It’s just like from that movie. You know the one. The one you just can’t believe they cast her to star in. What were they thinking? Had they wanted you to root for the monster?
That monster. It’s standing right in front of you. It’s lifting your date up, up, up and crunch. Straight to the center of the Tootsie Pop. No big loss. He was just telling you how everything is a rehash of a remake of a movie based off of a book inspired by true events. Like you haven’t heard that before. Could we have at least gotten seven feet from the theater?
The monster, all tentacles and fangs and far too many arms—lets go of your date. What’s left of him hits the sidewalk. Blood spurts from the stump of his neck. In the light of the marquee it looks fake and orange. Like someone stepped on a pizza roll.
The monster screams. Everyone coming out of the theater screams. And, then, you scream, because why not.
You don’t stick around. The monster is already grabbing other people. If it’s anything like its movie counterpart, it likes the chase. No one can ever outrun it, so big surprise there. You get under a car parked along the street. Your date drove you, so his keys are in the pocket of his pants that are slowly soaking up his blood. You wait.
Your view of stampeding feet is unobstructed. Boots, sandals, sneakers, and heels. None of them get far before being lifted up, legs twisting and kicking in the air, followed by that crunch. This monster likes heads. It lets the rest of the body fall to the pavement. Limbs, intact. Inner organs, untouched. The monster, it won’t be making tents or drums out of the hides. You can’t help thinking it’s more than a little wasteful.
The screaming stops. Everyone is either gone or dead. Except you and the monster. You can still hear it out on the street. A heavy wet sound, like a garbage bag full of spaghetti and meatballs being dragged around. It’s making a high-pitched thrumming noise you can feel through the ground you are lying on. Your teeth vibrate.
Then you see the little boy. He’s walking up the street towards this. All of this. He’s either dirty or bruised or both. The clothes he’s wearing are torn and too small for him. The boy stops in front of the monster and raises his arms in the universal symbol for Up. The monster thrums louder. It takes the child into its tentacles and arms and places him atop its shoulders.
The boy laughs and takes a small notepad from the pocket of his shorts. He begins sketching something, eyes squinted in concentration. Before the boy and his monster, a shape begins to take form. A large, catlike creature. Black-ink skin, with spikes and spines in all the improbable places. The pieces snap together in the air like building blocks.
Satisfied, the boy closes the notepad with a snap, and the new creature drops to the road. It looks exactly like that thing from that game you’ve never played, that’s based off that show everyone is so nuts over. The new monster throws back its far too long head and howls. It begins to sniff. The snuffling of a pig rooting for truffles. You have a sick feeling about what the truffles are in this situation.
The whole time you’ve been under the car, you’ve heard the drip drip dripping of oil. You search for the puddle and find it. You dab your fingers in, and start to draw in the dirt. You think about all the things that used to frighten you. The things that used to keep you up at night. From movies, from books, from half-remembered stories whispered to you at slumber parties. You put them together, transforming it all into your own original creation. Your very own monster. The ground shakes with its approaching footsteps.
Two can play this game.
Like so many times before, there once was a young girl who lived in a small village, in a small country, very far away from where you are reading this story.
This girl was very smart, very beautiful, but very lonely.
She made her living selling dirt to stupid people. She promised her customers that the dirt was very fertile and would return its cost tenfold through many bountiful harvests. This was not true, so she sold her dirt dirt cheap. But since there was no shortage of fools (no doubt due to the shortage of varied family trees in the area), she made a respectable living.
But selling dirt did not make for a very fulfilling life. Or much of one at all. The girl dreamed of something more, but knew, deep down, that she would never get it.
Then a strange man came to the village. He carried a small black camera that fit in the palm of his hand. It hardly made a sound as he snapped pictures of all the women in the village. Snap. Snap. Snap.
After taking their picture, he asked each woman to fill out some paper work. The form was over twelve pages long and had questions like:
Date of Birth?
Which Side of the Bed Do You Prefer?
Do You Like Having Your Hair Braided?
The man told the women that one day, someone may see their photo and want to meet them. To take them away from all of this. When he said this, he waved his arms, indicating that he meant the entire village or maybe the entire country.
The girl thought it was all very strange, but since she had already finished the day’s dirt harvesting, she let the man take her picture and filled out the funny survey. After getting photos of every unwed or unhappily wed woman in the village—the man left without a word.
The girl knew that it would be too good to be true, to be taken away from all of this, so she promptly forgot about the whole thing and went back to her dirt trafficking.
That is until, one year later, when the strange man returned. He told the girl that he had found a man that wanted to meet her. This man lived in a big city, in a big country, not too far from where you are reading this story. The girl would be this man’s bride.
His name was Art.
He was much taller than the girl, and looked like he had always had more than enough to eat at every meal. Art had the pale skin of one who doesn’t have to toil in the fields and the small, intelligent eyes of a bird that has an extensive vocabulary. His most prominent feature, however, was the luxuriant beard that began just beneath his first chin.
Art lived in a very large house in the middle of nowhere. He assured the girl that the place got excellent wi-fi, which was important for his work.
Art was something called a Let’s Player. He recorded himself talking while playing video games and posted the videos online for people to watch. The girl did not understand why people would do this instead of just playing the games for themselves, but considering her last job was selling dirt, she didn’t press the issue.
Also, it paid surprisingly well. He owned the house, the many acres it sat on, and a silver car that went very fast along the winding country roads.
They were wed. If the girl was not happy, she was at least happier than she used to be. Which, in her opinion, was more than enough.
Art’s days were spent in front of the television, playing video games, talking out loud to an empty room. His nights were spent in front of the computer, editing the day’s work and uploading it. The girl would try to sit with him when he recorded, but he told her that it distracted him. He told her to go entertain herself. That she had the whole rest of the house and grounds all to herself.
“Go nuts,” Art said. “But stay away from the spare room on the third floor.”
So she planted a garden. And she read the picture books in Art’s graphic novel library. And she used one of the many computers in the house to go online and watch her husband’s videos. It was nice hearing his voice, even if it was mostly just angry yelling.
And she stayed away from the spare room on the third floor. She often wondered what he might be keeping in the room, but thought better than to ask. Whenever Art mentioned the room, his eyes would grow distant and cold. The girl never saw her husband enter or leave the room. The door, locked with seven locks, stayed locked. Art wore the seven keys on a string around his neck, hidden behind his beard.
Time passed. With her new garden, the girl finally harvested something other than dirt. She used the vegetables in recipes she learned online. The girl forced her husband to sit down and eat dinner with her each night. Art liked her cooking, telling her it was almost as good as having something delivered.
One day, Art told his wife that he had to go away on a business trip to a big video game convention.
“I’d love to take you with me, but I bought my pass in advance and now they’re all sold out,” he said. “You’ll have more fun here than in a cramped motel room, anyway. Here, you’ll have the whole house and grounds to yourself.”
“Go nuts,” Art said. “But stay away from the spare room on the third floor.”
And she did—the first day.
That night she talked with Art online. He told her the trip was going great, but he missed her terribly and couldn’t wait to return home. She told him that she’d have a big dinner prepared for him when he arrived. The last thing he said before signing off was to stay away from the spare room on the third floor.
While preparing for bed, she found the necklace of keys. Art had left them on his side of the bed. They lay coiled like a snake on his pillow, the silver keys glinting in the moonlight. She put them in the pocket of her pajamas and went to sleep.
She awoke early the next day. The keys felt like a bomb waiting to go off. She wore them around her neck and could almost hear them ticking. She tried to keep herself busy, working in the garden, looking for new recipes for Art’s homecoming dinner, but as the day wore on, the ticking grew harder to ignore.
“Even if I don’t look in the room,” she thought, “when I give him back the keys, he’ll think I looked. So perhaps I should hide the necklace, and pretend I never found it.”
The girl ran her fingers across the seven cold keys hanging around her neck. “But if I look before I hide them, he’ll never know.”
She climbed the stairs.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Each step she took towards the door, the louder the ticking became. Until, finally, standing outside the locked door of the spare room on the third floor, the keys seemed to vibrate with the sound.
TICK. TICK. TICK.
With shaking hands she took the keys from around her neck and unlocked the first lock. Then the second. The third. Until, finally, the seventh lock clicked open. The ticking stopped.
The late afternoon sun had faded, leaving the quiet house in shadows. All at once the girl felt very small and very lost. She opened the door.
In the room lay six long pillows with women drawn on them. Women with large eyes, larger breasts, and very small mouths. Each of the women looked like they had just awoken from a good dream, sheets and little else twisted around their twelve-year old sized bodies.
All the pillows had been stabbed several times. Ripped open. The women on the pillows were blushing, as if embarrassed by their stuffing leaking out onto the floor.
“You found my necklace,” Art said.
The girl jumped at the sound of his voice, dropping the keys. Art stood behind her in the doorway. His fedora almost brushed the top of the door frame.
“I’m sorry I had to lie about being away on business, but it was the only way I could test you. I thought you were going to be different. Different than them. Better.”
“I’m a nice guy,” he said, taking a long, curved blade from his pocket. “But I guess you’re not a very nice girl. Neither were any of them. Maybe my next wife will be.”
I’m not sure I always keep things interesting, but I keep things concise by knowing the ending of a story before I start writing it. I also usually know the beginning, too, so it’s really just a matter of connecting dots A and C in the shortest way possible*.
*That’s by bypassing dot B. Otherwise known as character development, atmosphere, subtext, and other silly stuff like that.
He is peeking around the corner, watching his parents dance. They are right in the middle of the living room, both slowly swaying to the soft music. They are holding one another as closely as her swollen belly will allow. The music rises up like a bubble and his father gently spins his mother around.
She gasps, dropping his hand, and clutches her stomach. His father says he knew that it had been a bad idea, the dancing.
The boy’s parents rush to get ready for the hospital. In one door and out another. Shaggy and Scooby being chased by a vengeful pirate ghost. The boy’s mother asks the boy’s father whether he has called the babysitter yet. The boy’s father asks the boy’s mother whether she has called the doctor yet. They both ask the boy whether he can be good until the sitter arrives. They have to leave now, but she is on her way.
He says yes. The boy will never see his mother again.
The boy waits for his babysitter in the living room, listening to the music no one had bothered to turn off.
That was yesterday. This is today. The boy is still waiting. He sits on the living room floor and snaps together blocks. His babysitter sits on the couch, never looking up from her phone. The only sounds in the house are the clicking of nails on the phone and the clacking of the blocks.
The sitter said the boy’s father had called home late last night. The boy now had a sister. The boy’s father said that the boy’s mother was doing fine and that they would be home later today.
Now. They arrive home. His father comes in first, carrying a car seat, a small and pink bundle nestled deep inside. The bundle moves and lets out a small mouse squeak. Just behind them is a woman with dark black hair and pale pale skin. This stranger is wearing his mother’s coat.
The stranger smiles at the boy. When she exhales, her breath comes out in one big dragon plume. She takes the pink bundle from the seat, cradling it close. She says, “Come meet your new sister.”
The boy looks at his smiling father. The boy asks where his mother is. His father’s smile falters.
The stranger laughs. She tells the boy not to be silly. “Now come say hello to your sister. I just know we’re going to be one big, happy family.”
That was last week. This is today. The boy is still waiting. His mother hasn’t returned. The stranger now lives in their house. She sleeps in his mother’s bed and she wears his mother’s clothes. Late at night, after the baby has finally gone to sleep, the boy has seen his father and the stranger dancing in the living room. The boy cries, even though he tries not to.
The stranger never makes the boy breakfast like his mother used to. He has to eat cereal instead. The stranger doesn’t drive him to school either, so now he has to take the bus. At night, the stranger never reads to the boy like his mother always did. She sings to the new baby instead. The boy can hear her while lying in his bed, waiting for his mother to come home.
That was last month. This is today. The stranger still lives here. The boy is still waiting. His father acts as if nothing is wrong, even after the baby starts to change. Everyday, the baby is different. A different eye color, or a different shade of hair. Some days the baby has freckles, most days she doesn’t. Sometimes she isn’t even a she.
Only the boy notices. He tries taking pictures of the baby everyday to try and show them, his father and this stranger. But the pictures always change. They always match. If the baby has black skin one day, all the old photos of her have black skin too.
The boy breaks the camera in frustration. He screams at his father and at the stranger. The baby, today with red curls, starts to cry. His father sends him to his room. There he waits. After the baby stops crying, the boy can hear the stranger. She is weeping.
A strange man comes to the boy’s room, and sits next to the boy on the bed. The stranger puts his arm around the boy’s shoulders and tells him how everyone is feeling a little stressed lately. And how that is perfectly okay.
“Adjusting to a new baby in the house can be rough,” the strange man says, “but you will, son. We all will.”
The boy begins to scream.
That was last year. This is today. The boy is no longer waiting. He has become used to the changes. Sometimes he’ll wake up to a new father, sometimes a new mother. Some days he’ll have a little brother, some days a little sister. Most days he has to think hard to even remember what they all looked like the day before.
The boy thinks one day he’ll even stop noticing the changes at all. He looks forward to it. Maybe then he can bring himself to look in the mirror and not be afraid of who he won’t see looking back.
“And that,” says the speaker, finishing up her speech, “is thin privilege.”
With a great, shuddering crack, the stage gives way beneath her.
Peter says he has undiagnosed Asperger’s. He doesn’t. What Peter does have, is an undiagnosed deep vein thrombosis. This will eventually kill him. Thank God.
“Honey, you’re confused. Being asexual means you’re not attracted to men or women. It has nothing at all to do with how everyone refuses to invite you to parties.”
“Mother, accept me for what I am: an asexual, non-neural typical, transethnic, transabled otherkin.”
“I am a gryphon!”
“Please stop doing that to the couch.”
After menopause, God mellows out.
The rules of getting into Heaven are made less stringent. The whole working on the Sabbath thing is overlooked. All food is made kosher. At the gate, St. Peter no longer has to check your browsing history.
The steady stream of souls that used to pour into Hell slows to a trickle. With no one new to torture, Satan grows bored. To fill his free time, he opens a dentist’s office. He says it’s always been a dream of his.
No one is surprised.
Luis Singermann is Satan’s first patient. He is new to the city and has no health insurance. What he does have is an incredibly painful cavity. Luis saw the dentist’s ad at the bus stop. It promised devilishly low prices. Luis thinks he can overlook the doctor being Satan just this once.
The receptionist is Ann Coulter. She sits behind a desk, filing her nails with a dragon’s talon. You can see right through her to the chair she’s sitting on.
“I didn’t even know you were dead,” Luis says.
“I get that a lot. But I’ve been dead, like, six years. Sign in.”
Luis signs. “But I just saw you on television!”
“Zombie. Have a seat. The doctor will be with you shortly.”
There is no one else in the waiting room. Luis sits down next to a bubbling fish tank. It is filled with what looks like ink. If you stare long enough, you can see shapes moving in the blackness. The only magazines are Golf Digest and Highlights for Children.
The door to the inner office creaks open on its own. Ann, not looking up from her filing, says, “They’re ready for you, Mr. Singermann. Second door on the left.”
Luis heads back. The dental assistant is already waiting for him. A skeleton in a nurse’s uniform.
“Sit, please.” Its teeth clack together when it speaks. Someone has drawn a small mustache onto the skull. “You just need to fill out a few forms before we can begin.”
With a puff of brimstone, Satan appears. Luis screams.
“I’m not offended. I should have warned you,” Satan says. He shakes Luis’ hand. “Adolf, we can save the paperwork for later. The patient comes first!”
The skeleton mumbles something. Satan leans in and whispers to Luis, “If you’re not comfortable with you know who handling gases, I can go get Dahmer.”
“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” Luis says, getting up.
“Nonsense!” Satan says, pushing him back down. “We’ll have that nasty soul extracted in no time. Tooth! Tooth. Force of habit, I swear.”
You tell them to go ahead without you. To have fun, but you really need to study this weekend.
Which is true. Mostly.
Right now you’re taking a break. From studying, not working. While your roommates are away, you decide to clean the house you three rent together. Their idea of housekeeping is putting the dirty dishes in the oven, so this is a job that always falls to you. You don’t mind. It’s relaxing compared to schoolwork.
You have finished vacuuming the first floor and have managed to lug the sweeper up the stairs. You barely start down the hallway before the vacuum quits running. The sound fades, leaving the empty house silent.
You have complained to the landlord about how loose the electrical sockets are—any little tug and the plug pops out—but they’ve done nothing so far. It’s an old house, they always say. You sigh, and start pulling the cord up the stairs. You had probably been close to reaching the end of it anyway.
With one last yank, you have the end of the long black cord in your hands. It hadn’t pulled loose: the cord ends in a twist of frayed wire. It has been cut. By something sharp, from the looks of it.
From downstairs, a man begins to laugh.
Jack and Natalie have been dating for six months. They are young and in love. And they are finally going to have sex.
Jack can’t wait. Neither can his parents. They stand by the bed and watch the couple undress.
“Remember, son, you’re not banging chalk out of an eraser. Nice and easy does it.”
“Oh, I don’t know. A little roughness now and then is kind of nice,” Jack’s mother says, folding clothes as they are discarded. She holds up Natalie’s underwear. “Oh, these are just darling!”
Natalie stops Jack. “This is…..I don’t know. I feel weird about this.”
Jack, looking up from between her legs, says, “You said it be fine to start without ‘em.”
“I know. I just—”
The doorbell rings. It’s Natalie’s parents. Just in time.
“Sorry we’re late, everyone!” Natalie’s mother is holding a basket full of different kinds of lubricants. “We stopped to pick up some supplies.”
With six people, the small bedroom is becoming crowded.
“Did you bring your camera?”
“This one tastes like strawberries. And this one tingles when you rub it on.”
“I don’t want to miss our little girl’s first time.”
“Yes, put it on your knees, Doris.”
“First time. Right.”
“Play with her nipples, son. They like that.”
“We don’t all like that.”
“What are you talking about? You said you love it when I do that.”
When Natalie comes for the first time, she’s looking directly into her father’s eyes. Jack tries not to take it personally.
“Thattaboy!” Jack’s father slaps his son’s bare ass.
They sit together in a dark house, at the foot of a dark hill, in the middle of a dark night.
Their house is silent only to them. A stranger would notice the rustling of the pages of the book in the man’s lap, the click of the needles held carefully in the woman’s hands. The wheezy lungs—still working—of the both of them. His exhalations matched with her inhalations. As if they are sharing their very breath. For the past fifty-seven years, they have been. But maybe not for one second longer.
The fire before them pops and dies in one great final rush of air. The lamps flicker out. The dog that lies between the man and woman, its muzzle snow dusted with age, stirs mid dream. It yawns at the new blacker darkness and goes back to sleep.
In this new blacker night, both the man and the woman know they are no longer alone. Someone else sits with them in the dark. The pages stop rustling; the needles quit clicking, both perhaps for the first time in ten, twenty, one hundred years. The man and woman hold their shared breath. They wait for this stranger to speak.
“A deal I have come to make,” says the stranger. “I bargain in shadows; I work only in umber. My work fades in the light like dreams in the morn. Before the fire rekindles, decide. Before the clouds slide from the moon, choose. Make haste in doing so, before you can see clearly once more.”
The man feels the stranger’s breath in his ear, stirring the nest of white wire hairs. The woman feels the stranger drawing closer as it whispers, scuttling across the floor towards her.
“I can rewind the clock. Reverse the flow of sand,” the stranger says, so near to both of them. “Oil your creaky bones; iron your crevassed hides. Plump that once was plump, slim that once was slim. Pleasant memories that faded, the painful ones that stayed in their place, could all be remade or averted. Found again or lost for good. All you must do is agree. Be quick. Be rash. Choose before you can see my face. Decide before you can look in one another’s eyes again.”
The man asks what the catch is. The woman says there always is one.
“In your renewed splendor, you will never meet. Your paths will remain untwined. Your heartaches and your joys will be with others; the packages and parcels you carry now will be handed over to me and forgotten.”
The wood in the fireplace crackles, embers beginning to glow once again. Outside, a wind stirs the clouds. In the dark house, the shadows will soon break apart.
“Choose! Time, like life, grows thin. You must know there is only darkness beyond here. It will soon rise up to meet you as you are. If you don’t let me catch you, the fall is all that remains for either of you. Think! Dusk forever, or the brightness of dawn. A new day, endless possibilities spilling out in front of you in all directions. And the time to take them! To follow them wherever they may lead you!”
The stranger falls silent. The man thinks of his wife, free of the pain of so brittle bones. The woman thinks of her husband with a thump thump thumping heart, able to pump fresh blood to fresh limbs. They both think of a new life for the other, with another chance at all the might have beens.
“I’m sorry,” the woman says. “I am selfish and can’t let you go.”
“I’m sorry,” the man says. “I am selfish and am glad.”
The fire springs back to life. The lamps flicker back on. The stranger is gone. The man and woman are once again alone. Pages soon rustle, needles soon click. They sit together in a dark house, at the foot of a dark hill, at the end of a dark night.
The man and woman think of the other and how even their picked clean bones would feel like home.