Turn off your lights, Breck calls out from the other side of the room.
Gilmore rolls his eyes. He does not know what to do with the old man in the green cowboy suit and bolo tie. Maybe if Gilmore acts like he does not hear him, the ‘Breckster’ will get a clue, take another swig of his whiskey, and focus again on pinching the tight butts of those women who happen to walk too close to his side of the living room couch. Or maybe, if she has even an ounce of real grace in her, then Breck’s twenty-something, Barbie doll of a wife will toss him a cookie; and the loud mouth, red faced, glad-handing, retired law partner will find something else to interest his short attention span.
Why in God’s Name did Margaret invite that jackass? Gilmore almost says aloud, when he returns his attention to the bubbly, brunette intern that he had cornered several minutes ago.
Of course, Gilmore knows the answer. Breck is a hick good, ol’ boy from Arkansas. Breck still refers to the African Americans in the firm as ‘darkies,’ an actual step up from ‘niggers,’ to be sure, but still condescending enough to get them all sued for workplace discrimination just months before he finally retired his Confederate Flag buckle and steel tipped, silver boots. He had worn the old buckle and boots before every judge in the county over the last fifty years. The times had changed all around him; but he had continued to dress and to behave as if Bull Connor still wielded a billy club, and Ho Jo’s steak and grits breakfast could be purchased for just under a buck fifty. By remaining oblivious to all of the cultural and political changes in recent years, Breck had become a sad joke in the eyes of a few lone wolf libs, and an ‘institution’ in the eyes of just about everyone else. It just so happens that the senior partners (white headed snakes who drop in once in a while to crack the whip and to ogle the interns) of Kraus, Fibbs, and Clucky (known as ‘KFC’ among the local attorneys, and surely not to be confused with Colonel Sanders’ secret recipe chicken) see the ‘Breckster’ in the same manner as ‘just about everyone else.’ He is an ‘institution,’ and he is to be respected, especially by an associate attorney looking to become a junior partner with a river view office sometime before the Second Coming.
Surely, Margaret knows how important it is to butter up the old hog. She has been Gilmore’s wife for the past two years; but she has been his paralegal, personal secretary, and all around taskmaster a lot longer than that. She knows the gig even better than he does; and so with her down home Alabama smile in tow, and her velvet gloved touch behind the scenes, she always manages to get the right man in the right place. Right now, that ‘right man’ is Breck Davenport Clucky; and that ‘right place’ is the living room couch. If Gilmore just does not see it that way, then the young lawyer with the roving eye and the secret slush fund is going to have to snap to it anyway. Margaret does not take fools lightly, especially when she has walked down the aisle with them to the tune of What a Friend We Have in Jesus? What the Good Lord binds together, she intends each and every day to perfect. After all, perfection is the very purpose of a Southern Wife, and so how could she look at herself in the mirror if she did not set out in every possible way to perfect the weak, little man entrusted to her lovely care?
Gilmore had not objected, when he had seen Breck on the invitation list. Gilmore is careless, especially in his extramarital dalliances; but he is not plain stupid. He knows to toe the line when he sees that look on his wife’s face. She will win the argument, not by matching his heated rhetoric; but by silently and coldly watching his temper tantrum play itself out, and then simply folding her arms and nodding her head ‘no.’ Most often, she turns out to have been right in the first place. No doubt, she is smarter than Gilmore; indeed, smarter than all the KFC boys put together; but more importantly, she is more committed to his success than he is. For this reason she will see that opportunity that he is about to bypass. She also will see the snake in the grass, while he is still enjoying the smell of the roses. Gilmore knows all this about his wife, and so he is as scared of her as he is beholden to her.
Gilmore tries to put this all out of his mind. He has not had a chance yet with this brunette, hottie, what’s her name. She has smiled at him in the office a few times; but it has been always the kind of platonic and affable expression that suggests that she is too principled to carry on with a married man. Most of his peers would have been discouraged long ago; but Gilmore prefers principled women, not because it is harder to break them down (though that seems to be the case every time, especially if they had ‘found Jesus’ while attending one of the several colleges in town run by the Holy Rollers), but because there is real, abiding strength beneath all that fidelity to a higher cause. What it boils down to is that Gilmore digs strong chicks; maybe, even the dominant kind, although he seldom lets his mind wander too far down that dark road.
Come on, son, Breck says loudly enough to get a few of the other guests to turn their heads in his direction. You heard me. Turn off your damned lights, before I pass out on this here couch and miss the spook show.
Spook Show? That bubbly, brunette intern asks Gilmore with some alarm.
The old man just had too much to drink, Gilmore replies unconvincingly.
Turn off your damned lights, Breck repeats so loudly that the man sitting next to him on the couch suddenly stands up and strolls off with his head down.
Gilmore avoids Breck’s angry stare. Instead, he excuses himself from the intern, and he searches out the motherly African American maid in the kitchen.
Lorna is a beautiful and sweet woman in her seventies. She has been his ‘black mama’ all his life; and she had served his father, Lou, in much the same way before he had died unexpectedly just shy of his fortieth birthday. Lorna is as wise and as committed as Margaret; but she keeps her cards much nearer to her flat chest and stooped shoulders, especially when Margaret is on the scene. Moreover, Lorna does not have any desire to perfect Gilmore. She just wants to protect him, like a mama bear toward one of her cubs. So long as she remains, preparing the meals, turning over the beds, keeping a servile expression on her face, while her eyes dart every which way to catch the danger before it is able to catch her, she will be a check on Margaret. When she is gone, Margaret will reign over her husband with the iron fists of a grand dame, even if at that time Margaret remains young and beautiful. Unbuckle the last restraint, and there is no reason for the beast to plaster on her down home smile behind closed doors.
Gilmore finds Lorna preparing yet another tray of appetizers. He cannot fathom how much food they have passed around already. He imagines Margaret must have filled totally her Mercedes ML350 during her most recent Costco run.
Mama, the old man’s getting cranky again, Gilmore says.
He should be passed out by now, Lorna comments.
The cracker practically bleeds whiskey, Gilmore snarls. I just hope when it’s all over that the coroner doesn’t take a look at his liver. He’s likely to pass out. Anyway, have you seen his wife?
Barbie? Lorna asks with an upraised eyebrow. I think she ran off with Ken sometime ago.
‘Ken’ is actually Blake Robb. He is also an associate attorney at the KFC; and since he has around the same level of seniority within the firm as Gilmore, the two sharks are vying for the same promotion. Blake’s strategy is not to kiss up to the old man, but rather to go down on the old man’s wife. His strategy is much more fun to execute, no doubt; but Gilmore sincerely doubts that Blake’s searching tongue beneath the sheets will prove to be a match against whatever Margaret has set in motion. The reason is simple: Barbie very well may be able to distract her husband, especially when she tosses him a cookie, or flashes him her well sculpted bubble breasts; but until he is drooling in an old folks’ home, she will remain the weaker half in that marriage. Breck is an irascible son of an ugly, two-bit, trailer trash whore; but he has not lost one of his marbles, since the day he passed the bar exam. To be sure, his attention span is just not what it used to be; but his deeper sense of what he wants, and how he intends to go for it, indeed remains as steady as always. Breck would remain a pit bull terror in any one of the local courtrooms still, if he had not decided to skip out on all those workplace discrimination suits. Barbie simply is no match against his will, when he manages to set his considerable mind and bullish attitude upon a goal.
Thus, Gilmore is not totally sure that Barbie can set his mind upon some other amusement. The way Breck is carrying on now, the old man surely seems damn well intent on getting Gilmore to turn off his lights. Still, it is worth a try because, well, frankly, the very thought of turning off the lights is so horrifying as to be truly inconceivable. Gilmore cannot give in to the old man’s obnoxious demand, even if it means pissing him off, and forsaking a fine river view office.
Mama, can you find her, please? Gilmore asks with real fear in his voice.
It’s that serious, huh? Lorna asks.
Gilmore embraces Lorna’s rickety thin shoulders. He looks deep into her eyes. She responds by giving him her utmost attention, while suddenly the loud and inebriated guests break into rapturous applause, hoots, and whistles on the other side of the swinging kitchen door. Something is going on out there; and if the deafening roar is as it sounds, then that something likely involves a bosomy legal eagle showing some skin. Regardless, at that moment, Lorna has no mind, except for whatever Gilmore intends to tell her.
He wants me to turn off my lights, Gilmore whispers.
Notwithstanding her attention, it takes a moment for Lorna to wrap her mind around what Gilmore has said. It is just so unexpected. It is like that old, bellicose man had told Gilmore that he wants him to commit murder before the last round of drinks are served. The request is clear enough, but it is just so out of context as to be almost unbelievable. Perhaps, Gilmore had misheard him. It is possible, given how much Gilmore has consumed already; but as Lorna stares into Gilmore’s eyes, she realizes that that is not the case. Gilmore knows damn well what he heard, and that means that that black cat really is out of the bag.
How did he get the idea? Lorna mutters under her breath.
I don’t know, Gilmore says emphatically, though his eyes suggest that he has his suspicions. I just know what I heard.
Well, just tell him ‘no,’ Lorna says just as emphatically, as her own head finally breaks out of the fog. There’s just no question about it.
Mama, Gilmore says carefully. I can’t piss him off. I need the old man to give me his thumbs up.
Gilmore releases Lorna, and steps back. Gilmore no longer looks strong, let alone emphatic. Rather, he has resorted back to the posture of a little child about ready to cry, as he begs his mama to get rid of the devil inside his closet.
Okay, Lorna says. I’ll go fetch his wife. In the meantime, you need to go on out there and change the topic as best you can. Pour him another drink if he is low. Do whatever you must do, ‘cause turning off the lights is NOT an option.
I know, Gilmore mutters, while he looks downward and wrings his hands.
The kitchen door swings open. Lorna’s cute grandniece steps inside with an empty silver platter. The girl looks exhausted and, frankly, more than a tiny bit put out by the glad-handing, slobbering, and pinching fools out there. If she did not love her great aunt so much, then she would have socked several of the crackers already. Twenty bucks an hour, plus tips, is not worth the humiliation.
Sweetie, pass this around, Lorna says, while indicating the silver tray full of something or other by her side.
I was hoping for a break, the girl whines.
I’ll take over shortly, Lorna says. I’ve got an errand to do first.
The girl glares at Gilmore. Lorna gives her the look, and she capitulates at once. She picks up Lorna’s silver tray, and steps back into the minefield. She keeps her pretty head held high, notwithstanding the abuse she will encounter.
Proud of her, Lorna says under her breath.
Lorna is about to follow her grandniece out the kitchen door. She stops, nods her right index finger towards Gilmore, and speaks to him in a bitter tone that cannot quite mask her considerable trepidation.
If the old cracker gets his way, then you promise me you’ll release Kathy for the night, before you actually turn off your lights, Lorna says.
Of course, Gilmore states defensively. But he’s not going to get his way…
He had better not; Lorna interrupts. For all our sakes, he had better not.
Lorna leaves the kitchen; and, for a moment, Gilmore is entirely alone in a nightmare that he had thought snuffed out for good a long time ago. He racks his brain, but he cannot figure out how the old man knows. Oh, yes, Margaret is a manipulative bitch more often than Gilmore wants to admit; and he is certain that she has disclosed marital secrets, when she calculated that by doing so she could get some information in return that would benefit his or her ambitions in the long run. Still, she would not cross that line, if only because she really does not believe what reportedly happens whenever all the lights are turned off. For all her Southern heritage and charm, she is not prone to superstition in the end and will not condescend to open her mind to the kind of simple folk stories that drive lovers out to cemeteries in the dead of night, or that convince otherwise smart and respectable people to seek out wisdom from dark skinned psychics in back alleyways. There is a nightmarish world on the periphery that she will not acknowledge, even if she thinks that by doing so she might obtain some sort of advantage for her husband or herself. Or at least that is what Gilmore insists in his own mind, as he leans upon his sink, and tries to calm his nerves.
The kitchen door swings open. Gilmore looks up. He is so out of it at that moment that he is not sure who has stumbled in, even though the distinguished looking, white suited gentleman with the walking stick has been his immediate mentor and boss ever since Gilmore joined the KFC so many years ago. Gilmore stares at the intruder, like he is a black man who has barged into a whites’ only country club. He is not sure if he should be incensed, or just flabbergasted at a wholly unexpected interruption. He decides to be flabbergasted, because there is much less energy expended in momentary astonishment than in heady anger.
Where’s the snot rag when you need one? Berkeley mutters in irritation, while slapping his right palm upon his chest, and with his left hand tapping his walking stick against the tiled, kitchen floor. Goddamn it, what’s a man to do, when he needs to blow a booger out his nose?
Gilmore steps out of his doldrums. He now recognizes his boss, Berkeley Baine Bilderburg, or ‘Triple B,’ as he is known among his colleagues. Old ‘Triple B’ is a junior partner, who should have advanced into the senior ranks already in virtue of his seniority and client acquisition rate. Gilmore is not sure why he remains a midlevel stiff in the KFC. So far as he knows, his only vice is alcohol; but that is hardly a venial sin, let alone a mortal one, in the circles that matter to their profession.
Gilmore sees that Berkeley is too damned drunk to get a hold of his own fine, silk handkerchief; and so Gilmore does the honors for him.
Berkeley blows his nose. He sounds like a factory horn at closing time. In fact, for Berkeley at least, it is just about closing time, since Gilmore imagines one more drink will drop old ‘Triple B’ into La-La Land. Someone needs to grab a hold of his wife and his topcoat before he falls flat onto his ruddy, tired face. Gilmore would do so himself, except that right now he needs to focus his mind on getting the ‘Breckster’ to sing a new tune. If that means that old ‘Triple B’ gets a bloody nose before the night is finished then that is the price to be paid.
Berkeley tries to stuff his snot rag back into his chest pocket. He misses, and the snot rag ends up on the tiled floor. So this is something else grotesque that either Lorna or Kathy must pick up before they can call it a night. Gilmore almost spares them this one task; but before he can bend down to retrieve that snot rag, Berkeley grabs a hold of his hands and pulls him up close to his liquor-scented lips. Apparently, Berkeley has got something important to impart onto his protégé, and so in his usual crude manner, he demands Gilmore’s attention.
You remember Sunday school, don’t you? Berkeley asks with a sly, drunk grin. Miracle at the Wedding at Cana. Bunch of Jews holding back their shekels, until the majordomo finally comes out with the good wine, or something along those lines. Anyway, the Good Old Lord does his little party trick; and even the most miserly of the shylocks has to admit that they waited until the end to give up the good wine. Well, you can imagine how much silver that JAP bride found in her new husband’s yarmulke later that night. Enough to buy his way into that river view office he’d been eyeing for so many years. And all because of a party trick, a little bit of showbiz, something unexpected before the Ay-Rabs handed the Kikes their top hats and overcoats. Pretty damned smart, wouldn’t you say?
Listen, Gilmore insists. The old man’s out of his mind…
So’s the rest of us, Berkeley interrupts him. We’ve all been boozing like a bunch of sea-rusted sailors on leave.
Yeah, but he wants me to turn off the lights, Gilmore mutters.
Berkeley hears what Gilmore mutters. Berkeley laughs, while he flutters his snot stained fingers beside his sweaty, red cheeks, and opens his eyes wide.
Oh! Berkeley exclaims. What are you afraid of? The boogeyman? Maybe, one of them coons with red eyes and buckteeth that comes out of the dark just to scare us white folks back into our graves? Come on. I don’t have a clue what kind of ‘spook show’ you’ve put on before, but the old man’s convinced that he is going to miss out on something important, if you send him home without first giving him a taste of your ‘good wine.’ So humor him, will you? Humor the rest of us, too, while you’re at it. If you are worried that we’re going to fall all over ourselves in the dark, well, so what if we do? It’s not like we’re going to recall tomorrow morning how we got all black and blue the night before.
Oh, I think you’ll remember this, Gilmore mutters.
Berkeley studies Gilmore’s face a moment. Then, he bursts out laughing yet again. He is so beside himself he nearly stumbles to the floor, and Gilmore has to step forward and to grab a hold of him in the nick of time. Berkeley sees that his protégé has saved him from a nasty fall. He thanks Gilmore by grinning sheepishly, and then patting him gently on the back of his head. He leans into Gilmore, as the younger man proceeds to escort him towards the kitchen door.
Pretty queer sometimes what gets an old man going, Berkeley observes, just as he and his protégé return to the raucous party scene.
Gilmore helps Berkeley sit on one of the stately dining room chairs that Margaret had moved into the living room before the party. It is not comfortable of course, since form always prevails over function in old-fashioned dining room ensembles. Nonetheless, Berkeley appears much too drunk to notice or to care.
Still, for all his apparent cluelessness, Berkeley remains mindful enough to reach out and to pull Gilmore back into his face. He looks like he is about to kiss the host. Gilmore turns beet red, but the other guests are way too drunk at that moment to care if two of their colleagues want to lip lock on center stage.
Listen, Gil, Berkeley whispers. I don’t know what’s troubling you. I only know that when the ‘Breckster’ gets a bee in his bonnet, he is as liable to spit up vinegar as he is to shit honey. Just give him what he wants, huh? So the old man wants a scare. Well, let’s see if his ticker can take it. I’m betting that the old man leaves here alive and well, when you give him what he wants, and that by this time tomorrow you’ll be online picking out curtains for your new office.
Gilmore squeezes Berkeley’s hands. Berkeley interprets the kind gesture as an assent. Berkeley leans back, and he offers his protégé a soft, loopy smile.
Gilmore stands upright. He turns to face Breck across the living room. He manages to grin at the old man, even though Breck in turn is staring him down like Gilmore is a ‘darkie’ about to be strung up on a tree. The old man is simply downright creepy. His uncompromising stare suggests that, on the one hand, he knows what it means ‘to turn off the lights,’ but on the other hand he is totally clueless on account of that insanity that is flaring up from deep inside his mind.
You know, Gilmore thinks, while still grinning at the old man across the living room. But you are too damn mad to care what happens to you, let alone to the rest of us, when the last of the lights goes dark in this house. Well, I am not caving, old man. I don’t care if I spend the rest of my career in a first floor cubicle. I am not crossing the line, no matter how you look at me, you sick shit.
There is a woman’s high pitched scream, followed by roars of inebriated laughter; and Gilmore turns on his heels in time to see Kathy slapping the wine-stained face of a lecherous fool.
Kathy manages somehow to hold up the silver tray with her other hand, while she lands that vicious slap across the grinning, jowly face of the man who had assaulted her seconds before. The man does not seem to mind. Likely he is too drunk to feel much of anything, though no doubt by dawn he will wish that his throbbing, swollen, black and blue face be ripped from his skull and thrown into the fireplace. As for the other men there, they are as giddy as elementary school boys first eyeing an exposed breast on a late night cable station.
Gilmore’s first impulse is to protect the grandniece of his ‘black mama;’ but then, he determines that she is taking care of herself well enough. He uses the distraction as his chance to break free from Breck’s disquieting stare. He is still frightened and confused, but at least now he has the wherewithal to leave the living room in search of the one lady who can set things straight, if she is of a mind to do so. Gilmore can only hope, as he excuses himself from his mentor, Berkeley, and walks down the hallway towards the back of the house.
* * *
Lorna braces herself against the wall, while the two lovebirds leave the guest bedroom, and wander dreamily hand in hand back to the staircase. There is no light in the second floor hallway. The bulb had blown out a week ago; and with all the focus on the impending party, neither she nor Margaret had given a moment’s thought about driving down the hill to the Home Depot to purchase a replacement. As a result, the hallway is a claustrophobic tunnel full of ghoulish shadows. There is a single ray of silver moonlight slithering through the window on the other end, but it accomplishes little more than to add perspective to all those ghoul shadow faces staring back at her from the darkened corners.
Still, Lorna’s eyes adjust pretty well, notwithstanding her advanced age. She is used to creeping in and out of places, not for any nefarious purpose, but to help her white employers over the years find something in the dark that they could not possibly observe themselves. It is said that mamas can see out of the backs of their heads. They also have what is tantamount to X-ray vision of what is in front of them. The reason is simple: They are creatures of love. They want to protect the little ones in their care. In order to do so, they amplify their five natural senses. Every mother is a comic book superhero, when she needs to be.
The lovers strolling back down to the party are not Barbie and Ken. They are giggling like a clean-shaven boy and his fairy nymph; but the man obviously is portly, wheezing, and stooped. He is one of the senior partners taking a late night ride with an intern or a first year associate. The woman is young, but she already has the iron butt of a person used to spending hours at a time sitting in a law library. The way she walks suggests that she had better enjoy herself for now, since in a few years she will no longer be the kind of fresh-faced tartlet a man three times her age indulges with flowers and checks. If she is lucky, then by that time she will be a married woman herself, checking up on her husband so often to make sure that he never strays, and contemplating her first facelift.
Lorna continues down the hallway. She passes the bedroom that the two lovers had shared. Obviously, unless the old man and his tartlet are way kinkier than Lorna wants to imagine, Barbie and Ken are not in there.
She checks the next two bedrooms. No one inside, and the beds have not been disturbed.
She stops a moment before the master bedroom door. She doubts Barbie and Ken would have the gall to do their hanky-panky on the King sized, canopy bed used every night by their host and hostess. Not to mention the risk, since it is likely that sometime during the night either the host or hostess will return to their master bedroom for one reason or another.
On the other hand, is not Ken (Lorna can never remember his real name, so he remains ‘Ken’ in her internal conversation) the kind of sleazebag attorney who gets his kicks precisely because he plays so close to the edge? Clients hand him the big bucks, because he skirts so near and dear to breaking the law so as to give them the best possible advantage. The money is good, to be sure; but in the end, the adrenaline rush is even better. Lorna suspects that he will take on the same risks, even when the clients move on to some other hotshot attorney, and that that trait will be his downfall. Lorna does not care what happens with him, so long as his final trip down the dirty drain does not suck in Gilmore also.
Lorna slowly opens the master bedroom door. It creaks on its hinges. She will need to squirt some WD-40 before the night is done.
The fabric hanging over the canopy looks like the top layer of a mouthful of teeth. The cushy mattress is the bottom layer. The headboard is the back of the throat. Lorna has seen this open mouth a million times in the dark, and yet she still cannot stop herself from letting out a frightened gasp, and grabbing at her right wrist. It is a strange response, like she is checking to see if indeed she still has a pulse. One of these nights, the shadow really is going to move toward her; and she will be convulsing in a death spasm before she knows what hit her.
But that is not now, and so Lorna feels like a damned fool for responding as she did. She must stay strong, because Gilmore needs her, and because that old cowboy cracker with the corroded liver is demanding something that no one in his right mind will do. Her gnawing fear is that, notwithstanding his personal assurances, Gilmore is not really in his right mind at this time.
Lorna steps into the master bedroom. The shadow mouth in front of her yawns, like it is a beast getting ready to take in a larger than usual bite. Lorna again gasps, even though she had just told herself not to play the part of a silly old woman. She almost staggers back, as the shadows in the room start to spin.
She feels iced blue air streaming through her. She hugs her chest tightly.
That stops her from staggering backward. It also stops the shadows from spinning. The sudden freeze truly can be a blessing in disguise, especially when it holds a person still, and forces her to zero in on what is happening in front of her. Sure enough, Lorna grasps that the window is open. The wind from outside flutters the canopy fabric, so that it looks like it is a beast ready to devour her.
Lorna shuts the window. She is about to pull the drape when she glances at the boat shed across the yard. There is a light bulb flickering inside the boat shed. That is strange. She had locked up the shed herself this afternoon, and so far as she knows there is no reason Gilmore or Margaret would have opened the door and turned on the light over there.
Still, she sees what she sees. Moreover, Barbie and Ken are not cavorting with one another up here on the second floor. They may be up in the attic with the spider webs and the squealing rats. For all she knows, that type of dark and creepy place may be just right for the likes of them. If there is no one up in the attic, then the boat shed is the last possible location, though it really begs the question just how those lovebirds managed to break through the padlock there.
Lorna is about to leave the master bedroom, when she thinks about that flickering light bulb across the way. It gives her an idea.
Maybe I can stop that old cracker from getting his damned ‘spook show,’ Lorna mutters. Just one way to keep the dark boogeyman away, seems to me…
* * *
It takes a while for Gilmore to stroll down the first floor hallway. Several guests stop him along the way to compliment him for a great party. One of the newer associate attorneys corners him to discuss a case. Gilmore does not even remember his name, though he indulges the squirrely man with the awful body odor and the loose glasses. Perhaps, Gilmore wants to see if the newbie lawyer will push up his glasses before they fall over the tip of his nose. More likely, he is just taking his time, because frankly he has not figured out yet what to state to his wife when he finds her. He knows from experience that whatever he says to her, she has to think that it is smart and sensible. Otherwise, she is likely to be more a hindrance than a help in getting the old man to back off his demand.
Gilmore finally excuses himself. The newbie lawyer shrugs his shoulders, and sighs, like he just cannot believe how nobody in this firm appears to realize how brilliant a legal mind he is. It is so very hard to be a misunderstood genius.
Gilmore then practically bumps into the bubbly, brunette, intern what’s her name. She smiles up at him. For the first time, it is not all that platonic. It is not a sexual come on, to be certain; but the smile seems at least open to the possibility of a promising interlude down the road. Amazing truly how much we can interpret in the length of a smile, or the warmth in the cheeks, or even the subtlest crinkle in the eyes. Gilmore is mature enough to know that he may be reading more into rather than out from her smile; but he allows himself to feel hopeful, nevertheless, that this principled woman is just now beginning to melt in front of his blinking eyes. He imagines that if he had her alone this moment…
Honey, there you are, Margaret calls out to Gilmore from the back of the hallway. I looked for you in the living room a few minutes ago.
Oh, yes, Gilmore says, while forcing his eyes away from the intern’s soft, but inviting, smile. I had to go into the kitchen to check in on Lorna.
I see, Margaret says in the sugar sweet voice that means, ‘I know you are lying to me, but I am too much of a Southern Lady to call you out on your little boy lie at this very moment.’
Gilmore feels her heat. So does the intern. ‘What’s Her Name’ playfully mouths ‘bye, bye’ to Gilmore, and continues down the hall toward the raucous horseplay in the living room. Gilmore simply cannot stop himself from glancing at her butt, as she walks with newfound confidence toward the lecherous fools, even though he is well aware that Margaret can see him.
Am I disturbing you? Margaret asks in the same sugar sweet voice. If you need to discuss something important, then what I want surely can wait a while.
Oh, no, it’s nothing, Gilmore blurts out unconvincingly.
Well, honey bunny, come with me, Margaret says, while waving him over with her right hand. I’ve been talking with Teddy. He’s got a great story to tell.
Gilmore follows Margaret into the family room. The primary feature is an oversized television screen mounted on the far wall. It is always on, and almost always mute; and though Gilmore pays top dollar every month for ‘Cable Super Deluxe’ service (hundreds of channels from around the world, tech support that is more or less in English, and ‘psych counseling’ when the cable is down longer than twenty-four hours), the Jumbo Panasonic is always on one of two stations: FOX News and Investigation Discovery. Right now, Sean Hannity is interviewing Ann Coulter. Ann flings her long, blond hair and smiles seductively at the video camera with every answer. It does not matter what she is saying. She looks like she has saddled up to the bar fifteen minutes before closing time to hit on that fat, pockmarked, lonely guy, who has yet to pick up a sleep mate for the night.
There are a few glassy eyed oldsters on a leather couch. At first glance, they seem to be engrossed in the mute television show; but at closer inspection it is clear that they have passed out for the night. Interestingly, now that they are passed out, their brainwave activity is actually greater than when they had been watching Sean Hannity. So fascinating what we can learn on the Internet…
Lorna’s watering down the drinks, Teddy remarks with some irritation as soon as he sees Gilmore and Margaret step into the family room.
Teddy is a white haired gnome in a disheveled, university professor’s old suit. He holds up his half finished martini glass like he has just discovered that there is a dead frog inside of it. Behind him, Sean Hannity’s enormous forehead looms like a halo in high definition.
I’ll replace that; Margaret remarks good naturedly while taking his glass.
She gives Teddy one of her down home Alabama smiles. It is actually too wide, like she is a Stepford Wife with a casserole dish in her hands. It works on Teddy, but it frightens Gilmore, because he knows his wife well enough to view the manipulation behind that gesture. She is up to something. Now, that is par for the course, except that on this occasion Gilmore needs her to help him with his little problem, rather than to focus in on whatever angle she has cooked up.
Before Gilmore can say anything, though, Margaret leaves the room with a half finished martini glass in her hand.
Pure stock she is, Teddy remarks wistfully. Definitely a keeper. You’d be wise to marry her, before she’s snatched up by the times…
We have been married two years; Gilmore interrupts the retired dean of his law school alma mater. Remember, you gave her away.
Oh, yes, gave her away, Teddy says distantly. Though let us be perfectly honest. Margaret is not the kind of gal to be given away. She will take what she pleases, thank you very much.
Yes, sir, Gilmore says. She’s a taker.
Gilmore does not know what else to say. He wonders if Margaret put him here to distract him from whatever she is angling to do. He surely cannot put it passed her. The first order of business for Gilmore, therefore, is to figure out a way to extricate himself politely from this conversation. He must find his wife, before the old man gets a hold of her. She may go along with his demand, if at that moment she believes that that would be the ideal way to win his approval.
Yes, a taker, Teddy agrees. But also a keeper. Definitely a keeper. Now, forgive me for speaking out of turn, but I advise you to put a ring on her finger before someone else…
Excuse me, Dean, Gilmore says. I need to check up on your drink.
My drink, Teddy mutters. Oh, yes, it’s watered down. You need to bring out the good stuff. Never let your guests leave with a sour taste upon their lips.
Gilmore thinks about the ‘good wine’ at the Wedding at Cana. Everyone, except maybe those glassy eyed guys watching Ann Coulter chuckle acerbically at whatever Sean Hannity just said, apparently expects something big to occur, before the curtain falls on this party. Except for the old man, no one has stated what that something should be; but they are waiting, and growing less patient. The raucous behavior, the loud applause, even the tinkling of martini glasses in the fog of cigarette smoke, all that horseplay feels like thinly veiled tension. In most regards, it is harmless fun; but the dragon is snarling just beneath the old and threadbare sheet; and it is ravenous for what it can devour in the darkness.
Gilmore steps out of the family room. He glances into the room directly across the hall. It is the office with a sliding door that opens into the backyard. Several guests are standing in there. One of them seems particularly interested in the screensaver Gilmore has on his Mac (galloping horses clothed in medieval armor). These guests do not concern him. What does concern him is that Lorna is sliding open the door and stepping into the backyard.
Why is she going outside? Gilmore thinks. Does she think that Barbie and Ken are out there?
Gilmore almost pursues her, but then he hears the ‘Breckster’ down the hall scream out something or other about ‘turning off the lights.’ There is a big applause. It may be unrelated, or it may be that some of the guests have taken up his cause. After all who does not want a ‘spook show’ before calling it quits?
* * *
Lorna steps away from the sliding door. There is no light outside, except for the flickering light bulb in the boat shed. It is like a beacon, floating in and out of the shadows, and seducing her to come inside for a much closer look. No doubt, ‘seduction’ is the best word, Lorna thinks, because everything about the flickering light bulb implies a seedy lakeside hideaway for the indulgence of all kinds of sin. She imagines the ghost of a red headed, bosomy, smirking madam, floating in and out of the light, and rattling a cup when the Piper must be paid.
Haunted, Lorna mutters, while the wind snaps up from the lawn in front of her, and howls its indecent refrain. What’s buried doesn’t stay that way, not for long in these parts, anyway.
Lorna does not think that the boat shed had been literally a bordello way back when. It is much too small and dingy, even for the crowd that likes to mix their moonshine with whoopee. Still, the madam ghost is not far from the mark in her mind, because there is something manipulative about what had occurred in there once upon a time. The Piper has not been paid for whatever sins a man had tried to bury there, and the next installment payment is past due.
Irrational speculation, Lorna concedes; but her intuition makes this fact clear to her every time she ventures out here to tidy the boat shed. She always checks the lock by giving it a good pull before she leaves, but deep down she is certain that the ghosts come and go as they please regardless. That is the firm, undeniable fact of every haunt she has known: Whether a ramshackle cemetery out of the way, or an old house in the middle of a major residential block, or in this case a boat shed beside a private lake, the door is always open for clueless visitors, no matter the rusted padlock or the ‘no trespassing’ sign fluttering in a breeze. The ghosts keep the door open, since there is no greater sport for them than to increase their numbers.
Lorna braces herself, but it is no use. The winds will not let up now, and the foreboding ice in the air no doubt will chill her bones whether she protects herself or not. It is just a matter of time, before the swaying tree branches and the rippling stalks of grass turn into the kind of ravenous shadows that can take down an old woman like herself. Take her down, and devour her, like she is the kind of weak prey that has no real home, except for an unmarked hole six feet under. Yes, especially on silvery, moonlit nights like this one, it is just a matter of time, unless she can get back indoors before the night overtakes her.
And so Lorna picks up her stance, as she moves in silence across the tall, whispering grass. She has a vague sense of the wet plants snapping against her ankles and knees. Much more so, she smells the grassy, organic scent kicked up by the heels of her shoes. It brings to mind a serene, flat expanse suddenly and viciously mixed, so that the disheveled mulch blends seamlessly into dead, grey soil. The mix of potential life with timeless death is a perversion in nature. It is a Frankenstein monster set loose on a once tranquil, if unremarkable, backyard lawn. This image frightens Lorna much more than she wants to admit, and thus she is practically running toward the drab boat shed when she is halfway there.
The light bulb stops flickering before she reaches the door. At first, she thinks that the lovebirds had heard her footsteps and had turned off the light in order to hide their hanky-panky. Nevertheless, a faint, electrical scent suggests that the light bulb just burnt out finally. Strange that that should occur just as she is approaching the padlocked door. There must be a secret message in this; or, maybe, this is just how the boat shed ghosts tell her that they are laughing.
Lorna leans forward on the boat shed door. It is cold, wet, and splintery, like a corpse that has been gathering moss from the marsh in which it had been buried. She imagines the dilapidated, soggy gate at the entrance to a cemetery long ago surrendered back to the elements.
There is the fluttery call of a loon off in the distance. It is followed soon thereafter by the splash of wings skipping over the top of the lake. Maybe at all hours, but especially at night, nature appears to wait for cues like that one, for all at once there is an explosion of sound from the thorny bushes off to the side and the deep, resonate lake behind the shed.
Lorna makes out many other bird calls, spine tingling shrieks, mad caws, first from atop the swaying trees, then swooshing into the darkness. All this can be heard against a background of crickets chirping and, even further back, one, melancholic note whistled only inches above the churning lake surface. All this sound calls to mind a drooling, glassy eyed witch tossing this and that into a big stew without any apparent rhyme or reason. It is chaos; nature turned over and shown all along to be formless rage; perversion run amuck, as the dead and the living cavort promiscuously with one another.
Best to keep the lights on, Lorna thinks. ‘Cause the darkness reveals too much truth. Too many sounds and smells coming out from those devil shadows…
Lorna yanks the padlock. It is unlocked. She is certain that she locked it, so that means either the lovebirds found the key, or someone opened the boat shed for them.
The birds and crickets quiet down, all together, and all at once. It is like they are guided by a single mind that transcends them all, not the mind of the God she has come to know in the pages of her King James Bible, but rather the mind of an amoral, dangerous beast, a pagan scream that envelopes the whole of the universe and is intimated now and then in the sudden surge of a bonfire or the deafening roar of a late night gust. The pagan scream is the real mind of nature, the unmerciful cycles from feast to famine, the unavoidable bloodshed when a predator catches up with its prey.
This pagan scream toys with Lorna. It grabs at her heart, and yanks hard.
Still, notwithstanding her incredible fear, Lorna opens the creaking door to the boat shed and steps into a cramped space that smells of mildewed wood and spilled wine. Perhaps, the lovebirds had broken into the shed so as to open up one of Gilmore’s hidden, vintage labels. After all, since Margaret knows, his ‘secret stash’ really is not much of a secret.
Nevertheless, there is something old and musty about the fragrance, like the wine had been spilled eons ago and is now a subtle, but permanent, reality in this dead place. The ghosts rattle their chains and wander the halls for some time, maybe even centuries, but eventually they too grow old and exhausted in their own haunt. When that happens, they just fade into the woodwork. Maybe, when the moonlight strikes at just the right angle, they are barely noted stains on a floor full of blemishes; or, as seems to be the case here, maybe they are a strange blend of old and musty odors that makes an old woman shiver in fright, and then disappears back into the woodwork. So on one level it may just be the smell of a broken bottle of wine; but deeper, somewhere in the darker reaches of the soul, it is the ghost of something that happened long ago in this cramped place. If the lovebirds really did make their way into this dingy shed, then they no doubt fiddled with something that has been lurking in the blackness and the silence a lot longer than they possibly could have appreciated. Too bad for the two lovebirds, because whatever has been waiting around way too long in there is highly motivated to make the most of its chance finally to pounce on the silly and the unsuspecting. Then, it is all teeth, opened wide, and ready to devour…
Lorna hears the clang-clang-clang of a rowboat’s hull striking repeatedly against the pier behind the shed. She sighs in relief, since that sound snaps her conscious mind away from the beast with the big mouth and the drooling teeth.
She steps out of the shed. Once more, she padlocks the door, though she now senses that this is a futile gesture on her part.
For a brief moment, she looks back at the house across the lawn. It is an enormous, sprawling, party house, full of roars of laughter, boisterous repartee over swishing cocktails, and high pitch screams that may or may not indicate a woman caught up in her joyful abandon; hard to tell, because the line between giddiness and terror can be all too thin on moonlit nights like this one. Only one detail stands out clear enough, and that is the way that the moonlight drenches the entire house in soft, silvery light reminiscent of a threadbare shroud. There is so much life beneath the surface, but the surface itself is cold, listless death just now sinking into the walls, the floors, the sofa cushions, even the watered down martinis splashing over the rims of so many tinkling glasses. No doubt, all those inebriated cads will pick up their voices, roll up their eyes, even grab and pinch the butts that waddle passed with even more aggressiveness than before, all that enhanced debauchery meant to drown out the soft, alluring whispers of death. But they will not succeed, because the distant moon will claim her own before this night is done. Lorna knows this in a moment of brutal apprehension.
Lorna turns away from the house. She has a vague sense that she will not look upon the house with the same set of eyes ever again. Is this an intuition of her own imminent death? Maybe, but there are worse fates than death; and she really fears that, when all this is done, she may look upon that house again, not through the eyes of a corpse, but through the eyes of a woman forced to come face to face with an evil presence best buried and forgotten.
She wanders around to the pier behind the boat shed. It is hard to see in the darkness, because the lantern that hangs over the entrance to the pier had blown out sometime ago. Another light bulb that needs to be replaced, though this time Lorna does not bother to make a mental note to go down to the Home Depot soon. She is passed the moment of making mental notes, as evidenced by the bone-rattling chill under her dark skin and the crazed laughter in the winds skipping up from the foamy surface of the lake.
She walks down the pier. The mushy wood beams sink beneath her feet, and it is a wonder that the pier does not collapse into the turbulent water. She is not afraid, though. She does not even contemplate going back to shore, since in a very real way she already feels that she is inside that rancid shadow mouth and that the drooling teeth are about to cut into her flesh. It is now or never to see what she must see. Wallow in her fear too much longer, and she will die on this decaying pier without anything to show for her bravery in coming out here.
Lorna stops at the edge of the pier. The wind howls fiercely. Lake water splashes against her face. The lantern behind her snaps off of its hook and falls to the ground. It shatters into tiny glass pieces, which are swept up by the wind and blown against her back. In spite of all this, she stands firmly upon her feet, while she bends forward to see what is inside that old rowboat tied to the pier.
What she sees does not surprise her at all. Still, Lorna screams in horror.
She is paralyzed in her terror; and she very well may have stayed there, trembling an inchoate moan out through her lips, wringing her hands in front of her heart, until the drooling teeth punctured her skin, and sprayed blood every which way. Her calm resignation is gone, but it has been replaced by a raw fear that holds her in place and sends her conscious mind soaring into the blackness all about her. In that blackness, there is just raucous laughter, pompous, racist invective, drunken, ribald humor, and underneath it all the scent of dead flesh, ripened, pungent, twisting the bowels, and coating the heart with ice.
But then she remembers Kathy. She is in there, serving appetizers, trying to stay one step ahead of the drunk ogres; and if this madness continues, she is going to be swallowed into it. Yes, Lorna has done something that she believes may sabotage what the old man wants to do; but she cannot be sure that it will work. She also cannot rely on Gilmore to release her for the night in time, even though she trusts his goodwill. He hardly can control his own actions right now, let alone be mindful enough to save Kathy from all that horror if and when the lights are turned off. No one will protect Kathy for sure, but her tired, stooped, great aunt; and so no matter the long teeth just now cutting into her skin, she pushes herself away from her spot on the edge of the pier, and hobbles toward the shore. She is delirious, working on adrenaline, but still able to focus on her goal of reaching the shore, crossing the wet lawn, and ending all this craziness.
Lorna might have succeeded just then, but a glass shard from the broken lantern cuts her right foot at the pier entrance. She grimaces in pain, and falls to one knee. She is looking at that foot, when a dark form actually materializes out from the shadow in front of her. It is vaguely human in form, but it screams like a banshee on the warpath. Its pretty, auburn hair glistens in the moonlight.
Lorna looks up in time to view that dark form swinging the backside of a shovel into her torso. She pushes herself backward, notwithstanding the awful, debilitating pain in her right foot. As a result, the shovel barely makes contact, while she stumbles off the side of the pier and into the splashing, howling lake.
The dark form stares down at the lake. It leans upon its shovel, until it is able to collect its breath. Its auburn hair flows wildly in the wind, as it hunches forward to make sure that the maid is not coming back up from below the lake surface. There is just too much at stake; and that uppity, colored maid already had seen too much of what is ‘backstage’ before the curtains have been raised, the dark form thinks, as the black clouds momentarily blot out the silver moon above. So sad for her, but we cannot let anyone stop that ‘spook show’ tonight.
* * *
The bubbly, brunette, intern actually has a name, though Gilmore could not save himself, if he had to recite her name in order to trick the Grim Reaper into knocking on some other door. Her name is Marla; and though she is indeed as principled a young woman as Gilmore had sensed, she is also a blushing rose, tossed by the winds long enough, and ready finally to open her thin, pinkish red petals to the soft, alluring moon. She wants to blossom in the night, where the darkness veils the discerning eyes of water cooler storytellers, and where there is just enough silvery, fragrant light sifting through the old drapes of her boss’s master bedroom window as to suggest that indeed her first time is a beautiful, romantic affair. She is sensible enough to have no desire whatsoever to replace his wife; and to that end, she tells herself that this will happen only once; but, deep down, she wants this to remain special in her memory, like perhaps how a soft girl remembers years thereafter the time she stood upon the deck of a ship lost in the fog, and beheld on the deck of a passing ship the fair boy who could have been her lifetime love under some other scenario. In essence, she desires to remember this experience wistfully, even when the years to come invariably wrinkle her brow and turn down the ends of her mouth.
For Marla, the real question is not how this should happen (slow, tender lovemaking bathed in silver moonlight), nor when (tonight, before that strange, little ‘spook show’ brings the festivities to a close), but rather why Gilmore? He is her immediate boss; and just about every girl fresh out of her sorority house will be infatuated a while with the man who comes up from behind, every now and then, to check on her progress or to offer words of encouragement. This is especially the case, if the boss is ‘youngish’ (not young, since in her eyes a man over twenty-five may as well be fifty), more or less handsome (meaning height-weight proportionate, since there is nothing that reminds a young girl of daddy back home more than a belly hanging over a belt buckle), and able to brighten up her long afternoons in the office with his smile. Still, there are several other associate attorneys far more ‘youngish’ and handsome than the henpecked and overworked stiff just three cubicles down from hers. Perhaps, Marla senses that there is a certain sweetness about the man; except that, once she considers his energy beneath his surface charms, she cannot but realize that his sweetness is as much ‘for show’ as just about everything else in his life. If she is going to be honest with herself, then she must admit that the primary draw is the fact that he is overwhelmed with his wife, his bosses, and his career ambitions, and so is not going to be able to demand anything more from her than their one moment in time together. In other words, Gilmore is safe. If Gilmore had been gay, then Marla might have chosen him to be her walker, until she found a boyfriend; but since he is not, she has chosen him to be her first time.
And, yes, she has chosen him, notwithstanding how often he has grinned at her since she came aboard the KFC. When sex is good, the lady is always the person who has made the choice. She has chosen the man, the time, the place, even if he is under the illusion that he is the spear-wielding hunter in this game of love. Of course, Marla knows about sex to the same degree that an individual who has read a flying manual can claim to be a pilot. Nevertheless, deep down, she knows that the woman chooses. The woman sits in the tent, and lifts back the flap, when she is ready; and the man reacts to her cue, as he is so inclined.
Blossoming in the moonlight, Marla thinks, as her lips break into a smile.
Marla had caught Gilmore in the first floor hallway, after he had left his former law school dean back in the family room. Gilmore had looked troubled, not at all ‘youngish,’ let alone handsome; and yet as she had made up her mind already, she had stepped into his path anyway.
I’m going to check out the master bedroom, Marla had whispered, while toying with the top button of her blouse.
She had not devised ahead of time any other words; and so she had done nothing else just then, but to look up at his anxious face, and to smile. She had been too nervous to add any sexiness to her smile, but she had figured that her words would speak for themselves.
She had figured correctly. It had taken a while for Gilmore to step out of his worries; but when finally he had done so, a light went on behind his blinking eyes that brought a half smile to his lips. She had hoped for more; but given his preoccupation, she had been happy enough just to see that he understood what she had chosen him to do.
Gilmore had not said much, though he then had squeezed her shoulders, as if to say, ‘Get along, little girl. I’ll be with you shortly.’ That had been good enough to loosen her grin even more and to splash a warmer hue to her cheeks.
And so here Marla is now, pushing open the door to the master bedroom, and wincing from the loud and obnoxious sound of the creaky hinges. She thinks everyone downstairs must hear it, though given the roars and the screams down there that is not a particularly rational fear on her part.
Nevertheless, what is rational about a heart thumping so fast it feels like it is going to break through the chest? What makes sense about thin, cold sweat dribbling down from the forehead, and quivering briefly on the lower lip before sliding down the chin? Why bother with the reasonable mind at all, when every nerve ending feels like it is about to burst into fireworks? Indeed, Marla’s fears are not particularly rational; but they are much more real to her than anything else, as she steps into the cold, dark bedroom, and closes that door behind her.
She walks over to the window. She is so cold all of a sudden she assumes that the window must be open, but it is shut. She stares out into that gathering storm. There is little to see, except the barest outline of a boat shed along the side of a turbulent lake. The boat shed is dark. That is as it should be on a dark and stormy night like this one; and yet she has the vague, unsettling feeling the light had just turned off a second or two before she came up to the window. As far as the conscious mind is concerned, dark is dark; but deeper down, where a vague insight and a mad spurt of imagination often can be one and the same, is it not true that we routinely differentiate between a place where the light bulb just has been turned off and a place that has been dark a long time? Do we not sense that the former is still casting off its luminescence, much as if a stovetop that has been turned off, but is not yet cold to the touch? Do we not sense that the latter has settled into its darkness, so that it is difficult actually to imagine how it would look or feel if illuminated suddenly?
Something is happening out there, Marla thinks. Yes, the storm is getting stronger. It is starting to blow the world out there every which way. But is that a dark, human form I observe in the silvery moonlight, stepping out from inside the boat shed, and staggering around the side toward the pier? Seems to be so, though why would anyone in their right mind be out there at this time of night?
Well, come to think of it, with all the liquor poured these past few hours there are quite a few people out of their right mind? Moreover, why should any of this matter to her?
Because she is nervous, that is why; and by thinking about what is going on out there, she can disregard the voice in the back of her head pleading with her to leave the master bedroom, to feign a sudden headache, and to go home.
Marla lowers her eyes, so that she stares down at the lawn. The howling wind ripples through the grass. It bends the stalks over. It uproots some; and in so doing, it clears a path for another dark form that emerges suddenly out from a shadow nearer to the main house. This dark form moves with the kind of firm and quick stride that suggests a predator on the hunt about to attack its victim.
Notwithstanding its fierceness, it is stooped forward by what it is holding in its hands. The posture calls to mind a supplicant bringing an offering forward to try to appease the storm gods. But what is it actually holding horizontally in front of its chest? Is it a long pole, or perhaps a shovel? Marla cannot tell in this dim light; but she senses that whatever it is, the dark form will not let go of it, no matter how the winds push and pull. The hunter (or is it more accurate now to say the huntress?) really is invincible just seconds before the kill.
Marla continues to watch with heightened, almost orgasmic anticipation. She sees a splash of color, only for a second, if that long. Does that dark form, that hunter on the prowl, have auburn hair? Does that hair crackle, like a head of fire illuminated just a moment in the cold and distant moonlight? Is that who she thinks it is? Or is that just another instance of a night storm playing a trick? After all, turn down the lights, and all sorts of strangeness will be revealed, no?
The wind blows up from the backyard. It shakes the bedroom window for a few seconds, and Marla steps back like she had been almost burnt by a stove. The incident scares her, but it also distracts her mind from the dark form down below. Marla starts to think that most likely she had imagined it from the start. Probably just her jitters, because she is about to open herself up to a real man for the first time.
Marla toys with the top button of her blouse, just as she had done while speaking with Gilmore. She is still nervous, but she manages a smile that seems decadent enough. She cannot be sure, since there is no mirror next to her; but decadent is how her smile feels on her own face. Anyway, it will have to do, as she imagines that it will be a while before she is really calm enough to put on a good show. Maybe, she thinks, the first time is all about waiting for everything just to fall into place, like puzzle pieces swirling in the howling winds that then suddenly, and magically, just fall to the ground and configure into one another.
Marla turns away from the window. She stares at the canopy bed. It is an enormous mouth open wide. The fabric hanging down from the top calls to her mind jagged teeth about to snap down on some unsuspecting person. If she had not taken a moment first to acclimate herself to this dark room, then likely she would have been frightened by how the bed looks in the disorienting moonlight right now. Instead, carried away with the allure of decadence, she is not scared so much as tempted. Those teeth will be a part of the silly fun of the dance she is about to share with Gilmore on the dark side of the moon. Maybe, so inspired by his own canopy, he will give her a hickey before the last twirl in their illicit dance; and when she returns to her own bed later, she will dream of vampires, dagger thrusts, and blood squirting out from opened veins…
Marla allows her thought to float off into the distance. She has never felt so free before, like her mind is floating outside of her body and moving out into that billowy storm. She does not know as of yet if the actual act of sex is really this good, but she sure loves the sensation of opening up the belts and roaming uninhibitedly about her own space.
She unbuttons her blouse and just lets it fall to the floor. All at once, in her imagination, the master bedroom is a cheap hotel. In the corner of her eye, she even sees the neon sign that forever flashes through the threadbare drapes in such hotel rooms. It flashes vacant since of course her room has been vacant all her life. That is about to change. Any minute now the man with the key will be rattling her doorknob, while the wind howls outside, and the neon bleeds all the lights of the rainbow upon her naked flesh.
She unsnaps her bra. It too falls to the floor of the cheap hotel room. As soon as she feels the perfumed lace sliding over the tops of her feet, she laughs nervously. She covers her mouth for fear that her laughter can be heard several miles away, even though again that is an altogether irrational fear to entertain.
She nearly unsnaps her belt buckle, but then decides it is best to let her one-time lover do the honors. Instead, she flails her fingers through the canopy fabric. It is soft and clean, not at all like the jagged teeth she had seen before.
Marla closes her eyes, and sways side to side. There is a love song in her mind somewhere. It is too distant to be a recognizable melody as of yet, but it is getting closer. In another minute or so, she will be humming along with all of that warm and sensual romance coming alive just now inside her flesh. She still cannot know if this is as good as sex, but she likes the way she feels regardless.
Too bad for Marla she is so caught up in that moment. Otherwise, likely, she would not have her back to that bedroom door. Also, she would have heard the creaking, old hinges, as the dark form with auburn hair opens the door and steps inside. But she has thrown restraint to the wind; and along with restraint, she has lost track of that voice that had told her to get the heck out of there as soon as possible. Now, oblivious as she is to the auburn color emerging out from her right peripheral vision, she is no better off than a sitting duck in crosshairs.
Actually, the dark form is not staring through the crosshairs of a firearm. Rather, it is holding still the same shovel that it had used to knock the old maid into the screaming lake. It is stooped a bit more than when it had attacked the old maid. Its breathing is more haggard. Nevertheless, it is deadly silent and in control of its movement. Even if Marla had been paying attention, she probably would not have been much of a problem for the meticulous killer.
Last time, the dark form had gone for the torso. Yes, it had knocked the old man into the sink; but the impact had been minimal. If the victim had been twenty years younger, then she would have been able to hold her own; and God knows what would have happened then.
So this time, the dark form is not going to pussyfoot around. It will strike the back of the victim’s head, and knock her out cold. If it manages to put just enough oomph into its swing, then the bitch cock tease may be dead before she hits the floor.
Is that not justice for a would be man stealer? The dark form thinks, just as it is lifting the backside of the shovel into a swinging formation. Bitch wants an orgasm so bad, well, she can spend eternity trying to get one of those devils in hell to give it to her.
And with that image still lingering in its imagination, the dark form snaps the backside of the shovel onto the back of Marla’s bubbly, brunette head. The swing connects, and for Marla at least the dance stops cold.
* * *
The dark form is about midway across the backyard, when the torrential rain starts to fall. The wind gathers up the rain and splashes it horizontally into its stooped, tired body. It is as if the wind and the rain want to knock that dark form back into the mud; but if so, then it is having the opposite effect. Rather than fall backward in defeat, the dark form braces its heels in the mud and just pushes forward with everything that it has. It is do or die, and it intends to win in this struggle against the elements, no matter how it is beaten in the process.
Still, for all of its tenacity, the dark form cannot continue in this manner indefinitely. It is carrying the corpse of Marla the Man Stealer. Dead bodies are a lot heavier than live ones with which to begin. It turns out that a waterlogged dead body is almost impossible to haul; and so for all its focused determination to see this through to the end, the dark form feels its legs giving way with each and every step across the rain drenched lawn.
It passes around the boat shed to the pier. Notwithstanding all that dead weight on its arms, its stops a moment in the midst of the screaming storm just to make sure that the soggy wood beams are up to the task. The last thing that the dark form wants is to slide through that flimsy wood and into the lake. God only knows what other corpses are down there. The dark form is mad enough to commit multiple murders, but it is not so mad as to desire to see the extent of the graveyard concealed by that normally quaint and unassuming lake.
The dark form staggers down to the end of that pier. It unceremoniously dumps Marla the Man Stealer into the rowboat. Since Barbie and Ken are in the rowboat already, the addition of the Man Stealer should be just enough to sink that pockmarked cork beneath the surface.
Sure enough, the rowboat bubbles a few seconds; and then sinks into the lake. It remains connected to the pier, but the soot drags the three corpses out of the rowboat and into the grime infested cracks in the lakebed. The corpses, waterlogged, eyes bulging, arms outstretched, descend into a tomb where even the silver moon cannot reach them. For them, there is simply eternal darkness.
* * *
The ‘Breckster’ is really on a roll now. All eyes in the living room stay on him, as he sits on the edge of the couch, and waves his hands erratically above his sweat stained cowboy hat. Someone had lit a cigar for him; perhaps, hoping that the hot smoke up his nostrils would get him going big time; and true to his reputation, he is not only speaking a mile a minute to the enraptured audience, but he is also flailing smoke and ashes everywhere his right hand goes. Now and then, he returns the cigar to his mouth for a moment; but mostly, he just flings it through the hot air, so that the tobacco does not interfere too much with his ability to tell a good story.
Berkeley has moved over to the couch. He is sitting beside Breck, patting the old man on his left knee, and chuckling at whatever he says. Berkeley must have passed the mental tipping point, because his brown nosing chuckle always is about a beat too late.
Besides Berkeley is a senior partner named Boone. He is another good ol’ boy what with his belly hanging over his oversized buckle. While he chuckles at the right time, his red face looks like it is about to explode from hypertension. His ticker is about ready to expire, and yet that fact does not restrain him from chain smoking Marlboros and gulping shots of whiskey. He keeps a spacey eyed, beauty queen blond on his left knee. On the books, she is an intern; but no one else knows her name or job description (apart from sitting upon her boss’s knee when it is not too arthritic). That is just as well. With Boone, and with all those other good ol’ boys who together constitute the senior management at the KFC law firm, the less the underlings know, the more deniability the underlings can have if and when questioned by the Offices of the District Attorney or the State Bar. Moreover, who wants to deny the old coot his last hurrah, especially since his wife is in the home, and his ticker is ready for the junkyard?
Everyone else in that living room is a wannabe Berkeley or Boone at that moment. They would sell their mothers, if they could sit beside the Great Man, while he regales them with one of his past exploits in the courtroom. Sure, the story is even more fun when you get to sit next to the man telling it; much like how children huddle as near as possible to the storyteller around a campfire on late nights such as this one. But even more so, sitting next to the Great Man on this occasion would suggest to everyone else that the wannabe had access to an inner circle of glad-handing, cigar chomping decision makers. Right now, Breck is ‘Boss Tweed,’ and everyone hopes for a chance to kiss his stained, brass ring.
Gilmore stands near the back of the living room. He plasters a grin upon his face, and folds his arms before his chest. He has heard this same story a lot of times over the years; and since the ‘Breckster’ never changes a single word, indeed not even where he places his dramatic pauses and comical eye rolls, the story gets a heck of a lot older with every rendition. Nevertheless, Gilmore is a happy boy, because the ‘Breckster’ seems to have diverted his mind away from turning off the lights and putting on a ‘spook show.’ Go ahead, and bore me to tears with you exploits, Gilmore thinks; so long as you forget your past request.
And so there I am standing before Old Judge Morgan, holding my Stetson over my heart, and bowing my head like a Chinaman butler answering the door, Breck recounts with relish. There’s not a sound in the entire courtroom, but my client’s sniffles. For the first time, he’s seeing death before his eyes. Death by the hangman’s noose before the blank stares of the warden, the priest, and the local newspaperman. So who can blame him for bawling like a girl? As for every one else in there, well, they are so quiet you can hear a pin drop on a bordello red carpet. Finally, Old Judge Morgan says to me: ‘Convince me, boy.’ So I just rolled back my sleeves, and pointed back at my client, and spoke like a modern day Job standing before the golden winged throne. I said, ‘Judge, ya ever think what’s gonna happen when you try to put a Chinaman’s noddle in a knot?’ And, I swear, the old judge looks down at my sniffling client like this is the first time he realizes he’s a real life Chinaman. ‘Can’t ya see now he’s as chicken necked as he is squinty eyed?’ The judge grumbles assent, and so I go in for the kill: ‘It is gonna be like trying to hang a noodle. It is liable to slip through the knot.’ He imagines my client just falling through the trap door and landing on his butt, all red on the butt cheeks, but otherwise unfazed. So the old judge hands him life without parole. Life for a Chinaman in the pokey! You wonder just how many of them ‘chopsticks’ them ‘San Fran Sicko Queers’ have rammed up his butt since?
The ‘Breckster’ howls so hard he looks as if he is about to tumble off the couch. Berkeley nudges him back into his seat. Everyone joins in the laugh, like this is the funniest tale ever told, though Gilmore can tell from the savage look in their eyes that they are going along with the old man just to remain squarely on his good side. It is not the lawyers and interns have any principled objection to the ‘Chinaman Noose’ tale. It is just that they have heard it before and deep down doubt that, indeed, this is how he spared his client the hangman’s noose.
Breck puffs on his cigar. His laughter turns into a vicious, blue faced, old man’s cough, which seems to take the fun out of the moment. Still, he is on his roll and does not intend to give up the spotlight just yet. Besides, he may be as drunk as a skunk right now, but he can see how Gilmore is staring at him across the room; and he intends to send a message to that brown nose bastard, before he surrenders the floor to anyone else. Oh, sure, his attention span is not what it used to be; but he has not forgotten what he wants to view with his own two eyes before Gilmore can hand him his green coat, and shove him into the night.
Sometimes, what ya think ya want turns out to be a chopstick in the ass, Breck reasons, after getting control over his phlegmy cough. I bet ya that girly, little Chinaman wishes now he had had a date with the hangman, rather than a lifetime with them queers…
Hear, hear, Boone cuts in, while the beauty queen upon his knee giggles.
Damn straight, someone else says.
Amen, brother, another man says.
We think we know what we are seeing at the time, but in fact we are all punch drunk and shitfaced with distraction, Breck continues. I remember once, long before I met the mother of my sons, I’d taken a fall for one of them sweet fire crotch girls from the hill country. She spoke like she’d just tumbled off the ship at Ellis Island. As for her eyes, well, let me just say that they hungered, as if she’d had the last potato snatched out from her pretty, little hands, and just wanted to make sure she never again went a night without a bit of food on her plate. Well, I was a youngin’ myself back then; but I had been admitted to that den of thieves and scoundrels known as the state bar. In her eyes, I practically walked on water, especially when I talked big and smiled even bigger. The best type of girl for me, you can imagine. So one night we two are howling for Jesus beneath my bed sheets when the light bulb burns out. Now, mind you, that old light bulb had never been worth a spit; but, at least, there had been something to keep the shadows away. Now, we are in pitch black, like the skin of a Congo coon black, not even a streak of moonlight breaking through the goddamn moth holes in my drapes…
No damn lights, Boone interrupts him.
Like a spook show, Berkeley chimes in.
Gilmore feels the hair on the back of his neck stand upright. He manages to keep a smile on his face, but his mind wanders. Just where the heck is Lorna anyway? How long does it take to find Barbie and Ken making whoopee beneath the sheets or out there in the boat shed? For that matter, where is his wife just now; and when she does show up, will she help him turn the discussion in some other direction? God only knows. Margaret is so damned mindful for a beautiful woman. Gilmore wonders sometimes how he really keeps his head above water, when she is always smiling one way and thinking the opposite.
That’s right, Breck brightens up, and takes another puff on his cigar. Not much distraction when it’s pitch black. So there I am holding that fire crotch in my arms. I look down at her in silence, while I am waiting for my young eyes to get used to the darkness. It takes a moment, but then, suddenly, I observe that she has the face of an Irish devil, no, not a devil, not quite, more like a devious leprechaun. She’s got red eyes, and a sharp point on the end of her nose, and a wide grin that reaches up to her long ears. Sure, I see that she’s hungry alright; but hungry for more than just potatoes. She’s hungry for a man. She’s a cursed, red, hot man eater, that’s what she is; and if I am not careful, she’s gonna eat me whole, my money, my manhood, my life. She licks her lips, making an ugly, spine tingling, smacking sound while she does it; and I swear to God I see green drool sliding down her chin. Well, you can imagine I was done howling for Jesus that night. I took her home and lost her phone number. Damned if I didn’t find out years later that she captured a sad sack of a husband, popped out from her womb eight or ten Roman Catholics, and sent the meal ticket to an early grave.
Breck pauses to take another puff on his cigar. He looks over at Gilmore.
Sometimes, we got to turn off the lights, Breck remarks in a deliberate, threatening voice. I reckon tonight’s as good as any other, don’t ya agree, boy?
All eyes turn toward Gilmore. Everyone is silent all of a sudden. There is no sound then, but the wind rattling the windows and howling under the eaves.
Then, there is the quick pitter-patter of bare feet coming down the hall to Gilmore’s immediate left. Gilmore sees the auburn hair in his peripheral left vision. He turns his head to see Margaret coming towards him in a bathrobe. He is speechless, not only because she apparently decided to dip into their shower in the middle of a party, but because her hair remains wet and, thus, clings too seductively to the sides of her face. It is like she is rushing out from backstage, bright eyed and all smiles, in order to put on a one-woman burlesque show just before the geezers and the interns in the living room can call it a night. On the plus side, if this does not distract the ‘Breckster’ from his preoccupation with a ‘spook show,’ then Gilmore is certain that nothing else can.
Margaret passes Gilmore. She gives him a sly wink, but otherwise pays no attention to him. She prances out to the middle of the living room, and lifts her arms above her head. This has the effect of lifting her bathrobe above her fine, wet knees and, more importantly, bursting her cleavage upward. The response is immediate and deafening: Hurrahs, catcalls, and applause from every corner of the room; Boone dropping his beauty queen bimbo off his knee; Berkeley and Breck staring up at her cleavage with bulging eyes and gaping mouths, like they are a couple of pimply teenagers who have stumbled into the girls’ locker room and seen more than they could ever have anticipated.
Margaret takes a bow right in front of Breck. Of course, this gives the old man an even better view of her offerings to the gods. He clenches his cigar and claps his hands. He wants to give her a standing ovation, but he cannot manage to squirm out from his hole in the couch. No matter, as his enthusiasm is all too obvious and much appreciated by the smiling queen.
I just had to clean up after hearing all your dirty talk, Margaret declares in a playfully sexy Scarlett O’Hara voice. After all, what else can a good girl do?
More hurrahs and applause follow. Breck bites his cigar in two, and grins.
Good girl, what you can do is to sit on my lap, Breck shouts after he spits out that portion of his cigar that almost had slid to the back of his throat. I like good girls. ‘Naughty girls’ are better, but at my age good ones will do just fine!
Playing her part to the hilt, Margaret walks forward with her arms still in the air and her butt swaying side to side. She calls to mind a snake writhing out from a basket. A few of the guys start humming aloud the strip tease song, and she mimes fluttering pixy dust out from her fingertips.
Margaret stops in front of the old man. She bends her knees, points them over to her left, and slides her derriere onto the old man’s lap. She gives him a big smackeroo on his left cheek, and flutter kicks her feet in the air. He is just a grinning fool, but he manages nevertheless to squeeze her wet body too close and personal to his heart.
Don’t mind us, Breck taunts Gilmore.
If you can handle that much dynamite, then you are a better man than I am, Gilmore responds in faked good humor.
That’s right, Breck whispers lecherously into Margaret’s ear. I’m a whole lot better at a whole lot of things. Just try me one of these days, before my old ticker gives out.
Margaret does not respond specifically to the come on. Instead, she just wraps both her hands around the back of his neck, and smiles at him, like he is a Santa Claus in a green cowboy suit. He regards her pose as just a continuation of her ‘good girl’ routine. He is game. Heck, he is game for just about any kind of attention from what he and his fellow oldsters refer to as the ‘cunt brigade.’
Why don’t we play ‘Reverse Santa Claus,’ huh? Margaret asks Breck with her sexy, little girl voice.
The men cheer them on, though they do not have a clue what she means by ‘Reverse Santa Claus.’ It does not matter. Whatever she means it is going to be a sight to see. Likely, it will be that special somethingabout which they will be snickering at the water cooler long after they have forgotten this silly party.
Why that sounds peachy, Breck responds with a devilish grin.
It’s simple, really, Margaret says. It means you tell me what you desire…
The living room roars in approval, before she can finish her sentence. No matter, since the gist of the game is easy enough to understand, even when as far gone as four or five sheets to the wind. He makes his request, like he is now sitting upon her lap; and she delivers. And, oh, boy, how this dame can deliver!
Breck pretends to think long and hard. He arches his right eyebrow, and he dabs his cigar onto the couch. Something else for Lorna and Kathy to clean…
Where the heck is Lorna? Gilmore thinks anxiously.
He does not like this ‘Reverse Santa Claus’ business at all. He very nearly steps out of the living room to search for Lorna outside, but then he recognizes that his sudden departure would be way too obvious. He needs to act like there is nothing wrong as long as he can; because if the old man recognizes that he is getting under his skin, then the old man is liable to push his demand that much harder. Better to play it cool and to recruit Kathy to go outside and to find her.
He scans the living room without breaking his smile. He finds Kathy near the kitchen door. She is obviously exhausted and unhappy; and he really hates to drag her more into this drama; but as far as he can tell, he has no choice. So he gestures for her to come on over. She gives him a look, but finally complies.
I need you to find your Aunty Lorna, Gilmore whispers.
Still doing her errand, huh? Kathy snarls.
She should be back by now, Gilmore says. Bring her back here, no matter if she has finished her errand. I do not know what I am going to do without her.
Always picking up the pieces for the white man, Kathy says, while she is rolling her eyes towards the ceiling.
Enough lip, girl, Gilmore bites back. Now, just do it. The last time I saw her she was going outside.
But it’s all wet out there, Kathy moans.
Gilmore stares her down cold. She responds with her patented pissed off black girl look. The standoff lasts only a few seconds, and then she heads down the hall. She is carrying still the silver tray by her side. Gilmore sees it, but he does not bother to tell her to leave it here. He is happy enough just to observe her doing what he requests. He does not want to piss her off so much she balks.
I want your husband to turn off the lights, Breck says after a while. Put a little extra fear into that ‘spook show’ of his. That’s what I want for Christmas; and come Jesus and Mary and the Red Nosed Reindeer, that’s what I’m going to get. So you think you really can make that happen for me, Reverse Santa Claus?
I’m the Queen of the North Pole, Margaret responds in jest. I imagine my elves will turn off the lights when I tell them to do so.
Breck chuckles lecherously. Margaret pushes off of his lap, and yet again takes center stage. The oldsters and the interns applaud with vigor, as if she is about to do something remarkable. She just holds up her hands, smiles with all the demure sweetness of her Southern pride, and urges her fans to listen to her next comments with rapt attention.
Oh, my sweet, little elves, Margaret says while looking around the room.
There is another round of chuckles and catcalls. The men are altogether enamored with the idea that they are ‘Margaret’s Elves’ in this kinky game. Not sure yet what that means, but it does not matter so long as in the course of the ‘family friendly fun’ Margaret loses her bathrobe. Now, that will be something to talk about around the water cooler in the years to come.
You heard the Breckster, Margaret says with a smile. Time to turn off all the lights in the house. Well, come on, snap to it, my elves.
The oldsters look at one another, chuckle stupidly, shrug their shoulders as if to say ‘what the hell,’ and proceed to stampede about the living room and down the hall looking for whatever light switches they can find. It takes longer than it otherwise should, since they are all well passed the safe driving limit in this jurisdiction. Boone stumbles into the kitchen, where he proceeds to unzip, to pull out his ‘Little Boone,’ and to leave a puddle for Lorna or Kathy to clean.
What are you doing? Gilmore asks Margaret incredulously.
Just having a little fun, Margaret responds.
But the lights, Gilmore mutters…
Oh, I see, Margaret says with a knowing grin. You are afraid that the old man will be sorely disappointed, once all the lights are turned off, and nothing happens. Because we both know that your fear makes about as much sense as a boy frightened out of his wits by the boogeyman in the closet. So, really, dear, put a smile on your face, and join in on the fun. Isn’t that better than standing there with that sourpuss look on your face?
Honey, you don’t understand, Gilmore begins to say…
But then he stops himself. There is a look in her eye that he knows from the years that they have been tied at the hip, first as lawyer and assistant, and more recently as husband and wife. She is a great con woman, perhaps the best he ever will see in this lifetime, but he simply knows her too well not to notice her deception. Even as gifted a performance artist as Houdini could not veil his sleight of hand forever from his own wife.
You know it is true, Gilmore whispers. You understand everything…
Margaret steps forward. She softly puts her left middle and index fingers over his lips. She whispers Shhhh, and then winks at him as if to say, ‘stop your scaredy-cat worrying; everything’s gonna be peachy; just trust me on this one.’
Gilmore removes her fingers. He looks pleadingly into her beautiful face.
Honey, don’t do this, Gilmore whispers.
Someone finally finds the living room light switch. The lights go out, and the oldsters still in the living room let out a collective, nervous laugh. This is a silly game to them, like grown men letting themselves be scared shitless by the audio and visual effects in the Haunted House in Disneyland. Pretend you are as scared as a little boy; and, voila, eventually the old fears of yesteryear manage to creep back. The boogeyman really is not too far behind us, it turns out, even when we embrace adulthood and presume to put childish nonsense in its place. And that is what is happening right now. The giddy men are starting once more to catch a glimpse of the old boogeyman, and they are not sure if they want to.
Gilmore is paralyzed with fear, as he listens to the heavy footsteps come down the staircase and out from the side rooms. Presumably, the elves are now returning to the Queen of the North Pole, after having switched off the lights in every room. There is a momentary scuffle, as the tipsy bastards smash into one another in the first floor hall. Nevertheless, though they are too drunk really to know what the heck they are doing, all but one manages to stagger back to the living room. Only Boone remains lost in the kitchen. That is just as well. He has such a bad ticker he is likely to get a heart attack, if he sees that ‘spook show.’
* * *
The rain sounds and feels as if a barrage of machine gun bullets, blasting into the churning lake surface, and spitting up sand and foam from deep inside open veins in the earth. The lake is the flesh being torn to shreds in a No Man’s Land between warring trenches; the one side heaven, the other hell; the famed Maginot Line rubbed invisible by the crazed storm. The sand and the foam slosh onto the shoreline, like blood tossed out from huge buckets. The pier wobbles, no more than a flimsy collection of wet sticks in a wind howl; and yet it stands still. Perhaps, there are more corpses meant to be tossed over the edge. If that alone is why the pier withstands the assault, then surely fate is among the very strongest of forces in the world; mightier than anything the laughing devils may toss at them. Regardless, the entire scene suggests that the great war between the powers and the principalities is not much removed from the cry of this one.
And yet notwithstanding all this mayhem, a solitary, scraped, dark hand reaches out from beneath the foam and grabs a hold of an exposed, gnarly tree root along the shoreline. The fingers do not wrap around the wet root, so much as they dig into the spongy mud skin.
Another hand reaches out from beneath the foam. This one is tentative, searching, like a sentient life in its own right trying to figure out the ideal way to grab a hold of that root and to pull up what remains underwater. It manages to yank the root partially free from the mud, so that it extends outward like an old, knotty rope that had been buried there long ago.
Both hands grip the rope; and the seventy something, black woman, left for dead at the bottom of the lake, now scourged by the screaming rain, climbs out from the lake. She drops her knees onto the shoreline. She slithers up a tall slope of mud and grime, spitting out brown water, and breathing in the insane, electrified winds. She winces from pain, but smiles too in gratitude to be alive.
She reaches the lawn, and collapses. She realizes all too well that now is not the time to rest; but the bent stalks striking against her skin whisper sweet nothings. They tell her that there is time, plenty of time, a moment to lay near the mad waters, and yet simultaneously to know the peace of an endless, calm sea. Let the angels and the devils fight their battle. Her life does not belong to them, no matter what the white man on high says with his condescending eyes.
But Kathy is in there, Lorna whispers.
She pushes herself up enough to crawl forward. She can see the house in the distance. Those damned fools are turning off the lights one by one. Gilmore cannot stop them, and he probably has not released Kathy from her obligations as of yet. That means she is in there, perhaps still passing around that tray full of appetizers, oblivious to the horror that is about to be unleashed.
* * *
Kathy stands under the eaves. She is hardly protected from the rain, for the howling winds snap it up from the muddy lawn and push it horizontally into whatever happens to be in its direct path. She holds the silver tray by her side, like it is a shield; and she scans the darkness ahead of her, like she is a warrior scout about to do battle with the screaming banshees out there in the shadows.
That is her posture, but in fact she does not feel anything like a warrior. She is a frightened girl, exhausted from trying to skirt away from all those old, arthritic fingers and thumbs, but much more so scared that her great aunt may be lost somewhere in this storm. She hates how the white man inside presumed that he had the right to order her great aunt to venture out here for any damn reason; but even more so, she hates how her great aunt did not flinch when he had told her to do so. Perhaps, it is a ‘generation thing,’ like every last oldster over thirty has yet to get the memo that Barack Hussein Obama is in the White House. God, she hopes she is never like them, when she is over thirty years old.
Is that someone crawling through the wet lawn? Kathy thinks with alarm.
She drops her silver tray, and runs forward without any further thought.
That is Lorna. She is sure of it, even though the gurgling clouds overhead have veiled so much of the moonlight that it is impossible to tell for sure who or what is on its knees out there. She pushes the raindrops away, as if they are a bunch of gnat swarming into her face. Nothing is going to get in her way now, as she picks up her quick pace when she sees finally that that is her great aunt.
Lorna is about to collapse a second time into the mud, when Kathy grabs a hold of her. Kathy helps Lorna to sit upright on her knees. They look carefully into each other’s eyes. Lorna’s seem confused, slipping in and out of what bits of consciousness she still has, grasping to make sense of how it is that Kathy, or a girl who looks a whole lot like Kathy, is standing out here beside her. Kathy’s are alarmed, questioning, hoping to God that her great aunt is not going to dip into mental darkness right in front of her face.
* * *
The Queen of the North Pole instructs one of her elves to slide the living room coffee table off to the side. She orders everyone else to stand against the walls. They comply without question, even though she voices her ‘order’ with a sweet, little girl tone that they would not find all that compelling under normal circumstances. Of course, this is not a normal circumstance. There seems to be as much wine as blood flowing through the veins of everyone assembled, which is disorienting enough. Then, add into the mix how every oldster is now a seven or eight year old boy, recalling out from the dark fog the boogeyman who used to inhabit their closets way back when, and sensing vaguely in the back of their minds that the ‘spook show’ about to be unveiled will be more real than sleight of hand, more real than special effects; the kind of mystery that will remain as inexplicable as ever, but which they will not be able to pass off as a mind trick.
The Queen of the North Pole stands dead center in the living room. Since it is so dark, it is impossible to see her as anything, but a black shadow, holding out her hands with all the drama and the grace of a seasoned stage dancer, and tilting her beautiful profile upward as if in awed contemplation of the Spirit of God descending from on high. She really is a lovely witch, a simple rose waiting for this very moment to blossom in the dark. The KFC oldsters and interns had sensed this about her sometime ago. It is part of her allure, a major reason she is so much loved and feared within the carpeted halls. Right now, as she twirls about the shadows in the middle of the room, they need not sense anything, so much as they can see her in the total darkness unobstructed. Her life is naked, bare and beautiful, before them; and all they can do is to stare at her shadows in silence, and to sense how she inspires equal measures of loathing and desire.
Gilmore slowly steps backward, until he is more inside the first floor hall than the living room. He knows that he cannot stop it now. Sure, he can switch on one of the lights. Indeed, he is no more than a few feet from one of the old light switches at this time; but he knows that they would turn it off in seconds, and most likely dispose of him. There is no stopping a mesmerized crowd when it is hell bent on communing with the demons. He would be about as successful as a lone Zionist storming onto the grounds of the Nuremberg Rally with his flag in one hand and a megaphone in the other. Hell hath no greater fury, but for a prophet; and so Gilmore decides to do nothing at all, but to look away just as it gets really intense. At the very least, he wants to save himself from the sordid, convoluted nightmares he had after the last time that he saw the ‘spook show.’
Breck and Berkeley have not joined the others along the walls. Breck has a mind of his own, and Berkeley wants to be nearby to help him. The two men, holding hands like an old, married couple, smiling like a couple of teenagers on the hunt for pussy at a summer camp, have no idea that they are merely inches away from a ticking time bomb. Ignorance is bliss, until the melting flesh tears away from the bones.
Mother of Time, Whore of Dreams, Gatekeeper of Ghosts, open the vault between ourselves and eternity, so that we may see as the dead see, and know as the damned know, our eyes opened to the creature lurking in the blackest of hearts, the Queen intones, while finishing her dance, and twirling off the floor.
There is absolute silence, except for the wind and the rain battering the house. Every eye stares down at the living room floor. Even Gilmore goes along with the others, though he knows all too well the nightmare that is about to be unearthed beneath his hardwood floor. Deep down, far beneath his fear, he has stumbled upon a feeling that he had presumed impossible, given what occurred the last time. It is out of left field, but unmistakable. He actually wants to see what is about to be unearthed. He desires that nightmare, as if it is a lost love, long ago forced out of his mind by years of therapy, but now here to be kissed, fondled, and cherished all over again.
Gilmore feels a hand touching his. He does not have to look over to feel that it is Margaret. For him, she is not the Queen, but rather the sweet, strong, Southern bride who looks out for him better than he looks out for himself. Just moments ago, he had loathed her for ordering those elves to turn off the lights. He had feared her for her willingness to dabble with the darkness. Now, sensing what is good about this ‘spook show,’ what is desirable, he welcomed his loving wife by his side. Strange, how his feelings should change on a dime; but once it is dark enough, our moral restraint, our discernment, even our sense of seconds and minutes of time, all that reason gets thrown out the window, and trampled underfoot by the wind and the rain.
I’m doing this for you, Margaret whispers.
I know, Gilmore smiles, and squeezes her hand.
Ten slow and heavy seconds go by; then thirty; then a full minute; then, awkwardly, a few minutes. Nothing happens; and the mesmerized start to look at one another and to shuffle on their feet. Breck breaks the silence, when the gruff, old cowboy pushes himself off of the old couch, and points an accusatory finger toward the Queen. Berkeley stays by his left side to support his balance. Berkeley had never expected anything, or so he tries to tell himself now, and in his view it will be fine enough if Margaret eats crow and gives them their coats.
What’s the meaning of this? Breck snarls.
Margaret drops Gilmore’s hand, and steps forward. She is immediately in character. She has to be strong, lest she lose her elves at this key moment. She remembers how Jesus Christ had lost most of His disciples. He would not regain most of them, notwithstanding His miracles; so she realizes that it is incumbent upon her not to lose them in the first place. A disaster here, of course, will set back her husband for years, perhaps forever; but she has a selfish motivation as well. She put four corpses in the lake, so far as she knows; and she just cannot abide the idea that all that work on her part should go to waste.
It’s simple, the Queen says without missing a beat. There must be a light on somewhere.
That satisfies everyone at once. Of course, there must be a light on. It is a big house, and the elves must admit to themselves that they are not the most sober at this time. Somebody missed a room, that is all; or maybe something as small and unremarkable as a boy’s night light partially hidden behind furniture.
Check every corner, the Queen commands in the same little girl tone she had used before. Find the light, and smash the damned thing.
The old elves let out a collective, nervous chuckle. Even Breck grunts in affirmation. He waddles back to the couch, and Berkeley helps him sit down on his saggy, ash stained cushion. Berkeley is a bit peeved, though he hides it from Breck, as he had presumed frankly that this party was about to come to an end.
Well, let’s snap to it, the Queen says with good cheer.
The elves disperse. They are more solemn than before. Even though the first attempt had been a misfire, they remain as gripped in that nightmare that they have been carrying around with them since childhood. The promise of fun, the allure of kinkiness, the hope that the Queen might lose her bathrobe when the ‘spook show’ came to an end, all that is gone. Now, this is just business, an ugly, sick, coldblooded show, one that they each intend to see to the very end.
* * *
What are you doing out here? Kathy asks, after managing slowly to assist Lorna in getting to her feet.
Lorna does not reply. She is nauseous and weak. Her knees buckle. Lorna is going to fall again to the ground, except that Kathy is careful to keep a hand upon her. Still, with the world spinning and the wind screaming into her ears, it is a wonder she just does not go mad completely at that moment. Resiliency is a strong restraint against madness; and right now, with Kathy safe and sound at her side, Lorna has no other resolve but to stop what is about to happen inside.
Lorna hopes that what she did in the master bedroom will suffice to put a stop to the madness; but even if so, it is only a temporary restraint. Margaret is not stupid. She will discover the small act of sabotage, switch it off, and set out once more to play with something the magnitude of which she cannot know until it is too late for her and for every one else in there.
Must turn on a light inside, Lorna whispers.
Kathy does not respond. Perhaps, on account of the maelstrom all about them she does not hear; or perhaps, she is too worried about Lorna just then to be all that aware of what Lorna is actually trying to say to her. Sometimes, we can be too focused in on those we love, especially when everything else seems to be falling around us. If this is the case, then Lorna must snap Kathy out of it.
Lorna slaps Kathy. She is not strong enough to hurt her. She has no such desire anyway. She just hopes to stun the adolescent girl into paying attention; and based upon Kathy’s immediate reaction, the slap seems to have worked its magic. Perhaps, the slap works too well, since Kathy’s immediate reaction is to raise her hand to slap back. Lucky for them both, Kathy stumbles to her senses.
What the hell? Kathy asks in a tone that is equally pissed off and scared.
Listen to me, Lorna says in a stronger voice. You must go inside and turn on a light. Anyone will do…
What are you talking about? Kathy asks.
She’s liable to pull the fuses, Lorna thinks aloud.
Come on, Kathy says, while wrapping her arm around Lorna and trying to walk her back towards the big house. We’ve got to get out of the rain. You are speaking nonsense…
Listen, child, Lorna interrupts. I understand that none of this makes any sense. You just need to trust me. There is a flashlight in the backseat of my car over there. The door is unlocked. Take it, and turn it on inside the living room. Shine it at the floor, no matter what the others tell you. Just keep shining it at the floor; and, by all means, do not look at anything in there. Now, you will do this for me without question, okay? Look me in the eye. See that I have not lost any marbles. Then, go fetch that flashlight, and go do what I say without delay.
You’re not making any sense, Kathy whines.
Look me in the eye, Lorna snaps irritably. There is no more time for this.
Kathy looks Lorna in the eye. It is hard to see much of anything, because the moonlight has been obscured by so many storm clouds. Nevertheless, Kathy feels Lorna’s underlying sanity. None of this makes any sense, but Lorna simply is not crazy. Still, Kathy does not want to leave Lorna out here in the hard rain.
Come in out of the rain first, Kathy urges.
Do what I say, child, Lorna scolds her. Do it now!
Kathy hesitates a moment longer. Then, she capitulates. She lowers her great aunt to the ground, so that Lorna is standing upright on her knees in cold mud. Kathy beholds her great aunt in this supplicant posture. Kathy shed a sad, lonely tear; and then runs toward the Volkswagen Bug parked beside the house.
* * *
Gilmore surmises what has happened, before his wife orders the elves to search the house for the light that is still on. He feels a cold, throbbing ache in his bowels, because as soon as he knows what has happened, he determines to undo it. Lorna is behind this. She only had wanted to protect them all from the ‘spook show,’ and he realizes that he should respect and love her for this. Still, the dye has been cast; and so he is going to undo with his own bare hands what she had done. In a way, he will be betraying his ‘black mama,’ and he feels bad about that; but deeper down, he is more determined to see this horror through to the end. The show must go on. There is no other viable choice, he concludes in his mind, notwithstanding how much he had struggled against all this earlier.
Gilmore slips down the hall, and then up the staircase, before the elves set out to do the bidding of the Queen of the North Pole. He looks down all the time, like a little boy who is about to do something terribly wrong, even though he knows all too well that he is going to be punished sorely soon afterwards. He is ashamed of himself; but he also wallows in his shame; and this preoccupation with his own sin frees his mind of any doubt about doing what he is going to do.
He slips into the master bedroom. There is a chill in the air, and he stops cold for a moment. His first impulse is to close the window, but midway over to the window he sees that it had been closed already. Most likely, Lorna had shut the window, while going from room to room in search of Barbie and Ken. She is a conscientious maid, never the kind to leave something undone within her line of vision, and so she would have shut this window as her first order of business.
Anyway, the chill he had felt in this room had had nothing to do with the storm wind beating against the window. It had not been cold, so much as heavy and grey, as if a pall thrown over his eyes by a murderer hiding in the shadows. The murderer has blood dripping from his hands, Gilmore imagines. That blood is not old enough to have coagulated as of yet, so it continues to drip into a big puddle in between the feet of the murderer and to spread like a fan across the master bedroom floor. Indeed, even now, that blood sloshes against the side of Gilmore’s right shoe. He tries to kick it away, but that is now a useless gesture.
Actually, there is no blood, Gilmore reminds himself; but there is death, plenty of it, some from long ago, one in particular from a murder committed in this room earlier this same night. He practically can hear the victim, screaming out for vengeance from within the imagined blood at his feet, and wailing cold, lonely sadness along with the wind rattling the window. Turn on the lights, and this room is as unremarkable as the others; but turn them off, and this room is a horror show of lives vanquished too soon and ambitions stalled before victory.
Time to reveal all things, before there is a blood dripping murderer, real or imagined, in every corner and behind every shadow, Gilmore reasons. Or this nasty business may get out of hand.
And letting the damned ‘spook show’ go forward shows restraint? Lorna’s voice whispers in the back of his mind.
Gilmore stops a moment to listen to his ‘black mama.’ She does not even try to say anything else. Maybe, she knows that he is too far gone for salvation. Regardless, with her voice gone, Gilmore feels no more restraint pressing down on his shoulders. He is freed to turn off the nightlight and to let that dark show continue downstairs. Indeed, right now, he has never felt freer about anything; and so he cannot help but grin, when he finds the nightlight and switches it off.
* * *
As it turns out, Gilmore need not have worried about the nightlight. Just after ordering her elves to switch off the last remaining light, the Queen thinks about the fuse box in the garage. How foolish that she had not thought about it earlier, but no matter. There is time still to make the show a success; and, in a way, it is better that the first attempt had been a misfire. Now, when the elves return to their places against the walls, they will be that much more wound up.
The Queen pulls the fuses. She steps through the door that leads into the kitchen from the garage. There is a man upon the floor, leaning up against the washing machine, and snoring like a freight train about to derail. Poor man will miss the show, the Queen mutters, as she steps over his feet, and grins regally.
She steps back into the living room. She views Breck and Berkeley sitting in darkness across the room. She smiles at them, though she is sure that it is so dark that they cannot see the mischief behind her grin. This is just as well, for her devious grin says, ‘Enjoy the show, as long as you can, because when this is over, Gilmore and I shall be standing, and you and the others will be silly putty in my hands. Oh, that’s right, just old man silly putty, the kind I can squeeze…’
And then the moan bursts out from everywhere at once. The Queen eyes the living room windows. They are rattling as before, and so the sound likely is not a sudden upsurge in the storm outside. Indeed, the longer the moan sinks in and out of the shadows, the less it sounds like anything from this world. Maybe, upon reflection, it is more accurate to say that it does not sound like anything from this time. It is too primordial, too deep, a guttural cry from the lava beds sliming up from the core of the earth. At the same time, it is slow and thick, as if a solitary wave rippling along the floor of a dense, dead lake. Either way, the moan calls to mind the earth before life, when lifelessness reigned over an ugly and vicious world. It is the time back to which the dead are called. For old and new corpses, those long since ground back to dust, and those not yet even cold to the touch, the world is a barren, hot, poisonous place. There is no refuge for them, except in the shadows. There is no life for them, except in the memories preserved in haunted houses and in strange rituals. Finally, there is no purpose for them, except in adding to their numbers, until both sides of the murky, sad River Styx are equally cluttered with skeletons rattling in the wind, and corpses gnawed by rats, and tombstones wiped bare by centuries of sun and rain.
The elves sneak back into the living room. They are silent, solemn, like a bunch of stooped, old ladies twiddling rosary beads with gnarled fingers. There is despair in their eyes, resignation to relive a nightmare once thought buried a long time ago, and hopeless submission to the call of the night. The elves really are sheep. The moan leads them back into the slaughterhouse, where they cast down their eyes and wring their hands in anticipation of the blood-dripped axe.
Only Breck has a smile on his face. He rubs his hands together, like a fat, greedy boy about to be served his favorite ice cream sundae.
Once every elf returns to his place, and Gilmore sneaks unobserved back into the living room, the moan gives way to the sound of ice crackling. Not iced cubes in a cocktail, but rather a sheet of ice spread over a vast lake on the first day of spring. By the afternoon, the ice will be gone; but in the morning hours, it remains a skin thin sheet clear enough to reveal the dark blue, churning, lake water just beneath the surface. A child, or an especially malnourished adult, is able to stand upon that ice still and to stare down at the endless drop of water beneath his shoes. It is the illusion of walking on water, but for the cracks that are heard in the distance and that remind the ice walker that indeed it is just a matter of time before his part of the ice sheet snaps in two and his Jesus claim comes to an end. Still, it is a surreal vision of lake water falling endlessly into a cold, blue abyss, while the sky above ascends as much into the heavens; and so no matter the warning of imminent danger, it plays upon the imagination, even more so the nightmares, just enough to reveal hints of what lies beneath us all.
Everyone looks down. The living room floor looks like it is churning. Dark shadows snake just inches over the top of the surface. They snap upward; then, swoosh back into the hardwood; gurgling, chuckling, hissing, like they are dark snakes writhing about the inside of a murky stew. All that activity appears both to please and to anger them, assuming such emotions may be attributed to the instinctual and reactive minds of vipers caught inside of a witch’s cauldron. Not a rational conclusion, to be sure; and yet as the writhing floor dance continues, everyone in that room senses a deep, dark, eternal intelligence underlying that fervent activity. It is that intelligence that gurgles, or chuckles, or hisses, then whispers inside the inner ear of every person assembled there. It offers them a simple message, but it is so compelling that every last person there feels taken over, possessed, overwhelmed, rendered stiff, brittle, and vacant, like a dried, grey corpse that will break apart the moment a slight breeze caresses its flesh.
And this is the simple, concise message: Behold the dead! You are next…
The writhing floor dance stops suddenly. A sheet of dark, blue light then spreads across the floor. As everyone stares into this light, it looks more like an old, overstretched, bluish, ice skin wrapped so tightly over a bubbling cauldron of filthy lake water that it is about to explode. Nonetheless, it manages to stay in place; and after a few harrowing seconds, it actually settles into the straight and level hardwood as a thin, clear, blue tinged sheet of ice, cracked here and there, but otherwise stable. Beneath the sheet of ice is a world of murky, dead lake water descending into an endless abyss.
They stare into this abyss, like mystified children looking through a sheet of ice to see if they can catch a prehistoric, saber toothed, glassy eyed fish, or a long, electrified, hissing eel, or better yet a sea monster consigned in recent centuries to lore, but once known to be as real as all those mad, gnarled, straw haired witches on brooms. Down there, where it is deep enough, anything then is possible. Indeed, even the dead float about, palms open by their sides, blank eyes staring through the watery graveyard into which they have been entombed by fate and chance. Staring through all this filth to see the dark intelligence on the periphery of eternal death and damnation. Seeing the hideous, smiling face of what? Is it a man, a god, a misfit stuck somewhere in between men and gods and created for no other reason than to laugh at them? The dead do not know. They have eyes that can see, but no minds with which to search; and thus they have no choice but to be frightened, stuck forever in that last, electrical fright that had singed their nerves and twisted their faces the moment death came to them. Theirs is an eternity in suspended animation, the final moment repeated like a single note heard over and over again on a skipping record. Theirs is that dubious ‘eternal life’ offered to those dumped into the lake out back and given over to the sand and the weeds far beneath the surface.
But don’t think yourself better than them. Oh, no, don’t make that error in judgment, because when this little ‘spook show’ is done, and you have been handed your coat and car key, you will know in the back of your mind that you are next. Your time may not be tonight, maybe not even this year, but you are going to be dumped into the lake back there. You can be sure of that, old man.
There is a collective gasp. Cold, wet, raw fear has overtaken everyone in the living room. Even the self-assured Queen of the North Pole grips tightly her husband’s hand. Only Breck continues to smile, because deep down in that lake beneath his feet he just barely makes out the two corpses emerging from inside an underwater cloud. At first, the corpses are nothing more than dark, shadowy blobs; but as they ascend, they take on the distinct form of two human bodies, side by side, hand in hand, facing upward and no doubt seeing the big eyes and gaping mouths of the persons on the other side of the ice sheet looking down at them. They are close enough that Breck and the others can identify their faces: His two-timing, airheaded, cheap slut of a wife, Barbie, on the right side; and, on the left, the handsome, airheaded, gigolo lawyer, Blake, aka ‘Ken’ for those who had surmised already that he was having an affair with the old man’s wife.
Barbie and Ken bump into the ice sheet. There is a loud thump, which is not confused with the windows rattling in the storm. Everyone screams, except for Breck; but they are much too transfixed in horror to move from their places along the side of the wall. All that they can do is to look down in mind numbing terror at the bluish grey, sad, dead souls staring back up at them from eternity.
The tops of their foreheads protrude outward, like they had been struck from behind at the last moment. Indeed, death had snuck up from behind them this restless night. It had struck the back of their heads with the underside of a shovel. It had been over before they knew what had hit them. For that reason, there is a quizzical expression on both their faces, as if forevermore the lovers, side by side, and hand in hand, will be wondering how it is that they ended up in this cold, dark lake. Apart from the protruding foreheads and quizzical looks, they are as handsome as before.
Breck sees just how beautiful they are; and his anticipatory smile falters for that first time, since the Queen raised the curtain on the ‘spook show.’ This is just not right, he thinks. What right have they to be together still? Which law court judge has been so lenient as to let them remain at peace, while he is just an old, arthritic, forgetful man sliding a bit faster every day into his own grave?
Breck struggles to his feet. Berkeley is too stunned to hold him back, not that he would have succeeded anyway, given Breck’s fierce determination just then. Breck has been waiting for this moment since he first learned the details about the ‘spook show,’ and now he feels totally robbed of his satisfaction. For Breck, this is worse than a failed stage show. This is a goddamned injustice the likes of which he has not seen since juries started to condemn white men in his county for murdering colored men.
Wipe that grin off your faces, Breck screams down at the two deceased lovers, as he clenches his fists by his sides and dribbles sweat off his huge chin.
In fact, they are not grinning. They are confused. Their contorted, bluish lips imply that they are about to inquire what the heck is going on around here.
But that is not what Breck sees. In his mind, they are smiling in the soft, relaxed way that suggests that they had had sex only minutes before. Goddamn them for enjoying their plight.
I condemn you, Breck screams, as he points an accusatory finger towards them, and stomps up and down like a boy having a silly temper tantrum. I have studied the evidence and returned a verdict of guilty. Do you hear me, you two lovebirds? That is ‘Guilty,’ with a capital ‘G.’ No appeals allowed. No leniency permitted in the sentencing guidelines. Nothing granted, but an order from the court and a dip to the bottom of a lake. So wipe off that grin! Lose it, assholes!
Another corpse floats up from an underwater cloud. It is a pretty, young woman with long hair strands fanning behind her head. The top of her forehead also protrudes forward. The expression on her face calls to mind a soft, purring sex kitten. She had been cut down while sexually charged in her own mind; and notwithstanding the restraints of death, she seems still to be experiencing that orgasm that had burst in her imagination the moment a wet shovel landed upon the back of her head and took her down.
There is a loud thump, when she bounces back from the underside of the ice sheet. Again, everyone scream, though this time in a more subdued manner that suggests that they are as resigned as they are scared shitless by everything unfolding before their eyes.
Gilmore squeezes his wife’s hand. He recognizes the pretty intern what’s her name. She had been ready for him, ready and willing; and surely, he would have taken the opportunity offered, if he had not been preoccupied with trying to dissuade the old man. But that ship has passed, and now there is nothing left for him, but his guilt in knowing that somehow his interest in her had led her to this premature grave.
The Queen squeezes Gilmore’s hand just as hard. This one is meant just for you, the Queen thinks with equal measures of fear and satisfaction pumping through her iced cold veins. I do so much for you, darling. The least you can do is to remain faithful to your vows.
Another corpse floats up from an underwater cloud. The Queen expects to see what she derisively refers to as ‘the colored maid.’ After all, her darling husband needs to learn that showing too much devotion to a mother figure is as contemptible as violating the vows of holy matrimony. He should look upon his wife as his ‘mother’ and his ‘lover,’ since she gives so much of herself for him…
The Queen loses her train of thought, when she observes that that is not Lorna. Rather, it is a small, white girl, no more than five or six years old, quiet in her shyness, withdrawn in her moral purity. She is clothed in the kind of soft gown and bonnet a girl her age would have worn circa 1900. She is clutching an old, leather bound Bible by her heart, as if the look on her face at the moment of death is not virginal enough.
Like the others, the little girl bumps into the ice sheet, and then settles a few inches beneath it. No one screams this time. They are all too terrified to break out from their nightmares. One of the elves clutches his heart, and slides down the wall in slow motion, until he is sitting upright upon the ice sheet; but otherwise there is now no reaction to this newest addition to the ‘spook show.’
Next, three small corpses float up. They are siblings ranging from around ten to three, side by side, hand in hand, much like Barbie and Ken. The crucial difference is that their heads float several inches above their necks. The three siblings had been decapitated, before they had been tossed into the filthy lake. Judging by the clothes that they are wearing, this crime must have occurred in the first few decades of the nineteenth century.
Next, there is a tall, athletic man in his mid-twenties dressed in the fine red coat of a British soldier circa 1770. His eyes had been gouged out, probably because he had been a British spy caught in the act. His lips are contorted in an expression of unimaginable pain. No doubt, the patriots had gouged out both of his eyes, while he had been alive and thus able to feel every last bit of the pain inflicted. Neither King George nor General Cornwallis can relieve his pains now, no matter that he had offered up his soul to help them achieve their ambitions.
Next, there is a huge, naked, black man with a collar and a broken chain rattling still off his considerable neck. He is likely a runaway slave captured by a bounty hunter and tossed into the sink. The haggard expression upon his face suggests that he is running through the field even now in search of his freedom.
Next, there is an American Indian in loincloth. His head and limbs are all where they should be, except that they are inches separated out from the neck or the torso. Moreover, he has his own partially eaten heart clenched inside of his blood stained teeth. There is a hole in his chest, where his murderers sliced out his heart just before he had given up his ghost to the laughing gods on high.
More American Indians follow. Each corpse is similarly dismembered; the victims of a macabre mutilation cult that apparently had taken root here a long time before the white men introduced their unique horrors to the scene. Every last one of the American Indians has a stoic expression upon his face. For all of the pains inflicted on them at the end, they had maintained their resolve to die as men. Even the occasional American Indian female exhibits the same resolve; discipline born from living so close to death, faith sharpened in their hard lives.
Breck does not see any of the others. He continues to fixate upon Barbie and Ken. His accusatory finger trembles, as his black heart feels like it is about to beat through his chest and to fall into the lake. His knees wobble, perhaps a sign of imminent heart failure, but more likely an indication that he is too mad to remain much longer contained in his own flesh. He is like a monster bursting out from beneath his own skin; a monster that wants to jump into that lake and to wring the necks of those two contented lovebirds looking back up at him. No doubt, Breck has lost his mind; but more critically, he has lost his old soul also; and what is left is a trembling, sputtering fool clothed in his green cowboy suit.
I condemn you; Breck seethes. ‘Guilty’ before the eyes of God and men…
Breck tumbles forward. He crashes through the ice sheet, and he sinks at breakneck speed into one of the underwater clouds. No one can hear if he tries to scream underwater, because the guttural moan returns with a vengeance as soon as he splashes into the murky depths. The moan is so loud that many elves cover up their ears, and slide down the wall to the floor. The ice sheet crackles beneath their weight, but they are in far too much pain and delirium to notice.
Berkeley belatedly springs to his feet to try to retrieve the old man. The old man is gone already, but that does not stop Berkeley from jumping into the lake where the ice sheet had cracked in two. He is waist deep in the lake when he cries out in pain and reaches for the couch behind him. He manages to yank himself out of the lake somehow, but everything beneath his waistline remains in the sink. His torso bleeds uncontrollably all over the couch cushions, as he is scrambling still to pull himself upward with his hands. He stares up at the black ceiling, screams in agony, shakes his right fist at heaven, and collapses into his untimely death. His corpse slides down the bloody couch. It falls over the edge, and splashes into that murky lake. Its arms stretch out, as it sinks into oblivion, so that at the end it looks as if it is offering praise worship to the beasts below.
Where’s the bitch? The Queen whispers, while bending to one knee so as to take a much closer look into the abyss below the ice sheet. Where’s Lorna? I don’t understand. She should be staring up at me now with her big, dumb eyes.
One of the elves lets out a bloodcurdling scream. He shoots his hands up, like he is playing ‘cops and robbers,’ and falls face forward into that ice sheet. For a few seconds it holds him up, while he is face to face with a dismembered American Indian. Then, after a loud and extended crackling sound, the ice just around him smashes inward. He lands on the American Indian corpse, and both sink several feet into the lake water. He then rolls off of the corpse and begins to free fall into a gurgling cloud far below. So far as anyone can tell, he makes no attempt to swim back up. Death grabs a hold of him, and he simply gives up.
While this anonymous elf free falls into a gurgling cloud, Breck’s corpse, waterlogged, bluish grey, and still snarling condemnation at his perceived foes, floats up from the depth. His eyes are open, but the blank stare insinuates that he is not seeing the faces of his fellow attorneys staring down at him, but at an old nightmare that he had spent his lifetime trying to outrun. Now, unable ever again to run away, he just looks upon his fate with that same dumb resignation that he had seen over the years on the faces of his vanquished clients. He ends up lying beside his wife, Barbie, who is now sandwiched between her lover and her husband in an eternal ménage a trois. Somehow, they seem as if tied at the hip all along; the old racist, the young man on the make, and the cheap whore.
Berkeley floats up not too far behind his former friend. His torso remains several inches above his legs, thus reminding him into eternity that he had had the luck to be cut down the middle like the infant brought before Solomon. The dismemberment is bad enough; but what is immeasurably worse for him is that he ends up too far from Breck to reach out to him. He has no one to prop up for all eternity, no one that he can claim as a confidant, nothing around but water.
That damned maid, the Queen snarls. Couldn’t be a good and proper old colored woman and call it a lifetime. Oh, no, she’s got to survive her trip down into the lake. She’s out there still, poking her nose into my affairs, drenched as a wet muskrat, but coming on strong, regardless. That’s the problem with help, since we began to pay attention to them. They insist on surviving as many dark and stormy nights as the Good Lord will give to them. Just how uppity they are!
The Queen clenches her fists, and storms down the hall. Subconsciously, Gilmore steps out of her way; but in fact he is not aware that his wife has left him to pursue her own fixated anger to its logical end. He is totally alone in the darkest corner of his imagination, a place of screaming shadows, a blood horror that seems to go into eternity, but most likely lasts only a few minutes at most.
* * *
The Queen pulls open the sliding door. While she remains under the eave directly outside the sliding door, the rain beats against her horizontally. Indeed she is as wet as a muskrat within seconds; and with her auburn hair (now black due to the excess of rainwater) sticking on her face, and her breaths trembling as much from fear as from anger, she is no more the confident, lovely showman weaving an hypnotic spell over the men. She is just Margaret, long time pretty, elitist legal assistant, and more recent wife of an aspiring associate attorney. It is sad, in a way, to see her so humbled by the storm; but lucky for her ego just then, she is not aware just how pathetic she appears.
Margaret scans the maelstrom in front of her. She cannot even make out that boat shed across the way, let alone distinguish a black woman in the thick, shivering shadows everywhere.
She is about to give up, when she eyes a pinprick of light jostling in and out of the darkness to her right. It could be a quirky reflection from the moon, but she does not think so. For starters, it is slowly, but surely, moving in space about four feet or so over the muddy lawn. Moreover, it is moving towards her, deliberately, intelligently, like it intends also to drop her into that sink tonight.
Margaret grabs a hold of the shovel that she had left in the shadows next to the sliding door. It is extraordinarily heavy in her hands. She almost slams to her knees; and for the first time this night, she seriously wonders if she has just enough Southern pride in her blood to make this work.
Still, there is no going back, even if she senses that her attack will go as well as Pickett’s Charge. She hollers into the rain, and charges the light ahead. This is her last campaign; and though she can smell that blood already spitting out of her mouth, and see that darkness overtaking her from all sides, she truly knowsthat she has never been more satisfied than this very moment.
* * *
A loud, spine tingling, electrical hiss bubbles up from inside one of those underwater clouds far beneath the corpses. The enormous power in that sound shakes them to the bone. They still float horizontally just several inches below the ice sheet, but their limbs spasm and their foreheads repeatedly bump upon the underside of that ice.
Cracks spread across the surface. The living room walls shake, as if they are experiencing an earthquake. One of the living room windows smashes, and the maelstrom outside swirls into the scene, like a merciless home invader. The chaos grips the heart of everyone there, and all at once there is pandemonium.
The guests flee for the front door. They push one another aside; and the older ones, weak and exhausted this time of night even before the onset of the horrifying ‘spook show,’ fall unconscious onto the ice sheet.
Then, when it would seem that it could not get any worse, the ice sheet shatters completely. Those who are still standing or lying unconscious upon the ice sink fast into the abyss. As with the others, they do not scream out, or even try to swim back up. It is as if once they are totally submerged beneath the ice blue water, they give up their ghosts, no doubt from fear of whatever they see down there. Death comes quickly when it is time, and it is always time beneath the surface of that water.
Now that the ice sheet is gone, the electrical hiss is even louder, if that is possible. The people who did not fall into the sink cover their ears and fall to their knees. For the lucky ones, eardrums pop; and at once they are deaf to all that horror. The others writhe in the foyer in agony, or stumble backwards into the sink. No one is sane enough to open the front door and to exit, even though it is unlocked, and there is nothing then holding them back.
Gilmore covers his ears, and falls to his knees. Whatever strange passion he had had earlier about seeing the ‘spook show’ is gone. He just wants to turn on the lights and to end the nightmare.
He sees the light switch in the first floor hall. It is only a few feet away; but notwithstanding his focus on that switch, he just cannot manage to drop his hands from his ears long enough to flip it on. Of course, even if he did, it would be a useless effort on his part, since the Queen had pulled the fuses just before the curtain rose on the big show.
Gilmore catches something horrible in his peripheral vision. He manages to turn his head just enough to face the lake in his living room. At first, he does not know what he sees come out of the lake. It is all so extraordinary as almost to be imperceptible; but then, when finally he screams out, he understands the beasts emerging from beneath the water are enormous, electrical eels with red eyes and saber tooted mouths. Their skins glow, like they are radiating hot blue neon inside their spastic, high voltage flesh.
There seems to be an eel for each person still alive. They slither quickly, mercilessly, without any apparent sentience of their own, but rather as fierce, but dumb, tools of a far greater intelligence. When they reach their designated target, they bite down hard with their saber toothed mouths and then coil their electrical bodies around the screaming man’s torso and limbs. They slither back into the sink, taking their target with them, and splashing the ice blue, smelly, dead lake water everywhere as their electrical tails snap briefly on the surface.
* * *
Because of the rain beating into her eyes, Kathy cannot see much before her. She realizes that she is moving in the general direction of the patio. When she gets there she will feel her away along the exterior wall, until she manages to find the sliding glass door handle. She will open the door, step into the home office, and point the flashlight down the hall.
God only knows what that will accomplish, but her great aunty had been insistent. She just wants to do what she had promised, and then get Lorna back inside as soon as possible.
Preoccupied as she is with what she needs to do she neither sees, hears, nor senses anyone about to attack her, until it is almost too late. She just looks up in time to observe a dark form with auburn hair about to swing something or other into her face. Strangely, she can hear how the rain clangs upon the metal and the wood of whatever it is this dark form has in its hands. Hearing that tiny detail in the midst of the chaos all about her shakes her loose from her worried mind. She remains as frightened as before, but in that split second she does not allow that fear to stop her cold. This is remarkable given how the attacker yells as if it is on a warpath; but no matter, as she is so focused now on beating back this attack she probably would not be stopped cold even if the house exploded. Though she never would want to repeat this horrific moment, she feels a clear, almost electrical, exhilaration in being so focused and in the present just then.
Kathy protectively holds her flashlight over her face, and steps off to the side. It is not much of a defensive measure, but it is good enough such that the shovel knocks the flashlight out of her hands, but misses her.
Kathy pounces forward. She grabs a hold of the shovel, and tries to yank it away from the dark form. Her attacker does not give up easily, and so within seconds they are wrestling with one another on the lawn. Each person manages to keep one or two hands on the shovel at any given time, as their tug of war in the mud goes on for God knows how long. Minutes can seem like seconds in the heat of battle, and so neither person can know for sure how long they have had the shovel between them. What matters is that they both recognize that this is a fight to the finish. Only one of them can walk away alive from their madness.
At one point, the dark form gets the upper hand. It straddles Kathy, and it lifts its shovel over to the side to deliver what it hopes will be a mortal blow.
Kathy seems to know that this is the end. All she can do is to cover both her eyes and to cry out in absolute terror.
There is a powerful clang sound. Kathy removes her hands from her eyes to see that Lorna hit the dark form in the back of its head with that same silver tray that Kathy thoughtlessly had carried outside. It does the trick, because the dark form moans, slumps forward, and finally falls to its death on top of Kathy.
Kathy screams, when the corpse smothers her into the wet lawn. She has the same aversion as if a ravenous rat had fallen upon her body and her face. It is horrifying for her to be so intimate with death.
Lorna pulls Kathy out from beneath the corpse. Lorna then falls unto her knees. She had been working on adrenaline; but now that Kathy is safe, she has no more strength in her. All Lorna can do is to gesture toward the flashlight off to the side and to urge Kathy with a pleading look in her eyes to finish the task.
Kathy crawls over to the flashlight. It had turned off when it hit the hard ground. Kathy flicks the switch several times, but she cannot get the light back on. She checks the battery carriage. The batteries are gone.
Kathy crawls about the lawn, feeling for a couple of Duracells in the wet ground, and sensing just how worried Lorna is. Kathy never finds them. Perhaps either she or the dark form had kicked them away during their fight. Regardless of what had happened, they are gone now; and though Kathy never had figured out why she had to go inside with a flashlight, she cries out in agony for having failed to fulfill her great aunt’s request. She crawls over to Lorna, and she hugs her. Lorna hugs her back as best she can, as heavy tears slither out of her eyes.
* * *
As it turns out, it would not have mattered if Lorna’s flashlight had been working when Kathy found it in the grass off to the side. By that time, the final act of the ‘spook show’ had finished. There would be no one left to applaud, as the curtain came crashing down all at once. No ushers to show the audience to the door; no security to lock up the place afterwards; nothing left, but the wet and exhausted work crew still outside in the storm at that moment.
Gilmore is the last one to be taken down. He tries to crawl away, but his eel slithers in between his knees and up to his crotch. It bites into his manhood with the ferocity of a rapid dog. Gilmore screams, while electricity spurts away from his midsection. The eel wraps around his legs, compresses the warm blood out of them, and hauls him back to the lake.
Gilmore had been spared the last time. Perhaps, because he had been a child at the time and had not consented to be in the audience, death had given him a pass. Or perhaps, more maliciously, death had wanted to toy with him in the many nightmares he had since then, before returning to take him down this night. The latter seems more likely, since the intelligence directing this ‘spook show’ no doubt is malevolent. Death is bad, after all. It is dark, pungent, filled with worms and maggots, heard in the rattle of skeleton bones hanging from an old tree, or in the howl of a sad ghost lost in the fog. Life may be good at some moments, but death never is; and so one can almost smell the evil in the air as death triumphs in such a theatrical manner as on this stormy night.
As soon as Gilmore falls into the sink, the lake vanishes as if it never had been there. The living room window is still shattered, of course, and so there is plenty of wind and rain swirling into that space; but otherwise, that living room is as silent and still as if there never had been a party, let alone one that would end so tragically. The stillness is disorienting. It works on the mind in a manner that causes it to forget what had happened here. That is what death desires; so that when it is your time to sink into the lake your fear can be augmented then by the sheer surprise of finding out that in fact you had been all along a mortal human. Immortality is the ruse, you see. It makes death’s bite that much worse at the end, like how an electrical, saber toothed eel may bite into ones crotch.
Lorna and Kathy wait in the Volkswagen until dawn. They go back inside to discover that it is empty of souls, except for Boone. He never sees a moment of that ‘spook show,’ and so that ‘spook show’ leaves him alone. When the two women come upon him, he is fumbling through the coat closet, wondering how it is that no one left with his or her coat the previous night, and cursing the big pain in his forehead that he writes off as a hangover but that in fact is the first sign of a stroke. He will pass out a few minutes after he gets home, and he will be dead before noon. His tired ticker simply has had enough of his shenanigans.
Lorna and Kathy both haul Margaret’s corpse to the end of the pier. They push the dead body over the edge. Lorna reasons that Margaret had wanted so much to see what is down there. Therefore, Margaret can have the honors into eternity. When it is Lorna’s time, she hopes and intends to be buried inside one of those normal, dry land cemeteries, thank you very much.
The police interrogate Lorna and Kathy over the next few months. After all, it is not everyday that an entire law firm goes missing. The two women are careful to keep to their cover story, and without any bodies turning up there is really nothing that the police can do except to list them as ‘missing persons.’ It is just as well, the police reason, since their town is oversaturated with lawyers anyway. Soon enough, another law firm takes that space once occupied by KFC, and it is business as usual among the judges and the pimps.
But it is never business as usual for Lorna and Kathy. It turns out Gilmore had devised his home to Lorna in his will. Gilmore is not officially dead, but the court allows for Lorna to maintain the vacant home. She does her duty with the same stoic resolve as always, except when she has to clean the living room. On those occasions, she senses all that death in the air, and her heart skips a beat.