He thinks he is now in charge. The pink-tinged shower water was a sign he had worked hard that day. Preparation was so necessary. He carefully laid the clothes out before the shower. The crisp white shirt, new tie, and the carefully ironed undershirt and shorts are on the bed. The suit hangs in front of the closet.
As he showers, he recalls the rough push on the bed. Today has been different from the previous 20 years. One activity reminds him of that aggressive push on the bed to shake him awake. His mother is unaware; he had a different day in mind.
The yells from the kitchen had fallen on ears that were immune to emotion. Today is his day, not hers, as it had been. His old-fashioned bed she refused to replace had been perfect.
Tossing the mattress reveals the wooden slats, thick and robust, pulled out quickly. No rounded edges and that was a bit uncomfortable in his hand. But they were sturdy and would do the job well.
The stairs remind him how she had refused to have a carpenter put a railing on the cellar steps. Those steps were dangerous.
But she refused to pay for a handrail. It had been the day he asked if he could have money to buy some candy and comic books.
Her gruff voice played in his ears.
"Look, you scared Peaches!" What had he done to scare the bird? Nothing.
"Now, now, baby, mommy will give you a big cracker, and then you can take a bath. Would you like that, darlin'?" She stroked the bird's head, caressing it like a child. He wondered what it would be like to be so loved.
"Why pay good money when no one sees that rail? It's nonsense. We've done without it all these years, and we can do without it now." Always penny-pinching.
"And besides a railing, you want candy and comics! All it does is rot your teeth and your mind. Get that idea out of your head, young man.” A familiar scowl shows.
"Where do you think I get the money? What do you do all day long? I go out and do hard work. Hard work, you hear me? I don't sit around, washing my hands, reading comics all day long. I do hard work!"
It had been the same with the comic book she'd thrown out. "Nonsense, you spend my hard-earned money on nonsense. Look at this nonsense!"
She tore the comic and threw it into the can outside the kitchen door. Slamming the cover, she looked up at her son with an ugly sneer on her face. But that wasn't today. Today had been different.
Her yelling echoed in his ears as though she were saying them now, but, of course, she couldn't.
As he finished washing the suds off, he replayed the actions in his mind.
Standing in the kitchen, the mother never expected it. Half-turned, her mouth open to fling another nasty comment at him, the slat hit her squarely at the corner of her right eye. He'd seen it in a comic book and knew it was a death blow.
She stood upright, staring at him for a moment, and then he gave one push with his foot. An open cellar door, a quick push, and it was over. He hadn't thought it would be so easy.
The bird was the problem with that squawking and all the feathers flying. Even in swinging the bird around his head, he was careful. It never hit him, just the walls. Why were feathers so sticky? Those damn things were all between his fingers.
He noticed he hadn't cleaned them adequately, looking down at his hands. It was so sticky. And it didn't come off easily. You had to be so careful that you didn't get it on your clothes. No one wants to see somebody in blood-stained clothes.
After the shower, the house was quiet. There was only the sound of the occasional floorboard under his foot as he walked into the kitchen. Standing at the top of the cellar stairs looking down, he could see a bit of an apron and a foot turned in an odd direction.
Enough. Time to get dressed. He makes the phone call and knows they will be here soon.
P. A. Farrell is a freelance writer/psychologist, author of self-help books (McGraw-Hill and Demos Health, and KDP), writes for multiple Medium publications, has a Substack (https://drfarrell22.substack.com/), a website (drfarrell.net), a Twitter account (@drpatfarrell) and has been an associate editor for trade journals (PW) and one newspaper syndicate. Previously, she has had extensive experience in the field of mental health, working in psychiatric research, community mental health, psychiatric inpatient units, and has taught at the doctoral level at two universities.
When the world realized the power of the girl, they began begging at her door. At first the line formed at sunrise and was gone by sunset. Before long it spread from city to city, until it circled the earth. The people built bridges and boats and left their families for years, just to find respite.
And when the girl realized the need of the world, she opened her arms wide to allow them in. She listened. When she heard about the heartbreak from the doe eyed lover, she felt the weight settle into the crook of her neck, with the weight of a kiss and the sting of a wasp. All their sorrow soaked into her body through the place on her chest where they rested their head. The burn of it poked at her: a twitch of muscle and a flick of pain. She ignored it, clinging to her guest because they needed her, and she needed them. When that same doe eyed lover left with a sunshine smile on their lips the girl buried that biting feeling inside.
In they stepped, one by one, into the cottage that housed the girl determined to heal the world. The scent of tobacco and patchouli enveloped them as they entered her haven. They sat by her side and wept. And she wept too. Soon their tears were acid, leaving little trails of rashes and blisters on her skin. Their burdens got heavier, stiffer, like boulders stacked one by one on top of every part of her. Eventually she boarded the windows and lit candles because the daylight burned her eyes. When the feet of the visitors wore through the floorboards, she lined the walls and floors with the rest of her clothes, ensuring that everything visitors touched would be covered in softness. They would lay in the fabrics and wrap their fingers in her silk gowns, while she stroked their hair and sang to them.
The day she stood to stretch, the weight of it all collapsed, causing her to stumble. Her ankle snapped, unable to carry the weight of everything the world left behind. She wrapped it with a scarf and pulled the bones tight into place, until she could feel them touching again. A few days later she removed the knitted fabric from her bruised and swollen skin, wrapped it around the neck of a farmer and kissed their forehead goodbye, wishing them luck in their harvest. Steadily, their troubles were crushing her. A banker whose loans had gone bad broke her ribs, the parent with the ghost child collapsed her lungs, and the artist with a knife to their neck snapped her spine. Each one leaving and swiftly forgetting the girl in the cottage with the rosewater lips.
She became mangled as visitors off-loaded themselves onto her twisted body. They laughed as they left while she cried all their tears and felt all their sorrow. All too soon she could not move to hold them, her muscles, and joints all ripped at the seams. So, they lay on top of her to weep into her hair and hear her basket heartbeat. When the beat started to slow, drowning under pressure, they began taking small pieces of her before they left. A vial of her tears, a loose tooth slipped into the pocket, a toe bone whittled and strung into a necklace. They made sure to shoo away vultures that alighted on her roof and came tapping at the door.
And when the priest came and realized there was no confessional for him there, he turned to close the door for good. From the darkness came a wheeze, a rise and fall of what could have been thigh or could have been chest. The remaining bits of fingers reached for the man and begged him to wait, a rotting stench leaked towards the door, sickly sweet like dying fruit. The pulp palm opened, revealing the girl's doldrum heart.
“Bring them,” she cried. “Bring them one by one.”
Kalie Pead is a queer poet, writer, and activist from Salt Lake City, Utah. Home for her, however, is somewhere between the red rocks of Moab and the wilds of Wyoming. She is currently an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Notre Dame where she lives with her partner, their two cats, and their dog.
Niles was snoring, but he did that every night. The snorting reverberated off the concrete walls of our cell. I was used to it, we’d been bunkmates for a year, ever since his roomie got released and mine died from a beating in the prison yard.
Niles was an armed robber. I was convicted of manslaughter. The prosecuting attorney had hissed at me after the trial that I deserved murder two, but he wasn’t sure the jury would agree. We were both innocent of course.
Our seven feet by ten-foot cell was a bit bigger than those of older prisons, but still cramped. More so because Niles was a big boy, pushing three hundred pounds, less than a quarter of it fat. When he’d moved in, he’d told me to get the hell out of the bottom bunk, and I hadn’t argued.
I turned an ear into my pillow to muffle his noise. And winced at a new sound, a harsh chirring. I couldn’t tell if it came from inside my head or from across the cell. I shook my head a couple times and it was gone, the only noise left was Niles’ throat horn.
I worried about losing my hearing, but it didn’t repeat and I slept. The next morning, right after the five a.m. con count, Niles turned toward me.
“You gonna go down for breakfast, Leon?”
As I began to answer, the rasping shrilled again. I tried to focus, but couldn’t place the source of the sounds. “You hear that Niles?”
“Never mind. The line’s to long, I’ll go down later.”
He shrugged and walked out of the cell. The noise hadn’t stopped.
I took two steps over to our free-standing combination toilet and sink. Flushed the toilet, then turned the water spigot on and off. No hissing. The piping for the water and drain ran under the floor and into the wet wall that held the water and drainpipes for our section of the prison. I wondered if there was a leak, or if someone else’s flushing caused the noise. Or if something was wrong with me—degenerating ear bones or something in my brain.
One more step and I was against the concrete. I put my ear against it and held my breath. A sudden rasp made me lurch backwards, but I pressed back against the wall. The chitter resumed, louder and softer, higher and lower.
I thought I heard modulation in the sounds, like a madman’s refrain. I hoped that it was some termite thing living in the open spaces around the pipes and not in my mind. It stopped and I slowly walked down to the prison cafeteria and caught the tail end of the line and the leavings of the breakfast food. I brought my tray over to where Niles was sitting and sat down with him.
Niles and I both had prison reps, but his was serious. He’d busted up a guy who’d tried to cut into a food line, putting the guy in the infirmary for three weeks and himself into solitary for a month. He’d twisted the guy’s neck so hard the bones crunched, and the guy was still a shambling half-cripple. I only broke a couple teeth on a lifer who’d wanted me to be his love object. Even so I did two weeks of my own in solitary.
Niles never told me we were friends, but he kept an eye on me and the other inmates kept an eye on what Niles might do, so I was left alone.
“Niles, you sure you didn’t hear any funny noises the last day or two?”
“What? Nah, nothing. What kind of noise?”
“Like a pissed off bug, a really big one.”
“You’ve got screwed up ears, I didn’t hear anything but the guards shuffling around.”
He never said much, but he didn’t lie much either, so I quit asking about the sounds from the wall.
You going to eat those corn flakes, Leon?”
Niles believed in clean plate eating, both his and mine. I’d overload my tray with stuff I knew he liked. What little he didn’t eat he’d hide and take back to his cell to add to the home brew he had fermenting in his personal trash bag. It smelled like vomit, and when he cracked the bag open to get a little drunk, I’d hustle out of the cell if I could.
Niles left to go out to the yard and work out. The gangs usually commandeered the equipment, but Niles never had any trouble getting on. I never tried. No point pushing my luck.
After Niles left, Crazy George came over to me. He’d been sitting at the next table and must’ve heard me talking. He looked shit scared. “Don’t do what they tell you to.”
George was a loner who drew weird symbols on walls and in library books. He was undersized, but nobody screwed with him. Word was that if you did, bad things happened to you.
“Don’t do it, Leon. Put up with the pain, it’s better than the alternative.”
I figured he must be talking about the hissing. “What do you know about the noises?”
George was sweating. “Whatever it is that they ask, don’t do it. It’s the sure road to hell. I have to hide from you and whoever else they might recruit. I’ve already said too much.”
He grabbed my food tray, took two teetering steps over to the next table, and slammed the flat of the tray into a guy’s head. The guy swung around and dropped George with one ugly sounding punch, then started kicking his stomach and head.
George curled into a fetal position and held it until the guards backed the guy off him. As the instigator, George was going to be quick marched through the infirmary and into a solitary cell, where nobody but the guards could get at him.
Once the commotion subsided, I went to the library, which was usually almost empty. I took a thick reference book from the shelf and sat down in a corner. Then, as quietly as I could, I ripped out pages. I needed a new knife. I put the sheets under my shirt and went back to our empty cell. Once there I wet the sheets, layered them with stored up sugar water and spit, and pressed them between two book covers I’d also pilfered. Then I stuck the whole thing under my sheet. My body weight would do the rest, eventually. The dried, bonded paper would stiffen into something I could put an edge to. It worked for stabbing and cutting, but if it bent it broke.
The fierce static resumed just as I laid on the book boards. I listened, and thought I heard my name being repeated, “Lsseossn.”
Feeling like an idiot I cupped a hand next to my mouth and yelled toward the masonry. “Yes?”
“Ahs. Sgood. Mush to stell.”
I wondered if I was losing hearing or just going crazy and stepped back from the wall. Get away, I thought, and walked out of our cell and down a floor to the chapel. It had no doors, and opened into the main prison bay, but was at least nominally neutral. Two guys were standing together up toward the altar, whispering. I ignored them and sat to the rear, against a side wall. A mistake. I was next to the chapel’s wet wall.
I softly cursed. “What?”
The hissing seemed to clarify as I listened, leaving a background static over which I could hear words “You do something for us.”
Like shit I will. When there was no response, I guessed whatever it might be couldn’t hear my thoughts. And what kind of demented mind can’t hear its own thoughts? “Do what?” I rasped.
“One night, late, turn off lights.”
“Fuck you, crazy mind of mine, why?”
“Our presence strongest in the dark.”
“Must administer punishment.”
I jerked my head back and the hissing got louder.
“Not you, pelt-less ape. Another. One night you shut off all brightness.”
“Not a chance, hiss away. Better still, go pick on one of the Diablos”
“You hear us, Leon, because you are of our nature. We show you consequence of disobedience.”
The hissing shifted, higher, shriller, painful to hear. I clinched my hands so hard the knuckles cracked. The fillings in my teeth felt like they would split my teeth, the heavy metal ink in my prison tattoo hurt like it would spurt out of my arm. My brain, which has no feeling, screamed at me. I screamed as well, startling the two men up front just as they were passing a glassine packet. They cursed at me and ran out of the chapel. The pain abated.
“This your future, Leon, unless you agree.”
“I can’t, it’s impossible. And the emergency red lighting would come on.”
“That is tolerable. Do or suffer.”
The agony crawled back into me. My spine distorted and I fell to the floor. “Stop!” I gasped. It did.
I didn’t try to get up, the aching was almost as bad as the pain had been. “Why,” I muttered.
“Another must no longer live. Do or suffer.”
I needed to buy time, to think. “Okay, when.?”
“Before many days pass.”
“For how long?”
“Half the length of night.”
Thoughts skittered around my mind like pachinko balls. “It’s…” I stopped myself. If I said impossible again, I’d be punished. “It’s very difficult.”
“Do or suffer.”
“I need to think up a plan.”
The scritching stopped. I slowly got up, checking that everything still seemed to work. I doubted I was sane, but I couldn’t do to myself what had just been done to me. I slow stepped back to our cell, trying to think. There were four locked metal doors and that many guards between me and the electrical control room. There was almost no exposed wiring in the stir, except for some metal plated, armored cable that ran through common rooms like the dining hall, either full of people or locked up. Our cells would automatically lock if there was a power failure. But there was maybe an outside chance.
Niles came back from the yard, smelling like jammy armpit. “Going for a shower.”
“Good idea. Before you go, can I ask a favor?”
His look was stoic. Getting over on Niles was never a good idea, but some people did try. “Like what?”
“I need a shiv, solid metal, like a sharpened screwdriver.”
“You’re already making your paper special.”
“Won’t help. Could you get it from one of the crews in the yard? I’ll give you desserts for two months.”
His look shifted to sad. “Whatever you’re figuring on is a bad idea. For both of us.”
“Maybe, but I need it bad.”
He considered for the better part of a minute, then shrugged. “Okay. But three months’ worth of desserts.”
Two days later a member of the Diablo crew got hit from behind and almost totaled. The Diablos were ready to go to war, but the injured con hadn’t seen who’d hit him. A day after that Niles handed me a wide bladed wood chisel, its steel tongue sharpened, butt end wrapped in tape. “You go down for this on your own.”
“I know. Will there be any blow back to you from the Diablos?”
“Don’t think so. And the Hermanos figure they owe me a favor.”
That day I volunteered for extra duty cleaning the dining hall after meals. I told the guards I was saving the dollar an hour I made toward family presents. Except I didn’t have family anymore.
I put in two weeks there, and every night the shrill screech administered enough pain to remind me of my obligation. My solution, like most good plans, was simple. The worst, and last, chore in the dining hall was wet mopping the floor. As the new guy that was my job. The other two guys would go back to their cells, leaving me alone to finish up, which is what I needed. Once I’d cleaned up the dropped food, spilled drinks and tracked in dirt, I had about ten minutes before the guard checked on me. Over the next week, using a meat tenderizer to hit the chisel, I was able to cut through the armor wrapping and insulation of two adjacent power lines right at floor level, where hopefully it wouldn’t be noticed. That next evening, once the clean up crew had left, I wedged a twenty-pound block of ice between the cables on the floor. Then I called the guard. “I’m going to puke, something I ate. Can I go back to my cell? I’ll finish up in the morning.”
The guard rapped his baton on a table, but waved okay. I was ten minutes back in my cell when the power went out. Niles and I cursed in chorus and lay in the dark for four hours before the power came back up.
That next morning the cell doors didn’t unlock, and the prisoner count was conducted with us facing the bars. There was no breakfast. The warden come onto the PA system around 9am.
“There will be an immediate cell search. No one is permitted to leave their cells until the searches are completed.”
They got to us around 2pm, after we’d missed lunch as well. They found my paper knife without breathing hard, but the chisel had gone down a sewer drain the night before. Meanwhile a rumor spread from cell to cell. A guy had been found in solitary dead. He’d torn out his hair and run into the wall so hard he’d busted his skull. I asked a guard about it.
“It was crazy George. Had an expression on his dead face like he’d just shot his momma.”
As the last guy to leave the hall before the power outage I was given special attention. After I took a warmup beating from the guards’ batons the warden had them prop me up.
“All right, asshole, why cut the power?”
My lips and jaw were so swollen that I mumbled. “Din do it.”
I got hit a few more times, then-
“We found your knife.”
“Wount cut string. Was in my cell puking. Locked up.”
“You dumped water on those power lines.”
“Huw. Never even mopped.”
I got a few more whacks before they got tired and locked me up in a solitary cell next to the one the dead guy had been in. And neglected to feed me for another half-day.
That first night, after my lips had deflated, I put my mouth against the wet wall.
“I did what you wanted.”
The hissing was shriller. “Acceptable. To talk of this is to die.”
“No one would believe me. I’ll stay silent. But, in a prison full of hard cases, why me?”
“You already murderer. Already close to us.”
“It was an accident.”
“We know you lie, murderer.”
“So now you leave me alone?”
The hiss-chitter sounded almost like a laugh.
“Before you join us you will serve us.”
I pulled back from the wall. “But I’m not—whatever you are. I’m a man. A man you tortured.”
The next words were clearer, more resonant, as if a filter had dropped away. “As were we all. You are one with a great, terrible horde, for we are legion.”
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had almost four hundred stories and poems published so far, and six books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the review board and manages a posse of nine review editors. He’s also lead editor at The Scribes Micro Fiction magazine.
I leaned back against the cold stone wall, grimy water seeping through my t-shirt as I shined a flashlight in either direction. I could’ve sworn I’d heard a second set of footsteps, but… it was hard to say. These tunnels had a way of playing tricks on you, especially if you’d seen what I’d seen. Once the sprawling vasculature of the state mental institution above, they’d become a sort of underground refuge for several displaced tenants after the facility was permanently shuttered. The Lord of the Flies nightmare that ensued – complete with orgies, sadism, and kidnapping – was enough to turn even my stomach. And, while I’d been able to provide a permanent accommodation for most of these demented souls in the last year or so, I was still ready to come face-to-face with just about anything down here. Well… anything except someone’s grandmother.
“Odd place for a house call, Doctor,” the old woman chuckled. She stepped forward to reveal a surprisingly well made-up face, the sequins on her ‘You Had Me at Meow’ sweater glittering in the faint light.
“Wha- uh… ma’am… you really shouldn’t be roaming these tunnels. You don’t know what’s lurking in the dark.”
“Honey, I am what’s lurking in the dark.” She offered her claw-like hand. “Nadine.”
“I know who you are – I’m a big fan of your work. Even brought you a present.”
Confused as I was, I couldn’t think of a single thing to say – this was a situation too strange to question. I simply followed Nadine to the central chamber, surprised to see the network of precariously placed lamps already glowing. They lent a such a soft backdrop to my handiwork.
“Must have taken you years to pull this together,” the old woman mumbled.
Indeed, when I’d first found this three-story atrium, it was clear that the room had been boarded up long before the rest of the hospital. The floors had to be stabilized and the dilapidated staircases ripped out, the latter eventually replaced by an assortment of wrought iron spirals from the sides of crumbling buildings. Then came the fun part. I’d visited every abandoned book depository in the city – every old public library and forgotten bookstore – and rescued anything I didn’t already have. The cataloguing process had been painstaking, but it was well worth it in the end. All three tiers of this room were now lined with full bookcases – knowledge stretched from the floor to the dirty glass panels of the ceiling. My desk sat in the center of it all, and I couldn’t help but notice that the armchair at its side was occupied by a petite, blonde-haired girl who looked far too young to be here. Nadine ran over and draped her arms over the girl’s shoulders.
“See, Madeline? I told you Dr. Swinton would be here to help us.”
“Excuse me, um… Madeline… how old are you?”
I looked from the girl to the IV pump waiting on the pole next to her. “You- you do know what I use that for, right?”
“You’re the suicide doc.”
“That’s… one way to put it. And I don’t normally work on people your age. Are you… ill?”
“Oh, worse. Much worse,” the old woman interjected. “Her parents forbid her from seeing her boyfriend. Imagine that! You finally find your true love, and now you have to spend your life without him! Think of all the miserable, lonely days ahead.”
“I- what? That’s ridiculous! She’s sixteen! Nobody marries their high school sweetheart! And if even if she did, she’d only have to wait two ye-”
“Well, I married my high school sweetheart! And I can’t imagine having to spend years without him.” Nadine brushed the girl’s bangs out of her eyes. “I’m so glad you found me when you did, honey. Now we can hurt your parents even worse than they hurt you! Think of how their stupid, smug faces will look at your funeral! Then they’ll learn… but it’ll be too late. They’ll have to live with what they did.”
“I’m sorry, but I absolutely canno-” I was cut short by a claw-like hand on the back of my neck as Nadine dragged me to the side.
“What the fuck are you doing? I handed you this girl on a silver platter! Don’t make this complicated!”
“I don’t want her! My work is meant to help the terminally ill! I’m trying to make dying with dignity mainstream. This would only hurt my-”
“Oh right, right, right. That’s why you’ve been testing your little process out on all the fruitcakes living down here?”
“I did society a favor! Those people were dangerous and participating in my research gave their life purpose!”
Nadine pulled me closer. “Alright, listen here you shitty little Kevorkian knockoff – I found your journal. The one on your desk. You can lie to yourself all you want, but the proof was on the page. Fantasies about all the creative ways to kill someone? A scrapbook of people you’ve ‘helped?’ You are a serial killer in denial! And a dumb one at that, leaving evidence in plain sight! I’ve got that journal hidden somewhere else at the moment… somewhere that would be easy for the police to find if the right tipster called in. Your looks and charisma and moral bullshit might fool people now, but it will not fool a jury once they hear what you wrote. Look how many times Bundy got convicted!”
My heart dropped into my stomach. “What do you want?”
“I want you to do exactly as I say. That’ll get me outta your hair in a matter of days, and you can go back to whatever freaky shit you were doing before. But I swear to Christ, if you piss me off one more time, I’ll have you in prison for the rest of your life. You will never scratch your itch again.”
We walked back over to Madeline, tears now streaming down her trembling face. “Would you just do it already? I can’t wait to look down at those shitheads crying at my funeral!”
“That a girl!” The old woman patted her shoulder. “Oh, Doctor?”
I sighed, starting an IV in the teenager’s arm and handing her the button to turn on the pump. “When you press this, you’ll get a dose of sodium thiopental. That puts you to sleep. Afterward, a timer in the machine will trigger a potassium chloride injection. That stops your heart.”
The pump was whirring before I could say anymore, and I watched as Madeline’s clenched jaw went limp. Once I was sure she was gone, I turned to my own reflection in the IV pole and noticed my smile. I also noticed that my dark hair and even darker eyes had grown quite stark against my skin. Like my shaking hands, I assumed this pallor was a final warning shot from my subconscious to not feed the beast any further. It was one thing to get satisfaction from my work… but pleasure? How many senseless deaths could I be party to before it became an addiction? Before my itch became a compulsion? It didn’t matter; a quick shove from Nadine was all it took to remind me that the next few days were out of my control.
“Move.” She used her phone to take a picture of the body. “Okay – there’s still service on here… guess the bitch I stole it from thinks it’s lost in her purse. Now let’s see. This number is supposed to be the mother’s cell. We’ll go ahead and send…” A phone call popped up almost instantly, a hysterical woman on the other end. “Yes? Hello? Oh good, you got the picture! Alright? Oh, no… no, no, no. She’s dead.” A series of piercing screams forced Nadine to hold the phone away from her ear. “No- stop. Stop! Listen to me! Stop screaming! This can go one of two ways – you can pay me to get the body back, or I can dump your little girl in a landfill. Your choice.” There was a pause. “Well… how much is your daughter worth to you? Really? That seems like a lowball offer. I’m thinking more in the neighborhood of a hundred grand. I bet you could scrape that up if you tried hard enough. You already failed as parents; don’t you at least owe Madeline a proper burial?
“That’s awful!” I hissed. She waved me away.
“Excellent. When the bank opens tomorrow, I want you to withdraw the money in cash and leave it under the slide at the park on Fifth. And do not involve the police. If my assistant makes it back with your payment safe and sound, I’ll call you back and tell you where the body is.” Another pause. “Well, I could be lying, but think of it this way – you saw the picture. You know she’s dead. Either you do exactly what I say and maybe get the body back, or you call the police and definitely spend every Mother’s Day for the rest of your life trying to find the trash bag with your daughter’s skeleton in it. That’s what I thought. Money better be there by nine.” She hung up the phone and looked at me with a smug grin.
“So that’s it? That’s your plan? Convince a bunch of teenagers to kill themselves and then ransom the bodies?”
“Genius, right? Sure, it was a learning curve at first, but I got the hang of it. Look.” She opened a social media app on her phone to reveal the profile of an attractive yet realistic-looking teenage boy. “My decoy. All I had to do was friend a bunch of girls from around the city and wait for the posts bitching about their lives. These kids – it’s amazing how upset they get over nothing. Guess it’s easy to feel like the world’s ending when you’ve never really lived in it.”
“I can’t imagine what you say to drive them to suicide over nothing.”
“It’s really not that hard. You just, oh, what’s that saying you kids have? Slide into their DMs? Most of ‘em are already angry, spiteful little shits who can’t see further than a week into the future. All you have to do is gain their trust – not hard when you’re a cute boy – and play into their persecution fantasies. Make ‘em feel validated. Push ‘em to the extreme while they’re still angry. Takes an hour at most.”
“And that’s when you introduce them to your ‘friend’ Nadine who knows someone that can help? Of course they would trust you! You look like their grandmothers.”
“Exactly! What they don’t know is, Granny wants a Bimmer.”
“You really think this will work?”
The old woman laughed. “If there are two things I know in this life, they’re grief and bodies. Right now, all that family wants to do is bring their little girl home. They’re not thinking of anything else! That makes ‘em puddy in our hands. Speaking of which… you’re a strapping young lad, put that somewhere safe.” She was pointing to the corpse. “I have two more brats coming tonight and I don’t want anything dead on display. Might give ‘em cold feet.”
“My God you work fast…”
“I have to. It’ll take the cops one day to establish a pattern and two to figure out what they’re looking for. I gotta be gone in three.”
“I thought you said the cops wouldn’t be involved.”
“No, I told the harpy on the phone not to call the cops if she wanted the stiff back. She will absolutely call the cops after she pays up and realizes I was lying.”
“I know I heard you say you would at least give the body back!”
“For fuck’s sake! You get dumber by the minute! Do you know how much evidence is probably on that body? Why don’t we hand over a damn business card while we’re at it? When I said take it somewhere safe, I meant somewhere nobody could smell it until we get a chance to dump all the bodies in a landfill together! Now get to it! I have to go grab, uh…” She glanced down at her phone. “Olivia.”
Grimace though I did, I spent the rest of that night and much of the next morning following Nadine’s orders – everything from moving bodies to braving the summer heat with a scarf over my face so I could collect payments. Focusing on the old woman’s blackmail helped to keep my mind off of how much I may or may not have been enjoying her little scheme, but there was one feeling that I couldn’t stave off – intrigue. Something deeper than greed motivated this woman, and I was too curious not to figure out what that something was. I had my answer roughly twenty-four hours after our first meeting. Unfortunately, my plans for a confrontation were brought to a screeching halt by the grizzly scene awaiting me in the atrium.
“Nadine! What the hell?” The blood-soaked body of another teenage girl was slumped over in the euthanasia chair, her clothes still dripping into the small pond on the floor.
“I told you I had a schedule to keep. You were running late, so I tried to start the girl’s IV myself.”
“More difficult than embalming, isn’t it?”
The old woman raised an eyebrow. “What would you know about that?”
“Not as much as you. I followed you home last night and then broke in this afternoon while you were gone. Found some interesting things.”
“Well, if you were looking for your journal, you were looking in the wrong place.”
“I wasn’t… really. I was more looking for this.” I held up a photograph – faded and decaying – of an attractive young woman with long, blonde hair. She was standing in front of a family funeral home, a man at her side and a girl in her arms.
“Give me that! Put it in my hand!”
Nadine lurched at me, but I was too quick. “Who’s that girl you’re holding?”
“None of your fucking business! Give me that picture!”
“I will give you the picture when you tell me who’s in it. Is it really that hard?”
The old woman sighed. “There’s me, and that’s Harlan, my husband, in front of our old funeral home. The girl is our daughter. Both are long gone.”
“What was your daughter’s name?”
“Who wants to know?”
“I do! And so does the lighter in my pocket.”
“Fine… her name was Annaliese.”
“She had your hair.”
The old woman’s posture relaxed a bit, some semblance of a smile shooting across her face. “Yes…yes she did. Used to call her my little sunflower. Only kid we were ever able to have.”
“So what happened?”
“This city got her,” she sighed. “Concrete doesn’t grow flowers; it grows weeds. She grew up, fell in with the wrong people, started using heroin. I tried over and over again to save her… even after my husband wrote her off. It wasn’t enough. She OD’d right in the funeral home. And you know, my husband… he was so over the whole thing that when he called the coroner, he asked if he could just wheel her down the hall. I never forgave him for that.”
“That explains a lot. You and I are… not as different as you think.”
She rolled her eyes, her old demeanor returning. “Whatever helps you sleep at night. Anyway, I found some towels in a janitor’s closet upstairs that you can use to clean up this mess.”
Nadine grabbed a towel from the pile and, for a second, made me think she was actually going to help. Instead, she used it to wipe off one of the dead girl’s bracelets before placing it on her own wrist. “Looks like real sterling…”
“You are disgusting.”
“My bank disagrees. I’ll have five bodies by the end of tonight – that’s half a mil in ransoms!”
“Nadine?” A soft voice caught us off guard, and we both whipped around to see her final target standing in the doorway.
“Mallory! I told you to meet me outside.”
“Yeah, well… I kinda wanna get this over with.” She slunk forward, her outward-facing arms revealing a patchwork of scars. The bloody corpse, to my amazement, didn’t seem to bother her. “And you’re not gonna get any ransom money for my body, so don’t waste your time.”
The right side of Nadine’s face twitched. “You… you must be worth something to someone.”
“All that’s left is my dad. He doesn’t care. That’s why I’m here. Last time I tried to… you know… he told me he wished it worked.”
“Useless…” The old woman scowled, gritting her teeth. “You know what? I bet he didn’t mean that. What parent could mean that? Let’s get him back. You squeamish?”
“Lay down by the blood. There you go. Like that. Hold still.” She snapped a photo and handed the girl the phone with instructions to send the picture to her father. Then we waited. And waited. After about ten minutes, Nadine finally called the number herself.
“Probably not even gonna answer…” Mallory mumbled.
“Someone just di- Hello? Yes! Well do you know who the pict- Yes. Ye- That’s your daughter! Jesus Christ, that’s your daughter!”
I walked by in time to hear “…and make sure you dump her on someone else’s door!”
Nadine hung up the phone in a huff. I expected her to simply kill the girl and be done with it once she realized that she wasn’t going to turn a profit, but instead, she took the poor teenager’s hand. “Listen, kid, you don’t wanna do this. You kill yourself, your father wins. You need to grow up to be smarter and stronger and meaner than he is. Then you can hurt him like he hurt you. Then you can hurt everyone who hurt you. Take it from me; suffering is my specialty. Now come on… I’ll walk you out.”
Rage bubbled up in my chest as I watched them disappear into the tunnel. That was it? She was going to let a witness walk? But I knew that wasn’t the real reason I was upset. No, that girl was never going to tell anyone what she’d seen. In truth, I felt like an animal robbed of its prey. Two days with Nadine hadn’t merely fed the beast – they’d unleashed it. I was suddenly at real risk of becoming the Kevorkian knockoff she’d accused me of being. I couldn’t let my own compulsion to kill – a compulsion I would not be able to control for much longer – turn me into the next macabre poster child for the anti-euthanasia crowd. That would make my work meaningless – detrimental, even. My only option was to sacrifice myself for the preservation of my legacy. Heart racing, I yanked the corpse out of my chair and started an IV in my own arm, pressing the kill button before I really had a chance to think about what I was doing. Nadine reappeared just as I was beginning to fade away.
“Thank God! I was starting to think you wouldn’t make it back before I lost consciousness. I need-”
“Nope.” She pulled her picture out of my pocket and began collecting the duffel bags full of money that I’d left on the desk. “See you around… or not. Freak.”
“Wait! Please! There’s a section in the back of my journal laid out like a lab notebook. Make sure that section – and only that section – makes it to someone. Anyone. Even the police. That’s my life’s work!”
“Can’t,” she laughed. “Hate to tell you this, but I can’t remember where I left the damn thing. Sorry. Senior moment.”
Raised in Michigan, William Presley is now a graduate student in human genetics who spends all of his time outside the lab desperately hocking his fiction at anyone who will have it. His short stories have been featured by a variety of different publications, including Scare Street, Timber Ghost Press, the Creepy Podcast and Homespun Haints. He also writes the Apprentice's Notebook Series for Little Demon Books.
We would be heroes—service at the burgomaster’s table. Gottlieb took a bite of apple, and a trail of juice traced the contours of his prominent chin. He was more than a year younger than Hab but acted older. Even when they were children Gottlieb took charge of their play, choosing the game and the terms of it, determining who won and who lost.
Hab didn’t know if he and Gottlieb were best friends, or if their connection was based more on happenstance—being born in the same small village, close in age, and their families sharing pastureland. Gottlieb’s grandfather owned the land; Hab’s father leased space in the pasture. Even though the families’ sheep mixed together, and there was no way to distinguish which sheep belonged to which family, in the spring, when the flocks were separated for shearing and slaughtering, Gottlieb’s family was guaranteed the same number of sheep pastured in the fall. All losses came from Hab’s family. Newborn lambs were divided evenly. If the number wasn’t even, Gottlieb’s family received the odd head.
The arrangement between the families had been struck when Gottlieb’s grandfather was a boy. During a bad year, if fluke ran wild for instance, it could be nearly ruinous for Hab’s family.
For weeks something had been preying on the flock. One by one the sheep were disappearing. It went unnoticed at first, until the remains of a young ewe were found at the edge of the field. The situation was suddenly obvious. At night there were no disturbances—the dogs didn’t bark, there were no irregular noises, no nervous edge to the sheep’s bleating with the coming of darkness.
The two families attempted to keep the predicament to themselves, not wanting to be the focus of village gossip, but there was no containing it and rumors flew: Hab’s father was tired of the arrangement, made long before he was born, and he was spiriting away the sheep in the night to sell at a distant market; there was a gang of thieves, gypsies probably, who’d come down from the mountains to raid the pastureland; there was a diabolical creature afoot, a werewolf perhaps, that had a taste for the families’ fat sheep; there was a pack of forest wolves, emboldened and on the prowl; Satanists, come from some city, were carrying off the sheep to use in their black rituals.
We would be heroes—service at the burgomaster’s table. Gottlieb took a bite of apple, and a trail of juice traced the contours of his prominent chin. At the moment, Hab could only think of slapping the juice from Gottlieb’s ridiculous face. For days, his emotions regarding Gottlieb, his oldest friend, had been a torment of confusion, due to the tears Gott shed at Liesl’s funeral.
Until then Hab didn’t know that Gottlieb, too, had feelings for Liesel. Hab was suddenly stabbed by jealousy and possessiveness: only he had a right to such pain, only he could be paralyzed with sadness, with regret, with shame. It was the last that dammed up Hab’s tears. Gottlieb wept quietly but freely; Hab’s grief was a meteorite of molten iron smoldering in the pitted ground of his soul.
Perhaps Hab’s inability to cry, to exorcise the guilt and grief, came off as indifference to Liesl’s death. Coldheartedness. Maybe that is what Gottlieb believed.
As Gottlieb wiped away the apple juice with his coat sleeve, Hab thought of the field where he and Liesl would sneak away to when they should have been doing chores. Wind swept the grass in waves, and they could disappear from the world, a place that Liesl dreamed of seeing. She would play with her sun-gilded braid, and her cobalt eyes would blaze as she spoke of the great cities and what she would do in each: attend a Wagner in Munich, sip coffee and cream in Vienna, bicycle through the streets of Berlin, cool her feet in the fountains of Cologne, climb the great hill to the emperor’s castle in Nuremberg. She was so full of life it was like a potent perfume. Hab felt lightheaded around her.
The game began with pumpkin seeds, that morning in the field, hiding one in her blouse, then she in his shirt, his pants pocket, her skirt—their hands went searching for the seeds, and it was a different game altogether. His heart hissed like an over-stoked boiler as he kissed the barely-a-bump of her bellybutton. He knew his quick-coming breath was warm on her skin. It was no longer Liesl’s scent of vivaciousness that dizzied him, that enkindled him.
Then her parents were burning her diaries. Her voice was too clear, they said, too painful to hear. What a treasure they would be—to hold the pages she held, to clasp hands with her thoughts, caress her dreams, care for her wishes. Perhaps the pages kept her scent, a trace of the air behind her ear, the dimple of her collarbone, the crook in the bend of Liesl’s knee. All devoured by the flames before Hab even knew of their peril.
It happened so quickly. She was sick, appendix inflamed, they said, then burst, they said. Then Liesl was gone, they said. He wasn’t allowed to see her. No one knew the meaning of what she meant. No one knew what they were. A favorite cousin, yes, an old playmate, but nothing more. Their secret was safe, and its security kept them separated at the end.
A pair of gray horses pulled the funeral cart, though such power was hardly needed. The grays wore garlands of wildflowers while the mourners followed behind. Hab found a white petal in the road and stopped to pick it up. He held it between finger and thumb throughout the graveside service. Just as Father was finishing, a passage from Luke, a strong breeze sprang to life and Hab let the petal go on the wind. Soon it was lost from sight.
At the luncheon afterward, he picked at the shepherd’s pie—every bite of food made him queasy, as if the empty feeling could only tolerate further emptiness, the dark more darkness. Meanwhile Gottlieb ate heartily . . . while he regaled those at his end of the table with the story of how Liesel looked at the end--
Gottlieb visited her?
And what her last words to him had been--
Gottlieb spoke with her?
Gottlieb’s mouth was half-full as he shared the details. Hab was sick with jealousy and hurt. He stabbed the mutton on his plate with a fork and left the parish hall. He wretched in the tall grass behind the church but nothing came up: the potion of poisonous feelings had thoroughly soaked into his soul.
We would be heroes—service at the burgomaster’s table. Gottlieb took a bite of apple, and a trail of juice traced his prominent chin. Hab was disgusted at the sight, but there was no denying the truth: discovering and killing whatever was thinning the flock would bring them celebrity in the village, and maybe, in time, the whole district. What was more, all the losses came from Hab’s family.
Gottlieb swallowed the bite of apple, his own Adam’s apple darting down and up dramatically. Tonight, why wait?
Hab thought. Said, it’s a new moon, it’ll be dark, very dark.
Gottlieb smiled. The element of surprise. Apple skin clung to a front tooth giving him a moronic grin.
Hab was silent about their intentions throughout the day and evening—but there was nothing unusual about his silence, not since Liesl’s death. Sometimes hours passed without his uttering so much as a syllable. He imagined his parents worried, but they were equally taciturn and avoided questioning him.
At ten o’clock he met Gottlieb behind the round barn on the north end of the pasture. It was cold, near freezing in fact. Hab wore his heavy coat and a fur-trimmed cap. The coat was short in the sleeve as he had grown since last winter. He’d taken his father’s Mauser from the cabinet, its caliber better suited for the quarry he imagined. He also brought a bullseye lantern. Gottlieb, when he arrived, had similar equipage.
Gottlieb raised his lantern as if he had to reveal his identity, and the oddly angled light transformed his face into a mask of scattered shadow—a frightful emblem of Gott’s true nature, observed Hab in the moment. How could he not have seen it before?
Gottlieb lowered his lantern, and his face vanished altogether. We should spread apart, said his disembodied voice, cover more ground, I’ll walk the north and west sections. They began moving away from each other, when Gottlieb added, Careful you don’t shoot me. Hab envisioned the grin that accompanied Gott’s comment. Gottlieb was only a voice in the dark, and quickly dissolving lantern-light.
Something about the tone of Gottlieb’s remark, its out-of-place edge of humor, reminded Hab of the story from childhood about the crimson-cloaked girl and the man-size wolf. The human qualities of the wolf disturbed Hab’s dreams—and most disquieting of all was the wolf’s ability to speak. In the night Hab would wake to the eerie cleverness of the wolf’s voice as he deceived the wayward girl. Even as a child Hab understood that since the story came from a picture book, the sound of the wolf’s voice was supplied by his own imagination. The unsettling voice resided somewhere in him.
The voice was at last let loose into the world. He pictured Gottlieb as the wolf, uncannily human, shrewd, malevolent. Hab forced the image from his mind. He must be alert for the real predator. Here and there he sensed the sheep in the field, heard what he hoped were their movements through the grass. They were queerly quiet, only occasionally bleating in the dark. Maybe they sensed a presence in the field, something unnatural, dangerous.
The moon was new and clouds obscured every star. The night Gottlieb chose to confront whatever had been taking the sheep couldn’t be any blacker. To make matters worse, a half-frozen fog was forming in thick patches. The light from Hab’s lantern was devoured by the dark, with only a few drops, like blood, sprinkling the invisible ground.
Hab lifted the strap of the Mauser over his head and held the rifle for a sense of security. The night was colder than he thought it would be, or the cold was more penetrating: his numb fingers were clumsy handling the rifle.
Hab knew the pasture well, but in the dark, with sounds disconnected from sight, it was a strange-feeling place. He believed he was getting close to the spot where he and Liesl would play their children’s games, like knucklebones, or tic-tac-toe with stones. They spent hours there, yet he couldn’t recognize it in the absolute dark. Losing his bearings touched off the loss of Liesl afresh—random things would do that, unsteadying him at odd moments, at the worst times.
More and more the poignancy of losing Liesl was paired with the sickening stew of emotions he felt toward Gottlieb. He thought of Gottlieb being with Liesl before she died, holding her hand, telling her good-bye, perhaps confessing his affection for her, so that it was the last thought on her mind, eclipsing her feelings for Hab, erasing him completely.
His rage rose toward an erupting point. He began running through the dark field.
Ahead, a shape formed on the freezing fog, staying before him stride for stride. It moved with the litheness of a girl. It shimmered as if made of moonlight. The feminine form, her curves contoured on the fog, beckoned Hab to follow, beseeched him; the form called to him, commanded him.
He wanted to answer, Liesl! Her name was on his lips. Yet, the still lucid part of his mind had worked out that the form was only the lantern-light reflecting off the fog, sculpting a spectral image.
Before the conclusion could be fully realized, Hab tripped over something in the pasture -
Hab hit the ground--
The lantern went out as it flew from his hand--
The Mauser discharged--
In the last half-moment of light he saw something move.
Then, Hab lay upon the hard ground in total blackness. The fall jarred the air from his lungs and he waited to recover his breath. He could hear something in the grass nearby.
He found the box of matches inside his coat and struck one as he kneeled on his haunches. The flame revealed a ghastly thing on the ground just before him, the thing he’d tripped over: a dead sheep, its guts strung out like a serpent in the tall grass. Hab was repelled by the sight and scampered backward like a startled crab. The match went out. He tried to quickly light another but his cold fingers fumbled the box and it fell, invisible, to the ground.
His fingers groped woodenly in the wet grass. He was again aware of the thing that moved near him. His frantic fingers found the lantern, which was worthless without the matches. He wondered why Gottlieb did not come; he must have heard the rifle shot.
Then the idea dawned on him: What if Gottlieb did not come because he had accidentally shot him? What if he lay wounded, dying in the dark?
Calmer now, Hab searched for the box of matches more methodically, inch by inch. He should be horrified at the thought of having shot his friend. Hab tried to summon that horror, but in its stead came a sense of satisfaction, even a seed of happiness—emotions that Hab tried to smother. He recalled Gottlieb’s monstrous mask before they began hunting the creature. His mind found images of Gottlieb bent over the dying sheep, rending it with his teeth, a trail of blood tracing the contours of his prominent chin. He thought of Gottlieb being surprised in the dark and springing away from his kill before being shot. He thought of being a hero and of service at the burgomaster’s table.
Hab found the matchbox. Most had spilled out but enough remained. He lit the lantern’s wick. First, he looked to the sheep’s carcass to confirm what he’d seen only briefly. It was even more grisly in the fuller light. A gleam returned from the sheep’s dead eye, which was worse to behold than the animal’s half-eaten organs and snaking entrails.
He turned to the thing still moving in the dark, hidden even more so by the tall grass. He imagined the dying Gottlieb, his face and throat badged with the ewe’s blood. Hab stepped on the stock of the Mauser, and he picked it up. Hab had to practically stand over the thing to identify it in the lantern’s weak light. He first recognized the gray coat. He noted that only its front legs were moving and only feebly.
The wolf—a young male—was nearly dead. The bullet had entered his ribcage and maybe lodged in his backbone, crippling him where he fell.
Hab was beginning to sense his disappointment when a weird sight arrested his attention: a light coming over the hillock. Gottlieb no doubt, led by a shimmering female form, dancing in the moonless and starless night, frolicking like Salome on the fog.
Hab glanced again at the dying wolf before sliding a round into the Mauser’s empty chamber.
Ted Morrissey is the author of the novels The Artist Spoke (2020), Mrs Saville (2018), Crowsong for the Stricken (2017), An Untimely Frost (2014), Men of Winter (2010, re-released 2013), the novelettes The Curvatures of Hurt and Figures in Blue, and the novella Weeping with an Ancient God (Twelve Winters). A new work in progress has been published as First Kings and Other Stories (Wordrunner). Mrs Saville won the Manhattan Book Award. Crowsong for the Stricken won the International Book Award in Literary Fiction from Book Fest, the American Fiction Award in Literary Fiction from American Book Fest, and it was a Kirkus Reviews Best Indie Book of 2017. His short stories, novel excerpts, poems, essays and reviews have appeared in more than eighty journals. He is also the author of three scholarly books: A Concise Summary and Analysis of The Mueller Report (2019), Trauma Theory As a Method for Understanding Literary Texts (Mellen, 2016), and The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters (2013), which won Edwin Mellen’s D. Simon Evans Prize for Distinguished Scholarship. He holds a PhD in English studies and lives just north of Springfield, Illinois. A William H. Gass scholar, several of his presentations on Gass’s work are archived at his 12 Winters Blog.