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.

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.

Stay With Me

Every morning at 3:37 AM, Elena wakes up and stares at the ceiling. Her arm drifts over to the left side of the bed. She hasn’t been able to bring herself to change the pillow case that still holds a faint smell of perfume. After several minutes of uncomfortable silence, she grabs her own pillow and her blanket, and drags them to the couch in the living room, where she falls back asleep.

They say it takes 21 days for a habit to form. It’s been 32 days now, and she’s only just starting to get used to the routine. She’s learned to accept the pain in her neck and lower back from sleeping on the couch. The alarm on her phone buzzes her awake at 7:00 AM. She’s tempted to hit the snooze button, but forces herself to wake up instead.

Elena shuffles through the kitchen, turning on the coffee maker and putting bread in the toaster. For awhile, she made four slices, but today she remembers to only make two. She brushes her teeth in the kitchen sink, and lets her eyes drift around the apartment.

Dust blankets the bookshelves and cabinets. She can’t even remember the last time she vacuumed the carpet. On her way back to the bedroom to get dressed, she does her best to avoid even glancing at the bathroom door.

Nobody says anything to her about her showering in the gym. She thinks about working out, but she just doesn’t have the energy. Some days, the sound of water on tiles is more than she can bear. The rest of her day speeds by in a blur of lights and sounds. In the afternoons, she politely declines her co-workers’ invitations to lunch. In turn, they ignore the times when she cries at her desk.

The last few nights when she’s come home, the apartment has been cold. Even with the heat running constantly, there’s a chill in the air that settles into her bones. She turns the TV on to avoid the silence. Hours go by and she can’t remember what she watched. Sometimes she eats, although most meals are forgotten as well. All she wants to do is sleep.

In her dreams, Elena replays that night, finding new ways to fix the situation, to keep it from every happening. In one, she catches an earlier cab home from the bar. In another, she and Carmen never had a fight to begin with. She never said those ugly words, and didn’t have to see Carmen’s face crumple as they hit her like a knife. She didn’t have to feel the weird flush of joy she got, right before the shame washed over her, and she had to leave. That was the best one. Most of them end the same way, with the sound of water running in the shower and bright red blood circling the drain.

3:37 AM, and she opens her eyes to stare at the ceiling. The room is freezing. She smells stagnant water and a hint of soap. When she tries to move her arm, nothing happens. Frozen fingers caress her jaw. Icy skin presses against her body. Lips brush against her neck and a familiar voice whispers, “Don’t wake up.”

Tears fill Elena’s eyes as the fingers run through her hair. She wants to say yes. She wants to say that she was wrong. She wants apologize for everything that happened. All that comes out is a quiet whimper.

A cold arm wraps around her waist. Carmen’s voice is pleading now. “Don’t go.”

Tears run down Elena’s cheeks. She tries to say something, but the words die in her throat. Every breath catches in her chest. Her left side is going numb as the arm pulls her closer. The shadows in the room grow darker. She turns to the left, afraid of what she might see.

In the growing darkness, she can just make out an indentation on the mattress, where Carmen used to sleep. There’s a slight curve of a woman’s hip just under the sheets. She feels a hand brush against her cheek, and the words hang on the air.

“Stay with me.”

©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Under Your Skin

You’re walking downtown after work one day when you see him. He staggers down the street towards you, his arms and legs twitching with each step. Most of the people walking past do their best to aggressively ignore him. His head bobs at each of them as they pass, his mouth stretched wide into a painful grin.

He stands out, even from two blocks away, like he has been cut out of the world and then hastily pasted back in. His entire body is frayed at the edges. He wears all black, and it hurts your eyes to look at it. It’s the darkness of a cellar with a burnt-out light bulb: you feel something watching you from its depths.

Every instinct you have screams at you to cross the street and avoid him. Still, you find yourself drawn to the ragged figure. The closer he gets, the more the little details stand out. His fingers are bent at the wrong angles, flopping against the backs of his hands. Small flecks of blood drip from under his sleeves. His feet barely touch the ground, and his knees jerk painfully up against his chest with each step.

You stop at an intersection, waiting for the light to change when he sees you. Staring across the expanse of black top and exhaust, you can’t look away from him. He bobs his head in your direction, tears streaming from the corners of his eyes.

The light turns green and he bobbles across the street towards you. You freeze, watching as he jerks and twitches with each movement. He gets closer and you hear the grinding of his bones with each step. The heavy smell of sulfur fills the air, and just under his skin little tendrils writhe in time with his movements.

Breathing a sigh of relief as he passes, you start to think that he somehow missed you. Before you can take a step, a hand full of broken fingers lands heavily on your shoulder.

You turn and look into eyes that roll independently of one another. His mouth opens and closes, each time snapping shut with a loud clack. The grin is still plastered on his face. He can’t grab you with his hands, but still you can’t move.

“We see you,” a small voice whispers from deep within his throat. “We’re always watching.”

He reaches up with his other hand, and pats your cheek. Then, bobbing his head in acknowledgment, he pivots and lurches down the street. Your skin crawls where he touched it. You rush into a nearby department store and scrub at your cheek in the bathroom sink until the skin is raw.

The voice still echoes in your head all the way home. “We see you.” Whenever you close your eyes, you picture the thousands of tendrils moving under his skin. Every time you’re jerked awake at night by a sudden movement in your leg, you listen for the sounds of bones breaking.

You stop eating and barely sleep. Most days you stare at yourself in the mirror for hours, wondering if something else was looking back at you. Your skin still tingles where he touched it with his bent fingers. Every day, standing in the shower, you examine your body for any sign of something just under your skin.

Relief floods your body when your finger finally snaps two weeks later. A small fit of giggles bubbles past your lips as you stare at the broken bone. Staggering to the bathroom, you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. Your lips are twisted up into a permanent grin, and your body pitches itself forward in fits and starts.

The laugh becomes louder when you see the movement under your skin. You can’t tell if it’s you laughing or something else, but the sound echoes in your head. Your body contorts now, bones cracking with each twitch. Something leads you towards the door and you cry a little even as the laughter grows in your mind.

A small voice echoes up from your throat. “Now you see us, too.”

©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.