The fire alarm down at the paper mill goes off again, and enters the world through every earhole in the city. Large and sustained, a signal for an imminent danger neither us had to be concerned with. I let myself out of the car in our driveway, and get out my key for the front door. Push it forward into the open concept kitchen, where I don’t do the dishes.
I put the black kettle on a reddening burner. Wait for steam. Think about you back at the field, and inch my bleacher-chafed arse around the cool until I could get warm enough to slip off my toque. I uncurl onto the futon in the living room, press my face down onto its synthetic fabric. Breathed dust and tiny plastic fibre. I start trying to build demarcations in my memories again, to determine when the futon stopped being mine and Karen’s, and started being ours. When everything in the apartment stopped being mine and Karen’s and started being ours.
Like always, I can’t determine it. But tonight it seems most logical the place is actually ours. The three of ours.
The kettle starts harmonizing with the murder cry of the fire alarm down at the mill, so I get up to take it off. My mug is white and thick and deep and porcelain when I pour white liquid into it. This is why I came back to our tiny apartment, to fill the thing with warmth; drag it back to the bleachers with me; something to furl my hands around in the unseasonal cold.
It’s August. I’ve taken to wearing hoodies again.
Karen was killed in our bathroom about a year ago.
When I sneak back to the field, I make sure not to drip any liquid on our floor. I was hoping you hadn’t scored. Hoping you would score after I got there.
See, Karen never wanted me so bad until she found the stains your blood left on our bed, after the first night you slept there. And I liked the way she looked at me, as she pulled off the cover layer and saw them. I thought I heard everything click in her head. I was a fucker. I’d never been fucked by anyone like Karen when she was that jealous, and all I wanted was to keep it going.
That first night, before you bled onto our bed I spurted blood onto your boyfriend’s bathroom mirror, pulled my face toward the glass and popped a pimple. It had been nesting above my left eye, I’d seen in my reflection in an empty glass.
I stumbled out of the bathroom and walked hammered amidst loud Jamiroquai; amidst human bodies pressed together in tight clusters, sweating and talking about me. They were all talking about me, like they start to do at every party, eventually, and I kept my head down and walked into your boyfriend’s chest, spilling his drink down his belly, onto the floor.
Get a rad, he’d said, half-grinning. Instead, I walked straight through the kitchen, down the hard wood hallway, and out the back door. You were out there because you wanted fresh air, standing around pulling the closest thing to it into your lungs. I said you wouldn’t find fresh air around here, if that’s what you were looking for. You were wearing a cheetah-spotted coat, and stockings. Your shirt was way too big and it draped down onto your bare thighs. I could see muscle pulling lines into them when you rested your weight onto one leg and looked past your exhale of grey, towards me.
You asked if I was bored, too. I said “yeah, you wanna go for a walk?”
My apartment was a few blocks away. We ended up outside the front door. I didn’t know where Karen was.
You wanted to try something you hadn’t done with anyone since you were small enough to do it with your dad; I hunched down and let you climb onto my shoulders your legs stretching down to my waist as I stood up. I held you aloft like that and tried to stay as still as possible, fishing around in my pocket for the key. You were crying out because you thought I was going to drop you, and I got scared thinking someone from the party was going to hear us, that they had followed us here.
I got the door to open and it swung forward into the big space of the kitchen. Like it’s always done.
The continuum of nights, of letting myself in, these memories are like weeds uncoiling outwards around the memory of not being unable to open the bathroom door. When it was still my bathroom, not yours, and I had to wait outside, pounding and screaming until Jake stopped torturing Karen and slit her throat. And her screaming fell into silence as her life ended.
Sometimes I see myself as the progenitor of the movements enacted in her death. Like my past decisions were the soul reason she died. I let jealousy out of its cage, and it turned back on me and bit my hand off.
You were there that night she died, uncoiled on my bed, waiting for her to stop screaming. And you were the one that invited Jake over, to keep her busy while we fucked around. I didn’t know Jake evaporated and something else took his place after enough blow and liquor.
When I bring you home from soccer, the firemen have gotten to the mill, and unwound their magic through the vacated halls. Through a signal of silence, they have set another demarcation through our perception of time. One squat between the moment a fire has ended and the impending moment another one begins.
You change out of your soccer uniform and we let ourselves onto the bed. When we’re this close, our hearts beat our minds unhinged.
Sometime later I dream I’m at Karen’s funeral and my mom is there and her blonde hair flows out from under her black hat and she looks into my face and tells me you don’t exist. And I try and argue but when I open my mouth a ringing fills the air and men are dragging me backward towards a police car and I wake into a room filled with the racket of the fire alarm down at the mill. Karen’s there like she sometimes is to tuck me back in, and calms me into quiet. It’s like she knows it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted.
There is something different about Joseph, and I don’t like it. Knoxford is the kind of place that makes you think maybe God left it behind. And if you had the burden of dealing with Joseph, you might get a good idea as to why. Knoxford is a nasty, rural, mountainous area of loosely connected dwellings and the occasional coal mine. The people had the temperament of wolverines and the keen intellect of that quadrupeds stool. Among these corn-jack swilling salts of the earth, Joseph was the meanest and keenest of them all. Not that I had any choice in the matter when it came to dealing with him; he had the best moonshine around, all but forcing me to get it from him.
Well, at least he used to have the best. There has been something different about the brew and I suspect that it might correlate back to that devil himself. It doesn’t help that Joseph’s grandpa has been missing for awhile now and his excuses change every time I inquire. Not long after his disappearance was when I started getting reports that the liquor was different. Maybe that old pollock stuck his nose in something that didn’t belong. Now me, I am just a runner, but people are dying and I won’t have the axe fall on my head. This was the most reasonable explanation I had for myself as to why I was here at night spying on Joseph.
“Stupid old man. Sitting there screaming at me with words I can’t understand.” I froze in mid step. That was Joseph. I crept up to a hole in the wall and looked around. He was sitting on his porch with a pipe in his mouth yelling at the apple tree across the unkempt yard in an slurred, nasally voice. A blind man could see that he was beyond drunk.
“Now you’re silent, and I can finally relax!” He then formed a twisted toothy smile. “It’s a shame your old, sturdy bones put a chip in the head of my axe. I could have cut down that nosy bootlegger, asking about you.”
I was right, he did kill the old man. If he finds me then I will be next.
“Profit is profit. and no one gets in the way, of my money…” His ramble then came to a total halt before he spoke again with a completely changed demeanor. “Nooo. No. Not again.” He muttered this to himself multiple times in a tone of disbelief. Even from about fifteen feet away I could see the fear mounting in his dirty brown eyes. I followed his line of sight across the yard to the old apple tree and barely managed to stifle my scream.
Standing over a patch of unusually dry dirt was a shadow shaped like a man covered in rags. It was darker than the night yet translucent, casting a murky gaze on everything behind it. I glanced back at Joseph who was looking at his bottle of gin before looking away and shaking his head. He sat there for a moment in silence, as if gathering what resolve the mere sight of that wraith had not snatched away from him. He then stood up, threw the bottle across the yard and screamed “It’s been almost a year you dusty bag of bones! It’s all my money, now!” He then stormed inside the house and upstairs to his bedroom.
With great apprehension I looked back to the tree to see that the shadow was still there standing hunched over what I now assume to be the unmarked grave of Joseph’s grandfather. I watched as its shrouded ‘head’ glanced up to me before slowly disappearing.
Coming to the conclusion that Joseph was in the comforting embrace of a liquor coma for the night, I lit the lantern I’d brought and finished snooping around the barn. Despite feeling like a chilled brick was lying in my stomach, I decided to finish what I came here for. This hovel of a barn was dingy, dirty, and neglected. The only thing that seemed to be given any habitual level of maintenance were his distilleries. I found myself surprised at how expedient my discovery of his compromised distillery’s alcohol were. Stupid hick was cutting good shine with anything he could find that would not arouse a stink. It was bathtub gin at best, diluted poison at worst. I also saw that one of the half dozen or so distilleries was damaged beyond repair.
Now I know why the old man had to go. It was at this point that if my foresight was as eagle eyed as my hindsight, I would have left that wretched barn. I would have went straight to my car hidden over the hill and drove as fast as what bits of reason I had left in possession would allow me to go. I continued wandering around the barn a bit more until I came across the murder weapon. Hanging on the wall was a rusty, stained axe with a split head. Located right in the break, was a chunk of molding bone. For some reason I felt compelled to reach out and grasp the only unburied fragment of the old man. When it was freed from the defective axe and in the palm of my hand, I began to feel a prickling of hairs across my body. Eyes felt like they were inspecting every aspect of my being. I could feel my legs telling me to leave, quickly and pleading with my head not to look back.
It is here. The shadow wraith of Joseph’s grandpa is here! The lightless areas around this corner of the barn took on a solid form and seemed to creep right up to the edge of my lantern. Despite my entire body being seized by the cold sweat of terror, I continued on this strange and abhorrent course I was on. I took the chunk of bone in my hand, walked out of the barn and on over towards the apple tree. All this time, the darkness stayed right on my heels, just outside of the lantern light. The dirt under the tree looked not to have been disturbed for almost a year, yet no life grew upon it. I could not conclude for certain, but I had the distinct thought that no worms or other lowly beasts crawled beneath it. It has been nearly a year. I sat the lantern down, and began digging through the dirt with my free hand, keeping a tight grip on the bone fragment. It felt unnaturally warm. Finally I touched a burlap sack and stopped digging instantly. My body sensing the threshold of what it should be allowed to know. I then took the bone fragment and dropped it in the small hole then covered it up again.
Maybe now the old man can rest in one piece. I found myself transfixed in morbid curiosity as the darkness seeped into the dead earth. I should have turned back. I should have left this cursed backwater of America and found work running shine elsewhere. Yet the same steadfastness in the face of apprehension that drives us all on unfortunately had me seeing this macabre spectacle to the end. A minute passed, then another, then a few more before the unthinkable began to occur. A solid black ichor began to bubble up from the grave, slowly at first but quickly gaining momentum. Before I was even completely aware of it, the shadow was standing once more over the grave. This time though, its form was as opaque as the oblivion it spawned from. No face, no features, just a raggedy misshapen form. Rationality finally taking hold, I began slowly backing away from this being. A deep, barely audible drone emanated outward from as it as it darted towards the house where Joseph slept. I felt compelled to follow it up the stairs where the door to his bedroom flung open with a bang, waking Joseph from his sleep. I heard him scream as he jumped from his bed, making a thud as he pressed himself against the wall opposite the shadow wraith.
Before either of us could react, it dashed straight towards Joseph and engulfed him. The last thing I – and Joseph, for that matter – heard was the sound of an old man laughing. In about the time it took for the wraith to engulf Joseph it had seemingly dissipated into the darkness of his unlit room. All that remained of Joseph was a pile of mangled, charred bones. In the following minute, there was nothing but absolute silence. My breath was caught in my chest. Then, the laughter returned. Deep, malicious cackling emanating outward in volumes that rose and fell with little rhythm. The shadow wraith started oozing out of the walls like molasses and pooling together over the remains of Joseph. Realizing how finite the time was in my situation, I turned, bolted down the stairs, through the house, and out the door. I ran unaware into the opaque embrace of the night, never returning from the cackling darkness.
He focused on the black cauterized stubs where his fingers had been, staring vacantly past the syringe as the needle entered his arm. The world had become sluggish with the overloads of agony, but the pain slipped away with the ease of the needle piercing his skin. He felt the cold liquid slide icily into his veins and the bright light above him became streaked with every fractional movement of his head; his mind had become velvet lined with a familiar narcotic haze.
Later he distantly felt a second sharp prick as the needle entered his temple and by a tug as the flow was reversed. He looked blankly at the blood filled syringe as its work was finished and it disappeared back into the dark.
In the beginning he had watched every movement of the man in green scrubs, with fearfully sharp clarity and dread filled anticipation. The approach of each new sharpened implement and razor edge became a screaming terror.
He’d memorized every pore of the man’s uncovered facial skin and fell howling into the fiery green flecked eyes that watched him impassively above the white surgical mask.
He realized vaguely that the soft breathed voice had been asking him a question; the implacable demands had now become soft requests.
“Now, do you want to talk about it? Why Mr. Jarret? Why do you hate?”
The voice seemed to come from a great distance and the misshapen words tumbled in his mind as he tried to grasp at their insubstantial edges with his thoughts.
He remembered being in the car, he was angry. The whore had been back and taken her stuff (from him?), making him look like a fool. She was HIS. He would smash her in the face till she begged for his forgiveness and his humiliation was washed away in her blood.
He drove to her bitch friend’s flat, but the lights were out. The neighbours had threatened to call the police if he didn’t stop beating at the front door. It had taken him a long time to find where she had hidden.
Much later when he had and got back into the car, he had been gripped from behind and had felt a sharp pinch in his neck and then the steering wheel was rushing towards him.
His next memory was waking strapped to this cold metal table, shocked by bright circle of lights above him. As his eyes adjusted to the lights and he saw metal beams above him, draped with dust heavy cobwebs that hung like gobs of infected spittle. The warehouse ceiling was at odds with the chemical clean smell of a medical ward. Alarm had sped through him in an electric jolt, this was not a hospital or anywhere he wanted to be.
When the man dressed in surgeon green had first appeared, holding a scalpel in front of his face, he had nearly laughed aloud at the ridiculous sight. The soft granular voice had asked for the first time ‘Why do you hate?’ and he had laughed at him in derision.
As the torture began he raged against the pain, with promises of violent revenge. But the man in green was deaf to his threats and continued on with the tin snips and the excruciating removal of his toes.
By the time his feet were fully trimmed, he had begun to negotiate, to promise money, drugs or any act of violence in the surgeon’s name. But the question remained the same, as did the pain. He refused the answer, even when long stainless steel nails were hammered into his knee caps, each one shown to him with a magician’s flourish, until he could remember nothing but screaming and the breath whined painfully in his throat.
“Why do you hate Mr. Jarret?” The question came again and again.
By the time the surgeon strapped his wrists to the table and showed him the surgical saw, its blade spinning in a blurred circle. He had begun to beg, he swore to do anything, he swore on his mother’s life, even swore to the God he didn’t believe in that he was sorry, would do anything to be better person, to do whatever the man wanted him to do.
Only as the last finger of his right hand was sawn away and cauterized with the flame of a propane gas torch, did he begin to sob in earnest loss.
“Don’t hurt me anymore, please make it stop” He wept quietly “I don’t know why I get so mad, why I hurt people, I’m sorry, just make it stop”
The spinning saw appeared just before his eyes and he felt wet spray of his own blood on his face.
“Why, do you hate Mr. Jarret?” The voice was still emotionless and demanding.
“Because, I wanted to mean something, feel important and because everyone else is worthless compared to me” He felt like he was speaking aloud in his mind and was surprised to feel a burden lifted as if something had been broken free from inside his chest.
“That’s very good Mr. Jarret, now tell me why you killed her?” The voice asked softly
He had denied it for so long despite the pain, despite the agony, he would not admit it. But now he floated above his fear, all pretence in him had been burned away by the agony.
“Because I enjoyed hitting her, it felt good; I enjoyed hating her, it made me feel powerful and important. Did you know her? She was very beautiful…other men must have wanted her, but she was mine. She was mine.” He whispered in reverence of the memory, “Did you know her?” He asked desperately.
Now the surgeon leaned over him, the green eyes regarding him dispassionately above the surgical mask, while he still held the bloodied saw that had recently removed his last, little finger.
“No Mr. Jarret, I did not know the deceased young lady personally, but I have studied your life and I have witnessed your handy work on the innocent. You have lived a life of hate. But now you are free Mr. Jarret. Aren’t you?”
‘Watched’ he thought, he had known all along. This was his punishment.
“Thank you” He whispered “Will you let me go now, now I have learnt my lesson, now I will be a better person?”
“I have already set you free Mr. Jarret the last injection as well as a happy dose of heroin, sadly also contained Tetrodotoxin, a very quick working poison derived from the blue ringed octopus, you may be feeling it work about now. It is I am afraid, most deadly.”
The words took seconds to penetrate his senses and panic seemed to bloom in his brain. But as he tried to move, he found parts of his body were already paralysed, he tried to speak again, but his throat was constricted. He spasmed and thrashed before with one last lance of pain in his mind he slipped away into utter darkness.
The surgeon held his blood coated syringe up to the light and looked deep into the red fluid within the chamber, watching thin black streaks circle with angry intensity. He nodded in understanding, the entity within had lost control of its host’s sensations and emotions, he could understand the parasites loss; it was after all his gain.
He smiled as he washed the saw in the makeshift antiseptic wash, about a job well done. The prey was so often difficult to get to the surface, wrapped in the very emotions and synapses of their flesh bound hosts. But with the right application of pain, fear and timed poison, not to mention the very masterful coaxing of a virtuoso, they could be extracted. He was satisfied that he had captured all of the spirit creature from the man’s being and sent the flesh pure soul into the beyond, a service he offered the universe for free.
Humming cheerfully he injected the fluid into his arm feeling the ever familiar rush of intense pleasure as the creature was absorbed in the endless burning furnace of his ancient soul, feeling youth and power like a conflagration in his veins as he fed.
As the fire subsided he continued cleaning the blood spattered tin shears and began to sing quietly ‘C’mon baby light my fire’. By the side of the sink on a table, the hospital records of a battered young wife whom he had come across in his surgical mask, who seemed a promising lead to his next quarry. He only hoped her death would come soon enough to over excite and expose his prey.
Up the moss covered rocky hills where trees don’t grow but the ground rarely sees light. The top of the hill always seems to be enclosed in thick fog with a great house veiled in the midst of it. The house stood decaying due to years of neglect in the mist but still stands firmly no matter how hard the wind blows. The inside, I’ve been told, contradicts the outward appearance with everything in its place as if frozen in time, but signs of the original owners are absent as they themselves have been missing for years. This dilapidated residence belonged to the Conklin family. Nebuchadnezzar Conklin, a researcher and teacher of archaic occult practices, his wife Henrietta and their twins Janelle and Jules all vanished after reports that Nebuchadnezzar locked himself away in his library reading over aged manuscripts, translating them from unknown words to Akkadian and retranslating them to, of all things, music notes.
The last time she was seen in town below the fog covered hills; Henrietta Conklin said her husband would either be frantically flipping pages of books or scratching on paper while mumbling to himself or playing “malevolent” notes on the grand piano that was locked with him in the library. The musical notes made her body cold and made her doubt her sanity because whenever the notes were played she swore the color of the world fades. When asked why she left the twins in the house with such an evil composition, she would look on as if concerned for the ones asking questions and reply, “I don’t have children, I’m not even married.” The response haunts those who’ve heard it and those still investigating the family’s disappearance to this day. Were her nerves coming apart or has something touched her sanity?
Days later a frantic call came to the only friend the family had in town, it was Henrietta or they thought it was. They said Henrietta spoke in a “metronome” pattern, her words mixed with either gibberish or an unknown language. The friend said they could hear frantic slams on piano keys accompanied by an unfamiliar chorus of either brass or woodwind instruments. At one moment, Henrietta would stop in mid sentence and start laughing hysterically before her voice was replaced by that of a child who continued the conversation where she left off. It was possibly one of the twins who according to the friend sounded more disturbing than her Mother. The friend could not describe what the child was like over the phone without sobbing uncontrollably but said it was nothing they’ve ever heard of and would rather die horribly than to hear it ever again.
After that call, the police arrived at the Conklin house and found it to be silent. The officers searched all over the property with no success before going into the house itself expecting to see a scene of gore and malice, the officers found none. In fact they found absolutely nothing wrong in the house. The furniture were sitting properly in their places, the hardwood floors reflective like mirrors, doors open with no signs of recent violent use of force. It was not till the officers got to the library and were about to open the door, they heard a single deep note struck on the piano. There would be a two second delay before the same note was hit again. As the officers opened the door they saw sitting at the piano a large humped thing in a tattered cloak, the only thing they saw was its large claw jabbing the piano key. The officers who saw it where later relived from their duties after it became apparent that their nerves were broken beyond repair. There’ve been others since then who dared enter the Conklin house to see the thing in the library and all have said they saw the same thing sitting at the piano. I’ve seen it too now, the Thing that resides in the Conklin house.