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.

Stay Extended

Darkness engulfs the shitty Park Vista Hotel, trapping guests inside with no power. Ben, a touring cyclist looking for a night in a bed, regrets not pushing on to the campground.

Three days trapped in the concrete hotel. Three days with that prick Carver appearing out of the darkness to demand a volunteer before feeding the trapped guests.

Ben seeks answers. A way out. An explanation for the darkness, for Carver. Answers that change everything.

A story of things that do more than go bump in the night.

💀

Ben joined the rest of the guests in the Park Vista Hotel lobby to hear what that prick Carver had to say today. Walking down the stairs in the dark all he could think was how much he hated this massive concrete silo. Why design it to look out into this massive empty space and then do nothing with the space? At least with the power out he didn’t have to ride the elevator and look at it, but he remembered the dull gray space. A dozen or so brightly colored kites hanging from the different levels would make the whole thing much more cheerful. At least it would give guests something to look at when they rode the glass-walled elevator, instead of the few fake plants and brown furniture waiting at the bottom.

Ben pushed open the door and walked out into the dark corridor. He knew the way now so well there was no need to use the flashlight he carried in his pocket. Lights flashed around on the walls from the flashlights the guests held. One hit his eyes, causing him to wince.

He heard raised voices from the crowd and picked up his pace.

Cole Petersen, a gray-haired overweight golfer from somewhere in the mid-West shook his pudgy finger at Carver. “You can’t keep fucking doing this!”

Carver didn’t budge. He didn’t even blink. Ben slid into the crowd, nodded to Tuyet who was rubbing her hands together nervously, and made his way closer. Carver looked unchanged since the first day when this all started. About five six, thin, probably no more than a hundred and thirty pounds. He had these sunken eyes that all the same looked very bright and a narrow nose. He wore the same perfectly pressed blue suit as the first day too.

Carver smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “It’s very simple. One person submits to the blood test and then you all get to eat. It’s just a blood test. I only need one. And then you eat.”

Carver gestured at the tables behind him. Bracketed by two bright Coleman lanterns were at least a dozen pizza boxes. Now that Ben saw them he realized that he could smell pepperoni and sausage. His stomach growled. Nothing since the leftovers he ate this morning and that was with rationing. Some of these people probably hadn’t eaten since yesterday.

Ben raised his hand. “I’ll do it.”

Sweet old Sara Thompson reached out with one liver-spotted hand. “But you did it already, Ben.”

Carver snapped his fingers. “And so right you are, Mrs. Thompson. Sorry Benny, one to a customer. I need a new volunteer. One who hasn’t been tested before? The pizzas aren’t going to stay hot forever. Pepperoni, sausage and Canadian bacon for the meat lovers among you, and some vegetarian selections for the sheep. Even a couple plain cheese for anyone that has had enough excitement already. Alright? Who is it going to be?”

“I’ll do it!” That came from one of the guests Ben didn’t know well. Mary? No, Margaret. Something like that. She was short and stocky. She stepped forward and pushed up her glasses. “Let’s get it over with.”

Carver turned sideways and gestured back at the reception desk. “If you’ll just come with me to the office, miss?”

“Marlene Carlton.”

“Ms. Carlton, thank you so much for your assistance. I’ll send you back out with the others soon enough.” Carver followed her around the tables. “The rest of you? Enjoy!”

Cole made it to the table first and snatched an entire pizza box off the tables. Ben turned to Mrs. Thompson. “Why don’t you have a seat here? I’ll bring you some food.”

“Thank you Ben, you’re so kind.” He held her hand as fragile as twigs as she sat down.

As soon as she was safe he made his way quickly to the tables where people were starting to crowd around. Cole reached for an entire bottle of soda but Ben put his hand on it first.

“There’s plenty of food if we share,” he said loudly.

Cole’s chubby face flushed.

“Cole’s going to help serve everyone, right?”

Ben took the pizza box from Cole’s hands and put it back on the table. Everyone had stopped and was watching. “I’ll help. Let’s form an orderly line and we’ll all get through in moments. Okay?”

Cole looked around at everyone watching. He opened his mouth and closed it again.

“Great! Cole, thanks for giving me hand.”

Ben walked around the table. He put down the pizza box and opened the top. Supreme, with peppers and olives. The smell caused his stomach to rumble louder. he ignored it. Cole joined him at the other table. They opened all of the boxes and the rest of the guests formed a line. It went quickly then. They picked up paper plates and Ben and Cole served out the slices and poured the sodas into the paper cups Carver had provided. When a box was emptied they moved it down to the floor beneath the tables.

When Tuyet reached the line Ben handed her a second plate. “Can you take a plate over to Mrs. Thompson and come back for the drinks?”

“Yes, of course.”

Ben put three slices on each plate. Mrs. Thompson wouldn’t eat so much in one sitting but she could save it for later. Cole noticed and scowled but he didn’t say anything. Just as Ben had said, they got everyone through in short order. Marlene, he would remember it now, came back just as they were finishing the last guest. Ben handed her a plate. She had a bit of a gauze pad tapped with blue tape to inside her elbow.

“How’d it go?” Ben asked.

Marlene wrinkled her lip. “It hurt! I think he did it on purpose. I saw him smiling about it. Is there any supreme left?”

Ben gave her the last two slices and added the last pepperoni as well. “You need to get your iron up.”

After she left Ben picked up a plate and handed it to Cole. “Take your pick.”

Vegetarian or cheese, that’s all that was left. Cole looked at both, scowling and finally grabbed the last three slices of cheese pizza. He poured the last root beer into a cup and stomped off. Ben tried not to chuckle as he happily piled the four remaining vegetarian slices on his plate and picked up a two-liter Coke bottle with a little left at the bottom. Later he’d take the empties and fill them with water.

He carried the plate over to the coffee table where Tuyet was keeping Mrs. Thompson company and tried not to pay attention to blackness covering the Park Vista’s front doors. He should be able to see out towards the Great Smokey Mountains but there was nothing out there. Literally nothing. The first day they all must have gone out on the balconies thinking that someone had pulled a prank and painted their windows black during the night. But the blackness wasn’t paint, but it did envelop the hotel.

And yet somehow Carver managed to have fresh hot pizza for them.

“There’s Ben,” Mrs. Thompson said. She pushed the paper plate with two remaining slices an inch across the coffee table. “Dear boy, this young girl brought me too much. I can’t possibly eat all that!”

Ben nudged her plate back. “You’ll want to save those for later Mrs. Thompson. Our Mr. Carver hasn’t been bringing us three square meals. You might get hungry.”

Mrs. Thompson curled her lip and waved her hand, as if shooing off a fly. “That Mr. Carver is a sadistic prick!”

Tuyet coughed on her food. Ben handed her a napkin. “Are you okay?”

She nodded quickly.

“I don’t disagree, Mrs. Thompson, but that doesn’t change the fact that we don’t know for sure when our next meal will come.”

Mrs. Thompson looked past him at Cole. “No. You never do know.”

Hard to believe they’d only been in this situation four days. Sometimes it seemed like hours. And yet each day Mr. Carver only wanted one person to donate blood for whatever tests it was that he was doing. As for the man himself, no one saw him come or go.

Ben bit into a slice of pizza and looked around. No sign of Carver at all. He put the piece back down on his plate and stood up. Tuyet looked up at him with wide eyes.

“Where are you going?”

“I want to check something out. Keep an eye on my plate for me, okay?”

“Of course.”

Ben walked away from the table towards the reception desk. Behind him he heard Mrs. Thompson’s voice, louder than she probably realized.

“Such a good-looking young man, don’t you think, dear? Are you married? You should be so lucky as to get someone like him.”

Ben grinned. Mrs. Thompson sure spoke her mind. He loved her for it too, but he worried about her in their current situation. No power, cut off from everything, what if something happened?

Past the modest reception desk was a door marked, “Staff Only.” Ben had been back once already, when Carver conducted his blood test. Maybe now would be a good time to get answers. Ben picked up one of the Coleman lanterns from the food tables on his way. He shoved the door open and went inside. A narrow hallway with vertigo-inducing stripped wallpaper, faded now with age. A grim sort of place with no expense spent to make the staff feel more comfortable. His lantern light barely lit the long hallway. If Carver was back here he didn’t have a lantern on.

Ben walked past the door to the reception desk to the next door on his right, the manager’s office. That’s where Carver had been doing the blood tests. The dark brown door was open and no light was coming from inside. Ben edged the door open and lifted the light high.

“Mr. Carver? It’s Ben Paulson. Are you in there?”

Inside the same boring office he’d seen on his first trip back here with Carver. Nothing but unattractive beige filing cabinets on one wall, a fake wood desk with a dusty computer taking up most of the room. Piles of paper had claimed the rest of the desk except on one side. Those papers lay scattered on the floor behind the desk and in their place was a box of gauze and blue tape. Nothing else to indicate Carver had even been here.

So where had Carver gone? He had to have a back way out. Maybe a way that they could take advantage of if they found it. Ben turned around and a bright light shone in his face. He could just see someone behind the light, holding the lantern. Ben raised his hand.

“Mr. Carver?”

“Think again asshole.”

Ben recognized the voice. Cole fucking Petersen. The last thing he needed right now. Ben kept his tone even.

“Did you see Carver when you came in?”

Cole swung the lantern at Ben’s head. Ben turned away barely in time. Even so the heavy base caught his shoulder. The pain was sharp and immediate. He stumbled away from Cole and collided with one of the chairs, dropping his own lantern on the floor.

“Asshole, think you can order me around!”

Cole brought the lantern swinging down at Ben’s head. Ben’s hands tightened on the arm of the chair and he swung it up. The thin, curved metal legs caught Cole’s arm and the lantern and knocked them aside.

Cole grunted and charged.

Ben thrust the chair at him. The legs caught Cole in the ribs. The man bellowed and the force shoved Ben back towards the wall. Cole grabbed the chair and pushed towards Ben. Ben resisted just for a moment then he let go and stepped quickly to the side.

Cole, off balance, crashed forward and landed on the chair. He groaned and started getting up. Ben waited until Cole shakily regained his feet and then sent a sharp right into Cole’s face. Like hitting bread dough on the counter. Two more quick jabs and Cole dropped. He fell on his side.

Ben shook his hand. What now? Tie the man up? Leave him to try it again? Maybe he wouldn’t.

Ben left the office and pulled the door closed behind him. He took both lanterns with him. Let Cole blunder around in the dark for a while. Maybe he’d remember who the real enemy was.

The others would need one of the lanterns. Ben went back out to the lobby. Heads turned when he came out, groups clustered around the flashlights that Carver had passed out the first day. People whispered to one another. They must have seen Cole go in and hadn’t done anything about it. And now Ben comes out with both lanterns. There’d be lots of talk now. Ben replaced the lantern on the table. Tuyet waved to him.

“Are you okay?” she asked when he reached their chairs.

“Fine.”

Her eyes turned past him back to the “Staff Only” door. “Cole?”

“He’s taking a nap.” Ben shook his head. “We’ve got to find out what’s going on here and we can’t have people like Peterson creating trouble. I need to go back. Have you seen Carver?”

“No.”

“Such a nasty man,” Mrs. Thompson commented. “I don’t like him.”

“Yeah, I don’t like him either,” Ben said. “But right now he’s our only connection to what is going on here. I’m going to go back and see if I can find out how he’s coming and going.”

Back through the door into that unappealing hallway. He paused at the office door and checked on Cole. Still out, but breathing with a slight snore. Bruises already forming on his cheek. Ben left him. Nothing he could do for the man right now.

Down the hallway. The light chased away the darkness as he moved forward. More rooms. Doors to the kitchens, storage rooms and a staff lounge. All disturbingly quiet. Ben hesitated and went into the kitchen. There could be food. He went to the big refrigerator and pulled open the door. Even though he knew the power was out it still surprised him when the light didn’t come on. Ingrained habits.

Nothing inside. Bare racks and a faint smell of mold and cleansers as if someone had cleaned it out quickly without getting down into all the corners. He shut it and looked around. Another door open to what must have been a dry goods pantry. Nothing there. Not even toilet paper.

It would have surprised him if Carver had left anything back here for them. The bastard must have cleaned it all out before starting his little blood test experiments. Couldn’t have them running to the kitchen for meals, could he?

Ben leaned back against the counter. So nothing. Vending machines empty. No power anywhere. Fortunately the water worked but nothing else. And nothing but blackness outside. It was so dark in here that the lantern only made a small pool of light. Hardly seemed any different than the stuff outside.

Except the darkness outside never went away. It didn’t have substance. It didn’t even prevent anyone from going out into it.

Three days ago. People still didn’t have a clue what was going on. Carver had shown up with sub sandwiches that day. Asked for a volunteer to give blood and then they could have the food.

Thinking back, the thing that struck Ben as the strangest about it all was that no one threatened Carver. A small man with his oddly bright but sunken eyes and that perfectly pressed blue suit. A lightweight. The sort of guy that men like Peterson delighted in picking on. Outnumbered by all of the guests but not one of them threatened Carver. Ben had felt it when he stepped forward and looked into Carver’ eyes. There was an emptiness there that said, that said, Ben rubbed his eyes thinking,

Go right ahead bucko, and see what it gets ya.

And more than that, something else. In Carver’ pocket. He played with it. His fingers fondling the cool metal switch. A switchblade.

Ben’s head snapped up. A switchblade in Carver’ pocket. That’s what he had. No reason that Ben should know it but he didn’t doubt what his gut told him. Good ol’ Carver carried a six-inch switchblade and in days past he liked to cut on people with that blade.

“Lost, Benny? Maybe you ought to get back on to the others.” Carver stood leaning against the pantry door frame as if he’d been there all the time.

Except Ben knew that Carver hadn’t been there. The pantry had been empty and Ben had closed the door after he checked. Regardless, Carver stood there now watching him.

Ben stood his ground. “How long is this going to go on? How much longer are you going to keep us here?”

Carver shook his head. “Benny, you’ve been tested already. My advice? Go back to your room. Stay there until my work here is done.”

“That’s it?”

Carver spread his empty hands.

“Great. Fucking great.” Ben clenched his fists. He wasn’t a cowardly man, but he also wasn’t the sort that started fights. As strange as everything was he couldn’t just go after the guy.

Ben forced his fingers open and walked away trying to tell himself that he wasn’t a coward. That he was doing the right thing and that he wasn’t — snick — afraid that Carver would pull out a switchblade kept sharp and cleaned many times.

Passing the office Ben checked on Cole, but the office was empty. Ben went on out to the lobby again. He carried the lantern over to the table where Tuyet and Mrs. Thompson were waiting. He put the lantern on the table and dropped heavily into his chair. He rubbed his eyes.

“Are you okay?” Tuyet asked.

He looked up and forced a smile. “Fine.” He thought about telling them about his run in with Carver and decided against it. His stomach growled. “Just tired. And hungry.”

Ben snagged a slice of pizza from his plate. Only lukewarm now but he didn’t care. It still smelled of garlic and cheese and tasted great when he bit into it.

Mrs. Thompson hadn’t touched her pizza.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” he asked.

Mrs. Thompson shook one brown-spotted hand. “I’m not hungry now. Maybe later. I think I’ll go to my room and rest.”

Tuyet stood and offered Mrs. Thompson a hand. Mrs. Thompson accepted her help and slowly rose. Tuyet picked up Mrs. Thompson’s plate. “Here, I’ll help you.”

“Thank you dear, you’re so sweet. Both of you, absolutely delicious.”

“You’re sure you’re okay?” Ben asked.

“Fine, dear boy. I just need to rest.”

“Okay. Be sure you drink plenty of water.”

Mrs. Thompson’s thin lips spread in a smile. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll get plenty to drink.”

Ben watched them walk away across the darkened lobby towards the stairs. Then he turned his attention back to the food. He finished the slice he’d been working on, enjoying the rich onion and garlic flavor, and eyed the remaining three slices. Best save them. Eat one later and then he’d have two for tomorrow. With nothing to wrap them up he didn’t think they’d last longer than that.

He picked up the plate and the Coke bottle and headed for his own room. After he safely stashed the food and filled the Coke bottle he’d come back for the other empties and fill them too. He didn’t have any bleach to sanitize the bottles but they could rotate them out. So far water hadn’t been a problem but he wasn’t counting on it lasting any more than all the food in the hotel kitchens had lasted. Carver had to be behind cleaning the place out. If it served his purpose he’d probably turn off the water too.

Maybe Carver would if he didn’t get what he wanted. Ben thought about the switchblade again. He could imagine Carver cleaning blood from the gleaming silver blade — silver? Ben shook his head. He was just making things up. He couldn’t know for sure if any of this was real or all in his head. He might have imagined the switchblade.

Except it felt real. It felt true. He couldn’t explain how he knew, but then he also couldn’t explain the darkness that had engulfed this monstrous, soulless hotel.

As he came out of the stairwell on his floor he could see light from down below. A few people were still hanging out in the lobby. Little pools of light from their flashlights. Wasting batteries so that they could see each other’s faces. Three had taken the chairs around the lantern he had left behind. Anything to get away from the ever-present darkness.

Ben still didn’t take his flashlight out when he headed back towards his room. In the hallway he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face but he knew the way and his hands were full with the plate and Coke bottle. He stopped when he had counted out enough steps. He put down the bottle and took out the flashlight and clicked it on.

There was his door. Room 413 in this shit hotel. He put the plate down too and pulled open the door. With the power off the electronic locks didn’t work. At least they hadn’t been locked in, probably some fire regulation. He pushed the door open and held it with his foot while he picked up the plate and managed to hook a finger around the bottle so he could carry both inside. Once in he turned immediately to the right and put both down on the counter beside the bathroom sink. Then he went back to the door and flipped the security bar.

Ben hated the room. If there was any other way to strip a room of personality and charm, he couldn’t imagine it. The room was functional but it lacked anything of interest. A bed, a small desk and a television on a stand. One abstract painting on the wall done in nothing but orange and green that looked like some sort of sore. The darkness was the best thing that ever happened to the room. If he only saw it through the small, dim circle of the flashlight then it didn’t seem quite as bad.

The light caught his red reflectors on his Street Machine recumbent bike where he’d leaned it against the wall. Not for the first time he wished he had pushed on to the campground instead of deciding to splurge and stay the night in this concrete death trap.

He crossed the room to the sliding glass door and unlatched it. He slid it open and walked out onto the balcony. Nothing more than a three-foot deep concrete balcony that ended in a waist-high concrete wall that had a square metal railing running around the top. The air outside felt just as it did inside, warm and humid. The flashlight illuminated the faint circle in front of him and then nothing beyond.

It was quiet. Quieter than anyplace Ben had ever been before and darker. No glow reflecting off of clouds from the city that should be at the bottom of the hill. No lights at all except for his weakening flashlight. He might as well be suspended in a void with only the small piece of the balcony remaining. It didn’t even induce vertigo because there was nothing below to see.

Ben turned around and the flashlight pulled the sliding glass door and his room out of the darkness. He went inside to the nightstand and took out the Bible there. Then he carried the book out to the balcony and set it on the concrete wall. He carefully place the flashlight on the wall to illuminate the book, then he flipped it open at random.

1 Samuel 23.16. Ben ripped the page from the Bible. He worked quickly and folded the thin paper into a long narrow paper airplane. Then he picked up the airplane, and his flashlight. He threw the airplane off the balcony and kept the light on it. For a couple seconds the airplane hung suspended against the darkness. Then it vanished.

Ben put the flashlight down and flipped to another section. Ecclesiastes 10.10. He ripped the page and folded another. This second one he threw at an angle downward. It flew straight but when it got about four feet away from the building it too vanished in the darkness.

Ben closed the Bible and shut off the flashlight. Everything vanished around him except for what he could feel beneath his feet and in his hands. The edge looked clearly defined. It surrounded the core part of the building but that meant the sections of the base that extended outwards from the central core were cut off. What happened beyond the darkness? After what had happened that first day Ben hadn’t dared test it.

There’d been a man, Ted Wright. Young guy, in shape. Neatly dressed. He kept cracking dentist jokes to calm everyone down. He had volunteered to go out before Carver showed up. Walked off into the darkness and never came back. Peterson had been one that had argued that it must mean Ted got out, but Peterson hadn’t volunteered to follow him.

Ben knew it in his gut. Wise-cracking Teddy was as gone as those paper airplanes. Maybe Carver could bring him back out of it but — snick! — he wouldn’t.

By feel alone Ben walked back into his room, shut the door and returned the Bible to the nightstand. He sat down on the bed. Tomorrow he’d do some more experimenting. They needed to map the boundary, mark it somehow so that they could monitor any changes. It was better than sitting around doing nothing while Carver tested them one-by-one.

 

#

 

Morning. If it could be called morning when Ben couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, but his alarm had woken him up to a breakfast of pizza and water. Now he was on his way downstairs to check the boundaries of their dark prison. He left the flashlight off to conserve the batteries and made his out to the balcony overlooking the center of the hotel. Nothing but darkness. Everyone was probably still in bed. That suited him. Especially if Peterson stayed up in his room. That’d be great.

He walked along the balcony with his hand grazing the concrete wall until it ended at the elevators. They’d been lucky that no one had gotten stuck inside. He crossed the hallway to the stairs and pushed the heavy door open. It banged shut behind him, the echoes fading out in the dark.

Ben started down, thinking not for the first time, that this must be what it was like to be blind. No light whatsoever. Nothing but absolute blackness that could be hiding anything. Carver could be standing right there in the dark and Ben had a feeling that Carver didn’t mind the dark at all. Ben listened carefully but didn’t hear anything that suggested anyone else was in the stairwell with him. He took his time going down with one hand on the stairwell rail the whole way.

At the bottom Ben headed out into the main lobby. He wanted something to mark the boundary. Masking tape would be good. He flicked on the flashlight a couple times to stay on track for the front desk. He shoved the door open and made his way behind the desk. Cupboards beneath the desk hung open. Papers and other supplies lay scattered about. He hadn’t been the first to poke around back here.

He didn’t find any masking tape but he did discover a package of small yellow Post-It note pads. Those would do the trick. He stuffed them in his pocket and headed back out to the front of the lobby, keeping his flashlight on. He wanted to do this quickly. He walked out past the first set of open doors into the main foyer past the brochure rack of local attractions and the newspaper machines that still had papers from almost a week ago.

His flashlight couldn’t illuminate the doors to the outside. The light vanished as if swallowed by a black hole. He ran the dim circle along the floor until the darkness cut across it, sharp-edge and unyielding.

Holding the light on that point Ben walked right up to the darkness. He crouched and set the flashlight on the ground so that a long beam illuminated the edge between the hotel and whatever the blackness was that had engulfed them. He peeled Post-It notes off the first pad and placed them on the floor right up against that darkness. His knuckles grazed the boundary line and he felt a deep cold but no substance.

Ben used a half-dozen notes to mark this segment and then he rocked back on his heels. Cautiously he reached out with just his fingertips to try the barrier. Cold, but not unbearably so. No resistance to his touch. He pulled his hand back and his fingertips were unharmed. So what had happened to Ted Wright? Could he have gotten through? But if he had, why hadn’t anyone come to help?

Ben picked up the flashlight and stood. No way to know but he wasn’t going to try the darkness, not just yet anyway.

Instead Ben worked his way along the barrier, placing Post-It notes every few inches. The way the light cut off even though there wasn’t anything solid was unnerving. He stuck notes all along the boundary line across the lobby from one wall to the next and then stood back to survey his work. The arc was gentle, but obvious, as if a wall of darkness had gone up around the hotel.

He went back into the hotel and headed over towards the gift shop. He walked past empty candy shelves — guests or Carver? — and aimed the flashlight at the back corners. No wall of darkness interrupted the beam. Evidently the gift shop didn’t extend back far enough to intersect with the wall.

Next he tried the staff only corridor again. The place was empty and silent. He walked back towards the kitchens and staff lounge. Once again he felt as if there were silent people watching him from the darkness. Ben turned in a circle but the flashlight only showed the worn, dull brown wallpaper. Nothing else.

Just past the staff lounge the flashlight’s beam was cut off by the wall of darkness. Ben walked up close, put the flashlight down on the floor and used the Post-It notes again to mark the boundary. He played the flashlight along the dividing line on the wall. The darkness, whatever it was, bisected the entire hallway. He stuck a couple more Post-Its on the wall to mark the line there. Then he picked up the flashlight and turned it off.

The darkness was absolute. He could hear his own breathing. Ben took a breath and held it as he listened for any other sounds. Nothing. Pressing in all around him, an unnatural absence of everything. He reached out his arm towards the wall and was rewarded by his fingers touching that numbing cold. It had no substance but there was something there.

Ben imagined bone-white gnarled hands grabbing his own hand and pulling him into that cold dark. He jerked his hand away and rubbed the fingertips on his pants.

He resisted the urge to turn on the flashlight and instead turned away from the barrier and walked blindly down the hall back towards the main lobby.

Lights flashed across the lobby into his face as he emerged. A young family, father, mother and a small boy stood across the lobby. He’d seen them before, in line for food. The boy had dark hair and grinned as he pointed the light at Ben.

“That’s not him,” the mother murmured.

Ben shielded his eyes with his hand. “Good morning.”

The father coughed. “We thought maybe mister Carver —”

“I haven’t seen him.” Ben clicked his own light off. “I’m Ben. You are?”

“Matt and Trina Parker.” Matt touched his son’s head. “This is Connor.”

“What are you doing?” Trina asked.

“Looking around to see if we’ve missed anything.”

“You mean a way out?” Matt looked at his wife and back to Ben. “I could help.”

Ben shook his head. “Best you all wait in your room. If I find anything I’ll let you all know.”

Matt shook his head. “No. I’ll come with you. Trina, take Matt back to the room.”

“What?” Trina lowered her voice. “But Matt, it’s so —”

“We’ll be fine. No sense all of us blundering around in the dark.”

Ben waited. Trina sighed and took Connor’s hand. “Fine. We’ll go back.”

Connor tried to pull away. “No! A want to go with them!”

Ben shook his head. Matt touched his son’s shoulder. “Listen, go to the room and look after things there, okay?”

Connor looked at Ben and back at Matt. “But—”

“Connor.”

“Fine.”

Trina leaned close and kissed Matt’s cheek. “Be careful.”

“Go on now.”

They walked away, slowly. Matt turned back to Ben. “Now what?”

“I’ve already marked the line across the lobby and down the hall in the staff area back there. I was going to go into the restaurant next. I think it might extend out far enough. Then the conference areas.”

“How are you marking it?”

Ben held up the package of Post It notes.

“Oh, okay. What will that tell us?”

Ben shrugged. “Maybe nothing. It might help someone avoid walking into it. And it’ll give us an idea if the line moves.”

“You think it’ll move?”

“I don’t know but it feels like a noose around this hell hole and the thing about a noose? It tightens.”

“Right.” Matt twitched his light back towards the restaurant. “After you?”

Ben headed for the restaurant. He didn’t turn on his flashlight. Matt’s looked brighter, the batteries would probably last longer. Matt walked beside him. He flashed the light up into the silo. Ben caught a glimpse of a white face looking down from the balcony four floors up. Whoever it was pulled back before he could recognize who it was.

“Keep the light on the floor,” Ben said. “We want to see the edge when we reach it.”

“Right. Okay.” Matt pointed the flashlight at the floor. Dark brown carpet in this section around the chairs. “Why did you come here?”

“The park,” Ben answered. “I’ve on a cross-country bicycle tour. Just made the bad mistake of deciding to stay in a hotel one night.”

“That sucks.”

“Yeah.” That’s what Ben had thought the moment he walked into the hotel. Three things had convinced him to stay. First, no one told him he couldn’t bring in his bike. Second, it was already getting dark outside and he had put in a lot of miles already. Twenty more in the dark seemed too much. Plus he’d already climbed the hill to the hotel. And last, the prospect of a hot shower. Big mistake.

They left the carpeted area for the fake marble floors and the restaurant was just ahead. The sign board out front still proclaimed the grilled salmon special. The darkness swallowed everything else.

“Slowly,” Ben said. “Let’s not walk into whatever it is around the hotel.”

Together they moved into the restaurant, both of them watching the circle of light on the dark floors. They walked past the cash register and the bar deeper into the restaurant. Ben remembered seeing seating back under the windows. It seemed like the restaurant must stick far enough out to intersect the darkness surrounding the place.

Sure enough, right before the step up at the back, a line of darkness cut a sharp edge across the circle of light.

“Wow.” Matt moved the circle further across the line and back. “Look at that! What happens to the light? How can it just stop like that?”

“I don’t know.” Ben pulled out the Post It notes. “Hold the light still while I mark the boundary.”

The light steadied. “Sure. Okay. That’s just weird.”

Ben crouched down at the edge of the circle of light. He extended his hand out to that sharp edge and felt the cold on his fingertips. He pulled his hand back.

“What’s it feel like?”

“Nothing. It doesn’t feel like anything except cold.” Ben peeled off a Post It note and stuck it right down at the boundary line.

“That’s a good idea,” Matt said.

“Maybe.” Ben added another. “It might help as long as the batteries last in the flashlights. After that, not so much.”

“But —”

Matt’s words cut off in a yelp. The flashlight flipped away across the restaurant, hit a table and bounced off to the floor. The light flashed across Ben’s eyes. Very aware of the barrier only inches away he pulled out his own flashlight.

Matt screamed. He heard Matt or someone crash into some chairs. Ben aimed the light towards the noise. He saw Matt’s terrified face, very pale in the light. Someone with frizzy white hair clung to his back. Then they stumbled out of the light.

Ben rose and headed towards the sound, trying to catch them in the light. Matt screamed more. Ben found him with the light and saw that the person on Matt’s back appeared to be biting his neck. Bright red blood spread down Matt’s blue shirt. Once again whoever had Matt jerked him out of the light. Ben went after them.

Ben heard a grunt and then a thud, like someone falling. His light found Matt face down on the floor. Mrs. Thompson stood beside him in the shadows with blood covering her chin. She grinned at him and ran her hands up her sides suggestively.

“Ben, dear boy. Will you help me carry this —” she kicked Matt “— up to my room?”

A deep biting chill touched Ben’s back. He turned the flashlight away from the horrific image back towards the barrier and his arm swept into that deadly chill. The light vanished, including Matt’s dropped flashlight. He lurched away from the cold and his light returned. He heard a snarl from Mrs. Thompson but before he could get the light on her the cold hit him again.

It was moving!

Ben backed away and aimed the flashlight at the floor. The line advanced steadily. He walked backwards and the light kept pace with him. He reached Matt and reached down to check on the man.

A polished black shoe and perfectly pressed blue suit leg emerged from the darkness, followed by the rest of Carver. He walked out of the barrier and looked down at Ben.

“Leave him, Benny. He’s gone. Who did it?”

Ben slowly rose. “Mrs. Thompson. What is she?”

“My problem.” A brief smile flitted across Sander’s face. His hand slid into his pocket and came back out holding something. Snick. A bright silver switchblade popped up. “Now that I know who it is I’ll take care of it.”

The line continued to advance and Carver walked forward at the same pace. Ben held his ground.

“That’s what all of this has been about? Finding her?”

Carver looked out into the darkness. “Of course. Contain, identify.” Carver grinned. “And remove.”

And then Carver disappeared into the darkness. Ben tried to follow him with the light but the man moved too fast. A second later the barrier touched Ben’s back again and he hurried forward. He ran past Matt’s body, sorry he couldn’t do anything for him, and left the restaurant. From above he heard a man shout and swear as if surprised. The cold darkness was closing in on the building. By now it must be intersecting with the rooms.

Flashlights flickered to life above like so many fireflies in the night. The lights danced around the concrete walls. Voices were raised and the hotel echoed with the sound. The smell of Matt’s blood clung to Ben and when he pointed his flashlight down he saw that he was leaving bloody footprints. He must have walked through Matt’s blood.

Ben heard more shouts and saw people pointing their lights up the central shaft. Several floors up the lights cut off. The darkness descended at the same rate it advanced inward. People started screaming and running along the balconies towards the stairwells.

“Stay calm!” Ben shouted. “Don’t panic!”

No one heard him over the din. He saw a middle-aged woman with brightly dyed red hair trip and fall. Up on the floor right below the approaching darkness a balding man climbed over the balcony and appeared to be trying to reach the next floor. He let go. Fell towards the next balcony and his hands bounced off. He screamed and tumbled as he fell eight floors down until he landed with an audible crack across the back of one of the chairs.

Ben clenched his fists. Carver. That prick Carver was behind it all of this. Okay, so Mrs. Thompson was some sort of vampire, but trapping them all here? Obviously Carver didn’t care who got hurt in the process.

“Ben!”

Ben looked up and saw Tuyet three floors up struggling through the panicking guests.

“Hold on! Let them go past!”

Tuyet clung to the balcony as others shoved past her. Ben started towards the stairwell but people poured out into the lobby. He backed up and looked for Mrs. Thompson. He didn’t see her. Those coming down saw the body of the man who fell and backed away. Several people were crying.

Above he saw Tuyet moving now towards the stairs. He shoved his way through the thinning crowd towards the stairs. He met Tuyet there when she came down and pulled her aside.

“Are you okay?”

She wrapped her arms around him, her body thin and light. She smelled faintly of apple. She nodded against his shoulder. She drew back and ducked her head.

“Sorry.”

He squeezed her hand gently. “Don’t be. Are you okay?”

“Yes. What’s going on?”

Ben held onto her hand and led her out into the lobby. With so many using their flashlights he turned his off and stuffed it in his pocket. Several people had their lights pointed up at the balconies as they watched the impenetrable darkness descend.

“Carver’s barrier is closing in on us. He’s looking for Mrs. Thompson. Have you seen her?”

Tuyet shook her head. “Wait, Carver is doing this? Why is he looking for Mrs. Thompson?”

“She’s not what she seems. I saw her kill a man.”

Tuyet covered her mouth.

Just then a scream cut through the babble of the guests. More people started screaming and running away from the other side of the lobby. Lights flashed in Ben’s eyes. A man ran right at him. Ben braced himself so that the man hit his shoulder and bounced off. The guy staggered and ran around Ben.

“Stay here,” Ben said to Tuyet.

He plunged into the crowd, shoving his way through as people backed away from something. When he got through all he saw was another body, a woman in a auburn dress, lying on the ground with a bloodied throat. He saw Marlene standing at the edge of the crowd, pointing a flashlight out into the darkness beyond the body.

“What happened?” Ben asked. Tuyet came up behind him and touched his shoulder.

“The old woman. She attacked her,” Marlene said. “She’s gone crazy.”

Ben took out his own flashlight and stepped out away from the crowd. Tuyet tried to pull him back but he waved her off. Ben walked slowly towards the body with his flashlight on. Carver’s darkness hadn’t reached the lobby yet. Past the woman’s body was the opening into the conference areas. Ben aimed the light that way and caught a glimpse of something moving in the dark.

“Mrs. Thompson! It’s Ben, please talk to me.”

Laughter floated out of the darkness.

Ben walked around the body and deeper into the dark. “There’s nowhere to go. We’re all trapped here. Come out.”

Another throaty chuckle from the dark ahead. Ben hesitated. Where was Carver and his silver switchblade? What was the man going to do? Kill her? What if she had already killed Carver? But then if she did that wouldn’t it mean that the darkness would go away?

Ben walked deeper into the dark beneath the balconies, into the wide hallway. On either side were conference rooms and ahead a wide staircase that led down into more conference areas. Except Carver’ blackness cut off the stairs. A flash of white in his light drew Ben’s attention towards the conference room on his right.

The light illuminated a woman standing in the doorway. Mrs. Thompson, except her skin wasn’t wrinkled anymore and her blood-splattered dress clung to firm breasts. More blood smeared across her full lips. She was young again. She smiled at Ben and licked her lips.

“You, my dear boy, are an unexpected treat.”

Ben shivered. He didn’t have any weapon. No way to fight her. He kept the light on her. “If we stop Carver will the darkness go away?”

She tilted her head to the side. “You’d help me?”

Carver stepped forward out of the dark conference room behind her. Mrs. Thompson gasped and her back arched, thrusting her chest forward. She screamed and spun around. Her hand lashed out, long nails ripping out Carver’ throat. He blinked and dropped to his knees.

Carver’ silver switchblade stuck out of her back. Ben ran forward and grabbed the knife.

It felt like ice burning his hand. He yanked it free. Mrs. Thompson turned around but he was ready for it and ducked beneath her swing. He rose up and plunged the knife up beneath her breast bone, seeking her heart. She gasped.

Ben slid his other arm around her and pulled her close. He shoved the knife up harder. She shuddered against him. Their eyes met.

“Dear boy, why?”

“Really? You have to ask?” he whispered.

She went limp in his arm, forcing the knife even deeper. Ben lowered her to the floor beside Carver’ body. He pulled the knife free. Blood covered the silver and dripped to the floor. He crouched down and used her dress to wipe the blade clean.

Then he stood and — snick — retracted the blade. He pocketed the knife.

Light flooded the hallway as the ceiling lights came on. He looked down at the floor but the bodies were gone. Not really gone, he knew. Left in the other place. Since he took up the switchblade he understood it all. Carver had shifted all of the guests into a pocket in the other place. Now they had returned and the pocket had collapsed, taking the bodies along with it. Ben walked back out into the lobby where the guests were already leaving. Some going back to their rooms but others just headed out towards the doors.

Tuyet came towards him and folded her hands together. She looked at him with big dark eyes. “What happened?”

“They’re both gone.”

She nodded. An awkward silence grew between them. Ben could say something, he knew. Make some effort but he understood Carver now. Mrs. Thompson hadn’t been the only one of these creatures. There were others out there. How could he just forget that? The switchblade gave him the ability to fight them. He knew how to walk in the darkness and shadows now.

Tuyet looked away for a second and that’s all it took for him to move into the shadows. Just enough to hide from view. She looked back and gasped. From her perspective he had vanished.

“Ben?” She looked all around, bit her lip, and then turned and walked away towards the elevators.

Ben trailed along. He’d go up to his own room, sticking to the shadows, and get his bike and gear. That’s all he needed. A way to get around, until he found another one. He had a feeling he needed to go north.

💀

8,088 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 60th weekly short story release, written in September 2010. 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 Truth-Seeker.

What Dragged in the Cat?

In this quiet suburban neighborhood, Monica Clayton runs a successful online business collecting and selling old books.

Violence shatters her peaceful life with the terrifying death of her cat, Scrunch. Something stalks her.
Toying with her. Taunting.

To survive she must uncover the secret, and answer the question.

What dragged in the cat?

💀

It all started Tuesday morning with Scrunch in the living room. His flat Persian kitty face looking back at the rest of his body with a familiar look of indignation, as if his last thought was, shit, doesn’t that beat all?

Monica couldn’t go back down there right away. She stayed on her bed with her knees tucked up against her chest, and tried to reason it out. After the first half-hour she wondered if she had simply imagined what she had seen. His body smaller without the inside parts.

Maybe it had been some laundry she left on the floor? It was early and the living room was still sort of dark. His legs scattered like sticks. Except she didn’t leave laundry around the house. She kept the place neat and clean. Blood flecks bright red on the pale carpet but not as much as she would have expected. Something else then. Or maybe nothing. Maybe she had dreamed that she woke up and went down to the living room. Long black and white fur, the softest fur, matted with blood.

Except she was dressed to meet with a seller later, she had on her makeup, and the sunlight made the loft look bright and cheery. Monica pushed her hands down against the bed. She had to go look. She got off the bed and took a shaky breath.

“You can do this,” she whispered.

Monica crossed the loft to the railing, grabbed onto the smooth wood, and looked down. She screamed.

💀

It took the police twenty minutes to arrive. Two squad cars pulled up into her driveway. Four officers got out. They all walked towards her. A big blocky woman officer took the lead.

“Ms. Clayton?”

“Yes. Monica Clayton.”

“I’m Officer Fabin. Are you okay?”

Monica let loose a strangled laugh. “Sure. Great.” She took a deep breath. “I’m okay. I had to cancel my meeting.”

“Just tell us what happened.”

It didn’t take long. There wasn’t that much to tell. When she finished the officers talked among themselves for a minute and then the other three moved off towards her house. Officer Fabin stayed with her in the yard.

“This is a nice place you have here. You live alone?”

Monica nodded.

“Boyfriend?”

“No.”

“Can I ask what you do?”

“I buy and sell rare books online.”

Officer Fabin looked around at the yard. “You must be doing okay?”

“Yes.”

“Did you notice any signs of forced entry? Did you hear anything?”

“No. There’s blood in the kitchen, and on the pet door.”

Officer Fabin talked into a mic on her shoulder for a second. “Okay. I know this is hard. Can you think of anyone that might bear a grudge against you?”

“God, no. I don’t think so.”

“Are you going to be okay if I go help the others? Do you need me to stay?”

“No.” Monica forced herself to smile. She wouldn’t fall apart. “I’ll be fine.”

The police had been inside for fifteen minutes. Monica knew because she kept checking her watch while she waited and paced the yard. The neighbor’s pug, Popeye, charged up and down in their yard on the other side of the fence. He wheezed when he barked. Popeye’s smashed in face was a canine reminder of Scrunch. This is silly, she told herself. Scrunch is dead. Deep breath. She had to deal with it. She couldn’t stay out in the yard all day. She started up the stairs to the porch. Before she reached the top Fabin opened the door and came out carrying a white plastic trash back. In the light Monica could see streaks inside and something heavy and dark at the bottom.

“Ms. Clayton,” Fabin said gently. “We cleaned it up the best we could. You’ll need to do something about the stains. Would you like us to help you bury him?”

Monica felt like someone had their fist down her throat. She coughed. “No. I can manage. Do you have any ideas how…?”

One of the other officers, a nice looking guy about her age, stepped forward. “A raccoon, Ms. Clayton. It must have injured the cat outside and then followed it in through the pet door to finish the job.”

“A raccoon?”

“Yes,” Fabin said. “It must have been shocking to see that this morning.”

Monica gave a nervous, relieved laugh. A raccoon. Of course. She felt a bit flushed. “I’m sorry to call you out for something like this. I was so startled.”

“No problem, Ms. Clayton.” Fabin gently let down the plastic bag. “Take care.”

Monica squeezed her hand. “Thank you. I will. Really, I’m sorry to bother you.”

The officers left. Monica retrieved her shovel from the garage and buried Scrunch in the front planter near the rock where he liked to sun himself. She cried a bit saying goodbye, then went inside to clean up. The police had cleaned up everything except a few brown stains on the carpet. After scrubbing away the stains she showered, then made some tea and decided to use the remainder of her day off lost in a good novel.

💀

Wednesday morning Monica slapped at her alarm and instead hit something warm and a bit squishy. She opened her eyes. Popeye’s head sat on her nightstand looking with cross-eyed surprise at his corkscrew tail which hung from his mouth. Monica screamed. The alarm buzzed on.

She scrambled back from the nightstand. Her hand landed in something wet. Monica slipped and fell back against the sheets and felt the back of nightgown become instantly soaked. A thick butcher shop smell ran across her face. Screaming in great shuddering breaths Monica thrashed and rolled off the bed. More liquid splashed against her front but she got off the bed. She backed away while great sobs shook her body.

Blood pooled on the sheets. Popeye’s deflated corpse lay scattered on the pillow. Monica fled to the bathroom. For several minutes she kept her eyes closed and tried to regain control. It was on her, she knew. She didn’t want to see. It stank. She stank. Monica opened her eyes. She looked ghastly. The lights seemed unnaturally bright. Most of her nightgown clung to her in vibrant wet red. It was splattered across her arms, her neck, and even her face. A drop ran down her lip. She licked automatically.

Monica heaved and collapsed against the sink. Her gut kept heaving until nothing was left. Gradually it subsided. Monica shuddered and pulled the nightgown off. She dropped it in the trash can without looking and climbed into the shower. She didn’t come out until the water turned cold and even then it took her several minutes to open the door.

Monica dressed quickly and hurried downstairs. She called the seller and left a message apologizing for canceling twice. She’d reschedule later. After hanging up she pressed nine and stopped with her finger shaking about the one. She set the handset down. How would this look to the police? Popeye was killed in her bed and she didn’t wake up? How was that possible? And putting his head on her nightstand—his curly tail sticking out of his mouth—that wasn’t something that a raccoon would do. What if they thought she was crazy? They might decide that she had done this. Monica took a deep breath. But what had? She couldn’t go to sleep tonight not knowing.

Monica stood up. First she’d clean up the mess upstairs. Then she’d start investigating.

💀

A search online failed to turn up any recent reports of attacks on pets. Monica settled back in her chair and absently rubbed at her hands, still raw from scrubbing her fingers. She had buried Popeye along with her bedding and nightgown in a new flower bed along the back. She didn’t want the neighbors to think that there was anything odd so she had dug out the sod in a large curving bed. She had gone Home Depot and came back with bags of soil, bark, and a selection of new plants. Then she had spent the better part of the day working on the flower bed. At one point Joseph, Popeye’s owner, had been out in the yard calling for the dog. She had felt guilty when he asked if she’d seen the dog that she didn’t say anything. What could she have said? Yes, I’m sorry, but I woke up this morning with his butchered carcass in my bed? Monica took a deep breath, let it out, and looked back at the screen.

There wasn’t any sign that anyone had broken into the house. She hadn’t noticed any signs that anything else had been disturbed. The possibilities seemed limited. Could she have done it? Maybe in some sort of unconscious state? Popeye had been barking at her yesterday when she was in the yard. Monica didn’t think it likely but she refused to rule it out right away. What other options were there?

Bookshelves lined the walls of her study. It was a collection unlike any that would usually be found in someone’s home. The shelves were full of rare volumes. She had cases for the most delicate and valuable volumes. A couple safes for the really spectacular finds. That’s what she did—collect and sell rare books online. It was the perfect job. She traveled around the world. She got to work at home. Best of all she had the opportunity to read some of the most extraordinary things. Yet with all of this knowledge at her fingertips, and the internet through her computer, she was still at a loss to explain what had happened.

Maybe she should have called the police. Monica sighed and pushed her chair back from the computer. After dinner she’d try again. She got up to leave, stopping to straighten a box of new deliveries that had fallen over beside the door.

Scrunch’s fault, she thought as she picked up the books. He was always jumping on things he shouldn’t. Her eyes moistened. He wouldn’t be doing that anymore. Monica wiped her eyes and picked up the last book. The binding was broken. It might have happened when the box fell. Some of these books were very fragile. When she had a chance she would see if it could be repaired or not. She put it in the box, then went to the kitchen.

Although Monica spent the evening looking for answers she didn’t find out much. Raccoons did, at times, attack and injure house pets. There wasn’t any mention of the sort of thing that had happened to Popeye. She checked the newspaper’s online archives, animal abuse sites, and arrest records. Nothing came up that sounded like what had happened to her. So far, except for the notion that she might be doing this in an unconscious state, she didn’t have a clue what was going on.

Monica rubbed her eyes and groaned. She should get to bed. She was afraid to sleep. Would it be so bad to stay up? She could watch movies all night. If anything happened she would call the police. But first she wanted to make sure that nothing would happen. She shut down the computer and left her study. Then she went through the house and made sure every door and window was locked. She taped the pet door closed with excessive amounts of duct tape. When she finished she made some popcorn and settled in to watch her musicals, starting with Singing in the Rain.

Monica jerked awake. Something had woken her up. She listened. Other than the music for Brigadoon’s menu she didn’t hear anything unusual. She hit the mute button. There was a sharp intake of breath behind her. Monica twisted around.

What light there was from the television reflected across a curved, boney spine. Monica’s first impression was of a skeletal child, skin stretched tight over bones. It was crouched over something with its back to her. There was a stiffness about the bony shoulders. It knew she was watching. It was waiting for her to do something. Monica felt a scream building in her throat. What would it do if she moved again?

The head lifted slowly and Monica lost the impression of a child. Whatever this was, it wasn’t a child. It had a bald skull with a few bristly black hairs. There were spots on the papery skin like liver spots. But the ears were what really killed any childlike impression. They looked chewed. Mangled strips of flesh which hung in tatters around the ear channel. Monica didn’t dare move.

Bony arms reached down into the shadows around its lap. Monica heard flesh tearing and bones snapping. With a faint snarl it threw something away towards the wall. The object landed wetly and looked back at her with glazed eyes. It was the head of a Scotty dog. Smacking sounds drew her attention back to the creature. It was eating with great gasping, gobbling sounds. The noise and the stench made Monica’s stomach clench painfully. Her head swam. No—

She stood up.

The creature hissed and dissolved into a thick black smoke. The dog’s remains splashed on the floor. Monica swayed as the smoke oozed across the floor into her study. She waited a moment then edged around the couch and followed. She turned on the lights as she went. Much of the study remained dark but there was some light in the doorway. Monica crept up and reached in for the light switch.

Claws darted into the light and raked across the back of her hand. Blood poured over her fingers as she snatched her hand back, crying out. She backed up and her heel hit the dog’s head. She bit off her scream and took a step to the side. She saw a sense of movement, just out of the light. It was in there, probably on the box of books next to the door. But it doesn’t like the light, she thought. She didn’t think the light hurt it since it hadn’t been enough to drive it away from the dog. Monica edged towards the floor lamp.

It still hadn’t moved. At least she didn’t think it had. Monica grabbed the lamp with her good hand and pointed it at the doorway. For a second she saw it starkly illuminated. It was crouching on top of the books as she had thought, licking its claws and fingers with a broad purplish tongue. It had a wizened bat-like face. When the light hit it the big yellow eyes snapped shut. It hissed. A second later it vanished, replaced by the inky smoke which sank down into the book.

Monica carried the lamp as far as the cord would allow then stretched out her injured hand towards the study light switch. She could just about reach. With a grimace she sat the lamp down, took a step, and flicked the switch. Warm light filled the room. There wasn’t any sign of the creature.

Carefully, to avoid bleeding on it, Monica picked up the book that had absorbed the smoke. It was the one she had noticed on the floor earlier with the broken binding. The invoice for the shipment was in the box too. She gingerly picked it out. The translated title on the invoice was A Collection of Stories about Demons, Imps, and Haunts.

Whatever that thing was it had come from the book. And if a broken binding had let it out she didn’t dare burn the book or otherwise destroy it. She looked at her hand and winced. First, she’d bandage her hand, but then she’d come back in here and repair the binding and clasp on that book. Then she’d take everything out of the safe and lock it in there. She could get a new safe in the morning.

Monica carried the book to her desk and pointed the task light at the cover. Her Latin was rusty but a literal translation seemed to be A Gathering of Demons, Imps, and Haunts.

No mention of stories. From now on she was going to do her own translations. She winced again looking at the ragged cuts on her hand. She didn’t think she needed stitches but it was going to be sore for a while. Plus who knew what that thing had under its claws? Monica shuddered. She’d better take care of it right away. Two steps away from the desk she stopped and looked back at the book starkly illuminated by the task light. She hated to leave it alone.

She turned and went over to her work table. She pulled down a large number sixteen plastic book cover and spread it out on the work table. Then she turned on the table’s task light so that it was pointed directly at the center of the cover. She went to the desk and carefully picked up the book with her free hand. The cover twitched in her fingers.

Monica gave a startled gasp and nearly dropped the book but managed to keep a hold of it. She hurried back to the table and put the book face down on the cover. Quickly she wrapped the long ends around the book and then folded the short ends over as if she were wrapping a present. She pulled a large piece of book tape from the dispenser and taped the cover shut around the book. For good measure she turned the book face up so that the flaps were held down the back the book’s own weight.

“Now just rest,” she whispered. “When I get back I’ll fix up your binding.”

Monica still didn’t like leaving the book, but she was dripping blood on the floor. The sight of the blood was making her sick. She hurried out of the study, edging around the dog’s remains, and went upstairs to her bathroom. After pouring a liberal amount of hydrogen peroxide on the cuts she pressed a gauze pad to the wounds and wrapped her hand with an Ace bandage. It didn’t leave her with much mobility in her hand. She took a couple ibuprofen.

Her reflection looked pale. There was a smear of blood on her chin. Monica scrubbed her face with a wash cloth. She took a couple deep breaths until her shuddering subsided. She just had to finish this and everything could go back to normal.

💀

Downstairs, she froze in the study doorway. Her hands went to her mouth.

“No,” she moaned against her fingers.

The plastic cover was swollen. Inky black smoke, so thick it looked liquid, pressed against the cover, ballooning it out around the book. A trickle started to run out from beneath the book, bleeding down from the work table.

“No!” Monica ran to the table. She slammed her hands down on either side of the book, ignoring the pain that flared in her injured hand. She yelled right at the bulging blackness. “No! Stop it!”

That twisted bat-nosed face swam up out of the blackness. Yellow eyes squinted against the light as it pressed against the plastic, distorting its wrinkled face further. Its fat purple tongue writhed against the cover and left slimy tracks as it made slobbery noises. Sharp teeth snapped as it tried to get purchase to chew its way free. More smoke oozed from the underside of the book, bringing with it a fecal and blood smell. Monica took a step back from the table. She looked around for something that could help her.

The task light on the desk! Monica rushed over, grabbed it and yanked the plug free. She hurried back to the table and put it down so that it pointed right at the struggling face. Her hand shook as she plugged it in.

The thing’s face vanished back into the smoke. More light, Monica thought. She needed more.

She ran back out to the living room and unplugged the area lamp. She carried it back inside, plugged it in and pointed the lights at the work table. With a faint crinkling sound the cover started to deflate. The edges of the book reappeared. Monica thought quickly. What else?

Finally, after several minutes of scouring the house, she ended up with two more area lights, a large flashlight, and her Coleman lantern. The book lay bare within the blaze of illumination. Monica eased into her chair. Her sore hand was throbbing with her rapid pulse. She bit her lip as she turned the book over and began cutting the cover free with her Exacto knife. Once she had it free she discarded it to the floor. Gingerly she turned the book over and opened the cover.

It was a beautifully illustrated manuscript. Under other circumstances she could see a collector paying a handsome price for such a rare find. She laughed nervously. Of course they wouldn’t have any idea just how rare this book was. She turned the pages and covered her mouth. Horribly disfigured creatures leered from the pages with almost life-like intensity. Monica bit her lip as she turned to the section with the broken binding. There it was. The creature glared at her from the pages. The drawing was split by the broken binding. Monica felt chilled as she stared at the stark illumination. Her hand shook as she reached for the glue and started to work.

When she finished she bound the book by a large four-way rubber band that would hold everything in position until the glue was firmly fixed. Outside the sky was turning pink as the Sun started to rise. If Scrunch had set the creature free by knocking over the box, causing the binding to break, then repairing the book should bind the creature once more. But she had to make sure.

With a careful eye on the book Monica started turning off the lights. As each went off the study darkened. She kept her hands on the last two switches after turning them off and watched the book. Nothing moved. She didn’t see any smoke coming from the pages. She watched it until the Sun came up and flooded the room with light again. Then, stiffly, Monica got up to take care of the final precautions.

She shrink-wrapped the book. Three times. Then she emptied her fireproof rare items safe and locked the book inside. For now it would be enough. Eventually, however, she knew that more steps would have to be taken. Books decay over time. This one would have to be preserved against acid and environmental degradation. She needed to do far more research into the book’s origin. Maybe she could discover another way to bind or destroy the things bound in that volume.

For now, at least, she was safe. The book was repaired. Nothing else would be coming out. She had another unfortunate victim to bury in the garden and some cleaning to do but after that she wanted to get some much deserved sleep. Monica yawned and went out to face the day.

💀

3,875 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 54th weekly short story release, written clear back in July 2003. It’s the oldest story I’ve kept in my inventory. Why? Because it was the first story I sold, appearing in Alien Skin Magazine. It wasn’t a pro market but I was still happy to sell the story. 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 Garden of Evan.