, it was like he’d gone crazy or something. But it couldn’t be because of the app. That was just a program running on the iPad. Where could the harm be in that?

So why was his mouth dry? He was shivering because he was half-frozen from being out in the cold, but that didn’t explain the chill of fear icing its way along his nerves.

It was ridiculous. He touched the icon.

The edges of the screen fogged. It showed Percy sitting on the stairs, illuminated by the light from Thomas’ helmet. The fog effect made the image look cool, faded sort of like an instant aging effect. Thomas felt relieved and a bit let down. This was it? This was what Percy had come up with after all this work? Had it led to a nervous breakdown for this? That was a depressing thought.

“Okay, man, I guess that’s neat enough –”

The fog on the right side of the screen pulsed. Thomas automatically turned the iPad in that direction and the fog effect pulsed more, draining in an eerie fluid way from the other sides of the screen to the right where it thickened.

What the hell?

The more he turned the iPad the more the fog concentrated. Then it started flooding back around the other sides of the screen. When he turned back it flooded back to the right. Thomas laughed.

“Okay, that’s cool. Weird, but cool.”

Percy moaned in response.

A little more experimenting showed that the fog was acting in a hot-warm-cold fashion, increasing as he moved in the direction the app wanted him to go.

Thomas followed the fog indicators. The effect grew more intense as he walked into the darkened living room. He couldn’t figure out how the app was leading him. Was it random? Any time he turned the iPad toward the walls the effect diminished and faded, only to strengthen when it turned toward the room. Was the app actually aware of the space?

If that was the case, what Percy had accomplished was even more impressive. Particularly the elegant, fluid way the fog moved and coalesced like a living thing.

As he entered the living room Thomas paused and flicked on the lights. The light above the entry way, the lamps on the couch and the lights on the Christmas tree came on. Immediately the fog effect vanished and the screen went blank, white and featureless. Red letters swam up out of the white background, which rippled like milk.

TOO MUCH LIGHT.

Thomas flipped the light switches off again. The picture came back along with the fog, which had gathered near the upper right corner of the screen. Thomas followed its cue and turned in a circle, holding the iPad up to study the room.

Sudden the fog swam down into the picture as the Christmas tree came into view. It looked like it actually left the screen and flew out into the room, an amazing 3D sort of effect. The fog swirled beneath the tree and took on a shape.

Thin white arms, pale and swollen with putrescent cracks, wrapped around bony knees. A child with dark hair plastered to pale, rotten skin. Part of the skull showed through a patch where the skin and hair were peeled down the side of the child’s face. The bones were cracked and stained with long-dried blood. The fog had become a child but he was there, beneath the tree. Thomas’ heart hammered in his chest. He’d never seen anything like it.

The child’s head was down. The image looked incredibly real. He couldn’t look away from the shattered patch of skull. Thomas realized he was shivering harder than ever. His eyes burned and he rubbed at them. It was only a special effect. It had to be. Percy had taken the picture of the child, all done up like that, and the app just revealed it inserted into wherever you were, a sort of augmented reality thing. Chilling, effective, but that’s all it was. Horrifying, really.

Then the child shuddered.

Thomas froze, his eyes fixed on the screen. He must have imagined it. Then the child’s hands twitched. They released their grip and the knees lowered. Thomas pressed a fist to his mouth.

The child’s head was coming up and soon he would be able to see the child’s face. He so, so, so didn’t want to see that! Thomas looked away from the iPad, looked beneath the tree and there wasn’t anything there – but on the screen the child kept looking up.

Pale eyes with no iris, streaked with broken blood vessels looked straight at him through the iPad.

Thomas staggered back. He looked away from the iPad and then back at the screen.

The boy was standing, looking at him.

“No,” Thomas moaned.

Percy laughed between his feet and started to sob.

The child took a step forward. His mouth opened and there was nothing but blackness inside. From the iPad speaker came a sound like a wind blowing through a pipe. A moaning, crying noise that grabbed Thomas’ heart. His chest hurt.

Thomas’ stomach tightened and he felt like he was going to be sick. He threw the iPad away from him. It hit the back of the couch and flipped over onto the seat.

The windy, moaning noise continued coming out of the iPad speaker.

Thomas stumbled back into the foyer. His light splashed across the stairs and found Percy looking not too different from the boy. His eyes were streaked with red blood vessels already.

“Took a look!” Percy giggled. “Now you’re hooked!”

Thomas swallowed and managed to clear his throat. “What did you do?”

“Exposed the truth! Ripped back the veil! Answered the question we always wondered about!” Percy rocked back and forth. “You can’t take it back. Can’t.”

The noise kept coming from the iPad and it sounded louder. “What do you mean?”

Percy looked right at him with red-rimmed eyes. “You took a look.” Percy licked cracked lips. “It looked back!”

Percy clenched his teeth and his breath hissed in and out as his whole body shook in a convulsion that threw him back on the stairs.

Thomas ran to his bike. He yanked it around and pulled the door open. Seconds later he was outside, standing on the pedals as he rode away as fast as he could. Cold, cold wind bit into his fingers, his toes and face but he hardly noticed. There was a deeper chill that seemed to have sunk right down into his core.

Careening into the frozen night Thomas feared he could never ride fast enough. And he couldn’t help but wonder, had Percy uploaded the app to the App store?

It didn’t take long before his extremities grew numb and his legs felt like wood. He was miles down the trail when he saw the benches beside a trail marker. It looked like a good place to stop. Get some sleep.

The next morning a runner found Thomas, frozen, on the bench. Death by exposure, but exposure to what? And he was only the first.

 

4,318 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 42nd weekly short story release, written in January 2012, so just about three years ago. It appeared in Exposed Monthly, the monthly magazine I was releasing at the time. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. 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 also serializing a novel, Europan Holiday, now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my horror story The Caretaker.

Podcast #10 This Book is Haunted

This Book is HauntedI’ve been working on a lot of different projects, and I’ll be talking about that more next week. Today I’m posting a podcast of my short story “This Book is Haunted.

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Waking Dead Things

Waking Dead Things

 

The first novel in the Dead Things series, Waking Dead Things, is now available. Previously published as written by “Tennessee Hicks”, I’m excited to get this new edition out, leading up to the release of the next two books in the weeks ahead.

Ravyn Washington.

Ordinary high school teen worried about getting her driver’s license, dates and passing classes. Oh, and dead things.

Sometimes dead things wake up. It happened to her Nana, branded witch and necromancer by the Inquisition. Now Inquisitor Lockwood shows up in town, checking if Ravyn inherited the curse.

And dead things wake up. If Lockwood finds out, Ravyn could burn.

New story relaunch: This Book is Haunted

This Book is HauntedAnother story live today, This Book is Haunted, previously published as written by “R.M. Haag”, now available at Glittering Throng Press.

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.