Is Annie insane? An elderly woman is stalked by demons who seep into the nooks and crannies of her life. A stunning tale of sinister psychology by Nick Locke. -Jim
They start subtle. You don’t know what they’re doing to you until it’s too late. You can’t even see them most of the time. They’re a little flash in the corner of your eye. A creaky floorboard. The hiss of a radiator. An old woman’s cough. Or a tickling-neck-breeze. I turn around every time, and they’re gone, vanished. But I know they’re there. I can just sense it, you know? They want me to go insane. Won’t let ‘em though. I’ve been on this Earth long enough to not put up with crap from monsters, ghosts, ghouls, or whatever they think they are. I changed Kevin’s diapers, cooked dinners, and closed business deals all at the same time. I’m a modern woman. If they think they can scare me, they’re wrong. I’m not running from some monsters. I don’t give a damn if they’re haunting me, I’m not backing down or out.
This morning, I peeled off my covers like an infected hangnail and planted my feet on the chilled hardwood. I flicked on the light and my tiny black lab, Riley, huffed resentfully. He always tucks himself under the covers as if he was my hot water bottle. He’s been my pride and joy since Kev got him for me last Christmas: classic empty-nester behavior, I know. I wiped the sleep from my eyes, hopped in the shower, and performed my morning rituals. Before leaving, I glanced in the hanging gold plated Gothic mirror. It was a gift from my mother. They didn’t let her keep it in the home and so it landed in my lap. When I go, it’ll be Kev’s to worry about. The peaked edges of the black and gold molding protruded out and around to form a malevolent halo. I looked fine—a little plump, but age and good cooking will do that to you. It could have been evening—that perfect mirror time of day when you’re not sure if it’s winter dawn or dusk. That’s one of their cheap tricks, too. Make you think it’s day when it’s night and night when it’s day. I’d been sleeping past my alarm the last few weeks. Or jolting up, caking on deodorant, splashing my face, and seeing the clock read 7 PM.
I glided my hand along the picture frame in the hall. My eyes idled on my Kevin’s warm almond eyes and long lost baby cheeks. Those cheeks! So chubby like two heaping mounds of tapioca. And they jiggled like pudding too. Now Kevin has his own tapioca puddled boy, Jordan. At least I think so, if they haven’t got Jordan too. I peered down the hallway through the dawning twilight. The shadows flitted from side to side in my peripheral vision. Two burgundy rugs ran to the end of the hall separated by a fine bald spot of wood. I placed my toe on the first rug and my head spun. A hot flash of burning embers ran through my veins followed by the frigid chill which made my hackles stand on end. The jagged rip in the rug opened like the maw of a beast, coughing out a puckered rubber pad. The hem of the rug unfurled itself: crooked yellow rows of teeth clamped down on my foot. I jumped back and fell on the floor breathing hard. A sharp pain erupted and radiated out from my big toe. I grasped it, blood spurted between my fingers, and I blinked.
When I woke up, I was sitting
in the kitchen. I don’t know how I got there. It must be their doing. You fall asleep one place and wake up in another,
sometimes miles or days away. My toe was raw and swollen like an overstuffed
blood sausage. I wriggled it and winced. No one stopped their whole day for a
busted toe though, right? I poured a mug of coffee from the hissing pot and warmed
my hands around it. The cream swirled. My head bounced forward on my chest.
Don’t fall asleep, don’t fall asleep. They’re coming for you. A stray auburn streaked
hair tickled my nose. A dreamless black.
A prod on my shoulder, “Annie Bannanie, wake up. Wake up. C’mon, lady, it’s time to wake up.” Two raw chicken fingers tighten around my collarbone and rattle me about. “Annie—Wake—Up!” I open my eyes to the same glinting dinosaur teeth from the rug. I jerk back. The face has a hazy fog emanating from it. I peer through the mist: a shock of black wavy hair, a tulip nose, a tight jaw straining under a baby face, high bat-like wings crescendo over shoulders in a shroud. His nightmaresque figure looks like a mix between a medieval gargoyle perched on some decrepit church ledge, a monstrous Cretaceous dinosaur prowling for prey, and an enormous bat from some failed lab experiment. He has the face of a human though; there’s something familiar about him, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
“Who are you? Where am I? How did I get here?”
He mouths a string of clicks, “Annie, you’re in your kitchen. You don’t recognize your kitchen? We’ve been watching you for a long time. Just waiting. Waiting until you were alone. Now it’s time.”
My eyes trace the room. There’s the same floral wallpaper, the same lacy shades, the same white ceramic fruit bowl. What is it? Something is different. The kitchen is like someone painted it from memory—a counterfeit replica. My veins pump, my heart thuds against my chest.
“No, this isn’t my kitchen. Where am I? What are you going to do to me?”
“I’ve brought you here because it’s time. Someone needs to take care of you.”
“What do you mean by take care? Just go. I won’t tell anyone. Find someone else.”
“That’s not an option.”
“How did you even get in here?”
“In your blink.”
“What does that mean?”
He groans, “Annie, you blink almost 30,000 times in a day. It’s for a fraction of a second, but your eyes shut. That’s when we come in. We’re lightning. You close your eyes and we snap into the picture. Before you open them again, we snap out. In that moment, we can be behind you, above you, under you, in another room, or across the country.” Sharpened pencil fingers half cover a yawn. “And that doesn’t even cover saccadic masking—“
“Yes, saccadic masking. Have you ever tried to look at both of your eyes in a mirror? What happens? Can you see them both at the same time? What about the image in between? No, of course not. Your eyes jump from object to object and everything in the middle is a blur. It’s only when your eyes focus that your brain takes in the image.”
“So even when your eyes are open, you aren’t really seeing unless your eyes are fixed on an object. When you’re looking around we live in the in between. We sit in the middle. We’ll be watching TV with you. You’ll look over at the clock and we’re the black blur in the interim. You’ll never see us even with your eyes wide open. Unless we want you to that is. And when you blink or your eyes flitter, we act.”
“Yes, act. Move things mainly.” He chortles. “For my last patient, I moved her keys. I know, I know, so juvenile. She’d put them in her purse and I’d put them on the dresser. She’d put them in her pocket and I’d put them in the freezer. She’d put them in a bowl and I’d lock them in the trunk. By the end, she was yanking her hair out by the handful!”
“What are you going to do with—me?” I crack.
“I honestly haven’t decided yet. It depends on how I’m feeling. I might move all of your furniture an inch to the left every day. I might pile newspapers, Tupperware, bed bugs, gardening tools, ceiling high until you suffocate. I might even move you.” He interlocks his fingers and rests them on the table. “I could put you on a bus to Gary or just drop you off on a dirt patch in Hyderabad. Like I said, it depends on how I’m feeling.”
“But why? Why me?”
“Oh, the fun of it, of course. Imagine my position. You tripping over your shoe laces fracturing your spine. Forgetting to relieve yourself and pissing your pants in a Denny’s. Bashing your car into a street lamp that just happens to leap in your way. It’s hilarious! Better than reality TV.”
“Please, don’t. I’ve done nothing to you.”
“Bannanie—we’re past that. I’ve been working on sleep patterns, spinning, brain fog, moving tiny objects. Starting small lets us slip into your nooks and crannies. And the best part, Annie, the best part is they think it’s you!”
“Your family, your friends, doctors. They’ll think you’re losing it, old timer. Humans love to blame the victim. Makes life so much easier.” He raises his voice an octave, “‘Annie’s losing it.’ ‘She’s always an hour late’ ‘She’s asked me to explain email twenty times’ ‘She leaves her purse at the grocery store’ ‘She’s past due on her bills’. Slowly, but surely they’ll all leave and you’ll be alone—with me.”
He jerks his body across the table, grasping for my hands. I whip them into my lap, folding the first into a fist and then cupping it with the second protectively.
I give him my nastiest sneer, “Leave my house! This isn’t my kitchen. Bring me back to my kitchen!”
“Calm down, Annie!”
“Who are you even?”
“I’m Al. And I don’t have hours to babysit and explain myself. I do have a couple things I’d like you to do. A deal of sorts. Maybe do me few favors, I’ll leave you alone.”
My throat tightens, “What favors?”
“Oh a few tiny things. Should be no trouble at all since, you know, you keep telling everyone you’re ‘fine’. Eat your breakfast.” He snaps his claws making the sound of dog paws sliding across linoleum.
A bowl of fresh cottage cheese lined with plump peaches appears on the table. Next to it is a brimming coffee mug smelling of hazelnut and home.
My stomach gurgles. “Seriously?”
He gives a knowing smile, “Seriously.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s from your own fridge. What could be wrong with it?”
I bite into my nail with one hand while I pick up the spoon in the other. I balance each bite with peach and cottage cheese. I scrape the bottom and lick the spoon clean. Then I start in on the coffee. The cream is a humid cavern with dancing foggy wisps. I slam the mug down with a resounding thud. A top ten breakfast—not for showmanship or style, just for the quality of ingredients.
I quake, “Will…will you leave me alone now?”
“What do you mean?”
“I ate it.” I blink.
He nods downward with his eyes.
“Annie, I wish you’d eat.”
“What do you mean?” I look down and an identical bowl is piled in front me. A second mug steams on the side.
“How?” I whisper. “I just ate.”
Al looks at me stunned. “Annie, are you serious? You sat there watching a fly buzz around the kitchen. You didn’t even touch your food. Be reasonable.”
Could that be possible? The aftertaste of hazelnut and peach sits on my tongue. My stomach rebels, tossing, nauseous, yet demanding sustenance.
“Have a few bites…for me.”
“For me? I don’t even know you.” Do I know him? I lift a glob and insert the paste in my mouth. I chew and chew and chew. Then swallow. Once again. Chew and chew and chew. Then swallow. I smush the peaches down and cake the cheese to the bowl’s side. The mixture thins.
“Please, just a few more bites.”
I lift the spoon to try to scrape up the remnants and I feel I’m in the middle of a tempest. My stomach turns, a migraine descends, I spin and spin. I steady my head in my hands.
“Please, I don’t want it. Make it stop. I’m fine. I told you I’m fine.”
“You haven’t touched your meal. We talked about trying. Otherwise, you know, I’ll be around forever. I’ll eek out a few laughs at your expense. Then I’ll dump your body in a compost heap or something.” He turns and flicks a bit of lint from his wing.
A third identical bowl and mug are cemented to the table.
“I can’t. I just cant. I’ll be sick.”
“We had a deal.” An almost imperceptible contrition shines in his eye. Why would he care?
“Let me stop. What’s it to you?”
“It’s for your own good. Believe me. You must know I’m trying to help.”
I rub my watery eyes.
“One bite, Annie. One bite.”
I push the curds through my pursed lips, my tongue laps the creamy mixture around, over chewing, masticating until it’s more liquid than solid, I suck it back and forth between my teeth like flossing mucus, try to swallow once, gag. Hold it down Annie, be the cow and cud, swallow hard, hold every muscle in your body, and it stays. Thank god! I breathe out.
“Good, Annie. Superb. Now the coffee.”
“Hey. Wait, what? How did you do that? I didn’t do that. Did I?” My once quaint mug distends and bloats like the belly of a starving child. I can’t even wrap my hands around it.
“What are you doing to me? Stop! What’s wrong with my eyes? That’s not my mug.”
“Annie, I promise you, it’s your mug. It’s from your cabinet. I got it when you closed your eyes.”
“No! No! Shut up!” I knock over the mug and steaming coffee volcanoes onto the floor.
I blink. An identical mug reappears in front me. The floor is pristine. “How’d you do that?”
He wiggles his gnarled shadowy claws, “Magic. Drink up.”
“If I take a couple sips you’ll leave?”
“A couple sips.”
I blow on the surface, looking back into my reflection. My eyes are bloodshot and watery.
“Ok, I’m done.”
“All right. Done. Thank you. I feel so much better knowing you’ve had a real meal.”
He leans over the table and I see his jet black veined wings crunched over his shoulders like a canopy of tree branches. He gathers the bowl and mug in a contorted claw. A gold wedding band sparkles on his knuckle. Do monsters marry? I blink. The spoon grates against the bowl and Al screeches his chair backward. A deep belly laugh seeps from the corners of his mouth.
“What is it?”
“Did you check the food? The coffee either?”
“I’ve told you a thousand times to check. Never mind.” He puts the dishes in the sink, “I’ll leave these for you. I’m not your maid.”
I creak upward and hobble over to the porcelain sink. My toe throbs as I skid in my bloody slug trail. I lean over the white tub and retch, throwing up on myself. Clumps of green and white fuzz emulsifies with an acidic coffee mud. Bile rises in my throat stinging my eyes and I grab my stomach for support. Half of the vomit spray plunged to the floor while a gooey splatter cakes my white nightgown. The stench fills the room. I blow my nose and a viscous string of white, green, and black flies out onto the heap. I heave again, my stomach muscles convulsing for release. The soupy vomit heat vibrates the air like hot summer day pavement.
I hunch over, resting both forearms on my thighs. Covering the semi-digested white curds is a fuzzy film of forest moss. Where did the green come from? Bits of peach are beyond mush. They’re pruned with a pasty white. It seizes. It writhes. It’s alive. Wriggling sinus infection colored worms are thriving through the vomit. They had been gestating in the cheese or the peaches for days and hatched like grotesque butterflies. A swarm of black flies and mice descend and lap at the edges, nibbling through my vomit, scavenging my excrement for their families. I wretch and heave but there’s nothing in my stomach. I check the cottage cheese container. Six weeks expired.
A hollow gasp, “Oh, God”
I went to the grocery store yesterday. Didn’t I? Or did they make me think I did?
“What did you do?”
Al looks nonplussed, “Did you check the expiration date? Are you crazy? When’s the last time you ate?”
“I eat all the time. Lamb risotto yesterday with a chianti.”
He rolls his eyes, “We had that last week! I can’t be around all the time to look after you, Annie. You’ve got to take better care of yourself. Just lie down.”
“Where’s my son? Get Kev. I haven’t seen him for weeks. Where is he? Get him!”
“Just lie down. Close your eyes. Rest. Dream. We’ll finish chatting tomorrow.”
“I can’t sleep. I’m dying.” Another wretch, “I’ll vomit and choke in my sleep.”
“I won’t let you die. That would ruin everything. Lie down! I’ve asked you enough. Enough talking. You’re being hysterical! Are you sleeping when I’m gone?”
Al grabs my arm in his icy velociraptor
claw. His nails dig into me. He tosses me over his shoulder without any effort.
I kick. He’s unphased. He places me in bed and hovers. Those claws, stinking of
vomit and maggots and death, stuff up my nose in an ironic peace sign
practically penetrate my brain. Then another scaly palm presses over my mouth. I
turn my shoulders, rock my body, contort my chest, flail my arms, try to break
his grasp. My shirt rips and one forlorn breast flops out. I can’t breathe. I
look up into the shadowy ceiling cast by the drapes and the late morning light.
I’m going to die here without my son or anyone knowing the wiser.
I awake with a gasp. So I’m not dead. Day has become night, and the house is pitch. I walk, all heels and toes, to the closet. I pull the metallic light chain and open the toolbox. In the bottom, there is a claw hammer. The handle is wooden and paint speckled. The head is a deep matte black with a small dent in the side. I close the door, trying to latch it soundlessly, and rush back into my room. I keep the hammer in my hand, pull the covers up to my eyes, look around, and breathe heavily.
“Don’t blink. Don’t blink. That’s how they get you. Eyes straight ahead. Yep. Move them slow so nothing sits in the middle. Don’t blink. Don’t blink.”
I listen. Outside gypsies yell and play techno, an ambulance wails, footsteps shuffle overhead, a car door slams. Nothing inside my room.
“Where–where are you, you son of a bitch? Show yourself.” Nothing except my own ragged breathing. After a few minutes of silence, I hear someone going through their frantic morning routine in the veiled dark of the open bathroom door. I hear the shower run, soap hit the tile, a toothbrush scratch, peppered with soft morning swearing.
“Who’s there? Kev?” No response. “Al? Come out. I’m armed.”
I spend all my courage tossing back the blankets and afterwards the gooseflesh rises on my ashen legs. I pad toward the bathroom and peer in. The shower is bone dry, as is the sink and my toothbrush.
“What’s your game, Al? Get out of my house. Bring back my son!”
I look in my Gothic mirror and examine myself.
“What…what is this? Who is this?”
Ribs poke through the sheer nightgown as if I’m a concentration camp survivor. There’s still vomit on my chest, crusted over with time. A pancake breast bounces on my chest as I heave. Eyes with purple bruised bags sit deep in a hollow face. Streaks of gray zag through a hairline and lilt downward. Long, jagged, uneven fingernails protrude. A pre-pubescent girl’s legs gawkily stick out from a far too short hemline. Open inflamed sores fleck the edges of a mouth and a toe emits a putrid whiff of rotting flesh. I blink.
I see myself again, the picture of health. I blink. The decrepit witch woman accuses me.
“Who are you? Is this me?” The woman in the mirror asks. I run my hands around the outline of my frame.
A breeze tickles my ear, a whisper, “Are you sure?”
“What’s wrong me?”
I see a flash over my shoulder and I snap around. Nothing again. I turn back to the mirror, taking in every speck of the wall as my neck creaks forward. Al is looming over me, wings splayed wide, teeth bared, fiery almond eyes piercing, and moist breath frothing condensation in the glass. My eyes strain to close, but I hold them open with my fingers.
Al blurts, “When’s the last time you went out? Do you even exercise? Are you taking care of yourself? Obviously not. You’re foul, Annie Bannannie—a brown, liver-spotted one. Foul! Disgusting! You should kill yourself. Be done with it. Why do you think your son hasn’t visited? He doesn’t love you. No one could love you. You think we have him? Ha! He can’t stand the sight of his old maid mother going cuckoo. He’s off with his stepmother and sweet baby Jordy rocking in her arms.”
I shriek, “Stop! Shut up! Stop. It’s not true.”
“Oh, it’s true. It’s true. He nuzzles into her and Kev calls her Nana. Jordy’s Nana always croons, ‘How’s Anne? How are you holding up, sweetie?’ Kev looks down, puckers his lips, and reads his script ‘She’s fine, Cath. Depends on the day, but doing well. Thanks for asking.’ That’s it. You’re a sentence, Annie, a phonic, a syllable, a tragedy, and a nightmare.”
I swing the hammer flashing through his shadow. He dissipates in a blue smog and floats through the crack beneath the door.
His words ring in my head: “No one could love you” “He doesn’t love you” “a nightmare” “Foul” “Nana” “a syllable” ““Kill yourself!” I sit down hard on the toilet, gathering my face in my hands. The handle of the hammer is sweaty, but the metal is cool against my forehead. A scratching starts on the door. One hand, one nail, a soft petting almost.
“Go away, Al! Stay away!”
The scratching increases. It spreads up and down the door, deeper, louder, and faster. The wood splinters. The handle rattles, the mirror shakes, the witch jerks side to side in the Gothic mirror’s tossing reflection.
“Stay away! Stay away! Go. Leave.”
The scratching and rattling is everywhere. The mirror falls from the wall and smashes into hundreds of razor shards. Make-up falls from baskets and a fine powder fills the air. Perfume bottles cascade and juxtaposed scents clash. The decorative soaps, Band-Aids, thermometers, vitamins, everything dashes on the floor. Screeching and wailing coalesces with the shaking. It’s the wail of a mother who’s outlived her child. Louder and louder. I hum with it, it resonates in my bones, I cover my ears, I scream so I can hear myself. So I matter.
“I told you to leave! Leave! Leave! Get out! Leave my house! Leave my family alone!” I turn the knob, jerk open the door, and flail the hammer down over and over and over. The screaming is me. The hammer lands and squishes into flesh. It cracks bones, the handle is slick with hot blood. Al whimpers and whimpers. His sharp teeth cry in pain. My white knuckles clench the hammer as I swing it with all my might. There’s a squelched, black mess on the ground, a puddle of a thing twitching like a half-crushed cockroach.
The tile’s cool on my butt and the cabinet firm against my back. It’s done. I bawl. I breathe. I open the door a fraction and peek through the sliver of bathroom light. The black puddle lying on the ground is panting, not dead. Its breaths are labored, it’s coughing up blood. The pitch of night exposes fragments: a gallon of wine-colored blood, the shining ivory of exposed bone shards, a twitching leg, a compact rib cage, plush fur, a delicate tail bent in three directions. I lunge over the body. I look down and see those pointed monster teeth, but it’s not Al, it’s not Al. One of Riley’s lips is curled over his glinting teeth, frozen in an “Aw shucks” boyish smile. His eyebrows raise and eyes bulge flitting side to side. He releases a doleful whine.
“Oh, boy. Oh, my baby boy.
Mama’s sorry. Mama’s sorry.” I curl him in my lap and kiss his face. And I pet
him and hold him until he lets out a final deep gasp. I blink away tears. They
fall and dissolve in a bloody sea of my crime. I blink.
I awake to a biting wind. I blink to warm my eyes. How did I get here?
“Kev, where are you?” A pause. “Kev?” I walk through the slippery grey sludge of dirty snow. Slush fills my shoes. The wind lifts my nightgown. I grab both ends of my coat and hug it to my body.
“Kev? Where are you, honey? Come back.” I just saw him. I think so at least. My steps echo louder across the ice. I turn the corner. He’s two blocks away. It’s definitely him. The pigeon-toed walk, the charcoal swoop of thick hair, a sparkle of gold on his ring finger.
“Kevin, sweet pea, wait!” He doesn’t look back. He keeps walking. I skid from side to side. Long, stretched out footprints trail behind me.
“Kev, come back, come back to Mom!” I know he can hear me. He stonily trudges forward. I’m only a few feet away, I can almost touch him. He turns the corner of a crumbling brick storage facility. I whip around the edge and he’s two blocks away.
How is this possible? I blink. Is this real?
“Come back, come back! I love you! I’m sorry. Don’t ignore me.” The moon is full and low, refracting through the mist of the evening, casting creeping shadows. Animals scuttle up trees, leap from branch to branch, and fly across the night sky with a furious mania. Kev is doubled, tripled, quadrupled from the lights and his shadows splay in every direction like a hall of mirrors. His strides are measured, even, relaxed. My fingers graze the back of his jacket. He steps around two garbage cans and an abandoned bodega. A second later he’s two blocks away. I feel hot tears stream down my face stinging my cheeks in the bitter freeze.
“Why won’t you wait?! Stop! Come back. I love you! You don’t have to visit. Really. I’m sorry I put that pressure on you. You don’t have to come visit your old, foul, Mom. You don’t have to bring Jordy or call me Nana or bring leftovers. I’ll mind my manners around Cath. Just stop! Talk to me.”
He walks leaving identical, equidistant prints. Simply walking. One block, two, five, six, a mile, and then gone altogether. I crumple in a snow pile below a gnarled maple. I gaze up through the barren branches, wide and strong near the trunk, sharpening down to delicate knives at the tips. I catch a flitter of movement in the corner of my eye and jerk my head. The scamper of a jetsamed can.
A twig breaks and I cock my head in the other direction. A shadow leaps from tree to tree, twenty feet with each jump. It’s in the distance, only a speck under lamplight. But our eyes lock and I peer into his flickering whites cutting the dark. He screeches a hellish noise and my chest tightens. I try to get up and slide back down on the tundra. I can’t make my legs work. I pound my fists into my thighs. They’re frozen, numb, and useless. Branches crack like bones, foliage crashes all around me, scampering and scuttling shadows dart through the air. I blink.
“Maybe he’ll pass over you,” I whisper, “Please go away. Please go away. Kevin, honey, come back. Help.”
The air is crowded with fumbling dinosaur bats. They hum, bumping into each other like cicadas, inundating the canopy, blocking out the sky. They swoop downward, planning their pounce.
“Oh God! Help! Someone, anyone help! Please. I need help! They’re—they’re going to kill me!”
I roll, crawl, try to flee. I feel their arms on me, clawing, scratching, grasping, cutting.
They flip me over and I see the face of a grizzled man. His beard has the dull glow of a dying fire and his eyes crease with crow’s feet. He wears a red hat and jacket with a white collar jutting out underneath.
“Calm down, m’am. Calm down. What’s your name?”
“You’re one of them. I blinked. I blinked. You’re with Al. Get away. Leave me alone.”
“M’am, I’m not one of them. I’m trying to help.”
“Stay away, you monster!” I kick out at him, but he brushes away my leg. I blink.
“Are you ready?” He snarls. He’s the pale off-white of a hard-boiled egg, a clammy, sweaty obsidian. His mouth opens and hundreds of razor teeth spurt outward at odd angles from a chasm of black. A foamy froth of blood, pus, cottage cheese, peaches, and coffee spurts from his esophagus. The filth coats my body.
“Get it out of my eyes! Get it out. I can’t blink. Oh God, no, leave me alone. Kevin, help, come back!”
“I asked if you were ready. Calm down. It’s not so bad.” His red eyes bulge with exertion. He grabs my wrist and bicep in a crushing vice. His hat slips down exposing maggots squirming just beneath his shaved head. Some break through his scalp, wriggling to freedom. I try to pry my arm away.
“Okay M’am, just reeeeeeelaaaaaaax.” He leans
forward, tightening his grip, and sinks his gnashing fangs into the crook of my
arm. Blinding pain blasts through my body. I see ligaments, marrow, and a spray
of looping crimson stain the fresh snow. It reminds me of Riley’s Christmas
bow. I blink. An impenetrable black descends and I’m gone.
I blink. They say I had an episode. They put me in here. A ten by ten cell sandwiched between the dumpy 1st and 3rd floors of the Birchwood Plaza Nursing & Rehabilitation Center. I remember when they put me in here. We pulled up to a squat square building masquerading as a sunny yellow which, over the years, had descended into a weather-beaten off-beige. I sit, as always, in my room. My bed lays in the corner where I pull my covers up to my eyes. The floral wall paper tires and droops from the walls, errant strips clinging for dear life. On the counter rests the white ceramic fruit bowl and above that, my quaint mug stands resolutely. There’s cottage cheese and peaches in the mini-fridge. Riley’s eyes follow me from his posthumous portrait on the wall. The unfurled burgundy rug tickles my nine toes. There’s a hammer in the closet under a metal chain. A Gothic mirror reflects the sunken eyes of a witchy woman. And I remember it all. It couldn’t have been a dream. I’m always waiting for the creak of the door, the whisper of a breeze and so I jerk my head at every shadow on the periphery. I wait for Kev and Jordan. They don’t visit. I blink and sometimes Al is there, feeding me, needling me, looming over me, smothering me, cajoling me, filling my life, infiltrating through the cracks. I wonder why Al came on that day. Why me and why him? When we talk, sometimes I squint and I see the whisper of a familiar tapioca cheek, warm almond eyes, the sparkle of a wedding band, or the mirage of charcoal black hair. Only for a moment, then it’s gone in a blink. Then he’s one of Them.
Nick Locke is a Chicago boy born and raised. For money and purpose, he returned to his high school to teach 8th and 9th grade English. He has multiple short stories published by the Garland Court Review. He writes to discover the beauty in the mundane, elaborate, and horrifying. Personally, Nick hoops twice a week, mixes crafty cocktails, and spends the rest of his time with his amazing, supportive friends.