I glanced at my Patek Philippe Rose Gold watch for probably the sixth time in about as many minutes. The Uber driver was going too fast even as he turned left into my driveway. 7:16. I hadn’t planned to be home that soon. The one time I wanted to be late for dinner there were four Ubers circling the block around my office. I had hit Choose UberSelect too fast. Damn. Well. Adam promised me everything would be tidied up before 6:30. I just wanted to leave a little extra time before his cleaning crew left. I thanked my Uber driver, pulled my Kate Spade Kitt Large Tote off the back seat next to me and hovered in the driveway to punch out a five-star rating and a three-dollar tip before walking slowly to the front door. All I wanted was to find my husband in the kitchen.
Dead. That’s all I had asked for. All I had planned for. All I had paid for. I saw I got my money’s worth when I opened the door and found Jerry sprawled on the Bette Marfil Mosaic tile floor face down, my Williams Sonoma Carrara Marble Barrel rolling pin beside him covered in flour and blood. And then I heard footsteps behind me.
I gasped. Held my Bright Carnation nylon handbag in two hands like a shield, wondering if I’d been double-crossed. But there was only one rolling pin in the house. Would they use my KitchenAid® Artisan® 5-Quart Tilt-Head Aqua Stand Mixer on me next? Come to think of it, at twenty-eight pounds, why didn’t they use that on Jerry instead? A throat cleared.
Well, better than a throat slit.
My God. The beat cop from around the block. I recognized that velvet baritone from previous CAPS meetings. Being seen as a concerned citizen is as good as an alibi.
I turned around. Whimpered.
“We got a call about a disturbance in the house. Your husband. I’m sorry. He’s dead.”
I bit my lip, stifling a giggle. Bent my head into the Kate Spade, inhaling the faux leather. We all want to save the planet.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am.”
I leaned into him. He smelled of talc and pine. Aqua Pour Homme? Bulgari? On a cop’s salary? I moved in closer. He didn’t step away. This was going to work out better than I imagined.
I pulled back, looked up, wiping non-existent tears. Smiled.
“Please. Call me Lois.”
Brenda Kilianski’s play, Free Radicals, was published by Chicago Dramaworks, its world premiere produced by Stockyards Theatre Project. Her poems have been published in journals and anthologies including Brava! Chronogram, Spillway, and ONTHEBUS, her essays in the Chicago Tribune, while her short story “On My Honor” was recently published in Shotgun Honey. Brenda lives in Albany, New York with two cats and ten thousand books and works as a reference librarian, the closest she could get to becoming Nancy Drew.
I knew I shouldn’t have gone out. The sky was overcast when I got up in the morning and that always means I’m going to have a bad day. But it’s overcast here nine days out of ten, so you can’t just stay in bed most of the time.
I needed to know something about the jewellery Artie and I stole together. The only problem was that he’d got himself killed after he’d stashed it someplace. And I didn’t know where that someplace was. So, I was going to see Madam Zuma to either contact Artie or find out where she thought the vibes said to look for it.
I didn’t know how much I’d need to tell her to find out what I needed to know and I couldn’t be sure how likely she’d be to report me to the cops or just refuse to aid and abet a criminal like me. So, I had to see her in person in case I needed to add a little “disappearing act” to my potential rap sheet.
You might think she would know what to expect and refuse to see me but her ads make a big deal about her not being able to see anything that relates to herself. This, she explains, is why she’s not a multi-billionaire and retired to the south of France. It makes sense to me.
So, I got myself all tidied up and set off, taking my umbrella in case the overcast decided to overflow. My appointment was at 3pm and I pulled up outside her house just before that time. I looked all around to make sure I could easily make a quick getaway later if I needed to. Everything seemed quiet and uncluttered; I hoped that would last.
When I went to knock on her door, I saw the knocker was the brass head of some kind of mythical creature. There was something about it that made me want to keep my fingers well away from its teeth, so, I just used my knuckles instead.
Madam Zuma answered the door quite quickly anyway. She looked just like her picture: petite and dark-haired, dressed in jeans and a top. There was nothing about her that would make you think “psychic” if you saw her in the supermarket. She invited me in.
Inside was also ordinary, suburban decor. No crystal balls or shrunken heads or even any incense burning. She offered me a cup of tea but I declined. Well, you just don’t know, do you? We sat opposite each other at her dining table.
“Cross my palm with silver, pretty gentleman.” Now, she’d told me to bring one silver coin with me, credit cards notwithstanding, so I got it out of my pocket and handed it to her, hoping there was enough silver in it to do the trick. I noticed her hands were warmer than mine as the transfer was made. It really would be a shame to have to kill her and make all that warmth fade into eternal cold.
Nonetheless, I told her my problem straight out, because there’s no point in going fishing if you don’t bait the hook. She closed her eyes for a few moments, opened them and then spoke quite matter-of-factly. “I’m afraid your friend is burning in hell. It’s going to be quite difficult to get any information from him as he’s screaming constantly and can’t really think of anything except the pain that he’s in all the time. So, asking him where he put the jewellery seems to be off the cards, so to speak."
I shifted in my chair and wondered if she were giving me the run-around. The gun in my pocket seemed to weigh a little bit heavier. But then she looked me straight in the eye and smiled. “We’ll just have to concentrate on homing in on the jewellery itself, try and winkle it out of its hiding place. Won’t we?” I swallowed hard and nodded; suddenly I wasn’t so sure there wasn’t some incense nearby.
Madam Zuma closed her eyes again and began slowly rocking back and forth. After awhile, she began humming softly to herself. I began sweating and would have taken off my jacket except for the gun that I needed to keep close.
“I can feel them,” she said from within her trance. “I can just about see them now…And there they are! Clear as a bell, all tucked safely inside a little box.” Her eyes sprang open and back to looking completely normal, she said, “I’ll just write down the address for you.”
As she went away to get a pen and piece of paper, I couldn’t believe how well this had gone. Of course, she could be sending me on a wild goose chase, so I’d have to wait till I actually had the loot in my hands before I tidied her up with my gun.
Smiling, she handed me the piece of paper and, again, our fingers touched. Things blurred slightly for a second, I blinked my eyes and they recovered. I looked down at what she had written and blinked again. The address she’d written was her address. I looked up at her and I could feel the puzzlement on my face.
“Yes,” she said, “the jewellery is here.” She reached behind her and took a small box I hadn’t noticed from the table. Opening it, she poured the contents into my hands. It was, indeed, the entire haul that Artie and I had stolen, that he had then hidden somewhere and which I had been certain was lost forever.
I knew I shouldn’t have done it but I grabbed her and kissed her. “There will be plenty of time for that later; I have another client coming in a few minutes. Just put the jewellery back into the box for now.”
I poured the whole, lovely stream of gold and gems back into the box and I could feel myself sliding in along with it. I looked up at her smiling face as she put the lid back on the box and I knew I’d never see another overcast sky again.
Susan Cornford is a retired public servant, living in Perth, Western Australia. She/her has pieces published or forthcoming in 365 tomorrows, Ab Terra Flash Fiction, AHF Magazine, Akashic Books Fri Sci-fi, Altered Reality Magazine, Antipodean Science Fiction, Corner Bar Magazine, Frost Zone Zine, Fudoki Magazine, Granfalloon Magazine, The Mythic Circle, Speculative 66, Theme of Absence, The Were-Traveler and Wyldblood Magazine.
I was definitely feeling pleased with myself. I made it to the private clinic without the usual escorts, for a check-up that would tell me how to deal with my upcoming departmental physical. It was a rare treat to be alone for a few minutes without any responsibility. There was a knock on the door. I called: “Come in,” and a pretty, young girl entered.
“Good morning, sir. I’m Eva, from transport. These men are here to take you to x-ray.”
Two identical looking men, wearing blue jumpsuits, pushing a stretcher, came in. The only problem was that I wasn’t scheduled for x-ray. I lifted the sheet, grabbed my weapon, shot both of them, and they slumped to the floor. Eva froze, waiting for the lunatic to shoot her. Since she couldn’t run or hide, she tried to make herself invisible. Smart girl.
“Eva,” I said gently.
“Yes, sir,” she quavered.
I pointed and said:
“Give me that tray, please.”
She cautiously brought the tray. I put my weapon on it and told her to put it on the counter. She quickly rejected trying to use it on me, since she had absolutely no idea what it was, or how to use it. Smart girl.
“Give me your cell phone, please.”
She did. I called headquarters, apprised them of the situation, then waited for the police. A minute later a cop came in, weapon drawn. Ready for anything. He quickly eyed the two bodies, the girl, then me. I read his nameplate.
“Sergeant Jefferson. Please search me, so you’ll know I’m unarmed.”
He approached carefully, as I slowly pulled down the sheet. He was thorough, even checking under the pillow and bed.
“What happened here?” he demanded.
“You’ll get a phone call in 30 seconds that will start a process. In the meantime, don’t let anyone else in, and if you can’t stop them, make sure they don’t see my weapon.”
He started to ask me something, but his phone rang.
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir. I understand, sir.” He disconnected and looked at me. “Homicide is going to be pissed when they can’t get in.”
“This is not an ordinary homicide.”
We waited quietly. Two minutes later the door opened and Parker and Lindner, my executive assistants/bodyguards, rushed in. Parker took in the scene at a glance.
“We have 10 agents deployed, air cover and a team is searching the building. A support team will arrive in eight minutes…Did you really have to go off on your own, sir?”
I ignored her and said:
“This is Sergeant Jefferson and Eva. They have been exemplary. They will be offered opportunities.”
“Yes, sir,” she replied. “Can we move to a secure location, so the containment team can get to work?”
“Is there anyone you have to contact until tomorrow?”
“Only my watch commander.”
“He, your Lieutenant and precinct Captain have been notified that you are temporarily assigned to a federal agency. Eva. Do you have to notify anyone?”
“I live with my sick father. I have to make dinner for him.”
“What if we send some good, Spanish speaking people to take care of him tonight?”
“That would be wonderful.”
“Then call him and say you’re spending the night with a girl friend. Take care of it, Lindy.”
Lindner made a few quick calls, then said:
“Ready to go, sir.”
As we headed for the door, Jefferson asked:
“They aren’t human, are they?”
I just looked at him and didn’t reply, as our team guided us to waiting SUVs.
We raced, with helicopter cover, to a campus just outside Washington, D.C., and entered a special building through a series of well-protected tunnels. Parker arranged comfortable quarters for Sergeant Jefferson and Eva, told them to use the house phone if they needed anything, then informed them they would be interviewed at 7:30 a.m. Then Parker and Lindner joined me in my office.
“We have two questions to consider,” I said. “How did they find me and why didn’t they send a hit squad?”
Logical Lindy stated.
“You didn’t tell anyone you were going, so x number of people may have seen you leave the campus. I’ll check anyone who might have seen you go. We may be under observation. You may have been noticed in transit, or entering the clinic.” He looked at me and Parker “Have I omitted any possibilities?”
I couldn’t think of any, so I shook my head no, then nodded to Parker.
“The only thing that makes sense,” she said thoughtfully, “is that they didn’t have time to muster a strike force and took a chance on a simple snatch.”
I couldn’t think of a better explanation, looked at Lindner, who nodded agreement with Parker.
“Alright,” I mused. “We obviously have some work to do.”
“May I make a request, sir?” Parker asked. I knew what was coming, but nodded ‘yes’.
“Please don’t go anywhere again without us,” she urged. “We’ll close our eyes no matter what you do, we’ll look the other way, or oblige you any way we can. Let us do our job.”
We all knew it was more than a job, so I agreed.
“Shall we debrief you now, sir?” Lindner asked.
“Let’s do it after we debrief Eva and Jefferson.”
“Who first?” Parker asked.
“Eva. She was the eyewitness. Jefferson arrived after it was over. Be aware, I’d like to recruit both of them.”
“Eva’s a kid,” Parker protested.
“You’ll change your mind once you hear her account of the incident. Now, how about some dinner. I’m starved.”
When Eva entered the conference room the next morning, if she was intimidated by the people at the table, the video cameras and other recording devices, she didn’t show it.
Parker said crisply. “Are you ready?” Eva nodded. “Then please tell us everything that happened yesterday afternoon.”
She took a deep breath. “My supervisor at transport told me to take the two transporters to room 502 and bring the patient to x-ray. The two men were wearing some kind of blue work suits, like plumbers or something. They looked a little weird…”
“In what way?” An Admiral asked.
“They looked alike, but odd.”
“Go on,” Parker said.
“I led them to the elevator, we went to the room, I knocked and a man said: ‘Come in’. I said: ‘I’m Eva, from transport and we were here to take you to x-ray’. The two men came in. The man on the bed looked at them, pulled out some kind of gun and shot them. I had no place to run or hide, so I made myself invisible and hoped the madman wouldn’t shoot me. Then he told me gently to bring him a tray and he put the gun on it and told me to put it on the counter. I knew he wasn’t going to shoot me, so I relaxed. Then he asked for my cell phone, which I gave him. He made a call, then the cop came in.”
“Good, Eva,” Parker said. “We’ll stop here for now, but we’ll talk to you again in an hour.” Parker signaled an agent. “Take Eva to breakfast, please.”
When she left, the group discussed her statement and agreed she handled an extremely challenging situation with exceptional poise.
“What do you think, sir?” Parker asked me.
“We’ll discuss that after you debrief me. Now let’s have Sergeant Jefferson.”
An aide brought Jefferson in and I saw him quickly scan the room, noting the high-ranking military officers and the cameras.
“Good morning, Sergeant Jefferson,” Parker said. “Will you please tell us about your response yesterday.”
“I was passing the clinic in my patrol car when I got a report of some kind of disturbance on the 5th floor. After a brief search I found the room, drew my pistol and entered cautiously. There were two bodies on the floor, a girl was standing in the corner and a man in bed said: ‘Come search me. Sergeant Jefferson, so you’ll know I’m unarmed.’ I approached carefully, made sure there were no weapons, and he said: ‘You’ll get a phone call in 30 seconds that will tell you what to do.’ I saw a strange weapon on the counter, but before I could look closer, he said: ‘Don’t let anyone else in the room. If they do come in, do not let them see the weapon.’ Just then my phone rang, my Captain instructed me to cooperate with the agency taking charge and disconnected. I told the man: ‘Homicide is going to be pissed.’ He said: ‘This is not an ordinary homicide, Sergeant Jefferson.’ Then two agents came in and took charge.”
“Thank you, Sergeant Jefferson,” Parker said. “We’ll talk to you again in an hour.” She signaled an aide to lead him out and he turned to me.
“Of course,” I replied.
“Will I be allowed to leave?”
“Certainly. You’re not a prisoner. If you wish, you can go after the next meeting. However. You might want to talk to me before you go.”
“Thank you, sir,” and the aide led him out.
Parker looked at me quizzically, and I said:
“We want to hear their opinion and perception of what happened. Then we’ll analyze the incident.”
We listened to Sergeant Jefferson’s and Eva’s account of what they thought happened. They were thorough and clear on what they did and didn’t know. I met with them, one at a time, Jefferson first, Parker and Lindner sitting in as I reviewed his record.
“You’ve been on the force for five years, two years of army service before that. You have several commendations, one for a shoot-out in a deli that saved civilian lives. You are respected by your superiors, especially your watch commander. You are going to night school for a law degree. I offer you the following choices: You can return to your precinct with commendations that will put you on a fast promotion track. You can join our agency and we will train you in counter-terrorism and other skills, and fast track you for a law degree in the area of your specialty. You would be working for a clandestine government agency, with many responsibilities and benefits.”
“Do I have to decide now, sir?”
“No. We’ll give you a contact number if you opt to join us. However, there is one stipulation. You cannot discuss or tell anyone about the events of the last two days, or mention the agency, under any circumstances.”
“What if my watch commander asks what I’ve been doing?”
“Your chain of command has been informed you helped federal agents subdue two men who attempted to kidnap a government witness. Parker will give you an outline of the incident that will satisfy any inquiries. Lindner will arrange to have you driven home, or to your precinct. Good luck, Sergeant Jefferson.”
"Thank you, sir. One more question?”
I nodded and he asked:
“What kind of weapon was that?”
I just grinned and Lindner summoned an aide, who led Jefferson out.
“What do you think, sir?” Parker asked. “Will he be back?”
“We’ll hear from him tomorrow. Let’s see Eva.”
An aide brought her in and seated her.
I nodded, then reviewed her background.
“Eva Rodriguez, age 19, graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School, 4.0 grade average, ran track, scholarship offers, including one for track. Father became ill and you had to go to work at two low paying jobs. We can help you get a better job and arrange a medical policy to take care of your father. Or you can go to work for our agency, take special training, then attend college part-time in preparation for a medical career. We would provide assistance to your father while you were in training.”
Before I could continue, she said:
“I would like to join your agency, sir.”
“Why?” Parker snapped.
“I know enough to realize something very important is going on and I would like to make a meaningful contribution. I also want the educational opportunity.”
“Lindy. Have someone drive Ms. Rodriguez home. Eva. You cannot discuss the events of the last two days with anyone, not even with your father. Unless you change your mind, a car will pick you up at 7:00 a.m, and take you to a training facility.”
“Thank you, sir,” and an aide led her out.
“She’s awfully young, sir,” Parker commented.
“She’s smart, tough, has good sense and good judgment. In her way, not unlike Jefferson. We’re facing a dangerous menace that we don’t understand and we seem to be learning everything the hard way. We need people who can rise to the challenge. As you both know, they don’t grow on trees. We have to find out what we’re confronting and need all the help we can get.”
Parker moved closer, recognizing a real opportunity to question me.
“Who do you think we’re facing, sir?”
“Looking at this logically,” I replied, which made Lindner grin, “there are two alternatives. Either a powerful cabal has made incredible scientific advances in producing some kind of android that can almost pass for human…Or there has been an alien incursion that for what purpose has not yet been determined.”
“Which theory do you favor, sir?” Lindner asked.
“There isn’t enough evidence to reach a conclusion, but I would prefer an earthly conspiracy, to an alien visitation…Do either of you have an alternative theory?”
They shook their heads and Lindner said:
“Better a human conspiracy. At least we’ll be able to figure out their motives.”
Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theater director and worked as an art dealer when he couldn't earn a living in the theater. He has also been a tennis pro, a ditch digger and a salvage diver. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines and his published books include 36 poetry collections, 14 novels, 3 short story collections, 1 collection of essays and 7 books of plays. Gary lives in New York City.
January 3, 1973
Born and raised in Voronezh, nearly 300 km south of Moscow, Major Viktor Kirov of the KGB had never come to terms with the winters of Leningrad. He told himself that he could bear the cold if only the sun would shine. Was that asking too much? Apparently so, for even on those few days without snow or sleet, the winter sun did not rise in Leningrad until 10 AM and it set by 4 PM. It was even harder on his wife, Galina, who had taken to drink within months of their arrival in the autumn of 1970.
But tonight, he would have his spirits lifted by the bright lights and excellent food for which the American consulate was known. Viktor had been invited — ordered, actually — to hear Emily Ash, the consulate's new cultural attaché, perform Chopin.
The evening began with Miss Ash's performance of Fantaisie Impromptu, which Kirov enjoyed immensely. Its familiarity puzzled him as he could not remember hearing it performed live or recorded. If given the chance, he would ask Miss Ash about it during the reception to follow. She next performed the Andante Spianato which Kirov found to be anything but andante. The final piece of the evening was Chopin's rousing Polonaise which brought everyone to their feet.
It was nearly an hour into the reception before Viktor had an opportunity to speak with Miss Ash, who cheerfully explained why Chopin's Fantaisie Impromptu seemed familiar. The piece contained elements of rhythm and melody that resembled Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, so much so that Chopin never intended to have it published. The music world became aware of the composition only years after Chopin's death when it was released by a colleague.
Emily Ash appeared genuinely charmed by Viktor's interest and seemed open to further contact, but her engaging smile and body language only confirmed what he suspected. American cultural attachés were like their Soviet counterparts — most were spies. The attractive Miss Ash must certainly be what the trade called a honeypot.
January 4, 1973
Colonel Gennady Vorodin again reviewed the special blueprints and specs for the newest Soviet main battle tank, code name Wolverine. The documents were special in that they had been altered from the originals to make the iron monster appear less threatening than it actually was. The main gun was depicted smaller than its real-life counterpart, and although the armor was thick, the documents called for an engine that resulted in an unfavorable weight/power ratio. This was intended to persuade western analysts that the tank would be rather slow and not designed to cover the long distances required for offensive operations.
Overall, the specs described a tank primarily intended for defense of the Motherland rather than for deep penetration into enemy territory. But when the time came for the new Soviet weapon to roll across the border into West Germany, the NATO forces would be served a nasty surprise indeed by a tank force they had markedly underestimated.
Satisfied with the documents, Colonel Vorodin now had to arrange for the Americans to come into possession of them. This was the easy part. The real challenge lay in having NATO accept them at face value and harbor no doubts regarding their validity. If the new tank was seen to be only marginally more potent than its predecessor, western analysts might wonder why it had been built at all. The costs of designing it, testing prototypes, and building manufacturing facilities to produce thousands of Wolverines were considerable for a nation with an economy half the size of America's. The NATO powers might suspect that the plans were another Soviet disinformation plot. Vorodin was pondering various solutions to this challenge and coming up with nothing practicable when his phone rang.
"Comrade Colonel, Major Viktor Kirov has arrived," his secretary replied. Vorodin grimaced. He detested Kirov, but so far had no workable plan for defusing the threat which the younger officer presented. If Kirov's meteoric rise within the KGB continued, the major might soon replace him. Kirov had been an infant during the winter of 1942 when Vorodin was fighting the Germans tooth and nail at Stalingrad. Yes, the young major was exceedingly clever and resourceful, but how would he and other members of his pampered generation fare when faced with real adversity? "Colonel, what would you like me to tell Major Kirov?" his secretary asked as politely as possible.
"Give me a minute, then send him in." Vorodin began gathering the Wolverine blueprints and spec sheets to refile them. But an idea suddenly came upon him, and he stopped. The idea was bold to the point of reckless, but Vorodin found it too intriguing to dismiss out of hand. He laid the documents back onto his desk.
The major entered, saluted and said, “Major Kirov reporting as ordered." Vorodin silently appraised the younger man for several moments, not inviting him to sit.
Finally, the Colonel asked, "Did you get to the American Consulate last night?"
"Yes, Comrade Colonel."
"I made contact with the new cultural attaché, Miss Emily Ash. She appears to be in her late twenties, is a pianist of considerable talent, and wears no wedding ring. Her Russian is nearly indistinguishable from a native speaker. She is a very engaging young woman, and we exchanged cards."
It was precisely what Vorodin wanted to hear, and he had to make an effort to conceal his delight.
"She is open to further contact with you?"
"I believe so, Comrade Colonel," Kirov replied. "But I suspect she is as intent on recruiting me as I am of her. Given enough time, I may be able to identify something that could persuade her. But at this point, it's impossible to say if she can be turned.”
Hearing this, Vorodin made a quick decision to proceed with his recently conceived idea. If successful, it would simultaneously achieve two critical objectives. "Comrade Major, your assignment regarding Miss Ash has changed. I will provide you with details momentarily, but first take a look at these documents. They are designed to mislead the Americans regarding a new tank which is now entering service with the army. By posing as a potential defector and using Miss Ash as a conduit, you will arrange for the false blueprints to fall into the hands of the Americans. You will not discuss this matter with anyone, including other officers of state security. Is that clear, Comrade Major?"
When Viktor assured the colonel that it was, Vorodin began going over the details of the new tank with him.
January 18, 1973
“Chardin created three versions of it.” Viktor said. The painting, known as The Laundress, was only 38 by 43 cm. It depicted a young woman scrubbing clothes in a wooden tub. A child sat at her feet.
“Why three?” Emily asked. Turning her eyes up to his, she realized how closely they were standing to each other and wondered if this was his doing or hers.
“He needed the money, like most artists of his time. But we have the first one. The other two paintings are essentially copies.” By we, Viktor meant Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum, specifically the Winter Palace collection. “It’s one of my favorites. Chardin focused on the common people,” he added.
“Spoken like a good socialist,” Emily replied with a smile. “I like that he included a cat.”
“Well, somebody had to keep the mice under control,” Viktor said. “Do you like cats?”
“Me too. In fact, I’m going to get my first since I got married. My wife, Galina, is allergic to cats, but we’re separated now.” Emily perked up at this. She had been powerfully drawn to him from the moment he had approached her at the Chopin recital. In Emily’s eyes, Viktor was all the tall, dark and handsome she had ever fancied, but there was something more. Maybe it was the way he carried himself; masculine and confident with no hint of arrogance.
Viktor went on to explain that Galina had become an incorrigible drunk. And although it was very much frowned upon in the KGB, he had filed for divorce. He had also contacted her family in Ukraine and was arranging for her to return to the Black Sea town where her father managed a resort visited by party bigwigs. The warmer temperatures and sunny days might lift her spirits to the point where she could hope to recover. It wasn’t going to happen in Leningrad.
After strolling the museum galleries for nearly two hours, Viktor asked Emily if she would like some coffee and pastry. He said there was a wonderful little place, Pyshechnaya, within walking distance of the museum. Emily smiled and nodded, and when they strolled out of the museum, she slipped her arm around Viktor’s.
They entered the little shop in the late afternoon, and Emily was overcome by the wonderful aroma of fresh doughnuts and coffee. As they waited to be served, Emily realized that something extraordinary had happened. She was in one of the most oppressive regimes in human history, in a city whose winters drove people to drink, but with Viktor at her side, she felt safe. And happy.
March 12, 1973
Emily had been tempted to remove every stitch of clothing, climb into bed under the covers, and let Viktor discover her au natural. She had seen an actress in a steamy romance movie do this in anticipation of her lover's arrival. But without Viktor physically present, Emily did not feel truly safe even in a CIA safe house and decided to remain fully clothed.
Exactly 15 minutes after arriving in the small, dimly lit flat less than a kilometer from the American Consulate, she heard a knock on the door. Viktor was right on time, and Emily was delighted. They quickly embraced, and over the course of the next hour, turned the Cold War on its head.
Afterward, lying in each other's arms, she entertained him with stories of her life growing up in St. Louis, including her years under the watchful eyes of the nuns of The Sacred Heart Academy. Viktor had been intrigued by her anecdotes but was not particularly forthcoming when asked about his own upbringing. However, he did relate an incident which almost got him ejected from the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League.
“Just before the start of one of the weekly meetings, I was clowning around, trying to get a few laughs. I took off one of my shoes and began pounding it loudly on the table in a comical spoof of Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations. My comrades thought it was funny, but they suddenly stopped laughing and became silent. My back was to the entrance to the room, and when I turned around, the adult supervisor was standing in the doorway staring daggers at me.”
Emily gasped. “Oh my God! What happened?”
“Making fun of the former General Secretary of the Soviet Union was impolitic to say the least. I was sure they were going to throw me out. I had to go before a committee — this country loves committees — but they only gave me a severe warning. I later found out that my closest friend in the Komsomol, Pavel Federova, had gone to his father and pleaded for me. His father happened to be the ranking member of the committee. If I had been ejected, the entire course of my life would have been altered.”
“Wow! We should all have a friend like that,” Emily said. “Are you and Pavel still close?”
“Very much so, although we only see one another once or twice each year. He works in Moscow as a prison administrator.”
Viktor was silent for a few moments, thinking about the lifetime of dreary factory jobs he would have been assigned had Pavel not come to his aid. Then he sat up and said, "Emily, I have a gift for you." Emily smiled and waited expectantly as Viktor rose from the bed and opened his briefcase. He withdrew something small enough to conceal in one hand. "Close your eyes," he said gently. Then taking her left hand in his, he slipped a diamond ring onto her left 4th finger. She opened her eyes and gasped.
"Oh, it's beautiful!" she said, staring open-mouthed at the ring. Viktor's smile was genuine. At Colonel Vorodin's suggestion and using KGB funds, Viktor had purchased the ring for Emily the previous week and he had not been frugal. Although engagement rings were not part of Russian tradition, Viktor was well versed in American customs. He sat back on the bed next to Emily and encircled her in his arms. Emily made a purring sound, and he snuggled all the closer.
When they dutifully forced themselves to dress and attend to professional matters, Viktor removed the Wolverine documents from his briefcase and placed them on a table for Emily's inspection. Although her understanding of engineering drawings was rudimentary, Emily noticed a salient feature of the tank. "There are only three crewmembers?"
"You're very observant! I'm impressed," Viktor replied. "See this piece of equipment just behind and to the side of the gun breech?" When Emily nodded and asked its function, Viktor said, "It's an automatic loader for the main gun. It can load a shell into the breech as quickly as a man, and it never tires."
She nodded, then asked, "What else?"
"The revolving turret is smaller, so the tank has a low profile, much lower than the tanks that fought in the Great Patriotic War. At a thousand yards, it's harder to see a tank that hugs the ground. Harder still to hit one. And if it is hit, there are only three crewmen at risk instead of four."
Emily perused the drawings and specs for a few additional moments, then nodded. She would turn the documents over to the consulate's senior CIA officer, who would then smuggle them out of Russia in a diplomatic pouch.
After they embraced for a final time, Emily left. Viktor glanced at his watch to mark the beginning of a prudent 15-minute delay before venturing out. With the documents now in the hands of the Americans, his current assignment had reached an important milestone. But that did not mean his affair with Emily was over. If he were to break things off suddenly, Emily and her handlers would have reason to mistrust the documents. And there was no denying that he loved being with her, in bed or out. Either Emily was a sublime actress, or she passionately cared for him. In his judgement the latter was more likely, and a dreadful heartache would eventually come her way. For him as well. He wished otherwise but could see no way around it.
That evening, when the senior CIA officer, Daniel Bishop, returned to the consulate from a meeting, Emily personally handed over the Wolverine documents. After examining them, Bishop praised her lavishly for a job well done.
Emily had already been given approval to speak with Viktor about his eventual exfiltration from the USSR, but so far, there were no specific plans for accomplishing this. Smuggling a KGB officer out of the country would be a formidable task, but it was doable. Emily again raised the subject with Bishop.
"Emily, I'm afraid it won't be possible," Bishop said. "We're never going to get Major Kirov out."
"But you said we've accomplished similar operations in the past," she replied, her voice rising in pitch and volume. "Surely Major Kirov has earned our gratitude and support," she insisted. "The documents he provided are invaluable, and he's put himself at tremendous risk!"
"He certainly has, and of course we're grateful. But we can't help him."
"For God's sake, why not?" Emily was gasping; it was hard to get the words out.
"Kirov was arrested late this afternoon. I just got the news from one of our informants. He’s being transported to Lefortovo Prison in Moscow."
March 13, 1973
Frequently used for political prisoners, Lefortovo had become infamous for interrogation and torture during the Great Purge of the 1930s. Several buildings in Moscow during Stalin's reign were facetiously said to be so tall that Siberian gulags could be seen from the topmost floors. Lefortovo, just five stories high, was one of these.
Returning from his afternoon tryst with Emily, Viktor had been accosted near his office by three plainclothes men who displayed their KGB badges and ordered him to step into a waiting automobile. The arresting officers expected no trouble. Viktor appeared to comply and then sucker punched the closest agent. He fled as fast as terror can propel a man, but after a pursuit of several blocks they caught him and beat him nearly unconscious.
He was not fit for interrogation until the second day of his imprisonment. His lower lip split, his right eye swollen shut, his torso covered with bruises, Viktor was dragged into a small room that reeked of stale cigarette smoke. A wall-mounted photograph of Yuri Andropov, the current director of the KGB, was the room's only adornment. The chair into which he was pushed had been bolted to the floor. His handcuffs and ankle chain were not removed. The two men who brought him left the room and locked the door from the outside. Then they let him wait. And wait. The room was poorly heated, and Viktor knew which type of interrogation his would be.
Had state security been intent on striking some type of an agreement, they would be treating him with kid gloves. Comrade Kirov, you've lost your way but not irredeemably. You must admit your mistakes and pledge unending loyalty to the Soviet Union. He would lose his position as a KGB officer with all its privileges, accept a 5-year banishment from Leningrad and report monthly to a government office in whatever remote town they chose for him. But in this scenario, he would avoid execution or imprisonment. Viktor knew this was not going to happen.
He had been accused of violating Article 64 of the criminal code. Betrayal of the Motherland was the most heinous of all transgressions. The charge was absurdly unjust, but it terrified him. Knowing that his interrogators must obtain a signed confession documenting his willful acts of treason, Viktor remembered an old Russian adage. Life in prison is truly horrible only for the first ten years.
Realizing that he would never see Emily again thrust him deeper into a pit of despair and regret. She had been the best thing that had happened to him in years, maybe ever. Were they going to arrest her too? If the state regarded him as a traitor, wouldn’t Emily be regarded as a spy?
When Colonel Vorodin had pretended to discover that documents concerning the new Soviet tank had been stolen from his office, he ordered that Major Kirov be placed under surveillance. Kirov was subsequently found to be engaging in an affair with a female CIA agent who was serving as a cultural attaché at the American consulate, going so far as misappropriating agency funds to buy her a ring. It was all the evidence the KGB needed to confirm that it had been Kirov who had taken the documents and passed them on. Other than Viktor and Colonel Vorodin, there was only one individual who knew what had really happened. Viktor had confided in his friend, Pavel Federov, about his wife’s descent into alcoholism, his growing affection for Emily, and the true nature of his assignment.
March 30, 1973
Shortly after Kirov had been arrested, Emily was given 24 hours to get out of the Soviet Union. Now back in her office at the CIA, she drained the cold coffee in her mug and tried to focus on completing a report which was now weeks overdue. Upon her return to the CIA she had been debriefed, but a detailed narrative had to be put to paper while the events were still fresh in her mind.
As a result of her expulsion from the U.S.S.R., Emily could never again serve as a field agent behind the Iron Curtain. And since Russian was the only foreign language in which she was highly skilled, a quick return to field work was unlikely. But the agency was not going to waste her language skill or her experience in Russia, no matter how brief. For the foreseeable future, she would function as a document translator and junior analyst.
Earlier in the morning while getting coffee in the break room, Emily had caught a television clip concerning a new acquisition at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. Her thoughts drifted back to when Viktor had taken her there to see Russia's greatest treasures. She had been deliriously happy as they strolled through the galleries. The fact that their outing might compromise her mission hadn't seem to matter. As the television droned on, a desperate longing for Viktor swept over her.
Learning of his incarceration at Lefortovo had been horrifying. But just before she left the Soviet Union, her supervisor at the American consulate had thrown her a lifeline. He said that it might be possible to get Viktor out of the U.S.S.R. in a prisoner exchange. If that were arranged, Viktor and she could reunite in America. Emily clung desperately to that possibility. In truth, it was the only thing that kept her going.
In her report, she was expected to theorize as to how and why the KGB had uncovered Viktor's treason. She wondered if they had been spotted together by an informant at the Hermitage. And had Viktor been followed to the safe house? It made her skin crawl to picture a KGB agent uncovering their intimacy. Emily's supervisor at Langley had also questioned her about Viktor's motives. Had Viktor become disillusioned with Soviet style socialism? Did he have a close family member who had been imprisoned? Emily did not know but could scarcely admit to anyone at the CIA that they had fallen so madly in love with each other that she really hadn't cared.
When alone in her apartment, Emily wore her diamond ring. She began to wonder if Viktor, somehow anticipating her current situation, had given it to her as a source of sustenance.
April 2, 1973
"Did you get a chance to study these, sir?" Wilson asked.
"Not in exhaustive detail," Hernandez replied. "What's your impression?"
"It's a formidable machine. Very well-armored. With an automatic loader, it will have a rapid rate of fire. Its profile is appreciably lower than our M60 Patton tank, so it's a difficult target. But there are two aspects of the Wolverine that puzzle me."
"Go on," Hernandez said.
"Well, they're carrying over the same gun from their current main battle tank. Normally the Soviets don't do that."
"Each new design has a more powerful main gun than its predecessor?"
"Yes sir, going all the way back to the T-26 which the Soviets provided to the government of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. They've always up-gunned the new model."
"Okay, what else?"
"Because of its heavy armor, the Wolverine will be somewhat underpowered with the engine they’ve selected. A single tank of fuel will not give it the range to penetrate deeply into West Germany, so it will be highly dependent on an intact supply chain. And it won't have the speed required to quickly penetrate layers of NATO defenses," Wilson explained.
"Making it vulnerable to counterattack?"
Hernandez thought about this for a few moments and then said, "What you're telling me is that the Wolverine was designed primarily for defense against an invasion by NATO forces into Warsaw Pact nations."
"Yes, but … I'm not completely comfortable with that explanation," Wilson answered.
"What's bothering you?"
"The Russians have always produced quick, reliable tanks with increasing offensive capability. The Wolverine represents a departure from decades of Soviet military doctrine, that the best defense is a potent offense. It's incompatible with the offensive nature of their entire military establishment, unless …"
"The plans intentionally understate the capabilities of the tank. In other words, a disinformation scheme to take us off our guard," Wilson said.
"We don't have to worry about that," Hernandez said.
"First of all, the Soviets were angry enough to expel the American cultural attaché who received the documents."
"But that could have been just a maneuver to convince us that the documents are genuine," Wilson countered. "So what if we were to expel one of their diplomats in a tit-for-tat response? The Russians won't care."
"There's more. Our sources inside Russia say that a rising star in the KGB will be executed for passing the documents to one of our attachés in Leningrad. Even the Soviets don't kill their own just to propagate disinformation. The documents are genuine. This new tank of theirs is nothing to fear."
April 4, 1973
“Has the execution been carried out?” Captain Pavel Federov asked.
“Yes, Comrade Captain,” the sergeant replied. “About 30 minutes ago. It was somewhat unusual.”
“In what way?”
“The prisoner fought us at every step. He claimed he had never been sentenced to be executed, that he was convicted of nothing more than fraudulent financial transactions at the factory he managed.”
Captain Federov paused only a moment before answering. “We received orders for his execution only yesterday. It turns out he was also funding a terrorist group. Do you have his papers?”
“Yes, Comrade Captain. They’re right here.” He handed a large envelope to his superior.
With the documents in hand, Federov headed back to his office. After locking the door, he fed the documents into his shredder and placed a substitute set in the envelope. Then Federov headed directly to the records department. The clerk on duty accepted them for placement in the permanent files. Major Viktor Kirov was now officially dead.
Viktor awoke with a start. Someone was unlocking the door to his cell. He had been placed in isolation several days ago, no explanation given. The door swung open and a man entered. The bare bulb at the ceiling remained off, but Viktor could discern that the man was wearing an officer’s uniform.
“Be quiet and turn around. I’m going to place you in handcuffs,” the man said in a voice just above a whisper. Viktor turned away from the man and placed his wrists together behind his low back. Viktor knew what was happening; he was being taken for execution KGB style, nine grams of lead to the back of the head. He felt an impulse to suddenly pivot and smash his fist into the officer’s face, but quickly realized the futility. Then cold steel encircled his wrists.
“I’m going to put a cloth sack over your head,” the man told him, again in a barely audible voice. When the sack descended over his face, Viktor was surprised. He had braced himself for the combined reek of sweat, blood and vomit from countless men under interrogation, but the sack was freshly laundered. Then Viktor felt the man’s hand wrap around his upper left arm, although not with the iron grip the guards used.
The two of them negotiated several turns in the corridor over a matter of minutes. Then Viktor heard a metal door open and a blast of cold air enveloped him. He wasn’t dressed for the plunge in temperature, and in the time it took to descend a long set of concrete steps, he was beginning to shiver.
Now the sack was pulled off his head, and Viktor stared at the man who was leading him to his death. But it was Pavel Federov, his closest friend from his days in the Komsomol. Had Pavel not been holding his arm, Viktor would have fallen to the ground.
“Pavel! What are you …?”
“I’m trying to get you out of here, Viktor. The American embassy is waiting.”
June 1st, 1973
It was a time of year when Emily actually enjoyed the long walk from the bus stop to her apartment on Sunny Hill Court. She passed Langley High, but the normally bustling school was out for the summer. Another long tedious day of document translation was over, and after being stuck indoors at her desk, she looked forward to swimming laps at her apartment’s pool. Just getting out of her heels was going to be a blessed relief.
So far, 1973 was turning out to be an eventful year. The last American soldier was out of Vietnam. Elvis Presley’s concert in Hawaii, the first worldwide telecast by an entertainer, had drawn a bigger audience than the Apollo moon landings. A ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the official opening of The World Trade Center in New York City, and America and China had established liaison offices following Nixon’s visit with Mao. The Soviets were not pleased.
Emily had turned right onto Sunny Hill Court and was less than 100 yards from home when she noticed a tall dark-haired man standing on the sidewalk in front of her building. He was wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and khaki pants. The man saw her, and Emily stopped. Was it someone from the agency? Probably not. If they had a problem with her, there would have been a confrontation at the office. Overcoming some initial apprehension, she resumed her pace toward him.
At 50 yards, her pulse picked up. Now he was moving quickly in her direction. Recognition warred with disbelief, but she began running toward him as fast as she could.
Joseph Cusumano is a physician living in St. Louis. When not writing, he enjoys designing, flying, and crashing radio-controlled airplanes. His writing has been published by Crimson Streets, Pseudopod, Agents and Spies (a Flame Tree anthology), Scarlet Leaf Review and others.
This is what I recall:
A country cottage engulfed by the suburbs of a growing city - a doodle of lopsided gables and fanciful chimneys among ruled municipal building lines. A winter evening, fading light. I take a light bulb from the kitchen to the bedroom to continue my work. Everywhere, tumbled stacks of newspapers, magazines, clothes and blankets, and the odour of old times and old age. The night ahead promises to be long and dark, lonely and cold; but no worse than that. Definitely no worse than that.
It had begun that winter afternoon, Tuesday, 13 December 1983, at the Sunny Hope Nursing Home, twelve miles to our north as the old crow flies.
Meet Miss Evadne Haslett, late of Rose Cottage, Sheep Mill Grove, the newest and oldest resident of the home. I am, I learn, “the young man who will help you pack.” For the sake of form and forms, I am to receive a token briefing.
Miss Evadne Haslett has the memory of the very old – distant events as sharply drawn as the rose petals on a china teacup; near ones all grayness and blur; the painter’s chiaroscuro inverted.
“You will look after Rose Cottage, won’t you, young man?”
“I’m just going to bring some things for you.”
“I want it to be nice for when I go back. Are you a married man?”
“Well, you’re very young. I never married either. I had my mother to take care of after my father died so it was just the two of us. Before the new houses. It was all farmers’ fields back then.”
“Must have been very nice.”
“It was lovely in those days. Then they put up the new houses, right on our land. That was our garden, that was, you know, where they’ve built those houses.” She leans towards me confidentially. “We even had a little private cemetery. It was just my grandmother at first, then my grandfather went in with her, and my step-grandmother, and then my father so it was a real little family gathering, but my mother couldn’t go in when she went because of the houses. Anyway, we had to sell that land and de-consecrate it.”
“They re-interred the bones, so they said.”
“I’m sure they’d do what they said.”
“Are you? Well, anyway. Do I know you, young man?”
“I’m called Ivan. I’m here to get your stuff to you.”
“You mean you’ll bring things here?”
“If you like.”
“Can you wind a grandfather clock?”
“I can try.”
“The key’s inside. It’ll be nice to see it still going when I get back. You look a nice young man. Are you a married man?”
“Well, you’re very young. Have you been here before?”
“No. We’ve just met today. I’m here to get your stuff for you, from your house”
“Rose Cottage? I grew up there, you know. Thought I’d be there till the end, like my mother was. Well, I will be, once I get out of here.”
“So if you can just let me know what you’d like me to bring…”
“Well, it’ll all be there for me when I get back.”
“How about some photographs for your bedside table?”
“Photographs? How did you know about those? I do miss my old photographs. It was my grandfather who built Rose cottage, you know. He’s in the bedroom in a big ormolu frame with my grandmother on their wedding day. I never knew my grandmother. Passed away when my mother was born. Well, a lot did back then. He was a master joiner, my grandfather. Married above his class – they were big landowners, my grandparents. They had acres and acres. So it was her family land they built on. But it was a match made in heaven and when she died, they say he never got over it.”
“Course, the land’s all gone now. Don’t know what they did with the money when those houses went up. I never saw any of it.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“He named Rose Cottage after her, you know. Rose was my grandmother’s name. He must have been really miffed that Rose is such a common name for a cottage, but he had to call it that because Rose was her name, you see. He had the cemetery consecrated on the grounds, so he could visit her every day, and he devoted himself to bringing up the little girl she’d given him when she passed away. That was my mother. He married the nanny in the end so my mother would have a proper family, but every day they went praying at Rose’s grave, even the nanny. Now what else can I do for you?"
“Maybe let me know which photographs to bring you.”
“Like your grandparents’ wedding picture.”
“Oh, I know that one. It’s in an ormolu frame in the bedroom. You know the bedroom?”
“I’ve never been to Rose Cottage.”
“What, never? But I saw you there. You were that young man that came the other day. What was his name?”
“It was. It was Owen. Well, isn’t that you? I thought they said you were Mr Owen.”
“Mr Owen introduced us just now. I’m called Ivan.”
“Well, it’s practically the same name. No wonder they all get confused. Can you wind a grandfather clock?”
“The key’s inside. I don’t want it to stop while I’m away.”
“I’ll keep it going for you! So, you were telling me about the bedroom.”
“Well, it’s upstairs, on the right. You’ll find it. I do miss my Rose Cottage. Even little things, like....” She beckons me into her confidence again. “When you go up the stairs, have a good look at the banister rail. At the turn, there’s a new piece been spliced in. It’s very expertly done – he was a master joiner, my grandfather, by the way – but you can still see the grain doesn’t quite match. It’s where they had to remove a piece of banister to get Grandma Rose’s coffin down, you see. My mother and I, we always used to give that bit a special polish, in memory of both her parents. Now there’s only me left that knows about it. And you, so have a look for it. It’s real living history.”
“That’s really interesting.”
“Well, I expect you’re in a hurry to get back to whatever it is you do. Before you go, you must tell me your name.”
“It’s Ivan. So, is there anything else for me to bring you?”
“What do you mean, bring me?”
“Besides your grandparents’ wedding photograph.”
“Hey! How did you know I wanted that?”
“If there’s anything else…”
“I think I’ve got all I want here. Well, all I need. But some photographs would go nicely on this little nightstand.”
“And give the banisters a gentle polish from me.” She beckons me into her confidence again. “There’s an odd piece spliced in at the turn, where they had to take a piece out…”
“I’ll give it a real good polish.” I slip towards the door.
“Hey! You should let me finish. Real family history, this.”
“What was I saying?”
“I’ll take good care of Rose Cottage.”
“Oh! I nearly forgot to say. Could you wind the grandfather clock?”
As I head along the corridor, a voice hails me from behind. “Hey, Terrible!”
It’s Owen. “Terrible” is his nickname for me. He thinks it’s the height of wit. He loves explaining it to his even less educated colleagues.
“Lucky I ran into you, Terrible.”
No, it isn’t. He’s been waiting to ambush me. He continues: “Bletcher’s have been on the old tellingbone. They’re sending the first prospects tomorrow morning. I told them our man Ivan would have it all ship shape and Bristol fashion.”
“Thanks a bunch.”
“Only believe and you can do it, Terrible. Only believe. It’s a pair of young lovers in search of a nest.”
“So I just shove everything into removal cartons?”
“Have you seen the place?”
“Not exactly love nest material. More like the Addams Family.”
“She’s a nice old lady. She thinks she’s going back there.”
“Or Psycho, more like. Nice old lady? She never threw anything away, you know. They all think they’re going home, you know. Home to the Bates Motel.”
“You’ve tried this one before, Owen. I’m rationally immune to haunted houses. It was a happy family house.”
“Happy family? Come in here a minute.” He draws me into an empty office and lowers his voice. “I was left there tidying up after I’d sentenced her to this earthly paradise. Late at night, it was, if you get my meaning. Saw and heard some things that you’d deny, so I … Well, let’s say I don’t waste my breath on you sceptics.”
“She told you about the broken banisters, I suppose?”
“And the bodies buried in the garden?”
“The family cemetery, yes.”
“And her grandmother’s mysterious demise?”
“Who died in childbed, yes.”
“Yes, quite. Well, it looks like you’ve got the whole picture, then.”
“So the best of British luck is all I can offer you, my intrepid friend. Just…” He leans towards me and funnels the words into my ear with his cupped hand. “…keep off the stairs around midnight.” He makes the ululating noise of a pantomime ghost. “Sooner you than me.”
“See you in the morning.”
“If we’re spared, Terrible. If you’re spared, that is!”
You may think from this that Owen is either a moron or a bully, but when you get to know him properly, you learn that he’s generally both at once. I’m not worried by his silly hints at psychic phenomena, but I am offended by the casual aspersions he has cast against a dignified old lady and her family. I can be sure he has spread the same rumors among all the credulous asses in the department.
I am still replaying parts of that afternoon conversation now, as I survey the tumbled stacks of newspapers, magazines, clothes and blankets, breathing the odour of old times and old age, and wondering if I can turn this old woman’s hoarding dump into a love nest before morning.
Nothing can be done about Owen. I block him from my mind, and turn my thoughts to the rubbish confronting me. Forty cartons of it at the most. At fifteen minutes a carton, I can easily have it all boxed away by five in the morning, and still have time for cob-webbing and dusting before the young lovers arrive.
I’ll find the photographs first. I fold a small carton into shape, tape the bottom flaps and write “Sunny Hope” on the top flap.
A dusty collection of framed photographs clutters the bedside table. The one in front, with the ormolu frame, must be Evadne Haslett’s grandparents on their wedding day. The man has the strong, roughly chiselled features of a master joiner, and the shrewd level gaze of a practical man. Grandma Rose, though, is incongruously plain. Her eyes are downcast and looking slightly away from the camera, as if to let us know that she is conscious of her plainness. Rose is resigned to the marriage. Rose married below her class, I can see, but not in the way that an impetuous, independent woman might, but of necessity.
For heaven’s sake, Ivan, it was her wedding day and she was nervous, that’s all. I bed the two of them in tissue paper, and lay them in the carton.
The next frame contains the master joiner again, this time with a young child, who could be Evadne Haslett but, from the period, must be her mother. But neither the master joiner nor the daughter holds my eye. Supporting the child is a woman of twenty or so, plainly attired as a nanny and dutifully unsmiling, yet even unposed, she is rather striking. I pause. I unwrap Rose on her wedding day again, and compare. The child looks more like her nanny than her mother.
A gust of wind rattles the windows. I shiver, not from the cold.
That fool Owen! If he hadn’t ambushed me at Sunny Hope, I’d be whistling as I pack away these extinct old photographs. It’s not that I’m suggestible, but there is something about being half asleep in these surroundings that promotes fantasy.
I’ll make a strong coffee. I turn on all the lights I can and, as I go downstairs, I remember to look for the special piece of banister at the turn. It has been expertly spliced in but, as Miss Haslett said, the insert is clearly from a different tree. Why was the original piece not simply reinstated, I wonder? Too much wood lost in the saw-cut, perhaps?
The grandfather clock faces me at the foot of the stairs, its weights and pendulum cocooned in years of cobweb. I try to turn on the kitchen light but remember that I took the light bulb for the bedroom. I make coffee by the light of the gas stove.
When I return to the hall, the lights are glimmering like gaslight. I try the switch. No effect. I try some other switches, up and down, up and down. No effect. The lights continue to glimmer. This can happen, I tell myself, when the cables are old and perished and there are cobwebs in the switches. Or perhaps the flickering stove light in the kitchen has affected my eyes. I climb the stairs.
In the bedroom, the light is steady, but the framed photographs that I wrapped in tissue paper in the carton have been unwrapped and returned to the bedside table.
Well, obviously, I must have placed them back on the bedside table myself when I decided to make the coffee. The master joiner glares at me again as I wrap him in tissue with one wife, then the other, and lay them in the carton.
I wrap the remaining photographs and close the carton. At last, I feel I am beginning to make progress. As I slide another flat-packed carton from the wall, a pile of newspapers topples to the floor. I am about to put them back, when a newly exposed page arrests my attention. Births, Marriages and Deaths. “Rose Haslett” leaps out at me.
“…A beloved wife and daughter, on Thursday 13 December, in childbed. Private funeral.”
I check the year at the top of the page. 1883. Exactly a hundred years ago! Another gust rattles the windows.
Come on, Ivan! Reason to the fore; there is work to be done. I purge my mind of wandering thoughts and set about my task with new determination.
Four hours later, twenty cartons are packed and half the room clear, and it is not even midnight yet. Time for a coffee break? No. I’ll do one more carton before then.
From somewhere far away, a clock begins to chime. One, two, three, four… I open the bedroom door. The chimes grow louder. Five, six, seven, eight… I close the door. The chimes are soft again. Nine, ten, eleven, twelve. I keep the door closed until the last chime has faded away. Then, slowly, I open it again. All is silent.
Silent, save the steady tick-rock of the grandfather clock in the hall.
I go downstairs, closing the bedroom door behind me. The grandfather clock is shiny and clean. The pendulum is swinging. The dial shows one minute after midnight.
Upstairs, a door slams.
There is nowhere to go but the kitchen, and no light there but the stove.
Above me, a woman’s voice pleads, “No! No! Warford, no! Please!” The voice struggles to be forceful, but years of subservience have left it cracked, reedy and frail.
The door bangs open again. The shrill protestations continue, now incoherent with terror. Something heavy bumps down the stairs. Wood splinters as the body, with a last scream, breaks the balustrade and flops, whimpering yet, on to the floor below. Strong footsteps follow. There is the rending separation of wood from wood, then the sickening thud of a club on flesh and bone.
Silence, save the tick-tock of the grandfather clock.
Fumbling for the key, and barely able to get it into the keyhole, I tumble out of the house by the back kitchen door. But outside, fog has descended, blocking the streetlights and the neighboring houses. Not a light to be seen, nor a sound to be heard. Nothing, save the scrape of a limp and lifeless burden being dragged around the cottage and away, deep into the fog-bound garden.
I clutch at the door for support.
So Warford – that was the master joiner’s name – did murder his rich wife Rose, in order to keep her fortune and marry the beautiful nanny – the nanny who was about to bear his child.
Of course a new piece of banister had to be inserted. The original piece was the murder weapon!
Dear Rose Cottage has tonight confided in me: a hideous confession. Unlike Owen, I will never breathe a word of this. Above all, no word of it must ever reach Miss Haslett. I must finish the job I came here to do. Fear of ghosts is no excuse for leaving it unfinished.
Somehow, I get back to the bedroom. I don’t even notice whether the banister is still broken as I make the turn at the half-landing.
Morning light is glaring through the net curtains when I wake. I fell asleep over the twenty-first carton. I step carefully over the clothes and newspapers and look out of the window. The air is clear, the day fine and bright – a normal suburban morning. People in front doorways wave goodbye, as cars reverse from driveways. Children shriek and bounce balls on their way to school.
That bloody Owen! There was no murder at Rose Cottage. Rose died in childbed, beloved by her husband (who was probably not called Warford), bearing the daughter who became Miss Haslett’s mother.
I hunt for the newspaper bearing Rose’s death notice, but can’t find it. I probably dreamt that as well.
The banister at the turn of the stairs is exactly as Miss Haslett knew it all her life. The weight and pendulum of the grandfather clock are cocooned in years of cobweb. Why, the clock that came to life in the dream didn’t even look like this one!
From the kitchen, I hear a key slide into the front door lock. Bletcher’s man and his prospects are here already. The estate agent is talking to them as they come in.
“It’s a little bit run down,” he is saying, “but it’s a sound building and with a little renovation… Oh! Sorry about the cobwebs. Social Services were supposed to have cleaned it up but, well, Social Services…”
The two men laugh in an eye-rolling way. I decide it’s best if I slip out by the back door.
“All rooms lead off the hall,” the agent’s spiel continues. “Dining room to the right, sitting room to the left, kitchen straight ahead. Cobwebby old clock, I’m afraid, not included in the price.” The two men laugh again.
“Tizzy’s got this old grandfather clock she cherishes, for some reason,” says the man. “Haven’t you, Tiz? Well, there’s where you could put it, if we buy this place.”
“Oh! In the hall?” replies a third, rather frail and reedy voice. “That would be lovely, Warford.”
Peter Marsh, a retired international school teacher, was born in the UK and now lives in Japan. His short stories have been published in The Caribbean Writer, Dark Fire, The Lowestoft Chronicle, The Font and Fabula Argentea. He is a long-time member of the Tokyo Writers’ Workshop and has made several presentations on writing techniques at the Japan Writers' Conference.
Mr. Winterman Beder blotted the page of his legal pad with pleasing script and admired his baritone as he read forth from his work amid the creaking music of cedar floorboards. The trees outside — the cypresses, pines, and pin oaks — screened from the road all but the wavering edges of the cabin and masked in the window Mr. Beder’s hunched and haggard form, as a thing in mourning might conceal itself ― stone-faced, eyes lowered ― from the scrutiny of a crowd.
Mr. Beder capped his pen and laid it aside. He heard above a rustling sound, a thump, thump, thump that could have only come from the attic. He ignored it and focused on his work.
Good, he said. Very good. The Tapping of the Nail. The Tapping.
He repeated the title until the words rolled easily from his tongue and intruded upon the cabin’s stillness as an incitement to further work. Not that Mr. Beder needed encouragement to continue writing: indeed, the suddenness of his cousin’s death, of Mac Jameson’s unexpected passing last November, had spurred Mr. Beder to a radical obsession with this literary project.
He examined on his wall the pen-and-ink drawings that he had had framed in those hard, bitter weeks after the funeral of his cousin. He skimmed their titles ― When Time Picked Up & Walked Away; Phelps Gate #2; Eglise Anglicane ― and he imagined, however irrationally, that Mac Jameson had smuggled into the nooks and crannies of these pictures some strange coded message of solidarity, the keys to the creative act, an artisan’s providential tip, sincere guidance.
Mr. Beder stroked his stubbled chin and noticed again that raucous, thudding hubbub in the attic ― thump, thump, thump. He was a squat wrestler of a man ― balding after the stress of this year ― with Walgreens glasses, belted khakis, and a tucked-in polo instead of a T-shirt, which gave him the stodgy paint-by-numbers appearance of a notary public or a middle school history teacher. In reality, Mr. Beder had parlayed a Millsaps English degree into an accounts clerk career at Lake Dubois State Park, although he considered the position superfluous: the job a mere means to an end, to the completion of his book, to the tracing of this thread through the maze of his life — The Tapping of the Nail and Other Tales through his thirty-some-odd years.
Thump, thump, thump, he heard again. Scratch, scratch, scratch.
He discerned the creature’s squeaks, its pattering of feet upon the floorboards above, and he recognized it finally for what it only could be, for its true nature. It was a possum on the roof.
I should’ve guessed it, Mr. Beder said. A durn possum all this time. I should’ve known.
He recalled a starless evening three months back in the swampy wetness of April’s rains, of rousing himself to apprehend the scratch, scratch on his bedroom ceiling and the whimperings of what Mr. Beder accepted tonight as a possum clawing its way into the bowels of the cabin.
Mac Jameson? Mr. Beder had whispered amid the cacophonous rustlings and that murmuring growl which had so unkindly awakened him. Mac Jameson? Mac? Mac Jameson?
He left the room. In the kitchen Mr. Beder poured Côtes du Rhône and toasted for himself a piece of Ezekial rye. He sipped his drink and bit into his toast and withstood an onslaught of imagery which shook him like a thunderclap. He fished in his pocket for his Olympus recording device, found it, switched it on, thumbed its red button, held it to his face, and began to speak:
He awaits us on his alabaster throne, sees us, hears us, judges us fairly, comforts us . . . .
He broke it off. Unable to disentangle these knots in his mind, Mr. Beder pocketed his Olympus and gripped his drink and scurried back into his bedroom. His palms sweated as he riffled through manuscripts and notes and settled in front of his computer and steeled himself for the final push, for the outrageous finale of The Tapping of the Nail, for Mac Jameson’s last scene.
All right, here we go, Mr. Beder said. Let’s let it commence, for I’m starting.
He typed and used his notes and his Olympus as a reference:
Mac Jameson, Hierophant of Flowing Robes, and the Eunuch — oh, the Eunuch! — oh!
He paused as if exhausted from his typing and dipped into the earliest parts of his book.
It’s ridiculous, Mac Jameson said to him. Don’t you see that? Can’t you see it? You can’t?
Mac Jameson sat on the couch in his Yale sweatshirt ― his hair cropped, his face clean-shaven ― and his dark skinny jeans seemed somehow out of place in the country, as did his affect and his unaccented speech. He had a LaGuardia sticker on his duffle bag and a German Bundeswehr jacket; and he punctuated his conversation with reminders of his Fulbright travels along the Rhône and the Saône and the Rhine. He apologized and handed Mr. Beder his latest pen-and-ink sketch ― he was close, so close to a precise realization, he admitted, but not quite.
He pointed up with one finger at a textbook upon the highest of the shelves: Dr. Lowery’s Mammals of Louisiana and Its Adjacent Waters, with cover facsimile of the possum and its mate.
My favorite, said Mac Jameson. But is it yours?
Thump, thump, thump, came the sound again. Scratch, scratch, scratch.
Mac Jameson, please, enough, said Mr. Beder. I can’t be disturbed like this. I must finish!
He drank down the last of his Côtes du Rhône, rose from his chair, entered the hall outside of his bedroom, and sought the attic door. He found it above him and, bolstered like a beast on the hunt, jerked its hanging string to unfold a wooden ladder assisting him into the dark.
Here, possum, possum, possum, Mr. Beder said. Where are you?
He employed a flashlight from his closet as he ascended the ladder’s steps into a mustiness redolent of roaches, dust-encaked books, damp cardboard, and moth-infested clothes. As he climbed, he detected again the thump, thump, thump, as well as the scuttling of small feet and the abrupt shuffling sounds of flight into the farthest ends of the space. He flicked his wrist and touched with his flashlight beams the bins of Easter decorations and unlabeled boxes; and, straining into the darkness to apprehend the possum, Mr. Beder peered into the obscurity of his surroundings, but ascertained nothing. He stopped and braced himself against a wooden support.
Scratch, scratch, scratch, came the sound, as loud as ever. Thump, thump, thump.
Well, possum, I guess it’s just you and me up here, said Mr. Beder. But where are you?
He was frightened by a clattering havoc of glass crashing as twin mirrors fell and a set of bound books tumbled into a pile. Mr. Beder jumped and hurried to the source of the disturbance, but saw nothing of the possum except for a quick glimpse of white fur and a bald pinkish tail.
Ugh! exclaimed Mr. Beder, and he retched at the sight. Disgusting!
He felt an itch, and, in the beams of his flashlight, he inspected his legs for bites. He pinched a flea from his ankle; it writhed in his fingers, sprang loose. He tried it again: picked off the flea, snapped it between his nails, tapped it on a banister, and then flicked it away like dirt.
From behind him came a noise, quiet at first, but then:
Thump, thump, thump. Scratch, scratch, scratch.
Stop it! yelled Mr. Beder. Stop interrupting me! I must finish my work! I must finish . . . .
He slipped his hands into his pockets and plumbed their depths in a quest for his Olympus, but he had left it downstairs with his pen and his legal pad, and could not retrieve it. He felt pressure in his head: Lord of the White, Mac Jameson, my liege, the Eunuch, Eunuch, oh!
A pen! A pen! Mr. Beder couldn’t help but shout. I need one right now! I must have one!
He flung himself upon the attic floor amid piles of books and skidded through musty hardbacks, ripped paperbacks, and university anthologies of literature and art. He snatched up the only pen he could find ― a gimmicky one, a gift from Mac Jameson ― a retractable ballpoint in the shape of a .30-06 rifle. Its sliding mechanism, its bolt-action procedure, extended the pen’s nib with a click; and Mr. Beder applied it, now, and locked it securely in its place. He grabbed from a nearby box what could only have been a high school yearbook from decades past; and, among clumped signatures on the inside cover of the book, he scrawled all the snippets that had invaded his consciousness since last November: the message of a life, that incessant tap, tap, tap.
Hierophant of Flowing Robes, and the Eunuch — oh, Eunuch, oh! — Mac Jameson . . . .
He labored over his lines, crossed out paragraphs and revised them, and then recast the texts like clay molds and allowed them to solidify. He was assembling this thing, piece by piece, a grand amalgam of being and nothingness. It batted its eyes like a china doll, and it awakened.
From somewhere, from nowhere, he heard the voice of the thing that he had summoned:
Winterman, Winterman, are you listening still? Winterman, do you know me? You do?
He appeared a stranger in these parts, a country boy gone rootless, Louisianian no more; and, as he spoke, Mr. Beder heard only a flattened whisper that was swabbed clean of its history.
Of course, said Mr. Beder. Of course, how could I forget my cousin? My best friend?
But when are you coming? Mac Jameson asked him. It is late, you know? It’s awfully late.
He lifted to judgment a framed pen-and-ink drawing entitled Le Sens (Self Portrait); but, although Mr. Beder strained his eyes for scrutiny, he saw nothing in this sketch, for it was empty.
What happened? Mr. Beder asked his dear friend. Did you not finish it?
Mac Jameson laughed a long time, a bitter, mocking chuckle.
Oh, Beder, he said. Beder, Beder, Beder . . . oh, Winterman . . . .
Again, Mr. Beder detected flea bites and watched drifting tufts of white fur afloat in the attic. He listened to the murmuring growl behind him, to soft, mournful squeaks, to a whimper.
I guess it’s just us here for a little bit longer, said Mr. Beder. You and me. Nobody else.
He waited for the response to his words, and he got one ― for now.
Thump, thump, thump. Scratch, scratch, scratch.
John Cody Bennett is an English and World History teacher at the Birch Wathen Lenox School in New York City, a graduate of Sewanee: the University of the South, and a Fulbright scholar from Louisiana. He has published work in Across the Margin, The Bookends Review, Twelve Winters Journal, and others.
“Oh, guardians of the afterlife, we seek the spirit of Marilyn Monroe.”
Meg burst out laughing, and Rick gave her a stern glare, which she didn’t appreciate.
“Aren’t you supposed to use a crystal ball for conjuring up spirits, and not a beat-up, moldy old Weejy board?”
“It’s not a “Weejy” board, it’s a “Oui-JA” board. Sheesh,” said Rick. “And it doesn’t matter. Any occult object will do, as long as we believe.”
“Oh, okay, I see.” She couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice, though she knew she was in the wrong. After all, she’d agreed to this ridiculous idea and hadn’t complained when he said he wanted to do it in the root cellar of their new old country home. It smelled musty and vaguely like manure, but it was, by far, the spookiest room in the house and thus the best location for their little séance. Still, she’d rather be upstairs watching SNL and eating leftover peanut butter cups from the earlier Halloween festivities.
“Don’t take your fingers off the planchette or you’ll break the connection.”
“I know what to do. It’s just that you didn’t tell me you wanted to conjure up some old blonde bombshell who died a hundred years ago. She probably looks like Norman Bates’ mom by now.”
“Shhh, I think I feel something.”
And there it was. The slightest tug on the plastic game piece.
“What the hell? Did you do that?”
“No,” said Rick, his patience wearing thin. “Now be quiet.”’
“This is getting—”
Something crashed in a far corner of the cellar, and Meg started to rise but Rick slapped a hand on her shoulder and pushed her down, careful to keep the other hand on the planchette. She was so tired of him manhandling her.
“Don’t get up. I seriously think we’ve got something here. Marilyn, is that you?”
The planchette whizzed up to YES on the board, pulling Meg’s unwilling hands with it.
“You did that. Stop it!”
“I didn’t, I swear.”
“Do you think I’m an idiot?”
Rick didn’t respond, but it didn’t matter because she knew the answer anyway. He’d called her an idiot at least once a day during the process of buying this house. What did she know about mortgage rates and closing costs? She would’ve been happy staying in the city apartment for a few more years. Out here in the country, she was miles from her friends, fun shopping, and the gym. Just this morning she noticed the beginnings of her first-ever muffin top.
“Marilyn Monroe, you are welcome and wanted here. Join us,” Rick called out in a ridiculously deep voice, drawing out all the vowels. Meg was beginning to think his Halloween candy came from the edibles store down the street.
“You said this was gonna be fun. This is not fun. You’re acting weird. Where’d you get this Ouija board, anyway? It doesn’t even look new.”
“Found it in the attic.”
“The attic? Ew.” She started to pull her hand away again and this time Rick pinched her fingers so hard her bones felt like they were going to snap like twigs.
“Let go of me you bast—"
A bright spotlight shot out from a dark corner of the ceiling, scaring the crap out of her. It was so shockingly intense that she covered her eyes, taking both hands off the planchette, but Rick did not complain. Her muscles tensed, she was about to bolt, but she was more afraid of the wrath of Rick than she was of the light.
“Marilyn,” he whispered. “It’s you.”
There came a loud bang and Meg uncovered her eyes to see that Rick’s chair had fallen to the floor. He was up, stepping into the brilliant glow. Amid the white light there was…something else…something that was also white, but more material, and flowy, like a skirt blowing in the wind. As Rick entered the incandescence his body sloughed away into so many tiny, luminescent particles and disappeared, taking the light with it.
Later, Meg would swear she saw a smooth, well-manicured hand reach out and take his as he entered the circle of light.
What can a girl possibly do when her husband wants to cheat on her with Marilyn Monroe, for God’s sake? Meg stomped on the planchette, ensuring, or so she hoped, that Rick could never return to this plane of existence. She didn’t know much about this supernatural crap, but she did know she was gonna put this creaky old barn on the market first thing in the morning and get the hell out of Dodge.
She went upstairs, plopped down on the couch, and tucked into the bag of Reese’s. She was just in time for Weekend Update.
Judith Pancoast has collaborated with Joe R. Lansdale and Keith Lansdale to adapt Joe's novella, "Christmas with the Dead," as a stage musical. Three of her short stories have been published in Northern Frights, the Journal of the Horror Writers of Maine.
My sister’s dolls whispered to me.
Not the dolls that she played with (and wore down) regularly. But the more ornamental dolls that sat on her shelf. Given to her by family members from their world travels. Most of these dolls were porcelain and wore clothes made of authentic material (not polyester like Barbie’s). Among them was a guitar playing girl from Spain, a Virgin Mary wearing a crown from Rome and a Japanese Geisha doll.
The more extravagant the doll, the more family members felt they showed they cared about her. The poor girl whose mommy went to Heaven before she got to know her. Why spend quality time with her when they could give useless gifts? Being the older brother, all I got were cheaply made t-shirts.
The whispering started one day while I was playing with my action figures in my room. A “battle royale” was about to commence, when I heard noises in my sister’s room. Whispers.
The three family bedrooms were on the top floor, while the rest of the living spaces were on the first level. I thought my sister was downstairs with my father, but the whispers told me differently. What was she up to?
Her door was open a crack. This was years before her room became a fortress that she forbid others to enter.
I stopped and listened. There was no doubt that whispers were coming from her room. Sounded like more than one person. I didn’t recall any of her friends coming over.
I threw open her door, expecting to catch them in the act of whatever it was they were plotting.
Her room was empty.
The whispering continued.
My eyes traced the sound to her shelves. To those dolls.
Frozen as their features were, the waves of whispers flowed to my ears. Their breathiness sent chills down my spine. The first time I’d ever experienced such a thing.
One of them giggled.
I listened closely trying to understand what was so funny.
“Sissy!” A voice startled me.
I turned to find my sister standing in the doorway. She grinned, happy to be able to call me a hurtful word long before we were told how bad it was.
“Caught you playing with my dolls.”
“The Green Goblin needs a hostage,” I lied.
“Stay away from those dolls,” she threatened. “They’re special.”
“So are you,” I taunted. “That’s why you take the short bus to school.”
I ran out of her room before she screamed.
She was in her room the rest of the day.
I wondered if she could hear the whispers, too.
But I knew better than to ask.
Dad picked me up from baseball practice and stayed outside to water the lawn before he had to go pick up my sister from gymnastics. My sister and I were often left alone in the house years before our friends’ parents allowed them to be. It wasn’t strange to me, so I was never scared.
Until the whispers.
I swear they were louder when I was home alone. I could hear them clearly in my room. Their airy voices wafted down the hall and through my door.
Most days, I ignored them, but today, I found myself creeping into my sister’s room. I expect to find them moved or their expressions changed. But they remained as they had for as long as I could remember.
There was more giggling now. Not just from one doll, but from all of them. Though their mouths didn’t move, I began to distinguish specific tones from each doll.
Instinctively, I turned to look at the doorway, expecting to see my mother there. But I was still alone.
Except for the dolls.
No. That couldn’t be my mother’s voice. Yet, it was comforting. I wanted to stay there and tell the dolls everything I’d felt since my mother died. Instead, I bolted from the room faster than The Flash.
I’d heard the whispers when I was downstairs eating dinner. My father had become quite the chef the past couple of years. His food always tasted good, but never as comforting as the few meals I recall of my mother’s. Her homemade soup when I was sick. Her “messy” spaghetti when she was too tired to cook a full meal.
“How was everybody’s day?” My father asked in his usual attempt to keep family unity.
Should I tell them about the whispers?
My sister was talking about a grand gymnastics move she made.
“What?” I asked, snapping out of the daze.
My father repeated the question.
“Not much,” I responded.
His face filled with disappointment at my answer. “Nothing interesting at school? Or when you came home?”
“Nope.” I was getting used to lying.
My father went on telling us about his day and asking us if we’d be OK if a friend of his joined us for dinner that weekend. A special friend.
I thoughtlessly nodded as the whispers engulfed me.
I got out of the house as much as I could. Our yard was large and still contained the swing set we were quickly outgrowing. Behind our yard was a field. A vacant lot that was never developed for some reason (though years later I’d heard a townhouse had been built there).
When the whispers reached me in the yard, I bolted towards the fence. Assuming my father wasn't watching me, per usual, I climbed over our fence and dropped myself into the field. Time to explore.
Though I’d never seen anybody in the lot, it was always littered with discarded furniture, broken bottles and other trash. That day, there was also a litter of kittens.
I looked around. There was no mother insight. Had she abandoned them?
Poor weak, motherless things. Their pink forms cried from loss and hunger. I knew how they felt.
How could I help them?
The whispers told me what to do.
The whispers were now constant. The airy voices never left me, even in school and at baseball practice. When something bad happened to a classmate, I heard them giggle. Sometimes I giggled with them. When I tried to ignore them, they whispered my name.
Sometimes I thought I heard my mother whispering among them. But when I listened closer, the whispers turned to hisses.
The voices told me to do things. Fun things. Scary things. Things people tell you not to do.
Sometimes they wanted me to hurt myself. Or others.
It was only scary if I refused.
When my father brought his lady friend home, the whispers were louder than ever. They drowned out her words. Instead of this woman’s many questions, I heard my mother crying.
My silence upset my father, but he didn’t speak to me about it.
I overheard her whisper to my father when they thought they were alone. Her words finally audible.
“He hates me,” she said with a hint of insincerity.
“Give him some time to get used to this,” my father’s voice tried to sound hopeful, but he knew it was hopeless.
“When are we going to tell him about-”
The whispers returned.
I spent more time away from home. Exploring places in town where I could be alone to listen closer to the whispers. To make out their voices. To do what they told me to do. And not get caught.
My father drove around after work to find me. When he did, he’d lecture me all the way home. Something about responsibility of being the older brother to my siblings. Plural.
Thankfully the whispers drowned him out.
My father and his lady friend continued to whisper about me.
“He needs professional help,” my father concluded.
“Give him a little more time. He’ll come around.” There was fear in her voice, but she hid it well. She didn’t want to be the cause of my being institutionalized, but she desired it.
The voices concurred.
The whispers and voices were so loud now, I could barely hear anybody else. My sister avoided me. My father and his lady friend “walked on egg shells” around me. Soon, I was forgotten.
And a new voice filled our house.
The crying was constant.
My new half-sibling spent most of its life so far in my parents’ old bedroom. Now, their bedroom. How could she sleep in the same bed? (I’d heard whispers of her objecting to that, but my father assuaged her.)
The baby kept them and my sister awake all night, every night. But I slept like a baby, the whispers lulling me to sleep.
My father and his lady friend were happy to have me out of sight.
When the baby napped in the afternoon, my father and his lady friend would watch television in the den (my sister at gymnastics). They’d quickly drift off to sleep themselves.
One day, I went to check on my new half-sibling.
It slept in stillness. It’s skin as white as the porcelain dolls on my sister’s shelves. I knew I should love it, but I hated it for how in its few weeks of life, it had already disrespected my mother. It hurt her. Made her cry.
The whispers told me what to do.
Tom Misuraca studied Writing, Publishing and Literature at Emerson College in his hometown of Boston before moving to Los Angeles. Over 100 of his short stories and two novels have been published. This year, his work has appeared in SIAMB! (Something Involving A MailBox), Literature Today and Roi Fainéant. Last year, his story, Giving Up The Ghosts, was published in Constellations Journal, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is also a multi-award winning playwright with over 150 short plays and 13 full-lengths produced globally. His musical, Geeks!, was produced Off-Broadway in May 2019.
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