DP FICTION #64A: “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell

Editor’s Note: The original posting of this story included a terminology error where a spindle was confused with a spinning wheel. This has been corrected. Thank you to “Janice in GA” who first pointed out the error.

133 Poisonwood Avenue would be stronger if it was a killer house. There is an estate at 35 Silver Street that annihilated a family back in the 1800s and its roof has never sprung a leak since. In 2007 it still had the power to trap a bickering couple in an endless hedge maze that was physically only three hundred square feet. 35 Silver Street is a show-off.

133 Poisonwood only ever had one person ever die under its roof. Back in 1989, Dorottya Blasko had refused hospice, and spent two and a half months enjoying the sound of the wind on 133 Poisonwood’s shingles. 133 Poisonwood played its heart out for her every day.

The house misses 1989. It has spent so much of the time since vacant. 

Today it is going to change that. It is on its best behavior as the realtor, Mrs. Weiss, sweeps up. She puts out trays of store-bought cookies and hides scent dispensers, while 133 Poisonwood summons a gentle breeze and uses its aura to spook any groundhogs off the property. Both the realtor and the real estate need this open house to work.

Stragglers trickle in. They are bored people more interested in snacks than the restored plumbing. The house straightens its aching floorboards, like a human sucking in their belly. Stragglers track mud everywhere. The house would love nothing more than any of them to spend the rest of their lives tracking mud into it.

A heavyset man with sagging shoulders lets himself in. He has a bit of brownie smudged against the back of his parakeet green hoodie, and doesn’t seem aware of it. Mrs. Weiss gives him a little wave while continuing to hold up a ten-minute conversation with an affluent couple. The couple made the mistake of saying they were “thinking of thinking of conceiving,” and Mrs. Weiss wields statistics about the school district like a cowboy wields a lasso. The couple’s shoes likely cost more than a down payment on the house, but from how often they check their phones, they clearly are headed back to their Mercedes.

The man with the brownie-stained hoodie prowls through 133 Poisonwood’s halls, and it pulls its floorboards so straight that its foundations tremble.

The man doesn’t look at 133 Poisonwood’s floor. He looks at the couple of ripples in the green floral wallpaper, with the expression of someone looking at his own armpit.

The house feels ashamed of the loose wallpaper. It’s vintage painted silk, which Mrs. Weiss says could be a big value-add. Now the house ponders if it can haunt its own glue and help strip the wallpaper away to please him. It’s especially important since he is spending more time here than anyone has yet without Mrs. Weiss wrangling them. It’s like he doesn’t feel the vibes other visitors do, or he doesn’t care about them.

From his behavior, what he cares about is wallpaper, the natural lighting through the windows in the master bedroom and the kitchen.

A child stomps in through the front door, her frizzy hair in three oblong pigtails she probably did herself. A silver keepsake locket clashes with her bright green Incredible Hulk t-shirt. Her elbows are tucked into her chest, hands out like claws, stained with brownie bits.

Every step she takes is deliberate and channels all her tiny body weight to be as heavy as possible. If the house had to guess, the girl is probably pretending to be a dinosaur on the hunt.

The man in the brownie-stained hoodie glances at her. He asks, “Ana. Where’s your coat?”

Ana bellows, “I hate clothes!”

Ana apparently hates clothes so much she immediately grabs the bottom of her Hulk t-shirt and yanks it up over her head. She is careful to keep her locket in place, but chucks the shirt at the man. He grabs for her, and she ducks between his arms, bolting past Mrs. Weiss and the affluent couple, pigtails and locket bouncing.

In their chase, they leave the front door open. The house knows heating oil is expensive. It summons a spectral breeze to shut it for them.

The sound makes Ana pinwheel around, and she points at the door. She says, “Daddy! It’s ghosts!”

Daddy says, “Ana, we talked about this. There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

“You didn’t look.”

“You don’t have to look for things that aren’t there.”

Ana looks at her locket and huffs. “What if it’s Mommy’s ghost?”

Daddy closes his eyes for a moment. “Please just put your shirt back on.”

Ana immediately attacks her own pants. “Clothes are for the weak!”

“Put it on or we are leaving, Ana,” he says, trying to wrestle clothing onto his daughter. She pushes at him, leaving more brownie residue on his hoodie. As they battle, the affluent couple slips out the front door without closing it.

The house closes it for them. Heating oil isn’t cheap.

*

The triangular roof means the second floor only has the space for one bedroom. Mrs. Weiss reads the expression on Daddy’s face, and she attacks with, “The basement is very spacious with generous lighting. It’s cool in the summer, and toasty in the winter.”

Ana says, “Heights are bad luck anyway.”

The four-year-old scarcely looks at the bedroom before backing out. She holds the handrail with both hands as she climbs down the stairs on quivering legs. On the third stair, she freezes entirely.

Daddy is in the middle of surveying the room and misses Ana quivering in place.

Some houses give their residents visions of slaughters or trauma. 133 Poisonwood gives Daddy a swift vision of his daughter’s vertigo. He doesn’t know it’s anyone else’s insight, and wouldn’t believe it, but he’s at the stairs in seconds. Ana holds onto his pants leg until she feels safe.

All 133 Poisonwood has is a light touch, but it knows how to use it. Haunting is an art.

The basement is only half-underground, so the windows are level with the freshly mowed front lawn. Ana spends a moment giggling at the view. Then she whizzes around the basement, from the combination furnace and laundry room, to a storage closet, and to a pair of vacant rooms. They would make a perfect child’s bedroom and playroom.

Ana goes to the west room, announcing, “Daddy. You can keep all the ghosts you bust in here.”

Mrs. Weiss offers, “One of these could be a home office. You said you telecommute? Google Fiber is coming to the area next year.”

Daddy says, “I want to work from home more. I’m a software engineer, and I host a skeptic podcast. You might have heard us.”

The house isn’t offended. It doesn’t believe in ghosts either.

Ana hops back and forth between the two rooms, scrutinizing over and over as though they’ll grow. That is a trick the house doesn’t have.

Daddy says, “We could sleep next door to each other. What do you think?”

Ana says, “But I want a big dino room.”

“You’re getting to be a big dinosaur. How about the room on the top floor?”

Ana’s bottom lip shoots upward like she’s going to run. She clearly won’t settle for the room on the top floor, and there’s only a master bedroom on the first floor. A tantrum is close, and it could ruin everything.

So 133 Poisonwood plays its ace. Every decent haunted house has at least one secret room. Dorottya Blasko used to sew down here when she didn’t want to be pestered, in a room her family couldn’t find. It would be a perfect place for Ana to grow up in. Perhaps she’ll learn to sew.

With the sound of an affectionate kitten, the door opens. Shock hits the adults, who definitely don’t remember there being a room there. Ana doesn’t care, and runs to explore it.

“Uh, we aren’t showing that room,” Mrs. Weiss says, scrambling to cover for herself. She’s panicking, imagining hazards and lawsuits.

She doesn’t understand. 133 Poisonwood is going to clinch the sale for them.

The room runs deep, with an expansive window that hasn’t been seen from the outside in over twenty years. A sewing box with a scarlet and royal blue quilted exterior sits next to a rocking chair, and beneath the window is a broad spinning wheel that still smells like hobbies. Many great dresses were supposed to come out of this room. There are a few cracks on the concrete floor. Nothing a loving father can’t fill in to perfect his daughter’s big dino room.

“Ana,” Daddy calls. “Stay near me.”

Ana ignores the call and runs straight up to the spinning wheel. Her little hands grab onto spokes in the drive wheel, and she turns to the door. “It’s like Mommy’s.”

Daddy says, “Careful, that’s not ours—”

Ana yanks the wheel around to show it off to the adults. She pulls before the house can resist, and the entire device creaks and wobbles. It topples straight down on top of Ana, throwing her to the floor.

Daddy grabs her shoulders and pulls her from between the cracked wheel and treadle. Ana’s too distracted bawling to feel her necklace snag the spindle. The thin chain snaps, and the locket slips from her neck and down a crack in the floor. Without intending to, the house sucks the chain down like a strand of spaghetti. The house tries to spit it out.

Daddy squeezes Ana to his chest so hard she could pop, and keeps repeating, “Are you alright? Are you alright?”

Mrs. Weiss gestures and says, “Her hand.”

“Are you alright?”

Ana says, “Let me fix it!” She stretches her hands to the broken spinning wheel. One of her hands is bleeding and she still wants to use them to clean up her mess. She says, “Daddy, let go, I’ll fix it. Don’t make the ghosts sad.”

That breaks Daddy’s concerned trance, and he lifts her under one arm, ignoring the kicking of her feet. He marches for the stairs. “No. I warned you, and we are leaving.”

“Daddy, no!”

“No more. Say goodbye. You see the ghosts aren’t saying goodbye? Do you know why?”

An urge falls over the house to slam the door shut and trap them all inside. Daddy, Ana, and even Mrs. Weiss, force them all to spend eternity in its hidden room, where they can make dresses, and stay cool in the summer, and warm in the winter. It will shelter them from all the hurricanes the world can create. It needs them.

The phantom door’s hinges and knob tremble as 133 Poisonwood fights itself. In that moment it knows what makes other homes go evil. The killer houses can’t bear to be alone.

133 Poisonwood Avenue would be stronger if it was a killer house. But it isn’t one.

It leaves its rooms open as Daddy carries his bawling daughter out of the basement, her incoherent sounds resonating through the house’s crawl spaces. He carries her up the stairs and out the front door without a backward glance. This time, he remembers to close the door.

*

133 Poisonwood leaves the secret room open in the hopes that someone will come back. It squeezes the cracks in its floor closed, popping the locket out without scratching it. Inside is the picture of a woman with a thick nose and proud eyes. She would have made an excellent ghost. The house would take a phantom for an inhabitant at this point.

The afternoon is sluggish. There are four more visitors, none of whom stay long enough to check the basement for treasure. The hours chug by, and Mrs. Weiss spends most of the time on her phone.

With half an hour of daylight left, a red sedan pulls up. The driver lingers outside for two minutes before knocking. It’s Daddy.

Mrs. Weiss answers and forces a smile, “Ulisses. Is Ana okay?”

Daddy says, “It was a scratch. Thanks for being understanding before.”

She says, “I’m so sorry about that. I told the team this place was supposed to be empty.”

He says, “Have you seen a locket? Ana wears it everywhere and it’s gone missing.”

Mrs. Weiss holds the door open for him, “We can check around. What does it look like?”

“It has a picture of Ana’s mother inside. It’s one of few gifts she still has from her.”

“She was your wife?”

“She was going to be,” he says, and looks around the master bedroom with an expression even emptier than the space. “There was an accident on our apartment’s fire escape. She had a fall.”

“Oh, that’s terrible.”

“Right now, Ana needs all the comfort she can get. So if we can find that locket, it’d save our lives.”

They look around, the man so tired every step looks heavy. It’s amazing he could stagger into a motel bed, let alone go hunting for a locket. The house hasn’t seen someone as in need of a home in years.

Mrs. Weiss says, “I had something like that after my father past away. Makes her feel like her mother’s spirit is still with her?”

“Superstitions aren’t comforting to me,” he says, fatigue giving way to scorn, as though daring the house’s walls to do something. “And Ana’s mother was an atheist.”

The house is tempted to give Daddy the shock of his life and toss the locket to him. Give him back the image of his lover and proof of its power.

But he doesn’t need to believe in hauntings. With his slumped shoulders, and his clothes stained with his daughter’s food, and the pieces of their lives he is trying to put together?

What he needs is a win.

So the house uses what little strength it has to levitate the locket onto the top basement stair. It twists it so the light catches it, and shines into the upstairs living room.

Daddy finds the precious locket on his own. He bends over it, brushing a thumb over his lover’s image. He heaves a sigh through his nose like he wishes he could fit inside the locket.

The house lets him be proud of himself. It will hold onto this memory for the cold years ahead until it is bulldozed.

Daddy stands up without the locket, leaving it behind. The house tries to send him a vision warning that he’s forgotten what he came here for.

The mental image doesn’t change what he’s doing.

He goes right outside, to his sedan where Ana sits, rubbing at her puffy eyes and runny nose. Daddy says, “It might be here. Do you want to help me look?”

The house cannot cry. There is just a little air in its pipes.

Ana flops out of the car and trudges into 133 Poisonwood. She spends too long poking around the kitchen, a room she was barely in earlier. Daddy plays an even worse sleuth, deliberately checking around empty hallways that give him a view of when Ana finally checks the basement door.

“Mommy!” she cheers. She sits right down on the stair and hugs the locket to her throat, voice trembling with emotions too big for her body. “Mommy came back!”

Daddy asks, “So you found it?”

“I told you she’d be here. Mommy wanted me to find it.”

“Your mother didn’t do that, Ana.”

She scrunches her nose and mimics his voice to say, “You don’t know that.”

Daddy puts a hand over the locket. “You found this. Not anybody else. You don’t need ghosts,” and he taps her on the temple, “because you have the best parts of your mother inside you.”

Ana gazes up at her father with glossy eyes.

133 Poisonwood has never so understood what it wants to do for people as when it watches this parent. It tries to hold onto the vibrations of his voice in its walls.

Then Ana says, “Nah. The ghosts left it here.”

She hauls off to the living room, hopping in late afternoon sunbeams, and holding the locket in the light.

Reason is defeated for the moment. Daddy doesn’t fight her on it. He rests against the wall, against the wallpaper he hates, taking the house for granted. The house plays a tune on its shingles, the same one that calmed Dorottya Blasko in 1989.

Daddy calls, “Mrs. Weiss?”

“Please, call me Carol,” she says. She’s been pretending she wasn’t lurking ten feet away this whole time. “You’re very sweet with Ana. You can just tell some people were born with the knack.”

“Three rooms in the basement. This is a lot of house for the money, isn’t it?”

“It’s just a family short of a home.”

133 Poisonwood would be more charmed by the line if it hadn’t heard her say that eight other times today.

Daddy says, “I like the space this place has for her. There’s plenty of room to run. And she loves to run. Going to be a track and field star.”

“I said to myself that this place looks happier when you’re in it. It suits you.”

The house can tell he wants to say he doesn’t believe that.

He says, “What we need is somewhere to start fresh.”

Mrs. Weiss offers him a folio of data on the house and gestures to the basement. “Care for another look around?”

“Yeah. Thank you.” He takes the folio. “While Ana is playing upstairs, can we check how insulated from sound that sewing room is? It’s funny, but I thought it might make a good podcast studio.”

If houses could laugh. He sounds so unguarded and sincere.

This tired skeptic doesn’t need to know that his podcast room doesn’t technically exist. If he finds the blueprints for 133 Poisonwood, he’ll shave away what he doesn’t understand with Occam’s razor. The house doesn’t need him to believe in anything but himself and his daughter. It isn’t here for the gratitude. It can try to support him as well as he supports Ana. If anything is as patient as a parent, it’s a haunting.


© 2020 by John Wiswell

Author’s Note: At the World Fantasy Convention in 2018, I went to dinner with some lovely people who let me babble about Horror. I read, watch, and play Horror every week, but I barely ever write it. Instead I tend to put Horror-y things back out as humorous stories or heartwarming stories. Off the top of my head I gave them the example that if I wrote a haunted house story, it wouldn’t be like Haunting of Hill House – it would be about a haunted house that was lonely and desperately wanted someone to live in it. One of my fellow authors reached across the table, grabbed me by the hand, and said, “Please write this.” On the train ride home, I did. So this story is dedicated to Natalia Theodoridou, who demanded I help 133 Poisonwood find its family and its audience – all of you.

John (@wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. His work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Nature Futures, and Fireside Magazine. He wishes all readers the comfort that their settings wish they could provide.


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DP FICTION #59A: “This Is What the Boogeyman Looks Like” by T.J. Berg

This is what the boogeyman looks like.

It has white eyes with no pupils and no irises. Just white all the way through. But it can see you. So I must not fall asleep as I wait outside this closet door in an empty room, in an empty house with a derelict For Sale sign in front of it, everything smaller than I remember, baseball bat gripped in my hands.

*

This is what the boogeyman sounds like.

Short, huffing breaths, almost snorts, like your boss calling you into his office for a chat, because you got yet another email by accident that was supposed go to the CEO, who shares your name. “And you understand,” huff huff huff, “that you obviously didn’t get the whole story with just that one email,” huff huff huff, “and the engineers are definitely going to address that problem before the product goes to market.” Huff. “We understand each other, right?” And you’re too scared of losing your job to do anything but understand.

*

This is how the boogeyman gets you.

It has six arms. The first set has hands, much like yours. The second set ends in razor-tipped claws. The third set have some kind of suction on the ends. They take your soul. Like your ex-wife when she crossed her arms and said, “I can’t be with you if you’re too scared to even have kids.” When she said, her eyes pinched with that sympathy face, “I know you blame yourself for your brother.”

*

This is what the boogeyman looks like. Eyes white, all the way through. But he can see you. When he lifts up the blankets to peer under the bed. When those wide, wide nostrils in that too-small nose flare and breath you in. When he reaches his razor-clawed hands under the bed and sinks their points into your screaming little brother’s arms. This is what he looks like.

He looks like your ex-wife sitting on the bed with her hands in her lap, stretching a hair tie over and over again, saying, “This could have worked, it still could, if you weren’t so damned scared of everything. Too scared to ride a bus. Too scared to climb a tall hill. Too scared to ask for a raise, too scared to ask for a promotion, too scared to have kids, too scared to even have a bedroom with a closet. I can’t live like this.”

The boogeyman has a flat voice, like your wife giving up on you. Like when it’s dragging your little brother from under the bed, telling him he’ll do nicely. When you’re screaming, “Nate!” and he’s screaming, “Aiden!” And you scramble out after him. It is hunching toward the open closet, pincered arms bent backward, holding your little brother pinned to its back. The closet is pure darkness. A bad place. It is taking him there, where the boogeyman comes from. You dash. You dash right across and jump, thinking, you don’t know what, thinking you’ll grab its feet, hold it here. Your fingers out, wrap around a boot, but it kicks you away as it leaps into the darkness of the closet, Nate’s screams cutting off as if someone hung up the phone on him.

It was, finally, my wife’s leaving that sent me to the psychiatrist. The one that tells me, “The boogeyman is a classic symbol of fear, one you’ve put in the place of the man who took your brother, since neither of them were ever found.” I listened, but was also looking at the door behind his desk, wondering if it was a closet door. “In twenty-six years you’ve never once slept in a room with a closet?”

A shake of the head, eyes on the door.

“You need to confront this. The best way would be to go back to that house, the very house it happened in. If that’s possible. And face that closet. Barring that, try any closet for that matter. You’ll see. There’s no boogeyman. Just your fear.”

“And if the boogeyman is there? If he does come?”

He shook his head. “If it would make you feel better, bring a weapon.”

“What, like a gun?”

“That’s a terrible idea. No. A baseball bat. That’s what I keep by my bed.”

I wondered what his boogeyman looked like.

*

My boogeyman, just now, looks like a closet door in an empty room, in an empty house with a derelict “For Sale” sign in front of it, everything smaller than I remember. It’s chilly and the floor is hard and the baseball bat is clutched tight in my hands and my heart empties and fills with every tiny noise. A creak. A crack. A loud cricket. A tiny groan. Will he come? Is he still there? Still in that closet? Would he face an adult? Do I stand a chance?

What if he doesn’t come? What if he isn’t real?

A scratch. A soft thump. The cricket again. Shadows across the moon. Phantom movement in corners, across bare floors. The damned cricket, even noisier. And every time, the booming heart. The sense that my body empties and refills in an instant of stopped breath and terror. Will he come? What will I do if he does? What will I do if he doesn’t?

The closet door swings open. The darkness lies behind it. I raise my bat. The boogeyman steps out. I swing.

*

This is what the boogeyman looks like.

He is short. He wears goggles and a tattered wide brimmed hat. Something cloaks his lower face. His clothes fit like someone wearing a glove on their foot. Bits are tied up with string. He rolls over. Springs up. Ready to fight, hands in the air in front of him.

“Aiden?” he says.

He doesn’t huff. He lifts off his goggles, pulls the mask from the bottom half of his face. And he has blue eyes, eyes like mine. “Aiden?” he says again, questing voice. A little rough at the edges.

I raise my bat.

“Is it you?” he asks. “Is it? I was sure . . .”

I shake my head, but I say, “Yes.”

“It’s . . . Aiden, it’s me. Nate.” He coughs.

“Nate?”

“Nately mately hate me lately?” The silly rhyme we once made.

“Nate?”

His hand goes to his chest. He looks afraid. “I can’t stay.” Voice getting hoarser. Breathing heavy. Looking disappointed. “The air here, it’s hard to breath.”

“How? How are you here?”

“I escaped. And I remembered you, my brother, how brave you were.” Cough. Huff. “So as I got older, living there, in that place . . . I started to hunt them. The boogeymen.” Huff.

“You’re the boogeyman . . .”

“To the boogeymen.”

We are silent a while. Behind him the darkness in the closet remains opaque.

“Mom and dad?” he asks.

“Dead.” I can’t tell him how. Dad’s suicide. Mom’s fading away.

“I could feel you,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever found my way back here.” Huff huff. “But I don’t think I can stay. I think I’ve breathed the air there too long.”

His eyes are blue, but very pale. Watery. The skin pale and pink where the goggles clung. Nostrils flare with each labored breath.

“You hunt them?” I ask. “The boogeymen?”

He grins, sheepish, a little proud. “Try to be brave, like my big brother.” He looks like he wants a hug.

I want to hit him with the bat again.

I want to shove him through the door and out of my life. I want to close the door and keep him here and watch him suffocate and die.

“I need to go back,” he says. “Will you come again? Please? I’ve been so lonely, there.” His breathing is desperate now. His back is to the blackness. “I don’t know why I’ve never sensed you before.”

Because I wouldn’t sleep in that room. Because I was too scared to go near a closet, ever again. Because this, this is what the boogeyman looks like. He looks like your little brother. He looks like you nodding a promise you’ll never keep, as your little brother steps back into the darkness.

 


© 2019 by T.J. Berg

 

Author’s Note: I was convinced of the existence of the boogeyman as a child, and closets still creep me out as a result.  I think this story was just carrying that fear into reality.

 

T.J. Berg is a molecular and cellular biologist working and writing in Sweden.  She is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and was a member of the Glasgow SF Writer’s Circle.  When she isn’t writing or doing science, she can be found stravaigin the world, cooking, eating, or playing dinosaurs, princesses, and super heroes, sometimes with her son.  She (and pointers to her other stories) can be found on the web atwww.infinity-press.com.

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #27A: “The Things You Should Have Been” by Andrea G. Stewart

“You should have been a doctor,” my mother said. She squinted at me through the screen, as though the new computer I’d bought her had some secret flaw. She never quite trusted that it was better than her old one. “You always liked stitching when you were small. Remember that shirt you made? So many compliments!”

“Mom, it’s a little late for that. I’m thirty-three.” I tugged at the hem of my jacket, my elbows rubbing against the chair’s metal armrests. Fidgeting usually helped me calm my nerves. It didn’t help now. It had seemed simple on paper: five years away from home. Now the only thing I could think of was the blackness of space beyond these metal walls.

“Never too late.” Wisps of gray hair escaped from her bun, brushing the sides of her cheeks. She turned back to the pan on the stove. “You put your mind to something, you can do it. All my children—very capable.”

I could almost smell the soy sauce and chives, the sesame oil on the edge of burning. It made me miss home, more than just a little. “Stitching isn’t the only prerequisite to become a doctor.”

She sliced the air with her chopsticks. “But you’re good at memorizing.”

I focused on the soft glow of the LED lights above my head. “Stitching and memorizing–I’ll be sure to put that on my application. Lei Wong: he once stitched his own shirt.”

“Lei,” she said, “I’m serious.” She disappeared from view and I heard the clink of bottles as she rummaged through the cupboards. I was pretty sure my colleagues’ mothers didn’t cook while they were on vid calls.

“I’m serious too. I’ll update my resume. First thing when I get back.”

She popped into view once more, her face taking up the entire screen. “A lawyer, then. You’re good at arguing. Also good at making your mother feel bad.”

“Do lawyers make their mothers feel bad?”

“The ones who don’t listen do.”

I sighed and shifted in my seat. The cushion was thin, and I could feel the cold metal beneath it. No luxury, here. “I’m trying to listen.”

“Who said I was talking about you? I was talking about lawyers.” She gave a triumphant shrug and lifted the pan, shoveling greens onto a plate. When she was finished, she leaned on the counter, her face in profile. The sunlight from the window trickled into the creases on her temples, highlighted the places on the counter where the laminate had begun to wear away.

A knock sounded on the door behind me. “Two minutes.”

My mother gave me a sideways look. She’d heard it too. Her lips pressed together; her fingers curled around the edge of the countertop. “You could have been a comedian. Just making jokes. All the time. Taking nothing seriously.”

“Mom…”

She pushed away from the counter. “You can still do something else. Anything else.”

“I’ve got two minutes before we leave.”

She shook her head, her brow furrowed. Her hands wove through the air, wildly, like broken-winged birds. “Still enough time! Tell them you changed your mind. They can bring you back.”

They could. They’d never let me leave Earth again, but they could. I thought of returning to California, having my feet on real, solid ground again, standing in my mother’s kitchen and pleating dumplings, the smell of pork and cooked cabbage thick in the air. I couldn’t say it didn’t tempt me.

I checked the clock in the corner of my screen. A little over a minute before we began preparations to initiate the warp drive, before we left the solar system and ventured into the unknown. “But this is what I want to do. I’ve worked my whole life for this.” Hours of study, of physical preparations, of navigating paperwork and interpersonal relationships. “I’ll stay safe.”

My mother closed her eyes. “Always higher, always further, ever since you were a boy. You never knew how to stay safe. You’re thousands of miles away from safe.” Her shoulders hunched. She set the chopsticks down and lined them up until they were parallel, a small space in between. “I know you want to do this, and I’m proud of you, I really am. I’m just not ready.” A wan smile flitted across her face. “Lei Wong: space pilot.”

I gave her a return smile–one I hoped was reassuring despite the flicker of fear in my chest. “I’ll come home.”

She jabbed a finger at the screen. “Good. Maybe then you can try stitching again, instead.”

“I can try. Bye, mom. Love you. Catch you on the flip side.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Probably not a comedian. Not very funny.”

The screen went black.

“Ready?” Susan, my copilot, peeked inside the door.

I put my hands to the armrests, rose to my feet, and took a deep breath, the anxiety in my chest finally easing. “I think so.”

I could have sworn the air smelled of sesame oil.


© 2017 by Andrea G. Stewart

 

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by my mom, who can be alternately critical and alternately amazed at what I’ve accomplished–and sometimes both at the same time! I think, for her, my life will always be one of possibilities, even if I’ve set my feet firmly on one path.

 

10981917_10155292391580397_7630903974659219700_nAndrea Stewart was born in Canada and raised in a number of places across the United States. She spent her childhood immersed in Star Trek and odd-smelling library books. When her dreams of becoming a dragon slayer didn’t pan out, she instead turned to writing. Her work has appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #25: “Bloody Therapy” by Suzan Palumbo

I hugged my daughter, Ashley, when she returned home from school crying. She told me she was scared of going to the bathroom alone,because of Bloody Mary, and had wet her pants on the bus ride home. I wiped her eyes and kissed her forehead.

“The kids in my class said Bloody Mary would steal my soul if I said her name three times in the bathroom mirror,” she said rubbing her eyes.

“Bloody Mary doesn’t exist, Sweetheart. She’s a story people made up to scare each other.”

“But Mom, you said I would make friends with the kids here if I looked for the good in them. How can they be good if they try to scare me?” Her sobs receded into the focused expression of a child trying to make sense of the world.

“Trust me, Hon, everyone is capable of being good. Even not-real Bloody Mary could be nice if she wanted to be.”

***

That night, I surveyed myself in the bathroom mirror. The frown lines between my eyebrows seemed deeper; the corners of my mouth drooped lower. I had sworn during the custody hearing to provide a stable environment for Ashley. I massaged my temples and recalled my own childhood fears of shadowy closets and pitch black bathrooms. I pursed my lips. I wanted to shake every kid in Ashley’s grade for making her cry.

I locked my bathroom door and turned off the lights. In the darkness, I repeated the forbidden name in front of the mirror in an even and deliberate tone: “Bloody Mary…Bloody Mary…Bloody Mary.”

The luminescent face of a pale, young woman emerged in the mirror. Her eyes were dull black orbs. Her hair was matted and tangled with red clots of blood. She stared at me. I took a step backwards.

“I want your soul,” Bloody Mary shrieked. I trembled but then steadied myself. I wasn’t a helpless little girl anymore and Ben wasn’t here to save me. I looked into Bloody Mary’s soul-less  eyes.

“You’ve come for my soul because I said your name three times in front of a mirror? That’s an overreaction.”

She blinked.  “What?”

“This whole shtick is so melodramatic. What are you getting out of this other than making my poor kid wet her pants?”

“You summoned me. You can’t call me and then question my soul stealing. You know nothing about me.” Her voice had transformed from a paranormal screech into the whine of a petulant teenager.

“This is my fault? The only person who controls you is you, Bloody Mary. You need to rethink this haunting bathrooms gig.” I pointed my finger at her, echoing the jargon I’d internalized in couples counselling. I was about to continue the dressing down when Ashley began knocking on the door.

“Mom, who are you talking to?”

“I’m on my cell. I’ll be out soon.”

I returned my attention to Bloody Mary. She glared at me in the dark.

“You’re right, I don’t know you. Come back tomorrow. You can explain yourself then.”

Mary sighed and rolled her eyes.

“All right, but anger me and I will claim your soul.”

“Okay, whatever. I’ll see you tomorrow, and do something about all the blood in your hair, Mary — Maybe wash and comb it. You’re in bathrooms all the time.”

“My name is Bloody Mary.” She rattled the mirror as she disappeared into the darkness.

The following night I turned off the lights and summoned Bloody Mary to the mirror. She was sullen.

“Bloody Mary, why do you enjoy terrorizing people?” She assumed the shape of purple brooding clouds and drizzled blood.

I continued. “Why are you drawn to mirrors?” She returned to her regular form and stood silently, leaving the rest of my questions to bounce off the mirror’s reflective surface.

“Your hair looks better,” I said with an artificial smile. A dim light appeared in one of her eyes  before she faded away.

***

I began calling Bloody Mary through the mirror twice a week; trying to tease out the roots of her behavior.

“Was your father abusive? Your mother, neglectful? What motivates you, fear or revenge, Bloody Mary?” I took quick showers and left the water running in the dark to muffle our voices.

Over the months her appearance improved. Her hair became shiny and tangle free. Her eyes developed deep brown irises that reflected centuries of loneliness and sorrow.

She no longer shape-shifted to deflect my questions. She forced her memories to surface and they would wash over her, leaving her voiceless and causing her to rock back and forth. During her breaks, I unpacked the burdens of my bitter divorce and laid them before the mirror. It was a relief to talk to someone who didn’t know us when we were Alicia and Ben: Happily Married Couple.

“I’ve heard you tell Ashley to look for the good in people. What happened to the good in Ben?” Bloody Mary asked.

“I lost track of the good in Ben.” I cast my eyes downward. “We alternated between skewering each other with insults and avoiding contact until I convinced myself there was nothing to salvage between us.” I put one hand on the vanity. “He said and did things to hurt me on purpose.” I rubbed my forehead. I was a failure at marriage. If I couldn’t apply my own advice to Ashley’s father, wasn’t I a failure as a mother, too?

***

Bloody Mary’s history began to coalesce in drops and trickles.

“I saw my mother drown,” she revealed after one of her long silences. I reached out and touched the image of Mary’s cheek in the mirror, attempting to brush away a tear that had escaped her now-human eyes.

***

We planned a girls’ night. I mixed Bloody Marys.

“I like the name,” she said. I placed her drink on the vanity and sat with my back against the bathroom door.

“Sometimes I eavesdrop on Ashley at school,” Bloody Mary said after her second cocktail.

“How?”

“Her teacher has a mirror at the back of the class. I can hear what goes on.” Mary tilted her head to the side. “You don’t need to worry about her. You’re doing a good job.”

“You think?” I sat up straight.

“You should see her. She’s kind but she’s no pushover.”

“I hope so.” I leaned back, letting the door support my full weight.

“Trust me. I would tell you if you needed to worry.” Bloody Mary spent the rest of the evening creating pink fractal patterns in the mirror.

***

“I never want to see another Bloody Mary again,” she moaned the next night. I laughed and got her some water.

***

One weekend, when Ashley was at Ben’s, Bloody Mary arrived wearing an earnest expression. I waited for her to speak.

“We were robbed and murdered on our wedding day,” she whispered. She clutched a silver hand mirror to her chest. “This was James’ wedding gift to me.” Her pale cheeks flushed and became rosy and full.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“No, it was a secret I needed to tell.”

I nodded at her in the mirror. The dashed promises of my own wedding vows still colored my reflection.

“I can’t cling to the past anymore.” She lowered the hand mirror and held it at her side, out of view. “I need to leave. I need to figure out what I’m going to do now.”

“What about all of the souls you’ve stolen?” I bit my bottom lip.

“I’ve never stolen a soul — No one’s stayed long enough for me to capture theirs.”

I placed my hand on the reflection of her shoulder in the mirror.

“That’s not true,” I said.

“I’m sorry Ashley was afraid of me.”

“It’s okay, Bloody Mary.”

A smile flickered across her lips.

“Just call me Mary.”

I smiled back as she vanished from the mirror.

***

I parked my car at the curb in front of Ben’s house. I got out and tried to lean casually on the passenger side door. Ashley waved at me from the window. A minute later she skipped out the front door with her overnight bag. Ben followed her, stopping at the midpoint of his lawn.

“Mom!”

“Hey, Did you have fun?”

“Yes! We saw a movie and went to the park.”

I inspected her appearance. Her hair was a mass of fly-aways and her pants were covered in dirt. I looked up at Ben. He put his hands on his hips and clenched his jaw.

“Thanks, Ben.”

“You’re welcome, Alicia.” His words were shaded with caution.

“I can’t wait to tell Rebecca at school about the movie.” Ashley bounced up and down next to me. I hugged her. We both waved at Ben after I started the car. I saw him shake his head as he turned to go inside.

At home, I went to my ensuite and looked at myself in the mirror.

“Thank you, Mary,” I whispered. I closed the bathroom door and went to help Ashley unpack.


© 2017 by Suzan Palumbo

 

Author’s Note: “Bloody Therapy” was inspired by my five year old who came home from school one afternoon and declared that she, “didn’t like Bloody Mary.”  She had drawn a picture of medicine for Bloody Mary during art time and explained that we needed to give the medicine to Bloody Mary because, “the Bloody Mary Lady needs help.”   I promised my daughter that I’d help Bloody Mary.  This story is part of my effort.

 

suzan photoSuzan lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband and two daughters.  Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, she is an ESL teacher, free lance writer and slush reading badger for Shimmer.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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