Entertainingly Evil
21
Aug

“The Night Artist” by Brady Golden

Speculate_blogA single large painting hung on the otherwise bare wall. Tim didn’t need to check the signature to know that it was an Owen Steig original. It featured the artist’s favorite and, as far as Tim had been able to turn up on the Internet, only subject matter—the Earth’s moon floating in a night sky. The paint had hardened into gloppy chunks. The sky was a dull purple, heavy and oppressive. Within it, the stars appeared to be sinking, as though into tar. Only the moon stood defiant; a swollen yellow thing too alive to be pulled in. The brush strokes gave it the look of striated meat, of a single, spherical muscle, held aloft by its own strength, fighting and winning against the darkness sucking at it.

Owen himself had disappeared into the house’s depths with Tim’s suitcase, leaving Tim and his mother alone in the living room. She took a seat on the sofa and motioned for him to join her. He declined. Part of him hoped that he wouldn’t have to stay long, that his powers of persuasion would be enough to get them on the road before Owen reemerged. Unlikely, but not impossible. Claire had always been an agreeable woman.

“So, this is where you live now,” he said.

“I know how strange it must seem. You’ve probably got a lot of questions. I’m so glad that you came to see me. To see us. It means so much.” She leaned forward, clasping her hands in her lap. She’d picked up a deep tan since he’d last seen her, and the silver of her hair only set off its intensity that much more. “I need to know you understand that your dad and me—that our separation doesn’t have anything to do with you. It doesn’t change anything between us.”

“I’m thirty, not twelve. I think I can handle the whole child-of-divorce thing,” he said.

“How is your dad?”

“He’s worried about you. Same as me.”

That wasn’t exactly true, or if it was, Tim had no way of knowing. Upon discovering that he’d been kicked to the curb after four decades of marriage, Chuck’s exact words had been, I’ve got better things to do that drive down to the ass-end of nowhere to beg on the doorstep of the man who stole my wife. In the week since then, his feelings hadn’t softened. Tim had kept his visit a secret to avoid the conniption the old man would have inevitably thrown if he’d found out.

Behind her, a bay window gave a view of the landscape Tim had driven through to get here. Brown hills that looked like massive heaps of gravel rolled to the horizon. For the last hour of his trip, he hadn’t passed so much as a gas station.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” she said. “I’m wonderful. Really, really wonderful. The happiest I’ve been in a long time.”

“But this Owen guy. You met him, what, a month ago? You barely know him.”

“I know he’s passionate, sensitive, driven. I know he pushes me creatively. When I’m with him, I see the world through different eyes. It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced that.”

It took an effort to keep his face blank. This didn’t sound like his mother. In all his life, he didn’t think he’d ever heard her use the word passionate in any context.

“What about Dad?” he said.

“Chuck is a good man, a good husband, a good father, but I think in my heart I always knew I’d leave him one day.”

Tim wondered how much of that she really believed. “I want you to be happy, and if you say you need a change, I’m on board. Anything I can do. But is it really out here? With him? Don’t you think you’re rushing into this?”

“I understand why you think that. But being at the colony, just me and my work for so long, it clarified things. I learned more about myself last month that in the past twenty years. This is where I need to be. And Owen is who I need to be with. This is my life now. It’s right. I know it.”

For two years, she had been taking art classes at the continuing education center, cranking out paintings of flowers in vases and charcoal sketches of middle-aged nude models for her weekly assignments. One of her teachers had told her about the Soledad Art Colony and suggested she apply for a spot there. Visits, which cost a small fortune, lasted for one month. Guests stayed in private cottages with desert views. At night they ate gourmet meals prepared by a resident chef, drank wine, and talked art. By day they did nothing but work, free of distraction. Real, honest-to-God professional artists were paid to hang around, offering critiques and advice.

Tim had heard the excitement in her voice when she’d first described it to him, even as she’d told him that she wouldn’t be applying. She could never, she had explained, leave her husband alone for such a long stretch. Ultimately, Tim had talked her into it. He wondered if his father knew that. He wondered just how much responsibility he bore for the fact that one of those artists-in-residence had, over the span of one month, launched into an affair with his mother, and then convinced her to come home with him when her stay at the colony ended.

She said, “I know you came here to rescue me, and I’m touched, deeply. It’s so sweet. But I don’t need it.”

The sound of shuffling footsteps signaled Owen’s return. He entered the room carrying a wine bottle in one hand and a trio of glasses in the other. The first thing to occur to Tim when Owen had greeted him at the front door had been a question, whether the reason so much of the painter’s work focused on moons was that he himself looked like one. The man was almost spherical.  His belly had a perfect curve to it. The top of his head was bald and shiny. A brown-grey hobo beard hid most of his face.

“I hope you two are all caught up,” he said. The smile he flashed never made it to his eyes.

Later, after drinks, dinner, and more drinks, Owen led Tim down a twisting staircase to the bottom of the house. It ended at a hallway with three doors. At the upper register of his hearing, Tim thought he detected a faint humming sound. If Owen noticed it, he gave no sign. In succession, he jabbed a finger at each door.

“That’s the guest room. Your bag’s already in there. The bed’s comfortable. I’ve slept in it plenty of times myself. That’s the bathroom. Use the green towels. This one’s your mom’s studio. Sometimes she comes down here late at night to work, so if you hear someone moving around, that’s what that is.”

Tim thanked him and tried to step past into the bedroom, but Owen took up most of the hallway and didn’t make any effort to move. His skin was flushed and shiny.

“How long are you planning to stay for, exactly?” he said.

“The invitation was for a week,” Tim said. “I got the time off of work.”

“Sure it was. But I think you already asked the question you came here to ask, and if I’m not wrong, you already got your answer.” He folded his arms across the top of his stomach and gave Tim a professorial look. “Your mom’s doing some important work here. Artistically, I mean. She could do without the distraction. And since you know she won’t be leaving with you…”

“Are you kicking me out?” Tim asked.

“Not at all. I just hate to see you wasting your time. And hers.”

“I think I’ll stay then, if it’s all the same.”

Owen’s mouth turned to a thin, hard line. He stepped aside to let Tim through. In the guest room, a twin bed with a knit blanket folded over it occupied one corner. Tim spotted his suitcase at its foot. Beside the bed was a nightstand, upon which stood a ceramic lamp, its base sculpted into the shape of a crescent moon with the wizened, wrinkled face of an old man. His nose was hooked, his grin mischievous. Another of Owen’s paintings hung on the wall above the bed, almost identical to the one upstairs. Across the room, a sliding glass door looked out onto a small wooden deck. As Tim closed the bedroom door behind him, he heard his host mutter something. It might have been “good night” or something else entirely.

When he woke up some time later, it was still dark out. A sound followed him out of whatever dream he’d been having; a piece of music, wordless, with a slippery worm of a melody. It called to mind memories he couldn’t place—the smell of wood smoke, the rustles and chirps of a forest at night, the feel of cold, damp air on his skin. He stared up at the ceiling, tasting the sourness of his own tongue, sensing the headache from all the night’s wine as it gathered in his temples. It took him a minute to understand that the sound—the song—was real. It was what had woken him up. At first, he thought it might have been that same hum he’d heard earlier, but after listening for a while he decided that it was coming from outside the house.

He got up, went to the glass door, and opened it. The music’s volume shot up. Wearing only his pajama bottoms, he stepped outside. The wood beneath his feet was rough and splintery. There were no clouds in the sky, just an immense dome of stars. The moon shone bright enough that the rocky hills seemed to glow silver-blue.

03NightArtist1Owen stood on a balcony two floors up. He had an easel and canvas set up in front of him, and he held a brush in his hand, but he wasn’t painting. His arms hung limp at his sides, and his face was lifted to the sky. Tim thought for a second that he might be the source of the strange melody. Tim wouldn’t have guessed it was a human voice, but it didn’t necessarily sound inhuman, either. The longer he looked, though, the more his eyes adjusted and the more he could see. Owen’s lips weren’t moving. His mouth was closed, turned up in a sleepy, blissful smile. He was the music’s audience, not its source.

Tim looked back out at the hills. What could it be, then? There was no wind, not even a breeze. It didn’t sound like any kind of bird he’d ever heard before. There were no trees, no other buildings. He craned his neck, looking up, up, up, until his eyes landed on what he knew with sudden and absolute certainty to be the music’s source, and his mouth went dry.

It was the moon. Impossibly, it was the moon. Two-hundred-and-some-odd-thousand miles away, it was singing. The meandering melody originated up there, traversed a silent vacuum, and reached all the way to this place, to him.

The sharp grind of metal sounded nearby, and Tim spun around. On another deck only a few yards from his own, a door was sliding open. He watched as a figure emerged. When he caught a glimpse of his mother’s silver hair, he ducked back inside and eased his own door shut. He slipped back into bed and shoved his head under a pillow, using one arm to hold it in place. It muffled the music, but didn’t block it out entirely. Eventually, he fell asleep like that, squeezing his teeth and eyes because he couldn’t close his ears.

In the morning, he dressed, washed his face in the bathroom sink, and started upstairs. Halfway up, he heard his mother call his name. If she hadn’t, if he’d made it up there without encountering anyone. He couldn’t say for sure that he wouldn’t have kept going, straight out to his car, out the driveway, and gone. She greeted him at the top step. She was practically buzzing with excitement. Tim glanced over her shoulder for any sign of Owen and saw nothing, just the empty living room.

“I need to talk to you about something,” he said.

“I bet you do.”

“It’s about Owen. Last night, before I went to bed—“

She shook her head and waved her hands as though shooing a bug.

“Listen,” he said. “He basically gave me a ‘Get out of Dodge’ speech.”

“That doesn’t matter anymore,” she said.

He wasn’t getting through, couldn’t tell if she was even registering what he was saying.

“Mom, he’s not a nice guy.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay.” She took his shoulders in her hands and leaned in close enough for a kiss. Her eyes were wide, unrelenting. “I know you heard it last night,” she said. “This changes things. I know Owen didn’t want you coming here. He’s a very private person. Very focused on his painting. He was convinced you would wreck what we have. I promised him and promised him you wouldn’t. You’re not like your dad. You’re like me. And I was right! Not everyone can hear it, you know. Owen says it takes a particular kind of sensitivity. And you have it. Once we tell him, we could put all these negative feelings behind us. You’ll be welcome to stay. He’ll want you to stay. He’s in the shower now, but he should be down soon. We can tell him together.”

“Mom,” Tim said. “What did I hear last night?”

She let her arms fall and motioned for him to follow her into the kitchen. There, Tim watched her assemble Owen’s substantial breakfast of pancakes, eggs, bacon, and toast. She offered to make Tim something, but his stomach felt like a pouch of hot oil. The cup of coffee that he nursed was the most he could handle.

“I heard it for the first time at the colony,” she explained. “It was the start of my second week there. I was enjoying myself—I loved all the time to myself, I loved all the painting I was doing—but I hadn’t gotten to know any of the other guests. They would get together at night to socialize, but I stayed away. I’m shy, I suppose. You know that. Instead, I took walks. There were these beautiful gardens of desert plants, and these little footpaths going through them. The way they had it set up, you could walk twenty feet and be completely alone, no one in sight. Especially when it was dark.”

She flitted from cupboard to counter to sink. “It was one of those nights. I was out there alone, and I heard this strange, beautiful sound. This music. I couldn’t figure out what it was at first. Then I looked up and realized.” She looked at him. “It was the moon, Tim. The moon was singing. It was the strangest thing, but it was also sort of wonderful.

“Then Owen came along. He’d been with the other guests, but he was on his way back to his cottage. He saw me there, staring up at the sky, thinking I’d lost my mind, and do you know what he said? He said, ‘You hear it.’ Not even a question. Like, he just knew.” She paused to let that sink in. “He’s been hearing it since he was a child, and in all that time, he’s only ever met three other people who can. Now, with you, it’s four. He thinks only people with a real deep sensitivity can hear it, and only if they really know how to listen.”

“Why that night and not before?” Tim said.

She pointed at him with a spatula shiny with grease. “You and I have lived in the city for our entire lives. Owen says, ‘It takes a special kind of place with a special kind of silence.’ It’s why he bought this property, because the music is louder here than anywhere else. Anywhere else he’s been anyway.”

“What does Owen think the music—what does he think it is?”

“You should ask him. He’s got theories. Lots and lots of theories. It’s fascinating.”

Eventually, Owen showed up, his skin still flushed from the shower. He kissed Claire on the cheek, but did not acknowledge her son, even as he sat down across the table from him. Tim watched his mother set a steaming mountain of food before him. Owen settled into his meal without speaking, and Tim thought about how familiar it all seemed. Three hundred miles away, in a different house with a different man, and his mother was still the unthanked servant. He wondered what the best way to point that out might be. She lingered beside Owen, though he was too focused on his meal to notice. For several seconds, the only sounds were of chewing.

She said, “We have something to tell you.”

Owen grunted a questioning noise around a mouthful of food.

“Last night, Tim heard the moon.”

The chewing slowed as Owen processed this. He swallowed with a tremendous bob of his Adam’s apple, swiped at his mouth with a napkin, and twisted in his seat to look up at her. “You told him? Do you have any sense?”

“I didn’t tell him anything, honey. He heard it. He told me.”

“Dammit, it’s a secret thing. Our secret thing.”

“And now he’s one of us, you see? It’s a good thing.”

“He is, is he?” He shifted his gaze to Tim. “Tell me, then. What exactly did you hear last night?”

Tim looked down into his coffee. The lack of a discernable melody made the music a challenge to recall. Already, it was slipping from his mind, like a fish escaping into darker water.

“I’m not sure what I heard,” he said.

Owen smirked and, to Claire, said, “He’s lying to you. He’s trying to get close to you so he can turn you against me, drag you back to your husband. Is that what you want? Your old life? Because he’s part of that. Your husband’s son. Maybe I’m remembering wrong, but I got the impression you were pretty miserable then.” He gave Tim an appraising look. “He didn’t hear a thing. He thinks we’re crackpots. Small-minded, no imagination, just like his dad.”

It felt to Tim like he ought to say something, to get mad, defensive, something, but who was he going to stick up for? His father? For someone who’d never met the man, Owen’s description hit pretty close to the mark. Himself? Yes, he had heard something, and yes, he thought they were crackpots. The two weren’t mutually exclusive.

“He doesn’t need to get close to me,” Claire said. “He’s my son. He is close to me. And you’re wrong. He’s not like he’s father. He’s like me. He’s like you. You’d see it if you’d just give him a chance.”

Owen glared at her, then at Tim, working his mouth. He looked to be on the cusp of saying something, but he gave up on it. With a snort and a shake of his head, he said, “I’m going for a walk.” His chair squealed on the floor as he pushed it back. A moment later, he was gone. The house swallowed the sound of his footsteps. Claire made an attempt at a reassuring smile, but she couldn’t quite suppress the tremble in her lips.

Downstairs, Tim took his cell phone out onto the deck. The sky was cloudless and powder blue. The air smelled of warm dust. He placed his hands on the railing and listened hard for anything that might, in the light of day, offer an explanation for last night’s strangeness. Somewhere far off, a car engine was buzzing. It grew fainter by the second, until it was gone. After that there was only silence. He dialed his parents’ house, brought the phone to his ear, and waited for his father to pick up.

“Hello?” The voice was phlegmy and a bit bewildered. If it was anyone else, Tim would have guessed he’d woken the person up, but this was how Chuck always sounded. That he should ever be expected to interact with anyone was a source of bafflement and frustration for him.

“Hi, Dad. It’s me.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line, during which Tim could easily imagine his father trying to puzzle out exactly who me was.

“Tim,” he said. “How are you?”

“I’m good. I’m at Owen Steig’s house.”

This time, the pause was heavier, charged. Tim waited, then realized that this wasn’t a pause at all, but a silence.

“I came to see Mom,” he said.

“Oh, yeah?” Chuck was trying for indifference, but the anger came through anyway.

“Yeah.” Tim chose his next words very carefully. “I think I can get her to come home. This Owen guy, he’s a real piece of work, and I think she’s starting to see it.”

“Don’t waste your time.”

“What?” Tim said.

He heard the creak and slide of his father shifting on his leather couch. “If she comes back, she comes back. It’s not like I’m sitting here on pins and needles. Don’t be so sure I’d even take her back if she came.”

“Come on, Dad. Who are you kidding?”

“I’m a forgiving guy, but that’s thirty-nine years of marriage she pissed on. That’s me and you. How thrilled do you expect me to be by the prospect of her crawling back with her tail between her legs just because the guy she ran off with turned out to be an even bigger piece of shit than me?”

“Jesus. This is your wife.”

“And look how she’s treating me,” he said. “Look, you do what you want, but my advice is leave her where she is. If it’s where she wants to be, she’ll stay. Otherwise, she’ll leave. It’s not my business either way, and it sure as hell isn’t yours.”

Leaving held a definite appeal, and his father’s permission to do just that made Tim feel lighter, more mobile. He almost did it. He started gathering his things and folding his clothes into his suitcase, then stopped himself.

The music he’d heard last night had unnerved him. If he was being honest, it had scared him in a way that he could no more explain than he could its source. Not for a second did he believe that the moon was humming tunes for the benefit of the world’s most creative souls, or whatever nonsense Owen had come up with, but he didn’t have an explanation of his own, either. He didn’t think he needed one. Some of life’s mysteries might be worth exploring, but this wasn’t one of them. It had his mother mesmerized, though. It didn’t occur to her to be scared, which meant that it fell to Tim to be scared on her behalf.

Owen worried him too. Fewer than twenty-four hours had passed since they’d met, and even that had been too long for the artist to keep a lid on the fact that he was possessive, jealous, and delusional. Tim didn’t know what someone like that might be capable of. There were no other houses out here, no neighbors. If something were to happen—Tim wasn’t ready to guess at what—who could his mother turn to for help? How many people even knew she was here?

It was simple. He couldn’t leave until she agreed to come with him.

Claire spent the day in her studio. Through the door he could hear occasional sounds of movement. The first couple of times he knocked, she called out terse instructions to leave her alone while she worked. After that, she stopped responding at all.

He took some time to explore the house. It was narrow and tall, with multiple staircases that wound up and down its interior. Nearly every room had its own deck or balcony. Most had at least one of Owen’s paintings on display. He found several bedrooms, a game room, and a room with no furniture at all, just stacks of audiocassettes piled up against the walls and no means of playing them that Tim could see. He never found a TV, but he didn’t open the doors to either the master bedroom or what he guessed to be Owen’s painting studio. He crossed paths with his host a few times. Owen never said anything, just got up and walked out of any room that Tim entered. Each time, he had a glass of something brown with ice that he carried with him. He kept it full throughout the day, and by the time they gathered for dinner, he was glassy eyed and swaying from the alcohol.

At the table, Claire tried repeatedly to start a conversation, but Owen ignored her, so for a while they sat in silence. She and Tim ate, but Owen didn’t touch his food. When he finally spoke, his voice came out as an animal bark. “Why don’t you tell us more about this whatever-it-is you heard last night?”

Claire answered for him, sweetly, but with a hint of a challenge in her voice. “You know what he heard.”

“Let him speak for himself.” To Tim, he said, “Was it like anything you’ve ever heard before?”

Tim was about to answer in the negative, but he stopped. It had sounded familiar, hadn’t it? His first thoughts upon waking—they’d been more like impressions, really—had been of a forest. He’d been unable to place them, but they’d had the feel of memories. His family had only ever undertaken one attempt at a camping trip that he knew of. He’d been five or six at the time. As far as he could remember, the trip had consisted almost exclusively of his parents arguing, and had ended prematurely in the middle of the night when Tim had pissed in his sleeping bag. Had there been anything else to it? Something he’d forgotten? A reason he’d not wanted to leave the tent to pee against a tree?

What had his mother said? It takes a special kind of place with a special kind of silence.

“Maybe,” he said finally.

Owen arched an eyebrow. “Maybe. Maybe he’s heard it before. He’s not sure what he heard.”

“You’re being rude,” Claire said.

Owen shoved his plate away, untouched. “Come with me, Tim. I want to show you something.”

“We’re eating dinner,” Claire said.

“This is important. I’d appreciate his insight.”03NightArtist2

“Owen, please,” she said, but he was already on his feet, walking away.

Tim hesitated. This could be the moment. His mother’s displeasure with Owen was simmering. He might be able to get her to leave. If he miscalculated, though, she would only remember that he was the reason her boyfriend was throwing such a snit, and then redirect some or all of that displeasure onto him. He pushed back his chair and stood.

Owen led them downstairs to the closed door of Claire’s studio.

“I told you that your mom’s been doing some amazing work,” he said.

Important work, is what you said.”

“That’s right. Important.” Owen levelled a finger at him. “And it is. I’d love for you to see it. I’d love to hear what you think.”

Tim’s mother started to speak. “Don’t—”

He did.

The door swung inward, revealing the room. A table stood against the far wall, its surface cluttered with half-crushed paint tubes and brushes soaking in jars of murky water. An easel held an unfinished painting. Other paintings in various states of completion were propped against walls and in corners. In all cases, the subject matter was the same. Claire had given up on her still lifes, landscapes, and figure studies, and had stolen her boyfriend’s muse. She was painting the moon, over and over again.

She didn’t have Owen’s talent, though. Her work was amateurish—flat objects on flat backgrounds, shading that didn’t make a lick of sense, everything just a little bit lopsided. Her work differed from Owen’s in one other respect. For some reason, she’d opted to paint her night skies with the darks and lights inverted, like a photographic negative—a navy circle against a periwinkle sky, plum purple against muted pink, black against white. The moons were all full, Tim noticed. Time didn’t pass in her paintings. The moon had no phases.

He followed Owen into the room.

“Do you hear it?” Owen said.

He did. The music, the meandering, high-pitched melody from last night, came at him from all directions, fainter now that before, but everywhere. It was the paintings. As it had come from the moon, now it came from the paintings.

Owen saw something in Tim’s face. “You do, don’t you?”

Claire hovered in the doorway, nibbling on her knuckle.

“You do!” Owen said. His eyes flashed. “Tell me, then. Your mom goes on and on about how smart you are, how insightful, how sensitive. So tell me, how is this happening? I’ve been hearing the moon’s music my entire life. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been hearing it, trying to understand. I’ve devoted my life to it. My art? My career? That’s all it is. Just me, groping for answers. What does the music mean? Why do I hear it? What am I supposed to do? Decades. Sixty goddamned years. Then your mother comes along and does this.” He spread his arms wide, putting the whole incomprehensible scene on display. “What is this? What has she done that I never have? What does it mean?”

Tim cast about, looking from one painting to the next, but never for too long. Facing them directly sent pain spiking through his skull. Dark, sloppy circles stared at him like hollow eye sockets. A cold mass formed in his stomach.

“They’re not moons.” The timid voice didn’t sound like his own. “They’re holes.”

“No, Tim,” his mother said.

Owen snorted. He screwed up his face to say something derisive, then softened it again. “Holes,” he echoed.

Owen snatched the painting off the easel and regarded it. With his free hand, he swept the assorted jars, brushes, and paints off the table, sending them crashing to the floor. Glass shattered, and water splashed out in a violent V. Tim’s mother let out a yelp. She crossed the room to him, but Owen shoved her off with a twist of his shoulders. She stumbled backwards. Dimly, Tim knew that he should be doing something, that this was his time to intercede, but the melody twirled and spiraled, and he couldn’t follow it.

Owen set the canvas on the table. He grabbed another and laid it on top of the first. He took a lap around the room, picking up each painting, finished and unfinished alike, and bringing them to the table, where he stacked them into a squat tower, a dozen canvases tall. For several seconds, he gazed down at what he’d done. His beard twitched. No one spoke. He reached out one hand and held it above the pile, as though gauging the heat of a skillet on a stove. Then he brought it down. Reality squirmed away. When his hand should have landed flat on the top painting, it passed right through. His arm vanished up to the elbow. So assembled, the two-dimensional images had taken on a third dimension, like a gag in a Roadrunner cartoon.

“It’s a tunnel,” he said, his voice was breathy with wonder.

Claire started to say something. Owen cut her off with a scream. His face turned pale and the chords in his neck went taught. He snatched his hand back. Not much remained. His middle and ring fingers were gone entirely, severed at the knuckles. Strips of skin and stringy red tissue held his pinky together. Blood came in two distinct squirts. His voice weakened, and he collapsed. Claire rushed to catch him, and Tim stepped forward to catch her. They were no match for Owen’s weight, though, and all three of them went down together.

Tim heard Owen moaning incomprehensibly, heard his mother shouting something about an ambulance, but all of his attention was focused on the stack of paintings on the table, and on the music’s crescendo. From the ground, he couldn’t see the top of the pile, but he could see the thing that emerged from it. First there was a head, the shape and size of a garden shovel. Branches of purple-black veins ran beneath its scarlet skin. Its mouth was wide, smeared with blood, and crowded with teeth like shards of shattered black glass. Where there should have been eyes and nostrils, there was only smooth skin. The neck came next, three feet long and serpentine, then a lizard-like body. A dark growth sat on the creature’s back. Its tale was thick and muscular, and tipped with a hook the size of a thumb. Yellow fluid dripped from the point.

It crawled headfirst down the stack of paintings, inched to the table’s edge, and dropped to the floor with a meaty thud. Tim scooted back. Before he could muster a warning, another one appeared, identical to the first. It flopped to the ground. A third followed right behind it, landing on its companion and rolling off.

“Mom—”

She looked up, saw what he saw, and let out a whimper. Owen’s face was as gray as cigarette ash, his eyes half-closed. He didn’t see the three creatures. They lunged for his splayed legs, mouths gaping, and sank their teeth in. Blood geysered. Thrashing and bucking, he threw back his head and howled.

More came, clambering out of the paintings two and three at a time. They tumbled down, landing on their sides and their backs, and twisting to right themselves. They swiveled their eyeless faces, and then started toward the three people on the far side of the room. They moved fast, crossing the floor in seconds. As they moved, they sang.

It was the growths, the strange protuberances on their backs. They looked to have erupted from within the creatures. The skin around them was split and shredded. They looked inorganic, even metallic, like coarse iron. Tiny holes of varying sizes perforated the growths. As the creatures crawled, they forced air through the holes, creating the sound. There were a dozen of them in the room now, and more coming. The music spilled over itself, swelling.

Tim pushed himself to his feet and backed away. They covered Owen, tearing at him, effortlessly rending clothing and skin. Tim’s mother looked up at him, eyes wide with disbelief. He knew what she saw in his face, and he couldn’t believe it either. Owen’s massive torso lay across her legs. Those things surrounded her and were drawing closer. He couldn’t get to her, not without coming in reach of their teeth and lashing tails. She already knew it. He was going to leave her there.

He broke for the door. At the first sound of her cries, he tried to slam it shut behind him. One of the creatures launched itself at him and landed between the door and the frame. The force crushed it in a burst of black fluid. Another one appeared in the gap, clambering over the remains of the first. Tim turned and ran. He took the stairs at the end of the hall two at a time. Behind him, the door banged open. Music flooded the house. The floor vibrated. A hundred melodies came together to form a single overbearing, harmonic drone. Faintly, beneath it, like percussion, he could hear their feet patting along the floor, catching up with him.

Turning at the top of the stairs, he caught a glimpse of a wave surging up the staircase behind him. One of them scurried along the wall, leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind it. Strands of hair dangled from its mouth. His mother’s. Darkness pressed at the corners of his vision. He willed it back, kept running.

Outside, the air was hot and dry. This time, he managed to the get the door closed after he’d passed through it. Something banged against the other side an instant later. It began to scratch and gnaw. Already, he could feel the wood giving way. He bolted past his mother’s and Owen’s cars to his own.

Digging into his pocket, he experienced a moment of despair—had he left his keys inside with his luggage, wallet, cell phone, and everything else?—that evaporated when his fingers touched metal. He climbed inside and started the engine. His headlights offered him a last glimpse of the house. A lizard-thing clung to the inside of a window. Others crawled along the walls and ceiling behind it. He watched as one knocked one of Owen’s painting first crooked, then to the ground. At that moment, the door gave way, and they poured out into the driveway. Tim reversed and sped away.

The road twisted and curved. His headlights shined on a cloud of dust that hovered a foot off the ground. He gripped the wheel with both hands. The hills were featureless shadows that loomed over him like a tribunal of giants. Framed above them, the moon looked deflated, flat, a collapsed Mylar balloon pasted against a paper sky. He didn’t need to roll down a window to know it was silent now. Its tunnel was built, its contents disgorged. It didn’t matter that he could drive for an hour and find a gas station, that he could drive for two and reach a town. The music belonged to the hills now, and they went on forever.

 


Brady Golden lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, two daughters, and an indeterminate number of cats. His short fiction has appeared in Mythic Delirium, DarkFuse 2, and on the podcast Pseudopod.

Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.




21
Jul

“Whispers from the Sea” by Ryan Anderson

Speculate_blog“Don’t touch me, you freak!”

I didn’t have to look to know what had happened. Billy had offered to help carry her gear back to the car. Divemasters make their money in tips, and guests appreciate a hard working divemaster. But Billy had reached for her bag without waiting for a response.

As I looked over he straightened up, gave her smile, and mumbled, “Okay.” He turned his attention to gathering up stray weights and returning them to the crate.

That’s why I kinda hate teenagers; especially the rich pretty girls. They live in a perfect little sheltered world. Billy’s abnormality being a threat to their precious perfection, they have the capacity for serious bitchiness. I glanced over to the parking lot, though, and saw both her parents by their car, smoking and loading SCUBA gear.

Billy didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. He was just trying to be nice. I walked over and gave her my navy chief voice, “You can get the hell off my boat now.”

I suppose I should tell you up front that Billy has a rare genetic condition. It’s kinda like Down’s, but not, I’m told. I can never remember the long scientific name; doesn’t really matter when it comes down to it.

I met him years ago when I started teaching SCUBA diving at the pool of the local Y. He was in his senior year of high school, and someone had helped him get a job working there.  He’d hang around and watch, initially. After a few months he’d show up in swim trunks and be messing around in the pool before or after class.

I knew enough to realize he was unlikely to be successful with diving. But he was so intent on watching us that I eventually asked the other staff about him. One day when I was in the pool alone, about to get out and pack it up, I called him over. I offered to show him how to wear a mask. I figured he wouldn’t like it. A lot of special needs folks don’t like it when you start shoving stuff in their face. But I could at least say we tried, right?

Well, he got the mask on, and thought that was a hoot. I showed him how to breathe through a snorkel. He liked that too, which was promising. Getting a set of fins on him was easy enough. And he was thrilled to be snorkeling around the pool, shooting along the bottom occasionally.

I packed it up there, but the next session, guess who’s sitting by the pool at the end of my lesson? Long story short, I started walking him through SCUBA pool training. I figure he’d hit his limit pretty quick, flip out when his mask flooded or something. But he loved it, so I just kept going. Don’t tell PASI that part though, they’d be pissed that I didn’t have any waivers signed at that point.

I’d long since run him through all of the required pool drills before I ever met his mom. I was packing up my own gear a couple weeks later when a tall brunette came gliding through the door onto the pool deck. She circled around to my side of the pool gazing down into the deep end with a big grin. “Wow, he’s actually SCUBA diving.”

“Yeah, he seems to be getting a real kick out of it. And, I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve met,” I said, offering her a hand.

She took it. “I’m Jacki Dalton, Billy’s mom.”

“Oh!” Well, this was awkward. Didn’t think I would ever meet his mom. She was the one who was supposed to be signing all those waivers. How does one go about asking for a waiver after the fact in a case like this? I decided on a different line. “Sorry, ma’am, I took the liberty of showing him how. At first I didn’t think it’d go far, but your son took to SCUBA like a fish. Next thing I know, it’s kinda become a regular thing. He just got so excited about it, I couldn’t say no.”

“I know, he’s been so thrilled about it. He’s been telling me for weeks that he’s SCUBA diving. Billy can see the world a bit differently at times, so I thought maybe he was just swimming around in fins or whatnot. But he was adamant that I come see him. He usually takes the bus, but I figured I’d come pick him up tonight. And here he is actually SCUBA diving. Is he really safe doing it?”

“Oh, he’s only in eight feet of water, ma’am. I doubt he could hurt himself down there if he tried.”

“No, I mean, do you think he could do it for real? Like, in the ocean?”

That was how it started. I played along, still figuring he’d probably not be able to finish training. There were a couple more sticking points that had me worried. Given that I’d already half trained him, I didn’t say a thing to his mom about getting paid. Figured it as SCUBA pro bono work. Good karma, you know?

Billy loved the ocean from his first dive. He came back up from the first open water dive glowing and grinning. I don’t usually do the big showy presentation thing when my students earn their certifications. But in Billy’s case I took the liberty of calling his mom and making arrangements. The kid was so incredibly proud when I showed up at his gym class to present his open water diver certification card to him. I suppose I kinda sealed my own fate in that way.

So, what’s a kid with it-ain’t-Down’s supposed to do after high school? He had his job at the Y, but guess where he started showing up when he wasn’t there. That boy was an expert at reading bus maps. It didn’t take him long to figure out which bus to take to get to my dive shop.

Didn’t take too many friendly visits before I called his mom and made a suggestion. An eager young body that likes to hang around a dive shop can be put to work. I paid him minimum wage at first. He was just unskilled labor at that point.

He was good with the customers, too. I was surprised how few ever gave him a second glance. His facial proportions kinda tell the story, you know. And he speaks well, but his occasional stutter leaves no doubt. Folks didn’t want to buy gear or book training through him though; and he kinda sucks on the phone. I couldn’t leave him to man the shop when I took a trip out on the boat.

Within six months of coming to work for me, Billy was a certified rescue diver with all kinds of specialty training. He was good out on the boat, and was learning to read my mind. He was delighted to discover that he got tips when he was particularly helpful. Happy clients leave big tips, and come back for more dive trips. Go figure, I quickly made him a regular part of the crew.

And well hell, if he’s gonna act like a divemaster I might as well get him trained and certified as one, right? Yeah, easier said than done. Billy is a great kid, but academics ain’t his strong suit. But damn, did he work at it. He pored over his materials for hours on end. His mom joked about missing her son during those weeks. He finally did it though, passed all his tests.

02WhispersFromTheSea1He was my best divemaster ever. Worked his tail off without being told. Kept the boat immaculately clean. Like, I served twenty years in the navy, and he managed to keep my boat cleaner than even I thought it needed to be. Damn near lived at the shop. Guests loved his friendly demeanor, especially on the days the captain was getting past a hangover.

But I’ll always remember that day with the bitchy girl. That’s the day things started to change. It was the second trip of the day, and we had a night dive planned for that evening too. All the makings of a long day.

I helped Billy haul the empty tanks through the back door of the shop, and left him to refill alone. I wandered down the dock to my favorite bar for a cheeseburger and a quart of beer. I bought him a cheeseburger and fries to bring back. He’d no doubt have the boat reset and ready to run by the time I got back. This was our standard MO for the weekends.

As I came back down the dock I saw the boat was all set. Tanks loaded, rental gear set up, clean as a whistle; Billy did good work. But Billy was nowhere to be seen. Guests would start showing up shortly, but I figured he was just sitting on the head or something. Setting his burger on the compressor, I leaned against a nearby post as I waited for guests to arrive.

I was considering if I could slip upstairs to my apartment for a nip of whiskey when I noticed the whispering. Over the sound of the water lapping across the dock, it was hard to pick up. But even my ancient ears could catch the sound of voices whispering.

I walked over to the corner of the shop. There was probably a guest or somebody in the parking lot. But it was empty, and as soon as I rounded the corner I heard a scuffling behind me. I turn around to see Billy standing on the dive deck right down by the water.

“Billy? Were you just lying down on the dive deck?” There’s no way he could sneak onto the boat with me standing there, and it was too far for him to have been hiding behind the pilothouse.

“Ah, yeah Dale.” It was a good thing he never played poker. “I, um, there’s a gr-great big tarpon under the props.”

“Really? Awfully shallow for a tarpon, he must be hungry.” Why the hell he’d been lying on the dive deck, I didn’t want to know. I hoped he’d been taking a nap, but we both knew the hammock was better for that.

“Yeah, must be.”

“First four lined up with nitrox, right?” I asked to change the subject.

Waving at the four clearly marked tanks at the guest stations, he said, “Yeah.”

“Okay, they’ll start showing up anytime now.”

The whispering was probably from my addled, inebriated old brain. Or, maybe I heard Billy shuffling behind the gunwale. Except, I kept hearing it. Most night dives thereafter, I’d hear whispering regularly. I ignored it. Denial is a powerful thing. If you’d pushed me about it, I’d have told you Billy was talking to himself, or the water was rushing past the boat. I’ve never been one to go looking for trouble.

I never wondered why Billy was in the water for every night dive. They can be challenging for many of our guests. Having only a flashlight to illuminate the darkness around you can be intimidating. We prefer to have a team member in the water with our guests at night, in case things go sideways. They’re easy enough to keep track of, and they usually appreciate the guidance of a divemaster to find all those territorial nocturnal creatures.

It must have been a year after the bitchy girl before I even knew Billy wasn’t being attentive on the night dives. A couple came out of the water at the end of their dive. They were all smiles but asked what had happened to Billy. He’d been with them, and then he’d disappeared; flashlight, strobe light, and all. They figured he’d surfaced or gone off to help someone. They didn’t think anything more of it, because they’d had a great dive.

It caught my attention though. That was a small group that night not many teams to attend to. That Billy had disappeared was interesting. That he was so far off that they couldn’t even see his strobe was doubly so. I casually inquired with the other two dive teams when they came back up. Billy hadn’t joined them either.

Now it’s hardly a federal crime for a divemaster to wander off on his own every so often. It’s even something of a trade secret. All the dive teams that night were experienced solid divers, so none of them really required Billy’s direct supervision. But Billy didn’t come back up that night with a story of some new turtle nest he’d found, or anything like it. In fact, he didn’t say a word when he came back up.

I knew Billy was always the last one out of the water on the night dives. I hardly thought a thing of it. He was probably just communing with the reef, enjoying the peace and solitude. I’ve been there myself, so it didn’t surprise me. But all together it got me thinking, and discretely asking questions.

I quickly discovered a pattern over the next few weeks. He’d always go in the water for night dives. Unless he had a really nervous set of divers though, it became quickly evident that he’d go lights out after few minutes. His light usually only came back on a minute before he surfaced, when he was right under the keel.  What was weirder was that he’d even pull that on overcast nights, where he’d need his lights to see anything. And he did this at all of the dive sites; it wasn’t like he just had a secret spot over on Hairy Reef.

I started checking his tank and computer after he went home for the night. Billy was usually a stickler for leading by example. Thus, he’d always be back on the boat with at least five hundred psi of air in his tank. Except on the night dives, he’d suck those tanks way down to one to two hundred. His computer told an even more alarming tale. On any site he could, he was finding deep water. You need to understand that’s usually a taboo thing for night dives. I never saw Billy being that cavalier during the day.

I started gently asking him questions. He always avoided them and when pushed gave me some of the lamest excuses I’d ever heard. Even at the time I didn’t think much of it. If the craziest thing my model divemaster did was get his wild on during some night dives, I could count myself lucky.  Obviously, I hadn’t thought to connect this with the whispering.

It came to a head though about three months after I first noticed his excursions. We moored a good thirty yards off Crack Ledge wall. Billy had briefed all of our guests that they were not to cross the edge of the wall, nor go past forty feet. That didn’t prevent him from going lights out quickly and bolting for the wall. His computer later told the story; that he managed drop all the way down to one hundred feet. He stayed way too long at that depth, and then, since his air was no doubt running low, he began a fast ascent. Despite the warning beeps from his computer, he continued ascending from the depths at a rate it objected to. In trying to figure out how to keep him from getting bent, it pitched a fit. Told him to stop at thirty foot for a decompression interval. He was probably low on air. In any case, he blew past the recommended stop, and when he did so, his computer officially told him where to shove it and locked up into error mode.

Now when a dive computer comes out of the water in error mode, it’s beeping, screeching, and generally making a pest of itself. So as soon as Billy was on deck I knew he’d done something to lock up his computer. I didn’t say anything in front of the guests, and thankfully none of them appeared to notice.

Once the guests had left for the night, I sent Billy to reset the boat and grabbed his computer. Downloading the data from his dive, I saw his deep-water flirtation with decompression sickness. From my own years in the navy I knew a young guy like Billy was in the clear for DCS. But, it was time for an intervention. This was how people really got hurt while diving.

I had to drive Billy home after night dives. We finished long after the buses stopped running in my part of town. Once we were both in the truck with sodas in hand, I began, “Locked out the computer tonight, Billy. I don’t need to tell you I’m not happy about that, do I?”

“No Dale, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”

“Computer says you dropped down to one hundred and stayed there. What the hell?  It’s pitch black down there at night, and nothing is moving on the wall.”

“I know.”

“What have you been doing, big guy? You’ve been AWOL on the night dives for months now. I can turn a blind eye to the occasional wandering, but tonight’s little stunt was just reckless. What are you doing out there?”

Billy was silent, but a quick glance showed me he was nervous. He was sitting tightly, and doing that rapid blinking he does when his wheels are turning.

He finally found something to say, “Can we go out Monday night? I should show you. Would it be okay if my mom came too?”

“Monday night? We’ve got nothing planned for Monday night. And your mom doesn’t even dive.”

More quiet blinking proceeded his next answer, “She doesn’t need to dive. You’ll see. It would be better if we didn’t have any other guests.”

“What the hell?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“What… a turtle nest? A whole herd of octopuses bent on taking over the world? What?”

“I can’t explain yet. Can we go? On Monday?”

“I’ll talk it over with your mom, but sure. If she’s up for it, I don’t mind a night cruise. Just promise me you’ll be more careful on the night dives in the future, okay?”

“Okay.”

In hindsight it all sounds so obvious. How did I not see it coming? But I didn’t. I was wondering if he’d gotten himself a hellish case of nitrogen narcosis. I thought there was a decent chance we’d be chasing the hallucination of one narc’d-off-his-ass Billy. What else would he have seen at a hundred feet in the pitch black? Like I said, denial is a powerful thing.

I was considering if Billy’s genetics could make him more susceptible to narcosis when he spoke again, “My mom’s worried about me. We’re seeing the neurologist a lot more these days.”

“She’s just being a mom. That’s what they do.” A few years ago I’d asked Doc Cline to do some research on Billy’s condition for me. I wanted to know what Billy was in for, and Doc is one of my regulars. He said it’s pretty similar to Down’s, but physical and mental degradation is more aggressive. Billy was unlikely to see, or at least remember, his fiftieth birthday. I’d never discussed it with Billy, we were both happy to avoid that conversation. Until now.

“We both know I’m going to go downhill fast.”

“Relax, Billy, you’ve got time. Don’t worry about what you can’t control.”

“My knees are already starting to hurt,” he said.

“Welcome to the club, kid.”

He shook his head. “I’m thirty one. You’re–”

“Yeah? Figured that out yet?”

“No, but you’re older than my mom, by a long shot.”

“Long shot,” I scoffed.

“I’m going to start forgetting stuff. I’m going to be a hazard to the guests.”

“I haven’t noticed a thing, Billy. You’re still better than Randy, even when he’s sober.”

“It’s gonna happen. It’s just a matter of time.”

Despite being the truth, I wasn’t going to enable this kind of thinking. “We all come with an expiration date, kid. Get used to it. ‘Sides, I’ll probably retire long before your mind starts going.”

“Nobody else will hire me when you do.”

“What’s with the morbid act, big guy? Is this why you’re getting all reckless out there? Is this some sort of midlife crisis?”

“No.”

I pulled up in front of his place and put it in park. I saw his mom was still up waiting for him. “What’s going on, Billy? Please, you’re starting to worry me. Getting morbid, getting reckless. Tell me I don’t need to worry about you, big guy?”

“You don’t. It’ll be okay.”

“You want to tell me what big surprise you have in store for us tomorrow?”

“I’ll show you tomorrow.”

Aside from confirming that we were still going, he didn’t say a word about the trip the next day. We passed a normal day at the shop. I allowed myself an extra two beers at lunch to calm my nerves. Maybe the denial was starting to wear off, but I was dreading that trip. Billy was never this dramatic with me.

I took him out to dinner that night down at the bar. He has to know about my drinking, so I wasn’t too proud to finish a couple more beers in preparation for whatever bomb he was about to drop on the boat.

We got back to the shop early, and he mumbled something about tearing down a regulator in need of rebuild before his mom arrived. As he stepped behind the repair bench to avoid a conversation, I slipped upstairs to my apartment to the same purpose. I threw back another shot of whiskey as I considered how wonderfully this night was going. As I came back downstairs I saw his mom pull into the parking lot. Billy however was nowhere to be seen, the regulator was on the bench in his typically organized part pattern.

The sun had set thirty minutes before as I stepped out the back door of the shop and locked it. I turned around to the boat and saw Billy lying on his belly on the bow, with his head hung over the side. It was then that my stomach first knotted up. The whispering, I finally connected it. I could hear the whispering again, but it wasn’t whispering tonight. It was more like singing. I couldn’t catch the melody, but it was definitely musical.

I was straining to catch the tune of the song when I damn near jumped out of my skin. “Dale, please tell me you know what this is about?” Jacki asked from right behind me. “Billy was both insistent and mysterious about it. He’s never mysterious. He’s got me worried here. Can you please tell me what’s going on?”

I spun around. “Shh… You hear that?”

“What? No, hear what? Dale–”

“Shhhh! Billy is over on the bow.” I pointed. “But listen, you hear that? Kinda  like whispering?”

“Damn it, Dale! How much have you had to drink tonight? I can smell it on your breath. Aren’t there laws about how much you can have in you and still drive a boat? I’ve told you before I don’t want you drinking around him.”

“I’m fine, but really–” And the whispering song stopped. I glanced over and saw Billy get up off the deck. When he saw us by the back door he waved us over. I glanced over my shoulder at her. “I have no more clue than you do. So brace yourself. Here we go.”

We boarded the boat. Billy cast off the lines as I fired up the engines. As I idled down the inlet I turned to Billy, “Okay, young man, where are we going?”

“Straight out, right off the wall. We don’t need a site or a mooring,” he said confidently.

As we pulled out of the channel and caught the ocean waves Jacki held onto the overhead rail and asked tersely, “Okay Billy, you got what you wanted. We’re all out here on the boat. What did you want to show us?”

“It’d be better if we were in deep water first.”

Even consumed by whiskey and dread I still fell into my usual role as his surrogate dad. “Billy, your mom and I have been cooperative here. If we’re not going in the water, then we’re in water plenty deep enough to see anything we can from up here. Spit it out, kid.”

The nervous tense Billy that I knew re-emerged. He looked down at his sneakers and hung from a hand on the rail by the door. “I ahh– I wanted to sh-show you– No, I w-wanted to… introduce you–” He took a deep breath and looked up at us. He said very slowly, “I w-wanted to introduce you to my girlfriend.” He then promptly spun around and ducked out the rear hatch of the pilot house.

His mother and I stood there in shocked silence for several minutes. I was the first to find my voice, “Shit, this isn’t good, Jacki.”

“Is he taking us to meet another boat? Do you have a radar?”

“No, there’s nobody out here. They’d have running lights on.” And the best alternative to meeting a boat was that my divemaster was delusional. By that point, I didn’t think he was delusional though. I had no idea what was really happening, but I was honestly scared to find out.

“Has he got some girl stowed away up there?” she asked waving at the bow.

“I really hope so.” She’d at least come up with a more bearable answer than I had.

As we pulled out over the drop-off and into deep water, I pulled back the throttles. When Billy gave me a chop at his throat, I cut the engines, leaving us with nothing but the sound of water slapping against the hull. “Okay, Jacki. I’m gonna go out on a limb and bet that we’re not talking about a stowaway here. I’m thinking we have a big problem. At best, he’s decided that some turtle or shark is his girlfriend. Failing that, he may be having delusions.” Either that, or we were about to get our minds blown; but she didn’t need to hear the musings of the drunk part of my brain.

“Oh God, no,” she mewed. “He’s too young. He shouldn’t be that far along yet. There should be signs before this. He shouldn’t just go straight to hallucinations. Oh God.”

“Jacki, he needs you to pull it together. You need to go out there and let him show you what he’s going to show you.” That way his mom could be the one to actually break that big ol’ heart of his. “Do what you gotta do. He’ll probably get upset. Try to ease him down as best you can. I’ll be around. You start, I’ll finish.” This sounded to me like as reasonable a plan as could be found for a situation like this.  How do you go about telling a grown adult that you’re seriously concerned that something is about to get freaky? I let that one be. No need for her to think I was both chicken-shit and crazy.

“Now I wish I’d been drinking too.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Okay, here we go.”

We both stepped out of the pilot house and I swung around to the bow. I gazed out into the darkness, and listened in as best I could.

“You should take a seat there, Mom.”

“Really, Billy, just show me. Please sweetie.” If she weren’t ten years my junior I could see falling for that lady. Even as strung out as she was, she managed to muster enough strength in her voice to sound like a patient mother.

“Mom, would y-you please sit down?”

“Fine. Now can I see?”02WhispersFromTheSea2

The whispering emerged from the water. I can’t begin to explain how a sound emerges from water, but it did. It was loud, too. It was singing again, but in a wispy incomprehensible tune. Just listening to it made my whole body relax. All the tension melted away and I’d have thought I was out for a pleasure cruise, had I not remembered exactly what was going down aft of me.

“Mom, this is–”

“BILLY! NO! Get back!” Jacki screamed in terror. The whispering cut off instantly.

That was enough to knock me loose. I was back on the dive deck in an instant. Jacki had her arms wrapped around Billy and was wide-eyed staring at the empty water off the back.  Her pale face and trembling hands matched her prior scream.

“Billy, you okay?” I asked.

Looking a bit dazed himself, “Yeah, Dale. She just startled me. I didn’t think she’d…” He pried his mother’s arms from around him. She didn’t put up a fight, just stared at the water behind the boat. “Anyway, I think we should go back. M-mom’s not ready for this.” He headed into the pilot house and the engines roared to life. He wasn’t actually licensed to drive the boat, but the Coast Guard was the least of my concerns at the moment.

I stayed back with Jacki. Billy put the props in gear and brought us around. I eased her back into her seat and finally asked in a low voice, “Jacki, what happened? What was it Jacki? What’d you see?”

Her eyes started blinking again and her mouth began soundlessly working. “He– It was–” she finally managed. She shook her head and pointed to the water. “No. I don’t–” She stood back up and turned to the rail. She leaned over and vomited over the side. She turned back around and looked at me, with a string of bile stretching along her lower lip. Wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand, she said, “Give me a minute please.” She dropped back onto her seat and fished a pack of cigarettes out of her purse.

“Jacki, did you hear the singing, too?”

“Singing? Please. Dale, just give me a minute.”

As she tried to light up I turned and ducked back into the pilot house.

When I stepped up beside Billy he offered me the wheel. I took over and let the silence be as we headed back for the inlet.

As we slowed to enter the channel Billy began, “S-sorry Dale. That wasn’t how that was supposed to go. I don’t know why mom freaked out like that. I thought she was r-ready. I don’t know why she couldn’t hear her.”

“Billy, who’s your girlfriend? I didn’t see. I heard her, but I didn’t see. Clearly your mom did, and it has upset her… deeply.”

“You heard her?”

“Yeah, I realize I’ve been hearing her whispers for over a year now.”

“Why can you hear her, and mom can’t?”

“How the hell should I know Billy? I don’t even know what she is?”

In his most resolute voice Billy concluded the conversation with, “I don’t know what to do, Dale. I n-need to think about this.” He swung out the side door and went to sit on the bow.

We pulled back up to the dock and Billy secured the lines. He then began moving tanks back and forth to the wall of the shop. I was wondering why when I heard his mother behind me, “Sorry, Dale, I blew it.” I turned to look at her, leaning against the edge of the hatch behind me. “Sorry. He’s got some big fish thing out there. I was so nervous and stressed that I freaked out when something actually started coming out of the water.”

I looked her in the eyes, “Jacki, what was it?”

Her eyes dropped to the deck and she said, “Take him back out one of these nights, let him show you. I’m sure it’s nothing. You’ll know it when you see it, I’m sure. I was so scared that this was something serious that I just flew off the handle. I’ll talk it over with Billy when we get home. I’d like you to see it though. Just so you know what’s going on. I didn’t recognize what it was, but I’m sure you will. Just some big fishy thing. And, it is big, I’m warning you Dale.  I want to know what it was. No hurry, but… I didn’t know anything that big would try and put its fins on the floor or anything. It was big, and I thought it was going to climb up onto the boat. I panicked. Sorry.”

“Big fishy thing, trying to climb onto the boat…” I was cycling through the inventory of large sea creatures that could fall under that description. Maybe she saw a sea lion, they’d probably try to climb up onto the dive deck. Walrus never come this far south. I’d have heard the splash if it’d been a shark or dolphin. I’d never heard of friendly mahi. Turtle maybe? None of them sang though. “Are you sure it was a fish?” I sighed. “I heard singing when it came up. I couldn’t even start to explain how, but… it was singing.”

“Billy must have freaked us both out then. Because there was no singing.  It was actually really quiet and graceful, until I screamed.”

“Are you really sure that was just a fish?”

Her poker face was only slightly better than Billy’s. “Yeah. I’m sorry I scared you all. It’s just a fish. I’ll talk to him tonight and figure out what he thinks it is. I’ll text you or email you before I got to bed.”

As a man familiar with denial, I knew it when I saw it. “Ms. Dalton, I–”

“Don’t Ms. Dalton me. I’ll talk to him tonight and figure out what it was. I’ll let you know and you can go verify it.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I’m not sure if I was more scared right then, or when Billy told us we were going to meet his girlfriend. She was looking for a rational explanation to something irrational. She stormed off to her car and leaned against it. Chain smoking cigarettes waiting for Billy.

Once she was clear, Billy finished making a show of work and slipped into the pilothouse. “Dale, you could hear her?”

“Yeah, Billy.”

“I need you to take me out tomorrow night. I want you to know about her.”

“Look you and your mom should talk about this–”

“She’s gonna ignore it. We’ll talk, and she’ll make herself feel better. If she can’t hear her, then I don’t think I can e-ever explain it to her.”

“You think you can explain this at all?”

“Once you see her. Yeah. You’ll take me, tomorrow night?”

I sighed. “Yeah, man. I’ll take you out tomorrow.”

He got a big grin on his face for a moment and turned to go. Billy then paused and looked back at me, the grin gone. “And, aaah, Dale? You’ll want to have somebody who can say they were with you tomorrow. Not on the boat. Someone you can trust.”

“Aaw shit. Bill, you’re scaring me. What the hell?” I smacked the wheel with my palm so hard it started aching. I reached over and killed the electrical, and all the lights on the boat went out. In the harsh shadows cast by the lights on the back of the shop I looked Billy right in the eyes. “I gotta ask. I’m your friend. You aren’t thinking about, you know, hurting yourself are you? I mean come on. You just told me to get an alibi.”

He actually laughed at me, “No, it’s not like that. I w-wouldn’t hurt myself, or kill myself either. She wouldn’t hurt me either.”

“Well, that just makes me feel great about taking you out, then. What is she Billy?”

“I don’t know. But you’ll understand when you meet her.” His head snapped toward the bow. “I’m gonna go over there now. But, I’ll see you tomorrow.” He turned and hurried to the bow.

As Billy stepped out of the pilothouse I glanced over at his mom. She was talking on her cell phone. I half hoped she was calling a shrink and was going to drag him straight to the nuthouse. Whatever was going to happen–

The whispering started again. Billy had his head and shoulders dangling off the bow. To this day, I wonder if things would have been different if I’d just leaned over the gunwale and peeked. But I didn’t.

The next day Billy and I worked late, and then I took him out to dinner. He was all happy and chatty, like nothing was wrong. We didn’t talk about it at all. I asked about his mom, and he said she understood as well as she ever would. I drank more than I should have at dinner. I guess I was trying to soak up all the courage I could.

Once the sun was down, out we went. Back out to the edge of the wall. I killed the engines and the slapping of the water was the only sound around. Billy turned to me and was going to say something when the whispering started.  He grinned and was exuding excitement as he said, “She’s here. Are you ready? You can hear her?”

“I hear it.”

He stepped out and started backing across the deck. Never taking his eyes from mine he coaxed, “Come on, Dale. It’s okay, come on.”

I followed him along the deck in silence. I tore my eyes away from him to watch the water off the back of the boat. The whispering was getting louder.

“You better sit,” Billy giggled.

I sat myself down on then end of the diver’s bench and leaned back against the rack. Watching the water in anticipation I asked, “This is gonna screw me up, isn’t it?”

“No, if I knew it, you knew it. There’s more out here than we can explain. She’s proof.”

As he said this, the whispering changed to singing. It was louder this time, so loud. I realized it wasn’t loud though, still just barely audible. It was digging into my brain, though. It echoed in my skull. I was just sitting on the bench, and all I wanted to do was listen to her song. So I waited.

I can’t really describe her. Mere words fail. Billy turned to the water and she came rising out.  She didn’t even rise out of it, as much as she came through it. She was dry there before me. It was a gorgeous woman, but she was glimmering. Her skin was shimmering like fish scales. But she wasn’t scaly, it was smooth dry skin. I’m sure it would have been warm if I touched it. White flowing hair blew in the breeze as she stood on the water in front of us. Her beautiful green eyes locked onto mine and her song ended what little conscious thought I had left.

If she’d offered me her hand, at that moment, I’m pretty sure I’d have gone with her, too. Sitting there enthralled, I knew she loved us. We were the beautiful creatures she made special trips to the surface to come see. We were beautiful bold creatures to her. She’d take Billy with her, and ensure he got to be amongst the reefs he loved to explore.

She slid back under the water just as gracefully as she came. Her song stopped, but the whispering persisted.

It took me a second to get her out of my head and reclaim control of my body. When I finally managed to draw a big breath I turned to see Billy standing there grinning at me. “You see? You understand?”

“You’re going to go.”

“I am.”

“You’re not coming back, even I know that.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

My brains were just starting to slowly produce thoughts of their own again. “What am I supposed to tell your mother?”

He stepped out onto the dive deck and looked over his shoulder at me. “I don’t know. Don’t. She knows as well as she ever will. What would you tell her, even if you could?”

“Billy, she’s amazing. But I’m not sure if this is a good thing.”

“I am. She’s my soulmate. She’s the only one on this whole planet who really understands me. I’ve been building the courage to go with her for months now, I guess.” He turned and gazed into the water. “Bye, Dale. And, thank you.”

In the blink of an eye she shot from the water. I saw one hand come up to caress his cheek, as the other wrapped around his shoulders. Her hungry eyes met his, then flicked over to me for only an instant. With an innocent grin on his face, she snatched Billy from the dive deck, and they were gone. Back into the black with a splash and a flash.

That look. I’ve spent many long nights since lost in a bottle, wondering what it was I saw in those eyes right before she claimed him.

 

Ryan Anderson is a consultant and SCUBA instructor in Greensboro, NC. When not working, writing, or peering into the dark abyss below him, Ryan serves as the president of the Writers Group of the Triad. Mr. Anderson’s work has also appeared in Domain Science Fiction.

Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.




21
Jun

“Puppet Wrangling” by Barbara A. Barnett

Speculate_blogJonah peered into the puppet pit. Wooden heads turned up in unison, greeting him with painted, blank-eyed stares. Creepy as hell, yet even after all the weird shit Jonah had seen dealing stolen spells on the streets, the puppets fascinated him like nothing else ever had—the mime with the monocle and the overly red lips; the clown with the bulbous, misshapen nose; the fancy lady with the feathered hair and the elongated head; the childlike jester. The closer Jonah leaned toward the metal grating that covered the pit, the more clearly he heard the puppets’ ceaseless titters and the clacking of their wooden jaws.

Reuben joined him at the pit, baseball cap pulled low, shadowing a knife-scarred face. The Judge’s goons were gonna give Reuben hell for the cap. Orange jumpsuits ain’t for accessorizing—that’s what they’d been told their first day on the Judge’s farm, along with “don’t ask questions” and “don’t touch the puppets.”

“So, you in or not?” Reuben asked.

“I told you ‘no’ already.” Jonah cast an anxious glance around. No sign of anyone, but the Judge’s foreman, a fellow by the name of Big Pete, had a knack for showing up just as shit was about to go down. “You get caught jacking the Judge’s car and they’re gonna haul your ass straight back to juvie.”

“Better than here.” Reuben spit into the puppet pit. “I can’t take another night listening to these creepy little fuckers.”

“I feel you, man. I do.” Jonah hadn’t slept much himself since he and Reuben got yanked out of juvie a week before to serve the rest of their time on the farm—part of some new reform program. Jonah liked that idea: reform. Finally doing something honest with his life. But the farm made getting there maddening as hell. All that tittering and clacking from the puppets dogged him no matter how far he ventured from the pit, like the sounds had burrowed deep into his brain.

“So, you’re in then?” Reuben pressed.

“You know what ‘no’ means, right?”

“Why don’t you explain it to me, professor? Show me how smart all those books of yours make you.”

Jonah had a few choice insults in mind, but before he could hurl one at Reuben, a glint from the pit caught his eye: his favorite puppet, the Queen of the Night, captivating in her silver gown and her crown of jeweled, sparkling spikes. She was the one thing that made Reuben’s plan tempting. If he snatched her before taking off, then maybe he could work out what kind of magic the Judge had used to create her. Find the right buyer for that spell, and Jonah could turn a tidy little profit, maybe enough to set his mother up real nice.

But then he imagined the look of disappointment his mother would give him when she figured out where the money had come from. And she would figure it out. She always did. Jonah shook his head. No, he was gonna get off the farm the right way. He was gonna earn it.

“I’m doing this with or without you,” Reuben said. “Tonight.”

“Then you’re doing it without me.”

“What the hell you got to stay for?”

“I heard guys have really turned it around here. Guys like Tyrone.”

Reuben snorted. “I ain’t heard nothin’ from Tyrone.”

“Because he bettered himself. Doesn’t have time for thugs like you now.”

Reuben muttered something about Jonah’s mama having time for thugs like him, but before Jonah could meet insult with insult, the Queen of the Night caught his eye again. He stared at her sparkling crown, mesmerized, barely aware of his fingers sliding around the pit’s grating.

“What’d I tell you about poking your fingers in there, boy?”

Jonah backed away from the pit, head down as the Judge’s foreman, Big Pete, strode toward them. Big Pete had the kind of presence you could feel coming, with broad shoulders, a beady-eyed stare, and biceps bigger than Jonah’s head. Despite the summer heat, Big Pete wore his usual long-sleeved flannel shirt and thick leather overalls. Leather was harder for the puppets to claw through, he claimed.

“These ain’t toys we’re dealing with,” Big Pete said, his voice like thick gravel. “These are nasty critters.”

“Why keep ‘em around then?” Reuben asked. “What’s the Judge need puppets for?”

Jonah cringed. What the hell was Reuben thinking? You didn’t question guys like Big Pete—especially not when you were planning to steal his boss’s Jaguar. You just kept your head down and your mouth shut except for a “yes, sir” or “no, sir” as required.

01PuppetMasteryPosterEdgesCatBig Pete stood silent for a long while, chewing on a wad of tobacco while he scrutinized Jonah and Reuben, his brow so furrowed that it looked as if his face had swallowed his eyes. Between each smack of Big Pete’s lips, Jonah heard the puppets: titter and clack, titter and clack. The sound pulled at him, insisting that he turn toward it, but Jonah kept his eyes fixed on the ground. One glance at the Queen of the Night on Jonah’s part and Big Pete would know he had been thinking about stealing her. It was like the guy could read every would-be crime on a person’s face.

“What’s anyone need a puppet for?” Big Pete finally said. He stripped off his thick work gloves and pointed at Reuben. “You. Take that damn hat off and get the stick from the shed. And you,” He pointed at Jonah. “Get ready to open the pit.”

Jonah crouched beside the pit, one hand ready to unlatch the grating, his gaze glued to Big Pete. If he managed to learn any of the big guy’s spells before leaving the farm, he wanted it to be this beauty coming up.

Big Pete cracked his knuckles and raised his hands in the air. “Open her up!”

Jonah unlocked the grating and heaved it open. The puppets jumped and clawed at the pit’s steel walls, trying to climb out. But before any of them could get a handhold, phosphorescent strings shot from Big Pete’s fingers and attached themselves to the puppets’ limbs. The clacks and titters silenced, replaced by a pained whine as the puppets became Big Pete’s unwilling marionettes, at the mercy of every twist and twirl of his fingers.

Big Pete yanked the puppets up and out of the pit. Several strings tangled, and the Queen of the Night stumbled, landing near Jonah’s foot. On instinct, Jonah reached down to help her up, but Reuben, stick in hand as Big Pete had ordered, smacked her out of reach, so hard that Jonah had to fight the urge to slug him.

“Are you thick, boy?” Big Pete barked at Jonah. “These little parasites would do worse than kill you.”

“What do they do?” Reuben asked.

“Nothing pleasant.” Big Pete snatched the hat off Reuben’s head and threw it in the pit. “Now come on while your boyfriend here gets this pit cleaned up.”

Rage flashed across Reuben’s face—a twitch of the cheek and a narrowing of the eyes that Jonah recognized all too well. Jonah tensed, wondering if Reuben might be dumb enough to try taking the stick to Big Pete.

“Yes, sir,” Reuben said instead, his reply crisp, anger simmering beneath.

With a grunt and a jerk of his stringed hands, Big Pete dragged the puppets behind him, moving so fast that it was near-impossible for them to get their footing. The few times one did, Reuben whacked it with the stick.

Jonah grabbed a shovel and a pail, then took a deep breath before climbing down into the pit. Puppet shit smelled worse than even the filthiest back alley he had ever hidden from the cops in, like crap dipped in formaldehyde. It made Jonah glad he didn’t know what was in that bloody-looking slop Big Pete made him feed to the puppets.

It didn’t seem fair that he was stuck with pit duty when Reuben was the one mouthing off all the time. But at least cleaning up didn’t take too long—scoop out the dung and the piss-soaked straw, hose down the scratched steel lining that kept the puppets from burrowing their way out, throw down a new bed of straw. Mindless work, but it gave Jonah time to pay attention to other things, like the farm’s layout. He took note of every tree, every tool shed, every row of crops, every vehicle parked at the end of the long winding driveway that led up from the main road, every loose fence slat along the property line. You could never know a joint too well. Jonah had no intention of escaping, but circumstances changed sometimes, and you had to be ready. If he had learned that lesson earlier, he wouldn’t have ended up on the farm in the first place.

Jonah spied Big Pete and Reuben standing further uphill, just outside the Judge’s white-columned monstrosity of a house. This was the first time Jonah had seen Big Pete take the puppets up to the house; normally he just dragged them around the fields until Jonah finished cleaning. The Judge strolled out to meet Big Pete, looking about as Southern fried rich as they came—white suit and a straw hat, walking cane polished to a shine. A black-suited bodyguard even bigger than Big Pete shadowed his every step. The Judge inspected the puppets, circling around them. When one got too close, he smacked it with his cane; the crack of wood-on-wood was loud enough for Jonah to hear all the way out at the pit.

Finally, the Judge pointed to one of the puppets. His bodyguard raised a hand in the air. Like Big Pete earlier, strings extended from the man’s fingers, cast like fishing lines. The strings latched onto one of the puppets. The jester, Jonah realized after a squint of his eyes and a crane of his neck. Several strings fell away from Big Pete’s hands, and the men parted ways—the Judge and his bodyguard toward the house with the jester, Big Pete and Reuben back toward the pit with the rest of the puppets in tow.

Jonah quickly returned his attention to pitching fresh straw into the pit, tossing the final clump in just as Big Pete and Reuben reached him. While Reuben used the stick to force the puppets back into the pit, Jonah kept his head down, determined not to show even the slightest interest in what had transpired up at the house. From the way the puppets jittered and whimpered, he had a feeling the jester wasn’t coming back.

With more force than needed, Reuben knocked the last of the puppets into the pit—the Queen of the Night. Jonah balled his fists, unclenched them just as fast. As much as he wanted to shove Reuben straight in after her, he kept his cool, closing and locking the grating as soon as the strings detached from Big Pete’s fingers.

Big Pete wiped their fibrous remnants on the legs of his overalls, then nodded toward Reuben. “Go up to the house and get me a towel.”

Reuben started toward the house, stick still in hand—at least until Big Pete snatched it from him. Reuben paused, stiffened, then continued on.

Big Pete looked Jonah up and down. “Don’t like cleaning up puppet shit, do you?”

“No, sir.”

“I tell you what . . .” Big Pete glanced after Reuben. “You keep tabs on that buddy of yours for me, and I’ll make sure you land some better detail around here.”

He knows, Jonah thought. He knows Reuben’s up to something, and so he’s testing me.

Snitching was about the worst thing you could do back in the neighborhood. With no small amount of guilt, Jonah remembered all the times Reuben could have ratted on him and didn’t—not even for money. Because that was the code. You stood by your own.

But this wasn’t the neighborhood, Jonah reminded himself. He thought about Reuben smacking those puppets harder than necessary; just like all those guys Jonah had seen hitting his mother back home. No, this was the farm, and the farm had a code, too. Follow it, and the worst Reuben would end up with was a beating before they hauled him back to juvie.

“The Judge’s car, sir,” Jonah said, meeting Big Pete’s gaze. Let him see the truth there. Let him see a guy who was gonna turn himself around and go clean. “Reuben’s planning to jack it tonight.”

“And you were planning to help him?”

“No, sir. I told him ‘no’ more than once.”

Big Pete studied him for a long while, like a lie was a thing he could find in the whites of Jonah’s eyes. Finally, Big Pete smiled.

“Keep your mouth shut and your nose clean like you’ve been doing, and one day you might find a place for yourself here like I did. Maybe learn a few of my tricks.”

“Yes, sir,” Jonah said with forced earnestness. Big Pete could work some sweet magic, but his spells weren’t enough to make Jonah want to stick around and become one of the Judge’s lackeys. No, if he was going clean, then he was going to be his own man.

#

Jonah lay on his cot that night, eyes closed, listening to it all go down: Reuben sneaking out of the shack they were housed in, his pathetically small sack of belongings tossed over one shoulder. The click of a car door, then the engine turning over. The shouts and curses as the Judge’s men ambushed Reuben. The grate over the pit opening, closing. The titter and clack of the puppets louder than usual.

Then came the scream.

Jonah bolted upright. He heard a pained cry, unintelligible, then another scream, unmistakably Reuben’s.

“The Judge had that little punk sent straight back to juvenile hall,” Big Pete told Jonah the next morning.

Jonah hadn’t asked, and he didn’t believe it. He’d been up all night, listening, watching as the sun rose. Not a single vehicle had left the farm.

They killed him. They killed Reuben and it’s all my fault.

That thought played over and over in Jonah’s mind, as relentless as the puppets’ titters and clacks.

The puppets. He’d heard the pit opened and closed the night before, right before Reuben’s scream. First chance he got, Jonah peered into the pit, unable to shake the image of the puppets chowing down on Reuben’s limbs the same way they went at that bloody slop they were normally fed. But instead of blood, Jonah was met with nothing more than the same blank-eyed stares he always saw.

No, not the same ones. The jester was gone, of course, but now the clown puppet as well.

“Nose out of the pit, boy,” Big Pete snapped. “You’ve got work to do. Important visitor coming by tonight.”

Big Pete at least made good on his word. Instead of cleaning up the pit, ratting out Reuben had earned Jonah a day mending the lattice skirting that ran underneath the house’s front porch. Yesterday, he would have welcomed the change of pace. Today, Jonah decided he’d rather have the smell of puppet shit back in his nostrils than deal with the guilt gnawing at him. Reuben deserved a lot of things, but nothing that would make a guy let out a scream like the one he’d heard.

It was the not knowing that chafed at Jonah the most—what they’d done to Reuben, why they had opened the pit, what had become of the missing puppets. “Don’t ask questions,” he imagined Big Pete saying. But there were ways to get answers without asking questions. Jonah left one lattice panel loose, propped just so; no one would be the wiser unless they put pressure on it. It’d be a small opening once removed, but enough for someone as scrawny as Jonah to slip underneath the porch. Just in case.

#

Jonah was back on his cot by nightfall, hustled out of the way before the Judge’s big fancy guest arrived. Like the night before, Jonah lay there listening. Soon enough, tires rumbled up the driveway. A car door opened and closed, then the front door of the house. When all but the puppets’ titter and clack fell silent, Jonah slipped off his cot and out into the darkness.

You could never know a joint too well—that lesson was about to pay off. Jonah had been keeping tabs on how many guys the Judge had patrolling the grounds at night, where and when. There hadn’t been much else to do with the titter and clack of the puppets keeping him up most nights.

The Judge’s house looked downright sinister in the dark, lit up from within like a jack-o-lantern, with curtains billowing wraith-like in the open windows.

No good letting it spook you, Jonah told himself, keeping to the shadows as he crept toward the house. Sweat poured down his face, from fear as much as from the summer heat. He didn’t want to end up like Reuben, whatever the hell had happened to him. But he needed to know what was going on up at that house.

Voices drifted from an open window—the dining room. Jonah hurried toward it, crouched beneath. He’d only be able to linger there for so long before someone came by on patrol, but that was where his loose panel of lattice came in, giving him an easy hiding spot beneath the porch.

“Senator,” came the Judge’s voice, “I’d like to introduce you to the latest beneficiary of this fine reform program we’ve launched here. This here is Reuben.”

Jonah’s mind spun from shock to relief and back again. Reuben was all right?

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Senator, sir.”

That voice—Reuben’s, yet off somehow. Like it had been flattened out, none of his usual rage and defiance lurking underneath.

Chairs scraped against hardwood, followed by an animated, unfamiliar voice, presumably the senator’s.

“Thank you, son. Mighty polite of you.”

Jonah almost laughed at the absurdity of Reuben pulling out a chair for anyone, let alone a senator.

“I’ve been impressed with the results, Your Honor,” the Senator said. “I can see this thing going statewide, even national given time. But you’ve been cagey on the details. You’re going to need to be more forthcoming if you want me to support any more funding for your project. There have been some concerns expressed, you see—the family of one of the boys. These boys may be criminals, but we need to make sure they’re not being harmed in any way.”01PuppetMasteryPosterEdges

The Judge chuckled. “It’ll be my pleasure to show you exactly how the process works.”

A rustle sounded from nearby. Jonah’s pulse quickened. In his surprise at hearing Reuben’s voice, he’d almost forgotten about the guard on patrol. Jonah darted toward the porch and removed the loose panel, quickly but quietly. He started crawling through the opening, but his jumpsuit caught on a splintered piece of lattice. Jonah cursed under his breath and tugged. His jumpsuit pulled free, and he scrambled the rest of the way beneath the porch.

Had the guard seen him? Jonah stayed as still and silent as possible while he waited for the answer, splayed out on his stomach, breathing in cold, foul-smelling dirt. The guard’s steps drew closer, slow and steady. Something skittered over Jonah’s ankle. He gave an involuntary twitch, but no more.

“Get it out of me!” came the senator’s voice from inside the house. “Get it—”

The shout cut off abruptly, but Jonah heard plenty else from the open window: a thump and a crash, like furniture knocked over, then anxious muffled voices.

The guard on patrol paused beside the porch, snickered, then continued on.

Jonah clenched at the dirt, trying to keep his trembling breaths under control. Something squiggled beneath his palm; he bit his lip to hold back a yelp. He had to wait until the guard finished his sweep of the front of the house—something the guy seemed determined to do as slowly as possible. The prick even started whistling, like he was out for a leisurely stroll. Finally, after minutes that felt like hours, the whistling faded as the guard rounded a corner to continue his patrol along the other side of the house.

Jonah let out a heavy, quaking exhale, then sucked in a deep breath that he immediately regretted—underneath the porch smelled as bad as the puppet pit, making him sick to his stomach. Jonah crawled toward the hole in the lattice, but stopped short as the front door swung open overhead.

“It’s been a pleasure, Mr. Senator.”

“Yes, it has, Your Honor. You needn’t worry about that funding coming through.”

The senator’s voice, so lively before, sounded eerily sleepy now.

“Good to hear, my friend, good to hear,” the Judge said. “You be careful heading home now.”

The urge to run grew as strong as Jonah’s nausea; he was going to puke if he didn’t get out of there. Too slowly, the front door closed above. The senator crossed the porch with heavy, stilted steps.

Go, go, go, Jonah thought, willing the man to walk faster.

A jingle sounded as the senator passed overhead. The man paused, made some sort of gurgling noise, then continued toward his car, this time without the jingle.

Christ, had they put the jester puppet inside the guy? Get it out of me; that’s what he’d screamed earlier. And the missing clown puppet—was that what they’d done to Reuben, too?

By the time the senator’s car door finally opened and closed, Jonah couldn’t hold it back any longer; he retched.

Almost . . .

The engine started. Another eternity, and at last the senator’s car pulled away.

Jonah bolted out from beneath the porch. He had lost track of what time it was, whether one of the Judge’s men might be coming by on his rounds, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to get the hell away.

Screw reform, he thought, running toward the western edge of the farm, only memory and moonlight to guide him. Hop the fence and there’d be miles of forest to put between him and the Judge’s horror show of a farm. But as he passed the puppet pit, Jonah’s steps slowed. He didn’t just hear the puppets’ titter and clack, he realized; he felt it, like something tugging at his insides. Big Pete had called the puppets parasites, and Jonah finally understood why. And it gave him an idea.

There was nothing he could think to do for Reuben, but he could at least give the Judge one final fuck you.

Jonah opened the nearby tool shed, waited. No sign that anyone had heard, that anyone was even near. He felt around in the dark until his hand closed around the stick. Weapon in hand, Jonah crept toward the pit and reached for the grating’s latch, unlocked it, waited. Still no sign of anyone. Inside the pit, the puppets hushed.

Jonah opened the grating and backed away, stick at the ready. The puppets jumped and clawed at the pit’s edge until one after the other secured a handhold and hoisted itself out. Jonah thought he’d have to beat some of them off, but instead he watched with a feeling of vindication as the puppets scurried through the darkness, tittering and clacking their way toward the Judge’s house. Their wooden-limbed stampede would have been comical if he had never heard Reuben and the Senator’s screams.

Jonah was about to resume his escape, but a glint in the moonlight captured his eye—the Queen of the Night’s crown. She lagged behind the other puppets, slowed by the length of her gown. Jonah’s gut told him to let her go, but another thought gave him pause. He had to tell the authorities what was happening on the farm; it was the only decent thing to do. But who would take the word of an escaped screw-up like him? He was gonna need proof.

Jonah hurriedly grabbed some rope and sackcloth from the shed, slung it over his shoulder, then crept toward the Queen of the Night, ready to whack her from behind and bag her. One step then another, long strides to catch up to her without running. He was just about there, one step away, when a twig snapped under his foot. The Queen of the Night whirled and leapt at him. Her fingers dug into Jonah’s skin; pain flared up his arms. Jonah tried to pull her off, but his limbs stiffened. His knees buckled and he collapsed to the ground, unable to move. The Queen’s face, a thing of beauty to him before, now looked unnaturally elongated, with eyes full of a terrifying, unending blackness.

“Please,” Jonah whimpered, barely able to move his mouth.

The Queen crawled beneath his shirt and started burrowing into his stomach, her spikey crown cutting its way through his skin, inch by inch. Jonah screamed.

God, pull it out! he thought. His arms wouldn’t respond.

The Queen’s feet disappeared from view. But he felt her moving, digging out a space within him, her fingers latching onto his insides. The tickle of a spell filled his head.

Get it out!

The puppet stilled, and though Jonah’s fevered thoughts continued to whirl, the rest of his body grew slack. Inside him, the Queen of the Night raised an arm; Jonah’s own arm mirrored the movement. He willed his body to resist, but it obeyed her every move as she forced him to climb to his feet.

And then her thoughts—like a whisper at first, they grew clearer and clearer, forcing themselves upon him until he knew all that she knew. The Judge only thought he was in control; the puppets had plans of their own. And when the Judge’s reform program went national and his sphere of influence widened, the puppets would be the ones in position to pull all the strings.

No need to turn your life around, came a thought that was not his own, but the Queen’s. I can do it for you.

Jonah would have shuddered if he could. Instead he walked unwillingly toward the Judge’s house with a puppet’s stiff-legged stride, the titter and clack echoing louder than ever within his mind.

 

Barbara A. Barnett is a writer, musician, orchestra librarian, Odyssey Writing Workshop alum, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-around geek. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, Black Static, and Evil Girlfriend Media’s Stamps, Vamps & Tramps anthology. Barbara lurks about the Philadelphia area and can be found online at www.babarnett.com.

Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.





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