This short story served as inspiration for the screenplay for STUNG (2015)
Hello, and thanks for choosing Kill Club, the premier provider of bespoke in-home murder kits delivered right to your door. Recommend a friend at get a 10% discount on your next delivery!
This murder: Home Invasion. Difficulty Level: Intense
Electronic voice changer
Heavy workman boots
1. PREPARE YOUR LOCATION: Pick a home on a secluded street, preferably one where a helpless family lives. We recommend staking out the location for at least a week before the murders in order to get a sense of the family’s habits. During this time it is also recommend that you alter the animal mask by spraying it one uniform color.
2. ENGAGE IN PSYCHOLOGICAL TORTURE: When the family is least expecting it, insert yourself into the mundane moments in their life. Call the house repeatedly and use a combination of heavy breathing as well as mysterious threats by way of the voice disguiser. Let them catch your reflection in a mirror, or see you standing across the street doing nothing but watching. Be careful not to give them any reason to flee or call the authorities at this point. This is merely a warm up for what’s to come. Reduce your chance of getting caught by eliminating any animals on the premises, severing the power to any motion detectors, alarms, and land line telephones. (PLEASE NOTE: Always keep your animal mask on through parts 2-6).
3. STRIKE and RESTRAIN: Once the family has been sufficiently drained by the emotional stress of knowing someone is waiting and watching, it’s time to strike. Dip a handkerchief in chloroform and hold it over each victim’s mouth for ten to twenty seconds. Be sure to take out the strongest member first and work your way down from there. Once you have them subdued, set to restraining them with the rope as shown in the figure below. Arrange family members in a circle atop the tarp. Be sure to destroy any cellular phones or any other devices that could be used to alert the authorities.
4. DEAL WITH ANY UNWANTED AUTHORITIES: In the event that one or more family members was able to contact the authorities, deal with first responders accordingly. Ideally, let your victims believe that they have been saved, using them as bait, and strike at the very moment they have let hope override their fear. Use the first responders’ radio to let their dispatch know that all is well, then destroy said radio equipment. If no authorities have been alerted, skip this step and move on to #5.
5. KILL: This can be done in any number of ways, but a swift slit of the throat with the machete is preferred for dramatic effect. A jab to the heart will be more subdued, and will also allow you to control splatter. No matter how you decide to do it, have fun -- it’s the only way to cement yourself as a member of KillClub! We recommend standing over each family member in order to watch the life slip from their eyes.
6. DISMEMBER: Congratulations! You’ve got dead bodies to deal with. Sever the limbs of the bodies with the machete, taking care not to spill blood off the large tarp. Once the bodies are fully dismembered, wrap up the tarp with the remaining rope or duct tape and dispose of your victims in a secluded area away from authorities.
We hope you enjoyed your KillClub! experience.
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NEXT MONTH’S KILL: Chainsaw massacre!
Originally performed live at The Spoken Word, New York City, July 25th, 2016.
In 1924, in Paris, France, three great artists carefully staged a new opera entitled Danse de Nuit, or Night Dance. The Russian choreographer collaborated with the German composer who recruited his wife, to play the lead part, so beautiful was her voice. The opera was performed flawlessly. However, upon the finale, during the rapturous applause, an interdimensional portal to hell was opened inside the grand Palais Garnier. It would not be the last time such an event occurred.
The composer always waited for the sweet sound of applause before taking his place for curtain call. From behind the curtain, the audience’s clapping and cheers suddenly drew inward, the entire theater draped in a hushed silence. He stormed through the curtain, sensing something was wrong. The composer’s eyes betrayed him.
The entire audience was on fire, their heads great jack-o-lanterns of white-hot pain and suffering. The center of the auditorium had collapsed into a glowing red sink hole, taking half the seats with it. A blood-red harpee crawled out of the chasm, flew into the air, and landed on the composer’s head. As the creature plucked his eyes from their sockets and began to eat them, dozens more of the winged creatures emerged and descended on the line of performers. The entire cast was dismembered and maimed. Then, a great rumble echoed from the hole in the auditorium as a humongous, horned monster rose up.
“I am Abaddon, angel of the bottomless pit! Who dare summon me?” he asked. Abaddon, a great and powerful beast, declared that her would bow to whoever was responsible for his summoning and call them his master.
The choreographer and the dancer stared at the composer’s maimed body and said nothing. The creature snatched them both up and gobbled them down in one gulp. Then the great Abaddon retreated into his bottomless pit, the throngs of harpies following after. The theater burned, there were no survivors, and the Parisians mourned the loss of so many.
Scholars of the arts lamented the supposed genius of the opera and longed for it to be performed again. Extensive notes on the staging of Danse de Nuit were kept, and they were able to recreate the Opera perfectly.
So on the anniversary of the Paris tragedy, the opera was revived, this time on the great stage in Vienna. Tickets to the show were nearly impossible to get, with throngs of people showing up simply to wait outside. From the street, they could hear the final drum beat crescendo, signaling the end of the opera. Applause, then an absence of noise as the ornate stone facade of the theater crumbled and Abbadon lurched forth, his great black horns steaming in the night air.
“I am Abaddon, angel of the bottomless pit!” And again he asked: “Who dare summon me?”
The mayor of Vienna stepped forth and claimed himself Abaddon’s master, but the creature smashed him into jelly with his palm and screamed “Liar!” He scooped scores more into his gaping fanged mouth, gulping them down like ripe fruit. With nobody left to claim responsibility for his summoning, Abbadon retreated again into the pit, leaving Vienna to burn. The story spread far and wide, even making headlines in the united states. “Opera of Death?” asked the New York Times. Inevitably, the people only craved more.
In 1943 Hitler staged a performance in Berlin. It was widely believed to be an assassination attempt and the death toll numbered in the thousands. Many survivors claimed that Abbadon, the star of the show, barely made an appearance. While his harpy army reaped all the spoils, survivors insisted that the great horned beast looked rather bored and retreated into the great pit soon after being summoned.
On New Years Day, 1950, in Chicago, the opera was staged beneath a great glass dome which had been blessed by clergy from seven different religions. The orchestra performed with precision, their heads exploding in unison upon playing the final notes. The performers were decimated when Abbadon unleashed a stream of molten fire from the center of his chest, vaporizing many in an instant. Upon discovering the glass barrier, the demon became enraged, banging his fists against it. Abaddon could not escape and he snarled at the thousands of people who had come to gawk at the great and powerful angel of the bottomless pit.
“Who dare summon me!?” He screamed yet again.
Several people attempted to claim responsibility, but Abbadon denounced them all as liars.
Just before he was to return to his pit, a young woman approached the glass and placed her hand there. She explained that no one person was the author of Danse de Nuit, and that each time the demon was summoned, in fact, dozens of people were responsible. Singers, musicians, the nice young man who operated the spotlight. Abbadon did not fully understand, and decried that he was being made to suffer each time he was summoned to the surface world. For without a single master, he was useless. He could not be a servant to many. “Cease calling upon me, lest humanity suffer for eternity!” he bellowed.
The young girl explained that there was no way to ensure the performances were going to stop -- the opera had been copied many times over. Abbadon proclaimed that humanity had made a mockery of his power, reduced him to nothing but a cursed curiosity. He was Abbadon, angel of the bottomless pit! Fear him and despair!
Someone in the audience muttered, “Isn’t he in a mood?”
Abbadon began to chant a spell. He grew in size ten-fold and finally burst through the top of the glass dome. He stormed the city, crushing everything in his path, reducing Chicago to dust. Abbadon stormed across the globe, searching for any and all copies of Danse de Nuit. The creature seemed drawn to them, and many people believed he was using some heightened ability, the way a dog can hear frequencies humans cannot. Copies of the show... they were calling the great beast. Armies around the world attempted to fight back, but his power was too great. Cities burned and many souls were stolen to the great pit below. Finally, after weeks of destruction, Abbadon declared that he had rid the world of the ability to summon him. He would prefer if they left him to dwell peacefully in the lake of fire. Before he crawled back from whence he came, he surveyed the destruction he had caused. Abbadon rejoiced for the first time in ages and the pit closed up with a great churning of the earth.
Humanity cursed those they once lauded. They who first opened the door and invited the beast. Rebuilding the world would take many years. Such a lesson was the coming of Abbadon, that generations began to pass down the story as a cautionary tale. Then it became a tale of almost unbelievable proportions and, as children were born who knew nothing, curiosity set in. Abbadon had indeed destroyed every copy of the opera he could find. But surely there might be a way to piece it back together again. To remake it, to do justice to the original and yet find new meaning in such an old and well-worn story.
There have been whispers of an underground performance of Danse de Nuit, of a secret location, of tickets selling out in minutes.
And people are willing to sell their soul for a seat.
“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
“My mommy and daddy had a fight.”
“Was anybody injured?”
“Can you give me your name, son? And your age?”
“I’m Lance. I’m eight. I can’t reach her.”
“Alright, Lance. Take a deep breath and tell me what happened.”
“Mommy and daddy fought, there was a loud bang, and daddy left. I can’t get the door open, and there’s red coming under it. The cats are inside now.”
“Do you know how badly hurt your mommy is, Lance?”
“When I cry, she always comes to see me. I cried a lot, and she didn’t say nothing.”
“Lance, I want you to stay near Mommy, and I want you to know that police are on their way. Can you tell me something? Do you know where your father went?”
“No. He drove off real fast.”
“What kind of car does daddy drive?”
“A big one. It’s red. I’m afraid that he’ll come back.”
“Okay, Lance. I’m going to stay on the line with you until someone gets there. What else happened today?”
“Daddy found out that I was playing in the well.”
- - -
The Jack In The Box had opened a week and a half ago in Mercury, California but Chris hadn’t been. It was while he was sitting in the cruiser in the drive-thru line, waiting for lunch to be handed to him, that he got the call to check out a 9-1-1 dispatch up at the Gehlert ranch. He frowned, fired up the lights and siren. His tacos and potato wedges would have to wait for another day.
Mercury was one big dust bowl. When the sun was up it was a pit stop for people on their way to San Francisco, or Reno. When the sun went down, it was a town nobody knew existed save the meth addicts and cattle ranchers who laid their heads there at night. California State troopers took care of the speed trap out on Rt. 80 and anything else exciting. But Chris was a people person and he liked that aspect of the job. Just last week, he’d responded to Mrs. Lonnergan’s call that there was a dead cat in her driveway. Chris stood over the stiff hunk of brown fur, practically baked into the cement, noting that one of its ears was black, the other brown, and asked old Mrs. Lonnergan for a shovel and a trash bag. Officer Chris Corey wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The Gehlerts lived right on the edge of town, headed west on 80, not too far from the town dump, where Chris had taken the cat’s body some weeks prior. Chris drove down the tree-lined driveway of the Gehlert’s ranch, his stomach growling at him for not waiting just a minute longer at the Jack In The Box. He stepped out of the cruiser and surveyed the property. It was quiet up here. The ranch grounds were scattered with odds and ends, mostly trash, some husks of burned out cars. Probably items they’d taken from the nearby dump, no doubt. Chris jogged up the stairs running their names -- the wife was Audrey (he had known her from Central, where they went to high school) -- Harry was her husband, and he knew they had a kid... he rang the doorbell, which didn’t make a sound, so he knocked loudly. “Mercury Police. Open up.”
He heard a voice that belonged to a young boy -- “Someone’s here now,” it said. The latch on the door opened, and the boy stood there with a portable phone in his hand. He was shaggy, and had a thin sheen of grime to him, like he’d been playing outdoors in the dust. “Hello,” he said. The boy spoke plainly, with a calmness that betrayed any obvious sign that he’d just called 9-1-1.
“Did you call the police?” Chris asked. The boy nodded and opened the door further. “I need help. I know she’s behind there, but I can’t push it open.” Chris entered the house and took in the wicked smell of cat piss and the sepia-toned way the light was in here. “What’s your name, son?”
“I’m Lance,” the boy said. “And my Mommy’s just through here.” Lance led Chris through the kitchen to a dark hallway where a brown door stood only an inch or two ajar. There was a puddle of deep red seeping from underneath it, and half a dozen cats that were padding through the puddle, meowing mournfully. One of them was lapping at it with its tongue. Chris shooed them away, kneeling to inspect. There was a distinct smell of gunpowder about. “Lance, I want you to stand back, okay?” Chris’ stomach growled again as he pushed against the door. Something heavy and unmoving was blocking it from the inside.
“I couldn’t reach her, I think there’s still time,” Lance was saying. Chris’ heart was pounding in his chest. He knew what was on the other side of the door, and he didn’t want the boy to see. “Just -- stay back, okay, Lance?” Chris braced himself, careful not to step in the blood, as he forced his weight against the door, pushing it a few more inches, just barely enough for--
Lance scurried past Chris and squeezed through the space in the door. His tiny kid shoe smeared some of the blood as he did -- “Hey, Lance, don’t--” Chris grappled for him, trying to shove the door open enough so that he could enter -- and as he did, his arm brushed up against something stiff and wet. Chris recoiled, his hand came back soaked in blood. He could hear the kid whispering behind the door, Chris pushing with all his strength... when suddenly, the weight holding the door closed was lifted and Chris burst inside.
It was the master bedroom. The window hung open, one of the curtains billowing in the light breeze, the other torn off the rod as if someone had fled through the window. Sitting on the bed was Lance and a very frazzled looking woman who Chris recognized as Audrey Gehlert, Lance’s mother. Her shirt and jeans were covered in blood, her skin pallid. She was breathing in short bursts, like she’d just run quite a far distance to get here. The boy was stroking her blood caked hair.
Chris stood in the doorway, face contorted in confusion. “Ma’am, are you injured?” he asked. She met him with a vacant gaze, then looked to the boy. “Lancy, you called the police?” “I couldn’t reach you,” the boy said sheepishly. Audrey kissed him on the head. “My sweet boy.”
“Mrs. Gehlert, I need to know what’s just gone on here.”
Audrey scrunched her brow. “I... I can’t remember, really.” There was a shuffling sound behind her and Chris turned to see the back of the door splattered with blood and viscera. Bits of bone and grey brain matter were a patina across the wood, scattered also with buckshot fired at close range.
Chris reached for his walkie. “Officer needs assistance out at eight-eight-eight Mercury Cross Road.” There was a squawk from the other end -- He knew Fat Ron (Chris only called him that because it was true), the other officer on duty at this hour would be at dispatch.
“Be out there in twenty, Chris. Everything okay?” Chris paused, gazing at the blood on the door, then the woman and her son sitting on the bed. “I, uh, don’t really know. Just hurry.” Chris exhaled.
The cats were back, lurking about. One of them pushed the door open with its snout and lept into Lance’s lap on the bed. Chris flinched when he saw it. One ear black, the other brown. The cat purred knowingly. A heavy air seemed to permeate the bedroom, but the moment was cut short by the squeal of brake pads and the crunching of gravel from outside. Lance began trembling and Audrey looked at Officer Corey, her eyes suddenly clear. “He’s home.”
- - -
Harry Gehlert, a tall, broad-shouldered man, stood outside in the driveway eyeing Chris’ dusty police cruiser, his hands held behind his back. Chris exited onto the porch first and the man turned to meet him. Harry, the father, revealed his blood-splattered shirt, yellow under the arms. Chris immediately drew his service pistol -- “Show me your hands, sir. Slowly.”
Harry flashed a smile at Chris as he removed his hands from behind his back. He carried what looked like a piece of smooth stone, about the size and shape of a bar of soap. “Drop it!” Chris screamed. Harry silently refused. “Drop it, or else!”
The father began to chuckle a bit. “Corey, right?” he asked. “You really don’t got any idea what’s going on here. Trust me when I say that.”
“My partner is on his way so I’m going to need you to drop what you’re holding. I’m going to place you in handcuffs, you’ll have a seat there on the hood of my car, and we’re going to talk while we wait...” Audrey and Lance arrived on the porch behind Chris, the boy still trembling. Harry eyed them.
“I see he fixed you up pretty,” the man said to his wife. Audrey nodded. She pulled the boy close to her. “It’s not right, Aud. Our boy’s just not right. And you and I both know -- that the stone giveth, and the stone taketh.”
“Drop the rock, sir,” Chris reminded him. Finally, Harry did drop it into the dirt. Chris approached pistol first, eyeing it as he made his way toward Harry. The rock was pocked with strange markings, inscriptions. He holstered his weapon and fished for his cuffs, instructing Harry to turn around. But Harry didn’t turn around. Instead, he let Chris get in close enough to smell the man’s body odor, his reeking breath. “I never wanted it to be like this,” Harry said.
“Turn around, sir. I’m not going to ask again--” The boy’s father lifted his boot into Chris’ crotch, stunning him with an electric pain that spread from his groin up his spine. Harry unholstered Chris’ sidearm. Chris, lousy with agony, barely even registered it. The man pressed Chris’ pistol to his abdomen, into the place where his bullet proof vest left a gap near his belly button. He fired the pistol three times, each one muffled by Chris’ shirt. The officer screamed out in pain.
Harry marched forward toward his wife and son. She tried to run, so he shot her in the leg, and she tumbled down the front stairs of the porch. On his way forward, Harry knelt and picked up the rock he was carrying earlier. The boy, Lance, remained frozen on the porch. Harry aimed the gun, but didn’t fire on the eight year old. He shouted something Chris couldn’t hear, and the boy reluctantly came down from the porch. “The stone giveth, and the stone taketh,” he said, and this time Chris could hear him. Harry swung the rock, and hit the boy over the head with it. Lance fell into the dust. Harry, his father, continued to bludgeon the boy while he lay in the driveway.
Faintly, Chris remembered that he had felt hungry when he arrived. Now, his belly was on fire.
Harry Gehlert stood over his son’s body. Chris could see bits of bone and the boy’s hair clinging to the blunt end of the rock. Harry dropped the rock, put the pistol to the side of his own head, and pulled the trigger with a muffled spray of red mist. Chris’ world view became as narrow as a pin hole, then all he saw was black.
- - -
Chris awoke to the sound of rushing water. He was being dragged through dense trees by someone. “Come... fucking... on... now--” It was Audrey who pulled at his collar. Chris mumbled and his resistance told her he had regained consciousness. She stopped dragging him. Chris could see the Gehlert’s farm house through the trees. He turned, noting the pain in his abdomen, and saw that Audrey had dragged him toward a boarded-up well at the edge of their property. The ring around it was cemented with smooth, round rocks, each one pocked with those strange engravings. A conspicuous indentation where one of the stones was missing. Chris could hear the rushing water from inside the well. It sounded clean and clear and crisp.
He wondered how long he had been out -- how long before Fat Ron showed up? “Okay, listen to me. There’s something inside the well. It didn’t work for me or Harry. But it did work for Lance. Whatever it is -- it might work for you, too.” Chris shifted his weight painfully, and before he knew it Audrey had rolled him over the edge of the stone ring. His abdomen flared with pain, his legs unable to work properly.
The well was dark and deep, and Chris didn’t have a chance to debate. He felt his center of gravity topple forward, he scraped the back of his head on the inside of the well, flipped, and watched Audrey recede away from him as he fell. The water was warm and flowing from an unseen source. It rushed over Chris’ body and this is what he saw:
- - -
Three men are covered in soot and sweat. They dig together with shovels and pick axes. One of them stops digging as water begins bubbling up through the sand. Later the three men argue over the muddy pit they’ve dug in the sand. One of them produces a flint lock pistol and executes the other. He flees on foot. The third man, now alone beside the pit, weeps for his fallen friend as his blood runs over the sand and into the pit.
The dead man’s hand twitches.
- - -
Chris found that he was out of air. He opened his eyes and could tell that he was under water, a tiny pin hole of light above him. Chris swam furiously to the surface, gasping for oxygen, and saw that he was inside a cave with a great underground river flowing through the heart of it. The sound it made was deafening. He pulled himself to the edge of the river, cringing at the pain still in his gut.
Chris looked up, and saw that the pinhole of light belonged to the underside of the Gehlert’s well. A series of steps cut into the rock led up to the well, these steps covered in similar markings that the stones were drawn with. There was a tingling in his abdomen and he looked down--
The three bullet holes that Harry Gehlert had put there were flexing open and closed, like pulsating mouths. From one was expelled a bullet, as if from lips who didn’t care for the taste. Then the other two spit up the invading pieces of metal and they lay there near his belly button in a pool of watery blood. Chris watched as the holes stopped cupping open, and simply closed over themselves. His legs, previously useless from whatever was severed, now felt strong and sturdy. Chris stood up and felt something familiar in his gut. He was hungry again.
- - -
“Audrey!” He shouted up. There was a meek moan in response. “Audrey, I’m coming up...”
It was a long struggle, but Chris paced up the length of the well using his back for support, his legs for leverage. He reached the lip and pulled himself free -- and immediately saw Audrey lying in the dust, her leg soaked with blood from where Harry had shot her. The dusty ground around her was also soaked through, and her skin stood out pale in a sheen of sweat. “Look at you,” she croaked. “Good as new, huh?”
Chris looked down. His hands were shaking. He could faintly hear a siren approaching in the far, far distance. Fat Ron would be here momentarily.
But he also knew that the way Audrey was bleeding, the way the ground was soaked... she didn’t stand a chance in the time it would take for an ambulance to arrive. So Chris knelt down to comfort her as best he could. He laid his hand on her forehead, brushed some of the matted hair away from her face. She felt cold to him -- but then he could feel a warmth rush up to meet his touch, as if a fire was lit from deep inside her. Her breathing became less shallow. Chris jolted his hand away from her face, looking intently at the wound in her leg. It was gone, erased, closed up. His mind made the connection, but slowly, as the siren grew louder. Audrey smiled at him.
“You’ve got it now,” she said. Chris looked down at his hands again. They were no longer trembling. “Lance,” she said. Chris helped her to stand. Together they crossed the property to where her son’s body lay, his caved head already buzzing with flies. Some of the cats had taken to circling Lance, the brown-and-black one that Chris swore he scraped up from the driveway of old Mrs. Lonnergan was quietly cleaning some of the blood from its paws. Chris looked away, the siren reaching a crescendo behind him. He knelt down and slipped Lance’s tiny pant leg up, exposing his calf. Because Chris thought he needed to touch skin to make it work. He knew a lot more now than he did just this morning, and isn’t life strange like that?
Chris gripped the boy’s tiny leg and heard the rushing of water somewhere very far away.
Joanie hated weddings. All the bullshit that goes along with them, too. The cake, flowers, the very words “You may kiss the bride,” made her want to vomit all over the dance floor. So, it was to everyone’s surprise that Joanie grew up to become a wedding planner. And a damned good one, at that.
In the past year she had supervised the nuptuals of thirty-three happily wedded couples. “Happily wedded.” Another term known to tickle her gag reflex. Because there was one thing constant to all the weddings she’d overseen: certainly not happily wedded. If anything there was a vacuum of happy. Joanie could see it all over their faces. The groom with his thousand-yard stare. The bride’s smile so wide, you could park a 747 right through her teeth. The respective in-laws, wringing their hands (honey, two-thirds of all marriages end in divorce). And the guests -- weepy-eyed some of them, with their Canon Powershots at the ready -- unaware they were witness to catastrophe.
Come to think of it, there hadn’t been a single couple Joanie’d worked for that she could honestly say were “in love.” She had known love well with Brad, her boyfriend of nine months, who was killed in an unfortunate cement mixer accident. He was to propose, she found out, when the authorities discovered the engagement ring while excavating his corpse from half a ton of concrete. She retreated inward after this, and began to despise the very people she called clients. Had Brad been alive and able to pop the question, would Joanie feel any different? Perhaps. Probably.
They were Kenneth and Dana -- soon to be Mr. and Mrs. Feister-Harris. Kenneth (not Ken) was a droll, soft talker of a man who’d clearly relinquished command of the wedding to Dana, a control freak who remarked to Joanie, upon numerous occasions, that this was her “blessing wedding, and it’s going to go according to blessing plan.”
Joanie turned her pent-up hatred toward the minutiae of bridaldom. Dana’s dress was like a glove and not a strand of hair was askew. Everything would be “blessing” perfect, right on down to the flowers woven into the lattice work of the altar, where Joanie found herself directing her attention this morning.
Fernando, her flower guy, had gotten sick during prep. A nosebleed, she heard from the caterer. Joanie had to drive to the site in order to finish what he’d started, despite herthrobbing sinus infection (she was sometimes prone to these). Mouth breathing was not Joanie’s preferred method of respiration, but this morning it would have to do.
She quietly cursed to herself as she wove the stems into the cheap plywood trellis in the arrangement Dana had picked out months ago -- a gigantic heart to swallow them whole.
The flowers came from an exotic island off the coast of Borneo. When Dana insisted they be special ordered (spiking the budget of the service through the roof) all she had was a low-res picture on her iPhone, and an address with a funky name and a stretch of numbers tacked on the end. “A friend of a friend said she saw them at her cousin’s wedding and they were just stunning. Stunning, you know?” Whatever Dana wanted she’d have. This was the slavery Joanie had sold herself into.
It was only when she saw them in person that she understood what Dana’s fuss was worth. They were spectacular blossoms. Psychedelically colored, no two were exactly the same. They surely had an intoxicating aroma; if only Joanie could unstuff her nose to smell them. She reached to carefully cradle them from inside the box and noticed a residue, a sticky, pink mist, perhaps insecticide or... well, if Joanie really let her imagination run wild, the inside of those boxes were speckled with blood. A morbid thought on this, a wedding day.
- - -
And now, Pastor Mike got the part everyone was waiting for. A few more words and Joanie could get on home and shut the shades and let this throbber of a skull-cramp subside.
“...to have and to hold, from this day forward?” Pastor Mike posed the question like a pro. Dana smiled and said: “I do.”
“I now pronounce you husband and wife. Kenneth, you may ki... You may kiss... you mah-- Excuse me...”
Pastor Mike’s nose scrunched up. His left eye twitched like he was about to sneeze. And sneeze he did. Once, twice, five times in a row, and didn’t show signs of stopping. Joanie watched from the rear-most pew, tickled at the sight of an allergy-prone pastor and, especially, Dana’s bridal bitch-gaze. After at least a dozen volleys, pastor Mike, held his hand up. “It must be these derned flowersssss--”
Kaaaaachuuummm! Even from Joanie’s vantage point, she could see the red flecks of mucus splatter Dana’s pearlescent gown. Kenneth groaned, Dana gasped, and Pastor Mike wiped his nose on the back of his hand, only to see more red smeared there.
“I’m sorry about this folks,” pastor Mike said, only to launch into another fit. Joanie knew she’d catch shit for this after the fact, but if a tickle of the nose was the worst that could happen...
Slowly, like a ripple effect through the crowd, there echoed the cacophonous sound of more and more violent expulsions. Joanie’s gaze flitted to the cuppola, covered in flowers. The stations of them at the end of each row of guests. As the hankies came out, there was no two ways about it: these damned flowers were to blame. The woman next to Joanie snorted red into her cupped hands. Joanie backed away and suddenly became the world champion of mouth breathing.
Pastor Mike clearly had it the worst and blood was now trickling down his mouth and chin. He moaned something incoherent, then he lunged for Kenneth, the sudden bulge in Pastor Mike’s eyes the last detail she could make out. Dana tried to intervene, but Pastor Mike shoved her away into the lattice work. Joanie watched Pastor Mike wrap his hands around Kenneth’s bow-tied throat and begin to choke him so hard she could see the veins glisten on the minister’s arm.
By now, people on both the bride and groom’s side were having violent reactions to whatever pollen was in the air. Grandma hocked a clot-filled lugie onto Grandpa’s cumber bun before attacking him, squishing his eyeballs between her arthritic fingers. Uncle Martin was strangling his nephew Richie in the aisle. Everything was tinged red.
A scream snapped Joanie’s attention back to the altar, where Dana rose from the crushed heart of flowers like some Romero wet dream. Joanie covered her mouth when she saw Dana shove Pastor Mike from atop Kenneth, then gasped as Dana threw herself at the man who was moments away from becoming her partner, and twist his head all the way ‘round.
“I blessing luuuuuhfff you!” Dana screamed. “Luuuuuhhhhfff!” She stalked on toward the videographer (Stan, a reliable guy) and tackled him out of Joanie’s eyesight.
Grandma was chanting something similar: “My beloved, my beloved, my beluuuuuuuhved,” as Grandpa staggered around looking for his eyes. Even little Richie was getting praised by uncle Marty as he gave his neck the indian burn from hell: “You’re such a dear! You’re a sweet little dear, you are!” And Joanie couldn’t help but wonder what kind of toxins went to which part of the brain in order cause people to pummel their loved ones while at the same time professing their fondest emotions for them. It was the purest form of crazy. Joanie’s sinus infection became a pulsing thing in her skull and the need to get the fuck out of here overwhelmed her--
One of the bride’s maids sneezed a gout of pink mist onto Joanie’s leg as she crawled across the center aisle. Joanie got a look at her eyes -- bloodshot, tearing with allergic reaction -- before the woman lurched forward and asked: “Are you my sweethaaaaaaaaahhrt? Please be my sweeeettthaaaarr--”
The toe of Joanie’s pump connected with the woman’s jaw, silencing her. But the din of the rest of the guests crescendoed and Joanie realized she was going to have a tough go-round getting out of here. Fucking weddings.
And the love zombies descended upon her.
Mr. Skerritt called him “Lucky Lenny,” because everything worked out right when he was around. When Lenny was on the job, no matter how dicey shit got, it all had a way of coming together. But tonight, Skerritt was taking the ultimate nap in Lenny’s trunk.
As he sped down the deserted blacktop of the Garden State Parkway, Lenny’s luck tank had just about run dry. Skerritt, no mater his opinion about Lenny’s Karmic ability, was a son of a bitch from way back; a racketeer, a thug, a gangster. Lenny’s Pop used to be in Skerritt’s employ until his battle with cancer of the bladder made him week in the bowels. Lenny was just old enough to fill his shoes. His father’s son. The day after his Pops was buried, Skerritt asked Lenny for his pledge.
Lenny thought he’d made it. He’d finally done something with his life. Couldn’t finish high-school, couldn’t make his pecker get hard. But Mr. Skerritt validated his humongous frame with a pat on the back and a brown paper bag filled with Andrew Jackson’s mug.
Pop. He’d raise the dead if he knew what drove Lenny down this dark road tonight. It was over a year ago. Lenny was taking Mr. Skerritt home from Newark. Skerritt was drunk on Brandy. What started as a rant ended with: “Your Pop, God bless ‘im, was laid up in that hospital, shitting in a bag, when State Police fingered him for bunch of crap he didn’t do. So, I paid him a visit the night he... It’s what your Old Man would have wanted, don’t you think?” Lenny remained silent for a long while, tempted by violence (he could have driven right through a telephone pole), and nodded “yes,” obeying the speed limit. He had dreams for months after. Dreams where Skerritt was standing over Pops in the hospital with a pillow, about to do him in because the cancer wasn't quick enough. And Lenny had to watch every time, his pistol gone from its usual place under his coat.
It wasn’t until Kincaid, that enemy bastard from Hoboken, approached Lenny with a deal. One million dollars if he offed Mr. Skerritt, his boss, and protection from the heat for doing so. Lenny didn’t have to chew it over for long. It’s what Pa woulda wanted.
- - -
Kincaid’s stipulations were this: he didn’t care how Lenny did it (bullet, rope, hell, a baseball bat); he didn’t care what he did with the body (Lenny’d sink it in the pine barrens). He only demanded Lenny cut Skerritt’s right hand from his wrist. The one he wore that clunker of a ring on. Not so much for proof that the deed was done, but instead so Kincaid could stick the thing in the freezer and look at it from time to time as a trophy of his takeover of the South Jersey families. Kincaid would have control of the ports, the shore, the very pine barrens where Skerritt’s body would rot. But it was his hand he wanted.
It was closing time at the Black Horse Pub. Lenny brought the car around back, like usual, and helped Skerritt into his wool trench coat (he was stumbling-drunk.) As he helped the man into the back seat, Skerritt asked Lenny for a smoke. Lenny fished in his pockets for his cigarettes. He lit Skerritt’s butt. “Boy, you are a people pleaser. You’re supposed to tell me to quit smoking, you know? Hell, you saved my life from everything else in this fucking world. You’re just gonna let my lungs rot?” Skerritt puffed like a pro. Lenny smiled. He shot Mr. Skerritt through the mouth while the car idled. Guy talked too much anyway.
Severing a human hand at the wrist was not a problem for Lenny. He had done it many times before. A circular saw and a pair of workmen’s goggles were all he needed to get the job done. Lenny wrapped Skerritt’s hand in a pink pastry box, sitting beside him now in the passenger’s seat. He drove on with Skerritt’s body in the trunk of his LeSable, and a shiny Parkway token to pay the coming toll in his palm.
- - -
Exit twenty-nine, toward Ocean City, was coming up on the right. There hadn’t been another car on the road for miles, something Lenny had anticipated this dreary February night.
The toll plaza lit up the night like a landing strip. Lenny slowed to a crawl. He rolled down his window and tossed the token, inhaled sharply as he waited for the light overhead to turn from red to green, signaling his deliverance... Only, the red light held strong and steady like an all-seeing eye. Pops had taught Lenny that even the smallest slip-up could lead to a big headache. He wasn’t going down for something as stupid as an unpaid toll. So Lenny did what all Jersey-ites were trained to do in such a situation: He honked. And honked. And waited. Then honked some more--
A figure jogged across his windshield. A wiry man with a faded Yankees cap on. His face was in shadow as he stalked toward the toll booth and reached his arm elbow-deep into the gaping receptacle, like a grubby dentist fishing for a rotten tooth. Lenny could read the word “COLLECTOR” across the shoulders of his jumpsuit. The man came back with Lenny’s token. He rapped his knuckles against the glass.
Lenny rolled down the window and the man held out the token. “Don’t take this currency anymore. It's obsolete.” His voice reminded Lenny of John F Kennedy's, except dressed down, casually soothing. “Exact change only, sir,” he cooed.
Lenny didn’t have exact change. He had a fifty in his back pocket, but not a penny, nickle or dime in the car.
“You kidding me? I used these tokens last summer.”
The man smiled at Lenny. “Plenty of summer folks are used to the tokens, but Trenton’s going for the upgrade.” The toll collector pointed to the purple letters that read “E-Z Pass” above the toll plaza. Sure. Upgrade.
Lenny didn’t sound pleading, instead he sounded stern: “Spare a guy passing through?”
“Sorry. No can do.” The red stop light glared at Lenny. For a moment he seemed entranced by the glowing red orb. What if it never turned to green? What if this was the end of the line for him?
The man leaned his head closer to the car. Lenny could make out the salt-and-pepper stubble on his chin, the silver sheen of his shaded eyes. A cat’s eyes.
“You got anything else in here?” He spoke close, precise. The only thing Lenny’s mind’s eye saw, the only other thing in the car, was Mr. Skerritt’s face, frozen in surprise with splinters of teeth glued to his cheek in blood. The turgid smell of the toll collector’s breath drew him back to the here and now. “Hmm? Anything else might be worth my time?”
Lenny fished the fifty from his pocket and rubbed two ends between his thumb and forefinger. The toll collector threw his head back and let out a hearty laugh into the night. Lenny would only remember later that he couldn’t make out the man’s breath even in the freezing temperature.
“Ah, come on. You must have... something.”
The man moved suddenly; a leopard. He snapped his hand through the window and grabbed Lenny’s arm. His fingers were a vice as Lenny felt something -- a bolt, an arrow, quicksilver -- rush through him like someone dumped a hot pot of Wawa coffee down his collar. In this instant Lenny confessed to all his sins; every man he’d maimed, killed, buried, and forgotten came rushing out of him like decades-old undigested slop. It wasn’t pretty, out there for the world to see, Skerritt’s rigor-mortised limbs like twisted cherries on top of it all. As the man released and withdrew his hand from the car, Lenny slumped forward and pissed himself in the driver’s seat, mumbling something unintelligible.
“Ahha. There it is.” The man’s molesting hand let off steam where the rest of his being remained cold as ice. Lenny looked down at the flesh of his arm where a red hand print seemed to be burned there, already crisp at the edges.
“What the... fuh... fuck...” It was as if Lenny were waking from a deep, nightmare-riddled sleep. He needed to get his bearings. His eyes rolled in his head.
“It’s not an accident, you and I meeting here tonight, Leonard. Your friend in the trunk liked to call you ‘Lucky,’ but... well, he’s in the trunk then, isn’t he?” That voice, smooth as silk.
Lenny had regained enough motor function by now to go for his pistol. He drew back the hammer before it was out of his coat and shakily aimed the thing at the toll collector. He pulled the trigger but the gun just fell apart in his hand, the weighted stock clanking to pieces on the asphalt.
The man leaned in again, wafting his rotting breath. “You pissed someone off, Lenny. Someone you want to steer waaaaay clear of at all times, let me tell you first hand.”
“I did everything Kincaid asked me, I swear.” Lenny’s lap was cooling now. He felt like a fucking toddler.
The toll collector with the cat eyes chuckled again.
“Kincaid? Let me explain something, Lenny. This guy you pissed off... my boss, you could say, he makes the calls around here regarding when people come and when they go. You do know what I mean? You're proficient in such things, correct? You got a kill list longer than my pecker, and that’s a hell of a pecker. We have a system, see. And Mr. Skerritt -- your boss -- he was a part of that system. He was one of my best reapers, and if you want to kill a reaper you need special permission from you know who. You’d understand if you were in that position, yes?”
“You’re loyal.” Lenny’s vision steadied.
“Oh, to a fault.”
“What do I gotta do?”
“You’ll have to pay the toll.” The man winked at Lenny.
“Say I don’t. Say I take off. What then?”
There came a scratching sound from Lenny’s right. The pastry box was wobbling. Back and forth, back and forth. Something inside was moving around. Lenny’s mind cracked slightly, a moment that probably would have had him piss his pants, had there been any piss left in him. The box leapt off the seat, landed upside down on the floor of the passenger’s side, and was still for a moment.
If that was Skerritt’s severed hand scraping around in there (and Lenny was certain that it was) then this man standing outside his car made it move. Lenny looked up at those feline eyes again, knowing that it was something in them that had caused the flesh and bone inside the box to move. There was great power in those eyes, and it made Lenny tremble with fear. This man with no breath, no heat inside him, no soul. An emissary, courier, a summoner. What else could those eyes command?
He smiled at Lenny. “I think you know what needs to be done.”
Lenny glared at the red light, holding fast ahead of him above the toll booth. He slowly reached down into the well of the seat next to him and lifted the pastry box to his lap. The hand within lied still, but he could feel the weight of it nonetheless. He quickly pushed it through the threshold toward the man, who took it and tucked it beneath the crook of his arm.
“The trunk, too, my good man.”
Lenny popped the LeSable’s trunk and stared straight ahead at the unblinking red light. He listened as the man walked around to the back of the car. He felt the chasis lift as Skerritt’s body was removed from the dark space. Or did it climb out on its own? The toll man appeared in Lenny’s window again.
“You’re nervous.” He said.
“You bet your ass. I’m gonna show up at Kincaid’s with nothing. I’m done for.”
“Forget Kincaid. I’ve got a new job for you. You think you’re up for it?”
He gripped the wheel and felt the blistered hand print on his arm searing through to his bone. He finally exhaled, his mind made up. The red light ahead of him silently switched over to green.
Exactly one week after she found out that Pete Meyer had asked Jennifer O'Connell to senior prom, Shannon awoke with a strange tingling feeling in her right cheek. She hadn't been picked by Pete to walk with him through those big gymnasium doors, and it was all she thought about. In fact Shannon was thinking about it as she padded to the bathroom, and examined a small red puckering just beneath the skin. She could feel the round nodule with the tip of her tongue inside her mouth, sandwiched between two slabs of skin, just festering there.
The trouble was that Shannon and Jen were friends. In their girl-club, known by students and teachers as "The Ponytails" because of the way they wore their hair, Shannon was widely considered to be Jen's consigliere -- playing defense for her in the lunch room against sub-par suitors, gladly hurrying to Jen's locker when she’d forgotten her lip gloss, or tracking down the answers to the Spanish final when one of the tech nerds scored them from Mr. Molina’s computer. If a murder of Ponytails were walking down the hall, it would be Shannon's job to quell the asides, something out of a Baltimore street corner: "Ponytails comin'!" When the lacrosse team found out that the Ponytails would be making their presence known at Dan, the captain’s, party earlier that year, and one of them wrote on Dan's Facebook wall: "There will be blowjobs," Shannon very proudly nipped that one in the bud.
"Nice third eye," joked Shannon's dad from behind his e-reader when she came down to join him for breakfast. She shot her dad a shit-eating scowl, and dove into her granola. The stuff tasted like she'd felt recently. Chalky and grey, a poor substitute for anything. Shannon’s application to Vanderbilt was rejected, and she was wait-listed at Brown. It seamed like everyone was getting into their dream schools, on their way to doing great things... While poor Shannon got left behind in the dust. Mr. Perkins, her softball coach, even pulled her into his office to tell her she looked like a zombie out there. Then, like the icing on the cake, Pete asked Jen. Word on the street was that he'd had eyes for Shannon initially, especially since they'd hooked up on the senior trip. Now all The Ponytails were cooing over the snub. So Shannon took all her disappointment and anger, and she balled it up inside. It festered for a week, but now it was coming to a head.
When she excused herself to the ladies room during third period, the pimple on her cheek had inflated into a shiny, red pustule with a perfect little white-head in the center. The thing just screamed "Pop me!" So she did. All over the bathroom mirror -- a squirt of fine, white puss speckled with milky, red. Shannon could feel her cheek drain gloriously... and in that moment, a voice played thinly through her mind, like the voice of a very sick, very ancient woman. Even though the voice was foreign, unfamiliar to Shannon... she smirked at it, taking satisfaction in the very dubious things it said. The voice was right. Shannon had played second fiddle for far too long. She deserved to be in Pete's arms, not Jen. Like a witch, the voice said: "Jenny O'cunt. She deserves what's coming to her!!" She blotted the pimple, applied some coverup, and returned to class feeling a weight had been lifted. She knew now how to proceed.
The next day at school, Shannon met up with three other Ponytails at their locker. They shot her a concerned glance, and when she asked them what was up, one of them laughed and rolled her eyes. The three girls parted like the red sea when Jenny showed up, face red, and eyes wet. She stormed up to Shannon and pointed her finger at her: "YOU'RE the cunt for doing that you did," she shouted, turning several heads. Jen eyed the crusty, red, about-to-burst-again fistule on Shannon's face with disgust. It was now three times the size it was the day before. Then she stormed off in a fit of tears, coddled by her subordinates. "How could she? We were friends!" Shannon heard her say.
The night before Shannon had made a Facebook account under the avatar "Jenny O'Cunt" and left a scathing tirade on Jennifer's wall. "I heard Jenny sucked a guy's cock in the men's bathroom at a Girl Talk show last June." (All The Ponytails had been there, and they all knew it was true, but were sworn to absolute, triple pinky-swear secrecy) The post linked to Pete's profile, and asked him directly: "Still want to take this slut to prom???" Shannon clocked the maneuver as a success when she noticed that Jen and Pete were not sitting together during lunch period like they had been all last week. Shannon sat by herself, occasionally fielding stern looks from the other Ponytails. Her turkey sandwich tasted absolutely divine.
That morning, Shannon had raided the skincare shelf at Wall-Greens on her way into school. After quickly finishing lunch, she booked it to the ladies room. She laid out the creme, the foaming face wash, the benzyle peroxide... In the mirror she could see that the pimple was ready for another draining, something she had been looking forward to all day. She picked the scab open with her fingernail. As she squeezed and squeezed, cheek turning bright red with the pressure applied, the white infection squirted out like toothpaste from a tube. It was really remarkable how much was in there, Shannon thought. This time, however, Shannon's eyes went wide with concern. There, buried deep in the flesh, was a small black node, a seedling-sized discoloration just below the surface.
A sharp pain suddenly pierced her cheek like a hot coal, sending searing lightning up into her eye socket, her sinuses, and beyond. Shannon stood bolt upright from the pain, and squeezed the infected skin between her knuckles, which only turned the pain dial up to 15. Her eyes watered and her vision became blurry for a moment... The voice in her head spoke once again. This time it told her to do something even more egregious than harmless word-slinging. "It's time to step this puppy into high gear, Shannon. Prom is only 8 days away, Shannon. It's do-or-die, Shannon!"
Shannon, entranced by the other-woman shrill in her mind, lowered her hands to the sink, cluttered with the skincare products she had purchased that morning. She gazed from them, back to the weeping wound on her face. Shannon lifted the bottles and jars up in her arms and dumped them in the trash just as a hipster chick walked in on her. She stopped to look at the bloody open wound on Shannon's face for just a beat too long. "The fuck you looking at, bitch?" snarled Shannon as she walked out. "Zen out, Ponytail," the hipster laughed as Shannon dashed back out into the hallway.
The next morning Shannon awoke to a spectacular pain in her cheek. She went to inspect, and found that the pimple there had multiplied into a small cluster of puss-filled sacks in her face, arranged like scales on a reptile, one on top of the other. That black node beneath her skin had grown in size as well... almost seemed to be coiled up, an embryonic form of infection waiting to be birthed. Shannon resisted the urge to pull her hair back into a ponytail today. Instead, she let her dark locks hang down over the right side of her face. The witchy voice inside her head told her it would all be over soon. “So soon.”
At the end of lunch, Shannon approached the Ponytails at their table. She carried with her a baking tin filled with cupcakes she had baked the night before. She noticed the way some of the girls regarded her... then Tess Lautner tapped Jen on the shoulder, alerting her to Shannon’s wraith-like presence. Her hair hung in strings over her right cheek, exposing only her left eye. She looked pail, used up, and tired. Shannon offered the tin to Jen, hands outstretched. “I made you these,” she said meekly. Jen pried open the tin, revealing the chocolate covered delights. “Mrs. Fields. Your favorite.”
Jen laid the tin out in the middle of the table. She glared around at all the other girls as she addressed Shannon: “Why the fuck would I eat anything you made me?” Shannon lowered her head. “I’m sorry for what I did. It was totally wrong, and I know now that I was just being... a bitch. I made these as a peace offering.” Jen still looked skeptical. “They’re not poisoned or anything,” she said. Shannon snatched a cupcake and took a big, gluttonous bite out of it. As her face stretched to engulf the tasty treat, she could feel the pull of the scab, like a piece of too-tight tape. She wiped some of the frosting from her mouth, smiling with teeth stained black. “See? I’m not dead.”
Jen reached for a cupcake, then retracted her hand again. “Still. That was some crazy talk, Shannon. We tripple pinky-swore! I’ll never tell you another secret.”
Shannon smiled. “Cupcakes make everything better, Jen.”
Jen mulled that detail over, and then finally took a big old bite... and the rest is history. After the ambulances came and took Jen to the hospital, Shannon was panged with thethought: “If only I’d put just a little more peanut butter in there. It just might’ve done the trick.”
Jen was severely allergic to peanuts, which Shannon knew full well. She took one swallow of the laced cupcake, and her throat began closing up immediately. As she tilted back in her chair, readying for a full-on episode of anaphylactic shock... Shannon’s heart rate elevated, and she realized that she could feel the gash in her cheek pulsing with each downbeat of her heart.
Shannon came home bathed in a euphoria of revenge. She had seen the paramedics loading Jen into the cab of the ambulance, and it had filled her with great joy. When she saw her father sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for her to return, her glow faded. “Have a seat,” her dad said. “How was your day?” He asked.
Shannon averted her eyes. “Fine.”
“Fine? Okay, because I just got off the phone with your principal. She said Jen got sick today. She said that you had something to do with it. Your own friends... they say you knew that she had an allergy. They say you did it intentionally because of--”
“Oh, what the hell do they know?” Shannon growled. Of course The Ponytails had ratted her out. Shannon’s dad crossed his arms. “I saw those things you wrote on Facebook. Shannon. Over a guy? Come on...”
“Daddy...” she pleaded. Her pulse increased, the fissure on her face throbbing. She could feel it up in her eye socket.
“It was all an accident,” she said.
Dad was having none of it. “Well, they’re barring you from going to prom anyway,” he said.
Shannon couldn’t believe her ears. An anger rose in her. Her dad went on to say more, but her world was filled with a white-hot searing sensation, a whine which drowned out the world. Shannon stormed up to her bedroom, absolutely fuming. She slammed her door, and found her phone ringing: PETE, it said. She quickly answered, breathless. “Oh god, Pete. Thank god you called.”
The voice on the other end was hushed. “I can’t believe you would do something like this,” said Pete. “I’m here with her now. Jen could have died.” The witchy-voice inside Shannon’s head spoke up, but Shannon pushed it away as she listened to Pete continue: “We might’ve hooked up that one time, but... for you to go and do this... I just wanted to tell you that I think you’re a terrible person. You need to hear that. You’ve totally lost sight of everything that’s--”
Shannon recoiled from the phone like it bit her. She hung up in Pete’s face, her very core vibrating with regret. But it was already too late. She’d ruined everything for herself, for Jen, for any semblance of moving forward in a happy way.
As she sat there with her head in her hands, the dull pulse in her face sent her mind reeling. Shannon stood up, slowly padding over the carpet in her bedroom... toward the desk... where she swiped an open pair of scissors from atop it. “What are you doing, Shannie? What’s running through your pretty head? ‘Cuz I can’t get a read on ya.”
Shannon felt the cold tile underneath her feet as she flicked on the bathroom light. Her face in the mirror was almost unrecognizable to her. Gaunt, yellowed, the patch of oozing skin on her cheek the only place where a flush existed, as if it were drawing the blood to it unnaturally. She didn’t bother to examine it any closer.
Instead, she brought the point of the scissors up through her cheek, filling her eye with blood. The pain was incredible, dribbling down through her body like poisoned milk through the depths of a cup of coffee. When the pain reached her feet, Shannon twisted the scissors fully round.
She felt something weighted and twitching, something -- dare she say it -- something alive tumble out from between her flayed cheek and land with a splat in the blood-filled sink. Shannon fell to her knees, the feeling of pressure blissfully relieved. She toppled forward in a heap, and it was lights out for her.
In the momentary lapse induced from loss of blood and shock, Shannon dreamed the following (and it had to be a dream, because it was just too fucking weird):
Shannon awakes again, face down in a puddle of her blood. She briefly has the sensation that someone or something is watching her. She groggily turns over to see a small, scraggly figure standing on the edge of the sink, looking down. Lit from behind, this pale, four-inch pygmy is covered in blood and infection. Thin strands of hair hang down from its head, and it is distinctly female. Shannon just stares at it, wondering and knowing at the same time about its origin. Then the tiny thing sprints along the counter, leaps onto the toilet, and lands in a puddle of Shannon’s blood on the floor. It’s here that she can see it clearly, she can see the loose way its skin hangs, she can see the way its face looks... like a tiny, scrunched up version of her own. The thing laughs at her -- and when it laughs, it laughs the laugh of the witch-voice from inside her head. Then it takes off running, leaving tiny, demented footprints of blood across her bedroom carpet. Shannon begins to woozily follow the footprints down the stairs in her house, through the foyer, and eventually out the front door, before the dream cuts to a hospital room--
--Jennifer O’Connell’s hospital room, where she sleeps soundly, her allergic reaction under control. Shannon sees the tiny, bloody footprints across the floor... the streaks of it that run up the IV tubing, pitter-patter across Jen’s pillow, and lead to a terrible tableau. There is the creature born from the infection in Shannon’s face -- there it stands, trying to crawl its way into Jen O’Connell’s cheek now. The thing has torn a hole in the young girl’s face, and is stretching it to make room for itself inside a new host, to hibernate and fester there and grow into hell knows what.
Shannon snatches the homunculus between her thumb and forefinger, snatches it by the head. It twitches and tries to get free, all the while screaming at her in witch-speak. This thing has been inside her body for some time, and in the dream logic, it knows all her darkest secrets and desires. It screams them at Shannon -- but Shannon doesn’t fall for it this time. She squashes the atrocity mid-tirade between her palms. The residue of it runs down like so much jelly, and when it splashes at her feet--
--Shannon woke up, remembering the dream from a few nights before. She was home now, resting. The doctors had sewn up her cheek and ordered her to undergo some psychiatric testing. She was saying some pretty strange things. The shrink told her she’d experienced an episode, and that self-mutilation was more common in girls her age than people thought. This made Shannon fell a bit more at ease... but she couldn’t shake the dream, or the feeling that there had been something real about it. The voices were gone now. Shannon was left alone with her thoughts.
Shannon spent prom night with her dad. They went out to Chinese food and then watched a movie on Netflix. It was a pretty great night. When the movie ended, she pulled the blanket up to her father’s chin and left him sleeping there on the couch. She went upstairs and absentmindedly browsed Facebook... where kids were already posting pictures from the dance. She scrolled through several of them, until she came to the one of Jen and Pete donning crowns, voted King and Queen. Shannon smiled, thinking that they looked so happy, backlit by the blue twinkle lights hung across the auditorium. How perfect for them.
The next photo of the happy couple was washed out by another camera’s flash. Shannon leaned in closer. She could see it in the harsh light, even though Jen had used concealer. A small, gnarled bump on her cheek.
And it looked just about ready to be popped.
The first time Nancy saw the man in the good looking suit was at her housewarming party, right after the new year. Nancy decided to throw the fiesta to help herself cope with the post-holiday blues, that long stretch of time between January and March when the sun never comes out in San Francisco. Her best friend Vera was sitting with Nancy, gabbing away on the couch. Several people had come already to tell her how lovely the place was, how the built-ins were cute, and isn’t the view just the tits? Nancy glared between the crowd standing in her living room, and got just a peak at him from behind, standing on her fire escape with a group of others, smoking an unfiltered cigarette. The timeless style of his suit was revealed as he turned, staring at her intensely, and walked to the left.
“Who invited that guy?” Nancy asked Vera. She motioned to Good Looking Suit as he walked out of view. Vera just missed him. “Did you see him? He’s kinda overdressed.” Vera laughed her off.
“I don’t know, Nance. It’s your place. Maybe you should go and check him out.”
Nancy’s gut reaction was that Vera was right. But she hesitated. And she a had good reason to. His name was Dan. Dan Brubaker, her previous boyfriend of eleven months. The last time she saw Dan, he said some pretty awful things to Nancy. She never told Vera, or anybody for that matter, exactly what he said. She simply told them they were over, done, kaput. On to the next one. And she certainly didn’t tell anybody about that night she’d popped over to Dan’s apartment, and caught him. Doing what, exactly, she sometimes refused to even let herself believe. No, she’d never tell about that.
After Dan, Nancy had gone through a long bout of the shut-ins. Straight to work, then back to her broom closet in the southern part of the city where she sat watching trash TV, and trying to forget what had happened. In truth, Nancy stayed in because of that plastic bag and the sound it made. Then the phone calls where Dan said nothing on the other end of the line. And the hate texts. Then, one day in November, Nancy awoke to Dan knocking on the door of her apartment. He was there to make good on his promise, that terrible last thing he’d said. Nancy screamed so loud the lady across the hall knocked on the door, and lo-and-behold, Dan did not get to finish. The next day, Nancy began looking, and the apartment in the Embarcadero fell in her lap. She acted quickly, and she certainly didn’t tell Dan Brubaker where she’d gone.
But she wasn’t ready to follow after the man in the good looking suit. She’d already had a few beers, and was nursing the glass of wine Vera had poured her and she worried she'd come across drunk. Plus, it was cold out there in February. She suddenly felt very sad about her predicament, knowing that the party would eventually dwindle. She would most likely wind up in her pajamas in a couple of hours anyway, and spend tomorrow nursing the hangover she deserved for mixing wine and beer...
...three hours after her new apartment had cleared out, she saw the man in the good looking suit again -- standing on her fire escape, smoking an unfiltered cigarette, watching her through the open window. It was raining. That was the first thing that struck her as odd. That it was raining, and he was out there smoking. Only she had watched all her friends leave. This apartment was palatial by bay area standards, but Nancy would have known if someone else was here with her.
She stalked over to the window just as Good Looking Suit broke his gaze with her, and took a few steps to the left, out of sight. Nancy threw open the pane and followed out onto the fire escape, soaking wet nine stories up... But the man was gone. She glared over the railing, hoping he hadn’t chosen her house warming party as the perfect setting for some suicide grab, and found herself relieved that there was no crumpled body lying in the glare of a streetlight below. “Okay, weird...” she told herself. But she was tipsy and her neighbor could probably see right through her blouse it was so wet, so she’d better go inside--
WHAM! The window to her apartment slammed closed behind her, giving Nancy a fright. When she went to open it, the window was stuck shut. Nancy shoved, putting her shoulder into it, but the thing just wouldn’t budge. As she drunkenly thought to herself, “See? This is what you get for moving to an apartment you can barely afford, and throwing yourself a congratulatory party you can barely finish--” when she saw the man in the good looking suit behind her in the reflection of the rain-splattered glass. Nancy gasped as the man’s reflection... smiled at her. That smile said -- “Hello, nice to meet you, Nancy. Even out here in the rain.”
But when Nancy turned around -- the man was gone again. Just as suddenly as it had slammed shut, the window behind her raked open with a SCREECH. The billowing curtains, flecked with fat drops of rainwater, beckoned Nancy back inside... but suddenly she didn’t want to go. Suddenly, her flesh broke out in goose pimples. Suddenly, she wished she’d never even moved here in the first place.
She stood there several moments in the rain, coaxing herself back into her home. “Do it, Nancy. You’re seeing things Nancy. Go to bed, Nancy. Sleep it the fuck off.”
Nancy took a defiant step off of the fire escape, and back into the warmth of her apartment, expecting to see the man in the good looking suit there -- standing, smoking, smiling. But he wasn’t. Instead, there was nothing.
Nancy turned, and closed the window, pausing for a moment to look out into the rainy San Francisco night, just to make sure she wasn’t crazy. She stood close enough for her breath to fog against the glass, and then lept away from it when she saw, written in the condensation, the words: SAFE LIFE.
SAFE LIFE. She began to see it everywhere in her apartment. It was scrawled into her wallpaper, so she patched over it. Her printer suddenly spit out pages and pages, SAFE LIFE written in every font available to her word processor. So Nancy turned off the printer. She’d gone through a few phone numbers already, due to the text messages. SAFE. LIFE.
Always coupled with a vision of Good Looking Suit gazing intently through her windows. It was a gaze reserved for men trying to attract the attention of a woman across a crowd of people, at a bar, or a concert. It was a gaze that said this man wanted her. A gaze that made Nancy shiver each time she saw him. He never spoke, he only ever looked at her through the windows. She’d walk by one, see his reflection, and then it’d slam open. The doors too. Hinges splintered when she saw Good Looking Suit in the bathroom mirror, and the door -KRAM!- flew unbolted. She’d find the front door wide open in the mornings sometimes, puddles in the living room from the gaping picture window. Finally, the kitchen knives. Always on the tile floor in the morning. Woken from sleep one night by her bedroom door slamming open, Nancy went to the kitchen for some water, where she witnessed the top drawer slide open, all her steak knives jump out on their own volition, and fly across to the wall opposite, where they stuck there. “Nancy, get the fuck outta here,” she said to herself.
When she went online to start looking for a new place on Craigslist, the cursor on the browser just kept ticking: safelifesafelifesafelifesafelife.
Nancy stood up from her desk so hard her chair fell over. She screamed at the empty apartment, dialed Vera on instinct, got her voice mail, and stormed out of her home.
Nancy had never dealt with... a situation quite like this one. Naturally, she thought the only solution would be to quietly step away from this, like she did with Dan. She calmly entered her SafeWay, looking for the Real Estate Weekly, because the man in the good looking suit certainly couldn’t stop her from doing this the old fashioned way. She bought her paper, and as she stood in line at the check out... there was Dan Brubaker, watching another clerk put some oranges into a plastic bag. “Better double up,” Dan said.
Suddenly filled with a pang of oh shit please don’t let him see me paranoia, Nancy turned and edged down the aisle, edging out the door. The three blocks home were a tunnel vision of anxiety, and she felt pissed at herself for allowing Dan to have this effect on her, almost a year later... but it was seeing those bags in his hands, and thinking about what he’d done with the last one, that set her stomach in knots.
Nancy swore she heard his footsteps behind her the whole way home, the bag with the oranges in it making a swish-swish at his side. No, no, no. He hadn’t seen her. She couldn’t even bring herself to turn and look back. Especially not the footsteps in the stairwell behind her, coupled with the sound of someone crinkling what could only be a plastic bag, soft thuds on the cement -- oranges falling out? -- as she briskly entered her hallway, digging for her keys. Nancy entered her front door, and turned to slam it closed -- but Dan had followed her home from the grocery store... it was, she realized later, the first time in months she hadn’t thought of the man in the good looking suit.
Dan took advantage of Nancy’s unlocked apartment door, and shoved her inside, knocking her onto her ass. “Nice place you got here, Nance,” he said. Dan removed the crumpled plastic grocery bags, empty of their oranges, from his back pocket. He stared at them with great intensity, as if somehow possessed by the crackling Celloplast.
“You thought you got away, Nance,” he said, standing over her on the floor. “But after what you saw?” Even though she’d put it out of her mind all these months, the image came flooding back to Nancy. Dan, in his living room, with the woman in the short leather skirt. She was topless, his pants were off, and he had that plastic bag over her head, the bottom pulled tight around her neck, her lips shown in relief, her panicked breath sucking the bag in-out-in-out with a sickening, repetitive, crunch-suck-crunch. Nancy knew why she tried to forget it. Because of this very moment. Because of what Dan had said after she’d dumped him. “I’ll find you, Nance. I’ll show you what it’s like to have the bag. And I’ll make you like it.”
Dan stomped forward, and Nancy tried to crawl out from under him -- but she was too shocked and he was too quick. The plastic grocery bag crinkled in front of her face and she read the oncoming words. SafeWay: Ingredients For Life. As the bag was shoved down over her head, Nancy could see the word SAFE in her left eye, and the word LIFE in her right one. And it was here that Good Looking Suit popped right back into her head.
Nancy knelt there on the wood floor of her apartment, gasping for air. She could feel Dan against her back as he stood behind her, choking the life out of her wind pipe. SAFE -- LIFE. These two words she’d seen all around the apartment, so clear and vivid before her eyes now. Not a taunt from the ghost in the good looking suit, but instead: a warning. “Too bad,” thought Nancy, as she struggled beneath Dan’s grip. “Too bad I didn’t decipher that earlier.”
Nancy refused to let this thought of defeat and regret be her very last, but it was all that ran through her head as her vision of the two words SAFE and LIFE began to fade, the inside of the plastic bag becoming wet and slick with her heavy breathing. Her world faded, becoming a narrow pin hole of light.
Nancy faintly made out the sound of something crashing open across the room, the zipping she heard made by multiple projectiles grazing past her. The THUMP on the floor beside her... the feeling of the bag over her head suddenly coming loose -- her hands, prickly with sensation, reaching up and tearing the thing from her face. Nancy turned...
...to find Dan, askew on the carpet, his chest and neck riddled with every kitchen knife Nancy thought she owned.
Nancy stood, coughing, in her empty apartment. She watched as Dan spat blood in his death throws, gurgling, then lay still.
Nancy ran to the front door, desperate to get out and away. When she opened it, Nancy got only about three inches of purchase, before it slammed closed again on its own volition -- like a pressure had suddenly been applied from the inside out. Then all the windows in the apartment smashed open so hard, the glass broke -- gusting cold air all around Nancy.
Nancy spun round in a circle, eyes frantically falling on Dan’s plastic bag twirling in a corner, pinned there by some unnatural force. From the fire escape, the man in the good looking suit glared at Nancy with that lusty, across-the-bar stare. She swore she could smell the smoke from his cigarette waft into the apartment. A warm quivering ran through her torso as she looked from the spectre to Dan’s body on the floor. She realized that he had saved her from Dan, from certain death. It was the nicest thing anybody had ever done for her.
Then suddenly Nancy was ready. She was ready to introduce herself to this dashing man in his dashing suit. “How can I ever thank you?" she asked. "I don’t even know your name."
The man’s lips did not move, but his cool voice ran through her head -- a voice filled with vibrato, the hint of an accent Nancy couldn’t quite place. It was beautiful.
“May I come in?” said the man in the good looking suit.
"Yes, of course," replied Nancy.
And then he told her his name.
Karen hasn’t slept since that afternoon in May when the Army chaplain knocked on her screen door. There had been something on the television about a hurricane in Florida or Alabama, just enough of a story to give her cause to sit up and listen a little harder to the weatherman -- then the knuckles-on-door sound. It's a sound that often wakes her in the middle of the night. “Died in honorable service to his country...” is all she can remember now, as she lies in their bed wishing for Phil’s warm body to be there when she reaches for it. She hasn’t slept in over a month. What’s worse, she knows she isn’t going to any time soon. She is afraid of Phil; she is afraid of dream-Phil. She is afraid he will be there, flesh rotting, eyes nothing but sockets, waiting for her on the other side of sanity. Dread slips between her sheets.
_ _ _
This is Karen’s endless barrage of days and nights:
1. The sun slowly fills her bedroom and she turns off the television just as the good-morning shows are starting.
2. Karen makes coffee. She stares, unblinking, into the Folgers crystals for what feels like an eternity. She waits for something to snap her out of her daze and, more often than not, it’s the dreary silence that reminds her that she is alone again.
3. Karen goes for a jog. These last anywhere from ten to forty-five minutes. By the time she returns, the caffeine inside her has burned off and she makes another cup.
4. Department stores distract her. She finds solace in the appliance aisles, the power tools (Phil’s favorite), and has had more than one sobbing, hacking, sneezing breakdown in the aisle with the picture frames filled with temporary couples in temporary wedding garb.
5. Karen returns home and can’t help but feel her house trying to squeeze her back out through the front door like the last bit of toothpaste in a long-forgotten tube. She turns the TV on and forgets to eat dinner.
6. The bedroom grows dim, then dark, as Karen becomes afraid of dreaming of Phil and seeing his face somewhere else besides the picture she keeps on the dresser. Today creeps into tomorrow and more of the same.
_ _ _
She finds it while going through the garage. The white noise machine Phil used to sleep with after his first tour in Afghanistan. A small, white box designed to drown out the world and trick your mind to slumber.
At first, Karen tosses the thing into the pile for Goodwill. Then she thinks twice about it and immediately brings it into the bedroom and sets it down next to the picture of Phil in full Ranger regalia. She cleans the rest of the garage out with a sense of purpose.
_ _ _
Karen, ready for bed, plugs the machine in next to the lamp. She dials through the settings in order: Rain (soft or hard), Beach, Crickets, Fan, Wind, and White Noise. It’s the last one that Karen leaves on, a continuous sound like air through a funnel of paper.
Ffssssshhhhhhhhhhhsssssssshhhhhh. Something about it causes her to kick her slippers off and pull back the covers. Karen pauses, as if in a trance. She glances at Phil’s photo. She climbs into bed. As the noise fills every space of the room like cement, Karen’s eyelids grow heavy for the first time in months and she... sleeps.
She has many terrible dreams she will not remember, and then Karen wakes.
_ _ _
This is what she hears as her eyes flutter open. Interspersed within the continuous eclipse of white noise. At first Karen thinks it to be residual from her dreams. Some leftover thing that followed her into the real world.
Karen notices it’s daylight out. She’s been asleep for nearly twelve hours. And the white noise, a cinder block over her ears, drowns out the world. Karen stands amidst the static and puts her feet back into her slippers. Now her first groggy task is to turn the machine off and get going--
“HEY. KAREY. HEY.” Drum beats through the noise. Karen glares at the photo of Phil and he smiles right back at her.
She reaches for the switch and has to dial through the presets: Wind (HEY), Fan (YOU), Crickets (HEY), Beach (HEY), Rain (KAREY), Silence.
“Hoooooowwww wasssssss youuuuuuuuurrr nnnnaaaaaaaaaaappp?”
It asks her. It really asks her.
She wants to begin the day. Outside seems inviting to her. The sun will probably feel wonderful against her pale skin. But some part of her also wants Phil. So deeply, desperately wants Phil. “I slept great, baby,” she says. “Best sleep since I can remember. Do ya wanna join me?”
The white noise machine does not respond. It is off.
Karen slowly, methodically, turns the power back on--Ffssssshhhhhhhhhhhsssssssshhhhhh.
She removes her slippers and tucks herself back under the covers. She lets the din fill the room, closes her eyes, and waits for a response.