Let me tell you a story...
“Are you gonna jump or not?” Carrie asked with her hands on her tucked waist. Her figure was intimidating, accentuated in all the right places by her red and white high-waisted polka dot bikini. She flicked her head and her coal-black hair shimmered like wet tar in the setting sun.
They stood atop the little water testing building that sat at the end of a long buoyant walkway in the middle of the Altoona reservoir. The air was dense with humidity even as the sun set; so thick it seemed you could carve it like a pumpkin on Halloween. The summer sky had a sort of psychedelic quality—some hippy’s tie dye experiment gone haywire. Violet that seeped into hazy neon pink, melted orange crayons, and scald-your-flesh blue. The reservoir was surrounded by dense woods full of oaks, maples, and pines. Secluded and silent except for the crickets that provided the soundtrack to northern summer nights.
Blake looked at his reflection, the only thing visible in the murky water before it was sucked into the drain pipe, and made its way to the water treatment plant. “I’m working on it. Just give me a minute.” His broad shoulders and long chestnut hair rippled as he kicked a twig into the water.
“We’ve been here for an hour.”
“I’ve never done anything like this before, Carrie.” Blake turned away from the edge of the roof and sat down cross legged in the middle of the thing. He picked at the skin along his thumb nail.
“I know,” Carrie sat down next to him, “but it’s just a little jump. Maybe 20 feet.”
“That’s the least of my worries. I’ve never done anything illegal before.”
“It’s just the reservoir. Look around. No one knows we’re here. Just a little jump for freedom. A jump to say, ‘Screw you’ to that asshole.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Blake said as he watched the last crescent of the sun descend behind the trees. The air was still sticky, Carrie’s hair reflected gold in its inky blackness.
Blake had never known freedom, not really, and the idea of it scared him. He had been the captive of a man who watched his every move with a microscopic lens for as long as he could remember. Every memory was a flashback: a smaller version of him with a #2 pencil and a sketch pad, radio quietly pouring out some sad melody sung by a broken-hearted man, inside a tiny room with too much furniture and no room to live. He’d hear a curse, a guttural growl emitted from the troll who roamed the world beyond his small den of safety, and then the pounding footsteps approached. One second. Two. Blake knew his quiet moments were numbered. The he would appear; red faced, spittle gathered at the sides of his mouth, tongue like a cattle prod, and he would destroy Blake with words that would settle in the fragile nooks and crannies of Blake’s tender mind. You’re nothing. Worthless. Stupid. Ugly. You don’t matter. And if Blake could survive being nothing, then, the beatings began. Then, the shunning. Forced solitude. As big as Blake was, inside he was still small. Inside, he was just a little boy that needed a savior.
Carrie saved him. Kind of. When she saw him curled up on the playground under the shiny silver slide in 4th grade she took his hand and saved him. When he died, lung cancer, before Blake had a chance to tell him off; Carrie saved him. Now, two months later, she was trying to save him again. Carrie was trying to convince Blake to taste life, because life was more than sketch books and Bob Segar songs.
“It’s getting dark,” Carrie said.
“Maybe we should just go.”
“No way, Blake. We didn’t haul our asses all the way up here to the middle of the boonies to stare at grimy water and sit on a dirty roof. Which I am pretty sure is going to give me a rash on my butt.” Carrie smiled and nudged Blake hard. He teetered but righted himself before he fell over. “Let’s do the thing.”
Blake sighed and rubbed his hands on his knees, “Alright. Let’s go.”
Carried and Blake hoisted themselves up and walked to the edge of the roof. Their dirty toes were side-by-side gripping the edge. Carrie’s were painted a vibrant ruby red that matched her swimsuit. Blake looked over the side and into the water. His reflection was gone now, replaced by darkness and the shimmer of the full moon that had begun to appear in the distance. Tiny winking pinpoints mirrored the sky on the surface of the stagnant water.
“On the count of three?” Carrie said.
“One,” Carrie announced and bent her knees as if she were a professional diver preparing her form.
After a long quiet moment and several deep inhales Blake breathed, “Two.”
Carrie looked at him and smiled, her perfect white teeth glinting in the pale moonlight. She grabbed Blake’s hand, heaved herself forward, and shouted, “Three!”
Blake’s hair whipped up into the air as he plummeted toward the water. His brown eyes watered against the force of the wind. His body felt weightless, unencumbered by gravity, by memories, by fear. For an instant, as he drifted toward the waiting water, he was unattached to a world that confused and neglected him. Carrie’s lilting laugh tickled his eardrums and made the moment brighter despite the purple night and the silhouettes of once green trees.
Only for a moment. Just after that brief, monumental instant when Blake tasted freedom his eyes shifted to the water that would strip his soul of the evil that tormented him despite his departure. But what awaited Blake wasn’t the glassy serene surface of the reservoir. The water had begun to churn, bubble, froth as if it were being heated by some unseen coil. Blakes eyes grew wide with fear; searching for the source of the commotion. Carrie let go of his hand, flailed her arms, screamed.
Blake saw it. A long, thick tail that came to a sharp point surfaced and disappeared. Fins. Whatever it was, it was circling. Waiting. Blake felt as if he had been falling forever. He wished he could, because he knew eventually he’d make contact. So would Carrie, and he couldn’t save her. Whatever it was would be waiting. Blake began to hyperventilate, sucking in tiny bits of syrupy air, gnats that hovered just above the water’s surface, and it was all too fast now. He didn’t manage a good gulp of air before he was cocooned in the cool muddy water.
Carrie’s head emerged above the surface of the bubbling water. Her black hair matted to her face, she used one hand to brush it away. Carrie gasped for breath while she kicked furiously to tread the dark water. “Blake!” she yelled into the night. When she received no reply, Carrie sucked in a slimy gulp of air and submerged herself into the depths of the once quiet reservoir.
Beneath the surface the water was thick and blurry. It was filled with large particles of dirt and muck stirred up by the thing lashing about in front of her. Swarms of bubbles clouded the writhing figures battling in the fog. Carrie pressed forward, emerged from the water for a fresh supply of oxygen, and then she descended again.
Blake’s legs swirled around, his muscles strained with useless effort as he attempted to force himself toward air. The enormous creature had him locked in place, its tail twisted around his waist, keeping him from gliding to the surface. Carrie moved frantically, her body a torpedo of will set to save her friend from whatever beast now clutched him. Her eyes ached as the debris scraped her corneas.
Out of the mire appeared a flash of razor wire teeth, longer than a human thumb. They somehow glittered in the muddy water; catching impossible rays from the luminescent moon. Its mouth could have swallowed Carrie whole, and she had no idea why it didn’t. The monster emitted a low, trembling growl and a storm cloud of tiny bubbles. Had she not been terrified, had she not flung herself back into the abyss, Carrie might have found the bubbles amusing. Its great silver eye narrowed and examined her, and then turned for Blake who was losing his battle in the absence of air. It inched closer and closer, sniffed him, his legs and his feet and his arm pits, and then it struck. Its wide jaws opened and closed around Blake’s abdomen. Carrie could see Blake’s face contort. His mouth opened in one long agonizing, terror-filled scream, and the brown water turned the color of bricks as his blood leached into it. The monster shredded the pieces after the initial bite.
Carrie turned and violently shuttled to the surface. She gasped for air as she blinked through wet lashes and crusty water. Carrie screamed, “Blake!” but no one heard her. Not in the wilderness. Not out here, where no one was supposed to be anyway. She swam with the last of her waning energy to the grassy bank of the reservoir where she sat shivering with her knees tucked up to her chest despite the heat and humidity.
The full, yellow moon hung high overhead now. Carrie looked out at the water, the glassy black surface interrupted by a bleeding spot of crimson. She hadn’t been able to save Blake in the end. The monsters were always going to torment him, maybe they were incognito, around every corner waiting for their chance to attack. It could’ve had her too if it wanted. She had offered it both. It only took what it needed, though. The ones who couldn’t be saved.
But Blake did know freedom, eventually, and he would know it forever. He would live on in the people of Altoona. The pieces of him that escaped would filter into the water. The whole town would drink him, bathe in him, brush their teeth with him.
Carrie smiled. I bet the sprinklers are about to kick on.
#HumpdayHorror #DarkWater Copyright 2018 Kira McKinney
She came in on the morning mist through the valley and into our small town riding the song of sparrows, except that the melody sounded like it was being sung by some otherworldly creature as it echoed from her lips and bounced off the mountain ridges. Her hair was fire as it floated behind her like a spectre, enchanted by tornado winds that existed only to freshen her entrance. The paleness of her skin and the cresting sun’s pastel, orange rays made her appear as if she emanated her own golden essence. As if she, herself, glowed like the goddesses of Celtic lore. This, of course, was made more apparent by the fact that she was naked as a newborn. Her shapely, hourglass frame was truly a sight to behold and, had I not been wiping the crusty sleep from my eyes, I might have been less amazed and more concerned about the odd woman who drifted into Tyrone that morning.
I witnessed her arrival as I stood on my doorstep having just retrieved the morning edition of the Herald. My long terrycloth robe was wrapped securely around my skeletal, aging frame and my knuckles ached with arthritis. When I initially saw her pulsating in the distance I adjusted my gold rimmed spectacles and squinted my eyes. I was certain I was still in some sort of waking-dream state. I shook my balding head, disrupting what remained of my thin white hair, and turned back to my kitchen. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Angus. Get some coffee before you start seeing fairies on the front lawn.
I shuffled around the dim kitchen making coffee as I did every morning. I had never been much of a sleeper. Persistent nightmares and restlessness for the duration of my 75 years meant, regardless of the many treatments attempted by physicians, I slept only long enough to not go utterly mad. I often woke long before the sun rose over the mountains that surrounded our little village, before the young men went off to work in the plant, before women woke to prepare breakfast, before the children’s feet began to pitter patter upon the floors, before there was any sign of life except the young paperboy who walked door-to-door to deliver the morning edition.
As the bitter aroma of my morning coffee filled the air and my percolator bubbled, I heard the strange song grow louder. I shuffled my slippered feet along the wilting hardwood floors and peered from my window into the dense, white abyss of the morning fog. At first, the glowing figure of the strange woman was gone, but as I searched, my ancient blue eyes were pulled as if by magnetic force to her beaming gold essence growing ever closer. Her song was hypnotic, enchanting, and I was unable to jerk myself from the place where I stood. I watched not because I found myself presented with a woman, unclothed and lovely, but because I felt as if I were transfixed, stuck like my feet were encased in cement.
The odd creature made it to Pennsylvania Avenue, the road that runs along the outside of town, before her light faded and she collapsed in a heap in the middle of the street. I suddenly smelled a foul and malicious odor and realized I had burned my morning coffee, a mistake I hadn’t made in a number of years. I sighed and started a fresh pot as I watched several young men rush from their houses and carry off the mysterious young woman.
I proceeded with my day as if the predawn events hadn’t occurred. I didn’t need any additional nightmare fuel, and I preferred to abide by my routine. Veering from my usual schedule threw a wrench in my internal clock that caused a greater disruption to my senses than I found I was generally capable of easing.
I dressed in my usual tweed trousers, button down shirt, and jacket. My gray wool ascot hat hung on the pine coat rack next to the door; I tossed it on before I slid through and made my way to D&B’s for breakfast.
Daniel, William, Everrett, and all the other elderly retired men congregated in their usual way smoking pipes filled with tobacco which enriched the atmosphere with cherry musk scented smoke. Their coffee cups steamed as their wrinkled, sagging faces melted over them. Their low voices grumbled about the weather, back pain and arthritis, and how their fathers would roll over in their graves if they knew how their grandchildren were acting.
“Aye, Angus,” Daniel motioned, “it’s about time.”
“Sorry fellas,” I grunted as I walked over to the table, “running a bit late this morning.”
“Is it on account of the spectacle that appeared out of nowhere this morning?”
“Did you see her too?” I hadn’t planned to bring the young woman up in conversation. I hoped she was a figment of my imagination.
“I saw them bring her in off the street,” Daniel answered. “Such a shame. I wonder if the little thing is ill.”
“Something wrong with her, out in public naked as the day she was born,” Everrett said. “Like to escaped from the lunatic asylum. Probably mad. They’ll sort it out at the infirmary and haul her right on off.”
I ordered eggs benedict and a cup of coffee from the little brunette waitress with the beaming smile. Then, I returned to the conversation, “Something strange about her. I can’t put my finger on it.”
“Bet you’d like to, aye,” Daniel laughed and nudged me with his elbow. The other tottering old men I made my company with chuckled and coughed into their coffee and bacon and eggs.
It wasn’t that I was particularly fond of any of them or their offspring. It was just the way. We all had names like Brien, O’Shea, McCleary, Murphy, Doyle; understand, our fathers—grandfathers founded the small town we now resided in. We were bound by more than blood, bound by sweat, and hardship, and history. Unlike all these other men, I wouldn’t carry on the family name. I never did marry, have children, spread the seed of the McCreary’s. Our blood ended with my feeble, diseased body.
I sipped my coffee as I watched Shelly O’Rourke and her husband eat with their children at a table in the back. Little Aileen with her floppy red curls was absolutely disinterested in her oatmeal. The baby helped her tip the bowl on the floor. I stopped mid-chew as Shelly landed a hard slap on both of their plump cheeks leaving them red as roses in summer. The O’Rourkes dragged both children out as tears streamed down their sodden cheeks; their little eyes sunken and hollow with a sadness no child should know. My brow creased as they shuffled by me, but not another man seemed phased by the emotional and public display of cruelty. Then again, this was not unusual behavior; just a thing that I could not come to terms with myself.
By the time I shuffled to Renny’s Corner Store, where Jack and I met once a day for chess, the small town was abuzz with talk of the mystery woman who had appeared so suddenly in the wee hours of the morning.
“Have you gents heard about her?” Mrs. Renny asked as she scurried about the store unpacking wooden crates in her deep maroon wool dress. Her blond hair was frizzy and streaked with silver, yet her face denied her age.
“I saw her come in out of the mountains,” I answered as I stared down at one of the scratched black pawns on the board.
“Through the mountains?” she stopped and looked out through the glass on the door. “Well, when she finally came ‘round she said she couldn’t remember how she got here. Apparently, the poor thing was starving. They fed her, all she wanted was bread and honey, then she insisted she had to go.”
Jack cleared what sounded like a large pocket of mucus from his throat, “She’s gone then. Good. No good’ll come from strange outsiders. You know how the stories go.”
“Oh, Jack. Those old fairy tales are just myths and legends. Better to leave them in the old country where they belong,” Mrs. Renny mumbled and disappeared into the backroom.
Jack sat rubbing the dense, gray forest of stubble on his chin. His skin was like dough as he kneaded and pulled it over his cheeks and jaw. Jack had once been truly handsome. Now, he was a living corpse, rotting from the inside out like the rest of the elders. It was sad watching the last of us fade away, knowing the ones taking over had such little self-control. They didn’t care to learn about the land they had come from or the people who had built the traditions of their ancestors. They didn’t even adhere to the old ways anymore.
The little brass bell above the door dinged brightly and Emma Duffy stomped in, her little son barely slinking through the door before she slammed it.
“Don’t ask for a thing, Emmet, remember you brought mud in the house this morning.” She scolded the small child before he had a chance to utter a peep.
I cradled my cheek in my palm and feigned deep concentration regarding my rook but watched Emma and Emmet under heavily lidded eyes. The tiny, rosy cheeked child with strawberry blonde hair toddled around the store clutching a bedraggled and under-stuffed teddy bear. The thing had been carelessly mended several times and was missing one eye. His mother slapped his hand away sharply when he tried to tug at her skirt to get her attention.
“No, Emmet. Don’t touch me. Don’t touch anything,” Emma Duffy yelled and swatted.
The tiny child’s pink lip quivered as he reached with his free hand for his mother’s chocolate, brown skirt once more. She plucked a bag of flour from the shelf with one hand and slapped his with the other. Instantly, little Emmet Duffy’s eyes welled with shiny tears and he let loose a wail that brought to mind the tales of banshees my grandfather used to regale us with as children around the stone fireplace. Emma Duffy bent down and swatted the back-end of the child as she issued a stream of curses.
I averted my eyes, partly because I didn’t want her to catch me watching and partly because I couldn’t stand to bear witness to the crippling torment the children of Tyrone were raised accustomed to. As I turned my head, my eyes met hers; emerald green like the land in the fairy tales I grew up listening to. Her fiery hair in loose curls that hung low and cradled her face like the hands of a God. She only looked at me briefly before her gaze returned to Emmet. A small golden tear ran from her eye and then, the sparrow’s song came muffled through the walls and the glass. It only lasted a second and it was gone, but Emmet was now calm and smiled a wide grin that revealed he was missing a tooth. When I looked back through the window, the green-eyed girl was gone.
As the chilly wind of near-November blew through the alleyways between the brick buildings that lined Lincoln Avenue, I watched with sadness as the children of Tyrone sulked behind the parents who had given up on caring for them before their lives had really begun. Tiny ones that longed for a hand to hold but were forced to walk several paces behind their mothers; their heads hung low, their eyes averted as if those women were reigning queens. Girls who looked as if their hair hadn’t been tended to in weeks. Boys with holes in their shoes, the lucky ones, some had none. Parents yelled openly at their children for walking too slowly, for asking a question they didn’t wish to answer, for crying as the frosty wind chilled them to the bone, at the tears they shed for their growling bellies as their parents sipped tea and ate finger sandwiches at lunch counter windows.
There were the beatings. The slaps, the raised fists, the dragging of children by their fragile little arms as they wailed in fear. These weren’t the old ways. This new attitude adopted by parents was the result of the new world and advancement. The belief that children got in the way of life. They used to be old souls, newly delivered, deserving of time and love. My own children, had I been given them, they would have been gifted with all the joys I could offer. I often lit a candle and asked the heavens for sovereignty for Tyrone’s young.
I saw her again, in a long olive-green dress, staring into a café window. The sparrow’s song trembled on the gusty wind and she shuffled along the sidewalk as if she had an important engagement.
“They shoulda hauled her off to the nut house,” Everrett grumbled into his corned beef sandwich.
“She’s been sneaking around town all damn day,” Daniel said with a mouthful of mashed potato. “I don’t trust her a bit. Outsiders like her, they come in judging. Don’t understand how we do things here.”
I looked around D&B’s the lunch crowd was typical. The behavior the same as anywhere else in the town. I sipped pop from my glass, “Don’t think I understand how things are done here anymore.”
“Hell, Angus,” Daniel spit, “get with the times. World can’t run like it’s 1890 forever. These young blokes and lasses, they’re what’ll make the world turn long after we’re gone.”
“Which direction are they turnin’ it, Daniel?”
“The hell does that mean?”
“Just that it doesn’t look like good progress. My Papa wouldn’t be fond of it. Yours wouldn’t either as I recollect.”
He stirred his congealed gravy, “They’re long gone now. They have new rules here.”
“The children are sufferin’,” I said.
“You two are a right couple of shits,” Everrett scoffed. “Naked girl shows up out of nowhere and you want to piss and moan about tradition.”
“She isn’t hurting anything,” I mumbled.
“Heard she was in a rush to leave the hospital. Ran off mumbling something after they gave her some clothes and food. How many girls just drop out of the sky?”
“Sounds like a story my grandfather once told me,” I said. “Did she leave a name?”
Everrett nodded into the last of his sandwich, “Aye, Caireen.”
I made my last rounds to the druggist and McCoy’s Candie’s for my favorite red licorice. I walked slowly through downtown observing the other pedestrians as they went about their business. A heavy, angry gust of frigid wind nearly removed the ascot from my cranium. I reached up swiftly with my free hand to prevent its loss. As I did, she bumped my shoulder with hers. Her vibrant, crimson hair invaded my face and, briefly, I recognized the aromatic and relaxing smell of lavender. Where our bodies made contact, I felt my shoulder flush with warmth, as if I were standing on some forgotten beach on a bright summer day. It spread through my body, heating my insides, my flesh, until I felt such a heat that I was nearly compelled to begin removing my outer layers. Caireen, as I now knew her, turned to observe me with her shimmering green eyes. She looked at me, smiled, and placed a delicate finger to her lips, “Shhhh.”
I nodded and returned her smile.
Caireen moved as if she were floating right down the middle of Lincoln Avenue. The people on either side of the street stopped to stare as she did. It was impossible not to. Her hair, her form, the way she glided down the street; she was like an angel or a goddess. She commanded attention. As she passed by store fronts and eateries she snapped her dainty fingers, an odd motion that seemed to serve no purpose; until it did.
One-by-one I watched as the faces of the adult citizens of Tyrone contorted into grimaces and scowls. Their eyes darkened by shadow, fueled by the fire of hate. Their bodies convulsed, their chests heaved with rage, unbridled wrath. They began to turn on each other. Crouching first, like wolves preparing to strike, and then pouncing. Clawing at the faces of their neighbors and friends. Husbands and wives wrestled each other to the ground. Emma Duffy sat astride her husband wailing on his face, pulverizing it into dog food with her bare fists. Little Emmet stood sucking on his index finger as he watched.
I stared upon the murderous crowd, unable to comprehend what I was witnessing. I wondered if only the people on the street had been affected. I soon had my answer when shop owners began throwing open their doors, tossing bloody bodies into the streets. Michael Dougan, the cook at D&B’s, ran into the road holding a bloody skillet and proceeded to chase my dear friend Jack down the road. Jack didn’t make it far before Michael used his skull for batting practice. All over town, the adults had gone wild, overturning the place for a chance to destroy one another. It seemed I was the only one untouched, and no one was coming for me.
Amid the chaos Caireen stood with her arms outstretched, her vibrant hair ablaze in that ominous tornado wind. Her form was golden again, the way I had seen her come in through the mist. A murmur, at first, the sparrow’s song began creeping through the commotion; cutting through the spattered blood and corpses that now lined the avenue. Then, it grew louder reaching a glorious crescendo as Caireen’s body ignited like the sun pressing against the horizon.
Her melody transformed into words, soft and inviting, beckoning to the young ones. Her ancient voice gave her away, her thick accent alerted me to her deep connection to the Mother Land.
“All ye frightened,
All ye cheldren lost,
Shed not a tear,
An’ come ye to me arms.”
I watched in confounded amazement as every child, large and small, scurried to her as Caireen continued to chirp the lilting notes. They rushed swiftly, fearlessly, denying the remnants of destruction and the few who continued to fight. She kissed each of them on the forehead and embraced them warmly. The children’s dark sunken eyes brightened, and they smiled broadly. They no longer held themselves in a slumped posture that reeked of sadness.
“Dhe Modher Land requests ‘er cheldren ‘ome,” Caireen said smiling. “Dhere is no acceptance for dhose who mistreat dhe fragile.”
She took young Emmet by his puffy little hand and began to walk toward me and Pennsylvania Avenue. I sunk into myself as she approached, unsure what repercussion I would face for having witnessed but not participated in the destruction of Tyrone. As Caireen came closer her rose lips parted in a soft smile.
“She’s invited ya ‘ome too, Angus. She heard ya askin’ for help.”
I stared in wonder unsure what to say. I hadn’t known my home since I was a very young child. I was far too old to journey now, but how I longed for the rolling hills and the possibility of adventure that rested quietly in every shrouded forest.
Caireen’s emerald eyes sparkled as they examined my sagging cheeks. She reached for me with her shimmering hand. I looked at my own; spotted, wrinkled, purple and blue veins like mountains running along the surface. Emmet Duffy snatched my hand in his, his pointer finger wet with saliva, and placed my hand in Caireen’s.
I looked up her, my round, puffy cheeks rosy as the wind nipped them with a fresh chill. My hat teetered on my head and I lifted my chubby hand to hold it steady. The rest of the children and I followed her sparrow’s song through the Pennsylvania mountains, where it would carry us home.
#HumpdayHorror #SparrowsSong Copyright 2018 Kira McKinney
Grief. It’s a tough emotion. As humans, we all deal with it at some point or another. For some of us, we experience it in early childhood. It could be the loss of a pet or a loved one; usually a wrinkled old elderly grandparent who can barely get out of their La-Z-boy. Some of us don’t experience it until later in life. That can be a real shock to the system. If we’re lucky, we donn’t know them all that well and our parents give us a nice little song and dance about some mythical farm or fluffy cloud palace. If we’re lucky they drift off peacefully in their sleep.
Doctors like to babble on about five stages of grief. About how people stricken by this insidious emotion have to go through each of the five stages individually so that they can move on with their lives and accept death.
Well, I have no problem accepting death. I happen to be the one who summoned it, and frankly, I hope Jim is rotting like road kill in Hell.
Ok, so, that might come off a little harsh. I don’t really care. Here’s the deal. Jim was a shitty husband. Even when he proposed, right after finishing off a beer bong on the back of his pickup at a bonfire after a high school football game by the way, I knew I had made a bad choice. He only got worse during our fifteen years of marriage. He couldn’t hold a job. He drank relentlessly. The dude spent more time at the sports bar with his dude-bros ogling waitresses than he ever did eating dinner with me. PS, I make awesome ribs. Then, he started in with the name calling, the cheating, the hitting. So, you get why I had to kill him, right? There was no way I was losing half my shit to divorce because that asshole couldn’t pretend to be a civilized human being.
Anyway, Jim was a klutz, and he wasn’t very smart. Trust me, he was well-known for it. So, one night I convinced him to sit in his ’67 Mustang with me and listen to the classic rock station while we drank some whiskey and reminisced. Except, he was drinking a lot more than I was. While he knocked back one drink after the other in our garage with the music blaring, we laughed and talked about all the fun we used to have around the fire in high school. He bragged about squealing his tires and showing up other guys when he cruised down the boulevard in his baby. He kissed the steering wheel on the damn thing before he passed out. You know, not once did that bastard lean over to kiss me.
So, I shrugged, told the old boy g’night, and started the engine. That thing burned so much fuel I could smell the exhaust in the bedroom. I spared poor Jim a suicide investigation and told the cops he was just dumb. He was working on the thing, probably got drunk, and passed out with it cranked when he was checking the engine. The cops don’t ask a lot of questions of locals, especially when you’re Jim Davies’ wife, and he’s a belligerent fool.
The worst is over now. I watched them lower his coffin into the dirt today. Christ, it was hard not to smile and wave sayonara as those gears squeaked and turned. All those people dressed in black, dabbing their eyes, hands on my shoulder, and ‘Jim’s in a better place now’. I sure as hell hope not. I didn’t do it for him. I did that for me. I’m in a better place now. Screw Jim, let the worms have him.
I just finished a steamy shower and collapsed on the sofa. My oil diffusers are spitting lavender scented mist into the air, and I am sipping a nice cold glass of Moscato from my favorite Day of the Dead, sugar skull decorated, wine glass. Ironic, I know. I have the remote and I’m sifting through my Netflix cue. I smile to myself and wiggle my toes in excitement; it’s all mine now. No more stupid frat boy comedies, no more faux documentaries about alcoholics in trailer parks. From now on I can watch whatever I want without Jim grumbling that it is boring. This is going to be glorious.
I fall asleep on the couch covered in my favorite quilt. It’s a purple patchwork thing I picked up once when we drove through Lancaster on the way to Ocean City. I wake up the next morning, drink coffee, watch trashy talk shows, answer some texts like a grieving widow, ignore phone calls…like a grieving widow, I take a nap, and at one point I start perusing the local animal shelter’s website because I had always wanted a cat but Jim wouldn’t let me have one. I decide, I am so getting a cat.
Around 6:00 the autumn breeze really starts to pick up outside and that arm I’d broken twice as a kid aches like someone has beaten it with a sledgehammer. I decide to order in. Better the Chinese delivery guy braves the storm to bring me some General Tso’s than I go out in a storm and risk wrecking Jim’s precious mustang.
I snuggle under my purple quilt on the couch and giggle at the shenanigans of my favorite office workers as giant raindrops descend from the dark, looming clouds. Every now and again thunder rolls, and lightning strikes violently which causes my lights to flicker. I roll my eyes at the decrepit house I have spent too many years pacing.
I hear gravel crunching and leap excitedly from the couch. Listen, I really like Chinese food. I grab the tip I have laid out on the counter and scurry to the door. Peeking out the window, I don’t see the delivery guy on my steps, or his car lurching up my driveway. What I see is a dark shadow, limping on one good leg as the other drags behind it, drenched and muddy, in a tan suit with a pink silk tie.
I close the curtain and slam my back against the red front door. I must be seeing things, because I could swear that Jim is walking up the driveway looking like he went mudding in his funeral attire. Clearly, I’ve had a little too much Moscato. Maybe you can have too much of a good thing, or maybe the lightning and the rain and the glee of it all is messing with my head. So, I decide to just get over it, stop being stupid, because zombies aren’t real, and open the damn door before my food gets cold and Golden Dragon stops delivering to me, again.
I fling the door open, and there in the hazy yellow light he stands. His thick brown hair is matted to his forehead, the makeup the funeral director applied to cover his cornflower blue skin is smeared beneath the mud caked to his face. Actually, he is covered in gritty clumpy mud. It hangs from his suit, spots his tie, is buried under his fingernails. At least something is actually buried. The dark bags under Jim’s lifeless eyes make him just look tired.
“Mother shit!” I yell.
Jim looks at me with a confused expression, “Viv?” His jaw is stiff as he speaks.
“This isn’t happening. I’m dreaming. This is just a bad dream.”
“What’s a bad dream? Why was I in a graveyard?”
“You’re dead, moron,” I stick my hand out and give him a good hard push. I mean, if I am dreaming, or hallucinating, or drunk; if Jim isn’t really there he should just disintegrate, or my hand should pass right through him, right?
No such freaking luck. The bozo teeters, stumbles, and falls over like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and I hear a disgusting snap emanate from his right forearm. He doesn’t even flinch.
“What’d you do that for?” He slurs and heaves himself off the ground. The arm that snapped now dangles precariously at his side.
“Really,” I say as I raise my eyes to the porch roof.
“Why’d you leave me in a cemetery?”
“You’re dead, Jim.”
“As a doornail.”
“Then, how am I standing here.”
“Beats me,” I shrug. “Why don’t you go on back to the cemetery and get cozy.”
“Huh uh. No,” He attempts to shake his head and all the vertebrae crack and groan.
“Well, this is just like you,” I huff. “You wouldn’t stay dead, would you? Oh no, that would be way too convenient for me.”
“Just let me in.”
I scratch my head trying to remember zombie rules. “Do I have to invite you? Or is that vampires? Shit I can’t remember.”
“Stop screwing around, Viv. Let me come in. I’m covered in mud.”
“No. If you come in you’ll want to live here again.”
“It’s my house.”
“Not anymore. You’re dead. The coffin I picked out and put in the ground yesterday is your house now.”
A pair of headlights shine through the pouring rain and tires crunch over the shale driveway. Jim stares at me, and my head jerks toward the oncoming car.
“Shit,” I say.
“They’re delivering here again?”
“Well, yeah, Mr. Nguyen wasn’t worried about sending his drivers out here anymore because your ass is supposed to be dead.”
“How was I the problem?”
“Jim, you used to yell racial slurs and do a vulgar ‘China man’ dance when they came here…and you didn’t tip.”
He averts his eyes.
“Shit, just, come in. Stand behind the door. Do not go anywhere else.”
I give Benny, with his bleached white mohawk, a $15 tip for hauling my General Tso’s out in the rain. He smiles gleefully and relaxes once he realizes that my terrible husband won’t be harassing him anymore. He also thanks me several times, wishes me well, and promises speedy service from now on.
I watch from the doorway, holding the aromatic food as the sweet and savory aroma invades my nostrils, and I eye Benny’s taillights as they recede into the night. Jim is quiet the entire time, which is a shock considering he lived for causing a scene, but I realize why when I reach around to pull him from behind the door and he isn’t there.
I fling the door closed and see only emptiness where Jim should have occupied space. Maybe I had gone temporarily insane. After all, there is no such thing as zombies or the living dead or whatever. Jim must have been a figment of my imagination. Except the clumps of mud on the floor. Those are hard to explain away.
I carry my food into the living room prepared to resume my program and chow down, and that’s when reality hits. There is Jim, dripping slimy mud on my clean hardwood, holding the remote, laughing wildly at my show.
“The hell, Jim!”
He laughs hysterically as one cast member slaps the other across the face, “What?”
“I was watching that. You don’t even like that show.” I walk over and take the remote from him.
His hands are clammy from the rain and ice cold. Yeah, he is definitely dead. He turns mechanically in the little spot where he stands and watches me sit down and rewind the show.
“Yup. You’re getting shit all over the floor.”
“Oh,” he looks down at the puddle of muck under his feet. “Sorry. I could change.”
“No way, pal. You aren’t hanging out. I got rid of you for the long haul. Done. Finito. Go somewhere else until whatever this is passes.”
“What do you mean you got rid of me? How did I die?”
I raise my eyebrows and stuff a hunk of breaded, saucy chicken in my mouth. “Well, it’s like this, Jim.” I cough on the chicken and take sip of wine. “You, uh, it was exhaust fumes. In the garage.” I sound like I am playing a game of Clue.
“Did I commit suicide? That doesn’t sound like something I’d do.”
“No. Not really.”
“Was it an accident.”
“That’s the official report.”
“What’s the unofficial report?”
“Jim, look, you were a really shitty husband. You know that, right?”
He looked confused.
“Dude. You were. You had been cheating on me for six months with Stacy Harris. That’s not even the worst of it. Anyway, you might have passed out in the car and I might have left the engine running with the garage door shut.”
“You killed me!”
“I hardly think anyone would have blamed me.”
“Was that a question?”
“I didn’t think you were coming back! I didn’t plan on seeing you again. I just wanted to go on with my life minus one big pain in the ass. Now, look where I am. So, just scoot along and leave me alone and we can all get on with out lives…non-lives. Whatever.”
“Look at me. Where am I supposed to go?”
“Just apply makeup and don’t go out in the rain.”
“Look, at least let me change.”
“I gave your clothes to charity.”
“After one day?”
“Five days. You weren’t coming back, Jim. I needed the closet space.”
“Apparently, you were wrong.”
“Well, I’m not Doctor Frankenstein here. I thought what was dead generally stayed that way.” I sighed and threw my head back. “Maybe I still have something. Hold on.”
After rifling through dresser drawers and all the shelves in the closet, I am able to produce a pair of Jim’s sweatpants and an old Zeppelin t-shirt. I put his burial suit in a burn pile in the basement because I don’t need that kind of weirdness hanging around. Jim takes a shower to wash the mud and debris off him. It doesn’t help. After his shower, it is even more obvious the man is deceased. His whole body is a strange shade of blue. His lips are pale and there are dark black circles under his eyes. Speaking of his eyes, I cringe a little when I get a good look at them. There are broken blood vessels all over the white part, there are broken blood vessels all over his skin. I guess it was part of the asphyxiation process. I’m not totally sure. In any case, my bad.
We can’t figure out a good place for Jim to go late in the evening, in the middle of a storm, and I’m not cool on the idea of driving him to a hotel. Realistically, everyone kinda knows he is dead. So, dead Jim checking into a hotel might raise a little suspicion. Just a guess. I begrudgingly decide to let him stay one night. I’ll take care of all this tomorrow.
Here’s the thing. I’m not the type of person who makes a mountain out of a mole hill. I tend to just quietly sit back and stew in anger. Well, until it builds like a geyser and explodes in a fountain of fury. The whole Jim rising from the dead thing sure put a damper on my plans for the rest of my life. I mean, who has the audacity to do that? Jim, that’s who. I should have known that douche wouldn’t go down easy. So, I decide to end it before it gets any worse. Let’s be realistic, because I’m nothing if not realistic, I can’t have zombie Jim roaming around knowing I killed him. I have to put him down, again.
The next morning, I wake up to the smell of bacon wafting through the house. I roll over in bed and rub the sleep out of my eyes and stare at the brown water stain from the leaky roof on the ceiling. I wonder what the actual hell is going on.
I plod from the bedroom to the living room where I peer into the kitchen. Jim is standing over the stove flipping crackling bacon in a pan with a fork. He is having a tough go of it. His fingers are clearly stiff and fighting against him.
“What the hell are you doing?” I sneer.
“Making breakfast,” he says as skin flakes fall from his hand and sizzle as they hit the grease in the pan.
“Ew,” I wince, “you don’t cook.”
“I thought I’d try. Why don’t you sit down? I’ll bring you some juice.”
I sit down on the couch and flip on the tv. I scan the channels until I find the trashiest talk show currently airing. The guests are going on about affairs and baby daddies. I pretend to be interested while I shoot secretive glances at Jim. He brings me orange juice in a champagne flute.
I furrow my brow, “Thanks.”
“I made you a Mimosa.”
“You don’t even know how to say Mimosa.”
“Clearly, I do. Dippy or scrambled?”
“What?” I ask taking a sip. The drink is really good.
“Your eggs. Do you want dippy or scrambled?”
“Dippy. With toast.”
Jim scurries back into the kitchen, dragging the bad leg, and finishes making breakfast. He brings me a plate and sits it on the glass coffee table. I admit, it looks delicious. I take a few bites but can’t get passed the image of his rotting flesh falling into the bacon grease. I don’t care if heat kills germs. I can’t eat zombie skin flakes. What if that shit is contagious? I’m not trying to be linked to Jim, forever among the ranks of the living dead. No thanks.
“Hey, Jim,” I ask innocently. “Do you think you could help me with the burn pile real quick before you go?”’
“You’re still making me go?”
“Shit yes. Sorry, but don’t let the door hit ya where the good Lord split ya. We said ‘til death do us part. I didn’t sign up for any of this.”
Jim struggles but carries the muddy burial suit and the pile of wood and brush to the burn pile out back. The storm ended overnight. The clouds have cleared away, and the sun is shining making the sky a warm, haunting neon pink.
I go to the garage and load two shells into Jim’s favorite shotgun. I know, I know, insult to injury, Viv. Twice. First the mustang and now his favorite gun. Sometimes you’ve gotta get shit done. I hit the button on the garage door opener and take a firing stance as the door lifts. I watch as Jim’s body comes into view; first his legs and a stream of gasoline spilling onto the pile, his torso, the logo on his Zeppelin shirt, and his head.
He turns and looks in my direction. He only has a moment to realize what is happening before I press the trigger with my index finger. The gun fires with a loud boom. The recoil almost knocks me on my ass. I watch Jim’s head fly back, his body follows landing next to the wood and clothes and brush he has dumped gas on.
I put the gun back on the rack and saunter over to where Jim’s dead body lays. I figure I could just take him back to the cemetery later that tonight. Hopefully, no one realizes he is gone yet.
Jim lays there sprawled out. His eyes are closed, a huge bullet wound in his forehead. There is no blood, because, hello, Jim’s been buried already. That means no blood, no organs, no nothing. How the hell was he walking around and talking anyway? It doesn’t matter he is definitely dead this time.
“The shit, Vivian,” he says after a minute and rubs his forehead.
“Oh, come on!”
“You’re a zombie, Jim! It can’t be healthy.”
“A bullet in the brain is?”
“You don’t have one.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Jim, you’ve been embalmed. You literally shouldn’t have a brain in there,” I knock on his head. “I don’t think.”
“I can’t believe you tried to kill me again.”
“Can you really kill someone who’s already dead?”
“Well,” I say offering him a hand up, “it didn’t work.”
“I made you breakfast. Stop being a bitch.”
“Oh, really, like one breakfast makes up for all the shit you put me through? Get over yourself.”
“Just let me try to make up for it.”
We head inside the house. There is no sense in standing outside arguing in the mud where someone might hear us.
“Oh, because now that you’re a zombie you’ve turned over a new leaf?” I open the door to the house.
“I don’t know, maybe.”
It turns out death does something to a person, or at least being a zombie does. I won’t lie. I tried to kill Jim at least three other times over the last two months. He doesn’t have a persistent need to eat or drink. Turns out those stories about zombies and brains are just science fiction. I did convince him to drink some pop that I laced with a whole lot of rat poison. He foamed at the mouth like a 4th grader’s volcano science project and got a bad case of gas. Zombie farts, you don’t want to go there. It didn’t kill him. I tried to suffocate him with an old pillow, but after sitting on his head for three hours while his limbs flailed and he screamed obscenities, he still wasn’t dead-dead. I even sawed off his head in his sleep. Kind of. I made it like half-way through before he realized what I was doing. It wasn’t killing him, just making two of him, two halves of him, I’m not sure how to work that out. At any rate, I had to sew the front half back on. He looked like a Pez dispenser.
Having Jim around isn’t so bad, I guess. He helps with laundry and cleans the house. He used to rub my feet before his fingers started to get really brittle. If he uses too much force now, they just snap like twigs. Poor guy. He is deteriorating. You just can’t stop nature. I figure at some point the dumb ass will die naturally, or I’ll have myself one hell of a Halloween decoration. Anyway, I’ll let the new and improved undead, zombie Jim make up for being such a dog turd his whole life. No skin off my back. It was a waste of a good coffin, I guess. Maybe I’ll actually grieve over him next time.
Oh, I did get a cat. She’s an impossibly adorable, super fluffy calico. Her name is Jim.
#HumpdayHorror #Deader Copyright 2018 Kira McKinney
The yellow and pink neon lights on the 300-foot Ferris Wheel lit up the empty black sky as it rotated lazily over Ebensburg. Twinkling lights beneath it in a rainbow of colors pulsated to a stream of high-pitched tinkling music that called upon the town residents and led them like the Pied Piper to the mysterious tented attraction that seemed to appear out of nowhere in the usually barren field earlier that day.
The sleepy town’s residents hadn’t seen carnival workers pitching tents or setting up rides. No large truck had hauled in the big pink seats that hung from the Ferris Wheel. They hadn’t heard hammers reverberating in the quiet summer sun indicating the construction of game booths, or the echoes of carnies yelling instructions or jokes at one another. In fact, the sleepy town of Ebensburg had wandered through the humid Friday afternoon as it had any other Friday afternoon. Adam Jefferies wrote a human-interest story for the Sun Gazette about the local animal shelter offering free pet adoptions. Jane Winthrop filed her nails and client briefs in the law office on the tenth floor of the Webster building. John Mills came through the door of his meager two-bedroom home to his wife Suzanne and four children exhausted after working a 12-hour shift at the paper mill. Still, he played horsey in their 6x4 yard in the sticky, damp air as sweat beaded on his brow and his squealing children slapped at his kidneys.
“Ok, kids,” Suzanne laughed from the front porch. “Give Daddy a rest and go wash up for dinner.”
The three boys ages eight, seven, and five, as well as the little girl with bright red curls, age three, scampered inside.
“Boys help your sister,” Suzanne called out behind her.
John heaved himself up from the lush green grass stiff from long hours in his blue jeans and scruffy white t-shirt.
“Thanks for calling them off. I think I was fighting a losing battle,” he said as he climbed the few stairs onto the porch.
“You were outnumbered,” Suzanne said as she kissed his stubble covered cheek. “Say, John, did you see that big Ferris Wheel over on the far side of town?”
“See it? How could I miss it? It’s huge.”
“You know, we’ve never had a carnival come here before. I wondered…”
“Money is tight Suzy. I’m not sure we can afford to go galivanting around some carnival.”
“I know,” Suzanne hung her head. “I just thought maybe we could walk around. Check it out. I already asked Emily Schaffer to babysit. She said she’d do it if I watch Bobby and Bill next Saturday.”
John rolled his eyes and ran a frustrated hand through the coffee colored hair that had fallen over his blue eyes. “Not those two. Suzy, those kids are wild animals.”
“I know,” she grimaced, “but we never go anywhere. Please.”
“Alright. Just to look around. Maybe one ride. That’s it.”
Suzanne clapped her hands like an excited child and scurried into the house. She put dinner on the table for the children and John, cabbage rolled with fried hamburger topped with tomato sauce, and then rushed to doll herself up.
It was true, with four children and only one working parent times were tough. It was rare that she and John ventured out on their own. Rare that they enjoyed quality time together like the days before the children had come along. Suzanne felt guilty when those thoughts appeared. She never regretted her children. She regretted she couldn’t give them more. More than a rickety two-bedroom home, cabbage for dinner three times a week, a ten-year old car with a hole in the floorboard. They were happy, though. She could give them that. Was she wrong for wanting a night of happiness, a night of adventure?
Suzanne emerged from the tiny pink and blue tiled bathroom with her scarlet red hair perched high up on her head in victory rolls. Her eyelids sparkled with a dash of glittery gold shadow and her cheeks were a rosy pink, as if great-aunt Millie had pinched them too hard. Her lips matched her hair and made her smile look young and awake and vibrant.
“Mommy pretty,” little Emma said pointing from John’s arms.
“Yes, she is.”
John walked over and leaned in to kiss her cheek. Suzanne turned her head quickly and caught his instead leaving a big red lipstick mark on his face.
“Now, you’re mine,” Suzanne laughed.
“I was already yours,” John said. “Now, if you would take Emma, I can attempt to look half as good as you.”
The bright, multicolored neon lights of the carnival and the manic music that floated upon the summer breeze increased the anticipation of the spectators waiting in the long line in front of the one-man ticket booth. The tiny structure sat ominously between two big arches from which dangled long red satin curtains. On one arch the word “Cosmic” was scrawled, and on the other the word “Amusements”. The little booth was decorated with a shell-cut overhang that was red and white striped like a circus tent. It was painted a glittery gold that sparkled in the reflection of the lights from the carnival that danced and twirled and sang just beyond it. A silver microphone on a short stand sat upon the stand’s counter, waiting patiently for a host to announce the commencement of festivities.
It looked like nearly the entire town had shown up to attend the curious carnival. The line stretched deep into the field where people had parked their precious Fords, Chryslers, and Chevys; trophies of wealth and status. They leaned over each other and gawked passed the front arches, hoping to get a better view of the fun that waited beyond the odd gates.
John and Suzanne parked their rusty ’39 Ford at the far end of the field. Suzanne’s red heels dug into the dry dirt as they walked to the end of the extensive line. John rubbed the dusty sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
“Look at this line. It’ll take all night just to get in,” John said.
“Oh, don’t be a spoil sport. I’m sure once it gets moving we’ll be in lickity-split.”
“Say,” John said tapping the shoulder of the man in front of him. “How much to get in?”
“Two bucks a head, buddy,” the man said barely turning around. “Better be worth it.”
“Two dollars,” John whispered to Suzanne.
“Just one night.”
A loud squeak boomed, hissed, and faded. A man cleared his throat. Everyone in line shifted and leaned, stood on their toes to see what was happening. A tall, thin man had entered the ticket booth. He had silvery hair parted down the middle that curled at the ends. A thick mustache hovered above his upper lip like a push-broom. Sky blue eyes reflected the glow of the neon. He wore strange, old-fashioned clothes. A white button up with black cuffs around his biceps, and a red and gold vest with a pocket watch chain dangling against his chest. He seemed to emit his own glittery essence as he stood holding the silver microphone, still attached to the stand.
“Welcome to Cosmic Amusements’ Carnival! One night only! Come one, come all and celebrate the time of your life. We’ve got rides to tantalize, wonders to amaze, games to excite. All for the low, low price of two dollars! You’ll never experience anything like it, and some of you just might get lucky!”
He threw his hands up in the air, and, as if by magic, the two large satin curtains dropped to the ground revealing a Tilt-A-Whirl, cotton candy stand, a Museum of Wonders, a long row of games, and so much more.
The odd man put down the microphone and waved the first people in line up. He smiled to reveal his stained yellow teeth were the only thing about him that didn’t sparkle. The excited patrons handed him their cash, he gave them each two red tickets and waved them through the gates. He repeated the process over and over as the line dwindled, until Adam Jefferies stepped up to the ticket counter.
“Two bucks huh, Mack?”
“Yes, sir. A small price for a night you won’t forget,” the ticket man said.
“Still, pretty steep for entrance into a carnival, buddy. Do I get anything with my ticket or do I gotta pay for everything else once I’m in?”
“The ticket is admittance. You can purchase tokens at the booth inside,” the man smiled, his yellow mottled teeth reflecting pink neon.
“Sheesh fella. I ain’t rich ya know.”
“I’ll make you a deal,” the ticket man leaned in. He pulled one shiny brass token from under the counter. “This token will get you one free game or ride of your choice. How’s that?”
“Well, it’s better than nothing,” Jefferies grumbled and snatched the token, then handed over his two dollars.
The ticket man stood up straight and smiled. “Alright then,” he winked. “Use it wisely.”
Jefferies walked through the gates and the gray-haired man grinned and waved up the next people standing in line. More cash exchanged for more of the crisp red tickets.
As the line dwindled, the commotion from inside the carnival began to rise. Voices got louder, floating along with the music came high pitched laughter, buzzers began to ring out as people won or lost games.
A pretty brunette with long eyelashes and a sleeveless floral dress stepped up to the ticket booth with two squawking girlfriends. She was chomping noisily on a piece of bubble gum.
“Good evening, Miss. Beautiful night, isn’t it?” The ticket man said from behind the counter.
Jane Winthrop didn’t even look at him. She shoved her two dollars at him and said, “Here.”
“I see,” the ticket man said lowering his head. He took the money and handed back to her one red ticket and one brass token. “You can use that token for any game or ride you’d like.”
She looked at it and sneered, “Yeah, sure. Ok.”
He leaned over the counter and watched as she walked away muttering.
John and Suzanne were the last patrons lingering at the back of the line. When their turn finally came at the ticket stand Suzanne was still smiling broadly in anticipation. John had his brawny arm wrapped around her waist.
“Good evening my fine explorers,” the ticket man boasted.
“Good evening,” Suzanne smiled.
“Well, don’t you look fancy.”
“Oh, this old dress,” Suzanne blushed, “we almost never get to go out. We have four kids at home. Your little carnival gave me an excuse to get dolled up for a little while.”
“Looks like a fun place,” John said.
“Lot of entertainment inside. It’s worth the fee. You won’t soon forget it.”
“We’re just going to look around,” Suzanne told him. “We don’t have much, but we are excited to see it, anyway.”
“Well, with four children, I imagine things get tight,” the man behind the counter said thoughtfully. He reached down and produced two of the brass coins. “Here, two free tokens. Your choice. Any game or ride you wish with these. On the house.”
“Oh,” John said. “We couldn’t.”
“It’s my pleasure. Really.”
Suzanne smiled, “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
John handed the man the money for their tickets and thanked him once again for his generosity.
“Go on, show your wife a nice time.”
John and Suzanne walked through the arches. John turned to wave one last thanks to the ticket booth salesman, but when he did the booth was dark and the man had disappeared.
The inside of the carnival was a bustling, noisy place. The atmosphere was boisterous and joyful, but somehow seemed disjointed and hazy. Dust from the thirsty field blew up in the summer wind creating clouds of thick air that choked the patrons and slapped at their faces. It dimmed the neon lights as if the electrical currents were unstable and they were flickering from loss of energy.
Flocks of people crowded around to be let inside the Museum of Wonders and then exited looking pallid and green. Some holding their stomachs as if they might lose the corn dogs and cotton candy they had just consumed right there at the exit. People stumbled from the Tilt-A-Whirl like children who had done too many somersaults. Men tested their strength, their throwing accuracy, and other feats of manliness for cooing women and on-lookers at game booths.
Adam Jefferies was one of those men. He stepped up to a bright blue and silver booth decorated to look like a seascape. Behind the counter were an unbelievable number of tiny bowls holding shimmering goldfish. An elderly woman with thin white hair approached him. She had one glowing amber eye, the other socket was empty and the lids were sewn shut. She spoke with a husky, hoarse voice.
“Try your luck, sir?”
“What is this all about?”
“It’s a simple game. You simply throw a little ball at the jars. If you make it in, you get to take home a new pet.”
“A goldfish? The prize is a goldfish?”
“Oh yes, they’re lovely animals. Very calming. You get three chances. All for the price of one token.”
“Who needs three chances? What nincompoop can’t make a throw into one of those jars? Better yet, who in their right mind wants a dumb goldfish?”
“It’s more difficult than it looks,” she said. Then she turned away, “But if you’re not sure you can do it.”
“Oh, I can do it,” Adam Jefferies dug the free token out of his pocket. “Here, they gave me this free upfront. Won’t waste one I paid for on this stupid game. I’ll just flush the thing if I win.”
The woman behind the booth took the token and handed Adam three small white ping-pong balls. Adam tossed one carelessly. It bounced and landed in the grass next to the fish.
He took a little more care in aiming the second ball and tossed it lightly toward the glass jars. They sat motionless but reflected the movement of the yellow and pink lights of the Ferris Wheel as it rotated over the carnival. The ball bounced once on the center jar and hit the booth’s shimmery blue silk backdrop.
“Last chance,” the old woman taunted.
“Shut up,” Jefferies said. “I got this one.”
He closed one eye and held the ball between his thumb and index finger. His tongue darted in and out of his mouth as he took aim. His hand shot back and forth, back and forth. Finally, he released. The ball arched high and descended like a parachuter slowly falling from space. It landed with a plop in one of the glass jars.
“We have a winner!” The old woman shouted and hobbled to hit a loud buzzer that rebounded down the breezeway.
“Yeah, yeah. Just give me the dumb fish.”
She gently placed the little fish in a plastic bag and handed it to Adam Jefferies. “Take care of him. He’ll live a nice long life if you do.”
“It’s a goldfish lady,” he said as he stomped off.
John and Suzanne stood in line for the Ferris Wheel behind Jane Winthrop’s gaggle of gossiping girlfriend’s. They were mocking the hunched man working the gears and taking tokens.
“Ew,” a short blonde in a low-cut orange blouse said, “I hope he doesn’t accidentally touch me. What if he has fleas?”
“What if he has the plague,” a stout brunette poked the blonde.
“You too are ridiculous,” Jane told them looking unamused.
Suzanne watched them carry on this way as the man began loading new passengers and said to John, “How terrible. Those girls are being so nasty.”
“Just ignore them, Suze,” John shook his head.
It came time for girls to be loaded into one of the shiny pink cars. The man opened the safety bar and offered his hand to Jane Winthrop.
“Good evening, Miss. Let me help you in.”
“Ew, no,” she said pulling her hand away in disgust. “Don’t touch me.”
Jane tossed her token onto the control panel and walked passed the man seating herself in the car. Her companions followed suit tossing their silver tokens next to Jane’s brass one.
“I see you were lucky enough to get a free token at the gate,” the man said to Jane.
“Well, good luck tends to follow me.”
“Yes, a pretty girl like you surely has plenty to be thankful for.”
“If you’re trying to come on to me, I’m not interested.”
“Simply an observation,” the hunchback man mumbled. “Enjoy your ride.”
He closed the safety bar and shuffled over to the control panel. He rotated the Ferris Wheel so that the next empty car appeared, and he opened the bar for John and Suzanne, waving them over with a gap-toothed smile.
“Hello,” John said.
“Evening, sir. Enjoying your night?”
“Very much,” John smiled. “It’s quite a thrill to get out. We don’t often get the chance.”
John held out their two brass tokens.
“Is this your lovely wife?”
“Yes sir. She gets more beautiful every day.”
“John stop,” Suzanne blushed. “Thank you, you’re very kind.” She reached out to shake the operator’s hand. He took it. “I’ve never ridden one of these. Does it go very fast?”
“Only for a little while. It’s very pleasant, if you aren’t afraid of heights.”
“Oh no, I love a pretty view.”
“Then, you’ll find it very enjoyable,” he smiled. He looked at the two brass coins in John’s hand. “Two more winners of free tokens. Well, how about I only take one? Use the other for something else.”
“Oh,” Suzanne said, “that wouldn’t be fair.”
“It’s ok,” he winked, “our secret.”
Suzanne did enjoy her ride on the Ferris Wheel. Every time it came to its peek she looked out upon the little town of Ebensburg and admired the twinkling lights that indicated the cozy homes where people were nestled in with their families. Well, the ones who weren’t packed into the carnival. She looked out at the mountains of the Alleghenies and the night sky spotted with stars and summer constellations, the big dipper was always easy to find, and thought of all the possibilities their lives could still hold. As the wind whipped her face she smiled and looked at the neon lights mirrored in John’s eyes and new this night, this moment, would stay with her forever.
John and Suzanne spent the rest of the night wondering around the carnival. They enjoyed being spectators as they watched other people spin and twist on rickety rides. They enjoyed the sweet aroma of greasy funnel cake powdered sugar. They people watched while they held hands on an iron bench next to the Museum of Wonders. As the night slowly wound down, and sleep began to show on Suzanne’s face, they wandered down the breezeway where some lingering patrons spent the last of their tokens on games.
“Say,” Suzanne mused, “why don’t you try the strong man game?”
“Will you be disappointed if I don’t win you the giant teddy bear?”
“No, the medium sized one is fine,” she laughed.
They walked over to the game where a lean, tall man with a thick black beard sat on a stool next to a sledge hammer and a tall gauge with an empty aluminum pipe on the side. His jaw worked endlessly as he chewed tobacco.
“Hi,” John said. “How does the game work?”
“Simple,” he grunted. “Hit the pad with the sledge hammer. The harder you hit, the higher the gauge goes. The higher the number you hit, the better the prize. If you ring the bell you get a big one.”
“Sounds easy enough. Can I give it a try?”
“Sure. One token.”
“I have this one. The man at the ticket booth gave it to me.”
“A free one,” the bearded man said. “They only give a few of these away.”
John smiled, “That’s what we’ve been told. We were so grateful. Your carnival has been wonderful.”
“Well,” the man indicated the sledgehammer. “Go ahead and take a swing.”
John picked up the black weathered hammer and grunted as he heaved it over his shoulder. He smiled a wide, toothy grin at Suzanne and laid the thing down on the platform that sent the aluminum cylinder up up up the high shaft. It climbed higher and higher until it struck the old, rusted bronze bell at the very top. Then, it sped down and landed with a thump.
“Looks like we have a big winner,” the game attendant said.
“Honey, I didn’t know you had it in you,” Suzanne chuckled and nudged John’s shoulder.
The attendant handed John an enormous stuffed teddy bear with a sparkly red bow around its neck. “Congratulations, pal. I don’t give out many of these things.”
“Thanks. Thanks a lot. The kids will love this,” John and Suzanne both took turns saying. “Have a wonderful night.”
“Say,” John said. “Is this really one night only? Seems a lot of work to only stay for a day.”
“Yeah, we go where the boss tells us. Stay for as long as we need to. Apparently, Ebensburg is just a one-nighter. Take care.”
John and Suzanne waved good-bye and walked through the discarded food wrappers, left-over bites of hot dog, dropped and dirty purple cotton candy, and made their way through the nearly empty parking lot back to their old Ford. The bear almost didn’t fit inside.
The next day as the sun rose over a pink and orange sky that looked like some dystopian Martian scene, the field that had been alive with music and lights and laughter only hours before was now as deserted as the Mohave. The humid summer wind blew up the dirt that had been trampled by hundreds of eager, excited feet, but not a piece of garbage nor a single scarlet red ticket remained as evidence of the carnival’s existence.
Adam Jefferies stared out his apartment window at the vacant field as his coffee percolated filling the kitchen with the bitter scent of a too strong brew. The goldfish he had been determined to win the night before still floated lazily in the plastic bag the old woman had put in.
“I don’t care what anyone says, that’s just weird,” Jefferies said out loud to himself. “What kind of carnival only stays one night?”
He poured himself a cup of coffee and slurped it so that he wouldn’t scald his lips. He walked to the table where the goldfish hovered near the surface of the water. It didn’t move much, but its scales caught the reflection of the sun as it peeked between gray clouds.
“What the hell am I supposed to do with you? I should go ahead and flush you now,” Jefferies said sticking his face up to the bag where the fish hovered.
He eyed the fish suspiciously. It hadn’t been darting back and forth as it was the night before. In fact, as he got closer, his nose nearly pressing against the cool plastic surface, he saw the tiny fish’s gills were struggling. Its body was starting to float diagonally. The fish’s eyes, already wide, almost seemed to bulge out of its head. It shuddered.
Then, Adam Jefferies felt an odd sensation in his chest. At first it felt like a tickling inside his lungs, as if there was an itch that he couldn’t scratch. A tingling as his bronchial tubes, his larynx began to swell. He coughed. He tried to clear his throat. He looked down at the goldfish. It’s tail twitched. Jefferies took a sip of coffee hoping to move whatever was constricting his airway. The liquid became lodged and he coughed and hacked until he vomited the acidic liquid onto his newly installed beige carpet. It was black and bloody. Jefferies dropped the mug shattering glass and caustic liquid all around his feet. The goldfish went limp and floated to the surface of the water. Jefferies grabbed and tugged at his shirt collar. He scratched at his neck, but no air would come. The vessels in his eyes constricted and burst as he struggled, and his chest burned like Hell fire. Then the world was black and Adam Jefferies, much like the goldfish, was no more.
By Monday, when Adam Jefferies didn’t show up for work and a co-worker would discover his body, Jane Winthrop had all but forgotten her evening at the carnival. She arrived at work at 8:30 a.m. and scurried in wearing her usual four-inch heels. Jane rushed through the empty lobby of the Webster building where most people had already passed through and made their way to their respective offices. Jane was never on time. She was also pretty, and petite, and had a useful flirtation with her boss; she was seldom reprimanded for her absence.
As Jane scampered across the mirrored lobby she gazed at her reflection; snow white skin, shiny brown hair, perfectly plucked brows, and admired how well she’d maintained her appearance. The elevator door dinged loudly, snapping her back to reality. Her head jerked, and she saw the empty car, the doors open waiting for her. She hurried across the bright white tile floor to catch it. Just as Jane was about to step inside with her patent leather black pump, her heel caught on a groove in the floor. Jane plummeted to the ground, half inside and half outside the elevator car. Her wrist snapped loudly when she tried to catch herself, making a noise that turned her stomach and causing a surge of pain that radiated through her forearm and then into the rest of her torso. Jane lay on the floor, mascara staining her cheeks, as she cried for help. Quickly, and without warning, the silver doors of the elevator closed and the car began to rise. Jane soon found herself split, a vibrant red pool enveloped both halves of her. The one that made it to work, and the one that never got off the ground.
John and Suzanne went on with their lives after the carnival, always remembering the lilting music, the bright lights, and wind in their faces as they observed the view from the Ferris Wheel. Their four children snuggled the giant bear John had won thanks to their free token. They pulled it into the yard, used it as a landing pad when they leapt from the couch, and as a reclining chair to cuddle on when they were sleepy.
Months later the thing had begun to show significant wear because it had received so much love. As the children napped after a long day playing in the snow, Suzanne decided to use some old fabric and mend some worn spots on the bear’s backside. She sat down next to the giant thing on the floor, a needle and thread, scissors, and some sunflower printed fabric lay next to her. She positioned the bear and began to inspect it. Suzanne noticed it was stuffed with something odd. She poked her finger through a little hole in the fabric and wiggled it around inside. The bear wasn’t stuffed with cotton or down, but something else. She trapped a bit of it and slid it out gently. When she unraveled the thing, she could see that it was a ten dollar bill. Suzanne looked at it and furrowed her brow, then looked back at the bear. She stuck her finger in again and, this time, pulled out a five dollar bill. She repeated the process until the bear was empty.
“Honey,” John called as he opened the door. “Where is everyone.”
“In here, John,” Suzanne called with a shaky voice from the living room.
John entered the dimly lit living room in his dirty work clothes smelling of over-cooked sauerkraut; another long day at the paper mill. Suzanne sat on the floor. The bear was now re-stuffed and mended with the sunflower fabric, the children playing as they had everyday since their parents had brought it home. Suzanne’s face was tear stained, but she smiled at John.
“What’s going on, Suze?”
“John, you’ll never believe it.”
“The bear,” Suzanne walked John to the kitchen where she had put all the bills she had pulled from the bear. “Ten thousand dollars, John. The bear was stuffed with ten thousand dollars.”
John’s eyes went wide and glistened as he looked from Suzanne to the money and back. “Some of you might just get lucky,” he said.
#HumpdayHorror #TheCarnival Copyright 2018 Kira McKinney
Welcome to my blog. Sit back and enjoy a short story, a poem, or some flash fiction--whatever I have recently cooked up. I will post a new piece as often as possible. Check back once a week to see what's new.