Roots

Clarice glared out her window at the trees that surrounded the house. It had been her grandfather’s, once upon a time, and it still had that old people smell. He passed away during the summer and now her entire vacation was shot to hell. Instead of hanging out at the pool and driving around with her friends, she was stuck in this run down old shack with her parents for three excruciating months.

It was the type of place that couldn’t get pizza delivery. Clarice wasn’t even sure if the town had a pizza place. The TV barely worked and cell phone reception was almost non-existent. The internet was probably still just a rumor around here. The nearest neighbor was three miles away on the other side of a bunch of orange trees. She didn’t mind the distance, but she hated the fucking trees.

Her nose had started running and her eyes puffed up before they even made it to the end of the driveway. A never ending stream of snot and tears. The house itself sagged in the summer heat like a bitchy old lady, shedding long flakes of blue paint. For the last two weeks, she hid herself in her room and tried to avoid any human contact. The only time she came downstairs was for food and to take more allergy medicine.

When they first saw the place, her mother let out a low whistle and said it had “charm”. Her father nudged her and whispered, “That means it needs a ton of work, Clarice’s Pieces.” Clarice rolled her eyes. As if the nickname wasn’t bad enough, the joke was pure parent. If you laughed at their jokes, they might start thinking you were their friend, and the last thing she wanted was friendly parents.

She laid in bed at night, listening to them snoring in the next room and hating them for being able to sleep. If she was going to spend her summers in a small town at the ass-end of the map, at least she should be able to sleep. She stared at the shadows on the walls until she eventually drifted off. But she never stayed asleep for too long. Her dreams were filled with grasping roots sliding along the outsides of the walls, trying to find a way in.

They had to hire some contractors to fix things up before they could sell it. At first her father seemed to think that he could do a lot of the repairs himself. He’d even bought a tool belt and a few tools at the hardware store in town. Watching him stand there, examining the dry wall with his bright shiny tools, Clarice thought he looked like an idiot. He’d tried to build a spice rack two years ago that almost killed the cat.

“If you want it done right, you have to pay someone who knows what they’re doing!” her mother yelled one night. Her father just sighed loudly. Most of their conversations seemed to go that way lately.

Today’s contractor was a plumber. He was old, fat, and smelled like Old Spice. Staring at him, Clarice’s mind stuck on the thought, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.” She let it roll through her head a couple of times while biting back a giggle, then went to her room to avoid having to talk to anyone.

It wasn’t long before her father and the plumber were talking loud enough that she could hear them over her music. She left her room with every intention of yelling at them to shut the hell up when the old man announced, “Yep, you got roots.”

Clarice stared at the walls around her. She pictured roots crawling through the insides, wrapping the house in a network of branches. Down below, her father said something that she couldn’t quite make out, and the plumber grunted in response.

“Tricky little fuckers,” he said. “Especially out in these parts. You’ll want to make sure that you clear them out straight away. You don’t want them creeping in on you.”

Clarice moved closer to the stairs now. The plumber was standing just inside the front door. Her father was in the hall, looking confused and clueless. She could see him calculating just how much this was going to cost him to fix. It was hard not to scream at him just to pay the man what he was asking for and be done with it.

The plumber nodded to himself, as if he was thinking the same thing. “Yep,” he said, rotating each arm carefully, the shoulders grinding loud enough that she could hear them from the stairs. “They’ll sneak up on you if you aren’t careful. Got some stuff in the truck you can use to clear ’em out if you want.”

“How much?” her father asked, with the weary voice of a man who has already paid too much.

The plumber shook his head and thought about it for a second. “Won’t cost you more than a hundred bucks.”

Even though she was looking at the back of his head, Clarice felt her father smile. “Or I could go pick some stuff up at the hardware store for a third of that.”

“You could do that,” the plumber said, nodding his head a little. “But that cheap, manufactured shit won’t do much for your problem here. You’re new in town, so maybe you don’t know how tricky these things can get–”

“It’s just a few roots,” her father interrupted. Clarice sighed. It was the same voice he’d used with her mother when he wanted to feel capable. “I’m pretty sure I can handle dumping some chemicals in the toilet to fix the problem.”

The plumber waved at the trees that surrounded the house. “This ain’t a problem that chemicals can fix,” he said. “You need someone who knows what they’re doing.”

Her father set his jaw and glared. They stood like that for a moment, staring at each other. Finally, the old man shook his head and shuffled out of the hall. Clarice hurried back up to her room and watched as he made his way back to his pickup truck. He looked back at the house once, right before he left, and she thought he might have waved at her. It was hard to tell. Then he shook his head again and drove off down the gravel road towards town.

She glanced out into the bathroom across the hall and tried not to think about roots crawling up through the toilet, or reaching for her while she washed her hair in the shower. Down below, her dad was muttering to himself. Clarice tried to block out the thoughts by shutting the door, promising to keep a mental note of every crack and lump in the walls around her.

Her father went to the hardware store not long after that and spent the rest of the afternoon flushing copper sulfate down the drain. He looked ridiculous with his safety goggles and rubber gloves, but if it stopped the roots, then maybe a little silliness was all right.

That night, they ate dinner in silence. At home, there had been music and jokes. This house seemed to pull the energy from anyone who set foot in it. Even the contractors seemed to get worn out after a few hours. Clarice wondered if her grandfather had the same root trouble they were having now. The trees that seemed to get closer to the house every day gave her a pretty good idea.

“What happened to Grandpa?” she asked.

“The doctor said it was a stroke,” her father said. “By the time they found him, it was far too late.” They all sat silently for a moment absorbing that knowledge.

“He loved this house, and these trees,” her mother added. “I remember him buying the place right before Mom died. She said they were finally happy here.”

Clarice watched her mother dab tears from her eyes with a napkin. Her father leaned in and whispered something in her mother’s ear that made them both smile. She wondered when the last time was that this house had seen a genuine smile.

“I have an idea,” her father said suddenly. “Let’s go into town and get ice cream!”

They both looked at Clarice. As tempting as ice cream was, her face was still puffy from the pollen and she could barely keep her eyes open. She fought back a yawn, and pushed some food around her plate.

“I’m too tired to go,” she said, waving them off. “Maybe tomorrow, after I get some sleep.”

They both nodded and went back to eating. Nobody said a word. When Clarice could barely keep her eyes open, she excused herself from the table and went upstairs. The trees had stopped scratching at the windows, and for a moment, it was easy to enjoy the quiet.

“The poison must have worked,” she thought, as she changed into her pajamas. Her father would be so happy that he finally did something right. Maybe if they pushed the trees back from the house, she’d be able to sleep a little better.

Clarice was brushing her teeth in the bathroom, when something brushed against her foot. At first she thought she’d imagined it, just a gentle caress against her bare skin. Then a sharp pain dug into her heel. She fell to the floor with a scream. Her head banged against the tile hard enough to stun her a little.

The roots spread across the bathroom floor. Clarice tried to back away from the one that had dug into her ankle. More came up from the toilet and bathtub, sharp pain ripped through her arms and legs as more roots buried themselves deep inside her skin. Slowly, they inched up her arms and legs. More plunged into her back.

She could see her grandfather tending to the trees. Small animals at first: a few squirrels, then a cat or a stray dog. Then, a red-headed child pinned to the wall as the roots drained him dry. Her grandfather watching from the doorway, tears streaming down his face. She felt the hunger of the trees. Desire crept through her, a desperate need for blood.

One child wouldn’t have been enough, she knew that now. The trees wanted more. Demanded more. Her grandfather sacrificed the only thing he had: his wife. The taste of her blood called out to Clarice through the years.

Even in the visions, Clarice could tell that he was not a kind man. He had a hard-bitten look to him. Thin like a rail, with skin that had browned in the sun until he looked like he was carved out of wood. His mouth was fixed in a permanent scowl, the lines printed in his face. He didn’t look like a man that knew how to laugh.

Her mother hadn’t spoken of him until he died. And even then, it was about the house and how they needed to fix it up. Clarice had never thought to ask about it. She just assumed that he was old and that was it. People stopped talking to their parents when they got old. That was life.

Tendrils dug into her scalp, lifting up her hair as they caressed her skull. She wanted to call out to her parents. Tell them to get away from the house, to leave now while they had a chance. In the distance, she heard them calling up the stairs to see if she was okay. The best she could do was moan slightly.

Thousands of roots shivered under her skin and slowly pulled her back towards the wall. Clarice tried to take a breath, but the roots filled her lungs. They fed oxygen to her body while slowly wrapping her in their warm embrace. Her mouth was forced open and she heard her own voice say, “I’m okay! Can you come here a minute?”

 

©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Where Do You Go at Night?

The car was parked down the block near the greenbelt. The tiny splash of nature at the end of the street had always given his husband the creeps. Nick liked it so he let Alan park in the driveway. Nights like tonight though, he kicked himself for it.

It wasn’t cold enough to snow, but the air had a damp chill that burrowed right into his bones. The car would be just as cold. It took forever to heat up nowadays, but with the house needing a new roof, and an adoption to consider, things had to fall by the wayside.

When Nick pulled the keys from his pocket, they slid through his fingers and dropped right into a puddle on the side of the road. “Goddammit,” he muttered. as he knelt down to pick them up.

Before he could grab the keys, a pale hand slid up out of the water and caressed his fingers. He jerked back from the puddle. The keys sat in the shallow water, only getting colder. “Too many hours at work,” he thought. “You have to take better care of yourself.”

Nick fished the keys out of the puddle with a shudder and got to the car. It had seen better days, but for a twenty-year old import, it ran remarkably well. He had just settled into the driver’s seat, shivering and wishing for a better heater, when he saw her.

She stared out at him from the cover of the bushes. Her thin t-shirt and jeans were definitely not suitable for the icy weather. Nick wanted to get out of the car, but something inside of him made him stay put. There was no way that she knew he’d seen her. He could just drive away.

He started the ignition, and the heater roared and spit out cold air. With shaking hands, Nick switched the fan off. A quick glance in the mirror revealed that the woman had disappeared.

“Probably just some junkie,” he muttered. “This neighborhood’s going to shit.” He tried to reach over and shift into drive, but his hand was locked to the wheel.

The woman slapped the window. She glared in at him through stringy blonde hair, her eyes filled with anger. Nick shivered under her gaze.

“Where do you go at night?”

Her voice cut through the air like a rusty knife. Nick stared straight ahead. He didn’t want to make eye contact with her. Didn’t want to see the small chunks of ice in her hair, or the skin that hung loosely from her body. He glared at his hand, trying to will the fingers to let go of the wheel. She slapped the window again, and the car shook.

“It’s a simple question, Peter. Why won’t you answer me?”

“You have me confused with someone else,” Nick said, shaking his head. “I don’t know anyone named Peter.”

The car shook again as she slapped the window a second time. For a skinny woman, she was incredibly strong. Wet handprints shone on the glass. She leaned forward, staring in at him. “Don’t fucking lie to me, Peter. Just tell me where you go.”

Nick leaned back away from the window. He could see his own breath in the cold air; hers wasn’t visible. She pressed her face against the glass, staring in at him. Her skin had begun to rot, sliding away from her face in places as it moved against the glass.

“I don’t know anyone named Peter,” he repeated. “My name is Nick and my husband’s name is Alan.”

“All I want is the truth. That isn’t too much to ask.”

Frost formed on the glass where her hands touched it. Nick closed his eyes, and started to pray. He hadn’t been to church in years, but he promised that he’d start going again every Sunday if he just got out of this.

He thought about Alan waiting inside for him. It was late. He was probably already in bed, reading a book. Alan had never really liked Nick’s late night drives but he had learned to accept them. Nick wouldn’t be missed for an hour at least.

“Tell me,” the woman hissed in his ear. “Where do you go at night?”

He jumped. She was sitting behind him now, fingers grazing his neck. Her skin was cold and damp. His eyes moved on their own, looking in the rear view mirror. Her head was cocked at a slight angle. She seemed more confused than angry.

“I just drive,” he said, hating the way his voice shook. “I don’t go anywhere. All I do is drive. It helps me sleep.”

“I needed help,” she said. “And you left me behind.”

“My name is Nick,” he said, his teeth chattering as he spoke. “My husband is Alan. We’re going to have a baby soon.”

“We had a baby. A little girl. She’s alone now.” Her fingers slid around his neck. Her grip was loose. Nick wasn’t sure if his shirt was wet from her skin or soaked through with sweat. Tears streamed down his face. “It’s all your fault.”

“Why did you hurt me?” she asked again, her voice breaking slightly. Her grip tightened. Not enough to stop his breath, but just enough to make the threat of asphyxiation stick. Nick desperately wanted to reach up and pry the fingers from around his throat, but his hands still wouldn’t move.

Her anger flowed through his skin like an electrical current. Nick felt her argument with Peter, the rage overpowering all of his senses. There had been shouting, and things were thrown. This wasn’t the first of these fights. She had been so sure the neighbors would call the cops this time.

Dishes had been thrown. Now there was pain. Her hands touched her stomach and came up bloody. She had run from the house, not long after the fight had begun. Peter yelled for her in the night. Her bare feet slapped against the pavement. The driver never stopped, even after she rolled up onto the hood of the car, the glass shattering beneath her body.

The air tasted red, the coppery flavor of blood. “Colors don’t have a taste,” he thought, trying not to choke on it. Every joint felt like it had been filled with broken glass. He felt her dragging herself to the greenbelt, too scared to go home. She had died in the woods like a wounded animal.

“I’m not Peter,” he gasped. “I don’t know who hurt you. I’m sorry. So sorry.”

The fingers released his neck. He risked a quick glance in the mirror. She sat in the back seat of the car, hands still stretched forward. Dark bruises covered his neck. Slowly, Nick opened the car door and eased the key from the ignition.

He ran back towards the house where his husband was waiting for him. His keys fell from his numbed fingers in the puddle again, but he didn’t care. The only thing he wanted was to get home, to find the safe embrace of someone who loved him.

Pulling Teeth

Marion pulled another tooth from her shoulder with the pliers and winced. Three long teeth rested on the bathroom counter. She could hear Gary banging against the garage door. Taking a deep breath, she gritted her teeth and pulled out the last one.

She dabbed peroxide onto the fresh wounds, biting her lip as it sizzled. There were going to be scars, of course, but she already had a matching set on her side and her leg. Marion offered up a silent prayer as she tightened the bandage around her shoulder. She didn’t know if she was praying for herself or Gary, anymore. She just needed it to be over.

Fighting the urge to check on him, she went into the bedroom and turned up the volume on the TV as high as it could go. Blinking back tears, she reminded herself that it was still summer. He wouldn’t freeze out there.

Marion was just settling down on the bed when the house plunged into darkness. Silence filled the air, the only sound was the thudding of her heart in her chest. It was too much to hope that Gary had tired himself out. He must have found the circuit breaker. She held her breath and waited. There was a loud crash as he threw his weight against the wooden door.

She counted back through the steps she’d taken to lock him in. Both deadbolts were secure. The bar had been placed over the door. There was no way he could get through. The windows had been boarded over, and the door would hold him til morning. Still, something was wrong.

He was learning.

She hurried to the kitchen to grab a knife. It wouldn’t help against Gary, but the small bit of reassurance it gave her was better than nothing. Holding her breath, Marion moved slowly towards the door leading to the garage. Everything was still in place. A soft shuffling came from the other side of the door.

“It’s going to be okay, but you need to relax.” she whispered. Seconds passed in silence. “Gary?”

There was a loud bang as the drywall in front of her pushed out from the wall. Marion froze, watching Gary’s blood-stained fist force its way through. His body followed, squeezing and contorting through the hole before falling into the hallway.

Backing away, she held the knife in front of her with shaking hands. Gary craned his head up and sniffed the air. His jaw unhinged, and even in the darkened house she could see the rows of teeth that lined the roof of his mouth. The sandy brown hair on his head had fallen out in clumps, revealing slick patches of black skin.

He crawled towards her, saliva dribbling to the floor from his mouth. His back rose and fell sharply with each breath, the muscles shifting under the skin. Moving faster than she expected, he grabbed her ankle.

Marion crashed to the ground and he was on top of her. His big blue eyes stared into hers, and she saw the fear in them. A low keening whimper came from inside of him, even as his fingers dug into her shoulders. Marion felt the sharp pain from the earlier bite as the wounds split open.

Gary lunged forward and she jammed her forearm between his teeth. He clamped down on it, and she fought back a scream as the skin bubbled where the saliva touched it. Before she could think, Marion shoved the knife up into his ribs with her other hand. Gary shuddered and collapsed. His jaw relaxed and he released her arm. Looking up at him, she saw the look of pain and betrayal in his eyes.

It took a few tries to slide out from under him. He grabbed at the knife, trying to pull it out of his body, but only succeeded in making the wound larger. She leaned against the wall and tried to remember how to breathe.

Marion knew he would recover, just as he had from the dozens of other wounds she’d inflicted. A sharp, violent shock always seemed to slow him down. Forcing herself to get up, she grabbed his foot and began dragging him back to the garage.

It was the longest half hour of her life. Every few feet she’d have to stop and rest. Gary would snarl at her, occasionally snapping his jaws. He weighed so much more in this state. When she got him back to the garage door, she sighed at the trail of thick black blood on the carpet.

Pulling him into the garage, Marion shivered a little despite the warm evening air. Taking several deep breaths, she hauled Gary in behind her. There was too much to do before he healed up again. She tried to force the panic to the back of her mind, get control of her shaking hands.

She gave him one last glance on her way out the door. Every night he seemed to get worse. Thick, segmented skin covered his neck. Even in the darkness, she saw the shine of the dark skin that crept along his shoulders. His eyes were almost gone, covered over in the transformation. She wondered if one day they’d disappear forever.

“Break down later,” she thought. “Right now, you need to move.”

Barring the door again, Marion stared at the hole in the wall. She was too tired to board it up. Dragging a chair from the dining room, she staggered into the bathroom and locked the door. After shoving the chair under the door knob to hold it in place, she grabbed the pliers off the counter with her good hand. It took three tries to work the first tooth free. Gritting her teeth, she dabbed peroxide on each wound, before adding the next tooth to the pile on the counter.

“In the morning, everything will be fine,” Marion told her reflection. “He might even look like your husband again.”

 

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

 

The Bellringer

I couldn’t tell you the first time I saw him. He just appeared one day. It seemed like everyone knew about him, but nobody ever talked about him. People would see him shuffling down the street in his ruined clothes and do their best to avoid even looking at him. Some kids would joke about the smell, or the roaches that crawled over his skin, but they gave him a wide berth all the same.

Mostly, I remember the bell. A loud, sharp clang that echoed in the air long after he’d gone. It was a steady monotone, and as he passed you’d feel your heart beat in rhythm with it. After a few seconds, the feeling would pass, and you’d find yourself standing in perfect silence wondering what the hell just happened.

My husband Brian always shivered when he came to. We’d only been married a couple of years at that point, and if I’d known then what I know now, I would have left that godforsaken town and taken him with me. It got so bad that when Brian heard the man coming up the street, he’d turn and begin to walk away as quickly as he could. I used to tease him about it. He was right to be afraid.

We lived a mile or so away from the town square, in a small house that Brian inherited from his parents. For the longest time, the bell ringer stayed near the town center. I remember being surprised when I saw him walking up the street in our neighborhood, the sound of his bell puncturing the air with every step. I was even more shocked when I saw Jackson Aldridge following along in lockstep behind him.

At first I thought the boy was mocking him, and I had gone out to shoo him away. I didn’t much like the bell ringer, but it was important to me that the man have some dignity. When I got closer, I noticed that Jackson barely seemed awake at all. He moved forward like he was being yanked by invisible ropes. His eyes were half-closed and he was barely breathing.

I stepped in between them, placing my hands on Jackson’s shoulders. This kid, who barely weighed a hundred pounds, brushed past me as though I weren’t there. I stood in the middle of the street, staring after them in shock. When they turned up the next street and out of my view, I ran back to the house to call the Aldridges.

Tyler Aldridge picked up on the first ring. I know that I must have sounded crazy. I was talking a mile a minute and was still trying to catch my breath. Still, there was something odd about the calmness with which Tyler listened to my story. I could practically hear him shaking his head on the other end of the line.

“Rosie, honey, I’m sure you didn’t see Jackson. He’s at school. Why don’t you lie down for a bit. It sounds like something has you over-excited.”

He hung up the phone before I could say anything else. I stared out the window for a few minutes, trying to think of a plan. I had a few hours before the kids were due back from school, and it wasn’t like St. Martin was that big of a town to begin with. It wouldn’t be hard to find where Jackson had gone. Grabbing my coat, I hurried out the door and in the direction I’d seen them go.

They moved along at a slow enough pace that it didn’t take long for me to to catch them. Wherever the bell ringer led, people followed. Every few minutes, another person would wander out of their homes, and fall in with the rest of the crowd shuffling along next to Jackson. I recognized Mrs. Wheeler, who ran the bakery downtown almost immediately. Henry O’Connor also, who used to deliver milk. There were a few others, people I hadn’t met, but recognized from running errands through the city.

The group was already so large that they stayed in the middle of the street. They walked through intersections with no regard for traffic or the other people around them. The only sound was the clanging of the bell in time with each step.

I followed along behind them for an hour or so, until they turned back up towards my street. Finally, I broke away and rushed back towards the house. I still needed to get the kids from school, and Brian would be home from work not long after that. Together, I knew we could figure out what was happening.

The school was practically empty when I arrived. A few teachers stood in the hallway looking confused, comforting the children that were left. I pulled Mrs. Everly aside, feeling my insides turn to water as she started to cry.

The only words I could understand were “sorry” and “couldn’t stop them”. It took me a few moments to understand what she was saying, and even then I still had to ask the question to be sure. “Hannah? What happened to my babies?”

She only cried harder when she tried to tell me. I pictured them shuffling down the street behind the bell ringer, their eyes vacant like Jackson’s had been. For a moment, I felt my heart break, and then I knew what had to be done. I tried to help Hannah to her feet, but she pushed me away.

The entire drive home, I was torn between wanting to chase after my children and wanting to wait for Brian to help. If I couldn’t stop Jackson Aldridge from following the bell ringer, then I’d definitely need help to stop both Helen and Thomas.

I waited for hours, my anxiety growing worse by the second. The house grew darker as the hours passed with still no sign of Brian. Finally, I saw his headlights shine through the window.

He burst through the door, and pulled me against him. “Where are the children?” he asked. With a shaky voice, I told him everything that happened.I had barely finished when I heard the ringing of the bell. Before I could say anything, Brian was rushing towards our bedroom.

He came out a few seconds later with the old pistol he kept in the closet. I don’t think I’d ever seen him shoot it. I didn’t even know if it was loaded.

I saw them at the end of the block. In the orange glow of the street lights, they barely looked human. He walked at the front, still ringing his bell. The crowd pushed along behind him stretching back farther than I could see.

The bell ringer stopped in front of me, hunched over like a monster from some children’s story. His eyes met mine, the irises a strange yellow color. He stared at me with a hopeful grin and pleading eyes. His mouth opened, like he wanted to say something, but his words were drowned out by the angry roar of Brian’s pistol.

He collapsed, blood pumping from a small hole in his chest. The bell hit the ground with a loud clang, and the people behind him froze. They stared at us in confusion for a second before a look of panic spread across their faces.

I found my children in the crowd, right before they turned to ash with the rest of the town. Their bodies collapsed in on themselves, filling the air around me. The whole time, the ringing of the bell echoed in my ears.

In the cloud of ash, I watched Brian walk forward with a dazed look on his face, then reach down and brush the bell off. I wanted to call out to him, tell him to leave it alone, but I choked on the thick  air around me. Brian gave me a sad look over his shoulder as he walked south, ringing the bell with each step.

I tried warning the people of Philipsburg, but they wouldn’t listen to me. Neither would the people of Marshfield. I need you to understand, he isn’t going to stop. He’s coming, step by step, with thousands of people following behind him. You need to evacuate your homes before he gets here. It’s too late for my family, but it might not be for yours.

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Petrichor

Alex Weber had a good-sized house in the suburbs, a BMW, two kids in private school that he didn’t pay attention to, and a dead body leaving a large stain on the very expensive rug in his living room. He was also more than an hour late.

If there’s one thing guaranteed to get you on my bad side, it’s tardiness. That, and asking about my name. He managed to dance over that line within two seconds of sitting down.

“Is your name really Petrichor?” he whispered in a sort of panicked voice. The smell of cheap whiskey filled the air around him, making my food court salad even less appetizing.

“You were told to meet me here at six,” I said, looking at my watch. “It’s almost seven-thirty.”

He was a thin, short man, with nervous hands that constantly fidgeted. Staring at the people around us, he ran a hand through his thinning black hair. “I wasn’t sure it was you. They told me where to meet you and what you’d be wearing, but they didn’t mention you were, y’know…”

“What?” I asked with a raised eyebrow. “A woman?”

He nodded, “I was going to say ‘black’, but that, too.”

I shrugged. “Not my problem. My services require time, and now there’s less of it. Less time, more chances of mistakes. More risk means my price goes up.”

“What do you mean, ‘your price goes up?” he hissed at me. “I can barely afford you as it is.”

It was all I could do not to choke on the fumes that wafted across the table. There was a heavier stink hidden under the booze. I focused on taking at least one bite of the wilted pile of vegetables I’d bought earlier. In my line of work, the illusion of control means everything.

“Mr. Weber, I provide very exclusive services. If you were given my card, then you can already afford to pay for them. The real question is how much do you value your freedom?”

Before he could stammer out a reply, I cut him off. “Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to sit here with me while I finish this horrible salad. You can sit quietly, or we can chat like we’re old friends. We leave together. I will help you with your problem, and you will pay me double the rate you were quoted, and you will do so without complaint.”

He nodded and I smiled. “Excellent! And to save the sad attempt at conversation, yes it is my real name; yes, I know what it means; and no, my parents were not hippies. My mother was a lawyer and my father was a police man.”

Personal details matter. If you tell someone something about you, then they feel as if they know you. I don’t know what my real parents did for a living, but if telling a client they were on the right side of law and order helps set their minds at ease, then it’s something I’m willing to do.

The salad didn’t taste any better with Mr. Weber impatiently watching me. After a few more bites, I gave up on it entirely, and we headed for the exit. I followed him out to his BMW. It was a nice car, with just enough wear that you could tell he’d bought it used.

He looked around awkwardly. “So, do I give you a ride, or…”

“Go home,” I told him. “I’ll be there in about a half an hour.”

He started to say something, then appeared to think better of it. I watched him get into his car, and had to fight off the urge to wave at him as he left. I waited for his tail lights to fade into the distance before heading back to my van.

Normally, I don’t work the suburbs. My business is referral only, which means that I very rarely deal with people in this income bracket. In the city, with people coming and going at all hours, nobody notices one more person. Out in the land of neighborhood watches and Home Owners’ Associations, though, you never know who is keeping careful track of late night visitors.

I parked down the street from his house and killed the headlights. Alex Weber was either much better connected than he was showing, or setting me up for something. Either way, it paid to be cautious.

Ten minutes passed and nothing seemed amiss. Keeping the headlights off, I drove up the street and pulled into his driveway. The garage door slid open in front of my van, and I was grateful that Weber at least seemed moderately competent.

The garage door closed behind me and I waited in the van. I was tempted to leave it running, but didn’t really feel like dying of asphyxiation while I waited for him to take the hint and come out to see me. After a few minutes, he poked his head out of the door connecting the garage to the rest of the house. I grabbed my toolbox, and followed him inside.

We came in through the kitchen, where a pile of dishes waited in the sink. Old pizza boxes were stacked on the counter, and in general, the place was in dire need of a good cleaning. “The wife and kids are out of town for the week,” Weber said apologetically. “But they’re coming back in a couple of days, so you understand the urgency.”

I followed him into the living room. An overturned chair sat in front of the coffee table, next to a puddle of tar-like blood. A slight breeze came in from a broken window. I nodded to myself, all the glass was in the bushes right underneath the window. The real question was what happened to the body.

“You mind telling me what happened?” I asked, setting my toolbox down next to the stain on the carpet.

“The family was out, so I, uh, called this woman. For sex.”

“Of course you did,” I sighed. I pulled out a rubber glove and snapped it on my hand, then very delicately poked at the blood on the ground. “Then what happened, Mr. Weber?”

“We’d been doing some coke, when all of a sudden she just went crazy and attacked me,” he said with a slight hint of hysteria. “Cut me up real good. There was a knife on the table from earlier. I don’t know what happened, I just went crazy. I stabbed her with it. She was dead. I saw the body, it was right there. I killed her.”

“You change your clothes after?”

“No,” he said, cocking his head. “I was told to keep everything the way it was.”

I glanced over at his cheap cotton suit and nodded. He didn’t have a mark on him. The girl’s body was nowhere to be seen. Inside the toolbox, I keep a few small things for encounters like this. They won’t do shit to a larger demon, but for minor ones it’s best to keep things low-key. Some holy water, some silver, and a little bit of salt are good enough in most cases.

“Mr Weber, can you tell me what she looked like?” I asked, as I dug around in the toolbox.

“What? She was blonde. White. Usual height and weight. Why?” he asked.

“Well, it’s a matter of proportion and mass,” I said. “You see, a demon can’t make itself any bigger on this plane of reality. Whatever size it is when it comes through, that’s pretty much where it stays. When it comes to possession, they tend to gravitate towards others of a similar build.”

I found the bottle that I was looking for and quietly unscrewed the cap, before nodding at the blood pool on the ground. “Let me show you what I’m talking about.”

He edged forward and I splashed him in the face with the open bottle of silver. Admittedly, colloidal silver isn’t going to kill a demon. It will do a reasonable amount of damage if you get it in their eyes. And it stings like a mother fucker.

Weber grabbed his face, smoke pouring out from underneath his fingers. I pulled a knife from the box and drove it into his foot, pinning him to the ground. He roared loud enough to shake the walls, and I backed away quickly. I needed to put a stop to this before some well-intentioned neighbor woke up and called animal control.

Very quickly, I made a circle of salt around Weber, holding the demon in place. It pawed at the knife, fingers burning when they brushed the metal. The guy who sold me the knife said it was infused with angel-hair. I’d never had the chance to test it before now, but I made a mental note to send him a nice thank you card and some booze if I got through this.

There are well over three hundred different banishing spells for demons, depending on the level of possession and how much discomfort you want to put the host through. Some require days of meditation, and a good variety of incense. I didn’t really care about Weber, but I did need him alive to sign the check.

I grabbed the sage from the tool box and burned it while beginning the incantation I wanted. Weber’s face twisted in front of me. His eyes had burst from the silver, and the skin was beginning to slough off in places. His left arm popped out of socket and hung loosely by his side. The whole room began to stink of sulfur.

The first time I’d done this, it scared the shit out of me. It’s rare that demonic injuries carry through to the human host beyond this initial manifestation. Usually, the demon does it to try to get you to stop. You rush in to help the client, and now it has a new body to possess.

The demon began to scream louder, and I glanced nervously out the window to see if the neighbors had called the cops yet. That was the last thing I needed. A few items flew off the shelves, narrowly missing my head. I chanted faster, and smiled as the salt began to glow.

There was bright flash of light, and Weber lay crumpled on the ground, breathing heavily and sobbing. I waited, not wanting to break the salt circle. A few of your savvier demons will fake the light show and try to hide inside the host. There’s really only one way to know for sure.

“Mr Weber,” I said in a strong, clear voice. “Can you please step out of the salt circle?”

He stared up at me in confusion, and then threw up. “I’m not cleaning that up,” I told him. “That one’s on you.”

After a few seconds, he crawled out of the circle and collapsed on the floor. I helped him to his feet, and got him up on the couch. He lay there moaning while I went about the next part of my job, which is clearing any sign of the demonic intruder.

The salt and other things I’d used were easy enough to clean; demonic blood, however, is a major pain in the ass to get out of carpet. Whatever it was that had possessed Weber had left a lot of it behind. The key to clearing demonic blood out is a solution of holy water, silver, and a dash of bleach. Nobody has ever been able to explain why the bleach works, but it is absolutely necessary. If you scrub hard enough, the stain does eventually come out, although you’ll need something for the fumes.

It took hours to get everything cleaned properly. Weber spent the time recovering on the couch, so I didn’t feel bad at all when I handed him the bill. “Next time, avoid the hookers altogether and just stick with internet porn,” I said with a smile.

He still looked a little green around the edges when he signed it. By the time I left his house, the sun was peeking up over the city, and a few people had come out to walk their dogs. I suddenly felt very tired. I stopped at a red light and closed my eyes for a second, promising myself a vacation somewhere tropical and isolated.

Demons are easy. It’s the people that’ll drain the life out of you.

 

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

 

Parlor Games

I wait on the porch, desperately wanting a cigarette. It’s been two minutes, so I knock again. A curtain twitches aside in the window and I get a brief glimpse of red light. Most nights, I’d think that unusual, but this is different. At this point, the only thing I’m focused on is the woman on the other side of the door.

The door slides open and she peeks out at me under the chain. “Landon?” she asks.

I give her my best smile. The whole ride over, I’d been reminding myself of the rules of the game: No real names, no attachments. The door closes again, and the chain slides away. She re-opens it with a smile of her own that doesn’t quite reach up to her eyes. She’s wearing a slinky black robe, and reddish brown hair cascades down over her shoulders.

“Come on in,” she says, her voice shaking a little. “Do you want something to drink?”

“Water,” I reply, looking around at the nearly empty apartment. There’s a sofa in the middle of the room, but nothing else. Every non-carpeted surface is covered in candles. Even with the warm light they’re creating, there’s still a chill to the room. Shadows dance across the walls as the tiny flames flicker.

“Not big on furniture are you?” I ask.

“I haven’t been here long. Guess I haven’t had the time to get more than the necessary stuff.”

“Like candles.”

She nods and smiles again. “Nothing sets a mood quite like candles.”

We make small talk for a few minutes while I drink the water. She waits on the end of the sofa, her hands nervously sliding over each other. The robe itself is small enough that I get a good view of things. She tells me her name is Susan. I’m tempted to ask what her name really is but that would be breaking the rules.

The small talk ends, and we stand there awkwardly. Susan takes the water glass from my hand, her fingers brushing against mine. Leaning forward, she kisses me, her hand sliding down my chest. Her breath tastes like cinnamon. She gently bites my lip and then turns away. Leading me by the hand, she pulls me towards the bedroom.

A small bed sits in the exact middle of the room. Dressers and small tables line the walls. Like the living room, every available space is covered with candles. These are red candles, and my mind jumps back to the devotionals of my youth. Somewhere in the room, incense burns, making the air sweet and heavy. My head spins as she pulls me onto the bed.

I pull my shirt up over my head as Susan runs her fingers over my stomach. She fumbles with the button on the front of my jeans. I pull her closer. She lunges forward, leaving small bites all over my neck and chest. I grab her hair and pull her head back to kiss her. She feels hot, almost feverish. My world becomes a blur of red light and skin.

She rolls me over on my back. Her hands move all over my body. She straddles me, sliding me inside of her. My hands slide up along her hips. She presses her body against mine. Her nails dig into my chest. She pushes me down hard against the bed. The robe slides down her body. I shudder a little at the smooth feel of silk against my legs.

She looks down at me with a smile. I’m dimly aware of her thighs pressing against my body. I sit up to pull her against me, and she pushes me down again. She moves faster. The room spins. It’s too warm. My throat is parched. My heart is thudding in my chest. I’m gasping for breath.

She’s grabbed my wrists, holding them above my head when I see it. A small seam forms in the middle of her forehead. Susan smiles down at me as the skin stretches. The reddish brown hair falls to the bed behind her. Holes form along the seam as the skin breaks apart. Tiny red eyes stare out at me. Her body bulges and twists above me. Her legs and arms are locked around me, holding me in place.

The skin splits down the middle of her body. It falls into two piles on either side of me, the warm flesh draped loosely over my legs. I stare in horror at thousands of tiny gray spiders piled together. They hold the shape of a woman for a few seconds before collapsing onto my naked body.

I scream and run for the door, brushing spiders off me as best I can. They’re everywhere, covering my skin. Hundreds of thousands of tiny legs skittering across my body. Thin voices call to me from the pile still on the bed.

Don’t go, Landon. We need you.

A sharp pain digs into my ankle, and my right leg becomes useless. I look down to see my calf is already starting to swell. I slap ineffectually at my leg, leaving a dark smear on the side of my foot. The floor is alive with tiny gray bodies, all surging towards me. Dragging myself to the hall, I force myself to ignore the wheezing in my chest. The door is there, twenty maybe thirty feet away.

All I have to do is get outside.

Landon, come back.

My head throbs, but I keep pulling myself towards the door. My legs are bound together, a solid white cocoon hanging off the back of my body. I still have my arms though, and I’m almost there. I ignore the hundreds of small bites that are slowly numbing my body. My fingers brush against the smooth wood of the door. The knob is directly above me, taunting me.

Sharp pain spikes in my left shoulder and the hand drops limply to my side. With one last gasp, I grab the door knob with my right hand and pull myself back, swinging the door open. The warm evening air floats into the room. My car is waiting in the parking lot.

You’re ours, Landon. Forever and always.

The numbness spreads to my chest, followed closely by the silk. My heart feels like a fist is squeezing it. There’s a slight lurch, and I’m vaguely aware that I’m being moved. My eyes look back towards the door as I slide away from it towards the bedroom. Laying on the floor, I see the bones strewn under the bed and I want to cry.

Every breath is a ragged gasp. The silk covers my mouth, keeping me from screaming.  A sharp pain moves through me as my organs begin to liquefy, but by then I’m barely capable of caring. All I can hear are the dry whispers of the spiders in my ears before the world goes dark.

 

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

The Lost and the Lonely

Harmony Baxter hated it in the city. She hated the way people ignored each other as they hurried on their way, and the constant noise and light that made it impossible to think. She’d lived here her whole life, always being afraid, although she never knew what it was that she was so scared of.

Ronnie had picked another fight with her after school, something stupid about how short her hair was. Rather than get a ride home from him, she decided to walk. She was about to turn up the street towards her house when she felt a small vibration in her bones. It felt almost like something was calling to her.

She kept walking, feeling it get stronger until she stopped across the street from the bridge. It ran over the park, and had been there long before Harmony had been born. The sidewalk led under it, running off to a dirt path. It looked like a normal sidewalk: even paving, a small bit of grass growing to one side. Even the chain link fence on the one side shone just right in the fading afternoon sun. Most people passed by with, their eyes focused on cell phones or the ground two feet in front of them.

Harmony was the only person to notice the woman step out from under the bridge. Something about it felt off. Maybe it was the woman’s hair style, or her peasant blouse and long flowing skirt, that stood out. Maybe it was how she seemed to appear out of nowhere.

“That’s ridiculous,” Harmony said to herself. “Probably just didn’t see her in the dark.” The vibration had returned and seemed to move with the woman. For a moment, Harmony considered just heading back home, but she felt a sudden urge to know what it was about the woman that made this happen.

The woman walked down the street ahead of her, staring up at the buildings in the area and muttering quietly to herself. Harmony did her best to keep up with her through the bustling streets. When the woman stopped in front of a window to stare at her reflection, Harmony was forced to walk past her.

The woman muttered to her reflection, “Just need one. If I can find one, I’ll be okay.”

Harmony frowned. The woman looked older up close. Small lines appeared around her eyes, and her hair was shot through with streaks of gray. When she’d walked out from under the bridge, she’d looked like a young woman in her prime.

Forced to walk into the crowd, Harmony lost the woman. She tried to circle back around the block, but by the time she’d returned the woman was gone. Harmony walked back to the bridge, and waited to see if she’d return.

Twenty minutes passed, then thirty. Harmony sat across the street from the bridge, staring into the darkness underneath it. The shadows pulsed like a heartbeat. Her eyelids grew heavy and she rubbed her palms against her eyes in an effort to stay awake.

She’d just decided to head home when the woman appeared. She looked older now, having aged very quickly in the hour or so since Harmony had last seen her. Hobbling towards the bridge, the now old woman carried a baby in her arms. Harmony watched as she disappeared into the darkness under the bridge, the baby’s cries echoing in the night.

She waited outside of the bridge the next day, and the day after hoping to see some sign of the woman or the baby. She spent a whole Saturday watching the darkness under the bridge, but nothing happened. When she’d try to sleep at night, the darkness behind her eyelids would pulse like the shadows under the bridge.

After a week or so of waiting, she saw the woman again, following her down the same path through the streets. She stayed behind the woman easily enough. The woman stopped at the window again, and this time Harmony refused to move. She waited just up the block where she could easily see her. After a few minutes, the woman blinked and then hurried off into the crowd. She moved so quickly this time that Harmony lost her.

With no way to find her, Harmony once again went back to the bridge and waited. This time, the woman returned with a drunk man. He leaned heavily against her, running his hands over body and leaving sloppy kisses on her neck. Half-dragging him into the darkness below the bridge, the woman’s expression never changed from a look of grim determination as they disappeared into the shadows.

Harmony waited for several seconds, then walked across the street towards the path. The shadows under the bridge stayed dark, and the path seemed to run off into nothingness. She stopped at the sidewalk’s edge, and stared into the darkness. She still couldn’t see anything, although she felt the pull of the shadows from where she stood. They called to her, begging her to take that last step inside.

No matter how hard she wanted to step forward, her legs wouldn’t move. The darkness pulsed in rhythm with her heart, faster every second. A man shoved past her, and for a moment she thought she was going to fall in. Fear and longing mixed in her mind right before she hit the pavement hard.

Harmony limped away from the bridge, checking herself for injuries. The further away from the bridge she got, the more her head began to clear. She sat down across the street in her usual spot, staring into the darkness. She felt it laughing at her, mocking her. She wanted to hate it. More than she had ever wanted anything.

She was about to give up when the woman stepped back out of the shadows. If it hadn’t been for the same clothes, Harmony wouldn’t have recognized her. The once gray hair was now a dark, chestnut brown and her skin practically glowed. She stared at Harmony for a second, their eyes locking. Then, with a faint smile, she wandered off into the crowd.

Getting to her feet, Harmony followed after the woman. It didn’t take long to realize that they were following the same route as before. This time, the woman drew all of her attention. It felt like there was a warm, clean bubble that surrounded her, and Harmony wanted nothing more than to be a part of it.

When the woman stopped at the window, Harmony stood next to her. She felt the woman watching her in the reflection, but couldn’t find the words she wanted. Every time she opened her mouth, nothing came out.

“What’s your name, girl?” the woman asked, although Harmony didn’t see her mouth move.

“Harmony.”

There was brief nod. “Why are you following me?”

“I don’t know,” Harmony said. She felt the moment slipping away. She wanted to beg this woman to take her away from this world. She didn’t want to have to think anymore, or to worry. “I think I’m supposed to go with you.”

“Under the bridge.” It was a statement of fact, with no judgment behind the words.

“Yes,” Harmony said. The woman was aging again, the beauty and light already beginning to fade around them. “Can you take me there?”

The woman turned on her heels, and began walking back the way they came. She moved so suddenly that it took Harmony a second to follow her. The small bubble of warmth she felt slid away, and she shivered in the afternoon breeze.

Hurrying after her, Harmony shouted, “Wait!”

The woman slowed a bit, and Harmony was able to catch her. “I don’t even know your name,” Harmony said. “Who are you?”

“Evelyn,” the woman replied, as though it were obvious. Her hair was a dark gray now, and her skin had become wrinkled.

“It’s always been Evelyn,” Harmony said, although she didn’t know where the words came from. Evelyn was walking slower now, and Harmony took her arm to help her along. The older woman’s bones shifted under Harmony’s hand.

The bridge loomed over them now, but with Evelyn, there was no pain. Harmony knew that if she could just stay with the now elderly woman, everything would be fine. They stopped just outside the path that led into the shadows when Evelyn collapsed.

And just like that, everything collapsed. The world rushed back in around them. Harmony’s head began to throb, the pressure building inside her skull. She wanted to scream. The smells of the city filled the air around her. The sweat and piss and spit of the people around her. The sounds of their bodies digesting the decaying matter in their stomachs.

It was too much.

She crawled towards the shadows, leaving Evelyn behind. Somewhere, under the bridge, she knew that she could find peace. She hesitated at the sidewalk’s edge. Evelyn was aging faster now. People stepped over her body, ignoring her as they went on their own way. Nobody stopped to help.

Harmony dragged herself forward, into the cool darkness. The air smelled cleaner here. Glancing back at Evelyn, she watched the old woman smile before crumbling to dust. Cold arms wrapped themselves around her. Her body floated into the darkness, and she watched as the entrance to the path drifted farther and farther behind her.

A thin voice echoed out of the shadows around her.

Do you come of your own free will?

Harmony nodded and glanced back at the city street fading further into the distance.

We can help you. You can be like her. Nothing will ever hurt you again.

“What do I have to do?” Harmony asked.

All you have to do is let us in.

The entrance was just a pinprick on the horizon. A lonely star that twinkled in the darkness. Harmony blinked back tears and sighed. “And you’ll let me come back out again?”

Of course.

Harmony heard the smug satisfaction in the voice. She closed her eyes and felt the arms tighten around her. “What if I don’t want to stay?” she asked.

The arms around her loosened a bit. Gravity tugged her back down, and the darkness faded a little.

What do you have to go back to?

Harmony stared back out at the world she came from. She watched the people stumble past the bridge, never looking at anything but the ground ahead of them. She closed her eyes and floated for a second. She thought of her parents, who always yelled at her, and that asshole Ronnie who talked to her like she was an idiot.

You could be beautiful forever.

“Forever is a long time,” she said.

Yes, it is.

“It would be so easy to stay here,” she whispered.

You would never be alone or unappreciated.

There was an urgency to the voice now. A faint, pleading edge to something that had sounded so perfect. She could see the sidewalk from here. A bus rumbled by in the fading afternoon light, so close she could practically touch it.

“It’s not supposed to be easy,” Harmony said, feeling the darkness fade a little. She thought about her friends at school, and her little sister. For a moment, she even thought about pizza. Something roared behind her, and a cold hand brushed against her shoulder.

Harmony stepped out into the light and blinked. Taking a deep breath, she stepped out onto the sidewalk. She smiled up at the last bit of sunlight that warmed her skin, and then turned to go home. She did her best to ignore the smell of the city, and just

Across the street, a girl stood in shock as she watched Harmony emerge from the shadows. Staring into the darkness below the bridge, she watched in silent fascination as they pulsed with the rhythm of her heartbeat.

©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.