Dead Bolts [Repost]

Prompt: Ghoulish

scary-ghosts

Suddenly the amusing, cocktail/dinner party story about the house being haunted wasn’t so funny. I don’t know why exactly, but I’d been uneasy all day— testy and irritable when the kids’ father came to pick them up for the a weekend away camping. They even took my canine soulmate, Champ, whom the children said needed a vacation too. From me? I growled and grumbled as I closed the door on them.

Two people had been brutally murdered in this refurbished farmhouse, once isolated in the country and now on the edge of a sprawling community. Two people, husband and wife, tied up, beaten, and stabbed to death, and the killer never found and brought to justice. Which is why, according to local legend, this poor ghostly couple stayed behind. Matthew and Thomasina were sad, angry ghosts, and you could hear them creep slowly across the floorboards, sometimes smell fresh-baked bread which was on the counter when the bodies were discovered, and hear their wails when the wind blew, or so the story went.

I didn’t find it charming anymore, as I lay in bed, awakened suddenly by… what? It seemed unusually dark and cold. There was no light from the night light in the bathroom down the hall. Only a bright moon behind hazy clouds cast a dim light in this darkness, or I would have been totally blinded. There was a wind, and the old house creaked and settled, as it usually did, but somehow, something was different. I could feel it. A rush of cool air, an unfamiliar smell, a pattern of creaks on the hardwood, someone walking, someone coming nearer.

I lay in bed, the quilt pulled up to my nose, staring at the bedroom door, frozen in fear. I saw a shadow across the wall, and then, yes! A man, a large man, blurred by darkness, looming in the doorway. I stifled a gasp, I squeezed my eyes shut, and when I opened them again he was gone. I was shivering with the cold now, paralyzed, listening for movement.

My body ached with tension, but I got up out of bed, wrapped the quilt around me, and crept to the doorway. The house was silent. The wind had picked up, I could hear it rattling the eaves and send echoes down the chimney.

I stepped as softly as I could but the floor betrayed me. Where had Matthew gone? Why had he come to me in the first place?

Why was it so cold?

Then I heard the front door abruptly swing open and crash against the wall in the foyer. The wind, I thought, Matthew and Thomasina making themselves known, demanding justice!

I was wrong. Three police constables with flashlights sending laser-like beams over the walls and floors, and finally into my face, strode right into the front hallway.

“Are you ok?” said a voice.

Did I not look ok? Had my hair turned white? “I, I…”

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” said a different voice, without irony. “Your power was out, lines were cut, and we got a mobile 911 call from this house.”

I just stared at him. A 911 call? At that moment the night light clicked on, and I could hear the furnace starting up as the power was restored, and there was a bright light from the kitchen. We found the refrigerator door wide open, contents on the table and floor— milk, eggs, cheese and oranges. The constable flicked on the kitchen light. “You make this mess?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

The back door was open. A car’s taillights could be seen disappearing into the distance. “He must have heard us arrive. Barb, see if you can track that vehicle down,” said an officer. Constable Barb disappeared.

Then the officer turned to me. “You don’t live in the 1950s, Mz Waters,” he said. “You need to lock your doors properly, with dead bolts. Both doors were easily compromised.”

It was hard to speak. I couldn’t seem to take a breath. I couldn’t move.

“Want us to call anyone for you?” said the officer as they prepared to leave. “Doesn’t feel right leaving you alone in this state.”

“No, it’s fine,” I said, finally finding my voice. “It’s ok. It’s fine.”

And I put the kettle on for tea.


Original Prompt: Eerie, October 31, 2016

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Too Many Stops

Prompt: Fluff

garden Jenny Beck

Virginia couldn’t deny Cash access to his daughter, no matter what he’d been up to. She was still furious, yes, and couldn’t bear to face him and listen to his apologies and supplications, which would be sincere and heart-felt. And completely irrelevant.

Cash tended to focus on the latest of his transgressions, ignoring the string of mistakes and fuck-ups, some merely annoying, some damaging and humiliating, that led to this place of remorse and repentance. He was late picking up the babysitter— was that a sin worthy of packing up and leaving, taking his beloved daughter away too?

He would promise to be prompt, when that wasn’t the issue at all. And Virginia would have to explain, yet again, that it wasn’t one action it was many— the train they were riding on made too many stops, and so they would never, ever reach their destination.

Meanwhile, Virginia hated listening to herself rattle off the times he’d been late, had behaved like a besotted teenager with other women, forgotten planned events, disregarded legitimate concerns about their home and finances, refused to liaise with his parents and instead allowed them to intrude and interfere. It wasn’t like her to nag and complain; he was turning her into a shrew, and she didn’t like it. She was tired of it. She was tired of him.

So she had the child-minder, Devon, take Virginia’s car and deliver Echo with all her paraphernalia to Cash at the house, and arranged for Devon to pick her up again at the agreed time, six o’clock in the evening.

“There’s no one here,” Devon said.

Virginia held the phone close to her ear. “Say again?”

“There’s no one home, it’s twenty after six, no one’s around,” Devon said. Her voice sounded subdued and calm— if someone was to panic, it wouldn’t be her.

When Cash’s cellphone clicked into the answering service, Virginia called his parents, and when there was no reply, she called the police, who reluctantly told her there was nothing they could do at the moment— they were married, shared a house, he was the father, wasn’t he?

Devon drove Virginia’s BMW X3 the half-mile to Cash’s parents’ house— it was a beautiful, sprawling, white gabled home with an expanse of perfectly manicured lawn in the front, surrounded by azalea and rhododendrons which had been photographed one spring and published in a national home and garden magazine. Devon hadn’t seen the house before. It reminded her of the one she and her old friends had squatted in back in the 90’s.

She walked around most of the perimeter of the house, by the pool, the tennis courts, past the pond and the strange topiary (which Cash had told her gave him nightmares as a child), and what looked like stables, though there were no animals. Twilight was settling upon the estate, and lights, triggered electronically, started turning on automatically inside the house and around the grounds, bathing everything in a golden glow.

If Cash hadn’t brought his baby Echo to his parents, where had he taken her?

Something caught Devon’s eye… something bright and incongruous, a small, fluorescent orange object near the poolhouse. She approached and picked up a plump, fuzzy orange rabbit toy, as soft as the real thing, from the tile.

The door was ajar, and, bunny in hand, Devon pushed it open, and saw Echo’s care bag and toy bag dumped by the entrance to the showers. There was a kind of lounge further in, with a blue sofa, a small fridge, and a flat screen TV. The room was unlit— only the light from the string of bulbs surrounding the pool outside illuminated the room.

Cash was sprawled on the sofa, on his back, with Echo on top of him, her face nestled into his neck, both of them deep in sleep. Cash had his mouth open. A small trickle of vomit dried on Echo’s cheek.

His phone was on a table, vibrating. That would be Virginia.

Devon picked it up.


Interview with the Immortals, Part 2

Prompt: Orange

orange tree art

In which journalist Lindsay Hatcher sits down with Immortals Harp and Donny to discuss the rules and vagaries of not dying.

Lindsay Hatcher: Harp, as the elder female of the group, do the others look to you as a mother figure?

Harp: What? No. I don’t think so. Do you, Donny?

Donny: What’s a mother figure?

Harp: So much for your expensive education.

LH: Donny, I see you are juggling four— no, five— oranges, rather adeptly.

Donny: I had time to practice. Oranges are my favourite fruit of all time, at the moment. No matter where you are, how filthy or grimy, when you peel an orange it’s clean and fresh inside. They are juicy and quench your thirst. They are full of vitamin C. And some of them have seeds you can plant and grow a whole tree full of oranges. Amazing.

Harp: It is, when you think about it.

LH: How many Immortals are there?

Harp: Six, in our group.

LH: How many outside your group?

Harp: I don’t know. I’ve seen others in the cave. Sometimes when I’m in the world I see people I suspect are immortal because they behave so recklessly, like the first few times I went back.

LH: How many in the cave? What do they do? Do they form their own, separate groups?

Donny: Nah, they are scared. They just stay in there and don’t get any older. It’s gross.

Harp: That’s true, no one ages when inside the cave. And there are some who never leave it. We call them the Undead, because they aren’t exactly alive. Because they don’t actually live.

LH: Do you talk to them? Do they have, like, friends?

Harp and Donny exchange looks.

Harp: Some inside the cave seem to form friendships of a sort.

Donny: They fuck.

Harp: …

LH: And do they venture outside the cave? On the ridge?

Harp: I’ve seen a few people out there. They don’t follow any of the paths.

LH: The paths are marked with bits of coloured string. Who marked the paths?

Donny: Goff did. He’s been down most of them. He knows where they lead. He’ll say, if you want to go to Nettle Valley, find the blue and black string. If you want to go to Pyongyang, find the black and green string.

LH: Why would anyone want to go to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea?

Donny, shrugging: For an adventure. To see what it’s really like.

Harp: Goff has only marked the paths that he himself has followed. There are others.

LH: Have you ever wanted to stay somewhere in the world? Set down roots? Have a normal life?

Harp: It’s not possible.

Donny: What’s a normal life?

Lindsay Hatcher, Harp, and Donny take a break to peel and eat oranges.


==

Choices

Prompt: Express

Crossroads In The Forest

“Are you sure you understand what we are about to do?”

Ivy nodded her head. She looked down the narrow path that wound among tall, leafless trees until it disappeared into a yellowish fog.

“Nodding isn’t good enough, Ivy,” said Sable. “Do you understand your choices? You have to tell me clearly. I know you are only twelve but I can’t make this decision for you.”

“Yes,” said Ivy peevishly. “You’ve told me a hundred times. I can go back if I want to, instead of staying here. I don’t want to go back. My grandmother is dead.”

“And your parents? Your friends?”

Her cat was her greatest friend, and he was wandering somewhere in the cave or in this strange, misty landscape. He would come find her.

As for her parents, she had a sudden snapshot image of them— her mother in front of the mirror at her dressing table, applying impossibly crimson lipstick, and he with his hand on her shoulder, wearing that ring, the gold one with the square cut emerald.

The snapshot turned into a moving vision, and her mother turned her gaze slightly in the mirror until her eyes were locked with Ivy’s.

“I don’t want to go back,” said Ivy.

“You can’t change your mind, after this,” said Sable.

Ivy sighed. How many times?

“And,” said Sable carefully, “the dying. To come back here again, and we must, you will have to die again.”

“It didn’t hurt,” said Ivy.

“It might this time,” said Sable. She reached out and touched Ivy’s freshly cut hair, short and practical, like her own, but without the curls.

“I don’t have any choice,” said Ivy. She frowned. Couldn’t they just get on with this?

“You do, honey,” said Sable. “You could stay here.”

Here? What here? An endless cave, lit by distant fires, smokey, barren, lifeless— or this plateau, with an invisible landscape, colourless, stifling?

Ivy said, “Can we go now? I can’t breathe here. Can we just go?”

Sable burst into a broad smile. “Let’s go have some fun.”

They started down the well-trodden path. “We’ll arrive just outside Nettle River,” said Sable. “We can hike into town, find the outfitters and get directions to the ranch.

“It’ll be a lark.”

Interview with the Immortals

Prompt: Cloaked

old rembrandt man with headphones

In which Globe journalist Lindsay Hatcher shares his exclusive individual interviews with members of the six-person team, The Immortals.

Lindsay Hatcher: Hello, Sable. So are the Immortals like The Avengers or The Guardians of the Galaxy? What are your plans to save the world?

Sable:  We aren’t heroes. Who said we were heroes? We are simply people who can’t die. We don’t care about saving the world. We want to have a lark.

LH: A lark?

Sable: We want adventures. See the world. Have fun. Get scared. Have a lark.

LH: Want adventures, or need them?

Sable: What’s the difference?

LH: Where did you come from? It’s hard to tell from your appearance. I thought you were a boy at first.

Sable: It doesn’t matter. I think my parents were artists. I forget.


LH: Hi, Ivy. You are the youngest member of the Immortals. How did you happen to join their group?

Ivy: When I woke up, there was Sable. She helped me move from the cave into the light, and watched over me while I slept. She also said she would help me find my cat, who came with me to the cave.

LH: Have you been on any adventures?

Ivy: Sable says I’m not ready. Anyway, we have to wait for a couple of the others to get back. So I’m going to learn to ride a horse.


LH: Goff, as the eldest Immortal, do you guide and counsel the younger ones?

Goff: Hell, no.

LH: Why not? Surely you’ve gathered a lot of wisdom in your— how many years?

Goff: Countless years. I can’t remember how long. That happens when you get older, you forget things.

LH: As their leader, do you make the decisions about where you’ll go next?

Goff: I’m not their leader. I know about places, but I don’t tell anyone what to do. I’ve learned to keep my head down with this group.

LH: You look like you’ve been somewhere… possibly Medieval, with the leather cloak and leggings.

Goff: This is just my outfit of choice. I get bored trying to pick out something new to wear every day, for millennia.


LH: Hello, Jonah. How long have you been one of the Immortals?

Jonah: Time kind of loses meaning, you know? So, a very long time, longer than anyone other than Goff.

LH: He says he is not your leader or guide. Who is?

Jonah: We are ostensibly a democracy, though I find if you take command, others follow.

LH: So you are the leader of the Immortals?

Jonah: No.


LH: Donny, why are you laughing?

Donny: This sucks. So I laugh.

LH: I see you have wings. None of the other Immortals have wings. Do you each have special talents?

Donny: We have the same special talent— you can’t kill us. We come back. And these aren’t real wings; they’re a prop. Like a hat or a fake beard.


LH: Hello, Harp. How many adventures have you been on with the Immortals?

Harp: Six or seven. Sometimes it is hard to coordinate. We all have to begin at the cave at the same time. It can take years. So while I wait I go do my own thing.

LH: You have your own adventures separately from the Immortals?

Harp: Of course. We aren’t joined at the hip. You could get tired of a person’s face or beard or accent over the course of a hundred years or so. But they aren’t adventures, or “larks”, as Sable insists on calling them. I just go hang out somewhere interesting, see what’s going on, learn things.

LH: Do all the Immortals go back and have individual adventures?

Harp: I have no idea. Ask them.


The Garden

Prompt: Recreate

swing in park

“And what were you doing before you started running away?”

“I was on a swing, in the park beside the school,” said Folly.

“Where is the school?”

“Down past that traffic light,” she said.

I accelerated and we lurched forward on the little Yamaha TW we’d found leaning up against someone’s garage door. I wanted to get around quickly for this “game”, not lumber through town from inside a closed vehicle.

Every red light still triggered a stop impulse, but this time I didn’t even slow down. Folly was clinging to me tightly, her hands bunching the front of my down vest.

I saw the swings, and the small adventure playground, the soccer goalposts, and the tiny basketball court, all neatly laid out beside a sprawling one-story elementary school.

“I sat in that swing,” said Folly. “There was a puddle on the ground under it, and my feet got wet.”

“And before that?” I learned that Folly was more comfortable answering questions when we were not face to face. We slowed to a stop and but she did not release her grip on me. I could feel her cheek pressed against my back.

“I— “

“Folly, think now.”

“Everyone died,” she said. “I ran home! And they were dead, too.”

“Where? Which way is home?” This was as far as we’d ever gotten, and I felt it was our last chance to find Folly’s house and get her memories back.

She had the bad memories. The inside of her head was a once a safe garden, but the garden was now overgrown with thorns and weeds and their alien blooms, choking out the lilac and brilliant pinks of the hydrangea and the lime leaves of the ninebark, twining around her thin legs freezing her in place.

I could feel her trembling, and resisted the urge to comfort her. “Which way, Folly?”

“The lane, go down the lane.”

The lane was surfaced in gravel, which resisted and spit and almost caused me to lose control, but I slowed down and we passed by the leafy green back yards of homes that had once housed Folly’s neighbours and friends. She’d told me her house was yellow, and there was only one yellow house, at the end of the lane, on the corner.

“Go in the back way,” said Folly. We got off the bike and opened the gate, stepping into a tidy green garden with a mature ornamental cherry tree, masses of sumac starting to change color, and a small pup tent set up on the flat lawn.

“This is the way you went to school, and to the park?” I asked her.

She nodded. She was wearing a fleece hoodie that was too big for her and fit more like a dress, and denim leggings with rubber boots. Her hair was uncombed and tangled from the bike ride. She was deathly pale.

The gate had a rusted metal bell on it, that clanged when it was shut, no doubt meant as an alert for Folly’s mother or father. The lawn, once carefully tended grass, was now a ground cover of what looked like thyme.

She didn’t look in the pup tent on her way to the back porch, but I did. Inside was a rumpled tartan blanket and a flashlight.

Large-leafed ivy climbed the exterior walls of the house, drooping down over the doorway, which was probably not there the last time she was here.

It was unlocked. I let Folly lead the way, silent. This was her moment, her most important moment, and she had to face it alone and on her own terms. What could I do? A big stupid teenager who knew nothing of her family, her past, what she’d lost. I knew my own loss and I had some idea of what was churning around in her gut, but comfort could only come later.

The house was smaller than the one I grew up in, with the traditional separate, somewhat small rooms: kitchen, dining room, small formal living room, and a very untidy family room. On the floor and tables were boxed games, like Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, open and the contents scattered about the room. There were towels, too, crumpled on the couch, and a bookcase with a full set of encyclopaedias, something I’d never seen before.

Folly picked up a towel and smelled it. She put it down again.

“I know my name now,” she said.

Mockingbird

Prompt: Flavor

baby doll

“Look at his tiny toes,” said Mama.

I looked at its toes, they were tiny; it was tiny, smaller than my baby doll, and just as bald. its face was tiny and wrinkled, its eyes were tightly shut as if it was in pain.

When I poked it in the tummy (when Mama wasn’t looking) it didn’t cry. I could wrap my whole hand around its foot or its hand and it would disappear in my fist.

“He is so tiny and beautiful,” said Mama, not to me, but to someone else. Jesus? She held it up against her face, breathing it in.

I wasn’t tiny, not any more, not yet. Mama didn’t notice when I stopped eating. She put my cheese sandwich and fruit salad on the table. She fed it milk from her breast. She put Kentucky Fried Chicken and coleslaw in cardboard tubs on the table. She took it to the changing table and wiped its bum with a soft white cloth. She gave me a dixiecup full of vanilla ice cream and a small wooden paddle to eat with. She rocked it in her arms, walking round and round, singing “Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird”.

When I fell asleep at school, Mama said, “I’m sorry, kitty, baby kept you awake.” I didn’t hear it cry at night. It slept in Mama’s bed.

Gramma came to stay. She held it, saying, “He is so tiny!” And then she saw me watching, and took me out to the front porch, where there was a bench, and we sat down, and she took me into her lap.

“You are thin,” Gramma said. I squirmed. “What’s wrong with your eyes, kitty?” She put her face close to mine. My eyes had fallen inside my head so I could hardly see out.

Gramma wrapped me up in her arms and I disappeared, just like its tiny foot disappeared in my fist.

Gramma brought me something that moved. It was covered in soft grey fur, striped, with ears too big for its head and a tiny nose and tiny paws. It was warm and purred when I held it to my chest.

“What will you call him?” Gramma asked me.

“Moon,” I said.

“What shall we call the baby?” Mama asked me.

He wrapped a tiny hand around my finger. “Can we call him Joe, same as daddy?”

“We can,” said Mama.