Tag Archives: gothic horror

The Fishermen’s Bend

The old man sat on a barrel of salt pork with his head bowed as if in prayer. A checkerboard with a game half-played sat on the pickle vat in front of him. Dust cemented the pieces in place, not one of the men filling the general store had posessed the courage to challenge him to a game in years.

The old man was known as Murphy. No one alive could tell you if it was surname or given, as it was preferable to know as little about the man as possible. Though each man who owed livelihood to the sea relied on him, they crossed the street when they saw him shamble by.

Murphy was a master of knots. Age had tightened the muscles and chords in his hands until they were knots themselves. His shoulders were stiff as stone in a monkey’s-fist formation. His hair was a tangled mass no brush could brave. His mouth was a blood knot puckered in the worn fabric of his face. He alone brokered a seat in the store, which was packed to standing-room only by fishermen. They gave him a healthy berth.

Murphy opened eyes as sharp and grey as the sky outside. “You be wanting something?”

Which was a considerable outburst from the man.

“Tide’s going out,” one man ventured. He hid among his fellows when Murphy’s piercing gaze combed the crowd.

“Tide’s going out,” another man said. Paddy Keane, a meaty giant of a man who had sired a healthily crowded family. He commanded a crew of six men and did not flinch at Murphy’s gaze. “Time for leaving is past gone. What do you say?”

Murphy grunted and swallowed a load of phlegm. “Not today. Maybe tomorrow.”

The men grumbled. Paddy crossed arms sinewed as steel cable.

“Seven days, we been waitin’. Seven days the market’s asked for fish, and we’ve said no. Seven days we have hungerin’ babes and you say an eighth?” He stepped up to the barrel and set his hands down hard in the fossilized checker game. “We’ve had it, old man. I’ve had it.”

Murphy eyed the new contender. “Piss off, Keane. I knew your father when he were in short pants. You don’t frighten me.”

Paddy stood, retrieving a billhook from his belt. As the men made another empty space around him, he pulled an oilcloth from his pocket and set to cleaning it.

“I don’t frighten you? You don’t frighten I, either.” The metal sounded like a finger rubbing the rim of a wine glass as he polished it. The surface was dulled from years of beating pollock  and flounder into submission. “You haven’t been out on a boat in years. You’re an old wive’s tail, you are. I’ll kill a black hen at sunrise before I ever believe in you.”

The store had fallen achingly silent. Outside, the wind made the wooden shingles creak. Murphy scanned the store and found a crowd of faces turned to the ground.

“You set your hat with him?” No answer. “Who taught ye the knots every sailor needs to know? The hitch that stoppered your backstays? The secret fishermen’s bend that calls truce with Neptune?”

“I’ve not seen a new sailor in a hen’s age,” one man timidly spoke up. He did not shrink before Murphy’s gaze either. “I’ve seen you sit here and run up credit with the store, but I haven’t seen you school anyone.”

“Your son. Or his son, maybe.”

“I’ll teach him.”

The crowd began muttering assent, reeling out their own anecdotes in defiance of the old man.

Murphy stood from his barrel, and the talk fell away.

“It doesn’t take a sailor to read the wind,” he said, “and it doesn’t take a brave man to start a brawl. I say no-one sails.”

Paddy broke out in a rolling guffaw. “How will you stop us, eh? Will you knot the air?”

Murphy, faced by a wall of derisive faces, sat on his salt-pork throne. “Watch me,” he said.

His swollen hands suddenly became like water, years melting away as he moved his hands in a graceful dance. The men could practically see the bight in his hands being twisted and looped this way and that. The sky outside darkened as the old man muttered and sweated and worked his fingers on empty air. Finally, he let his arms fall on the checkerboard and pushed his breath out in a long sigh.

It was a long while before one of the men said, “he’s not moving.”

Murphy sat, sharp upright as he ever had, dead at the pickle barrel with his eyes staring straight forward at nothing. Paddy grimaced and rolled his lids down with the palm of one hand. They sprang open again.

“Ghastly. Get the sawbones.”

The men piled out of the store on their way to the town’s doctor/coroner. It was only then that they realized the wind had sucked in like a heavy held breath. Above the cove where their boats lay on pebbled sand, helpless as fish without the tide, above the tarpaper shacks where their families burned fires to keep away the sea-chill, above their very heads was a maelstrom that roiled in a thick knot of clouds that spanned the width of the sky.

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The Diabolical Book

The bookmaker sat on a blanket in the open air market. His front teeth were worn to nubs from gnawing at linen thread. His hands were deeply callused from generations of papercuts. He alone merited the shade of the market’s lone tree, for he could not afford a canopy.

His ears picked up the tap of shoes arriving at his blanket. The old man wiped patiently at a book. Nine times out of ten, footsteps approaching meant merely he was an oddity being observed.

The stranger spoke: “you are Prindl, yes?”

“That is what most call me.” Prindl’s face tracked the root of the voice, tilting like a sunseeking flower.

“You are blind?” The stranger sounded oddly delighted. The mild scent of tobacco hit the bookmaker’s nose. Nothing else. How odd.

“Too many nights working over tallow candles.” Prindl straightened his charges, running his hand over covers as if caressing sleeping children. “My output is not what it once was, but please take your pick.”

The stranger did not hesitate a moment before saying, “you have nothing that strikes my fancy here, my good man. I have a special order in mind.”

Prindl grimaced. “I only make custom books on rare occasions now. Please, I’m sure what you want must be here.” He proffered a red leather-bound Octavo volume.

“In truth, nothing of what I want exists in tangible form.” The stranger squatted on his heels. His shoes creaked oddly, as if his feet did not fill the soles. “I have need of a book to write in. I have many things to write.”

“Suna near the entrance is a journal-maker.” Prindl was irritated now. “Complete with pens. Her wife makes the pretty marbled endpaper. Those should suit you.”

“Now now, not every record is a journal. This would be massive.” The strangers voice had a kind of charm that picked at one’s head. “May I at least tell you of the book I want?”

Prindl said nothing.

“It must be a volume of nearly infinite capacity. Therefore the spine would have to be a core of 360 degrees. Each page must be as thin as you could get it, and fold out to another, even thinner page. No cover would be needed, of course.”

Even in the daylight, Prindl grew cold. “No such book can exist. Here—” he pushed a maroon volume forward. “A birds-nest binding, very popular with lovers back in my youth. The pages are good rag linen.”

“That won’t do, I’m afraid.” The stranger was mildly amused.

“Well then here—” Prindl picked more books up. “A ladder binding. The cover is dolphin leather. Gurt the embosser did the interior before he died. Anything you’d see on the market now is his son. Or how about this?” He held up a small, sleek quarto. “Tuck-fold binding. The cover itself could be a writing surface.”

“My man, no other book will do. No other artist will do. I’ve asked around, and only you seem to possess the skill I need.”

Prindl frowned. “A circular volume is…blasphemy.”

“I didn’t take you for a believer.”

“And I’m not…save for a few select areas. This is one.”

The stranger clasped his hands together. They were covered in kid leather gloves that squeaked oddly. Prindl had to wonder at the shape of the man, like a profane volume bound in plain leather. What did the other bookmakers see, he wondered?

“It goes without saying your reward would be handsome.”

“And it goes without saying that I am old and earned my right to be contrarian. Goodbye, sir.”

Prindl stood and limped to the refreshment stall, not waiting on his potential customer.

 

The next week’s market. Prindl sat on his blanket. His hands were puffy with the sting of errant pinpricks. His sightless eyes wept with exhaustion. His hunched back ached as he sat on a cushion he’d brought from home.

There was the lopsided creak of a familiar set of shoes approaching.

“God damn you,” Prindl said without preamble.

The stranger, at least, had the good manners not to laugh. “I told you I chose you well.”

“You knew my curiosity would not let me rest.” Prindl stifled a yawn. “You didn’t ask around, did you? I was your first and only choice.”

“Curiosity is about the only reliable thing with people, I find.” The stranger’s body now carried the scent of lit tobacco. Nothing else. No meat, no eau de cologne, not even a hint of body odor.

“I have not even begun work on the signatures, I cannot find satisfactory material for the spine.” Prindl held up his shaking hands. “I know I am not up to the task. No mortal hand is. But I cannot stop.”

“Your reward will be handsome.”

“What good will handsome rewards do me in my grave? This book will be the end of me before I end it.”

“Ah, well put.” The stranger’s smile was evident in his voice. “Most folk don’t even get to that level of reasoning. They can only calculate the measure of wealth offered them. Do you know, my man, that for every ounce of surplus there is a slightly larger amount of deficit offered? One of the unsung rules of the world, I’m afraid.”

Prindl sweated. He had come late to the fair, and some beggar had taken his spot in the shade. “You won’t be back.”

“I will not need to collect the goods in person, no.”

“Neither will I.”

“Well, ask yourself this.” The stranger squatted before Prindl. With his fingertips, Prindl could pick out the leather tip of a shoe, collapsed and empty as a glove. “Were you fulfilled sitting here, hawking books as all your talent fled your fingers? Perhaps not a dozen men in the history of the world have had your skill.”

Prindl retracted his fingers. “It wasn’t fulfillment I was chasing here.”

The stranger laughed. It was a merry laugh that beckoned you to join in. “You have it by the right end. Goodbye.”

 

After no one had seen his blanket at the market for weeks, the other book sellers and binders and printers began to worry. They had always looked out for Prindl, of course.

Prindl, being a taciturn man, kept his home secret, but it did not take the world’s best minds to figure out the small shack leaning up on the fore side of the derelict paper mill was his.

Prindl lay on the floor, posed as if he still intended to fetch just one more thing from the workbench. His tools were scattered around, along with the skeletons of half-formed books he had abandoned.

On his bench was a strangely ellipsoid globe that rustled with the passing breeze. It was a circular book bearing hundreds, no, thousands of pages from a spine that sat like an apple core in the middle. If it was one or two signatures shy of completion, they were unable to see before a stray elbow knocked the globe from the bench and it plummeted right through the floor. Such weight, they said, was unheard of for a book, and a few uncouth figures joked that the book probably punched a hole right down to hell.

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Death Records

For many decades, Solomon recording studio sat on Fuller street between a used bookstore and a storefront that was called Sal’s Fish Market long after the building became empty. The interior was no more than 600 square feet, not counting the recording space, almost all of it taken up by floor-to-ceiling shelves of plain wrapped records. The sign fell off the building facade about five years into its tenure, so for years the colloquial name for the store came from the errant graffiti sprayed in the cavity left by the sign: death records.

To truly understand the recording studio, one must understand the man first: Zachariah “Scratch” Solomon started his career as a recording technician for the city’s jazz and soul population. What made his fame was the day bebop singer Cal Benson came in to record what would have been his fifth full album. Benson, 43 years old, had a massive stroke and collapsed in the booth without singing one note. Solomon ran to call 911, leaving the recording equipment running untended. In the 25 minutes it took for emergency services to find the studio, Cal Benson lay dead in the booth. It was only when his body was removed that Solomon noticed his error. Curiosity led him to play back the recording of what would become the first of Solomon’s famed “death records”: a solid 25-minute track of what is undoubtedly Cal Benson scatting in his signature style, all recorded after he had ostensibly stopped breathing. Solomon smuggled the recording home and quit the studio by phone the next day.

The process starting at Cal Benson’s death leading up to the only posthumous recording studio in existence is a mystery known only to Solomon, but somehow he managed to scrape up enough capital to open the space on Fuller. He took out ads in Fortean Times and other similar publications, hoping to draw the occult crowd. What he got was a deluge of hate mail from people who found his idea tasteless. His first client came not from the believer side of things but from the private sector: Hyman Grande, a man of some means who owned a real estate block near the store, was dying of bone cancer. He amended his will so that Solomon would be present at his death bed…which he was, a mere seven months after the decree. The record, labeled H. Grande, contained eight minutes of an unidentified voice singing “You are my sunshine”, shuffling and repeating some verses, and inserting heretofore unknown verses in other places.

This was the event that made Solomon’s name. Long after the storefront sign was replaced by graffiti, the curious could check in and make death dates for the studio or, if they so wished, sample one of the many records under the listening bell. Not all records contained music. One labeled “E. Jones” contained a recitation of the opening sonnet of Love’s Labor Lost in the original middle English. Others contain a candid conversation between two unidentified individuals, a man with a stutter attempting a tongue twister, and an animal growling.

Solomon remained a cipher throughout the years. What few people counted themselves among his friends did not know much about him besides his name and profession. It was understood that his family emigrated from somewhere in Europe in the earlier part of the century, and that he had pursued music study until an injury cut his budding career short. Solomon was notoriously tight lipped about a scar that was usually hidden by long shirtsleeves, a burn in the shape of two saxophone keys. The closest anyone came to an answer of why he chose to pursue such an odd niche in the music industry was Norbert Cane, a local jazz pianist and drinking buddy. Norbert once overheard Solomon remark that he had picked up something in the way Cal Benson had breathed shortly before his stroke, and that his ears were “better than most.”

The recording studio struggled on for nearly seven decades. The rent was 12 months in arrears when Solomon died, quietly and suddenly, in the space above the storefront. There had been no sign of poor health. Solomon had not given any indication he was in pain. Yet in the interval between locking up for the night and the hour when his assistant came to open the store, Solomon had time to tidy his bed into a sort of funeral bower and dress in his only suit before dying of unknown causes. Clutched to his chest was an unmarked vinyl record. Interpreting the gesture as his final wish, the attendant brought the portable recording equipment up to Solomon’s death bed. At his poor and city-funded funeral, Solomon’s friends gathered to listen to the posthumous recording of the man who had provided the service to countless others.

From the point when the needle hit the outermost track to the point where it slid into the run-out groove, Solomon’s record was completely silent.

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Cold Comfort

Marishka lay in the dark, very cold and very still. Splinters from the unfinished box she lay in made tiny rosettes on her skin that would have bled if her heart was beating. Her breast did not rise and fall with breath, her eyes did not track beneath her closed lids. She dreamed.

A door slammed above. Curtis was back. He, the maker of the pine box. He, the one who found Marishka.

“…here. I put it in that.”

That?” A heavy shuffle on the steps. Male, heavier than Curtis. Taller. More careful steps.

“Yeah. Pretty sweet, right? I knocked it together myself.”

“Is that a coffin?” Incredulity, readiness to run.

“Yeah, man. It’s where I keep my undead bride.”

A moment of silence, of pulse slowing to a calm.

“Curt, you funny. You open the damn thing, funny man.”

“Alright.” A hint of chuckle edged Curtis’s voice. The lid creaked back, throwing a sliver of light onto the cold translucency of Marishka’s skin. She lay impossibly still in the coffin.

Curtis’s audience, a black man who wore scrubs that matched Curtis’s own, leaned over the coffin and gaped.

“The fuck—” was all he got out. Curtis was poised at his jugular, bearing a scalpel like an auger ready to drive into a maple tree. The man choked as Curtis tapped his neck, red spattering the white front of Marishka’s dress.

She opened her eyes.

“Come and get it.” Curtis made kissing noises. Marishka rose and clamped her lips to the man’s neck, her mouth filling with arterial spurt. In the yellow light of the single basement bulb, her eyes were ice blue and her hair was as blonde as the saints on smashed church windows. Curtis watched her drink with a self-satisfied smile. Once her belly was fully Marishka was no warmer, no more alive, but she moved more freely.

“I dreamed of my homeland,” she said as Curtis manhandled the body to the nearby bathtub. “I was a girl. The nobleman who ruled over my village was a beast.”

“Mmm.” Curtis held the dead man’s head to the drain and began sawing.

“He would have spells where he rode his horse up and down the valley. When he saw me on the road one day, he fell on me like a dog. When I woke the next night, I was like this.” Marishka rubbed the splinters in her skin, which now flowered with blood the color of old wine.

Curtis sectioned the body, wrapping the parts in plastic bags. He lifted Marishka, bridal-style, onto the embalming table that he usually disguised with a tablecloth.

“Sometimes I wonder if what I dream was never true,” Marishka said as he folded her arms, funeral-style, over her chest, “and I have always been like this. There is no one left to tell me if I’m wrong or right.”

“Sure baby,” Curtis said, undoing his belt, “if you could just raise…that’s it, that’s good. Nice and still, just like that. Ohhhhh…”

 

Three days of the week Curtis worked at the hospital. The rest of the time he stayed at the abandoned house he sheltered Marishka in, doing odd repairs and the like. Sometimes he brought bodies home from the same morgue where he’d found Marishka and did things to them. Marishka watched him, curled up in a corner with her chin resting on her knee.

“Do you think you will ever find a way to end me?” she would ask.

Curtis would furrowed his brow, not looking up from today’s cadaver. “Why would you want that?”

“This life, I do not care for it.”

“Then kill yourself.” Curtis’s flippant tone could be heard even over the bone saw.

“I have tried. Do you think I have not tried?” Marishka rearranged herself painfully. Her joints ached with a cold that never seemed to go away. “You must find a way, on these bodies. You must free me, if you love me at all.”

“Sure, baby.” Curtis placed the cap of a skull on the wall of the bathtub. Marishka’s eyes followed his actions, the only moving thing in her body.

“When?”

“Soon.”

It was a conversation they had often.

 

Curtis readied himself in front of the cracked basement mirror. The lights were confined to a plug-in nightlight and a single candle by his suit jacket. Curtis straightened his tie in the mirror. His shirt was the color of an eggplant and buttoned up to the second button. Marishka watched him in a mirror that held no reflection for her.

“You go out tonight?”

“Yeah, baby.” Curtis frowned at himself, wiping at a smudge of shaving cream behind his ear. “Been thinking. I’m sure you’re getting tired of this, so I got an idea. There’s this girl at work, Laura.”

He waited for Marishka to respond. Nothing, not even the sound of breath. She could be anywhere in the room and he wouldn’t even know.

Curtis turned from the mirror. Marishka still sat in the corner, a thin white shadow.

“There’s this girl,” he repeated, “and she’s…I was going to bring her here. You bite her. Then I let you go.”

Marishka blinked, lids sliding over her eyes with the stiffness of many years. “You would bring another girl here.”

“Yeah, you bite her and I let you go. I’ve got a couple different ways lined up, I’m pretty sure one will work.” Curtis turned back to the mirror. He was twitchy.

Marishka did not talk, but long periods of silence were the norm for her.

“You would make another like me?” she asked finally.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s only fair.” Curtis spoke with increasing speed. “I’ve been keeping you, feeding you, making sure—you owe me, okay?”

“Would you keep her here, in this same box?” Marishka’s bird-thin hand brushed against the coffin. “Would you do to her what you do to me after feeding?”

“Look, it’s not your concern.” Curtis finally turned completely from the mirror and grabbed his jacket. “You want out? This is how you get out. I’ll be back at nine.”

He watched Marishka crawl into the box and nodded, satisfied.

 

The door creaked above.

“…this way.”

“Ugh, what is this?” The girl’s voice had a mellow timber. Her heels clacked on the basement steps.

“It’s where I put all those bodies I steal from the morgue. After I fuck them, of course.”

“Ha-ha-ha.” The girl was uneasy and trying not to show it. Her steps were reluctant. A rustle. Curtis had her by the arm, tugging her down the steps.

“It’s just here. I built the box around it, too big to move.” Curtis’s tone jabbed at her. “Come on, you scared? I only bite on the first date.”

“Good, ‘cause you’re not getting anything else.” The girl’s heels hit the cement of the basement floor. The box lid creaked on its hinges, but Curtis did not open it just yet.

“You ready?”

“Sure.” The girl heaved an irritated sigh.

Curtis threw the coffin lid back completely. Marishka lay within, impossibly still.

The girl, Laura, stumbled back. “The fuck?”

Curtis smiled and crossed his arms. And waited.

“What the fuck?” Laura had a small clutch purse and wore a cocktail dress. Her made-up face was frozen in horror. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Curtis glanced over at the coffin. Marishka lay still.

Laura was struggling with her fight-or-flight instinct, hand dipping into her clutch purse. “Jesus, they said you were a sick fuck, Curt, but this—”

Curtis looked over at the coffin and frowned. “No, wait, this isn’t right. Come over here.” He approached Laura, flicking the switch at the base of the steps at the same time and plunging the room into darkness. Laura met his grasping hand with a box cutter she pulled from her purse. Curtis gasped, gripping his hand at the wrist.  He looked back at the coffin, stupefied. Marishka did not move.

“Keep the fuck away.” Laura took another swipe, he danced away from the blade.

“Come on, you bitch,” he snarled, although whether he spoke to Laura or Marishka was ambiguous.

Laura made a passing feint and then stuck the blade in his neck. Curtis gasped all the air from his lungs and sank to the floor.

Laura looked down at him, shaking. “I’m calling the cops,” she said numbly.

As she stumbled up the steps, Marishka’s eyes opened. She put the dainty white form of her foot out of the coffin and onto the concrete that was as cold as her skin. She rose. Curtis could only draw irregular breaths, eyes glazing over. He pulled the knife from his neck. As his life dribbled from the puncture wound, he looked to Marishka with pleading eyes.

The girl stepped over him without a single glance and walked silently up the basement steps, out into the night.

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A Haunting

He did not know how or when it began, but Peter realized over the course of many months that he was reluctant to go home at the end of the day. The excuses grew naturally out of real needs and wants: they were out of milk, he wanted to catch up with an old friend, traffic delayed him. But the excuses wore thinner and thinner. It was on a Tuesday, when he was looking at his reflection illuminated by the last rays of a sinking sun in the blacked-out window of an empty shop, when Peter finally came clean to himself: he truly did not want to go home.

But why?

He spent many days gnawing at the question. He was not tired of his wife, Nina. Their daughter Shannon did not treat him with open hostility. He had no reason to believe the two-story colonial gingerbread he lived in was haunted.

…but he paused on that thought.

What was a haunting but an unfriendly, unwelcome habitation? And, truth be told, when he came home without any family to greet him, he felt himself the unwelcome guest. He was haunting his own house.

Peter laughed. How could he haunt his own house? His paintings on the walls, his aftershave sharing the sink rim with Nina’s antiperspirant, his daughter’s growing heights notched into the dining room wall? True, his family was what made the house his home. But he belonged there, just as much as anyone.

Peter parked the Cheverolet in the driveway and stared up at the dim windows. From this angle, they had a cant that made them resemble unfriendly eyes. The front knob would not accept his key. Peter struggled with the lock, fighting down a growing dread.

“Peter?”  Nina parked and spilled out of her sedan. Shannon pried herself from the passenger side under the bulk of the dry cleaning. Nina stepped primly up the front walk, drawing her key like a sword.

“Door trouble?”

“I guess.” Peter’s face reddened. “Maybe we should call a locksmith.”

The knob accepted Nina’s key without complaint. The door practically fell open. Nina cast a critical eye to Peter’s key. “Maybe we should make another copy.”

Peter mumbled something.

The house was a cold blank until she hit the hall switch and suddenly they were transported to their home, with the ship-rope rugs on the bare hardwood floors and a photo of his grandparents hanging just above the shoe rack.

It would have been too easy to forget about it once snugly confined in the bosom of his family. Nina chattering over pasta, Shannon practising steps in the hall. Peter sat in a snug chair that had survived through college and felt very much at home.

But he did not forget.

“Maybe we should get a dog,” he said later that night. Nina, in bed with her magazine, gave him an aside glance.

“Who’s going to walk it? Shannon is full-time this semester, and I don’t have the kind of mental space for an animal.”

“I was just thinking, you know, when I get home, the house is so empty…” the reasons, so concrete in his head, slipped from his fingers. Nina put a small kiss just above his eyebrow.

“Oh Peter,” she said, in a tone that could have been pitying or contemptuous.

He embraced the time away from the house. He went to work and spoke with colleagues and lived. He was a person who belonged in the world. As long as he kept away from the problem, there was no problem, right?

After a few rounds of pool, long past dark and the point where Nina should be home, Peter received a text. He pulled over and let the cold screen light the car.

PRACTICE LATE. WE’RE GRABBING TAKEOUT. LEFTOVERS IN FRIDGE.

Peter parked askew in the driveway. His hands were shaking. Above him loomed the house, dark and disapproving as a tombstone. He sat in the car. How late was late? He could stay in the car, play it off like he’d just got home when they arrived. He thumbed through a paperback under his dome light. He played spider solitaire until his battery ran low. He ran the heater until his head hit the back of the seat and someone was suddenly rapping on the driver’s side window.

“Peter?” Nina’s voice was alarmed. Peter killed the engine. His wife and daughter gazed concernedly through the window. Flushed red, he tried to play it off.

“Late. Must’ve fallen asleep.” The dashboard clock said near midnight.

Peter got out of the car and stretched. Nina was not budging.

“You’re starting to worry me, Peter. You’re staying out later and later, now…this.” She indicated the car with her hand. “What are you afraid of?”

“Afraid?” Peter laughed.

“Daddy, come on.” Shannon looked at him through dewdrop-thick glasses. “You keep coming home late, and you won’t let us leave the house without you.”

Their gazes were sterile pins. He was being dissected. Nina shook her head.

“Come on,” she said, grabbing his arm and turning him around, “use your key. Go in. There’s nothing wrong.”

Peter tried very hard to make his legs bend, tried not to fight them as they pushed him up the walk, but he couldn’t make his body obey properly. The dead front window glared at him, showed him a room cold and empty and unwelcoming. He needed them to go first, to purify the air with their laughter, but they were behind him and pushing.

“There,” Nina stopped. “Key in the lock. You can do it.”

Peter fumbled with the keys. He dropped them twice. Nina was less than amused. The lock stuck, refusing to accept the whole key at first and then refusing to turn one way or the other. He looked to the girls for help. Nina nodded impatiently at the door.

The lock snicked open like a sudden jeer. Peter had to shove the door to get it moving. The front hallway was cold and dark.

He looked back. Nina nodded again. After you.

Peter’s footsteps carried reverb. He walked down the front hall, dark and strange to him. He couldn’t even remember where the hall switch was as he felt along the wall.

“Okay there, I’m…in.” He could bring himself to say ‘home.’ Where was the damn switch?

“Well?”

He turned back. The hall was dark. There was no door.

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Wreckers

If there was one consistent nightmare to my childhood, it was this: Legends of the Eastern Coast, page 12, plate 2. The Wreckers. I can’t tell you what horrors that etching awoke in my young soul, those vile people with their sneering grins and makeshift weapons. They didn’t wear buccaneer finery, didn’t fly the jolly roger or drink rum. They were land pirates, my grandfather explained to me, a thousand times more terrible than any scurvy dog I had come to know. He would dissect the scene for me, sickle-moon fingernail hovering on each crucial point of the illustration. Here is the signal fire they lit in mimic of a lighthouse. Here was the cargo that drifted to shore once the ship ran aground on the shoal. Here were the living crewmen, being set upon by countless devil-tongued hounds. Here were the wreckers coming with wicked knives and clubs towards the survivors—

I lived in terror of them. I had never even been in a boat or visited the east coast, yet they awakened some kind of ancestral fear in me. There was something so unusually cruel in them that struck me, even as a child. I imagined myself on one of those boats, seeing the friendly signal of a fire only to wind up sinking. Lighting out, terrified, for the shore and the arms of my fellow man, only to be beaten and stabbed for what was in my boat. It could be hay. It could be a weary head of soldiers back from some military action, worthless as cargo. What then?

My mother finally saw to it that the book wound up on one of his higher shelves. If I stood on his stepladder, I could graze the spine with my fingertips but I could not pull it from the shelf. It could not get to me.

I grew up and married. Traveling along the highway one night, my man at the wheel, I sat in the back with the safety belt buckled around my swelling belly. Our child. My cargo.

My husband leaned forward and squinted out the windshield. “Someone’s had an accident.”

Four words I will never be able to forget.

I pulled myself up so I could look over the seat. Far ahead, I could see the red gleam of road flares. The silhouettes of people did frantic jumping-jacks while lit from behind with that hellish glare. It woke something in me.

“Keep going,” I murmured to him. “You can’t help.”

“Nonsense. I think I’ve got my kit back there.” He was rummaging on the seat beside him, that loving fool. “And there’s that trail blanket.”

I don’t know if we hit something, or if something hit us. I know the car flipped over, because I woke with the seatbelt pinning me in place. I had been crying before I woke up.

I screamed my husband’s name. He, too tall to wear the shoulder belt comfortably, was in a heap in the driver’s seat. He wasn’t moving.

“Hello? Is there anyone?”

Talking was difficult. “Yes, we’re here! My husband— he’s—”

The driver’s-side door groaned open. The beam of a flashlight stabbed my eyes, made me turn away.

“You alive in there?”

“Yes! My husband—”

He groaned in his heap.

“Get him!” I sobbed with relief. “Get him out, he needs medical attention.”

“Now just hold on, little lady.” The man’s voice was slow and drawled and in no hurry at all. “We’ll get him out, then we’ll come for you, all right?”

“Yes, good, fine, just get him.” I squinted, but I couldn’t see beyond that bright light. Someone grabbed my husband under his arms and pulled him slowly from the car. The light did not move.

I don’t know how long I sat there, blood running to my head, light blinding me, but the quiet let me think. Had I heard sirens? I didn’t remember. How much time had elapsed since we’d crashed?

…why had we crashed?

I started hyperventilating.

There were no swirling red and blue lights, no radio cracks from a squad car. I was visibly pregnant. Why weren’t they more concerned about me? The way they’d hauled my husband from the car seemed more likely to injure him further.

I could hear subdued conversation from somewhere outside the car. I could feel my child within me stir as if he, too, was full of fear.

The back hatch creaked open, spilling our cooler and picnic blanket and a million other little things I had yet to clean out of it. I bit my lip to keep from screaming.

“Little lady, you still in there?”

My face felt inflated. My vision began to tunnel.

After a long silence I heard them rooting through the pile of our things. Murmured snatches of conversation: “….that ain’t…less than….don’t even…”

“But the car’s nice!” Someone burst out shouting, only to immediately be shushed.

I squeezed my eyes shut and let my body dangle. Let me be dead, let me be a worthless corpse.

Headlights flooded the car interior. From behind. An engine idled. I could hear the soft murmur of one of those men, a lilting tone that soothed like a lullaby, as he tried to keep the driver from getting out.

“You’re all alright here?” Someone called over.

I screamed. They scattered. Maybe the driver had a gun. Maybe they weren’t ready to put up with even slight resistance. But when the real emergency crews came they only found two cars, mine and my savior’s, with my husband stabbed quietly to death on the pavement not far from us. No lights, no other cars. Just the stubs of the road flares guttered down like the embers of a signal fire on some distant beach.

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Dream Journal

July 1st

The falling dream again.

 

July 8th

A flock of roaches took the shape of a man in a trenchcoat and begged me to extend them a line of credit. They would not leave, not even after I threatened them with fire and the lash.

 

July 10th

My brother’s death. In this one I arrived in time to hold him in my arms as he drew his last breath. I am never earlier than that. I suppose part of me will go on blaming myself for it.

 

July 15th

The lake dream again. I’ve decided to give up bathing. The thought of being submerged in anything makes my skin crawl.

 

July 20th

A series of dreams where I woke up and checked behind the door. Each dream ended the second I touched the knob. Each new dream started a second after that.

 

July 27th

Phillips started stocking the violet pastilles again. I dreamed the round I bought was porcelain and an unchecked bite broke my molars. Phillips refuses to special order anything for me.

 

August 1st

I was descending a ladder into the sewers. I did not dream of entering them, and I never reached the bottom. Simply descended, rung after rung. My arms began to shake and my hands tired, but I could not stop myself descending. I think my reasoning was that I had to hit bottom eventually. When I woke, my shoulders were sore from my sleeping position.

 

August 3rd

That girl, Bettina Kane, I had a crush on in grade school. Her skin broken out in spider bites, her hair a nightmare web. She slavered as she told me she was ready to elope. Her mouth was a jagged hole of blackness.

 

August 7th

I was in Phillips’ store, and the lot of them were trying to convince me my name was Bachmann. I’ve never even known a Bachmann. Could this have something to do with my indecisiveness on the new art exhibit?

 

August 10th

I took a long, cold walk to the edge of town. There I stopped and stared at a rock no different than the one either side of it. Then I dreamed the long walk back; every footfall, every dull breath. I had to check my sheets to make sure I hadn’t tracked in dirt.

 

August 13th

I did not get to sleep until after 1 am. My alarm somehow defaulted to the chime it came installed with, and the song crept into my dreams. It was part of a piano recital I could not leave. I woke at 6 and could not lay down again. I cannot nap.

 

August 16th

In-between dreams I have a black expanse of nothingness. I like it less than even the worst dream.

 

August 19th

Dreamed I walked to Phillips’ store and bought a pack of saltines and a new pen nib. Woke up to a half-eaten cracker on my pillow. I don’t know what to believe anymore.

 

August 20th

Phillips swears I came by. He also swears my appearance has changed. In my dreams last night I wore a hat as I hunted my doppelganger through the city.

 

August 23rd

My brother died again. He had miraculously resurrected and while out looking for me, he fell from a building. I did not cry in my dream, but my pillow was damp with saltwater this morning.

 

August 24th

Phillips claimed I ate his last round of Gruyere. I think he’s just trying to offload his odds and ends and blame me. I did not dream last night. I don’t even like Gruyere.

 

August 30th

The lake dream again. This time there was no land. I tread water and let the chill steal the feeling from my body. Maybe I’ll die soon.

 

September 2nd

I did it again. It wasn’t until Phillips called me Bachmann that I realized I was in a dream. This morning I have a new pack of cigarettes and some mints he swears he sold me. I will tie my ankle to the bed and get to the bottom of this.

 

September 3rd

My brother came and untied my foot. He explained that it was my job to wander out into the world because I was the last member of our family left alive. Sleep was immaterial. My ankle was still tied when I woke.

 

September 8th

I had a dream of being cognizant through my own funeral. It was very much like an interminable headache.

 

September 14th

I dreamed I sat down at this very desk and wrote all these pages, all these entries, one after one. This morning I turn each crisp page spotted with my handwriting and I just wonder. I can’t prove it one way or the other, can I?

 

September 21st

After weeks of no dreams, Bachmann came. He looked like me, but he was not me. He thanked me for holding this place for him, but now it was my time to go. I denied his agency after seeing how he cast a distorted reflection in my mirror. I took up this journal to write, and he stares at me as I inscribe these pages. We shall see who bends first.

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Corpse Blue

Tanner stood at the basement door, seeing or imagining he could see all the way to the bottom of the unlit basement steps. A damp miasma breathed out at him, bringing the earthy smell of mold and an undertone of something metallic. He tested his weight on a step, feeling it accordion beneath his foot. The oval ceramic doorknob(original to the building) felt firm to his grip. If he were to plunge down into that lightless interior, could the door act as an anchor?

The buzz of the intercom cut into his thoughts. He looked down into the darkness one last time before shutting the door.

Angelika was on the steps. She wore a felt artist’s beret cocked cheekily to the side of her head. Her coat was a tapestry cut up and put back together piecemeal, a batik chicken head peeking up from beneath her lone backpack strap.

“Hey mister Tanner.” Her smile put a dimple in one cheek. “Sorry it’s been a while.”

“It’s no problem, Angie.” He stood to the side of the door. “You’re the only one to humor this old skeleton anymore. Come on in, have a glass of formaldehyde.”

She laughed a laugh that crinkled her nose and squeezed past him, bringing with her the scent of ylang-ylang and citrus.

The entryway of the apartment was taken up by a series of brown-wrapped squares and rectangles that Angelika shamelessly poked at.

“Yours?”

He loosened a corner. “Mine. from my blue period.”

Beneath the paper, the canvas ached blue. A blue sun mourned over a blue chevy parked at a blue honky-tonk in a blue desert. The brushstrokes were thick and loose, running out roughly ¾ down the frame.

Angelika grinned. “It’s so raw. Why don’t you have these up?”

“I ran out of materials. Everything’s so hard to come by, you know?” He scratched the canvas with a nail. The cheap linseed oil flaked beneath his fingertip.

Angelika didn’t notice. She was already through the door and in Tanner’s studio. Doffing her beret and shedding her coat, she marveled at the much smaller canvas currently huddled on the easel.

“Is that one of yours too?”

Tanner laughed. “I wish. That’s a special painting. I actually got on loan in hopes of showing it to you.”

The palette was mostly warm tans with the odd spot of Payne’s grey. Six journeymen worked away in some sort of guild workshop, floor littered with wood shavings as a dog gnawed on a soup bone.

Angelika turned this way and that. “What’s so special about it?”

Tanner was looking at her, not the painting. “Tell me.”

“The composition? No, wait, it’s the dog.” Her finger stabbed at the canvas. “Wait, those tools…is it a freemason thing?”

Tanner burst into his first genuine laugh of the day. “No…it’s the color.”

Angelika bit her lip. “Is it…ochre?”

“No.”

“Umber?”

“Nope.”

“Sinopia?”

“No.” He was watching her so carefully. “It’s called mummy brown.”

The smile dimmed a few notches. “Is that what I think it is?”

Tanner smiled now. “Exactly. Mummies, so cheap and plentiful they burned the limbs as train fuel back in the day. For a time, mummy brown was very popular as a pigment. It’s got a nice, rich tone from the body’s natural iron. But this is really just the tip of the iceberg, Angie. I really wanted to talk to you about anthropigments.”

“Anthropigments?”

“Pigments from the human body.” Tanner gently took the canvas from the easel, unwrapped another and placed it on. “See this? Bone white. Fusili. He actually painted this on Poveglia island as he was dying of consumption. Took midnight trips to the burial pits for supplies. Look—” he brushed the eggshell-and-ecru composition with an owlfeather broom. A pale young priestess was borne along on a palanquin by her retinue. Save for her jewelry and a sliver of sky, the painting was all beiges.

“And here’s Beaufort.” The little pasteboard square barely bigger than a TV tray. “Parade along the Rue de Bac. Iron red pigments. Blood. Not colorfast enough” He dragged a hand sheathed in a white cotton glove down the chocolate-colored brickwork. “It’s livered, you see. At the 1912 Paris salon, I’m told it created quite a stir. Now look at it. Muddy.”

Angelika spoke in a very careful voice. “Sounds like you know a lot about these.”

Tanner looked like a man surfacing from a deep well. “Oh…once I was doing my master’s thesis on them. Once. Still have Heymach’s vial of bilirubin in here, somewhere. He was doing a series on the body’s humors. Never got past bile.”

Angelika was spellbound by the pictures. Her expression stuck halfway between disgust and fascination. Tanner admired her from this angle. He could bust her face down to a series of trapezoidal shapes and match a color to each section. His brush fingers ached with cravings.

“There’s one I don’t have to show you, though,” he said, circling around to fumble through one of the haphazard piles behind the easel, “I’ve never found anyone who worked with it. Even with all the devotees this artform has, it’s never been done.”

He retrieved a small glass vial from beneath a bag of oak galls. The vial contained a few grains of a dusky blue pigment. From the mouth of the vial flew a tag that read “R. Disick, 1956.”

Angelika took in hand. “There’s no blue pigments in the body,” she said, now more curious than horrified. Good.

“Not in,” Tanner said, “but of. This is Vivianite. It grows on corpses.”

Angelika’s eyes lit up with wicked fire. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“Not surprised.” He took the vial back. “It only happens in very specific conditions. First, the grave has to be damp. Then you have to have iron present. There was a train engineer, died back in the 1800’s. He had a cast-iron coffin with a viewing window, it was the style at the time. The window leaked. His family watched him turn blue over the decades.”

“Wow.” Angelika followed the vial raptly with her eyes. Tanner felt sure, now.

“I’ve got something else, if you’ll care to follow me,” he said, walking over to the basement door and putting a hand on the knob.

Angelika started to follow, then the smile ran away from her face as she slapped at her back pocket. She ferreted the phone from the depths of her levis and swore when she saw the screen.

“Oh jeez. I am so rude for saying this, but I have to be somewhere else ten minutes ago.”

Tanner felt his hand tighten on the knob. “But—just a quick look?”

“No.” Angelika was tossing on her beret and coat without care to how she looked. “I set an alert for my plein air club meeting and totally missed the first warning. I’m so sorry, trust me, I’ll make it up to you.”

“It’ll just be—”

“I’ll make it up, I promise!” Angelika was already dashing for the door.

“Just make sure and come back!” He called after her. He heard the door slam in the middle of his sentence, but kept talking. “Come back. You’re the only one who does, now.” His hand slid from the knob. A damp breeze from the crack beneath the basement door washed over his ankles. “It’s been so long since the last one. So long…”

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Amy on the Train

Amy was thirteen, and had been thirteen for a very long time. The train car she sat in was an overnighter, meant for people who couldn’t afford a sleeper car. The night dimmed the windows to opacity, so Amy used the glass as a mirror to watch the compartment door open. A nicely-dressed man and three children hustled in, chattering before they even got the door open. There was a teenage girl, a boy with glasses who looked a few years younger, and a little red-faced boy in a sailor suit who immediately set to kicking the seat opposite his.

“Jack,” said the man without much heat or conviction, “stop that.”

The boy made no such motion. The family immediately spread out, capturing so much of the seating Amy was forced to press against the window. Her breath didn’t steam the glass.

“I don’t see why we couldn’t get a sleeper,” said the girl, tossing her hair. It was quite voluminous and chased with ribbons so that it looked almost like a cake.

“Amelia, dear, I have explained this,” said the father, not looking up from his papers, “we will be in at your grandmother’s stop within a few hours. It would be a waste of money.”

“But we have to share compartments with any dirty old stranger!”

Not once did any of them look over at Amy. The little boy bored with kicking the seat and began bumping the makeshift desk his father held on his lap with his knees.

“Jack, stop that,” said the man, pulling away. Jack turned his heels up to his sister Amelia, who gave him a withering glare.

“Father,” said the glasses-wearing boy, “Amelia’s right, to a certain degree. These compartments are made to fit four comfortably. By rights we shouldn’t have to share.”

“I suppose you’re right, Thomas.” The father turned to Amy, not looking at her but in a direction that happened to hold her. “Would you mind getting out, terribly? We’re all very tired.”

Amy looked the group over once. “Yes, I see.”

The older boy slammed the door behind her with a loud snap. Amy stepped slightly to the side and leaned her back against the wall, listening.

“Well I don’t see why I have to mind the smelly little beast, he’s old enough to—”

“Amelia, please stop arguing with me. If you don’t learn now what will you do when you have children?”

“I’ll have nannies and maids to look after them. Really, daddy. You think I’m as malleable as that silly girl who trespassed in our car. Dirty little thing. She’s probably one of those war orphans.”

“Now Amelia, children can’t help how they appear. It’s the fault of the parents, most of the time.”

“So who can we blame that hair on, eh Ames?”

“Shut up, Thomas.”

Amy crept off. Not to another compartment, but to a quiet place where she could conceal herself. She had boarded without a ticket or bags, because she was not traveling but looking. And the family had looked quite promising.

 

11:30. The little boy Jack had escaped the compartment, or been allowed to escape to give his father some measure of peace. He throttled the external door like a pet bird’s neck, kicking the bottom panel with his heels. Amy watched the scenery pass by indifferently, gauging their speed. They were on a flat plain. Soon there would be a hill.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” she asked.

The boy jumped, then his face turned mean when he saw she wasn’t an adult. He sneered at her and resumed kicking at the door. Amy watched the restraining bolt as it rattled in its hinge. Too much force would make it vibrate free.

“I don’t believe that’s safe.”

“I don’t believe that’s safe,” the boy repeated back in a mocking tone. He reared back and gave a mighty kick, edging the bolt a millimeter. Amy could feel as the train slowed, starting up an incline.

“Are you traveling on holiday? Perhaps we’re going the same way.”

The boy kicked faster, eyes gleaming from his red face like bits of bottle glass. The bolt did not move.

“Does your sister have any friends where she’s going? Perhaps we could become acquainted.”

At mention of his sister, the boy doubled his force. Amy could feel their assent slowing. Soon they would be at the peak. The bolt was only halfway loose.

“Shall I tell your father you’re here?”

Shall I tell your father you’re here?” Kick. Throttle. Kick. The train was beginning to pick up speed.

“I only worry, because you’ve been left unsupervised.”

“Stupid girl.” Kick. Throttle. The train slipped faster down the incline.

“Something terrible could happen to a small child left alone.”

“Ugly girl.” Kick. Throttle. They were nearing the end of the slope, hitting the pinnacle of the train’s speed.

“I don’t believe this door is safe at all,’ Amy said, letting her eyes flick to the bolt. Jack followed her gaze and crowed in triumph. He yanked the bolt back and gave a final kick. The door bowed open from the force of the kick and Jack went with it, disappearing into the rushing night air. As the door bounced back, Amy caught it and latched it securely again.

 

12am. On her way down the hall, Amy ran into the older boy, Thomas, waiting in her path with a smug expression.

“Are you lost?” he asked.

“Not particularly,” Amy said. Thomas tapped the thin book in his hands.

“I’ve been reading the train regulations. Father says I’m to take over his business one day, so I read everything I get my hands on.”

“How nice for you,” Amy said.

“It says that those without fare can be charged with up to five years in debtor’s prison.” Thomas tapped the book again. “Tell me, do you have train fare?”

Amy slowly looked him up and down.

“I read all sorts of books,” Thomas bragged, having departed the real world for his own head, “read one recently that revealed the poorer classes have no choice but to continue to be poor. Bad breeding, you see. I’m sure you can’t help your lowbrow criminal behavior, but it is my duty as a paragon of good breeding to correct you. I’m going to tell the conductor and he’s going to throw you off the train. Seeing as you’re a lady, he might be tempted to go easy. But I will remind him of the rules and regulations.” Thomas tapped the book again.

Amy smiled at him, so long that he began to shift uneasily.

“Tell me,” she said suddenly, “have you ever read the riddle of the Sphinx?”

The boy colored slightly. Apparently he had skimped on the classics.

“The sphinx of greek legend sat outside a city and asked a riddle of every passer-by. If any of them got it wrong, she would tear them to pieces. Want to hear a riddle?” Amy asked sweetly.

Thomas turned slightly pale. The train ride had become bumpy, the lamps in the corridor were flickering.

Amy smiled wide and white as she leaned forward until their faces were inches apart.

“What’s black. And white. And red all over?” she whispered.

Thomas trembled. “The financial times?”

Amy laughed as the lights flickered and then went out. “No,” she said.

 

1 in the morning. The girl Amelia was in the lavatory, petting her own face listlessly. She gave a little scream when she turned around and found Amy standing very close behind her.

“You startled me,” she said, fanning her face.

Amy clustered in, preventing her from turning back to the mirror. “Oh dear. How sorry I must be. What’s keeping you up so late?”

Amelia donned a haughty look. “Looking for my horrid little brothers. You haven’t seen either of them?”

“Not recently” Amy said truthfully.

Amelia sighed and then daintily pushed her out of the way. “Then you’re of no use to me.”

“Amelia.”

The girl stopped part-way down the hall. Amy had shut the lavatory door, so the car was lit only by what little light bled from outside.

“Do you know my name is Amy? It’s quite like yours, isn’t it?”

Amelia wrinkled her nose. “Amy is cheap substitute for a real name. Is it short for something?”

“Several things.”

Amelia shook her head, which made her hair flap like a circus tent in a breeze. “A cheap name for gutter trash. I told daddy to book us a sleeper, nothing good comes from interacting with common folk.”

“Wait.”

Amelia’s hand was on the door latch. Amy walked closer, pitching her voice so that Amelia had to lean forward to hear it.

“Your brothers are dead. They died while under your watch.”

Amelia, disturbed, took her hand off the latch. As Amy drew closer, she backed away.

“There was nothing you could have done to prevent it,” Amy whispered, drawing her feet along the carpet so her steps made no sound, “but more importantly, nothing you did prevented it. You feel that your father’s money affords you a comfortable measure of safety? But that measure means nothing if it’s not enforced.”

Amy paced, slowly chasing her to the end of the car.

“You feel that if anything happened to you, it would raise a mighty furor,” Amy continued, “and you think that guards against misfortune. But it doesn’t. Collaring the burglar does not fill the safe back up. Damming the river does not un-drown the flooded. An ounce of prevention is worth much more than a pound of cure, wouldn’t you agree Ames?”

Amelia’s back hit the connecting door. She pressed her lips together so they turned white.

“Daddy,” she whispered, barely loud enough that Amy heard her over the train.

“He’s not here,” Amy said, petting her head like one would a dog, “but I am.”

 

2 and a bit. Amy closed the compartment door snugly behind her. The man(she never had gotten his name, had she?) dozed in the corner. Amy shook his arm, looking deeply into his eyes as he woke.

“Your children are dead,” she said.

“Yes, I see,” he said back.

“You no longer have any reason to travel to your original destination.”

“Yes.”

“Shall you accompany me, then? I’m getting off at the city.”

“Seems only logical,” the man said.

 

The passengers disembarked around five in the morning, which was still dark at this time of year. Amy stepped confidently off the train, looking like a girl who knew exactly where she was and where she was going. Still, she waited until a blank-eyed gentleman stepped off the train, linking arms with her so that it looked like he was escorting her and not the other way around.

Because Amy was thirteen, and would continue to be thirteen for the foreseeable future.

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Ends

“For some people, Halloween is a holiday. For others, it’s a way of life.”

Leonard wasn’t looking at Kyra or the box that held her dead cat. He was looking down the hill to the street where Marybeth was strolling along with her new friends, decked out in a dress that looked like a black wedding cake.

Kyra didn’t reply, she was still digging the hole. She only had a hand trowel to do it. Toonces had been a big cat towards the end of his life.

The shoebox that held her cat’s body was tied giftwrap-style with twine. Leonard had done that. Leonard had also said he’d show up with a flatnose shovel and help her dig the hole, but he hadn’t done that. He stamped his feet against the cold and looked after Marybeth.

“Are you going to her party later? Could you get me an invite?”

Kyra used the measuring of the hole as an excuse to not answer right away. It was wide and long enough, but was too shallow.

“We’re not really hanging out much anymore,” she said when enough time had passed.

“Oh really? Thought you two were tight.” Leonard looked at her for the first time since Marybeth hove into view. Kyra bent so that her hair hid her face.

“That was the beginning of the year,” she said carefully, “she’s made new friends. A lot of them.”

The earth mounded over Toonces’ box. Leonard lifted his boot to stomp it flat. Kyra winced.

“Toonces was a good cat,” she said by way of services, “I always had to hide him right around this time of year. My dad said people hate black cats. They think they’re the devil. He wasn’t all black anyway. He had that white spot on his chest.”

Leonard finished stomping and scraped his boot sideways to get rid of the dirt. “You have a headstone?”

Kyra held up a chunk of feldspar. “I didn’t paint it or anything. I don’t want to attract attention. You’re not supposed to bury pets, you’re supposed to have them cremated.”

“Too bad, you could’ve done some cool things with the ashes.” Leonard was looking down at the street. “You sure you don’t want to mark it?”

“I’ll remember the shape.” Kyra crossed her arms. She wanted to flick or hit Leonard so he’d look at her, just so he’d stop drifting his attention away.

“You going out tonight?”

“Dunno.” Kyra thought of the black dress she’d been working on since July, identical to the one currently occupying Marybeth Andrews’ person. “Aren’t we getting old for Halloween?”

Leonard didn’t deny it, like she hoped. He did a single-shoulder shrug and left after more forced small talk.

Kyra crouched by the grave. Toonces had not made a very big impact with his passing. She remembered coming home from trick-or-treating, feeling his body wind between her legs, his cold, curious nose pricking her ankle.

She looked away from the street.

Where the hill ran into farmland, she spied a bit of movement. Old man Deakins was in the pumpkin patch, among the withered vines. The pumpkins had long since been harvested, set out on hay bales or clustered together by the tin shed that served as a produce market. Kyra watched as he took a funny little sideways step, kicking loose dirt over a vine. There was someone else dealing with the dregs of the season.

Kyra rose from her crouch.

“Hi, Mr. Deakins!” She called to him from the white fence that separated his farm from the empty land parcels that were carved from the neighboring farm.

Deakins looked up. His hair and mustache were still brown, but there was such an air of ancient-ness to his demeanor that they all reflexively called him “old man.”

“Well hey there, sweetie pie.” Kyra would have bet dollars to donuts that he didn’t know her name. That was fine. At least he was talking to her and not at her.

“Boy that sure looks tedious.” Kyra nodded at the pumpkin vines. Her voice sounded fake, even to her ears.

“Ah, no job that’s worth doin’ is boring to me.” Deakins went back to his procedure. Step-step-scrape. “Some folk burn the fields.” Step-step-scrape. “I like to give back to the earth.”

“Oh.” And because she needed to tell this to someone, anyone, she said, “I buried my cat today.”

Deakins nodded. “Oh boy. I remember putting my first cat down.” Step-step-scrape. “Called him Pudditat. Helluva mouser.” Step-step-scrape. “Fell afoul of a neighbor dog. Not a year goes by I don’t think of him, actually.” Step-step-scrape. “Buried plenty of cats, but none like him.”

“I got him when my mom—when I started living with my dad.” It was nice, commiserating like this. Even when it was with someone so far out of her social phylum he might as well have gills. “He was going downhill for a while, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

Deakins shook his head. “Nope. I hear yah.” Step-step-scrape.

Kyra watched his peculiar dance for a moment to build up her courage.

“Do you feel—disappointed?” she blurted out.

Deakins stopped what he was doing to squint at her.

“I mean, I used to love Halloween. But as I’ve gotten older, it’s like, well, um, everything leading up to it just really psyches you up for it and then the day comes and it’s like—I don’t know,” she rambled, heart hammering. She had never said this out loud before and Deakins’ face lacked any clues as to what he thought of it.

Deakins cocked his head and looked at her. One boot heel sat on a vine that curled as if beseeching for escape from the soil.

“Sure,” he said, “think I do.”

Deakins beckoned her off the fence. Despite their rapport, she was shy about approaching him.

Deakins gestured to the farm. “You see my farm? I’ve got these fields.  Some I’ve got crops going year round. I take out the alfalfa, and suddenly it’s time for the safflower. But then there’s some I only plant but once a year. Like this one.” He kicked his heel into the brown earth. “I don’t make much on the pumpkins. Matter of fact I think I lose a little each year. But the feeling when those orange bastards come out, when the little ones come up with their faces all lit up—boy!” Deakins chuckled. “No feeling like it.”

“But when it’s all barren, like this?”

Deakins looked out over the field, scanning to and fro. “There’s a pang, I won’t lie. That’s why I’m out here. Got to give the boys a sendoff.”

“Doesn’t it make you sad?”

“Sure—a bit. But proud.” Deakins smiled, face creasing like a leather wallet. “You wanna see somethin’?”

He crouched to the ground, beckoning. Kyra came as close as she dared.

“You gotta realize every end is a beginning. I clear the wheat, the clover goes in. I butcher the cows, I feed a family. I plant the pumpkins—”

Deakins’ gnarled hands unearthed the stem of the pumpkin and dug deeper. It took a moment for Kyra to make out the stump that the vines projected from. Even then, she took a moment to process if she was truly seeing this, a purple twist of scarf around a neck. Deakins continued scraping the earth away, uncovering a vest, a jacket, a headless body with vines spewing from the throat.

Kyra did not scream. She backed away, vocal chords stilled by shock. Deakins smiled proudly, as if displaying a trophy.

“See, sweetie pie? Everything gets buried, eventually.”

Kyra ran, vaulting the fence in one go. She kept up a gallop past Toonces’ grave, already birthing a green sprout. Deakins called, his voice chasing up the hill after her:

“Come back in November—butternut squash’ll be ready!”

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