Elaine

She had come from a middle class household. Without putting thoughts into her head, which I am want to do, I found such an upbringing to create a tension between the two of us. I say this because I was not of a middle class household, rather, I was from an upper class family. My own parents lived in a beautiful two-story country house outfitted with gorgeous cream-colored shutters and a fireplace large enough to swallow a man whole. I had grown rather weary of such a life, I suppose. For, instead of following in my father’s footsteps, I chose to take on the profession of professor in the field of philosophy. This was a fool’s errand, or, at least, that is what my parents told me. Dogged me with it, if the truth should be known. They’d been even more dogged in their nagging when I’d introduced them to my girlfriend during the second summer of my studies. Elaine.

She’d been softer in nature then. My parents had taken one look at her and had decided, quite without reason, I think, that she was not the girl for me. No, I had made a million mistakes in regards to my future, but this mistake they could not stand for. My father informed me that he had supported my foolhardy nature and my lackadaisical desires up to this point, but he would not allow me to waste away my youth courting a girl that had no business adding her offspring to our family tree. In shock at the proposition that my family would be so ardently against me having found the love of my life I had endeavored, that moment, to marry her. Elaine.

I didn’t really give her much of a choice in the matter, either. I’d practically planned out our whole lives together, beginning to end, that very evening. Over dinner I had asked her to marry me. My mother had fainted. My father had cursed my stubborn nature. She had said yes. Having quite achieved all the effect that I had intended, I wasted no time in running away with my forbidden love. My father had put out a letter that evening, which would arrive at my dormitory prior my own arrival. He’d been rather explicit in his expectations. I was to renounce my proposition, take up a more lucrative path for my career, and to quit placing this burden of horrors upon my poor elders. I had scoffed at the thought. How could I do that? Why – I had only just come to make these plans for my future! I had so much to look forward to! It didn’t cross my mind of course, that I had laid careful plans that required the consent of another. My God, they required the enthusiasm of another. Elaine.

We graduated damn-near penniless. She’d gotten a degree in art. She specialized in ceramics. Somehow, I’d found that very romantic. Somehow, she’d found my pedantic ravings romantic. Somehow, we’d been romantic. She wound up working for an accounting firm as their secretary in the city that I was going to graduate school in. She’d come home every day and be too tired to talk to me. I’d come home every day and complain about getting to do exactly what it was I had decided to do. She didn’t say anything about it. She was too tired to talk to me. She would look at me, though. I should have seen it in those eyes of hers. Those eyes that had been so soft, then. They’d stopped being soft at some point. I didn’t see her, see what all this was doing to her. I wasn’t a man of great perception, despite my training. She started to harden. Elaine.

When I’d finally found a job we’d both cried tears of relief. I was working harder than ever once there. I had to ensure that they’d decide to keep me on. Once I was tenured then we could breath. I kept my head down, worked feverishly. I’d spend days on end in the office. She’d call my office phone at two in the morning, just to make sure that I hadn’t gotten lost somewhere. Somewhere, that is, other than my own head. I’d get annoyed, sometimes. I’d grumble that I was on the precipice of greatness. I should not tarry speaking on trivialities like the last time I had eaten! She would come to me at daybreak, carrying something in a little wicker basket. It would always smell of warm food and the love that she bore with it. I would always eat it gratefully, knowing that I had been harsh with her. I wouldn’t ever apologize, though. She knew I was too proud. She knew what I was saying with my eyes, though. She was always good at seeing those things. Elaine.

It was near my review when we’d gotten the news from the doctors. They’d said that it was best we not try again. I nearly laughed, we hadn’t been trying in the first place. Now we were being dealt a hand that we were not even ready to think about, much less accept. The news would weigh heavily on me. I started spending more days in the office. I created a spot behind a filing cabinet where I would sleep. She stopped calling. She stopped coming by to check on me. When I did go home her eyes would fall on me, they were filled with something I could not bare. They were filled with a harshness that told a story of betrayal. I suppose I had betrayed her in some way. I suppose I should have been there for her. She knew that I knew this. She knew everything about me. Elaine.

Perhaps the twist of fate that befell us next was no great surprise. Her silence had been extended far too long. For what words can you say to a man such as me when your mind has been dulled and your heart been worn? She had borne the suffering of a woman that was chained to a life not her own. She had cried for me. I had paid her no mind. Offered her no kindness. Never had I truly even loved her. She was just a part of my elaborate daydream. She, like all the other parts, had disappointed me by being tainted with reality. I was a man lost in his mind. She was trapped in the world of reality and had no partner with whom to commiserate this fate. It’s hardly a surprise that she would rebel against this. Hardly a surprise at all. She was hardly a surprise at all. Elaine.

She brought me a soup that day. Never did I stop to think. Ecstatic in this turn of events. Overwhelmed by this showing. My dear had returned from the land of the dead! She had reanimated! Her love for me had brought her back to me. Here, here was my sign that all had not been for naught. We could be together again in joy and in love. I lapped up her affections which she heaped on with a flourish. When I had finished my lunch she had taken the bowl from me and held my face gently in her palm. She had looked at me then. What I saw in her eyes, I – I care not to dwell on what I saw in her eyes. I knew then, but I said nothing. I turned to my manuscript, the one I had been saving. The one that had been my true love. I scribbled out the ideas that I had dared not to scribble before that moment. She left me to my work. She knew that I needed to finish it as best I could. She was always so understanding of such things. Elaine.

My funeral was a painful affair. Perhaps three people bothered to pass through the whole building. She sat there the whole time, weeping as was appropriate. She had never expressed her appreciation for the performance arts, though I think she must have learned a great deal from them. When my flesh had been lain into the ground she left without a word. She did not visit that pile of dirt. I do not begrudge her this. She did insist that my work be finished, worked tirelessly to make sure my ideas made it to print. I was a man lost in my mind. She ensured that all would glimpse into that place. It was a kindness that she did not owe me. She was a woman trapped in reality. Now she turns those realities into works of art. They are beautiful, just like her. They reflect the things which are captured by the eye. They are windows into her soul. They are Elaine.

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If there, then –

Look, there.

The sun is setting. The sky will be pretty then.

No, no. Not the sky.

The leaves, then?

No, no. Not the leaves.

What then?

Look at the hill.

What am I looking at, then?

Don’t you see it?

The hill?

Don’t you see how it’s moving?

Moving?

The hill.

Where’s it headed, then?

It keeps gaining distance.

Distance?

Yes, the distance between us.

If you’d stop talking about hills, then –

No, no. Not between us.

Where, then?

The distance within us.

What’s this got to do with the hill, then?

The hill keeps expanding.

What then?

Keeps expanding, keeps moving, keeps making distance.

The distance within us?

The distance within us.

What’s this all about, then?

I wish it would stop.

What would stop?

The moving.

Quit moving, then.

No, no. Not that movement.

What then?

The expanding.

It’s all expanding and then –

Stop Expanding. Stop. Moving.

You should go put on a nice shirt.

Yes, yes. Bind it up.

My parents will be here around then.

Yes, yes. Have to tie it tight.

Where are you headed, then?

Have to tie it tight. Stop. Expanding.

Will you feel better then?

Yes, yes. Better.

Well, then –

Tell your parents I said hello.

Where are you off to, then?

There, look.

The sun has set. The sky should be pretty, then.

Bar Crawl

I know this is cliche, but I have to say I’m what you’d call an average Joe. On Sunday nights I watch football with my buddies during the season. More often than not you’ll catch us at the bar. Sometimes we have one too many drinks and start talking shit to the guys there for the other team. Sometimes we get bored and decide to call it an early night, if none of the games are nail-biters. The group changes on occasion. I’m almost always there, though. Sometimes one of my pals gets into a relationship and his new girl thinks watching The Great British Bake-Off is more interesting than football. It never lasts too long, though. By the end of the season his ass is firmly planted on the bar stool next to the rest of us. I get into all this, not because I think we’re gonna become bosom buddies, but because this is how it all started. One night at the bar.

See, to understand the story you’ve got to know a few things about the type of bar my buddies and I frequent. It’s a little hole-in-the-wall place. Real out of the way. We like it better than any of the chain joints, seeing as we’re close to a college town and at the other bars you get Frat dudes. Noisy pricks don’t have any business talking football and are just there to eat junk food until they pass out drunk in the bathroom. Not really our thing, y’know? So, we go to this little sports bar. It’s not too fancy, but you can get a good beer on tap and sometimes they’ve got a pretty young thing behind the bar servin’ up cold ones. Most importantly, though, is that the owner is always there. On a few occasions someone got too rowdy and he pulled ‘em aside. And that was the end of that, no more ruckus. I’ve never been on a night where the old man wasn’t sittin’ in a booth in the back, keepin’ an eye on things. That is, not before that night.

It was a cold night, can’t remember exactly when it was. Sometime during football season, I guess. Though I had been known to frequent the place after the season had ended. Anyway, the wind’s really tearing through my coat as I walk over to the bar. Don’t seem to remember any of my pals comin’ with me. I’m sure they all had somethin’ better to do. Lord knows I shoulda had something better to do myself. But I’m a stone’s throw from a drunk, I guess, so I’m heading to the bar. The wind is blowin’ something fierce and I got this weird uneasy feeling in my gut. Not sure why, I just remember thinking I couldn’t wait to get a few beers in me so I’d warm up and my stomach’d settle down. I’m probably a few yards from the front door when I notice it’s swingin’ on it’s hinges. This stopped me in my tracks for a split second, but y’know, I wasn’t too worried about it. Figured it was just some jack ass leaving the door wide open after he’d come in. I figured one of the staff would come over to pull the door to, or I’d get it once I got there. I was just nearing the door, hand out to grab the handle, when a little voice inside my head said to just turn around and walk away. I frowned at this, What’s got you thinkin’ that way, Jack? I shook off my heebie-jeebies and let myself inside the bar, pulling the door shut behind me.

– – –

The smell hit me first. It was like walking into a drunkard’s insides. And I would know, I’ve had enough alcohol in my day to send my insides coming out. There was beer everywhere. The floor and wall were tacky where the stuff had dried, but there was something else in there, too. Something darker, and it left me with a feeling that something more sinister was going on. It was right about now I wish I had turned around, called the cops, and headed home no worse for wear. But it was cold outside and I was figuring that one of the taps had burst, coating everyone in beer and causing a mass exodus from the joint. Really cleared the place out, far as I could tell, because I didn’t see a soul. I was happily living in naivety, so, I stroll over to the bar counter hoping that someone is leaned down back there cleaning things up.

It’s as I’m walking over there that I notice something that honestly freaked me out, the old man wasn’t there. I don’t guess I so much noticed it then, more like it finally hit me. Not a soul in sight. Not even the soul that always sits there, in the back. Not altogether too odd, he’d vacated his seat before, but this time his shape wasn’t there. Normally he’d only just left, leaving the imprint of himself in the well-worn cushion of the booth until he returned. But it didn’t look like he’d ever sat in the booth in his life, so he must’ve been gone a long while. What’s goin’ on here? My thoughts were racing as I got closer to the bar, trying to process all the things my eyes were seeing. Every single one of the taps had blown off at the end, leaving nothing but some leftover beer dredges plopping down. What in the Sam Hill caused that? I was feeling mounting dread, thinking about what could’ve caused such destruction to my beloved taps, when I heard it. My stomach fell straight through my feet and I swear I almost screamed. Something was dragging across the ground. It was a labored sound, slow and methodic. I looked around to try and see what was coming up from Hell to take me back with it, when I noticed the newest addition to the bar tenders, a pretty little piece named Sandy, pulling herself slowly around the bar toward me. Just talking about it brings it back, too real. She’s got her mouth open, but all that’s coming out is this soft gurgling noise. Her limbs are all wrong and my stomach starts churning looking at her. The worst part, though, the part that really makes my skin crawl, was that her eyes were missing. Those eye sockets were trained right on me, though. I s’pose she heard me come in and had figured I would wander over to the bar. Good thing she couldn’t see me, because my face would’ve given me away. The only way I figured out she wasn’t a Hell-Beast is she had this one tattoo on her shoulder, a bright pink flower big as my fist. I saw that and that’s the only reason I didn’t bash in her skull right then.

Anyway, Sandy’s dragging her broken body slowly toward the sound of me thrashing around in terror and I’m doing my best to figure out what I should be doing. I finally settle on calling the cops and I start searching myself all over for my cell phone. I’m not doing a really great job at finding it, seein’ as I’m shaking like a leaf and I’ve got half a mind to run screaming like a little girl all the way home. Sandy’s almost to me when I pull out my phone and dial 9-1-1. I put the dispatcher on speaker phone, just so we’re all clear on what it is I’m doing.

“Hello, 9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”

“Hi, uh, my name is Jack. I’m at a local bar and it seems I’ve stumbled across a horror movie.”

“Hi, Jack. Can you be a little bit clearer about what your emergency is?”

I’m stumbling for words to describe what’s going on, as you might imagine. So, I say the first thing that my eyes fall on, “There’s, uh, there’s beer everywhere. I mean everywhere. That’s not all, there’s, uh, there’s something in the beer. Something dark and it looks sticky.” The reality of what I’m seeing hits me hard. I start breathing in, sharp, jagged breaths.

The emergency operator must have noticed my deteriorating mental status, “Jack, can you tell me if there’s anyone there with you?”

I nod, glancing toward where Sandy is. She’s almost to me, but her head is cocked to the side, like she’s struggling to listen to our conversation. “Y-yeah. Yes, ma’am. There’s a woman here, one of the bartenders. Her name is Sandy. She, well, I think she’s gotten hurt.” I almost laughed at myself, then. You think she’s hurt, do ya? Congrats on that one, Sherlock.

“Jack, do you think you can tell me where you are?” I nod, prattle off the name of the place, tell her to send help in a hurry. Tell her I don’t know who all else was here, but based on the looks of Sandy they’re not doing so hot. The operator, for her part, is keeping it together well. I guess that’s their job, keeping calm in the face of crisis. If I was a trained dispatcher, then would I be able to stay calm in this particular situation? I suppose I was going into crisis mode, losing myself in thought, when Sandy started moving again. It took me a second to realize why this was so completely and totally terrifying, y’know, besides the missing eyes and broken body. Sandy was gnashing her teeth at me now, instead of gurgling. She looked like she was getting faster, too. Despite my better judgement I bolted. Left that poor, broken woman on the ground and slammed the door shut behind me. I stood there in the biting cold waiting on the ambulance, or cops, or whoever the dispatcher had sent me. I’d honestly forgotten I was still holding my phone during all this, still patched into a call. That is, until she made me nearly jump out of my skin. “Jack, is everything still alright?”

The shock of her talking took a second to recover from, “Y-yeah. I, I uh went outside. I couldn’t be in there anymore.” I think Sandy wants to eat me.

“Jack, the woman that was with you, Sandy, is she still ok?”

“Yes ma’am, she’s still breathing, anyway.”

“Is she outside with you? If she’s injured she should stay where it’s warm.”

“No ma’am, I left her inside the building.” Because she wants to eat me.

“Jack, I know that this is difficult to deal with, but can you move to a window so you can keep an eye on her until the paramedics arrive?” She wasn’t chastising me, just giving a gentle nudge in the right direction.

Judge-y bitch. “I, uh, Sandy’s giving me the creeps.” Silence. I guess there’s not much to say to a coward that won’t stay with a dying woman. In my defense, I was becoming increasingly convinced she wasn’t dying. This was solidified when I heard the scratching on the door, and the gurgling again. This time it was more like messy speech and I was beginning to catch what I thought might be words.

– – –

I was considering burning the place to the ground with the monster inside when the ambulance pulled up. A man got out of the passenger side and approached me, “Jack? We’re here to help out. Are you injured?” I shook my head, pointed at the door. “I don’t think it’s safe.” I was whispering, my voice hoarse. I realized then that I was crying. How long had I been crying? It felt like tears were frozen to my face. I can tell you now that some of them had, it hurt like the dickens when they melted. As the paramedic approached the phone in my hand crackled back to life, “Jack, I’m going to hang up now since it sounds like help has arrived. Will you confirm that for me?” I croaked, “Sure. The cavalry has arrived.” With that, the dial tone came over the phone’s speaker. The first EMT nodded and patted my shoulder, “Jack, why don’t you think it’s safe to go inside?” I shook my head at this, couldn’t he hear it? The scratching sound had been so loud before they’d gotten there. I stopped and waited for a minute, I was going to let him hear it for himself. Moments passed. Now there was nothing. I opened my mouth to respond but there were no words, nothing I could say to express my terror. Who would believe a man that was sobbing out in the cold? I was probably going crazy. Then the second EMT hopped out, having parked the ambulance. It was aimed away from the building, ready to throw into drive and speed away. “Where’s the injured woman?” He was ambling toward us, as he’d had to park away from the front entrance to the building. He’d had to do this because there were so many cars out front. Funny I hadn’t noticed that while I was standing out there. Before the first EMT could respond, I whirled around and pointed at the door. “Alright, let’s go check on her, then.” He said, heading for the door. I, being the chicken-shit that I am, bounded away toward the ambulance. I was not going to be next to that door when they opened it.

What happened next is no more clear to me now than it was then. I had just gotten to the driver’s door of the ambulance when I heard one of the EMT’s scream. This added to my urgency and I scrambled into the driver’s seat, only then checking the mirrors to see what was happening. The ground was slowly changing colors, turning all dark like the inside of the bar. Except now I knew it wasn’t beer. I could only see one EMT, his hand on the radio on his shoulder. I imagine he was calling for help. I know I would have. I watched as he took a step back, throwing his arm out behind him for balance. Then I saw her, grotesque and writhing as she lunged at his neck. I wasn’t close enough to see details, but she tore into him so quickly. Teeth tearing off pieces of flesh. I didn’t watch long, realistically it probably took me 30 seconds to turn the key in the ignition and gun it away from that place. It felt like a friggin’ lifetime.

– – –

It occurred to me about an hour down the road that I was driving a stolen ambulance to God know’s where and the people that should’ve been driving were now definitely smudges of red in the snow. This was alarming mostly because I was fairly certain there wasn’t a soul in the world that would believe that whopper of a tale. So I did something a bit rash and drove the ambulance to the nearest lake. Sent that thing straight into the depths. Like I said, probably not the smartest move, but even after hours of driving I was running on adrenaline and fear. Not gonna lie to you, I’m still afraid. After I dumped my stolen set of wheels I walked home, packed up a bags worth of essentials, and skipped town. I had an aunt that lived two states over, so I gave her a ring and she said I could stay with her until I found a new job. Told her I’d been laid off, corporate downsizing and all that.

I don’t go out much anymore. I haven’t been to a bar since that night. The smell of beer sets my stomach to churning and I break out in a sweat. Worked out alright, though. I met a nice girl at a local house of worship (needed something else to do on Sundays). She’s mighty sweet and she puts up with me when I call her in the dead of night. I almost always wake up from a dream where Sandy is crawling across the floor toward me, sniffing her way over. Wouldn’t be so bad, ‘cept she keeps getting closer. I have a bad feeling in my gut about it. ‘Specially since last night, when I called my girl, she described Sandy to me. Then she screamed.

The Leak

Plop.

Plink.

Plop.

Plink.

It was the most infernal sound, and he found it to be grating on his nerves.

Plop.

Of course it was a silly thing to be mad about, it was a a slow leak after all. That was something to be grateful for, right? That the sound wasn’t constant? Hadn’t he been trying to do that sort of thing at one point in his life? The whole “gratitude practice is good for the soul” thing? He should be grateful it was a slow leak.

Plink.

He grated his teeth, feeling his jaw pop as he scrubbed enamel against enamel. He was grateful he still had teeth. Hard to believe after all this he still had his teeth.

Plop.

He wanted to throw his hands up in exasperation, Screw this gratitude nonsense, he felt his arm muscles cramp at the thought of movement, I’m miserable.

Plink.

Even thinking, now, had become exhausting. He felt himself giving up on thinking, blinking back sleep. He hadn’t been mentally strong enough to maintain his gratitude practice before, either. Funny, as back then he had definitely had an easier task set before him. Now he was retroactively grateful for the car (even with a parking ticket!) and the yard that had trees perfectly set apart for his hammock (even if the neighbor had a yappy dog!) and the well that had fed into his home crisp, clean water (even if he’d had to dig the new one only one year into living at his new house!). What he wouldn’t have given for a car to drive him back to that yard and a tall glass of water from that well. At least I’m growing as a person now.

Plop.

He felt around in the darkness, trying to find something that would indicate that the ground around him had changed since the last time he had performed this exercise. Just dirt. Always just dirt. At least it’s not too cold down here. See! I’m getting better at this gratitude thing already. He was fairly certain, approximately 85%, that he was in a cellar. The room was dark and cool and if he ever got out he was fairly certain, about 70% so, he’d find that he’d been living next to a lifetime supply of potatoes.

Plink.

Of course it wouldn’t hurt to get that leak fixed given all the precious goods in the cellar. Like me he thought, giving up on searching the ground around him. He relaxed his muscles again, lying limp on the ground.

Plop.

He almost felt the light hit him before he could see it, only the tiniest sliver from the upstairs like usual. He could hear the old wooden steps giving slightly under the weight of the person making their way down them, descending into his hell.

Creeeaaaak.

Creeeeaaaak.

Plink.

Creeeeaaaaak.

He hoped this was the food time. He hadn’t yet been able to figure out what determined when he got fed. (He was about 30% sure he was being fed every three days, maybe less.) The figure walked across the dirt floor, their footfalls making muffled thumps as they stirred up the flooring.

Plop.

He struggled to hold still, his heart still quickening as it had the first time he’d experienced this torture.

Scoosh.

In a cloud of dust the tray slid in front of him from under the small slit in the front of his crate.

“Eat.” The voice was soft, almost like that of a concerned caregiver. He’d spent (what he assumed was) many moons trying to figure out this voice. He was 95% sure his “caretaker” was a woman, though one could never be sure these days. She was always so quiet, encouraging him to eat the stale bread or cold porridge quickly.

Thunk!

He was startled from his thoughts, she’d kicked the bloody crate! “I don’t hear you eating.” Frantic whispering, here was the fear he had heard in this voice so many times before. What are you afraid of? He wanted to yell at her, but he sensed that if he did he might never eat again. So he ate.

Plink.

Plop.

Scoosh.

“I’ll come back soon.” She whispered, he heard the sadness in her voice. He placed his hand up on the crate, trying in desperation to feel a human connection. Any human connection. “Please…” he croaked, his vocal chords cracking under the weight of the word. He had never spoken to her and the breeze she created as she ran away from him took him aback. Is she afraid of me? He felt the tears come then, the hot, sticky mess of tears. He had stopped crying so long ago, but now the tears were coming again. He tried to stop, best to conserve water, but they just kept pouring out of his eyes. His body racked with sobs as he tried to push down the welling —

Plink.

The scream escaped him, a deep guttural, animal sound. “Are you afraid of me? Come and face me you coward! Come and see what I have become, you monster!” He threw himself against the sides of his crate, something he hadn’t done in what he was sure was months. He had stopped throwing his weight into the boards because the broken ones were replaced whenever he went to sleep. But now, in this moment, he no longer cared. Replace the damn boards, he thought, it won’t matter if I smash myself into a pulp. He had finally snapped.

Plop.

Plink.

Plop.

Plink.

Upstairs, the girl sat on her bed, sobbing. She didn’t dare tell her father that her puppy had spoken to her. He would be so mad- he’d told her repeatedly to stop going down there to feed him. But she had loved her puppy! Even if she didn’t get to take him outside or play with him like the other kids in her class. She’d loved him because he was hers. But then, he’d started screaming. He’d screamed and screamed. He didn’t sound like the other kids’ puppies. He sounded more like Daddy. She had been sitting on her bed, crying and shaking and listening. It had been hours before the screaming and thumping had finally stopped. She didn’t dare go check on her puppy. But she knew she still had work to do, so she ran into the kitchen and washed off his plate. He was bad to slobber on the plate, so she had to be extra careful when she washed it or the sticky residue would stay. She knew that today, especially, if Daddy saw the slobbery plate in the kitchen she would be in so much trouble.

Thunk.

Crack.

She lay on her bed, waiting. The feeling in the pit of her stomach wasn’t a fun feeling. She heard his truck pull into the drive way, saw the headlights shine through the front window and through the crack between her door and its frame. She’d laid down an hour or two before, placing a cold washcloth across her tiny puffy face the way her mother used to. Her mother had left right before they’d gotten the puppy. Daddy had said that Mommy had found a new family she liked better, so she left them. The kids at school said Daddy probably killed her mother. She’d argued with them, but they said that the court didn’t have any proof so they couldn’t take him to jail. The thought choked her up and she struggled to even out her breathing again.

Creeeak.

Her door creaked open a fraction more, she could hear him breathing. “Good night, Punkin’.” He said softly, closing the door behind him. He scratched his beard, blinking back sleep. Things had been hard for them since her mother had left. His little girl had come home one day absolutely bawling about how the kids at school had said he was a murderer. He hadn’t been surprised, all their parents were a bunch of blabber mouths prone to exaggeration. Still, it had wounded him to have his little girl upset over such a thing. He sighed deeply, If only she knew how hard I worked to get her mother to stay.

Creeeak.

He closed the door behind him and turned to head toward the kitchen, fairly certain he heard the sink dripping. Thinking of his wife had reminded him of her hobby. She’d been a bit of an eccentric when he’d met her. He had told everyone that’s what he loved about her. How totally weird she was. But he hadn’t known. He’d found out just how weird maybe three years into their marriage. At that point they’d just moved into this house. He couldn’t understand why she’d been so smitten with the place. Still, he’d been happy to get it for her. Happier still to build her a shed out back for her hobby supplies. Of course, when she’d said workspace he assumed she’d be painting. So his mockups for the shed had featured huge windows to let in the light and a beautiful bay window with a seat in it, gazing out into the woods behind the house. She had laughed, told him she didn’t want a mini-house, she wanted a shed. If she’d wanted something other than a shed she would have said so. He’d been inclined to indulge her. Should’ve built it the way I wanted it. The sound of water dripping didn’t appear to be coming from the sink after all. He headed toward the cellar door, feeling his stomach turn in knots.

Plop.

The sound was most certainly coming from down there. He cautiously made his way down the stairs. When he’d finished the shed, she’d been so happy. She pranced around the house, happier than he’d ever seen her. She filled it quickly with ungodly things. At first they had seemed harmless, a shovel or rake. Maybe she wants to start a garden. Then the items became more alarming, with handcuffs and huge plastic tarps entering the shed. Still, he’d chosen to believe that maybe she was going to be making sculptures. Idiot. She’d carried on, collecting her supplies piecemeal in that way for months. He realized now it was less suspicious this way. Less likely to raise eyebrows. Sure doesn’t hurt she picked a little house in the middle of the woods. He had been fiddling with the pipe when he noticed it. The little wooden crate in the back corner. He walked over to it, kneeling down to look at it. One of the boards appeared to be cracked a little from the inside. He pulled off a board.

Plink.

The wooden box was slowly falling away as he worked. She’d started “collecting” the next year. She’d left for a long weekend, “I’ll just be out with the girls! You don’t want to come, it’ll be lots of squealing and talking about how boring our husbands are.” He’d laughed, told her to have fun, and then left for work. She must’ve packed up the car after he’d left, making sure to have all the things she’d need. When he’d gotten back home from work on Monday morning there had been the sound of activity in their cellar. “Dear, everything alright?” He yelled down the stairs. The cellar gave him the heebie-jeebies and she had known. It was perfect. “Oh yes, Love! Just working on a project!” He’d told her he’d have dinner ready soon and had left her to it. Should’ve gone down those stairs that day. Now he could see the dirty rags in the box, Probably her last “project”. He kept working, the sound of water that had brought him down here slowly melting into the background as he became absorbed in his thoughts.

Plop.

He’d slowly figured it out. She was slick, but she had left clues around the house. It was like she wanted him to figure it out. So he’d be afraid of her. But he’d never felt afraid of her. Thinking on it now, he figured that was why she had gotten pregnant. If she couldn’t make him afraid for himself, then perhaps a child would work. But it hadn’t gone to plan. A few months in she’d become bedridden, struck with terrible nausea that kept her in bed all day. She’d been so horrible the whole time. She’d become violent with him, but what had hurt him the most were her words. She’d blamed him for this horror that had befallen her. He’d bore the weight of her onslaught, keeping a smile on his face for the people at the supermarket when he ran his weekly errands. He’d taken off so much work to take care of her because she insisted no one else could come to the house. He didn’t have to ask — he already knew why. When the baby had finally, mercifully arrived he had felt this immense relief. Finally everything could return to normal, or as close to normal as they had ever been. She was just too full of hate, then. She didn’t get better, she got worse. It had taken him a while to dismantle part of the wooden crate, it was a rather large one and, fool that he was, he’d only been using his pocketknife to pry out the nails.

Plink.

Now he could see that the pile of rags in the crate still had something in them, something fleshy. “Wha-,” he pulled at a few more boards that had been fixed to the ground, causing the structure to flop over on one side. The man was bloodied terribly, like he’d been in the worst bar brawl of his life. Is there a pulse? Please, God, let there be a pulse.

Plop.

The ambulance arrived almost half an hour later. “We just had to be in the middle of nowhere,” he’d sighed. It wasn’t until after he’d called the ambulance and applied what medicine he could to the man’s wounds that it occurred to him. They’d want to know how this happened. How had this happened? She’d been gone for so long, how was this man still even alive? That’s when Stefanie, his sweet Punkin’, poked her head around the doorjamb. “Hi Daddy,” she said, eyes cast down. Oh my God. Is this her puppy? Has my kid been keeping a man trapped in my basement? A man her mother brought here? Did she know? He tried hard to keep his composure. He’d told her to stop taking food downstairs to her “puppy” because he had assumed she was using it as an excuse to eat outside mealtimes. He most certainly had not thought it was because she was keeping a prisoner in his cellar. “Hi Punkin’, is there something you want to tell Daddy?” She padded across the living room toward where he had been crouching and he scooted up a bit, using the furniture to block her view of the dying man. She fell down into his lap, looking absolutely heartbroken. “I know you said I should stop feeding my puppy but he gets so hungry and would whine when you weren’t here so I’d feed him and today he got so mad after I fed him he kept screaming and crying and breaking things and I didn’t know what to do and then he got really quiet and -“ She fell into sobs, curled into his chest. Oh my God, Punkin’, what has your mother done to you? What sick monster leaves a man in her family’s cellar and then leaves them with him? He kissed her forehead, “Oh sweetheart, don’t worry about him. I’m going to make sure he’s ok and then we’ll get you another puppy that you can take outside. Would you like that, Punkin’?” She sniveled, wiping the snot from her face with her forearm, and nodded. “Yeah.” She sounded so small, so totally at a loss. How could I think this child has any evil in her? He smiled, “Go back to your room now, I’ll come get you after the doctors come get your puppy.” She nodded, slowly getting up and padding back to the safety of her bedroom. Because she does.

Weeeooooeee-

He woke up, shining white lights overhead. “Oh God, I’m dead. Wait – I’m dead! My prayers have been answered! Sweet, merciful death has finally taken me!” He went to throw his arms up overhead, only to find his wrists were restrained. My goodness, I hadn’t expected that Heaven would have chains and I can’t imagine why I’d be sent to Hell. He looked down at himself, starch white sheets and what appeared to be a hospital wristband. “Shit.” Just then the nurse that had been busying herself at the foot of his bed laughed, “Y’know, most folks are pleasantly surprised to find out they aren’t dead. You’re quite the character, Mr. Ridgeby. You musta got some sort of story to tell.” She patted his foot, “But I reckon’ that one can wait for a while, you got a whole lifetime ahead of ya. Why don’t you rest up a bit here and I’ll have the doc come check ya over. You are Mr. Ridgeby, ain’t ya? We were pretty sure we ID’d you correctly but none of your kin have come to verify it’s you. Seems you been gone a heck of a long while and they all figured you t’be long dead and in the grave.” Calvin, Calvin Ridgeby, was taken aback. “They forgot about me?! Assumed I was dead and moved on! Unbelievable. Unimaginable. Unforgivable.” He frowned at the nurse, who looked quite surprised at his outburst, “Miss, I am, believe it or not Calvin Ridgeby. Please send a message to my family posthaste that they can kiss my inheritance goodbye, those thieving rodents!” He was pretty sure, say 95%, that his family had partied as they stole the money from his bank accounts. The nurse smiled and nodded politely, making a swift escape from his room. Calvin Ridgeby, his friends called him Cal, was back from the dead and out for blood. “Someone let me out of these restraints!” He pulled on them, the strain causing one of the velcro restraints to give.

Rrrrriiiip.

“Mr. Hedgewood, would you please explain to us, again, how a missing man came to be in your living room?” Harrison Hedgewood, a man that most of his neighborhood had come to know as a kind-hearted single father, repeated his statement. He’d told them over and over how his wife must have left the man there. That he’d come to suspect near the end of their marriage that she had been up to no good. How his suspicions had ended their marriage. He’d explained that his daughter must have found the man, taken him food and water, and kept him as a pet. He’d explained the crate set-up in the cellar, how he had refused to go down there and his wife had known it. How, as a single father, he couldn’t beat his daughter’s bus when she got home from school. Though most parents of latch-key kids worry more about things happening to their kids, not this. The cops kept looking for inconsistencies in his story, he knew that. He also knew they wouldn’t find any, because he was telling them the truth. Between retellings he kept asking about his daughter, where was she? Was she ok? They weren’t grilling her were they? She was so young, so small. Surely they wouldn’t hold her at fault for any of this? He was so frightened for her, that’s what made the detectives feel more like his story was the truth. They were slowly coming to the decision that he was likely innocent in all this. Or at least, mostly so. They weren’t inclined to put away his daughter’s only caretaker. They would probably let him off easy. Especially since Mr. Ridgeby’s statement never mentioned a man at any point. Only the young woman that had abducted him. In his half-starved delirium they were fairly certain the mother’s voice giving way to the girl’s would have gotten past him easily. They were rather concerned about the mother, though. She’d seemingly vanished into thin air. There were simply no records to indicate where she might’ve gone. The detectives had grilled him on this, too. But Mr. Hedgewood, according to all accounts, had long-suffered his wife’s torments and had been all too glad to see her leave. Most of the townspeople said he’d probably murdered the woman. “Check for her grave!” Someone had shouted outside the police station. They had checked for a grave on the property and had come back with graves. Seems the Mrs. Hedgewood had been very busy indeed, giving the detectives more motivation to find her. Poor Mr. Hedgewood, upon seeing a picture of one of the corpses, had seen his police-station issue breakfast a second time.

Thump.

The shovel had hit something other than dirt again. The forensics people were having a field day. They’d come from an office in one of the bigger cities near the little podunk town where the Hedgewood’s had made their home. “Y’know, I have a hard time believing that he didn’t know these were all here.” One of them said, dusting dirt off a skeleton they had found beneath one of the gardens in the backyard. “I dunno, they were all under garden plots or flower beds. Your wife starts tilling the earth for tomatoes, would you question it? Or would you eat the tomatoes?” Returned a second worker, readjusting their blue baseball cap as they bent down to snap a photo. The first shrugged, and the two kept working. It appeared they had a long day ahead of them.

Click.

Calvin Ridgeby had been trapped in the hospital for what he had considered far too long a time. It was this opinion that had begun to turn all the nurses against him. They’d stopped coming to check on him except when they did the rounds, his call button becoming all-but ignored. This was likely why no one noticed when Calvin Ridgeby, a man of still great worth, had begun to experience an accelerated heartbeat. Upon further examination it appeared he’d begun to have an anxiety attack of some sort. The hospital psychiatrist was unsurprised to hear this, more unsurprised still to find the hospital nurses had begun to neglect a patient suffering from a slew of mental issues. No one could quite figure out what had set him off. “The poor man was disturbed, and frankly had every right to be.” The psychiatrist had said, shaking his head as he finished his part of Mr. Ridgeby’s charts. “Too bad he won’t make it to court.” The detective had shrugged, giving Mr. Ridgeby an unceremonious send-off. As everyone finished breaking down the room, a nurse noticed that Mr. Ridgeby appeared to have ripped out one of his IVs. The liquid was falling to the ground beside his bed.

Plink.

Plop.

Plink.

Plop.

The Devil’s in the Details

The smell of pastries filled the kitchen and slowly drifted out the window – opened just a crack so as to let in the late Autumn breeze. Cinnamon rolls today – he had once expressed his love for them over breakfast and now his grandmother, Anette, made them for him weekly. He hadn’t the heart to tell her that he was now foundered on them, full of a lifetime’s worth of cinnamon, dough, and icing made with so much sugar that he was sure the fluids inside him had all turned to a sickeningly sweet syrup long ago. Still, the intention behind the cinnamon rolls made him force a smile and enthusiasm when she placed them – hot and ready – on a plate before him. Today they would be a welcome treat, given that the breeze was just on the sharper side of cold and he could feel the cold slowly starting to seep into him. Mr. Henrickson, the old man across the street, waved pleasantly to him as he walked over. “Hello Todd- how’s the weather treatin’ ya?” Todd smiled pleasantly and shrugged. Mr. Henrickson nodded in appreciation, “Mmm, m’old bones can’t hardly take too much of this sorta weather anymore. Y’think you might be able to rake the leaves for me once you get done with your grandma’s yard?” Todd nodded slowly, he didn’t mind terribly helping out Mr. Henrickson as he was always more than willing to help out when Todd needed an extra pair of hands (and sometimes when he didn’t) getting the yard-work or other chores done. In the time he had been living on the street with his grandmother Todd had noticed that Mr. Henrickson’s spirit, not unlike Anette’s, had slowly been fading. Indeed, Todd already knew that both of them were meant for a short time left on Earth, and the knowing made him feel heavier. Mr. Henrickson watched Todd’s face, perhaps the old man could see something in Todd’s gaze that let him know what the sprier creature was thinking, but he didn’t hazard a word about it. Instead he nodded, twitching his mustache for emphasis, “Thanks so much, Todd. Y’know we were all getting quite worried for dear Mrs. Martin before you came to visit. You’ve really, erm, given a character to the place that it seemed to be missing.” Todd snorted, closest thing to a compliment he was likely to get and he had come to appreciate the way the people on Mrs. Henrickson’s lane showed their appreciation. After all, the circumstances had been a bit difficult for all of them to understand, and he honestly had been impressed with how quickly they had all accepted their new realities.

Todd had just finished packing the last of Mr. Henrickson’s leaves into a giant orange trash bag – one of the ones made up to look like a Jack O’Lantern, as horrible and degrading as that was – when Anette opened the screen door that led out from the kitchen cellar; the door making a screeching sound fit to wake the dead, “Todd, dear, do come in! I can feel the cold seeping into my old bones already. Surely you’ve had enough for today.” Todd nodded humbly and carefully walked across the road, and stepped nimbly over what was left of the vegetable garden. He would need to help Anette finish bringing in what was left of those veggies soon, and grease the hinges on the screen door, too. “I made your favorite treat!” She grinned, her gummy smile that always warmed him to his core, “I’ll let you sneak one before we have dinner proper, then you can go wash up while I set the table.” She winked at him, indeed they were truly co-conspirators on this one, and led him into the kitchen where she set a plate before him covered in a mound of icing, under which Todd presumed there was a piping hot cinnamon roll. He gestured his appreciation and set to work eating the warm treat, letting the goo of the icing drip from the fork she’d set next to the plate. He whistled softly, hoping Anette wouldn’t notice as Honey came lumbering in, slick, oily slobber falling from his jowls. Todd held a small morsel of cinnamon roll down to the hound who happily lapped it from his fingers. Anette, never one to miss a beat, wagged a wooden spoon above the pot where she was mixing some delicious smelling concoction, “Don’t spoil Honey’s dinner, Todd! You know how too much sugar gives him a belly ache. Why, the last time you snuck that poor hound too much sugar I thought for sure his howls were going to call up the Devil himself!” Todd bristled at Anette’s euphemism, but settled back into his chair quickly as she continued to stir the pot on the stove. Having finished his pre-dinner, Todd stood up from the kitchen table – stooping slightly so as to not scratch the ceiling with his horns – and shambled into the washroom where Anette had already set out towels for him to use to clean up.

Once the bath had come to a good rolling boil, steam filling every crevice of the washroom, Todd slipped lazily into the bath. Indeed, it had been a long day and was sure to be an even longer night. His current work orders would be tough to fill given the limited amount of time he had left to make his monthly quota. He’d need to work double-time. Sighing he sank deeper into the tub and focused on loosening the tight feeling in his aching limbs, careful not to scratch the acrylic siding. Todd had started to doze off slightly when Honey came lumbering through the door frame, having nosed the door open (an annoying trick Anette had taught him). Honey plopped a small bowl into Todd’s outstretched claws and then turned tail and ran, knowing that whatever news Todd was about to receive it would likely be unwise to stay in the room. Todd turned the mouth of the bowl toward his face and gazed deep into the dark goop that lined it, “Yes, what is it?” He growled lowly, hoping that Anette wouldn’t hear the strange tongue with which he spoke. “You’re behind on sales for this month, Butterball.” Todd rolled his eyes, this nickname never failed to insult him deeply, yet the undertones of jealousy in how all the other demons said it made him smile a little in satisfaction, “I know what my numbers are.” He was all too aware. He had precious little time left to make the most of his month. “You don’t want to be demoted to cross-roads, do ya? Better start planting some seeds of bad ideas in some heads!” Todd resisted the urge to roll his eyes, “I’m on it.” He hissed, waving his hand over the bowl and erasing the image of the demon staring back at him. His long night had just gotten longer.

Having finished helping Anette clean up after dinner, Todd walked with her into the sitting room. She would likely crochet for another hour or so before retiring for the evening. He placed a note in her lap, “Have to go to work. Be back by tomorrow for dinner.” Her face crumpled a little when she read “tomorrow,” but Anette wasn’t one to complain or ask too many questions. She just nodded and patted his face, “You be a good boy, Todd. Keep the boss happy. I’ll make you something special for dinner when you return.” Todd nodded, fighting back the urge to just plop down on her sitting room floor and listen to her tell him stories of her youth. He hunched himself over and was halfway out the front door when Anette hopped from her seat so fast he thought for sure she had broken a bone on impact, “Wait right there, Toddy! You can’t leave without your dessert!” Todd nodded and waited for the old woman to shamble back through her house to the kitchen, Honey fast on her heels. Todd couldn’t help but smile at the sight. Most people would’ve been running from a Hound of Hell sobbing for their life, Mrs. Martin was likely going to ask the thing to take the cinnamon rolls to Todd since she was so slow moving these days. Indeed, Honey came bounding back through the house with a paper bag filled to the brim with a stock of cinnamon rolls that would be replenished the next week. Anette yelled her goodbyes as she shuffled back in from the kitchen and Todd carefully closed the front door behind him, making sure he had latched all the locks as he left. Good thinking, Anette, he thought to himself, They never can resist your baking.

Find the Prompt That Inspired This Text

Tired

“I’m tired.”

“You’re always tired.” Michelle didn’t even look at me past her newspaper. I sighed, signalling that I had heard her and I could only resign myself to agree. I was always tired. Like most of the 20-somethings with dead-end jobs and a crummy apartment on the poor side of town. I was tired of working all day only to get back home and feel like I hadn’t done anything. I was tired of coming back to an apartment that was falling apart. I was tired of looking in the mirror each morning and seeing so much misery.  Most importantly, I was tired of the sad back-and-forth Michelle and I shared. It’s not that we didn’t still like each other, but we’d already grown old in each other’s presence.

“Perhaps we should go to the park tomorrow?” I asked, maybe I would feel better if I got some fresh air.

“Nah, I have to go into work early tomorrow. Shanon’s sister is getting married so I’m covering for her.” Michelle cast her newspaper into our recycling bin. “Besides, it’s allergy season.”

I turned my attention to my eggs, which were apparently burning up in the frying pan, “Well, would you like to do anything fun at all this week?”

Michelle growled, “Don’t do this. You know I want to spend time with you, it’s not like I’m dying to work extra shifts. Though we’ll need to money if you keep ruining all of our food with your terrible cooking.” She stormed from the room, presumably to go get ready for another one of her busy days without me. I stared down at my burnt breakfast, I was weirdly empathising with the egg.

“Perhaps I’ll go to the park by myself, then.” I slid the egg onto a plate, I might as well eat it.

Happy Birthday

I licked the marshmallow fluff off my fingers. “You know this is rather unconventional.” I said, grabbing the mixing bowl from the counter. “I know, but I’d so much rather have fudge for my birthday than cake. Besides, it’ll just be us so I don’t see any problems with it.”

I rolled my eyes, “I told you we could invite people over. You insisted we just stay in and watch movies on Netflix. That was not my idea and you don’t get to pin it on me.”

She laughed, “I know that, silly. I hate cake anyway, so I’m not sure what we’re even arguing about.”

I shrugged, “I’m just making sure we all remember whose idea this was.”

“Well, next year I’ll let you throw me a huge dinner party. But this year isn’t special enough for that kind of thing.”

“What? This is so a very special year. You’ve been able to drink legally for a whole year.”

She stuck her tongue out, “Yes and it’s been horribly exciting, but hardly worth celebrating.”

I decided it was best not to argue anymore and focused on making the fudge she had requested. She was horribly infuriating, she would never let me be romantic or do anything charming for her. She was always so against me doing anything really nice for her. Some days I didn’t mind that she wasn’t a romantic, but other days I just wanted to be her prince charming.

That’s when I heard the knock at the door. Max, I told you to come tomorrow. Not today you idiot! “I’ll get it, you focus on making your fudge perfect.” She shrugged and continued working while I answered the door. “Hello birthday girl! I brought you a ton of squash.” Karen looked up in surprise, “Hey Max. I have to admit I’m a little surprised to see you here.”

“How could I miss my favorite girl’s birthday? I know, I know. You told Robbie over here not to have anyone over but I just couldn’t resist bringing you one of your favorite dishes.”

“Max, you really shouldn’t have. But I really do appreciate it.” Karen moved in for a hug and laughed, “I hope you don’t mind fudge, because we didn’t make any cake.”

Max just laughed and walked over to where our little food project was almost finished. I was furious. I cannot believe he had the audacity to come over here when I told him not to. It’s not like I wasn’t very clear with my instructions! I wasn’t mad with Max so much as I was mad that my plans were ruined. He would undoubtedly discover the pie in the back of the fridge I was saving for tomorrow’s surprise party. And he would undoubtedly eat it. Then I would be without pie and in a real bind. Not to mention I was horrified by the thought he might blurt out what we were doing tomorrow. He wasn’t very good at subtleties.

When I finally regained my composure I realized that I might not have anything to worry about. “Y’know, I always wanted to be a vet when I grew up. Now look at me, I’m twenty-two and I’m what my parents refer to as a starving artist.” Karen laughed, “Though I can’t imagine I’ll starve with all this food in the apartment.” As long as she’s the one leading the conversation maybe it will be fine. 

After an overly long evening listening to Max and Karen banter about any number of topics I mentioned that it was perhaps time for Max to go home. “Well, I can’t go home before midnight! It’s rude to duck out on a person’s birthday. I won’t have it.”

“Max, don’t be silly. You’ll be too tired to drive home at midnight.” Karen said, still laughing.

“I am not and will not. I’m sticking with you two for a while yet.” Max said, stomping his foot down with finality.

I rolled my eyes but let it drop, after all it was Karen’s birthday and I decided if she was having fun my plans didn’t need to be focused upon.