Short Stories

These are all rough drafts.

Some are here just because they needed a place to rest after fighting their way out of my brain.

Others, if they can convince me of their worthiness, might be destined for publication efforts somewhere. In particular, I'm working on a cycle of horror-fantasy tales called The Secret Places, and I expect I'll be posting these (anywhere from 9 to 27 in total!) here as I complete them.

As such, they can expect to be tweaked and revised as I see fit. I'm not explicitly soliciting criticism, but if you'd care to leave some comments, I might consider reading them.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Meet the New Boss

Doug was thirteen hours into his haunting before he caught on to it. The afternoon's events, while weird, weren't so far out of the ordinary as to warrant deep analysis at the end of the day, and he didn't put things together until finally confronted by his ghost.  Then things just fell into place, and the full weirdness of the day made itself apparent.

The first weird thing had happened around 10:30 that morning, while he had been out looking for work in town.  He visited an office supply store and asked if they were hiring.  The guy behind the counter told him to go to the company's Web site--amusingly, he said "Office Depot dot com" instead of "OfficeMax"--and apply there.  He asked whether Doug had any computer experience.  Doug wasn't sure whether the guy was talking about IT work or sales, but he had both kinds, although the sales experience was 20-odd years in the past.  The guy found this mildly amusing, and joked briefly about the perishability of skills like PC sales.  Doug tried to pass it off, pointing out that in his days as a retail guy, he'd also assembled lots of furniture and display equipment, and so knew almost as much about computer desks as computer disks.

And this reminded him suddenly of Ashley, about whom he hadn't thought for most of that 20 years.  It was while working for her that he'd sold those PCs, built those desks, and assembled the displays.

And it was working for her that had put him off retail work and driven him to seek employment in another field, the field from which he was now retreating in search of a simpler life with less responsibility.

Doug suddenly lost all interest in continuing small talk, and broke off as quickly as possible, thanked the guy, and headed for the exit.

As he was passing through the first glass door into the store's vestibule, he felt a sudden, sharp stab of pain in his chest, from the solar plexus around the right side of his rib cage to the back.  By the time he was exiting the store, the pain was blinding, hitting him in rapid pulses.  He half-walked, half-staggered back to his car, and then had to lean on it for a few seconds to catch his breath.  He was feeling lightheaded.  By the time he slid into the driver's seat, he was beginning to seriously worry that this was some kind of cardiac event.

But within a minute, the pain began to fade, and a minute later, he no longer felt lightheaded.

He turned the key and pulled out of the parking lot.  He had had enough job searching for the day.

It was a half-hour drive from this part of town back to his trailer outside the city limits.  The day was cloudy, threatening rain, but traffic was light, and he made it out of town before the lunch rush started.  But while he maintained a tense alertness, straining to feel every sensation passing through his torso, he found himself drifting off in fugues of a few seconds' duration every few minutes.  It was as if the half-remembered dreams of the previous night, or perhaps of the past few years, were worming their way into his consciousness, doing their damndest to take his eyes off the road.

He parked the car sloppily alongside his trailer, trotted to the dinged-up door, let himself in, and collapsed into a long nap.


Since quitting his previous job, he'd had to rent out his house to make ends meet.  The property was inherited from his parents, and before that had been in his family for generations, so he was determined not to lose any of it.  But he had had to tow an old trailer onto one corner, string electric cables out to it, and live a quiet, cramped life, with most of his belongings stored in the various scattered sheds and outbuildings on the property, while he tried to get his long-sought writing career going.

Several months of writing, researching writing for a living and applying at dozens of online writing outfits had availed him very little.  His net income in that time, outside of the two months during which he'd managed to collect rent from the hermity old fellow--a retired cowhand--who'd moved in late in the proceedings, had been $300.  Not even enough to pay for groceries and electricity over that interval.  His savings, which had numbered into four figures when he'd quit, were starting to dwindle toward double digits, so as this week had begun, he forced himself to get up early every day and drive around town looking for any kind of work he could find.

Writing took a back seat, as his days were occupied with collecting job applications and presenting himself as an amiable, competent prospect to potential employers, and his evenings were occupied with filling out those applications, and with going online to find more.  He found himself questioning his decisions on first a daily, then an hourly basis, as life became ever more uncertain and tedious.  Why leave behind a lucrative job in the first place?  Why had he managed to save so little in all those years?  Why had his desire to simplify his life and reduce his responsibility load resulted in a more stressful, arguably much more complicated life?


Tense dreams interrupted his nap, and he awoke hungry, disoriented and regretful that he had abandoned today's effort so early.  It was already late afternoon, and there was little point to getting back on the road now.  He decided to call it a sick day and get started on some kind of dinner.

In the kitchen, after putting a pot pie into the microwave, he stopped to wash his hands and heard a muffled thumping noise coming from the wall, as if someone outside were banging on it with a fist wrapped in a T-shirt.  Whump.  Whump.  Whump.

He felt an immediate flight-or-fight response, a raising of the hairs on the back of his neck.  For a second he didn't move, then he rushed to the nearest window.  He saw nothing out of the ordinary, nobody there, so then he rushed to the door.

Nobody.  Nothing.

No more noise, either.  There was a fairly strong breeze blowing, as usual, bending the tall grass outside the fenced-in lot, but there were no trees close enough to bang into the trailer.

Weirdness.  

While prying the lid off the pot pie, he felt a familiar heaviness in his head, as if it were filling with blood the way it used to when he'd hang upside down from a horizontal tree limb.  The kind of fullness that would sometimes accompany the smoking of too much weed.  The vasodilatory precursor to a migraine headache.  He paused, just breathing, trying to relax.  After half a minute, the feeling passed.  Probing with his spoon, he scooped all the vegetables out of the pie and set them atop the inverted lid of crust, letting them cool while the pie steamed its way toward a somewhat lower-energy state.  Another minute or so of contemplation followed; then, after he deemed the diced carrots and peas cool enough to eat, he gulped them down in a single bite, getting the gross part of the meal out of the way so he could treat the remainder as dessert.  Not for the first time, he found himself wishing Swanson would make a crust-flavored pot pie, accented with chunks of poultry instead of veggies.

His mouth burns were minimal, for once, when he finished up.  He considered washing down dinner with a beer, but there were only three left in the fridge, and that was his allowance for the month.

He closed the fridge on the beer, threw away his pot pie tin and paper plate, washed his hands, and returned to the table to work on the Sunday Times crossword puzzle he'd been whittling away at for the past week.  Then he returned to the fridge, grabbed a beer before he could talk himself out of it, and sat back down.

Twenty minutes later, he had downed the beer, and made no progress on the puzzle, when he realized he was still hungry.  It was darkening outside as he returned to the kitchen.  Not quite willing yet to sacrifice another pot pie to the cause, he scrounged through the meager pantry looking for something snackable.  Out of the corner of his eye, he caught movement outside, and whipped his head toward the window.

There was an amorphous blue blob pulsating and shifting on the ground just outside.

His head hurt from the sudden turn, and in addition to his raised hackles he could feel the blood-swellingness returning behind his eyes.  Frozen, watching the blob, he struggled to make sense of what he was seeing.  Then his eyes registered the scene for what it was:  the blue tarp he used to cover the water hose, to protect the cheap black rubber from the sun, had blown free of the brick he used to weight it down, and it was billowing in the dying breeze.

He felt like laughing, if only to convince his empty trailer that he wasn't as scared as his adrenaline level indicated.  But he could raise no sound other than a good thorough throat clearing, and he found himself reaching with shaking hands for the fridge handle.  With a second beer in hand, he rooted around in the freezer for more pot pies.


The crossword puzzle was a mess of sloppy erasures and tentative overwriting an hour later when he gave up on it.  The third and final beer was not quite finished yet, and each swallow reproached him with its warmth for his not having downed it sooner.  On one paper plate next to him was a half-eaten pot pie pot pie, into which he'd managed to stuff the crusts of two other pot pies; on another paper plate was the sacrificial filling, mostly vegetables and gravy, but with a few neglected nuggets of turkey and chicken rapidly assuming room temperature.

As he sat, considering whether to finish the pot pie pot pie, which would give him heartburn on top of the beer, or waste perfectly good food he couldn’t afford to waste, a plastic coathanger, left on the edge of the table after this morning’s hasty ironing, fell and clattered to the floor.

Weird.

It was too early for bedtime, but it was too late for anything useful, and he still felt out of sorts and unpleasantly quenched, with an odd combination of hypervigilance and alcohol-induced depression.  He decided he could risk a kilowatt-hour or two of TV watching before bedtime.

As he stood up, the room briefly swirled around him.  He couldn't possibly be that drunk after two and three-quarter 16-ouncers, but there he was, holding on to the chair, waiting for the walls to stop moving.

Something was definitely wrong with him.

He flashed back on the earlier bout of chest pain, and wondered whether he might in fact have suffered a cardiac episode.  Or a stroke.  For a moment he even contemplated the possibility that he was already dead, or dying, and hallucinating this entire evening in the final few seconds of his brain’s fading physiologique.

Then he had to pee, and figured this meant he was probably both alive and conscious.

He headed toward the trailer’s tiny closet of bathroom-like apparatus, half-noticing the way the lights dimmed as he passed through the trailer’s almost hall-like connecting passage.

He managed to mostly hit the target, although he was swaying in an unpleasant and unaccustomed manner.  He hadn’t gotten seriously drunk since he was in college, and although he’d had a beer or two most nights during his adult years, and thought he had an adult’s tolerance for alcohol, he was evidently somewhat behind the curve on this particular night.

Stopping to wash his hands, he looked in the mirror and saw Ashley standing behind him.  She said, “Well, that was interesting.”  Then she kinda smiled and waved, but Doug was already whirling around to look behind him.

Nobody was there. 

His central nervous system was a bit slow at the moment for the standard fight-or-flight response, but he was capable of feeling an adrenaline surge, and this he did now.  He whirled back toward the mirror.

There she was.  “Hi,” she said, waving again.

He heard her voice clearly, although the image in the mirror was quite blurry.  Already knowing it was a futile gesture, he turned again, seeing only the quasi-bathroom environs.

He turned back toward the door, trying to see neither the window nor the space behind him, and kept his head down for a few seconds while his pulse pounded in his head.  After a half minute of letting the adrenaline rush fade, he heard her voice again, only much quieter and more distant-sounding.  “Look in the mirror, Doug.”  It was a plea and a command.

He obeyed.  There she was.  “I need you to see me in order for us to communicate,” she said.  “I have to register on your subconscious or something.”

He turned his head back downward.  “I don’t want to communicate,” he said.


He managed to stagger into bed, and although the room spun around him most queasily, and he was still terrified of the mirror’s visions, he did eventually fall asleep.  His dreams were tumultuous and loud, but vanished upon waking.  The headache he felt when he opened his eyes was mild, and he didn’t feel hungover per se, but was fatigued and sore, as if he’d been physically fighting, in his sleep, whatever it was he’d been dreaming about.  He hadn’t set the clock alarm the previous night, and had slept in til nearly 9:30, still in yesterday’s clothes.

He was almost in front of the mirror before he remembered not to look into it, but by then it was too late.  His momentum carried him the rest of the way, and there she was, saying “Good morning,” with that same casual half-wave and half-smile.  Not so blurry this time.  For the first time, he noticed what she was wearing:  the same ecru pant suit she’d worn the last time he’d seen her, the day he stormed out of the retail establishment where they’d both worked.

“What are you doing here?” he finally asked.

“Good question.  I’m not sure, but I think I was drawn to you.  For some reason.”

“You’re not all in my head?”

“I am.  I mean, I’m here, but I’m just in your head, so to speak.  It’s like a possession.  That’s evidently how this works.”

“So you’re dead?”

“Yeah.  You were thinking of me when I died, I guess, and that’s all it takes, for someone to get locked on to.”

“What happened?”

She cast her own face downward, thinking.  “It’s funny.  It happened so fast I didn’t even realize it.  It was only right afterward, when this whole infinite perspective kind of opened up, that I figured out that I’d just crashed.  I was able to, like, review the incident, draw it out in minute detail, although the whole thing took just two or three seconds.  Some asshole ran a stop sign, just in front of me, and I swerved.  Right into an oncoming semi.”

“This was in Waco?”

“No, just north of town.  I was heading to Dallas for a district meeting.  I’d pulled off the freeway to get some breakfast, and the accident happened right after I left the restaurant.”

“I think I felt it.  When it happened, I mean.”

“I didn’t.  Not really.  I can kind of feel it now, if I try real hard to.  But I was crushed very quickly.  Impaled on the steering wheel, too.  I died before I could feel much.”

“I felt something punching through my chest, mostly on the right side.”

“That would seem to be it.  At least, that’s what it looked like afterward.  Not a very pretty sight, though.  I was already feeling very disconnected from my physical form, though, so although it was really gross, it didn’t bother me so much.”

He wasn’t looking directly at her reflection any more, just keeping her in his peripheral vision while he directed his gaze generally downward.  “So what happens now?”

She shrugged.  “I guess we’re stuck with each other.  I don’t know what will happen in the long run.  Maybe I jump off at some point.  Maybe we fuse into some kind of new being.  Maybe you get an exorcism and kick me out.”

Given their history, this last option seemed fairly reasonable, but mentioning this to someone who had just died a violent death struck him as a bit callous.

“Don’t worry about it just yet,” she said.  “Take some time to figure out what you want to do.”  He realized that he couldn’t hide any thoughts from her; she had, presumably, full access to his brain.

“Yeah, I do,” she confirmed.  “It’s surprisingly roomy in here.  I can stay in one of these back corners.  You’ll hardly notice me.”

He didn’t bother to speak from that point onward; he formulated thoughts, and she responded to them.  You seem to be forgetting that we hate each other.

“Oh, come off it.  I don’t hate you.  You probably hated me for a good while, but I’m pretty sure you don’t know.  Otherwise I don’t think I could have climbed aboard so easily.”  He was still hearing her voice in precisely the same way, but no longer looking at the mirror, so he couldn’t know whether she was in fact speaking or merely thinking back at him.  It couldn’t really matter either way, as she had no corporeal voice; she’d obviously been doing nothing more than “thinking to him” this entire time.  But it did seem that now, with two-way communication established, he didn’t need the mirror as an intermediary any more.  That was at least as disconcerting a thought as her initial appearance had been, in that it suggested there was no way to avoid her now.

“Worried I’ll whisper embarrassing things in your ear when you’re ogling some cute chick?”

Yes.

“Aw, how cute.  Well, you never know.  But I don’t even want to know how the whole wet dream thing is going to go down.  I hope we’re both asleep for that.”

This was the end of his life.  He’d never be able to look at another woman again, or think about one.  This was her revenge.  No matter what he did, or where he went, she would be there, looking over his shoulder, through his own eyes.

“Oh, hell, it’s not that bad, is it?”

It was.  He realized belatedly that although he’d walked away from her 20 years ago, he’d never been free of her.  And now that she was dead, this was doubly true.

“You’ll get used to me, I promise.  I’m already getting used to you.”

You had the chance to get used to me a long time ago, and you turned it down.

“Well, that was before I knew you like I know you now.  This is the most intimate I’ve ever been with anybody, I’ll have you know.”

Fat lot of good that does me now.  I can’t touch you, I can’t feel you, I can’t even really see you.  What good is having you if I can’t actually have you?

He looked back up at the mirror, and saw that she was leaning forward, putting her hands on his shoulders, then wrapping one arm across his chest.  “You do have me,” she said.

No, I don’t.  You have no body, nothing to hold.  You’re not even really there.  She leaned in closer, as if to speak into his ear.  “Life sucks,” he finally said, directly to the mirror, making firm eye contact with her for the first time.

“Oh, baby,” she whispered.  “Death sucks worse.”



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