The sun was just starting to set when Christina and Lucas said their goodbyes. Christina had to go home and shower before starting her shift at The Theater. The Theater was an actual theater once upon a time, but it was now a nightclub. She was a bartender there and she claimed to like the work, but the business was failing and she knew the place probably wouldn’t stay open another month.
This town seemed to prefer bars of the honky-tonk variety. I suspect a large portion of their potential clientele steered clear of the place for fear of accidentally attending a performance of Hamlet or something. Even without Christina’s presence, it was my favorite bar in town for that very reason. I preferred a quieter and relatively redneck-free venue for my social drinking.
Lucas was my oldest friend and current co-worker at a certain large chain department store which will remain nameless. We both worked in the produce department, which I enjoyed well enough despite all the time I spent in a refrigerator and the ever present reek of rotting vegetable matter. Providing healthy foods to people just seemed like the least evil thing one could do in that particular place of business.
I guess that’s neither here nor there. It just seemed better to continue thinking about my friends once they were gone than to think of the empty apartment or anything that had happened inside of it for the past thirty days.
I turned on the TV for noise but I realized I was too wound up to sit still. I suppose I just thought I would be mentally exhausted from all the social interaction, but just the opposite was true. If anything, I was mentally stimulated. I wanted to do something with my hands and brain.
My guitar. That was just the thing! God knows when I last picked up the damn thing, but there was a time The Axe and I were inseparable. It was just a cheap old black Ibanez acoustic, but I loved it dearly. A million fond memories were embedded in its glossy lacquer. I pulled it off the hooks ignoring all the dust and set to tuning it. The fact that none of the ancient strings broke in the process was an unexpected and pleasant surprise.
Before I could get bogged down with thoughts I just started strumming out a tune. It was a sort of meditative process for me, to let my left hand find the chords and my right hand find the strings come what may. For a while there, any time my thoughts would get tangled and snarled in my brain like a box of old Christmas tree lights, I would do this. I would bust out my guitar and start strumming, never even thinking about the songwriting process or even recording what I was doing for later consideration. That wasn’t a part of it.
When I was with Emily and we were going through her hard times, it became harder and harder to find the alone time I needed to hone my craft and work on my music. I guess I sort of blamed her for it, if not subconsciously then from a compartmentalized portion of my thoughts and feelings. But I still blamed her. I suppose I just felt like our relationship and all that it entailed took up too much of my headspace.
I never really gave up on my musical aspirations, and she of course never wanted me to. Emily was always genuinely and enthusiastically supportive of my endeavors. We were both creative people and she liked that about us. I liked that about us, too. In a very real and substantial way, I felt like creating things and sharing those things with the world was one of the few truly meaningful things anyone could do. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with making money or starting a family or that sort of thing, but it didn’t mean anything to me. It still doesn’t.
The problem wasn’t really with Emily anyway, I was just letting her become my excuse. It was easier to tell myself that I didn’t have the time or the energy or the mind frame to create things because I was devoting myself to her and to us. It was harder to admit to myself that I was just afraid of failing, afraid to try, just afraid that I would never be good enough. I lacked the courage to admit those fears to myself and push on anyway. Maybe that’s a struggle everyone goes through, no matter what their life is like.
Almost every New Years’ Eve I would resolve to finally take my music seriously. I would formulate grandiose plans to practice every day, to write songs every day, to record a demo, to try to get a band together, to do all those terrifying things I needed to do to make anything happen. Sometimes I would even follow through, if only for a little while.
Invariably, some setback would occur. I would get down on myself, depressed. I would hang up The Axe, and I would forget about it for a month, then two, then three. Life would happen. Distractions would present themselves. The busy season would begin at work and I would come home far too exhausted to consider any activity more strenuous than watching television or reading. The year would come to an end and I would realize that I had wasted another year that could have been spent getting serious about my music.
This exact cycle had gone on for years, and it had nothing to do with my relationship with Emily or dealing with her problems or anything like that. It was only because I lacked the courage or the will to break that cycle.
Did I reach this epiphany during my impromptu jam session? No, not really. I have cogitated on a similar line of thinking almost constantly throughout those wasted years. This time felt different, however. As the melody my fingers found turned melancholy, I considered the fact that Emily would never have a chance to see all her support for me pay off. This thought turned to another: Would she have wanted that support to be in vain? Did I perhaps owe it to her to give it an honest try? I thought I did.
I played on through the evening, thinking perhaps that the healing process had begun. I had finally managed to do something apart from wallow in misery. I did not suspect for a moment that misery was not yet done with me. That realization came later.
Once I finally hung my guitar back on the rack I quickly realized how numb my fingers had become. I needed to build up my callouses again. The fingertips were cut in a few places, bleeding lazily. I hadn’t noticed while I played, but I couldn’t help but notice after I stopped, thanks to the dull throb that pulsed through each digit.
I made the connection while I rinsed my cuts under the bathroom faucet. In all the hullabaloo I forgot about getting blood on Emma. I cursed to myself, knowing the doll would surely be stained after all these hours. I can’t say why it really mattered so much, except that I felt some misguided responsibility to be a sort of caretaker to the dolls. She would not have wanted any harm to befall them, not even that horrid Emma.
To my great relief, I found that my initial observation was incorrect. I did not smear blood on Emma. She was still ugly, but perfectly clean. Just to be certain, I inspected her thoroughly, top to bottom. Not a mark, not a smudge. Nothing but a false alarm. I either imagined I saw the smear of blood on the doll, or I saw nothing but a red reflection of the blood projected by the afternoon sun. Maybe that wasn’t the most scientifically sound explanation, but I didn’t much care. It was good enough.
I found myself staring into Emma’s loathsome face. Her expression did not change again. No, that’s not right. It never did change, I knew that. God. Even without the hateful expression I thought I saw, there was something just so vile about that face. I wanted to stare at the doll until my feelings could crystallize into something I could grasp.
As I stared, those clustered holes at the right side of her face seemed to expand and contract like the puckered mouths of some sea creature so alien as to be beyond terrestrial comparison. They gaped and contracted, gaped and contracted. I felt a terrible nausea at the pit of my stomach. I wanted to hurl the doll across the room. But it couldn’t be real.
I screwed my eyes shut tight and forced the image from my brain. When I opened them again the holes were still, lifeless. I was so tired. They never moved. I just stared at them unblinking for so long that my eyes started playing tricks on me. That’s all. I just needed some sleep.
Before I would allow sleep to take me, however, there was one last order of business to attend to. This doll, Emma, had to be banished from my sight. In some way I needed that change, to not just put Emma away, but to put away all the things that reminded me of her. If I wanted to survive I had to figure out how to move on.
I found an empty box that would hold Emma. I’m not sure what doll it held before, but it wasn’t important. All I could do was take things one step at a time, and I knew without question that putting Emma away had to be the first step. The process was one that I watched and assisted in many times.
Drawing from Emily’s packing supplies, I covered Emma’s head, limbs, and torso in separate sheets of bubble wrap. With masking tape, I held the bubble wrap sheets securely in place. At the bottom of the box, I laid a cushioning layer of packing peanuts and set Emma upon it. She now looked like a discount mummy in a dime store sarcophagus. I covered her in enough additional packing peanuts to fill the box entirely. I only had to tape shut the box to leave her fit to be shipped away. That would, of course, not yet be necessary.
I placed the Emma Sarcophagus carefully among the others in the Harry Potter closet. As an added gesture of security, I gave the stack a gentle bump. It settled back neatly into its original position and I closed the closet door secure in the knowledge that Emma was safely locked away. Out of sight, hopefully soon to be out of mind.
In the next room, I heard the distinct sound of something strumming the open strings of my guitar, followed by the hollow thump of it hitting the wall. I ran into the room confused and alarmed, but yet again found no sign of an intruder. The guitar, however, was swaying slightly on the rack. I strummed my fingernail across the strings thoughtfully but fell short in finding a cause for the sound. Another mystery, and I had grown too tired for a mystery. Instead, I went off to bed.
Despite my better spirits, I still found sleep elusive. I stared up at the ceiling stains for over an hour, trying to clear my mind. Eventually, I was successful, but my sleep that night was less than restive.
I had another dream that night, you see. Two actually, at least that I could remember. One followed the other almost seamlessly.
The first thing to pierce the darkness was a voice. It was her voice, of course. Emily’s voice. She was saying my name, softly, again and again. I opened my eyes and I could see her, her own eyes shining in the moonlight. She reached out and shook my shoulder, gently.
“Justin!” she whispered, “Justin, are you awake?”
“Yeah, Emma,” I told her, “I’m awake. What’s wrong?”
In the dream, I had forgotten that she was dead, or perhaps I thought the memory of her death was the dream.
She reached out for me and I wrapped my arms around her, buried my face in her neck, and kissed the hollow of her shoulder. I could smell her scent, and my pulse quickened. She held me tightly for a moment before speaking again. I looked up and I could see tears glistening in her eyes.
“I’m so sorry, Justin,” she said. “I didn’t want this to happen, I thought I could stop it. I thought it was meant for me. I’m sorry.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “Stop what?”
She sighed and rolled out of bed. She stood at the window and pulled the curtain back enough that she could peer through. She was nude. I could just make out the tattoo on her back, a grinning Chinese dragon spanning from the base of her neck, around the right shoulder, and corkscrewing all the way down to the base of her spine.
“It wants you, too,” She said, enigmatically. “Maybe you were always the one it wanted. I think maybe it just used me to get to you, but I’m not sure. I always thought you would know everything after you died, but I don’t know much of anything I didn’t know before.”
I sat up in bed. “What are you talking about, Em? Who wants me?”
“There are rules, I think,” she said, apparently ignoring my question. “Maybe they can protect you, maybe not. It’s so frustrating. I want to help you, but I don’t know how. I couldn’t even help myself, you know?”
“I’m confused,” I told her.
“I know,” She said, genuinely sympathetic. “Listen. The first rule is, you must not think about him. They’re going to try to help you learn his name, but you can’t think about his name. That’s the worst thing you could do. He’s always listening. Have I told you that already? I can’t remember. It’s hard to hold on to memories, now. He’s always listening, and he knows what you’re thinking. He can hear that too. So promise me you won’t learn his name.”
“I promise,” I told her, completely baffled. I had no clear idea of what any of this meant. The only thing separating this dream from total nonsense was its remarkable vividness.
She turned back from the window and looked into my eyes.
“Have you heard the Black Dog yet?” She asked.
“The only dog I’ve heard lately is Pig Dog,” I told her. Pig Dog was the name we gave to the neighbor’s dog because it had pink skin and only the shortest suggestion of transparent white hair. I think her real name was PJ. She was a good dog, and seldom barked.
“Good,” she said, “That’s good. If you hear the Black Dog, try to ignore it. Whatever you do, don’t look for it. Don’t let it find you. He wants you to look at the Black Dog, it gives him power. It’s like a doorway, or maybe it brings the doorway. The doorway is death, and worse.”
“Okay,” I told her, “I understand.”
“No you don’t,” She said, sadly.
I didn’t say anything. There was nothing to say. She was right, of course.
“You have to see something,” she told me. Regret was written all over her face. “Leave through the bedroom door and you will be somewhere else. You’ll see it there. I have to go now.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but she turned to me and put a finger to her lips. Her hand dropped to her side, she sighed and faded away.
There was nothing else to do. I got up and threw on some clothes, just whatever was laying on the floor. Pausing at the door, I looked back at the window where she stood. I thought I could smell her scent, still lingering in the air. How could she be dead if she still smelled the same? I stepped through the door and found myself-
Outside. I was outside, and not in my yard, either. I wasn’t even sure if I was still in Breckenridge, at least initially. The snow was falling again, huge and ornate crystalline structures, the sort of snow you only saw in Christmas specials and never thought could exist in real life. It blanketed the earth and obscured the landscape until everything seemed unfamiliar, indistinct.
I wandered through an alien world, a midnight world where two massive moons hung in the sky watching over all, not protectively, but with a sort of lazy malice. It was him. It. Whatever. The thing I couldn’t think about, the thing that had a name I must not learn. Though I could not feel the cold, I shivered. If I turned my back on those twin satellites, I wouldn’t have to think about their owner.
Shielding my eyes from that gaze, I pulled an abrupt about-face and realized immediately where I was. Standing before me, immortalized in bronze, was none other than Peter Pan, buried to the navel in a snowdrift. I was in Lost Boy’s Park, located about a mile south of my apartment.
I reached out and touched Peter’s face, trying to anchor myself to reality. A horrid metal-on-metal grinding noise emanated from the statue and I realized the Pan’s eyes rolled in their sockets to look down upon me. I snatched my hand away as one would do from a dog that might bite.
A hollow voice echoed from within the statue, the brash voice of a wild child. Pan’s voice.
“Run!” he said, though his lips moved not at all, “Get under cover! He’s looking for you! Don’t let him find you!”
I only stood there, agog, as the wind swirled the massive snowflakes around me. Beneath my feet, I could feel a strange, terrible vibration.
“GO!” Peter Pan bellowed, his young voice cracking.
I went. I ran. I bolted. Across the field, I could see a copse of oak trees and I thought I could hide there, at least for a while. The snow was piled to mid-thigh and even at my fevered pace progress was hideously slow. I could feel eyes on the back of my neck, making the short hairs there try to rise. My hair had grown too long for them to stand up straight.
I was too late, he saw me. I could feel his gaze. It was all I could do to keep myself from turning around to face him. Perhaps it was true, perhaps I was safe if I did not think about him, did not face him. Perhaps.
Abruptly I burst through a snowbank and under a thin layer of snow, I slid on what proved to be ice. I landed hard on my ass, a shock I felt all the way up my spine. My momentum carried me forward several feet.
I was on the pond, frozen over solid. I hoped solidly enough to support my weight, but there was no time to consider the danger. I had to get across. I had to make it to the trees.
Finding my feet proved to be the most difficult part. I found that if I moved like a penguin, shifting my weight from left foot to right foot as I progressed slowly with tiny penguin steps, I could keep from slipping again. I was still acutely aware of the eyes boring into my skull from behind, but I couldn’t allow my movements to become sloppy. The need for concentration was a welcome distraction.
The cracking sound began the moment I reached the center of the pond. My heart leaped up past my throat and right into my skull cavity, elbowing in next to my brain. The ice was breaking, I was going to slip through!
The sound was awful, a splintery, echoing sound that seemed to reverberate endlessly in the open air. My breath came out in tiny gasps, little puffs of steam floating in the air. The wind had stopped and the cracking sound became the only feature of my world. I could imagine growing fissures splitting through the surface of the ice, breaking off in the thin places and revealing the frigid blackness below. I was terrified. I couldn’t move, or look anywhere but at my feet, waiting for the cracks to reach them.
The sound continued on and on, growing ever louder and direr by the moment, though strangely the surface of the ice seemed pristine and still. I looked up at the heavens as though I was searching for an answer. There, I found one. The ice wasn’t cracking.
The sky was cracking.
Endlessly growing fissures fractured the night sky, filling the world with that terrible, splintery sound. Unearthly light seeped through the cracks, almost like the Aurora Borealis, only as foul and repellent as that phenomenon is beautiful.
I stood there, frozen, unable to will movement into any of my muscles. I couldn’t even blink. I could only watch, teary-eyed, as the fault in the sky grew and grew. Finally, the heavens could stand the strain no longer, and the cracks split open like a rotting Jack-O-Lantern, forming what appeared to be a leering smile of eldritch light. The twin moons completed the ghastly face, lazy malice replaced by sadistic glee. And hunger.
Just then the surface of the ice lost its hold upon me, and I fell upward. I fell into the sky toward that gaping mouth. The mouth moved, and a voice much like that cracking ice sound issued from the great chasm. It was trying to tell me its name.
I wouldn’t listen. I couldn’t listen. If I heard the name, then all was lost! I had to… I had to…
I woke with a start and rolled off my bed, gasping into a discarded t-shirt. I could not decide if the voice that shocked me awake was from my dream or from an unknown source in the apartment, but it must have been the dream. I was alone.
“Christ,” I muttered and picked myself up off the floor. I could see no wisdom in trying to fall back asleep, even if I had nothing for which to be awake.
Owing more to the frigid temperature of the apartment than anything else, I decided to start the morning with a long, hot shower. I couldn’t quite remember the last time I bothered, which must have been a bad sign. I was feeling hopeful yesterday, but that strange and terrible nightmare lingered in my thoughts.
As I let the water warm my bones, I contemplated Emily’s last words to me. She told me there was something I had to see outside the bedroom door. Why would she have wanted me to see such a thing? It made no sense, really. She told me I had to ignore the thing, so why would she take me somewhere to see it? Maybe she had no choice.
I shook my head, trying to clear away the cobwebs. I ran my fingers through my damp hair and realized I was being an asshole. I laughed softly.
“It makes no sense because it was a goddamn dream,” I said to myself.
That was it. Obviously. It was just the strain getting to me, making me jump at shadows and believe in dreams. I was going stir crazy and I wasn’t dealing with anything in any real way and apparently I was in real danger of cracking up.
(like the sky, the sky cracked)
Another errant thought. I shook it away, too. I had to cling to reality. My dead girlfriend was not sending me cryptic messages in my dreams. That’s just…
Delusional thoughts. Like she had. I couldn’t give in to them. If I found it so easy to deny her delusions, I should have no problem denying my own. Simple.
Still, the images from that dream lingered in my mind. In spite of myself, I continued to wonder what it all meant. I thought of the doll, the flickering lights, the slamming door, and the way her scent lingered in the air in my dreams. It all seemed so real. Were these delusions so real to her? Maybe I should have listened to her instead of simply rejecting her perception. Could I have learned something?
I grimaced at the thought. That sort of ambiguity plagued me throughout our relationship. I never knew what was the right thing to do with her, as I think I have said, and it plagued me. Nothing I ever said or thought or told her seemed to be of any help or comfort. I could reason against her delusions but it never made them go away. It was never easy, or I was never up to the challenge.
I felt awful just to think of it. She needed me to do something for her. She needed me to be someone she could count on. She needed an anchor, a tether to the real world. It was never enough to simply tell her that her thoughts were wrong, but that seemed to be the only help I would offer. It was idiotic, but I kept trying that tactic and grew frustrated when it continued not to work.
A loud and heavy THUMP! shook the entire house, rousing me from my thoughts. I realized then that I was driving myself into another cycle of guilt and self-loathing. I didn’t want to do that again, I wanted to stop. I had to heal my wounds, not rip them open again.
I stepped out of the shower and grabbed my towel off the rack. It needed to be washed, badly, but I resolved to worry about that later. For now, I would dry myself, get dressed, and go buy a cup of coffee and maybe a scone. Getting out of the house, even for such a minor errand, I thought would surely prove beneficial.
The ceiling rat skittered about the space between the spaces, disturbed perhaps by the same thump that broke my train of thought. I didn’t give the sound any further thought. I didn’t think I needed to. Living in an apartment, you got used to the sounds of your neighbors. Even the rodents.
Upon opening my front door, even through the many layers of clothing, I could feel the vicious wind cut cleanly to my bones. The warmth of the shower was quickly lost. In the small patch of yard outside the apartment, I found the fresh layer of snow broken only by the strange prints left by wild rabbits. I examined their patterns and felt nothing.
Despite the bitter cold, I decided to walk to the coffee shop. It was only a few blocks away, but my main motivating factor was the great mound of snow that buried my car. It would take ages to unearth the damned thing. Perhaps the frigid walk would make my hot coffee all the more satisfying. Anyway, it would delay my inevitable return to that place.
The other apartments were all connected by a sort of foyer with a staircase leading to the upstairs units. Mine was the only independent unit with its own front and back door. It created some confusion when I ordered pizza, but that was an acceptable concession as it meant I rarely had to see or interact with my neighbors. They were a strange lot.
As I passed their front porch, I could hear some sort of commotion inside. An argument, perhaps? I heard raised voices, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. None of my business, I thought with a shrug. I shuffled on through the deep snow, progress made slowly but surely.
As I walked, I looked up at the gray sky. Through a break in the clouds, I saw the moon, ghostlike in the morning light. I looked upon it and shivered, remembering my strange dreams again. Academically, I knew it was nothing more than a chunk of rock that broke off from the earth eons ago, but I felt a malice from the satellite I never felt before. I felt watched.
But that was stupid. I shouldn’t think that way, it was a bad idea to indulge in strange thoughts. I shouldn’t let my dreams and a couple of weird occurrences turn me into a paranoiac. It was just the moon. Still, I turned my gaze back to the earth. It felt safer, somehow. Like thinking about those things was dangerous instead of merely inadvisable.
I reached an intersection at the same time as a driver in a gaudy yellow truck. Although the way was clear and he had plenty of time to drive away, he simply sat there, giving me an impatient look. I never seemed to know if I should cross before a motorist. People around here seemed as likely to run a stop sign as to wait for a pedestrian.
I didn’t like the way he was looking at me. I crossed in front of his truck and I was, for a moment, certain that he would step on the gas and run me down in the street. Why? Why did I think that? More paranoia. I was in a strange mood that day. Why? I was feeling better the night before.
I decided to give Lucas or Christina a call when I returned home. Probably Lucas. At this early hour, Christina would still be sleeping off the previous night’s work, but Lucas was often an early riser.
The rest of the walk passed without incident. I reached the coffee house, which had the unlikely name of Vital Fluids. Emily and I would go there sometimes when she was alive, but I tried not to think about that. I failed, but I did try.
I passed through the doorway to the dull tinkling of a cowbell hung there to alert the barista of my approach. A wasted effort, in this case. There was no one else in the cafe to distract her. She looked up from her phone, smiled warmly, and hopped up from her stool. She welcomed me to Vital Fluids, unable to mask the boredom in her voice entirely.
The barista was African American, had vibrantly blue hair that darkened as it reached the ends of her mohawk cut, dark lipstick, and smoky eyes. She was tall, slim, and dressed in a black maxi dress accented with silver jewelry. An ankh necklace hung from her neck. She looked to be in her mid-twenties and was very pretty. I didn’t recognize her, for which I was glad. It meant I would not have to field any awkward questions about Emily.
I gave her my order and settled into an overstuffed chair in the back of the shop. I realized it had been ages since I had been in such a warm room, and shed some of my many layers of clothing. I left the hat on, as my hair was still wet and was likely a tangled mess under there. After a moment the barista came by and gave me my coffee and scone. I thanked her and she nodded back, quickly returning to whatever fascinating diversion her phone provided.
For a while I sat there quietly, sipping at my coffee, but the warmth of the room and of my beverage had a sort of soporific effect. As I had no desire to doze off in this coffee shop in the middle of the morning, I scanned the area for something to read, wishing I had brought one of my own books.
There was some sort of coffee table book sitting, naturally, on the coffee table in front of me. Some sort of photography collection. I picked it up and examined the cover. The title was Green Houses of Breckenridge by Alaina Addams. A local author, then. The content, bizarrely, was not of nurseries, but literal greenhouses. Apparently, Breckenridge was famous for houses of that particular color, although I had never heard such a thing or even particularly noticed any great number of them.
I thumbed through the pages without much interest. Most of the houses seemed to be in various states of disrepair, which did not surprise me. The aging and generally destitute population of the town tended to have neither the budget nor the manual dexterity to conduct regular maintenance. That, I did not fail to notice in my years living there. Sometimes I felt like I was living in a town of haunted houses.
I grimaced at the thought. My own apartment was housed in a building as aged and uninviting as any you would see in some forgotten Vincent Price movie, and it was definitely starting to feel haunted. Living in a ghost story wasn’t as fun as those old black and white horror shows made it seem.
My interest in spooky old houses, limited as it was in the first place, was quickly abating and I was set to close the book and set it aside when I saw the photo. My apartment house made the cut after all, although the picture must have been an old one. It had been repainted in the intervening years from a gaudy emerald green to a dreary shade of gray.
My landlord, Mr. Petrov, was standing on the front porch, looking grim as he always did. He spoke with a thick eastern European accent, which made him hard to understand at times, and he came around as seldom as humanly possible. It made it difficult to get any repairs done, as I think I’ve said, but at least he was lenient with the rent. I made a mental note to mention the photo the next time I saw him, though I doubted it would interest him much.
The next photo showed the house from a different angle, which showed the entrance to the basement. Mr. Petrov kept it locked tight with heavy chains and a thick padlock. When I moved in he made a point of telling me there was no basement, so you can imagine my confusion when I found the door on the back side of the house. I decided, ultimately, that he just didn’t want tenants screwing around down there and didn’t have the English speaking skills to express himself properly. In the photo the basement door had no such chains, I noticed.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you,” came a voice to my left. I looked up. It was the barista.
“You’re not bothering me,” I said, unsure if that was, strictly speaking, an honest response. “What’s up?”
“I was just-” She began, but stopped as the sounds of emergency vehicles blaring their sirens split the air. She cleared her throat, nervously. “I just wanted to tell you that’s my book.”
I looked down at the book spread out before me and felt myself blush with embarrassment. I stammered something like, “Oh! Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to- I thought it was for anyone to look at. I’m sorry.”
“No, that’s not what I meant,” She said, laughing. She had a nice laugh. “No, I mean that’s my book. I wrote it. Well, I mean, I took the pictures and everything.”
“Really?” I asked, as she sat down on an adjacent chair, “That’s really cool. You’re a photographer?”
“Yeah,” She said, energetically, “I mostly do weddings and senior photos and things like that. You know, when I’m not stuck sitting in this shop slinging mud. This is my first collection of photographs I’ve had published. I’ve been kind of working at it for years. So I’m really sorry to bother you, but I’m so excited and I’ve been waiting for days for someone to look at it. Most people just come in and look at their tablets or phones or whatever.”
“No, really,” I assured her, “You’re really not a bother. But I have to ask…”
“Yeah?” She asked cautiously.
“Why green houses?” I had to know.
“You haven’t noticed all the green houses around town?” She asked. I shook my head. “I don’t have much of a social life with school and all, so when I have spare time I like to walk around a lot. I’m always on the lookout for photography subjects, for reference mostly. I’m actually kind of an artist. A comics artist. One day I realized in my travels that this town is just chock full of green houses. The rest is just history, I guess.”
“You want to know something weird?” I asked her.
“Always,” She said at once.
I pointed to the photo with Mr. Petrov on the porch and told her, “This is actually my house. Or, I live there at least.”
Her jaw dropped, and she said, “No shit? That house is yours?”
“Yeah,” I told her, “Only, it’s not green any more. They divided the place up into apartments and painted the thing gray. I guess this photo must be a few years old. That’s my landlord there on the porch.”
“Oh yeah,” She said, furrowing her brow at Petrov’s grim visage. “I remember that guy. Kind of a weird dick, if you ask me.”
“Oh, he’s not that bad,” I said, not entirely sure why I felt the need to defend the man to her. “He just seems like a cranky old dude. He’s not so bad once you get to know him.”
“If you say so,” She said, uncertainly, “All I know is he caught me out in the yard taking photos and I thought he was going to bite my head off. He kept threatening to call the police, but he never left the porch. Just kept yelling and shooting eye daggers at me. Finally I left, but he kept shouting until I was out of sight.”
“Weird.” I muttered, staring closely at the photo as though it might give me some further insight. “I wonder what crawled up his butt. Anyway, I’m glad you got your photos. It’s a great shot, the way the light hits the face of the house just right and catches all the little details. That’s really cool. Almost makes that crappy old house look nice. Dignified.”
“Thanks, man,” she said, obviously pleased. “My name’s Lainy. Alaina, actually, but everyone calls me Lainy. Or ‘That Black Goth Girl.’”
“Justin,” I told her, shaking her hand. “Nice to meet you, Lainy. You know…”
The tinkling of bells interrupted me. Five girls, all of them blonde and maybe sixteen years old, filed into the shop, laughing and chatting.
“Welcome to Vital Fluids, girls! I’ll be right with you!” Alaina called across the cafe. She turned to me and said “Duty calls. Nice to meet you too, Justin.”
“Congrats on getting published,” I said, gathering my coat and scarf. It seemed as good a time as any to head back home.
“Thanks, man,” She said, already on the move. The girls were examining the menu and engaging in an animated discussion over specialty coffee drinks and the relative merits of every option.
In stark contrast to the cozy warmth of the cafe, the outside world seemed all the more oppressively frigid and stark, but I felt pretty good, nonetheless. That brief conversation was the first friendly exchange I had had with a stranger in ages, and I found that I wanted more. I thought once again that the healing process had begun, and that perhaps some day in the not-too-distant future I would feel like a real functional human being again.
Energized, my return trip passed much more quickly. I soon reached my own street, and found the gleaming surface of the snow illuminated in blazing patterns of blue and red. The emergency vehicles I heard were evidently headed to one of my neighbors’ apartments. I broke into a jog, eager to see what was the matter.
Standing in my yard were several policemen, fireman, and paramedics. Most of them were gathered on the porch and they seemed to be loading an inert body onto a stretcher. One of my fellow tenants, it must have been.
“What’s going on here?” I asked one of the policeman who did not seem to be actively helping, “What happened?”
The policeman held up a hand, stopping me in my tracks.
“Stay back,” He ordered, “Do you live on the premises?”
“Yes,” I told him, “I live in apartment A. It’s the one over there, not connected to the porch.”
“Do you know the man who lived in apartment C?” He asked, pen and paper in hand.
“Sort of,” I told him. “I think his name is George. He sits out on the porch sometimes and smokes cigars while his dog plays in the yard. I’ve spoken to him a few times. Is he okay?”
“I’m afraid he’s deceased.” The officer told me, soberly, “He fell from the upstairs railing and succumbed to his injuries just before emergency services could arrive on the scene. Do you know if he has any relatives in the area?”
“Jesus,” I muttered. I thought of the loud thump I had heard earlier that morning. It must have been him, falling from the railing. A dark, sick feeling washed over me like the tide of a polluted ocean. I thought of a hand loosely clutching a handgun submerged in tepid, bloodstained water.
“Sir!” The officer barked, interrupting my thoughts. I started and looked up at him.
“Do you know if he has any relatives in the area?” He repeated.
“Yeah,” I muttered, “Yes. He has a sister. I don’t know her name, but she comes by sometimes to take him grocery shopping. That’s the only person I’ve ever seen visit him.”
He jotted something down in his notebook and looked back up at me.
“I’m going to need to take down your information just in case we have any more questions for you. We probably won’t. What’s your name?”
I told him, and answered all the questions that followed. Coherently, I hope, but I can’t be certain. I felt like there was some kind of static in my head, a nasty buzzing sensation that made it difficult to focus on the world around me.
Finally he let me go, and I trudged back into my apartment, careful to avoid getting in anyone’s way. They were loading George’s body into the back of the ambulance, wrapped in a white sheet. I wondered what would become of PJ, but I didn’t ask. I could feel the eyes of the policeman on the back of my head and I wondered what he was thinking.
I could hear the other upstairs neighbor talking to a different policeman as I stepped into the apartment. I couldn’t really make out what he was saying, just that he was talking about George, of course. The wind changed direction and I caught scattered bits of it, enough to chill me far beyond the ability of the Kansas winter.
“Just kept yell… night long… black d… but his dog is white. Weird.”
I shut the door and slumped into my chair. The phrase ‘black dog’ flashed through my mind, and it was my last rational thought for some time. I kept picturing Raynor falling from the dresser and shattering on the floor below. All the while, static.
For a while the red and blue lights danced on the walls, shining through my windows. In my distraction I did not notice when they stopped. All I know is that when I came to my senses, the daylight had faded along with them. I had sat there in a fugue for hours, it seemed, and I was suddenly aware of being ravenously hungry.
The prospect of leaving the apartment in search of sustenance seemed impossible, and so I had no option but to scour my barren pantry for whatever grim remnants of food it might still contain. I seemed to be down to items that held either no appeal or no appeal on their own. Bits and pieces, but nothing worthwhile. I seemed to have dozens of cans of black beans and pickled beets, both items I found detestable. There was also a bag of white rice, the dregs of three or four cereal boxes, a box of macaroni for which I had no milk or butter, and other such abysmal stock.
I had nearly given up and considered dedicating a shameful percentage of my remaining funds to ordering a pizza, when I found a can of ravioli hidden among the beans. I shrugged, my energy for the enterprise rapidly failing, and pulled the tab on the can. A sniff test told me the contents were as fresh as they would ever be, and so I dumped the can into a bowl. The bowl went into the microwave, and in two minutes I would stave off starvation for another night.
Thirty seconds in, the power went out. By then I had wandered into the living room, intending to select a television show to view as I enjoyed my repast. I swore to myself and at the landlord for his cheap wiring. The fuse box was outside the apartment on a small back porch, open to the elements. Just another poor design feature. All of my winter clothes were littered about the room, carelessly cast away hours ago, and I groped around for enough covering to stave off frostbite for a few moments.
That’s when I heard the sound.
It emanated from the bathroom, a low keening sound, as though someone therein was crying despondently. No, not just someone. I knew the voice behind those wails. It was Emily. Frozen in place with a balaclava clutched in my left hand, I stared blindly in the direction of the bathroom, unable to speak. It was impossible.
The keening rose in pitch and volume and broke into sobs. I could hear the sound of her thrashing in the bath, the water spilling over the edge and onto the linoleum. One last splash, and then- silence.
Tentatively, I took a step forward. I didn’t know what I expected to find on the other side of the door where the darkness would be total, but I found that I could not stay away. Another step, and I reached out with my free hand, feeling my way blindly ahead.
The silence was broken with a piercing scream that seemed to go on and on until I thought I might lose my mind at the sound. It finally tapered off again into sobs.
“No,” her voice called out, raw and ragged by strain, grief, and fear alike. “No, no, no, please no!”
“Emily?” I choked out, finally.
She gasped, and screamed, “Stay away! Stay away from me! No! I can’t!”
I ran to the door and threw it open, only to be blinded and deafened by the thunderous report of a handgun. I think I screamed, but I’m not sure. The next thing I knew, I had fallen to the floor and the lights hummed back to life.
On shaky, unreliable legs, I forced myself to reenter the bathroom. A smell I recognized as the scent of her hair and her clean skin filled the air, flooding my mind with images. The shower curtain was closed, and though I knew I would be driven to madness if I saw her or anything else in the stall, I had to see. Had to know. I threw the curtain aside.
The shelves in the shower were still covered in her various shampoos and body washes. I saw immediately that they were the source of not only those familiar odors but perhaps the source of the gunshot sound. Somehow the caps to every bottle had simultaneously popped off, laying together in a loose pile by the drain. Viscous pastel liquids oozed from the open top of the bottles and dripped into the tub. Oddly, my own shampoo and body wash bottles were untouched. I stared at this tableau, my mind empty of everything but the static until I could bear it no longer.
Stunned, and not knowing what else to do with myself, I stumbled into the kitchen and finished microwaving my dinner. I ate it without tasting a thing and I watched television for hours without absorbing anything on the flashing screen. I couldn’t bear to shut it off and face the silence, for fear that silence would be yet again broken by her anguished screams.
There is a gap in my awareness which, I only later after some inner struggle determined, was when I fell asleep. The next thing I knew I was being violently shaken awake, and upon opening my eyes to the world, I realized I was dreaming.
The thing that was still clutching my shoulder and issuing frantic pleas into my waking face, I recognized at once, though she was greatly disfigured. By the gunshot, I mean.
Emily’s face was a surreal distortion, amplifying the destruction she wrought upon herself to grotesque proportions. The left side her face and most of her chin was untouched by the violence, though she was soaked in frigid water and drained of all color. Her remaining eye was sunken so deeply into its socket that it glistened like a gimlet in a cavern. Tears or blood-stained bathwater ran down her cheeks in a constant flood. Her mouth ripped at the left corner, dripped blood from a ragged wound and she called my name, again and again. In her free hand, she held a long bundle I also recognized. It was Emma, rescued from the closet.
Her words and these details were quickly lost in my regard, for the gravity of the thunderous ravage of her right side. The right side of her entire head, actually. The bullet, badly angled, punched through her mouth and out her right brow, leaving a shattered expanse of exposed meat and splintered bone. The skin around the wound seemed to blister and tear out endlessly at the edges. This must have been how she looked the moment she died.
That might have been my final realization, my final rational thought preceding total madness. I could feel my sanity tearing away inside my head, the final few moorings beginning to splinter and give away. I only blinked, and she returned to her old self. Her alive self. Had it only been the space between two blinks? Those three seconds felt like an eternity, the way moments stretch in dreams.
When I came to my senses she was sitting on the edge of the bed, sobbing. She was still pallid, naked, and soaked in the frigid bathwater she died in; but her face was whole. She was just a ghost. Emily was dead, and even in the dream, I knew that. It even came to my mind at that moment, when I jumped to my feet and rushed into the bathroom to grab her a towel. I just pushed the thought far away and did the only thing that made sense to me.
If she was cold and wet I would make her warm again. Because I loved her.
I wrapped the towel around her shoulders and held her close to me, as I did before so many times. Bad times and good. She was still sobbing, moaning, and working at the bundle in her hands. She wouldn’t look at me, but I held her.
She didn’t get any warmer, but I held her as she sobbed.
At last, she laid her head against my chest. Softly, she whispered, “I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I didn’t mean to frighten you. I’m sorry. It’s just so hard to hold on now.”
“It’s okay,” I whispered. Her hair didn’t smell like the grave. It smelled the way her hair always did, back then. I told myself it wasn’t really her, trying and failing to gird myself from the feelings welling up inside of me. I realized I even missed her bad times and the losing battle of helping her out of them. Did I really give up on her?
“It’s not okay, Justin,” she told me, her eyes finally meeting mine. They did not glimmer like gimlets but blazed like sapphire, the way they used to when her blood was up. “That’s what I came to tell you. I couldn’t keep him away. I couldn’t protect you. He’s coming.”
I thought of two moons in the sky, shining like silver dollars, and I shivered, but I foolishly asked, “Who?”
“You know who!” She shouted, pulling away. The towel fell from around her as she stood, seeming to crackle with energy under her skin. Pockmarks began to form, and her right eye darkened. She covered her face and with the energy that remained to her, she spoke one last time.
“It starts tomorrow,” she said, mournfully. “Tomorrow you’ll start to hear it.”
“Hear what?!” I cried as she lurched into the shower stall. She didn’t speak, but I knew the answer.
The Black Dog was coming.