By Julie Carpenter
So this was it. The Thin Hungry Man was finally going to get to eat. His quest was going to be fulfilled. He was so excited he hardly knew what to think. For one thing he could hardly believe that this was happening. Some part of his brain refused, point blank, to believe it at all, but since it had no better plan it decided to go along for the ride. Unfortunately, in its excitement, his brain had ceased to remember that it was in charge of his body. The Thin Hungry Man could hardly stand up. In fact, he soon found he couldn't stand up at all. He took two steps forward and then fell over backwards and lay there waving his arms and legs like some huge and hideous insect. His feet and legs were going opposite directions and his arms were so eager to be up and gone that they simply waved around his head instead of helping to push him off the ground.
Adelaide stood staring at this performance. It made her no more eager to bring the Thin Hungry Man in the house to feed him, certainly. She sighed and walked over to him and grabbed one of the excited waving hands and pulled him off the ground.
"Come on, you idiot!" she said roughly as he popped to his feet. "Do you want lunch or do you want to lay in that flower patch thrashing around like a lunatic?"
The Thin Hungry Man was happy to be on his feet, but he was a little afraid of falling down again so he held tightly to Adelaide's hand, smiling.
Adelaide jerked her hand out of his. "You're up aren't you?"
The Thin Hungry Man tottered this way and that, but held his position and as soon as he steadied himself he followed her towards the house.
Before he could reach the house, however, she turned and looked at him. She stared at the bloody shirt and dirty hair. He had, over the course of his wandering in search of food, acquired a lot of dirt and grime. Bathing is completely secondary to someone who is starving. Besides, he had no friends to tell him how stinky he was (a greatly underrated advantage of friendship). Adelaide wrinkled her nose. The thought of this grimy twit setting foot in her house was not appealing to her. But he was pitiful. From somewhere deep inside, sympathy welled up, a sympathy that surprised her and made her uncomfortable.
"Come here." she commanded the Thin Hungry Man and headed around the side of the house. He followed her with some concern, eyeing her suspiciously. He thought she had said lunch was inside. In the history of the universe, few people have been more ready for lunch than the Thin Hungry Man.
"You're going to eat, you silly man, just not until you're a little cleaner." Adelaide picked up the garden hose and looked at him. "What you really need is a bath of course, but I can't even put you in the bathtub looking like that. It would never come clean again. Just stand there while I clean you off with the hose. And take that horrible shirt off. And your shoes and socks while you're at it. Just take off everything." She went inside for a bottle of dish liquid.
When she returned, the Thin Humgry Man stood staring at her.
"Do you want lunch or don't you?" said Adelaide.
He took off his shirt. And his shorts and underwear. Adelaide squirted the blue dish soap on him from as far away as she could, told him to close his eyes and keep them closed then turned the hose on him and did her best to clean him up. She squirted water behind his ears and over his head. She sprayed his feet and did her best to spray his legs. He needed scrubbing but she could barely stand to look at him, much less touch him. She turned the hose on full pressure. He toppled over and popped up covered with grass and wet dirt clinging to him. She turned down the hose. When all was said and done, she had completely emptied a half gallon bottle of dish soap and he was blinking one eye like a mad man from the soap but he stood comparatively clean, nude and angular in her soft, sweet green garden, like a strange little gargoyle on a forgotten corner of the church that makes you feel more sad than frightened.
“Better than before," she sighed. "Stand right there and don't move. I'll be right back."
Adelaide ran into the house to get some clean towels.
"He can’t put his dirty clothes back on," she muttered. "But what should he wear?"
She finally decided that he was certainly thin enough to wear some of her clothes and she found a pair of old shorts, shirt that she hated, and some rather itchy purple lace boy leg panties and took them out to him.
When Adelaide walked back outside she found the Thin Hungry Man standing firmly and stiffly where she had told him to. He had not come this far to lose out on lunch by angering the one person who had offered it to him. It felt strange to be standing there without his clothes although he wasn’t sure why.
Adelaide handed him the clothes. "Here are some towels and some clean clothes. Get dried off and then get dressed." She tried not to let her glance fall on him at all, but she couldn’t help stare. His starving body was riveting and revolting. Maybe a muumuu would have been better if she’d had one. She just wanted to do this one thing. This little thing. Then she wanted to send him on his way.
The Thin Hungry Man immediately obeyed, covering the skeletal body with the clothes she had given him, unfortunately initially interpreting the panties as a hat. After they had smoothed that over, Adelaide sighed and turned toward the house.
She did her best to remain angry with him. She felt more in control when she was angry. He stood barefoot and eager outside her door. What a dope.
"Come in," she said..
He walked into the kitchen and stood there smiling.
"Sit down," she said with a sigh and pulled out a chair.
He looked delightedly at the chair and sat down. She pushed him a little from behind.
"You have to sit up closer to the table stupid," she said. "It isn't like you're not entirely likely to make the world's biggest mess anyway."
He smiled at her. "Where's lunch?" he asked.
Adelaide glared at him. "Shut up and let me get it," she suggested.
So he shut up and waited eagerly at the table.
"Hmmm," Adelaide mumbled. She thought about what to give him. On the one hand, she really did feel a little sorry for him. On the other hand, she didn’t want to feed him so well that he kept coming back for food or something. She thought briefly about the ice cream and thought a bit about the lovely brie that had fallen out of the void. She looked at him and decided he wouldn’t properly appreciate the brie. She had already assuaged her guilt by telling herself that the filet mignon would take too long. Peanut butter. Adelaide didn’t care too much for peanut butter, but sometimes you just had to take whatever fell out of the void. She dug through the cabinet and found it.
There were two loaves of bread on the counter. She looked at them carefully to make sure she was picking out the oldest and stalest one. She spread the peanut butter on the bread and started to put the sandwich together. She turned and looked at her guest. He was smiling and rocking himself gently back and forth. His right hand had seemingly gotten out of control. It was moving around loosely on his wrist, fingers flexing madly. His left hand however was well under control and he smiled down at it frequently as if to reward it for its good behavior.
Adelaide sighed loudly. She went to the refrigerator, took out a jar of grape jelly and slammed the door. Thunk! The jelly smacked against the counter. She smeared about a teaspoon on the sandwich and smushed the pieces of bread together. Peanut butter oozed out the sides.
She slid the sandwich over to the Thin Hungry Man, and handed him a glass of milk. "Here you are. Go ahead. Eat."
The Thin Hungry Man picked up the messy, oozing sandwich and looked at it in awe.
"Food," he whispered reverently. He poked the sandwich at one side where peanut butter and jelly were oozing out the side. The index finger of that uncontrollable right hand jabbed itself between the bread and frolicked briefly in the goo. Convulsively, he jerked it out, as if he were having some difficulty stopping it. He lifted the index finger of his right hand to his mouth -- controlling it by lifting it with his left hand -- and popped it in.
A rather grotesque sucking noise followed, a look of sheer delight spread out over his face. And then his right hand lost control. It grabbed the sandwich, rather too hard because the bread smushed and the insides oozed out everywhere. He looked startled and darted out his left hand but it was too late. The right hand picked up the mushed sandwich and shoved it into his mouth. He gobbled the sandwich down in a few bites. Then he picked up the milk and took a delicate sip. And belched.
He smiled up beatifically at Adelaide, a great circle of peanut butter and jelly surrounding his mouth. A blob of jelly hung from the end of his nose and there was a little piece of peanut stuck in it, the last peanut butter to have fallen into the void having been of the chunky variety. He sipped his milk slowly now and again, exuding great sighs of pleasure.
Lunch. At last.
Catching up with the Thin Hungry Man
THM Chapter 1
THM Chapter 2
THM Chapter 3
THM Chapter 4
By Julie Carpenter
The girl stared at the Thin Hungry Man who was busily sniffing the flowers. He seemed quite content. His clothes hung in rags. He had a pair of what might have once been khaki shorts that continually slid down from his waist and caught on the bones of his hips. What might once have been a white t-shirt had a gaping hole under one arm and it was stained green and brown. He did not have shoes and his feet were rather ghastly with thick, calloused skin. He had strange patterns on his arms that appeared to be….blood. She had never seen anyone thinner. His elbows stuck out sharp and pointy and his knees….he was a bag of bones encased in pale white flesh, with only a breath of air to fill him. The only thing that appeared healthy about him was the shock of curly brown hair above his eyes. There seemed to be a terrible cowlick in the front and it stuck up and then bent back over into his right eye.
The girl walked over to him. "Who are you? Did you say you were my cousin." She assumed the little red haired bastard had been lying; but you always wanted to get the story out of whatever freak landed in the garden. Then you could convince them that there were people who wanted to buy their insurance in the forest or circuses to join a couple miles away or you could give them fake maps to fairyland or the North Pole. It took some effort but you could usually have them on their way to nothing before too long.
But this time a sudden vague uneasiness washed over her. There was something unsettling about the strange man. She reminded herself that all of the creatures that she met here made her uneasy. No, that was wrong. Most of the creatures she met annoyed her or flat out made her angry.. He definitely made her uneasy and a little sad. And maybe a little angry. How had he let himself get into this shape? She let her self go with the anger. She was annoyed that he had decided to drag his starving carcass here and make her feel sad. She felt a little more in control now that she was angry instead of sad. She felt a little more equal to getting rid of him. That was the important thing.
“Well,” she said, “Did you say you were my cousin?”
He stared at the girl. "What do you mean? What’s a cousin?" he asked.
The girl looked at his thin happy face and tried again. "Where did you come from?"
"I was with those guys," here he pointed vaguely in the direction of the dwarves' house "and we were throwing beer bottles and then he brought me here," said the Thin Hungry Man.
"I know that, but I also happen to know you couldn't have been there long. I just talked to their mother yesterday and she said nothing about you. Where did you come from? Before the dwarves’ house I mean?"
The Thin Hungry Man looked in the direction of the void. He pointed. "From the blackness." he said.
"That's odd," murmured the girl, really more to herself than to the Thin Hungry Man. "You don’t often see people fall from the void. And they don’t usually know they’ve been in the void. They always have some cockamamie story about their lives and where they’re going."
The Thin Hungry Man smiled hopefully. The girl looked at him. She sighed deeply. She was in no mood for foolishness today, or any day for that matter. He made her uncomfortable. It wasn't that hard to find food on the edge of the void.
She looked at the Thin Hungry Man. "What is your name?" she asked him.
"What do you mean?" he cocked his head like a confused and stupid beagle. A confused, stupid and painfully skinny beagle.
"I mean, what did people call you where you came from?" she explained, none too patiently. "For example, my name is Adelaide, so when someone I know sees me they say, 'Hello Adelaide.’ That sort of thing."
"Well," said the Thin Hungry Man slowly, "There weren't any others like me where I came from. Just me." A great sense of inadequacy came over him. He felt sad again and his stomach rumbled so loudly that the girl jumped back from him.
"There were no others, no names and no food," he said sadly.
"No food?" the girl asked him. "When was the last time you ate?"
"Never" said the Thin Hungry Man. He looked sadly at his finger, which had recently quit bleeding.
Adelaide looked at him, bloody and ridiculous, so thin he looked as though he might break. Flower petals fell from his hair now and again and a deep sadness had spread over his face.
"I know I'm going to regret this," she muttered to herself, shaking her head. "Come on in and have some lunch."
"Lunch?" said the Thin Hungry Man.
"Food." Adelaide explained. She was seriously annoyed at herself. Why didn't she just send back out to the void to pick up some snacks? It seemed wrong somehow. Well, she would feed him but then he had to go.
By Julie Carpenter
The dwarves murmured amongst themselves about the best way to get rid of the thin man who sat in the middle of the bed, covered with straw. The red-haired dwarf stepped forward and looked at the man from about a foot away. He picked up the alarm clock from the rubbish on the floor and tossed it at the man's head, as an experiment in how well the usual method worked. The clock bounced off the man's head and began to ring. The Thin Hungry Man picked it up, delighted. He smiled and shook it. He held it to his ear. He bounced it neatly off the dwarf's head and screamed, "Take that you little red-haired idiot." It was a phrase he’d heard often during the fighting. It seemed an appropriate greeting.
Colvin, for that was the name of the red-haired dwarf, stumbled a bit and fell backwards into the biggest dwarf, a black-haired lumpy faced creature, who immediately used his somewhat lumpy head to catch Colvin in the middle of the back and send him sailing forward into the bedpost, knocking the wind out of him front and back.
"I told you it was a stupid idea," said the black haired dwarf.
When he could speak again, Colvin sputtered out, "I suppose we should have followed your advice and closed our eyes and counted to three and seen if he would go away, then?"
"Not a bad idea," said Marvin. The other dwarves muttered in agreement.
“Well then let's try it, shall we?" Colvin asked.
"Not too likely to work now is it? Now that you've bashed it on the head and all. I mean now it’s obviously not going to work." Marvin muttered darkly. He was considered the smart one by all of the others, except Colvin. Colvin was always the odd man out. He hated the rest of the dwarves. He hated their stupid, green pointy hats. He thought that lederhosen were a terrible idea as well. He always made sure his own pants came down past his ankles and he never wore a hat unless he had to.
The Thin Hungry Man sat and stared happily. He wasn't sure what was under discussion but he wanted to be ready the next time someone threw something at his head. He wondered whether they were waiting for him to throw something else at them.
"Imagine me sitting here and bouncing things off people's heads," he said. He was so happy he felt he could burst.
The dwarves looked at him. They weren't sure what to do with him and they were much too tired to throw things at him until he left.
"So now what, you little idiot, smarty-pants?" said Marvin. "I suppose you know we have to get rid of it before Mother comes home."
A murmur of assent and worry went up among the other dwarves, and they crowded behind Marvin and Colvin.
He looked up. "Dang! The idiot has made a hole in the roof. What do we do about that?" He would be the one that fixed it, of course. If anything went wrong, Colvin always had to fix it.
Marvin smiled that odd secret smile he smiled when he was about to do something unpleasant to Colvin. He had frequent practice smiling that smile. He stepped back from the bed and all the other dwarves gathered around him. They all stared at Colvin smiling.
Marvin stepped forward. "We have decided that someone has to take him to the girl. And you are just the stupid lump to do it!"
"No way," said Colvin. "I'm not going over there. It's a long walk and I'm too tired. Forget about it." Colvin did not enjoy the company of the girl. Well actually, he wouldn’t know how he felt about her company because she had chased the dwarves away on sight ever since the night that Marvin and Alvin had barfed up three packs of hot dogs and a couple of six packs of green beer in her roses.
The best way to take care of all the unwelcome creatures and objects from the void was to foist them off on someone else. If the various creatures and objects that fell from the void couldn’t be chased off, and they usually couldn’t, they had to be tricked into leaving or left at a neighboring house. And the closest, in fact the only permanent neighbor that he knew about was the girl. So she was usually the recipient of any of the annoying creatures that couldn’t otherwise be disappeared.
Colvin looked at the others. He looked at the hole in the ceiling. He sighed. He remembered when they had tried to convince their mother to let them keep that cute pink penguin with suspenders that had fallen from the void. It turned out he was a professional yodeler. That and the fact that the little guy had filled her toilet with ice had made her pretty adamant about getting rid of the travelers as soon as possible. This was one of the few houses near the void that seemed to have some sort of permanence. Houses disappeared with alarming frequency. Sometimes they simply disappeared; sometimes they grew legs and walked off. Once a seriously depressed house had blown itself up and the whole group of traveling clowns who had been making it their home went up in an awe-inspiring shower of brightly colored confetti. It had actually been quite a lovely sight in a way but it was pretty sad finding clown noses and clown hats and little squirting flowers all over the place for weeks. The dwarves’ house and the girl’s cottage. And he wouldn’t be moving in with the girl any time soon.
He was pretty sure that he would bear the brunt of the clean-up and repair, simply because the black haired brothers had proved over and over that they were too stupid and incompetent to do anything besides play poker and drink beer and fight. (They were pretty terrible at poker but pretty good at drinking beer and fighting.) The stupid thin man could only cause more damage for him to patch up if he were allowed to stay. Besides that witch in the cottage deserved him if anyone did.
"Come on," he said "Get off the bed you big idiot. Let's go." He sighed.
The Thin Hungry Man wobbled happily to his feet and looked at Colvin with a smile. Then for some reason he held out his hand.
Marvin and the other five dwarves snickered.
Colvin brushed the hand away and said, "Just follow me you big oaf."
The Thin Hungry Man smiled happily and followed him out of the cottage. He felt magnificently happy, and though he was too polite to ask, he felt certain he would eat soon. There had to be food in a world this exciting. There was no other reason for him to have come here. It must be destiny. He would eat. His stomach rumbled awesomely and he felt hungrier than he had ever felt before. He took this as a good sign. The only reason for his increased hunger had to be that food would come soon.
The Thin Hungry Man followed Colvin out of the little thatched cottage and looked around him in amazement. The yard behind the dwarves' cottage was a brilliant green color. It was the most vividly green grass the Thin Hungry Man had ever seen. As he looked closer he realized that there were small patches of earth which weren't covered by grass. These small patches were the same color green. It was as if someone had taken spray paint in the same color as the grass and tried to hide the places where the grass wasn't growing (which was, in fact, the case.) This struck even the Thin Hungry Man as slightly odd. After all if there was one thing he knew, it was what grass and dirt should look like. At the end of the small patch of grass Colvin and the Thin Hungry Man turned left and walked behind the house and through a garden blooming in a mass of colors. The flowers were every shade from neon colors of lime and lemon to iridescent whites and pinks that seemed to generate a small amount of light. There was one vivid scarlet flower, somewhat like a rose in character that stood almost 25 feet high. The dwarf seemed not to notice, but the Thin Hungry Man was amazed and delighted. As they walked along, the Thin Hungry Man looked back at the house. In front of it was a very small patch of grass and flowers that ended at the void. Objects came zooming out of the void every few minutes and landed on the lawn. He saw Marvin come running out into the lawn to pick up a cardboard carton full of brown bottles.
"Beer!" yelled Marvin in the distance and soon the tiny yard was a mass of little fighting dwarves.
"Won't be any for me when I get home, of course," said Colvin, without looking at the Thin Hungry Man. "Not that you'd care." Not that Colvin was too worried about that. He would walk home the long way by the void, probably find at least a six pack of his own and it with that chimpanzee who had recently converted to some form of neo paganism, just to put off going home and patching the roof.
The Thin Hungry Man smiled politely.
“They're going to find some way to blame the hole in the roof and everything on me, of course," offered the dwarf. He sighed, "Not that you'd care." Colvin wasn’t actually worried about that either. Blanche would never believe that it was his fault, although it would cause tension when she started yelling at Marvin and the others.
The Thin Hungry Man smiled. It was so good to have a conversation. He looked down at his small companion. The dwarf had taken his cap off in the heat. His red hair shone brilliantly in the sun. A sudden whim overtook the Thin Hungry Man and he patted Colvin's shimmering red hair. Colvin caught his hand and bit him. It hurt.
They walked along a dirt road now which took them farther from the void. Soon they walked through a patch of turnips the size of small trucks, and it hid the void from their sight. The Thin Hungry Man looked interestedly at the blood that was dripping from his finger. He tasted a little bit and then made patterns with it on his arm.
Before ten minutes had passed they entered a grove of trees in an improbable shade of lavender. The dwarf began to look nervously around him and wring his hands. This was what he was worried about. He had managed to get rid of two reindeer, a psychotic rabbit and a large talking chair by locking them in the walled garden behind the girl’s cottage but everything depended on stealth. It was tricky and she didn’t like dwarves. Probably because she also didn’t like psychotic rabbits and talking chairs and two somewhat depressive reindeer with a pathological need to belch boiling green steam. He was certain there would be new locks to pick. He had to think....He had tricked the reindeer into jumping over the fence. He looked at the thin hungry man. He wondered if he could simply launch him over the fence with a little boost.
They came out of the grove of lavender trees, and there was the girl's cottage, shimmering in its whiteness. He hesitated momentarily. He looked back at the odd, annoying, bloodstained man behind him and realized that this was going to be difficult. He thought he heard the slam of the back door. He stopped, trying to decide what to do. The Thin Hungry Man wandered past him and tripped over a sign that said in bold letters DWARVES! KEEP OUT!, and in smaller letters under it You Little Idiots. The Thin Hungry Man then landed in a flowerbed so deep and thick that he disappeared momentarily. Colvin was just about to bolt when he suddenly felt a hand on the back of his neck.
"How many times have I told you little idiot dwarves to STAY OFF THE LAWN!" the girl screamed in his ear.
The lectures were usually long, drawn-out affairs, conducted with the girl's fingernails in the back of his neck, most of the time after large flower-pots had been dropped on his head, but this time, thankfully the lecture was cut short, by the sudden appearance of the Thin Hungry Man, bounding out the flower bed, with his brown wavy hair full of petals and a joyous expression on his skeletal face.
“Hi!" he said.
The iron fingernails relaxed just a bit as the girl mentally prepared herself for the green steam, or the yodeling, or the existential insurance policy sales pitch and Colvin felt his opportunity.
"He fell through the roof. He said you were his cousin. Bye!" Colvin was off like a shot.
By Julie Carpenter
Link to Chapter 1
The Thin Hungry Man felt himself in midair, and then he felt nothing. The nature of nothing being what it is, the Thin Hungry Man had no concept of how long he was in it, or exactly what was happening to him while he was - nothing happened, one may assume.
When he began again to know what was going on, he seemed to be on the very border of nothing still. His surroundings were almost black and he seemed to be still in midair. He could not see anything solid in any direction around him, and he seemed to be spinning a bit so that he had very little sense of direction. As he continued through the darkness, his eyes began to adjust themselves. He began to notice that other objects were traveling with him, some moving faster, some slower, but all in the same direction, the one he considered to be forward as best he could tell, as if they had all been flung out from a massive but innocuous explosion. After a bit longer, he began to notice what some of those shapes were but without real understanding because his experience was so limited. As such, he had no idea of the immense oddity of the company of creatures and objects that surrounded him. There was a lion in purple trousers talking loudly into a toy phone; there were sweaty dogs in business suits trying to do physics, even though one of them kept violently insisting that it was beyond their grasp because they were insurance salesmen; there was a small man who kept putting his toe in his ear because it was trying to tell him something but didn't seem to be talking loudly enough. He also saw many peculiar inanimate objects floating by. There were picture frames, spoons, old bits of cabbage and candy bar wrappers drifting along discussing the various fortunes they expected to make at their destinations, while some very ugly green living room furniture seemed to be at war over whether existentialism was still a valid point of view. It was all quite different from the forest where he had spent his life previously.
He so thoroughly enjoyed the newness of his experiences that he almost forgot that he was hungry. Once again, he had no idea of time. He occasionally slept and woke again, still spinning in midair.
At last one day or one hour, soon after he had awoken from a strange spinning nap, he noticed something in front of him that he hadn't seen before. There appeared to be a great dark something in front of him, so dark that it made the darkness behind him look gray. The dark something stretched out before him so that when he looked in its direction he couldn't see anything else. It was rather frightening because it gave him a sense of his own speed, and he seemed to be moving faster than he had previously noticed. He got the impression that soon he would meet the great dark object without slowing down at all. It was not a comforting thought by any means. He waggled his arms a bit because some small instinct within him seemed to be making a last ditch effort to save his hungry body and complete the quest for food. Unfortunately, this did not seem to work and he thought all in all it would be better to stop and meet his fate with some dignity, but his arms were determined to make the odd feeble waggling attempts regardless of what his mind tried to tell them. So he let them waggle and closed his eyes and resigned himself, much as he had when he had thrown himself into the void. He opened his eyes only once and that was to see the object coming at him with such sickening speed that he promised himself he would never open his eyes again in what he believed would be his very short life span.
He managed to keep this promise for some time. It was because of this that he did not realize that what was happening to him a few moments later. The Thin Hungry Man was falling through a roof. Fortunately it was a poorly thatched roof, and a rotting one at that. Whumpf! He hit the thatch. He fell through in a shower of straw and landed on a bed. He wasn’t dead at all. He sensed this with some relief and felt hungry again.
He opened his eyes, despite his previous promise to himself not to, and looked around. He immediately noticed a great deal of noise, more noise than he had ever heard before, in fact. There were creatures running round the bed in circles, at great velocity, shrieking and shouting. The creatures happened to be dwarves, the kind you see in stories with red caps and shiny boots and beards, singing happy songs on their way to the mines and convincing innocent young girls to keep house for them for free. These particular dwarves had put their caps neatly on pegs as soon as they returned from whatever work they had done, and now they happened to be throwing things at each other. This was all so interesting to the Thin Hungry Man that he failed completely for one second to remember how hungry he was. He also completely failed to notice the dangers involved in the dwarves' game and was quite unready for the blunt thunk of a thick, brown beer bottle bouncing off his head. He passed out.
When he came to again, it was entirely of his body's own volition because the dwarves seemed to have taken no notice of him. The fight seemed only more violent and chaotic than before; and The Thin Hungry Man noticed the violent and chaotic way his head seemed to be chastising him for making the trip. Nevertheless, he was a little more prepared this time. Having learned his lesson about being hit on the head with large heavy objects, he managed to duck a ceramic beer mug and an old piece of cabbage, which he sincerely hoped was not that same piece of cabbage that he had seen so happy and hopeful in the void.
As a matter of fact, even though his head pounded and ached, the fight excited him more than frightened him. One small bump with a beer bottle was little enough to worry about when you've spent your whole life being hungry. So instead of fear, he felt himself experiencing elation at being among other people.
He could not understand all that was being said and done; he assumed that things were as they should be. The dwarves might be simply interacting in ways that were, for all he knew, quite normal. So he sat on the bed ducking the flying mess the best he could and laughing and yelling, and really rather enjoying himself after his long life alone.
After a great while the fight seemed to slow a bit. The fact that it had lasted as long as it had was pretty remarkable. Most of the dwarves were not at all young and all were a little fat. The swearing had become apathetic and silly and most of the throws were completely off target. One of the dwarves tripped and slid under the table, which seemed to content him because he immediately fell asleep and began snoring loudly. Another sat down on the floor and satisfied himself with half-heartedly tripping the others as they ran past him. At long last the fight was over, and each of the dwarves stopped to catch his breath. It was then, for the first time, one of them noticed the Thin Hungry Man.
It was the Red-Haired Dwarf, who had sat in the middle of the circle tripping the other dwarves. He looked at the bed as if he were seeing a ghost. His Eyes boggled out and his face turned red.
"Hey!," he screamed. "Hey you! What are you doing on that bed? That isn't your bed, you know! Hey! LOOK! You stupid lumps, there's someone on our bed." The other dwarves had not noticed the Thin Hungry Man until this point.
All the little eyes in the room turned toward the Thin Hungry Man. He was smiling from ear to ear. He had never in his life been so happy. They saw him. He was not alone.
He hardly knew what to say. Their eyes pierced him with hostility. The dwarves glared their best glares. There were some muttered whispers among them as they pulled at their black beards, except for the dwarf who had noticed the Thin Hungry Man. His beard was red.
The Thin Hungry Man cleared his throat. His voice, now that he finally had the opportunity to use it, was choked with the happiness he felt. His eyes stung with joyous tears.
"Hey, you stupid lumps," he screamed elatedly. "This is a good bed. A very good bed!"
He hoped he had properly conveyed his excitement at meeting them.
By Julie Carpenter
Maybe it had started with the mice, he thought. Maybe the exodus of mice was the first sign that there was something amiss in the church basement. The choir room had been plagued by mice for as long as Father Dingle had been there. Alan, the choir director, had been on about adequate storage for the music since he’d been there. Just last Christmas, Alan had gone on the warpath after finding a mouse nest made with scraps of the Hallelujah Chorus, a situation he found neither economically nor spiritually tolerable. But in the early autumn, just a few months ago, the church mice had begun moving out of the basement in droves. Father Dingle had arrived at church one morning to find several families of mice scurrying up the basement stairs and down the hall towards the front doors. More mice appeared each morning, waiting at the doors to dash out as soon as they were opened.
One morning he’d found a mouse quivering on the window sill in his office. It was so paralyzed with fear that he’d been forced to ease it out the window and into the scraggly rosebush outside his office with the end of a pencil. He could not bring himself to otherwise dispose of the poor shivering animal.
The mass evacuation of mice had conducted itself quietly up to a point. He was incuriously grateful that the mice were leaving. He’d chalked up the exodus of mice to a minor miracle and mentioned his gratitude in his evening prayers. But then there was that Sunday morning when pandemonium broke out in the choir loft during the opening hymn…
A bewildered and trembling mouse had apparently crawled into Edna Harrison Brook’s purse to escape the basement. Finding itself in strange new terrain, it ran up Edna’s arm when she reached into her purse for a Kleenex, leaving her in a state of near shock. Then it ran across the pew, behind the sopranos, shot up Mary Jo Baker’s choir robe and right up her neck and head where it perched trembling on her chignon, provoking not a few high pitched squeals from the soprano section. First Tenor Harlan Smith’s instincts took over and he swatted it out of Mary Jo’s hair. It flew up in a beautiful, acrobatic arc and soared high over the pulpit. It landed on the organ keys and the organist, Myrtle Anderson, a victim of both the mouse and the cleaning lady’s zealous over polishing of the organ bench, slid right off, landing on her posterior with a thump and a rather unfortunate and somewhat vulgar exclamation that echoed and bounced against the old church rafters. One could hardly blame her, but of course, some people had.
Father Dingle had retrieved a bottle of flavored brandy when he returned to his study after the incident. He contemplated the conversation he would need to have with old Mrs. Flowers, the cleaning lady, his trip to visit Myrtle, who had probably broken her tailbone, and he supposed he needed to go and pay a visit to Edna who’d nearly passed out after the incident. He shuddered as he remembered the sopranos gathering round to flail at her with church bulletins while one of the altos went for a wet paper towel. By the time he’d thought the whole thing through, Father Dingle found himself holding an empty bottle.
That wasn’t the last time Father Dingle sat in his chair drinking brandy and contemplating odd events. After the mice had left, two packages of Sunday school material had disappeared from the church steps. The postman stoically declared he had delivered them himself and left them right under the archway at 10:15 just like always; and Margie, the church secretary, had just as stoically declared that she had gone out at 10:20 to find absolutely nothing there. The Reverend Dingle found himself in the middle of the mess with phone calls to the Post Office and the publishing company. Father Dingle hated to be in the middle of a mess. Then the altar linens had disappeared and been the cause of an hours long search only to be found sitting nicely folded on a church pew, fouled with the print of a small hand that looked as though it had been dipped in ash. This had nearly caused a fistfight among the ladies of the altar guild. Oh dear! That had required some sorting. It made Father Dingle’s head hurt just thinking about it. And the copy machine had broken down in a spectacular manner. Margie had stepped out to the restroom while the bulletins were printing and returned to find the printer choking on a paper jam. Before the incident was over the office was filled with the smell of burning wires and the church was in need of a new printer.
Finally, one chilly Sunday morning, as the parishioners had filed past the somber marble angel guarding the tomb of the Reverend Barnabus Fletcher Cook, the first pastor of Whistlestop, they’d noticed that it was sporting devil horns, a pair of Ray Bans, and a Hitler mustache, all of which had apparently been super glued on. The constable had been called and all of the youth questioned, to their immense and haughty indignation, and to the dismay of Father Dingle who couldn’t imagine any of their teenagers at the center of such nonsense. All of these things were awful, but they were just precursors to the real show.
Father Dingle was now contemplating the most recent passage in this sordid history from the comfort of his old leather armchair. He had put on his old soft flannel pajamas, his robe and slippers. His cat, Cedric, was on his lap, slowly softening Father Dingle’s belly with his claws. Father Dingle absently rubbed Cedric’s ears. He needed the pretense of routine. He did not have a book in his hand because he couldn’t take this simulation of normalcy quite that far. Not tonight. Because tonight, Father Dingle was afraid. He’d been more than equal to ignoring the unease that had possessed him over the previous months. He was a master of ignoring disquiet and apprehension. This was different. Fear had settled on him like a heavy blanket, pushing against his chest, forcing him to choke down his blackberry brandy through his constricted throat. He felt smothered and had to remind himself to push his breath in and out. He had tried praying to the God he’d known before today, but found that his agitated brain had long since quit supporting his tongue. And now that he knew what he knew? It was all he could do to swallow the alcohol.
He tried, he really tried, to nudge his thoughts away from the events of the day. But his brain assaulted him again; it needed one more run at the problem. A door had been opened to something incomprehensible and his brain wanted desperately to turn that something over, to inspect it, to pull it apart and put it back together. Then, his brain assured him, it would close that door and tiptoe quietly away and curl up in the fetal position, somewhere safe.
Another sip of brandy and his brain swung back onto the circular track of the day’s events. The morning hadn’t got off to a great start. He’d come in a little late – truth be told with a brandy headache. Fine. He had to admit that. But he’d been sober, if a little worse for the wear that morning. He would swear that on a stack of Bibles. No. When he had arrived, he was fully in command of his faculties.
He’d gone round to the side door, not sneaking really, but he had to admit that he had hoped no one would note the time. And then Margie rounded the corner, nearly knocking him to the ground. Her red hair was falling around her face. Her usually pallid complexion was red and splotchy.
She was gasping out, “You’re not going to believe it. You’re not going to believe what they did!”
Father Dingle was taken aback. “Who? Did what now?”
“I don’t know! No one knows!” Margie burst into tears.
She led him into the church and took him to the nursery door.
In thick green paint, a huge and crudely drawn sea serpent, fangs dripping spots of blood red paint, mouth open, was hovering over the lighthearted mural of Noah’s ark, massive mouth ready to snap off Noah’s head. The serpent coiled around the ark, dwarfing it. Perhaps this was mere vandalism. He’d seen vandalism before, though. Normally, it was merely anger and angst bubbling to the surface of the teenage brain, a vessel too weak to contain it. This wasn’t like that. The art was primitive but it had a raw power. The serpent’s eye was on Noah but it seemed to include Father Dingle in its malevolent, twinkling gaze as well.
Margie left him staring keenly at the sea serpent while she went to call the constable. He was so absorbed that when Alan Cunningham came up behind him and touched his arm he almost went right through the ceiling.
“Why would you sneak up on a man like that, Alan?” he yelped.
Alan tugged on his arm and darted away, “The basement! Come quick!”
When he rounded the corner behind Alan, wisps of sinuous green smoke were easing themselves up the basement staircase and round the rails like serpents. They seemed to be emanating from the choir room.
“We’ve got to save the Christmas music!” Alan was gone…leaping down the stairs, taking them two at a time.
“Alan! Stop!” Father Dingle cried after him in vain. That’s when the fear had first hit him in the chest.
Father Dingle’s fear had wrapped around itself like a snake eating its own tail. He was afraid of what he would find in the basement. He was also afraid of the disgrace of neglecting pastoral duty. The thought of the young and lovely Margie seeing him run like a frightened mouse from the basement flitted across his brain and propelled him through the terror to the bottom of the stairs. Then he realized that Alan had already made the turn into the choir room.
Father Dingle paused, his feet felt like lead. There was something emanating from the choir room, invisible but more unyielding than smoke, a something that pushed him away like an invisible hand. He somehow made the turn into the choir room.
“Alan! Forget the music!” he called.
But Alan had already forgotten the music. He was standing mesmerized in the center of the room, looking towards the open supply closet. A steady stream of green mud with blood red streaks was bubbling up from its floor, as though from a witch’s cauldron, and creeping out onto the floor. Father Dingle’s first thought had been that there had been some sort of geothermal event. Was the church crumbling into the earth’s core?
His second thought was that he had inadvertently purchased the LSD variety of frozen waffles because as he lurched forward to rescue Alan, he too became mesmerized. Out of the bubbling cauldron of red and green mud, improbably large bubbles were forming. As they floated past, they caught on various objects and burst, releasing swirls of green smoke that fell to the floor and slithered away and up the stairs. But that wasn’t the thing that had kept Father Dingle’s feet planted. It was the enormous green globule that was currently forming on the lip of the now simmering supply closet. Unlike the more translucent smoke-filled bubbles, this globe was thick and gelatinous. It was oily and oozing.
Father Dingle meant to move forward, to grab Alan’s shoulder and run, but before he could make contact, the dreadful egg swelled up and popped!
It shot out tracers of slime like a goopy green firework. Some of it splashed up and landed on the men. As he wiped specks of slime from his face, Father Dingle saw it. A foot-long, green creature, with wings – some awful, miniature admixture of human and reptile, the word imp came to mind – had been hatched out of the egg. Its wings were bat-like and streaked with crimson red. It stood blinking at edge of the closet, shivering and spitting, flinging slime around the room. It shook its wings to dry them and then let out a piercing shriek and flew up and around the choir room, skimming neatly over their heads.
“Alan!” yelled Father Dingle, “We have to get out of here!”
Alan was looking blankly at Father Dingle. A splatter of green fell from his hair. Father Dingle had no choice. He slapped Alan. Hard.
“Hey! Ow!” Alan snapped out of his stupor, eyes wide.
“Let’s go!” Father Dingle yelled.
Alan’s eyes slid back towards the music cabinet for one last glance, like Lot’s wife at Sodom.
“Bugger the Christmas music Alan! Let’s go!” Father Dingle bellowed. The two men ran for the door, sliding on green slime and choking on the snake-like wraiths of smoke that squirmed around them. As Father Dingle turned back to close and lock the door to the choir room, all that he could think to do under the circumstances, he noticed three new green eggs swelling from the bottom of the supply closet.
He hadn’t handled things well from that point on. He had to admit it. None of them had. But who could be prepared for known reality to go careening out of orbit? It ought to have felt like a bad dream. But it didn’t. The whole thing had a three-dimensional sharpness and clarity. Even now with his pajamas on, sipping brandy with Cedric on his lap. He’d been hoping that remembering it here, in relative safety would take some of the edge off. He wanted to be able to believe that it wasn’t real. That he’d been wrong. But that wasn’t possible. Not yet. He took a few more sips of brandy.
The three of them should have immediately left the grounds, reported it he supposed. Would anyone have believed them? And pray tell…to whom does one report imps? Or demons, as he now suspected. He suspected, upon reflection, that a portal to Hell had somehow been opened in the church basement. How and by whom were questions beyond his ken.
But they hadn’t run for help. For a few moments the three of them had stood outside the windows of the basement choir room looking in, trying to wrap their minds around the bizarre scene. The crimson and green mud had lapped out and reached the first set of choir risers, by now seven of the little green creatures were zipping around the room, screeching like pterodactyls. They were eating everything they could find. One of them was tearing through a choir robe and swallowing the shreds. One was crunching through the leather and paper of a music folder. One was gnawing through one of the legs of the practice piano. One had found the box of Christmas music. It had eaten almost all the cardboard and had frantically started shoveling down the cantatas, chewing them with obvious fervor. After a few seconds, it belched a shower of confetti and started again.
Father Dingle watched as one of the creatures tried to swallow what appeared to be the G3 hand bell, a larger lower octave bell. Two of the imp’s companions were working on the higher octaves with more success. The creature appeared to be trying to unhinge its jaw in an attempt to swallow the enormous bell. One of the other imps noticed its distress and shot out a bony hand. It pulled its companion’s jaw down and with a clang the entire hand bell disappeared.
“There goes the G3,” Alan said miserably. He was also the director of the hand bell choir.
Yes in retrospect, Father Dingle had to admit that standing around the window watching all Hell break loose in the church basement might not have been the best response to the situation.
The demons had been in a perfect frenzy of eating. They were shrieking and splashing in the red and green mud, fighting over the gray sweater that Edna Brooks always left draped over her chair, until one of them snatched it up and vacuumed it into his wide mouth, starting with one of the sleeves. The piano was listing badly to one side and the piano bench had been reduced to mostly splinters. The cubby where the folders were kept had been reduced to half its size. They’d all gasped when one of the monsters began chewing through a metal music stand. Alan’s score had been on it. He gave a little cry of anguish as it too became confetti.
What to do? What to do? The refrain had been running through Father Dingle’s brain the whole time. What to do? But there was no frame of reference. He didn’t even know what had happened, much less how to stop it. He could only look on in horror. Surely a priest should be able to do something about the situation but Father Dingle didn’t know what. He had never been a brave man and no heroic actions came to mind. In fact, no actions of any kind came to mind. He hadn’t even thought to run. He’d been cowardly and stupid.
One of the imps had looked up, straight at the window. It caught Father Dingle’s eye with its own. It was a malevolent and twinkling eye, just like the eye of the sea serpent on the walls of the nursery upstairs. With a shriek it flung itself at the window. Glass splintered. Father Dingle had just enough time to throw himself on Margie and push her to the ground before the creature burst through the window and went rocketing past them. Alan flung himself to the ground as well. They heard a chattering, shouting noise above their heads and more glass splintering and then all of the imps were free of the church, some flying to the trees and some hopping and clambering among the gravestones, flicking out their tongues and spitting. Father Dingle noticed for the first time how dark the sky had become, ragged and black through the trees. A few drops of rain pelted down and the creatures shrieked, whether with excitement or displeasure Father Dingle could not tell. They gathered in the large twisted maple in the center of the graveyard, a shrieking knot of bat wings.
Father Dingle lifted his head and once again caught the eye of one of the creatures. It gibbered and pointed at him, then put its hands on its hips squealing and bouncing. It flung down a shower of acorns and spewed out a small fountain of green spit. He looked down again, and then carefully looked up out of the corner of his eye. His submissive posture seemed to mollify it. The rain began to come down more seriously. But Father Dingle found that if he moved more than an inch or two, one or more of the little demons turned a baleful eye in his direction and began spitting and throwing things.
“Keep still!” he hissed to Margie and Alan.
His bald head was getting wet and it occurred to him that his glasses would soon be almost useless in the rain. He had no idea how they would escape, but moving now was out of the question. Perhaps they could wait the creatures out.
“We have to get out of here!” Alan hissed back. “I can’t stay here any longer. We have to get out of here!”
Alan’s voice was trembling. Father Dingle glanced at him through the mud, over the top of his foggy glasses. Alan was pale and wide eyed. He was going to crack.
“Hush!” Margie whispered back, urgently. “Be still like Father Dingle says.”
“We can’t just stay here forever. We can’t!” Alan whispered, his voice crackling and warbling. Suddenly he shrieked, “Somebody has to do something.”
Then out of the corner of his eye, Father Dingle saw Alan raise himself up to his knees. He was shaking his fist. He picked up a rock.
“No! Alan!” Father Dingle hissed.
Margie reached over to tug at his pant leg, “Alan! Stop!”
But Alan’s fear had made him very, very angry. “Get out of here you little monsters!” he called out. “Go back to Hell!”
Alan threw the rock. It hit the smallest imp squarely in the back of the head. The imp slowly turned and eyed Alan. Alan remained on his knees, locked in a stare down with the creature in the pouring rain. The other imps stopped their noise and they all turned to look at the three humans lying on the quickly dampening earth.
In a trembling voice, Alan yelled, “I said go back to Hell!”
Father Dingle couldn’t endorse such behavior, but he had to admire it.
The imp who’d been hit hunched forward on a gnarled tree branch, looking intensely at Alan. It turned its head to one side, like a dog who’s trying to make out whether you have a treat in mind or a trip to the vet, and it made a chuckling noise. The other imps chuckled with it. For a few seconds they chuckled and clucked like overwrought hens. Then with a shake of its head the small imp flew down and landed in front of Alan, who was still on his knees. Alan gazed down at it. From his vantage point, Father Dingle thought Alan looked like teacher getting down on his knees to talk to a small and ugly child. The imp turned its head this way and that, clearly thinking. Then it reached out its bony fingers, stroking Alan’s chin and his neck, all the while peering into his eyes. It clicked its tongue, still wagging its oversized head from side to side, considering. Finally it rubbed the back of its head where Alan had pelted it with a rock.
Suddenly, it leapt on Alan’s neck, biting hard and deep. One bite. It lingered at Alan’s neck for a few seconds, tracing the bite mark almost tenderly with its bony claw like fingernail, then flew back to its companions.
Alan remained on his knees for a few seconds, like a tree after the felling cut. Father Dingle could see the bite mark on Alan’s neck from where he cowered on the ground. It was a perfect circle of teeth marks…for an instant. Then the blood began to ooze from the wound, marring its circular perfection, welling up into large beads then dripping down Alan’s neck in a stream of crimson. Alan toppled, stiff as a log and then he was still. The whole swarm of imps had gathered and flown off like a dark cloud up through the trees and into the tattered sky.
Father Dingle took a few more sips of brandy. He swirled the liquid in his glass and shrugged. He downed it. More images swam up from the brown liquid. Alan lying pale and motionless, barely breathing. The weight of Alan’s head in his hand as he tried to keep it up and out of the mud and water. His hand covered in Alan’s blood. Father Dingle came back to the present, rubbing his hand compulsively against his belly as if to remove the stain. Cedric, displeased at the disturbance, bit his hand, released a pinpoint of Father Dingle’s own blood and then licked it off.
Father Dingle closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on the scratchy tongue of the cat, but he was back in the graveyard; there was Margie’s retreating back as she ran through the tombstones, fiery red hair against the slender blue coat to meet the constable and the ambulance and direct them to Alan. She disappeared into the fog of his rain smeared glasses.
Father Dingle had not moved. He had remained kneeling on the ground holding Alan, mud oozing through his pant leg and creeping into his shoes. He did not know whether he held a man or a corpse. He felt that he could not breathe, but his body remained alive. Then realized he was breathing not air but fear. Fear filled his lungs. Fear coursed through his veins. It filled his belly. It slid downwards and his intestines cramped with it. Every crevice of his body and soul, every crack, every wrinkle, every cavity was full of fear.
The fear that the demons had unleashed was a magnet for every other fear he had ever felt, and Father Dingle had always been afraid. This new fear devoured his fear of the dark and expanded. It devoured his fear that he would lose his job. It sucked up his fear of confrontation. His fear of hunger. His fear of sex. His fear of loneliness and his fear of intimacy.
Now enormous, the Fear loomed over him. And he recognized it. This was the god he had attempted to pacify all his life. His religion was not an invitation to the sacred and mysterious. His religion was an attempt to keep those things at bay. Hell had broken through his illusions with a battering ram…and a message. All his rituals and liturgies, all his attempts to be good had been pointless, because Hell found a way in anyway. He’d been right to be afraid. The universe was and always had been oblivious to his magician’s chants and hymns.
This knowledge broke him. For a time, he could no longer summon the existential vigor to trouble himself. His strength ebbed and he relaxed himself into the mind of Fear. His soul, drowned in terror, was numb. Submission to Fear had released him from its feeling. His god had at last given him the religious ecstasy he had so long been denied.
Constable Henry had dropped Father Dingle at home and here he was now…in his pajama pants drinking brandy. He’d locked the doors and windows and closed all the drapes. It wasn’t until then that the numbness released him and his sense of self-preservation and with it his terror, returned. No one had believed them, of course. Alan had been removed to the hospital, still unresponsive. The search was on for the assailants who had attacked them. Probably with a smoke bomb said the Fire Chief and the Constable, searching for a reasonable explanation for the damage and injury. But now Father Dingle knew. The universe did not have to wait to sneak in through an unlocked window. It did not have a rule book. The universe could simply unleash Hell.
Still, he tried. He tried to think of some reason this had happened. He pondered how. He pondered why. He pondered who. Most of all he pondered whether he was somehow to blame. It was his church after all. Allowing a door to Hell to be opened in its basement had to fall under his responsibility. His brain had circled the track until it was exhausted. Now it was inching back toward its default position. He could make no sense of the thing. Odds were he wasn’t suddenly going to become a brave or useful man. He found it hard to repent of his fears when it seemed that all along fear had been the most appropriate response to a universe that was at its mercy.
After all, what could be done? He had no magic tricks or seminary tidbits to close the portal to Hell. Perhaps it had closed itself. Perhaps it hadn’t. No one had believed his story, except Margie, and what exactly could a roundish, balding, middle aged pastor and twenty-something part time church secretary do to fight the powers of Hell? Not one thing he could think of. Not one thing.
In spite of all his efforts, in spite of all his religious supplications to the infinite to leave him alone, the mysterious universe had broken through. It wasn’t a good thing – as he had suspected all along. What could he do? He was at the mercy of powers beyond his control. He suddenly relaxed back into the infinite Fear. There was nothing he could do. He would simply go back to hoping that the universal mystery would leave him alone. What were the odds of such a thing happening again? He would hope the imps had flown into the mountains (or even another village, as long as it wasn’t his own). Hope that somehow Alan would be okay in the morning. Hope that the church could be put to rights again and that no more portals to Hell would open in the church basement. It was a poor tired hope. But it was all he had.
He was exhausted. The brandy was finally doing its work. He stood up. He would get Cedric his tuna, he would go to bed and lock his door and pull up the blankets and he would sleep as long as ever he could. Yes indeed. Certainly he had a good excuse for calling in sick for a few days. The universe could sort its own damned self out. Father Dingle was done trying to manipulate it. He would hide from it the best he could.
He started to walk to the kitchen when the phone rang. It jangled his nerves. It rang again. That was twice. Another loud, jarring brrrrrrng. Two more rings and it would stop. Whoever it was would think he was in bed. Every nerve in his body quivered. The phone itself might have been a small bat winged demon it unnerved him so. It battered his fragile new wall of exhaustion and serene despair.
The final ring shook him into action beyond his control. His hand shot out, quivering and he heard himself answer the phone.
“Hello?” he trembled into the phone.
“Father Dingle! It’s Margie,” the phone said to him. He removed the phone from his ear and looked at it with distaste.
“Father Dingle, are you there?” she was speaking loudly and he could still hear her.
He put the phone back to his ear.
“Yes,” he said uncertainly.
“What are we going to do? Samantha, my roommate saw one! On her way home, she saw it in the park! They’ll have to believe us now Father! We have to…” Margie’s voice snapped off as Father Dingle clicked the phone gently back into place.
“Come, Cedric,” he said, his voice quivering. He almost fell over the cat, which was rubbing its face on his leg in anxious anticipation of tuna. But he forced his trembling feet to shuffle toward the kitchen, “It’s time for tuna. And then off to bed. If there’s one thing I’ve learned today Cedric, it’s that the only proper response to this universe is fear. And if we swallow enough fear and brandy, we won’t feel a thing.”
Monday sucked. Kyle was late with the files I'd ordered which put me late for my meeting with Henderson which made me miss lunch which upset my stomach which caused me to spew all over Kolbinskie's shoes as he passed by my cube which made him order me to go home early. "Big meeting with Holpatrick and Ferguson tomorrow. Get some rest, Julia," and when I went outside to my car it was gone. Stolen.
I waited forty-five minutes in the coffee shop for an officer to fill out a report. My cell was in the car and my husband ignored the forty calls I made to his cell from the payphone at the coffee shop--he never answered unknown numbers--so I had to catch a cab home. Twenty-one dollars and fifty-cents plus tip. It was dark when I finally walked up the driveway. In the garage sat Dan's BMW--he was always forgetting to close the garage door--and my Volvo wagon sat in the drive. Had the police already recovered it? Weird.
As I walked toward the front steps I fished the house keys out of my purse. Something caught my eye as I passed by the window. I took two steps back and stared. There was a woman in my kitchen and she was washing the dishes. What the hell?
I walked closer to the window for a better look. Not only was she washing dishes she was wearing one of my sweaters. The ugly brown and gray one my mother-in-law gave me before she died. I hated that thing, never wore it. My husband walked in from the den, marched right up to this stranger and wrapped his arms around her, hugging her from behind, hands on her tummy, his lips caressing her neck. I was floored. Stunned. At a loss. My husband was having an affair. Right in our house. No wonder he hadn't answered his cell.
I watched, helpless as they held each other for what seemed like forever. I couldn't move. I was taken aback. And then this woman turned around and kissed my husband square on the mouth, suds dripping from her yellow vinyl gloves and running down his back as they embraced. "Daniel, no--" I gasped. "Please--" My husband of fifteen years with another woman. A woman who was washing his dishes? Is that what turned him on?
They pulled apart and immediately I recognized her. Shoulder length strawberry blonde hair, pointed nose, soft blue eyes, tiny scar on her chin from when she fell off a swing in kindergarten. This was no other woman. This was some other me. An exact duplicate. Right down to the touch of gray at my temples that hair color never seems to cover up completely. But how? Had a doppelgänger taken my place, caused my husband to forget I was at work, that I hated ugly brown and gray sweaters? I never wore gloves when I washed the dishes. Hell, I never even washed the dishes.
"Dinner'll be right up, Danny Boy," she told him as they pulled apart. "Okay, Jules, I'm just gonna finish that bill for the Parker's." He patted my--I mean her--rear before he left the room.
Danny Boy? Jules? Daniel hadn't called me Jules since our second date and never again once I informed him how much I disliked it. This was all a bad dream. Had to be. I must have slipped in the vomit I'd spewed all over Kolbinskie's shoes earlier, hit my head on a file cabinet and was probably in a coma right this very moment, Dan in a sobbing heap in the chair beside my bed, weeping like a hung-over cheerleader the day after prom.
"Jules" snapped off the gloves, pulled something out of the oven--a soufflé?--and carried it out into the dining room. A homemade pie lay cooling on a rack on the counter, its top neatly criss-crossed with strips of dough; two Cornish hens sat patiently next to it. Her apron was nauseatingly embroidered with yellow sunflowers. Who the hell did she think I was, Rachel Ray?
Okay, something was definitely not right. This other me may have had my haircut, my nose, my build, but she definitely didn't have my sense of style. Wearing my husband's dead mother's sweater, washing dishes, fixing extravagant meals, submissively allowing my husband to smack her on the ass--didn't she know how to use the phone to call a pizza or what paper plates were for or how to command her own personal space? This hussy was getting to be too much. She walked back in and pulled a bottle of wine from the fridge. My mind was made up. I was going to barge in there, smack her with the cast iron skillet hanging above the stove--hey, I finally found a good use for the thing!--and shove her into the trash compactor. Stealing my husband was one thing, but to spoil him at the same time? Oh, no no no. This would not do. I'd put too much time into this relationship to let this Suzy Homemaker replicant take over now.
I could do this--sneak in, whack her on the head, dispose of the body. How hard could it be? This other me had nothing on the real me. Three mornings a week at the gym for spinning class had kept me lean, strong and firm even into my forties. I was ready, pumped up, I still had the front door key in my hand, I was all set to charge--when a bawling, screaming rug rat, barely able to walk, came into the kitchen and latched onto "Danny Boy's" new wife's leg.
"Mama!" it gleefully hollered through a face full of snot.
That bitch. Not only had she done the Stepford wife thing, she'd done me one better and given him a kid.
Okay, now it was war.
I spent the next few days in a Holiday Inn breakfasting at Starbucks and watching reruns of Law and Order trying to make sense out of what had happened. But I couldn't make sense out of any of it no matter how hard I tried. This was too weird, too scary, too strange. I drove to work in the Volvo--I had the keys, it was sitting right there n the driveway, it was in my name after all--spent even more time at the gym and ate dinner alone. It was killing my Visa but what choice did I have?
My cell wasn't to be found in the car, Jules must've had it with her. After a week I gathered up the courage and called it. "She" answered.
"You bitch. What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"What?" I said, taken by surprise. That was going to be my line.
"Keep the car, I don't care. Just stay the hell away from my family." I didn’t recognize my own voice. Is that what I really sounded like--all nasally and high-pitched?
"It was my family first. You're the one who needs to get lost. I want my husband back."
"Well, he doesn't want you anymore. He appreciates all I do for him. Cooking, cleaning the house--"
"We have a maid."
"I fired her. I do it all now--cooking, cleaning, running errands, filling out paperwork for his business and I make sure that I'm never too tired to screw his brains out four times a week."
"Hey! That's not fair! I work a lot of hours and there's--"
"There's always the gym, isn't there? You spend more time with the stair machine than you do at home with your own husband. You're sad and pathetically self-centered." She was so right I was about to cry. "I keep Danny happy now. Get over it." She was about to hang up on me but I stopped her.
"How did this happen to us?"
"What do you mean?"
"What happened to make us two now instead of one?" She was quiet now, mulling this over.
"I--I don't know. I've thought about it but can't come up with a reason. Sometimes things happen beyond our control or understanding. Some things happen for the best."
"How can this be for the best?"
"Well, you can live your life the way you always wanted now. Work at the office as much you want, take that vacation in Italy that Dan would never do. And me, well, I can stay at home and raise Marianna, maybe have more kids. Danny always wanted a boy as well as a girl."
"What about the house? I can't live at a hotel the rest of my life!”
"Get an apartment or--I know! A condo on the beach! You always wanted that."
"You have an answer for everything, don't you?"
"Just trying to be helpful."
"You can help by giving me my life back!" I was in tears now. How could she be so callous, so calm? "I want my life back, dammit! I want my husband, my house. How could you do this to me?"
There was no answer except for the click on the other end.
I could've taken her advice. I could've left well enough alone. But I just couldn’t bring myself to give up just yet. I wanted my old life back. I wanted my house, my bed, my pajamas, my maid, my Daniel. But mostly I wanted that bitch, Jules, to suffer as I had. Here's a fun fact you should know about me: I was the first person in my family to be diagnosed with mental illness. Manic depression. Extreme feelings of guilt. Could that have evolved over into the years into a split-personality which had actually split me physically as well? Had another and separate persona gone off in search of a better life and usurped mine? Here's another fact: One year into our marriage I had an affair with a co-worker that my husband had never found about. Now he would.
I looked up the number for the florist, punching in the numbers with quick stabbing motions.
#"Are you trying to wreck our marriage?"
"My marriage. Remember? I was there first. And I'm the one trying to salvage it."
"Well the flowers from Robert didn't work. I'd already told Danny about your little indiscretion. He took it very well. Did you know he confessed to sleeping with Marcy while you were in Denver last year?"
"What! That son of a--wait a minute, who's Marcy?"
"Waitress at Hooters. Not anyone we know."
"You kicked him to the curb I hope!"
"I forgave him like any good wife would. Then I took full blame for it all. 'It was all my fault,' I told him. 'And I'll never give you reason to stray again, honey.'"
"You're lying. You're making this up to make me hate Daniel so I won't fight for him anymore."
"Believe whatever you want. But remember, I'm here and you're not."
I hate her I hate her I hate her I hate her I hate her I hate her I hate her I hate her...
"I love your hair"
"Well if you love it so much why don't you marry it?"
"I'd marry you any day, baby. What's your name?"
"Go screw yourself."
"Is that Ms. or Mrs?"
"Look. I only came in here for a drink. So get the hell away from me."
"C'mon, baby. Don't talk that way. Let me buy you a drink."
"The lady said for you to get the hell away from her. You should take that advice."
"Who the hell are you?"
"I'm the guy who's gonna punch your lights out in about three seconds."
"Okay, okay. Jeez..."
"Uh, thanks, but I really don't need your help."
"You don't remember me do you?"
"Mark. Mark Kearney. From high school."
"Ohmigod! I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you."
"Hey, that's okay. I was over in that booth over there and was trying to get up the nerve to talk to you when I saw Mr. Suave bugging you and took that as a sign."
"Well, I'm glad you did. Really."
"So what have you been up to since high school?"
"Um, you know. This and that. Working."
"Someone told me you got married."
"Yeah. Still am. A ring and everything."
"Oh, okay. Well, would it be out of line for me to ask for your number?"
"Okay, okay. I'm sorry. Forget it. I didn't mean to put you on the spot. It was great seeing you. Really. I'll see you around."
The run in with Mark left me dazed, confused. Horny. Yeah, I could've taken him back to my room at the Holiday Inn and screwed him senseless but it just wouldn't have felt right. I wanted Daniel. And I wanted him bad. It'd been over a week and if Jules could have sex with my husband then why couldn't I? All it would take on my part was a little bit of planning and a little bit of seduction.
And the secret to seduction is surprise.
"Jules! What are you doing here?"
I grimaced at the "Jules" but somehow managed to give him my best come hither look. He stood behind his desk, there were little stacks of papers all over it, leaning precariously.
"I wanted to surprise you. Look, I bought a new outfit." I dropped my coat. Underneath I was wearing nothing but a hundred and twenty dollars of black shear and lace (on sale.) "Cancel your appointments; you're having lunch on me this afternoon." I placed a can of pear slices on his desk and began to open them with the can opener I had tucked into my garter. Dammit! It wasn't working, I could never work them damn things, so I gave up halfway, tossed my hair back and sashayed towards him around the desk.
"But the Harbor account is pending! I don't have the time!"
"Then we'll just have to make time, won't we?" I shoved a stack of papers out of the way, scooted my ass onto his desk, grabbed him by the tie and pulled him in close, wrapping one leg around him while doing so. Yeah, I felt slutty but what the hell.
"What about the baby?"
"Mary Anne? I got a sitter."
"No," he patted my stomach tenderly even--gross--fatherly. "The new one."
Stunned, I stared at him as if I was a slack jawed Venus de Milo in a hundred and twenty dollars of black shear and lace (on sale, thank god.) My ass was suddenly very wet and cold on his desk--I must have knocked over that half-opened can of pears. Before I could say or do anything the door opened.
"Hey, Danny! Ready for lu--" I could feel his co-workers eyes on my nearly naked, embarrassed and goosebump covered self. My ass was sticking to the desk blotter from all the pear juice.
And so I learned that the secret to seduction wasn't surprise. It was timing.
I spent the next week in my hotel room, alone. I called in sick to work. Kolbinskie was torqued but I didn't care. The curtains stayed drawn, the light stayed off, my head stayed under the covers. Even the television didn't come on.
What did I care? My life was going on without me, unconcerned to my wants and needs. The phone rang. I pulled the cord out of the wall and tried to cry myself to sleep but failed at even that.
The next Monday morning there was a knock upon my door.
"Hey, it's me. Jules. Open up."
"I've been calling you at work but they said you haven't been there."
"I took some time off to clear my head. How'd you find me?"
"I checked my credit card online."
"I changed the password."
"Yeah, 'jewel4dan,' real cute."
"I just wanted to call you and tell you we were moving to Colorado next week. Dan got a promotion."
"Why didn't you tell me you were pregnant?"
"Would it have mattered?"
"Boy or girl?"
"Boy, I think. Danny hopes so. I'll find out for sure when it pops out in about five few months."
"Five months? But Dan and I have only been apart for a few weeks!"
"You don't have to explain biology to me."
"That should have been me. I should be having Dan's baby."
"You know that would never work. Besides, you were on birth control. Can you really see yourself raising a child while trying to have the career you've worked so hard for all these years?"
"So is this how it happened? The decision of whether or not to raise a child or not is what caused all this? Made another me? Is this what ruined my life? Did I bring all this down on myself?"
"It only ruins your life if you let it. And you know there is another possibility."
"Maybe I'm not the other you--perhaps you're the other me."
Kolbinkskie didn't fire me; I caught up on the Ferguson account; I went shopping for a place to live. An apartment near the museum--not a condo on the beach.
No one at work ever asked about my husband, I never had to say a word. The spinning classes and stair machine at the gym turned into long walks through the historic district with a German Shepherd I rescued from the Humane Society. I made new friends and went dancing with them on the weekends.
One night, at a bar watching a local band play, I saw Mark talking with a friend. He saw me and begun walking my way. Instinctively, I glanced down at the ring on my finger.
It wasn't there. Perhaps it never had been.
Copyright 2015 Roy Peak
Roy Peak has played electric bass in more bands than he cares to remember for more years than he can remember. He wrote the theme song for the Utica, New York radio show "Hey You Kids, Get Off My Lawn" on WPNR-FM. His solo debut album, All Is Well, has been called "Loud, cacophonous, and beautiful by a truly unique artist." His short fiction has been published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and he writes music reviews for the King Tut Vintage Album Museum of Jacksonville.
THE LAST TRAIN OUT
By Julie Carpenter
The train station was on the very outskirts of Hell. There was only one train coming in, Old Number 13, always coming in, never leaving. It was pulled by an ancient steam engine, and it was no match for most of the Hellscape, so it heaved and dragged itself to the outer edges of Hell and belched out its payload of souls onto the dilapidated platform. The train tracks ran into Hell Station through two steep, red, rocky banks, bubbling with blood red lava that seemed to come from nowhere and go nowhere, upon which small swarms of crimson demons clambered and scurried, switching their forked tails and brandishing pitchforks. They spat out small clouds of green poison, though it was mostly for show. It was their razor sharp teeth that kept the hillsides littered with bones. Their job was to keep the tracks clear to make sure the train could bring its payload of souls in from the Upper World and to make sure that no soul ever escaped back through the banks and tunnels that led back. None ever did.
The train station was located in Metaphorical Hell, Expected Hell, the one marketed in the Upper World. True Hell, the Indescribable Hell, was further in and deeper down. True Hell is hard to describe because, in the end, there’s not much to it.
If you looked at all of Hell from the top, the very center was a sink hole, a huge black cavity with diameter enough for millions and millions of souls to fling themselves from the edges at once. Eventually, so we were told, the huge hole became smaller and smaller like a funnel. It was supposed that if you could make it to the very, very bottom you would find…nothing. Perhaps become nothing.
A soul standing on the edge would see rocks shaped like teeth and sharp edges and carved out pools of sliding acid that eventually caved in and rushed to the bottom. From one side a gushing crimson Lava Fall from the Lake of Fire tumbled down into the gaping hole until it could no longer be seen and on the other side the invisible, chill waters of the River Nepenthe rushed to their doom. As a soul traveled to the bottom it was chewed up and burned and then doused with the waters of forgetfulness. Even the nastiest of the demons avoided True Hell. No one knew what, if anything, was left of a soul after it had made it to the bottom or if that was even possible. Perversely, trying to reach the bottom of Hell was an act of Faith. Sometimes at the edge of this gaping hole, soul fragments drifted past, moaning and carrying on. These were the remains of souls that had been torn apart on their way down and spit back out by the whirlwinds that emanated from the center. These fragments of souls managed to convey only gibberish.
There were a few souls whose goal had always been the annihilation of True Hell. Their need to become nothing was pressing. They got off the train, felt the magnetic pull of the center and flung themselves off the cliff edge with no hesitation. Most of the newcomers didn’t get very far from the train station at first. When they eventually did move on, it was to some form of torture they found attractive. People wanted something familiar, even in Hell (or maybe especially in Hell). Those who were loners in the Upper World found themselves in the Craggy Mountains of the west battling for food and territory with only demonic rams for company and the great birds of prey that picked over the limbs and bones of lost souls. The type of people who always got into fights in bars or the kind of people who always demanded to see a manager jumped into the Lake of Fire and were tormented by great red demons who constantly pushed their heads under the flaming waves. Those who were cynical and hopeless in the Upper World ended up in the Pits of Despair, fighting for eternity to avoid being sucked down into the tar or giving up and being sucked down only to bubble back to the top of the pits to start the process again.
Close to the station, the least onerous part of Hell to my way of thinking, were a few dank, ragged trees and aging and dilapidated apartment buildings, sulfurous, smoky, and unpleasantly appointed. (The apartment I ended up in had a hideous green couch covered with large orange flowers and it was inhabited by a small cat-like demon that barfed everywhere constantly. The cat demon, named Dennis, came with the place. I assume it was part of the punishment. Most apartments were inhabited by small animal demons of some sort.) The gray buildings were sooty and edged in black because smoke storms rolled in from the Lake of Fire quite frequently. Tattered, smoke-ruined curtains fluttered like bats from the windows.
Hell was managed by a guy named Brian, who always wore a cardigan with patches on the elbows and a matching bow tie. One of his jobs was to supervise the influx of souls. He occasionally walked around the station, introducing himself and greeting the newcomers, making sure they understood the nature of True Hell, giving directions to those who preferred annihilation, and explaining the dangers to those of us who were uncertain. (There were demons that ordinarily did this job, but, of course, being demons they required extraordinary amounts of supervision. Brian liked to show up at the station for surprise inspections.)
I have to say, for the record, that I never understood exactly how I ended up in Hell in the first place. According to Brian, you have to buy a ticket to get on the train and everyone who goes there goes because they want to. He says you’d be surprised, but most people prefer Hell to Heaven because of how familiar it seems. Not all that the soul does is conscious, even down to buying the ticket for that final destination. I guess I’m not the first person to think it was a screw up though. The biggest group in the complaint lines was religious people who just knew it had been a mistake. (There was even a small group of them living in the garbage dump behind the city who insisted that this was Heaven and we were all mistaken.) But Brian could always pull up the paperwork and it was always there in black and white.
“No mistakes in Hell, that’s our goal,” he always said. Then he always laughed his dry sad little laugh and added, “Only satisfied customers. The best service.”
When I first got there, I was pretty confused, like I said. Everybody’s getting off the train. No one knows what to do, there’s really no one there to tell you anything. The demons that are supposed to be doing this job are usually busy harassing people and stealing luggage when Brian isn’t looking. You have luggage, of course. Everybody brings loads of crap to Hell. The joke is there’s no use for it and no place for it. But everybody’s there on the first day, lugging things off the train, howling because someone stole their useless crap or because they don’t think they belong there in the first place. Fights break out on the platform. It’s just insane. As luck would have it, my stuff was stolen immediately, but I could see that there was no use trying to get it back. A large poisonous looking blue demon and a guy in a suit (who looked like a banker to me) were fighting over it when I turned around, and it had already been pulled open. A pair of my underpants was fluttering down the track and the demon had one of my shoes in its mouth. The banker seemed to be fighting him for a floral skirt and a Michael Kors evening bag.
Fortunately, I happened to arrive while Brian was there on a surprise inspection. He was standing on the platform, shaking hands with the newcomers, assuring people that there was nothing wrong with just hanging out close to the station until they’d decided on their ultimate destination. Plenty of misery right here, he assured everyone. He also told us to pay attention to the entrance questionnaires the ghoul conductors had given us on the train.
In a friendly and efficient tone Brian reminded everyone that, “These forms have to be turned in today or,” here he cleared his throat and pushed up his tortoiseshell glasses, “a demon will be by to…errrr….help you out. True Hell will seem like nothing compared to these blue guys here.”
He pointed at the demon who’d been fighting with the banker over my suitcase. The demon, now with a suited arm hanging from his teeth, took a moment to give a little nod of acknowledgement and a small wave. The banker was loudly wailing that he could no longer hold the clipboard and the pen to fill out his form because his arm was missing. Brian sighed and shook his head.
I followed him along the platform holding the form, since he seemed to be the only person who knew what we were supposed to do. I’ve always been a rules follower and even Hell wasn’t going to change that.
“Uh, please, sir?” I said, “Could you help me? Do we have to declare anything that’s already been eaten by a demon?”
Brian waved me along behind him. “Follow me,” he said. “I have to get back to the office. I’ll explain when I get there. Try and keep up. There are very few signs. The demons who are supposed to be responsible for making them tend to burn them or eat them in the process.” He sighed. “It’s so hard to get good help in this place.”
I trailed along behind him. It was hard to keep up. Throngs of incoming souls pushed against variously colored demons, fallen angels, small dragons and creatures I only later identified as incubi and succubae. I narrowly escaped a demon bite by darting behind an overflowing garbage can filled with human bones and several dead bats and a steaming acidic liquid (demon vomit, I later discovered, they tended to spend the Hellish nights partying) that was burning a hole through the thick, black metal. By the time I reached the office, I’d been spit on by three ghouls, had a burn hole in my skirt and I was missing a shoe. A tiny monkey with a skull head had darted out from under a dilapidated bench and snatched it just as we reached the huge concrete box of a building with the words Administrative Offices, Main Division, Hell in black block letters on the top. But I kept sight of Brian’s gray sweater with the navy elbow patches and somehow managed to stay in the high speed revolving doors for some time until they spit me out in the reception area, all my limbs miraculously (if one can use that word in relation to Hell) intact.
I was so intent on following Brian that I didn’t really notice that I was bypassing the long lines of souls waiting to make complaints. Ignoring the catcalls and globs of spit as something to be expected in Hell, I somehow managed to follow him straight into his gray cube-like office past the window.
“Oh dear!” he said. “There’s a line.” He gave me a nervous smile. He raised a dirty and broken plastic shade and flipped over an OPEN sign.
There, next to the door I had followed him through, was the office window. As far back as the eye could see there were souls. There were souls with missing limbs. One man had his ears and eyes in the wrong spots. There was a woman from whom a fine green smoke was rising. She was weeping. Further from the office there were couples fighting. There was a man in the back swinging an ax in an attempt to move up in line. It stretched back through the huge lobby and out into the street.
“Oh Brian,” I said, for one instant more full of pity for him than myself. I looked around and saw that no one else seemed to be manning the window. “Do you handle this line by yourself? Can’t they get you any help?”
He turned and looked at me, mouth opened in surprise. “I…well…no one’s ever asked me that before.” He looked stunned.
The man in front of the line was holding his head in his hands and his empty neck was spewing blood toward the ceiling. His head now realized that he was being delayed.
“Throw her out here!” his head hissed. Blood leaked from the corners of its lips. “She’s cut line! I’ve been here for three years!”
The sentiment spread quickly throughout the line. There was a shriek and souls pushed against the glass. Howls of despair and anger reached me. Brian and I looked at each other. I had realized what a grave mistake I had made. I would have to return to the back of the line with my paperwork and I would surely be torn into bits before I could make it back to the front to ask questions.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. I moved back towards the door. This day was not improving. But before I could get out of the door, Brian grabbed my arm.
“How would you like a job?” he whispered. He turned to look at the souls pressed against the window. “I have to make all the decisions concerning the complaints, but you could help I think by just making sure the forms are filled out properly in the first place. Most of them haven’t got a clue how to fill out the form and goodness do they get angry when they have to go back to the end of the line. Just make sure that all the sections are filled out in ink. Make sure they check here, here and here, and initial here. Stand here.” He pushed me to one side of the window.
“She’s here to help,” he said to the angry decapitated man in his friendly and efficient tone. “And you’re in no shape to fill out that form yourself sir. Unless you would like to risk putting your head down. The last gentleman who tried that found his head quite famously used as the flaming ball in the Demon’s Cup Fire Ball Tournament. And you will go to the back of the line, I can assure you.”
The man saw the sense in this. “Whatever,” his head said, frowning. His hand tossed the form onto the counter and then wiped blood from the head’s chin. I handed him a Kleenex from the box beside the window and took his form.
Brian turned to me. “There’s a stack of forms on the top of the file cabinet. Most of them will need a new one; they’ve already screwed up the old ones beyond repair.”
And that’s how I managed to get a job at the complaint window in Hell.
It was…Hell really. But at least I knew it was Hell and from the moment I stepped off the train, I’d found that it was best to keep expectations low. So I dealt with it. To be honest, it wasn’t quite as far removed from my former life as I would have thought Hell would be. Perhaps I’d found the punishment that I felt comfortable with.
All day long Brian and I lugged boxes of files and forms around. I filled out form after form, I was cursed and spit on and otherwise abused. There were never enough of the cheap ball point pens. They were stolen, broken, and even eaten. Every two weeks there was a new database to be learned, each worse than the last. Hell’s corporate system was designed more for affliction than efficiency. Even though Brian had been promoted to manager because he was Satan’s cousin, he wasn’t immune from the labyrinthine and torturous corporate rules.
“It’s just the way he works,” he told me. “He sort of can’t help making things worse all the time. We just have to work with what we have.”
Of course, that didn’t keep us from trying to make things more efficient. Brian once attempted to requisition some iPads so that the information the souls were required to provide would be automatically entered into the system. But, of course, the request was denied. Reasonably so, really. The demons would have made short work of them and the souls couldn’t be depended on to be responsible for their own limbs, much less something as fragile as a tablet. Still, Brian was depressed.
At the end of every day, he would glance back at the mountainous stacks of paperwork and say, “Well, it’s a good thing we have eternity to process that stuff.” Then he would wipe his glasses and sigh.
I always patted him on the shoulder. “You’re right Brian. We have eternity. And it will all still be here tomorrow.”
I continually tried to convince him to lock up and come have a cup of cold, lousy coffee at the coffee shop by the station with me before I went home, but I always left him hunched over the keyboard entering data. And I always ended up just going home to feed Dennis, the demon cat, and then clean up after he barfed. And I always drank a warm, lousy beer and then tried to sleep with Dennis curled up on my head and slapping my nose at random times or suddenly running to the end of the bed and biting my feet.
Every morning, if you could call it that, I rose to the howls of Dennis fifteen minutes before I’d set the alarm (no matter what time I had set it.)
“Feed me, oh feed me, oh I am hungry, woe is me! I’m dying! Help me!” he shrieked and howled. This was accompanied by slaps to my head and face. And normally after his meal, he made every effort to barf on my shoe before I headed back to the office in the gloomy morning.
The scarlet darkness of Hell’s night simply morphed into a dense gray day that was almost worse than the nightmare that preceded it. The lurking horrors that hid in the darkness simply became visible, banal and commonplace in the flabby daylight of Hell. The night brought on a primal fear that resulted in a feeling of terrified existential awareness; the morning revelation simply bred a suffocating repulsion. More souls flung themselves into the center pit of Hell in this dreary morning unveiling than at any other time.
Of course, there was a certain dull rhythm to the whole thing. I got up every day with the weight of eternal misery hanging over me, fed the demon cat and trudged down the stairs (the elevator was always broken). I trudged into work, avoiding the vampire bats, the holes full of bubbling mud that had opened up on the streets at night, and the demons sleeping off last night’s revelry in the alleys and on the sidewalks. After a while, it started to feel familiar. The stress of never being able to finish, the constantly angry “customers” at the desk, the perpetually unhappy (though mostly not with me) boss. Sometimes I thought about the pit in the center of Hell, but there was something about the soul that demanded to be kept intact. Sure the job chipped at it around the edges and maybe after an eternity I would slowly become nothing. But in spite of the heavy weight of carrying my soul through this eternity, I could never consider the pit seriously, even though the thought of dissolution sometimes presented itself unbidden in the dull gray morning walk through Hell.
When I got to work, Brian was always there sitting at his desk, efficient and friendly, sorting papers, supervising the demons to the best of his ability and somehow coaxing the nasty tempered database to tell us what we needed to know. I could always predict when he was going to push up his glasses and ruffle his hair because a soul was being particularly unreasonable and I became used to the sighs of despair whenever he was working with new software. His anxiety became mine and I stressed with him over the eternal mountain of work, often staying late and coming in early.
One day, when I came into work, it could have been 10 years or 100 since I’d arrived in Hell, it was hard to tell, Brian was sitting on the old orange vinyl couch in the corner of the office, arms folded across his chest, staring into space. He was holding an envelope in one hand. The linen of the envelope was a beautiful ivory color and it had a broken red seal on it. The lettering on the envelope was in gold. The thing actually smelled like lilies. I could smell it before I even reached him. It looked completely out of place in the drab, musty office.
“Brian?” I asked. “Are you okay? What’s that?”
Brian pointed at the complaint window which had not been opened yet. A woman was standing outside of it, frantically banging a hand against it, a very large hand with a man’s watch. The arm was covered in hair. It was not hers.
“Want me to open up?” I asked.
“Guess you’d better,” he said. “Can we talk about this at lunch?”
“Sure,” I said. “I brought us some sandwiches.”
“We’ll go to the café by the station,” he said. “I guess I can close up for a few.”
I was completely stunned now and curious. “Okay.”
He said nothing else. He carefully checked the envelope to make sure the contents were inside and folded down the seal again and placed it in the office safe. For the first time ever, I caught him occasionally staring into the middle distance instead of typing in data and every time I brought him a complaint, he simply stamped it and said, “Fine.”
He took two phone calls on the red phone in the back office and came out staring into space, mussing his hair with his fingers, and wiping his glasses after each one.
The crowd went wild when he pulled down the shade at lunchtime. The souls were never pleased to see the window closed and Brian hadn’t closed up since I had started working for him. We walked past the line outside and the lost souls began to howl with indignation. Someone threw a dismembered foot at us and someone else belched out a cloud of nasty smelling smoke in our direction. In her frustration, a rather nicely dressed middle aged woman stabbed the man behind her in the eye with a ballpoint pen. One man was busily trying to remove the head of another, presumably to use it as a weapon, and one soul was actually so angry it caught fire. Brian had called in some demons to deal with the inevitable crowd control and they started giving the crowd back what it was giving us.
“Well, at least the line will be a little shorter when we get back,” Brian said with a wry smile as we watched a demon launch a screaming woman through a tall window two stories above us in the open lobby.
At the café, we sat at a table in the corner and he ordered omelets and fries for both of us – these were typically the least noxious thing on the menu, the eggs usually dry, rubbery and burnt and the fries cold and clammy. Really not bad for Hell.
“Hold the ants this time,” he joked to the waiter, a mirthless gray fellow with a long face and a missing right thumb. Of course, there were inevitably a few insects in the food.
“I’ll do what I can,” sniffed the waiter. He removed himself with a long drawn out sigh.
We sat for a moment, the cracked vinyl of the booth cutting into our skin. Brian stared down and picked at food that had been stuck on the table for eternity.
Finally, I reached across the table and touched his hand.
“Brian,” I asked. “What is going on?”
“We got a letter from the higher ups. Things are going to change,” he said quietly. “They’re going to change a lot.”
He looked out the window into the congealed gray of the day. Sulfurous steam simmered out of the man holes in the street and a flabby, greasy rain was falling.
“You mean from…him? You know, your cousin?” I asked. Brian was the only one who said his name.
“Satan?” he said. “No. From higher up.” He pointed at the ceiling.
“You mean…you can’t mean…Heaven?” I asked in a whisper. “Do they have jurisdiction here?”
“Of course,” said Brian. “What they say goes. Everywhere and all the time.”
“So what’s up?” I asked. “More punishments?”
This was disturbing. I mean, after all, no one in Hell could quite believe that we’d chosen to come here and clean up demon cat barf and fight with ghouls and eat clammy fries for eternity. After being in Hell for a while, you have to start believing that you would never have made this decision on your own. Somehow, some way you had to have been tricked into it, or someone changed the rules on you, or you never understood them in the first place. It’s the last rationalization that holds your soul together. Heaven becomes…quite frankly…hard to trust. You begin to ask uncomfortable questions about those people “up there.”
“No,” said Brian. He was very quiet. “The truth is I’m not sure exactly, but it looks like they may be closing us down.”
“Closing us down,” I choked on my coffee. “How can they? Why would they? That doesn’t even make sense. This is supposed to be eternity here.”
“Shhh…” Brian said. “Look, I don’t know the details and I don’t want to cause a panic. We won’t know the details for a couple of weeks at the very least. It may be longer than that.”
“Are they moving us?” I asked. “What’s going to happen to all of the souls?”
“Haven’t been told yet,” Brian said. “We’re waiting on orders.”
We finished in silence and returned to the office, wading through the melee in front of the complaint window, crunching over lost limbs, and sloshing through pools of blood and demon slobber and we quietly finished out the day.
The white envelope in the safe burned a hole in the back of my brain with its existential implications. The only thing I could think of was that we would all be dissolved along with Hell. Obviously we had been rejected for Heaven in the first place so…what else could it be? The thought formed a permanent undercurrent of anxiety.
Fortunately, the complaint window was a constant source of diversion. Helping souls fill out forms, trying to keep the lines moving and typing information into the database took up most of my brain. I only had time to think about things in the evenings, which Dennis and I spent watching the bad reality television shows that were blaring through the tiny apartment. (One of the most insidious punishments of Hell was the terrible cable programming that could not be turned off.) Dennis always chose the most obnoxious program he could find and guarded the remote carefully with his claws. Still, all in all, I started to think that things were simply going back to normal. Eternity ground on with no visible change. Sometimes, when I was feeling reflective, I thought that ceasing to exist was the best option. Mostly though, I was afraid.
Then one evening after work, while one of the eternal reruns of “The Apprentice” was blasting through the apartment, brawling it out with the howls of Dennis, who’d barfed up all his dinner and was angrily demanding more, I heard a knock at the door. I was terrified. Sometimes demons showed up the apartment doors and demanded entry and then robbed, tortured, raped or otherwise terrorized the inhabitants. I had been somewhat safer than the other inhabitants of my building up until now, probably because I worked for Brian. I grabbed Dennis and prepared to throw him at intruder.
“Hey! Ow!” shrieked Dennis. “I’m watching TV! Help! Help me! You’re fired!”
A few seconds more and he would have had my hand off but then I heard a familiar voice outside the door. I dropped Dennis.
“Open up would you, c’mon,” the voice said. “It’s me, Brian.”
I put down the demon cat with only minor damage taken to my arms and legs and opened the door. He flung himself on the couch and I handed him a flat, warm beer.
“Tomorrow,” he said. “He was out of breath from puffing up the stairs. “It starts tomorrow.”
“What does?” I asked him.
“The end,” he puffed, “of Hell.”
I sat down.
He took a huge gulp of beer. “We have to start processing people out of here.”
“Processing them out?” I asked. “What does that mean?”
“The train is heading only outbound now and we’ve got to start putting souls on it. And demons. And collect all the soul fragments and demon cats,” he pointed at Dennis, “and the monkeys with skulls for heads and every last washed up piece of existential scum we can find in this place.”
“What if they don’t want to go?” I asked.
“Doesn’t matter. Everyone that we can find goes on the train. They’ll have to work hard to get left behind. Of course, some of them will manage. I suppose there will be no way to prevent them from fading out with Hell if they want to. But our orders are to do the absolute best we can.”
“How?” I asked. “Is it even possible?”
Brian shrugged, “I don’t write policy. I implement it.”
“What about your cousin?” I asked.
“What about him?” Brian said. “Haven’t even heard from him in a while now. He’s probably hiding. Who knows?”
“Where are we going?” I asked. “What’s going to happen to all of us?”
He snorted. “I was told something about how it will be better for all of us…blah, blah, blah. And you wouldn’t understand the technicalities… blah, blah, blah.”
We were both silent. “Do you think annihilation will better than this?” I asked. I had suspected for some time that would be Heaven’s “answer” for this place. From my own vantage point, there wasn’t much worth saving here, including myself. I could only imagine how the place looked from Heaven.
“Don’t know that it is annihilation,” Brian said. “I don’t have any idea where we’re sending everyone. Or why they would put everyone on the train if they just want to get rid of us. But if you want even a chance to continue existing, there’s only one choice. Because I do know that when it’s over this place will disappear. It’s to be destroyed. Everything. The Lake of Fire, The Craggy Mountains, the office. The database. The files. The forms. My whole…eternity. Gone.”
“It is Hell Brian,” I said as I considered the implications of his words. “Do you think there’s a possibility that we could be going somewhere better?”
“I don’t know. I guess, for me, it’s not even about better or worse,” he said. He paced to the window and looked out into the dark night of Hell. A scream pierced the night and then raucous laughter. “It’s just about who I am. And who am I supposed to be when I leave here? I’m not like you. I haven’t had a life before this. Not that I can remember.”
“You’ll be you,” I said. “No matter where you are. C’mon. The demons are in the same boat as you and they’re going. Maybe it won’t be so bad.” I was worried too. The whole thing smelled suspicious, but someone had to look on the bright side of Hell closing. There really was no other side to look on.
“Maybe,” he said. He shrugged his shoulders. He turned and gave me a sad smile.
“Come in early tomorrow?” Brian asked.
“Of course,” I said.
And that was it. The database allowed us to organize the exodus, at least to a certain extent. We began to evacuate Hell neighborhood by neighborhood and things went in somewhat a more orderly fashion than I would have thought possible. Of course, that’s because I expected complete pandemonium and almost 100% noncompliance. My bar was pretty low. But apparently some souls wanted to take the chance to get out of Hell. The demons collected souls and returned them to us and within the first few weeks we sent out train car after train car stuffed with souls. We had no idea where they were going or what was going to happen to them. We just put them on the train and hoped for the best. I felt somewhat ill at ease because there was no sign of the destruction we’d been promised. What if it was all some sort of horrible trick?
Of course, it wasn’t easy. The orders we received had said that the inhabitants of Hell were to bring absolutely nothing with them. They wouldn’t need anything. Before putting them on the train, the demons shook souls whose pockets were filled with Hell Coin or some takeout from the diner. Some souls tried carrying on suitcases full of shoes and clothing, bags of dirty laundry. One strange little man with bug eyes had a collection of bone and limbs he’d picked up on the street. He sobbed when the demons found the last small detached and gangrenous toe in his pocket, but they stuffed him on the train anyway, toeless. Souls tried to take books and desk lamps, rolled up string, used tape or old stained rugs. Loading up each car left a huge pile of garbage on the platform which the demons then had to move before we could load another.
And we didn’t know how long we had. The bubble of eternity which had encased Hell seemed to be wearing thin, and we all felt the pressure. As eternity grew thinner, all of us began to feel incredible exhaustion. I was so tired that the thought eternal nonexistence started to sound like a vacation.
We had started with the neighborhoods closest to the train station as a matter of practicality, although we sent demons out to the farthest reaches of Hell to begin to collect souls and bring them closer for the transfer. One day, the band of demons that had been sent to one of the border areas returned with a huge group of souls and some bad news. Hell was crumbling. The outer edges were simply falling apart. The rocky, mountainous area where they had been was nothing but rolling rock and avalanche. There were already mountains that had crumbled into dust and the dust? They had seen it fading into nothing. The nothing was rolling inwards. Heaven’s invitation was to board a train to “something better.” The alternative to leaving Hell was literally nothing. The souls who showed up for the ride became more and more resigned and less difficult to put on the train.
We didn’t have much time, and eternity was no longer on our side, if it ever had been. We worked as far into the night as possible. Demons had no time to torment the souls or to argue with them; they were actually working with Brian for once instead of against him. There was a strange camaraderie in Hell. Souls began wandering in from every edge of Hell on their own, wondering what was going on and telling stories of the ground crumbling under them, of lava pits going cold, and then an encroaching nothing. It was impossible to know how many of the souls were accounted for or how many of them had been sucked into the nothing. But there wasn’t much we could do. We worked on. Every soul or fragment, every demon or winged rat that we could find was put on the train.
We began to tick off souls from the database, more with every movement of the great clock of bone that hung over the station house. But one day, just when we thought we might be making headway, Alister, formerly chief tormentor of souls in the Lake of Fire, now leading the brigade to pluck burning souls out of it and bring them to the train, came back with a load of souls and an extraordinary announcement.
“The lake of fire went out,” he said matter of factly. He dumped out some souls whose charred skin was not even smoking. “Feel this guy.” He thumbed at a large man with the remains of a charred suit standing near Brian.
Brian reached out and touched the man’s sleeve. “Cold,” he said.
At about that time, Arabask, the fallen angel whose job it was to collect soul fragments from the edge of the pit of True Hell returned as well.
“There is no more Lava Fall into the pit,” she said. “The River Nepenthe has dried up. The inside of the pit is crumbling sand and the pit has ceased releasing soul fragments.”
She held in her long thin fingers a squirming black bag. “This seems to be the last of them.”
Brian checked his list. “We’ve still got a lot of souls to get on the train,” he said. “But who knows…maybe we can do it. I’d like to at least accomplish my last task.”
We worked even harder. Brian whirred with energy. I stood by the doors of the train cars and checked people off the list. Brian sent out demon after demon to gather souls and report. He personally put souls on the train. He made phone calls and checked the data base. He ran back and forth to the office and even checked the bathrooms in Hell station to make sure no fearful souls had tried to take refuge there. The nothing was moving in, but we were moving souls out.
The demons reported that the far side of the pit had crumbled. We kept stuffing souls onto train cars. The demons reported that the forest of dead trees on this side of the pit was nothing but dust. We kept loading train cars.
Finally, we could hear the noise of destruction from the train station. A roaring, rumbling sound filled the distance in the morning, and by lunchtime the ground beneath the platform had begun to quiver just a little. I looked up and saw a black swirling cloud gathering behind the city.
I kept loading train cars. All souls who had come or been brought to the station had at last been loaded. Now we were down to workers. We started to load the last of the demons, incubi and succubae, vampire bats, small rat shaped demons, and the monkey with the skull head who at last had to be deprived of my shoe.
One train left and we started to load another. A huge black bird of prey swooped in and landed on a broken light post.
“It has reached the city,” he intoned wearily. “If there are any other souls, I cannot find them. They have surely become one with the nothing.”
The platform beneath my feet shivered and the bird flew up to the train and hopped in the car. A groaning creaking sound came from the station and we looked up to see a window cracking.
The last of Hell’s citizens now stood on the platform.
“This is it. The last train out of Hell,” Brian said. We looked up and across the great city and we watched as a tall black tower fell with a great crash. The ground shook again.
“Do you think we have everyone?” I asked.
“Everyone that wanted to take the chance, surely,” said Brian.
The train sat trembling on the tracks, puffing steam and the last of Hell’s citizens began to clamber aboard.
“It’s time to go Brian,” I said. There was nothing left for us now but faith in the slim possibility of Heaven’s largesse.
“Time to get on the train,” he agreed.
“You too,” he pointed at Alistair, and Arabask, and a couple of the blue demons who were left standing on the tracks. “Let’s go people! Get on this train!”
He called to the clusters of demons huddled on the red banks that led the train tracks out of Hell. The hillside was beginning to tremble. “Get on top of the train!” he called out. “Ride this one out! It’s time!”
In some confusion, they began to cluster on the top of the overstuffed train cars and cling to the windows on the side.
A red rock rolled from the top of one of the banks and landed next to the train. I scurried up the steps of the caboose. Brian climbed up on the back of the caboose next to me and handed me the carrier with Dennis inside. He held my hand for just a brief second and to my eternal surprise, he leaned forward and gave me a little kiss.
“Thanks!” he whispered.
The ground quivered under the train and I heard the whistle start to blow. I put my hand on Brian’s and he smiled, but then to my surprise he pulled it away and stepped off the edge of the caboose and back onto the platform.
“Brian get on the train! Brian, take my hand!” I reached out for him and he leaned forward and touched my hand. He shook his head.
“There’s nothing for me out there. I don’t like this but I can’t want anything else. You go and I’ll be…” his words were drowned out by the train whistle and the reverberating sound of falling buildings on the far side of the city.
The train started to huff and tremble forward and I reached back again. Rocks rained down on the top and bounced up to the caboose platform.
I heard Dennis wailing, “Ow! Go inside the train you idiot! Ow! Help! Why didn’t they let you bring any food! Help I’m being pelted with rocks! Help! I’m starving!”
I ignored him and called out. “Brian, give me your hand.” I managed lean forward far enough to catch his fingers in mine, only to feel them slip away as Arabask looped her strong claw around my waist. The train began to move in earnest.
“Brian!” I screamed but my voice fell flat into the swirling dust and was drowned out by the noise of Hell’s destruction.
I saw Brian moving away from me, standing alone on the swaying platform. I watched as the main office swayed back and forth, almost gracefully for something so squat and ugly, and then collapse in on itself. Brian still stood there waving while Hell collapsed around him, looking calm and efficient in his bow tie. I saw him wipe his glasses on his button down shirt and then the thick dust of Hell’s collapse obscured him from my view.
Somewhere a small train is puffing along the tracks on just this side of eternity. No one knows for certain exactly where it’s going. Now it moves through a dark tunnel and the riders sleep. Now it stops in a sleepy village and the passengers disembark and eat at one of the inns on the way... Most of them get back on the train at the stops, some stay... Sometimes new passengers join the train.
Now the train stops in a sleepy golden meadow. A tall ebony woman with hair the color of moonbeams and a beautiful giant of a man with dark red skin get off the train. Between them they carry a basket. A young woman follows them with a black and white cat. Together they make their way to the center of the field. The man and woman bend down and open the lid of the basket together. Small, dark, bat like creatures flutter out of the basket and into the air. At first, it seems that the heavy golden air pushes them to the ground and they flail and jerk, but after a few moments in the sun the tattered creatures rise and the sky is filled with colored butterflies and birds. The young woman laughs as the cat chases a beautiful gold and green bird until it settles on his head and gently pecks at his nose. The girl picks up the cat and they watch the birds and butterflies rise and fly until the last one is a speck in the distance. After a moment of silence, they hear the whistle blow and they return to the train. It moves off into the distance. Toward a mountain town, so they’ve heard.
Whistlestop October 1929
The Honorable Clayton Silver was sitting on his porch, smoking his pipe one autumn evening, watching the Moonbeams press down wraiths of fog rising from the creek bed in a heavy handed yet amiable way. The ghosts drifted lazily – the weight of the moonlight prevented them rising too high off the ground. They lit up silver, realized the moon was watching them, then slunk back down to the bank and swam away before trying again.
Judge Silver’s wife had died five years ago and he didn’t know why he still felt compelled to come outside to smoke, no matter the weather. There was no one but himself to please now and he didn’t mind the smell of stale smoke. Habit he supposed. He did like a routine. Tonight his warm jacket and the moonlight had nearly made him think he was content for a moment. He alternately whistled a tune and smoked his pipe. And then he heard it.
At first it was just a low murmur from behind the copse of scrub trees by the road. His house was set back off the way a little, and the driveway curved so he couldn’t quite see the lane. The low rumble seemed friendly, like the sound of a farm truck from a distance or waves on a beach. There was a little ebb and swell to it. A rippling sort of rhythm. But as it approached he started to feel the drumbeat under it, a throbbing and pounding. The roar contained sharper sounds…voices. The friendly rumble of the distance became prickly with detail.
Judge Silver stood up and moved to the edge of the porch still holding his pipe in one hand, puzzled and waiting. In a few more moments he saw the crowd, a blur moving toward him through the drifting fog. A few piercing beams of light stabbed out of the amorphous shape and then bounced back off the lazy fog. The ever expanding and pulsating mass came toward him rapidly.
“What in the bloody hell?” he asked the chilly autumn night. The autumn night didn’t answer, being busy as it was making ghosts out of moonlight and fog. He squinted. It was no use. His glasses were sitting inside on his desk.
The dream of fog was finally torn apart by a single figure sprinting in front of the crowd. Judge Silver was normally a man of action but then again he normally had some idea what in the hell was going on. So he stood there, immobile, as he tried to comprehend the scene in front of him and find some precedent for such a thing buried in his memory. Before his brain could react the swarm was upon him and the lone figure in front had made a desperate leap. His pipe fell to the porch, tobacco scattering in the light wind and he found his arms full of…Ida Fox May. The poor woman was trembling against him, breathing hard. She buried her face in his woolen shoulder. He caught her up against him and felt her sink, melting with exhaustion.
For a few moments, the mob seemed sporting. Their prey had been cornered and they could bide their time. The murmur settled a bit while Ida struggled to catch her breath. The judge faced them still holding Ida up from the waist. It looked like half the town was here. He forced his eyes to cut into the darkness and he took a deep breath of the chilly air. They were beginning to stir, pulsing forward a little again. Ida drew as far up against him as she could. Her raven black hair curled wildly around her head and her black eyes were as wide as saucers in her face.
“Lord help us all,” he said firmly and loudly so the crowd could hear him. “What on God’s green earth are you people up to?” He spoke slowly and solemnly, using his most judicial voice, not because he had any idea how to drive this train nor where it was going…he was just buying time.
Right out front he could see Bill Cuthbert, that pasty faced ass, and his wife Myrna. Both were puffing hard. It was no surprise to see Bill there. If there was a lawsuit, Bill was involved. If someone called to notify the constable that some teenagers were petting behind the cemetery, nine times out of ten it was Bill. It was Bill that had caused that ruckus at the church over the new pews in the sanctuary. Whenever there was someone making accusations or getting upset over something that made not a speck of difference to anyone…there was Bill. And here was Bill.
The warm porch light fell close to the house and the moonlight backlit the crowd so he couldn’t make out many faces. The dark knot melted into anonymity back toward the bird bath. The villagers murmured amongst themselves. The judge stood up straight, still holding Ida.
“I don’t know what this about,” he said sternly, “But Bill, how about if you and Myrna start by stepping back off my damn chrysanthemums. Annie planted those the year before she died. Back right up off ‘em.” He didn’t like to swear before ladies, but Good Lord if Bill Cuthbert didn’t make a man lose his head.
Bill looked confused and angry and he gasped out, “There’s something more important goin’ on here than Annie’s mums.” He hesitated, sucking in a big breath, and added, petulantly “Your honor.”
“Bill,” said the judge evenly, “There is nothing in heaven and earth that you could say to me right now that couldn’t be said from off top of Annie’s mums. And so help me I will not hear another word until you move your big feet two steps back.”
Bill looked around at the crowd but no one seemed to disagree with the judge on this point. Hunting down a slight, middle aged woman in the darkness of the night was one thing, but crushing Annie’s mums was a step too far. Bill took Myrna’s elbow and they moved back. He stood up straight and threw his shoulders back, trying to regain his dignity. His belly popped out over his belt a little.
The judge strained his eyes toward the back of the shadowy crowd. “You back there by the bird bath,” he said loudly. “There had better be no one standing on the pansies either.” He could feel rather than see the people in the back shuffling off the pansies, or in all likelihood onto them since most of the damn fools had come running out for this nonsense with no flashlights or lanterns. Despite the poor visibility he could count at least three of the attendees in house slippers and pajama pants.
He noticed that Ida was still trembling and he patted her shoulder. He looked into the crowd. “You there,” he said firmly to a silhouette he thought belonged to Janice Hopkins, the Mayor’s wife, “Go right inside and get that old green afghan off the armchair and bring it here. And get my glasses off my desk. Scoot!”
He frowned and the shadow scooted and indeed resolved into Janice Hopkins as she came into the circle of light on the porch. The judge was used to telling people what to do and they were used to doing it. That, he figured, was the only advantage he had as he tried to sort this mess.
When Janice had returned with the afghan, he put it around Ida’s shoulders, plopped her in a chair and slid his glasses up over his ears and looked into the crowd. He thought he might have seen old Allie McCall hobbling her way to the front; her malevolent curiosity always gave her a strange energy. And was that Charlie Johnson looking like a fox in the henhouse, long nose almost meeting pointy chin in his smirk, arms folded over his chest? A few ladies – he thought they were from the Home Circle at the church - were standing close to the front of the crowd with their husbands, whispering to each other and shaking their heads.
“Where’s the young Reverend Dingle?” asked the judge, “What about Constable Patrick?” His eyes strained the crowd for a friend or two.
Janice Hopkins raised her hand, as if she were in second grade. “Janice?” asked the judge.
“They’ve gone on a fishing trip together,” she chirped.
“I see,” said Judge Silver.
He turned to look at Ida. She had the afghan wrapped tight around herself. No coat and wearing a nightgown and a pair of flat black leather slippers. She was still shivering a little from the chill night air. The sudden impulse of the mob had apparently taken her by surprise, he supposed, just as it had him.
The judge faced Bill and Myrna. Myrna was clinging to Bill’s arm still breathing loudly. “What’s the problem Bill?” he asked.
Bill Cuthbert removed himself from Myrna’s grasp and cleared his throat.
“That woman right there…” he paused and turned in a full circle (nearly crushing Myrna) to give the crowd the benefit of seeing him swing around and stop with his pale stubby finger pointed at Ida. “…is a witch!”
Ida sat mute in her chair, as the crowd began to clamor. The judge saw a sudden darting black shadow streak up the side of the porch and land in her lap. It was her old black cat. Ida rubbed his scruffy head, fondling the torn left ear and the cat looked out into the crowd through his sharp yellow eyes. Calmly, he started to clean his paws.
Ida hugged him close to her, “Mister Wilkerson,” she said weakly to the cat. “You shouldn’t be here.” She put her face in the back of his big furry head and the judge heard her whisper, “But I sure am glad to see you.” Then she sat there. Quiet.
“Alright Bill,” said the judge, loud enough to suppress the noise of the crowd somewhat. “I’ll tell you what. Let me fill my pipe and then we’ll hash this out.” He picked up the pipe from the porch floor and felt around his coat pockets for his tobacco and a match. He assessed the crowd. The majority were probably there to be entertained by the rabble-rousers. Neither group was any help to him. Of course, anyone with the sense God gave a potted geranium was at home right now in front of the fire. Lord he hated his job sometimes. It was always the idiots. He took his time lighting his pipe.
After the smoke was rolling comfortably out of the bowl, he said, “Let’s have it then Bill.” He leaned against one of the porch columns. He didn’t want to give the weight of formality to this bedlam.
“Now then Bill, what makes you think Ida is a witch?” He blew out a puff of smoke and let it settle on the chrysanthemums.
"That woman that you see before you, Ida Fox May…at 3:55 this afternoon…turned Howard William Campbell into a mouse,” Bill panted. “I saw it happen.”
The crowd sucked in the night air and expelled it in one great gasp.
The judge was a little taken aback as he had expected something somewhat less specific. He looked at Ida. “That woman right there…turned Howard, the grocery delivery boy, into a mouse?” He blew out a puff of smoke. He didn’t know how to respond, “Today? At exactly 3:55?”
“That is exactly what happened, your honor. Although, my watch may be just a minute or two slow.” Bill said and patted his watch pocket and folded his arms across his chest.
The crowd clucked and murmured in response. Judge Silver thought he heard a few people laughing.
Bill cleared his throat, preparing to go on when someone yelled, “Wait! Wait! Here he is!”
People were turning around and shuffling, forming a path, and then he saw Howard and Ronnie Smith, the owner of the Barton and Smith Market, making their way through the crowd.
“Here I am! Here I am!” gasped Howard.
The judge sighed. “Bill…here’s Howard.” he said. “Can we drop this now?”
“I see him!” huffed Bill. “I never said he didn’t get better. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t a mouse. I was getting to that part.”
Exasperated, the judge turned from Bill back to Howard.
“Lord Bill, you’re a sap!” someone called out.
“Ask him! Ask him!” Bill called out, pointing at Howard. “He can tell you better than I can.”
“All right!” said the judge. “Howard can we just clear this up? Did Ida turn you into…I can’t believe I’m asking this…into a mouse?”
Howard looked nervous. He looked down at his shoes and shuffled his feet. Howard was notoriously shy.
“It’s okay Howard,” Ronnie patted him on the back. “Tell the judge what happened.”
“Well,” Howard said, after clearing his throat a few times and pushing his glasses back up his nose, “Ida May,” here he stopped and smiled at Ida, she smiled back encouragingly, “Ida had ordered some milk and flour and I think maybe some vinegar and oh…cat food…I can’t remember if she ordered coffee or not….”
“Howard,” said the judge, “Can you skip ahead to the part where Ida did or did not turn you into a mouse?”
“Okay,” said Howard. “I got to her house and knocked at the door. She didn’t answer so I figure she’s in the garden like usual. So I set the delivery on the porch and Mr. Wilkerson there,” he stopped to point at the cat and wave, “Hello Mr. Wilkerson, hello, ol" buddy! The cat walks back to the garden gate to show me Ida’s there. He’s really smart.”
“The cat is probably her familiar!” Bill said loudly.
“Yes,” said Myrna, she turned to the crowd. “That means her little helper from the Devil. Bill looked it up.” She patted Bill’s arm in pride.
There were a number of “Good Lords!” and “Oh dears” from the church ladies and some guffaws from the back.
“Now, now!” the judge said. “For goodness sakes!”
Something suddenly occurred to him. He looked quizzically at Howard. “Howard, you’re not stuttering.”
Ronnie held up his hand, “He’s getting to that your Honor.” He patted Howard on the back to get him going again. A good hard thump or two and Howard sputtered back to a start.
“So, anyway, I follow Mr. Wilkerson to the back yard,” said Howard, “And Ida is standing there and she says ‘Howard, you remember how you told me that the boys make fun of you for that stutter?’ and I say yes…because I did remember it. And she says, ‘Howard I think I can help you. I really feel like I can. Do you trust me?” And I say yes. Because I do,” Howard smiled at Ida again.
“And?” said the judge. “Then what?”
“Well,” said Howard, “She just puts some powder on my tongue and puts out her hand like this.” Howard curved his hand toward himself and then flung it out dramatically ending with his fingers splayed. He held it this way for a moment until Ronnie helped him ease it down.
“After that,” Howard said, “I felt myself pulling inside and shutting up small. I really did. Smaller and smaller, my skin was shrinking and wrapping up the rest of me really tight. It was kind of uncomfortable.”
There were gasps from the Home Circle.
Howard waited for them to die down and he went on, “And then I was falling down and I remember looking up with Ida over me and she looked like a giant and I was so small and then she took me in her hand and kissed me…and then it was over. I unfolded right back out into myself. No stuttering after that! I was a little scared and tired, but it was all just to make me better. That’s what I think. I think it was just to make me better.”
Howard paused for breath, “She said, ‘It’s never happened like that before. But it never happens the same.’ Then she gave me some tea and I went back to the store.”
This crowd drew in another breath and exhaled loudly. And then he could hear the chorus of “Oh lords!” and “Lord Help”s coming from close to the porch. From the crowd of wags toward the back he heard more laughter.
“Awww…for goodness sakes!” someone called out. “C’mon Bill! Did you put Howard up to this?”
Bill was yelling, “I told you I saw it! I didn’t tell Howard what to say!”
“Bill, you’re an ass!” said a tall man from the back.
“He’s a pompous fool!” came a woman’s voice.
“He’s got a point!” yelled old Charlie Jenkins, “I’ve seen her out late in the moonlight a’pickin’ herbs!”
“I’ve seen her with a raven on her shoulder, feeding it bread,” warbled out Allie McCall.
“She gave that Edelson girl a love charm,” someone else called out.
“She healed Emily Jo Baker’s back with one word!” someone else yelled.
The judge was silent for a moment. He bit his upper lip with his bottom teeth, the way he did when he was thinking. He wiped his glasses.
“Howard,” he finally asked, waving the crowd quiet. “Are you really telling me that Ida Fox May, this woman here, turned you into,” here the judge hesitated with distaste at his own question, “this woman turned you into a mouse?”
“Maybe,” said Howard earnestly. “Honestly it was so quick and I was so small and all…it could have been a newt or a bird or something too…but I think I felt furry. I’d say a mouse.” He squinted and attempted to look thoughtful as he pushed his glasses back up his nose. “Yes, if I had to guess, I would say it was a mouse.”
“Did anyone ask you to say this Howard?” the judge asked.
“No!” Howard said. “No!”
“Did she charge you anything for curing your stutter Howard?” asked the judge kindly.
Howard became flustered. “No. No. Of course not. Ida is my friend. She even still gave me a tip afterwards.”
There was a ripple throughout the crowd and they moved back ever so slightly from the porch where Ida was sitting calmly stroking the cat.
“Ha!” said Bill. “I told you what I saw. She turned him into a mouse. I saw the whole thing from the knot hole in my back yard fence.”
“That’s creepy Bill!” someone yelled.
“Better watch out, she’ll turn you into a newt!” someone else laughed.
Bill stood sputtering, unable to formulate a response.
The judge stared at the scene before him. The moonlight glinted off Howard’s bent wire glasses, and fell mildly on Charlie Johnson’s tattered old dressing gown, lit up the bit of white apron that Janet Hopkins still had on as it peeked out from under her coat, and it shone off the top of Bill Cuthbert’s balding head, making his comb over look like spiderwebs. Judge Silver felt like he was waking into some sort of strange nightmare where dream logic was required. He turned to Ida. The porch light behind her formed a sort of halo on her wild hair and her deep golden skin glowed. The shadow cat, visible only because he lay across her white gown like an ink stain, lay perfectly still on her thighs.
“Bill,” he said, “I don’t know how I can help you. Even if Ida did turn Howard into a mouse, which for the record, I can’t find it in myself to believe, there’s no law against it. Howard seems fine. And his stutter is cured to boot. She’s not committing fraud or taking anyone’s money. Constable Patrick couldn’t find anything to charge Ida with if he wanted to.”
He turned to Allie and Charlie, “And there’s certainly no law against being out in the moonlight or feeding birds.”
“She’s a witch!” Bill insisted. “That ought to be enough! Nobody can do that sort of thing if they aren’t paired up with the Devil! It ought to be enough that she’s a witch.” He crossed his arms on his chest with an air of finality.
“Well, it isn’t,” said the judge. “There’s no law against being a witch…or, as far as I know, turning someone into a mouse and back again. Or finding a cure for stuttering. These are modern times Bill. We don’t hound women over witchcraft anymore. Not that I believe any of this mess anyway. I’m half inclined to think you’re all drunk. Or I’m dreaming. Maybe Howard thought he was turned into a mouse. I don’t know. But there is absolutely no crime involved that I can think of.”
“Now,” he said, “Since no one has been hurt and everyone is accounted for…why don’t we all just go home.”
The crowd was uncertain for a moment whether the entertainment was over. Even the church people had to admit that Howard was certainly accounted for. A few people in the back started to drift away.
“Ask her,” said Bill. “Ask Ida May and see what she says! You at least have to ask her.”
The judge was having none of it. “Now,” he said loudly, “This is getting ridiculous. And I won’t have it. Go home. Everyone.”
But Ida Fox May had stood up. Mr. Wilkerson slid to her feet, vanishing into the darkness at the edges of her gown.
“It’s all right, Clayton,” she said; she laid her hand softly on the judge’s arm and he felt a tingle shoot from where her fingers touched him right up to the back of his neck. For just a split second he believed Ida could do anything. Even turn someone into a mouse. He shook his head to clear it.
She looked at the judge and said quietly, calmly, “Clayton, I did turn Howard into a mouse. I know you can’t believe me but I did it.”
“Tell them. Tell all of them.” Bill demanded. “Tell them what you did.”
She was a slight woman but in her white gown, hair blossoming around her head, cloaked in the green afghan with the glow of the warm light falling from behind her on her golden skin, the judge thought she looked like a queen. The crowd had to quiet down to hear her spare, light voice as she spoke to the judge.
“I just wanted to help him,” she said. “All the boys made fun of him. I didn’t know exactly how the magic would work. I never do. I’ve never known it to transform someone before. It just happened.” She shook her head. “It was an accident Clayton, you have to believe me.”
"I can't believe you Ida," said the judge, "But whatever happened, I believe you believe it. And you meant no harm."
“She admits it!” Bill pointed at her. “She’s a witch!”
“It didn’t last!” Howard protested. “I’m okay.”
“For goodness sakes, shut up Bill! He’s fine now,” said Ronnie Smith. “Whatever happened - Howard is fine. Better even. I don’t care whether it was some sort of hypnosis or even if she is a witch, which for the record I can’t swallow any more than the judge. What are you going to do burn her? Nonsense! Let’s go home.”
There was a moment of quiet. Ronnie took Howard by the arm and started to lead him away. The judge took a long, calm draw on his pipe. The villagers were beginning to realize the fun was coming to an end. The old people and the ladies from the Home Circle hovered nervously – surely an outright admission of witchcraft ought to provoke some sort of response. But the rest of the assembly began to melt away at the edges.
“She’s a witch! She’s dangerous! You have to believe me!” Bill was calling out to the retreating villagers. “I saw it! She has to be stopped.”
But the judge was telling Ida that she could bring back his afghan in the morning and that maybe it would be safer to wait until the crowd had cleared to go home.
“Somebody has to do something!” Bill shrieked. He heaved himself up to the low porch. He pushed the judge backwards, away from Ida May. Clayton Silver felt Bill’s pudgy fist bounce off his chest and in his surprise he fell to the porch floor, losing both his glasses and his pipe.
The judge was scrambling to his feet, trying to prevent Bill from reaching Ida when her slender golden arm shot out and she said something…a word the judge couldn’t ever remember.
Bill stopped as if something invisible had struck him in the stomach. His mouth opened into a round ‘O.’ Then he was pushed backwards, knocked off his feet by an invisible hand. Bill became darker and smaller, the ends of his arms and legs flattening and stretching out and then coiling themselves around his body. It was as if a snake were eating him, but that snake was himself. His eyes were wide and frightened until they shrunk suddenly into little glittering beads. At the very last moment there was a small pop and he dropped, stunned, onto the floor of the porch. The judge blinked. There was nothing there except a small, black snake, blinking and flicking its tongue.
Ida looked shocked. Her hands flew to her mouth. She leaned over the little snake, apparently trying to steel herself to take him in her hands…to set him free from the enchantment.
But just as she was going to close her fingers on the tiny snake, Mr. Wilkerson darted out like a shadow from the silken sweep of her gown. One paw caught the tail and the shining fangs sank into the middle of the coils. One shake, two shakes, three. The snake went limp. Mr. Wilkerson did not release it.
There was silence, except for Myrna’s moaning, which wafted around the night like the fog. “Oh Bill! Oh Bill! Oh Laws she’s killed Bill! She and that devil cat have killed my Bill!””
Ida picked up the afghan from the porch floor and wrapped it around herself. She picked up the cat, snake still dangling limp from its mouth and held him to her chest, protectively. A drop of blood had fallen on her clean, white gown.
“Oh Mr. Wilkerson,” the judge heard her say softly, “Oh, naughty, naughty, Mr. Wilkerson.”
Then…where Ida and Mr. Wilkerson and the snake had been, there was nothing. A wisp of moonlit fog swept through on the wind and left a few curling ghosts dissolving in the night air. Neither Bill nor Ida was ever seen again.
Ever after the villagers swore that high, high up on the ridge, under the ancient and twisted oak that looks down on the village of Whistlestop, where the ruins of an ancient settlement linger, there is sometimes a light and sometimes smoke curling, as if from a chimney. And sometimes they say, if you walk up the path that leads to the old oak for a good piece, you’ll think you see big black cat hunting in the shadows before it disappears like a ghost. Some of the townsfolk say that until he died, Judge Silver sometimes walked up that path in the moonlight, though no one knows how far he followed it, as there was no one in the village brave enough to tag on behind him. The judge died at the ripe old age of eighty, but on occasion the villagers still smell the fragrance of pipe smoke and hear the thin sound of whistling drifting down from the ridge.
Mr. Wilkerson sat on the porch. Biding his time. A tangle of cobweb hung from one ear, but he did not raise his paw to remove it. His ear quivered. He was within three minutes of the time she normally came out for coffee and now the fine threads of spider silk were drifting into his eye on the breeze. He’d left the burrs where they were and his back quivered with an anxious need to remove them. But he needed to inspire sympathy. Not the emotion he preferred to inspire...but...he did what he had to do. He moved the dead mouse forward, between his paws, so she would see it and understand it was a gift. He’d cleaned most of the blood off it. It was whole, more presentable than his normal offerings, which usually consisted of the head thinly connected to whatever entrails did not appeal to his mood. But he had discovered that many humans had an objection to small piles of intestines. He was a bit hungry but he could wait.. He wasn’t nervous. It would work. He felt the vibrations. This was the place.
Whistlestop sits close to the top of a mountain, a little aloof from the rest of civilization. The winds of the world bend strangely around that mountainside and the people of Whistlestop don’t feel and see things quite like the rest of us. The residents of Whistlestop are part of that strange atmosphere from the day they are born; they breathe it in every day with every lungful of air; they take in the heady atmosphere like the Sherpas take the altitudes. If there’s one thing a person could say about Whistlestop, it’s that reality doesn’t do it justice (or maybe vice versa). Most of the tales that Whistlestoppers tell about themselves sound a lot like fairy tales and legends to outsiders. But what about an outsider’s perspective? You might expect such a story to come up against some sort of rift in reality and get pretty weird. Your expectations would be met. This story has a crack in it….a crack through which the light, what little there is, seeps in fitfully.
Now, I didn’t come by this story in the usual way. As a rule, the narratives of Whistlestop bubble up from the underground springs of the whispered gossip that is the main course of church potlucks and the “prayer requests” that are meant more to relay information to the other church goers than to the Lord Almighty. The tales grow up from dinner party conversations that start with “bless her heart” and the little talks at the grocery store when someone asks “did you hear about?” They start with a shake of the head by the all knowing bar maids at the Pop-A-Top on the wrong side of town, or from Edna Harrison Brooks, the seemingly telepathic former third grade teacher who somehow knows someone who knows someone who knows something about everyone. In this case though, I got the story right from the proverbial horse’s mouth. Or actually, from a friend of mine, a history professor named Mark. Mark called me up one stormy summer evening demanding to see me. He wanted to discuss an “incident.”
“An incident?” I asked. I was busy, deep in the middle of writing a story that had just started to move in the right direction. I didn’t need the distraction.
“An incident that occurred in Whistlestop,” he spat out the name of the town like a bad taste. “Didn’t you used to live there? I have to talk about it. To someone.” His voice was intense. He spoke quickly.
“What were you doing in Whistlestop?” I asked. Whistlestop is not exactly on most people’s must see list.
“Part of the story,” he said testily.
There was silence for a moment as the thunder splintered the darkness of the afternoon and the rain pelted the wavy panes of my office windows. I was intrigued but uneasy. The storm lashed the outside of my window like the furies torturing the damned.
“Sure,” I said. “I guess. You want to come over here?”
“I can’t,” he said. “I have a night class. You’re going to have to come my way.”
“Ummm…,” I looked out at the pounding rain.
“Seriously,” he said. “I need you to hear this.” Had his voice cracked a little?
I sighed. “How about the coffee shop by your office?”
“How about the bar on Fourth?” he said. “I’m going to need a drink.”
Mark was a reasonable person and a good teacher. I couldn’t imagine him drinking before class. After all, he taught history not English. Now I was interested. Seriously interested. Maybe I could get to the car without drowning or being torn asunder by a lightning bolt.
“I’ll be there when I get there,” I said. “In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a monsoon going on out there.”
“Ha!” he shouted into the phone. “Compared to what I’ve just been through? A monsoon is child’s play. Just meet me at four.” He hung up abruptly.
I met Mark at the bar. He already had a table and a whiskey. One storm had melted into another and my hair was plastered to my forehead in spite of my umbrella. I sloshed my way to a booth in the back and slid across a cracked leather seat opposite Mark.
“Really?” I asked, as I sat down. “You don’t drink whiskey.”
“I do now,” he took a long swallow and coughed and sputtered out the word, “Whistlestop.” He shook his head. He took another swallow and I noticed his eyes looked a little wild.
“How many does that make?” I said, indicating the whiskey.
He shrugged, “Just two…so far. I’ll probably need more.”
“I’ll drive you back to campus,” I said. Should be a happening class tonight, I thought.
“I’ll walk,” he looked absently into his whiskey.
I pointed toward the furious storm outside. He shrugged again. We sat in the strange noisy silence fashioned of other people’s conversations, the clinking of glasses, and the clamor of the storm outside while he struggled through a few sips of his drink. You have to be patient with Mark. He can’t or won’t just spit anything out no matter how you press him. So I ordered a beer and peered out through the slithering liquid, watching trees wave desperately in the parking lot until I heard him clear his throat.
He finally leaned back in his chair and began, “It…it was such an ordinary day. I was just going over to Middleton to read a paper, you know?”
I nodded. “And…”
“And…Jerry convinced me to take the scenic route up the mountain. Said there was this little village up at the top I could probably make by lunch time.”
“Whistlestop.” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Whistlestop.”
Mark said the first thing he saw as he drove into town was The Laughing Pink Elephant. It’s an antique/junk/oddities store located in a sprawling pink and yellow Victorian at the western edge of town, just a block or two from the town square. He noticed it largely because of the gigantic, aging wooden sign displaying a large pink elephant sitting in a claw foot tub and holding what appears to be a champagne glass. (Most people feel the expression on its face is more pensive than hilarious, but the owners of the place quite stubbornly cling to the idea that the elephant is laughing. The sign has been a target of the town beautification committee - whose members have refused to weigh in on the emotional condition of the elephant but have focused more on the fact that the sign doesn’t appropriately represent the aesthetics of the village as a whole. Or as Mary Edelson Brooks, the head of the village beautification committee told her friend Janet, it’s just plain tacky. Harold and Angel are the owners and they’ll never change it. Harold’s dad, who considered himself something of an artist, painted it.)
Anyway, as Mark tells it, the soft summer breezes had woken him early that morning and seduced him into following Jerry’s lunatic plan. He was somewhat frazzled by the time he reached the village due to having traveled behind a tractor at the speed of 5 mph for fifteen miles during which time his air conditioner had quit working. The open windows had triggered some sneezing and a stuffy nose. But the beauty of the postcard perfect village worked its magic on him and he relaxed as his car came through the last of the hairpin turns and drifted down the lane, through a series of beautiful houses, from turn of the century cottages to large Gothic mansions. He was impressed by the leafy green trees spreading their arms above the shrubs and flowering trees and roses. He noticed some drifting pink petals wafting through the windows. He even said the word wafting. He said he felt like he’d driven into a picture.
I broke in, “Whistlestop does that to people.”
“Don’t interrupt,” he frowned. “This is hard enough.”
I clammed up and watched him swirl some whiskey around on the table with his finger for a minute while I waited for him to continue. He finally looked up and began again.
He said as he drove up to The Laughing Pink Elephant, it occurred to him that he had forgotten to pick up a birthday gift for his mother. He thought he might stop, find a restroom, buy a gift and inquire as to the best place for lunch. As he made his way through the parking lot he took a moment (as most people do) to contemplate the emotionally ambiguous animal on the sign and decided that the elephant - which he thought was more of a salmon color than a true pink - appeared to be somewhat drunk but did not seem to be laughing about it.
When he got out of the car, he realized finding a restroom had become somewhat more mission critical than his other goals. So he walked into the foyer and politely asked the old hippie lady with big gray hair and glasses for directions.
“That’s Angel,” I said. “She’s actually not a hippie. She’s very religious. She just doesn’t like to put her hair up.” Mark gave me a look that made shut up.
Mark noted that Angel was looking at the account book and barely seemed to notice him. She just muttered the word “left” and pointed vaguely toward the hallway that opened perpendicular to the foyer.
As he walked away, Mark heard her say, “Make sure it’s that door in the little room before you get to the antique meat grinder, not the room after. That’s a closet.” Mark was mystified but thought he could probably figure it out as he went.
“You know,” he said looking pleadingly at me. “I figured it would have a sign with one of those annoying little proverbs about sprinkling and tinkling or maybe an elephant with its legs crossed looking desperate or something.” I didn’t quite comprehend the urgency with which he needed me understand and approve of the reasoning in his quest to find a toilet…but I nodded and let him press on.
Mark said he passed several rooms on the side until he came to an antique machine with a turn handle that looked as though it must be a grinder of some sort, so he brought himself up short and turned into the room just before it. The room was packed with oddities. He told me that he’d seen an old gnome sitting on a brass elephant planter, some eyeless wooden masks and an old ventriloquist’s dummy hanging from the walls, a few shelves with ancient and rusted metal objects and some old tin advertising signs. There was a stuffed raccoon with its tail broken so that it stuck out at a right angle halfway up. I sensed that he needed to stop here for a moment to linger on the details before he could bring himself to relate the dark heart of his story – whatever that was - so I let him describe the room in all its particulars.
He finally finished his list and looked at me, “I guess it was a store room. Didn’t look like anything was for sale.” He paused at the memory of the room and shuddered. I ordered him another whiskey. He only continued after he’d taken a sip.
He remembered that the only light in the room came from one large open window with an ancient and torn screen through which a small stream of flies were buzzing. In the back of the room to the left, there was a large Moose head with one antler at a slight list, under it there was a door. It was unmarked.
“The moose had a strange smell,” Mark said. His hands trembled as he brought the whiskey to his lips. “I should have known. I just…it felt like fate. I thought I was being silly. Just open the door, I said to myself.”
I leaned forward and patted his hand. I used my napkin to quietly soak up the amber liquid that threatened the cuff of his dress shirt.
He said that, although he had to push past the strange smell and a feeling of dread, he reached out and pulled on the door handle. A broom fell out and hit him on the head.
“I was like, crap, it’s the closet,” he pursed his lips and blew through them in an effort to relieve the remembered tension.
He caught the broom and attempted to simply stuff it back into the tightly packed closet, but in the next second he could feel the entire contents of the closet pressing heavily on the door. A mop flopped out of the gap and the broom fell back out after it. He braced the door with his left shoulder, pushing in the mop and broom with his right hand. Something heavy fell against the door and he reached in further to push it back into place too. He tried to shut the door on the avalanche. He heard the pinging and rattling of small things falling onto the closet floor. He started to sweat a little.
“I figured I would feel pretty stupid if someone found me there.” He looked into my eyes, imploring my sympathy again. I patted his hand.
Still pressing the door with his left shoulder he opened it a little further so he could reach in and push the mess into place, close the door and quietly leave the room. He would just have to find the restroom on his own. He craned his head around the edge of the door into the darkness and quickly pushed his right hand through the opening to hold back the wave of junk. The dusty light trickled through the dust and flies over his shoulder and fell on the objects inside.
He peered in to see what he was up against, and just under the heel of his hand he could see an oval of dewy, velvety white. On either side of his hand was a dark black marble like sphere.
“I couldn’t see it at first,” he said. “I just…it took a few minutes…you know?”
I didn’t know, but I tried to look wise and kept quiet. He stared intensely at the liquor bottles above the bar, as if he was staring through the past few days and into the closet.
The shapes resolved themselves slowly, he said, by degrees. They resolved into a face. It was a heart shaped face, pale, pointed and most absolutely…dead. Cold and dead. It was a dead woman. A corpse.
“I knew once I could process…you know…that I could see it was a woman…I knew she was dead. Of course…you feel it…I can’t say what it feels like. But you feel it all the way through.” He shivered and stared into space.
I gave an involuntary start. He took another sip.
“So I’m propping up this body and do you know what starts going through my head?” he stared at me, then gave a dry laugh. “Dead as a doornail. I mean the phrase ‘dead as a doornail.’ It just ran through my mind in a circle. Doornail? Doornail? Why doornail?” He laughed a hard laugh again. “My brain just shut the hell down.”
Whistlestop, I thought. You have outdone yourself this time.
Mark said he spent some amount of time searching his mental file cabinet for the provenance of the phrase. He couldn’t say how long he pondered why doornails had come to represent death. Then with a clang, the mental file slammed shut. His brain turned its attention back to the shocking fact that he was propping up a corpse with his hand. His brain wanted to know what he intended to do about it. He thought about this question. He wanted to pull back his hand but was unable to make his body do anything. He gazed into the glassy eyes. They gazed back, serene. The corpse was pinned against the mountain of junk in the closet with his hand. The moment settled uncomfortably into eternity. Not moving meant he was in contact with a dead body. Moving meant that it would fall forward and any animation seemed worse than the stillness. He asked his brain if it had an answer for that. It did not. He said he was wondering if there was a resolution or whether he himself might stay there until he was also a corpse, when a fly settled on his thumb. With a start, he jerked his hand backwards. The corpse toppled forward, caught in an avalanche of ancient cleaning supplies and oddities.
The sudden landslide flung itself on him and the whole mess hit him square on the chest. His feet, spinning in place in a pointless attempt at escape, slid out from under him. The thick solid weight fell on his chest while various wooden handles bonked him in the head.
He said he thought he screamed but didn’t feel any sound coming out, and then he pushed out from under the body and scrambled up and against the wall. Then he looked down. The brief skirmish had left the body rolled onto its back and her yellow flowered dress was stuck to her belly where there was a mass of blood that made a large stain that swallowed up the little blue flowers like the night coming on. One flat black shoe still clung to her right foot. He wondered if someone had taken the time to put it back on. The other foot was bare and he could see that her toes had been painted in bright pink nail polish. The eyes were open and staring and the mouth was agape as well. The stringy brown hair lay in tangled streamers around several mops and brooms. The head rested on a feather duster which flirtatiously stuck out from behind her ear.
Mark shook his head and swallowed a lot of whiskey at once. “A show girl for the damned,” he said quietly.
I said nothing. I wasn’t sure what to say.
“At first, I just looked at her. I thought about it all rather calmly. There was blood on her hands. I thought that she must have tried to press the wound or fought with her killer as she was dying. There was blood spattered a little on her face too. But not as much as I would have thought,” he bent his head over his drink. “I thought someone must have cleaned her up a little and put shoes on her before moving her there. They couldn’t have killed her there. There would have been blood everywhere. I could see…at least I thought I saw…that her stomach was slashed nearly open. It was hard to tell because some old towels had fallen on her. It was her belly that was cut. And then I thought she must not have been dead very long or she would smell even worse. And I wondered why? Why would someone put her in the janitor’s closet?”
He took his head out of his hands and shook himself out of the memory and continued. He said he had finally realized that he had to do something. The contents of hell and a janitor’s closet had burst forth on top of him and his mind rooted for some appropriate reaction. The right thing to do.
He wanted, he said, to walk calmly out to the foyer and alert someone. He would have to step over the corpse to do it. His body failed him as some primitive awe for the dead overtook him. He decided then that he could at least call to someone. He opened his mouth and was surprised to hear an eerie and trembling sound force its way out of the depths of the his body. There seemed to be nothing more he could do.
Shortly after that, he saw some people come running into the room and stop short on the other side of the corpse in the pile of junk. The gray haired hippy woman…
“Angel,” I said.
He waved off my help, “A guy with a beard and big glasses, and some guy with wavy black and gray hair in a plaid shirt. I think they called him Dan.”
“Harold,” I said. “And Dan runs the garage. He’s never there I don’t know how he keeps it open.”
Mark glared at me, so I shut up again.
Mark said that by this point he was nearly insensible, panting and moaning and holding a dust mop between himself and the corpse.
“I don’t know, maybe I was trying to ward it off,” he said.
When he saw the other human beings enter the room, he leapt toward the comforting sight of the living, jumping nimbly over the body and landing with his left foot in the mop bucket. He slid gracelessly across the room and bounced off the far wall and fell flat on his back. His head hit the floor with a solid thunk.
He looked at me dead in the eye. “You might think that this worst part of this story is over,” he said. “But it’s not. It actually sort of got worse. In a way…it got weirder.”
I winced. I didn’t know where this was going. However, I knew where it was coming from – Whistlestop. I might be shocked but I wasn’t going to be surprised. I nodded my encouragement.
“So they’re all standing there staring at me, right?” he said. “So I’m thinking, okay Mark ol’ buddy keep your cool. You’ve already been through the shock of this. There’s going to be a little mass hysteria now.”
The three of them, Harold, Angel and Dan, stood over him for a minute Mark said, staring. Then Harold helped him up and plopped him on a stool in the corner.
He said Harold stared at him for a minute and looked at the pile of junk and said, “I thought I heard a commotion in here.”
Angel said, “I thought it was you, Harold. Dropping things again.”
Mark was uncertain for a moment if any of them even knew there was a body in all the junk that had fallen from the closet. He shakily pointed it out.
Mark said, “Dan – that’s the plaid shirt guy right?” I nodded. “He turned and looked down and shook his head and said “Damn…sure enough. It’s a dead woman.”
“What did Angel do,” I asked.
“She told Dan not to cuss. And then she and Harold looked at the body. Really casual. Harold had his hands in his pants pockets like he was talking about the weather at in front of the diner or something.” Mark said. “They all stand there looking and Harold starts shaking his head. And Angel says something about the Lord Almighty. They just stand there looking down.”
I nodded again.
“So, I’m waiting for the light bulb to go off, right?” said Mark. “Police to be called - maybe a little crying – a little scream from Angel. Something. And Dan turns and looks at me and says, ‘Why in the Hell would you come in here opening doors like that? What on God’s green earth were you thinking son?’”
“I bet Angel didn’t like that,” I said. “After she told Dan to quit cussing.”
Mark glared at me. “How did you…?” he said. Then he sighed, “Yeah..She told him that she had already said she didn’t want hear any cussing. Because, you know if there’s one thing that can make a murder worse than it already is, it would be saying a swear word.”
He went on, “So then they all look at me and Angel says, ‘Didn’t you say you had to use the restroom? This is a broom closet. Why were you opening up the broom closet?’
He paused dramatically, “Do you get it? They were upset because I had opened the door. Not that there was a corpse in the closet. There was a dead woman. And they wanted to know why I had opened the door.” I sincerely wished I could express more surprise.
“So what happened next?” I asked. “Did they call Constable Henry?”
“So first,” Mark said, “That Dan guy makes a joke that maybe I opened the closet because I wanted to help sweep up. Then...uh…Harold…he starts asking me how I got lost trying to find the bathroom. He was like ‘didn’t Angel tell you it was in the room right before the antique meat grinder’? And I said yes. I saw it right out in the hall, the meat grinder I mean. He’s asking me about a meat grinder and we’re still in this storage room with a dead lady. And I’m explaining how I got lost going to find a toilet. And all the while she’s still dead. Just laying there. And I’m talking about not being able to find my way to the toilet.”
He took a rather large swig of his whiskey. He paused dramatically. “So guess what?”
He waited for me to respond, frowning.
“Um what?” I played along.
He ran his fingers through his hair and then he suddenly giggled. I resolved to have the bartender cut him off.
“What I saw was a coffee grinder. It wasn’t a meat grinder at all.” He laughed helplessly. “They sold the meat grinder the day before. Angel forgot. So her directions were wrong.”
“I bet Harold explained the difference to you,” I said.
Mark nodded. “At length. He said he didn’t want me to get confused and get into this kind of a situation again.” Mark giggled again and a slight hiccup bubbled up and caught him by surprise. “A situation. With a corpse. Because I didn’t know the difference between a coffee grinder and a meat grinder.” He swallowed the last of his alcohol at once.
Then he frowned, “You don’t think I will do you?” he asked. “Get into another situation like this one?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not the sort of thing that happens twice,” I said, trying to comfort him. “Especially if you stay out of Whistlestop.”
“I can promise you that!” he said, thumping his fist on the table.
“So…?” I asked, gently reaching across the table and moving his arms out of danger of the spilled liquid. “What happened?”
Mark said someone must have finally called the constable. At the same time, the “situation” at The Laughing Pink Elephant somehow telegraphed itself through the clairvoyant atmosphere that envelops every small village. So by the time the constable showed up there was already a crowd out front. Constable Henry questioned Mark briefly without telling him whether or not he was free to go, leaving him standing in the hall outside the storage room so that he could go to the foyer to phone Mrs. Henry to tell her the bad news about dinner.
As soon as the constable had finished speaking with him, a reporter (actually the reporter) from the Whistlestop Gazette pushed through the crowd to ask if he knew the victim, what brought him to town and what made him open the wrong door. Mark ended up in the hall by the foyer where he was blocked from leaving by a knot of villagers who were eagerly discussing the case. He wanted to make his way over to Constable Henry to find out if he was free to go.
“I could still smell the body,” said Mark. “I don’t know if it was my imagination or if the smell had soaked into my clothes. I just needed to get out of there.” He shivered and wrinkled his nose. “I think I can still smell it. Sometimes I still smell it. Took four showers when I got home. I still smell it.” He inspected his empty glass and looked at me. I sighed and ordered him another.
“So,” Mark said, “I’m just standing there listening to them. Angel is complaining because they may have to close the store and someone has to clean up the mess and, of course, that someone is going to be her. She glared at me every time she made that point. And Harold is trying to explain the difference between a coffee grinder and a meat grinder to three other people, and this fancy looking blonde woman with perfect hair and expensive shoes…”
“Mary Brooks,” I say.
He shrugs, “Anyway, she’s going on about how embarrassing it is and wondering what it’s going to do to tourism. And some smelly guy with this weird hair that sticks up is patting my arm and telling me that the same thing happened to his old Dad. I think he smelled worse than the corpse.”
“Homeless Tom,” I say.
“And some priest is talking to some old ladies and they’re all cackling about what’s the world coming to and once upon a time things were safe,” he sighed.
I shook my head, “Not in Whistlestop they weren't…” I muttered to myself.
“And Dan keeps saying, ‘It’s a Hell of a thing’ and Angel is interrupting herself to tell him not to cuss and the constable is on the phone to his wife telling her that he’s going to be late to dinner and that he can’t help it she has popovers…” He trailed off and stared into space.
I could tell he was drifting away. The whiskey was getting to him.
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“At that point,” Mark yawned, “I realized that the dead woman was probably the most sensible person in town, even if it was damned hard to get over the way she smelled. So I walked back into the room where she was. There was no cop to stop me or anything.”
“There’s only Constable Henry,” I said. “If he was on the phone to his wife, I guess not.”
“Anyway,” said Mark, “I stared down at her, with her little feather duster next to her head, no one caring that she’d been murdered or anything and I said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. I hope you weren’t from here.’”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
Mark tried to explain. “I wasn’t being flippant. I just didn’t know what else to say to her. It seemed like someone owed her an apology. I mean, the murderer sure, but an apology for all of them…us.”
He sighed. “I popped out the old screen, crawled out the back window and went to my car in the parking lot and left. That was it. I don’t know what happened.”
We sat quietly for a moment. Then Mark said, “So do you think they’ll come after me or something? Nobody told me I was free to go or anything.”
I thought about it for a minute. “No,” I said. They’ve probably already forgotten you. You’ll just end up being some stranger in town in one of the stories they tell themselves. You might be the villain or you might be the pawn in their story. But the real, actual you doesn’t matter a fig to them by now.”
He nodded. “Good,” he said.
I called the school and cancelled class and took him home and left him on his couch. As far as I know, no one from Whistlestop ever contacted him about the case and he never went back.
The story of the dead lady in the closet is another story for another time.