The end for our town came with neither the promised bang nor whimper. It came with silence, presumably sometime in the middle of the night when most of us were sleeping and those few awake were focused on other, seemingly more important, things. I don’t know who first discovered what was happening, but everyone knew something must be wrong when the internet stopped working. No one in town could get a signal in or out. Cell towers must be down, was the first thought. Or maybe some big power outage in the local big city. Our small town was mostly just a parasite, sucking down resources from the city to thrive in relative isolation. But that also meant that anything happening there without fail trickled over to us in due time. And with the internet down, there was no immediate way to figure out what that might be.
Things for me, at least, took a turn from annoying to bizarre when Judy Calvin stumbled in to the local diner—I was in there for my morning coffee before trudging down to the local grocery to start my shift. She worked in the city doing something—accounting, maybe? But she came in that morning looking pale and wide-eyed. Without a word, she slipped into a booth, sliding her bag and jacket across from her. From a distance, I could see her lips moving, but as far as I could tell she wasn’t saying a word. It was certainly an unsettling sight to see. I usually ran into her at the local farmer’s market, smiling and bubbly with an arm load of produce. This was certainly different.
Lorene, co-owner and unshakeable waitress at the greasy spoon, made her way over to the table with a pot of coffee and a tepid smile. Customer service, always, but caution most of all. Lorene had seen her fair share of bad stuff—being on the edge of town meant she had seen a lot of trash tumble in and out in her time.
“Looks like a rough morning, Judy,” she began, pouring a cup of coffee without waiting for the request. “Need me to get anyone?”
Judy’s eyes swung up to look at Lorene, and finally sound starting to trickle out of her lips. I still was too far away to hear clearly, and judging by Lorene’s face, she wasn’t faring much better.
“Sorry, what now, hun? Do you need me to call David? Maybe see if someone can take you down to Doc Linehan this morning? You don’t look so good and—“
The volume increased, now a frantic whisper that snaked across the surprisingly quiet diner. Everyone seemed to be straining to hear. We were a small town, so gossip was mostly our lifeblood. And this would be a story worth a few rounds of drinks at The Watering Hole later on.
“The road is gone.” Those were the first words I heard. The first sign to me that this was something more than small town gossip. She hadn’t hit a hitchhiker with her car, come across a deer carcass, or been chased by some local hoodlums. She had either had a significant mental break, or something unheard of was going on. I’m writing this down for posterity, so I guess you can imagine which it was.
“I was driving to work, and it just disappeared. It was there, and then there was nothing. I was in the nothing. The road is gone. It’s just gone.” Her voice was steadily rising in volume as she spoke, and I watched as my fellow nosy patrons began to shift with the same discomfort rolling through me.
“There’s nothing there!” she yelled now, then took a deep breath. “Nothing.” With that, she quieted again, back to the silent whispers that echoed only in her own mind. Lorene stepped away from the table, her normally imperturbable demeanor showing just the hint of a crack. “Lucas,” she snapped to the boy behind the counter trying to look busy refilling patron’s coffee mugs that had evaporated under his distracted gaze. “I need you to call Doc Linehan and Sheriff Marsh. I think Judy might need some help.”
“But the phone’s are down,” he replied dumbly.
I had always admired the steel in Lorene, and it came out now. “Well, we got someone here who needs help. I suggest you start running to town and get back as quick as you can.”
The boy pulled off his apron and set aside the coffee in an instant, spurred into movement by her decisive leadership.
“And Doris,” called Lorene as she made her way behind the counter.” Doris’s grey-haired head peaked from kitchen window, as if she hadn’t been listening the whole time. “Get a breakfast plate rolling for Mrs. Calvin here.” As she turned back to the counter, I heard her mutter under her breath, “There’s not much a full belly can’t at least help.” Then she took to wiping down the counter, one eyes watching Judy who only moved her lips in some silent chant.
I looked at my watch. Assuming Lucas kept his pace—and I somehow had no doubt he would—it would be at least 20 minutes before he returned. Assuming, of course, the Sheriff was in the station and Doc was not meeting with a patient already. That would put me at least 10 minutes late for my shift. I knew I needed to leave, but also knew that this was the kind of event Mack would understand me missing for. Or, if not, at least the kind of event that meant my shifts at the grocery would mean very little very soon.
I sipped my coffee—Lorene refilled it without ever looking at me. The diner had gone quiet with everyone waiting for the mystery to unfold. My money was on drugs, then. Someone had slipped something into Judy’s breakfast, leaving her to experience a fantastically upsetting trip halfway on the way to work. But there was something about her demeanor, the silence and terror, that left some primal doubt wriggling in my mind. Lorene took the plate from the window after a few minutes, setting it gently on the table in front of Judy who never looked at it.
In fifteen minutes, the chime over the door rang and Lucas strolled in with the Sheriff and Doc Linehan. I had not estimated them hitching a ride in the Sheriff’s cruiser, though I suppose I should have. For a moment, I felt more at ease knowing the professionals were here now to sort out what was going on. But that faded when I saw how serious the Sheriff looked. He knew something about this, and he didn’t like it. Doc Linehan followed behind a few steps, smiling at the patrons as she entered with that comforting smile she brought to all her patients. We were lucky she stuck around to start a practice, I suppose, when she could have made much more money opening up in some big hospital somewhere.
“Mrs. Davis,” said the Sheriff with a gentle tone that contrasted the determined look in his eyes. “I hear you may have seen something this morning—“
“The road’s gone, Tripp,” she said in a flat monotone, not looking up. Gone was the urgency, the desperation in her voice. The Sheriff glanced over at Doc, both of them exchanging knowing glances. Drugs, I felt the certainty increase.
“I was driving, and it was there. Then it wasn’t.”
“And where’s your car, Mrs. Davis?” he asked, cutting her off.
Now she turned to look at him, a fresh wave of terror washing over her features. “I—I got out to look. See what was going on. I only took a few steps away and it—it was gone, too.”
Sheriff Marsh sighed, then grabbed at the walkie on his shoulder. “Got another one, Jessi. Can you find Shawn Calvin? Have him come down to Lorene’s to pick up his wife.” He took a few steps away, pulling out the notebook he kept in his front pocket to jot down some notes. Doc Linehan slid into the booth next to Judy, her warm smile beginning to break through the layers of frozen terror holding her captive. There was quiet, muted conversation before the doctor began to make a cursory exam. Checking pupils, taking temperature, measuring pulse, all while smiling.
I was truly late for my shift, but that seemed less important now. Judy was another. That meant something big was going on. However, it seemed unlikely I was going to learn much more here. Down the road—and clearly within walking distance—was where the real mystery lay. I left a few dollars on the counter, waved at Lorene who didn’t seem to notice, and made my way out the door.
It was a nice morning—early fall, a bit cool, but sunny and pleasant. Outside of the diner, the intrigue began to fade. I probably owed it to Mack to show up and help him with the morning rush. He’d enjoy the gossip, I was sure, and I could catch up on it later. Being a busybody had never really suited me, even if that was the primary pastime in a small town. I already felt a bit ashamed of my open gawking in the diner. Here was someone having a rough time, and there was me staring at the sideshow.
Hands in pockets, I made my way back towards the center of town and the grocery store where I had worked since high school. It wasn’t much, but it was a living, as they said. Being single, childless, and living in a small town, I seemed like the perfect candidate to move about and try to strike it rich anywhere else. But I had inherited my parent’s house, knew the town, and had a stable, relatively stress-free job, I always figured I was already living the dream. Besides, what small town didn’t need a few cranky spinsters for the kids to someday call Old Witch So-and-So. Live wasn’t glorious, but I certainly was happy.
I arrived at the grocery to see a few folks already waiting outside. The front doors were still locked, the lights were off. Mack lived a ways out of town on a piece of land large enough to nearly need its own postal code. He liked the isolation. But that meant if there was some sort of problem on the road, he’d be tied up. Maybe there was flooding out somewhere? I hadn’t heard any storms roll through last night, but weather had always been a bit fickle. Or maybe just some heavy fog bogging things down?
Heavy enough Judy Calvin lost her car in it? Whispered some doubting voice in the back of my mind, but I quieted it as I smiled at the soon-to-be customers.
“Cassie, finally, can you let us in? I’ve got to pick up a few things for the Town Hall lunch today and—“
I smiled and shrugged, effectively cutting off the conversation. “You know Mack as well as I do, Gloria. He’s not trusting the keys to the shop to anyone. Might make off with all the merchandise, ya’ know?”
She didn’t smile back, but crossed the gravel lot to her car. LuAnne and George were also waiting, but seemed satisfied enough with my response. I watched as George plugged in headphones and leaned against the wall. LuAnne simply sat on the hood of her car and watched the road, as if that would bring Mack in any sooner.
I glanced at my phone. Still no bars, still just as good as a paperweight. It was twenty minutes past opening now with no sign of Mack. He was probably trying to call, but not much good that would do him.
The autumn morning began shifting into a summer late morning. The sun was out in full force and began to bake the ground as I sat and waited. LuAnne and George had wandered off after a bit. Gloria had asked me four times if I could let her in, steaming a bit more each time. Finally she climbed into her car and said she’d drive to the city to get what she needed, but she’d let Mack know just what she thought about his service. I wished her well and waved her off. Now it was just me, waiting. It was an hour past opening and the lights stayed off.
I grabbed a newspaper from beside the door—yesterday’s edition, meaning whatever it was kept even the paper boy from making it in—and scribbled a note on it.
“Mack—been waiting here. I heard there’s problems on the road. Went to check with Sheriff Marsh. Be back soon. –C. “ I wedged it into the door, then began a slow walk back to the diner, the last place I had seen the sheriff. Lorene was at her post when I arrived, but the diner was far emptier than it had been.
“Do you know where the Sheriff went?” I asked as I entered the pleasantly cool establishment.
She smiled. “Took most of my customers with him to see what was what with this road issue. Headed that way,” she said, pointing out of town. Guess you’re off to sneak a peek as well.”
I shrugged. “Mack’s not here. Guess he must have gotten stuck, too. Didn’t know if the Sheriff had heard anything or if he had a key so I could open up for the day. Mack’d hate it, but, ya’ know, people need to eat.”
“That they do,” she said with a chuckle in her voice. “Well, best of luck.” Maybe the last bit of levity I can recall.
The road trailed down through some trees, and I followed it, staying to the side to avoid any oncoming traffic. But it was silent, only the sounds of birds chirping and squirrels darting through the underbrush. Quiet enough that I was stunned when I rounded a corner and stumbled across what seemed to be about a quarter of the town’s population. There was Gloria, gaping from beside her car. Looked like her trip to town turned out well. The Sheriff was there, staring ahead, along with a goodly number of my companions from the diner. Even Lucas had made his way down. And they were all staring at…nothing.
And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. It wasn’t white or black or dark or anything it just wasn’t…anything. I can’t describe what nothing looks like because there aren’t any features to pin it on. It’s more like some deep level of consciousness that sees emptiness and knows. The road was there, and then it wasn’t. The trees waved in a breeze, limbs momentarily existing and vanishing as they crossed that invisible boundary. And we all stared, not sure what to make of this impossibility.
“What is it?” came the stupid question from my mouth. Lucas opened and closed his mouth. The Sheriff turned and looked at me. “Not sure. But seems like it’s got us a bit cut off.”
“I’d say. Anyone walked into it?”
“A few folks, those that got surprised by it. I think Mrs. Calvin said she spent a few minutes wandering in it before showing up at Lorene’s this morning,” said the Sheriff as if this were nothing more than a sudden rainstorm that cropped up.
“Does it—does it end?”
“Don’t know,” he shrugged. “Guess that’s something we need to find out.”
He marched over to his cruiser, popping the trunk and shuffling around. A moment later, with a slam that seemed to bounce off the wall of nothing, he returned with a rope.
He waved to a couple of the gathered folks, handing the end of the rope to Frank Jordan, the deputy. Frank was a good, down to earth sort of fellow. He seemed to be taking everything in shocked, but resolute stride. “I’ll need you to hold on to this end here,” the Sheriff said, passing Frank one end of the rope. “I’ll tie the other around me, and that way I don’t get lost out there.” He ran the rope through his belt loops, securing it with a secure, Boy Scout approved knot. “If I tug twice, like this,” he demonstrated briefly, “then I want you all to start pulling and bring me back in. Got it?” We all nodded, and he glanced around, seeming to make eye contact with everyone. We were all responsible now. The reality that this was something unknown, unexplainable, impossible was all beginning to settle in on me in those moments, numbness creeping up my body like that nothingness appeared to creep along the road.
Frank held on, nodding sharply to the Sheriff who began to make his way into the nothing. One moment, he was there. The next, he vanished from view. Frank held the rope, and my eyes watched as it slowly snaked out further and further. I’m not sure I even breathed in those minutes as the line slowly wound out. Then, there was a tug—once, twice. Frank began pulling, all of us latching on to the rope and reeling it in. The rope felt light, flying in far more quickly than it had spun out. And only at the end, as the frayed end of the rope emerged from the emptiness, did the meaning fully hit us. There was silence, all eyes on the end of the rope lying motionless on the ground, trying to take in everything it might mean.
We had town meetings after that. Everyone gathered together, but no one had any answers. Had about four before everyone stopped showing up—seemed they only sparked panic and hopelessness, staring into one another’s eyes and all reading the same, terrifying truth reflected back.
Electricity lasted a few days from the local facility, but it dried up pretty quick. After a few more, I realized I hadn’t seen the sun. Light still came in the morning and darkness at night, but it was as if we were trapped in a dome where only light seeped through. There were no stars at night, no light of the moon. Just a dim, diffused light during the day and a heavy, silent dark at night. The wind stopped blowing at some point, covering everything in an added layer of unnatural stillness. Sound seemed to be muffled, captured in whatever bubble we found ourselves in.
For a few days, everyone tried to go on like it was normal, as if it were just a long weekend and everyone had the day off. But the longer the situation lasted, the more impossible it became to pretend like this was some short-lived fluke. We busted the windows to the grocery store after four days—people had to eat, after all. It seemed like that was the moment we all made peace with the fact that this town was our prison. Most of us in town had assumed this would be the place we’d die as well, just not quite like this.
There is a rhythm to disaster as well. Wake up, go to the town hall to check for news, shop the remains of the grocery to ensure enough food for the next few days. Boil some water. Sit and watched the sunless sky fade to night. It’s not good, but somehow humanity always seems to find a pattern. And so I lived that pattern as the members in town dwindled. I assumed folks decided to risk it, take the chance on escape.
And I have to hope now that they all made it, finding some world on the other side of this nothing that was bustling and alive and active. Because soon, I’ll be taking that same impossible journey. You see, I woke up this morning, looked out the window, and saw that I was surrounded by nothing. The town was gone, my neighbor was gone, even the oak tree outside my window. In my gut, I felt something settled. Some part of me had known this would happen the whole time. And so I have packed the food I have into a pack, along with all the bottles of water I still had filled. I’ve got a flashlight, not that it seems to penetrate this nothing around me. Some matches, a change of clothes, and a hodgepodge of medical supplies scavenged from my bathroom cabinet. I don’t really stand a chance if there isn’t reality waiting on the other side. But I suppose I haven’t got a choice.
There are sounds in the nothing now. Something I’ve never heard before, but that I can hear as it surrounds me. Groans—almost like whale songs I heard playing that time I went to the aquarium. But deeper, sharper somehow. They don’t sound safe. I have my grandfather’s shot gun and what shells I could find, I suppose that should be comforting, but that feeling of helplessness has settled so deep inside me that nothing seems to uproot it.
I’ve wasted precious daylight writing this—truth is, I don’t want to start walking. But maybe someday this will lift and someone will know what has happened. Or perhaps you’re unlucky enough to find yourself trapped here. Maybe it will shine some light on what happened. I don’t have any answers.
Procrastinating is not getting me anywhere. I’m going to go now.
God be with us all.
So, 2017 has been a great, exciting, and busy time. However, all those wonderful and busy things mean I have not really been writing…at all. In February we started looking for a house, found one we liked in March, closed in April, started remodeling, and finally moved in June. Then I started studying nonstop for my licensing exam while we continued renovations on the house. A little over a week ago, I passed my exam (after around 150 hours of studying!). Hopefully, that’s one of the last big hoops on the road to becoming a full-fledged psychologist! Yesterday, we finished the final large scale interior project for the house–we’re waiting for cooler weather before tackling all the outside work.
So, it’s been good, but I’m glad to get back to writing a bit more regularly. I have been saving up quite a few ideas I want to get on paper, this one included. Plus I have some ideas saved up for Milgram that I definitely want to work on. If you’ve read this far, thanks! I hope you enjoyed this little story. Hopefully I’ll be more reliable going forward. I don’t have any plan to buy another house or take another test. Just general life stuff. Which can be crazy enough on it’s own.
As always, I’m open to any feedback you might have. I feel rusty, but definitely enjoyed getting words on paper and creating (then destroying–sorry about that…) this little town. Feel free to leave me a comment if you’d like.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
This is Part 4 of a longer story. You can find the other parts here:
Toby felt a new weight on his shoulders when he finally arrived home. The long walk through meandering city streets had done little to relive it. It was a strange mix of anger, guilt, and shame that left him feeling as if he had crawled the entire way home.
He slumped into the wooden chair, elbows resting on the wooden table while his hands barely supported his head. He studied the fake woodgrain, eyes following it until they lost focus on began dancing back through his memories. Now, beyond the images of a convulsing body suddenly growing still, he had the wide eyes and fear of the stranger from the bus.
Not only that, but—but did he dare think it?
Could he, perhaps, have crossed the path of the man he killed? Had they walked past one another on the street? Dined at the same restaurant? Shared a seat on the bus? It was, after all, in his district. And while Toby was not one to often leave his safe little city and visit others, he did occasionally let adventure get the best of him. And who’s to say the young man didn’t travel himself? Or, came the thought that most shook his thin defenses, perhaps his plaza was not so far away at all?
His sandwich churned in his gut and threatened to return. He took a few deep, steady breaths even though they shook his entire body. His hand hurt, and he released his head to flex it slowly. This was just what he needed, he thought morosely. It was probably arthritis setting in. Maybe, Toby thought with a dark glimmer of hope, it would get bad enough that he could take a medical retirement and live off the state. Maybe, if he was lucky, it would be so severe he would not have to return to his desk and that screen and that damned button.
The chair creaked as he shifted, the only sound in his silent apartment besides the steady tick of the clock. The light coming in through the windows told him more time had passed than he thought, and the clock confirmed it. Toby stood and walked the two paces to the kitchen, his legs dragging behind him. H felt as if he were propelled more by sheer routine than any sort of will or strength. But staring blankly at the available food, he felt nothing but emptiness gnawing at his stomach. How could he consider food when he was already full on despair, he wondered melodramatically to himself.
Instead, he dropped back into his seat and slowly began taking off his jacket. Something crinkled as he moved, and Toby slowly retrieved the flyer from his pocket. The same words stared up at him, convicting him. He had been an executioner. Toby—mild-mannered, friendly, polite, keeps-to-himself Toby—was an executioner. Those words collided in his head, triggering off a flood of thoughts and memories that doubled and tripled into a chaos he had no hope of sorting through.
There was no rhyme or reason that he could see to the memories that came up. There was his first day of work, walking in with a smartly pressed shirt and overflowing optimism. There were solitary lunches watching the children play in the park under the watchful gaze of their parents. There was a little girl crying in the plaza because she had been running where she shouldn’t.
A date that earned him nothing but a look of pity and disgust. His mother’s funeral, the speaker grabbing his arm and smiling weakly. In the midst of all of it, there was a person lying on the ground, a cheap watch in their hands. Then there were the children who mocked him as a child. Scared eyes at the bus stop.
It was, he realized in an instant, a parade of some of the worst moments in his life. A montage of loneliness, shame, and sorrow. The map to a broken man, a man who didn’t even have the ability to stand up and not kill someone.
Executioner, Toby thought. Just a fancy word for murder. That was never who he wanted to be. That was not who his mother, rest her soul, thought he was. But how wrong they had both been.
Judge. Jury. Executioner. Toby stared at the flyer. The truth hurt.
For the first time, Toby really read the flyer, skimming over the three words that were now a constant echo in his mind and reading the rest of the information.
“Join us: Monday, 7:00pm at the Brewhouse Coffee Bar. Together we have a voice.”
Toby toyed with the idea. It was only a few days away, but would they even want him there? He thought about walking in to some generic coffee house, seeing the young, impassioned men and women standing around. They would be rallying for their cause. Dressed in black and berets, they all fixed him with cold stares. Toby wondered if they would know simply by looking at him what he had done, or if that would only come out in time. Would they turn on him?
He smoother the paper on the table and stared at it some more, as if it held the answers. When it refused to share any more, he finally stood up, walked to the bedroom, and fell into his bed where he was able to spend a few solid hours staring at his ceiling and battling away the thoughts that clawed through his memories.
Once the sun was up again, Toby oozed from his bed and to the shower. Every joint ached and his heart thundered in his head, each pulse sending a fresh ache through his eyes. The water did little to wash away the feeling of stale sweat and dirt that seemed to cake his body. He had spent most of the night sweating and tossing in his bed, chasing momentary respite that was always shattered by the infernal beep of his monitor prompting him to provide redirection.
He turned the shower off early, watching the minutes transfer into his reserves. The sound of water dripping from his body to the tiled floor came with a steady beat, almost hypnotic. He reveled in the feeling of cold chasing up and down his back as the water dried on his skin.
He dressed stiffly, left his lunch at home, and made his way to the bus. It was not until he reached the stop that he realized he would have to climb on and ride alongside the people who had seen him in such a frenzy. Had hey seen his outbursts?
As he climbed on, he noticed they diverted their eyes. Walking along the rows, he had the distinct feeling that the silence was new, created simply by his presence. They must have been gossiping about the events before he boarded, only quieting to protect themselves from the madman riding alongside them. Perhaps some had even made the connection between his stop and the events of the day before. It was not like the monitoring building went to great lengths to conceal its purpose.
He sat and stared at the floor, trying to ignore the feeling of their eyes crawling over him with morbid curiosity.
What if they knew the murdered man?
Toby did not know what dark part of his mind spent its time asking such horrific questions, but once there he was powerless to get rid of it. Now it swirled about him. He had no idea where these people lived or work. Any one of them could have known of the plaza. Maybe the man’s family was on board. His mind suddenly spun with stories of family members, hopeful that their son or brother or nephew had finally turned his life around. Only to get the news that he had been callously, impersonally, unjustly struck down by some nameless machine.
And now, Toby thought, they were forced to ride the bus with him and act cordial.
Some reasonable part of his mind tried to intercede and remind him that it was unlikely anyone on the bus knew the man or the plaza. They were probably all just ready to get on with their days, caught up in their own lives and worries. Unfortunately that voice was drowned out by the flood of a thousand other scenarios, each somehow worse than the ones that preceded it.
When his stop finally arrived Toby climbed off the bus, body a mix of relief and absolute dread. He was away from their eyes, but here he was, again donning the executioner’s mask as he walked through the doors.
“Taking lunch,” he typed to Dana as he transferred his screen. There was a happy tone as she responded, but he ignored it to turn around in his chair.
His eyes continued to pound, so he let them close. The air cycled through his office, a steady hum of equipment doing its job. Just like he did his job and kept the city safe. No point in getting angry at the air conditioning if it was too warm or cold in the office—it simply did as it was told. Just ike he did as he was told.
Thoughts drifted loosely through his mind as sleep overtook him. It was deep and dreamless, only broken by a sharp tingling arcing down him back.
He woke with a start clutching at his neck where the redirection started from.
“And if you think you’re not on someone’s screen…”
He had never signed up for this, he thought as anger swelled. But still he spun back to his desk and opened his screen to the plaza.
“You there?” was Dana’s message. There were others, but he ignored them. Instead he responded with a curt, “Yes,” and then closed the message. Replies came back from her, but he closed each one and focused on the screen.
Sure, he had fallen asleep, but shouldn’t there be some other way of reminding him? A bell or a system message or something? He worked tirelessly for them, but he made a tiny mistake and got no consideration. Someone somewhere watched him day in and day out as he did everything he could to be the best employee he could be, but they had no mercy.
Like, he reasoned, he had no mercy. Then again, he had no choice.
Then again, they had no choice.
His anger continued to grow, no longer focused on the nameless person in an office like his own. Instead, his ire grew for the smiling man in the suit. For the people who loaded a gun but made someone else pull the trigger.
It was their fault he felt so guilty. He was not an executioner; he never wanted to be. But they turned him into one, and then they weren’t even there to take responsibility for what they had done. Toby shouldered that burden for them, only to be punished by them.
The anger was a welcome relief from guilt, and Toby threw himself into it. It propelled him through the day until the closing alarm signaled and his screen transferred to whoever had the next shift. Whoever the next fall guy was.
Leaving the office, Toby skipped the bus stop and began walking the opposite direction of home. He needed answers, and he had an idea where they might be found.
Toby marched through the streets with single-minded ferocity. Something began to whisper that if he stopped, all the energy would drain from him in a moment, leaving behind the void that guilt so easily filled. And so he refused to slow down or pause. If he thought about it too long, he knew he would also fail and crumble back into the shell he had been for the past few days. There was a desperation in his action. That same cruel part of his mind assured him that, should he fail this time, he’d never find the courage again to make this journey. It was his one and only shot, or else he would be forced to succumb to a lifetime of despair.
Toby finally stopped, taking a brief moment to confirm he was where he thought. Brewhouse Coffee Bar, said the sign. With a deep breath that threatened to shatter his resolve, he gripped the handle and tugged.
I struggled with this part (hence the delay), but finally just had to get it out there. I feel like it manages to meander and move too quickly all at the same time. Not much happens here, but I do plan on some fireworks in the next part. I’m still not 100% on the final direction ( I have a handful of ideas, but not sure which I want to use versus drop), but I at least know the next few steps.
This is my first time in a long time writing something this long, so I’m trying to get into the flow with it. I think this is one section that will require heavy editing later, but it serves it’s purpose for now by creating the bridge I need between this introductory part and the rising tension. If you have any thoughts or insight on how to improve this section, please let me know in the comments. Hopefully I’ll have more out soon. I’m also working on another piece that is shorter, so hopefully I can figure that one out and get it up here before too long!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Toby stepped on the bus at the end of the day, a feeling of normalcy beginning to uncertainly percolate through his body. As he took his usual seat, he felt thoughts beginning to tingle at the back of his mind. Could he really be so cold and callous that a day after murdering someone he was back to normal? Toby tried his best to silence that thought, shove it back into the dark recesses where he had locked away images of a blank screen hiding a cooling body.
As if ignoring it would make it go away, something whispered, but he turned his attention to the safety warnings on the inside of the bus.
“PLEASE REMAIN SEATED WHILE THE VEHICLE IS IN MOTION.”
At the next stop, a new person got on board. Toby watched him climb aboard and settle in to the young woman’s usual seat, glad for some new distraction. After the fourth reading, the safety information became far less engaging, and he had already noticed his thoughts wandering towards that locked door in the back of his mind. He was a young man, dressed in casual, athletic clothing. Small beads of sweat stood out on his dark forehead, which made Toby think it was maybe someone returning from the gym. Or something like that. The weather certainly wasn’t warm enough for anything more. The man—boy?—sat on the edge of the seat, legs shaking up and down as the doors swung closed and the bus began to move. His eyes were distant, pondering something far more significant than the passengers on the bus.
As the vehicle accelerated from the curb and back onto its path, the man jumped up. He reached into his backpack, pulling out a handful of flyers.
“Excuse me,” began the boy—he certainly looked more like a scared child now, standing in the idle of the bus. His voice even cracked as he began. He took a deep breath, cleared his throat, and began again. “Excuse me, everyone. I have something I must speak to you about today.”
The bus home was always more crowded than the bus to work, and Toby watched the passengers around him roll their eyes and reach for books, music players, and other distractions. The boy scanned the audience, trying to find some eye contact to reassure him.
He found Toby’s eyes.
“I won’t take much of your time, but there are things going on that the good people of this city need to know.” He held Toby’s eyes for a beat or two longer, then began looking around trying to draw in more listeners. Toby new he had a minute or two before redirection would be applied for such behavior, and he could see the sweat sliding down his forehead now. The boy seemed to know he was on a clock.
“Did you know that just this week, a man was murdered in our wonderful district by the state.” He seemed to be reaching his stride now, growing more and more assured as he continued speaking. “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you heard me. A man was murdered in cold blood by our government. His crime, you ask?” He paused, as if waiting for some sort of participation from his mostly annoyed audience.
Toby shifted uncomfortably in his seat. It certainly couldn’t be, right?
“His crime was stealing a hundred dollar watch.”
The bus suddenly became impossibly cramped and hot. Toby saw, clear as the man in front of him, the body lying on the ground, a silver watch lying forgotten on the ground. Officers placed the watch in a bag later, sealing it away as evidence. He had watched it all go on right before his eyes. And this was in his district? His plaza had been close all this time, which somehow made it worse.
“Of course, such activity is illegal, but is a man’s life,” he paused eyes wandering over his captive audience. A few people were looking at him now, faces a mix of curiosity and amusement, “is a man’s life worth a mere $100?”
Toby’s gut was in a knot, and he feared he might be sick. Surely, his mind told him, the boy standing on the bus would notice his pale features, the sweat dripping in slimy trails down his face, the look of pain and horror on his face. He might even call him out. Did the man know he worked for the government?
Did he know he was a murderer?
Any sense of normalcy that had been building was shattered, those tiny shards turning into daggers that drove through him body and soul. In fact, the feeling was even worse, coupled with a new wave of guilt. Toby had dared to think he could simply move on from that moment. Was there anything more reprehensible than that?
He came back to the message, catching the man mid-sentence. “…act and voice our concerns. We must make it clear that the surveillance, the unsupervised murder of citizens, and the culture of fear we live under daily is not to be tolerated. A man’s life is worth far more than a $100 watch. He deserved a fair chance. And yes, he deserved punishment. But a fair punishment.”
The man grimaced, and Toby checked his watch. Time was up. Based on the brevity and the rather muted response, it was a low-level redirection. But Toby knew that such mercy would not last long, especially not with as many buses ran in the city day in and day out.
“They don’t want me to tell you this,” the man said through gritted teeth. After a moment, he took a deep breath and opened his eyes. “I’ve just been redirected for telling you the truth. There was no trial for me, no fair allotment of punishment. You have witnessed it, ladies and gentlemen. And if you are tired of witnessing it, join with us. Together we can have a voice.”
He began walking down the rows, handing out a flier of some sort. Toby took one, keeping his eyes down. The man’s eyes scraped over him, and Toby was sure he would recognize what was going on. But instead, Toby watched the man’s sneakered feet drift down the rows and towards those seated in the back. Toby released an anxious breath he had not realized he had held for so long.
“JUDGE, JURY, AND EXECUTIONER,” said the familiar flier. Beneath it, he saw a date and time, a location. “Join us,” it urged. “Together we can have a voice.”
Toby crumpled the flier and shoved it into the pocket of his jacket, trying to erase the images from his mind. Trying, once again, to lock those dark thoughts away. But they continued.
At the next stop, he bolted off the bus. Being on the sidewalk, he finally felt as if he could breathe again, and he took in a few deep breaths at the bus stop as people flowed on and off the bus around him. Toby closed his eyes, trying not to see that face twisted into a final mask of pain. It didn’t seem to help.
“Sir, seems like you really heard me in there,” said a voice behind him. Toby turned and saw the man from the bus, still holding his fliers. He smiled softly, stepping away from the crowd and closer to Toby’s sanctuary by the stop. “It can really shake you up, when you really think about it. Most people try to avoid it.”
Toby nodded quickly, breaking eye contact and considering running down the street. No he told himself, some part of his brain focused on survival still. Running would only confirm his guilt.
The man took a couple more uncertain steps towards him, studying Toby closely and trying to get a read on the sweaty, distracted, and distressed man in front of him. “I know it’s a lot to take in. It’s hard to believe any of your fellow citizens could be so…” the man searched for the word, then shrugged, “so awful. To just kill someone for something like a watch.” He gave a short, derisive snort.
Maybe, Toby thought, the man shouldn’t have been stealing in the first place. Maybe, it continued, everyone should just follow the rules. Maybe people should be able to ride the bus unnharassed by such terrible news. All those thoughts sprang to mind, fueling a fire of anger and hatred that he had not been aware of. Or, perhaps he had, but it had only been directed at himself. Now there was a new potential target.
“If you want to get involved—“ started the man.
“I’m already involved enough!” shouted Toby. He watched the young man’s eyes grow wide, as he took a step back and put his hands up.
The man was a boy again, scared of the angry stranger on the street. The fear in his eyes was enough to extinguish the anger. Maybe, he thought, he was just as monstrous as they said.
“Yeah, no problem, man. Sorry to have bothered you.” The boy backed away, hands still up and waving the fliers limply in the air. He took a few steps, then turned and walked away briskly. Running would get him another redirection, and Toby imagined his neck already ached. Still, Toby felt for him. He understood, because at that moment, Toby certainly wished he could run away from himself.
Part Four Now Up!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Don’t be confused, read Part 1 here!
Toby was still shaking, or at least he thought he was. It seemed as if he had done nothing but tremble since he had pressed that button eighteen hours ago. Well, tremble and vomit. He reported in as sick for the day, receiving a friendly note after his status had been confirmed. While the readout assured him there was no detectable pathogen, it did note evidence of recent emesis, abnormal sweating, and mental confusion. His sick time was dutifully logged and detracted from his bank.
Of course, it was not like he could stay away forever. Toby was acutely aware that he had no marketable skills, no connections in industry, and no money to better himself in any way. He would have to return to work the next day or risk termination, which was certainly only a breath away from homelessness and forced labor. He looked at his hands, waving softly in the air with fear of what they had done, and knew he would never survive forced labor.
He carried himself to the shower, pausing at the selection panel before entering the small, glass prism. The options were listed in pale blue font on a white background, tiny images of soap bubbles floating across the letters.
“Daily Shower……..Renews in 15 Hours
Relaxation…………..4 Credits Remaining
He stared at the options. It felt like an emergency, but he knew he would be charged if there was no evidence that he had been involved in some unexpected mess. And he certainly could not afford to lose his daily credits for the next week paying it back. Also, the one time he had been required to use that option, it sprayed him quiet violently with a stream of lukewarm water while emergency lights blared. Certainly not what his nerves needed. He begrudgingly selected Relaxation, acutely aware he was nearing his allotment there. It took too long to rebuild, but, if ever a day called for it, it was then.
The lights in the bathroom dimmed as soft flute music began to play. The water began as a slow stream, steadily picking up speed until it was drumming firmly along his shoulders. It smelled faintly of lavender.
Toby tried to relax. He closed his eyes, taking slow and steady breaths in time with the music. He tried to focus his mind on pleasant things. But behind his lids, the same image played over and over. The screen changed from a generic human going about their day—albeit stealing—to an image highlighted with urgency to nothing. It was the nothing that continued to haunt him behind his eyes. It was the nothing that was replaced by the real life images of a man in his thirties suddenly jerking and freezing, body held in stasis as his eyes rolled back in his head. Eventually, as the redirection ended, he collapsed to the ground.
His chest wasn’t rising and falling. Toby hadn’t needed to keep watching for his report, but he did. He watched the emergency team arrive, provide cursory attempts at resuscitation, and then close the body up in a hazard bag. Toby kept watching that spot the rest of his shift, even as it emptied and the sun rose on the plaza. He was fortunate the night was quiet afterwards; he was also certain he would not have been able to stomach another redirection, no matter how minor.
The nothingness was a lie, he realized. Because behind that nothingness was an empty husk of a body.
He had killed someone.
The words slammed into him again, caged with him inside the shower. The smell of lavender was nauseating, the feeling of the water unbearable, the music a grating screech. He couldn’t breathe—he was drowning in the steam.
Toby clawed his way out of the shower, flinging open the door and stepping out into the cool air of the bathroom. It did little to relieve the noose around his throat. The screen beeped at him, and for a moment he knew it was the chime on his work display screen. He had never escaped the office.
Whirling around, eyes wide as a cornered animal, he stared at the shower menu.
“Terminate Relaxation period? Relaxation Credits cannot be refunded.”
He swiped at the screen, selecting the yes option before stumbling out of the room. He was tired of small, enclosed rooms.
Toby didn’t know what he wanted or needed right then. Everything that had been fine was wrong now. He pushed into his bedroom, the sheets rumpled in the way that comes from a sleepless night. It was all cast in an artistic, almost sympathetic light, shadows deep with afternoon sun. Dust floated in the air, tiny glints and sparkles that seemed to be too peaceful, too idealized to exist in a world where he was an executioner. Toby felt his stomach turn again at the thought, but he knew he had nothing left to expel.
He sat on the edge of his bed, facing the window. There was a tree outside, limbs swaying gently in what must have been a pleasant breeze. For a moment, Toby was hypnotized by the steady, gentle movement of the leaves. It did what the shower could not and gave him a moment of peace, the briefest gift of separation. He was sitting in his room, watching the tree, and nothing was wrong.
Unfortunately, all relief was temporary. His thoughts were like a murmurration of starlings, briefly settling before being tossed into chaos once again. They had managed to rest briefly on the boughs of the tree outside his window, but the slightest breeze and they were off again, caught up in recollection and speculation.
How many people had been redirected to death?
What about the people he redirected. Sure, their numbers were small. But they grew, and he had seen it. What if he unknowingly pushed them over the edge?
What if he had thrown out more death warrants into the void for things as simple as littering or running?
His right hand had begun to tingle, almost as if it had been asleep. He stretched his fingers wide, massaging it with his left, but there was no relief from the gentle pinpricks. Toby shook his hand sharply, hoping to return blood flow. Only there was no numbness, no coldness. It simply tingled, and no amount of attention seemed to relieve it.
Toby fell back onto his bed, eyes closed and hands limp at his sides. Traitorous hands.
The light shifted behind his eyelids as the branches swayed, letting in more and less light. His eyes burned, either because he had spent the wee morning hours crying, or because he had not slept in nearly 36 hours. His mind spun, eventually managing to spin itself into more and more fantastic, bizarre forms.
Unwillingly, Toby fell asleep, where there was finally, truly, nothing.
The sound of his alarm woke him, and he groaned. He had not moved the entire night, but slept with his feet on the floor and back stretched across the bed. Now his joints ached. Standing and stretching relieved some of the tension, but there was a deeper ache that seemed unreachable. And his hand still felt wrong, but the feeling was at least milder now.
There was a day’s worth of stubble on his face, and his mouth tasted of sleep and vomit. Toby was glad there was no mirror in his bedroom, because he was certain he did not want to see how he looked Unfortunately, there was no avoiding it in the bathroom, and he had to meet his sunken-eyed gaze.
He selected his daily shower and climbed in, doing what he could to wash away the stink of sweat and despair that coated his body like a film. Normally he ended his shower early, banking the additional minutes for later use. But today he let the timer run out, giving the water at least a chance to wash away the memories of what had happened. It was more successful than the day before, but he was still stained by the thoughts. There was still a man carved out of nothingness behind his eyelids.
Toby shaved, brushed his teeth, and combed his hair. He inspected his uniform in the mirror, feeling more repulsed by it than he ever had. He was never a morning person, and leaving for work was often difficult. But it was now different. He was not just longing to return to bed. He was, instead, longing to vanish out of existence. Perhaps he could just be gone in a blink, an image on a screen one minute and gone the next.
He shook his head sharply to dispel the thoughts, his eyes staring back at him hurt and accusing in the mirror. With a deep breath, he reminded himself that he had a job to do. He was needed at his office, and he would complete his daily tasks. The thought of his small room, his screen, and his plaza was enough to throw him off balance again. It felt as if the bathroom had closed in around him, crushing his lungs so he could not gather one good breath. An image flashed through his mind, his head swollen like a balloon, eyes bulging, ready to burst. All the pressure was crushing in on him. Then, the world righted itself, snapping back into place like a rubber band releasing.
Toby left his apartment, uncharacteristically skipping breakfast. The thought of food conjured the taste of bile and sand in his mouth. He did grab his lunch, hoping that perhaps he would arrive to work and discover it had all been a huge misunderstanding. That nothing had ever happened. That it was a prank, a joke. Perhaps a system test? He tried his best to conjure alternatives along the walk to the bus stop.
There were five other people on the bus. There always were. And by the time he reached his stop, three of those people would have left and six more would have joined. Each person had their seat, though no one had ever acknowledged their communal seating chart. It was just how things went. Toby boarded the bus and took his seat, sitting beside the window where he could watch the city slide past. Only today he did not feel like looking at anything. He felt alone and vulnerable, as if someone had flayed off his skin and left every nerve exposed. Looking at the city was too much.
He wanted to reach out, to talk to the passengers, but no one did that. It wasn’t forbidden, certainly, but it was…deviant. It was invasive and rude. And so Toby bit his tongue, resolving instead to watch his fellow passengers rather than reaching out to them. He wondered how the older woman three seats ahead would respond if he told her he killed someone.
In his head, she smiled and patted his shoulder, genuine kindness and sympathy in her eyes. The teenager in the corner probably wouldn’t understand, would move away. Toby imagined he would see fear in the girl’s eyes. The gentleman with his paper would probably start by blustering about the cops, but would offer help later, once the details were out there. Toby imagined that man would have a long diatribe about the state of the government and law and order. He seemed like the type.
There was the young woman with her music. He was unsure how she would respond, as her face was always a stoic mask. He saw her reading a self-help book once, so he pretended she would be the one to offer actual help. She’d provide firm reassurances, maybe offer to buy him coffee. Toby’s mind wandered as he thought about the two of them sharing coffee, talking about what life had been like before he was a murderer.
Lost in his thoughts, Toby did not notice when she or the others left the bus. He also did not notice the arrival of his other companions, instead focused on building a life with the woman across the bus. It wasn’t until it came to a sudden stop in front of his building that his mind returned to the present, retreating from the light of his imagined future and into the darkness of his present.
His legs were leaden as he walked off the bus and through the wide doors of his office. He walked down the long hallway flanked on either side with doors. He never saw other monitors coming or going, though he sometimes heard music or talking from behind the doors.
How many of them were killers, too? Did they understand?
Toby paused in front of one door, hand half raised but frozen. He read and reread the notice on the door. “Do not disturb. Level one offense.”
The back of his neck, where his monitoring chip was located, prickled with each repetition.
“If you think you’re not on someone’s screen right now, Mr. Georges, you are quite wrong.” The words stomped over his thoughts, and he turned away from the door. He couldn’t risk it.
His chair was as he left it, his screen idling and awaiting his return. Upon logging in, he saw his plaza displayed. There was a decent crowd this early in the morning, though he noticed everyone seemed to eddy around one point on the map. That’s where the man had vanished, and Toby knew people were talking about it. Who wouldn’t?
But the rumors at least had the benefit of making it a very quiet day. There were no boisterous, running youth. No loitering, no littering. No theft. The plaza was quiet, almost somber.
Lunch time approached, and the routine of work had returned some of his hunger. He keyed in his lunch code and waited as his screen transferred. Dana’s name popped on the screen.
“Got you covered!” read her text. Toby felt a weight shift inside of him. There was another human out there who knew him. A moment later, another line appeared. “Glad you’re back!”
He was slightly surprised. “How did you know I was sick?” he typed quickly.
“I didn’t. Sorry you were sick. I thought you were out on vacation.”
She didn’t answer his question, and Toby felt a strange paranoia bubble in his chest. Could Dana be the one watching him?
Then another message. “Oh, and you never asked me to watch for lunch yesterday. I knew you must be out!”
As quickly as it appeared, the paranoia vanished. He was leaping at shadows. “Oh, right. Thanks.”
He marched back through the long, empty hallways. There were sounds coming from behind other doors, but no one else was walking to the bench outside for lunch. He sat alone, watching happy people go about their lives while he munched on one corner of his sandwich. With five minutes to spare, he dutifully wrapped up the untouched two-thirds and disposed of it properly before returning to his desk.
It was 2:30 before he had his first alert. His heart began to pound at the sound of the chime, hands sweating. On the screen, he watched an adult stand on the corner and hand out flyers. Such activity was banned within the shopping plaza, which meant redirection was needed. A level one only, but his chest tightened as he waited to hear the follow-up sound that meant the limit was reached. Only when the silence continued to stretch in the room did he dare look down at the input panel.
The level was still set at 10, a solemn reminder of his personal tragedy. Everything else in the world seemed to continue moving and spinning, but here, his dial was still set at ten. He swatted at the dial, swiftly returning it to one, but withdrawing his hand sharply as if it would burn him. The one looked much friendlier, but maintained a sinister quality that had not existed before.
It was taking too long, and the system beeped at him again.
“Failure to provide redirection WILL be reported and may result in termination,” offered a box on the screen. Toby took a deep breath. It was just a level one, he reminded himself. But his hand still bristled as he moved it towards the button, ached as he forced it down to press the small, grey circle. The image on the screen flashed with the redirection, then was gone. The figure on the screen, glanced toward the camera, a move Toby knew meant he or she was probably cursing at him, then moved on, papers in hand.
His report was almost cathartic. He looked at the middle-aged woman on the screen as she yelled and shoved flyers at passing shoppers. Then, there was the redirection, where a brief flash of annoyed pain scattered over her face. She glared up at the camera with irritation, her mouth moving in ways Toby did not try to make sense of.
Then, she held up one of the flyers to the camera. “JUDGE, JURY, AND EXECUTIONER?” it read. Below the words were the adult and child images he watched day in and day out. She made a gesture before she left, and Toby did not have to wonder what that might mean.
Part 3 continues here!
I told you it would be back, and here it is! I will be editing as I go, so things may change as it goes. That’s why these are drafts. I’m not 100% sure how long this will be or where precisely it will end up (but I do have some ideas), but I hope you’ll join me for the journey! As always, please leave your thoughts, recommendations, and critiques in the comments!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
So, I’m studying up on social psychology for my licensing exam and got to read over the Milgram study again. Decided to use it for a story, and this is what happened. It’s a first draft, as usual, but I really enjoyed this one. Let me know what you think in the comments. As always, critiques, suggestions, positives, and negatives are all welcomed! Happy reading!
Toby sat alone in his monitoring booth, just as he had done day in and day out for the past seven and a half years. The booth was comfortable, but not spacious. He had his ergonomic chair, a desk to house his input terminals, a small refrigerator for his lunch, and the display panel. Unfortunately, there were no windows, which was why he made sure to take his lunch outside—at least when the weather permitted. It had been a long stretch of bitterly cold, breezy days, so he was resigned to staring at the three walls and display screen for the rest of the day.
The screen moved with the digital images of the shopping plaza patrons. He had been around when the system was just green, x-ray like images. Now they had at least created a few standard images that roughly assured him there were humans milling about there. They were all smiling people, dressed and styled ambiguously enough that he got nothing but a rough estimate of who they might be. There was one form for adults, one for children. Another for pets that sometimes appeared to stroll through the plaza. He liked to imagine the little groups of two adults and one or more children were a family enjoying a nice day out. In the evenings, he created stories for the two adults walking slowly through, imagining them on a first date.
Of course, that was more to simply make the time pass by more quickly. It was a good job, but painfully boring. Stare at the screen, watch for any aggressive or illegal activity, provide appropriate redirection, record the incident. Most days he redirected only minor infractions—littering, running in undesignated zones, loitering. Some days it was more significant. Once, he had to redirect a shoplifter, which was quite an experience. His hands grew clammy and his heart rate picked up just thinking about it.
There was a soft bell from the screen, and it highlighted one patron with a red aura. A pop-out replayed the last fifteen seconds of action, and Toby clearly saw the person take their napkin and drop it to the ground before continuing on. He reached out to the inputs, turning the dials down to their lowest setting—it was, after all, a minor infraction—and depressed the grey button down briefly. The image of the person on the screen briefly flickered to a red image with a frowning face, then returned to normal. The shock was delivered, the action redirected, and Toby watched the person walk over and retrieve their trash. He almost imagined the other glanced up angrily at the watching cameras, but there was of course no way to know that for sure.
Tedium is how he described his job usually. Most people abided by the rules, so there was rarely anything for him to do. The change was not necessarily welcome, because he did feel conflicted about causing pain even if it was for clearly outlined infractions; however, it also meant he had something to occupy the time. Toby dutifully recalled the recording in a portion of the screen, eyes jumping from the new activity to routine patrol, and began his report.
He attached the recorded images, watching as the generic adult figure faded and was replaced with a young man sitting at one of the plaza tables. He dropped his napkin and continued on, only to pause a minute later. Toby smiled. Sure enough, the man turned and offered an irritated glare at the camera as he picked up the discarded napkin. Toby recorded the voltage and duration of the redirection, associated it with the clip, and submitted it to Central Office for review and verification.
It was quiet as he opened his lunch box and unwrapped his sandwich. He sipped water from his bottle, letting his eyes close for a few brief moments. Dana was watching his screen while he was on break. She was always good about that. At least, he assumed she was. Her messages were always filled with exclamation points and smiley faces, so he got the feeling she was eager to help. He chewed his sandwich, thoughts wandering to Dana. He wondered what she looked like. What she brought for lunch. Where she was located.
He wondered where his plaza was located. Not in his city, that was for sure. Had he ever met someone who had walked across his screen? Neither of them would know if he had.
Had he ever met Dana?
There was a reminder tone as his thirty minute lunch ended. His screen flickered back to life, and he returned to his post. Hopefully spring would come soon and he would be able to go back outside to the park bench for lunch. He liked people watching—actual people watching—much more than being alone with his thoughts.
Time passed with minor infractions resulting in brief, routine redirection. He watched the screen and the clock with equal interest, waiting for the end of the day. It was nearly time to go home when the final redirection came in.
It was after school, so the number of children had dramatically increased. Most with parents, a few wandering alone. Teenagers, he told himself. He always kept a close eye on them, but they seemed docile today. On the other side of the screen, a region flashed as the chime sounded. He watched a child run across the plaza, leaving behind an adult figure. He looked down at the inputs, preparing the appropriate level for a child infraction, but his eyes bounced back up as there was another tone.
“Infraction limit exceeded. Increase redirection to level: 2,” read the note hovering over the still running child. Toby sighed. This was the part he hated. Begrudgingly, he increased the dial to 2 and depressed the button. There was a flicker over the screen as the child figure turned red and stopped running. The image stayed for a three seconds, then faded back to the normal, happy child image.
The adult figure bustled over, hands waving in a lecturing motion. A parent scolding with “I told you so,” he imagined. The recording later confirmed. It was a much younger child than he imagined, too young to have already exceeded infraction level 1.
He was late leaving the office, having gotten the paperwork completed a full fifteen minutes after the end of day tone. It always took him longer on redirections like that.
Thus passed the like of Toby, day in and day out. He watched his screen, ate his lunch, and administered redirection as required. The days eventually warmed again, and he enjoyed his sandwich on a bench beneath a tree where people walked about smilingly in the sunshine. He always made sure to dispose of his trash properly, and he was a moment late back to his post.
And then, the routine changed.
It was summer, a time when the plaza was even busier and the clientele more active. He always noticed a surge in redirections in the summer, which he attributed to kids out of school and the carefree attitude that permeated the season. The rules still applied, though, and he did his job to enforce them.
He had taken a later shift, an attempt to build up some vacation time so he could spend a few days relaxing on the beach. The plaza was now much quieter, having emptied of the majority of patrons. Instead, his screen now rotated between five locales, each more deserted than the last. Toby drank his coffee slowly, yawned, and did his best to stay focused even as his lids grew heavy.
He had drifted farther towards sleep than he intended when an urgent chime from the screen snapped him back to the moment. He saw his plaza before him, feeling a familiar swell of anxiety and protectiveness. There were a handful of people on the screen, all of them frozen in time as they faced the center. There was an adult emblazoned in red. He did not need to see the replay to know what was happening. The person had broken through the boundary of the closed shops, only to return moments later carrying something. A break-in.
His hand was shaking as he moved the dial, setting it up for a shoplift redirection. These hurt him each time, because they were automatically a level five. And they seemed to get longer each and every time.
Before he could press the button, there was another chime. He looked up, his eyes stumbling over the words on the screen in disbelief.
“Infraction limit exceeded. Increase redirection level to: 10.”
The bubble of anxiety swelling in his chest finally burst, drenching every part of him with its refuse. His hands were shaking over the dial, glancing down at the innocent numbers. There it was, sitting just beyond the nine, looking perfectly innocent in its malevolence. He had never done something like this. He had no idea what he was even about to do. But his hand shuddered as he tried to turn the knob.
The door to his office clicked open, and he released a breath he had unintentionally been holding. In walked a man in a suit, a thin smile plastered on his face. Toby stared. Not only had he never seen the man before, but no one had ever intruded on him during a shift.
“Mr. Georges,” said the man, his smile stretching just a bit, looking almost pained now.
Toby nodded. His hand was still hovering around the dial, and he could see the perpetrator moving on the screen from his peripheral vision.
“Quite a scene, eh? Go on, set the redirection and deliver it, just as instructed.”
Toby’s mouth opened and closed and his looked between the man and the screen. Eventually, his words caught up. “But, I’ve never—what if it—“
“Come on, Mr. Georges. They made their decision. We have rules here.” The man took a couple of confident strides forward, placing a hand gently on Toby’s shoulder. There was a gentle nudge, turning him back towards the screen. “Now, you do your part.” The smile widened, a gash etched across the face of a grinning corpse. The eyes were dead, Toby realized. Or not dead, but so very far away. “You have to keep order, Mr. Georges.”
The man reached across Toby, gently turning the dial from its position up to 10. He then waved at the console, indicating the smooth grey button. Toby’s hand trembled as it reached toward the button. He paused, and the hand on his shoulder tightened just enough to remind him it was there.
“Are you sure?” Toby asked, his fingers finally having found the familiar groove on the button.
“Our system doesn’t make mistakes, Mr. Georges,” said the man smoothly.
The button was down, and it took a moment for Toby to realize his fingers had pressed the button. The image on the screen changed, the person frozen in the moment. It was not a few seconds, and his eyes were glued to the screen, waiting for the normal adult image to return and assure him everything was going to be okay. It stretched on for seconds more, each one ripping itself from beats of Toby’s heart. And then it was over.
Only the image did not return to normal. It vanished completely.
The man in the suit patted Toby’s shoulder proudly. “Well done, Mr. Georges.” He turned smoothly on his heel and marched toward the door.
“Wha-What happened?” Toby blurted out, rising from his chair and taking a step toward the man.
“You provided the needed redirection,” responded the smiling man, only half turning to face him.
Toby looked back at the screen, now seeing new figures moving onto the screen. These figures were running, but had the emergency designation glowing around their images. They clustered around the spot the shoplifter had been moment before. The spot where the image disappeared.
“Are they okay?”
“They’ve been redirected,” said the man, hand on the door knob.
Toby felt the coffee surging in his gut. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“If you need a break, you have your fifteen minutes,” the man said, his hand on the door, “but we’ll expect you back at your post for your shift. You’ve got to file your report, Mr. Georges.”
“I can’t, I just—“ His head swiveled from the screen to the man, trying to piece together what was happening. The idea of watching the images in real time, of selecting his clip, of numbly filing the report. The room spun around him.
“You will, Mr. Georges.” He opened the door and had one foot out when he paused, breath catching briefly in his throat. When he turned back around, the smile was gone, replaced by a stern, concentrated expression. “And if you think you’re not on someone’s screen right now, Mr. Georges, you are quite wrong. Which is why I know you’ll be back to work after your fifteen minutes.”
The door closed behind him, and Toby sank into his chair, staring at the wall. He heard a chirp as his screen clicked off. Someone named Jordan was now watching his screen, not knowing what had just occurred. He stared at his hands while they trembled. What he wouldn’t give for tedium again.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
You made it to the end! If you missed any of the previous Halloween stories, you can find them all here! Thanks for reading!
The cemetery after midnight was creepy. I guess I would have been disappointed if it were otherwise, but the fact remained. All those lone sentinels standing over their graves, it gave off the vibe that I had stumbled into some frozen moment of grief. The angels bowed their heads low to study the markers at their feet. Crosses rose and stabbed up into the night sky. A few larger mausoleums stood as squat, stubborn guardians holding court. It was enough to send chills up my back.
I’ve never been superstitious, but that was not enough to prevent me from feeling uncomfortable in the cemetery. My friends were supposed to meet me but were, as usual, running late. Somehow it seemed far less intimidating to stand in that place if I had the warmth of human companionship.
As if on cue, I heard the clatter of the metal gate at the entrance, followed by a thud and muted laughter. I recognized Calvin’s laugh immediately, and Suzanne’s joined shortly after. The tension uncoiled from around my neck, and I began walking toward the gate.
Calvin was lying in an uncoordinated pile on the ground, looking back over the gate and laughing. Suzanne had paused with one leg thrown over the gate, her head bent low and she chuckled as well.
“You guys suck as sneaking in,” I said, stepping from behind a grave stone. Calvin’s laugh turned into a short yelp, but Suzanne seemed not to notice my arrival.
“Jesus, Lynn, you can be way creepy sometimes.”
I shrugged. “Nothing I can do about that. Guess you just need to toughen up.” He laughed and shoved himself up from the ground. Suzanne finally finished her climb, dropping with far more grace to the ground.
“Yep, same old Lynn,” she said as she dusted off her pants, shaking away the collected dust and rust.
We stood in a small circle, everyone unsure of how to proceed. It had been a year since we last met together, and some of the uncertainty from that gap lingered between us.
“I figured we’d do the usual thing? Drink a bit, gossip, scare ourselves silly?”
Calvin held up his backpack, the sound of bottles clanging about inside. “That’s the sort of evening I came prepared for.”
Suzanne reached into her backpack and pulled out a slightly crushed bag of assorted candy. “And it’s no good to drink on an empty stomach.”
I smiled and turned to walk toward a spot in the middle of the cemetery. “I found this spot earlier, thought it might be good for us to palaver.” There was a large oak tree, leaves still clinging on to the branches. Beneath it was a couple of benches, arranged to provide a meditative spot for visitors. The plaque on the benches revealed they were dedicated to Jeremiah Brown, “a kind husband, father, grandfather, and friend.”
The three settled in, Calvin pulling out a bottle of something dark while Suzanne ripped open the bag of candy. I reached out a grabbed a piece of chocolate, unwrapping it and savoring the sweet, bitter taste as it melted in my mouth. I washed it down with the too bitter alcohol, feeling it burn its way down my throat. My eyes watered as I sputtered, apparently more unused to the strong drink than I had anticipated.
“Maybe you should take it slow,” suggested Calvin, taking the bottle and eyeing me with motherly concern.
I grabbed it back, more so to prove a point. “Listen, it may burn, but we all know I can handle liquor better than either one of you.” I took a long drink, holding my face in a stoic mask despite the sensation.
“Can’t argue with that,” said Suzanne as she took the bottle and sipped from it herself. “I mean, we all know that’s a competition I can’t win. You going to challenge the title?” She tilted an eyebrow and the bottle toward Calvin. He took it, laughing.
“I think you have an unfair advantage, Lynn. But you can have your title.” He set the bottle between us. It was not really the reason for us coming together. The reason was just to be together. As friends again.
The moment caught up with me. “Hey, I don’t want to make this too sappy, but I’m really glad you’re both here. I know this is kind of weird and all, but…”
Suzanne smiled at me. “Of course we’d be here. It’s been too long. A girl needs her best girlfriend.” She tossed another piece of candy towards me with a wink. I caught it and turned it over in my hand. Calvin was quiet, turning the words over in his head.
“You know, after that accident, when we thought we’d lost you for good—“
I cut him off with a wave of my hand. “That’s the sappiness I was talking about! Listen, I’d rather not talk about the accident. I think about it all the time. But tonight’s all about enjoying our time together. I mean, I almost never get to see either of you anymore. You two have moved on to bigger and better things, but I’m still stuck here.”
My words caused more hurt than I intended; I could see it on both their faces. Suzanne’s face twitched, and I saw her gathering words for an apology.
“No, not like that. I’m not upset with you about it,” I tried to laugh it off, but the sound was empty. “I just meant, let’s have fun. No point in dwelling on the past.”
They smiled, glancing at each other with guilt in their eyes. I tried to ignore it. This was not going as planned.
“Have you guys heard about Old Man Stevens’ ghost?” It was a poor, erratic distraction, but it brought their four eyes back to me with curiosity rather than pity.
They shook their heads, almost in unison. “No, but I’m guessing you have a story?”
I smiled at Calvin. “Of course. It’s Halloween and we’re in a graveyard. I feel like I of all people should have a ghost story to tell.”
Calvin and Suzanne leaned in close, Suzanne tucking her jacket tighter around her body as the wind picked up. It was the ambiance I wanted, but could not control.
“So, like all ghosts, Stevens likes to hang around the cemetery, never straying too far from his grave. Also, as we all know, that means that he can interact with and be seen by mortals on one night of the year.” I paused for effect, even if the conclusion was obvious. “Tonight.”
They smiled, Calvin rolling his eyes. “Come on, maestro, get on with the story.”
“You have no respect for the art of storytelling,” I added full of mock offense, then took a deep breath. “Edward Stevens was a bitter, sullen old man when alive. He lived out beyond the town limits on a tiny little farm. It was him, his wife, and their three children out there. Now, his wife was a pitiful woman, worn down to nothing by his constant abuse. Nothing she did was every quite good enough, from the dinners she made to the children she bore. That kind of life can eat a hole right through you.”
Suzanne crunched into a hard candy, the sudden sound making Calvin jump. He gave her a playful shove, and she shook her head. “Barely any story and you’re already jumpy,” she tossed back.
“We are in a cemetery at one am,” he countered.
“Or maybe I’m just that good of a storyteller? I’ve had plenty of time to practice.”
There was the uncomfortable silence again. I mentally kicked myself, constantly putting my foot in my mouth. I wasn’t upset, but it was certainly getting harder to convince them of that. “Well, either way, back to the story. Mr. Stevens was also one of those sort who seemed to dodge every bit of bad luck to come his way. Unfortunately, it seemed to land squarely on his children. When the equipment malfunctioned, he managed to repair it and narrowly saved his hand from the tines when it started back up. His youngest son, unfortunately, was not as lucky when he fell from the barn loft and landed on the cursed machine three months later. Old Man Stevens said he was never sick a day in his life, but his middle son seemed to catch everything. It was the Measles that finally got him.
“Mr. Stevens was not a kind man, and he had more than his share of enemies. These weren’t the kind of people you could easily settle the score with, either. They were the kind who operated far below the law, and did not take kindly to being cheated. Especially out of money they felt was theirs. Stevens somehow avoided having to pay up, but his family was not so lucky. His eldest daughter, the one people thought might just manage to overcome the evil that her father poured out on a daily basis, was walking home from town one night. It was a different time, a time where people thought they were safe. She had been sent to run some errands for her mother, and time got later than she anticipated. So it was full dark when she was walking along the country road. Full dark was also when her father’s associates were known to make their own trouble.”
“No,” Suzanne gasped. Calvin grabbed another piece of candy and began chewing slowly.
“Now, when the facts started coming out a trial, those three men claimed it was an accident that must have caused those injuries. But no one could quite piece together what kind of accident would have left her face bruised and swollen beyond recognition. They had no idea what could have broken all her fingers and three ribs. And the greatest mystery of all was what kind of accident would have dragged her naked, lifeless body from the scene to her front porch.
“That was the last straw for Mrs. Stevens. Always a quiet woman, folks say she became even quieter. She was concentrating down all the rage that had built for all those years, compressing it into a pinpoint so dark, it sapped all the good straight out of her. Her husband continued on his own way, whistling while he worked about the farm. And then, one night, she got her revenge.
“They had an old cellar off from the house, one where Mr. Stevens kept his personal supply of whiskey. She knew he would go down there every night after his long day of work, just like clockwork. So she prepared. And one night, he went down, and the doors swung shut behind him. She locked it up tight, leaving him down there with nothing but his whiskey, an old lantern, and the exhumed corpses of his three children.”
“Ugh,” exclaimed Calvin, making a face and pushing away. “That’s sick.”
I smiled. “Perhaps, but so was he. ‘You can come out once you make it right,’ she told him, though she had no intention of letting him out. The only way he could make it right was to die in there. That was the atonement she sought. He hollered and raved for the first day, certain the power of his blustering would bring her to heel as it usually did. She sat on the front porch, working on her sewing, never batting an eye at the force of his words. After another day, he was begging. ‘When you make it right,” was all she would tell him.
“Folks finally got suspicious and showed up at the farm. She showed them to the cellar, not a hint of shame in her. They opened it up, not expecting to open up a crypt. Inside, they found him lying in a half formed grave, one other already dug and covered. His two sons sat in their chairs, at least what was left of them, right where Mrs. Stevens had placed them. The walls and doors were scratched and bloodied, but he had apparently saved enough of his fingers to dig up the dry, compressed ground, trying to make it right. She just shook her head when she saw it. ‘It wasn’t right when we put them in the first time,’ she was recorded as saying. She died in prison a few days later, though no one quite knew why.”
There was a creak in the branches above us, bringing us all back to the present. Calvin and Suzanne stretched and adjusted their position, trying to shake off the story. We were not on that farm or in that cellar, but seated safely beneath the tree. I smiled. Safety was relative.
“They say he wanders the grounds, looking for anyone out of their graves. Only he has a bad habit of mistaking the living for the dead. Rumor has it, if he catches you, he’ll bury you in his grave, where no one will ever find you. You’ll be buried alive, deep underground, where you can try to scratch and claw your way to freedom. But he already knows that never works.”
“Is—Is he buried here?” queried Suzanne, glancing around the cemetery as if every headstone was waiting to pounce.
I nodded. “Yep, a couple of rows over. I’ve paid him a visit a time or two, just to investigate this legend. Sad he didn’t seem to learn a thing from his wife.”
“We should try to see him!” said Calvin, jumping to his feet. I glanced at the bottle and noticed he had been comforting himself with it throughout the story. There was a subtle wobble to his stance. Not drunk, I thought, but certainly not sober.
“I can show you where he usually is, if you want. But—“
“Isn’t it dangerous?” Suzanne interrupted.
“Not if you’re with me. I can keep you safe.”
Calvin was already a couple of strides down the hill toward the grave. Suzanne and I hurried to catch up, climbing along the paths until we got closer. I held up a hand to stop them, placing a finger over my lips. “He’s just over there.”
From the gloom, there appeared a specter. He was a frail, emaciated man wearing a baggy pair of overalls and a checkered shirt. His beard was long and tangled about his face, eyes sunken. He held his arm up as if carrying a lantern about, but it emitted no light. As the wind turned, we could hear his mumbled ravings, words about graves and wives and revenge. He peered between the trees and gravestones, scouring his territory obsessively. When he reached the end, he looped back to the beginning, constantly waving his empty hand from side to side as he sought a way to finally make it right.
“Woah,” breathed Calvin, his eyes wide as he stared down at the spectacle before us. I, too, felt a certain awe at Old Man Stevens. So many years, so much time spent seeking, and still not at peace. Suzanne simply looked, well, like she had seen a ghost. Eye wide, face pale, lips trembling.
“Maybe we should go back,” I offered. She nodded, scrambling back the way we came. Calvin trailed behind us, casting glances over his shoulder to ensure the specter was still there.
“Are there more ghosts around here?” he asked, catching up to us.
I nodded. “I assume so. Every grave has a story, right? I just imagine most of them have no interest in pestering the living.”
We settled back under the tree, words flowing between us again. Finally, I realized, we were back into the swing of things. We laughed and talked. They told me what their life had been like since we last met, filling in all the gaps and details. We shared urban legends and spooky stories, working our way through the supply of candy and booze.
And then, on the far horizon, the sun began to crest, turning the black night sky into a fuzzy grey.
“I guess that’s our cue to leave,” said Calvin with a sad smile. “I’m glad we could meet up again.”
I smiled and nodded. “Yeah.” There were tears in my eyes and more words were going to bring those out.
“Same time, same place next year?” asked Suzanne.
“If not before,” Calvin said with a fatalistic chuckle.
“You better not!” I responded, anger mingling with the good-natured joke. I was always on a tightrope, trying to stay perfectly balanced. Sometimes I succeeded.
“Good seeing you, Lynn,” he added as we stood at the gate. He shoved his backpack through the bars and hoisted himself up.
“Take care,” offered Suzanne as she followed.
I watched them leave, the sun rising along the far horizon. It slowly reached out toward me, and I felt my form begin to vanish, burned away like an early morning fog.
And with that, I too shall bid adieu (to the challenge, not the blog!). Tune in for more stories over the next few weeks. I’ll also talk a little bit about what this 13 days series was like for me.Until then, Happy Halloween!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hello! Sorry for the silence. I just started my new (old) job, and I’ve been trying to get all the paperwork and stuff squared away. It’s been a headache and a half, but hopefully all the right forms are to the right people now. I’ve also had a nightmare of a cold recently, so that has not helped me with the whole creative aspect of things.
But, of course, I do come bearing another story. This is the epitome of a first draft, though. As always, the story is below. My critique to myself would be a good concept and interesting start. However, the ending lacks a bit of punch and the pacing may be off. I’m afraid it drags at the beginning and then rushes through the climax. (I also just realized I dislike the tense switch from past to present at the end. It seemed like it worked at the time, but it’s a strategy I’m not usually a fan of. Something else to consider…) So I’d expect some tinkering on this. I’m also toying with the idea of expanding this story into multiple parts. I’ve had a couple of character ideas kicking around for a while, and they might be the perfect way to help the protagonist learn more about the eponymous Bottle Lady and her curse. But I think I need to get part one right before I think about expanding.
I would really appreciate any feedback or advice anyone has. Do you agree with my own critique? Disagree? Think I’m missing a glaring issue? I really enjoy showing the process of writing for me, and I hope you will join me on that journey. Either way, as always, happy reading!
Growing up, I never would have called my mother superstitious. Sure, she had a story and warning for everything, but there was none of the magic hand waving that I associated with tenuous superstitions. No, her beliefs were undeniable fact. The sun rose in the east and set in the west, what goes up must come down, and the Rat King would nibble your toes at night if you failed to rinse your dinner plate. There was no myth to it.
Once I left home, the absurdity of many of these beliefs finally sunk in. It’s not so much that I honestly believed these growing up, but just that I assumed everyone had these stories. Didn’t everyone know the story of the Crooked Old Man who lived in the basement and would creep up the stairs if you failed to shut the door? No, they didn’t. And in hindsight, I’m surprised I didn’t end up more disturbed by these creepy stories.
I grew older and the stories made sense. She was a single mom, living in a city hundreds of miles from her family, doing everything to make a life for three kids. The stories kept us in line. She never believed a one of them either, but they created rules. She did not have to be the bad cop, because her fables were there to fill in the gap. Still, it would have been nice to know not everyone grew up with these stories. I would have worried my college roommate a lot less.
After the power of the stories as real had faded, the behaviors remained, firmly ingrained in my routine. Getting undressed? Take our clothes and put them in the hamper, making sure not to leave your pants or sleeves or socks all bunched up. I completed the action rhythmically thanks to eighteen years of practice, not because I was afraid the trapped skin cells and dirt would give rise to an evil twin. But it’s hard to explain that story to someone and not have them think you’re crazy.
So, I chalked up my mother’s story to superstition and well-intentioned morality stories. Even being grown, she sometimes brought them up when we were at the house, reminding us to use coasters so the witch couldn’t use the ring to peer into our living room. We smiled and complied.
I’m feeling sentimental now, I guess. Like maybe I should write all these stories down before I forget them. Mom died, you see. Last month. It’s still a fresh wound, but she had been so sick for so long…
Still, none of that is the point. The point is that she was not wrong.
I had to dig pretty far back in my memory to remember the first time she spoke about the Bottle Lady. I was very young, and we had just had a screaming match full of all the fury my little body could muster. I don’t remember what I said or why I was upset—being young there are a million possible reasons. But I remember the feeling of my raw throat and flushed cheeks as she sat me on my bed. She was beside me, one hand on my knee and another on my back, soothing. All the details are fuzzy, but I imagine she had that same resigned, loving, irritated look that she seemed to perfect in my teens.
“Mija,” she said. Or maybe I just imagine she said. It’s not important. “Mija, we must never yell things like that, especially not where the wind can take those words away. You never know who might hear.” Older me made sense of this by thinking she must not want to disturb the neighbors with a childish tantrum. And a hefty mix of “don’t air your dirty laundry in the street” thrown in for good measure.
I don’t remember my words, but I recall a stubborn streak emerging. I’d do what I want, because I was old enough to realize I could decide my own actions and affect others. I was a power drunk tyrant of a toddler. Or so she always told me fondly.
“If you do need to yell, make sure to go around and close all the windows. Make sure it’s not too windy outside either. Perhaps you may need to even close the chimney. When you’re rea good and sure no one else can hear you, then you can yell all you want. But you have to take some time to prepare, first.”
Grumbling and obstinance on my part, met with her smile and gentle hand. “You see, the Bottle Lady likes to listen for people who are angry and unhappy. She listens on the wind to hear angry little children. If she hears you, she’ll follow that sound all the way back to you and scoop your little voice right up into one of her bottles. Then you won’t be able to say a thing.”
My mouth agape, staring, wondering. It’s a wonder I did not have nightmares my entire childhood. But she smiled, then leaned down with mock menace. “Of course, then, maybe, I’d get a little peace and quiet!” She was tickling me and I was laughing, the punishment passed. The Bottle Lady was a frequent bogeyman in our home. If I started to yell at my sister, mother would be there to point me to the windows. Once I had checked all the windows and doors, I could come back and say whatever I had on my mind. Of course, most of the anger had burned out by then. Eventually, it simply became another habit. If I began to raise my voice, I’d stomp off to check the doors and windows, returning a couple of minutes later in a much better mindset to speak. And the idea of fighting on the playground or at school—places I could never hope to contain my words—was foreign.
Her superstitions had a purpose. I just never imagined any of them could be true.
I was not in a good place after she died. I mean, I’m still not in a good place, but I’m less the mess I was and more a typical grieving child. Or as typical as grief ever is. I let my good habits slide—dishes piled in the sink, clothes on the floor, the TV blaring at all hours. It was a call from some debt collector that finally broke me. I was in our old house, in the midst of packing up her belongings. They had no way to know she had passed, and God knows she had racked up debt trying to stay alive. That does not make them any less vultures. They wouldn’t listen, and before I knew it, I was screaming into the telephone.
I was not in my right mind, and I could not tell you what I truly said upon penalty of death. The anger and pain just gushed out of me and through the phone. How dare they, I said. Didn’t they know we were grieving (which they couldn’t have, I know)? I was sick and tired of putting up with it all, of looking happy and pulled together. I just wanted to be left alone.
While hanging up would have been sufficient, I flung the phone against the wall. It burst into hunks of cheap plastic, leaving a gash in the drywall I had to later fill. The house had to bear the scars of my immature rage.
I didn’t even think about the Bottle Lady as I stormed around the house, shoving things into boxes ahead of the big sale. My sister was pushing it, despite my requests to slow down. My brother refused to get involved. Who knows what things I muttered in that house. I was angry at myself, angry at the creditors, angry at Mila and Peter, angry at God, angry at my mother. All the while, the curtains flapped in the nice breeze. I’m sure the neighbors thought I was crazy, but then again they probably would have given me the benefit of the doubt.
I slept in my old bedroom that night, staring up at the posters of my teenage heartthrobs, still enshrined there after so many years. Mom had always left our rooms the same, saying the house would always be ours. And it was until Mila decided to liquidate it.
We were also told to never leave the windows open while we slept, lest some bad spirit sneak in and put naughty words in our mouths. I could not remember a time in my life when I had fallen asleep with a window open, but that night was the exception. Grief swarmed me, and I was unconscious only a paragraph into my book chapter.
The wind was truly blowing when I woke up, kicking the gauzy curtains about in a frenzy. They snapped in the wind, which is what I assumed woke me up. It felt and sounded like a storm was brewing up somewhere, so I considered it a lucky break. Doing my best to avoid entangling myself in the curtains, I stumbled over and slammed the window down, then dutifully traced my steps through the house to ensure everything was sealed up tight. The realtor would have my head if I got the “original wood floors” waterlogged with such a careless mistake.
She was standing on the in the hallway as I made my way out of the kitchen. I froze, my eyes quickly trying to parse the strange silhouette. In the dark, all I could see was a dark lump in the center of the hallway, with a large square extending from about four feet to the top of the ceiling. The figure lurched forward, the square dragging along the ceiling with the clink of glass from somewhere. Trying to assign human anatomy to it, I recognized the short, wide leg that stomped forward, followed by a belabored sway forward. From the leg, I was able to pick out a torso and two stubby arms.
She stepped forward again, falling into the limited light from Mila’s bedroom window. I could see her face, round and squashed together. Her lips looked swollen, and her eyes squinted until there was nothing more than a thin shadow marking their location. One her back, strapped haphazardly by two worn leather straps, was some large wooden structure. She carried it along, her back impossibly stooped by the weight of whatever it was. I could hear the glass rattling with each step she took, tinkling in time to the shaking of the wooden behemoth.
She smiled when she saw me, the shifting muscles somehow creating an even more displeasing image. Almost in relief, she sagged towards the ground, slumping her shoulders until the straps released whatever it was on her back. Her posture stayed just as stooped, giving the impression she was nearly walking about on all fours. Still smiling, she turned and tugged on what I quickly recognized as a door on a large cabinet. She carried the thing about with her.
The doors fell open with a long, irritated creak. The hinges appeared to barely hold it together, and they swung, pealing their displeasure with each miniscule movement.
Enraptured as I was by the scene, I turned and fled the moment she turned her back to inspect the contents of the cabinet. The kitchen door led out into the back yard, which connected to the front by a gate. It seemed trivial to escape, especially since the woman was at the wrong end of the hallway to prevent me from fleeing. However, the door was shut tight. I gripped the doorknob tightly and turned with all my might, but it simply spun in my hand.
The basement door was opposite the exit, and there was a way out through there. I turned to sprint down the steps, but she caught me in my tracks. My mind tried to piece together how she could have made it from one end of the hallway to me in the time it took me to check the door, but none of the pieces matched. It was a categorical impossibility. Still, she slowly shuffled between me and the door, her mouth still wide with a smile.
There was a glass bottle in her hand, something made of old, weather-worn blue glass. She lifted it up and shook it at me, the glass catching what little light there was in the kitchen. “Yours?” she said, her voice bursting from her mouth like a moth escaping a musty closet.
She deftly withdrew a cork from the bottle, and I heard my voice. “Don’t you have any decency?” the voice shouted, breaking the stillness in the kitchen.
It continued. “I certainly couldn’t live with myself if I was half as vile as you”
“Go to hell!”
“They just think they can dump everything on me, but they’re in for a rude awakening.”
“Bet they just wish I’d up and die, too. Make it easier on everyone.”
More and more hate poured out of the bottle, and I felt my eyes widen. That was my voice, and the words were all too familiar. I heard myself on the phone, pacing the house, swearing as I threw things into boxes and crunched old newspapers around them. It was a terrifying mimic of my entire afternoon.
The Bottle Lady nodded, placing the cork back in the bottle almost lovingly. Her eyes met mine, cruelty glinting there, as she raised the bottle and brought it crashing down on the floor. Little pieces of blue scattered across the cheap linoleum.
With surprising dexterity and speed, she swept up a handful of the shards and threw them into her gaping mouth. I could hear the crunching, see the trickle of blood snake down her chin. She swallowed and then smiled with newly bloodstained teeth.
“You should have known better,” said my voice from her lips.
She turned and began shuffling her way back out of the kitchen, coattails dragging along behind her and leaving a trail of grime in her wake. My mouth opened. “Who are you and why the fuck are you in my house” was what I intended to say. But there was only silence. My lips flapped open, the air gusted through, but there were no words. They were trapped, buried somewhere deep in my chest.
I sprinted after her, lips forming into the shapes for “Wait!” and “Stop!” to no avail. She was at the end of the hall as I exited the kitchen. I could see into the cabinet now, see dozens if not hundreds of bottles lining the shelves. There were all shapes and colors, some filled and some empty.
With unexpected tenderness, she closed the doors and lifted the straps to her back. I was close enough to touch her, to grab one arm. The flesh beneath was soft, nearly oozing from beneath my fingers. She turned to me, still smiling from a face now painted with blood and spittle, and then was gone with her cabinet.
I yelled and screamed silently sitting there alone in the house. My sister came over around noon the next day and found me in a heap precisely where the Bottle Lady disappeared. There was a trail of dirt and leaves leading form the kitchen to the hallway, which she began complaining about as soon as she entered the house. The words died on her lips when she saw me.
They say its selective mutism brought on due to grief. Selective because my sister, brother, and one rather peeved creditor say I have been calling repeatedly and leaving terrible voicemails. I’ve told my sister I wish she were dead six times, apparently, and have repeatedly told my brother mom never loved him anyways. Of course, I know I haven’t said those things, but my sister did not seem to buy into the Bottle Lady story no matter how quickly I wrote about what happened. And I have not found anyone to confirm it’s not me leaving 3am voicemails for the whole family. I just sound crazy. My psychiatrist agrees.
Worst of all, though, are the things I’ve been saying to me. She whispers in my own voice whenever I’m alone. “You’re worthless,” I say with more vitriol than I’ve ever used in my life. “Mom as the only person who could ever love you, and she died just to get away.” It’s a constant barrage of all my worst thoughts, delivered by the one person I thought I could depend on.
I think she’s angry that I’ve been writing this. Like I’m somehow cheating. The things she says to me, that I hear myself say, have gotten worse and worse. I assume the phone calls to my siblings have, too, but they understandably cut contact with their toxic sister.
I see her now. Hiding around the corner, in the shadows of my closet, three seats behind me on the bus. She just smiles and watches, waiting for me to break.
Like a predator, she separated the weakling from the herd and now has only to circle until I give in to my weakness.
I fear she won’t have much longer to wait.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.