Tag Archives: Stories

It’s All Part of the Show

Here’s a very short story that I wrote a very long time ago.

It’s All Part of the Show

Rick, the MC, stepped up onto the stage and took the mike from Sharon. “Keep it going for Sharon Bentley…very funny lady,” he said, and the audience obediently kept their applause going as Sharon stepped down off the stage.

By now, most of the audience members were either half-drunk, or totally drunk. They were tired, too; it was past two a.m., and the late-night show at The Comedy Corner was nearly over.

“All right everyone,” Rick said. “We’re going to keep this show moving right along. We’ve only got one more act left, and I see that the checks have come around, so everyone, please remember to tip your waitresses. One of them is going to have a baby; I just haven’t decided which one.”

The audience tittered, and Rick secretly resented them for it. It was a stupid joke and he told it every night. “I’m going to bring up our last comic now…please welcome Brandon Zipes to the stage!”

Brandon came up on stage and took the mike from Rick, who stepped down and navigated through the aisle that formed between the tables. Rick made his way to the back and found a place to stand against the wall, next to Michael, the club’s owner. Tonight Michael was wearing a lime green suit that made him look rather like a pimp. Rick had wanted to do a joke about it on stage, but finally he had thought better of it. Michael could be awfully touchy sometimes.

“So, uh…” Brandon began. That was as far as he got, because at that moment, the floor opened up just beneath his feet, and he fell through the stage and into another dimension. He didn’t even have time to scream.

There was a deafening electronic thud when the microphone hit the floor. Then for about ten seconds, the crowd was completely silent. You could hear the ice cracking and melting in people’s glasses.

Then someone giggled.

Someone else chuckled.

Someone else cackled hysterically.

Then the entire room burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. They rolled around in their chairs and shrieked with glee, until their faces turned red and they gasped for breath. Over the din, Rick said to Michael, “You know, you’ve really got to do something about that. That’s the second one this week.”

“I know, I know,” Michael said. “Just my luck. Building the stage right over a portal to another dimension.”

“Well, could you please fix it?”

“How am I supposed to fix it?”

“I don’t know! But I’m really getting scared here. I mean, it could be me next.”

“No, no, don’t worry,” Michael said. “It likes you.”

“Yeah, well…maybe it’s just saving me for later,” Rick said. “Anyway, I guess I’d better get back up there.”

Rick made his way back to the stage. He stepped up under the bright lights, and, carefully avoiding the spot where Brandon had fallen, he picked the microphone off the floor. He looked out at the audience and smiled weakly. “Heh…that’s right folks…it’s all part of the show.”

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Excerpt 2 from The Hoarder

 

 

Sam had the dubious honor of being the first to make her cry.  They met on a Saturday afternoon in May of 2001, just as the summer she would turn 18 was beginning to blossom, and, up until the heartbreak, it was one of the best summers of her life.  Her high school graduation was in a few weeks, all schoolwork was effectively over and done with, she was headed to Barnard in the fall, and the entire summer lay before her.  Her entire life lay before her, and she knew it.

She and her friend Nicole had taken the subway downtown to the Village, for a desultory day of shopping, strolling, and people watching.  At some point they’d ended up at a record shop on St. Mark’s Place.  Naria had been examining an album by Pennywise, a band her friend Tabitha had recommended, when a boy approached her.

“You could do a lot better than Pennywise, you know.”

She looked up, and felt her face instantly flush.  He was punk rock gorgeous, slim and pale with icy blue eyes and deliberately messy, jet-black hair.  He wore black skinny jeans, boots, a D-Generation T-shirt, and a cocky little smirk.

She opened her mouth, tried to speak, failed.

“If you’re looking for some good punk albums, you should try something like this,” he said, thumbing through a nearby rack.  He pulled out a copy of London Calling by The Clash, and held it out to her.

With great effort, Naria found her voice: “I have that one already.”

“Oh.”  The smirk faded for a moment, then reappeared: “Well, what about The Sex Pistols?  Or The Ramones?  Iggy Pop?  The Dead Boys?  The Damned?  The Talking Heads?  The New York Dolls?”

“Yeah, I’ve got all those too.”

He almost looked impressed, but then recovered himself.  “So, what are you doing buying crap like Pennywise?”

Her eyes flitted around nervously, avoiding his gaze.  “Well, my friend Tabitha said I might like them, that’s all.”  She gestured towards his T-shirt.  “She’s the one who turned me on to D-Generation, and now they’re one of my favorite bands.  My favorite punk band, anyway.  It’s kind of a weird coincidence that you’re wearing their T-shirt.  I don’t know anyone else who listens to them.  Well, except Tabitha.”  She flushed again, realizing she was rambling.  He was just so beautiful.  It was nerve-wracking.

He gestured at Nicole, who was flipping through a rack at the other end of the shop.  “Is that Tabitha?”

She glanced over at Nicole.  “Oh, no, that’s my other friend, Nicole.  I mean, one of my other friends.  You know.”  She laughed nervously.  Her hands suddenly seemed awkward, like she couldn’t figure out what to do with them, so she shoved them into the pockets of her jacket.

“I’m Sam, by the way,” he said.  The cocky smirk was still on his face, but its quality had subtly shifted from contemptuous to a sort of indulgent condescension.

“I’m Naria.”

“Naria?  That’s unique.”  His bright blue eyes were fixed on hers, but she couldn’t meet his gaze.  It was like trying to stare into the sun.

“It, uh…it was my great-grandmother’s name,” she stammered.  “Her middle name, actually.”

“How old are you, Naria?”

“Me?  I’m 17,” she said, apologetically.  “I’ll be 18 in August.  What about you?”

“I’m 20.  I’ll be 21 in July.”

“Oh.  Cool.”  She looked nervously around, desperate for something to say, but finding nothing.

“Well,” he said, “I was going to invite you to my band’s next show, but, you know, you have to be 18 to get in.”

Now she smiled, brightly and confidently.  “Oh, that’s OK.  I can be either 21 or 23, depending on which fake ID I use.”

He smiled approvingly.  “Oh.  OK.”  He pulled a flier out of his back pocket and handed it to her.  “It’s May 30th, 11 o’clock, at Don Hill’s.  That’s over on the West Side, at Greenwich – ”

“I know where it is,” she interrupted, taking the flier.  Her fingers momentarily brushed his, sending live wires up her arm and down to her stomach.

“OK,” he said.  The smile faded back into the cocky smirk.  “But if you come, do me a favor, OK?”

“Sure.”  Anything.

“When the guy at the door asks you which band you came to see, remember to tell him you came to see my band.  We’re The Kick.  I’m the lead singer.”

“The Kick.  Got it.”

“It’s printed on the flier, in case you forget.”

“OK, sure.”  But I won’t forget.

“See you there, then.”  He turned and walked towards the back of the shop, which was Naria’s cue to get Nicole and leave.

The night of the concert was one of the best nights of her life, a balmy, dreamy summer’s night that came to epitomize that entire summer, which became, for her, the Summer of Sam.  Hot, humid nights spent in and out of bars and nightclubs and house parties, strolling the old downtown streets with groups of friends and acquaintances: the winding, secretive, tree-lined streets of the West Village, or the silent, cavernous, cobblestoned streets of TriBeCa, or the East Village, its dark, dirty streets somehow beautiful under the wide expanse of sky that reigned over the low, tar-covered roofs of the ancient tenements and railroad flats.  New York was magical that summer.  It was magical every summer, but some summers were more magical than others, and that last summer before college was one of these summers.

She had had friends, and not just a few, but multiple circles of friends.  She had gone out every Friday and Saturday night, and usually a least another night or two during the week.  She had never had much of a social life until the last two years of high school, when she seemed to start slowly coming out of her shell.  She had always had friends, but only a couple of really close ones, never an actual crowd.  And now she found herself with not just one, but multiple crowds.  It was almost too good to be true.

She spent her days working as a paid intern for an art consultant, and her nights roaming the streets of New York, smoking weed in the dark in Washington Square Park, sitting in a circle on the grass, passing joints around, giggling, and then falling into a somber silence when someone – usually Naria – inevitably mentioned that in the old days, they used to hang criminals from the trees in the park, and that some of these hanging trees were still standing today.  Gazing around the suddenly spooky park, trying to figure out which trees were the hanging trees.

This was usually when Naria told everyone about all the bodies buried under the park, the bodies of those who had died in the yellow fever outbreak.  The park had been used as a quarantine area, and those who died were buried there, and remained there: “We could be sitting on top of some of these bodies right now,” she’d say, and everyone would look uneasy, until someone invariably made some stoner comment that got everyone laughing again.

Warm night breezes smelling of soot and saltwater, blowing down dark, half-deserted streets and avenues.  The smell of summer rain on pavement.  Long, intoxicated walks home through the late-night streets, so quiet and secret they seemed to belong to her, to her and all the others who roamed them late at night.  Shouts of laughter and rowdy conversation emanating from bars, the smell of bars, stale beer and cigarettes.

The night of May 30th had kicked off the Summer of Sam, so to speak.  The concert itself wasn’t bad, even though she paid little attention to the bands that were on before The Kick.  In truth, Sam’s band wasn’t great: they were skilled enough, but their songwriting skills were lacking.  Naria didn’t care.  In fact, she barely even noticed.  She was transfixed by Sam.  Not only was he beautiful, but he had all the naked, desperate, hyperkinetic energy of Iggy Pop.  He may not have had the talent to elevate him to real success, but he sure did have the soul.

After their set was done, Sam invited her and Tabitha backstage to the “green room,” which was nothing more than a bare room with peeling paint, a few cheap tables and chairs, and hard wooden benches set against the walls.  There were about a dozen or so people in the room, all of them either male band members or female fans.

“That’s Scott,” Sam said, gesturing towards The Kick’s guitarist, a shaggy-haired boy with chunky black boots on his feet, who was seated on one of the hard wooden benches. “That’s Clive,” (the bassist, blonde and blue-eyed as a Hitler Youth member, who sat next to Scott on the bench), “and Mark,” (the drummer, who looked a little bit like Professor Snape, and was seated on a folding chair near the other two).  Naria and Tabitha smiled at them and said hello.  They nodded their greetings, all three of them eyeing the two girls distrustfully.

Sam sat on the bench that was situated along the wall at a right angle to the bench Scott and Clive sat on.  Naria sat down next to him.  Tabitha pulled up a folding chair near Mark.

“So, where do you girls live?” Sam asked.

“I live on the Upper West Side,” Naria said.  She nodded towards Tabitha.  “And she lives on the Upper East.”

Scott rolled his eyes.  “Uptown girls.  What are you doing down here?”

Naria raised her eyebrows.  “We came to see the show.  What are you doing here?”

He stared at her as if she were retarded.  “Um, what do you think?  We came to play.”

“Oh, sorry,” she said.  “I thought we were taking turns asking stupid questions.”

Everyone but Scott laughed, making her blush furiously with dazed pride and disbelief.  This was a miracle.  She never had a snappy comeback handy, especially when a boy she liked was around.

“Yeah, well,” Scott sneered at her, “you’re here in a sundress and flip flops.  At a rock concert.  You look like you wandered in here by accident.”

“I came here from work.  I didn’t even think I could come, but they let me leave early.”  This was the truth, and Scott apparently could sense it was the truth, because he said nothing more.

An awkward silence fell over the group.  Tabitha broke it by asking the guys where they were from.

“Needham, Massachusetts,” Sam answered.  “It’s a suburb outside Boston.  We just moved here three months ago.”

“Do you like it so far?” Tabitha asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Sam said. “It’s great.  We work all day, and then we party and play all night.”

“Have you done any of the touristy stuff yet?” Naria asked, in a mildly teasing voice.  “Top of the Empire State Building?  Rowboats in Central Park?”

Scott waved a dismissive hand.  “We don’t go above 14th Street.  What’s the point?”

“Um, to see the rest of the city?”

He rolled his eyes, and another awkward silence fell.

This time Naria broke it.  “Did you guys go to college?” she asked.

Sam scoffed.  “No, we’re not going to college.  What the hell for?”

So you’ll be employable when this whole rock band thing fails, which it will, because you aren’t nearly as talented as you think you are, Naria thought.  But she said nothing this time.

An older man entered the room, looking anachronistic in the same skinny jeans, band T-shirt, and black boots that all the boys were wearing.

“Oh, my God,” Sam said, more to his bandmates than to the girls, “that’s Todd Angler.”  His tone was hushed, reverent.

“Who?” Naria and Tabitha said simultaneously.

“He’s Editor-in-Chief of Scene Magazine,” Sam said, apparently so starstruck that he’d forgotten his condescending smirk.  “He’s been on the scene since the seventies.  He’s a fucking legend, man.”

Mr. Todd Angler approached the group, an indulgent smile on his face.  “Somebody talking about me?”

“Hey, man,” Sam said, and Naria was amused to see that he looked as nervous as she undoubtedly had when he’d first approached her in the record shop.  “We were just saying, you’re a fucking legend, man.  It’s an honor.  Seriously, a fucking honor.”

Angler cast a paternal eye on the group.  “Yeah, I saw you guys play.  You were pretty good.”  It was hardly a ringing endorsement, and the man didn’t even seem all that sincere about it, but Sam and his bandmates didn’t seem to notice.  They stared at each other in mute ecstasy.  For a moment Naria thought they were going to jump up and down and scream like little girls at a Backstreet Boys concert, but they managed to hold their composure.

Angler stayed for awhile and chatted with them about music, and living in New York, and playing in a band.  For Naria, the highlight came when Sam and Scott started talking about their decision not to go to college.

“Everyone thinks they all have to go to college and work in some stupid office and wear a fuckin’ suit and tie,” Sam said.  “Like there’s no other way to live your life.”

“They all look the same,” Scott concurred.  “And dress the same, act the same, think the same.  It’s bullshit, man.”

“Right,” Naria said.  “So you came to New York and joined the punk rock community, where everyone also thinks the same, acts the same, and dresses the same.  Didn’t you just mock me because I’m wearing a sundress and flip flops?”

Scott scowled, while Angler gave her an appreciative look.  “Hey.  She’s smart.”

Sam looked at her with newfound respect, as if fully seeing her for the first time, and she felt she would burst with delight.

Not long after, Angler left, and the circle began to break up.  Clive drifted off to talk to some people on the other side of the room.  Mark said he was tired and was going home.

“Do you guys all live together?” Tabitha asked, after Mark had left.

“Yeah,” Sam said, “over on 3rd Street, in Alphabet City.”

Silence.  And then Scott spoke, in a low voice that was directed at Sam: “Did you see Georgie tonight?”

“Yeah,” Sam said.  “Thank God she didn’t stay.  Dunno how much more of her I can take.”

“Who’s Georgie?” Naria asked.

Sam shook his head.  “Just some groupie.”

“She came home with Clive and me last week,” Scott said, and again he was clearly speaking only to Sam, not the two girls.  “Basically followed us home.  She came into my room, trying to fuck me, but I was no mood for her.  So I sent her over to Clive’s room, but he wasn’t having it, either, so he sent her over to Mark’s room, and she ended up fucking him.”

Sam laughed.

“She still wants to fuck you, too,” Scott said, “even though I keep telling her you have a girlfriend.”  He looked pointedly at Naria.

GIRLFRIEND?!?!?  Naria thought, practically swooning with shock.  He has a GIRLFRIEND?!?!?  “Oh, you have a girlfriend?” she said.

Sam looked uncomfortable.  “Uh, yeah.  She’s back in Needham.”

“How long have you been together?”

“Three years.”

“Oh.”

Another awkward silence.  Then Scott stood up, a triumphant gleam in his eyes.  “I’m gonna get another beer.”

Tabitha stood up, too.  “I’m actually gonna go,” she said.  “It’s late.”  And indeed it was: quarter past two.  “Naria, you coming?”

Naria wavered.  She knew she should give this up now – the word “girlfriend” should have stopped her in her tracks – but when she opened her mouth, she found herself saying, “No, I think I’ll stay for awhile.”

This left her and Sam sitting side by side on the hard wooden bench.  After a few moments, she spoke: “So, what’s the difference between a groupie and a female fan?  Or isn’t there any?”

He looked at her affectionately, which brought a warm tingle to her stomach.  “Don’t worry,” he said.  “You’re not a dumb slut like Georgie.”

“Thanks,” she said.  It really wasn’t much of a compliment, and she knew it was ridiculous to be in such ecstasy over it.  Nevertheless, ecstasy was what she felt, and so she almost stopped there and let the whole matter go.  But then, before she knew it, she was talking again:  “That doesn’t really answer the question, though.  I mean, not to get into a big discussion on gender politics, but I don’t really understand why male fans aren’t held in the same contempt as female ones.  Why is it male fans are great, but female fans are just worthless ‘groupies?’”

“It’s not all female fans.  Just the kind who wanna fuck us.”

“So, would that make me a groupie?”

He shifted his weight uncomfortably, and looked around the room, as if searching there for an answer.  Finally, he seemed to find one: “Groupies…they’re not about the music; they’re just about fucking rock musicians.”

“That doesn’t really make sense, though.  If we didn’t love the music, we wouldn’t want to fuck you.  You wanna fuck someone because you like who they are.  That’s the way it’s supposed to be.  And rock musicians is what you are.  It’s not the same as liking a man just because he has money, or he’s good-looking, or something shallow like that.  When you like someone because of who they are and what they do…what’s wrong with that?  I mean, you’re men.  We’re women.  It’s only natural.”

He shook his head and gave her his trademark condescending smirk.  “You’re so young.  You don’t understand.”

“I’m three years younger than you.”

“Exactly.”

She suddenly felt like she needed another drink.  Badly.  “I’m going to get another vodka and club soda,” she said.  “Do you want anything?”

“Yeah,” he said, pulling a battered leather wallet out of his back pocket and handing her six dollars.  “A Bud Light.  Thanks.”

“Sure.”

When she stepped up to the bar, she was slightly surprised (and very much dismayed) to find that she was standing next to Scott.  She hadn’t realized it was him; the place was dark and filled with shaggy-haired punk boys.  “Oh, uh, hi,” she said.

He gave her a sideways glance, but didn’t reply.  The bartender came over and handed Scott a beer, and then took Naria’s order.  When he had gone, Scott finally turned to Naria, giving her an affected look of cool detachment.

“Look,” he said, “Sam has a girlfriend, in case you didn’t hear the first time.  So why don’t you fuck off and go back to your yuppie rich girl life.”

“How do you know if I’m rich or not?” she demanded, indignant.

“You live on the fucking Upper East Side.”

“Upper West,” she corrected him.

“Yeah, whatever.  It doesn’t matter.  Everyone’s rich up there.”

“How the hell would you know?  You’ve never been above 14th Street.”

He glared at her and walked away, leaving her to wish Sam had been there to hear her record-breaking second– and best by far — comeback of the evening.  It was nothing short of a miracle, and, like all miracles, she had no idea why it was happening, how she managed to keep silencing him with comebacks.  It didn’t occur to her until years later that it was because the boy was fucking stupid and kept walking right into them.

Scott left the club soon after – glaring at both her and Sam as he went – and the two of them stayed until closing time, four in the morning.  By quarter after three, the green room was deserted.  They were talking about something, and then suddenly, forcefully, with all the speed and agility of a cat, he leapt at her and began kissing her.

She kissed him back eagerly.  His hands slid down her body, exploring the contours of her small breasts, her tiny waist, her bony hips, her almost-nonexistent ass.  He steered her towards one of the cheap folding tables and she sat on it, spreading her legs, wrapping them around his slim boy hips.  They dry-humped, kissing with ferocious urgency.  And then he slid a hand up her dress, inside her panties, and began touching her, stroking her, sticking his fingers inside her.

It was amazing.  She couldn’t come, of course — her anorexic weight had put her entire reproductive system into a dormant state — but she enjoyed the breathlessly invasive contact. After a few minutes she pretended to come, sighing and moaning, and then relaxing her body as if she were limp and exhausted and utterly content.

Her eyes met his, and he kissed her again.  “That was amazing,” she breathed.

“Thanks,” he said.  The cocky smirk was back on his face, and there was a strange gleam in his eyes, too.  At the time she’d taken it for a look of infatuation.  In retrospect, years later, she realized what that gleam had really meant: he had not taken her because he really wanted her, but simply because he could have her, because she so obviously wanted him so very badly.  That was all she’d meant to him: an ego trip.  He liked her, sure, but she was no one special to him.  She was just a cute girl who wasn’t as stupid and boring as most girls were.

But at the time, she had been too young and too blinded by infatuation to see the truth.

Not long after, the manager came to the green room to tell them they had to leave, it was closing time.  He walked her to the subway and kissed her one more time, roughly, once again running his hands up and down the narrow curves of her anorexic body.

“We’re playing another show in a few weeks,” he informed her, once their kiss had broken.  “June 15th.  Same place.  Don Hill’s.”

“I will definitely be there,” she said, and laughed giddily.

And she was, and the night went pretty much the same as before, just as perfect and glorious and exulting.  The only difference was that it ended with a blow job in a narrow alley half a block from Don Hill’s, a blow job she was not just happy, but eager, to give.

As it turned out, she had just one more night of giddy exultation.  The Kick played the Continental that night, over in the East Village, on St. Mark’s Place, right across the street from the record shop where Sam worked.  Once again, she and Sam stayed long after his bandmates had gone home, sitting at the bar drinking and talking and making friends with the bartenders and fellow patrons.

It was nearly five when they left – having stayed to have one last “on the house” drink with the bartender – and began winding their way back to Sam’s place.  He didn’t invite her back to his place, and she didn’t invite herself, either.  They simply started walking, too drunk and tired for any kind of organized thought.

When they left the club, the birds had just begun to sing, signaling the imminent approach of dawn.  It was a sound Naria always found depressing, because it meant the night was over and there was no choice but to return to the cruel, glaring reality of day.

By the time they reached Sam’s place, the sun was rising, and the relative cool of the evening was rapidly gathering into the oppressive, humid heat of another July day in New York.

He lived in a small building on East 3rd Street between Avenue C and Avenue D.  It was an old, dirty building, four stories high, looking squashed between the nearly identical buildings that flanked it.  He inserted his key into the front door, and they entered into a small vestibule that housed the building’s mailboxes.

He inserted a second key into a second door, and they passed through into the ground floor hallway.  The walls were painted a ghastly red, obviously the last paint job of many, judging by the lumps and ripples and paint drips that stood out like blemishes on bad skin.  The floor had black and white linoleum tiles, the white gone yellow with age.

He led her up a steep, narrow staircase to the 2nd floor, and down the short hallway to the front apartment.  The door to the apartment opened onto a large, rectangular room that served as both kitchen and living room.  Across from the door was the open kitchen, a small, dingy-looking area with a utilitarian gas stove, an old refrigerator, and an even older microwave situated on a stained white counter next to a battered-looking chrome toaster.  Opposite the kitchen area were two mismatched couches, so old and ratty that, if it had been 5 years later and the bedbug epidemic had hit, Naria would not have dared to even come near, and an equally ratty coffee table.

And it was hot, suffocatingly hot.

“We don’t have air conditioning,” he said, not apologetically, but righteously.

Because air conditioning is for poseurs, she thought, and lapsed into hysterical giggles.

“Shhhh,” he intoned, looking genuinely alarmed.  “You’ll wake everyone up.”

“Sorry!” she whispered, still giggling, but more softly now.

“What’s so funny, anyway?”

She shook her head.  “Nothing.  Nevermind.  Just drunk giggles.”

“Yeah…OK,” he said, leading her down the hallway to his bedroom, at the front end of the apartment.

It was almost as hot in here as the rest of the apartment, despite the large, twin set of windows that opened onto 3rd Street below.  It seemed he had the best bedroom: probably the only one with windows, anyway.  He took a moment to plug in a large desk fan that sat upon a big cardboard box.  Naria took the moment to collapse on the bed, still rocking with the last, dying traces of her giggles.  She looked up at him.  “Hi,” she said, and momentarily lapsed into giggles again.

He came towards her, eclipsing the rest of the room.  “Hi,” he said.  As he fell into bed with her, he reached out with his left hand and knocked down a framed photo that sat on the nightstand, quickly, but not before she noticed that it was a picture of him and (apparently) his girlfriend.

And they made love – or, more appropriately, they fucked – in the early morning hours of that July Saturday.  It was real sex, too, not the dancing around of 3rd base or sloppy 3rd.  They really had real sex, hot and urgent, not even bothering to get undressed, and Naria tried to savor every last moment of him inside her, every second of his breath against her ear, the weight of his body on hers, and the subtle smells of hair gel and laundry detergent and clean summer sweat on his skin.

Then he came, and it was over.  Naria hadn’t come, but she didn’t even care.   It really wasn’t even the point.  She was happy just to have had him inside her; that fact alone was a fulfillment of every daydream she’d had that summer.

He kissed her briefly, pulled his pants back up, and then rolled over on his side, facing the wall, and fell asleep, leaving Naria to gloat privately.  I’m here, she thought deliriously.  I’m really here with him in his bed.  This is really happening.

She was tired, she was tipsy, and it was six in the morning, but still, she was wide-awake with breathless delight.  She looked around the room, taking in every detail, every last trace of his presence.  To her left, above the bed, were two D-Generation posters, one from each of their two albums.  In the far left corner, in front of her, were three tall stacks of CDs, each one at least three feet tall, and situated side by side, presumably to keep them from toppling over.  Hanging on the far wall, to her right, were posters of The Clash, The Misfits, and Pulp Fiction.

Underneath the Clash poster was an ancient, battered dresser that looked like it had probably come from the Salvation Army.  Its top was cluttered with a fascinating assortment of items, fascinating only because they belonged to him: a bottle of Listerine sitting on top of a large yellow Post-It pad, a ceramic figurine of a white cat, sitting on its haunches, holding a block of gold Chinese characters in its paws, a white coffee mug with the word, “CHOWDAHEADS” emblazoned in red capital letters, which served as a pen and pencil holder, a spiral notebook, and a small stack of books: a Lester Bangs collection, George Orwell’s 1984, Stephen King’s The Shining, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and, situated at the top of the stack, and looking more battered and well-loved than any of the others, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain.  Naria had the same book at home, and her copy was just as battered and well-loved as his.

To her immediate right was his “nightstand,” a wooden crate standing on one end to form a makeshift table.  She reached out and righted the picture that lay on it, flicking out the wooden flap at the back that served as a picture stand with her pinkie finger.

She studied the photo.

It seemed to be a professional photo taken in a studio: the background was pure white, and Sam and the girl were posing in center frame, at a medium distance from the camera, only the upper halves of their bodies visible.  The girl looked a little older than Naria, probably the same age as Sam, she guessed, and almost exactly the same height.  The girl wore a denim jacket over a white, V-neck tee that prominently displayed her gigantic tits, and she had long black hair and big, dark eyes with long lashes.  Even though the bottom halves of their bodies were cut off, Naria could tell that the girl was chubby.  Perhaps not fat, exactly, but on the heavy side.  In fact, the girl undoubtedly weighed more than Sam did (Her tits alone probably weigh more than me, she thought, stifling back another giggling fit), and this knowledge gave her a surge of vicious satisfaction.  Fat bitch, she thought.  Stupid, fat bitch.

She hated the girl with an intensity that both surprised and frightened her.  Rationally, she knew it was ridiculous to hate a girl she’d never even met, a girl who’d done nothing more to her than meet Sam first.  She was probably a perfectly nice girl, and under any other circumstances, Naria would probably have no reason to dislike her.

Nevertheless, the feeling persisted, until finally Naria put the picture down face-first again.  Guilt had nothing to do with it; she felt no guilt at all.  It was a long-distance relationship, after all, and the girl was a fool – as was Sam – to think it could survive.  Long-distance relationships never survived.

Not only that, but they were very young, and just starting out in the world.  Sam and the girl had no more hope of staying together than a high school couple who are heading off to separate colleges.  They were young adults, and Sam had moved to New York City to start his life.  He was changing, growing, becoming someone different from the suburban Massachusetts boy he’d been.  Trying to stay together during all of these transformative changes was every bit as silly as expecting to marry the kid you kissed on the playground when you were five years old.

The girl should’ve known this, should’ve known that you don’t stay with your hometown teenage boyfriend.  After high school you take separate paths out into the world, and as much as you may love each other, separate paths means separate lives.

For Christ’s sake, the girl was still there!  Still in the suburbs, apparently content to stay in the suburbs and not change, not grow, not develop into someone more interesting.  That was her fucking mistake.

If she really wanted to stay with him, then she would’ve moved to New York with him.  The fact that she was content to stay behind meant that she had effectively consented to lose him.  She had given Sam up when she’d let him move to New York without her.  Unwittingly given him up, sure, but was it Naria’s fault that the stupid bitch had no wits?

It wasn’t guilt that made her turn the picture back down.  It was righteous envy, hot and filthy and relentless.

She rolled over and looked at Sam.  He was definitely asleep, his breathing shallow and relaxed, his eyelids fluttering.  She watched him for awhile, smiling contentedly, admiring his body, his pale, smooth skin, his jet-black hair, the teasing, barely visible contours of his hard, flat torso beneath his T-shirt, his hands and forearms folded out before him as if in prayer, the black hair on his forearms, the big man’s hands with their big male fingers that had touched her so gracelessly yet so exquisitely.  She shivered with delight, despite the heat.

She watched him sleep, feeling a secret sense of power, but a warm, soft, protective kind of power.  It was like watching the slumber of some strange and fascinating beast, one that could maim or kill at whim, but was now harmless and even sweetly vulnerable in its sleep.

After awhile, she realized she had to pee.  Slowly, quietly, she got to her feet, so as not to wake him, and crept across the bedroom to the door.  It was only a few inches ajar, and she opened it slowly, afraid it would creak, but it didn’t.

She tiptoed down the hallway, passing three closed bedroom doors, and came out in the kitchen slash living room area.  To her left, flanking the kitchen, was an open door leading into the bathroom.

She closed the door, locked it, peed, and then, for good measure, threw up as much of the night’s food and alcohol as was left in her stomach.  It wasn’t much, but it made her feel better – thinner – all the same.  Then she crept back down the hallway and into Sam’s room.  He was still asleep in the same position she’d left him in, on his side, facing the wall.

She stood over the bed for a moment, just watching him, and was about to climb back into bed with him when he spoke, startling her: “Hey.”

“Oh…hey,” she said, smiling tentatively.  “You’re awake.”

“You’re still here?”

Just three simple words, but they hit her like a hard jet of ice water from a garden hose.  She felt her joyful delirium spiral away into nothing.  “Um…yeah.”

“Right, well, you should probably go.  If Scott wakes up and finds you here, he’s gonna be pissed.”

“Oh.  OK.”  She stood there a moment, thinking he would at least ask if she had money for a cab, or if she knew how to get to the nearest subway station.  But he said nothing more.  So she gathered up her sandals and her purse, and left to begin the long, sad walk of shame home.

Outside, it was shaping up to be a fine, hot summer’s day, the sun already bright and glaring, birds singing with lustful abandon.  It was half past six on a Saturday morning in July, and the Lower East Side couldn’t have been more at peace with itself.

She walked slowly, taking a winding, roundabout route back to the West 4th Street subway station that would take her home.  First a detour south to Grand Street, through an enclave of mostly Jewish apartment buildings, passing through small throngs of Orthodox Jewish men on their way to early Sabbath services.  Then back up and across Houston Street, eerily quiet, its bars and shops closed and shuttered against the morning light.  On up through Washington Square Park, where strung-out gay club kids sat on benches, smoking cigarettes, trying to face the morning comedown.  Finally over to the West 4th Street and 6th Avenue intersection, dirty and smelly, where the morning sun glinted off the steel frame of the 24-hour McDonald’s, and homeless men begged for change.  One stood right outside the entrance to the subway station, and she gave him $18, all the money she had left in her purse.  Somebody should have a good morning, she figured, and clearly it wasn’t going to be her.

Naria saw it all from a distance, through a reverse telescopic lens of hurt.  She did not cry – that would come later, months later, in fact – but the tears were there behind her eyes, aching, heavy as thunderclouds waiting for their chance to burst.

It was over.  In fact, “it” had never really existed in the first place, but whatever had existed between her and Sam was over, and on some level she knew it, and it hurt, but the hurt felt somehow numbed and distant, like having a tooth drilled while on Novacaine.  She wasn’t ready to face the rejection yet, and so her mind pushed it away as best it could, minimizing it until it was no longer fully real.

After all, he was probably still conflicted about meeting a new girl while in a relationship, especially a childhood relationship that was doomed to fail, but which still reminded him of home.  Maybe he had acted so cold because he was afraid of his own feelings.  That was possible, wasn’t it?

Of course it was.  It wasn’t likely – even in her denial, she could admit that – but it was possible, and this miniscule possibility was enough to push most of the hurt away, at least for the time being.  Reality still bled in through the cracks, reminding her of his dismissive eyes, the condescending smirk that sometimes became an outright sneer, the fact that he had never called her, not once (had, in fact, never even asked for her phone number), or expressed any interest in seeing her on nights when his band didn’t need people to show up for their concerts.  All of these things she saw, and knew, but could not accept.

And, topping off this uncomfortable grab bag of emotions, was an undercurrent of bitter, corrupt anger.  How could he possibly want some suburban fat girl instead of her?  What was so special about this fucking fat bitch?  Naria was smart, she was fun, she was sophisticated, urbane, and most importantly, THIN.  How could he possibly think some dumb fat girl from the suburbs was better?  It was beyond insulting; it was infuriating.

She saw him once more, almost two months later.  She came to one of his band’s shows at the Continental.  She looked up their shows in the Village Voice religiously, but refrained from going the rest of the summer.  But this show was special.  Faster Pussycat was playing the same night, and she knew Sam liked them as much as she did.

She couldn’t find anyone to go with her, so she showed up alone.  She watched them play their set, and afterwards, when he came out from backstage, she approached him.

“Hey,” she said, smiling what she hoped was a casual smile.

He looked both surprised and discomfited to see her.  This look alone dashed all of her hopes.  “Oh…” he said.  “It’s you.  Uh…how are you?”

“Good, good.  I just saw that you were playing a set with Faster Pussycat, and I thought, hey, why not?”

“Right…yeah,” he said, in an oddly cautious tone.  “So, who are you here with?”

“Oh…no one,” she said, avoiding eye contact, which was not difficult, since he was doing the same.  Desperate to explain herself, she kept going:  “I mean, I didn’t decide to come until the last minute.  I couldn’t find anyone to go with me on such short notice, so, you know, I figured, I’ll just go by myself.”

“Oh…yeah.  Right on,” he said, still eyeing her with that strange caution.

“I’m glad I came, though,” she pressed on.  “You guys were great.  Maybe your best show yet.”

“Uh, thanks.”

A few moments of painful silence followed.  It was only a few seconds, but it was long enough for Naria to register the expression on Sam’s face.  It was the look of someone who has suddenly come to a very uncomfortable realization: in Sam’s case, the realization that she was not just some groupie who wanted to fuck any rock musician she could get her hands on.  She was a young girl who was deeply infatuated with him, and him alone.

But what she saw on his face was not the acknowledgement of guilt, or remorse for having unintentionally hurt another person.  Instead, it was the frightful look of a man who believes he may have opened a Pandora’s Box of female emotion.  He was afraid of her, afraid of what she might do, of what kind of hellish fury he might release by scorning her.

Finally he spoke: “Listen.  My girlfriend is coming in a couple of days.  She’s coming to visit for a few weeks.  So…”

She was suddenly, achingly embarrassed, and yet again, strangely numb to the hurt.  “Oh,” she said.  “I…I’m sorry.  I should get going, anyway.”  She gave him one last, long look, preserving his face in her memory, and then she turned and left, quickly, practically running out the door.  She came out onto 3rd Avenue, turned north, and walked all the way home through the hot, end-of-summer night, 5 miles in all.  And again, although she felt as if she would cry at any moment, she never did.

A few months later she heard from Nicole (who had struck up an odd sort of friendship with the aging rocker who owned the record shop where Sam worked) that Sam and his girlfriend had broken up, and Sam was going out with a new girl, a fellow punk rocker who played guitar in an all-girl band.  Sam was reputedly head over heels in love with this girl, telling anyone who’d listen that she reminded him of Joan Jett.  After hearing this, Naria went home and finally cried.

 

Excerpt 1 from The Hoarder

This is the prologue from the horror novel I’m working on.  It’s set about 100 years before the main events of the novel.  Apologies for the poor formatting (as a result of copy-paste, some paragraphs are indented, and some aren’t).  If you are so inclined, I’d love some feedback on this.  I guess the #1 thing I want to know is: is this at all scary?  Or at least, entertaining?  Also, any corrections to historical inaccuracies would be much appreciated, as I did only cursory research on daily life in the early 20th century.

 

December 13, 1914, was the coldest and snowiest day the town of Milburn, Illinois had ever seen.  It snowed continuously, and by the stroke of midnight, the picturesque little Victorian town was buried under several feet of fresh snowfall.  Some of the drifts piled up all the way to the second-story windows, and the servants, ensconced in their beds, privately lamented the shoveling job they’d have the next morning.

The home of widower Hanlon Greystone, aged 71, was no exception.  The drifts piled up to the tops of the windows outside his study, deepening his already palpable sense of isolation.  It was just after midnight, and he was trapped inside his home.  He had fired his manservant and maid, Fred and Marjorie Abbeline, two weeks prior, and he was too old and too arthritic to shovel himself out.

But it wasn’t the snow and its impending danger that kept Hanlon Greystone awake in the wee hours of this black December morning, nervously drinking scotch by the fire in one of the wing-backed leather armchairs in his study.  Rather, it was the knowledge that something sinister had invaded his home and was biding its time, toying with him the way a cat toys with a mouse.  The only question was, when would it pounce, and what would it do to him when it did?

It had all started five days ago.  He had opened his eyes to a bright, clear December sky outside his bedroom window – the kind of bright, beautiful morning that seems to positively spew hope and good cheer.

As he lay on his side, staring out the window, he noticed something out of the corner of his eye – it was his wife, Irma, standing at the foot of his bed, already dressed, and, being the insufferable woman that she was, probably wanting to henpeck him about something or another.  In his somnolent state, it took him several seconds to remember that Irma had died two years ago.

He jerked his head around to look at the foot of the bed, and an icy jet of water seemed to gush through his stomach: Irma wasn’t standing there, but her dress was.  Her favorite dress, in fact – the navy blue one with the ruffled skirt.  Quite literally standing straight up, for all the world as if an invisible Irma were standing right there at the foot of the bed, wearing it.

Dumbfounded, he’d simply stared at the thing for several long moments.  Was it some sort of bizarre practical joke?  Had the servants, angry at his dismissal of them, sneaked into the house in the middle of the night and arranged his dead wife’s dress there at the foot of his bed to scare him?  It seemed absurd, and yet it was the only explanation he could come up with.

He got out of bed to investigate further.  How in the world was the dress standing up so perfectly straight?  If the servants had indeed done this, they must have used about a pound of starch on it.  Had Fred and Marjorie been in his home during the night, rummaging through the attic for his wife’s old dresses, and then starching them?  It seemed impossible.  And when he reached out a tentative finger to touch the dress – to see if it really was as stiff and starched as it looked – it had crumpled to the floor the moment his finger made contact with the fabric.

It was a bizarre incident to be sure, and completely inexplicable, but after all was said and done, it was only a dress.  He’d folded it up, placed it on the dresser, and moved on with his day.

Later that day, however, he’d gone back into the master bedroom to fetch something, and the dress had been standing at the foot of the bed again – except this time, it was facing the door instead of the bed.  It was as if the dress were standing there in the room, waiting to greet him as he came in.  The thought gave him a chill.  He didn’t believe in ghosts – Irma was dead and gone, and that was that was all there was to it – but he did believe firmly in the inherent wickedness of man, and whomever was doing this had to be very wicked indeed, to toy with a pitiful old man in such a manner.

He’d folded the dress up again, but this time, instead of laying it on the dresser, he’d stashed it under the mattress.  If this silent prankster wanted to play around with his wife’s dress, then let him look for it!  Then he’d gone around searching every room of the house, in case the silent prankster was hiding somewhere.  He found no one.  He took special care searching the attic, since it was the place the dress had been taken from, but the room was empirically devoid of human life.  In fact, it was clear that not only was there no person hiding in the attic, but no person had been up there in quite some time.  His kerosene lantern showed only his own footprints in the dust.

More disturbing was the fact that the box containing Irma’s old dresses was situated at the bottom of a pile of heavy boxes.  At his age, and with his rheumatism, he was unable to move the other boxes aside and check that Irma’s dresses were indeed still inhabiting the box in question, but there wouldn’t have been much point to that, anyway.  The layer of dust coating the boxes was as undisturbed as the dust on the floor.

As he ate his cold, solitary supper that night, he pondered the situation.  Was someone indeed playing a prank on him?  If so, it had to be the Abbelines.  Although he had made plenty of enemies in his career as a defense attorney – a devil’s advocate, as he’d been called many times – it had been six years since he’d retired.  Surely no one would hold a grudge this long, and then execute their revenge in such a bizarre fashion.  Only the Abbelines had a fresh motive.  They had been absolutely livid at his accusation of theft.  Ten years of impeccable service, Mrs. Abbeline had sniffed, thrown out the window over a misplaced teaspoon.  (Misplaced, indeed, he grumbled to himself.  Servants steal, and they especially love to steal the silver.  Of course they had stolen it).  Moreover, nobody but the Abbelines knew the ins and outs of his home.  Specifically, no one but them would know where his wife’s old dresses were.

But if it had been the Abbelines, then how had they managed to remove his wife’s dresses from their box, without disturbing any of the dust?  Try as he might, he could not find a rational explanation for that.  And how had the dresses been standing up stiff and straight, but then crumpled to the floor at his touch?  He could not find a rational explanation for that, either.

There was another possibility, of course – he was losing his mind.  This frightened him far more than the idea of a deranged prankster.  He was an old man, and he was alone in the world.  If his mental faculties started to go, there would be no one around to protect him from the sort of vultures that preyed on feeble-minded, wealthy old men.

He shoved the idea back into a far corner of his mind.  No, surely he was not losing his mind.  Surely not.  It was the Abbelines; it had to be.  And now that he had verified that the house was now empty, and all the doors and windows were locked, he could reasonably consider the matter over and done with.  The next time he went into town, he would be sure to alert the sheriff about the incident.  Until then, he would simply keep his house locked up tight at all times.

Having thusly reassured himself, he washed his face, polished his teeth, got into his nightshirt and cap, and settled into bed.

He’d opened his eyes the next morning to find not sunlight on his face, but shadow.  Confused, he rubbed his eyes, thinking he was not awake yet.  As wakefulness began to spark in his brain, he realized what the problem was: his view of the window was blocked by a wide, dark figure.

It was another of Irma’s dresses – the black one that she had worn most days.  It was standing by the side of his bed, right between himself and the window.

He jerked awake as roughly as if he’d received an electric shock.  This was impossible – impossible!  He’d locked up every single door and window in the whole house!  How could this have happened?

When he sat upright and looked around, he received an even bigger shock: the black dress was not the only one situated around his bed.  There were, in fact, no less than six dresses standing at attention all around his bed, like pallbearers gathered around a casket.  As far as he could tell, every dress that Irma had owned was there.

His heart raced, pounding so hard he feared it would give out on him.  Who on earth would do such a thing?  Who on earth could have done such a thing?

The dresses seemed to glare down at him, accusatory and menacing.  This was madness.  Madness!  Manic in his fury and confusion, he’d reached out and knocked each dress down, until he was surrounded by a fluffy pile of skirts, sleeves, and high collars.  Then he’d leaped out of the bed, gathered up the dresses, stormed downstairs – still in his nightshirt and cap – and burned the dresses at the sitting room hearth.  He smiled grimly to himself as he watched the flames eat greedily through the mass of skirts.  If this unseen prankster wanted to continue tormenting him, then let him fish the ashes out of the grate.

He froze then, the smile dying slowly on his lips, as a crazy yet unavoidable thought hit him: the dresses were behind him.  It was impossible – he was watching them burn at this very moment – yet somehow he knew, knew, that when he turned around, those 6 dresses would be standing there, all lined up behind the sofa, glaring at him with their emptiness.  It was a certainty so emphatic he was willing to bet his soul on it.

He couldn’t move, just couldn’t, and yet he had to.  He couldn’t stand in front of the hearth in his nightshirt from now until Judgement Day.   Dread pulsed through his body, paralyzing his muscles and liquefying his insides into a quivering mass.  Do it quickly, he thought.  Just turn around, one smooth motion.  Don’t even think about it.  Don’t think.  Just turn.  Turn.  Turn NOW.

He whirled around to face the sofa, and nearly vomited with relief.  There was nothing there.  Nothing at all.  His legs turned to rubber and he collapsed onto the sofa, sighing and crying and laughing all at the same time.  Idiot! he told himself.  Of course there’s nothing there.  Because there’s no such thing as ghosts.  Someone is trying to get your goat, that’s all.  The Abbelines, most certainly.  They probably copied your house key at some time during the last 10 years, and have been holding on to it all this time.

He remained there, sprawled out on the sofa, for several minutes as he regained control of his body.  You must get out of this house, he thought, as he watched the last embers of the fire die out.  Take a ride into town for the day and clear your head.  Forget about all this.

The train of thought continued as he washed, dressed, and groomed his beard and mustache.  While in town, he must see the sheriff about all this, for these shenanigans simply could not continue.  No one could be expected to live with such malicious trickery, and there was no reason to think the Abbelines would stop now.  The dresses were gone, yes, but surely the Abbelines would find some new way to terrorize him.

He headed back downstairs, wondering if he should prepare a cold breakfast from the icebox, or dine in town.  Probably dine in town, and pick up some things at the market, too.  He would need to find some new servants very soon; he simply couldn’t continue eating cold meals and fry-ups for much longer, especially in this frigid weather.  He –

Stopped short at the foot of the stairs, and a flummoxed expression began to steal over his face.  Something was wrong with his sitting room.  It was…different, somehow.  He stood there for several long moments, eyes wandering over the various objects and surfaces in the room: the hearth to his left, the coffee table that sat before it, the davenport, the two standing lamps on either side of the davenport, the two wing-backed armchairs that sat perpendicular to the davenport, the end table, the red Oriental rug that lay beneath them all.  Behind them, by the window, the card table and the shelves of games, and, at the far end of the room, the twin chiffoniers that sat on either side of the doorway to his study, and which held all of Irma’s antique China teapots and teacups.  All looked exactly the same as they had before, and yet, something was different about them.

Brow furrowed, he studied each object again carefully, and as his eyes slid over the surface of the floor, he finally noticed something that was different: a long stripe of grey that ran along the entire front side of the davenport.  He stepped over to the davenport and knelt to investigate.

Dust, he realized.  It was dust.  He reached out to touch it, then examined his finger.  Yes, it was indeed dust.  How peculiar, he thought.

He began to examine the rest of the floor more closely.  His knees protested the extended kneeling they were being forced to endure, but he ignored them.  He soon noticed another stripe of dust on the floor, along the edge of the carpet that faced the hearth.  What on earth –

And then the realization slammed into him like a wrecking ball: the carpet had been moved.  The stripe was part of that portion of the floor that had lain under the rug.  And the davenport, too – it had been moved back slightly, exposing the thin layer of dust underneath.

Next he checked the armchairs: they too had been moved slightly away from the direction of the fireplace, leaving behind fainter – yet still visible – stripes of dust.

Knees groaning, he stood and went over to the chiffoniers.  Again, there was a line of dust, about an inch thick, showing that they too had been moved ever so slightly to the right, away from the wall that held the fireplace.  On a flash of intuition, he looked inside the chiffoniers and found that all of Irma’s teapots and teacups – all three dozen or so of them – had also been moved about an inch or two to the right, exposing the clean spots underneath the thin layer of dust.  For a fleeting moment, he wondered why on earth he had not fired the servants earlier for their haphazard dusting.

Next he checked the mantle, and found the same thing: the gold carriage clock, the copper urn containing his father’s ashes, the vase of dried flowers, and, on either end, the twin statues of an aristocratic French gentleman and lady from the eighteenth century – all had been moved about an inch or two to the right.

As he stood there, pondering this turn of events, a seed of dreadful intuition took root in his brain.  Slowly, almost dazedly, he crossed the sitting room again, and then took a right into the dining room.

It was the same in here.  He knew it instantly: everything seemed just slightly off.  And sure enough, it was: the carpet and the heavy mahogany table and chairs that sat upon it, the two hutches that stood perpendicular to each other in the far corner, the three candlestick tables that sat in the other corners, and even the vases of dried roses that sat upon them.

Feeling dazed and sick, he made his way around the rest of the house, and found that it was the same in every room.  Everything that wasn’t nailed down had been moved an inch or two out of place.  Exactly two inches, in fact: the stripes of dust had seemed so uniform in width that he’d actually gone and fetched a ruler to measure them.  They were exactly two inches wide.  Every last one of them, in every single room of the house.

He was sweating now, feverish.  This wasn’t a prank.  No prankster, no matter how clever, or how determined, could have done this.  For one thing, many of the pieces of furniture were substantially heavy, especially the dining room table.  It had taken four strong men to get it into the dining room all those years ago.  Nobody could have lifted it, nor could they have lifted the two hutches, or the chiffonier, or the bookcases in his study.  And if they had pushed or dragged them, he would have heard it.

More importantly, however, there simply hadn’t been time to do all of this.  He had spent no more than twenty minutes washing and dressing in the master bedroom.  An entire baseball team couldn’t have moved everything in that amount of time.  And the furniture in the master bedroom had been moved, too, presumably while he was investigating the other rooms of the house (or was it happening while I was in there, and I didn’t even notice)?  It was this thought that chilled him most of all.

No, this was not the work of a prankster.  Something was toying with him, but whatever it was, it wasn’t human.  There was no denying it, not anymore.

With a blank, dazed expression on his face, he fetched his hat and walking stick, bundled into his Ford Model-T. and drove into town.  But instead of going to the sheriff’s office, he went to the library.

***

Books on spiritualism, as it turned out, were plentiful.  There was so much information on the subject, in fact, that it was overwhelming.  He wished he’d paid more attention all those times Irma had chattered on incessantly about it.

Too embarrassed to check the books out, he borrowed paper and pencil from the librarian to make notes for himself.  But the more he read, the sillier he felt: séances, spirit boards…ectoplasm, for goodness’ sake!  It all sounded so absurd that at one point he contemplated just getting up and walking out, and forgetting the whole thing.  But then he remembered those empty dresses gathered around his bed like vultures, and every stick of furniture in his house mysteriously moved right under his nose.  And so he read on.

From time to time, he stopped reading to wonder if Irma was haunting the house.  If he did have a ghost in his house, didn’t it make sense for it to be Irma?  Except, he couldn’t see Irma trying to scare him like this.  She had been an annoying woman, that was for sure, but not a cold-hearted or vindictive one.  She was more like an old cow that talked too much.  Whatever was in his house felt baleful, conniving – not like Irma at all.

Five hours later, he closed the books, and left the library with a grim sense of purpose.  Once home, he immediately went around the house and turned on all the lights.  Gas bill be damned – there was no way he could be alone in this house at night in the dark.  Then he got to work making a spirit board out of four sheets of glued-together legal paper.  For the pointer, he used a glass eggcup.  Thusly prepared, he sat down at one end of his mahogany dining table.

Several minutes passed as he gathered his nerves.  Finally, he put his index and middle fingers on the pointer, and called out, in a low and tentative voice: “Are there any spirits here who wish to communicate?”

The pointer didn’t move.  He felt his face flush with embarrassment.  This was so stupid!  What on earth was he doing?  

And then the chair on the other end of the table slid back a foot or two, as if by someone who had been waiting for an invitation to sit down.

His heart began to pound, but he ignored it.  “Who are you?  What do you want?”

Again, the pointer didn’t move.  But the chair did.  It rattled around on all four of its legs like it was experiencing an earthquake.  Then the chair to the left of it followed suit.  Then the one to the right.  One by one, each of the eight chairs around the table took turns rattling for several seconds apiece.  The chair he was sitting in joined in last – he’d been expecting this, but it startled him nonetheless.  Then, abruptly, it stopped, and there was silence again.

He decided to try one more time.  He placed his fingers back on the eggcup and, in the most authoritative voice he could muster, bellowed, “WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH ME?”

There was a moment of silence, and then the eggcup was wrested violently from his hands.  It hovered in the air for a few moments, then flew across the room and shattered against the far wall.

He pushed back his chair and rose from the table in disgust.  He was seething.  His hands shook with fury, and his face felt as hot as a furnace.  Why wouldn’t it talk to him?  Why wouldn’t it just tell him what it wanted?  “WHY WON’T YOU JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT!” he yelled.  “IF YOU’RE GOING TO TORMENT ME LIKE THIS, THEN TELL ME WHY!  WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?  WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?”

He glanced down just in time to see his makeshift spirit board slide slowly off the table and flutter to the floor like a large, injured bird.  He gasped.

On that portion of the table that had been covered by his spirit board, a message had somehow been carved into the table right under his nose.  Gouged into the table, actually — deep into the wood, in jagged capital letters, as if by a pair of scissors.

One word:

WAIT.

***

And so he had.  It had been three days since his amateur séance, and the tension in the house was thick enough to slice up and serve for dinner.  For the most part it was quiet – eerily quiet – but every so often, an object or piece of furniture in his vicinity would start moving around by itself.  There seemed to be no pattern to it, no way to predict when it would happen, or which object would be next.  Chairs rattled.  Books fell from shelves.  Knick-knacks flew across the room.  On one memorable occasion, as he sat reading on the davenport, a candlestick and holder had walked by the coffee table in front of him.  Quite literally walked by: the legs of the candlestick holder were actually moving, as fluidly and easily as the legs of a dog, or a cow, or any other four-legged animal.

He had thought about leaving.  Many times, in fact.  But where would he go?  He hadn’t seen or spoken to his children in years, and anyway, they lived halfway across the country.  He had no other family.  His friends were all dead.

At one point he did decide to spend a few days at the inn in town.  A few days’ peace was surely better than none at all.  He’d packed a suitcase and gotten into his car, but before he could even put the key into the ignition, the whole vehicle began to rock and buck like a wild stallion.  He did not get out of the car so much as fall out of it, and did not even bother to retrieve his suitcase before running back inside the house.

And now he was snowed in, with nothing but scotch to comfort him.   But at least there was plenty of that.  He sat in his study in front of the fire, in his favorite wing-backed armchair, his feet resting on a footstool, and tried to read.  But he couldn’t concentrate.  On the mantle was a snow globe that a client had given him one Christmas, long ago.  The “snow” inside of it was swirling continuously, even though no one was shaking it.  It had been doing this all night, and somehow it distracted him even more than all of the flying objects and rattling furniture – even more than the walking candlestick holder.  It was as if the thing – the spirit – were mocking his predicament, relentlessly reminding him that he was snowed in, trapped in his home like an animal in a slaughter pen.

He soldiered valiantly on with his book, but could not stop himself from looking up at the mantle every few minutes or so, to see if the snow in the globe was still swirling around.  Why did this bother him so much?  And why was the spirit so interested in the snow globe?  It had not given any other object this much attention.  It would pick up an object, throw it, and then move on to the next.  Or, if it was a piece of furniture, it would rattle it violently for several seconds, and then stop.  Why would it keep picking up the snow globe?

Except, it wasn’t picking up the snow globe.  It was only swirling the contents around.  The globe itself remained perfectly still.  How was that even possible?  You had to pick up a snow globe to make the snow move; there was no other way to make the thing work.  Unless –

A terrible thought began to creep over him.  If the spirit wasn’t picking up the snow globe, but the snow kept moving anyhow, then the only possible explanation was that the spirit was making the snow move from the inside.  And if it was moving the snow from inside, then perhaps it was inhabiting the object, the same way a soul inhabits a body.

He thought back on every object that had been moved or thrown around in the last few days – especially the candlestick holder.  Was it possible that the spirit had never been manipulating these objects?  Instead, had it been possessing them?

It made sense.  That was why it never moved more than one object at a time!  Because it didn’t move objects externally; it inhabited them and moved them from within.  The candlestick holder that had walked by – the spirit hadn’t been manipulating the legs to move the thing across the floor.  It had been inside the holder.  It had been inside all the objects.  The knick-knacks, the books, the car, the –

Chairs.  The eight chairs that belonged to the dining room table.  It had moved them one at a time…ending with his own chair, the one he’d been sitting in.  His stomach churned with sudden revulsion.  It had possessed the very chair he had sat in – meaning it had touched him, had essentially held him in its lap.  It made him feel sick, violated, almost raped.

He gasped as a new and even more terrible thought occurred to him.  If it had possessed his dining room chairs, then why not his other chairs?  Why not the chair he was sitting in right now?

He leapt to his feet as fast as his old bones would allow, and turned to look down at the chair.  It just sat there, still and silent and innocuous.

Just what on earth was he going to do now?  How could he continue to live in this house, for any length of time?  Any object he used could be possessed.  Even, presumably, his bed.  Where on earth was he supposed to sleep?

He had to get out of here.  The moment morning dawned, he would shovel himself out.  Rheumatism be damned – he would force himself to endure the pain.  Then he would walk into town.  It was three miles, quite a long trek for a man his age, but he’d make it.  Somehow, he’d make it.  Get into town, spend a few days at the inn making travel plans, and then get on a train.  Maybe he’d head down south to Florida.  The climate change would probably be good for him, anyway.

His train of thought was interrupted by a sort of clacking, scrabbling sound from outside his study door, somewhere in the vicinity of the sitting room.  He moaned.  What fresh hell was this?
The clacking, scrabbling sound drew closer.  He looked up at the snow globe on the mantle.  The snow was no longer moving.  The spirit was inhabiting another object, no doubt whatever object was about to come through the study door and into his field of vision.

He stood rigid and frozen as the clacking and scrabbling became even louder and more pronounced.  At last the object came into view in the doorframe: it was one of the two statues that sat on either end of the sitting room mantle, the eighteenth-century French man and woman.  It was the man.

His ceramic arms and legs moved jerkily, like a puppet on strings.  His face, formerly so genteel and benign, was now a twisted mask of maniacal malevolence.  The eyebrows were thick, black and arched, like a vaudeville villain, and the eyes beneath gleamed with madness.  The leering mouth was a wide, upside-down triangle, with garish red lips that made it look less like a mouth and more like a raw, gaping gash.  In its tiny hand, it held a carving knife that was as tall as itself.

As it crossed the threshold into the study, he yelped and staggered backwards, straight into the footstool.  He lost his footing and fell hard on his side, knocking his head against the floor.

He groaned, head swimming with pain and panic.  He could hear the clacking, scrabbling footsteps draw closer.  He groaned again as he rolled onto his stomach and began to push himself up onto his knees.  He turned to look behind him.  The thing was just a few feet away from his outstretched feet.  Its eyes met his, and it let out a shrill, inhuman cackle.

He crawled over to the desk, using its heavy bulk to support himself as he pulled himself up into a kneeling position.  Then he dragged his right foot forward, placed it on the floor, and pulled himself up into a standing position.  He whirled around to see the thing holding the knife over its head.  It slashed at his left shin, slicing easily through his trousers and into his flesh.  He yelped with pain and fear, and leapt clumsily over the thing and onto the footstool, somehow managing to land without losing his balance.

He took a tentative, geriatric leap off the other side of the footstool and made for the study door.  He could hear the thing laughing again, a revolting giggle that made his stomach turn.  Somehow its laugh was even more terrifying than its maniacal visage.

Once in the sitting room, he looked frantically around for something to hit the thing with.  It was, after all, still made of porcelain, and therefore should smash easily.  He hoped.

His eyes found the fireplace, with its canister of pokers.  He rushed over to the hearth, grabbed one, and turned just in time to see the thing taking its first few scrabbling, clacking steps back into the sitting room.  He grasped the poker in both hands, legs apart, like a baseball player at the bat, and braced himself.

The thing paused in the doorway for a moment, as if sizing him up.  For a few moments they simply stood there, staring at each other, and then it suddenly it lunged, knife poised high.  At the same time, he raised his own weapon and held it aloft, waiting for just the right moment, when the thing would be close enough to hit, but not close enough to stab him.

It seemed to take forever for the thing to cross the sitting room floor, but when it finally got to him, he was ready.  He swung the poker in a vicious downward arc, and had time to be surprised at his own strength before the poker connected with the evil little statue.

There was a resounding CRASH, and the statue exploded in a snowstorm of porcelain shards and dust.  The knife clattered to the floor, inert and harmless.

(Unless it possesses the knife next).

He stood watching for many long moments, but the knife didn’t move.  A deep, exhausted sigh escaped his lips, and he dropped the poker.  His hands were shaking, and he leaned against the mantle to collect himself.  The hard strip of stone pressed painfully against his bony upper back, but he ignored it.  He needed a drink.  Good God, did he need a drink.

Eyes closed, he took several deep breaths to calm his nerves.  It didn’t do much, though.  After all, the thing could apparently jump into any object, at any time.  Nothing was safe, not in this house (and would it be any different anywhere else?  he wondered.  Or will it just follow me, possessing objects wherever I go)?  Either way, he was snowed in, until the morning at the very least.  Dismally, he wondered if his rheumatism would allow him to shovel himself out in the morning.  When he’d thought about it before, his determination had granted him a certain giddy optimism, but now that was quickly waning.  Who was he kidding?  How in the name of everything holy was he going to shovel away snowdrifts that were taller than he was?  Even if he managed that, the idea that he would be able to walk three miles into town was preposterous.  The roads would be no better than his front drive.  Even if the spirit deigned to allow his car to work, there would be no driving through the massive snowdrifts that would be lying in his path.

A tickling sensation at the cuffs of his left trouser leg took him out of his musing and back into reality.  His heart leapt with terror, so sure was he that the evil little statue had somehow pieced itself back together and was now tugging at his trousers, letting him know that it was still here to kill him.  He could see the shards of porcelain scattered around the sitting room, and the knife lying on the floor, plain as day, yet it somehow did not convince him.  It was there, at his feet, he knew it, and when he whirled around to look, he was so certain that he would see the grinning little Frenchman standing at the hearth with the gleaming carving knife, that for one split moment, when he actually saw what it was, he felt a splash of relief.  This did not last long.

It wasn’t the statue.  It looked at first to him like a very long, curved log that had somehow fallen out of the fire.  Except it looked…wet, somehow.  The firelight glistened on its surface.  And it wasn’t brown or black, the way a flaming log should be.  Even in the dim light of the fire, he could see that it was a fevered, purplish red, like raw liver.  Then it moved, languidly and lithely, circling around his feet, and he realized with a rush of terror what it really was: a tongue.

He leapt away from the fireplace with a shriek and began backing away.  The tip of the thing curved up from the floor in an upside-down bell shape and wagged back and forth a few times, as if to say hello.  He continued backing away from the fireplace, in the direction of his study, unable to take his eyes off it.

It was undeniably a tongue: huge, thick, and several feet long, stretching down from the chimney the way a dog’s tongue will hang out of its mouth when it’s hot outside.  It descended from the chimney and curved straight through the fire – either the flames didn’t bother it too much, or else it felt no pain at all.  Probably the latter, he thought.

Absently, his head shook back and forth, as his mind refused to acknowledge the reality of what he was seeing.  No no no no no no no, his mind sang to him.  Not real, no siree Bob, no.  All the while he continued backing up towards the study, unaware that he was even doing so.

As he crossed the threshold into the study, his mind snapped back into action, and he reached over and slammed the door shut.  He continued backing up across his study until his hips made contact with his desk.  Then he stood there, staring at the door as blankly as he had stared at the tongue, still unable to quite believe what he had just seen.  My whole house is alive, he thought feverishly.  This cannot do, will not do, can’t have my house coming alive on me, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide –

The door began to rattle in its frame, sending fresh new waves of panic coursing through his body.

No – it wasn’t just the door.  It was the doorknob as well.  The doorknob was rattling, jiggling — turning.  Because the tongue was trying to turn the doorknob, oh Jesus God, it’s going to turn the knob and come in here!

With a fierce warrior’s cry, he rushed at the door to hold it shut, not realizing, in his panic, that a smarter move would have been to push one of the armchairs in front of it.  Arms stretched out in front of him, he ran blindly at the door, and very nearly made it before the door sprung open with such force that when it struck his forehead, he keeled over backwards like a tin soldier.

The back of his head hit the floor hard, combining with the blow to the front of his head to render him helpless.  He did not black out, but descended into a sort of murky grey area between consciousness and unconsciousness.  As if from a distance, he heard the tongue approach, slobbering and wriggling its way towards him, felt the long, powerful muscle wrap around his ankle, dampening his sock and trouser cuff with its slimy wetness.

He was entirely helpless as the tongue, now over twenty feet long, began to recoil back into the fireplace, reeling him in like a fish on a line.  It all seemed to be happening at a distance, to someone else, and only when it was too late did it occur to him to try to grab onto some of the furniture.  Would it even have mattered, he wondered, as his fingers brushed uselessly against the legs of the coffee table, the last possible object to grab onto.  The thing was so strong, surely it could have dragged the furniture along with him, if it needed to.

Into the roaring fire he went, feet first, and the pain, while searing, also felt somehow distant, as if it were happening to someone else.  It sucked him up into the chimney like a child slurping up a spaghetti noodle, and as his head was dragged through the flames and up the flue, and as his head scorched and the smell of burning hair filled his nostrils, he began to laugh, the shrill cackle of a man who has completely lost his grip on sanity.  I’m being eaten by my own fireplace, he thought.  Never thought this is how you’d leave the world, did you, Hanlon old boy?  Eaten by your own fireplace!  Eaten!  Eaten!  As he rose into the gullet of the chimney, his own mad cackle was the last thing he heard.