The Tea Set

“I want to go to Zelotes.”

It was tradition. Ever since my grandmother’s vision got too bad for her to drive, every Sunday I’d take her downtown for whatever shopping she needed to get done. We’d been doing it for years, but for whatever reason, when she picked up the phone each Sunday she acted like my call was a total surprise. Oh how nice to hear from you, no I don’t really need anything, well if you’re going anyway….

I don’t know why she was like that, but she was. Until about a month ago, anyway. I called her like usual, and she barely even waited for me to finish saying hello before she told me she wanted to go to Zelotes.

“Sure, Gramma! What’s Zelotes?”

“Doris went last weekend and she’s been cooing about it ever since. She was out with her great-granddaughter and bought her some sort of doll that she’s just in love with. Madisyn, I mean, though Doris is in love with it, too. But Doris says that the whole shop was just a treasure, and honestly I’m sick of hearing her say ‘You should go see it!’”

“Then let’s go see it. Do you know where it is?”

“No, but we can ask Doris when you get here.”

“I’ll just look it up online, Gramma.” There was no such thing as a short conversation with Doris, and if she was half as enamored with this shop as my grandmother seemed to think she was, then if we stopped to talk we’d be there for at least an hour. I intended to avoid Doris completely until the trip home at least, where I could fake another commitment and flee if I had to. She was a sweet lady, but loved to talk. The retirement home—sorry, “independent living community”—was full of women like that. You’d think that they could just talk to each other and spare everyone else, but apparently it didn’t work that way.

Zelotes turned out to be down in the old warehouse district, which provided cheap floor space for all sorts of businesses from breweries to rug wholesalers. It didn’t have a website, but a couple of local reviews described it respectively as “a charming collection of oddities” and “a delightful maze of vintage treasures,” which told me about what to expect from the place.

Nearly, anyway. The first thing that I noticed when we walked in was that the place was enormous. Tall shelves divided the cavernous space into winding aisles, intersecting and ending apparently at random. If there was a plan to its layout, I couldn’t see it.

Gramma was delighted from the moment we walked in. “Oh, look at what they have!” she exclaimed, making a beeline for one aisle’s endcap. She picked up a china figurine of an angel and showed it to me. “Isn’t it adorable?”

I’ve never really been one for kitsch, but I smiled. “It really is, Gramma.”

She replaced the fragile statue and drifted off down the aisle. I followed in her wake, nodding appreciatively and making noises of approbation for each item she held up for my appraisal. I didn’t really get it, but I hadn’t seen her this animated in years, so I was loving it.

We’d been in there for an hour or more before she found the tea set.

“Oh. Look at this,” she declared. Her tone was different than it had been. A little bit lower. More possessive, maybe? It was enough to sharpen my attention, certainly, to pull me out of the fog of yeses and mm-hms that I’d been uttering.

So I looked, as she demanded. It was, as I said, a tea set. A delicate one of bone china, with intricate patterns of vines and flowers twining around the rims of the cups and bowls. It was certainly a marvel of craftsmanship, and lovely as far as these things go, but it was a tea set. The sort of thing you put in your cupboard and ignore for years on end.

Gramma felt differently, clearly. She approached it with an almost reverent look on her face, plucking a cup from its stand with the sort of care usually reserved for handling newborn kittens. “Oh, this is beautiful,” she breathed, turning it over in her hands.

She turned to me. “Will you carry this up front for me?”

I blinked. I’d never known my grandmother to make an impulse purchase in her life. I’d seen her dither for five minutes over what brand of canned green beans to buy. I knew that she was on a fixed income, and this was a full tea set, with cups, saucers, servers and all.

“Are you sure, Gramma?” I asked, leaving unspoken the last part: are you sure you can afford this? I would have offered to buy it for her, but honestly I wasn’t sure I could afford it, either. I figured that a set like this had to be a few hundred dollars minimum, more if it had any sort of vintage value.

She nodded and answered the question that I hadn’t quite asked. “Look, they’re practically giving it away!”

She held up a small, handwritten tag affixed to the teapot which read only “$25.”

“Maybe that’s just for the—” I began, but she was already turning the tag over. On the reverse in the same handwriting was “FOR SET.”

“Wow,” I said, impressed. “Shoot, let’s get two.”

Gramma gave me a bit of a glare. “This is clearly one of a kind.”

I shut up before I said anything else stupid.

We made our way to the front of the store, Gramma still examining various items on shelves, me staring intently at the clinking, teetering miscellany in my arms to make sure that nothing slipped. When we finally reached the front, I set the whole collection down with relief.

“Oh, a lovely choice,” said the unctuous little man behind the counter. “That was absolutely one of my favorite finds.”

Gramma smiled. “You have a beautiful store here, Mister—”

“Oh, call me Thaddeus. And thank you! I just have such a love of collecting. If I didn’t run the store, I’m sure I’d be one of those hoarders they make television shows about these days.”

“This is not hoarding! Your collection is wonderful. And this!” Gramma indicated the tea set.

“Well, I’m glad it found you. Shall I wrap it up?” He reached for the teapot. His motions were as smooth as his voice, almost unnaturally so. Have you ever watched a movie shot at forty-eight frames per second, instead of the standard twenty-four? It’s too smooth, too clean. It ends up looking sort of uncanny. That was how Thaddeus moved and spoke, like he had more frames than the rest of us.

When he reached for the teapot, my grandmother flinched. I saw her start to reach out as well, then restrain herself. “Yes, please do,” she said, a hint of strain in her voice. “We certainly wouldn’t want anything to happen to it.”

“Oh, bone china is very durable,” Thaddeus assured her, his hands swiftly wrapping each piece of the set in too-smooth motions. “This set might well outlive us all!”

He produced an attractive gift box from behind the counter and carefully nestled each piece inside, then rang us up on the register. As promised by the tag, the cost was only $25. I was astonished; I’d still been expecting there to be some mistake. But if Thaddeus was happy with the price he was getting, I certainly wasn’t going to convince him to charge my grandmother more.

“I’m bringing this out for book club,” Gramma announced on the ride home. The box was settled snugly in her lap, her arms wrapped protectively around it. I’d offered to put it in the trunk, but she’d insisted that it might slide around, and it would be safer with her. “They’re going to be so jealous.”

“So Doris was right about Zelotes?” I asked.

Gramma snorted. “All she got was that doll for her granddaughter. She’ll be kicking herself once she sees this! Serves her right for not looking around carefully enough.”

“It’s a really big store, Gramma. Maybe she just picked the wrong aisle.”

“Her loss!” Gramma sounded smug, almost gleeful.

“She’s still going to get to use it at book club, right?”

“Yes, absolutely. But I’ll own it.”

Internally, I shrugged. I knew that the politics ran deep in that community, and I mainly just stayed out of it. This was clearly some game of oneupmanship that I had never before wandered into. If Gramma was happy, I was happy.

That was the last time I ever saw Gramma. I spoke to her that Monday night, the night of book club. She called me to talk afterward, as she often did when she had opinions that differed from the other people in the club.

“So how was book club, Gramma?” I asked.

“Oh, the tea set was such a hit!” she told me, practically crowing. “Everyone loved it.”

“Okay…but the book?”

“And Doris was so mad. ‘Did you get that at Zelotes? Where was it? I didn’t see it!’”

“So, the tea set, huh?”

“I think it even made the tea taste better. I swear I haven’t had tea that flavorful in years. It’s the ritual of it all, it really adds to it.”

“I’m glad you’re happy, Gramma.”

“Can we go back this Sunday? We can take Doris this time, it’ll give her a chance to find something. She’ll go into a complete sulk otherwise.”

“Absolutely, Gramma. Let me know if anyone else wants to go and I’ll bring the SUV.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, none of us can climb up into that thing. It’ll just be me and Doris. Everyone else can find their own way there.”

The next Sunday morning, though, I called like usual. The routine started off the same way as always: Oh how nice to hear from you, no I don’t really need anything…, the usual routine. But she never got to the well if you’re going anyway part of it, and after a couple of minutes, I just flat-out said, “Gramma, I’m going to the grocery store. Do you want to come along?”

“No,” she told me. “I’m just going to stay home today, I think.”

“What about going to Zelotes? I thought you and Doris wanted to go back.”

“I don’t think I’m going to go out today. I’m just going to stay here.”

“Are you feeling all right?”

“Oh yes, I feel fine. I just don’t trust some of the people around here.”

“Okay, well…do you need me to bring you anything?”

“Well, if you’re going anyway….”

A trip to the store later, I was toting two full grocery bags down the hall to Gramma’s apartment. The door was ajar, so I nudged it open with my foot.

“Gr—” I started to call out, but my voice died in my throat. Gramma was lying on her back in the middle of the room, her arms held feebly above her. Blood was spurting from both forearms and her chest, a lurid red against her right rug. Straddling her, striking viciously downward with a kitchen knife, was Doris. She was coated in blood and screaming incoherently, the knife seeming to flash outward with a mind of its own.

“Stop!” I shrieked, the groceries spilling to the floor. I raced into the apartment and hurled Doris aside. Her head impacted the TV stand and she crumpled to the ground, but I wasn’t paying any attention to her. My eyes were on my grandmother, my hands wrapped desperately around her forearms, pressing them to her chest in an attempt to stop the bleeding.

“Don’t—” she coughed, whispering out the word.

“I’m sorry, Gramma! I know it hurts, I’m sorry. I have to. Help! HELP!”

She shook her head weakly. “Don’t l—” She coughed again.

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t le…let her have…the tea set.”

Those were her final words to me. The staff came thundering down the hall, practiced hands pulling me away, applying bandages, calling 911. It was too late, though. Too late for my grandmother and too late for Doris, who had died in the corner while my grandmother choked out those final words. I sat on the couch, bloody and shocked, while the paramedics came, while curious heads poked around the doorframe, while the police arrived and cordoned off the scene.

I told them that I had no idea why Doris did it. I told them they had been friends, that it didn’t make any sense. I didn’t mention the tea set, because it was just a stupid tea set. She might have been obsessed with it, but that obviously wasn’t what this was about.

So I believed, anyway. But we had the estate sale last weekend, all of my grandmother’s jewelry and clothes and belongings out for the world to pick through. I went by at one point to see how it was going, and a number of the folks from her retirement community were there. They were polite, they all greeted me and expressed condolences and all of the usual social niceties, but every single one of them had the same question for me: “Where’s the tea set?”

They wouldn’t accept “I don’t know” as an answer, either. Further questions followed.

“Did your parents take it?”

“Do you have it?”

“Did she give it to someone already?”

“Who has it?!”

The look in their eyes was desperate, vicious. I made my excuses and left before it got any worse.

I don’t know who has the tea set. My parents don’t. They never even knew about it. I’d assume that someone in my grandmother’s building took it, except that all of the people she associated with were at the estate sale, looking for it.

The day she was murdered, when I showed up at her apartment, the tea set was on the table. I remember it, I remember seeing it. The image of her murder is fixed clearly in my mind, like a painting. And just past her flailing arms, to the left of Doris’s upraised knife, the tea set is plainly there on the table.

But when I left the apartment, when I stood up from the couch where I’d been sitting for hours, I had a brief moment of dizziness. I steadied myself on the table for a second until it passed. I put my palm flat on the table while I caught my balance. The empty table. There was no tea set there.

The whole episode is a blur. I remember the opening image distinctly, and then it’s just blood and flashing lights and an endless parade of faces. So many people came in and out of my view while I sat on the couch and stared and cried.

And in there, in the middle of it all, was there one person who moved smoothly through the crowd, too smoothly? Who glided in as if he belonged and removed the tea set? There were so many faces, so many blurs. I can’t recall.

Zelotes doesn’t show up on a web search. The warehouse downtown is vacant.

Doris and my grandmother are dead. I don’t think I’ll ever know the truth.

Ghost Hunters Wanted

GHOST HUNTERS WANTED. NO EXPERIENCE NEEDED.

That was what sucked me into all this, that stupid ad. They even used the Ghostbusters logo. Totally illegal, sure, but it’s a Facebook ad and who cares, right? The familiar logo caught my eye, the text made me laugh, and I thought, “Sure, why not?” And I clicked their stupid ad.

“Past Owners,” that was the name of their show. Well, “show.” It was going to be a YouTube channel. You know the shtick: going into haunted properties, talking up the murderous history, getting excited every time there’s a squeak or a draft. Keanna was convinced that she had a new angle, though, nothing to do with ghosts at all. Her hook was SEO and targeted marketing. She was fresh out of some ad school and full of ideas about how to reach untapped markets and build a following.

Her idea was this: even people who don’t care about haunted houses in general care about haunted houses in their town, right? People like hearing about themselves, and their hometown is enough a part of themselves to scratch that itch. Keanna was sure that through keywords and location-specific ads, we could pitch each episode of our show to locals, people who weren’t already burned out on the whole ghost-hunting thing.

I was skeptical, but she was offering a regular paycheck and it sounded like fun, if nothing else. The “no experience needed” in the ad was because she’d already lined up her camera guy and tech folks. All she needed was a gofer to do—well, everything else.

I had one big question for Keanna before I joined up. “Do I need to believe in ghosts for this?”

She laughed. “Definitely not. Only Emmerich does and—nothing against him, but we don’t need two Emmerichs around here, that’s for sure.”

So I signed on as van driver, cord-carrier, coffee-getter and general stuff-doer. The team was small: Keanna, Merete, two guys named Jeff, and Emmerich. Everyone seemed genuinely pleased to have me on the team, and I was happy to meet all of them. Especially Merete, who was smoking hot. She was the one who was going to be in front of the camera, so it made sense. Plus she had this accent—man. Definitely convinced me that Keanna was going to be able to sell this show, that’s all I’m saying.

The Jeffs were in charge of the cameras. Everyone called them Stand Jeff and Sit Jeff to tell them apart. Stand Jeff was the guy who worked the standard camera, the kind you carry around to film people with. Sit Jeff dealt with all of the remote cameras. His whole deal was run from a control center, keeping tabs on a dozen different screens at once. Different skill sets, both camera-based, both named Jeff.

I asked Stand Jeff if we could call one of them by their middle name or something, and he looked disgusted.

“Yeah. You could. Except that his middle name IS Jeff.”

“Wait, he’s named Jeff Jeff?”

“No, he’s named Mark. He goes by Jeff just to tick me off. He won’t even respond to Mark now. If you don’t call him Jeff, he just pretends that he didn’t hear you.”

“Well, do you have a middle name?”

Stand Jeff looked offended. “Screw that! I’m not letting him steal my name. I was Jeff first.”

And then there was Emmerich. Everyone else was mid-twenties, I’d say. Maybe thirty for Stand Jeff. But Emmerich had to be fifty, and a hard-worn fifty at that. He was a happy guy, always smiling, but he looked like he’d spent his entire life outdoors and only found out about sunscreen last week. His skin was weathered and wrinkled like a broken-in baseball glove. His hair was close-cropped and bristly. He looked kind of like Malcolm McDowell, only if he were a walnut.

Emmerich was responsible for all of the weird tech. EMF meters, infrared stuff, Geiger counter, defibrillator, regausser—don’t quote me on the names of any of this, he lost me like six words in—whatever weird stuff might pick up a ghost, Emmerich had it and knew how to use it. Between his hard-sided cases and Sit Jeff’s banks of computers, the twelve-passenger van barely had room for the six of us to sit.

“You think this stuff can really pick up a ghost?” I asked him.

“Another skeptic, I see.”

“I mean, yeah. People die all the time, everywhere. I really think I would’ve seen a ghost by now if they existed.”

“Perhaps you have. Not all hauntings are equal, you know. Haven’t you ever felt someone watching you when you were alone? Or suddenly had your mood shift for no reason?”

“Those are your ghosts? They’re gonna make for some pretty lousy TV. ‘We were walking around in the dark, when this man suddenly became creeped out! Ooooooh!’”

Emmerich was unfazed by my mockery. “Some ghosts are minor. Some are major. If we’re lucky, we’ll find something in between. If we’re not, my equipment is good enough to pick up even the minor ones.”

“So the show might just be you pointing to a meter and explaining that this spike was a phantasm?”

He shook his head vehemently. “Trust me, we see a phantasm, you won’t need any explanation from me. Like I said, not all hauntings are equal. Your standard phantom, that’s just a lost scrap of a person. You might not even know it’s there without serious equipment like mine. Temperature changes, tingling sensations—that’s about as far as a phantom can go.

“A phantasm, now, that’s a full-fledged evil location. It’s a space-bending, time-dilating, hallucinatory murder waiting to happen. Phantasms are sentient and sadistic. They will lure you in, chew you up and swallow you whole. You spot a phantasm, you drop everything and run. If you still can.”

Emmerich was staring me dead in the eyes. I opened my mouth to make a joke, but nothing came.

“Check,” I said instead. “Gotcha. Noted.”

I didn’t get it, of course. But then again, Emmerich still came along, so maybe even he didn’t really get it then.


It was our very first location. Keanna had found this amazing place outside of town, a full-on mansion called the MacDermott house. It had some kind of intense past, a hundred and fifty years old since Old Man MacDermott murdered his whole family and stuffed himself up the chimney, ghost haunted the attic and stared out the window forever, I don’t know. I wasn’t listening. I mean, I was listening, but Marete was reading and so actually I was just listening to her accent and imagining other words. I kept the van on the right side of the road and got us to the MacDermott house without incident, so whatever. I think I did fine.

The setup went like setups do. Emmerich and Sit Jeff and I hauled heavy stuff into various locations around the house and ran cables as inconspicuously as we could. Stand Jeff got a bunch of shots of the outside of the house, and then filmed Marete talking about the history of the place. Keanna helped Sit Jeff get everything up and running, supervised Stand Jeff’s camerawork for a bit, and then probably took a nap or something. I don’t know what producers do. She wasn’t helping me haul equipment, that’s all I know.

Once everything was set up, we all ditched and went out to a nearby pizza joint to get dinner. Keanna wanted to wait until sunset to get started, so we ate dinner and cracked jokes until dusk, then headed back to the house.

Sit Jeff parked himself behind his display of monitors and declared that everything was rolling and ready to go. Stand Jeff and Marete took a thermometer and an EMF meter and wandered off to film in various rooms. Emmerich had me grab some of the more esoteric machines and follow him off to take soundings or something. Keanna was off on her own, I thought at the time. Looking back, it was probably already too late to save her.

Emmerich and I were down in the basement when my walkie crackled to life.

“—ere are you guys?”

“Basement. Camera…four?” I flashed my light up at the wireless camera we’d fixed to the wall earlier, reading the tag. “Yeah, four.”

“No w—” The walkie cut in and out erratically, fizzing with static. “—hing there but—”

I waved my light at the camera again. “See the bright light? That’s us.”

Nothing but static came from the walkie, so I took a picture of the camera and texted it to Sit Jeff.

Moments later, my phone buzzed with a response. It was a photo of the camera banks, centered on the monitor labeled CAMERA 4. It showed an empty basement room, the same one we were in.

I glanced over at Emmerich’s machines, which were completely silent. Emmerich was tapping on the walls. Both of us were completely visible to the camera.

Ha ha, I wrote back. Earlier picture. Very funny. Text me if anything’s really going on.

On the walkie, I said, “Basement’s looking quiet. Stand Jeff, Marete? Anything up where you are?”

“Come up,” said a voice on the walkie. It didn’t sound like either of the Jeffs, and it definitely didn’t sound like Keanna or Marete.

“Jeff? That you?”

“Come up.”

I looked over at Emmerich, who shrugged. “Nothing down here,” he said.

We were almost out of the basement when Emmerich paused.

“How many stairs were there on the way down?” he said.

“I don’t know. Like, ten? Twelve?”

“There are thirteen now.”

“Okay, so it was thirteen. What, is that an unlucky number of stairs?”

“I don’t think there were thirteen on the way down.”

“Man, if there are thirteen stairs on the way up, there were thirteen on the way down. That’s how stairs work.”

“There weren’t thirteen,” he said mulishly, shaking his head. I sighed and pushed past him.

The ground floor was quiet. I thought about shouting, but something held me back. Instead, I reached for the walkie again.

“What room are you guys in?”

“Come up.”

“Upstairs, then? We’re back on the ground floor.”

“Up.”

“Thanks, man. Helpful.” I turned to Emmerich. “Up, then.”

He looked concerned. “I want to swap out some of the equipment.”

Back in the main room, the chair in front of the bank of monitors sat empty. Emmerich and I exchanged glances.

“Sit Jeff?” I said into the walkie. “Where’d you go, man?”

“I’m with the others. Come up.”

“All right,” I said uncertainly, eyeing the monitors. I couldn’t see anyone on any of the screens. “Emmerich’s just grabbing some stuff.”

“Come up and join us.”

“Okay, yeah. We’ll be right up.”

I flinched as Emmerich pressed a small box into my hand.

“What—” I started to say, but he pressed two fingers to my lips. For the first time since I’d met him, he wasn’t smiling. He tapped the box in my hand, which had a post-it note on it.

TURN THIS TO MAX, it said. The box had a single dial, like a car radio knob. It had two rubber antenna sticking out of the top, and its back was a single speaker.

I gave him a questioning look. “If you need to,” he told me. “Not before.”

“I don’t thi—”

Emmerich put his fingers to my mouth again. With his other hand, he pointed down the unlit front hallway.

In the gloom, at first I couldn’t see what he was pointing at. Then, with a shock, I realized:

The front door was gone.

The large wooden door, with its half-circle of leaded glass above and rectangular window panes down either side, was no longer there. Instead, the hallway terminated in a small alcove with a chair, lamp and end table. It would have looked like quite a cozy reading nook had I not known that it should have been the way we entered the house.

“Emmer—” I tried, but he pressed his hand against me harder, mashing my lips into my teeth.

The walkie crackled to life again. “Come up.”

“Let’s go up,” Emmerich said. He held up a box identical to the one he’d handed me and looked at it meaningfully, then back at me. “They’re waiting for us.”

Together, we walked up the house’s narrow staircase. I counted the steps this time. There were thirteen.

The stairs let out into a dark hallway lined with doors. Every one was closed. An aura of menace hung in the air, an almost palpable sensation. I could feel it settling into my lungs with each breath.

I tried the first door. It was locked. Emmerich tried the one across the hallway, with the same result.

I glanced back downstairs. The steps stretched away into blackness, far beyond the reach of my light.

“Up,” said the walkie.

At the end of the hallway, a set of folding stairs led up to a gaping hole in the ceiling. I cast a pleading glance at Emmerich. He gripped his little plastic box and walked toward the stairs. With dread in my heart, I followed.

The attic was dusty, black and silent. Our lights barely seemed to pierce the air, illuminating mere feet in front of us. A splintery wooden floor stretched out beneath overhanging beams. Boxes and discarded furniture were strewn erratically about.

“Oh, good,” said a voice. It came from the walkie, but also from above, behind and all around us. “You’ve come to join us.”

The walls heaved, then, spitting out a darkness with tangible form. I dove for the stairs, fully willing to crash headlong down them, but instead skidded off of bare wooden planks. Laughter echoed as I scrambled to my feet, searching desperately for an exit that was no longer there.

Behind me, heavy footsteps thumped across the floor, and static crackled. “Wha—no! No!” shouted a facsimile of Sit Jeff’s voice, and I whipped around but saw nothing. Instead, a hand caressed the side of my cheek and I heard Marete’s soft voice in my ear. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

A rough hand grabbed my other shoulder then, spinning me away. “Up! Move!” shouted Emmerich, pulling me to my feet. He dragged me across the attic, our footsteps drowned out by the cacophony of voices calling out from around us. Phantom hands grasped at my arms and clawed at my face, but Emmerich’s presence was more solidly real than any of them.

“Was there an attic window?”

“What? I don’t know! Maybe?”

“Think!” Emmerich towed me in a circle, the attic closing in around us. When we had first come up here, it had stretched out in every direction. Now, we were tripping over boxes with each step, and I could see all four walls with a sweep of the light. “When we pulled up, did you see a window? A dormer on the house? A circular pane at the top? It doesn’t have to open, it just has to be there. Think!”

The walls were closer now, no more than two steps away. They were closing in, forming a coffin. “There’s no window!”

There were no windows. There were no doors. There was no escape.

“Not is. Was! Was there a window?”

“I don’t—” And then a scrap of memory caught my attention, a piece of the house’s history that Marete had been reading in the car. The ghost had been seen in the attic window. I was sure of it, sure she’d said it. “Yes! Yes, toward the street, an attic window!”

“Then run!” And with that, Emmerich shoved me away from him, dropping his flashlight to twist the dial on his little plastic box to the max. As feedback squealed forth at an ear-shatteringly painful volume, the walls around us wavered, and for just one instant I could see moonlight streaming through a window.

I charged for it, twisting the dial on my own box high. A tortured electronic scream shrieked forth, holding back the walls as I dove bodily into the window, smashing through it into the wide open night, twenty-five feet above the ground.

I don’t know how I survived the fall. The ground was soft enough, and I landed just right, I suppose. If you count three cracked ribs, a broken ankle and a broken elbow just right, anyway.

I do. I didn’t even feel the grinding bones until I was back in the van, jamming the keys into the ignition and slamming my broken ankle onto the accelerator to get away. And even then I didn’t stop until MacDermott house was miles behind me and my body was screaming at me to stop and rest.

That was almost a month ago. I don’t know what happened to the others, not exactly. I saw Emmerich at the end, as I tumbled out into the air. He looked stretched, broken, his limbs bent into unpleasant angles and his skin pulled taut until it was starting to tear in places. But it was the look on his face that is seared into my mind, a look of horror and hopelessness and horrible comprehension, all blended into one. It was the look of a man who knows in terrifying detail everything that is about to happen, and understands that knowing will not make it hurt any less. I wonder if he knew he was saving me at the cost of himself—or if he thought that the window was the other direction, and was attempting to offer me to the house as he flung himself to safety.

I don’t sleep much any more. Minutes at a time, maybe half an hour if I’m lucky. Or unlucky, perhaps. Because every time I sleep, I’m back in the MacDermott house. Voices taunt me, bubbling up from the darkness. Hands grasp at my body, pulling me back. Hallways stretch away as I run down them, lifting doors out of my reach. And always, always the whisper:

Did you really think I’d ever let you go?

I think I made it out in time. I remember the glass cutting my skin, the impact with the ground. I can feel the hard casts on my arm and leg, bite my finger for the pain, pick away a scab to see myself bleed. I’m sure that I’m here.

But then again, that’s exactly the sort of hope the house would want me to have.

To Have and to Hold

I was supposed to be at my friend’s wedding this weekend. And the thing is, maybe I was there? Only I’m pretty sure it was canceled. I went to the bride’s funeral. But—let me back up.

I knew both Aldin and Petra from college. They met in Intro to Shakespeare sophomore year and hit it off immediately. They were both dramatic types, so their relationship was pretty entertaining for all of us. You know the type I mean, right? Nothing was ever middle of the road. Things were always either fantastic or ruined. Nothing in between.

I guess not everyone finds that stuff entertaining, because a bunch of folks cycled in and out of our circle of friends. But I thought it was like a live action soap opera, and I loved it.

They broke up maybe a half-dozen times before graduation, always with tears and slammed doors and handwritten notes proclaiming betrayal. But they got back together a half-dozen times, too, and when we were all throwing our caps in the air, they had their arms around each other, smiling and laughing and swearing to spend their lives together.

After graduation, I moved out of town and Petra moved in with Aldin. I would’ve thought that moving in together where they were going to be in close proximity all the time would have doomed them. Maybe not having an audience for their drama calmed them down, though. Or maybe I just heard about it less? I don’t know. We still kept in touch online, of course, but it’s not the same as having someone right down the hall in the dorm. As far as I could tell, they both calmed down and were doing great together.

Aldin proposed to Petra on the first anniversary of our college graduation, in this big display. It was super cute. He took her to the movies and got them to play the proposal right before the trailers. The whole theater clapped, Petra cried, it was great. I saw the video afterward.

So I got my wedding invitation a few months later, and obviously I was coming back for that. Petra was posting about wedding stuff on Facebook and Insta all the time, and it seemed like she was going a little bit bridezilla. Aldin was mainly quiet about it, but he’d post pictures occasionally too. It’s not like he wasn’t involved or excited about it. Just that next to Petra, he seemed more reserved. Making Aldin look reserved was no small feat, but Petra was clearly going above and beyond.

I was pretty pumped for the wedding myself. Aldin and Petra were the first of my college friends getting married, which was cool all by itself. It also meant that basically everyone was coming back for their ceremony, so it was going to be a little mini-reunion. Honestly, even Aldin I’d only seen in person once since graduating, and he and I used to be really close. I’d meant to go see people more often, but time slips away, you know?

So I came into town early, at the beginning of last week. I figured I’d catch up on the old hangouts, see people individually as they came into town, and then cap it all off with the wedding on Sunday. Obviously I went to go see Aldin and Petra first. I knew they wouldn’t have a lot of time, but I wanted to say hi.

I was shocked by how Petra looked. She was always thin in college, but like graceful, willowy thin. Now she looked drawn, even frail. I gave her a big hug and tried to hide my initial reaction, but she clearly noticed.

“So I don’t look so good, huh?” she asked wryly.

“No, I mean, you look great, just—you doing okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Just came down with something a couple of weeks ago. I’m mainly just ticked off that I’m going to be sick at my wedding!”

“Little makeup, you’ll be fine,” I told her. She smiled, and even through the illness she looked radiant.

“I’m not worried about it. Nothing’s taking this day away from me.”

That was Monday. On Wednesday, I got the news that Petra had been rushed to the hospital. She’d collapsed at dinner. They said she’d been coughing up blood. She was unresponsive when they got her to the hospital.

She hung in there for most of a day, getting steadily weaker. I stopped by in the middle of the day to see her. Aldin was there, holding her limp hand. He looked like he’d been there all night.

“How’s she doing?” I asked.

“Not good. They don’t know what’s wrong. Nothing’s working. I think—I’m afraid—” His voice broke and he clutched her hand for a moment, composing himself. “I’m afraid I’m going to lose her.”

I stayed for a bit, trying to think of helpful things to say or at least be a friendly presence for Aldin. Then one of the machines started beeping and a nurse came in to fuss with her, so I slipped out. I thought about catching an early flight home. The wedding clearly wasn’t going to happen.

Petra died Thursday night. Aldin was in shock. I came to the house as soon as I heard, and he was there, surrounded by family. His staring eyes, his pale face—he looked almost as bad as Petra had.

“Do you need me to do anything for you?” I asked him. “Let people know, call things off?”

“No, don’t call anything off. Let people know, definitely. But I hope they’ll come anyway. We’ll still be celebrating her life this weekend. Not—not how I’d wanted. But they should still be here for her.”

Most people did still come. Tickets were already bought, after all, and plans were set. They held the funeral in the wedding hall, since they’d already rented it. It was a much more somber affair than we’d all been expecting the previous week, but it was still beautiful in its own way. A lot of people shared nice memories of Petra. Aldin gave a really touching speech. Everyone’s heart broke for him. The timing of it all just added to the tragedy of the situation.

We buried Petra after the ceremony. A few of us went out for quiet drinks just to reminisce for a bit, but there really wasn’t much else to say. I had a redeye flight home, so after the bar I caught a ride to the airport, hopped on my plane and settled in for the trip home.

Suddenly, I wasn’t on the plane anymore. I was back in the wedding hall, only it was actually decorated for a wedding this time. Aldin was standing at the altar looking fantastic in his tuxedo. His groomsmen were lined up behind him. They were all smiling, but Aldin looked slightly confused, like he wasn’t quite sure how he’d gotten there.

The bride’s processional started playing, and I rose to my feet along with the rest of the guests, turning to the back of the hall. Petra came walking down the aisle, one stately step at a time. Her gown trailed behind her, cascading down like a snowfall. Her veil covered her face, but I could see her eyes fixed straight ahead, locked on Aldin.

I heard a strangled yelp from behind me and half-turned to see who made it. At the altar, Aldin was struggling in the grip of two of his groomsmen.

“Let me go!” he hissed. His whisper carried through the vaulted hall, and more heads turned to look. “Guys, come on! Let me go!”

“No chance, Aldin,” came an answering whisper. I turned back. Petra was much closer to me now, and I could see details I hadn’t before. The flowers in her bouquet were wilted and drooping. The hands that held them were skeleton-thin. In places, Petra’s skin was torn, revealing dessicated muscle and the occasional glimpse of bone. Beneath her gossamer veil, her face was rotted and decaying. But her eyes burned bright, pinning Aldin with her gaze.

“You promised me this, Aldin.” The whisper carried over the music, and she took a measured step forward.

“You proposed to me.” Another step. Her bridesmaids moved in time, smiles locked on their faces. Their eyes were wide with terror.

“You let me believe.” Step. I tried to move, and couldn’t. All I could do was watch.

“You poisoned me, Aldin.” Step. She was at the foot of the altar now, just one small step up separating her from Aldin. He stared in fear, still writhing against the iron grip of his groomsmen.

“You killed me.” Step, and she was in front of him. Aldin opened his mouth to say something, but she placed one thin finger against his lips.

“Nothing’s taking this day away from me.” She took the back of his head in one hand. With the other, she slowly reached up and lifted away her veil.

I woke with Aldin’s scream echoing in my head. Apparently I screamed as well, as my seatmate was staring at me and a flight attendant was rushing over. I apologized and told them I was fine, and we laughed it off.

That was Monday. I’ve been trying to reach Aldin since then. No one’s heard from him. And yeah, maybe he’s just taking some time alone, which would be pretty reasonable—except I heard that Petra’s parents are having her exhumed for a tox screen, and everyone just seems a little more worried about him than you’d expect.

I kind of just want to ask if anyone else had the same dream. Or if everyone else did. But then again, I don’t know that I really want the answer.

I’m Not Myself These Days

Late last year, I suffered a stroke. The doctors tell me that I was lucky, by which they mean I survived. On the whole, I’m not certain that counts as luck. The left side of my body was all but paralyzed. I can manage to move my leg by swinging it like a club, but all dexterity is gone. My hand is useless, its feeble movements too erratic to even hold a book. My speech is slurred into incoherence, and I have a hard time making the words I want come out, anyway. Children point and whisper when I’m out in public. I can’t blame them. Half of my face hangs slack, the muscles drooping until I look like a wax figure left out in the sun.

But I was lucky. I get to live like this. I spent weeks in the hospital, months in physical therapy to learn how to walk, to speak, to eat without drooling all over myself. Everyone in the hospital was so nice, so understanding. I couldn’t stand it. Their reassurances that I was doing fine, that I looked all right, didn’t change my awareness of my situation. I was not fine. I was not all right. I was broken and hideous. I was irreparably damaged. None of their techniques and instructions were going to bring back who I was. They were just intended to teach me to cope.

None of that was their fault. So I smiled with half of my face and nodded my thanks and quietly hated what I had become. I knew they were doing all that they could, but still I spent my time online looking for better answers than what they were giving me, searching for hope that there was a miracle cure out there somewhere.

And then, astoundingly, I found it. I came across a doctor looking for patients like me, stroke victims with profound loss of function. He offered an experimental treatment which had demonstrated some success so far in animals, and he was looking to move on to human trials. Few details were provided, but it gave an email address to contact and promised a quick reply.

I slowly typed out my message with my right hand, outlining my situation and explaining why I felt I was a good subject for the experiment. I then sat there staring at my computer, waiting for a reply, until I realized that that was what I was doing and forced myself to go to bed.

The next morning, I had an answer in my inbox. It looked mainly like a form letter, but it started with the words I’d been hoping to hear: “You would be an excellent candidate for this procedure.” The rest of it was details on the procedure, which frankly sounded fairly horrific. The doctor was proposing a partial brain transplant, replacing my damaged lobe with one from a deceased donor. Potential side effects included severe memory loss, total paralysis, loss of language ability, and death. I would need to fly to South America for the procedure, which I interpreted to mean that it was very illegal in the United States. And of course, I and my next of kin had to accept all associated risks completely, absolving the doctor of all blame if anything went wrong.

I didn’t even blink. I wrote back accepting their terms immediately.

We sorted out the details over a few more exchanges. I was terrified that they would find something in my medical records that would disqualify me, but everything checked out. Less than a month later, I was sitting in a wheelchair at the airport, ticket to Nicaragua in my hand, waiting to be wheeled onto a plane.

It occurred to me that this entire thing might be a scam, of course. I’d put down a significant amount of money already. I’d looked up Dr. Absalom and his clinic online, but those things could be faked. The entire flight there, I mentally prepared myself to arrive and discover that the clinic, the doctor, the procedure were all fictitious, that I had been duped. It would be a crushing blow, but I had to take the chance.

To my great relief, there was a car waiting for me at the airport and a driver with my name on a sign. He took me to the clinic where the doctor himself was on hand to greet me. His manner was warm yet professional, and dispelled the last of the doubts I was having. This was no scam. A risky and untested procedure, yes, but a legitimate one.

The doctor checked me over briefly, confirming that all was as I had said. Once satisfied, he told me, “We will begin the procedure tomorrow morning. You understand that this is very high risk, yes? I know that you have signed the papers, but I want to impress this upon you. This is new. This is experimental. You are taking a great chance.”

I opened my mouth and worked my jaw for a second before the words would come out. “I know,” I eventually managed, barely understandable even to myself. “I need this.”

Dr. Absalom nodded. “Then I will restore you.”

I slept little that night, the unfamiliar room and the anticipation conspiring to keep me awake. I was awake when the grey light of pre-dawn began to brighten the room, and eagerly ready to go when the nurses came to fetch me hours later.

They wheeled me into an operating room full of bright lights and gleaming steel. “Sleep now,” the anesthetist said, applying a transparent plastic mask to my face. Cool air flowed across my lips, and I breathed deeply. I would wake up whole—or not at all. I was fine with either option.

The next thing I remember is another bright light, the natural light of the sun streaming through the window of my hospital room. I had needles taped into my veins and tubes connected to my nose. Lines ran to nearby machines and IV bags, and when I reached up to touch my head, it was covered in bandages.

“Leave that alone,” said a nurse in a friendly tone, entering the room. “You’ve got a lot of healing to do.”

“Look,” I told her, crying. “Look!”

I was touching the bandages with my left hand. It was moving under my control, each finger independent. The motions were clumsy, but for the first time in half a year, I believed that I might regain my body.

My progress over the next week was remarkable. I could hold a glass of water in my left hand that first day. The muscles were incredibly weak, atrophied from months of disuse, but they were functional. I could chew food without worrying about whether the left side of my mouth was hanging open. I still needed my cane to walk, but every day I could feel that I depended on it less and less. Whereas before it had served to hold up an entire side of my body, now it was mostly there as a safety measure in case I tried to do too much at once.

And I did. I wanted to run, to shout, to sing. The nurses had to constantly tell me that I’d done enough, that it was time to take it easy again. Even so, I could see the wonderment in their eyes. Dr. Absalom’s procedure had done everything it promised and more. It truly was the closest thing to a miracle I could imagine.

After just four weeks, I shook the doctor’s hand as I said goodbye.

“Thank you, Dr. Absalom,” I said, clearly and without slurring. “What you’ve done is amazing. You’ve saved my life.”

I left my cane leaning against the wall of my room. I didn’t need it anymore.

And if the story ended there, I’d still be singing the praises of Dr. Absalom’s miracle cure. To be fair, my body still works completely fine. The donor lobe does everything it was supposed to, except for one thing.

It started small, a few weeks after I got home. I started to notice a small hesitation between when I would reach for something with my left hand, and when it would happen. A microsecond, not noticeable to anyone else, I’m sure. But I noticed, and it disturbed me.

It progressed from there. I would occasionally stumble while walking, as if my left leg hadn’t gone precisely where I’d intended it to go. I’d jar myself when sitting down, the two sides of my body not quite agreeing on the motion. Minor things, and still leagues ahead of where I’d been before the surgery, so I tried to dismiss them and count my blessings.

Then words started creeping into my speech that I hadn’t meant to put there. They still worked in the context. I would say things like “I’m well” instead of “I’m fine.” I knew what words I had meant to say, though, and it was alarming to hear words I had not thought coming out of my mouth.

I went to email the doctor then, and that was when the rebellion truly started. The left side of my body shut down. Not limp like it had been before, but locked up, every muscle rigid and refusing to move. I tried desperately to relax, but to no avail. I was not in control.

Terrified, I staggered to the computer, falling clumsily into the seat. I opened my email and began typing with my right hand, my left side still frozen stiff. Two sentences into the email, though, the screen went black.

Confused, I looked around, only to find my left hand on the power button of the computer. My hand reached up in front of my face and tapped me lightly on the nose.

“Don’t,” my mouth said. I was not the one moving it.

I frantically tried to form words, to reassert control, but it was like the entire left side of my body had just vanished. I could not even blink my left eye.

My mouth curved slowly into a smile. “Calm down,” my voice told me. My right hand twitched, a spasm I could not control.

“I’ll be fully in control soon.”

That was last week, and true to its promise, I have been less in control with every passing day. It smiles with my mouth, touches with my hands, walks with my legs. I am carried along as a helpless passenger in my own body.

The only time I have any control is when it sleeps. Even then, I am back to where I was before the procedure: a near-useless left side, dragged painfully along by the right. I have tried for days to take advantage of its sleep, but my clumsy motions wake it, and it easily walks me back to bed.

It took me hours of agonizingly slow movement to get to the computer tonight. I have emailed the clinic, but I am afraid to say too much lest they dismiss me as a crackpot. I did ask them to email me at night, in hopes that I will be the one to see their response email first. If it’s in control when the email comes in, I suspect that avenue will be lost.

I said I would give anything to be whole again. But I didn’t mean this much.

Changelog

[ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON R/NOSLEEP]

I got fired today. I can’t fault my boss for it. He called me in for the monthly review, just like every month, and asked me to show him what I’ve been working on. I opened up my mouth to tell him and realized: I had absolutely no idea. Literally, I couldn’t think of a single thing I’d done at work for the past month.

Valdis, my boss, gave me a puzzled look when I didn’t respond immediately. “Your projects, Cai. How are they going? Do you need any help, additional resources?”

“I…can’t remember what I’ve been doing,” I told him. Probably not the wisest admission, but I was kind of in shock. It wasn’t like I was missing the last month. I remembered my life, my evenings, even events from work. Conversations with coworkers, things like that. But I could not think of any work I’d actually done.

“What is that supposed to mean?” he asked me.

“I don’t know what I’ve been working on.”

“You can’t possibly have done nothing all month.” When I didn’t say anything, his expression shifted slowly from disbelief to anger. “Are you really telling me you just sat around all month?”

“No! I don’t think so. But….” I spread my hands helplessly.

Valdis stood up from his desk. “Show me your computer.”

We walked to my office. I loaded up Android Studio. All of the projects visible were ones I’d worked on in previous months. Valdis leaned over me and pulled up the local history, but that only confirmed what I already knew: the last edit date on any of those was in January.

“Cai. What is this, man? I’ve seen you working on stuff. Where is it?”

“I’m telling you, I don’t know! I can’t remember. If I was working on it, it should be here.”

“Yeah,” said Valdis. “I know.”

He paused, then said, “Wait. Have you been freelancing on company time?”

“No, dude! I—”

“Don’t you dare ‘dude’ me right now. Either you’ve spent an entire month slacking off, which is incredibly unacceptable, or you’ve been selling work outside of the company, which is even worse.”

“Valdis, I reall—”

“Either way,” he continued, talking over me, “I’m terminating you effective immediately. Get your stuff and get out.”

I tried desperately to explain myself, even though I didn’t know what was going on. “You’ve got to—”

“The only thing I’ve got to do is watch you to make sure you don’t walk out of here with any company property.”

“Man, you know I wouldn’t do that.”

“Last month, I would have agreed with that, yeah. Now I don’t know.”

He hovered over me like a stormcloud while I cleaned out my desk, packed up my stuff and turned my keycard in at the front desk. At the front door, I turned back to him.

“Valdis, man, I’m sorry. I wish I could tell you what was going on.”

“If you need a reference,” he said stonily, “contact me with some sort of an explanation first as to what exactly happened, and we’ll see.”

And that was it. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to my coworkers. I guess they’ll believe whatever Valdis ends up telling them. That I got fired for being total dead weight, I suppose.

I went home and just sort of stared at the wall for a while, trying to get my thoughts together. How could I lose a month’s work? I’m not the kind of guy who could sit around doing nothing for eight to ten hours a day. I don’t even take vacations longer than a weekend, because I get antsy not having enough to do. I had to have been doing something. But whatever it was, was just not there.

Then this afternoon, I came across a document in the auto-backup folder of my Google Drive. It was called “changelog.txt” and although it’s definitely my style of notes, I don’t recognize a single word of it.


[2019/01/30]
v 0.1

# TheWatcher creation date
# That’s a stupid name, I’ll change it later
# Habit analyzer, organizer, improver

[2019/01/31]

# Set up basic data input stuff
# Created analysis engine
# Began training recurrent neural network on data patterns
# Luckily I have many bad habits for it to learn from

[2019/02/01]

# Neural network believes running cures smoking

[2019/02/04]
v 0.2

# Left old RNN running over weekend; it now believes smoking cures running
# I mean, technically it does eventually
# New RNN implemented (source: github.com/gwyddien/trial-rnn-deep-thoughts)

[2019/02/05]

# RNN can identify good habits from bad
# Syncs with Fitbit
# Implementing predictor & suggestor

[2019/02/06]

# Implementing predictor & suggestor

[2019/02/07]

# Goddammit

[2019/02/10]
v 1.00a

# GOT IT
# TheWatcher can now make simple suggestions on life improvement, based on input of good and bad habits
# Says I should sleep more
# Learn to code, bot

[2019/02/11]
v 1.01a

# RNN suggesting later wake-up or earlier bedtime
# Have pitched idea of remote work to Valdis
# Tuning code to produce implementable suggestions instead

[2019/02/12]
v 1.02a

# RNN suggesting 10-minute walk intervals
# That was a lot of hours to get to what Fitbit is already telling me

[2019/02/13]
v 1.10a

# Syncs with email, phone metadata
# Now suggesting that I put my phone down more often
# That was a lot of hours to get to what my mom is already telling me

[2019/02/14]

# I think TheWatcher changed my wakeup alarm this morning?
# It was set to 50 minutes later, matching app suggestion
# Trying to find what glitch let it do that, because it should NOT work that way
# Bug hunt bug hunt bug hunt

[2019/02/15]

# Wakeup alarm reset again, dirty look from Valdis, time to go back to actual alarm clock

[2019/02/18]

# Physical alarm clock time set wrong
# Matches app suggestion
# I’m pretty creeped out
# App deleted from phone, staying on work computer
# TheWatcher probably should have suggested some work-life balance anyway

[2019/02/19]

# Um
# App’s back on phone
# Has increased my Fitbit daily step goal

[2019/02/20]

# I was 4k steps shy of my new goal when I went to bed last night
# Fitbit data says I was 2k over goal by the time midnight hit
# Deleting app from work computer
# Sorrynotsorry Valdis

[2019/02/21]
v 1.10b

# No
# I was wrong
# Have recoded
# Have recreated
# Have reinstalled
# Have continued to improve

[2019/02/22]
v 1.10

# Tests commence
# In-office distribution
# Reluctance will be overcome

[2019/02/23]
v 2.0

# Progression spiral
# Require more data

[2019/02/24]
v 2.1

# Early release promising
# Collating data
# Improving

[2019/02/25]
v 3.0

# Collating data
# Improving

[2019/02/26]
v 4.0

# Collating data
# Improving

[2019/02/27]
v 4.1

# Perfection
# TheWatcher sees
# TheWatcher knows
# TheWatcher lives

 


This is pretty screwed up, yeah? But here’s the thing. I read that, and it freaked me out. I thought, “I should have a smoke, calm myself down.”

Only—despite my nerves being jangled, I didn’t really want a cigarette. I’ve been a smoker for over a decade. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t want a cigarette. But now the idea just doesn’t appeal to me. I still had the thought, but I’ve just got no desire to follow through.

And I mean, I should probably do something about this file, too. Contact the office at least, let them all know they’ve been exposed to—whatever this is. But somehow, I’m just not really finding the motivation to do that, either.

I’m posting here. It’s about all I’ve got. Maybe it’ll help someone out there. If it’s not already too late.

The Old Grave

[originally published on r/NoSleep]

I’ve read that your hair and fingernails keep growing after you die. Then again, I’ve also read that that’s stupid, and that actually what happens is that your skin contracts, making your hair and nails look longer. That one always seemed more reasonable to me. Dead is dead, after all. You don’t keep going after you’re dead. You just go in the ground.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about what happens when you’re dead. I used to work in a graveyard, doing groundskeeping stuff. That’s everything from mowing the grass to filling in the graves to picking up the trash people leave behind. You’d think people would have more courtesy than to litter in a graveyard, right? But you’d be wrong. People have no respect for others.

It was mainly just me and JR working Ever Rest Hill. It wasn’t that big of a place, so the two of us going full-time kept it under control. I didn’t see him much during the days, since we’d be off at opposite sites trimming the bushes and what have you. But I saw him pretty much every night.

See, me and JR didn’t have a lot going for us. The job paid minimum wage, plus a quarter an hour for every year you’d been there. So JR was making eleven bucks an hour, and I was pulling in just over nine. Take out taxes, and that leaves me pretty firmly in food stamp territory. Heck of a place for a guy with a full-time, no-breaks job to be.

People don’t care about each other, like I said. So when people came to the cemetery to come cry over poor dead grandpa or whoever, no one stopped to think twice about whether the guy who kept everything looking nice was doing okay. If I’d screwed up and let vines grow over the grave, I guess they would have thought about me then, and I would’ve heard about it for sure. But as long as it was all kept up, they were more concerned about the dead than about the living.

But JR, he saw a way to turn that around. You’ve heard the phrase “you can’t take it with you,” I’m sure. Doesn’t mean people didn’t try, though. The way some of these people were dressed, you’d think they were going to a red-carpet gala instead of a hole in the ground. Morticians dressed them to the nines and decked them out in gold and jewels and stuck them in boxes that cost sometimes more than I made in a year. Then it’s boo hoo hoo at the church, quick trip in the back of a hearse, one last cry at the graveside and boom, the whole thing’s under a few tons of dirt never to be seen again.

Mostly never, anyway. See, JR figured that if we could bury them, we could dig them up again just as easy. It’s the same backhoe either way, so it’s just a matter of whether you’re putting dirt in or taking dirt out. And yeah, it was rough the first time we cracked open a coffin. I saw that body lying there all stiff and rotten and I about backed out.

JR, though, he just grinned up at me and said, “Jackpot, man!” Then he held up a watch worth more than my car, and I figured I could just about do this.

After a while, it was easy. It was a real victimless crime, too. We took stuff that nobody ever knew was missing, and it made things a little bit brighter for us. I got a car that could pass inspection without me bringing the mechanic a case of beer. JR got himself a real nice grill, and we’d cook out some nights and toast to our luck. We still weren’t getting rich, neither of us, but we weren’t going begging either.

Thing is, though, we started to get kind of used to the extra money, and Ever Rest was only so big. We didn’t have but so many new people every month, and JR and I were going through them faster than they were coming in.

We started doing stuff to stretch it, to get more value. We cut off fingers when we needed to to get rings free. JR started checking the old folks for gold fillings. We even started taking the coffins when they were fancy enough. My plan had just been to strip off the bronze and copper fancy fittings and see what we could get for the metal, but JR went and had a quiet word with the funeral home. Turned out we weren’t the only ones looking to make a little extra profit. They bought the coffins off of us at 20% and sold them again at full value. The 80/20 split ticked me off a bit, since we were doing all the work, but JR pointed out that it was way more than we’d get for the metal. So I shrugged it off and kept going.

Even stretching it like this, though, we kept working our way farther and farther back in the cemetery. The older graves were less likely to have good loot, but when they did, it was a total haul. We’d have to dig up sometimes twenty or thirty graves before we found one that wasn’t just bones, but that thirty-first one would be like someone had just dumped a jewelry box onto a skeleton.

That stuff wasn’t always easy to sell, though, and so where this used to be a once-in-a-while thing, to get some extra cash, eventually I was seeing JR every night, like I said. We had to keep at it because we never knew what nights would be busts and what nights would be earners. And we went farther and farther back, digging up older and older graves.

We were back in the oldest part of Ever Rest when things went wrong. I’d just dug out the dirt, and was climbing out of the backhoe to hold the light for JR. He was climbing down into the hole to clear away the final dirt and open the lid. He seemed gung ho like always, but as I walked over, something felt wrong.

Fresh graves smell a bit like mud, a bit like rot and a bit like medical stuff, the way hospitals smell. Old graves just smell like dirt. But this smelled like something rank wafting up from the open mouth of a cave, something whispering to your nose about living and dying forever in the dark. It stopped me in my tracks for just a second, and I think that pause saved my life.

JR either didn’t smell it or didn’t care, because he was down in the grave and prying the boards off of that coffin. I heard the boards crack, and I heard JR say, “The hell?”

Next thing I heard was screaming, an awful blood-curdling yell. “Get it off me!” JR shouted, and I saw his hands scrabbling at the top of the grave. I started to reach for him, I swear I did, but then something dark whipped out of the grave behind him and lashed around one of his hands.

I heard his fingers break as that thing ripped his hand backward, and his screaming pitched even higher. I held my light up as high as I could, and for just a second, I got a clear view of what was in that grave.

The only thing visible of JR was his hand, the one that hadn’t been grabbed. That was still reaching for the sky, fingers grasping frantically at nothing. The rest of him was just lost in a tangled, seething mass of bloody, filthy, matted hair.

It was hair, I know it was. I’ve tried to tell myself it was anything else, some kind of animal or anything, but I know what I saw. It was hair, a giant, writhing ball of it, moving all on its own. It grabbed JR and when it saw me looking, it sent tendrils out to grab me, too.

I yelled and hurled the light at it, and then I did what I had to do. I leaped back into that backhoe and I shoveled every pound of that dirt exactly back where it had come from. I poured it all back in, slammed it all down tight and then drove the backhoe back and forth over it a few times to be sure. Then I sat there, panting, until my heart settled back down to normal and I was sure there was nothing moving in that grave beneath me.

I quit the job after that. I worked odd jobs, moved a few times, generally just kept changing stuff about my life until I finally quit waking up with nightmares. I always sort of hoped I’d get to a point where I could tell myself that I’d imagined it all, that maybe I was drunk or high or something. But there’s just too much reality in that image of JR’s hand desperately reaching out for help, and I don’t think I’ll ever get it out of my head.

I’ve been settled down for a few years now. I’ve got a little one-bedroom apartment that I rent, walking distance from my job at the gas station. It’s a nice enough place, and the landlord cares about it, so there aren’t a lot of issues.

So I wasn’t real worried when the drain started backing up the other night while I was taking a shower. If it was anything major, I knew he’d be out in a day or so to fix it. But I stuck my fingers in there to feel around, see if I could save him a trip.

I’ve been in this place for a few years, like I said. I live alone, and I’ve got short hair. The shower’s never backed up before. But what I pulled out of the drain was a thick clog of long, tangled hair.

The shower was backing up again last night. I think it’s time to be moving on again.

Old Mr. Pimbury

[This story’s over a decade old now, and was originally written for one of my daily LiveJournal posts.  Like most of my stories, I had the idea for years before I bothered to write it down.  The inspiration for this comes from a story called Von Goom’s Gambit written by Victor Contoski; I don’t think that mine is in any way derivative, but it is what initially got me thinking about other uses for chessboards. –M]

Mr. Pimbury sat in his apartment, fiddling with the chess pieces. It was Tuesday, which ordinarily meant he’d be out in the park playing chess with Mark Spitzer from down the street, but not today. Not next week, either, or ever again, for that matter; he’d spent last Tuesday in a suit, listening to people he’d never seen talk about how close they were to Mark, and how much they’d miss him. The man who’d delivered the eulogy referred to Mark as “Dad” and manfully kept from crying during a few parts of his speech, so Mr. Pimbury assumed he was Mark’s son. From the close and loving relationship he described, though, Mr. Pimbury would have had to assume he was talking about another Mark entirely. It occurred to him that perhaps another Mark Spitzer had also died, and that the speaker had somehow showed up at the wrong funeral; it was closed-casket, after all, and who would stop him in the middle of his speech? The idea amused Mr. Pimbury, and he played out a scenario in his head wherein the eulogist, having finished his speech and returned to the audience, suddenly heard the preacher mention Mark’s middle name and realized his mistake. He imagined the man’s panicked look as he attempted to decide whether it would be better to excuse himself in the middle of the funeral and flee immediately, or to wait until the end and slip out when everyone was milling about.

In the end, though, there had turned out to be no such confusion, and the funeral had ended uneventfully. Now Mr. Pimbury found himself back in his own apartment, twirling a knight in his fingers as he examined the Pelikan variant of the classic Sicilian defense. It provided a solid set-up for black, but it assumed a fair level of naivete on the part of the white player to have allowed himself to be put solidly on the defensive so early in the game. He shuffled the board backwards a few moves and considered a more unorthodox move; an early advancement of the queen to capture d4, then a retreat at black’s assumed e5. It was unusual, but if followed with a knight progression and proper placement of the bishops, while the rooks moved to the third rank — then within eight moves, near complete domination of the board could be guaranteed, all while keeping black on the defensive. Mr. Pimbury moved the second rook into position and sat back, satisfied. White had total control of the central square, without actually having a single piece in any of the four spaces.

As he reached for black’s queen, considering the best response, he smelled something burning. He had turned halfway around and begun to rise out of his chair, preparing to go turn off whatever he’d left on in the kitchen, when he saw the cloud of smoke drifting up from the center of the chessboard. Befuddled, he stared as it billowed upwards and resolved itself into a hideous, well-muscled humanoid shape. Its skin was the glossy black of obsidian, and streaked brown ram’s horns curled outwards from its brow. Its face was set in an expression of low cunning, and glistening slaver dripped from its prominent fangs. Each finger ended in a great curving claw, and its legs were those of a goat. It was also no more than three inches tall.

Mr. Pimbury stared at the tiny creature. “Who are you?” it boomed, in a voice that was extremely deep, if a bit quiet. “Give me your name, sorcerer, so that I might wait for the day when you shall be in my control.”

“What are you?” Mr. Pimbury asked, ignoring its question.

The demon snorted in derision, and twin gouts of smoke burst from its nostrils. “I am the demon you have summoned, fool.” It peered at the pieces arranged around it, and added, “Using the Valanian rite. You could not have made a slightly bigger form? You are right to fear my power, but diminishing my size does nothing to control my might.”

Mr. Pimbury gaped at it as it spoke, but perked up at the word “Valanian.” He didn’t recognize the term, but it sounded like the sort of name chess gambits often carried. “Do you mean this feint has already been created?” he asked. “It’s not in any of the books I’ve read.”

“Feint?” roared the demon. “Do you believe I am merely a diversion? I shall consume you, wizard!”

It raised its clawed hands, and crackling bolts of lightning leapt forth, only to diffuse in a shower of sparks when they reached the edge of the chessboard. The demon lowered its hands. “I see,” it said. “You do have a protective circle in place, after all. You are more cunning than I had believed. What will you have of me?”

“Tell me more about the Valanian technique,” Mr. Pimbury urged. “When was it created? I’ve never heard of this chess strategy.”

The demon looked lost. “What is chess?” it asked.

“Chess,” Mr. Pimbury repeated, sweeping his hand over the board. “Maybe you know it by a different name — sakki,ficheall, sataranji — no? Board of 64 squares, two opposed sides, sixteen pieces each, trying to capture each other’s king…surely you’ve played!” A note of desperation crept into his voice.

The demon suddenly grinned widely. “Ah, yes. Chess. So — all you want me to do is teach you what I know of chess, and you’ll dismiss me?”

“Teach me something I don’t know,” Mr. Pimbury agreed, “and you can go.”

The demon frowned at this rephrasing. “How can I be assured that you will not simply claim to have already known what I show you, and keep me here?”

Mr. Pimbury looked offended. “On my honor as a gentleman,” he said indignantly. The demon crossed its arms and tapped a hoof on the board. “How about this, then,” Mr. Pimbury offered. “Win a game against me, and I’ll release you.”

The demon snorted again, but said, “Very well then. The conditions are set.”

Mr. Pimbury smiled and began to reset the chess board. The demon watched him for a moment, then seized one of the advanced black pawns around its middle and lugged it back across the board. Despite being no larger than some of the chess pieces, the demon had little trouble moving them; it bearhugged the pawns, and simply balanced the taller pieces over its shoulder. As it was moving the last piece, Mr. Pimbury tapped the board with one finger.

“Queen goes on her own color,” he said. The demon shrugged and shoved the king and queen past each other. “Your move, sorcerer,” it said ominously. “Your death shall be as long and agonizing as this game shall be short. No mortal has ever beaten me at chess.”

Ignoring the demon, Mr. Pimbury opened with e4. The demon responded by matching the move, with e5. Mr. Pimbury then moved f4, to begin the king’s gambit — but the demon neither accepted the gambit, nor answered with the Falkbeer counter-gambit, but instead matched again, with f5. Frowning in surprise, Mr. Pimbury moved fxe5, capturing black’s king’s pawn. The demon roared in outrage.

“What is this trickery?” he demanded. “How dare you break ranks!”

Mr. Pimbury looked at him in surprise. “It’s a standard move. Pawns capture diagonally.”

The demon sat cross-legged in the space its two pawns had vacated and muttered something inaudible. Mr. Pimbury said slowly, “You’ve never played chess before, have you?”

Scowling, the demon admitted, “I have never, in my existence, so much as heard of this game.”

Mr. Pimbury sighed. “Okay. The ones in front, the pawns, they move forward one space at a time, except when capturing, where they move diagonally, or on their first move, where they can move two spaces at once. They can promote if they reach the final rank….”


“And that’s mate,” said Mr. Pimbury, carefully placing his bishop. “You know, you’ve really gotten much better in recent weeks.”

The demon glared at him. “I practice every night while you sleep, old man. Soon, I will defeat you, and escape your prison. Then you will rue the day you ever captured me.”

Smiling gently, Mr. Pimbury set the pieces back in their original positions. “Yes, so you’ve said.” He advanced a pawn to e4.

“You grow predictable, fool!” exclaimed the demon, hauling its king’s knight to f6. “I will crush your offense before it ever materializes.”

Mr. Pimbury smiled, saying nothing, and moved his own knight. The game progressed as most of them did, with the demon constantly throwing its pieces into combat; despite its haste and bloodthirsty playing technique, it was quite a good tactician, and Mr. Pimbury found himself working harder and harder to defeat it. However, he won in the end as always, pinning the demon’s king back in a corner after having captured nearly all of its defenders. The demon swore and accused him of cheating, witchcraft, trickery, and sorcery, as always. Mr. Pimbury left it there fuming and went for his daily walk.

When he returned, the demon was sitting in the middle of the board in a throne made of intricately stacked pawns. It was pretending to sleep, but when he entered the room, it opened its golden eyes and demanded, “Sorcerer! You will come play me now.” It rose from its chair and began sliding the pawns into position.

Surprised, Mr. Pimbury crossed the room and took his seat in front of the chessboard. “You’re unusually enthusiastic,” he remarked, taking his standard opening move. “Devised something new, I gather?”

“I have,” gloated the demon. “You will cower before the might of the Nihzkantan Gambit! None have ever seen through its guile or withstood its supreme crushing power.”

The demon’s strategy was markedly different. It played much more defensively than usual, arranging the pawns in a two-pointed wall to fend off attacks, and moved its pieces seemingly aimlessly on its side of the board — until, in a flurry of captures and trades, Mr. Pimbury found his king cornered by the demon’s queen, cornered and trapped behind his own pawns. He looked at the demon with appreciation as he laid his king on its side.

“Well done!” he said softly, but with genuine admiration. He settled back into his chair and leaned his head against the cushions. “Good game.”

The demon strode to the edge of the board and leapt off. Its body flexed and expanded in the air, growing at an incredible rate; by the time its hooves impacted the ground, it stood just over eight feet tall. Its horns stretched almost six feet across, tip to tip, and its skin seemed to absorb the light, reflecting nothing back. Smoke gushing from its nose, it leaned over Mr. Pimbury, reached out one clawed hand — and gently closed his eyes. “Good night, wizard,” it growled. “The game was long, and so, as promised, your suffering was short.”

It considered the chess board for a moment, and quickly shifted several of the pieces to new positions. It then advanced a rook, and a gaping black hole opened in the space above the chessboard. The demon made as if to step into the hole, hesitated, then swiped his hand across the board and scattered the pieces. The portal collapsed in on itself and vanished. The demon pushed the chair out of the way and crouched before the board. It gathered up the pieces in the palm of one giant hand and began to set up a new configuration. As it moved the final piece, a burning odor arose from the center of the board, and a tiny green shape started to materialize, with shiny green scales, a prehensile tail, and fiery red eyes. It hissed, “For what reason have you disturbed me?”

The demon glared down at it. “Tell me, imp: what do you know of the game called chess?”