This is an open letter to all the authors published on Deadman’s Tome:
Deadman’s Tome offers a unique way for authors to earn revenue from their stories. Not that it’s solely about the money, these authors practice the craft of creating dark worlds for the love. But love does not pay the bills.
Unless we’re speaking of prostitution. Prostitution pays the bills, but comes with a slew of problems such as clingy clients, creepy clients, murderous clients, pimps, drugs, and sometimes the police.
We’re not talking prostitution. No, we’re talking about the love of one’s work. That sort of love does not pay for rent. Hell, that sort of love doesn’t even pay for the essential things in life such as booze and blow. What does pay for those things is money, and the authors featured on this site earn money based on how many read their story.
So, if you’re an author published on this site, it’s to your benefit to network the story out to as many people as possible. I can tell by the statistical pattern that there are clever authors with great networking skills, and then there are those that don’t. What I ask is for the other authors to help boast other stories. After all, the more traffic that comes to the site, the better. Really, the better for the authors as this is a passion project with my personal cash at the expense.
Honestly, I don’t have thousands to pour into ads and expensive networking. I also don’t see the reason for it. Ads are hit and miss. A gamble. Deadman’s Tome has over a dozen authors published on the site, and us as a community doing our part in sharing the love, spreading the horror, would be much more effective.
I am impressed with the stats for this site. Visitors are coming to the site to read the stories, share the content, and give feedback to the authors. That is awesome!
Deadman’s Tome has content pouring in like mad. Some submissions are absolutely amazing, while others are just kind-of okay, but that is from my perspective. I might be a narcissist, but I’m not delusional. Wait, doesn’t a narcissist have delusions of grandeur? Point is, I want to know what you all would like to see. Would you care for more darker, sinister content? Would you care for more thrilling but less disgusting content? Or do you want more unadulterated, raw, disgusting, thrilling, and slightly provocative content?
Emily stood on the edge of the precipice and cast her eyes across the patchwork of coal stained stone and fields. The landscape that stretched out in front of her was as cracked and fractured as her current state of mind.
Above, granite clouds rolled and boiled across the sky. They came toward her in oppressive waves. The wind that carried them lifted her hair in a cascade behind her. She leaned into it, looking down the viaduct, her arms hooked over the aluminum railing behind her.
Letting go of the railing she fell, opening her arms out as she fell to embrace it. What had been a small winding thread moments before became a road, shiny and wet as she descended with gathering velocity. Someone screamed as Emily ploughed into the road, arms raised above her head, chin tilted to the sky as if to welcome oblivion.
Traffic had stopped in both directions as Emily regained consciousness and stood on broken and bloody legs. The tarmac around her was as crumbled as soil, a single white central line decimated. Looking down, Emily could see a shin bone sticking out of the denim of her jeans.
A man approached her and asked, with slight incredulity in his wavering voice “are you OK?”
Emily turned and tried to focus, attempting to grasp the reality and presence of him as someone drowning reaches out towards the shore. She could not comprehend why she was not embracing darkness at this moment. She could feel small stones stuck in the side of her left cheek- punctuation marks that should have represented the end of her unbearable life.
“I…I…don’t know.” She finally replied, forming the words around swollen and bloody lips.
“Everything is such a mess, my life is such a mess…” she raised her grazed hands to her face, and salty tears rolled down her cheeks, stinging as they followed the courses of cuts and bruises.
“Sit down, I’ve called 999.”
A small crowd was beginning to gather, mostly consisting of drivers and their passengers, their features went in and out of focus as she looked around her, they spun around and around like a colour vinyl record. It made her feel nauseous, and she resisted the urge to vomit.
Clumsily she went down on her backside and the man grabbed her just in time to lower her to the floor, back into the hole that her impact had created. She concentrated as hard as she could on his face, it was an older, kind sort of face marked with laughter lines and crows feet. It reminded her of Simon, before the accident. How she missed him. The man was looking up at the stone viaduct, into the drizzle that was beginning to fall on them.
“I think you’re very lucky to be alive, love,” he was saying, his voice still tinged with disbelief, “Ambulance is on its way.”
He crouched down next to her and she leaned a bloody cheek against his blue woollen jumper. he had taken his coat off and it was wrapped warmly around her shoulders. In the distance she could hear the wail of emergency services rising and falling.
The drizzle brought with it another deep round of sadness within her. It pulsed in waves from her stomach. She really didn’t have much time to end it all.
Emily’s vision had started to clear when the first ambulance came into view, down the road she could see the blue lights flashing, heading towards them at speed. The man still held her and she could feel him relax a little at the sight of them, the tenseness in his muscles dissipating.
The observing crowd, standing and looking on in wonder at how this woman had survived such a fall would not have noticed the tears streaming from the corners of her eyes, nor seen the frustration in her face. The rain that steadily fell masked her tears of frustration and inner pain.
They did, however see her stand up again, groggily and slowly, a horrific injury to one shin still clearly visible. The gentleman’s coat fell off her shoulders and pooled on the floor behind her.
“What are you doing love?” the man with her was saying, “don’t be daft now…”
She was on her feet, her left leg slightly bent where she could not fully support her weight. The man had a hand on her shoulder, but looked as confused as the rest of them.
“Sorry…” she managed and began a limping run down the central line, she was amazed that she had the ability to. The group watched, dumbstruck as she passed them, her hands pumping as quickly as she could manage. One blonde lady with red lipstick stepped forward, as if to stop her, but was held back by her husband who shook his head. Nothing to do with us, his face said, don’t get involved.
Emily was running towards a bend in the road ahead in the direction that the ambulance was coming from. At the last second she weaved behind a red Fiat with a black roof that was queued in the chaos, out of sight, and then as the large white vehicle with flashing cyan lights came into view she emerged into its path.
The ambulance hit her with sudden and audible force.
For a second Emily could see only flashes of blue, white and red as she pirouetted through the air, her arms as loose as a rag doll. The soundtrack to this movement was a high screech of breaks, and there was the smell of burning rubber.
She spun onto the roof of a nearby car, both front and rear windows blasted outwards in a shower of emerald edged safety glass. There she rolled to a standstill, on the bonnet, one snowdrop white hand dangling over in front of the bumper. A single trickle of blood ran down her arm and dripped off the tip of her finger onto the road below.
Silence descended, punctuated by the light tap of rain on metal and a murmur of sobs from the shocked onlookers. Almost as dazed as the rest of them, a couple of ambulance men climbed out of their vehicle, and not wasting a second made their way towards the body.
The patient was tilted upwards towards them on what appeared to be a modified hospital bed. She was covered by a sheet, but multi coloured wires extended from underneath and into a bank of consoles and keyboards to her left. The displays were lit, some displaying what appeared to be binary code, some showing vital statistics in the form of pulsing blue lines.
Her eyes were shut and stuck in place by four thin strands of medical tape, tubes extended out of her mouth and up into bags of liquid that hung above the bed.
Doctor Halmsey stood next to the bed, studying the statistics though small, round glasses. “So- Emily Johnson, twenty-five years old” he said to his assistant, a junior doctor who was stood on the other side of the bed.
“She’s had twenty virtual attempts since she started treatment just over a year ago. She was admitted by her parents following repeated self-destructive episodes after she lost her job and then her husband.”
The assistant nodded and made a note on his clipboard with a bic.
“Unfortunately the latest cuts mean that we cannot sustain this level of aversion therapy, to be frank it appears to be doing more harm than good.” Halmsey looked down at the beautiful young woman who lay before them, some mother’s daughter, he thought with a small pang of melancholy.
“So we’re just going to shut this down?” The assistant asked.
Doctor Halmsey looked at his young apprentice and gave him a wry smile. He couldn’t tell if it was him getting older, or his assistants were getting younger.
“Yes Joseph” he said. “Unfortunately we can’t save them all.”
They both looked up at the largest monitor in the room, and the biggest source of light above them. On it an electronic representation of Emily was cutting her wrists with a scalpel in what looked like a hospital operating room. Doctors looked on aghast as blood spurted from her like an obscene fountain. She was attempting suicide for the twenty-first time.
Doctor Halmsey walked over to a small button on one of the panels, it was covered with a plastic flap, on the other side of the bed, Joseph did the same.
“We’ll notify her parents that treatment failed and that she’s being transferred to cryogenics.”
They both pressed their respective buttons and the screens above went black.
Dan wasn’t hungry despite the fact that he had not eaten for goodness knows how long. His breathing was panicked and shallow, his head full of disbelief at the terrifying and claustrophobic situation that he found himself in. His nails were bitten down to the skin, and his knuckles were bloody and grazed.
He surveyed the scene with searching, worried eyes. In front of him, not three feet away, was a large double bed draped in white cotton sheets and royal blue pillows, neatly made and unslept in. It had been flanked on either side by matching bedside units, but one of them now lay shattered in pieces near the door. A red Gideon bible was lay open in in the middle of the room amongst the splinters.
To his right was a little side desk topped with a small flat screen television, plastic looking beige telephone, his keys, iPhone and his shoulder bag- his man bag as Anna had once called it, her nose had wrinkled as she said it in mock disgust. My God how he missed her.
Above the desk on the wall was the same print of three tree’s on a riverbank. On the wall beside the print there were two streaks of brown, dried blood.
Dan’s eyes shifted to a wardrobe at the far end of the room. Taller than his six foot frame, the wide fronted doors were shut and locked with a little ornate black key. The bathroom door, ajar, was reflected in its polished surface. Dan shifted uneasily where he sat, his instincts told him that nothing good could come from the glow emanating through that gap.
Keep away from that bathroom, something told him. There’s something in there, residing silently in that blue light waiting for you.
Behind him there was a large rectangular window, upon which icy thin fingers of rain tapped in hope of refuge. In the world beyond the glass, four floors down, rows of ancient trees stood like skeletons risen from their mossy graves- with dead, brown leaves hanging like flesh from their outstretched arms.
Dan turned and looked outside, certainly not for the first time and with a heightened sense of entrapment. Down below him on the grassy verge that separated the woods from the hotel car park he could see a man in dirty brown overalls squatted low over a small flowerbed, a scruffy black baseball cap protecting his head from the elements. My God, Dan thought to himself, an honest to shit real person! This was the first soul that he had seen since his incarceration. With excitement fuelled by desperation, he attempted to open the window but was thwarted by a safety hinge which gave him a two inch gap to the world outside .
Dan could not remember the last person he spoke to. The hotel manager, possibly? He drew in breath, preparing to shout out of the window when he was interrupted by a shrill ring. The telephone.
Dan crossed the room eagerly, and avoiding a glance into the bathroom picked up the receiver from it’s cradle.
Maybe this is that sour faced shit of a manager ringing to finally let me in on the practical joke?
Somehow, he doubted it. He hesitated for the briefest moment before raising it to his pale, stubbled face.
Silence except for the low familiar hiss of an open telephone line.
Go on why don’t you, draw it out, make me suffer that little bit more.
“Listen to me you twisted bastards,” he rasped, his voice exhausted and shaking, “I don’t know what game you think you’re playing here but..” He trailed off, looking at the white wall before him. “I need to GET. THE. HELL. OUT. OF. HERE.” He hated the tears that were threatening to surface in his voice. He didn’t want to give them the pleasure. The low hiss of silence drew on a while longer.
Maybe he’s sat down there now in the back room, surrounded by lever arch files and safety posters suppressing a giggle. I’ll bet the shift receptionist is tipping him a wink whilst waiting for the kettle to boil…
A receiver was placed down at the other end of the line.
Dan looked down at the beige earpiece, confused, angry and a little scared.
Am I losing my mind?
He returned the handset to the cradle. Immediately picked it up again and held it to his ear, tapping the hook. The line was absolutely dead.
“What sort of game are you playing with me here?” Dan shouted slamming the handset back down, he raised his shaking hands to sweaty temples and turned away, his head throbbing.
The rain redoubled it’s effort on the window outside and Dan glanced over at the rolling sea of grey clouds and the fading October day. It would be dark soon, and the thought filled him with dread. He returned and looked down, through the rivulets of water meandering down the glass and dripping past the two inch opening.
The man was still there despite the deluge, he was leaning over into what looked like a little tool box. He had green gloves on, marked with freshly disturbed soil. That’s a guy dedicated to his work… Dan thought, squinting slightly through the rain and the fading light.
“HEY!” Dan yelled, simultaneously placing his mouth to the opening and banging on the cold glass with his fist.
“Hey, you down there! Mate! Help, I’m trapped up here! Room 454!”
He hasn’t heard me? Surely he can hear me from up here.
“Look, I don’t care if this is some sort of joke- I won’t tell anyone, just let me out of this damn room!”
The man paused at mid point as he rose from his work.
“Yes! Yes! You. In the black cap! Hello! Help me! I’ve been here for days…”
The figure straightened and turned his head up towards the window, squinting slightly in the rain as the droplets splashed his face.
“Yes you, can..” Dan paused mid sentence and squinted back through the distorted lines of rain.
Why is the lunatic grinning at me like that?
It was at this point that he realised that the man didn’t have any lips.
The flesh around the gardeners’ mouth was mottled and scarred, the bone underneath a dirty white in contrast to the raw exposed meat around it. His nose was sunken as if the cartilage underneath had rotted and started to sink in the hole beneath. Above this a set of pale, lifeless blue eyes stared up at him. The figure stood there for a moment, and then removed his baseball cap- his doll-like eyes fixed on Dan’s face. At the same time he raised a gloved hand to scratch the hair underneath in a contemplative gesture.
Half of his head is missing! Dan thought, absurdly as he looked into a large hole where cranium and hair should have been. The meat and bone within had exploded outwards at velocity, there were small slug like pieces of flesh and shards of bone still stuck in the hair around the edges. Within was a bowl like chasm that looked like the badly scooped insides of a bloody jack-o-lantern.
The gardener scratched the ring of hair that remained around the hollow, and replaced the baseball cap. He then turned back to his labour, crouching down on the wet grass next to the flower bed, gloves digging in the wet soil.
What the hell is he doing?
Dan leaned forward and saw the fruits of the gardeners’ labour. A dull metal pipe lay semi-buried in the wet dirt, at one end there was a suggestion of wood. Walnut.
That’s not a pipe, that’s a shotgun.
Jolted by this realisation Dan spun away from the window, almost tripping over the chair in the process. He clipped his leg on the arm and landed on one knee at the foot of the bed. He could feel his chest tighten up with horror, it was harder to breathe.
What sort of bat shit crazy place is this?
One terrible thought formed in his mind like a solitary bubble rising and popping on the surface of a swamp- this is all real. The realisation jolted through him as a bolt of electricity. His skin tingled, and he could sense a deep juddering cold as beads of sweat formed on the surface of his clammy skin.
Dan reached over to the side desk and picked up his iPhone.
There is not a chance in hell that I am going to go through a night illuminated by the content of that bathroom.
His cold fingers shaking a little, Dan placed his thumb on the fingerprint reader and the screen came to life. Brightly coloured icons shone out at him, in the rapidly dimming light.
As expected the signal was none existent, it had been for as long as he’d been stuck in this room, but it was the battery that interested him more. There was less than ten percent capacity left. Eventually the little LED on his iPhone would expire, and he would soon be surrounded by darkness and that dark luminescence. This thought alone dredged a bucket of fear from the well of his stomach, and he wasn’t sure why.
There was probably an hour of daylight left at the most- I have to get out of this room!
Dan raised his hand and rapped his knuckles on the wall above the desk for what felt like the hundredth time. Absolutely solid. Plasterboard this was not. He had of course been resident in past places where sounds from adjoining rooms had kept him up at night.
He considered that this was not the only reason that he would lie awake in the cradle of insomnia. He still struggled with the idea that she was no longer around. He was so incredibly lonely.
He was struck by how silent the building was- Surely there were other people staying here?
At eye level just to his right was the print of three trees framed in black wood. They stood side by side on a calm river bank, their trunks a single chocolate brush-stroke and their leaves applied by sponge or something similar. It must be autumn there too, he thought.
The river below them was a deep aqua, calm strokes meandering along to a place out of view.
Dan reached out to touch the glass in the dusky light- to feel the solid wooden frame, something real, something created elsewhere outside of these four walls.
This was when the phone rang for a second time.
Reaching down he picked up the handset and placed it to his ear soundlessly. From a million miles away he could hear a quiet hiss of white noise. He swallowed, closed his eyes and listened. Seconds passed, and he was just opening his mouth to speak when he heard a single measured breath.
His eyes opened immediately.
“Hello?” He said, his voice wavering. “Look, I know there’s somebody there..”
Just the low hiss of an open phone line.
“Hello? Look, if this is some sort of joke it isn’t funny. I’ve been locked in here for God knows how long now and……”
His name was whispered so low but with such clarity that it startled him. He wheeled around with the phone to his ear, his attention drawn to the ever darkening sky outside. The rain was still falling, unrelenting.
“Hello, Yes.. Hello?” Mixed emotions rose within him, hope and panic. It almost stole his breath.
The static ceased with a click. The line was dead.
More out of hope than expectation Dan placed a finger on the hook again and pressed it a couple of times. Nothing. In an act of futility he dialled the emergency services, to no effect. Replacing the receiver, he turned his attention to the front door. As he crossed the carpet he focused on his destination, but sensed the phosphoresce growing from his right as he passed.
The bathroom door was much the same as the only door in and out of these quarters. Sandy coloured wood with a chunky brass handle, it stood around eight inches ajar. Dan could see in his periphery ceramic tiles on the wall, reflecting that horrible maddening light.
His only egress stood before him. He had of course tried to get out this way before, countless times, it was the first place he headed to after his initial grim discovery. Key card in hand, panicked and glancing behind him, Dan had twisted the catch and tugged on the handle. The door had not budged. His fists had pounded on this wood until they were red and sore, but it hadn’t even felt like giving. He threw the bedside unit at it, more out of frustration than anything and it had shattered into so many small pieces. It felt like someone had welded this door to it’s frame. Concrete could have been poured, filling the carpeted passage beyond it for all he knew.
There was a laminated map of the fourth floor on the back of the door complete with a little neon sticker proclaiming ‘you are here.’ Above this was a security Peep-hole at about chest height, a dark onyx iris set within a brass eye. It seemed like a lifetime ago when Dan had last placed his face to one of these following a knock on the door.
He had taken it upon himself to order room service in this very room before, when he and Anna were celebrating spending five years together. That really was a lifetime ago, it was also one of the reasons why he had returned now, to be closer to her in his own way.
A portly man with a name badge and black suit had been waiting with a silver service on a little trolley. He looked slightly stretched, like something from a fun-house mirror through this fish eye view. They had laughed at him before they had opened the door, smothered sniggers as he walked in.
Under completely different circumstances now, desperate to see a sign of life Dan looked through the spy hole. Outside he could see the corridor, it was as he remembered it. Within his frame of vision he could see three doors in front of him, each adorned with their respective number in brass.
The whole space was lit by flickering blue strip lights. This was a dying light, the last light that a living person sees before their flame extinguishes and fades to black. It was a horrible, maddening light that had no place on any spectrum known to man.
Suddenly, to his right Dan could see movement shuffling into view from out of the darkness.
It was a woman, or at least used to be. She wore petite leather boots, blue denim skirt and a t-shirt with the words ‘Sex Pistols: Never mind the bollocks’ printed on the front. Her arms were limp by her side as she struggled to press forward, her head low. As she grew closer he could hear her raspy, asthmatic breathing. Her hair colour was hard to tell under the throbbing blue light but it looked like it might be a dark shade of auburn. Her skin was incredibly pale.
Dan could feel his heart beating in his chest, could feel the throbbing rhythmic pulse rising in his ears. He could not move his face away from the peep-hole.
As she grew close to his vantage point, he could see that there was blood running down the outside of her left leg. The black river seemed to originate from her skirt, where there was a huge sopping patch on her hip. It oozed down her side, past her knee and down into her boot where it had already pooled. It was starting to spill over like an bloody waterfall.
Her other boot was the same, and now Dan saw that there was a black crimson bib of blood around her collar, where her chin rested against her breastbone. With horror Dan saw that her head was beginning to rise. Dan wanted to close his eyes, but he just couldn’t.
Please God, I don’t want to see this.
As the wraith levelled with the peep-hole, she looked up with white marble eyes, revealing a rotted leather face. Her neck was marked with a long red gash, and as she raised her hands to his eye hole in a parody of someone showing they were wearing handcuffs, he realised two things; Her wrists were sliced to ribbons and she had a razor blade clutched between two bony fingers.
It was at this point she threw her head back like a lunatic worshipping the moon and screamed.
He backed away from the door so quickly that he collided with the wardrobe behind him, and fell backwards to the floor space at the foot of his bed.
This can’t be happening, This can’t be real!?
He could feel hysteria beginning to rise in the form of tears that threatened to spill down his face.
No further sounds came from outside the door of room 454. Silence and the patter of rain descended.
The room was now taking on an almost neon blue tint as darkness fell in earnest. Dan sat up, climbed to his feet and pulled the iPhone from his pocket. It was only when he found himself chuckling quietly to himself, staring transfixed at the narrow rectangular hole that was the bathroom, into that phosphorescence, that he switched the device on and flicked the gleaming white LED into existence.
Shadows quickly chased into corners as he turned and illuminated different parts of his prison. The iPhone in his hand at head level. He could feel sanity slowly returning, the flames of madness doused by reality. He sat down on the bed for the first time, and cried.
They had found out about the sickness all too late, it hit them both harder than any traffic collision. Anna had thought that her asthma was worsening, spat pools of blood into their porcelain washbasin, didn’t think to mention it. The consultant told them to take a seat, he had some news to tell them. He tore their world apart in four little words, “…six months of life…”
“Get on with your life, but please do not forget me…” she had said searching his face with her eyes.
As he recalled this on the bed he raised his hands to his face and wept.
“How could I go on Anna? How could I?”
The LED light trembling on the framed print in front of him within his tired hand. He was so deep in his grief that he almost didn’t hear the beige telephone ringing again from the desk. Bleary eyed and on the verge of exhaustion he rose from where he sat, walked over to the desk and put the handset to his ear.
A familiar static hiss again, but Dan sensed movement within this, as the pop’s and crackles formed themselves into words.
Tears stung his eyes again and he almost dropped his handset when he realised that the person on the line was Anna.
“I’ve missed you so mu..” he said and dissolved into tears.
“Dan..how..could you….” Her words grew and faded in strength as if they were being carried along a radio signal in an area of low coverage.
“I love you so much Anna…..”
“...go to blue…light Dan….?”
For the last time Dan replaced the handset. He did it with care, placing it down gently in the cradle just as he had done with her arm onto the pillow on that final day. He stole a glance at the bathroom door.
Anna wants me to go in there, I must go in there, he thought.
Once again his attention returned to that place he had been avoiding. As he did the blue light flickered as if in acknowledgement. Dan did not know if he had the strength or resolve to walk into that light. His sanity was already at breaking point.
Dan checked his phone battery. One percent left. He unzipped the front button of his shoulder bag , directing the beam as he did, and found the only thing remotely weapon like in his possession- a small pair of scissors from his stationary box. Tucked amongst the pens and pencils, he doubted that he had even used them since he bought them.
With trepidation and fear, he approached the door to the bathroom, and pushed it open.
The stench punched him in the face as soon as crossed the threshold. This was sickly sweet putrification, the decomposition of meat and sinew. He was surprised that this rotten stench had not permeated through the open door and into the room beyond.
That horrible light was here too, all around him and coating the clean white tiles, the bath and washbasin in a film of spoiled cream. Dan found himself pocketing the still lit iPhone, his attention diverted.
Next to the porcelain lavatory bowl a small, dark puddle of maroon had formed and congealed. Within, small pink shapes writhed and pulsed. The same thick viscous liquid also coated a small yellow plastic carrier bag in the corner, the angles of which suggested items within. There was a flicker of recognition within Dan at this, but did not know why.
A droplet of straw coloured liquid fell to the floor from above sending the small, rice-like creatures into a frenzy. Dan looked up at the main effigy within this inner sanctum of filth.
A man hung from the bowing light fitting above him by a length of green electrical wire tied into a crude noose. His brown booted feet pointed downwards, and Dan noticed the rubber scuff-marks on the porcelain of the toilet behind him where he had bucked and kicked during his final moments.
The jeans were black, but did not disguise the staining around the crotch where the corpse had pissed himself.
Poor bastard, thought Dan,
Poor, poor bastard.
Over the waistline hung a buttoned up shirt, and at his arms were by his sides.
The hush within the room was broken suddenly and crudely by a low giggle, and Dan was not at all surprised that this was coming from his own parted lips. He had reached a junction where he welcomed madness, it was his only salvation.
His eyes followed the loop of the noose up to a head wrapped thickly in another plastic yellow bag, secured around the neck by the wire. The polythene handles dangled loose below the ligature.
“You look like a scarecrow!” exclaimed Dan, too loudly. Once again he descended into an uncontrollable fit of chuckles which turned into a coughing fit as the contaminated air filled his lungs. He stumbled forward in the small space and knocked the body which began to spin like a twisted marionette. There was a creak, followed by a low groan as the light fitting buckled and then gave way. A small cloud of screws and plaster dust cascaded the man to the floor where he lay on his back, his head propped against the shower cubicle.
Dan had stopped laughing and was staring into the corner where the body’s feet lay. The fall had disturbed the familiar yellow bag. It had fallen on to its side, spilling the contents into the pile of red, squirming filth. Letters, some in small pink envelopes, and some folded in half were now soaking up the bile and gore. The sight of them shocked Dan in to sobriety. He knew these items.
Dan knelt down on the contaminated tiles and removed a letter from inside the bag. Stapled to it was a polaroid of Anna, a self taken shot of her beautiful face with a headscarf wrapped around her head. A wink in her eye. It was cheeky, funny and heartbreaking all at the same time. He closed his eyes and put the letter to his forehead, tears formed between his lashes and cascaded down his face. He was beginning to remember.
He placed the letter back into the bag with care and turned to the body. Using the scissors from his pocket he cut a slit into the yellow plastic of the bag that entombed a male head. Placing the scissors on the floor he pulled the two sides of the hole apart and down over a waxen face The plastic yielded easily revealing two bulging, clouded over eyes set in receded sockets. They were staring up above the shaving mirror at the last thing they ever saw before the end, the horrible flickering blue of the dying halogen bulb.
Dan reeled back and fell hard on his backside, he reversed into the sink unit with his legs kicking out in front of him. He stared at horrible tableau before him, his eyes wide, mouth agape and a soundless scream escaping from deep within his lungs. He was looking into a dead face that he had seen a million times before in the mirror – those angular cheekbones, the dark brown hair and the stubbled chin.
He now realised exactly what he had done the first time he had entered that bathroom, where the sadness and despair had led him, how his legs had taken him in there and never walked out again.
In that moment of perfect terror Anna’s voice, immersed in the static of a telephone line, a billion miles away implored a single word that now made perfect sense to him. ‘Why?’
The security company assigned him to the Riverside Mall.
At first, the idea made Thomas a little excited. Fresh out of rehab, he hadn’t been to that mall since he was a kid, the storefronts bright and filled with delights all lighting up his memories. The entire layout nearly unfolded itself in his mind from the Gold Coin Arcade and the Sal’s Pizza to the Sears hiding behind the two-story carousel that gave off obnoxiously cheery music that he could still hum with ease.
Once, he remembered, he and his grandmother tried to catch the last feature at the theater—4 screens and an 80 seat capacity—for some cartoon, which they never made. They walked the entire length of the mall in defeat, his grandmother breaking the silence with an apology, but Thomas said nothing in return. The atmosphere struck him dumb.
The entirety of the main corridor with its high ceilings and avant-garde sculptures of doves floating among spheres of tin were for them alone. The storefronts were dark and obscured by gates. Even the carousel was off, the horses with their white teeth and tails no longer vibrant, the life gone without the multi-colored lights. He imagined breaking away from his grandmother and running, running with all his speed and energy through the empty place.
The images came flooding back as he took the highway downtown.
What greeted him was not the same building that had once been a source of joy. Instead, it looked like a blockish beast drudged up from the river lazily moving behind it. Even on, the sign was rusted and some of the bulbs blackened by neglect. The parking lot was more pothole than asphalt and within the ruts were nests of cigarette butts accentuated by the occasional syringe. The service entrance was beside the main doors, the glass carved up with names and gang signs.
He found the door locked and rang a bell beside it. The day man, Carlos, was a minute before he made his way to the door and looked out its steel-mesh window. He recognized Thomas—his ID was photocopied when he was hired—and unlocked the door.
The service corridor was drab, a smell of cardboard and cheap disinfectant hanging all about it. The narrow thing was dotted with steel doors to the shops where deliveries were made and smoke breaks were had. The security room was in the center of it.
Even before entering the little room with its wall of monitors, Thomas was a little uneasy. The isolation. The decay. But, he thought, in the right context, anything could be frightening or strange. Anything at all. The dark had that power. So did the hour. Yet, what tied all the strangeness together was the person waiting for the two security guards at their station.
Mrs. Maria V. Crawford owned the mall. She was a plump woman, short in stature but gave off only a sturdy air, not one of frailty. She did not speak to Thomas until long after Carlos told the new recruit who she was. When she spoke, her voice was surprisingly buoyant and youthful.
“Mr. Castaneda has informed you of the standard duties, yes?” she asked, her black eyes never wavering.
“Not really,” Thomas said.
“No,” he told her. “They just gave me the assignment and told me to show up.”
This seemed to disappoint her. “That is… unfortunate,” she said. “Have you done this work long, Mister…”
“Clarke,” he said. “Thomas Clarke.”
“Well, Mr. Clarke, what is your experience?”
“Truth be told, this is my first week out of training,” he said. “I had some issues… I was away for a while.”
This too seemed to vex Mrs. Crawford. “Regardless,” she said finally, “this job does not require much skill. For one hour, I ask that you sit in this room and watch the monitors. If anything odd occurs, call the authorities. If nothing happens, once that hour is up, you will walk through the building. If, again, you see nothing, return here and repeat the process.”
“Have you had a lot of break-ins?”
“No,” she said. “As you no doubt noticed, this place is past its prime. More than likely, any thief would target the pawnshop down the street. At this point, I’m more interested in not incurring more costs… other than you, of course.”
“It’s understandable, with the economy—”
“The economy has little to do with it,” Crawford corrected. “This city has grown outward. The area is no longer fashionable. And, as it was, even the lowliest of anchor stores wants nothing to do with a mall that’s ‘on the outs’ to borrow a creditor’s phrase. But, as you can imagine, I don’t keep this mall running for lack of other ventures. If I were so inclined, I could sell the land and pocket a hefty profit. But… that brings me to the final and most important part of this meeting.”
“My son, Leonard,” Mrs. Crawford said.
“Does he work here too?” Thomas asked, the question making the silent Carlos fidget.
Mrs. Crawford leveled another glare at him. “Sadly, my son is… unable to work. So much of what was canon in my youth is now seen as barbarity and madness. There were… complications with Leonard. The prenatal supplement, metathormiacin, that’s what did it… made him different. You see, my son… is special. Shy. He was born healthy enough, strong enough. But, his mind never truly developed.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Thomas told her.
“Apologies are for tragedies, Mr. Clarke,” she shot back.
“My son is a miracle, a misunderstood miracle,” she said. “Children with his condition usually died in the womb. But, not my Leonard. He is a sweet, curious boy. It was people—with their ignorance—that forced my hand, drove him to depression and rage. He tried the world outside and was found wanting. So, I opted for this instead. He always loved this place, so I let him wander around when no one is here. He likes to look into the shops and ride the carousel. And, lately, he’s even taken to playing in the arcade.”
“So, I’ll meet him and introduce—”
“You most certainly will not meet my son,” Mrs. Crawford said. “People looking at him… triggers the old feelings. People made him uncomfortable. I’ve informed him that you will be here during his playtime, so if you hear the carousel or see the arcade gate open, it is most likely him, thus no cause for alarm. But, I cannot stress it enough, don’t speak to him, don’t gesture to him, and, above all, do not look at him.”
“Is that what happened to the last guy?”
“My lawyers have informed me to say nothing about it,” Crawford said, struggling to rise. Carlos moved to help her, but one stare sent him back to the wall. Standing, finally, Mrs. Crawford said, “In spite of all that I’ve told you, this should prove to be a very mundane job, Mr. Clarke. One hour here. One hour of rounds. Repeat until Carlos opens in the morning. And, above all, if you should ever find yourself near Leonard, he will ignore you unless you stare, understood?”
“Good,” she said, making her way to the door. “If there was an incident, you could explain what happened to a police officer,” she said. “You could tell him about the thief, give descriptions. All very neat. Leonard, on the other hand, if he were to catch someone… he wouldn’t be able to explain… The bathroom is next to the food court and the vending machines work.”
“I didn’t bring any change,” Thomas said.
Mrs. Crawford looked at him, a nearly imperceptible grin creeping across her thin lips. “That’s a pity,” she said and left.
Carlos was close behind her.
The footsteps receded down the corridor and then a metal door was shut and a bolt thrown. Thomas Clarke stood in the guard station and tried to adjust to the vast and empty solitude. The walls of monitors served as a reminder of the sheer size of the mall—once the fourth longest in Texas and still favored by mall-walkers—in relation to himself. But, a screen showing the carousel at an odd angle reminded Thomas that he wasn’t alone.
In that empty building, he wasn’t really alone.
There was someone named Leonard.
The first night, Thomas dreaded the thought of making the rounds, the image of him in the dark with a socially inept recluse building and building into a tension in his shoulders. The monitors didn’t ease any of it. The lack of color and sound mixed with the shadows of the storefronts and kiosks until everything looked sinister. All of the cameras recorded at strange angles like the carousel’s frame. He thought on it, figuring it was a way of letting Leonard move around freely. That realization also made the anticipation worse.
At the top of the hour, Thomas took a series of deep breaths and walked into the main corridor of the Riverside Mall. It was a shock to see the state of a childhood memory. What was left were the scraps of commerce.
The benches were square slabs or reclaimed planks painted a sticky blue and the rectangular pots—filled with leafy shrubs once—that dotted the lane were filled with cigarette butts and trees grown withered and cancerous in the stale dirt. Some of the gated storefronts, Thomas realized, had been closed long before he ever got there, their innards vacant except for the bones of countertops and empty display racks. Places with names and logos of a dying era, copies of a copy of a copy, until there was nothing left but distortions.
One such place was a toy store, J & B Toys, with a sign made up of a train with a smiling face; from its smokestack puffed the store’s name in a style popular twenty years ago. From what he could see, the toys were either entirely generic and nondescript or they were shameless knockoffs. Bins of teddy bears left to die and a wall of discolored heroes with misspelled names. Thomas used his flashlight to see further in back where there was a stack of baby dolls of an off-putting design. Even from that distance, Thomas felt the itch of the cheap fabric.
Another, which replaced a Gadzooks if he remembered correctly, was a sporting goods store where, for all the time he stood staring into it, couldn’t find a brand or logo on any of the bats or shoes or balls.
It depressed him to see the mall in such a state, his boots scrunching on broken tiles and dodging more than one “construction” area, which were nothing more than open holes in the floor taped off with cheap plastic ribbons anchored by trashcans. But, as he neared the eastern side, a sign, faded as it was, brought a smile to his face.
The Gold Coin Arcade.
He almost ran to it, all the old memories of pumping quarters into the Koth-Dar the Barbarian machine or firing off round after round in Classroom of the Dead. Always dark except for the lights of the arcade screens. But, he knew what kind of place the Riverside Mall had become. Thomas hoped that somehow, by some miracle, the arcade had been spared. The smell of it dashed his hopes away. A stale stink of mold and cigarette smoke left to moisten in the humidity of the air.
Some of the arcade games were still inside, their cabinets discolored and chipped. But, the place was now filled mostly with slot machines and video poker. He lingered there, hoping to catch a glimpse of any game he remembered, but was again disappointed. He turned away from it and lit a cigarette, knowing no one would care. He couldn’t make it any worse with its coin-operated rocket ships half destroyed and its lone restaurant called Pizza & Beer which smelled like congealed grease and farts when he passed it.
He didn’t see or hear Leonard that first night, only the vague shadows of the past springing to mind as though they wanted Thomas to mourn the loss of what had once been. Still, he always kept his mind sharp, ready to freeze at the sound of a strange echo or whispered word. Yet, it wasn’t until the fourth night that he had any real evidence Leonard existed.
On his third set of rounds, he stood at the front window of Babette’s which, from the merchandise, catered to the slutty but economical grandmothers of the area. After lighting a cigarette, he noticed one of the potted plants had been dug up, the soil and cigarette butts scattered on the floor.
Further down, dirty handprints smeared the carved-up walls and smudged the glass of a jewelry store, their cubic zirconia and glass pieces glistening in the mall’s sparse light. Further still, one of the store’s gates had been lifted enough for a man to squeeze through. Unsure of what to do, he stood outside listening.
In the heavy silence, hangers clinked on their racks and heavy feet, bare flesh on tile, moved about the dark. It laughed, throaty and buffoonish, and Thomas froze. It was not the jubilant laughter of a thief collecting his loot but that of a child happy to have found some shiny bauble to consume them for the moment. Yet, there was a raw power to it, a strength in its childish unpredictability.
Thomas backed away slowly, careful not to make a sound. As Crawford had told him, all he had to do was make the rounds and leave Leonard alone. If it was a thief, he’d find out about it the next day and tell Crawford that all he did was follow her instructions. He’d be blameless.
Back in the guard room, Thomas watched the monitors diligently. Even the hint of movement sent him face-to-face with a greasy monitor. But, the angles were all wrong. Perfect for a Hitchcock film but terrible for any real surveillance. He didn’t see or hear Leonard again that night, though his rounds were now exercises in dread, each step a false herald to that idiotically powerful laugh.
Two nights later, Leonard followed him. Thomas had made his way from the center of the mall to the carousel. Fat and painted to resemble a circus tent, the carousel was marred and savaged like the rest of the mall. The horses tattooed, the brass torn off their saddles and hooves. The old scenes painted on the inner walls were hidden in tagger-scrawl and misspelled messages.
Thomas thought he’d heard something, a click or scrape against the metal of the two-story carousel, but paid it no attention. It was old and abused, decaying a little each day until all that would be left were wooden corpses and ink.
He’d made a ritual of it. Since no one had said anything about his smoking, Thomas lit one up at either end of the mall and enjoyed it on the way back to the guard room. That night, he stopped in sight of one of the entrances, the pollution of light seeping in like a limp tongue into the hall.
Outside, the river flowed and his car sat alone in the parking lot.
He smoked his cigarette slowly, watching the glow of the moon surf on the flowing water. When the flame singed the filter, Thomas brought up his boot and stubbed out the cigarette. As he did, a shape receded behind one of the rectangular pots. From the little he saw of it, the shadow was shaped somewhat like a person, but, knowing it was Leonard—any thief or junkie would’ve clubbed him to death long before—Thomas didn’t look back. Instead, he continued his rounds, keeping his stride even and calm.
Yet, if Leonard could see Thomas’s face, he’d know, even with his primitive brain, that Thomas was terrified. Terrified that now all Thomas heard between his steps were the soft pads of bare feet moving from shadow to shadow, a thing that had been put into hiding, isolated from all the world. In rehab, Thomas learned that, sometimes, solitude helped ease a troubled mind. Yet, other times, it degraded them further.
For the briefest of seconds, Thomas tried to put a positive light on his pursuit. He thought, perhaps, Leonard was like a curious puppy, sniffing around behind a new person in his territory. The thought made a single breath easier before he remembered that even if Leonard followed him out of some sort of curiosity, Leonard was still very much a human and with such a designation came a complex proclivity toward the deviant.
Maybe, Thomas thought, he followed to see if Thomas touched a favored plaything or otherwise disobeyed some other unspoken rule of the house. Or, Thomas panicked, Leonard’s state of mind was toward the sexual, toward ideas that would have Thomas pinned face-first on the floor with an idiot’s cock up his ass and all the screaming would have Leonard pounding harder and harder until Thomas needed to go to San Antonio or Houston for an experimental surgery to fix his anus and throat. Or, maybe still, he’d never get to that point, Leonard, satisfied and no longer able to pound away at Thomas’s destroyed ass, would then turn violent, beating Thomas to death.
All of those images flooded his imagination and threatened to drown him. They made his entire being go through the primal struggle of survival versus logic and reason. Every fiber and muscle wanted to run at the grunts formed out of an idiot’s mouth, wanted to jump at every treble-filled breath. But, his mind told him to walk slowly. Calmly. Leonard, by all accounts, was like a pet tiger. Yes, it grew accustomed to people, learned not to bother them, but, like all captive animals, it was still very much a wild thing. Unpredictable and dangerous.
Finding the door to the service hall was like seeing god. Still, even when the door was closed, Thomas didn’t sprint for the guard room. If Leonard was the unpredictable beast-man Thomas thought he was, even the slightest sound of retreat might send him into a rampage. So, he made his way to the room slowly. Opened the door in no rush.
In all that time, the service door never opened after him.
Still, he locked the door and didn’t leave the room until Carlos relieved him mid-morning.
For the next few nights, Leonard was bolder. Never standing in plain sight, but louder and sloppier in his trailing. The full weight and strength of his limbs present in the sounds of his approach. Throughout it, Thomas kept his pace and his hand on the nightstick provided by the company—they wouldn’t risk a former junkie with a gun or taser. He knew it would do him little good. Every scenario always ending with his horrible death.
Leonard was a wild thing and Thomas was a frightened one.
Once, lighting a cigarette, Thomas finally caught a glimpse of his pursuer in the reflection of a mirrored column. For the days afterward, during his rounds, Thomas held onto his nightstick so tight his knuckles hurt for the rest of the day. Not only did he have his own morbid imagination to contend with, but now he knew Leonard’s dimensions.
Crawford had said he was special, was shy. Thomas thought it was due to his stunted mental age. But, the deformities hadn’t stopped with Leonard’s mind. It seeped outward into his limbs and flesh. Suddenly, Thomas was painfully aware of why the cameras were set at such odd angles.
The bulbous skull and drooping chin. One small arm pressed to its chest like an injured wing; the other was strong but twisted. All of its visible skin was patchy and gray. It moved as though it were an ape, its large arm leading and his deformed legs catching up behind it.
Still, as crippled as Leonard seemed, Thomas knew the truth about him. He was a threat. Never to be trusted. The man was libel—isolated from society and any concepts of boundaries save the most primal—to do all types of things to Thomas against his will.
Yet, through it all, Leonard always kept away. Never close enough to touch and never so aggressive as to be seen. But, he was always there.
At the end of one shift, Thomas asked Carlos about Leonard.
“Just don’t look at him,” Carlos said. “He won’t do anything—”
“And he’s running around all night, following me,” Thomas told him. “He’s followed me-”
“I used to have your job,” Carlos said. “And trust me, Leonard is ugly, but harmless if you leave him alone. If he’s following you, it’s because he’s curious. That’s all.”
“Curious? Curious about what?”
“Ah, it’s like a dog,” Carlos said. “Just wants to know who you are. In time, he’ll get bored and leave you alone too.”
Thomas nodded and went home to soak his cramping hand in ice-water.
Carlos had been right. After a week, Leonard no longer hounded Thomas on his bi-hourly rounds. It seemed Leonard found him as boring as all the other security guards—there had to be more than just Carlos, he was sure—and went back to terrorizing the mall in his own harmless way.
One day Leonard squirmed his way into the toy store and overturned a bin of dusty teddy bears. Thomas heard his brutish laugh throughout his entire circuit of the mall. On another, Leonard managed to turn on one of the games in the Gold Coin Arcade. Thomas walked to the brief tunes of 32-bit glory cut short by sounds of loss and Leonard’s frustrations. But, most nights, Leonard played on the carousel.
Thomas never saw it even in the guard room. Only the slow revolutions and lights were visible at the camera’s odd angle. But, Thomas heard it. The cheap circus music scratching through worn-out speakers. The squeak of gears. And Leonard’s laughter. Full of sound and fury as it was, Thomas couldn’t help but to pick out a twinge of innocence in it. Perhaps it was in the glee that Thomas felt somehow matched his own when he too rode that carousel, with his grandmother watching on a nearby bench. Or, maybe, it was what Carlos had told him.
Leonard was like a puppy. Like any animal.
He was not inherently good nor evil. He was a creature of basic reactions. There was a bestial quality to his intelligence, prone to fits of emotion that overpowered his limited intellect, but there was no malice in it.
As dogs needed to be fed, Leonard needed to be ignored.
More and more, Thomas thought on the words until there was less fear in Thomas than pity towards Leonard Crawford, harmless but forever shunned. Ugly but kind, drawn to the meeting places of the public but only when they were gone, leaving nothing but the ghosts of their scents. Thomas thought the world was particularly cruel then. A perfectly fine creature confined to a decaying place all for the comfort of the masses.
It would take too long to explain to each and every one of them why they shouldn’t be afraid. He wasn’t cruel. The discoloration was not contagious.
If only they could hear him laugh, Thomas thought. At first, as it was with him, it would be frightening. The sheer palpability of it was seldom heard in daylight. But, if they could only stand there, listening. Thomas knew they’d feel the warmth and innocent joy in it. They could learn something from Leonard’s laugh. Like a child seeing through the graffiti and faded paint to the core of a new discovery that, in its own way, was exciting and beautiful.
It was infectious. Not that Thomas dared join in with it—in fact, the creature hid himself whenever Thomas got within fifty yards of him—but he listened.
Thomas grew to admire it.
Admiration soon grew to envy.
Thomas used to laugh like that. Used to look at the world like it was built on magic and miracles, all of it new and exotic. Life stole that from him, though Thomas couldn’t remember how exactly. Ex-girlfriends took some of it with them, a few by force. School took another along with a sizeable chunk of his wages still. Work stole the rest, grinding away the days with early or late shifts, gnawing until weeks slid by with nothing to show for it but more bills and a crick in his neck from a shitty mattress he couldn’t afford to replace. But, those reflections, when matched against Leonard’s voice, made him feel worse.
Thomas tried to find that feeling again with needles and powders, but they’d only left him twice as empty and twice as broke. But, not Leonard.
Leonard had learned enough of the world to hide from it, the memories of scorn and terror still fresh in his mind. Leonard’s life was frolicking through the garbage of visitors like they were relics of a world he once knew. Yet, despite it, Leonard laughed with what sounded like his entire being.
All over a carousel he’d ridden for decades.
In the guard room and on the way home, Thomas tried to recall a time that he was ever happy enough to laugh like that. The fact that he couldn’t followed him for days.
Thomas got it into his head that seeing Leonard on the carousel would somehow transfer some of that childish joy into him. But, as enamored with the idea as Thomas was, he still knew that Leonard was dangerous. All he needed would be a glimpse, just one quick look at Leonard’s face further deformed by happiness. He’d have to be quiet, careful.
It took days of deliberation, of convincing himself to do it. It was Leonard’s private matter, he told himself once. But, that thought was demolished by Thomas’s selfishness. The world needed the kind of unbridled positivity that was hidden away at the Riverside Mall. All Thomas had to do was witness it and then it would pass like a virus. The world, he told himself, would be a better place if he took one look at Leonard trapped in a moment of pure joy.
For a week, he only left the guard room when the cheap circus music came and even then, he only walked close enough to see the lights play across the storefronts. Always close, but never too close, until the day when it played like a siren’s song and Thomas decided he needed to look.
He removed his boots, the floor gritty through his socks. He stepped a few times to test the silence. Then, he lit a cigarette, puffing at it until he was sure the cherry was bright and strong. Thomas dropped it, thinking that if Leonard was anything like an animal, the smell’s distance might deceive him enough to let Thomas get close.
Even then, Thomas didn’t move immediately. The human mind is resistant to any difference including the addition of joy. The carousel creaked on, the music played. Leonard laughed and pulled at the stained poles.
The carousel revealed itself by centimeters, mere glimpses of the tops of bulbs at first, then the edges and eventually parts of the horses. Defiled as they were, they kept a steady pace, the gears all greased and in working order. It took Thomas a moment to spot Leonard among the horses. Thomas thought he’d find Leonard at the bottom, his disfigurement not allowing any more than that.
Leonard was resourceful, Thomas realized, spotting Leonard on the second story, seated on a two-seater shaped like a carriage and pulled by a thick-necked Clydesdale. His monstrous arms were held up as though he were holding a set of reins. The simple flick of his wrists, the snap of imaginary leather that urged his steed through untold adventures playing out in Leonard’s head, brought forth that laugh that Thomas wanted to hear.
Thomas stepped closer and stared at Leonard’s face. The eyes were semi-closed and his mouth gaped open like a wound. The teeth he had showed yellow and twisted. All the movements were the workings of broken parts reassembled. Yet, Thomas saw through it. He saw no skin color splashed over Leonard’s cheeks. Paid no attention to the misshapen skull and mouth. All he saw was a joy as pure as the universe in its first instant. A thing no amount of money or drugs could ever duplicate.
And he’d found it at the end of a road of laziness and bad decisions.
When the carousel’s revolution hid Leonard from sight, Thomas was filled with what he was convinced was the grace of charity. In flashes, he went over the next few months with Leonard. The gaining of his trust and start of their friendship, all started because Leonard saw that Thomas wouldn’t look away, didn’t treat him cruelly. Thomas thought he could teach Leonard to speak and he would, after many weeks of talks, would reveal to Leonard that it was the simple joy that he displayed on the carousel that inspired Thomas to be a better person.
The thoughts filled Thomas with a warm, sleepy feeling. A sense that he’d found a path that he could be proud of and that would lead him to new heights of the human experience.
When Leonard came around again, he stared at Thomas. There was no anger in his eyes, just a hesitant curiosity. Leonard got out of his seat and, with a nimbleness Thomas thought Leonard couldn’t possess, climbed down from the still moving carousel. Once on the tiles, Leonard looked at Thomas, unsure of what to do.
“It’s okay,” Thomas said, patting the air. “I’m not here to hurt you. I want to be friends.”
Leonard was uncertain of what to do next, but, after a few moments, he shuffled a few steps closer and sniffed the air as if to test it.
Thomas knelt and beckoned him forward. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he said gently.
Leonard inched closer. As he neared, Thomas got a clearer view of the extent of Leonard’s deformities. The goiters and swellings. The patches of hair and scaly skin. A mouth with only a few gnarled teeth.
“It’s okay,” Thomas said again. “I just want to be friends. Don’t you want to be friends?”
Leonard grunted, trying to imitate Thomas’s speech.
“Yes, yes,” Thomas said, smiling. “I want to be your friend, Leonard.”
At the sound of his name, a distortion rippled through Leonard’s frame, settling in his eyes.
There was no innocence in them. Yellow and sickly as they were, they had more tiger than lamb. Thomas stood in their predatory focus and was introduced to another universal experience alive since the first seconds. Fear. The fear mice have of hawks. The fear calves at the sound of howls in the night. There was no humanity in Leonard’s eyes. Only anger. Anger so complex that Leonard’s mind could articulate it in anything but the pose of a wild animal ready to attack.
Like the laughter, the purity in Leonard’s anger was hypnotic.
Thomas didn’t react to Leonard jettisoning forward like a wounded ape until Leonard was only a few feet away, teeth bared and voice quaking. Thomas turned to run, but his socks slid on the tile, sending him to his knees. Like a sugar-coated infant, he crawled as fast as he could.
He knew it was useless. Knew Leonard would tear him apart. Still, the animal part of his brain screamed scenarios at him, all the horrid possibilities. There was a purity in it too. No worry of property of defilement or defamation, only the desire to feel no pain, the desire to be away, away, away.
Something heavy landed on his back, flattening Thomas out. His brain told all of him to move, to summon all his strength. Only his arms responded, flailing fruitlessly. The misshapen hand clamped onto his back of Thomas’s skull and pressed his forehead into the tile.
Thomas felt the cheap tile crunch against his forehead and felt the pressure of Leonard’s weight on his neck. Behind his eyes, a pressure built until he couldn’t shut his eyes against their inflation and evacuation.
I heard somewhere once that ghosts can’t cross water. I think the same thing goes for witches and magic but I’m not sure. The ghost thing though, that’s true. Want to know how I found out? I died. My problem isn’t crossing the water exactly. My problem is getting out of it. When you’re under it, let me tell you, you’re stuck. You’re stuck and alone and cold and there is nothing but stupid fish! Hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself. Sorry about that. I haven’t really talked to anybody in a while. Let me start from the beginning.
My name is Beth and up until… well, I’m not sure how long ago, I used to be alive and happy. I had a job at a law firm. I was only an assistant but the money was good. I had an apartment, nothing special but definitely not a dump. I had a kitten too. Boots was the love of my life, as much as a cat can be, I guess. Poor Boots. I bet he misses me. What if nobody knows I’m gone? What if nobody feeds him? How long can a cat survive on its own in an empty apartment? How long has it been already?
I remember this guy at the office, Daniel, nice looking, fit, lawyer. My mom would have liked him. He was one of those real go-getter types. I heard he was even trying to make partner. But so was everyone else. I’ve never had low self esteem but I know when a guy is out of my league or when even getting his attention would be more trouble than it was worth. That’s why it surprised me when one Friday, he asked me out for drinks. After a few moments of stammering and feeling completely ridiculous, I was able to scrape together a yes. I immediately called my neighbor, Sue, and asked her to feed Boots for me. She was glad to do it, after all she was always telling me I needed to go out and meet someone.
We got out of the office around six and we took his car, I don’t drive, to this place where all the big lawyer types like to go. We had a light dinner followed by some drinks. The entire time he was an absolute gentleman. Ok, maybe I caught him taking glances at my chest a few times, but I pretended not to notice. We had a great time and I really began to like him. It was starting to get dark when we left and I expected him to try to make a move on me, but he didn’t. Instead, he smiled at me, an impossibly handsome smile, and said that there was something that he wanted to show me. You always hear about a woman’s intuition but I have no idea where mine was that night. There should have been alarm bells freaking out in my head but there was nothing, just a sweet dizziness that comes with reaching your alcohol threshold.
We ended up at the lake. There was a place just off of the road where we pulled over and parked. The scenery was beautiful with the moon and stars reflecting off of the water like two parallel universes reaching out to touch each other. He got out of the car and walked to the trunk. He returned a moment later with a blanket, a bottle of wine, and two glasses. I jokingly asked him who kept wine and a blanket in their car. He laughed and said that he had been planning to ask me out all week and that everything so far had been planned. Then he held out his hand and helped me out of the car.
He left the windows down and the radio on. We danced there in the moonlight for a while. Then we sat on the blanket, talking and drinking, staring out over the water. After a while I started zoning out. He was still talking but I had been focusing on the crickets chirping somewhere off in the darkness. His voice brought me out of my reverie. He was commenting about the song on the radio, saying it was appropriate. I tilted my head and listened. It was the song Beth by the band KISS.
Let me take a second to clear something up. That song has been a pain in my ass for a long time. When I was younger, all my friends and even some adults would quote or sing the song to me. They all thought they were so damn clever. Yes my name is Beth, yes the song is called Beth, it really isn’t that great. Whenever I would call my friends on the phone they would always answer with Beth, I hear you calling. How amazingly clever they thought they were. If only someone could hear me calling now.
I turned back to him, ready to tell him how much I disliked the song. Stars exploded in front of my eyes and I felt my head hit the ground. I really don’t know what happened next, but when my eyes fluttered open again I had been placed in the bottom of a boat. I must have been out for a while, but I couldn’t tell you how long. The side of my face felt sticky and tight with swelling. My hands and feet were tied. I tried to look around without moving too much. Every movement made my head throb. A few inches from my face was a rock about the size of a large fist. It was wet and shimmering in the moonlight. Was that my blood? Sickness rose in the back of my throat but I held it down. A sound came from just outside of my range of vision. It was Daniel, and he was whistling. That bastard was actually whistling.
The boat stopped moving a few minutes later. I risked another look and saw him standing above me, wearing that same charming smile he had worn all night. He didn’t speak, but I could tell that he knew I was conscious. He knelt down and lifted me from the bottom of the boat. I knew what he was going to do. I tried to stop him. I wanted to beg him not to do it, but the only thing that came out was a half cry, half moan. He let go of me and I splashed into the water. If I had been drunk, or woozy from being hit on the head, the water had solved that problem right away. I sank fast. The water got colder as I descended farther into it. Every nerve in my body screamed. A weight at my feet pulled me ever farther down. I tried to hold my breath but my lungs burned with the effort. I crashed to the bottom and without meaning to, let out about half of my air. It was pitch black. I looked in the direction I remembered was up and saw nothing. I was too deep to see the moon, maybe too deep to see the sun if it had been daytime. My lungs gave out and what little air I had left was gone. Water rushed in to take up the newly vacated space in my lungs, burning the inside of my chest like embers. I tried to fight it. But really, who can fight death? After what felt like an endless struggle, I let go and drifted into nothingness.
I don’t know when my consciousness returned, or why, or how. One minute there was nothing and the next minute I’m back. This time, however, everything was different. I was there, I knew everything that was going on around me, but I could affect nothing. I was trapped inside of my body, unable to move, unable to feel the cold or the fish casually nibbling on my body. I couldn’t exactly see, not with my eyes, but I just knew everything happening to my body and around it. I freaked out. I wanted to thrash, to scream, to do anything at all. Nothing happened. After what seemed like forever, I gave up.
Being at the bottom of a lake gets to be boring. I started spacing out for long periods of time. Hours, days, weeks, I have no idea. I would blink out, and when I came back everything would be the same. I came back once just in time to see a large ugly fish I couldn’t identify, take out my eyeball. Before I died, I had been no stranger to all you could eat seafood buffets, so I chalked the whole thing up to karma. I figured I might as well pay it back, it wasn’t like I needed my body for anything anymore anyway. Other times I would come back and my clothes would be a little more tattered or I would be missing a finger to a hungry snapping turtle. At first I was upset. Seeing things eat parts of you can be distressing, even if you can’t feel it. For a while I thought I was in hell and this was some sort of eternal torture. After seeing it so often, though, I developed a comfortable apathy towards the whole thing.
Once the shock of being dead and eaten by fish had worn off, I began to get angry. Why was I stuck in my body? Why couldn’t I move on? Why was I stuck in the water while that bastard got to go on living? I thought about him going back to work the Monday after he killed me. I wondered if anyone would ask about me and what he would say. I wondered if he would do this to someone else. Maybe he had already done it to someone before me. What if there were others out there, trapped in their own bodies, sentenced to the same fate as me? For the first time since I’d been dead, I felt an uncontrollable rage build up inside of me. I was hurt, I was furious, and I wanted to take it out on something, anything.
A weird thing happened. My perspective changed and I was looking at my body from the outside. I looked horrible. I patches of hair had gone missing, pieces of clothing were gone, and chunks of my flesh had either been nibbled away or detached from my body and floated off. The look on my face, what was left of my face, was a mixture of terror and pain. The last expression I ever made. The rest of my body was bloated. I had worked so hard to maintain my ass when I was alive and now it was fat and water-logged. I guess I could call that retaining water. All that bloating, however, did nothing for my bust. It figures.
My perspective changed again and I was back in my body. A fish swam away from the place I had been just seconds before. I had just hitched a ride in a fish! My mind raced with possibilities. Did I actually have a mind anymore? It wasn’t important. My goal now was to do it again. I felt outward around my body for anything I could try to hang on to. I searched for what seemed like an eternity in the empty water around me before I felt something approaching. A snake, a water moccasin, I think, came half swimming half slithering by me. People are always so afraid of snakes, but since I’ve been on the bottom of the lake, the fish and turtles have done more damage than anything else. The snakes always ignore me. I reached out, trying to touch the snake on some level, willing myself to join with it. Nothing happened. I pushed harder, but it was no use. A wave of rage bust out of me and suddenly I was swimming away in a fluid zig-zag motion.
A second later I was back at my body, understanding slowly dawning on me. When I was angry I could co-inhabit the creatures around me. I focused and tried to jump again. It worked, but only for a moment. I tried over and over again. The progress I made was slow and infuriating, which helped a little. Every time I jumped, I could feel something holding me back, dampening a power that I felt I should have. I was sure I could fully possess the thing if I weren’t in the water. I focused again. I thought about Daniel. About how he pretended to like me. How he bashed me in the face without even blinking. How he whistled just before he killed me. I wanted revenge and I wanted it to be brutal, and messy. I jumped again.
That last jump was only a second ago. I’m in a fish right now, and the great thing about it, is that this one has a hook through its cheek. I hope whoever is on the other end of this fishing line is old enough to buy a chainsaw, because I’m pissed and I’m almost out of the water. Here I come, Daniel.
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Celebrating three years of publication is nice, but without friends and associates to share the moment with, the party would grow very boring, very fast. To that end, we reached out to everyone that has ever helped us in the past for their personal favorite picks and reasons why they enjoy this online magazine of the macabre.
Through fringe medical science, a cadaver is resurrected and tossed out into the streets. Known simply as The Bleeder, the monstrosity of rot and devious engineering lumbers in the shadows with a never-ending hunger for blood. This mechanized zombie, vampire, and Frankenstein hybrid takes the lives of thousands, while police struggle to deal with the insane carnage. Being half flesh and half machine, can the Bleeder regain his lost humanity, or will he forever be a blood-thirsty test-subject of an unfathomable experiment?